January 8, 2009 / David Fitch

Missiology Precedes Ecclesiology: The Epistemological Problem

Warning:Academic Discussion Ahead. This post assumes you know what ecclesiology and missiology are and have thought about the relationship between the two.
At a recent post here at the NEW Missional Tribe Network, Ben Wheatley argues along with Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost that “Missiology needs to precede ecclesiology because if ecclesiology precedes missiology, mission becomes just a subset of the church.” There are some good comments after the post. Wheatley is of course following Alan Hirsch in his book Forgotten Ways (p.141 ff.) and Hirsch and Frost in the Shaping of Things to Come (p.) I’d like to chime in here with another take. I believe its fruitful to ask what are the epistemological implications of such an affirmation.

Epistemology is the study of how we know. Though it is a specialized question mostly reserved for philosophers (all we pastors need is another “ology,” right!), I believe our epistemological assumptions shape the way we understand the gospel (individual versus social) and church (a group of individuals or a social context for working out the gospel). Many will say that we should forget about such issues and just follow Jesus. Of course, this too is laden with epistemological assumptions. I contend that the formula “Christology determines missiology determines ecclesiology” is fraught with epistemological assumptions (modern Enlightenment) that lead us to the very problem (individualist decuturalized oriented salvation leading to pragmatic Christianity) the phrase was intended to avert in the first place. So let’s think this through.
Caveat I generally reserve this kind of writing for other kinds of blogs or in academic contexts. So please, if you’re not interested – don’t go on reading. For me however this issue is essential for the time and place we live in. So here goes.
I contend that the affirmation “missiology precedes ecclesiology” depends upon the epistemological priority of the individual thinking self – the cogito of modernity. We know Jesus and the gospel primarily as individuals first versus the encounter of God in Christ manifested in a people. For many of us postliberal types however, the church is the embodied narrative (post)foundation for the working out and displaying of the truth of Jesus Christ into the world. In this way, the church provides the epistemological foundation of sorts. It is in the social context of the church where the language is learned, the Story is carried on and indeed the presence of Christ is directly visible (The fullness thereof-Eph 1:22-23). From this place the revolution infests the world. For us, it makes no sense to say that the church is derivative of mission.

No doubt, in response to this, Hirsch and Frost would make the case that Jesus should be that foundation. Who can argue with that? Jesus (Christology) should precede missiology, right? (This is most likely what they’re expanding on with their most recent book, Re Jesus, though I have not read it and am due to get it from Amazon this week). This is true, yet this still bypasses the epistemological question entirely. How do we “know” Jesus? In essence, if missiology precedes the church, we must assume the gospel comes first in and through individuals and their mind/experience faculties.

Protestants have generally answered the epistemological question by referring to the Scriptures. The Protestants, you remember, no longer could trust the church as God’s work in the world. As a result, whether one is Prot. liberal or evangelical, the Scriptures are what point us to Jesus. This is where we encounter the living Lord. For evangelicals, the autonomous individual rational mind reads the Bible and by the Holy Spirit understands and encounters the living Word. For liberal Protestants, the autonomous “feeling self” reads the Bible and “gets in touch with (encounters) the religious experience” of Jesus afforded by the Scriptures. Evangelicals argue for the historical reliability of Scripture and the wherewithal of individual rationality under submission to the Holy Spirit to come to the propositional and real truth. Lib. Protestant theology appeals to the authority of universal religious experience. To me, Hirsch and Frost must affirm these classic protestant assumptions for this phrase (missiology precedes ecclesiology) to stand and make sense.

