Review: Christianity in the Roman Empire

Christianity in the Roman empire

Christianity in the Roman EmpireRobert E. Winn. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.

Summary: A survey of Christian history in the post-apostolic era from 100 to 300 A.D., introducing the reader to key figures, events, controversies, and the development of various church practices and structures.

For many of us, there is a huge gap in our knowledge of the history of Christianity that extends from the close of the New Testament era until the Reformation era. The era this book covers, 100-300 A.D. was particularly crucial not only in the church’s response to persecution, but also in the development of various aspects of church order and practice and the growing recognition of the body of works the church would consider canonical, and figuring out the relation of these to the Hebrew scriptures they began to call the Old Testament. In addition, controversy forced the church to more clearly articulate its understand of key beliefs, particularly related to the person of Christ.

Robert E. Winn presents this material in a compact 137 pages of text, suitable for use in an adult education series, small group, or reading group, as well as for personal reading. He divides his treatment into three parts:

  1. Christianity in the Year 100. He begins with the contours of Christianity in the first generation following the apostolic era. They had arisen out of a Jewish context that has been decimated in its rebellions against Rome from which they drew apart, they spoke of Jesus as “Lord” and had developed clear authority structures and a moral life. Roman rulers like Pliny were presented with a conundrum of how to treat them. Early teaching in The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas set out the distinctive way Christians ought live. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians builds on this and reminds them of their common faith, as well as obedience to the bishops as key to their unity. Ignatius, in addition to addressing the importance of obedience to the bishops, is perhaps the earliest to address false teaching, both from “Judaism” and from the docetists, who maintained that Christ only “appeared” to be human. The section closes with these teachers instructions on church order including baptism and the Eucharist, laying groundwork still evident 2000 years later.
  2. Christianity in a Hostile World. Over the next 150 years, the church confronted attacks on its teaching and very existence. The section opens with the first comprehensive attack on Christian doctrine and practice by Celsus, and the anonymous response in the epistle to Diognetus, a Roman official. Then, Winn summarizes Justin Martyr’s First Apology, responding to charge that Christians are atheists, immoral, and disloyal to the empire. While Christians are not searched out from house to house, key leaders are martyred, including Polycarp, and two women, Perpetua and Felicity, whose stories are recounted. The persecution threatens the unity of the church about how those who denied their faith to escape death should be treated if they seek re-admission to the church. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage was a key figure in arriving at a response that was kind of a via media between extreme factions on either side of the issue.
  3. Faith and Practice in the Third Century. The church’s belief and practice continued to develop in the third century. Winn opens his discussion with the development of a canon, and the different ways of reading scripture that developed, the typological being represented by Melito, and the allegorical represented by Origen. Irenaeus of Lyon’s articulation of the faith around the triune God, against heretical ideas, is considered. Tertullian’s defense of Christianity against Marcion follows in defending the divinity and humanity of Jesus. He returns to Origin in his teaching on prayer, emphasizing both the hours, and the postures of prayer. We close with Eusebius’ history of early Christianity, striking in his account of Christians’ response to plague, the transmission of the faith, and the dealing with heretics like Paul of Samosata.

Each chapter includes questions at the conclusion to review and reflect on the chapter content. Chapters are short and many include quoted material from the early Christian writers. There is a “What to Read Next” section at the end of the book that provides both general readings and books on each part, many of which are texts on, or by, the early church fathers.

Perhaps the one surprising omission in this work is the lack of discussion of Gnosticism, and the challenge it posed, particularly in the second century. This is all the more significant given the resurgence of interest in Gnosticism in our own era, and even the contention that it was an alternative form of Christianity that was suppressed by “official” Christianity. Irenaeus was a key figure in these controversies and Against the Heresies an important part of the church’s response. Winn summarizes this work but is silent about Gnosticism.

What this book does do is provide a concise treatment of early Christian history, focused on Christian practice, key beliefs, and the response to the ever-present threat of persecution from Rome. Winn acquaints us with the writings of the early fathers (the reading of which I would encourage!). He helps us see the origins of ways of reading scripture, of articulating and defending the church’s faith, and ordering the church’s life that are with us in some form to this day.


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.

