Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture. By William Edgar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. x + 262 pp., $24.00 paper. [note: this review was originally published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 60:3 (2017): 607-609].
Created and Creating is a new work from William Edgar, professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). Edgar’s previous books include A Transforming Vision: The Lord’s Prayer as a Lens for Life, Schaeffer on the Christian Life, and Truth in all Its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith. Making a case for Christian cultural engagement, Edgar’s stated thesis is that “the cultural mandate, declared at the dawn of human history, and reiterated throughout the different episodes of redemptive history, culminating in Jesus’ Great Commission, is the central calling for humanity” (p. 233). With this focus, Edgar’s project bears resemblance to some other recent works including: 1) Andy Crouch’s Culture Making (2008), which invites Christians to be constructive contributors to culture; 2) Rod Dreher’s new work, The Benedict Option (2017) that actually urges believers to disengage from politics and to take shelter from the secular world; 3) Richard Niebuhr’s older theological work, Christ and Culture (1951) that discusses the various angles in which Christ relates to a given culture. Cultural engagement has also been a key theme in James K.A. Smith’s works, including his recent book, You are What You Love (2016). What makes Edgar’s work distinct is his primary emphasis on a biblical theology of culture.
In the first of three parts (“parameters of culture”, chaps. 1-2) Edgar surveys nineteenth and twentieth century scholarship, showing the development of cultural studies in general. Next, he summarizes the thought of key twentieth-century theologians (including Lewis, Kuyper, Schaeffer, Conn) who have written about culture from a biblical perspective. In part 2 (“challenges from Scripture,” chaps. 3-7), the author carefully works through Scripture to explore the tension between not being conformed to the world (contra mundum), while also being a winsome participant in and shaper of culture. Finally, in part 3 (“the cultural mandate,” chaps. 8-12), Edgar fleshes out his thesis to show the cultural mandate at work throughout biblical redemptive history from the garden of Eden to the eternal state.
There are many things to commend about this work but I will focus on three areas. First, since the author grew up in France and later served as a missionary there, he demonstrates a good grasp of the products of western culture (e.g., art, music), which he draws freely upon to make illustrations in the book. Also, particularly in the first section, he emulates his mentor Francis Schaeffer in being able to understand European philosophy and converse with these ideas from a biblical perspective.
Second, Edgar succeeds in accomplishing his aims of presenting a biblical theology of culture by doing excellent exegetical work throughout the book. His study is rich with reflection on particular passages, including biblical terms and themes, all within the context of biblical redemptive history. This thorough and sober study of Scripture might provide the best response to date to the claims of cultural disengagement laid out in Dreher’s Benedict Option even though that is not Edgar’s specific aim. Finally, the author’s discussion on the image of God in man certainly critiques the historic social sins of slavery and racism though, again, that is not his deliberate purpose.
A final strength was Edgar’s discussion in chapter 12 on “culture in the afterlife.” Most reflections on Christian cultural engagement focus on the here and now; so it was thought provoking and even inspiring to think about culture making in heaven. Edgar accomplishes the goals of his study by exploring the cultural mandate even in the eternal state.
To these affirmations, I add three areas of constructive critique. First, though Edgar deeply engages Scripture and western philosophy, the Christian voices that inform much of his thought are almost entirely white, western, male, and Reformed. While no disrespect is meant for the likes of Murray, Kuyper, Vos, Frame, Conn, Schaeffer, Keller, and others, if Edgar had engaged other diverse global theological voices, then his book would have been strengthened.
Second, I was hoping that the third part of the book would do more to unpack a theology of work. Although the title of chapter 8 (“first vocation”) hints at such a discussion, and a paragraph in chapter 12 (p. 218) only briefly raises the issue of work, this reader would have appreciated more biblical and theological reflection on vocation.
