Rev. Peter J. Bellini Ph.D.

For Commission on a Way Forward

Colloquy – Missio Dei and the United States:

Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness

Boston University

October 1, 2017


The task at hand in our gathering is to consider the missio Dei within the context of a fractured and ailing United Methodist Church situated in the United States. The first task of such a conversation, and primary task of this paper, is to establish what we mean by missio Dei. Today, it is quite common and in vogue to use the term missio Dei when discussing the church and mission. The term’s diverse and even flippant usage has contributed to its multivalence, ambiguity, and even its misuse.[1] This paper attempts to clarify and define the original use of missio Dei that will serve as a baseline for subsequent missiological discourse. Defining the term will involve mapping out a brief historical and theological background of the origins of missio Dei, identifying its embedded six core theological emphases, and drawing out some implications for a missional hermeneutic for the church in North America, as the church seeks to contextualize the gospel in an ever-shifting peoplescape.Special attention will be paid to the development of missio Dei from early forerunners Karl Barth, Karl Hartenstein, and the 1952 Willingen International Missionary Council, to early post-Willingen missiologists like Georg Vicedom and their impact on forging and shaping the core theological emphases of missio Dei.  These key figures represent the early normative position of Christocentric instrumental missio Dei with its six core theological emphases. These emphases give the missio Dei a Trinitarian shape, a missio Trinitatis. The normative position is examined over against a divergent cosmocentric version that emerged at Willingen and following, represented by J.C. Hoekendijk and the World Council of Churches in the 1950s-60s and is still prominent today.[2] Due to its diverse usage, clear theological evaluation is imperative when constructing and implementing any claim of missio Dei.  Not all types are scripturally based, theologically sound, truly Trinitarian, or involve the instrumental agency of the church. An exacting and needed analysis such as this may not be popular, and seem divisive, and, even a retreat to, what in the minds of some, appears to be a tired, useless, and even oppressive orthodoxy, but for many who value the arduous task of discerning the times and weighing out theological substance over against trendy relevance, the work is imperative.

This paper lays audacious claim to a normative doctrine of missio Dei and further holds that it can serve as a missional hermeneutic for discerning the Spirit, exegeting culture, participating in the missio Dei, andproclaiming the gospel in the 21st century. Being mindful of missio Dei throughout the paper, we are compelled to ask the driving open-ended question, As the United Methodist Church responds to the relevant issues in mission is God or the culture setting and defining the agenda?  In praxis, an essential discipline of the church’s faithful participation in God’s witness is to contextualize critically the gospel in the semiotic and semantic system of the culture, while remaining faithful to the witness of scripture. Relevant cultural forms are essential for communication but are penultimate, while our ultimate concern is to be faithful to the truth revealed in scripture. The rapidly changing context of the United States demands a rigorous application of sound theology, adaptive models, and critical contextualization, as we seek to be faithful in our witness going forward.[3] Vital critical tools in the contextualizing process, such as the incisive interpretation and application of Scripture in local contexts with culture-specific forms become instrumental to carrying out the mission of God.[4]

Such critical contextualization has not always been the case in the history of Christian missions. Over the last 500 years or more with a map in one hand and a timeline in the other, one can observe uncritical contextualization and the spread of Christianity on every continent, moving step by step with the expansion of Western geopolitical interests. When considering the nature, intent, method, and goals of missions, surely there are the outstanding figures, who bore faithful witness, such as the Bartolome de Las Casas and the Vincent Donovans, but an inordinate share of the overall spread of Christianity from Rome to the rest of Europe, to the so called New World in the Americas, to the trade world of East and Southeast Asia, and to the “heart of darkness” in Africa went hand in hand with imperial and colonial expansion.[5] Mission was generated by the church (missio ecclesiae), while aligning with the state (missio stati) for the purpose of civilizing and Christianizing, resulting in a cultural hegemony (missio culturae) where Western “civilization” supplanted indigenous cultures.[6] Rather than missio Dei, these missions functioned as missio culturae (mission of the culture), mission driven by the agenda of the dominant culture and its views.

In light of this background, the twentieth century development of missio Dei marked a watershed in missiology. This pivotal development repositions mission from its horizontal and immanent location in human agency back to its vertical and transcendent origin in the divine, specifically the Triune God.  The notion that mission originates with God and not with the church, the state, the culture or a combination of these or any other institution is nothing less than seismic, following centuries of missions driven by church and state. The shift is a prophetic move in theology and practice that speaks to past excesses in mission correctively and apologetically and to current and future mission constructively through a well-grounded mission theology that is Trinitarian, Christocentric, and participatory.

ORIGIN AND INTENT OF THE MISSIO DEI: A Brief Historical and Theological Background


            The received tradition of missio Dei, its origin and the actual term, is often debated among missiologists.[7] The popular account holds that Karl Barth inspired the idea of missio Dei, and Karl Hartenstein coined the term, at least in its modern context. The modern theological turn from mission originating with the church to mission originating with God’s self-disclosure is often attributed to Karl Barth (1886-1968). The innovative notion that mission is an activity of God stemmed from the larger, groundbreaking work of the Swiss theologian, which began in 1916 and following. Barth’s revolutionary theological break with the anthropocentrism of liberalism patently informed his thinking on mission. Barth shifted the church’s focus in mission from an anthropocentric view to a theocentric view. The Barthian turn was a game-changing turn away from a self or this-world referential starting point and a turn toward the primacy of the revelation of the Word of God for all theology, faith, and practice. Any anthropological, psychological, sociological, or philosophical starting point is dogmatically and soteriologically insufficient and inadequate. Our knowledge of God, and thus salvation, must be revealed from without in God’s radical otherness. Simply, missio (mission) is God’s work and begins and ends with the revelation of the Word among us.