Review: The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No Borders

The Kingdom of God Has No BordersMelani McAlister. New York: Oxford University Press, (forthcoming, August 1) 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the international dimension of American evangelicalism, focusing particularly on Africa and the Middle East, the impact this American movement has had globally, and in turn ways global evangelicalism is engaging American evangelicalism.

American evangelicalism has been the subject of much historical, sociological and political analysis. Nearly all of this has been focused within the borders of the United States. Melani McAlister studies this movement through a different lens–the mission efforts of the past fifty years that have led to an international engagement, particularly as growing indigenous movements have challenged American evangelical beliefs and practices. The work includes extensive archival research, on the ground observation, and carefully chosen photographs that enhance the text. The focus of the author is on efforts in the Middle East and Africa, consistent with the author’s research area as an associate professor of American Studies and International Affairs at George Washington University.

The scope of this study is the last fifty years, going back to the 1960’s. After an introduction, the first section of the book is concerned with “networks,” the linkages of various key organizations within evangelicalism (e.g. the National Association of Evangelicals, InterVarsity, the Southern Baptist Convention, and others) both with one another, at conferences and in mission efforts. The narrative begins with the efforts of evangelicalism to reconcile its concern for peoples of color with the racial struggle coming to the surface in the 1960’s, then moves on to the Congo Crisis and encounters with Marxist movements and the intersection of religious and political concerns–would Congo become another Vietnam. At the same time, Israel captured the American imagination in its victory in the 1967 war, leading to travel to biblical sites and increasing linkages between religious hopes and American foreign policy. This section concludes with the largest networking encounter of the period, Lausanne ’74 and the growing tension between missional advance and social justice concerns from delegates in the developing world who were asserting their own voices increasingly.

Part Two is organized around body politics. It begins with Richard Wurmbrand displaying the wounds from his tortures before the U.S. Congress. Much of this section concerns persecution of evangelicals abroad and the intersection with concerns for religious liberty at home. McAlister traces the engagement with South African apartheid and how U.S. evangelicals dealt with the treatment of blacks and the witness of black Christian leaders. She explores the rising awareness of the Muslim World and the 10/40 Window heuristic for the unreached and resistant areas of the Muslim World. The section concludes with African American evangelicals efforts to address the crisis in South Sudan, and the redemption of people taken into slavery, an engagement of the heart that fails to get to the heart of the political turmoil in this troubled part of the world.

This leads naturally into Part Three, titled “Emotions.” McAlister explores what she calls “enchanted internationalism” that motivates much of evangelical mission. She chronicles the “short term missions” movement and the motivation of so many who “have a heart” for the lost, but often do not truly engage the cultural realities of the places they go, often supplanting national workers who may be as, or more capable. McAlister tells the complicated story of American engagement around HIV/AIDS, and homosexuality in Africa, where African evangelicals take a much harsher line than Americans like Rick Warren, and resent what they see as American cultural imperialism asserting itself into African churches. Again, much of the focus is South Sudan, as she joins Dick Robinson from Elmbrook Church as he visits believers scattered through the country and joins a Global Urban Trek of InterVarsity students in Egypt working with South Sudanese refugees as they confront both the enchantment of close identification one student had with Muslim Egyptians, and the struggle of a black participant who feels the racism of Egyptians while identifying more closely with the South Sudanese. All confront the expectations on Americans, the complexities of political and social realities, and the challenge of trying to live authentic Christian lives in difficult circumstances.

As someone who lives inside the world McAlister is studying and works in one of the organizations she investigates, I wondered how she would treat us. She is honest at one point in identifying herself as secular (on an Elmbrook Church mission project, one of the few organizations that permitted her to participate in such projects), and I thought fairly represented the facts. This was neither tribute nor hatchet job. It represents both noble efforts and questionable outlooks. She explores how global realities intersect with the American expressions of evangelicalism–how can we care for people of color around the world while tolerating racism at home? How do we hold mission in the Muslim world together with an increasing animus toward Muslims at home? How concerned are we for the religious liberties of the other as we advocate for our own? Furthermore, will we truly regard those who are fellow evangelicals around the world as equals and allow them to speak into our religious and political life as Americans? What happens when grateful recipients become equal partners? What happens when American evangelicals are a minority in a growing global movement?

