Called to Witness:
Doing Missional Theology
Called to Witness is a collection of essays, papers, and lectures in which Darrell Guder forcefully develops the theological movement that launched with the 1998 publication of Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Called to Witness is Guder’s most substantial publication since The Continuing Conversion of the Church (2000), and it possess the richness of more than a decade’s worth of reflection and development. In his foreword to the book, John Franke (now General Coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network and General Editor of the recently restarted Gospel and Our Culture Series) suggests – I think rightly – that the “volume will have a catalytic effect on the development of missional theology in the years ahead” ( x).
The chapters contained in Called to Witness were written between 2002 and 2013, a season that included Guder’s service as Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary. For a collection of papers that were published or delivered in varying contexts over the course of a decade, Guder’s trajectory of thought maintains a remarkable degree of consistency. Guder grounds many of his arguments in the work of Karl Barth, particularly volume IV.3.2 of Church Dogmatics, where Barth argues that the primary vocation of every Christian is to be a witness and that the Church is the community equipped and sent by the Holy Spirit for witness. Not surprisingly, Lesslie Newbigin, and Lamin Sanneh also serve as other common influences and reference points consistently throughout the book.
Two new and constructive themes appear repeatedly throughout Called to Witness, growing into complete chapters when lectureships gave Guder the space to develop them at such length. The first is the missional authority and formational purpose of Christian Scripture (Chapters 6 and 7). As a Reformed theologian, Guder unapologetically values the Word of God written, making clear that he believes the Scriptures truly “are the Holy Spirit’s instrument for the ongoing missional formation of the community” (151). This leads Guder to articulate a dynamic and creative understanding of the authority of scripture, based upon the Latin roots of authority: augere, auctor, and auctoritas. Because these words have “to do with those actions or functions that bring about increase, encourage flourishing, [and] instigate growth” Guder writes that “authority is that function , that instance, that agency which brings about increase, movement, flourishing, and growth” (101). The authority of the Bible is not a matter of dry moralism or apologetic reasoning. Instead the authority of the Scriptures resides “their capacity to be the Spirit’s instrument for the continuing calling, conversion, equipping, and sending of saints into the world as Christ’s witnesses” (103).
For life and fruit to emerge today from the dynamic testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, we must read these writings with attention to the apostolic purpose in their composition. Guder contends that the apostolic “strategy was the formation of witnessing communities whose purpose was to continue the witness that had brought them into being” (90). We should read the New Testament then as the writings which were composed to equip the members of these new witnessing communities for the lives of witness to which they had been called. To read scripture this way is to use “missional hermeneutics,” recognizing that the Scriptures were written in a context of active engagement in mission and speak directly to the life of Christian communities as they bear witness in their world.
The second new and constructive theme in Called to Witness emerges from Guder’s own practice of missional hermeneutics with Paul’s letters. In Chapters 8 and 9, Guder shines a spotlight on the under-engaged Pauline theme of the missional community’s “worthy walk.” Guder reads Paul’s repeated call to his disciples to “lead lives worthy of the calling” which they have received as an essential facet of witness. The imperatives of the epistles are neither individualist nor moralistic; they describe how the Christian community should function before a watching world to display the Gospel to the world. In Newbigin’s terms, it is by walking in a way worthy of the calling we’ve received that we become congregations who truly are “hermeneutics of the Gospel” to the neighborhoods in which we reside (118). Thus we are called to live and witness together in “lowliness and meekness, patience, forbearing one another in love, and eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (136).
As one who serves to equip seminarians for mission, I was particularly intrigued by Guder’s chapter on “theological formation for apostolic vocation.” The divisions of academic disciplines in our seminaries reflect Christendom era reductions of theology. To counter this, Guder suggests ways to reorient each discipline toward mission. Missional hermeneutics serves that purpose in biblical studies. Church history can be presented as the history of the Church’s movements in mission. “Christology and Pneumatology must be explorations of the person and work of the Son and the Spirit that generate not just orthodox propositions of truth but ways of thinking and deciding by which the Spirit enables faithful witness to the Son who is the Lord and Savior of all humanity and history” (171). These are excellent insights about the what of theological education, and they will breathe new life into the classrooms which will to accept them.
But the chapter stops short of reimagining the how of theological education. What would it mean to orient not just the content of our curricula but our very understanding of education around missional formation? How do we call those who are being formed for mission through our seminaries to “walk in a way that is worthy” of the calling they are receiving? Centuries ago, Evagrios the Solitary wrote that “If you pray truly you are a theologian and if you’re a theologian you will pray truly.” His point was that theology could not abstracted from lives of active prayer and worship. A theologian in the original sense was someone who knew God, not merely knew about God. We also could say the same about mission: “If you’re a theologian, you’ll know the Father who sent the Son and you will be sent in the power of his Spirit to participate in what he’s doing in the world.” Such formation needs to go beyond the classroom into active engagement in mission. To repent of our Christendom era omission of mission from theology, we need theologians and theology students who are actively engaged in missional ministry, seeking formation through apprenticeship and experience, much as Jesus formed the original Apostles.
Called to Witness is a tremendously important work for the ongoing missional Church conversation. Guder’s emphasis on Scripture will challenge those who downplay the importance of Scripture in the life of the Christian community. His emphasis on the worthy walk will challenge congregations to greater internal integrity and external engagement in their contexts. And seminaries would be transformed if we embraced the implications of Guder’s vision for missional formation. Altogether, Called to Witness succeeds at articulating new and important implications of missional theology and constructively setting an agenda for the future of [missional] theology.
Christopher Brown is Church Planting Initiative Coordinator at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Co-Pastor of The Upper Room Presbyterian Church, and a New Worshiping Communities Coach in the Presbyterian Church (USA).