 In 1932 at the Brandenburg Missionary Conference, Barth delivered a noteworthy paper entitled “Die Theologie und Die Mission in der Gegenwart” (Theology and Mission in the Present Context) in which he decisively asserted that mission is an activity of God (actio Dei) as opposed to an activity of the church. Though the term missio Dei was yet to be coined, the call in essence was a shift from missio ecclesiae to missio Dei, a shift from church-driven mission to God-driven mission.In a later work, Theologische Fragen und Antworten (Theological Questions and Answers), Barth elaborated on some of the perils of missions that originate from human institutions, such as the church, the state, or the culture. Barth was surely not unaware of the imperial and colonizing impact that missio ecclesiae under Christendom had on the world. He contended, “mission could also be an instrument of religious or civilizing propaganda, or even an economic-political powerplay, and theology a sport – maybe even an especially dangerous sport of arbitrary speculation and intellectual self-assuredness and self-importance.”[8]

 His apologia, as John Flett called it, would be found in retrieving the notion of missio from the ancient church “as an expression of the doctrine of the Trinity – namely the expression of the divine sending forth of the self, the sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”[9] Barth reunited mission theology with its source in the Triune God. In this sense, missio Dei functions as an apologetic, a defense, or a rationale for mission in spite of ecclesial malpractice. In other words, God remains in mission even when the church is unfaithful.

Responding to the crisis of modernity, Barth’s dogmatic and mission theology were diametrically contra the prevailing liberalism of his teachers and their immanent and anthropocentric starting points that had gravely mistaken philosophy for theology and culture for Christianity. The Barthian shift was not just an assault against Kulturprotestantismus (cultural Protestantism that equated being German with being Christian), but it also created a “necessary critical disjunction between missions and the colonialist enterprise.”[10] Western imperialism and cultural hegemony had often been the ill-fated vehicles of evangelization. Missio Dei operates as an apologia and a directive for postcolonial mission during the decolonizing period of the twentieth century.[11] Mission is disclaimed as an act of the church, the state, or both, but is reclaimed as God’s action among the people.

Although Barth launched the trajectory for missio Dei, he did not employ the term itself, nor did he fully flesh out the concept. It would be his friend Karl Hartenstein (1894-1952)[12] who would coin the term. Hartenstein, a Swabian theologian and mission administrator, had built upon Barth’s dialectical theology to supply the initial ground for his theology of mission. As a side note, Hartenstein later was compelled to break with Barth and the radical consequences of dialectical theology on practical missions, specifically on how it limits encountering and engaging other cultures and their religions. These latter developments, though important to the overall theology of Hartenstein, are more tangential to our focus on the early formation of the theological core of missio Dei.

Barth’s radical epistemological break with any immanent or human point of departure, such as reason or experience, as a staring point for theology, provided Hartenstein with the proper locus for mission and a corrective against mission as a human enterprise. Hartenstein picked up the impetus of the Barthian notion of mission as actio Dei (activity of God) and further developed it beginning with a lecture from 1927 entitled “Was hat die Theologie Karl Barth der Mission zu sagen” (“What does Karl Barth’s Theology Say about Mission”).[13] Flett contends, this lecture “establishes key thrusts of what would become missio Dei theology.” [14]

Hartenstein instinctively drew much upon Barth’s dialectical theology and applied it as a framework for understanding mission as an act and a revelation of God. He noted that apart from an act of God, mission would not be possible. Our depraved and feeble condition lacks the power and agency to save itself. Salvation must come from a radically other source, the Word of God. Building upon Barth in a 1934 essay entitled “Wozu Nötigt die Finanzlage der Mission,” (What Determines the Financial Situation of the Mission) Hartenstein coined the term “missio Dei”[15] and tied the notion to “sending,” the sending of the Son, and the sending of the church, and in other places in the essay, to the sending of the Spirit:

Missio Dei, the sending of God, that is the sending which Christ the Lord commanded to the Apostles: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”- and the response to the call passed along by the apostles to the church of all times on the basis of its Word: “Go into all the world.” (Quoted in Flett 2010, 131).[16]  

Thus with Barth and Hartenstein the focal point of mission altered from the mission of the church (missio ecclesiae) to mission originating in the Triune nature of God (missio Dei), setting the course for a normative approach to missio Dei that would be established at the International Missionary Council in Germany.


The 1952 IMC (International Missionary Council) at Willingen, Germany would serve as a landmark conference for the conciliar and doctrinal establishment of missio Dei with Hartenstein as a major contributor and a secretary at the meeting. Other leaders at Willingen included Johannes C. Hoekendijk (1912-1975), H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962), Paul Lehmann (1907-1994), and Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), who edited and produced the conference final report “The Missionary Calling of the Church.” Although the notion of God-centered mission is prevalent throughout Willingen, it is interesting to note that the term “missio Dei”is not actually used at the Council but surfaces in Hartenstein’s reports summarizing the theological deliberations of the meeting.

With diverse theological representation, the International Missionary Council (IMC) at Willingen, Germany in 1952 could not construct a unified theology of mission, although it intended to do so. Its constituents were not univocal in their positions and conclusions, though that is not always clear from the reports. The American and Dutch reports of the Conference were put together ad hoc and did not represent every voice but more so the “general mind” of the conference that came to be the normative view of missio Dei.[17]  The development of missio Dei before, during, and after Willingen revealed an emerging theological core that served as an normative missio Dei that would lay the theological groundwork for missions over the next fifty years.[18] Norwegian missiologist Tormod Engelsviken, commenting on the essentiality of the Trinitarian construct of missio Dei at Willingen, declares, “It is this Trinitarian basis of mission that should form the foundation of any understanding of missio Dei.”[19] The eminent South African missiologist David Bosch claims that at Willingen, missio Dei “was thus put in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity, not of ecclesiology or soteriology.”[20] At Willingen the doctrine of  “missio Dei as God the Father sending the Son, and God the Father and the Son sending the Spirit” along with the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sending the church into the world,” “constituted an important innovation” that relocated the locus of mission in the Triune God.[21]

