Saturday, August 25, 2018

Evangelism in the Early Church: Part 3

This is the third and final installment of my review of Evangelism in the Early Church. 

The Christians and the Jews

When it comes to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the early church, Green believes that the mission of the early Christians to the Jews was a failure. In human terms, you could say that it was, since very few Jews, comparatively speaking, were converted. However, if you understand Paul’s insight when you read Romans 11, not only was that the design of God, but it was also intended for very specific purposes. The change in focus of the early church to the Gentiles, would have been much more "strained" had the Jews not rejected the good news the way they did. Paul makes the point that because of the Jewish rejection, the Gentiles were "grafted in." Thus, it is not that the early church “failed” to reach the Jews, but that the Jews, in their rejection of their Messiah, in turn fulfilled the purposes of God for the Gentiles.

According to Green, the Christian writers showed, from the beginning (and this includes, according to him, the gospels) an acrimony to the Jews that prevented them from being effective weapons in winning them for Christ. Aside from the writings of people such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian, the issue here is that the gospels simply express what in fact took place. That very acrimony is what lead the Jews to crucify Christ, and it was not an acrimony expressed by the apostles toward the Jews, but the other way around. It would be problematic to speak of the crucifixion without explaining some of the main factors that lead to it. It was the Jews that persecuted the early church. The apostles sought to bring the message to the Jews first and foremost. Notice what Paul says about the gospel “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Thus, it was the Jews who first showed the acrimony, not the Christians.

It is true, however, that later writings were so anti-Jewish that they became unfruitful and useless to a great extent. Attacking the beliefs of others from the outset is not the best way to win them for your side. The constant ridicule that Christian writings of the 2nd century and beyond showed for their opponents, was so acerbic that it became nothing more than a "preaching to the choir" enterprise. In that, the author is exactly right when he expresses his dismay at their strident accusations, even hurling accusations at the Jews that “they crucified the Messiah” supposedly making them unworthy of receiving His message. The problems with such an attitude should be self-evident. No one is beyond the reach of the gospel and for us to set ourselves as judges as to who will receive the message is the height of arrogance. After all, the book of Acts tells us that a “great number of priests believed” (Acts 6:7).


As with any work, Evangelism in the Early Church is not without its problems. In discussing how we today can tap into the source of the early church’s power, the author talks about the power of the Spirit and how we need to make it a part of our daily living. His bent, however, is of the Pentecostal or Charismatic brand. Green is a proponent of what he calls the charismata—the idea that the gifts of healing and such are still very much in effect. In recounting some of the stories from the second and subsequent centuries, for example, he tells of Gregory of Nyssa (aka The Wonder Worker). According to the story, Gregory was so powerful that he once expelled a demon from a temple in which he had sought refuge. The priest came after him and asked that he restore the demon which Gregory promptly did. On seeing that, the priest was converted and in due time became Gregory's successor as bishop. This story is proffered as proof that the early church, beyond the era of the apostles, was still practicing the supernatural gifts of the Spirit.

I don't doubt that miracles are performed by God. But why do people think that miracles need to be present in order for the Spirit to demonstrate His power? I have a problem with the idea that God must continue to use the gifts of the first century in order to demonstrate His power. Miraculous ages have been few in the Bible. Aside from Moses, Elijah and Jesus and the apostles, miracles have been used by God infrequently during periods of special revelation. In addition, it is quite plain to see that the so-called miracles of today are nothing more than counterfeit hocus pocus. You don't need to be a genius to see that what people are claiming as miracles, are nothing more than psychosomatic suggestions that have little substance. You don't see people being raised from the dead, paraplegics walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, as you saw in the first century church. The author cites the fact that Augustine, near the end of his life, changed his mind and became a Continuationist. But the fact that Augustine changed his view on the miracles issue is no reason why we, absent the reality of the claims, should do so.

There are also some passages where Green, after ably defending the truth of the gospel and standing for the Word, makes rather confusing statements that make him sound like a liberal. For example, Green tells us that "Whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah is disputed." And I have to ask, by whom? Only liberal scholars who want to make of Jesus a high teacher and little more will question whether he in fact claimed to be the Christ. Even a cursory reading of the gospels will quickly convince the reader that Jesus claimed to be the One that was to come loudly and often. It is possible that his Anglican stripe is seen in this and other comments (as the one below). Another example: there's a contradiction between 1 Corinthians 15:1 and Galatians 1:8. Notice that Paul received it (the gospel), but he doesn't indicate from whom in the Corinthian letter. The truth of the matter, however, is that rather than claiming there is a contradiction, we should seek to reconcile the Scriptures. They are the ones that are inspired, not us. Consequently, we submit to them rather than trying to make them submit to our particular view.

