This Latin phrase emerged “in Protestant missiological discussion especially since the 1950s, often in the English form ‘the mission of God'” (The Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, p 631). The term sought to anchor missions in the Triune God of the Bible. David Bosch defines it as:
God’s self-revelation as the one who loves the world, God’s involvement in and with the world, the nature and activity of God, which embraces both the church and the world, and in which the church is privileged to participate. Missio Dei enunciates the good news that God is a God-for-people. (Transforming Mission, Kindle loc. 592)
The term became prominent in ecumenical circles at the 1952 meeting of the International Missionary Council in Willigen, Germany.
Arthur Glasser pointed out:
In the years that followed, Missio Dei became a neologism that blurred God’s providential governance over the nations with the church’s mission. Radical formulations came to the fore until Missio Dei was so reinterpreted and modified that it came to mean the action of God in carrying out His judgments and His ameliorating work among the nations in revolutionary movements of our day. (Contemporary Theologies of Mission, p 92)
Having abandoned the Bible as God’s self-revelation, the ecumenical movement looked to the world to set the agenda for the church. The Missio Dei was often linked to Process Theology and Liberation Theology. The Christian Scriptures were no longer seen as communicating God’s mission in a unified, meaningful way. The destructive conclusions of higher criticism diminished the authority of the Bible. When Bosch traces the ‘paradigm shifts’ of missions in church history, he plainly writes, “I have argued in the preceding chapters that not even the biblical books we have surveyed are, as such, records of divine revelation; they are interpretations of that revelation.” (Transforming Mission, Kindle loc. 4619).
The term, Missio Dei, need not be abandoned. It is a good term for rooting missions in the Triune God. It must, however, be clearly anchored in Scripture. If it refers to the mission of God, shouldn’t he have a say in defining it? He has, indeed, spoken in meaningful sentences in the Bible. We are not left to our observations of geopolitics and hunches about what God is doing in the world. There are things that God reserves for himself that he has not revealed but he has revealed what we need to know (Deuteronomy 29:29). The Scriptures do reveal the Missio Dei.
Timothy Tennent writes:
There is, therefore, a grand narrative of mission unfolding in the Bible that will ultimately follow the broad contours of creation → covenant → Incarnation → Cross → Resurrection → Pentecost → return of Christ → eschaton/New Creation. Missions must be understood as the driving purpose for this grand narrative, not as some optional auxiliary of it. In other words, the missio dei is the central message of the Bible. The Bible, like the mission dei, is the story of God’s redemptive, historical initiative on behalf of His creation. Missions ultimately must derive its life from that source. (Invitation to World Missions, p 124)
The Bible is our only authoritative source for defining Missio Dei! God has communicated to us “in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:8-10 ESV).
We, like Paul, have been given grace “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” (Ephesians 3:8-12 ESV). This is the Missio Dei that God has revealed for his glory and our joy.