Witness to the world

Bosch, David J. Witness to the world: the Christian mission in theological perspective. Marshalls Theological Library. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1980. x. 277 pp.


Note: This book is still available in various formats here and here.


David J. Bosch (1929-1992) was head of the Department of Missiology at the University of South Africa (UNISA) when he wrote this book. Educated in Pretoria and Basel, Bosch had served as a missionary of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Transkei for nearly fifteen years before taking up the chair of missiology at UNISA. He was a key figure in the founding of the Southern African Missiological Society and its journal Missionalia, and played a leading role in both until his untimely death.


Witness to the World came out of Bosch’s contention that mission is in crisis in this post-Constantinian era, and there is a need to return to fundamental questions on the theology of mission. The kinds of questions he wants to address are, “Why mission?  What is the aim of mission?”, in short, “What does it mean to be the Church of Christ in the world of today (pp. ix-x)?” In reflecting on such questions and making his own contribution, Bosch aims “to be fair to all theological persuasions” (p. x). His theological training, fifteen years in missionary service, experience in theological education at UNISA, and his ecumenical approach to missions stood him in good stead for attempting such an ambitious work as this.


The structure of the book is one of the highlights, with the four main parts set out in a highly significant order. In Part 1, Bosch outlines what he thinks to be the contemporary confusion in the theology of mission. He cites current debates about the relationship between mission and evangelism and the place of social action, and draws together some comprehensive descriptions of his own. Nevertheless, Bosch wants to conduct his study of mission in the light of the dominant contemporary interpretations of mission. In a key move, these are reduced to just two opposite missiological models -“evangelical” and “ecumenical” – that are designed to cover the full spectrum of views. Given his purpose and explanations, one can overlook the tendency to caricature and artificially polarise “evangelicals” and “ecumenicals” which inevitably follows.


Essential to the logic of this book is Bosch’s awareness of what he calls “theological optics” – the fact that theological views and interpretations of the Bible are coloured by one’s own context and preconceptions. By highlighting the contemporary confusion about mission first, Bosch wants to minimise pre-convictions and listen afresh to what Scripture says about what mission actually is. Thus he presents “The biblical foundation of mission” in Part 2. His use of Scripture here is a good example of the discipline of biblical theology in which Scripture is treated as an historically unfolding collection of documents rather than a “mine,” and thematic analysis is linked to Scripture’s major thrusts. The author’s biblical foundation of mission focuses on four elements – the compassion of God, the historical nature of biblical revelation, the witness of the suffering servant, and missio Dei (God as the subject of mission). It is impossible to disagree with these four elements as far as they go, even if one might want to raise and emphasise others. Indeed, Bosch recognises that more elements could be added but holds these four to be of “decisive significance” (p. 83).


To relate foundation to practice, Bosch concedes, is a difficult task, and for his offering on mission practice in the modern world we must await his final section. In the meantime he embarks on a whirlwind historical survey of the Church’s approach to mission in Part 3 – the theology of mission through the ages. It is once again a deliberate part of Bosch’s procedure to hold back his biblical reflection, for here, as he explains, “a lack of historical perspective all too easily causes people to draw direct lines from the Bible to their own missionary practice, oblivious to the degree to which their interpretation of the Bible might be conditioned by their situation (p. 87).”


This section is not a history of missions nor a history of theological contributions to mission theory but a survey of the way in which the (mainly Western) Church has in fact understood its missionary responsibility through the ages. In the space of seven chapters Bosch moves from the early church through to the modern ecumenical movement and contemporary currents in mission theology as expressed through the World Council of Churches, the Roman Catholic Church post-Vatican II, and the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation. This book is worth reading even if only for this section. Its scope, clarity, insight and unique perspective on history make it an excellent introduction to the topic. Whether or not one wishes to quibble over Bosch’s interpretation of history here and there, the substantial points remain. Readers will be challenged to the extent that they recognise the historically conditioned nature of their own respective theological traditions and the consequent limitations and ambiguities in mission theory.


With the insight and circumspection borne of historical perspective, Bosch moves on to critique both “evangelical” and “ecumenical” theologies of mission before making his own attempt to indicate a responsible way forward in Part IV, entitled “Towards a theology of mission”. The evangelical theology of mission is treated under the heading “An emaciated gospel”, and Bosch’s chief criticism here is of the dualisms between spirit and body, personal and social and so on, which are evident in evangelical thought. Ecumenical theology of mission, he argues, is something of a corrective to these failings in evangelical theology, but it lapses into a reduction of the gospel and a dilution of its distinctive soteriological and eschatological nature.


Bosch, therefore, does not accept either the evangelical or ecumenical views as presented. Both fail to maintain the tension between the church and the world correctly and both take a positivist view of history. Ultimately Bosch wants to get beyond the polarities of these theologies of mission. The Church, he contends, is a new community which bears a full-orbed witness to the world in solidarity with its peoples. Mission is the “focal point of God’s involvement in world history” (p. 232) and an eschatological event in which the future Kingdom fills the present. Finally, Bosch returns to the concept of missio Dei. The subject of mission is the Triune God who “crosses frontiers towards the world” (p. 239). The Church of Jesus Christ is essentially missionary and it therefore owes the world faith, hope and love. Mission is summed as “the Church-crossing-frontiers-in-the-form-of-a-servant” (p. 248).


This book’s uncluttered, readable style admirably suits it for its non-expert audience, although its content will probably best engage Western readers. Emerging Third World approaches to mission were not really canvassed and non-Western readers may find that the central issues for them have not been struck. One other drawback now is the book’s datedness. Since the time of writing, the 1980 WCC and Lausanne conferences which Bosch could only anticipate have taken place, and the postmodern paradigm has introduced new complexities into the field. Readers will need to assess and supplement Bosch’s study in the light of developments over the last forty years. Witness to the World is a stimulating and challenging work which leaves one with a sense of having begun a journey in understanding mission rather than having arrived, and it is a useful tool in getting Christians to think more carefully about mission.

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