The Universal Promise

From “The Flaming Centre:
A Theology of the Christian Mission”
by Carl E. Braaten, b.1929

The picture of the world as moving from the old order to the new is projected in Scripture as a history of promise oriented to the future. The history of promise in search of fulfilment is conveyed in stories of exodus from bondage, promised land for the wilderness people, homecoming for exiles, liberation for the oppressed, forgiveness for sinners, healing for the sick, peace for the nations, reunion of separated loved ones, resurrection of the dead and a new heaven and earth for the whole suffering creation. The revelation of God as the maker of promises is the ground of hope that, no matter what, life will be carried through to victory by the power released in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Even if the Messiah himself be crucified by the demons of history, God will remember to keep his promises. That is why the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the perpetual source of hope in spite of all the setbacks the people of God experience in history.

The history of promise expands in the biblical traditions, especially in Jewish apocalypticism, to absolutely universal proportions. Monotheistic faith negates every limit to the universality of God's redemptive will. There is one God, only one ultimate, and he is the creator of the world, the lord of history, and the saviour of all humankind. The vision of universality. however. does not in and of itself produce a missionary faith. What makes biblical faith into a missionary movement is that the universal promise looks to history for its realisation. Biblical faith is not universal in an abstract, purely spiritual or mystical sense. It is not reducible to a common religious essence hidden in all the religions, void of all concrete, earthly, historical and social contents. That is the kind of universalism we find in gnosticism. Biblical universalism is, by contrast, a historical project. It requires a mission in history to give the universal promise a matching content.

The universal promise of eschatological salvation has not yet been realised in and through history. The meaning of faith in Jesus Christ is to let him be the “Yes and Amen" for all the promises of God (2 Corinthians 1:20). Without him the promise of universal salvation goes begging for credibility and verification. The uniqueness of the Christian gospel and its claim to universal validity rest on the special place that Jesus Christ holds in the structure of history as promise, hope and absolute fulfilment for all.

The universal promise that is signed and sealed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus sets in motion a historical mission to announce and celebrate the universal future that has been opened up for all people, nations, cultures and religions. None are too bad to be saved or too good to be damned. None are left out of the covenant which God has made and promises to keep on account of Christ.

The deepest root of the Christian mission is thus embedded in the Christian understanding of revelation. salvation, and history. and is not merely an afterthought which dawned on a few Christians who happened to have a vision and heard the Macedonian call. As long as Christian faith is oriented by the history of promise and the eschatological significance of Christ, there will be a Christian mission in world history. Without its roots in the universal promise. missionary faith becomes indistinguishable from religious propaganda.

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