Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome is the most recent work from George Demacopoulos, professor of Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University. Having written his doctoral dissertation on Gregory and spiritual direction, Democopoulos’ other related works include Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church (2006) as well as an updated translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Rule (2007). In terms of related works from other scholars, while the author has offered his own helpful literature review (pp. 4-9), this work particularly resembles Robert Markus’ Gregory the Great and His World (1987), Carole Straw’s Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection (1988), and Conrad Leyers’ Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great (2000).
At the outset of the book, Democopoulos clearly states his thesis: “that Gregory’s ascetic and pastoral theology both informed and structured his administration of the Roman Church” (p. 11) and the work is divided into three main sections. In the first part, Democopoulos aims to outline Gregory’s ascetic theology in general. In the second part, he seeks to show how ascetic thinking shaped his pastoral theology. Finally, in the third section, he advances the argument that Gregory’s ascetic theology also influenced his leadership of the church at Rome. It is the third area that is arguably the most ground breaking because Gregory is generally remembered as a strong administrator whose style resembled that of a governor more than that of a monastic abbot. Through his argument, Democopoulous attempts to synthesize the “two Gregorys” that have been portrayed by other scholars. In his characteristic thoroughness, Democopoulos interacts with much of the Gregorian corpus to present his case.
There is much to appreciate about this study. In part one of the book (pp. 19-30), the author does a good job discussing the tension of the contemplative life and the active life that ministry-minded monks such as Basil, Augustine, and Gregory wrestled with and addressed. Democopoulos makes a good argument that Gregory probably had the most developed ideas about this among the fathers; that he had “an ascetic vision that emphasized service to others as the climax of the spiritual and ascetic life” (p. 26). That is, a monk should gladly have his contemplative experience of prayer, fasting, etc. interrupted in order to serve others. While I think Democopoulos has made a good point here, this advanced loving God/loving neighbor aspect of ascetic theology probably also informed Gregory’s passion for cross-cultural mission to the Lombards and especially to the Anglo-Saxons. Though the author dedicates chapter 13 of the book to these mission efforts, a monastic theology of service expressed in mission was absent. I think further reflection in this area of Gregory’s ministry would strengthen Demacopoulos’ overall “service as the climax” argument.
I think Democopoulos also succeeds in part two of the book by showing Gregory’s integrated ascetic and pastoral theology. In particular, he argues that a key component of being a pastor was being a spiritual director (cf. pp. 53-56), which was strengthened by ascetic concerns. He builds his argument not only through a good treatment of Gregory’s Pastoral Rule but also by exploring parts of the Gregorian corpus that are not as overtly pastoral in focus, including his commentaries on Job and Ezekiel and his homilies on the Gospels.
A final strength of the work is in part three—in which Democopoulos attempts to connect Gregory’s asceticism with his practical leadership of the Roman church—as the author presents Gregory’s regard for Peter. Unlike other Roman bishops, Gregory presents Peter as weak and fallible and it is this weakness that actually makes him a strong and model leader (pp. 153-155). While this character analysis of Peter toward the office of bishop certainly supports Democopolous’ acetic theology connection to leadership, I found the remainder of part three of the book a bit less convincing in making the connection between Gregory the monk and Gregory the strong, prefect-like leader of the church at Rome.
In short, this is a profitable and useful study of the famous Roman bishop through the lenses of ascetic theology. While graduate students and scholars and students of early Christianity would benefit most from this book, it is written at such an accessible level that interested undergraduates and possibly pastors would profit from it as well.
Intercultural Theology, vol. 1: Intercultural Hermeneutics. By Henning Wrogemann. Translated by Karl E. Böhmer. Missiological Engagements. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016. xxii + 431 pp., $45.00. Originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 60:1 (March 2017), 167-69.
Translated from the German, this work is the first in a three-part series on intercultural theology by Henning Wrogemann, chair for mission studies, comparative religion, and ecumenics at the Protestant University Wuppertal/Bethel in Germany. Subsequent volumes, still awaiting translation and publication in English, address theology of mission and theology of religions. In terms of related works, Wrogemann’s work resembles K. C. Abraham’s edited volume Third World Theologies: Commonalities and Divergences (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990) as well as Stephen Bevans’s and Roger Schroeder’s Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).
