Dewald Niemandt

The challenges of reformed mission in an ever-changing world

In 2014, the Brazilian artist, Henrique Oliveira, applied his strange but beautiful signature style of sculpture to an amazing installation of monumental proportions, and created a twisted network of gigantic tree roots out of recycled wood, called Transarquitetonica.  The artist described his work as:

It’s wood that has been taken from nature, has been cut down into geometric structures, and they have been used by society and discharged. And I take it back and I rebuild forms there again, creating true nature forms. It’s bringing back the tree aspects to the material… It’s not just an object, it’s an experience. (Oliveira)

In essence, Henrique Oliveira, uses ‘discharged wood’ which he reassembles in order to bring back the tree like aspects which it once embodied.  But the one ‘tree aspect’ which the artwork can’t truly reconstitute, is life.  The artwork merely gives the illusion of living tree roots.  In this sense, the Transarquitetonica serves as both metaphor and reminder to the church: merely reconstituting the aspects of Christian mission does not imply the embodiment of the missio Dei.

The church is rooted in eternal and historical truth but always clashing with the constant change of the present and future.  And so, 500 years later, the church is still challenged by Luther’s call for introspection and reformation, ecclesia semper reformanda est.  Without knowing what the future holds, the church has to navigate this fast-paced world, discerning the present of God’s work in anticipation of God’s future.  Motivated and compelled by the missio Dei.  The mission is figuring out where God has been, trying to catch-up with God’s present, and serving by joining in to build the future of God’s kingdom.

Defining the conversation

The missio Dei is the missional nature and calling which stems from the very nature of God – how we understand the church, as God’s unique community, is directly dependent on how we understand God.  God is a loving God and wants to save the broken world.  God, the Father, sends his Son to the world (John 3:16).  And subsequently, God, the Father and the Son, sends the Holy Spirit to the world (Acts 1:8; 2:4).  This sending love of God is termed the missio Dei.  It was in 1934 that Karl Hartenstein coined this term explaining mission as belonging to the essence of the church (Flett, 2010:131).  Mission is first and foremost understood as God’s mission and the church participates in God’s mission.  At the 1952 Willingen Conference of the International Missionary Council (IMC), the Trinitarian grounding for mission emerged (Flett, 2010:137-138).  This line of thought was further developed and mission was ultimately understood as primarily the work of the Trinity for the sake of the world (Bosch, 1991:392; Hooker, 2008:2; Van Gelder, 2007:18).

This understanding of the missio Dei leads to the rediscovery of ecclesiology as inherently missional.  The church’s only prerogative is to be part of the missio Dei.  Throughout the Bible God sends his people to take part in his mission (Wright, 2010:23).  And this nature and calling of the early church became evident after Jesus’ final words to the disciples.  They were to spread the good news – teaching all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).  Jesus sends them to the world, like His Father had sent Him (John 20:21).  The church is called to take part in God’s mission.  The church is called to discern where God is working in the world and to join in.  Hence, the Trinitarian God sends the church to the world.  The mission of the church, missio ecclesiae, is wholly dependent on the missio Dei.  The church is mission, and as such, all expressions of church are intent on partaking in the missio Dei.

The challenges of reformed mission in an ever-changing world

The ideological framework and theological validity of the missio Dei is the accepted premise of contemporary theological discourse.  But even though it is understood as the integral part of ecclesiology, the embodiment of this prerogative is as flawed as human nature and challenged by human progress.  Churches have a deep struggle with the incarnational aspects of theological truths rather than with the truths themselves.  Disseminating truth is not the same as embodying truth, or in layman’s terms: it is easier to know church than to be church.  Being church and partaking in mission means treading where metaphysical realism meets human pluralism, where simple truths clash with complex realities and where the zeitgeist interacts with eternity.  Different times and different challenges leads to differing expressions of the missio Dei.  To adhere to its calling, the church must continually re-examine itself in order to maintain its purity of doctrine and practice.  According to Barth (1956:705), “Semper reformari, however, does not mean always to go with the time, to let the current spirit of the age be the judge of what is true and false, but in every age, and in controversy with the spirit of the age, to ask concerning the form and doctrine and order and ministry which is in accordance with the unalterable essence of the Church… It means never to grow tired of returning not to the origin in time, but to the origin in substance of the community”.

This is why a growing number of leading missiological theologians direct their focus to the challenges faced by the contemporary church rediscovering its missional nature, in order to make sure that the church continually returns to the origin of its substance, the missio Dei.

The practice of studying and addressing these challenges have laid bare the inadequacies of current missiological praxis and the erroneous missiological paradigms resulting from churches gravitating away from ‘the origin of their substance’.  These enquiries have led to a critique of mere missiological platitudes, and has led to the rediscovery of a vocabulary that reclaims language and expressions which echo the church’s call to move beyond itself in service to God’s new way in the world.   It has also led to a growing awareness, that the old paradigms of power-centered mission in the West and Christian colonialism are no longer the frontiers of Christian mission.  In the words of Philip L. Wickeri (2004:4):

“Today, the crisis may be described in terms of the churches’ relationship to globalization, on the one hand, and to religious and cultural pluralism on the other.  The contrast between a Christian vision of the oikumene and the neo-liberal ideology of globalization, undergirded by American empire, has shaped the crisis in all of its forms.  Mission from the margins suggests that the cutting edge for mission today and throughout the history of the Christian churches comes from movements emerging outside established Christian centers – the African initiated churches, Pentecostals all over the world, the rural churches of China.  The missio Dei needs to be reshaped in the encounter of historic churches in the North with these movements in the South.  This will help Christians resist the forces of globalization and empire, and to respond anew to the gospel message for today.”