In either case however (evangelical or Prot Liberal), two bad things happen. ONE, it puts the epistemological foundations for knowing Jesus upon the autonomous ( a law nomos unto him/her self auto ) individual via the universal categories of either universal human experience or human reason and the meta narrative of science. We are now all on our own (via the Holy Spirit) to interpret as best we can (via historical commentaries). Yet even the best of us knows that we differ as to what the Holy Spirit is “telling me.” Try listening to John McArthur and Joel Osteen explicate the same Scripture at the same time. This is why interpretation is a communal discipline of the Holy Spirit where individuals are in submission to the church and the Holy Spirit and its ongoing community and collective history of interpretation. TWO this modernist epistemology inevitably makes Mission into something for individuals to pursue. It turns the Mission inward. It works against the reality that God has always chosen to work collectively in a people beginning with Israel to the birth of the Twelve and the church (read Gerhard Lohfink). As Yoder taught us, Jesus offers more than an individual salvation or a personal pattern of discipleship, his Lordship births a social reordering among us, a politic, as a foretaste of the world to come. Herein lies the base (foundation) for our witness into the world.

As an aside, but important to me, we live increasingly in a postmodern, post Christendom or even post-epistemological world, where these universal foundations are gone. Christendom, or a universal rationality, or a universal human experience (the most imperialist assumption of them all) has been destabilized. If we wish to minister under the “missiology precedes ecclesiology” moniker how do we navigate these contexts? Yet it seems to me Missional is particularly aimed at these contexts.

For all of these reasons we need the church as an epistemological foundation for the gospel in the world. We need the church as God’s ordained bearer of the Story, an historical apostolicity to ground us into who Jesus is and our ongoing relationship to the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Here Scripture is socially embodied in the continuous people of God. Indeed such a story can only make sense in a community that embodies the Story. The stories, the language, the anamnesis of a people continuous with Jesus himself, birthed by his apostles (sent ones), the very extension of Jesus himself, wherein His presence is promised and made possible by the Holy Spirit – this body in the world becomes the epistemological foundation for knowing Jesus. This is the very incarnation (another missional buzz word)of Christ in the world. This is why the apostle Paul insists on calling the local church “the Body of Christ.” Herein lies “the fullness of Christ” the one who rules over all things (Eph 1:22-23). In this community we show forth (socially embody) in the present what is the world’s future, the salvation of God in Christ that is overtaking the whole world.

All this to say, I don’t see how this epistemological quandary can be navigated apart from a strong ecclesiology. Indeed putting missiology before ecclesiology should eventually lead to the contextualizing of the church into oblivion. Indeed, I believe the incarnational nature of the church is jeopardized by making it a post development of the missionary sending as opposed to putting it as the very extension of that sending.

I therefore suggest the following: Instead of advocating missiology precedes ecclesiology, let us instead advocate that indeed ecclesiology is missiology, or for that matter, missiology is ecclesiology. I’m following the same logic as my mentor Hauerwas (you can hear him here in Toronto in March), who often reiterates “the church does not have a social ethic, the church is a social ethic.” The church does not have a missiology, the church is a missiology.

I rest my case and await the accusations that I am an ecclesiocentric fundamentalist dinosaur :). I’m open to criticisms. And, for the record, none of what I have just said takes away from the edification and growth I have received from listening and conversing with my friend Alan Hirsch. Peace


PS: I’m finding there is a interesting history here between the various Missional church authors and the history of the theological construct Missio Dei. It could be argued for instance, that the concept of Missio Dei that emerged post WW2 in the WCC Missions Councils was the Prot liberal version of it, which de-centered Missio Dei away from both the church and of course the particular person and work of Jesus Christ. This scared away the evangelicals and they resisted Missio Dei as an organizing doctrine for world mission (see Ed Stetzer’s article here). In this light, it could be argued that Alan Hirsch (along with Michael Frost, David Bosch and others) are simply recovering Missio Dei restoring Jesus to to the Missio Dei missiology, the Jesus who was lost in the WCC developments regarding Missio Dei. Nonetheless, both Prot liberal and some current missional church authors rely upon the same epistemological assumptions inheritng the problems as discussed above. In this sense, I see Hirsch and Frost’s argument of “Christology determines missiology which then determines ecclesiology” admirable for recovering Christ in missiology. The argument unfortunately continues the flawed (according to me) epistemology of the Enlightenment.

You all can tell I’m writing a book on Missional Theology:).