Review: The Shape of Christian History

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.

Review: The Cross-Shaped Life

The Cross-Shaped Live, Jeff Kennon. Abilene, TX: Leafwood Publishers, 2021.

Summary: A practical exploration of what it means to be made in the image of a God who died on the cross, to have the cross shape and form the way we live.

According to Jeff Kennon, two of my favorite books, The Crucifixion by Fleming Routledge and The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott, are among the very few books written in recent years on the cross. Given that the cross is so central to the Christian life, that observation alone is probably worth a book. What this book is about is what it means to “image” God, referring back to the Genesis 1. Kennon contends that God has shown us in the life of Christ, a life shaped by the cross. In fact, what Kennon proposes, using the language of Michael Gorman, is that we image God as our lives become cruciform, shaped by the cross of Christ.

The first four chapters of the book trace the story arc of scripture in terms of roots, ruin, rescue, and restoration. Roots focuses on humanity’s creation in the image of God. Ruin considers our exchange of living in the image of God for the false lure of becoming God, worshiping either ourselves or other things that become idols. Rescue talks about the God, who in Jesus gets his feet dirty, and endures the scandal of the cross, the great exchange of his life for ours. Restoration goes even deeper into the work of the cross, pointing to the reality that to understand what God is like is to understand that this is a God who empties God’s self and dies and we live like God, like Christ, when we live like that, rather than pretending to be gods. That is restoration.

In the next four chapters, Kennon identifies four qualities of the cruciform life. Humility is realizing that we are enough, that God has made us good, loves us, and we’ve nothing to prove. It’s not that we think less of ourselves but rather not thinking of ourselves any differently than we think of others. Service means life lived for others, just for their sake and not being in control. Obedience is saying “not my will” but devoting oneself to listening to Jesus and then doing what he says, even as he did the Father’s will. Obedience thus takes us into the depths of God’s heart. Sacrifice chooses what is best for another over what is best for ourselves.

Kennon supports each theme in the book from scripture and illustrates the key points in each chapter, both from history and his own life, in a straightforward fashion. He moves between Jürgen Moltmann and David Foster Wallace, between N. T. Wright and Jim Carrey as he draws out for us the story of the cross, and how to allow it to shape our lives.

This is a good book to be reading during Lent. All of us need to be reminded of what it means to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ. It is also a good book to give either the person considering what it means to become a follower of Jesus or someone recently baptized who is just beginning the journey of being formed by Christ. In a church so distracted by the latest cultural crisis or scheme to make us successful, Kennon focuses on the good stuff of what it is like to be formed by the cross of Christ. In doing so, he doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, but what we desperately need. It’s truly the only way we’ll discover who we were meant to be.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Cross and Our Enemies


Christ on the cross, Diego Velazquez, 1632

“And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they cast lots to divide his garments.”   Luke 23:34, ESV

He was betrayed into the hands of his enemies by one he had allowed into his inner circle, one who, even at the last, he singled out for favor in offering bread. The religious teachers he had met over table fellowship and openly debated, indicted him in a twilight trial that made a mockery of even their idea of due process. A brutal Roman governor caved to political pressure, sentencing him to death. He was mocked, spit on, crowned with thorns, and brutally flagellated, where his back was turned into hamburger (Mel Gibson’s The Passion was no exaggeration of the brutality he endured). He was forced to carry a heavy cross piece to the place of his execution, weakened though he was. He was stripped of clothing, utterly humiliated. Nails were driven into wrists and ankles. What was brutal about crucifixion was that the way one hung made it difficult to breath. To get a good breath mean raising oneself against the spikes through one’s ankles and wrists.

Crucifixion was a political act to terrorize subject populations. Words alone struggle to capture the brutality of all that Jesus underwent. So many kinds of human evil from betrayal to cowardice, to cravenness, to banal delight in torment, to the executioner’s efficiency come together in the last twenty-four hours before the death on a Friday afternoon.

And then the prayer pleading for their forgiveness. We may wrap this up in our atonement theology that Christ died that all may have the possibility of forgiveness, which is utterly, and unbelievably true, as I read it. But to say these words in the midst of such agony, in the face of such brutality and mockery, injustice and betrayal, when to all appearances the people who put Jesus to death knew very well what they were doing, were utterly culpable for their acts–this staggers my imagination.

