Book Review: The Story of the Church, 4th Ed. by Allan M. Harman and A. M. Renwick (IVP 2020)


The fourth edition of The Story of the Church is a much revised presentation of A M Renwick’s work, with several new chapters. Revised by Allan Harman, this book presents an account of the last two thousand years of Church History. Though this is in itself an immense undertaking, Renwick and Harman offer the reader a successful survey of the history of the Church, through an evangelical lens. This new edition takes note of current opinions or individuals involved across the debates on which it touches, and has produced a readable, entertaining volume.

A Successful Survey of Church History

In the prologue, Harman concludes (xiii) that “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing [sic] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have  commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” With this as the goal of the work, The Story of the Church is a success. Though of course a project of this scope cannot cover all aspects of church history and mission, this book offers a fantastic summary of the long history of the Christian faith. Broken down into twenty-six short and manageable chapters, this is an incredibly readable and engaging history. Though at times Renwick and Harman sacrifice critical evaluation in order to continue through the narrative at pace, the work offers a thorough survey of the major narrative of world Christian history.

From the “veritable revolution” (2) of the early progress of the Gospel in the ancient world, through the reformations of the sixteenth century to the “proliferation of parachurch organisations” (212) of recent years, this history does a wonderful job of sketching the main issues and events of Christian history. A particular strength of The Story of the Church lies in how the author(s) connect developments in Church History with the wider narrative of political and social world history. The messiness and intricacy of church history is helpfully exposed, and the story repeatedly leads the reader to conclude: it is only by God’s grace that the Church endured this or survived that.

A good Church History ought to be informative and readable, but it is a true success when it illustrates the faithfulness and sovereignty of the God of the church. The Story of the Church does this well. It is God who kept key figures going, or who transforms sinners into servants. It is God who keeps the Church alive in places and periods of persecution. This testimony is seen throughout the pages of Scripture, and this book illustrates those truths in the pages of history well.

A Few Omissions

Although this is a brilliant history, there are at least two points that could perhaps have been better addressed throughout. The book offers a largely (until the final few chapters) Euro-centric presentation of Church History. Whilst early figures in the African church (such as Tertullian or those at Alexandria) are discussed, examination of later developments outside of Europe such as the early Jesuit missions or the spread of Christianity into Asia are only briefly mentioned. The Story of the Church does offer a brilliant examination of the recent and current state of the global church, and whilst it cannot be denied that a great deal of major events in Church History did take place in Europe, it feels as though, at times, this book tells the story of the European Church and not the global Church.

Added to this, the discussion around slavery was perhaps the biggest question that this book left unanswered. William Wilberforce is mentioned several times in chapter twenty ‘Modern Missionary Expansion’, but even the abolitionist battle with which he was so closely involved was given scant treatment. This reviewer would have liked further consideration of this topic beyond Wilberforce, and an acknowledgement of the positive and negative role of the Church within that history.

A Strong Finish

Despite these two minor quibbles, the book is excellent, and the fourth edition has largely (save for one or two more archaic words and phrases) updated and revised what was already a comprehensive introduction to Church History. Despite being an ancient historian, it was the latter chapters in this work that particularly jumped out at me. The Story of the Church consistently emphasises the issues and battles of each period of Church History, and as these were unpacked in the last century or so a helpful background to our modern church context was brilliantly sketched out. This picture brought its own challenges: there is still much for us to do and learn.

Particularly striking was the repeated discussion (227; 243-244) of just how many people still do not have the Scriptures in their own language. Though over 3000 languages have a translation of the Bible or at least parts of it, some 440 million people, speaking over 3800 languages, still do not. The vital work of Wycliffe Bible Translators was highlighted, and the challenge to support this endeavour was strongly made.

As the developments of the last century or so were discussed a further challenge came to the fore. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an explosion in para-church groups and a drive for ecumenicalism. Whilst in many ways these have been positive developments, Harman offers a note of caution (212). “The proliferation of para-church organisations poses its own problems for the church, for there is the danger that they may assume many of the functions of churches and also draw people away from involvement in their local church setting.” We live in a period of Church History unlike any other. Para-church and missional organisations have exploded into life and have richly engaged with Christians and non-Christians across the world. In the excitement of all this though, we must be careful not to drift away from Christ’s primary (earthly) home for the believer: the local church. Whilst it is good to support and work with these wider organisations, the local church must be our priority. The challenge in these final chapters is simply this: is the local church family still our priority? We must not forget that it ought to be.

