Reviewed by Kirk Wellum
It has been said that how one interprets the Sabbath and the doctrine of Christian Baptism depends on how one interprets the Bible as a whole and follows the biblical storyline from Genesis through to Revelation. That is to say that conclusions with regard to these specific areas of biblical truth depend on a series of previous interpretative commitments. I believe that this is also true when it comes to a right understanding of the church – it rests on an internally consistent reading of the biblical data as a whole and an understanding of how the Old and New Testaments relate to one another. For this reason, The Community of Jesus: A Theology of the Church, edited by Easley and Morgan, is a welcome addition to the growing number of books that are a part of the discipline of biblical ecclesiology.
The book itself is comprised of an introduction to the subject written by Easley and Morgan, followed by 9 chapters individually written by biblical and theological scholars that endeavor to trace the doctrine of the church through the Bible before drawing together and highlighting some important entailments of the biblical data. Beginning in the Old Testament, Paul H. House, surveys the foundations of the church as they are bound up with the concept of the people of God. Next, Andreas J. Köstenberger, looks at what the Gospels contribute to the emerging doctrine of the church especially as it is tied to the ministry of Jesus, the Messiah. Kendell H. Easley, examines the church as it comes into its own post-Pentecost as chronicled in the book of Acts, and as it remains throughout the gospel age as seen in the book of Revelation. The remainder, and in many ways the bulk of the New Testament`s teaching about the church, as it is found in the Pauline and General epistles, is nicely covered by David S. Dockery and Ray F. Van Neste accordingly.
In the last 4 chapters, different authors tackle historical, theological, and practical areas when it comes to the church. James A. Patterson, looks at how the church has fared from the time of the apostles to the present day. Stephen J. Wellum, helps us to see the centrality of the church in the plan of God and how the church as God`s new covenant community is the fulfillment of his intention to have a people of his very own eager to do what is good. Christopher W. Morgan, reminds us that God`s glory and the church are inextricably bound together; and Bruce Riley Ashford, that the church has a divine mission that is universal in its dimensions that it must embrace if it is to be all that God wants it to be.
What I really appreciate about the book is that it moves through the Bible from the beginning to the end before attempting to reflect upon historical developments, systematize theological formulations, and identify important practical applications of the doctrine for life, ministry, and practice. This kind of approach is desperately needed today. Much that is written about the church is pragmatic and utilitarian and consequently loses sight of what the Bible teaches and why it does so. Furthermore, longstanding denomination divisions that exist within the Christian church will never be addressed and hopefully repaired, or at least mitigated, unless all Christians are prepared to look afresh at everything the Bible says about the new covenant community which is climatic and pivotal in the plan of God. When Paul writes that, “God has placed all things under Christ`s feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:22-23)” – we need to pay attention. The church is not an optional extra or secondary way of doing things in the plan of God. Down through the years of the gospel era other areas of Christian theology have rightly come under intense scrutiny and this has only furthered our understanding of biblical teaching. The time has come for the same kind of attention to be paid to biblical ecclesiology, and it is my belief, that the methodology followed in this book represents the best way forward.
Given the size of the book (288 pages), it cannot cover all that could be said, or all that needs to be said about the biblical doctrine of the church, but it does represent more than a great starting-point and it is appropriate for the theological classroom as well as the library of the pastor and Christian believer who wants to know more about this vital topic. I plan to assign it as required reading in my own systematic and pastoral theology classes at the seminary where I teach. All of the authors show the highest regard for the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of the Scriptures, which is critical in any serious discussion of the church in our day and age. Their writing is concise and easy to follow without a lot of cumbersome footnotes. There is a very helpful selected bibliography at the end of the book that will enable the reader to engage in further study, as well as a name, subject, and scripture index for those who are researching specific questions.
B&H Academic is to be commended for publishing this work, and I hope that it will be widely read as part of a larger discussion of the main storyline of the Bible and how it finds its grand fulfillment in Christ and his church. All Christians have some understanding of the church but we will only grow in our appreciation of all that the Bible says about it and in our unity with one another as we carefully work through the scriptures as the authors in The Community of Jesus: A Theology of the Church have attempted to do in this timely and thoughtful book.
Kirk M. Wellum is Principal of Toronto Baptist Seminary and book review editor for Pastoral Theology here at Books At a Glance.