Mission located in God, specifically in the sending of the Son and the Spirit, and “mission as participating in the sending of God” were the major theological highlights expressed in the reports at Willingen.[22]  The final document, “The Missionary Calling of the Church,” and the interim report, “A Theological Basis of the Missionary Obligation,” are the most familiar and influential documents from Willingen. Each document, similar in form and content, is a concise statement on the Trinitarian nature of mission and the call to the church to participate in Christ by participating in mission.[23] The documents assert that mission begins with God’s love for all, even though humanity is alienated from God by sin.[24] Motivated by love “God sent forth His Son, Jesus Christ, to seek out, and gather together, and transform, all men who are alienated by sin from God and their fellows.”[25] God offered salvation through Christ’s “death, resurrection, and ascension,” “a full and perfect atonement.”[26] The article on the Holy Spirit declares that, “On the foundation of this accomplished work God has sent forth his Spirit” “to empower us for the continuance of His mission.”[27] The final article speaks to the church as being “one new humanity, the Body of which Christ is the exalted and regnant head.”[28]The Spirit gathers the Body together in Him and works “in the Church and through the Church” and “ensures that mission should also belong to the continuing life of the Church.”[29] The church is sent and empowered by the Spirit into the world as a witness for Christ.[30]  These excerpts represent four theological core emphases of normative missio Dei teaching, along with two additional functions (corrective and apologetic) of the doctrine. The corrective and apologetic functions, which arise from the historical context of missio Dei, give the doctrine a prophetic voice that guards against anthropocentric missions. Together these six theological emphases comprise normative missio Dei teaching at Willingen.

One thing is clear the doctrine of missio Dei formulated at Willingen took on a definite theocentric shape, particularly a Trinitarian shape.[31] The Triune God is the sole source of mission, and the church is called to participate in the divine work. As referenced above “A Theological Basis of the Missionary Obligation” and the final document “The Missionary Calling of the Church” from Willingen state at least four core theological emphases that would become foundational for subsequent missio Dei development. One, God is the source of mission (missio Dei) and not the church (missio ecclesiae). Two, God sent God’s Son into the world to save all persons separated by sin from God and each other. Three, God also sent the Spirit to continue the work of Christ in and through the church and in the world. Four, the church is sent by God and called to participate in the missio Dei under the Spirit’s direction.[32] The missiological development stemming from Willingen serves as a corrective to locating the mission enterprise in church, state, or culture by affirming its location in God’s economic self-revelation in history. Furthermore, it is God who sends the church as an instrument to participate in the work of salvation. Engelsviken would call this the “normative” understanding of the doctrine from Willingen until today.[33]

The two implicit core theological emphases from the final statement from Willingen on missio Dei are its apologetic and corrective functions. Larger shifts in the cultural and theological landscape were instrumental in provoking the response of missio Dei. Crises in the Western world and the Western mission enterprise precipitated a radical rethinking of missions. Geopolitical and social transitions, such as World War I and II, the relationship between the Nazi State and the church, the beginning of the fall of colonialism in what is today the two-thirds world, and the emergence of the Cold War with its expulsion of Christian missionaries from countries such as China forced the church to reconsider the source, nature, purpose and goal of mission. In this sense, missio Dei operated as an apologia and a corrective that relocated the agency and telos of mission from the church, the state, or even culture to God. Mission continues in spite of institutional excesses because mission is from God.

As covered earlier, missio Dei was also situated within a larger shift initiated by Barth and others away from anthropocentric constructs to more theocentric constructs, such as the Word of God. Mission is understood as a function of the economy of God and its implementation as a divine enterprise. Regarding the coining of missio Dei, Bosch notes that by “introducing the phrase, Hartenstein had hoped to protect mission against secularization and horizontalization, and to reserve it exclusively for God”.[34]  The church previously found it convenient to define and carry out mission strictly by a cultural mandate and the geopolitical enterprise of expansion and civilizing, which would shape and drive its theological rationale. Secularization and horizontalization signified that by default anything could pose as mission. Although the more dissenting secular view of J.C. Hoekendijk and Paul Lehmann did not “win the day” at Willingen, their Post-Willingen cosmocentric version of missio Dei would be influential in the 1960s, for example at the Fourth General Assembly of the World Council at Uppsala in1968, and would invite more interpretations and contending versions of the doctrine in the decades to follow.[35]



Following Willingen, missio Dei would be “embraced by virtually all Christian persuasions”.[36] David Bosch claimed that mission is “derived from the very nature of God” in the sending of the Son and the Spirit into the world, and the church is called and sent by God to participate in the work of salvation.[37] Although missio Dei was broadly accepted and a normative view materialized from the Willingen Conference, there remained tension in the interpretation of the doctrine. At the Willingen Conference two divergent branches of missio Dei emerged representing two contending perspectives of the doctrine, though the conflict was hidden from the final report. These divergent branches have had their representative voices and institutions from the 1952 Conference until today and have remained in tension as competing versions of the missio Dei. [38]

 The forging of missio Dei was not unequivocal andgenerated a variety of questions. If God is the primary agent of mission, then what is the role of the church and the world? Is the church the primary instrument that God uses in mission, or does God the Creator work directly with creation? Does the culture set the agenda for mission, or does the church interpret the mission from scripture and carry it out in relevant cultural forms as led by the Spirit? If God is the creator of all things is God not able to reach the world even apart from the church and apart from Christ?[39]In other words is mission and salvation limited to the sending of the Son? The two divergent branches coming out of Willingen each had a different response to these seminal questions. Their answers were based on their particular version of the missio Dei. The first branch is a cosmocentric missio Dei, and the second branch is a Christocentric instrumental missio Dei. J.C. Hoekendijk and Paul Lehmann represented the cosmocentric view, while Karl Hartenstein and Lesslie Newbigin represented the Christocentric instrumental view.[40] The cosmocentric, or world-driven perspective, views the cosmos, or the world, as the direct arena for God’s saving activity without the church as an instrument. Some versions, like those at Willingen, are Trinitarian in the sense that they move away from Christocentrism and hold that the Trinity can work directly with creation within a particular cultural context even apart from Christ. However, more current cosmocentric versions stress missio Dei over a missio Trinitatis, allowing space for a general or universal mission to unfold from God the Creator directly to creation.[41] Let us examine these two views.