Conclusion

This is a cracking book of Church History, and though there are a few things I would challenge throughout, the fourth edition is most welcome. We live in an age of Christian life where Church History is all too often neglected. The accessibility and readability of The Story of the Church offers us an introduction to the discipline that can help address that problem. Whether Church History has been of interest to you, or never appeared on your radar, you could do much worse than grabbing a copy of this edition and exploring the rich history of the Christian faith.

And it is worth echoing some of the closing words of Harman in this edition. There is still much for us to do, and the story of the Church is not over. Indeed, it continues until Christ’s return. So we can live confidently, knowing that we are in and under our sovereign God.

“Ultimately, the future of the church depends not on men but on God. He has promised in the Scriptures that he will never forsake it (Ps. 94:14), but will be with his people until the consummation of this present age (Matt 28:20).” (253.)

“We are slaves to the gods… whatever those gods are”

Orestes slaying Clytemnestra

Euripides was one of the great Athenian tragic playwrights. Writing in the fifth century BC, his plays have resonated with audiences throughout history as stories of human tragedy, relationship and interaction. His plays are literary masterpieces because he so wonderfully presents the depravity, pain, longing and love of the human condition. In short, his often fantastical characters feel very real.

Successful as he was in fifth century Athens, Euripides continued to be read and performed throughout the history of the ancient world, and his plays remained well known as Greece gave way to Rome, and as Rome conquered much of the Mediterranean world.

In one of his most famous plays, Orestes, the eponymous protagonist wrestles with the guilt of having committed matricide – slaying his own mother for the brutal murder of his father. Orestes is set in a world where gods and spirits have great control over the lives of men, and Orestes himself makes it clear that he killed his mother under the conviction that Phoebus (Apollo) commanded him to do it. This in itself is an important part of the plot, as the god himself appears onstage at the end of the play to right wrongs and conclude the action. But partway through, Menelaus, Orestes’ uncle and brother of his murdered father, appears onstage and the two men speak. Their conversation is bitter and raw, as Orestes owns up to what he has done. It is a short part of this dialogue on which this blog will reflect.

Menelaus “Do not speak of death; that is not wise.”

Orestes “It is Phoebus, who commanded me to kill my mother.”

Menelaus “Showing a strange ignorance of what is fair and right”

Orestes “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.”

Euripides, Orestes, ll.415-418.

As the two men speak, Orestes reveals that it was the god Apollo who ordered this matricide. Upon hearing this, Menelaus makes a moral judgement that reveals the truth of these Olympian gods who supposedly ruled over the ancient world. This god Apollo, in commanding the death of Orestes’ mother Clytemnestra, showed “ignorance of what is fair and right.” In other words – he acted with evil intent.

The god was evil. He was wrong. He was cruel and violent with his command. Yet Orestes’ response? We are slaves to the gods, whatever they may be. Whether rightly or wrongly, we are slaves to the gods.

The Ancient World – Slaves to the Gods

Though these words were written in the fifth century BC, over 400 years before the birth of Christ, they expose a worldview that dominated the ancient world just as much in 0 AD as it did in 500 BC. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the gods were real and present. They were not sovereign or total, but they were big and powerful. What and who the gods exactly were changed throughout ancient history. As Rome rose to dominance in the ancient world the gods went from being Olympian Greeks to Roman deities. Zeus became Jupiter, Hermes became Mercury, and so on. As Rome conquered more of the ancient world, new gods joined the pantheon. Mithras, Osiris, Isis and many more became objects of divine regard. As the Empire expanded, even the Emperor himself became a god, ruling over mankind, deciding their fate.

But none of these gods were thought to be good. Many had benevolent moments, some were considered particular allies of humanity as a whole, or of nations, professions or people groups. But none were fundamentally good. When Jesus Christ came into the world, there was a prevailing opinion of the divine that mirrored that of Euripides and his day. The gods were gods because they were bigger and better than us, so they were in charge. Even if they weren’t good. “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.” That hadn’t changed.

