Is mission the mother of theology?

Its one of the questions i have been asked to deal with this week at the camp for Baptists.

Missiology or Theology? Chicken or the egg? Is missiology a slice of the theolgical cake or a foundational layer? And what about the sequence that goes missiology-christology-ecclesiology? Or as Alan Hirsch has laid it out, Christology-Missiology-Ecclesiology. How would you sequence it?

Thoughts? I might not be able to respond for a few days but i would be interested if anyone had some enlightenment on this.You will no doubt quote Kähler to me [someone says "WHOOO??????"] with his famous phrase that mission is the "mother of theology" (Martin Kähler) but how do you think it all adds up? And is this consistent with a Baptist missiology – something that will be important to this group. Well, important to me anyway.


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Jeremy says:

    great question! i am studying the same things right now, i am reading Chris Wright’s, The Mission of God, which is forcing me to think hard about this question. I look forward to the comments below.

  • andrew says:

    I wonder of either of those aren’t starting too far down the road already. I would prefer to opt for the following flow – I think Hirsch is right, but that you actually have to use a theology of the land to avoid gnostic tendencies:
    1. Christology
    2. Creation / Land Theology
    3. Missiology
    4. Ecclesiology
    Even here, it’s complicated because in some senses, wherever you start, you’ll double back on yourself on certain points. Theology isn’t quite so systematic as I’d like.
    The whole idea behind incorporating land theology / creation theology is the very fact that without the land, without place (i.e. the Garden, Jerusalem, or hell, Babylon), theology is out of context.
    While it is true that our faith is one that is on the road at many times, it is often on the road from one place to another. I find this the compelling argument of Brueggemann’s “The Land” – that for Israel, there is no understanding of God without an understanding of place and placed-ness.
    This gets complicated somewhat in a postmodern, network-oriented, internet-based matrix, but I think it’s one of the pieces that we still have to include for fear of gnosticism (cyber- or otherwise). The physicality of our existence needs be incorporated into our understanding of missiology, and finally ecclesiology.
    And while this is not an easy defense of the church building, I think that such constructions can provide a way in which to manifest presence in a particular place.
    Pointing to Deuteronomy 4, especially, wherein Israel is called to be a witness to the outlying nations, and Jeremiah 29 where she is called to the same thing in the midst of Babylonian exile, this doesn’t necessarily mean the construction of buildings, but does refer to an alternative, physically placed community of people in a local context.
    *out of breath*

  • andrew jones says:

    i like the addition of context/geography to the equation. thanks.

  • Rob says:

    I’m glad someone mentioned Chris Wright’s, _The Mission of God_ in this thread. Wright argues, and I think convincingly, for the primacy of mission. If there were no mission, there would be no Scripture, indeed, no Christ.
    And if one sees Mission as unfolding in the pageant of Creation/Fall/Redemption/Restoration then other themes come under this rubric somewhere.
    In one sense Theology proper is primary, in that all things begin with God himself, in himself, in Trinitarian community.
    Were God not manifested eternally in community, the expression “God is love,” could have no meaning; a unitary God would have to create something before love were possible.
    Wright argues toward a missional hermeneutic of Scripture and the primacy of mission in theology, and he makes some powerful points.
    Back to the first question, “Is Mission the Mother of Theology?” Perhaps the question is really one of perspective. In one sense, Theology Proper precedes mission, in that the providential purpose for mission proceeds from God himself prior even to creation. So if we approach the issue under the rubric of “Theology from Above,” then although the providential ordering of creation, fall, redemption and restoration is subsumed under the Mission of God, theology is primary.
    If we are doing theology from below, with the camera here, though, Mission is primary, and becomes the lens through which we look at theology.
    In either case, it would seem that God is logically prior to Mission. Yet theology, the study or knowledge of God, is not God himself. Any theology that attempts to know or apprehend God in himself risks being too speculative. God is apprehensible only insofar as he has revealed himself, and that revelation is always and ever subsumed under God’s mission of redemption and restoration.
    So if I may beg forgiveness for using the writing of this post to process the topic, I would be inclined to conclude that in abstract terms Theology comes first. But if we are talking in concrete terms we can get our fingers on, then Mission is logically prior for our purposes, and arguably becomes the primary medium through which we apprehend God.
    At Trinity Seminary’s Scripture Seminar in 2006, Professor Jeffrey Greenman spoke to this (and along the way provides a good review of Wright’s book). Greenman’s talk is available here:
    Thanks for bringing up the topic!