Cosmocentric Missio Dei

In brief, cosmocentrism in missio Dei is an attempt to correct the problem of cultural hegemony that occurs when the receptor culture is disregarded and colonized by a dominant culture. It is a culture-affirming model that recognizes that God can work through any particular semiotic and semantic system of a people. The model is to be lauded in that it recognizes that God’s mission is universal and can be revealed through any particular culture. However, cultural affirmation without critical discernment can lead to over-contextualization and syncretism. That is why subsequently the development of missio Dei theology through the work of major missiologists, such as Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, Andrew Kirk, Charles Kraft, Paul Hiebert and others would necessitate the development of the methodology of critical contextualization.[42] Critical contextualization gives priority to the divine missional initiative as well as critically affirms culture as an indispensible and potential seedbed for the gospel to take root and grow. Yet, a vital factor in the task of critical contextualization that allows for both God’s mission initiative and culture-specific reception is that it is implemented within a culturally indigenous, hermeneutical community that critically engages scripture and the tradition’s interpretation of scripture.[43] Scripture drives contextualization.

Due to its universal scope, an inherent problem with the cosmocentric model is that it can limit or eliminate the missional role of the church and even the particular work of salvation in Christ. The notion that God can work without the church and does so as a norm can stiflingly reduces the church to having minimal or no role in mission, or relegate the church itself to a mission field. In this sense, the church would best participate by moving out of the way and allowing God to work through the world’s institutions and processes, which set the agenda for mission.  Finally, some iterations of the cosmocentric missio Dei are even considered pointblank ecclesioclastic, showing an actual disdain for the church’s work. J.C. Hoekendijk, a Dutch theologian and a major voice at Willingen, was the central figure that articulated this position.[44]

The second pitfall of the cosmocentric view is that it can limit the salvific role of Jesus Christ.  The line of thinking goes like this. God as Creator superintends the care of creation and the realization of God’s Kingdom in the cosmos and consequently can also work salvation outside of the oikonomia (economy, the work of God for salvation) of the Son, as revealed in Jesus Christ. Radical cosmocentric mission resists any “Christocentrism” that would limit God’s work of salvation solely to the person and work of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Christian scriptures.[45] Willingen leaders like Hoekendijk and Lehmann claimed to embrace a broad Trinitarianism (though in a narrow sense of God working universally through the Spirit) over against the limits of Christocentrism, while on the other hand, Hartenstein and Newbigin understood Christ at the hub of Trinitarian mission, being the primary material cause for bringing salvation to the world.  

Christocentric Instrumental Missio Dei

The Christocentric instrumental view acknowledges that God’s work of salvation is revealed through Jesus Christ, and God calls and sends the church by the Spirit into the world as an instrument, a witness, and even a sign of God’s mission. This model of missio Dei is Christocentric signifying that God reveals salvation uniquely through Christ. It is instrumental in its view of how the Spirit uses the church to participate and bear witness in mission. Furthermore, the Spirit primarily chooses to use the agency of the church above other agencies in the created order. In the spirit of Willingen, as represented by Hartenstein and Newbigin, this view is properly Trinitarian realizing that Christocentric salvation is understood and informed only within a Trinitarian framework.   The church responds to the call and is empowered to participate in the missio by the Spirit and proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ. Ecclesial instrumentalism holds that God is in Christ redeeming the world to him, and God’s primary instrument to communicate the saving work of Christ is his Body, the church. Following Willingen, Lesslie Newbigin and Georg Vicedom were central figures that articulated this position was basically reaffirmed at the fiftieth anniversary of Willingen as well.[46]

The Christocentric instrumental view became normative due to manifold problems with the cosmocentric perspective. Although it acknowledges that mission originates with God over against the church, the cosmocentric model has a tendency to identify the saving work of God with human history and thus slips back into the pre-missio Dei secularization mode of mission, a missio culturae. In this scheme, the culture sets the mission agenda, and divine activity is reduced to the world process. Such immanence if radicalized can errorneously substitute any anthropocentric movement or institution for missio Dei hence undermining one of the correctives of the doctrine. Mission can readily become a social or a political enterprise. Some radical expressions of liberation theology illustrate how mission can be identified apart from God’s work in the church as the socio-economic forces within the world process.  Drawing from Hegelian philosophy, which itself embodies the motif of God’s unfolding and actualizing in history, liberation soteriology becomes a socio-political function of the forces of history without need of any transcendent mediation, work of the Spirit, or ecclesial witness. Socio-cultural dynamics and critical theory as an interpretive framework can take the place of revelation as the primary source for understanding mission. The forces of history then mediate liberation rather than God in Christ working through the church.

Mission can erringly be thought to take place through the natural unfolding of historical events in which the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) is substituted for the work of the Spirit. In such cases any phenomena, event, or movement can be claimed as the work of the Spirit. Granted the work of the Spirit of Truth is prevenient and can operate where Christ is not known or heard, and nonetheless the work can still be attributed to the Triune God. However, such claims of Spirit Christologies or Spirit theologies of mission, if they are true, are to be tested and will necessarily bear witness with scripture and inevitably to Jesus Christ.

