Book Review — Early Christian Thinkers

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Originally published in the Expository Times, this collection of essays edited by Paul Foster explores the life and thought of twelve pre-Nicene Christians. Many of these thinkers you would expect to see, such as Origen and Irenaeus. However, some of them may surprise you, such as Perpetua.

One of the strengths is that the variety of authors results in a less formulaic presentation from essay to essay. However, this also results in unevenness in the writing. Some of the essays were page-turners, while others were a chore to finish. Fortunately, there are only a few that were in the latter category.

Another nice feature of these articles is the juxtaposition of introduction and scholarly dialogue. Many articles give a clear statement of established facts, but also follow up by advancing scholarly opinions on more recent academic debates or textual analysis. For example, Rick Rogers proposes that Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolycus is more protreptic than apologetic in nature, and Paul Foster discusses the textual criticism surrounding the work of Tatian.

I was also pleased to see that many of the authors showed a connection between these ancient writers and contemporary thought, such as Denis Minns’s observation from Irenaeus that “written documents do not carry their own tools for interpretation with them” (42). That’s a good word for those who fail to realize that any interpretation (of Scripture or any other communication) relies on an interpretive framework.

I was excited to see the Perpetua included in the list. The introduction states, “Her inclusion among other figures is not due to the attempt to embrace the feminist agenda for its own sake, or to feign some other type of ‘trendiness'” (xv) and acknowledges that she “may not have been the greatest theologian” (xvi). However, Sara Parvis’s essay failed to convince me that Perpetua belonged in this collection of significant thinkers. There was just too much supposition and extraction necessary to make a solid case for Perpetua as a thinker.

All things considered, Early Christian Thinkers is a welcome contribution for those interested in a more scholarly introduction to the lives and legacies of a handful of early Christian theologians who have left their mark on the church and her theology.

– Reviewed by Adam Reece

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review — Global Awakening by Mark Shaw

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (May 2, 2010)
  • Amazon
  • Mark Shaw’s faculty page
  • Q&A with Mark Shaw
  • Global Awakening by Mark Shaw is a work far from the kinds of books I normally read. Normally, one can find me with my nose buried in books on philosophy of religion or systematic theology. While it may not be evidenced in the works on my own site, my undergraduate background is in social studies, social sciences, and history. Global Awakening is one of the few Christian works I’ve read which focuses on historical, sociological aspects of religion.

    Mark Shaw identifies several crucial theses throughout his work, but the primary question he addresses is this: In an age in which secularism is supposed to dominate spirituality, how is it that Christianity has made such leaps and bounds globally? The fact that Christianity has experienced major resurgences in the past century is evidenced in the sociological data: “Africa went from ten million Christians in 1900 to four hundred million in 2000. Pentecostalism went from a handful in 1906 to half a billion worldwide by the century’s end. The center of Christianity shifted from North America and Europe to Africa, Asia and Latin America” (11).

    The book’s layout is interesting in that the conclusions are presented almost immediately within the first chapter and followed by the evidence from various case studies across the world and throughout the 20th century.

    Shaw argues that “[g]lobal revivals . . . are at the heart of the global resurgence of Christianity” (12). Revivals themselves can be viewed as a way of “updating of the church leading to new engagement with the surrounding world” (15). Shaw argues that there are various dynamics and aspects of revivals. These dynamics are: 1) personal liberation: both leaders and followers testify to freedom from spiritual bondage, 2) eschatological vision: a bold vision of God bringing His kingdom, 3) radical community: victims become members of the family, and 4) evangelical activism: spreading this revival to new places (17-18). Shaw notes that revivals often arise out of conflict (19).

    There are also cultural (people, faith, and justice), historical (problem, paradigm, and power), and global and group dynamics to revivals (20ff). The cultural dynamics often link Christianity to racial justice, a newfound faith, or a people group struggling with conflict. Historical dynamics reflect the way the revival grows and becomes institutionalized. Finally, global and group dynamics outline the way the revival integrates new members. Shaw writes, “As historical movements, revivals begin with problems. . . . Out of the ashes of the old springs the new. New leaders emerge and form a movement. . . . If the movement can resolve those clashes, it then moves outward to alter the social, spiritual, and cultural landscape of the surrounding world” (29).

