The Shape of Christian History, Scott W. Sunquist. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.
Summary: An exploration of how Christian history is written and read in an era of “Christianities” proposing three framing concepts that give coherence to the whole arc of Christian history while respecting the diversity of its expressions.
In current scholarship, it has become commonplace to speak of the diverse cultural expressions of Christianity as “Christianities.” While this honors the diversity of global Christianity, it also carries the implication that there is not, and may never have been a common thread that can be traced through the two millenia history of the Christian movement. Scott W. Sunquist, a missiologist and church historian questions this trend and sets out in this work to answer this compound question: “What is Christianity as a historical movement, and how can we best understand and explain Christianity as God’s redemptive work in history?” He argues that this is not a mere academic question of how we teach church history but also how we prepare students and pastors to live as missional participants in the global Christian movement.
Before proposing his response to this question, Sunquist offers us a “brief history of history,” exploring the history of accounts of the Christian movement through history. He begins with James Dennis and his Christian Missions and Social Progress and traces these attempts up to Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity. The narratives are ones not only of geographic advance but also social progress, the bringing of what was thought the best of Western culture from hospitals to schools under the mantel of colonialism. In a post-colonial situation, this narrative no longer works and Sunquist believes only the biblical story, the experience of the global church, and Jesus himself offer coherence. He proposes three framing concepts, or three threads that conform to these criteria and serve to connect the history of the global church: time, cross, and glory.
Time: Two crucial events in time inform the direction of Christian history. Creation emphasizes that the story has a clear beginning, and one of beauty, rather than an endless cycle of birth, growth, decline, and death. It speaks of the goodness of the material creation against religion that denies the goodness of the body and material world. Incarnation tells us that something decisive was done in the past that shapes our present reality and gives us a future hope. All of this addresses the religious and secularist systems that fail to offer hope of redemption on one time, or try to realize heaven on earth in over-realized eschatologies that usually end up violent.
Cross: The cross and resurrection are central to the redemptive work of God throughout human history. This is true not only in what was accomplished through suffering and vindicated in the resurrection, but also serves as a pattern for the mission of the church. The church in its mission is to be cruciform, sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Sunquist shares case studies, particularly of the Moravians and how their suffering brought life as well as generations of mission work in China, often with great persecution, only to eventuate in what may be the largest Christian movement in the world today. Sunquist challenges the versions of a Christianity of success and conquest from the Inquisition to “prosperity” Christianity.
Glory: The glory in view here is the splendor of God and the honor due God for who God is. It is what motivates mission, not in a quest for personal glory but a zeal that this be acknowledged to the ends of the earth. Sunquist traces stories of those who suffer unto glory, including that of Julia Mateer and the school she began for Chinese boys. It moves us to hope, humility, and hospitality, the “little glories” that point to the greater glory.
Having discussed the writing of history and laid out his three framing ideas of Christian history, Sunquist concludes with a marvelous chapter on the reading of Christian history and how this may be transformative for students and for the church. He urges that we:
- Read history looking for little glories.
- Read history for biographies.
- Read history for the influence of ideas (theology).
- Read history for our local churches.
- Read history to meditate on the ambiguities of history.
- Read history for our missionary involvement.
- Read to have a greater awareness of evil.
- Read history to understand the relationship between the kingdom of God and earthly kingdoms.
- Read history to learn unity and love.
What a great apologetic for reading Christian history! He particularly encourages the reading the discovers the unsung heroes of the faith. I research and write local history and I can attest that so much of it is about people, people who often have acted with courage, character, compassion, and competence, and whose stories have been lost to their home towns. How much more for the history of the church! I’m also keenly aware as I look at the landscape of the American church that this transformative reading of church history seems greatly lacking. This raises questions for me about what happens in the training of pastors in our seminaries.
More foundationally, Sunquist reminds us of the only threads that can tie together the diverse global movements that identify as Christian: time, cross, and glory. We all believe God has acted in time to create and to incarnate his saving work in his Son, extending that through his people. We all believe in the centrality of the cross and the resurrection, and that these central events ought shape our lives. We all belief that our greatest end is God’s glory. What a fascinating study Christian history can be when given to seeing how this thread plays out, even in the darkest times, when we are at our worst and occasionally, at our best.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.