Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission American Society of Missiology Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991.

The Author

Early life

[from Wikipedia article] Bosch was born in KurumanCape ProvinceSouth Africa, and died in a motor accident in 1992, aged 62. He was raised in a nationalist Afrikaner home with little regard for his nation’s black citizens and in 1948 when the National Party (South Africa) came to power and began implementing its program of apartheid Bosch welcomed it.

That same year however Bosch began studying teaching at the University of Pretoria, where he joined the Student Christian Association and was more exposed to black members of the community. This began a lifelong involvement in Christian mission and he was soon questioning the apartheid system. He was married to Annemie Bosch.

Missionary career

Sensing a call to be a missionary, Bosch changed to the Theological school and graduated with a Bachelor of Divinity and a Master of Arts in languages (Afrikaans, Dutch, German). He then went to Switzerland to study for his doctorate in the field of New Testament at the University of Basel, under Oscar Cullmann, who influenced Bosch to accommodate more ecumenism.

In 1957 Bosch began a decade working as a missionary with the Dutch Reformed Church planting churches in the Transkei.

Professor of Missiology

In 1967 he took up a position as lecturer in church history and missiology at the Dutch Reformed Church‘s Theological School training black church leaders in the Transkei, where he also built ties with the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and began developed his ministry of writing on mission theory. Bosch wrote about his concerns that the Christian mission to bring good news to black Africans could be confused with colonial and nationalistic motives that entrenched racial divisions.

What is the end goal of mission with such a motivation? Is it to maintain the white people in South Africa–or is it the foundation of the church of Christ…? Is it to serve South Africa–or to serve God? Is it to hear together the sentimental voice of our own blood–or to hear together the last command of Christ? Have we, by this missionary motive, created a sheep in wolf’s clothes–or is it perhaps a wolf in sheep’s clothes?[2]

Isolated from the majority in the Dutch Reformed Church who supported apartheid, Bosch left his college in 1971 to become Professor of Missiology at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, which at the time was South Africa’s only interracial university. There he edited its journal “Theologia Evangelica” and continued to write.

He was offered the Chair of Mission and Ecumenics at Princeton Theological Seminary in New JerseyUSA but chose to remain working against apartheid from within South Africa and the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1979 he helped coordinate a gathering of more than 5000 African Christians from every background as a demonstration of the church as an alternative community embodying the Kingdom of God. In 1982 he promoted an open letter to the Dutch Reformed Church, signed by more than 100 pastors and theologians, publicly condemning apartheid and calling on the church to unite with black churches.

Bosch also bridged evangelical and ecumenical divisions in the global church, participating in both the Lausanne Congress and World Evangelical Alliance events, while also serving the World Council of Churches.

He was fluent in XhosaAfrikaansDutchGerman and English, and lectured widely in Europe, Britain, and North America.

He died in an automobile accident on April 15, 1992 in South Africa at the age of 62. His contribution and influence in mission studies globally was immense.

Missiologist Wilbert R. Shenk, senior Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes the following of Bosch in the Foreword to Believing in the Future (pp. ix-x):

David Bosch’s tragic death in an automobile accident April 15, 1992, has left all of us who have known him as a friend, colleague, outstanding mission theologian, and church statesman with a sense of inseparable loss. He combined in his life and ministry first-rate scholarship and devoted Christian discipleship. His loyalty to his native land, South Africa, seemed to be intensified precisely by a personal integrity that required that he live out what he understood the gospel to entail. David Bosch knew existentially, and to a degree most of us never reach, what it means to live and work against the stream of culture–to be countercultural. He was the prophet among us. Along with his vast knowledge of the field of biblical studies, theology, church history, and missiology, David Bosch had the rare ability to distill the insight and wisdom to meet the demands of the day. His broad sympathies with all parts of the Christian family and his gifts of communication made him a trusted and respected friend wherever he went.

My Reflections

Transforming mission is an important piece of the unfolding conversation in missional ecclesiology. Bosch helps us understand how we have moved from the colonialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to our current state of a pluralistic, global perspective through the use of Thomas Kuhn’s language regarding paradigm shifts. We are now positioned to understand mission as God’s mission to restore all things in creation to which the church is invited to participate as sign, symbol, and witness. Bosch calls for a bold humility for the follower of Jesus Christ to enter into true dialogue with other faiths, willing to listen, be changed, and live out the love of God that flows from God the Father, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.


