Book Review of Vincent J. Donovan’s “Christianity Rediscovered”

There are things we have learned from our culture’s place in history that will be disrupted, dismantled, even condemned by the gospel. Other parts of our culture and history will be purified and refined, and in these things we will realize God was always leading us to King Jesus even though we couldn’t have known it before the gospel.

For discussion this week our theology class read through the book Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan. Donovan was a Catholic priest sent on missionary work to Tanzania in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Christianity Rediscovered was published in 1978 to explain his methods as a Catholic missionary and he hoped it would affect the Roman Catholic Church in its post-Vatican II transitionary period.

Donovan’s missionary method explicitly left behind the work of the Roman Catholic Church up to his day. Rome had dedicated centuries to living among the peoples of Africa and had come to the point in the early 1950s where they were running hospitals and schools to show they cared for Africans in hopes that they could compassionately draw people into Christian faith. Donovan critiques the Roman methods because they had stopped overtly teaching the gospel to those outside the proximity of the mission complex. He decided he would go the Masai tribes with a convert to reach the tribes far from the mission hub. This book is Donovan’s memoirs concerning his time dedicated to this missionary work.

There are a couple of positive ruminations by Donovan that should be appreciated. For being a man who had little education in moving cross culturally his struggles from naïveté to hard experiences are valuable to witness in his beautiful narratives of life among the Masai people. The best of Donovan comes out in his critical thoughts on the place of the priest. He comes to the more organic and communal (similar to the Eastern Orthodox) perspective that the priest is a physical and visible manifestation of the unity of the community in relation to God and God’s presence with his people among the community as it worships in the liturgy, particularly in the Eucharist. The priest is not primarily a theologian, or preacher, or healer, or social worker, instead he is the expression of the community of faith and the Spirit in that local place. Connected to this priestly conversation he questions the place of the missionary. Interestingly, Donovan doesn’t believe a missionary can ever really be the priest of the people they are trying to reach, and that is because the missionary is not an organic manifestation of the community in that place.

A major conclusion to these definitions for priests and missionaries is that neither can be dedicated to allowing the gospel to be devolved or used for social activism in a culture or politics of a nation. Donovan sees a weakness in the dedication of the social gospel of the early twentieth century. The weakness is it hasn’t really changed the African peoples the work is serving. The social gospel was to bring the gospel through work but very few were excepting the gospel! There is a profound critique by Dononvan here on the contemporary practices of many churches who are trying to use social justice work as an implicit way to woo non-Christians into the faith.

There a number of issues I had with Donovan’s thesis, but I will limit myself to expounding here on only two of them. The first issue was his belief that the gospel is something that can be stripped of any cultural or historical meaning and presented to a new culture in a “pure”, un-interpreted way. Or as he says, he wants to elicit a “cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel.”[1] I don’t think this is possible. There are too many facets of study that teach us there is no way to separate anything we do or say from our enculturated, historical existence as humans. Whether it is philosophy’s explanation that in language a word only makes sense in relation to other words in a sentence. Or social theory’s identity development analysis that shows how individuals only gain a sense of self by relation to others.

More importantly, to understand the gospel there are elements of Jewish historical understanding that must be retained in our presentation to make sense of this good news. I encourage all pastors to read Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. Dr. McKnight shows how the gospel must be the culmination of the story of Israel in the story of Jesus as the long-awaited Davidic king sent by God. God has sent Jesus to forgive and purify the people in order to be faithful to the covenant promises made long before. This gospel is always rooted in the history of Israel as it culminates in the first century. If we teach the theological implications of the gospel or the benefits of salvation as the gospel we are forfeiting talking about the gospel itself, the person of King Jesus. The gospel is not a pristine jewel sullied by the cultural trappings of Jewish first century practices and beliefs. Instead, it is the very historical basis of King Jesus’ life that overturns and expands so many of those Jewish beliefs which reveals what the gospel means. Only by watching the continuity and disruption of the Jewish culture around the person of King Jesus can we understand the implications for his actions and teachings. And only after understanding this thoroughly Jewish gospel of King Jesus as a cultural reality can we witness how it is able to enter into another culture and let that receiving culture experience continuity with the gospel or find disruption by it.