Yet isn’t this how it is with all the evil we and others do? We know what we are doing, and yet we don’t fully grasp what we are caught up in, whether it is the web of our own hidden motivations and fears, or the external natural and supernatural powers of evil into which our acts play.

Those who follow Christ believe the dying act of forgiveness indeed broke the power of evil, a power that exacts a punishment or a vengeance for every wrong. The Forgiving One in word and act takes punishment and vengeance upon himself and bears it to death.

Do we believe the word of forgiveness and “they know not what they do” for the ISIS bombers in Ankara and Brussels and their compatriots who even now are likely plotting further evil? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for those closer to home who may have deeply hurt us? Do we believe the word of forgiveness for ourselves, who in our most honest moments wish we could erase many deeds from the record of our lives, and perhaps have done more ill than we know?

The forgiveness of enemies is hard. None of this mitigates efforts to prevent someone from causing further harm. Nor is forgiveness the same as reconciliation which involves a truthful and genuine admission of wrongdoing. Forgiveness is hard because it means bearing the wrong done against me on myself and putting it away, dying to the option of obtaining either judgment or vengeance against the other. Forgiving ourselves is hard because it means giving up on either justifying ourselves, or trying to pay back what can’t be repaid, to undo what can’t be undone.

For Christ followers, forgiveness has been done before us, for us, and in us. And the Christ who died and rose wants to forgive through us. The scriptures tell us that we have a choice between living in a forgiveness world and a world of vengeance and punishment. The world we choose for our enemies is the world we choose for ourselves as well. I know the choice isn’t easy. Perhaps all we can do at times is acknowledge the challenge and ask to be helped to begin on the road to forgiveness, and even to the love of our enemies. A former colleague of mine just posted an article that included this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer that may help us take the first step on the road:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Perhaps there is no better day than today to begin praying that prayer.

Review: Walking the Labyrinth

Walking the LabyrinthWalking the LabyrinthTravis Scholl. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014

Summary: The book consists of a series of reflections over the forty days of Lent intermingling thoughts on the gospel of Mark, life, and the daily walking of a labyrinth in the churchyard of a neighborhood church.

Travis Scholl discovers a labyrinth in a churchyard in his neighborhood and determines to walk it over the forty days of Lent. Each day, he reflects on a portion of the gospel of Mark, interweaving these reflections with thoughts about life, and the peculiar type of pilgrimage that is walking the labyrinth.

The book begins with a helpful explanation of the history of labyrinths from the myth of Ariadne’s thread to the appropriation of the idea of walking labyrinths as a Christian practice–a kind of pilgrimage both to the center of one’s life and the center of one’s relationship with God.

The use of Mark’s gospel seems especially appropriate. Jesus seems to be perpetually walking in this gospel–a labyrinthine journey around and around Galilee, into the Decapolis and the regions of Tyre and Sidon, and then on to Jerusalem and the cross, which perhaps not coincidentally we learn forms the center of the labyrinth.

Scholl attempts to walk the labyrinth every day, coming at various times in all kinds of weather from snow to the incipient heat of summer. His reflections concern such things as pilgrimage in the middle of things, the seeming labyrinthine and circular natures of life, the westward facing entrance of the labyrinth, symbolizing both death and the hope of the life to come, the cross at the center of the labyrinth and his own life, and much more.

Labyrinths are often inlaid in the floors of cathedrals. "Labyrinth" by Marlith - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Labyrinths are often inlaid in the floors of cathedrals.  This is Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. “Labyrinth” by MarlithOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite reflections was on the labyrinth being like the seed of the kingdom — growing day and night. The seed is itself a kind of labyrinth from which life emerges. Another is on the impossibility of keeping the kingdom secret, as secret as our practices might be. Jesus is in seclusion and sought out by the Syrophonecian women who answers his parable or riddle with a parable. She understands the secret of the kingdom that is found in Jesus, and receives her daughter whole.

Perhaps the final reflections tracing the way of the cross are among the best, as is the very last which captures the incredible excitement of the women’s report, “He is risen. He is going ahead of you into Galilee.” The labyrinthine journey of Jesus begins and ends in Galilee, just as one enters and emerges from the labyrinth in the same place.