    Shaw then moves into case studies, through which he develops his conclusions and arguments further. He leads off with the Korean revival which started in 1906. This revival, he argues, turned globalization into glocalization (that is, an integration and adaptation of a global faith for a local community) (52). He then turns to revivals in Africa, which demonstrate the importance of leaders in revivals (64). Next, he argues from the revival in 1930s India that “no conversion is complete without the conversion of the church” (90). The revival in Uganda provides a background for Shaw’s interesting argument that “Conservative churches tend to grow over time because they offer more and can therefore demand more of their members” (110); they offer, pragmatically, a “better value.” The revivals brought about in America by Billy Graham show a large problem remaining in churches in the States: pluralism. In a pluralistic society, should all share resources for the sake of “mission and witness” or should each privately conduct her own missions (131)? Brazil demonstrates the “power” dynamic of revivals: the protestant revival and emergence clashing with the Catholic powers that be. The working towards unity in Brazil presents a wildly altered spiritual landscape (156-157). Finally, the reverse mission of Africa (African missionaries going out to other parts of the world, rather than vice versa) and the emergence of China as a Christian powerhouse (estimates of house churches range from 10-80 million members) point to a spirit of missions and growth that may become exponential in the 21st century.

    Shaw concludes from all of this that Global revivals are “charismatic people movements that seek to change their world by translating Christian faith and transferring power” (198). Secularization does not seem to be leading to a destruction of religion, but rather breaking apart of theocracies and church control over governments (211).

    Overall, Shaw argues astutely for his points and brings to light many facts and examples which will be interesting for Christian readers. I believe the most important part of Global Awakening, however, is the feeling of global community Christians can have upon reading works such as this one. Shaw ably demonstrates that Christianity is not in danger of dying, but rather in “danger” of breaking open a new era of spiritual revival. This era will foster social and spiritual renewal on an epic, global scale. The coming decades will see an even greater resurgence of spiritual revival across the world. What can one say to this but “Thanks be to God!”

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. writes on Christian apologetics, philosophy of religion, and theology at http://jwwartick.com.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book.


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    Three Articles on Calvin by Timothy George

    (Via Christianity Today)

    Bonus:  John Calvin on Marriage

    When John Calvin was looking for a wife, he told his friends and associates his criteria: “This only is the beauty that allures me: if she is chaste, if not too fussy or fastidious, if economical, if patient, if there is hope that she will be interested about my health.” His wife Idelette died after only nine years of marriage, when he was 40 years old, and he called her “my life’s best companion.” He never remarried.

    Second Bonus: Dr. Timothy George’s top 5 books on Reformation Studies, including:

    Here I Stand
    Roland H. Bainton

    This book was first published in 1950, the year I was born. I first read it as an undergraduate, and it hooked me on the Reformation. Here I Stand tells the story of Luther as it has never been told before or since. Doctor Martinus almost steps off every page, a real human being beset by guilt but saved by grace. The woodcuts Bainton included in this book are a visual feast of Reformation iconography.

    * * *

    The Radical Reformation
    George Huntston Williams

    Williams argued that the Radical Reformation deserved scholarly attention in its own right, not merely as a reactionary “left wing” to other movements. This book traces the interconnections among a multitude of radical reformers, all of whom challenged the ecclesial and political structures of their time in their quest for an authentic Christianity. Williams himself coined the term “Radical Reformation” and provided a typology for understanding this amorphous movement. The Radical Reformation, he argues, consisted of three major thrusts: Evangelical Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Evangelical Rationalists. These are not meant to be hard and fast categories but a way to understand essential themes and common patterns among the religious dissenters who stood on the margins of the official churches of the 16th century. This is a book filled with theological insight as well as massive historical detail.

    * * *

    The Elizabethan Puritan Movement
    Patrick Collinson

    This book was first published in 1967 and helped to define the entire field of Puritan studies. Collinson interprets the Puritans in terms of their own self-understanding and burning desire for a “further reformation.” A model of historical research based on extensive use of primary sources.

    (Continue top 5 books via Christian History)

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    Top Five Books on Early Evangelicalism

    Bruce Hindmarsh shares his list at ChristianHistory.net.  He writes,

    The past generation has seen tremendous breadth and depth of scholarship on the 18th-century North Atlantic evangelical awakening, from deep in central Europe to the American frontier. There have been many debates about the origin, character, and significance of evangelical religion during this period. Here are some of the books that best introduce the general reader to early evangelicalism. All of these books are a pleasure to read, and all of the authors are experts in their fields.

    The first couple include

    The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys
    Mark A. Noll

    A masterful survey of the whole transatlantic movement. Mark Noll has (as usual) taken the best of the secondary literature and summed it up in a readable narrative with a wide perspective.

    The Inextinguishable Blaze: Spiritual Renewal and Advance in the Eighteenth Century
    A. Skevington Wood

    A classic account of the evangelical awakenings of the period that covers the ground in a brilliantly written and lucid narrative.

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