But when the one true God became man, the idea of humanity and its relationship with the divine was totally and radically challenged.

The Radical Christus – the Son of God

The first Christian communities began to preach good news to a lost world. In a world consigned to the might and power of unloving gods, the first Christians spoke hope. They taught of one God, triune in nature, supreme in authority. And they taught how this God, wholly good and all-loving, sent His own Son into the earth to rescue lost men and women. This was a truly good God, this was the only God, and He was seen in Jesus Christ.

The Romans understood conversations about gods and spirits and the like. But a God who loved humanity so much He gave up His one and only Son to bring them into relationship with Himself? This was a radical concept. It simply wasn’t how gods behaved! But it was wonderfully good news for a world enslaved by gods that their own sinful hearts had created.

One of the first Christian missionaries, the Apostle Paul, wrote this in the mid-first century AD:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.

Paul, Romans 8.15.

The ancients was resigned to a certain worldview. The gods ruled, whatever they may be and however they might act, and humanity picked up the pieces. Whoever the gods were, the place of humanity didn’t change. We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.

Paul’s teaching here isn’t just new, it is utterly radical. The real, true God came not to enslave humanity, but to free us! And more than that, to adopt us as His own children! This was the one true God, and He doesn’t fit with the misunderstandings of the divine that the ancient world had accepted.

Earlier in the book Paul had been using the language of slavery and had subverted the very ideas that underpin Euripides’ words in Orestes.

What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 

Paul, Romans 6.21.

In their fictional dialogue Menelaus and Orestes recognised that they were slaves to the gods, even when those gods were evil and cruel. Their slavery really did end in death! This was the understanding of the divine that pervaded the ancient world. Yet along came these Christus-followers, and they turned that on its head.

Christ doesn’t promise further slavery. He promises sonship. He promises that we will become heirs and coheirs to glory. And He promises a good Father who will love and care for His people forever.

We read these truths so often that we can forget just how incredible they are. But our own world and our own hearts worship gods that are very similar to those of the ancient world. We take our own sinful desires and project them into our own gods. We might not call the goddess of sex Aphrodite, yet our culture is obsessed with her. We don’t call the god of wealth Plutus, but we spend our lives chasing him.

The first Christians spoke a radical Gospel into a needy ancient world. A world enslaved by sin, hopeless in the face of the superior might of the divine. A wrong understanding of the divine led to a societal hopelessness in the face of the gods. Yet the Gospel offered (and offers still!) something radically different. We are not slaves to cruel masters, we are offered sonship by a good Father. This is a radical message, and it’s a totally undeserved offer. It is a truth that sent shockwaves across the ancient world, and it has the power to do just that today. This Gospel has the power to transform the lives of those enslaved by sin into beloved sons and daughters of the Most High. Incredible.

Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

TWR360 | Blog

Much mystery surrounds the life of this prolific writer. Born in the mid second century (c.155AD), Tertullian lived for most of his life in Carthage in North Africa. A bright and articulate man, he wrote dozens of works during his lifetime, of which a great number have survived. Though his teaching was broad and articulate, his hard line and rigorist tendencies have led to an awkward position in the history of Christian thought.

Life

Though the circumstances of his birth and childhood are largely unknown, Jerome claims that Tertullian was the son of a centurion based in North Africa (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 53), and this was likely a non-Christian household. Certainly he was well educated during his youth, indicating that perhaps his parents had means enough to provide a quality schooling. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.2.4) described Tertullian as “well versed in the laws of the Romans,” and his own writings betray an educated man practiced in rhetoric and oratory.

Tertullian’s own writings provide further glimpses into his life. He notes in the opening of his tract On Repentance (1.1) that he was once “blind, without the Lord’s light,” suggesting a pagan past and adding weight to the argument that he was born to pagan parents. Tertullian also alludes to his conversion, with a short section in his Apology (50.1) hinting that he came to faith as an adult.

Regardless of the exact circumstances of his conversion, it is clear that Tertullian wholly embraced his new faith, recognising it for the truth that it is. Though Jerome labels him a presbyter (De Vir. Ill. 53.1), he doesn’t seem to have entered an office of the church, yet openly identifies as one of the laity who often preached on Sundays, suggesting that he was a lay elder within his local church leadership (See Exhortation to Chastity 7.3, On Monogamy 12.3, On the Soul 9.4). His new faith prompted him to put his extensive education to good use, and he began to write. Thirty-one of his works have survived to us, though he likely wrote a great many more.

