Book Review: Essentially One, Jonathan Lamb (IVP, 2020)

“Unity is God’s mission. It arises from who God is, how he acts
and what he will finally achieve.” 202

I have already had the privilege of reading many fantastic books this year, and some of the more recently published ones are reviewed on this blog. Few of those, however, have challenged and encouraged me as deeply as Jonathan Lamb’s latest book. Essentially One, Striving for the Unity God Loves is a brilliant call to the believer to pursue, embrace, and celebrate unity. Not at the cost of the truth of the Gospel, but wonderfully in that truth.

Jonathan’s book is richly centred on God’s word, each chapter taking a key passage of Scripture and centring its discussion around it. Jonathan identifies his concern in the introduction, and also suggests the remedy. “It is my conviction that we will only be able to counter unnecessary division and work to maintain the unity of the Spirit if we are utterly
convinced and motivated by the big themes of Scripture, exemplified
in gospel priorities and made real by the Spirit’s empowering work
in our lives.” (xviii.)

This book is a call to unity, one pursued as we dwell on God’s word, and are equipped by the Spirit. Split into four parts and sixteen chapters, Jonathan walks the reader through the Biblical picture of unity, and challenges us to take up this charge, to seek and to celebrate unity.

A Clear Structure

Essentially One is simply divided into four parts. Part 1 considers the call to be ‘Joining God’s Mission’. Part 2 addresses ‘Difference and Diversity’. Part 3 ‘Confronting Challenges’ discusses conflict, change, division and discipline. Finally Part 4 practically examines how it looks to be ‘Changing our Attitudes and Behaviours’.

In a study of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 in Chapter 4, Jonathan draws out this overarching theme of unity. We cannot, he writes (39) “overestimate the significance…of Christian unity” in Jesus’ prayer. Christ’s hope for the church is that unity might feed the lives and activities of all believers. Through the fourfold structure of this book, Jonathan astutely identifies the weight Scripture gives to Christian unity, challenges attitudes and sin that may upset such unity, and gently advises, often practically, how we might achieve this unity.

An Exegetical Heart

And it is clear throughout this book that the means by which Jonathan hopes to teach and challenge on this issue, is through a thorough and consistent application of Scripture. Essentially One is a masterpiece in biblical exegesis.

Each of the sixteen chapters takes an often sizeable passage of Scripture and Jonathan builds his case around God’s Word. The first chapter, based on Acts 10, is a great example of this. Through a simple walk-through of the passage Jonathan explores three foundation truths: God accepts all, Jesus is Lord of all and Salvation is available to all (7-8). His argument is consistently grounded in Scripture, and there is a clear Gospel joy at the heart of this book – a united church is a dwelling place of God? “[What] a wonderful conclusion!” (33.)

More so than this, Jonathan does not offer his own comment in isolation, but humbly draws on the voices of Christian leaders and thinkers from both recent years and long ago. This is a helpful sideline to the main thrust of the book. Not only is there a sense of unity in learning from Christians who have gone often long before us, but there is a helpful humility in plumbing the depths of Christian commentary and literature from centuries gone by, rather than an assumption that recent writing is better/more appropriate! I found this to be a real encouragement throughout. Essentially One speaks to the contemporary British church, but with the wisdom of Christians past and present, and in total and ultimate reliance on Scripture itself.

A dismantling of ‘tribal’ walls

This book at times makes for uncomfortable reading. Not because anything Jonathan writes is unhelpful or inaccurate, but because you can’t help but feel like he is speaking directly to you. Time and again throughout the book Jonathan speaks of ‘tribes’ and ‘tribalism’. He discusses factions, subgroups, interest groups and splinter organisations. All within the church. This book is not a call for blind unity irregardless of the beliefs of the other, but rather it is a radical call to Biblical unity in Christ.

“We must remember that fellow Christians of whatever label – those whom the Father knows – are identified with the same Lord Jesus and indwelt by the same Holy Spirit.” (40.)

Whatever label we have for ourselves and others, this book checks our preconceptions. Do I too readily dismiss another church for being ‘too charismatic’, or ‘too old-fashioned’? Do I allow myself to be attracted to/put off by the slick social media or stage setup of another church? We know the labels that we as Christians give to other believers in the UK, especially those who quite clearly do not belong to ‘our tribe’. But Essentially One challenges us to ask questions of our own hearts. There is a damaging arrogance, of which sadly many evangelicals can be accused, in believing that our tribe is the only one to have got it right. This book confronts that, encouraging us instead to seek unity with God’s people, for the sake of His name.

