Bauckham’s ‘Bible and Mission’ – 10: The church in the modern world

Posted: February 24, 2015 by J in Bible, Book review, Mission, Theology


One point at which we cannot reach detente with the Postmodernists is in their suspicion of the category ‘truth’, and their preference for diversity instead.

However, short of the return of Christ our claims to truth must be open to critique, and not coercive. Truth is not something to be enforced. Rather it should be claimed in a way appropriate to its content. In the biblical narrative, it’s truth claims are often presented under the category of ‘witness’. This category has a lot to offer in a postmodern setting. It is non-threatening and non-self-serving. Witness, in the biblical sense, is about what God has done and what the witnesses have experienced. It is also witness against false idols – such as, in our context, the gods of consumerism. Because the witness is about God’s acts, it resists corruption into the usual human will to power.

Paul gives us resources to understand how this witness works in 1 Corinthians 1-4. His whole ministry was shaped by its witness to ‘Christ crucified.’ There we see that not only the content of our witness must be cross-centred, but also its form. I.e. it is only when the church’s community life stands as an alternative to the surrounding culture, when that life becomes part of our testimony to Jesus crucified, that we become faithful witnesses.


How can the church’s witness confront the massive voice of the modern narrative of worldwide economic power? There have always been totalising power narratives, such as those that drove the great empires of old. The biblical metanarrative generally stood over against these narratives, especially in the Apocalyptic writings, where a very different story of imperial rule is asserted.

The Roman empire under Augustus, for instance, was entranced with the project of world-wide dominance to the ends of the earth. Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8, by picking up this phrase ‘to the end of the world’, proposes a counter-narrative to that of Rome: a project not of power but of witness. Revelation explores the way these two projects clash and conflict. John sees the witnesses to Jesus as witnessing largely by not conforming to the imperial project.

This all gives us plenty of clues about what witness might involve today in the face of the modern narrative of global economic power that holds sway in the West.


Doesn’t this biblical narrative tend to over-ride and squash other local world-views? When God reverses Babel at Pentecost, he affirms the place of cultural diversity in his kingdom. The gospel is not a culture-crusher. The biblical story is hospitable to other stories, drawing them in to relationship with itself.


The Christian church is in a position to embrace some aspects of modern globalism as consonant with God’s global project. But also to expose other aspects as anti-God and anti-creature also. This is a challenging time for us. We have often failed to keep ourselves from the human will to power, but there is room for repentance!


This chapter contains much gold, and I can only lament that it is so brief and covers so much territory that Bauckham’s ideas are left fairly undeveloped. I would dearly love to hear more of his thoughts about how we sit in our culture, and about what it might look like to be a faithful witness in the face of the new global empire. The stuff on Rome’s power project was very helpful.

RB’s vision for a witnessing church is one I find captivating. But I would like to see a more rigorous discussion of why the church has failed so extremely in this vision over so long. Is the gospel really so ineffective in the face of the human temptation to power? Or has there been a theological  problem in the church historically, that has distorted witness at this vital point? If so, where have we gone wrong? Which aspects of RB’s biblical-theological vision stand in tension with the church’s traditional narrative? I for one would have appreciated at least one further chapter!

But hopefully you’ve heard enough to be convinced that this is a little book worth reading and digesting, worth discussing and debating. A deeply theological book, that teaches us how to read Scripture more perceptively. A prophetic book, that has a message of challenge and hope for the modern church.

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