In the South African context and theology, the remnants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century missionary movement is still clearly visible.  This missionary movement was more about the expansion of the western religion and culture, with a meagre view of the church’s missional nature and calling.  On the one hand, Western Christians didn’t take into account that their theology was formed by their culture, the assumption was that it was supracultural and universally valid (Bosch, 1991:448).  And on the other hand, their way of implementing this theology revealed how they understood the church and this effected their understanding and form of mission.  Mission was only associated with cross-cultural missionary work, missionary societies, evangelism and church-planting missions (Wright, 2010:23).  Mission was confined to a certain aspect of being church.  And mission was perceived as the authoritative converting the meek, the theologically educated teaching the lay.  This is, in a big sense, still true in South Africa today.  Not only when it comes to how mission is understood, but also in the way we do church.  The church is trapped by institutional rational and there is a significant distinction between clergy and lay (Dreyer, 2011:79).  Although this can be theologically disputed by looking at 1 Petrus 2:5, churches tend to accept the priesthood of all believers in theory, but in practice it becomes secondary.

The missio Dei and our Reformed identity calls us to face these challenges.  Pressing questions need to be addressed:

  1. What does this mean for the marginalised, the powerless, the lay?
  2. What does this mean for the church in practice?
  3. And what does this mean for church leadership, the conceived position of power?

The true treasure of the church

This year, with the 500th commemoration of the Reformation, is a year wherein we consider in particular the figure of Martin Luther. Not only is the Reformation commemorated, but so also Luther’s exceptional theological contribution to the Reformation; and not only is Luther foregrounded, but the focus is on his 95 theses; and often not even necessarily on the content of the theses themselves, but rather the socio-political implications that the Reformation would have for church and society.

The theses are after all the reason why the Reformation is commemorated this year; the spark that would ignite the theological debate about the selling of indulgences (but with this also some broader debates: regarding church practices, church structures, and church authority) in the Catholic church; the reason why entire towns – such as Wittenberg in Germany, where Luther had lived and worked – are readied this year for numerous international Reformation celebrations.

There is, in other words, much that can be said; and much that has already been done, in order to commemorate the Reformation, and Luther, and the 95 theses. Yet the question remains: would and could this be the point of the theses themselves? How do we celebrate the Reformation this year?

Does this involve preaching and attending sermons about the classical five sola’s? Or posting (and liking) Facebook photos taken in front of the church door in Wittenberg, where Luther supposedly nailed the 95 theses? Perhaps this means organising a movie night within congregations where we can be newly impressed by Joseph Fiennes’ portrayal of Martin Luther, in the film Luther (2003)? Or maybe this means to become a fan of the rebel Luther – a 16th century Ché Guevara who challenges Empire, and wins?

It is therefore well worth reading the 95 theses in this year. And if one happened to be reading the theses, it may be well worth paying attention to the 62nd thesis.

This specific thesis reads, in Latin, as follows:

Verus thesaurus ecclesie est sacrosanctum evangelium glorie et gratie dei.

“The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of God’s glory and grace.”

The use of the word ‘treasure’ (thesaurus) is neither accidental nor innocent. Other references to this, in the 95 theses, makes this very clear. In total Luther refers to ‘treasures’ 7 times (in theses 56, 59, 60, 62, 64, 65, and 66). Not only does thesis 62 form the center of the 7 references to treasures – with 3 references before, and 3 references after – but it is also the only reference, in the entire document, where Luther adds a word: ‘true’ (verus).

His point is unmistakably clear. There is no confusion for him regarding the treasure(s) of the church. The gospel is the treasure of the church; and no assurance of salvation, even those given by the church and pastors of the church, can be bought. Salvation is not just one more treasure among many treasures of the church; it is the true treasure of the church, argues Luther in thesis 62. It is the real treasure, the only treasure, the treasure that matters to the church; the most valuable, important, precious – for the church. No indulgence letters, or false self-assurances, or tithes, or offerings, can buy our salvation. The gospel is the gospel of grace – the thesis in question qualifies this even further, as the grace of God (gratie dei). It is grace that cannot be bought, but that can only be received – from God.

The gospel is the true treasure of the church.

Some weeks ago, on 5 July 2017, the World Communion of Reformed Churches – together with the Lutheran World Federation – signed the Wittenberg Witness. The goal of the declaration, states the declaration itself, was to confess – in Lutherstadt (the city of Luther), in the church where Luther himself preached regularly, in the tradition of Luther and the Reformation – the gift of unity to the church and the commitment to unity by the church.

