Time was when Christian missions occurred “over there.” Every now and then, the missionary would show up at church dressed like a time traveler, to show slides of exotic places and to enchant the stay-at-homes with tales about the strange diet and customs of the natives. Foreign missions still happen, but that model seems like ancient history. With the new immigration and the increased ease of travel and communication, the mission field has moved into the neighborhood, and every church that has its eyes open is asking every day how to do “foreign missions.”
That poses a problem. Missions has always been the place where the bookish question of “Christ and culture” turns practical. Now, at the same time that missions has become a challenge “right here,” multiculturalists question the very legitimacy of missions. Since the gospel always comes clothed in culture, how, on the premises of multiculturalism, can missionary work be anything but a veiled form of cultural imperialism? From Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, missionaries are depicted as tools of Western hegemony. But, if we’re all missionaries now, are we all cooperating in genocide?
Under the regime of multiculturalism, mission efforts face a cruel dilemma. Either missionaries can preach an uncompromising gospel that will cause everything to fall apart, or they can soft pedal the gospel of God’s judgment and grace in order to permit non-Christian cultures to survive. But is the situation as dire as this? Does the Bible perhaps offer a model for re-conceiving the question in a way that avoids the unhappy choice between compromise and cultural cataclysm?
The answer, I think, is yes. The Bible provides a theology of missions that is neither accommodation to existing culture nor total war that leaves the existing culture in smoking ruins. Mission is more like cultivation, a process of nurturing the hidden but unforeseen potential within a culture. Mission, we might say, is like water. Tertullian said, Nunquam sine aqua ChristusChrist is never without water. Neither is the Church; neither is her mission.
“Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided into four rivers” (Genesis 2:10). It is the Bible’s first reference to rivers, and the first use of the number four, a number that eventually becomes associated with universalitythe four corners (Isaiah 11:12), the four winds (Daniel 7:2), the four cornerstones of a house, the four horns of the altar. Genesis 2:10 is the first missionary text in Scripture, the first hint that Eden’s garden is not destination but source, the first faint suggestion that Adam is to move from the garden to bring its life to the ends of creation.
Israel’s history is about Israel becoming Eden, the spring through which God’s renewing love flows into the world. But I am getting ahead of myself, because Israel’s story begins as a story of reservoirs rather than rivers. No river rises in Israel and flows to the four corners. Instead, Israel is locked between rivers. Under the Mosaic system, Israel is not a spring. Rivers form boundaries for Israel; they are not modes of transport to the Gentiles. This reality is architecturally and ritually embodied in the tabernacle system, that architectural Eden. There is water in the laver that stands in the court of the tabernacle, but it is closed off like Israel, closed off like the Holy Place itself.
With the rise of the monarchy, Israel’s position among the nations changes rather dramatically. Solomon enters an alliance with the Tyrean king Hiram, who provides material and manpower for the temple in Jerusalem. Solomon hosts the Queen of Sheba at his palace, and receives kings who come from the four corners to hear wisdom as plentiful as the sand on the seashore.
Again, the templea fixed architectural Edendepicts the enlarged place of Israel among the Gentiles. In place of the smaller laver, Solomon’s temple has a monumental sea ten cubits wide and five deep, large enough to contain two thousand baths of water. Instead of sitting on the ground, as the laver is, the sea sits on the back of twelve bulls (1 Kgs. 7:23–26).
Israel has more water than ever. Plus, the water begins to flow out to the Gentiles. Solomon constructs ten water stands that resemble chariots, five on each side of the house, so that they form a gauntlet, a Red Sea, through which Israel and her priests pass as they approach the house of Yahweh. In commemorating the past, the chariots also serve a future promise. The ten chariots also symbolize an outflow from the temple, as if the sea has sprung a leak and the waters of heaven have begun to seep out into the world, a sign that the children of Abraham will be what Yahweh promised, a blessing to all the nations.
Yet, for all that, Israel still remains rather enclosed. Kings come to Solomon; he doesn’t go to them. The great sea is still immobile, fixed heavily in the temple court. Israel has a temple, a king, a growing reputation in the Ancient Near East. But she is not yet a river; waters don’t yet flow from Eden through the garden to the four corners.
Instead, rivers flow in. Assyrians and Babylonians flood into the garden-land, and eventually, like Adam, Israel is expelled. Now, ironically, as Jerusalem fills with foreign invaders, Israel begins for the first time to flow outwardinto exile. Assyrian and Babylon ensure that Israel becomes an Eden, with a river of exiles running to the four corners. Israel flows with water when it is struck with the sword. Through the curse of exile, Israel becomes a missionary people.
In exile, Israel develops an expansive, world-watering view of her mission. Ezekiel envisions a post-exilic temple in which the great sea has become a spring. Water flows from “under the threshold of the house toward the east . . . from south of the altar” (Ezekiel 47:1). As the river flows, it becomes deeperfirst ankle-deep, then knee-deep, then waist-deep, and finally too deep to ford (Ezekiel 47:3–5). It flows into the Dead Sea so that the “waters of the sea become fresh” and “every living creature, which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live” (Ezekiel 47:8–9). Ezekiel envisions an Israel that has finally become an Eden, a source of living water.
But then there comes the day when the audacious Galilean prophet stands up on the last, greatest day of the Feast of Booths and claims to offer living water from Himself (John 7:37–38). He becomes that Rock and that Temple on the cross: “one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19:34). Jesus is the Rock in the wilderness, commemorated at Booths, flowing with living water for thirsty Israel. He makes Golgotha the new Eden, the new garden from which rivers flow to the four corners of the earth.
When the rain comes to the African grasslands, seeds dormant and apparently dead spring to life. Without the flow of water, the desert would remain a blasted wasteland, but the vegetation that comes to life is native to the ecosystem. Just so, when the water from the temple flows through a new land, what grows is recognizably part of the original landscape. Greek Christians still speak Greek; Romans still speak Latin and think in legal categories. Watered by the gospel, those languages and categories spring up with surprising, fresh growth.
In its first centuries, the Church was mainly preoccupied with evangelizing Greco-Roman culture, a process that Robert Jenson has identified as the “evangelization of metaphysics.” Despite liberal accusations that the Church fell prey to “acute Hellanization,” the reality was almost the opposite. Cultural and intellectual life was transformed from within as Christians fit a gospel of a crucified and risen Redeemer into Greco-Roman clothes. The clothes were never the same again.
Greek conceptions of “being” and “substance” remained, and even found their way into Christian creeds, but they were now used of a Tri-Personal God. Greeks believed in an absolute, but Christians confessed that the absolute entered the temporal world as a man. After Constantine’s conversion, the impressively efficient Roman institutions and legal instruments remained but were, sometimes imperceptibly and over centuries, turned toward compassion.
Similarly, even the Christians most hostile to modernity don’t want to abandon the gains of the modern age. Mission to the modern world would humble, but preserve, science. It would retain the modern emphasis on the dignity of the person, and give it a surer foundation than secularism could. To the mission field next door, it comes not as a destroying flood but as an irrigating river, preserving a difference as robust as anything in multiculturalism, without letting difference collapse into the sameness of indifference.
For the modern world as for the ancient, mission is like water. What grows when the gospel comes is native to the landscape, but what grows would never grow but for the river. When the water flows from the stricken Rock, the land comes to life; and the fish, floating lifeless on the surface the Sea, live again.
Peter Leithart is professor of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College and pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho. He is also the author of many books, including Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature and 1 & 2 Kings: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.