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It Really is Hard to Reconstruct Aspects of the Biblical Times

Last evening, well early this morning, I was reading James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church and came across his discussion about the challenge of reconstructing the underlying forms or pre-existing offices that would have informed the earliest Christian communities. He points out that there well could be a number of traditional patterns and social attitudes that are simply unrecoverable to present day historians. He then provides this excellent illustration:

Imagine the impossible task of any future scholar trying to reconstruct the internal political history of almost any institution in America in ignorance of Robert’s Rules of Order, the format by which virtually all meetings are conducted. The wardens of a Congregationalist church in Newport, a teamsters union in Chicago, a chapter of the Disabled American Veterans in Dubuque: all of the them run their meetings pretty much the same way, Robert’s way. The book is a traditional item of community organization, entirely familiar to the nation, and for that very reason it is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned. By the same token, any familiarity which we can gain with similarly familiar antecedents of the earliest Christians will help us to construe better the way that they were following – because they were the only ways they knew of forming a community. (pg 199)

He goes on to note how the earliest Christians would have certainly looked to their common heritage and cultural milieu, specifically the synagogue.

Now, this really does capture the challenge of reconstructing the picture of the first century environment. After numerous generations of critical historical inquiry the picture is becoming increasingly clear. However, it still is missing pieces and a haze of uncertainty persists.

The underlying cultural forms that helped craft and structure authority in the earliest Christian communities are better known today than one hundred years when Sohm and Harnack (et al) were discussing the nature of charism in these early communities. Leaders in the scholarly communities that have pushed away the heavy stones of history have cleared the path and drawn on our growing knowledge of archeology and ancient understanding. Of course, the path is still clouded.

treaty-westSo to frame the continued challenge we think of the historical scholar in 1,000 years that looks back at the United States of America (or whatever country you might think of) and is attempting to work through a pile of yellowed manuscripts of official documents (since out data architecture long vanished because of its delicate state) from the wide ranging organizations as listed above. Perhaps she even has some official files from Congress. Yet Robert’s Rules does not exist in any written form. Imagine the frustration and limited horizons. If any of us could leap into her time we might be able to explain (once we learned the languages) these things better, yet we know we cannot do this.

This same problem vexes historians and biblical scholars.

We have a good picture of these times of antiquity and, perhaps more than any other people of the turn of the age (from BCE to CE) we understand Christians well. The development of the earliest Christianity wasn’t a static venture, but certainly an organic one that has many warts and scars. Yet here the Church still stands in this day (rather different I suggest) and still proclaims a Gospel so similar to the earliest Christian creed “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The picture of these earliest believers might not be in full color or complete, but it is there and increasingly made clear through the efforts of legitimate, critical scholarship. For those of us looking to add to that picture, or at least learn how to add, a robust and competent historiography (historical method) is necessary for moving forward. It isn’t something that is easily spoken of in small groups or sermons, but it is absolutely necessary for helping finish the picture to which so many have already contributed. And yet, in 500 years, the painting might be just as unfinished.

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Review: The Elders by R. Alastair Campbell

Though ecclesiology has been, widely, neglected in historical theological discussions, there is a growing field of research looking back to the earliest Christian communities for insights. Historical ecclesiology remains a growing field that is poised to, hopefully, receive important attention in the coming generation of scholars. If this occurs one work which will surely be included as effective for moving this field forward is R. Alastair Campbell’s The Elders: Seniority within Earliest Christianity.

Arising out of his doctoral thesis, at King’s College in London, this text seeks to evaluate the current state of ecclesiological thought on the role of elders within the earliest churches. Campbell approaches this task by considering the how contemporary scholarship reached its majority opinion on the role of elders, then looks back at the actual Sitz em Leben of elders in the New Testament environment, and then walks forward to the second century to see how the office developed. How the early churches understood elders in their structured ministry offices, or not, will be in focus for the entire text.

Campbell sets out to accomplish this work by way of eight chapters of research. One of the first priorities in the text is describing and making an initial evaluation of Rudolph Sohm’s landmark proposal at the end of the 19th century about eldership and church order. This approach has been adopted by many subsequent ecclesiologists, perhaps most notably by Hans von Campenhausen in his work Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual in the Church of the First Three Centuries (1997.) Campbell spends the first chapter covering this information and also providing some essential references for this study.

The  second chapter steps into the ancient Israelite and early Judaistic context for eldership. Following this, in the third chapter, Campbell handles the Greco-Roman context for elders. In both of these chapters the methodology lends itself to a deeper investigation of the language and concepts employed by these ancient societies. As a result, the reader is given a multi-disciplinary investigation of elders in the formative environments for early Christianity.

Chapters four through six (and an appendix to the sixth chapter) move into the literature of the New Testament for the references to elders. Chapter four spends its time looking at the critically affirmed Pauline documents for their references to elders and the fifth chapter considers the Luke-Acts usage of such references. For chapter six, and its appendix, the Pastoral Epistles, not Pauline in their attribution, is evaluated along with the rest of the New Testament.