Our tribes may look different, but if genuine and convicted Christian believers inhabit another, Jonathan asks then (66): “How can we possibly exclude those whom God has accepted?”

This is not a blanket and unthinking acceptance, and there is much in this book that encourages healthy discourse around secondary or tertiary issues. Jonathan’s discussion around churches communicating with one another in the local area for example is one such helpful thought on this. But it is a call to remember that in God, we are one body, though many parts. It is a book that forces us to ask the question: where is it in my own life that I hinder, rather than further, Christian unity in the church and contexts in which I live and work?

Summary

I hope this review has illustrated just how good I think this book is. I would gladly recommend it to anyone within my own church context (the Grace Baptists) as well as the other two church families I have been a part of during my adult/university life (Independent Anglican and Scottish Free Church). This book showed me my sin in many areas, but it also encouraged me that the means by which I confront, repent, and put to death such sin are found in God’s Word. Essentially One is a brilliant, and biblical call to unity, one that the British church sorely needs. Whatever tribe you belong to, and maybe you feel it’s a tribe to which Jonathan Lamb could never belong, I would encourage you to ask God for a humble heart, and to grab a copy of this book and give it a read.

At the end of each chapter there are questions for reflection and discussion. Normally, I (often wrongly) find such questions to be a mild inconvenience, worth skipping over before you head to the next chapter. Essentially One, however, bucked that trend for me! They were insightful questions, clearly probing the hot topics of each chapter. They would allow this book to be read within a discussion group context, or one-to-one, and would benefit any reader as they work their way through this book.

What have we got in Common? Hope?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Twitter is particularly good at distilling contemporary issues into a long stream of polarising and pointed (and often very emotional) soundbites. Scrolling down our feeds is, at the moment, a particularly negative past time. Whilst social media can show us at our best, it also shows us at our worst. And so in the midst of a global pandemic, as tensions about race and privilege erupt across the globe, and as one popular author is violently berated across the web for her views on biological sex, it’s easy to feel hopeless.

Our nation is divided, our world is a mess. It can feel like we’re a world at loggerheads. It’s hopeless. What have we got in common any more?

Well for some people, the answer is hope.

Nearly 1900 years ago, in the 140s AD, the writer Ignatius spoke of “the common hope” of all Christians (To the Ephesians 21). In 197 AD the apologist Tertullian mirrored this cry (Apology, 39). “We [Christians] are a body knit together as such by a common religious belief, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.”

The first Christians lived in a divided world, where society was split into rich and poor, slave and free, Roman and foreigners. It was a messy world where selfish pleasure and power were pursued above noble ideas of the greater good or the care of the needy. And it was a world where Christians were derided, attacked, scorned and even killed for their beliefs. In a hopeless situation, in a divided world, how could they speak of common hope? What could this common hope possibly be?

This hope was, and is, Jesus. The Early Church clung to this hope, the common hope of all Christians, because they saw that they needed it. In a broken world, where division and suffering was rife, they recognised that their lives were hopeless. Far from escaping such issues, they realised that they themselves were a part of the problem! The Bible calls this sin. That all have sinned, and fall short of the standards of goodness that we so desire in our noblest moments. That we all live selfishly, full of anger, tribalism, malice and vanity. Perhaps we’re reminded of our own times.

But the first Christians could hope in Jesus Christ for a better future. Because “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Christ came to Earth to bring us to God. He was the Son of God, and he died that we might live.

John summarised this hope in a single verse.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16

The common hope of these earliest Christians was not that the trouble of this world would pass them by, but that they knew, with certainty and a deep, deep joy, that they were heading for a wonderful eternity. Their sins had been dealt with, they future was no longer a hopelessness but instead a glorious hope. No longer death but life. No longer their own weak efforts, but Christ.

Our own world is painfully divided, and I have no answers to the enormous problems that we face. Few, if any, do. But I know I have a hope that will carry me through these crises. I know I have a hope that will carry me through every up and down, great or small. It is a hope shared by billions throughout history, from Ignatius, to Tertullian, to Martin Luther King Jr., to me and countless others across the globe today. I have a hope named Jesus, and he will never disappoint me.

In a world where hope seems lost, why not explore the hope that Christians share? Look for Hope is a great place to start doing just that, a website full of articles and content pointing to the hope Christians hold in the midst of the very real and present struggles we all face.

The Exhortation of Clement of Alexandria: An Appeal to Reasoned Faith

I have so far profiled Clement here, and his major trilogy here. But in this third post on Clement of Alexandria, I would like to focus in on the first of those three major works. The Protrepticus.

