John Flett: Barth Did Not Spawn “Missio Dei”

Part of the argument in John Flett’s incredible volume is that missio Dei theology did not come from Barth. This is an astounding claim, because many people assume that it did. Indeed, this is the standard position in the literature surrounding the subject. But, Flett has shown - importantly - that this is not the case. To get the whole story, you’ll have to go buy his book. But, here is a bit to motivate you. The following deals with the relation between missio Dei and Barth’s 1932 lecture, “Theology and Mission in the Present Situation.” Breaking the link between this essay and missio Dei is the first step in Flett’s argument, which is carried forward in his book’s next chapter dealing specifically with the 1952 Willingen Conference, missio Dei's debut.

John Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Eerdmans, 2010): 121-2.
German mission’s preoccupation with its particular approach to indigenization blinded it to any potential within Barth’s dogmatic framework for a thick theological account of mission. As Ustorf suggests, “the German missiologists’ theological manoeuvering between a theological...and an anthropological...point of departure produced missiological ambivalence (either-or theology) and ended with the victory of anthropology.” These appropriated elements were reframed according to the theological substructure of natural theology, using the dogmatic guise of the law and the orders of creation.

Barth’s 1932 lecture does not ground missions in the doctrine of the Trinity. His emphasis on God’s subjectivity is a direct consequence of his understanding of the doctrine, but he does not develop a positive account of the Trinity’s missionary economy. He never articulates something similar to the central missio Dei affirmation that “God is a missionary God.” The eventual Trinitarian grounding of mission as articulated at Willingen 1952 affirms creation and culture as central to mission, and it does so in over opposition to a christological emphasis. Barth’s attempt to dislocate mission from creation is precisely the approach against which missio Dei theology reacts.

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