In this insightful interview, Scott Callaham highlights key challenges issued in World Mission: Theology, Strategy, and Current Issues. The book was written not only for mission practitioners, mission agencies, and seminaries, but for all biblically- and theologically-engaged Christians. Covering themes not seen in contemporary books on mission, the contributors to the book are not merely advocating returning to the Bible as a guide for the theology and practice of mission (although these aspects of mission clearly need to be reformed) but are aiming for a complete rethinking of world mission that takes us back to the source—the Bible.
Scott N. Callaham is Lecturer in Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament at Baptist Theological Seminary, Singapore, where he teaches in Chinese and English. He is the author of Modality and the Biblical Hebrew Infinitive Absolute (Harrassowitz, 2010) and the lead editor of World Mission: Theology, Strategy, and Current Issues (Lexham, 2019).
An Interview with Scott Callaham about World Mission: Theology, Strategy, and Current Issues
Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 1 (Jan-Apr 2020):42-43
Many books have been written on mission in recent years. What sets yours apart from other recent books on the topic?
The contributors to this book are trying to do something new and fresh that we have not seen in contemporary books on mission. Simply put, we are calling missiologists and missionaries back to the Bible because we believe that the church should return to the Bible for all aspects of mission. We really mean all aspects, and we don’t want to domesticate this challenge to the church by merely advocating returning to the Bible as a guide for the theology and practice of mission, although these aspects of mission clearly need to be reformed. Instead we are aiming for a complete rethinking of world mission that takes us back to the source—the Bible.
What motivated you to write this book?
While discussing the current state of world mission among ourselves, a number of the contributors realized that many missionaries readily acknowledge biblical “foundations” for the theory and practice of mission, but judge those foundations to be of little consequence to their work and leave them behind. Human-sourced, pragmatic philosophies instead take a leading role in their missional efforts. As we considered how to respond to this state of affairs, we decided that a book would enable us to reach the broadest possible audience in order to encourage rethinking of mission in light of the Bible.
Who is your target audience and how do you hope they will respond ?
While we certainly encourage mission practitioners, mission sending agencies, seminaries, and mission training institutes to rethink mission theory and practice from a thoroughly biblical perspective, in the end we wrote the book for all biblically- and theologically-engaged Christians.
We hope that our readers respond to the book by adopting its ethos: trust in the full authority and sufficiency of all of Scripture. One example of this theme in action appears at the close of the first chapter, “Old Testament Theology and World Mission.” There we advocate ways that the contemporary practice of world mission must change to align with Old Testament teachings. Indeed, missional theology begins in the Old Testament, which speaks clearly to a perennial question regarding the spread of the gospel message in our world today: “What about those who have never heard?” In the Old Testament we see that God reconciles humanity to himself through covenant relationship that he defines and initiates, and there is no hope of healing the destruction human sin brings outside of that covenant relationship.
A frequently overlooked story in the Bible dramatizes this very issue—the book of Ruth. In the beginning of the book, we meet two Moabite women whom we assume are worshipers of the Moabite god Chemosh. After the death of their Hebrew husbands, the natural thing to do would be to resume normal Moabite lives and worship the Moabite god. After all, what claim should any other people’s gods have on their loyalty? Unfortunately, their mother-in-law Naomi, a supposed worshiper of Yahweh, seems to agree. After one daughter-in-law—Orpah—leaves to resume her Moabite way of life, Naomi insists that Ruth should likewise return to her people and god.
Startlingly and against common sense, Ruth utterly rejects the command to go home and instead swears by the name of Yahweh. Clinging to Naomi, she embraces her only real hope—the true God of whom she may have known very little. Yet she knew enough, and in a sense knew more than her Israelite mother-in-law. What follows in the book of Ruth is an inspiring story of devotion centered upon this unexpected “woman of noble character.”
How does Ruth’s story apply to the concepts of covenant and mission? When Naomi kissed Orpah goodbye, it was the kiss of death. Orpah’s departure consigned her to an eternity apart from God. In our contemporary practice of mission, we should never presume that there is any hope for people in religious or cultural systems that lock them out of relationship with God. This element of Old Testament teaching should impel Christians to obey the Great Commission.
What idea do you feel readers will find most challenging to accept?
The most challenging idea in our book reverberates through every chapter: the sufficiency of Scripture. It is possible to nuance belief in biblical authority, such as to claim that the Bible is the Christian’s highest authority or the primary authority. It is an altogether different matter to accept that the Bible is the only authority. This is the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture. Accepting the sufficiency of Scripture means breaking free from trendy, pragmatically-based theories from self-referencing experts, as well as rejecting theological systems that have grown up to excuse lack of Great Commission obedience.
What were the most surprising things that you discovered about mission during the writing and editing process?
In the course of our research and work on the book’s strategy section, we discovered that a great deal of contemporary activity that aspires to the title “mission” curiously does not seem to spring from the Great Commission itself. When we go back to the Bible, we discover that the heart of the Great Commission is essentially the command, “Disciples, make disciples!” According to the Great Commission, all nations—everyone, from every ethnic group, in every place—is in focus in world mission strategy. The Great Commission tells us how to make disciples: baptize them and teach them to obey everything that Jesus commands. Yet baptism and theological education—the two activities that Jesus commands as he defines disciple-making—receive scant attention in much contemporary missiological discussion. Naturally, we hope to rectify this problem through our chapters on these subjects.
In the final section of the book, we address perennial issues that are just as current today as they have always been. For example, we endorse the surprisingly controversial idea that the message of mission is the Bible. Therefore, missionary language training should equip missionaries to communicate the Bible. Since the Bible is a written document, in most cases this requires training in literary skills, especially in the case of languages with writing systems that are markedly different from the missionary’s own.
At first glance our emphasis on literacy may appear to ignore the plight of those who strive for effective communication to oral peoples. Often lacking Bible translations, missionaries in these pioneering situations may feel at a loss, wondering what stories of the Bible to choose to begin work with oral cultures. Interestingly, the study of biblical theology reveals that Scripture supplies its own template for communicating its grand narrative: a pattern significantly at odds with typical story sets used in Bible storying. Missionaries should employ these insights in their work, and constantly move along the path of throwing open the doors of access to the Bible for all peoples.
The degree of opposition to grammatical-historical exegesis within the missional community surprised us as well. For the Bible to escape cultural captivity within the missionary’s own culture and also to resist syncretism in the context in which the missionary serves, remaining true to the biblical author’s intent must remain paramount in missionary proclamation. The practice of ethnohermeneutics, for which culture controls interpretation, is simply reader-response by another name.
Lastly, we were quite surprised to find Paul’s apostolic ministry frequently pressed into service to justify overturning Great Commission patterns of discipleship for the purpose of rapid missional advance. Others have helpfully urged a more balanced approach to following Paul’s example, but our unique contribution follows the overall theme of our book: an appeal to lay aside artificial agendas and return to Scripture for every aspect of world mission.
Do you have any final words for potential readers?
We ask that our readers hold us to our premise of trust in the authority and sufficiency of all of Scripture, and, like the Bereans in the book of Acts, examine the Scriptures continually to discern if what we assert is true. May God use our quest for truth in his word to return the church to biblical faithfulness in world mission!