Works

Though a sizeable number of his works have survived to reach us, even Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that works of Tertullian had already been lost (De Vir. Ill. 53.5). Tertullian made comment about a vast array of matters, from monogamy, fasting, marriage and empty spiritualism to the soul, baptism, prayer and resurrection. His works were clearly extensive! He also bears the notable title of being the first (surviving) church father to write in Latin rather than Greek.

He is perhaps most famous though for two parts of his literary career. His many writings against the heretical followers of Marcion, Valentinus and others showed his desire to contend for a true and Biblical Christian faith. It was in one of these polemical texts, Ad. Praxeam (Against Praxeas) that Tertullian coined the word ‘trinitas‘, the first writer to use this word to describe the Biblical truth of who God is – one God, three persons. Trinity.

His most famous work though defended his faith not against heretical insiders, but against powerful outsiders. Tertullian’s Apology, a fifty chapter masterpiece, is a defence of the Christian faith, addressed to those ruling over the Empire. An early and excellent example of the apologetic genre, Tertullian’s Apology confronts the main accusations levied against this young faith, and contends that Christians are in fact the best of citizens, serving the greatest of Gods. Accused of sedition, sectarianism, cannibalism and much more, Tertullian argues that Christians are in fact gracious, loving and obedient. They pray for their rulers and fellow man, and serve rightly in society, defying only what is unholy and unjust.

Legacy

Tertullian has occupied an interesting position in Christian history. Despite his orthodox teaching and Biblical faithfulness, his at times harsh writing tone and the hard line he takes on controversial issues means that he’s sat uncomfortably in the narrative of church history. There are two points to make here.

Though he writes against a wide variety of heretical views, Tertullian has often been considered to have shifted from orthodoxy to Montanism. The so called New Prophecy of Montanus was a spiritualist heresy that appeared in the late second century and demanded a rigorous, almost ascetic approach to the Christian life. Though many consider Tertullian to have shifted into this sect, I believe a close reading of his writings suggests a less clear conclusion on the matter. Though Tertullian was a rigorist in his approach to the life of the Christian, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I believe we ought to take the line of Christine Trevett, who took a more nuanced position that Tertullian was “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). His inclination might be towards the practices of this movement, yet his theological disposition remained resolutely Pauline.

The second point to note is that his teaching is largely protestant in disposition. Some have labelled him as ‘the first protestant’ – and he certainly fits awkwardly within a Catholic teaching of early Christian history.

Conclusion

Though much of the man remains a mystery, his writings offer a window into who and what he was. No doubt a stern and even harsh teacher, Tertullian maintained the authority of Scripture, the value of the local church, and the supremacy of Christ alone throughout his life and writings. He holds an uncomfortable position in Christian history, and he is by no means perfect in every word he writes. Yet he is a valuable author for several key theological developments, as well as an articulate and consistent defence of the true faith. He was an interesting man who perhaps ought to be read more widely and whose works remain of significant value.

Church in Lockdown: Weary and Burdened? A 4th Century Prayer for Refreshment.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus spoke these words of comfort to a weary, struggling people in great need of a Saviour. He was a Saviour who promised rest, satisfaction and comfort to a world that desperately needed true fulfilment. He promised those who trusted in Him an eternal rest; a room prepared in His Father’s house.

As lockdown drags on, however it looks in our own contexts, church life can become a burden. The longer the church cannot function normally, the longer we are kept apart from corporate worship in the local church, the wearier we can become. It can be easy to feel the burden of a local church on pause, yet we have a Christ who offers comfort to His weary, struggling people.

We were created for relationships, with God and with one another. Scripture calls the church a body, a family, a unit. Lockdown is jarring and uncomfortable because the church can’t function properly; we can’t be together when we can’t meet together. And it is still going on. Even if a few of us can meet together on a Sunday, or throughout the week, for many of us, our churches won’t be back to normal for quite some time, possibly not even until a vaccine is found.

But like all things in this life, this lockdown will be temporary. Our great hope is in a Saviour who has promised an end to our weary struggle. That end will come. Relief will come when the local church can meet together again, and lasting delight will come when Christ gathers His true church to Himself at last.