The author concludes the book with recommendations and resources for those who want to walk the labyrinth and provides a day by day list of his readings in the gospel of Mark. In some ways, it was better that I read his book at a time other than Lent. While it could be helpful to use these reflections during Lent, there is a part of me that is inspired to find my own labyrinth and journal my own reflections, using Scholl’s book not as a devotional, but as a model. We shall see…

What Would Bring Them Together?

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

What would bring together a Libyan, at least two criminals, urban natives, provincial dwellers, and diaspora people, women, children, the religious and cultural elite, and forces of an occupying army? On the first Good Friday it was the execution by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. If you don’t believe me, read the narrative of Luke 23:26-56:

  • Soldiers lead him away (v. 26) and mock him (v. 36).
  • Simon of Cyrene (a town on the coast of Libya) is impressed to carry the cross (v. 26).
  • A crowd of people including women follow (v. 27). Likely this included both residents of Jerusalem and diaspora Jews in town for the feast of the Passover. From Jesus’ words in v. 28, living and children yet unborn might have been there as well.
  • Two criminals were executed, one on each side of Jesus (v. 32).
  • Rulers of the people join in mocking Jesus (v. 35).
  • A Roman centurion (the officer leading the group of 100 troops garrisoned there and probably participating in the crucifixion) praises God and says “surely this was a righteous man” (v. 47)
  • Joseph, a Judean member of the religious elite, secures Jesus’ body and lays it in a grave (vv. 50-51).
  • Women from Galilee, a provincial region from which Jesus came, followed Joseph and noted the location of the tomb so they could return with spices and perfumes (which would mask the smell of the decaying body).

Only recently did I reflect on the wide array of humanity that the crucifixion brought together–people who otherwise would not associate. Different social classes, urban and rural dwellers, Jews and Gentiles, people from Palestine, Africa, and Eurasia, men and women, oppressed and oppressors, criminals and those who sentenced them all were at the cross.

This was not a “kumbayah moment” by any means. And yet this gathering in a strange way pre-figured the new humanity, the “beloved community” that would arise from the death of Jesus on a Roman gibbet. It didn’t happen all at once, but within fifteen years or so there was a community like this in Syrian Antioch consisting of both Jews and Gentiles that reflected this kind of diversity–so much so that outsiders coined a neologism to describe them–“Christians”–and it stuck.

Diversity and inclusion is a big thing in the university context in which I work. And yet I’m struck by the stark contrasts that I’ve witnessed this week in the realization of this vision. On one hand, I listened to the newly invested first African-American president of the university where I am engaged in ministry speak of “inclusion with excellence.” It was a moment not unlike the inauguration in 2008 of President Obama. In the same week, I listened to the news reports of a university campus in Kenya with students with aspirations much like those with whom I work that was turned into a killing field.

It is hard to be flung back and forth between such high aspirations and such virulent hatred. Yet Good Friday reminds me that the followers of the crucified One, when most faithful to their calling become a community drawing together all the polar opposites and scattered peoples found at the foot of the cross and more. The apostle Paul wrote about this saying, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15b-16, NIV).

If you don’t share my Christian convictions and have read this far, I thank you for extending such grace to my words. Truthfully, I’m writing more to speak to myself and perhaps to those who share my convictions. Against all the polarities we are tempted to create, God’s story is one of surprising us again and again by turning the “other” into a brother or sister, the despised “enemy” into my neighbor, and the criminal or oppressor I consider beyond hope to one with whom I’ll share paradise.

And it all began one Friday afternoon at a crucifixion…

The Great Exchange

If you follow Christ this is both a sobering and wonderful day. Good Friday, we call it. It is the day we believe God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, allowed himself to be unjustly tried and convicted, scourged with whips that lacerated his flesh into ribbons, and then nailed to a Roman gibbet, in one of the most inhumane forms of execution human beings have dreamed up.

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It is a day that poses many questions. One is “why did Jesus permit it?” He told his followers repeatedly that in going to Jerusalem, this is what would happen. And his prayers in Gethsemane (“Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me”) strongly suggest that this isn’t about a sick death wish or some heroic gesture. Rather, what it sounds like to me is someone facing a hard, but necessary choice involving personal sacrifice–kind of like the soldier covering the retreat of his comrades, knowing that their safety depends on his willingness to lay down his life.

