Missional Musings on Paul

Michael J. Gorman

This is a time of much exciting activity in two fields of theological study that are of special interest to me and, I suspect, also to many Catalyst readers: Pauline studies (particularly the meaning of justification, but also much more) and missional hermeneutics.

The former is perhaps the oldest subdiscipline in theology (see 2 Pet 3:15-16!), while the latter is quite new, at least as a formal area of study. Missional hermeneutics is neither the same as missiology nor the same as hermeneutics as it has been normally practiced. Rather, missional hermeneutics is what happens when missiologists and biblical scholars intentionally work together to probe the biblical text for what it says about the missio Dei and about our participation in it. (For overviews, see M. Barram, “The Bible, Mission, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic” Int 61, no. 1 [2007]: 42-58); and G.R. Hunsberger, “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping the Conversation,” [2009].) Missional hermeneutics should be seen as a subset, or perhaps an extension, of theological interpretation, which is represented by important publishing developments like the Journal of Theological Interpretation and several new commentary series from publishers such as Brazos (“Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible”) and Westminster John Knox (“Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible”).

Paul, His Mission, and Missional Hermeneutics

Not quite a decade ago, the Gospel and Our Culture Network (GOCN), based since the early 1990s at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, began a Missional Hermeneutics Forum that met annually at the same time as the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Two years ago the Forum was more formally incorporated into the meetings of the Society when GOCN became an affiliate organization of SBL. Its work continues to expand, as does both ecclesial and academic interest in it.

Two of the biblical scholars on the steering committee of the GOCN Forum on Missional Hermeneutics are Pauline scholars: Michael Barram of St. Mary’s College of California and myself. Connecting Paul and mission is, of course, a natural and time-honored move (for recent works, see, e.g., E.J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods [InterVarsity, 2008]; and T.J. Burke and B.S. Rosner, eds., Paul as Missionary: Identity, Theology, Activity, and Practice [T. & T. Clark, 2011].) But our understanding of Paul as missionary and of the contemporary implications of that understanding is moving in new directions.

In his very readable published dissertation, Mission and Moral Reflection in Paul (Peter Lang, 2006), Barram argues that “mission” is not a discrete aspect of Paul’s work, such as evangelism and initial community formation, but a principal rubric for understanding the apostle’s entire vocation, including moral reflection and ongoing community nurturing. Paul’s letters are therefore “mission documents.” If Barram is right, as I think he is, then we need to read Paul’s letters in two ways: first, as witnesses to Paul’s understanding of God’s mission, his role in it, and the place of his congregations in it; and, second, as scriptural texts for our own missional identity, our contemporary vocational and ecclesial self-understanding and practices. Thus is born a Pauline missional hermeneutic.

In a Pauline missional hermeneutic, the guiding question is: How do we read Paul for what he says about the missio Dei and about our participation in it? In other words, the issue before us is not primarily exegetical or historical, but hermeneutical. What is a Pauline letter? (a mission document). How are we to read it appropriately? (missionally). Older historical and exegetical questions—e.g., about how and whom Paul evangelized, and whether he expected his communities to do the same—are still relevant, but they will not be our primary concerns, and they are not ends in themselves. Rather, they are part of a larger discussion about Paul and mission. Together with all kinds of new questions that emerge from this enlarged understanding, they serve as a means to our own theological and missiological reflection.

Missional Pauline Congregations?

Perhaps the most persistent exegetical-historical question about mission in Paul is, Did Paul expect his congregations to evangelize others? (Some would add, a bit cynically, “Or did he just want their money?”). The hard evidence for and against an affirmative answer to this query about Pauline congregational evangelism is notoriously thin. It was raised and debated in scholarly circles, once again, as recently as the November 2010 annual SBL meeting, by Professor J. Dickson of Macquarrie University in Australia.

I for one suspect that the question itself is akin to asking whether dog-owners expect their dogs to bark. Dogs bark by virtue of being dogs; they do not need to be instructed to do so. Sometimes they bark on their own, sometimes when prompted or disturbed, sometimes hesitatingly and sometimes aggressively. But bark they do.

I think there is implicit evidence in the Pauline correspondence to support my contention. For instance, at least some of the communities founded by Paul experienced persecution. We should surmise that this was due to withdrawal from certain social associations and behaviors that the Pauline communities deemed immoral and/or idolatrous, and which the larger communities in Thessaloniki or Philippi (or wherever) deemed unsocial at best, and treasonous at worst. Before or during the persecution—whether verbal harassment or something worse—someone frequently would have asked for an explanation for this new anti-social and anti-religious behavior, and someone—some Pauline Christian(s)—would have provided at least a rudimentary answer, such as “Only Jesus is Lord, he is our Lord, and he could/should be your Lord, too. Are you interested in hearing more of the story?”