Chapter seven moves into a post-apostolic view of eldership by helpfully considering texts from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and a few others pertinent texts. Finally, in chapter eight, Campbell provides a summarization chapter with sections on present day applications. The author’s ending content, works cited, indexes of modern authors, texts, and topical, round out the ending material.

At the heart of Campbell’s proposal is his proposal that the role of elders should be understanding differently the majority of early Christian historians generally believe. While the majority, not consensus, view is that elders indicates an office, or at least a formal role, within the earliest churches, Campbell suggest this is incorrect. The term is a difficult one to pin down and, likely, has multiple meanings in these different contexts. As Campbell summarizes:

The main contention of this thesis is that in the ancient world the elders are those who bear a title of honor, not of office, a title that is imprecise, collective and representative, and rooted in the ancient family or household. To put it another way, we do not know who is referred to by the term ‘the elders’ unless we know the context and even then we do not know whom the term includes or excludes. (246)

Campbell’s text is an example of excellent and meticulous research that, thankfully, incorporates helpful footnotes replete with many works from antiquity and more contemporary scholarship from the 19th and 20th centuries. His handling of the sociological setting from which Christian and Jewish-Christian churches arose is particularly notable. It is not an easy thing to confront a growing body of scholarship and offer a course corrective. Campbell does his task well and presents a text worth reading for those interested in the role of elders historically and in the present churches. With the growth the neo-Reformed movements that enjoy elders over other, more traditional, offices, this is an important read to help offer corrective instruction. His engagement with a wide range of literature is admirable as is the discussions of the underlying factors of contemporary scholarship.

All that said there are a number of points at which I disagree with Campbell. Briefly, there is an admitted pluriformity of church model in the New Testament and for the first four centuries of the growth of the Church. Campbell acknowledges this movement but finds problem with the extent of that pluriformity. Being slightly neo-Sohmian myself, I would suggest the influence of the Jewish synagogues and Temple clerical systems are more influential than Campbell necessarily grants. This is a point worth discussing and hopefully additional resources will promulgate such discussions. Also, the development of the offices of the earliest Christian communities is developmental and elders, or presbyters, do in fact appear to have official capacities in local communities by the end of the first century.

Campbell has provided a valuable text for those interested parties in academia and the church world. While the writing is not overly technical, some of the discussions require knowledge of biblical and ancient languages to be fully appreciated. Though some minor typographical errors exist, the prose of the text is engaging though not overly flowing. This is a fine historical text.

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Resource Review: Faith Lessons Curriculum

Resource Review: Faith Lessons with Ray Vanderlaan

Resource Name: Faith Lessons

URL: http://www.faithlessons.net/  or the Christianbook.com site

In a Sentence: Through live presentations filmed in archeological sites, this series takes the viewer into the places where biblical events occurred, tells the story, and draws applications.

Cost: $35/DVD or $320 for the entire set depending on where you shop

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars…an outstanding series

Review

Perhaps I’m biased, but Faith Lessons videos were some of the first video curriculum options I encountered and began using in college and young adult group studies while in college. They were high quality then and continue to provide a tremendous group study experience.

Developed and hosted by Ray Vanderlaan, the Faith Lessons series has grown to 12 lessons sets with two holiday DVD sets that cover Easter and Christmas. As the ministry describes these videos they are:

In-depth video tours of the buried, distant, or otherwise forgotten places where the stories of the Bible actually happened. By weaving together fascinating historical, cultural, religious and geographical contexts, teacher and historian Ray Vander Laan reveals keen insights into the Scriptures significance for believers in this day and age.

What makes these videos unique is that Vanderlaan, as the host, takes a group of learners into an archeological place and films his talks. During these presentations Vanderlaan recounts the biblical story about that specific place, pointing out locations, buildings, and other relevant information that would have informed those who experienced those events in the biblical times. He then talks over how we read the story, begins drawing points, and comes to application for each of the videos. The entire method is very effective and it draws groups into the location with meaningful teaching content.

Click Here for a Video Demonstration

I first used the curriculum while leading a college aged small group where we covered the lesson series The Early Church. Already studying this era for my classes, the videos drew me in and our group participants who might otherwise have gotten bored with traditionally presented material. Being able to walk through the archeological sites and have a great teacher (Vanderlaan, not me) showing how the sites relate to New Testament texts made the biblical picture become more vibrant for these students.

One of the better parts of the video series is that I’ve now used this series with groups from college aged, young adults, middle aged adults, and even through senior adults. Each group is captured by the presentation and the discussions following are almost always full of life. This is a well researched and well done piece. It recently has gotten a make over from the older covers but the content remains the same. Though it might be a bit dated with regard to some of the fashions that appear on screen, this is easily overlooked as the content drives home important points.

Though you might well disagree with some of the thoughts, this is usually on some nettlesome issue that doesn’t effect the final, fuller application.