The potential issue of conflating the work of the Spirit with social or political dynamics did not go unnoticed at Willingen. At that time, the whole problem of the collusion between the German church and the rise and Reich of Nazism loomed large in the minds of the contributors. Shortly after Willingen, Newbigin also recognized such dynamics between the church and China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in which the church interpreted the revolution as an opportunity for mission support.[47] J.C. Hoekendijk was one such proponent of identifying the hand of God in the revolutionary nature of history.[48] In such cases, the role of the church is deflated for the increasing role of political and social forces. The example cited by Newbigin was not an anomaly, as liberation theology seemed to follow the tracks of social revolution in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa throughout the last half of the twentieth century. 

As alluded to earlier, the Christocentric model also functions normatively due to the tendency of the cosmocentric missio Dei to downplay the uniqueness and exclusive claims of Christ and to relativize the Christian revelation in a theology of religions that allows for salvation to occur without Christ even when a Christian witness has been proclaimed and heard. Great weight is placed on the missio generalis (the general mission) of the Creator to the creation, at times, outside of and over against God’s work through Christ. The sending of the Son then becomes just one particular instance of many “sendings.” The Christological problems are obvious and manifold but cannot be elaborated on in the space of this conversation. 

On the other hand, the Christocentric instrumental view, like the cosmocentric view, acknowledges that God is the primary agent of mission, but vastly differs in how it comprehends the life and work of the church in partnership with God in mission. The church is the primary instrument that God equips and employs for mission. We cannot forget that not only mission but also the church originates with the Triune God and is one with Christ. The church participates in mission because God is already engaged in mission and calls the church into mission through the sacraments that make the church one with Christ. The church by its baptism and partaking in the Eucharist is joined together with Christ and is one in Body and one with his mission in the Spirit. Sacramentally and mystically the Body of Christ is one with God’s mission and is a sign or apologetic for God’s mission.

Through baptism and the Eucharist, the church is called and sent by God as an instrument to participate with the Spirit in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. In this model, the church is God’s Spirit-filled instrument that carries out Christ’s mission. Mission is Christocentric and follows the via crucis (the way of the cross), a cruciformity. The cross is the basis for salvation and is the heart of the message that the church experiences and proclaims. In baptism the church participates in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and is sent in the Spirit of Pentecost to the entire world to be his witness. Christocentric instrumentalism locates missio in the Triune oikonomia (economy) of God with the Incarnation at the heart of mission and the source from which it carries out mission. Furthermore, the mission of the Spirit (missio Spiritus) as the Spirit of Truth works in anticipation of and preparation for the revelation of Christ. The Spirit convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, leading to repentance and faith in Christ. The ministry of salvation is carried out through the missions of Christ and the Spirit, and like as Christ was sent in the Spirit so does he send his Body into the world. Any true mission of the Spirit (missio Spiritus) in its prevenient and preparatory function will ultimately bear witness to Christ. The missio Dei is a missio Trinitatis. As Andrew Kirk succinctly put it, “Therefore to speak about the missio Dei is to indicate, without any qualification, the missio Trinitatis.”[49]  

Missio Trinitatis

Missio Trinitatis is the mission of the Triune God. A missio Trinitatis draws the parameters for the identity, nature and activity of missio Dei. Mission is from God, the Triune God, as opposed to an undifferentiated vague theism, an impersonal theism, a mono-person theism, polytheism, or pantheism. It also draws the parameters of involvement in the missio. All three persons are involved in missio. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit into the world. Neither a missio Christi (mission of Christ)nor a missio Spritus (mission of the Spirit)stands alone but together consubstantially and perichoretically, as the Son, and Holy Spirit work conjointly revealing and communicating the will of the Father through their mutual witness one to the other. A missio Trinitatis also draws the parameters for the content and shape of mission that is both Christologically and pneumatologically informed. The Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, will not work in the world contrary to the Son, the Redeemer, and vice versa, and neither person will work contrarily to will of the Father, the Creator, who will in turn not work contrarily to what God has revealed in the Son and the Spirit, all which are attested to in scripture.

God’s general work in creation is preparatory for God’s special salvific work in Christ. The Christocentric instrumental model, that I am also calling a missio Trinitatis, is consonant with the early vision and development of the missio Dei from Barth up to the final report of Willingen because it echoes its core theological emphases of Christocentrism, Trinitarianismand the corrective and apologetic functions of the doctrine. Future claims of missio Dei are compelled to examine such assertions in light of the normative shape of the doctrine that was originally established in the first half of the century with special caution paid to over-contextualization and syncretism that can occur when culture shapes mission without the direction of scripture.

Georg Vicedom and Christocentric Instrumental Missio Dei

A major exponent and example of the Christocentric instrumental view of missio Dei following Willingen was Georg Vicedom (1903-1974), popularizer of the phrase missio Dei. Vicedom was arguably also the first formulator of an intentional missio Dei theology post-Willingen. Vicedom wrote the classic text Missio Dei in 1958. It was translated into English in 1965.[50] This classic text reiterates and solidifies the Trinitarian drive and Christocentric content of the missio Dei, as envisioned at Willingen. In Vicedom’s work and in the instrumental missio Dei tradition as a whole, revelation is the indispensible origin and substance of the missio, as opposed to forms of missio Dei prior to Barth and cosmocentric forms of missio Dei in which mission is derived from church (missio ecclesiae), state (missio stati), or culture (missio culturae).