When it comes to liberals and their theories, however, he does refute the allegations of many of the Bultmann School, for example, that the sermons in Acts are either too similar or too dissimilar to each other (isn’t that convenient!) and to other writings by elsewhere, but he does so purely on naturalistic grounds. To the charge that Luke could not have had access to the sermons themselves and thus could not have reproduced them accurately (rather, he basically retained its outer edges, but filled in what he thought needed some “cushioning”), he replies that people had good memories then and Luke could have gotten the messages from those who heard them.
He discusses ancient historians and indicates that their practice was normally to get the general story right, but to embellish the details as they saw fit (reminiscent of Mike Licona and his insistence that such was the case with the New Testament authors; rather than harmonizing and reconciling the accounts in the gospels, for example, his answer is usually that the “ancient historians were more loose with the facts than contemporary ones”). Thus, the essential part that supernatural revelation played in the writing of the New Testament is cast aside. There is little doubt that the writers of the NT utilized sources, both oral and written, for their writings (Luke himself says as much at the beginning of his gospel). But it is also equally undeniable that the Spirit was the guide who ensured that all that the inspired writers were writing was not only true and accurate, but what He wanted them to write. In purely naturalistic ways of thinking, we would have a difficult time believing that someone could remember a sermon in such intricate details years later. But that presupposes that we are doing so with our natural powers of memory without the aid of the Spirit.
There are other examples, but the point here is that he nowhere makes the case for the fact that the writers of the New Testament were writing under inspiration and thus were safeguarded from mistakes (and were aided supernaturally in their recollections) by the Holy Spirit. If you’re supposedly going to write a book about evangelism in the apostolic church, then the role that inspiration played in that church has to be front and center. Otherwise, you’ll just be writing about possibilities and probabilities that are devoid of any real, supernatural, God-generated substance (this is especially puzzling seeing that he is such a strong proponent of the supernatural gifts!). If you don’t pay attention to the words of the Lord that “the Spirit will bring back to your remembrance all things whatsoever I have taught you” (John 14:26), then you’re missing the most essential part of the whole enterprise. The New Testament is, to be sure, history. But it is much more than simple history.
There are other times when the author shows his Anglican upbringing, as it were, in some of the statements he makes concerning Jesus and his Messiahship. For example, he tells us that Jesus probably did not think of himself as the prophet of Deuteronomy 18. This is in the context and with the implication that the apostles made use of that prophesy later on to bolster their claims of Jesus being the fulfillment of that prophesy. In other words, this is a perhaps more sophisticated way to make the same argument that the Muslim makes that the apostles “filled in the gaps” in Jesus teaching and invented doctrines about Him that He did not propound. How can Jesus not see himself as the fulfillment of the prophesies about Him, even if the gospel writers didn’t say it explicitly? Jesus told his apostles that the Spirit would open their minds to the scriptures, presumably all of them. If that is the case, then for them to proclaim Jesus as the fulfillment of Moses’ prophesy would come naturally and not have to be forced.
In many instances, however, Green shows an adeptness at counteracting the liberals’ darts that is unsurpassed. It is a common belief among scholars, especially those of a more liberal theological bent, that the early church believed that the Parousia (Christ's coming) would take place during their lifetimes. This is probably correct in general, but Green reminds us that where most err is in believing that, when this event didn't take place, the church somehow had to regroup and start over. In contrast, Green shows that the church continued into the 2nd, 3rd and subsequent centuries making a case for the Parousia but understanding that the event was within God's purview and not theirs (or ours). The Parousia formed a strong basis for preaching, but its date was never of significance (simply because no one knows it!). Green makes the excellent point that Jesus not only refused to say when it would take place, but also said he didn't, in his humanity, know the day or hour. Could his disciples know better than their Master?


In the end, Evangelism in the Early Church is a very worthwhile read. I found the book to be engaging and a fairly easy read. The book is written for a layperson with very little in the way of technical language or intellectual hubris. I learned a good deal from the book, with perhaps its most important aspect being that it very much encourages reflection and introspection. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. "In addition, it is quite plain to see that the so-called miracles of today are nothing more than counterfeit hocus pocus." Truer words were never spoken.

    How did I miss reading this before? Excellent work.