But our Saviour does not abandon us to our locked-down lives in the meantime. Scripture urges us to bring our concerns to God in prayer, the Spirit convicts our hearts and works within us. So let us pray with confidence even as we long for normality. Below is an ancient prayer of Augustine, a prayer for refreshment for weary, locked-down souls. The end of lockdown may not be within our sight, but it is within the Lord’s, and even the freedom to gather together again is nothing compared to our ultimate end.

O Lord our God, under the shadow of Your wings let us hope. You will support us, both when little, and even to grey hairs. When our strength is of You, it is strength; but, when our own, it is feebleness. We return unto You, O Lord, that from their weariness our souls may rise towards You, leaning on the things which You have created, and passing on to Yourself, who has wonderfully made them; for with You alone is refreshment and true strength. 

Amen.

Attr. to: Augustine of Hippo

Let us commit our weary hearts to the Lord, now and everyday, for with Christ alone is refreshment and true strength.

A (brief)Who’s Who in the Early Church.

Mostly last year, as I was getting this blog started, I profiled several key figures in the development of the Early Church. I hope to do more of these, as it is always helpful to look at some examples of faithful believers who have gone before us. Below are the links to these blogs, do go and check out one or two of these Early Christian characters.

Cyprian of Carthage: Transformed by the Gospel

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy

Ignatius: Focused on Unity

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Clement of Alexandria: Evangelist and Intellectual

Justin: Philosopher and Martyr

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

A recent more detailed series on Clement of Alexandria’s life and work is available here:

Clement of Alexandria: The Intentional Christian Life

Clement of Alexandria: The Growth of the Christian

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

Book Review: The Great Awakening (Joseph Tracy)

Just a short review today, but one that comes with an encouragement to pick up a classic from recent church history. (Recent for an ancient historian that is!) This is, once again, an adaptation of the review I gave for Free Church Books.

Banner of Truth have produced a beautiful new hardcover edition of Joseph Tracy’s classic work: The Great Awakening.

This reprinting is beautifully done, and it offers the reader a great edition of the first history of the 18th century revivals of New England. Tracy was the first historian of these events, and as his work walks the reader through this great spiritual awakening, the transformative nature of our wonderful God is evident. Tracy explores revival on both sides of the Atlantic, but his focus is on America and New England in particular. The story of these revivals is the story of thousands of conversions, as God moved powerfully through these young American communities.

Controvery and error is not neglected, and the work is wonderfully structured to highlight the error of sinful man, and the wonder of a saving God. Whilst this work may not be easy or quick reading (being, as it was, first penned in 1841), Tracy’s volume stands as testament to the work of God in the lives of countless believers some three hundred years ago.

I would heartily recommend Banner of Truth’s edition as a great way of exploring a period of church history that is so often acknowledged, but little understood. These revivals were a period of great spiritual awakening, and are a wonderful testament to our God as the Lord of History. The book focuses on the work of many great preachers, but through it all it is clear that souls are saved not by their words, but by their powerful, gracious God.

You can pick up a copy from Banner of Truth here.

#100Days: light at the end of the tunnel?

This week the UK marked 100 days of lockdown. Restrictions are being eased across the country, schools are partially open, shops and cafes are beginning to unlock, and it seems like things will ease significantly from this weekend. And yet we also marked this week the news that Leicester is facing the first ‘Local Lockdown’ after a recent spike in cases. The end is most definitely not in sight for them, and other towns and cities may soon follow suit.

Lockdown has been characterised by the single question: when will it end? We’ve gone through day after day, week after week, always asking, ‘are we nearly there yet?’ We’ve ticked each day off with a ‘one day closer to freedom!’ We’ve celebrated each new easing of restrictions as another glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.

But when lockdown is over, what next? For some, there’s the grief of those who won’t emerge from lockdown with them. For others, there’s the pain of continuing to battle the virus and its aftereffects. For still others, the fear of infection lingers, normality won’t be back overnight.

Whatever our situation, surely we’re relieved. Lockdown is nearly over, we’ll be back to normal soon!

Back to WorshipNormal

Our country is longing to get back to normal, and it’s a longing we all share. We want to see friends and family again. My first niece was born on the eve of lockdown, and I can’t wait to hold her again. Parents, grandparents, and wider families all over the country can’t wait to be reunited.