   Vicedom emphasized “that mission is work that belongs to God.”[51] As the fruit of God’s economy, “mission cannot be derived from the task of the church” and can never be the “point of departure”, the purpose or the subject of mission.[52] Missio Dei stands as a corrective to ecclesiocentric missions, or the notion that the church is at the center of missions. Vicedom waxed unambiguously the “church is only an instrument in the hands of God.”[53] The participatory nature of her work sets the parameters and goals for the church in “achieving what God has already done and is doing.”[54] 

Vicedom echoed Willingen’s concern for the Triune shape of mission. He asserted that mission is not located in the church but in the oikonomia or “sendings” of the Son and the Spirit within the Triune God.[55] He understood missio Dei as an “attributive genitive” in which God is not only the Sender but also the Sent.[56] The Father sends the Son, and the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit to complete the work of salvation and establish the Kingdom of God.[57] The economic sendings reveal their origin and relations ultimately within the immanent Trinity. Hence, the mission and work of the church is “prefigured in the divine” and “determined by the missio Dei.[58] Vicedom, influenced by Augustine, connected the mission with the immanent processions of the Son and the Spirit. Augustine and later Aquinas stressed that the divine missions or oikonomia of the Son and the Spirit are derived from and defined by the internal processions of the Son and the Spirit. The processio (procession)is causal and definitive of the missio (mission).

The visible processions or sendings of the Son and the Spirit reveal the economy of God, as mission is “intimately tied up with revelation.”[59] Vicedom claimed, “God reveals Himself in that He performs the sending Himself. If there were no missio Dei, then we would also have no revelation.”[60] God’s eternal purposes of his Kingdom are revealed in the sending of the Word to embody and establish God’s reign of righteousness. God is not only the Sender and the Sent, but also the “content of the sending.”[61] Christ is the Word made flesh and the embodiment of the Kingdom. Mission reveals God’s lordship and Kingdom through the sending and revealing of the Son. For Vicedom, the revelation of the lordship of God in Christ and the establishing of the Kingdom of God in the world are the telos (purpose) of mission.[62] Vicedom was cautious to link the Kingdom of God with its King, and not make the error that “American missions believed the Kingdom of God was to be realized through social service.”[63] The church is obedient to the missio, and the Kingdom is realized, as the church submits to the Lordship of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Spirit.[64] Vicedom was also careful not to conflate the kingdom of the world with the Kingdom of God. In fact, he identifies the kingdom of the world with the “kingdom of devils.” We are admonished to be aware of deception in the world. The kingdom of the world “seeks to camouflage itself at all times under the mask of the good, of that which is proper for man, with goals that are often ideal.”[65] Vicedom held a robust view of human depravity and was keenly aware that the mission cannot exist outside of the work of the Triune God who alone liberates from the power of evil.[66]

In addition the oikonomia (economy)of the Triune God in the world is not only in the sending work of the Son but also in the sending of the Spirit. As the Father sends the Son, so he also sends the Holy Spirit. In the sending of the gift of the Spirit “the fullness of the grace of the Triune God is given.”[67] Where the Spirit is present in the world the Triune God is present, and where the Spirit is at work in the world the Triune God is at work.[68] The Holy Spirit does not work of the Spirit’s own accord, but sent by the Father, the Spirit “continues the mission which God had begun in his Son Jesus Christ” by his “co-witness”.[69] The purpose of the mission is the advancing of the Kingdom of God, and Vicedom notes the role of the Spirit in establishing the Kingdom. He asserted, “The Holy Spirit also is Lord (2 Cor. 3:17) The Kingdom is given in Him, for He Himself is the kingdom in the working of God (Matt 3:11; John 1:20; 1:33; Acts 1:5).”[70] Vicedom tied the mission of the Spirit closely to the mission of the Son, as the Spirit carries out Christ’s work in and through the church into the world to establish the Kingdom.

God sends the Son and the Spirit, and also sends the church into the world. After the Spirit is poured out at Pentecost, the apostles are also called and sent to begin and carry out the work by the leading and empowerment of the Spirit.[71] The Spirit carries out the direct missional activity of God by empowering the body of Christ to be the Spirit’s “messengers and instruments, and commissions and sends them in the name of Jesus.”[72]  The name “apostle” bears this designation of “one who is sent” and sent as a “messenger” with a message. The apostles and the continuing apostolate of the church are called and sent into the world to participate in the missio Spiritus, and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. In sum, we see in Vicedom an example of normative missio Dei in a Trinitarian framework that recognizes the church as God’s primary instrument of the work of Christ that is to be carried out through its apostolic mandate.


Summary: 6 Core Theological Emphases of Missio Dei

  1. The origin of mission is God, specifically the Father who sends.
  2. The Son is sent by the Father as the fulfillment of mission.
  3. The Spirit is sent by the Father through the Son as the executor of mission.
  4. The Body of Christ, the church, sent by the Triune God as participant and instrument of mission.
  5. Missio Dei is a corrective against mission that originates with the church, state, or culture.
  6. Missio Dei is an apologia (apologetic, defense or rationale) as to why mission exists and the church participates.

Although a normative missio Dei had been established, over time, missio Dei would become a catchall phrase and guise for any and every missional enterprise. Andrew Kirk remarks  “Legitimately and illegitimately the missio Dei hasbeen used to advance all kinds of missiological agendas.”[73] However, in spite of the multivalence of the term and the divergent branches stemming from Willingen, the vision and core emphases of the doctrine have been held by most major Christian traditions. Building on and keeping true to the vision and early development of the doctrine, we can sum up missio Dei in six core theological emphases. One, mission proceeds from the very nature of God’s economy and is a divine enterprise in its origin, nature, purpose, and goal.[74] Two, stemming from the nature of God, mission is Trinitarian and reveals the sending of the Son. Three, stemming from the nature of God, mission is Trinitarian and revels the sending of the Spirit.  Four, the church, who is one with Christ, is sent in the power of the Spirit to participate in the mission and be a witness for Christ in the world through didache (apostolic teaching), leitourgia (mission as liturgy after the lirurgy), kerygma (apostolic proclamation of the gospel), koinonia (fellowship of the body of Christ), diakonia (service with church and world)and martyria (cruciform witness in life and ministry). Five, missio Dei serves as a correctiveto the notion that mission is a product of the church, state, culture, or any other institution. Six, missio Dei serves as an apologetic for missions. In spite of past ecclesial abuses and excesses under the semblance of missional enterprise, mission is still valid and active due to its divine initiative and agency.


