Seeking to Recover an Overlooked Metaphor: Thomas Andrew Bennett’s “Labor of God”

Thomas Andrew Bennett is convinced that something has gone awry when it comes to how many Christians speak about the cross. Near the beginning of his new book, Labor of God, he suggests that most of the traditional atonement metaphors have become stale, or as he puts it, “toothless through long repetition” (p.1). Consequently, the Christian confession of a crucified messiah—which Paul called “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23, NRSV)—no longer carries with it the sense of shock, mystery, or absurdity that he thinks it originally did (pp.1-2).

Given Bennett’s perspective, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him push for the development of fresh, alternative atonement metaphors, ones free from the weight of past use in the Christian tradition. However, he thinks the route forward actually consists in retrieval rather than innovation (p.2). Inspired by passages from the Old Testament and the Johannine literature, as well as the works of Medieval figures like St. Anselm and Julian of Norwich, Bennett advocates for retrieving an oft-neglected metaphor: “The image of the cross of Christ as God’s labor to bring about spiritual birth” (p.5). By embracing this image, he is convinced we can revitalize atonement theology and recover a fresh appreciation for the “radically gracious self-giving love” embodied by Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection (p.5).  Continue reading

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Introductory Patristics for Regular People: A Review of Bryan Litfin’s “Getting to Know the Church Fathers”

church historyFor many of those cracking open the pages of Bryan Litfin’s book, Getting to Know the Church Fathersthis is their first real glimpse of the ancient Christian church. Rather than returning to old, familiar friends, they are embarking on an exploratory journey that will hopefully enrich and deepen their appreciation for the church fathers (p.1).

As the book’s subtitle indicates, it’s oriented towards evangelical readers who might not know much about the Patristic era. Litfin, who is himself an evangelical professor at Moody Bible Institute, has a task made more difficult by the suspicion and skepticism towards the early church fathers held by some parts of the evangelical community. It seems that keeping his audience in mind is important for properly understanding the purpose of Litfin’s efforts. He is striving to accomplish two main goals: acquaint readers with some of the early church fathers (and a mother), and dispel harmful misconceptions held about them by some (though not all) parts of contemporary Christianity. Continue reading

Meal, Word, and Prayer: A Review of Andrew B. McGowan’s “Ancient Christian Worship”

ancient christian worship

First, a slightly provocative—and hopefully not completely unsubstantiated—claim: It seems to me that Andrew McGowan’s Ancient Christian Worship explicitly tells a story and implicitly makes an argument. In each of his colorful and well-written chapters, McGowan takes people on a trek through the different ways in which ancient Christians worshiped. He introduces readers to influential theologians like Augustine, Origen, and John Chrysostom, sharing ample examples from their writings on worship. McGowan also incorporates archeological research and makes use of fascinating early Christian documents like the Didache and the Apostolic Tradition, which give glimpses of how these ancient communities lived out (or sought to live out) their worship practices.

In other words, McGowan intentionally brings together multiple streams of academic research on early Christian worship in order to tell a coherent introductory narrative of how these worship practices originated and developed, while avoiding the tempting pitfalls of over-simplification and excessive generalization. He’s realistic about what is known, unknown, and unfortunately lost to history regarding how these early believers lived. Continue reading

Anathematize Them: A Review of David Wilhite’s The Gospel according to Heretics

gospel according to hereticsWhy should the Church ever listen to heretics? How do you define a heretic in the first place? In David Wilhite’s engaging and informative introduction to the early christological conflicts of the Church, The Gospel according to Heretics, he takes on these questions and more with admirable clarity, depth, and sensitivity. Wilhite teaches at George W. Truett Seminary in Texas and specializes in the study of North African Christianity in late antiquity, giving him a good background for taking readers into the world of the Patristic era.

In much traditional Christian thinking, heretics were viewed as evil and malicious (p.2). They were to be avoided and their voices were to be silenced if efforts to persuade ended in failure. The early church father Irenaeus, in his work Against Heresies, records that the Apostle John supposedly once fled from a building in order to avoid the heretic Corinth’s (3.3.4). Ignatius also exhorted readers in his Letter to the Trallians to, “cover up your ears in order to avoid receiving the things being sown by them” (9). Continue reading