annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance in Santiago, Chile. I'm not in attendance this year, but my "Report on Pre-Conversations between Representatives of the Baptist World Alliance and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate" will be presented in absentia to the BWA Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity during the gathering. The Doctrine and Christian Unity commission will also hear and discuss reports in connection with the 2006-2010 series of conversations between the BWA and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and a new series of conversations with representatives of the global Pentecostal movement that will begin later this year and will discuss papers contemplating Baptist responses to the recently approved World Council of Churches Faith and Order paper on The Nature and Mission of the Church (an earlier draft of which is available on the WCC web site--click on hyperlinked title). Other BWA commission and affinity group meetings are listed in the annual gathering schedule.
In connection with the planned discussions of The Nature and Mission of the Church, BWA General Secretary Neville Callam issued this column in the electronic publication BWA Connect:
Thinking about the church and its mission
By Neville Callam
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Graham Hill’s book, Salt, Light, and a City: Introducing Missional Ecclesiology. I started reading this book a mere two days after the Standing Commission on Faith and Order voted to approve what is expected to be a significant convergence text on the church. This text, which should soon appear in print, is the product of years of serious multilateral theological engagement by the Faith and Order Commission.
It is clear that Hill’s book also represents years of serious research and reflection. The book, the first of a planned multiple volume series, probes some of the existing understandings of the nature of the church and its missional activity with a view to developing a coherent vision of its central subject from the perspective of Protestant evangelicalism.
In the first section, Hill offers an overview of understandings of the church reflected in the writings of selected theologians. Perspectives from the various church traditions are discussed in concise chapters on “twelve important theologians” -- Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Karl Rahner and Hans Kung from the Catholic Church; Thomas Hopko, Vigen Guroian and John Zizioulas from the Orthodox Church; Letty Russell, Jurgen Moltman and John Webster from the Protestant Church community; and John Yoder, Barry Harvey and Miroslav Volf from the Free Churches.
In the second section, Hill offers a preliminary vision of the missional church that is informed by his “biblical, Reformed evangelical, Christ-centered, Free Church, charismatic, trinitarian, ecumenical, and missional convictions.” This vision comes out of a dialogue with the perspectives skillfully summarized in Part 1 of his book.
Hill’s is an important work that will be read by Christians who care that the corporate practice of Christian discipleship and mission that they affirm and teach is rooted in a defensible biblical and theological foundation.
Before criticizing Hill for engaging in dialogue with theologians from parts of the world where, he says, “Christianity finds itself now on the margins of a culture in which it once enjoyed a central place”, let us carefully note -- and eagerly await -- his promise of a second volume in which he will focus on theological reflections on the church and its mission as reflected in the writings of theologians from other parts of the world. Those whose theological contribution he intends to discuss include Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, Juan Segundo, Samuel Escobar, Rene Padilla, Kwame Bediako, John Mbiti, Oliver Onwubiko, Tite Tiénou and Peter Phan, “to name a few.”
It will be interesting to see how Hill analyzes the interaction of context, culture, experience, and confessional/theological tradition in his assessment of the understandings of the church reflected in the writings of such scholars. Since the same interplay is at work in the ecclesiologies Hill analyzes and proposes in Salt, Light and a City,one waits to see whether there will be similarity in the recognition of the role played by these factors in the formulation of the theological positions analyzed in Hill’s upcoming publication.
For the time being, however, it is important for Baptists to read and reflect on the first text in which Hill offers much that justifies the time needed to read his book. Hill offers a window into existing understandings of the church and their implication for mission “from a Euro-American perspective” emerging in western cultures where churches “are mostly experiencing decline, marginality, and liminality.” He also engages the creative process of developing a constructive Australian missional theology that is “self-consciously western.”
The Faith and Order text, which one expects to reflect contributions and perspectives from the worldwide Christian community, focuses on the church and its unity in the service of its mission. This text is also informed by the ecclesiologies with which Hill engages in conversation -- and indeed some of the scholars whose work Hill has accessed and plans to draw upon actually participated in the deliberations of Faith and Order.
By the time we conclude our reading of Hill’s Salt, Light and a City and its upcoming companion volume, which together will harvest what Hill regards as the best fruits of conversations with theologians from the West and from the Majority World, the full sweep of Hills’ vision of the missional church will become clear. Only then will we be able to ascertain how Hill’s vision compares with that conveyed in the Faith and Order Commission’s differently-focused text on the church.
Hill’s book is a must read for church leaders and teachers who care about the church and its mission. I welcome Salt, Light and a City and, with the same enthusiasm, await his upcoming volume.