John Flett on Mission, Theology, and Church

This is my final plea (for now): go buy his book.

John Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Eerdmans, 2010): 296-7.
If the community is Christian only insofar as she is missionary, if the missionary act is the concrete form of divine and human fellowship here and now, then the lack of reference to mission at every level of the teaching ministry of the church is a frightful abrogation of theological responsibility. If it is possible for a ministry candidate to progress through academic training – as much within a seminary as a secular university – without any dogmatic attention given to the purpose for which the Christian community exists, then this indicates the community’s own radical disorder. Jesus Christ’s call for the community to be his witnesses cannot be relegated to some derivative status. Because mission is located in the doctrine of the Trinity, it must again return to theological curricula, must become central to the teaching ministry of the local congregation, and must inform liturgical practice. The entire community is to hear of the commission of her being and the declarative nature of Christian fellowship, to repent and intentionally move into the world developing missionary forms as she learns the obedience of the Spirit.


Anonymous said…
bought it today actually!
While I certainly agree with this quote and the need for integrating mission into all aspects of theological eduction, practices, etc, I offer a soft protest that I don't think the general direction of Flett is useful for the church.

Flett tries to take what was seen as Barth's greatest weakness (by early interpreters being his lack of regard for mission b/c of concentration of dogmatics) to actually be Barth's great strength because there is no separation b/c the being/act of God (via McCormick's recent reading of Barth).

I'm not a Barthian, but as a theologian both interested in mission and the church, I'm not sure Flett fulfills his promise.

Recognizing that your protest is soft and generally friendly...

Have you had a chance to read Flett's book yet? He provides ~300 pages of very dense argument aimed at bearing out his claims. Also, he situates the entire discussion within the history of missiology, which is very helpful with reference to your bit about taking what was seen as Barth's weakness as his strength. It seems to me that there is an argument to be made (and check out my latest post on Keith Johnson's book for some of this) that Barth's dogmatic orientation was determined in a very real way by mission from the very beginning of his turn from liberalism - its not necessarily the sort of mission that most people look for, but it is there nonetheless.

1. Even though there is a certain affinity between what Flett is doing and McCormack's project, the two must not be conflated. McCormack only appears twice in Flett's book, and Flett's argument is entirely independent of McCormack's work in actualistic ontology (even if I think McCormack's position supports Flett's thesis).

2. Your description of the weakness/strength issue isn't quite right. You conflate two different issues: (1) the emphasis on the doctrine of God, rather than on pragmatic concerns over ecumenism and mission; and (2) the actualistic nature of Barth's doctrine of God. Regarding the first, Flett's point is that it is only by grounding mission in the triune God that we have a proper basis for thinking about the mission of the church. The missio Dei movement went astray because it failed to ground its ecclesiological concerns in the being and work of God. Regarding the second, it is because God's being is in act, i.e. because God is a missionary God in se, that we have the basis for a missionary church. The two points have to be kept distinct.

And neither, it's worth pointing out again, depends on McCormack's reading of Barth. It just so happens that Flett's interpretation confirms McCormack's reading, and in so doing, shows that McCormack's reading has important ecclesiological potential that McCormack has not himself explicated.

3. Having said all this, I don't see the connection between the claim that (a) Flett did not fulfill his promise and your earlier claim that (b) Flett's position is not helpful for the church. One could plausibly argue that Flett did not argue his case well enough (though in light of the book itself that's a highly doubtful, and in my mind rather absurd, claim), but still say that his position is in theory of great benefit for the church. Likewise, you could admit that he argues his case quite well but that his position is still unhelpful because of certain a priori commitments to what a "helpful" position would be.

Because I know your overall (ecclesiocentric) orientation, I suspect that it's more the latter. I don't think you'll be very successful in showing that Flett's exegesis of Barth and the missio Dei movement is flawed. It's just highly doubtful that you or anyone else has more knowledge about those materials than he does.

That said, you might very well claim that his position is still unacceptable. But that's because you have a disagreement with Barth himself, and not with Flett's book. Does that make sense? Is that a fair assessment?
Bobby Grow said…
I wonder what kind of cut Flett is giving WTM for all of this free advertisement ;-).

I plan on reading it as soon as I finish Barth's The Theology of the Reformed Confessions, which I'm starting tomorrow.
I receive nothing for my services - I even bought my copy of the book. John is, however, a good friend and colleague.
Bobby Grow said…
I was just kidding Travis ;-). It looks very interesting. I have also found it interesting that Nate Kerr & crew seem to have problems with Flett's reading of Barth (so Holsclaw);why is that, in particular?

Where do you get the idea that Kerr & co. have a problem with Flett? It's precisely the agreement with between Kerr and Flett that manifests itself in Geoffrey's disagreement with both. And at the Barth Conference this past summer, Kerr and Flett were in basic agreement. The only real difference is that Flett doesn't agree with Kerr's critical reading of Barth in his book.

Nate can, of course, correct me. But I don't think he disagrees with Flett on anything substantial.
Bobby Grow said…

I thought,as I recalled, that there was some disagreement evinced in the latest KBBC between Kerr and Flett; apparently I have sublated actual fact with my recollection wrongly :-). Carry on. What is it about Kerr's reading of Barth that Flett finds problematic?
At the conference, the disagreement came entirely from Flett's end toward Nate Kerr. In his paper at the conference, John criticized Nate's assessment of Barth from his book, specifically (and ironically) that Nate's critique of Barth's abstract conception of the humanity of Christ is itself overly abstract because it separates the humanity of Jesus from his divine mission. This provoked quite a bit of discussion over the conference between the two of them. But as far as I know, there isn't the slightest critique of Flett from Nate's side. (That's not to say Nate doesn't have critical comments, but just that I haven't heard any.)
Bobby Grow said…
Thank you, David.
Sorry guys to be getting back to you all so late. I thought I would be notified if there were comments, but I wasn't and thought no one followed up.