These six core theological emphases distilled from the early construction of missio Dei are integral to any model of the missio Dei and to the faithful practice of missions. The core serves as a center that can hold the major factors and functions of missions in their proper place.Any elimination or distortion of these components can lead to an incomplete and even distorted Christian witness and will inevitably work against the mission. Thus, we are reminded and admonished against falling back into a missio ecclesiae, missio stati, or missio culturae. With the growing mission field and changing demographic landscape in the United States, it is imperative that as the church participates in God’s mission that the church allows the revelation of God to set the agenda for mission, while remaining sensitive and discerning to diverse semiotic and semantic systems through which the revelation is conveyed. Going forward as the United Methodist Church debates human sexuality and other cultural issues relevant to missions, she needs to ask if her call and response has been missio Dei or missio culturae. The hope is that this essay has offered some helpful direction for such conversations.


Anderson, Gerald H., Coote, Robert T., Horner, Norman A., Phillips, James M. eds. Mission                   Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement,                                  (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994).

Arthurs, Eddie, “Missio Dei and the Mission of God.” Wycliffe Global Alliance. 06-2013.               

Bevans, Stephen H. and Schroeder, Roger P., Constants in Contexts: A Theology for Today.                       Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.  

Bosch, David. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (American Society

of Missiology Series). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

Burnett, John. “Victorian Working Women: Sweated Labor.” VictorianWeb. http://www. (accessed February 9, 2010).

Engelsviken, Tormad. “Missio Dei: The Understanding and Misunderstanding of a Theological                 Concept in European Churches and Missiology” in International Review of Mission, 92                        no. 367 (October 2003), 481-497.

Flett, John G.  Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian               Community. Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Goodall, Norman, ed. Missiona Under the Cross. London: Edinburgh House Press, 1953.

Hiebert, Paul G. “Critical Contextualization” in International Bulletin of Missionary Research,      11 no. 3 (July 1987), 104-112.

Hoedemaker, Bert. “The Legacy of J.C. Hoekendijk, in International Bulletin of Missionary                       Research 19 no.4. (October 1995), 166-170.

Kirk, Andrew, What is Mission: Theological Explorations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2000.

Newbigin, Lesslie, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids,                MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

Smith, Gregory A. “Views About Homosexuality in the U.S. and Around the World” Pew                        Research Center. PowerPoint presented March 7, 2017.

Thomas, Norman, ed., Classical Texts in Mission and World Christianity (American Society of                  Missiology Series), Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995.

Views about Homosexuality,” Pew Research: Religion and Public Life, accessed. September 14, 2017, Vicedom, Georg F. The Missio of God: An Introduction to a Theology of Mission. St. Louis,          MO: Concordia Publishing House, 196

[1] A Google search on “missio Dei” generates 250,000 hits, including churches, academic journals, ministries, communities, and websites named missio Dei, along with the usual vast array of usages of the term.

[2] See Together Toward Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes, the World Council of Churches Affirmation on Mission and Evangelism, (World Council of Churches Publications, 2013). The WCC affirmation in one sense echoes the normative emphases of Willingen. The statement is Trinitarian and relies heavily on a missio Spiritus, but in some cases such heavy reliance can unduly shift the focus away from a Christocentric agency of mission to a cosmocentric agency.

[3] For more on critical contextualization in mission today see The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today, ed. Dean Gilliland. Wipf and Stock, 2002.

[4] Missiologist Paul Hiebert’s work has been foundational to understanding and implementing critical contextualization in specific cultural settings. The central component of critical contextualization, which is communicating the supracultural gospel through culturally specific semiotics without compromising the truth of the message, is the exegesis of the scriptures by the church as a hermeneutical community concerning a particular belief or practice. See Paul G. Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization” in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 11 no.3(July 1987), 104-112.

[5] For an alternative and yet compatible narrative that portrays the beneficence brought by Christianity through colonialism see Robert D. Woodberry, a Research Professor At Baylor University, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” in American Political Sicence Review, May 2012 106 pp.244-274.

[6] In this context, I am using missio culturae (mission of the culture) and missio stati (mission of the state) in a negative way meaning mission that is driven by and for the culture and mission that is driven by and for the state. This type mission stands in opposition to  missio Dei that is mission driven by and for God.

            [7] For a thorough account of the debate of the origins and development of the missio Dei see John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community(Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010).

[8] Norman, Thomas, ed., Classical Texts in Mission and World Christianity (American Society of                        Missiology Series), (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 104.

[9] Ibid, 106.

[10] Flett, Witness, 17.

[11] Ibid., 123.

[12] For more on Karl Hartenstein, his theology, and his part at the Willingen Conference see Gerold Schwarz, “Karl Hartenstein 1894-1952: Missions with a Focus on the End” in Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, eds. Gerald H. Anderson, Robert T. Coote, Norman A. Horner, and James M. Phillips (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 591-600.

[13] “Was hat die Theologie Karl Barths de Mission zu sagen,” cited by John Flett in The Witness of God, p.125-126. 

[14] Flett, Witness, 126.

[15] “Wozu Notigt die Finanzlage der Mission,” cited by John Flett in The Witness of God, p.131.

[16] Ibid, 131.

[17] See John Flett, The Witness of God pp 152-160 who argues that the discussion of doctrine and the Trinitarian framework for missio Dei were not part of the conversations or reports of the Willingen Conference but were found only in the final reports. The phrase “general mind” is Flett’s, but the use of “normative” here comes from Tormod Engelsviken’s essay “Missio Dei: The Understanding and Misunderstanding of a Theological Concept in European Churches and Missiology.” I have also used “normative” throughout this paper in a similar manner as Engelsviken. 