Second, Donavan’s idea that the gospel proclaimed will simply, almost naturally begin to reform the culture and rework from the inside out. There is too much of participatory, faithful obedience as a part of Christian life in my understanding of Christianity to except this passive belief in salvation. We are to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling”.[2] We are to work to not give our bodies over to sexual immorality and other vices of sin.[3] We are to strive for the goal set before us in King Jesus then work is a part salvation’s empowerment.[4] In fact, we are given the empowerment of grace (the gift of participation in King Jesus’ resurrection and ascension) to live in the good works of King Jesus’ life revealed in him beforehand.[5] There can be no assumption in Christian communal life that simply talking about the historical and cultural King Jesus story will transform us. Transformation occurs by inviting the Spirit to reshape our life together into the shape of King Jesus life.[6] That historical and cultural story of King Jesus is relived in the body of his people,[7] the bodies of his followers,[8] and we truly become the body of Christ.[9] Christian life, then, is the (cultural and historical) gospel life story of King Jesus relived in our bodies in our context, allowing him by the Spirit to purify or disrupt our cultural place and historical time through us.

God has begun this work, we join him in it, but that does not mean we aren’t called to intentionally address our issues, both individually and as a community. But there is a strange line that appears when addressing the issues of sin in the surrounding culture. Donovan says it is not the job of those who preach the gospel to try to change the culture and Paul agrees to this.[10] But again, Christians cannot hear this as an encouragement to speak ambiguously about the transformation that is a part of joining the community of faith. The expectation of all Christians in every church is that the community is together conforming to the image of King Jesus.[11] We must let the gospel retain its contextual elements in the life of King Jesus and also submit to his teaching that those who would become his disciple’s must count the cost because he asks us to give up a lot to follow him.

there are things we have learned from our culture’s place in history that will be disrupted, dismantled, even condemned by the gospel and we must actively submit to giving those things up. Other parts of our culture and history will be purified and refined, and in these things we will realize God was always leading us to King Jesus even though we couldn’t have known it before the gospel. Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered is like all cultures who experience the coming of the gospel. It is a book with beauty which will stand the test of time, but other parts must be left behind since we have continued to learn a better way in the story of King Jesus.

 


[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th anniversary ed (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2003), 24.

[2] Phil. 2:12

[3] Rom. 6:5-14

[4] Heb. 12:1-2

[5] Eph. 2:8-10

[6] Phil. 2:1-13

[7] 1Pt. 2:21

[8] Gal. 3:20

[9] Eph. 1:19-23

[10] 1Cor. 5:12

[11] Rom. 8:28-30

Valentine’s Day Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?”

I must admit, Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. To me, it is only fitting that Christians both celebrate the beginning of Lent, the intentional time of embodied reflection leading to the last week of Jesus’ life, and the life culminating in martyrdom of our brother Saint Valentine. While there is a lot of speculation around the story of Valentinus, the core of the story is that a priest, likely in Rome, continued to marry Christians even against the edict of the Emperor to halt all weddings. When arrested for his crimes against the empire Valentinus was visited by Christians to care for him, many of them those whom he had wed, thereby encouraging him in the Christian faith that love conquerors the powers of this world until his execution. In the face of such persecution why would anyone choose to become a Christian?

Today’s celebration is a good bridge for me to review a book I recently read called Why Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? by Larry Hurtado. This book is similar to his larger one called Destroyer of the Gods that I reviewed a few weeks ago. While Destroyer focused on what made Christians distinctive from Greco-Roman and Jewish society, this monograph focuses on what people thought they were gaining by joining the Christian communities of faith. I call it a monograph because it is a small bound book with barely more than one hundred pages. In fact, it is a printed version of his Père Marquette Lecture in Theology at Marquette University in 2016.