Opting for the term intercultural theology instead of mission studies, Wrogemann’s aim in this book is to “take into account the broad scope of world Christianity” (p. 20). He asserts that intercultural theology will make “an important contribution to the processes in which Christians see themselves within the pluralized society of Europe and around the world” as “various forms of Christianity are analyzed from an intercultural perspective according to their particular characteristics … what they take for granted both culturally and contextually … what they view as problematic, and … their particular assumptions and priorities” (p. 395–96).
Read the remainder of the review HERE.
At CIU this weekend (March 18) we are hosting the Southeast regional Evangelical Missiological Society meeting on the theme theology in global context. Because of studies this past year on missionary monasticism and Francis of Assisi, I will be presenting a paper called, "Francis of Assisi’s Medieval Christology of Mission and Its Implications for Mission Today."
My abstract for the paper is below and a complete draft of the paper can be downloaded HERE.
In recent years, global theologians of mission have emphasized a posture of mission from below—missional engagement from a place of weakness and vulnerability. In part a reaction to the mistakes of Christendom and Christian mission’s alliance with political and economic power, mission from below aims to recover first century mission that emulates the way of Christ and the apostles. This approach to mission is also relevant in contexts today where Christian freedom (for worship and witness) is limited by tyrannical or resistant governments. As we strive to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves in mission today, it seems fruitful to explore the theology of mission of a medieval Italian mendicant monk who served in mission to Muslims during the Crusades.
In this paper, following a brief narrative of Francis of Assisi’s (1181-1226) life and journey in mission, I will focus on Francis’ Christology and how that shaped his approach to mission among Muslims and others. Finally, I will conclude with some reflections for what the church on mission today might gain from Francis.
This review was originally published in the January 2017 edition of Evangelical Missions Quarterly and is posted here with their kind permission. Click HERE to learn subscribe to EMQ.
Douglas Jacobsen (distinguished professor of church history and theology at Messiah College) has spent a career teaching Global Christian history. He pays that forward in this new book, which offers a concise grasp of the history and current status of the Global Church.
Jacobsen’s stated aim is “to describe the big picture of global Christianity as fairly and accurately as possible” (p. xiii). Following a brief historical survey (chap. 1), Jacobsen approaches his task by discussing the four main traditions within the Global Church—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Pentecostalism (chap. 2). Next, he narrates the story of Christianity geographically, looking at Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and then North America (chaps. 3-7).
There is much to commend about this book. Jacobsen shows himself more than qualified to guide the reader through such vast territory in a concise and readable way. It is obvious that he has been helping students navigate this path for many years. Jacobsen also does excellent historical work with help from the disciplines of sociology and theology.
For example, he ably explains the social and historical backstory to the late twentieth-century Rwandan genocide (pp. 57-60) and helps the reader understand harmony as a value in Asian theology (pp. 174-187). Finally, Jacobsen includes many clear supporting graphs and maps that help the reader grasp key statistics and trends presented in the work.
In addition to these affirmations, I have two constructive critiques. First, from the outset of the work (pp. xv-xviii, 1-16), Jacobsen celebrates the diversity of Global Christianity in the New Testament and Early Church period and even suggests that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses could fit within the traditions of Christianity.
While diversity of belief and practice ought to be celebrated in Christian history, we mustn’t forget that the Church did not embrace ‘Christianities’ as Walter Bauer and Bart Ehrman have claimed; rather, from a very early point, the Church fought to preserve orthodoxy against aberrant teaching through the rule of faith, creeds, and, of course, through affirming the canonical scriptures. At points, Jacobsen seems to lean in the direction of ‘Christianities’ over diversity within orthodox Christianity.
Second, although I admire Jacobsen’s undertaking to describe Global Christianity through four main traditions (chap. 2), I still came away unconvinced that those categories tell the whole story. The Pentecostal movement makes things especially blurry because (1) Pentecostalism developed out of historic Protestantism and (2) there are Pentecostal movements within the Roman Catholicism. As the book continues, Jacobsen shows the pervasiveness of Pentecostalism and, in a way, dismantles the categories proposed in chapter 2.
However, this is an excellent, readable, and stimulating book for Christian history students. After reviewing it, I’ve decided to adopt it for my History of Global Christianity course and I encourage other professors to do the same.