  • I think Christology is an aspect of Theology- an important one, but too narrow to start with. I would process it something like:
    1. Theology/Christology
    2. Sacramental Ecology
    3. Missiology
    4. Ecclesiology
    Great question!

  • I do think we ought to start with mission–but that depends upon one’s definition of “mission.” If we definite it as the outflowing of love towards the object of one’s love, or something like that, then mission indeed comes first. This is, after all, a very trinitarian place to start. By putting “mission” first, we are placing ourselves within the Eastern Tradition of seeing God’s being rooted in tri-relationality.
    In other words, God as one flows out of the three-fold mission of love between the Father, Son, and Spirit (perichoresis). And God’s love for creation flows out of this trinitarian love, so that all outward mission is essentially a drawing of creation into this trinitarian love-fest.
    And so:
    Trinitarian Missiology

  • chad says:

    I think Mark has a good starting point.
    I would think that missiology should be a starting point, because when we seperate theology from the missio dei, we tend to try to make it a bit to scholastic.
    The New Testament is our basis for Christian Theology, but we must remember that it was written in the context of the Gospel.
    Theology should be worked out by the church, in light of the mission of God, in which the scriptures are a part of.
    I really believe in the church, and I think that each worshipping body should be relating theology to their specific place. The local church’s theology should be checked by what has been considered classic, consensual thought by the Christian Church.
    So maybe I would make my list (since that is what everyone is doing)
    1. Trinitarian Missiology (with Christology being a part of this)
    2. Ecclesiology
    3. Theology

  • julie says:

    am not a theologian – so here is my non theologian answer – my list is – Godology, peopleology, earthology, kingdomology, shalomology, playology, blissology – not helpful i know, but i am an ex baptist union advisor so what do you expect !?!

  • chad says:

    i’ve been thinking a lot lately in the field of youth ministry about the order of belief and action. does belief always precede action? i think this has something to do with the missiology/theology order. do we formulate a way of thinking before we formulate a way of doing, or vice versa?
    i am coming to believe that missiology (acting the faith) informs our theology (this we believe) more than was previously understood. i guess it would be the “belonging before believing” way of thinking.
    these days, the more interesting piece of the equation is “ecclesiology.” where does the church fit into the picture?

  • Laura says:

    I would chime in with Chad but with a clarification:
    1. Trinitarian Missiology (with Christology being a part of this)
    2. Ecclesiology (that being ecclesiology seen eschatologically and referring to the gathering of the people of God–currently existing in the local-universal church that is the body of Christ)
    3. Theology (the linguistic expression of our understandings of God and God’s work)
    Sequence is a toughy here, but it seems to me that if missiology is seen as God’s eternal intention and ecclesiology is seen as part of his eternal goal, then theology follows because it is the expression of these things in language.
    I also have a concern that missiology is too often relegated to the contextual transmission of the gospel rather than as the salvific work of God in which we are privileged to participate. If one is speaking of missiology from an earthly perspective, then I think it is last, for it is difficult contextualize what you have not expressed in language.
    The church is then the foretaste of the kingdom, proclaiming to the world the intention of God.
    Great question!

  • andrew says:

    I don’t think that we should throw out Jamie’s Sacramental Ecology so easily. In some senses, that was what I was trying to get at with a land theology, but find his formulation more full / more helpful. I would consider rephrasing it this way tho:
    1. Trinitarian Theology (Goes beyond Christology to encompass the triune Godhead)
    2. Sacramental Ecology (Encompasses our relationship to all of creation, that is our call to self-breaking for the life of the world, including non-human creation)
    3. Missiology (Activates our beliefs about God and implication in the life of God, as we share it with the world)
    4. Ecclesiology (Expresses, tells, and retells the biblical narrative to reorient the members of the church to go out and live their understanding of God, implication in his self-breaking, and action in the world)

  • Pastor Astor says:

    I would say:
    Mission – Church – Mission leads to theology (christology – ecclesiology – missiology). In my construct all “-“s goes both ways.