This may not be formal evangelism by some modern or even postmodern definitions, but it is nonetheless preaching the gospel (see 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:6-11; etc.). And if my instincts here are correct, then the answer to our overall question—Did Paul expect his communities to evangelize?—is not dependent on the exegetical/translational issue one often hears debated: Does Paul want the Philippians to “hold forth” the word of life or “hold fast to” the word of life (Phil 2:16)? This is not to say that the issue is insignificant (for one careful treatment, see J. Ware, The Mission of the Church in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the Context of Ancient Judaism [Brill, 2005]).

New Hermeneutical Questions

More importantly, this way of considering the question of the church and mission in Paul immediately raises a whole network of additional questions that are in some sense historical and exegetical, but also, and more importantly, hermeneutical. The following examples come to mind:

  • What was and is the relationship between the church’s deepest convictions and the shape of individual and corporate Christian existence?
  • What kind of existence in the world is faithful to the gospel, and specifically to the story of Jesus?
  • Why and how does such an existence both attract some and repel others?
  • How does Christian speech and behavior, seen as an integrated whole, relate to and reflect what God is doing in the world (the missio Dei) as manifested in the story of Jesus, which is itself grounded in the story of Israel?

Moreover, we are now obliged to reformulate the basic question. Did Paul expect his congregations to evangelize others? In one sense, this is the wrong question. The better question is, How did Paul expect his communities to participate in the missio Dei? Then there is the corollary fundamental hermeneutical question, How does God expect us who read Paul’s letters to participate in the missio Dei?

New Pauline Passages and Missional Topics to Consider

New questions always generate new possibilities and still more questions. We have already seen that a missional hermeneutic will force us to think carefully about basic questions of ecclesiology and ethics. In fact, a missional hermeneutic will bind those two fields so closely together that retaining two different theological labels (“ecclesiology” and “ethics”) will no longer be sustainable. The contention of Richard Hays in his Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)—that theology and ethics are inseparable in Paul—is now strengthened by a missional reading. As Barram writes, “Theology and ethics come together in Paul’s mission” (142).

Still more new perspectives and questions will naturally arise, especially if we, like Paul, take our specific contexts seriously. Paul did not treat the Corinthians and the Philippians, for instance, in precisely the same way. A missional hermeneutic is a contextual hermeneutic (see Barram, “The Bible, Mission, and Social Location”), and we will therefore ask different concrete questions depending on our specific location in space and time.

For example, unlike Luke or James, Paul has never been the “go-to” guy for those interested in various aspects of “social justice.” But a close reading of 1 and 2 Corinthians, for instance, reveals that justice concerns were on Paul’s mind (e.g., 1 Cor 6:1-11; 11:17-34; 2 Cor 8), and that they grow directly out of his core convictions about Jesus and about justification/salvation in him. Noticing these concerns and their theological underpinnings will prompt us to ask a question such as, What do Paul’s admonitions about justice reveal about his understanding of Christ and the Christian community as the embodiment of God’s justice in the world? And then we will need to follow that question up with yet another: What does that revelation mean for our life in and as the church today?

Similarly, Paul has seldom been interpreted as a peacemaker or advocate of nonviolence, but that too is changing and being connected to mission. The apostle receives significant attention in two recent works on NT theology by Mennonite W. Swartley (Send Forth Your Light: A Vision for Peace, Mission, and Worship [Herald, 2007]; and the more sophisticated Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics [Eerdmans, 2006]). I myself have contributed to this discussion, in connection with justice more broadly (see my Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology [Eerdmans, 2009], esp. chs. 2 and 4.)

Additionally, recent theological concerns about ecological issues have driven Pauline scholars to passages like Rom 8 and Col 1 in search of ways to read those texts that can address the ecological issues of our day (see, among other works, Greening Paul: Reading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis [ed. D. Horrell; Baylor, 2010]). Such forays, from the perspective of missional hermeneutics, are not merely attempts to engage “hot topics” or even to practice responsible Christian stewardship. Rather, they are means of probing once again that fundamental question: What is the missio Dei to which Paul bears witness, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, and how are we called to participate in it?


Do these new developments in Pauline studies and missional hermeneutics mean the demise of evangelism or faith-sharing in the hope of attaining new converts? As Paul would certainly say, mē genoito (“May it never be”)! What they do indicate, however, is that evangelism must be understood more holistically, and that the connection between Paul and mission generally must be understood more broadly, and appropriated more creatively, than we have often done in the past.

To read Paul missionally is to read him as a participant in, advocate for, and interpreter of the missio Dei, the mission of God first revealed in the story and Scriptures of Israel and now manifested in its fullness in the reality and story of Christ. It is to read his letters as witnesses to that missio Dei and as invitations to be part of it. Once the church starts to read Paul that way, it will be thrilling, I believe, to see what transpires.

Posted Feb 01, 2011