And in fact, this is what is both sobering and wonderful about this day to me. It is this great exchange, that the apostle Paul speaks of in this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

What is sobering is this idea of being made “sin” for us. “Sin” in the singular refers to my basic propensity to reject and rebel against any thought of the living God being in my life. I’ve always thought about it as combination of spiritual adultery and treason–of  “going over to the other side.” In some sense, all the things we read about death and judgment are just God’s way of confirming forever the choice I make in my life. Actually, it would be more tortuous to face an eternity with a God who one spent one’s life repudiating. This is a pretty sad state of affairs that the cross of Good Friday faces me with. But it is also wonderful news because it tells me that God has provided a costly way out of the impasse–one who became sin in my place–like the soldier who lays down his life for his buddies.

More than this, there is an exchange that becomes possible because of this day–God’s righteousness for my sin. Volumes have been written about this phrase, “the righteousness of God” that I can’t even begin to summarize in a blog. But what it does signify is that I can become something I wasn’t, someone considered in right standing with God, no longer under the cloud of treason for all my petty and not so petty acts of rebellion, no longer estranged by my spiritual adultery. There is full and free pardon, and reconciliation–the healing of a broken relationship.

Someone has said that the difference between real Christianity and religion is the difference between “do” and “done”. I can’t make this exchange. But I can gratefully receive the exchange made for me. That is why the two little words, “in him” in this verse are so important. It is in Jesus, on the cross, that this exchange took place.

And so I come back to this question of “why did Jesus die?” It seems to me that either it was to accomplish this great exchange, or that it was one of the most colossal follies of history. Why would Jesus die if there was any other way to rescue an estranged humanity for God, or for humanity to rescue itself?

This is what this day means for me. It sobers me to realize what my spiritual treason and adultery cost God. And it utterly amazes me that Christ willingly took that cost on himself to effect this great exchange. I can do no more than stand in wonder at such love that Jesus himself articulated:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV)


Review: Theology of the Cross

Theology of the Cross
Theology of the Cross by Charles B. Cousar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was prepared to have a “so-so” reaction to this book, which I found in a bookstore bargain bin. That wasn’t helped when I found that the writer was only going to deal with those Pauline texts accepted by mainline scholars (leaving out epistles like Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals). Instead, I found this a profoundly helpful book in reflecting on the theology of the cross. In a sentence, what made it so was that Cousar stayed close to the biblical texts from which he was developing this biblical theology of the cross. And as a result, he reminded me of how the cross turns everything upside down.

After surveying the field of research including Kasemann’s work, he begins by considering the cross and our theology of God. He observes that we often simply “infinitize” the attributes of God. Instead, he considers the impact of the cross in revealing the righteousness and love of God in God’s willingness to enter the human condition.

He then moves to the question of human sinfulness and how the cross addresses this and explores the different theories of atonement as well as the elements of participation in Christ’s death found in Romans 6 and the idea of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2. I would differ with his approach here which seems to hold all on a par. I still believe that the idea of substitution is foundational to making sense of everything else. That, however, is a long discussion and Cousar reminds us that the images of salvation in Paul’s writing are diverse and show us indeed how great Christ’s saving work is.

Chapter 3 considers death and resurrection, and particularly how these two are intertwined in so much of Paul’s writing–together as God’s saving work, our promise for the future, and as a reality in our lives, both dying in Christ and experiencing his resurrection power.

Chapters 4 and 5 shift focus to the significance of the cross in Christian experience. Chapter 4 explores how the death of Christ forms a new people, providing a basis for unity and holiness across our various cultural identifiers. Chapter 5 goes deeper into the experience of identifying with the death of Christ in our experience of weakness and suffering, which the author sees as a major challenge for the North American church, even while this is a comfort to the church in many parts of the world.

His concluding chapter recapitulates the themes of the book, arguing for the centrality of the cross in Christian theology, how this shapes our ideas of God, the church, and the experience of God’s grace and final victory.

This book is part of Fortress Press’s Overtures to Biblical Theology series. I’ve been impressed with each of the volumes I’ve read. This was no exception.

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