Irvin, Dale T. and Scott W. Sunquist. 2001, 2013. History of the World Christian Movement, Vols. 1 and 2. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
Jenkins, Philip. 2011. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Todd M. and Cindy Wu. 2015. Our Global Families: Christians Embracing Common Identity in a Changing World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
We're excited about this year's Southeast regional Evangelical Missiological Society regional conference that will take place at Columbia International University, March 18, 2017, 8am-5pm.
Allen Yeh of Biola University will give the plenary talk, "Beyond the Three-Self Church: Self Theologizing in East Asia" that will be followed by an additional 30 papers on the theme. The complete schedule can be downloaded HERE.
Registration is now OPEN ($10 for students, $20 for non-students). For local hotels, visit HERE. Lunch on Saturday may be purchased in the CIU cafeteria or at one of many local restaurants. Though not a requirement for attending the regional meeting, please take this opportunity to join EMS or renew your membership HERE.
For questions concerning conference details, contact Dr. Ed Smither (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Mission of the Church is a timely book on an often-debated issue—the meaning of Christian mission. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School church planting professor, Craig Ott, has invited an excellent team of diverse scholars to engage the question. In a robust introduction, Ott situates the discussion within twentieth-century global Christian history and he provides a helpful backstory on a variety of Christian perspectives on mission (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant, fundamentalist, and evangelical). The presenters and perspectives represented include: (1) Stephen Bevans, a Roman Catholic missiologist who defines mission as “prophetic dialogue.” (2) Mainline Protestant scholar Darrell Guder who proposes a “multicultural, translational” approach. (3) Latin American evangelical Ruth Padilla-DeBorst who presents mission as “integral transformation.” Padilla-DeBorst is the only female and non-North American contributor in the book. (4) Edward Rommen, a former evangelical and now Orthodox priest, offers the Orthodox perspective or what he terms a “sacramental vision” approach. (5) Ed Stetzer, an evangelical, proposes an “Evangelical Kingdom Community Approach.”
Following these perspectives chapters, each author responded briefly to the other essays. Unlike other counterpoint books, this book shaped up to be more of a constructive dialogue with significant consensus on points such as the Trinitarian foundation of mission, the missio Dei as the starting point for missions, and that mission is church- and Christ-centered.
Bevans makes a compelling case for mission as a prophetic dialogue. On one hand a dialogue implies relationship, hospitality, trust and meeting people where they are. On the other, it involves denouncing injustice and calling those far from God to repent. When I read this, I was reminded of Andrew Walls’ assertion that the gospel ought to be “at home” and “pilgrim” in every culture. While I generally affirm his thoughts, I’m a bit puzzled that Bevans includes ecumenical dialogue within the practice of mission (p. 12). Mission in my view involves crossing the barriers from faith to non-faith; so I struggle to see how encounters and discussions between professing Christ followers counts as mission.
Guder, already known for his influential work, The Missional Church, builds his excellent argument on a Nicene (one holy catholic church) understanding of the church. His missional ecclesiology includes the church’s catholicity, apostolicity, and unity. Citing David Bosch, Guder affirms that “mission . . . is seen as a movement from God to the world; the church is viewed as an instrument for God’s mission” (p. 22).
In her essay, Padilla DeBorst largely revisits the holistic missiology of the Latin American Theological Fellowship, which was pioneered by her father, Rene Padilla, among others. I admire Padilla DeBorst’s continued commitment to reflect on missional theology in the Latin American context, one that has been marked by oppression, poverty, and great social needs. She is no armchair theologian! I also affirm that mission is both in word (proclaiming the gospel and making disciples) and deed (caring for real humans needs and confronting injustice); however, unlike Padilla DeBorst and the FTL, I see gospel proclamation as the central and ultimate aspect of Christian mission.
For Rommen, the church and the Eucharist are central to mission theology. Although I do not hold to Rommen’s theology of the Eucharist, I do agree with his argument that worship (liturgy) is the point of departure and arrival for mission. Witness and service are the “liturgy after the liturgy” (p. 69). The Lord’s Supper is also an excellent dramatic retelling of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and, in my own experience, a wonderful evangelistic opportunity to invite non-believers to see the gospel. Of course, as friends believe, we would invite them to become a worshipper and partaker of the Lord’s Table. I also agree with Rommen that the gospel is not about information but about a person. We do not commend an ideology; we commend Christ. I find his critique of evangelicals on this point to be unwarranted. In fact, the weakest parts of Rommen’s essay are his overstated critiques against evangelicals (and his own past).
