Is David Bosch’s ‘missio Dei’ an error?

Michael Lakey writes: If the literature is any guide, the work of David Jacobus Bosch constitutes for many missiologists one of the major recent theological loci of critical reflection upon the nature and ends of Christian mission.[1] A Dutch-heritage, Protestant scholar, whose adult life coincided with the apartheid era in the Republic of South Africa (RSA), Bosch’s mature work, Transforming Mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission,[2] represents the culmination of a career which included work both as a missionary church planter and as a major scholar.  Widely regarded as his magnum opus, TM has received various panegyrics in the period since its publication, the most notable being cover endorsements from the veteran missiologist Lesslie Newbigin and from the eminent though controversial Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng.  Newbigin referred to TM as Bosch’s ‘Summa Missiologica’: a systematic treatment of Christian theology and practice in which the architectonic principle is mission itself.  Küng reserves his praise for Bosch’s theological method, in particular for the way in which TM was the first major missiological publication to utilise ‘paradigm theory’.  This is a model for understanding revolutionary changes in the foundational assumptions of a discipline, proposed by Thomas Kuhn in relation to the natural sciences and applied to the study of Christian theology by Küng himself.[3]

These appraisals are mentioned here not just to illustrate the reception of Bosch’s work but because they are material to his argument.  TM proceeds on the basis that mission can indeed be an organising principle of Christian theology.  In fact, Bosch goes further than this when he insists that from its very beginnings in the Apostolic era the crucible of Christian theology is the ‘encounter with the world’ which forces the Church to ‘theologize.’[4]  What is more, central to Bosch’s argument is the idea that the history of the Church evinces several fundamentally different ways of understanding this call and that, though conceptually overlapping, these paradigms are temporally and geographically discrete from one another.[5]  This analysis permits Bosch to move towards his constructive task of proposing what he regards as the emerging missiological paradigm.  This proposal has proved to be foundational for much of the work on contextual mission of the past two decades, including movements such as Fresh Expressions.  Whether Bosch’s proposal is persuasive or not ultimately depends upon the descriptive and critical aspects of his argument.  The present post explores one particular claim Bosch advances, namely that mission is a divine attribute.

The missio Dei: Brief Theological Comment

1.A confusing claim

In the opening chapter of his book Transforming Mission, David Bosch describes the missio Dei (mission of God) in broadly functionalist terms, as denoting the primacy of God’s agency in mission.[6]  However, later in the volume, he provocatively describes it as a Divine attribute.[7]  This post considers his claim (whatever he may mean by it!).

To be charitable to Bosch, we might just be safer to say that it is unclear precisely what happens to be his underlying view.  However, since the missio Dei concept is a lynchpin of his argument and since any reading of Trinitarian doctrine inevitably entails far-reaching consequences, some consideration of the interpretative options remains necessary.  As I have noted elsewhere, non-technical discussions of Trinitarian theology occasionally employ technical terminology with imprecision, with the resultant confusion serving as a complicating factor in any subsequent debate.[8]  The position taken here is that if Bosch’s use of the term ‘attribute’ is no more than a convenient shorthand for the claim that the Church’s mission is an activity initiated and energized by God, then this is hardly controversial; indeed, it borders on a truism.  However, if this is Bosch’s meaning, then the use of the term ‘attribute’ is somewhat misleading, as the argument below will demonstrate.  If, however, the claim he makes is more substantial than this, then such a view and its possible consequences require evaluation.  In discussing these consequences, epistemological caution is appropriate, since the subject matter demands at least a modicum of creaturely humility (cf. Hilary, Trin. 2.2).

2. Theological Principles

With this caveat in mind, the following discussion advances on the basis of two properly basic distinctions that are apt to the task of navigating Trinitarian discussions.  The first differentiates between the attributes-proper of the Triune Godhead (e.g. omnipotence) and the personal operations of the Divine Persons (e.g. generation, filiation, procession).  The second concerns the relationship between Divine interiority and exteriority, ‘the Trinity-an-sich and the Trinity-as-disclosed-in-salvation.[9]  The utility of these distinctions becomes apparent once they are overlaid one upon the other so as to construct a fourfold taxonomy of (i) first order attributes, (ii) second order attributes, together with (iii) opera ad intra and (iii) opera ad extra (see fig. 1 below).