This first work, split into twelve books, makes the case for the Christian faith. More specifically, Clement addresses a pagan audience, and presents them with Christ, the Divine Logos, the only true Saviour of humanity. The twelve books are divided into two groups of six. Books 1-6 form the argumentatio, where Clement considers the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. The likes of Zeus and Bacchus are exposed as daemonic falsehoods. Lies and demons used by the Evil One to corrupt humanity, and lead them to an immoral end.

In a stark contrast to the first half of the work, Clement turns to present the Christian Gospel in books 7-12, his refutatio. Refuting the claims of the pagan gods, Clement shows how Hebrew and Christian Scripture, and even the writings of the pagan world, point to one true God ruling over all. Clement then shows his readers Christ. The Divine Word made man. The coming, immortal Saviour of humanity.

The work sets the truth, hope and life of Christ against the immorality, falsehood and death of the pagan gods. As his appeal builds in the tenth book, Clement makes the comparison clear.

“It is the Lord of whom you are ashamed. He promises freedom, but you run away into slavery! He bestows salvation, but you sink down into death. He offers eternal life, but you await His punishment; you prefer the fire, which the Lord has prepared for the Devil and his messengers!”

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, 10.

Christ offers freedom, salvation and life. Yet mankind so willingly embraces slavery, death and punishment. Clement’s appeal is salvific: repent and be saved! Turn from the lies of the world, embrace Christ alone! It is a wonderful cry, and a brilliant argument. Truth against lies, life against death, hope against despair.

A Reasoned Faith

In the Protrepticus, Clement confronts the unbeliever with this reasoned faith. As he presents his pagan readership with the Divine Logos of Christ, Clement seeks (1.2) to “let truth… point to salvation.” As the scholar David Rankin puts it (2005, 6) “[the Protrepticus] is purposed for exhorting conversion to the faith and directed towards pagans.” Clement is wanting to show his readers the truth of Christ, exposing the falsehoods of their own beliefs, and urging them to thus embrace a reasoned faith.

Faith in Christ is not the blind belief of the pagans. It is not the irrational faith of those who believe in the gods of Greece or Rome (gods Clement quite clearly believes – Book 3 – are dead!) No, faith in Christ, says Clement, is reasoned. It is dependant on truth, it is predicated on Christ’s work of salvation.

Challenging Culture with a Better Story

But Clement doesn’t just present his truth of Christ in a vacuum. He clearly holds is up to and against the gods of the ancient world. Clement opens his work with the music and myths of famous pagan minstrels. Amphion, Arion and Eunomus open the first book, before Clement brings on Orpheus, the most famous ancient Greek musician. All these men sing songs in praise of the gods of the ancient world, says Clement, but what does their music amount to?

“By their chants and enchantments they have held captive in the lowest slavery that truly noble freedom which belongs to those who are citizens under heaven…”

Protrepticus, 1.

These musicians are part of a culture, a religious infrastructure, that enslaves humanity! Their very songs are part of the lies that doom Clement’s pagan readers. But, says Clement, there is more. He continues:

“… But far different is my minstrel, for He has come to bring to a speedy end the bitter slavery of the daemons that lord it over us!”

Protrepticus, 1.

Clement’s minstrel is Christ. And the song He sings, the message He brings, is so much sweeter to hear. It is a message of hope, one of real life. Clement goes on throughout his work to engage with this song of the pagans. He uses the poetry, drama, philosophy and history of the Greeks and Romans to show his readers their gods. He uses their own words to expose the lies they believe. And then he points them to Christ. He tells them the story of their broken worldview, and then he gives them the better story of Christ.

It’s a wonderful rhetorical structure. Clement weaves in literature from across the ancient world to tell these two stories, and at the end of it, the only rational response is faith in Christ. The pagan gods are pathetic before the wonderful might of Christ. Clement’s greater Minstrel is the true God. Clement challenges the culture of the ancient world, he engages with it, and he leads his readers to look to Christ.

Offering Hope

Because as Clement works through his exposé of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, he highlights the sinfulness of his readers. Taken in by lies, they embrace the moral depravity and licentiousness of these daemonic gods. And their end is destruction.

But Clement brings Christ onstage to offer hope to a fallen and broken humanity. Christ has come to enact salvation for a lost humanity. Even the vilest offender is not too far gone. And so Clement closes his work with a simple appeal.

“But with you still rests the final act, namely this, to choose which is the more profitable, judgement or grace.”

Protrepticus, 12.

The stories have been told. Reasoned and rational faith is the answer. So it is time to decide, a final question to a world that believes in dead gods, judgement or grace?