Hurtado begins by showing Christianity as a social group that grew at exponential rates over a long period of time. He uses the research of Rodney Stark and other historians of religious social development to show how this is a nearly impossible venture for new religious movements. He even goes so far as to say, “Indeed, although historians are often loathe to use the term, we probably have to say it was unique. For there simply is no new religious group of the time that had the same growth sustained over such a long time. And, as specialists in the new religious movements have noted, it is the rare religious group that becomes trans-local, and even fewer that sustain their growth beyond the first few years or decades.”[1]

This rapid growth, which is so evident for us nearly some two millennia later, was clearly noticed as it created socio-religious waves in the Roman world. From the small riots against Paul, to the Expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 over the “Chrestos” controversy, to the effect on temple tourism in Ephesus mentioned by Pliny the Younger around A.D. 112 it is clear that Greco-Roman society saw Christians as a problem to be dealt with, and harshly. This decisive, but usually local pressure on Christians, continued on with martyrdoms of bishops and apologists for centuries. Hurtado lays out the evidence that early Christians lived in a world where judicial and political action could easily be turned against them. More than that, the constant social ostracism Christians brought on themselves by their distinctive rejection of the gods, and lack of participation in common social behaviors linked to the gods, left Christians in a constant position to be harassed socially and politically if the population of an area turned against them.

So what could possibly have been the draw to this religion which cost so much socially and could produce so much suffering at the hands of the empire? Hurtado begins by showing what were not likely reasons people would have joined a Christian community but are often touted as reasons why Christianity succeeded in the face of such pressures.[2] First, people did not join the Christian faith because it had access to a more powerful or effective wonder-working source. Hurtado points out there were plenty of options available to people of the first few centuries that offered magical results for just about anything and everything, and it would not cost them their property or life before the magistrates or risk familial or communal ostracism being leveled against them. Second, people likely didn’t join because of a sense of familial bond between members. Hurtado speaks of how familial language was used by a number of voluntary associations for deeper, more meaningful interpersonal relationships. Third, people did not join the Christian communities to forward any cause of social justice. Again, there are examples of other social groups being able to provide mutual benefits to members without the high costs demanded of Christians, and more so the types of social justice behaviors done by Christians would not have been seen as justice or in a positive light by society. Lastly, people did not join Christianity to gain power. The higher the standing of the individual in Roman society the more there was to lose in being associated with Christians, and if one wanted to climb the social latter it would be best to keep one’s name from being marred by the moniker “Christian”. Without a doubt all of these elements were a part of Christian communal life, and it is possible that Christians worked harder than other groups at providing these social benefits precisely on account of community members being ostracized from other parts of society. But alone, these are not strong enough reasons to make sense of the exponential growth of Christianity in the face of the persecutions found in the first three centuries.

Hurtado ends his book ruminating on what could have been the actual benefits in the Christian faith that would draw so many to be faithful despite the high cost politically and socially. Turning to Paul’s words in Philippians and Galatians, Hurtado points out Paul’s concession to the cost of giving up his former status for what he considers the benefits of interacting with God in Jesus. This is a heavily experiential reasoning in the present leading to a future hope of further interaction with God based on Jesus’ resurrection being extended to Christians. Hurtado then looks at Justin Martyr’s reasoning that the Christian communities’ life together and philosophical coherence led him to accept the faith, [3] and he comes to the conclusion that “what most readily distinguished early Christianity were certain beliefs or teachings.”[4] It was not simply the beliefs or the practices of Christians that seems to have drawn so many in the first few centuries to the Christian faith despite the political or social costs. Instead, it was the Christians’ blend of particular beliefs being the distinctive reasoning for pursuing certain practices in particular ways that set these communities in continuity with their Jewish roots, but at the same time gave them a distinct identity separate from both Jewish and Greco-Roman communities.

Lastly, Hurtado looks at two particular teachings of the early Christians that would have possibly been seen as alluring enough to risk the costs of joining this new, burgeoning faith. First, Hurtado posits that the idea of a loving transcendent God was something that was wholly unintelligible to Greco-Roman society. By teaching the loving and faithful character of God in continuity with the teachings of the Creational God of Israel, Christians emphasized the inclusive posture of this all-powerful God as revealed and acted out in the person of King Jesus. And second, the idea of eternal embodied life offered to anyone who would give their allegiance to King Jesus. The resurrection was a novel idea in the era and something hard for Greco-Romans to accept from an intellectual perspective. “Certainly, the Christian belief in the resurrection was in that period ‘the most spectacular religious doctrine regarding the body,’ and among Greeks and Romans ‘this was an unthinkable idea.’”[5] Hurtado explains that eternal life does not seem to be something the general population really look for and was more of a philosopher’s inquiry. But Christian teaching on the resurrection likely generated a desire to participate in the eternal life of this loving God.

