Christopher J.H. Wright’s latest book winsomely captures the mission of God and the mission of the church.
If one of the most highly regarded mission and biblical scholars of the last 30 years were to condense their most salient contributions to scholarship and church life into a single book, accessible to the whole church, that would be something to take note of. That is what we have in Christopher J.H. Wright’s The Great Story and the Great Commission (Baker Academic).
Based on a series of lectures delivered in 2020, The Great Story and the Great Commission seeks to answer two important questions: What is the mission of God, and what is the mission of the church? Wright structures the book around these two questions, drawing upon his books The Mission of God and The Mission of God’s People, along with his extensive contributions to Old Testament studies and ethics.
Wright, who authored the Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town Commitment, argues that to understand God’s mission, we must understand the grand narrative of Scripture—that sweeping storyline of all that God has done in creation and redemption stretching from Genesis to Revelation. He offers us a hermeneutic for such a reading in chapter one and then walks us through the narrative of Scripture using a seven-act framework in chapter two.
Wright believes Christians often misunderstand this story because we are too quick to jump to our part in the story. However, once we understand that story, with equal weight given to the Old and New Testaments, we can then turn our attention to the ways in which God’s people may join him in his mission.
What are those ways? Borrowing from the Anglican Consultative Council in 1984, Wright offers the ‘five marks of mission’:
- To proclaim the good news of the kingdom
- To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
- To respond to human needs through loving service
- To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth (68)
Wright groups these five meta-activities into ‘three focal points of mission’ (71–74), which he identifies as building the church (evangelism and teaching), serving society (compassion and justice), and ruling over and caring for creation (creation responsibility).
He then gives four chapters to these focal points—one chapter each for the first two points, followed by two full chapters for the third. While admitting that one could argue for more activities to be included (67), Wright suggests that these five marks are thoroughly biblical and comprehensive/holistic (68), allowing the believer to participate in what God himself is doing in the world (68). Further, he writes that the central reality of the lordship of Christ over all creation demands them (70).
In essence, Wright argues, these are the activities that allow the church to respond both to the grand narrative of Scripture as well as to the New Testament missionary mandates such as the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. This is the integrated response to God’s invitation for every believer to join him in his mission in the world. Mission, thus defined, ‘is the mode of existence for the whole life of every member of God’s whole church’ (152).
Read the statement from the Third Lausanne Congress that called Christians all over the world to action.
There is much to benefit from in Wright’s book. First, Wright’s thorough critique of those who minimize the Old Testament in their study of mission is needed. His own rehearsal of the seven-act drama of Scripture, though necessarily limited to a single chapter, provides a template that we believe many can follow.
Second, the reader should benefit from Wright’s commitment to situate the Great Commission within the larger narrative of the Bible. Despite what some may suggest to the contrary, he deftly shows that Matthew 28:18–20 is not simply a stand-alone, proof text command for mission, but is instead a marvellous capstone to Matthew’s gospel. These three verses pull together key biblical-theological threads such as the kingdom of God, the people of God, restoration, and more. To reference the Great Commission, then, is to call the entirety of Scripture to bear on what God is after in the world.
A third helpful facet to The Great Story and the Great Commission, and one that has so many practical and missional consequences, is Wright’s insistence that every believer has a role in the mission of the church. Some of his most stinging words come in chapter nine as he critiques the ongoing ‘toxic demoralizing dichotomy’ of the clergy-laity divide (150). If we hope to see the world won for Christ, the 99 percent of Christians who are not ‘professional’ ministers must find their place in our mission.
Wright suggests that the lordship of Christ is the central determining factor for our mission (70–74), so anything under his lordship (ie everything) constitutes our mission. As with some of Wright’s earlier works, some readers may feel that this hermeneutic has a flattening effect on Scripture, making it difficult to discern the good from the best or the weightier from the lighter.
While many readers may be happy to affirm with Wright that God is concerned with every aspect of human life and indeed the cosmos, their lived experience and reading of Scripture seems to suggest that some activities or values are more important than others. I suspect this concern would come not only from those who may side against Wright in the prioritism-holism debate, but also from those who simply desire to steward well their own lives or their church’s missional engagement. They cannot do it all; therefore, what is most important?
Another question may arise around the five marks of mission. Wright’s fifth mark—what he refers to in some places as ‘ecological action’—will likely raise doubts. Yes, perhaps from some who simply want to write it off as a progressive agenda item, but also from thoughtful Christians who would happily affirm the biblical call to steward creation yet may baulk at such a modern problem being positioned as a defining activity in the mission of the church throughout history. If not for events that may appear to be relatively recent—the massive increase of pollution caused by a drastic increase in human activity following the Industrial Revolution or the deforestation of the Amazon—one may wonder if this issue would be at the top of the church’s missional agenda.
For those who have yet to read Wright’s missional works, this is a good place to start. The Great Story and the Great Commission will introduce Wright’s key ideas, and new readers will find in the footnotes a roadmap to engage his more comprehensive works. This book will also serve those who have read Wright but want a refresher, or those who want to introduce others to his writings. It will give the reader the big picture of Wright’s missional reading of Scripture in clear prose, winsomely argued, and full of compassion for the world God loves.
- Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).