Review of ‘Mission in the Early Church’ by Edward L. Smither


Mission-in-the-early-churchEdward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

The aim of Mission in the Early Church is “to begin a discussion about early Christian mission that will impact how we think about and approach mission today” (p. 1). Its author—Edward L. Smither associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina—pursues this aim by providing “an introductory reflection on some prominent marks of Christian mission in the early church” (p. 5), including suffering, evangelism, Bible translation, contextualization, word and deed, and the church. Smither’s treatment of these themes is brief, balanced, and readable.

Chapter 1, “Backgrounds,” summarizes “the origins and development of Christianity,” its “political and social contexts,” and “the currents of thought” it encountered during the period, A.D. 100–750. During this era, the church expanded westward through the Roman Empire as well as Eastward into Persia, Mesopotamia, and beyond. During the pre-Constantinian period, the “first Christians had expansionist tendencies without worldly power” (p. 16), as Smith quotes Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, experiencing repeated bouts of local persecution. “Constantine’s alleged conversion [in A.D. 312] certainly set into a motion a pattern in which kings converted and then directed or at least influenced their subjects to do the same” (p. 22). The entanglement of church and state in the West continued until the modern era. However, in the East, the church fell prey to the rising Islamic tide.” “Within a century of the death of Muhammad,” quoting Irvin and Sunquist again, “as many as half of the world’s Christians [who lived in the East] were under Muslim political rule” (p. 23). Throughout this period, Christians engaged “a variety of philosophies and religions” (p. 24), but especially Gnosticism, paganism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, non-Christian monotheisms (i.e., Judaism and Islam), and numerous Christian heresies.

The title of chapter 2 reveals its topic: “Who Were the Missionaries?” Smither argues that there is evidence in this period for “official, full-time evangelists who proclaimed the gospel publicly in the early church” (p. 31). However, the majority of missionaries were “bivocational,” including “bishops, teachers, philosophers, and monks” (p. 32). Smither uses the word bivocational in an unusual way, here, it seems to me. While evangelism may not have been the first item in these groups’ job descriptions, all of them were connected to the church in some way, so they were not bivocational in the sense modern Christians use it, i.e., having an ecclesial as well as a “secular” job. (Even the philosophers Smither mentions, for example, are men like Justin Martyr and Origen, who ran catechetical schools.) The truly bivocational missionaries, in my opinion, are the “businessmen and merchants, colonists, and soldiers” who “played a significant role in early Christian mission” (p. 43). Smith quotes Adolph Harnack in this regard: “the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries,” then comments, “it is not insignificant that the two largest communities in the early western church—Rome and Carthage—had undocumented origins” (p. 44).

Chapter 3, “Suffering,” that is not usually thought of in missiological terms by western Christians. Rather, we think of the suffering contemporary Christians endure in political terms, as a violation of their religious freedom rights. As Smither shows, however, “suffering [in the early church] did serve as a strategic means for the advancement of the gospel.” This happened because “the public context of persecution allowed Christians the opportunity to witness verbally about their faith and to clarify and defend the gospel.” Furthermore, given that the suffering was unjust, it “resulted in apologetics, written treatises that defended and articulated Christian belief.” A final effect of suffering was that it “invigorate[d] the church and its mission as martyrs were remembered on feast days, through sermons, sacred biographies (vitae) and even through the construction of churches” (p. 51).

Chapter 4, “Evangelism,” examines “how the early church approached evangelism” (p. 76). Although evangelism in the early church did not look like the altar call at a Billy Graham crusade, Smither contends that “early Christian mission was characterized by a great commitment to kerygmatic proclamation” (p. 89). Christians in this period were “integrated into the fabric of society” (p. 76), so evangelism took place among all classes. However, Smither pays special attention to the use of written testimonies (e.g., Augustine’s Confessions), and the church’s engagement with intellectuals, political leaders, and heretics.

The translation of Scripture is the focus of chapter 5. Following Lamin Sanneh, Smither refers to translation as “the vernacular principle,” i.e., “making Scripture available in the heart languages of the world’s cultures” (p. 92). He shows the vernacular principle at work in this period through the translation of the Bible into Syriac, Latin, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, Georgian, and Ethiopic (Ge’ez). He concludes this section with a twofold irony related to Latin: “communities that translated Scripture into the local vernacular managed to avoid extinction, especially following the rise of Islam in the seventh century,” except in North Africa, which never translated Scripture into Punic and Berber, using Latin instead. This “helps explain why the church in North Africa went from being one of the fastest growing churches in the Roman period to virtually non-existent once the Arabs took control of the region.” Moreover, in the west, the Vulgate, which was commissioned to serve as “a vernacular translation” became “the standard Bible for the global church,” effectively stifl[ing] vernacular translation efforts until the fifteenth century” (p.107).

Chapter 7, “Contextualization,” examines “how early Christian missionaries articulated the faith through commonly understood ideas, by engaging sacred space, and through visual and work culture,” though it also notes “how the church failed at points to be indigenous in its message and approach” (p. 111). I was especially intrigued by Smither’s discussion of “visual and material culture” (p. 117). Columba’s mission to the Picts took up and transformed Pictish art forms. I couldn’t help but wonder after reading this section whether Christian approaches to contextualization focus too much on ideas and too little on sights and sounds.

Among North American evangelicals, the holism-priorism debate continues to divide evangelical missiologists. Holism refers to whether the church’s mission includes both gospel proclamation and social action. Priorism refers to whether proclamation has priority over social action within the church’s mission. Chapter 8, “Word and Deed,” examines this question, showing that “good works accompanied proclamation in early Christian mission.” Good deeds included “care for the poor, hungry, imprisoned, enslaved, and marginalized,” but it also included “ministry to those in need of healing and freedom demonic possession” (p. 128). Smither concludes that “there was little debate in the church over the relationship between proclamation and social action” (p. 146). As a Pentecostal, this chapter was intriguing to me for two reasons: First, the holism-priorism debate is alive in my own denomination, the Assemblies of God. After reading this chapter, I am strengthened in my own opinion that asking, “Proclamation or social action?” is a false alternative. Why not both? Second, it was encouraging to read about the continuing ministries of healing and exorcism in the early church. One wonders why, given this history, cessationism ever got off the ground, theologically speaking.

The concluding chapter, “Church,” looks at “how the church embodied and embraced mission” (p. 149). Smither argues that “church was central to mission in the early Christian centuries—both before and after Constantine. Though mission strategies changed over time and church forms looked different, there was never a time when there was church-less Christianity. The most visible expression of Christian mission was the church and the most powerful means for it was the church” (p. 162, emphasis added). It is often said that contemporary people like Jesus but not the church. The sentiment is understandable—given how often churches don’t act in a Christ-like manner. It still is wrongheaded, however. Christianity is a community that results from and engages in the mission of Jesus Christ himself.

Smither concludes Mission in the Early Church with a sentence worth pondering: “It is good to reflect on the church’s memory of mission and consider how it might shape us today” (p. 166). Reading Smither’s book deepened my understanding of this period in church history, but it also forced me to think about the same topics in my own ministry. Am I a missionary? How do I suffer? Am I evangelizing people who need Christ’s good news? How do I help people understand the Bible? Am I speaking to the unconverted in a way they understand? Is my verbal witness accompanied by good works? How do I lead the world into the body of Christ and the body of Christ back into the world? For me, Smither’s was a thought-provoking study well worth reading a second time.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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