Mission is, quite simply, the participation of Christians in the liberating mission of Jesus, wagering on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie. It is the good news of God’s love, incarnated in the witness of a community, for the sake of the world.

Our mission has not life of its own: only in the hands of the sending God can it truly be called mission. Not least since the missionary initiative comes from God alone.[4]

Protestants, in particular, are challenged…with respect to their overly pragmatic mission structures, their tendency to portray mission almost exclusively in verbalist categories, and the absence of missionary spirituality in their churches, which often drastically impoverishes all their commendable efforts in the area of social justice (212).

“We can no longer go back to the earlier position, when mission was peripheral to the life and being of the church. It is for the sake of its mission that the church has been elected, for the sake of its calling that it has been made ‘God’s own people’ (1 Pet 2:9). So mission cannot be defined only in terms of the church—even of the church which is mission by its very nature. Mission goes beyond the church. Illich is therefore correct when he also calls mission ‘the social continuation of the Incarnation’, ‘the social dawning of the mystery’, ‘the social flowering of the Word into an ever changing present.’ To say that the church is essentially missionary does not mean that mission is church-centered. It is missio Dei. It is trinitarian. It is mediating the love of God the Father who is the Parent of all people, whoever and wherever they may be. It is epiphany, the making present in the world of God the Son. It is mediating the presence of God the Spirit, who blows where he wishes, without us knowing whence he comes and whither he goes (Jn 3:8). Mission is ‘the expression of the life of the Holy Spirit who has been set no limits’ (G. Van der Leeuw, quoted in Rosendranz 1977:14). So mission concerns the world also beyond the boundaries of the church. It is the world God loves and for the sake of which the Christian community is called to be the salt and the light (Jn 3:16; Mt 5:13). The symbol ‘mission’ should therefore not be confused with or confined to the term ‘missionary’; the church’s missionary movement is only one form of the outward-oriented nature of the love of God. Mission means serving, healing, and reconciling a divided, wounded humanity.”[1]

“Conversion is, however, not the joining of a community in order to procure ‘eternal salvation’; it is, rather, a change in allegiance in which Christ is accepted as Lord and center of one’s life. A Christian is not simply somebody who stands a better chance of being ‘saved’, but a person who accepts the responsibility to serve God in this life and promote God’s reign in all its forms. Conversion involves personal cleansing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and renewal in order to become a participant in the mighty works of God. The believer is, after all, a member of the church, which is a sign of God’s reign, sacramentum mundi, symbol of God’s new world, and anticipation of what God intends all creation to be.

I come to my last observation on dialogue and witness in a new paradigm. This observation is really a question: How do we maintain the tension between being both missionary and dialogical? How do we combine faith in God as revealed uniquely in Jesus Christ with the confession that God has not left himself without a witness? If we are honest, also with ourselves, we encounter this tension whichever way we turn. We observe it in the Vatican II documents, for instance. Two affirmations, which seem to be mutually incompatible, speak to us from these documents—God’s universal salvific will and the possibility of salvation outside the church versus the necessity of the church and of missionary activity. The same unresolved tension emerges from ME, which states, on the one hand, that the proclamation of God’s reign in Christ is at the very heart of the church’s vocation in the world and, on the other hand, that ‘the Spirit of God is constantly at work in ways that pass human understanding and in places that to us are least expected’. It emerges more clearly still from Section I at San Antonio, where two convictions are immediately juxtaposed: ‘We cannot point to any other way of salvation than Jesus Christ; at the same time we cannot set limits to the saving power of God’. The report proceeds by publicly acknowledging that there is a tension here and states: ‘We appreciate this tension, and do not attempt to resolve it’.

Such language boils down to an admission that we do not have all the answers and are prepared to live within the framework of penultimate knowledge, that we regard our involvement in dialogue and mission as an adventure, are prepared to take risks, and are anticipating surprises as the Spirit guides us into fuller understanding. This is not opting for agnosticism, but for humility. It is, however, a bold humility—or a humble boldness. We know only in part, but we do know. And we believe that the faith we profess is both true and just, and should be proclaimed. We do this, however, not as judges or lawyers, but as witnesses; not as soldiers, but as envoys of peace; not as high-pressure salespersons, but as ambassadors of the Servant Lord.”[2]

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[1] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 493-494.

[2] Ibid.,  488-489.

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