I most resonated with Stetzer’s essay. For me, his biggest contribution was showing a good grasp of history and sketching out his mission theology in light of the last century of mission theology. He also affirms that mission is in word and deed but maintains the centrality of proclamation (the evangelical values of crucicentrism and conversion) in mission.
In sum, this is a really good book and a good model for winsome, constructive dialogue. As the editor acknowledges, it would have been strengthened by more diverse voices from the global church. I recommend this book for introductory courses in biblical theology of mission.
David W. Shenk. Christian, Muslim, Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2014. pp. 187, paperback, $14.99
Christian, Muslim, Friend is a recent work from David Shenk, a Mennonite missionary who has served in Somalia, Kenya, the USA, and who continually engages in peaceful dialogue with Muslim leaders around the world. Shenk has authored fifteen books and this new book is the fourth in his “Christians Meeting Muslims” series, which includes A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church, and Teatime in Mogadishu. In 2016, Christianity Today recognized Muslim, Christian, Friend as its book of the year for missions.
In the book, Shenk lays out twelve paths or principles, each presented in a chapter, for engaging Muslims. Reflecting much on his five-decade journey of loving and commending Christ to Muslims, Shenk’s book offers much wisdom to Christ followers desiring to engage Muslims in the 21st century. In this brief review, I would like to highlight four themes that particularly struck me and seem instructive for the church today.
Though chapter 6 focused on the place of hospitality in ministry to Muslims, hospitality was a pervasive theme throughout the book. Hardly a page goes by when Shenk is not relating accounts of having tea or meals with Muslim friends. Through showing and receiving hospitality—a strong cultural value in contexts where Shenk served but a central biblical value as well—many barriers to cultural and religious understanding were overcome which allowed for winsome gospel sharing.
While chapters 10 and 11 emphasized the ministry of peacemaking, Shenk demonstrated throughout the book that peace was a foundational principle in his approach to Muslims. Evident in his tone toward initially hostile imams or even in the manner that he surrendered Mennonite Mission property to the government in Somalia during a revolution, Shenk’s posture of peace resulted in many open doors to share the person of Jesus the Messiah.
Shenk’s emphasis on peace was coupled with a boldness for communicating the essentials of the gospel—particularly the person of Christ and his death, burial, and resurrection. In his ministry, Shenk did not hedge for a moment on the centrality of the cross—often a difficult issue for Muslims (see chaps. 7-9, 12). Remaining gospel-centered, Shenk consistently identified himself as a messenger for Jesus the Messiah, challenging his readers to pursue integrity in how they present themselves to Muslims (see chaps. 1-2). In short, for Shenk, a peaceful posture and a bold witness for Christ are quite compatible.
Finally, throughout the book, Shenk demonstrates a good knowledge of Islam, the Qur’an, Hadith, Islamic theology, and Muslim traditions. However, he uses this knowledge to build bridges of understanding with Muslims while avoiding polemics. Though winsome to defend central gospel truths, Shenk refuses to attack Islam or Muslims in any way, laying the groundwork for respectful witness.
In summary, Shenk’s book is quite accessible and ought to serve as basic reading for all followers of Christ desiring to understanding and minister to Muslims. It would also serve as an excellent text for a course on approaches to Muslim evangelism.
Books often contain great arguments and claims that shape us. I'm particularly grateful for some new books that appeared this year that I was able to digest. Most of my reading is in the areas of global Christian history, theology, culture, and mission and the following were among my favorites in no particular order.
1. In Our Global Families, Todd Johnson and Cindy Wu offer Christ-followers the tools to understand and engage two families—the Global Body of Christ and the non-Christian, human family, while proposing a humble “faithful presence” approach to being on mission in a globalized world. See my brief review.
2. Douglas Jacobsen's Global Gospel presents a concise history and current status of the global church. He discusses the four main traditions within the global church (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Pentecostalism) and then explores global Christianity geographically looking at Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and then North America. I've a written review that is forthcoming in Evangelical Missions Quarterly.