  • cobus says:

    I won’t be giving a list. And don’t think it’s a chicken or egg question either. I think:

    • theology is our thinking on theos (God)
    • missiology our thinking on the mission of this God, and how this should affect our mission (missio Dei? – God’s mission to the world)

    God is bigger than the missio Dei. We need to remember that. But what we learn about God we learn through the mission of God to this world. But we formulate it in terms that are bigger than God’s mission, an act, but in words about God’s being (theology?)
    So I’m looking for a creative tension, where missiology force me into theology, and theology force me into missiology. Looking upon God’s mission, cause me to contemplate God, which raises new questions to consider about God’s mission.

  • Phil Wyman says:

    I’m going to chime in with Cobus here. I am not sure that the question is best posed as “which comes first.” This potentially makes the assumption that we are all coming from the same starting place.
    The seminary professor sits with his books, and posits that trinitarian theology, or christology set the starting point for both our mission, and our local ecclesiology.
    The local church pastor struggles with divining the heart of God for his congregation, and in searching out a local ecclesiology discovers deeper theology, and a sense of mission.
    The missionary attempts to find God in mission in the culture, and to join Him in that work. In this mission she finds theology refined and a local ecclesiology defined.
    It will also be the case that we will struggle with each of these issues in various seasons of our our life and mission. And it may be that even the theologian who insists that theology takes the spot of primacy, is making his decision on the basis of his own mission, and has therefore practically speaking placed missiology first without realizing it – this simply being an example how we can say we believe one thing while in actuality we live another.
    Perhaps the picture is more circular, and holistic than it is straight-line thinking.

  • brodie says:

    Andrew – I’m with Phil and Cobus with regards to thinking in circles rather than lines or lists.
    The issue of a Baptist or baptistic Missiology is an important one to raise and not one I think most Baptists have worked out! As for me, what excites me about much I observe of the Emerging church is that they have a baptistic approach to mission where issues of respect and hospitality become important.
    Peace – Brodie

  • brodie says:

    oops there should be a NOT between the words have and worked, i.e. the about should read “I think most Baptists have not worked out”.

  • Joanne says:

    I love that we have gone from the linear to the circular. This is a debt we owe to practical theology, I think: where our present experience is influenced by our culturally related investigation before we bring theological orthodox approaches and a response (orthopraxis?) ensues: the circle then continues again, as the present situation has now evolved into something else.
    I know that without a diagram this is somewhat complex. Sorry.
    My point is to agree that if we have the 3/4 point formula that is being inferred in previous posts; what ever focus we bring to it (land, context, sacramentalism, denominationalism etc), it is possible to work around and around in an evolving circle. The benefit of this is that we are not forced to ask ‘what comes first’, but rather ‘what is important for us in the present?’ ‘where is this community?’ and means that the conversation is always open on each stage for others to join in.
    Mission and theology are not static, and I would be wary of concluding that the ultimate aim is some form of high minded or pure conclusion on what mission or theology or christology should look like.
    It also means that there is space to live with the present tensions, and to press into them or exist with them without being torn apart or stopping on the thought-journey.

  • Laura says:

    I’ll chime in on non-linear thinking, for this is, of course, much more complex than a simple numbered list can convey. Indeed, I think a web is probably more accurate than a circle, for each “component” touches and affects the others.
    Still, I do believe there is a logical priority of the intentions of God as seen in missio Dei. (Not a temporal sequence, mind you.)

  • brad says:

    Okay, since you asked for opinions, Andrew, no, mission is not the mother of theology. I actually think it is too small a container to serve that role… it’s a secondary concept that arises out of something even larger! Also, the question implies using a linear system. I do think that there are a couple of key cluster-points from which multitudes of theological concepts spring naturally and simultaneously. But these days, I’m working toward constructing a 3-dimensional complex system instead of continuing to try refining the traditional linear analytic systematic approach. [p.s. sorry I don’t have time to edit this so it’s less dense…, but here goes anyway!]
    God certainly is beyond all our logics and sequences, and yet, it seems to make sense to me that the core themes in the Bible springing forth from two cluster-points. These are priority concepts, and can be used for creating a comprehensive and coherent system:
    1. Theology proper – who is God in His person, Triune nature, and His many character qualities (plus, in the Eastern Orthodox vein, sometimes describing who is He not, such as God is not unrighteous). If we don’t start with God Himself, nothing else we try makes “sense.”
    2. Theodicy – God justifies His character to the watching cosmos of His creation. This gives us His narrative storyline as woven thematically through all Scripture in the Bible. It is the framework for all that happens, plus the narrative structure keeps us from being purely Western/analytical. Theodicy gives us the basis for the complex plotline that involves God, Satan/angels/demons, humanity, and the earth. It gives us an understanding of the interwoven themes of sinful temptation, spiritual attack, suffering and perseverance, stewardship (personal, communal, and ecological), and worship. In this approach, if there is one “mission” of God, it is to clear His character, and that opens up many sub-missions in His Kingdom. Christ’s incarnation and our missional and incarnational emphasis only make sense in the context of that one larger “mission.” If there is no “theodicy plotline,” there is no need for Christ to incarnate as God-in-the-flesh to restore the broken relationship and to embody God so all creation can see.
    The real trick here is, though two things are prioritized as the network focal points, all concepts are actucally interconnected. Even though I understand other people’s preferences for figuring out a more linear order for things, I’d prefer to integrate my theological systems around these two cluster-points. The first gives us the Who of it all, and the second gives us the who else, what, when, where, why, how, etc.
    I think it’s an optimal approach for creating a networked theological system, actually, instead of just being systematic. Using two cluster-points as the foci may not be linear, but if we take a look at complex systems theory, we’ll see there are ways to turn two points into a 3-dimensional system where all concepts interconnect and interact. My hunch is that this approach works better in the emerging non-linear world, and that we need to shift the paradigm for how we construct our theologies if we are to be present in that world.
    In my approach, it’s not just about having all the right pieces of the puzzle, or trying to get them in the “right” order. It’s about having a biblically comprehensive set of themes and theological categories, integrated into a coherent system that brings truth to life holistically. This doesn’t work in a strictly linear system.
    So, in this approach, you are not really missional/incarnational/etceteral if you are not also being refined into the image of Christ and engaging in ecology, spiritual warfare, perseverance through suffering, resisting temptation, transforming culture, etc. etc. I know that some people may find that frightening. I find it a relief.

  • Laura says:

    Brad, allow a summary–please correct as needed.
    The web consists of (or is clustered around) who God is and what he is up to with whom. All other “components” are part of the web around these two primary clusters.

  • brad says:

    Ahhhh! Thanks Laura. Relief …
    Dense add-on: Even when we are sincere about wanting a biblical theology, it’s really about systems and how we construct them. Whatever we pick as integration points, it sets up our entire system according.
    As someone who thinks paradoxically, I get tired of the either-it’s-this-or-it’s-that search for the prime mover theological point. I think I’d rather find the Prime Mover.
    Even if we get all the right theological pieces, that doesn’t mean it’s alive!
    p.p.s. I find the idea of “THE” (singular) mission of God loses a lot of the dynamic tension that could/should be there.
    Okay, back to working on stuff for Mr. IRS. Boy, am I glad that isn’t the focal point for the universe …

  • Laura says:

    …as a bit of clarification: in my head, “the mission of God” is holistic, covering his rule of material and immaterial creation. So the “the” covers the gamut.

  • mark says:

    Just as the church ceases to be the church if it is not missionary, theology ceases to be theology if it loses its missionary character…We are in need of a missiological agenda for theology rather than just a theological agenda for mission; for theology rightly understood, has no reason to exist other than to critically accompany the missio Dei. – David Bosch

  • Aaron Smith says:

    I’m thinking that it is much more circular than “x>y>z>a”.
    I do believe it is important to think about the relationships between mission, theology, ecclesiology, and the rest. We do need to intentionally build one on another in a healthy fashion… a fashion that starts in Christ and leads to Him again and again. So, I offer this path:

  • Aaron Smith says:

    Sorry, I got cut off. I am so techno savy. 😉 Anyways, here’s the “path” I see:
    Christology> Pneumology> Missiology> Ecclesiology> Eschatology> Theology> Christology.

  • Good thread TSK. We need more questionsm like this.
    Trinitarian perichoresis that explodes into creation with the redemptive plan to prompt that creation, in the Spirit, to groan for its own and human redemption through Christ.
    Missiology is the Spirit-prompted alignment with God’s redemptive plan in Christ’s work of redemption.