I really grew to enjoy these video curriculum options and have used them in every church which I have served in since my seminary days. As we can put high level, high quality content in front of our often distracted people we should find much treasure in these kinds of video curriculum options.

Lessons include:

  • Promised Land
  • Prophets & Kings
  • Life & Ministry of the Messiah
  • Death & Resurrection of the Messiah
  • Early Church
  • In the Dust of the Rabbi
  • Walk as Jesus Walked
  • God Heard their Cry
  • Fire on the Mountain
  • With All Your Heart
  • Walking with God in the Desert

So, my recommendation is to check out this series for yourself. You will certainly be benefitted. Also check out the YouTube channel above, it has many of the videos available from Zondervan.

As a final note: I have received no compensation nor preview copies of this curriculum in my review. This is an entirely objective review from a small groups leader in a local church.

Have you heard of this curriculum? How have you used it? What did you think?

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Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

Title: To Change the WorldTo Change the World Cover

Author: James Davison Hunter

Publication Year: 2010

In one sentence: With the dismissal of Christianity from the public sector, faithful presence is the means by which Christians may regain their voice in the culture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Review:

Anyone who has spent time working through the contemporary landscape of the challenges facing modern evangelicalism, and Christianity in general, will have had to interface with James Davison Hunter to be taken seriously. In his current position at the University of Virginia, Hunter has become a significant scholar on the shaping of evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) in modern America. This text has, as its purpose, providing an answer the challenge of Christianity in the late modern era, particularly its marginalization culturally. Hunter’s means of resolving the prevailing question is through three interconnected essays that work out and explain the problem and his solution.

The three essays are:

  • Christianity and World-Changing
  • Rethinking Power
  • Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence

 

In the first essay, Hunter lays out the terrain of what the common view of culture is and how Christians might go about a task of cultural engagement that leads to cultural change. Central to his work in this essay are eleven propositions which frame out his understanding of culture. Each of the propositions work together to show that culture is highly resistant to change from institutional methods of change. Culture change, for Hunter, comes from individuals or movements that penetrate the linguistic and mythical elements of culture. This is a truly grassroots kind of movement. Throughout the essay, Hunter keeps the contemporary plight of Christianity in the viewfinder with comparisons and discussions.

The second essay, Rethinking Power, steps into the political discussion in the extremes of evangelical activists. Hunter’s primary approach considers the historical parameters of the discussion and how things have worked themselves out in both the Christian right and Christian left. He then presents the example of the Neo-Anabaptists as the best example of historical and New Testament forms of engagement. His sixth chapter in this essay is his strongest, though without immediate resolution to its central questions. Hunter resolves some of this with a final discussion about the implications of power in a culture.

The final essay is where Hunter more formally presents and works out this notion of faithful presence from within the culture. The opening of this essay is one of the best parts of the text. He then points out that there are two challenges which encumber this project: that of difference, with a pluralistic west there is no dominant culture; and dissolution, with no underlying agreement on terms and conditions. He then works through how Christians in a post-Christian culture might go about this task of changing the world through faithful presence. Ultimately, faithful presence from within, is an incarnational effort that requires sacrifice of ourselves on behalf of our calling.

Interaction:

Hunter’s text is an important one for church leaders to work through. It is well written and carries a historically informed discussion to bear in the contemporary problem. As I encountered the text initially, it was after a conversation with several leading edge ministers who were raving about the text. I found it erudite and articulate in its arrangement of the issues and presentation of the author’s solution. 

Copious endnotes allow the motivated reader to dig a bit deeper into the text and research behind the author’s work. Hunter’s criticisms seem fair as they approach both wings of Christianity he is considering. I do have reservations about the neo-Anabaptist movement he puts forward as being more apostolic and biblical than the other alternatives. Perhaps this is because I don’t buy political solutions in the earliest Christian communities. When one is without power, appeals to corrupt leaders are moot.

This text is important young leaders to read through. I would caution against the employment only for political reform; culture changing should move beyond that limited horizon. Church leaders would do well to engage key laity with discussions about this book and others like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians. (Of course that’s a lot of reading for a church staff.)

Finally, I simply disagree with Hunter’s idea of faithful presence from within. As I consider how the New Testament and the earliest Christian communities, even through the immediate post-apostolic age, interacted with culture it was the idea of faithful proclamation. My challenge is that, for all the stories of anabaptist type incarnational living, the examples given in the early communities find early Christians caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked while earnestly proclaiming the Gospel tradition handed down for all generations. Though I don’t wish to take more time to unpack this here, it seems that proclamation wasn’t about obtaining power for the early Christians but about being devoted to the apostolic teaching which is that message that can save. 

Hunter’s text is a fine one and it should be read by serious ministers who seek to engage the culture to transform it through the power of the Gospel. You simply won’t be disappointed in the text. For those who can manage a deeper discussion of its historical points, there is a rich mine of fortune in these words.

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