Fig 1:


Though this grid is heuristic in character, it nevertheless gives concrete shape to some of the theological distinctions one might wish to bring to the discussion of the language of attribute in the field of mission studies.  By way of an example, consider the difference between Divine love and Divine mercy.  Taxonomically speaking, love would be a first-order attribute and mercy a second.  The former is first-order because it describes the way in which the Divine Godhead relates to itself as well as to Creation, the love between Father, Son and Spirit being characteristic of the Trinity-an-sich as well as the Trinity-as-disclosed-in-salvation.  The latter, however, cannot easily be understood thus, it being profoundly incongruent to imagine an inner life of omnipotent holiness being characterised by pity for its own weakness or forbearance towards its own sin. 

Add to this the two traditional theological principles of creation as ex nihilo(cf. Augustine, Conf. 12.7) and God as actus purus (cf. Thomas, Summa Theologica I qq.3-4).  The former excludes the possibility of creation as an eternal object upon which Divine mercy might be actualised, yet in the absence of some distinction between primary and secondary attributes this is exactly what is required by the latter principle, which asserts the actuality of all Divine perfections.[10]  In the light of this, it is better to understand Divine mercy as Divine love, oriented in pity and forbearance towards the temporal objects of creaturely weakness or sin.

A similar set of concerns applies to the question of the opera ad intra and the opera ad extra.  I do not intend by this to challenge Karl Rahner’s (in)famous dictum that ‘the “Economic” Trinity is grounded in the “Immanent”’.[11] Rather, this is merely to observe that inferences on the basis of this principle require appropriate caveats.  The Rahnerian dictum is correct insofar as the revelation of the Trinity in the Divine economy ought not to be regarded as finally inconsistent with God-an-sich.  Augustine touches upon these issues in his discussion of the difference between the processions and the missions of God.  Note, however, his theological reserve.  On the one hand, he is able to establish some sort of correspondence between the processions and the missions: ‘the Father begat, the Son is begotten; so the Father sent, the Son was sent’ (Trin.4.20.29).  It is not quite as clear whether this correspondence involves continuity, analogy, or participation.[12]  On the other hand, he insists that the processions are not-strictly-identical with the missions: that the Son is ‘sent’ (missus) is to be distinguished from His being ‘begotten of the Father’ (de Patre natus est) (Trin. 4.20.28).  Begetting is not sending; filiation is not mission.

3. So is mission an attribute?

In terms of the specific claim that mission is a Divine attribute, the example from Augustine would seem a strong contraindication, the most apt theological location being within the realm of the personal operations of the Trinity.  The Father, unlike the Son and Spirit, is never sent.  Of course, one might counter this by claiming that each Divine Person is nevertheless involved in sending, the Father sending the Son, the Father and Son (or by means of the Son) sending the Spirit, and the Father, Son and Spirit sending the Church.  If one were to assume that this objection held, one could perhaps tentatively employ the language of attribute to describe mission, but this would have to be done with extreme care since the necessary caveats would be substantial.  In the first place, note the asymmetry.  Construed in this way, the Father would have to be understood as fons missione, the Son and Spirit never sending without the Father.  Second, insofar as the Spirit’s involvement in sending and being sent presumes the existence of the Church/Creation, any resultant notion of mission could be at best only a second order attribute.  Thus defined, mission would resemble mercy in that its ground would lie in something more properly basic.  In the case of mercy, this is evidently Divine love.  In the case of mission, one could frame this in terms of love, fidelity, or sovereignty; it is difficult to judge.  Ultimately, though, the stance taken here is that the claim that mission is a Divine attribute is unpersuasive.[13]