  • AllanFJ says:

    No brainer. Definitely THEOLOGY.
    Starting with ‘Mission’ is evangelical anthropocentricism. The main ‘mission’ of all creation is to bend the knee to the Creator. “That at the name of Jesus every knee…”
    The fulfilment of this includes but it not limited to the gody, but to ‘ones in Heaven, ones on earth, and ones under the Earth’. Demons fulfilled it in many Jesus met, etc.

  • andrew jones says:

    hey . .. thanks everyone. no consensus but very helpful. be blessed.

  • ed c says:

    I’m not sure which comes first, but in a practical sense, the most important thing to keep in mind is that theology serves mission and should draw us closer to the heart of God.
    As we go out in mission, we need theology to keep us close to God and to provide the guidance in our mission. Theology shouldn’t be stacked neatly on shelves. It should be worn and used often.
    If it isn’t used, then what purpose would it serve?

  • Billy Gager says:

    It obviously works both ways, or it wouldn’t be such a conundrum. However, I believe we more often forget that all of our theology is contextualized for a particular audience – answering, upholding, correcting various elements of a particular worldview, set of values/beliefs, and behaviors.
    Early church councils reflect a critical controversy over the nature of Christ, whereas a contextualized belief statement for the Hmong tribe in Thailand focuses on Christ’s power over evil spirits.
    What we often learn quickly is that the Bible has its own various cultures in which the Bible authors communicated. What we sometimes learn if we become missional, is that other people also have a cultural framework through which life and theology is articulated – different from the Bible’s. What very few come to realize is that I/me/we also have a culture that shapes what we care about, how we act, how we approach the Divine, how we relate to others – which is different from either the Bible’s and other’s cultures.
    Mission is not direct transmission between the Bible, the Messenger, and the Audience: [B] -> [M] -> [A], but rather: [B] -> (M) -> /A\.
    All theology is missional theology.

  • brad says:

    when it gets down to the core of it, what we really should be discussing is the question of what systems DO we use for constructing our theologies, and what systems SHOULD we use?
    we can get all the “right” pieces in all the “right” order, and it’s still dead – or when jolted with a little holy ‘lectricity, it’s revived but it is still Frankenstein.
    help me out, here … is anyone else out there trying to understand how to shift from a “flat” system of disconnected categorization–or even from an “mindmap” system of interconnections–to some kind of three-dimensional system? help! help! i’m looking for 3-D theologinators, and there is NO help at seminaries!

  • Which Comes First – Theology or Mission?

    Does mission flow from theology, or should theology flow from mission? Which came first chronologically (if there is chronology for such things), and which has primacy?
    Andrew Jones is at camp, and asks this question based on something Alan Hirsch said…

  • Laura says:

    Brad, I know what you mean. But there is a sticking point: how does one translate 3-D theology into words?
    I’ve not a clue, but I wish I did. I almost see it in my head, but when I try to write it down or explain it, everything gets catywompus.
    Maybe we need sculptor-theologians…

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  • Herb says:

    You all do not understand what Martin Kähler has said.He is not saying that the mission is a mother in the sense of a foundation. What he is attempting to say is that theology must take place in a certain context and that that context determines the theological need. Theology then is a tool of the mission.

  • Herb says:

    The order of theology is like asking for a list of virtues in priority. What is first humbleness or holiness? It is a mute question. We in modern times have put boxes around these things as if there is a way to separate them. Kähler is saying that, as a church, it has been the needs presented when th church DOING THEOLOGY(that is what he means by mission) that produce the formultion of doctrine. For example how do we respond to a heretic like Arius or Marcion? How should we deal with conflict? It was the mision and her defense that has led to the use of(not founded)theology

  • Tim says:

    Is mission the mother of theology? In my opinion, yes. And God is above, beyond and precedes both.
    Sequencing? I would therefore put missiology before Christology and ecclesiology.

  • Tim says:

    Good question. A tough one too, in some ways.When I first read the quote some time ago, my instant reaction was YES, I agree. Thinking about it later I realized that I was quite biased. At the time I was in the ‘trenches’ of cross-cultural missions far away from home. My reaction was therefore quite understandable.

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