The 34-year-old Martin Luther writes the 95 theses not with the intention to cause church schism, or to establish a new church, or even to enhance his own public reputation. Instead he realizes, he is convinced, that he cannot remain silent, cannot say nothing, when the gospel itself is offered for sale.

This would be the theme for the Lutheran World Federation’s meeting earlier this year in May, in Namibia: “Liberated by God’s grace”. Three subthemes would be added: (1) “Salvation – not for sale”; (2) Human beings – not for sale”; and (3) “Creation – not for sale”. The message is clear: the gospel is not up for sale. The good news of our salvation, of God’s grace that is given abundantly to us, is the true treasure of the church.

In this year Luther’s words are perhaps a timely reminder: the true treasure of the church is the gospel. And “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

The Reformation tradition as vantage point on the Karoo horizon

A horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it, but to see it better within a larger whole and truer proportion.” Alexander Murray

The Karoo in South-Africa is a semi-desert area that is known for extremes. Hot as hell in summer and freezing cold in the winter. Growing up in the South-Eastern part of the Karoo and recently visiting there I was amazed with the 360-degree view of the African horizon. If there is such thing as a skyscraper in Somerset-East it will probably be a church tower. I would like to think of my roots in the Reformed tradition as a vantage point towards the 360-degree horizon.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that “a person without a horizon will overvalue what is immediately present, whereas the horizon enables us to sense the relative significance of what is near or far, great or small.” The Reformed tradition as a vantage point on the horizon helps me to approach certain historical information and stories, it helps me to comprehend the present reality and it helps me to think about the future.

In this process Norman F. Cantor reminds us that this is a dangerous process as “we usually tend to discover the past we set out to find. This is not because the past is wilfully imagined fiction but because it is such a complicated and multifaceted reality.” Every age is marked out by what it takes self-evident and uncritically for granted. We are all products of the time we live in and we all carry certain ideologies that makes us look at the past, present and future in certain ways.

The Reformation tradition is certainly not THE vantage point, but it helps me to be aware of my own eye patches. This makes me aware of my own limitations in my view of life, my God images and encourages me to embrace different vantage points in order to follow Jesus Christ.

A reformed past. A reformed future?

Why am I reformed? Forget for a moment different was of asking this question, such as: “what does it mean to be reformed?” “Why am I reformed?” The answer to this question seem to be quite simple: I was born reformed. I was baptized in a reformed church, attended Sunday school in a reformed church, received my theological training from reformed lecturers in a faculty that was mostly training reformed students. I was ordained in a reformed church and ministered in reformed congregations since then. Whatever is might mean to be reformed, I am reformed, but mostly due to the accidents of birth. Had I been born in a totally different family in a totally different context, my chances of being reformed would have been quite slim.

But I’m not reformed only. On the night that I told my parents of my intention to study theology, my mother came to tell me that I need to know that they do not expect of me to study reformed theology. Regardless of my choice to keep to this accident of birth, the mother’s instinct about her son is telling: since I was moving freely between churches as a teen, and often in conflict with the structures and powers of the local Dutch Reformed congregation of my hometown, she sensed that it might be that my future theological identity is not entirely formed by this accident of birth.

But accidents of birth are not without a background. Obviously I could only have been born into this particular time and place, and any other birth would not have been my own, but that of a totally different person. If born into this reformed story, I still need to think about how it came about to be my story. As we commemorate 500 years of the reformation I cannot but note that this event in history played its own part in the fragmentation of the church. Today I need to note not only the vast theological differences in the church in South Africa, but also the ways in which divisions along European national lines (German churches, Dutch churches, British churches) were carried into the South African context, and have become so entrenched that we cannot see beyond them. This reformed identity was obviously also influential in the story of injustice in South Africa (although yes, in the struggle against this injustice as well), and was sustained – at times in the literal financial sense – by this injustice. That too, is part of what caused this accident of birth.

So I am reformed in the descriptive sense. Being reformed is part of what brought me here. But does that mean that being reformed is something which I need to sustain into the future? Is a reformed identity, in the sense of prescribing certain criteria that makes me reformed and that I commit to upholding for the sake of being reformed, something that I can justify?

I cannot help but be left with a deep sense of discomfort when confronted with such a quest for a reformed identity: one where being reformed is not but a reality from the past but a vision into the future. A vision where one denominational identity is theologically maintained over against another, as if that in itself can be justified in an way.

So if an accident of birth has led me to a reformed identity, then I’ll learn from this, present its gifts to others, and name its sins. But I do this only for the sake of finding a future more ecumenical, Catholic, and dare I say Christian identity, not in order to maintain a future reformed identity.

But then, I have to wonder, is this not reformed? This low view of tradition, this optimistic sense that I can contribute to something which is Christian without being mediated by denominational markers, is that not in itself partly reformed? While my mother’s instinct was right, it might be that my own decision to give this tradition a chance was also right. I might be more reformed than I thought, exactly because of my quest for finding a Christian identity not bound to the theological narratives of denominational histories.

Cobus van Wyngaard is lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and minister of the Dutch Reformed congregation Pretoria.