3. I spent a good part of the year completing my own book, Missionary Monks, so I read a great bit on the history of monasticism, including Greg Peter's Story of Monasticism. Peters' stated aim is to craft a work “on the history of Christian monasticism geared toward a ressourcement of the tradition for the twenty-first century." I wrote a brief review here.
4. My monastic studies also benefited from George Demacopoulos', Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome. The author argues well that “Gregory’s ascetic and pastoral theology both informed and structured his administration of the Roman Church” and that Gregory synthesized well the contemplative life of a monk with the active life of a pastor. I have a forthcoming in Fides et Humilitas.
5. In Scott Sunquists's The Unexpected Christian Century, he attempts to sketch out the history of global Christianity in the twentieth century. This is a tall order indeed and I appreciate his approach to the “global century” that began with some 80% of the world’s Christians living in North America or Europe and ended with about 60% living in the Global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). I've written a short review here.
6. David Shenk's Christian.Muslim.Friend: Twelve Paths to Real Relationship ought to be read by every Christian who has ever watched a story on the news about Muslims. In the book Shenk shares insights from over five decades of engaging Muslims, demonstrating an effective combination of peacemaking, friendship, and bold Christian witness. See my review here.
7. Michael Bird's What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine through the Apostle's Creed was enriching on a historical, theological, and devotional level. I found the book so accessible that our home fellowship adopted it to study this semester in our gatherings. I wrote some initial thoughts here.
8. Finally, the book that most impacted me spiritually this year was James K.A. Smith's You are what You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. As the title attests, Smith effectively shows that “Jesus’ command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with his." I've scribbled out some reflections here.
Thanks to all of these authors for investing in my growth this year.
My CIU colleague Daniel Janosik has just published an important new work in the early history of Christian-Muslims relations in this survey of John of Damascus. Recently, Daniel and I participated together in a session on the doctrine of the Trinity in the history of Christian mission at the Evangelical Theological Society. In this post, he has responded to a few of my questions about John of Damascus: First Apologist to the Muslims.
What led you to write this book?
The book is a re-write from my Ph.D. dissertation. In my research I wanted to study the development of the Trinity in the Patristic age, especially as it relates to Apologetics, and I wanted to focus on how the Trinity was understood in the developmental phases of Islam. All of these factors came together nicely under John of Damascus, who was the chief theologian of the time and had written two treatises in regard to Islam and its opposition to Christianity. As the first Apologist to the Muslims, John’s views influenced generations of Christians after him, and he provided me with the eyewitness I needed in order to explore the early developments of the movement that became Islam.
Who should read this?
This is a scholarly treatment of John of Damascus, his writings on Islam (which I translated from the Greek), the development of Islam, and role of Apologetics in the development of doctrine. However, it is written in a way that is very accessible to the average lay person in the church. It is especially helpful for anyone who wants to understand how Islam was perceived at that time by the Christians and how history tells us a very different story from the traditional views of Islam that pervade so many books today. John was an eyewitness to these events, and as the chief financial officer of the Umayyad Empire under the caliph Abd al-Malik, he was able to reveal an insider’s understanding of what he called the “heresy of the Ishmaelites.” This is a book for anyone who wants to dig deep into the sands of history in order to clear away the layers that prevent us from understanding what really happened.
What are your favorite parts of the book?
One of my favorite parts of the book is going through the two treatises that John wrote on Islam, the Heresy of the Ishmaelites and the Disputation between a Christian and a Saracen. As an Apologist, I really enjoyed analyzing his arguments against Islam and gaining his perspective of the religion itself. It is so important for us today to learn from someone who was an eyewitness to the early events and one who may have influenced some of the first theological debates in Islam. I also enjoyed being able to explore the testimonies of other non-Muslims who lived at that time and wrote about their experiences with the monotheistic religion that became Islam. Looking through their eyes we can gain a perspective from the past that will help us reach out to Muslims today.
What other writing projects are your working on at the moment?
I am finishing up a book called A Christian’s Guide to Islam, which is geared for the general Christian in the church who wants to know everything necessary about Islam and Muslims in order to reach out to their Muslim friends with truth and love rather than fear. It is scheduled to be out in July 2017. I will also be working on a book that will provide a critical analysis and commentary on the text of John’s works on Islam.