I have read most of the book quickly, but plan on reviewing now and posting about it (probably at "church and pomo". I would love to continue these questions and conversation.

Anyway, to David's last point, I very well may just disagree with Barth (but I'm still not sure which Barth that is, while you distinquich Flett and McCormick, I'm not sure that is so easily done, all non-citations aside), so for now I'll just say I disagree with Flett's project.
oh, three other things.

1) I didn't intend to say Kerr and Flett disagreed. I didn't even bring up Kerr, did I. From what I can tell, yet they agree one the big picture details.

2)David you say at the end, as a gentile rebuke to me I suppose, regarding Flett on the missio dei movement/Barth, "It's just highly doubtful that you or anyone else has more knowledge about those materials than [Flett] does."

I fear recent moves to be overly hasty in crowning experts on fields (especially newly graduated ones) and the creation of new movements when Flett's ideas have yet to be proven by time. This might sound elitist, but until that time, I will still consider others as authoritative in the field.

3) It feels that the term "ecclesiocentrism" has become a theological invective aim at certain positions, but those toward whom it is aim never seem themselves in that term. I know David and Kerr and others keep throwing it around, but it really lacks any meaning.

I don't consider myself "ecclesiocentric" even if I have an emphasis on the church.

And while this might be self-serving, I'm a junior scholar who has written/published very little on "the church" and so I would be hard for anyone to know my position.

Just because I criticize certain other positions (Kerr, Flett, etc) doesn't mean I fall into the category they created for their opposition because I don't believe I do. In fact, for the most part, I find false dichotomies in there polarizations.

1. The bit about Flett and Kerr disagreeing was a response to Bobby. It didn't concern you at all.

2. Flett is not the start of some "new movement" (we have to distinguish between his work and Kerr's, which is something I get the sense you fail to do at times). Flett is pure exposition and interpretation of the missio Dei movement and Barth's theology. There simply isn't anyone else writing on this topic, at least no one who is engaging the materials that Flett is engaging. I'm not calling Flett's book some kind of "classic," since that would indeed require the testing of the ages. I'm simply saying that it is a solid argument that makes a robust and cogent case. If others care to show why his view is wrong, that's fine, but they have to show their work.

Simply dismissing Flett's book on the grounds that it (a) doesn't conform to one's personal theological presuppositions or (b) hasn't been proven to be a "classic" work tested by time is not a responsible response to his work. I hope that this isn't what you are doing, but you haven't given me reason yet to think otherwise. I do hope you will prove me wrong. I want there to be an actual conversation about this topic. But it seems to me that you come to Flett's having already decided that a missionary conception of God and church is the wrong way to go because you already have a fixed notion of what the church is and what mission means.

3. As for "ecclesiocentric," perhaps we need to have a conversation (again) about what this term means. In case you are not aware, the word is first used, as far as I know, by J. C. Hoekendijk. His use of it comes down to this: a theology is "church-centric" which understands the church to be the mediator of the kingdom, the mediator or sacrament of salvation. The church, in an ecclesiocentric perspective, is an end-in-itself; the church is the object of God's will.


I'll readily admit that the word is very broad in its meaning. It encompasses a wide range of positions, from Protestant Liberalism to Roman Catholicism to Radical Orthodoxy. It unites Hegel and Schleiermacher with the early Bonhoeffer and Hauerwas. What I think unites these and other disparate positions is the notion that the church is the agent and embodiment of God's reconciliation within the world. That can take any number of forms and can be true of theologies that are otherwise absolutely at odds with each other. So in a sense, you're right to say that the term is "meaningless." But that's only true if you think that "ecclesiocentric" defines a coherent systematic position. That's not the case. It concerns a family of ecclesiologies that make the church, as an historical-cultural community with a particular set of rites and practices, the center of God's will for the world.

But let's be very clear here: the ecclesiocentric issue is Kerr's primary concern. It isn't part of Flett's project, even if he is sympathetic with what Kerr is working on. You thus make a mistake when you speak of "the category they created." First of all, it's not a category that any of them created, because Hoekendijk already created it. Second, Flett isn't even a part of that conversation. He's referenced positively by Kerr & co., but he's not contributing to it. This is another instance of a lack of care on your part to make the necessary distinctions. I just want to make sure you don't conflate Flett and Kerr, just as I want to make sure people don't conflate Flett and McCormack. We have to make some clear differentiations here.

I make this point because I have an inkling that part of your opposition to Flett is due to a "guilt by association" with Kerr. You oppose Kerr's project; you associate Flett with Kerr; ergo, you oppose Flett. I don't think it's really that simple, but you also haven't yet done the necessary work of assessing Flett's work for itself. So, again, I await that review.

4. As for distinguishing between Flett and McCormack, I'm not sure why you would say that their positions are not easily distinguished. That seems like a very odd thing to say. Certainly there are affinities, but the fact is that Flett has not discussed McCormack's "grace and being" debate, nor has McCormack discussed a missional reading of Barth, so the presumption should rather be that they are quite easily distinguished.

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