Businesses are eager to get going again. There’s so much to do, and with so much time and money lost companies are raring to go, desperate to keep afloat in a time when the economy is in freefall.

A lot of those I follow on twitter or online have been excited about the reopening of places of worship. Christians, Muslims, Jews and many others are hopeful of being able to gather in corporate worship again soon. I can’t wait to be back in church, although it might take a little while yet.

But Churches, mosques and synagogues aren’t the only places of worship to reopen in our country. We’re all desperate for lockdown to end because we’re all longing for normal to resume. Whatever our normal is, our hearts are set on it. We long to be with family, to get back to the day job, to take that holiday or just to hit the shops! Our hearts are set on this lockdown ending, and our normal resuming. Our hearts are set on the things we love. We’re seemingly hard-wired to long for, adore, and worship these things.

In the ancient world, the world in which Jesus Christ lived, died and rose, and the world of the first Christians who followed him, worship was hard-wired in the minds of men and women. The Roman Empire has been described as ‘a world full of gods’. There were gods of money, sex, beauty, war, peace…the list was practically endless! Worship was everywhere. Temples on every street corner, rituals in every home and at every event. Worship flourished because the ancients made gods of the things they worshipped. A goddess of beauty because man idolises the appearance, a god of wealth because such riches were a societal goal.

Our own world has such gods too. Lockdown has confronted these gods, because so often it has been harder to worship them. Financial stability has been shaken, families have been divided, retail therapy on hold. None of these are inherently bad things, but as our nation rushes to get back to normality, when our lives are lived for these things, our nation is rushing back to worship.

The New NormalWorship

A month or so into lockdown, the historian Tom Holland wrote a damning article in the Telegraph (3rd May 2020). He wasn’t criticising the government, or the NHS (though he did point out that the NHS has become a real focus of our worship in recent times). He criticised, instead, the church.

Lockdown, argued Holland, was a great opportunity for the church. But instead, too many clergy were beginning to sound “like middle-managers,” simply repeating back government advice. Holland concluded:

Parroting the slogans of the Department of Health and Social Care may conceivably help save lives – but it seems unlikely to win many souls. If ever there were a time for the churches to wrestle with the questions that so tormented Job [suffering, health, hope], a time of global pandemic would surely seem to be it. If they are not to seem merely eccentric branch offices of the welfare state, they need to recapture their confidence, and take a risk: the risk of seeming odd.   

Tom Holland, Telegraph, 3rd May 2020

Holland was making a helpful point. This pandemic was an opportunity for the church to sound odd, to speak an alien message, to offer something different. So many churches did answer that call. So many pastors and ministers and church members shared the Gospel and the hope that they have in bold and wonderful ways. God has used His people even in this pandemic. But as lockdown eases, and our country begins to worship out in the open again, we must meet our friends and neighbours with our odd message.

Our world worships, it always has and it always will. As lockdown eases, it’s clear to see that the objects of our worship are gaining our affection once again. Normality is coming back, and our normality is a sinful one. A life of misdirected worship, living in and for created things, not for our Creator.

But the church isn’t made up of middle managers and office lackeys. We’re made up of people with a wonderful hope, a wonderful message. So as lockdown eases, and our nation worships again, let’s offer them a new object of worship. Let’s offer them a true object of worship. Let’s hold out the word of life, and offer a message of hope that kept us through the darkness of lockdown, and will keep us through the disappointment of finding out that ‘back to normal’ isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.

In the Good News of who Jesus is, Christians can offer a suffering world a true and certain light at the end of the tunnel. So as lockdown eases, be bold and take the risk of seeming odd, and share the God who is truly worth worshipping.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

Citizens of Heaven

The Early Church Blog

Paul’s Claim

Being a Roman citizen was a big deal. It afforded protections, rights and liberties simply not available to other classes. And until the third century, this status was the prize of the chosen few. The advantages are seen in the book of Acts. Having been beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, Paul and Silas alarm their captors by revealing that they are in fact Roman citizens (16:37-38). But in Acts 25, Paul uses his citizenship for the ultimate end: to appeal to directly to Caesar.

Paul answered: “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the…

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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.