[18] See Tormod Engelsviken, “Missio Dei: The Understanding and Misunderstanding of a Theological Concept in European Churches and Missiology” in International Review of Mission, 92 no. 367 (October 2003) 481-497 for an account of the Willingen Conference, the emphasis on a Trinitarian framework, and the two divergent branches of missio Dei interpretation that came out of Willingen.

[19] Ibid., 482.

[20] David Bosch, Transforming Mission, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 1991), 390

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Compare the similar form and content of the final document, “The Missionary Calling of the Church,” with the interim report, “A Theological Basis of the Missionary Obligation,” and how they share articles in common concerning the origin of mission, the sending of the Son, the sending of the Spirit, and the sending and participating of the church. Norman Goodall, ed. Missions Under the Cross (London: Edinburgh Press, 1953), 190.

[24] Ibid., 189, 240.

[25] Ibid, 241.

[26] Ibid., 189.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, 241.

[30] Ibid.

[31] See John Flett’s The Witness of God for an account of the problematic development of missio Dei and Trinitarianism.

[32] Goodall, Missions, 190.

[33] Engelsviken, 482.

[34] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 392.

[35] Engelsviken, 488-489.

[36] Bosch, 390.

[37] Bosch, 390. I understand and concur with what Bosch is generally conveying here that mission is derived from God and not any other agency. However, when he uses the term “nature of God” here he is not being technically precise. Theologically, mission is temporal and not eternal, and thus belongs to the oikonomia of God rather than the ontology of God that is eternal. Missions are connected to God by being connected to the eternal processions of the Son and the Spirit. Missions are visible and temporal expressions of the eternal processions. So mission is from God but specifically from his economy that is derived from the eternal procession and not from God’s being or an aspect of God’s ousia or divine essence. See Peter. J. Bellini, “The Processio-Missio Connection: A Starting Point in Missio Trinitatis or Overcoming the Immanent-Economic Divide in a Missio Trinitatis” in Wesleyan Theological Journal, 4 no. 2 (Fall 2014). 7-23.

[38]  See Tormod Engelsviken, “Missio Dei: The Understanding and Misunderstanding of a Theological Concept in European Churches and Missiology” in International Review of Mission, 92 no. 367 (October 2003). 481-497 for an account of the Willingen Conference, the two divergent branches, and a normative understanding of missio Dei.  

[39] Here I am referring to the notion  held by some that God can reveal God’s self and even God’s salvation either apart from Christ or anonymously through Christ, i.e. Rahner’s view.

[40] There are several who have made the Christocentric and Cosmocentric distinction between versions of the missio Dei. One is found in Eddie Arthur  who cites Michael Goheen’s dissertation. “As the Father has Sent Me, I am Sending You” in J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology. Eddie Arthur, “Missio Dei and the Mission of God.” Wycliffe Global Alliance. 06-2013.

[41] Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” perspective may have first popularized this view.

[42] Critical Contextualization is the communication of the gospel within the culture-specific semiotic system of a particular people group without compromising the gospel. Critical contextualization involves cultural exegesis and scriptural exegesis with the church as a hermeneutical community. For more on Critical Contextualization see the work of Paul Hiebert, one of the main proponents of the notion.

[43] Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization.”

[44] For more on the life, theology of mission, and ecclesioclasm of Johannes Christian Hoekendijk see Bert Hoedemaker, “The Legacy of J.C. Hoekendijk, in International Bulletin of Missionary Research 19 no.4 (October 1995), 166-170.

[45] I added “Christian scriptures” to differentiate the Christ of Christian tradition, or what some would call the historical Jesus, from any iterations of the cosmic Christ, the notion that one universal cosmic Christ is revealed covertly in other particular religious traditions.  See the work of Raimon Panikkar.

[46] See Tormod Engelsviken’s article “Missio Dei: The Understanding and Misunderstanding of a Theological Concept in European Church and Missiology” , 481-497 in which he echoes the original core theological emphasis of Willingen that establish a normative interpretation of the missio.

[47] Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids,                        MI, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 18.

[48] Hoedemaker, Legacy, 169.

[49] Andrew Kirk, What is Mission: Theological Exploration, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 27.

[50] Georg F Vicedom, The Mission of God: An Introduction to a Theology of Mission. (St. Louis, MO, Concordia Publishing House, 1965).

[51] Ibid., 5.

[52] Ibid., 4.

[53] Ibid., 5.

[54] Ibid., 6.

[55] Ibid., 7.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 8.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid., 45.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid., 8.

[62] Ibid., 14, 22-23.

[63] Ibid., 12.

[64] In his article Missio Dei, Tormod Engelsviken cites the work of Norweigan missiologist Jan-Martin Berensten. He claims Vicedom’s notion of the Kingdom of God is the goal of the missio generalis (general mission of God the Creator) and the work of the Creator in creation apart from the sendings of the Son and the Spirit. Engelsviken sees it as a problem when the general mission supplants the special mission in Christ and the Spirit. Although I do not agree with this reading of Vicedom, I detect this problem in many cosmocentric views, and it currently is a tension for example in the 2013 mission statement of the World Council Churches Together Towards Life. A missio Trinitatis proposed in this work responds to the problem of bifurcating the work of God in creation and the work of God in salvation. All three persons are in mission, and not one person is in mission that does not bear witness to the other person’s work. The eternally begotten Word of God reveals the mission in Christ and prepares creation to receive the Word.

[65] Vicedom, Mission, 19.

[66] Ibid., 16-17,23.

[67] Ibid., 55.

[68] Ibid., 55-56.

[69] Ibid., 56.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid., 55.

[72] Ibid., 56.

[73] Kirk, What is Mission, 25.

[74] With a reminder of my previous note that theologically mission is temporal and not eternal, and thus belongs to the oikonomia of God rather than the ontology of God that is eternal. Missions is connected to God by being connected to the eternal processions of the Son and the Spirit

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