4. So is mission one of the Opera Dei?

In terms of the idea of mission as one of the opera Dei, there remains the question of the precise nature of the relationship between the processions and the missions.  One of the complications attached to this debate is that it intersects one of the major fault-lines between mature eastern and western Trinitarian doctrine.  As Duncan Reid observes, the developed eastern, particularly Palamite, position treats the relationship between the opera ad intra and the opera ad extra as essentially asymmetric in character.[14]  The upshot of this is that participation in and knowledge of God is understood to be participation in the Divine energeiai (‘energies’), without entailing direct participation in either the interior operations or the Divine ousia.  The corresponding western position tends to work on the basis that the opera are fundamentally continuous with each other, indeed that the coherence of Western Trinitarian thought demands a close participatory alignment between the Immanent and the Economic Trinity.[15]  On the basis of Reid’s observations, it is difficult to see how classic, western, Trinitarian theology might, in the absence of the conceptual firewall of the energies, sustain the kind of participatory agency this idea of mission implies whilst also avoiding the significant attendant difficulties I have outlined above.[16]


None of this is to suggest in a piece of this scope anything that remotely resembles a solution to a theological problem that has kept the Church in schism for nearly a millennium.  By way of modest comment, I think it reasonable to agree at least this far with Rahner that the revelation of God in the Economic Trinity is not in the final analysis false to God-an-sich.  However, this is not the same as saying that that God’s revelation in creation and redemption sums up the Immanent Trinity.  Scurrying willy-nilly up and down the ladder of Jacob is never legitimate (cf. Gen 28:10-19, Jn 1:51).  Nevertheless, it is also reasonable to maintain, with the East, the absolute nature of the Creator-creature distinction, and to hold that there is in God an inexhaustible, mysterious hinterland which exceeds without contradiction all that may ever be said about Him (cf. Rom 11:33-36).  What this means for the mission as attribute/operation debate is perhaps less clear.

What is relatively plain, given the preceding discussion, is that Bosch’s use of the idea of attribute to give shape to the expression missio Dei raises some serious theological questions.  As such, it is not a move I consider to be worthwhile emulating.

[1] See David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission : paradigm shifts in theology of mission  (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991); Robert J. Schreiter, “Review of David Bosch, Transforming Mission : paradigm shifts in theology of mission,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 15, no. 4 (1991); Stan Nussbaum, A Reader’s Guide to Transforming Mission, American Society of Missiology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2005); for a summary of Bosch’s substantial literary output see J. Kevin Livingston, “The Legacy of David J. Bosch,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 23, no. 1 (1999): 32.

[2] Hereafter, TM.

[3] See Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Hans Küng and David Tracy, eds., Paradigm Change in Theology : a symposium for the future (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1989); see also the popular work Hans Küng, Great Christian Thinkers  (New York: Continuum, 1994).

[4] Bosch, TM: 16.

[5] Ibid., 181-89.

[6] Ibid., 8-11.

[7] Ibid., 390.  Emphasis mine.

[8] Michael J. Lakey, Image and Glory of God : 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 as a case study in Bible, gender and hermeneutics, vol. 418, Library of New Testament studies (London: T.&T. Clark, 2010). 48.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Jenson’s reflection on Thomas, Barth and the relationship between God and creation are useful here.  See Robert W. Jenson, Systematic theology, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). I.212-18.

[11] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, trans. Joseph Donceel (London: Burns & Oates, 1970). 101.

[12] For an interesting discussion of participation, see Paul S. Fiddes, Participating in God : A pastoral doctrine of the Trinity  (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000).

[13] All of the preceding concerns – the error of hypostasizing Creation, the Divine actuality, distinguishing processions and missions, and the Church – have recently been levelled at Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth.  See D. Stephen Long, Saving Karl Barth :  Hans Urs von Balthasar’s preoccupation  (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014). 148-49; Long’s objections are significant given the centrality of Barth’s approach to the relationship between the processions and the missions in current missiological literature, e.g. Stephen Spencer, SCM Studyguide to Christian Mission : historic types and contemporary expressions  (London: SCM, 2007). 9-22.