On a beautifully merged day of celebrating Saint Valentinus’ faithfulness and somber enactment of Ash Wednesday’s reflection on faithfulness for Lent, Larry Hurtado’s book Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? is a stimulating and devotional read. Why would anyone then, when martyrdom was so public, the political response unstable and harsh, and the social costs so high, choose to associate with this faith? Why would anyone now give allegiance to the Christian faith when so much of contemporary culture will ostracize Christians for living the faith, and when the person must give up so many pleasures or modern rights to obey King Jesus? Hurtado answers that “early Christian allegiance was not solely acceptance of a set of beliefs intellectually considered, but involved also the affective and inter-personal impact of those beliefs.” And I would mimic such a truth for our contemporary world as well. Christianity is a set of beliefs that must be communally embodied and experienced for our allegiance to King Jesus to become complete in the Christian. And only this embodiment by the power of the Spirit will sustain us to suffer in this increasingly hostile environment toward the resurrection which is the hope of the Christian faith. May we reflect on those who have gone before us on this Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday as we ask ourselves, “Why on earth are we Christians in the 21st century?”

 


[1] Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology 2016 (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016), 45.

[2] Hurtado, 110–14.

[3] Hurtado, 115–20.

[4] Hurtado, 122.

[5] Hurtado, 128.

Book Review of N.T. Wright’s “The Day the Revolution Began”

The conversation of atonement is looming large in my graduate studies, both as a part of my current theology class and as a major portion of my thesis. This conversation inevitably meant I had to read one of the most recent books on the topic written by one of the most prominent New Testament scholars, The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright. I bought this book when I went to see Dr. Wright speak on the subject at Wheaton College and was intrigued by a number of the themes he presented in his lecture that seemed like a challenge both to the traditional Protestant understanding of atonement and the Platonizing elements (at least in his understanding) of much modern conversation on atonement. While there is much to be discussed in this book there are only a few points I would like to land on in this review.

First, Wright focuses intently on the Platonizing elements he believes are everywhere in modern concepts of the atonement, or maybe more implicitly, he is critiquing centuries of theological conversation that veered far off from anything the Scriptures were historically referencing. The cultural context of tribalism in the USA has led many academic Christians to deeply explore the teachings of Christian Tradition(s), and many (influenced particularly by David Bentley Hart) are finding Platonism to be a philosophical construct which allows them to understand their faith and reality. I too have many reservations about Platonic elements of philosophy being used as ways of constructing contemporary theology, but I believe there should be more of an effort to distinguish Ancient Platonic thought, Christian Platonism (particularly as expressed by Maximus the Confessor), and what I would call ‘Modern Platonism’ in order to refer to Enlightenment-era philosophy that has embedded (though often wrongly applied) Platonic elements. Wright is primarily attacking the last of these three as he criticizes the common understanding of penal substitution as spiritualized and individualized understanding of Reformed atonement theory.[1] These are valid critiques of penal substitutionary atonement on account that it constructs an idea that King Jesus died with specific intent for each individual (the phrase “He was thinking of me on the cross” or “He would have went to the cross if even just for me” are good examples) rather than personally incorporating the individual into the work of God brought about in King Jesus. What’s more it seems King Jesus’ divine intent for my eternal fulfillment on the cross for “me” was to escape this world of pain and death to go to heaven rather than being empowered to follow him in his life of sacrificial, suffering love for others.

Second, Wright seeks an understanding of the atonement within the framework of Jesus’ own historical context and the first century Christian communities. This means understanding what the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures”, found in 1st Corinthians 15:3, means. Wright proposes Jesus’ death was framed, both by Jesus himself and his followers, as the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s covenantal expectations. He argues that for these covenantal promises to become fulfilled the exile must come to an end. And in order for the exile to come to an end the sins of the people must be forgiven. Wright sees the New Testament revealing Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the long-awaited Davidic king, and the Son of Man from Daniel 7. This merging of Old Testament themes (Wright’s idea of “according to the Scriptures”) means Jesus is able to act as a substitution for Israel’s punishment of exile to bring it to an end (the Suffering Servant), act as representative to God in order to fulfill where Israel had failed in the past (the Davidic king), and act on behalf of God to establish the eternal, global kingdom (the Son of Man). This mixture of motifs allows King Jesus to remove the sin of the people, fulfill the mission of Israel to be faithful to God overthrowing the powers and idols which had enslaved them, and to open up the kingdom’s blessings to the nations as promised to Abraham. All of this happens as an act of love from God who is being faithful to enacting his covenantal promises to Israel (and the nations through her).

