I was grateful to see that my book Mission in the Early Church was reviewed in the April 2015 edition of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Whenever I see a book that I have written reviewed in an academic journal, it is both encouraging that someone would consider it worthy to review and scary that someone is going to criticize it. But that is the nature of our craft and I, too, write critical book reviews in order to learn and clarify my thinking. Ordinarily, I wouldn't write a a rejoinder to a review but I do feel that Andrew Christoner's critique merits a brief response.
He writes: "First, the study is heavily dependent on earlier overviews of the early Christian period. Very little original discussion of or interaction with primary texts is apparent."
Christoner is correct in that current historical scholarship from the Patristic period was consulted. This was done in part to show a consensus of thought from existing scholarship but also to synthesize this scholarship in light of the book's aim to explore mission in early Christianity--something that few Patristic scholars show much interest in doing. That said, the themes and trends that I highlighted in the book are in fact the fruit of reading the fathers over the last twenty years; not based on what others have previously claimed about early Christian mission. I would invite the reader to explore the early Christian primary sources that I have quoted or cited throughout the book (in accessible English editions for the benefit of the beginning student) to get a glimpse into that journey.
Christoner continues: "Second, Smither’s discussion of certain features of early Christian writings seems to lack critical perspective. For example, when discussing martyrdom literature in chapter 3, he argues that the pains and deaths suffered by the martyrs 'surely encouraged sympathy from pagan audiences' (63). A crucial difficulty with this claim is the dearth of accounts of Christian martyrdoms written by pagans. Early Christian accounts of martyrdoms speak at times of a pagan audience’s horror and grief at the sufferings of the Christians, but we should hesitate to take these Christian accounts completely at face value, given the interest of the early Christians in presenting their opponents as sympathetic to the Christian cause."
This is a very good point and my case would be much better made if more pagan writers concurred with the early Christian writers. Recent scholarship has looked at early Christian suffering and martyrdom accounts with extreme skepticism and I think, at times, modern scholars could be guilty of reading too much poor motivation into the hearts of early Christian writers. My doctoral supervisor--an Irish scholar chairing a historical theology department at a British university--reminded me once that these writings should not be regarded as the handiwork of professional liars. While we must evaluate early Christian accounts of suffering and martyrdom with caution, in Mission in the Early Church I chose to base my claim above (that suffering aroused sympathy from pagan audiences) on the fact that this was asserted in many accounts in various geographic locations in the ancient world.
All said, I am grateful for Andrew Christoner's review and feedback that are surely sharpening my thinking and I, of course, wholeheartedly share the sentiment in his closing remark: "It is to be hoped that missional efforts increasingly will be inspired by the riches of wisdom found in the Christian past."
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