[14] See the introductory chapter of Duncan Reid, Energies of the Spirit : Trinitarian models in Eastern Orthodox and Western theology, American Academy of Religion academy series (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997). 1-6 esp. 3.

[15] Ibid., 21.

[16] For a recent discussion of energies within the western tradition, see Stephen Pickard, Seeking the Church  (London: SCM, 2012). ch.6.

Michael Lakey is tutor in New Testament at Ripon College Cuddesdon, where he trains Anglican Ordinands for ministry in the Church of England.  He is also a parish priest in the Bridge Group of Churches, which is in the Dorchester Ministry Team in South Oxfordshire.

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7 thoughts on “Is David Bosch’s ‘missio Dei’ an error?

  1. I think you hone in on a key blindspot in Bosch’s legacy. Coming at the same blindspot from another angle, i’ve always felt that the ‘missio dei’ as attribute of God confuses what in reality is an attribute of creation. Bosch’s problem is essentially that he recognises God’s work in the world but builds a Reformed theology on top of that recognition. You’d get to exactly the same place with a broadly Catholic understanding of a graced creation: all creation is imbued with glimmers of grace so the Church, perforce, participates in the divine procession towards fulness in Christ. Put simply, the missio dei is not God’s technique and strategy for evangelism (as many missiology texts read it), but a statement about how the world is. It’s a blindspot that leads him to also miss the eschatological dimension of ascension: the recognition of Christ’s reign by the secular powers. And it takes a Reformed Anglican scholar like Oliver O’Donovan to notice that one.

  2. Very interesting. Can you say a little more about any practical upshots? (I’m far from thinking that intellectual endeavour must always have practical upshots beyond truth and knowledge, but even so mission is a very practical thing so I’d be interested in what you think are the practical ramifications of this disagreement.)

  3. I thought Bosch’s great work to be an illustration of the fact that the quest for truth is best-served by multi-angled comprehensiveness, and it may not be unconnected to this that Missio Dei (which he and Chris Wright prefer as their overarching picture) is the most comprehensive of the missiological options available.

  4. Well – it is a danger of missiology that it says ‘the same things’ in a different way (compared to theology) or sees them from a different angle. Though that does not invalidate it.

  5. I agree that Bosch’s assertion (suggestion?) that mission is an attribute of the divine nature (1st order, imminent Trinity) leaves us with several large theological issues to settle. Flett’s work has posed an interesting, although not fully convincing argument, that God’s imminent life cannot be separated from the procession into the economy (ad extra), but the economic procession is part of the imminent life to the extent that God has always reached out beyond God’s self without compromising the imminent Trinity’s divine mysterious life. If this is true then with the kinds of caveats in place for Rahner’s (so called) rule would be appropriate here. In an unpublished PhD thesis by Whitworth (Birmingham University), Whitworth seeks to protect mission as a first order attribute of the Trinity based on a theology of the Wesleyan means of Grace. Simply stated (never a good idea I realise) he argues that prevenient grace means that any human participation in the missio Dei is based on the previous(ness) of all human works (of a participatory nature in the divine mission being pre-ordained and provided by God. I am not convinced much by Flett’s, however, Whitworth’s thesis (although still problematic) does seem to allow grounds for mission to be a first order attribute of God. I find it convincing to suggest (without developing an argument here) that the Trinity has always had as an attribute a mission (a sending nature) in terms of reaching out to creation as part of its imminent life without compromising the divine inner being as part of that life. This is where I sit at present.

    Having said this, I am far from wanting to be dogmatic about this matter. I believe that Rahner’s dictum was subtle, and following him to some extent, I think he clearly protected the imminent life of the Trinity from it becoming essentially the same as the economic life (ad extra). The divine imminent life must always remain mysterious including the procession (its sending nature, mission as an attribute) towards all that is created. I will look forward to reading McCormack’s work.

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