Lastly, there is only one area of this book that I did not follow Wright. The particular section was where he fights the idea that atonement does not need to have a concept of punishment involved. By this he means, in his model of atonement Jesus does not need to be sent to placate the anger of God towards humanity.[2] This central argument had two contentions I found particularly weak. A) The Day of Atonement ritual did not actually kill the goat, which represented the people, upon whose head the sins of the people were placed. B) Sin offerings were not about punishment from God being averted, rather it was about purification of accidental sins of the people. It is easy enough to find dissatisfaction in these points from within Wright’s own method of New Testament investigation since the writer of Hebrews merges both of these two sacrificial themes together (Heb. 13:10-13). Leviticus 16 instructs that on the Day of Atonement the bodies sacrificed for sin, which removed or cleansed the people, were all presented for bodily destruction outside of the camp/city. Leviticus 16 then immediately moves to a long list of punishments for breaking the covenant willfully, and the writer of Hebrews seems to be warning against a punishment for disobeying the gospel message in chapter 4. Yet, as I am writing a mini-commentary of disapproval in the margins of this section, Wright then turns. He makes clear that, yes, Jesus as (representative) King and (substitutionary) Suffering Servant does mean punishment against the people of Israel is being removed in the cross. He simply wants to make it clear the punishment is not a future threat of hell that is being removed but the punishment of exile.[3]

But this is a further strangeness in Wright’s aversion to punishment in the cross. He is insistent that wrath is still yet to come so wrath could not have fallen on King Jesus at the cross.[4] Again, I believe Wright’s own method works against him here. Conceptually, the blood of the Passover lamb kept away death in the place of the firstborn sons of Israel thereby purchasing the life of the firstborns for God’s special use. Later, God set the Levites in the place of the firstborns. This interaction of sacrifice and the death of sons is deeply embedded into the Genesis story beginning with the skins God puts on Adam and Eve rather than them dying the very day they ate of the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:17). While death was staved off for a time sin convinced one of their sons to kill the other beginning a whole set of recapitulations of animals “covering” sons in sin and death (Isaac on Moriah, Jacob’s deception of Isaac, the patriarchs’ cover up with Joseph’s coat, etc). All of that to say, I believe this idea of death/punishment in the sacrifice of the cross would be worked out by Wright’s own method if he more fully incorporated the Old Testament interactions of sonship and sacrifice. This would easily be enveloped into the three themes Wright offers of King Jesus, most naturally into the representative form of the Davidic King but possibly even in the priesthood theme of the Suffering Servant. If this does make a way for punishment, including the future wrath the whole world will experience, to be satisfied in the cross it means that when King Jesus ended the exile it was the end of any condemnation for the people of God in this age and the next.

Overall, this book is a great read. Other than the handful of pages referenced above about the aversion to punishment in a specific way, I believe this book is a necessary corrective for many who think about the impact and power of the cross in Christian theology. Theology must be more rooted in the actual language of the Bible and the time of King Jesus himself. As nice and pretty as some theological conversations of later times appear, they are often far from the meanings of the Scriptures they employ. As Wright implores, Christians must understand God’s giving of King Jesus as a loving act for our good, not with the specific intend of stopping his anger at individuals per se, but rather the ending of the sins of Israel so that the covenant blessings might be fulfilled. While sin, anger, punishment, and death are dealt with it is through the ending of the exile by God forgiving the sins of the people in King Jesus. Wright compellingly explains how the end of this new exile is more than just about certain political freedoms (such as overthrowing Rome) but it is more about robbing the demonic rulers and idols, which have entrapped all of Creation and enslaved humanity, of any power to rule. King Jesus has liberated his people, humanity, and all of Creation from the rule of evil, sin, and death, thereby, fulfilling all things “according to the Scriptures”.


 

[1] N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.N. T Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, 2016, 35–37.

[2] Wright, 329–31.

[3] Wright, 337–38.

[4] Wright, 330.