Finally, in chapter 12, Edgar’s assessment of Augustine’s thought on cultural engagement from City of God appears incomplete. Edgar writes: “Yet [Augustine’s] dichotomy between the two cities, based on the two loves, leaves the reader to believe the present world is a confinement, a place of captivity, as we await immortality” (p. 221). While Augustine regarded believers as temporary pilgrims in the earthly city who yearn for the heavenly city, he also affirmed that actively living in the earthly city prepares the believer for heaven. Also, Augustine encouraged believers to actively participate in society in order to influence the earthly city with heavenly values. Augustine applied these values in his own ministry by serving as a monk-bishop and living in a monastery (in the bishop’s house) near Hippo’s center. There he and the brothers regularly open their doors to visitors and demonstrated hospitality. Further, under the Theodosian code, Augustine functioned as a judge and mediator in the Roman courts so he could influence local society with biblical values (cf. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1.4.4; Sermon 88.15; City of God 22.21.16; 21.15; Letter 133; Possidius, Life of Augustine 19).
In summary, William Edgar has written a thoughtful introductory work on a biblical theology of culture. This would function as a good supplementary text to an Introduction to Mission or Biblical Theology of Mission course at the seminary level, especially if it is read alongside other works from diverse global theologians.
The Evangelical Missiological Society Compendium (EMS 25) was published last week. Churches on Mission: God's Grace Abounding to the Nations (EMS 25) captures some of the papers from the 2016 EMS national conference. I had the opportunity to write chapter 2 entitled, "When the Church was the Mission Organization." My chapter intro reads:
Critical observers of mission history remark that following the sixteenth-century Reformation in Europe, one reason for the initial inaction of Reformed Protestants in global mission was the lack of missionary sending structures. Roman Catholics on the other hand possessed a number of sending structures—most notably monastic orders (e.g., Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans, Cistercians, and Jesuits) that were formed in the medieval period for the purpose of sending witnesses to the world. So how did mission sending happen and what structures were in place in the early and medieval church prior to the rise of monastic missionary orders? In this article, I argue that the church itself was the key organism and catalyst for mission sending. In doing so, I offer an alternative conclusion to Ralph Winter’s (Winter 1999, 220-229) popularly accepted claim that there were two structures of redemption in mission history—modalities (e.g., churches) and sodalities (e.g., monastic movements)—and argue that the church was the sole means of sending. To make the case, I will highlight the examples of five missionary-monk-bishops who served between the fourth and eighth centuries: Basil of Caesarea (fourth-century Asia Minor), Patrick (fifth-century Ireland), Augustine of Canterbury (sixth- and seventh-century England), Alopen (seventh-century China), and Boniface (eighth-century Germany). Though not exhaustive, these cases serve as representative models for early Christian and medieval Christian practice in the global church.
In late 1521 and early 1522, a young scholar and theology professor risked his life to translate the New Testament into colloquial German. Convinced that the Word of God had final authority in a believer’s life and that every Christian possessed the ability to understand Scripture even without the aid of a priest or teacher, Martin Luther (1483-1546) modeled very practically the value of sola scriptura through this translation exercise. Although Luther and other early Protestant reformers were not directly involved in cross-cultural, global mission, the principle of sola scriptura that they championed provided a theological foundation and fresh vision for Bible translation that invigorated the missionary enterprise.
In this paper, I will argue that the value of sola scriptura was the Reformation’s greatest contribution to Protestant global mission and that the recovery of vernacular Bible translation as a central mission practice contributed to making the modern missions movement revolutionary. Following some preliminary thoughts on the vernacular principle and sola scriptura, I will sketch out the work of key missionary Bible translators from the 17th to the 20th century to show that Protestant mission has indeed been a mission of translation. I will conclude with some remarks on how sola scriptura and the vernacular principle have shaped evangelical Protestant and how they might offer guidance moving forward in 21st century mission.
note: This is the abstract from a paper I'll be giving at the "Legacy of the Reformation" conference at Liberty University. The picture above is an early print of Luther's German NT, which I photographed at the Luther museum in the Wartburg castle in Eisenach, Germany.