I was deeply impressed with the incarnational approach of McAlister, who makes the effort to get on the inside that enables readers to see what American evangelicalism in its global efforts might look like to an outsider. I often read accounts of evangelicalism that are unrecognizable. The challenging aspect of this book is how recognizable it is, a mirror held up to us that shows all our features—and flaws.


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

Privileged, Persecuted, or Participating?

As I wrote in yesterday’s blog, I was part of an online symposium on the theme of “The ‘End’ of the University”. Each of the groups (representing faculty and others meeting on eight different campuses across the Midwest) were encouraged to write responses. This is not one of those but a personal reflection on one aspect of Dr. Santa Ono’s presentation. One of the aspects of the changing university landscape he addressed was the increasing diversity represented in the student enrollment as well as faculty and staff of any public university in this country. By 2040 or sooner, Caucasians will be in the minority, and already are in some parts of the country. Universities are incredibly diverse places ethnically, in terms of social class, in terms of gender and sexual orientation, in terms of political persuasions, in terms of countries of origin–and in terms of religious and worldview beliefs. As part of a group of Christians considering our response to these changes, it seems to me that we could (and do) make one of three responses.


The first is to try to hold onto being the privileged majority. Indeed, as I’ve been involved in multi-faith discussions on the campus where I work, I’ve found that others still regard Christians, and particularly Caucasian Christians in those terms. At one time this was most definitely so, particularly before the Civil War, and even in many respects up until the upheavals on campuses in the mid-1960s. Much of the perception of this ‘privilege’ I think comes out of our political scene up through the Bush II years and the close alliance between some segments of the Christian community and the party in power. Vestiges of this sense of privilege may be reflected in our expectation that Christian holidays be recognized on public calendars, that prayers be a part of public events and in the “Christian nation” rhetoric we use. What is most troubling to me is that privilege seems to be utterly antithetical to those who follow the Jesus “who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant….and became obedient unto death.”

The second is to take the stance of the persecuted minority. This is not to say that persecution is not a real option for Christians. In many parts of the world today Christians are in prison, tortured and killed for their faith. They deserve our prayers and our advocacy. But we should not confuse our present situation in the US with theirs because in so doing we demean their suffering and faithfulness. Certainly, people speak pejoratively of Christian belief and particular groups of Christians. But I’m not certain that this is any worse than some of the speech I hear inside the Christian community about others. In some cases groups have been denied access on campus because of their faith stance. Faced with this, I’ve advocated against such decisions as inimical to the freedoms of all students, not just Christians. But again, I think it is demeaning to call this persecution. Many Christian student movements around the world don’t have “access” and yet have great impact. Furthermore, I think this stance leads us to an attack/defense mentality that turns others into adversaries to be defeated rather than those who differ with us to be engaged who even have the possibility of changing their beliefs.

I would advocate for a third stance, that of participating members in the university community, who seek its welfare and consider themselves co-participants in the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty, ideals to which every university aspires. One of the things that this means is that I treat others who are in this same community by virtue of their student, faculty or staff status as equal co-participants in that endeavor. I think this means that we co-labor to make the university good and safe places for everyone present, not just for us. As Christians, we should care deeply that internationals on our campuses are not exploited, that adjuncts receive a just wage for their training and contribution to student learning, that no one should be bullied because of their orientation. We should be among those advocating that the children of all our citizens be represented proportionately in our student bodies, not just the children who enjoyed the advantages of the best schools, and college prep tutoring.

Many of our student and faculty groups actually receive substantial benefit from the university community and we should consider how we are “paying it forward” (in good Woody Hayes terms!). I would hope that we are known among administrators as people who make the university a better place, not as headaches or as isolated groups meeting off in a corner of campus. I would also advocate that we be people who not only forthrightly speak of our own faith and desire that others embrace it but eagerly listen to the dissenting views of others and engage in respectful conversation that promotes understanding and enriches everyone in the dialogue.

Above all, I think this means loving the places where we work. I am neither a graduate of nor an employee of The Ohio State University but people who know me swear I bleed scarlet and grey. It’s not just about sports! I believe when God calls us to a place, he calls us to love the place and its people as mattering deeply to Him. I don’t know how we can possibly give ourselves to the pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty without that love.

[As with all my posts, the views expressed here are my own and reflect neither those expressed in the Symposium nor held by the sponsoring organization or any other entities.]