Alan Kreider. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016. Pp. xiii+321. ISBN 9780801048494. $26.99
This new work is the latest from Alan Kreider (1941-2017), professor emeritus of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (note: Prof. Kreider passed away in the Spring of 2017. May he rest in peace). The Patient Ferment certainly resembles Kreider’s previous books on the emergence of Christendom in the early church and Roman Empire, including The Origins of Christendom in the Christian West (2001), The Change of Conversion and Origin of Christendom (2007), and Worship and Mission After Christendom (2011). Other related works include Ramsey MacMullen’s Christianizing the Roman Empire (1984) and Andrew McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship (2014).
As the title indicates, Kreider’s central thesis is that the Christian faith—an otherwise superstitio from insignificant Palestine—captured the hearts and minds of Roman pagans because of the transformed habitus of Christian believers. This patient witness that grew over time, particularly in the first three centuries, proved to be attractive to the Romans. In parts 1 and 2 of the book, Kreider argues for this patient growth of the church in pagan Rome, while in part 3, he discusses the means through which the Christian habitus was formed—particularly catechesis and worship. Finally, in part 4, in good Anabaptist fashion, he claims that this patient ferment began to be lost with the emergence of the Emperor Constantine and through the influence of the church father Augustine of Hippo.
There is much to like about this book. In typical Kreider fashion, he thoroughly engages ancient texts and the best current scholarship to advance his thesis that Christianity conquered the hearts of many Romans prior to the rise of Constantine through a patient witness. Certainly, his Anabaptist lenses on early Christian history—especially regarding the aversion to killing and the lack of political power possessed by Christians—come to bear in this work. I also find it refreshing that Kreider looks at the early church and its thinkers from a missiological perspective, which is certainly uncommon in patristic studies. While Kreider’s chapters on forming the habitus (on catechesis and worship) are not terribly groundbreaking, he does do a good job of situating early Roman church worship—practices such as the sharing of meals and liturgy—within the context of the Roman world. In that sense, he is a faithful guide to show how the Jesus movement of the eastern Mediterranean world became Roman Christianity. Finally, Kreider does a good job of evaluating the conversion of Constantine against the grid of third- and fourth-century initiation (evangelism, catechesis, baptism) and he successfully argues that Constantine was not regarded by the church as a believer until his baptism at the end of his life.
Given these strengths, I do have a couple of constructive critiques. First, while Kreider’s central argument that the Christian habitus—the visible way of life among pagans—was the main strategy for early Christian mission, he seems to downplay the place of gospel proclamation in mission. Without a doubt, Christians witnessed through their daily character in the marketplace and public square as religious minorities. However, though a religio illicita, Christianity was still very much a public religion in Rome and there is good evidence that open proclamation took place on interpersonal levels but also through the work of itinerant evangelists as the author of the Didache, Origen, Eusebius have reported. Also, the pre-Constantinian ministries of Gregory Thaumaturgus, Gregory the Enlightener, and arguably Irenaeus of Lyons point to the work of ministers engaged in evangelistic proclamation. So while I affirm his claims of the Christian habitus being key to a patient witness, I think more space could have been given to the place of proclamation in early Christian mission.
Second, in the final chapter, Kreider asserts that through allowing and even affirming state intervention into religious disputes (with Donatists and Pelagians), Augustine set into play a “missional revolution” in which “the carriers brought a gospel in which impatient, forceful actions—animated of course by loving intentions—replaced patient actions” (p. 294). This element of Kreider’s argument was quite brief and rather unconvincing and could have used much greater support in the way of argument and documentation. What is ironic to me is that Augustine’s engagement with the Donatists and Pelagius and those they influenced was a narrative marked by much patience that included much writing, traveling, and meeting to defend sound teaching. I would add that persuasion and teaching remained Augustine’s primary means of striving to reach these groups.
In summary, I think that students and professors of early Christianity in the Roman Empire would benefit from this book. Also, given the book’s emphasis on witness through a patient Christian habitus, I think many pastors today would be challenged by it as they minister in a fast paced society and lead busy churches that are often packed with activity.
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.
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 (email@example.com).