By: John H. Armstrong; ISBN – 978-0-310-32114-9 Zondervan Publishing
PAST (Part 1)
Armstrong begins the presentation of his proposal in support of classical Christianity and starts the first chapter with quotations from Robert Webber; “You can best think about the future of the faith after you have gone back to the classical tradition” and Karl Barth; “No one dare do contemporary theology until they have mastered classical Christian thought.” The essence of these quotes is captured in Armstrong’s own thesis statement:
“New patterns of Christian faith and life are emerging in the church. I welcome these patterns, but I believe they desperately need to be rooted in the past – the creeds, the Word of God understood as the story of grace, life as a sacramental mystery, and deeply rooted spiritual formation. My thesis is simple: The road to the future must run through the past…”
I refer to the above quote as the thesis statement, but I believe the thesis is more appropriately defined as “presenting a case for the Christian Church; one holy catholic Church: unified in the person and expression of Jesus Christ.” Armstrong sets out to prove this united expression of Christ’s church is the desire and will of God using the Prayer of Jesus (John 17) as the primary text and basis for his argument.
The first seven chapters of Your Church is Too Small comprise part one of the book. In this section, Dr. Armstrong connects quite a few dots to lay a complete foundation for why he believes “unity in Christ’s mission is vital to the future of the church.” Considering the fragmentation of the present example of Christ’s church, this explanation and establishment of a complete foundation for his argument is no small task.
I am not an academic, nor do I have extensive seminary training in ecclesiology, but the example and effort given to “The Biblical and Historical Basis for Christian Unity” (Part 1) was thorough, understandable, and readable in the sense that it flowed with a logical progression and the building of ideas to form a very cohesive proposal (at least in my limited understanding and opinion).
As I have already stated, the prayer of Jesus (John 17) is the basis for Armstrong’s call for Christian unity. This study in Scripture is one of the main pillars of his presentation. The second pillar is the record and history of the ancient church. The evidence and practice of the historical church provides us with the examples necessary to benchmark our (the modern American church) own progress regarding the mission of God. The result of this “benchmarking” of the modern church serves as the third pillar and provides the critical assessment of our failure to act as the unified and universal Church as it was prayed for by Jesus in the Gospel of John (chapter 17).
I think the analysis and diagnosis, as well as the prognosis and prescription, by John Armstrong are accurate and worth listening to. My opinion might be subjective, but my experience (supported by data from surveys and polls from organizations like the Barna Group) agrees with Armstrong’s statement:
“Christians in America have lost a deep sense of their past, of their collective spiritual roots. As a result, we now suffer from a kind of spiritual amnesia that hinders our ability to faithfully move into the future with hope.”
Coincidentally, at the time of this writing, there is a very lively discussion on the Jesus Creed Blog of Scot McKnight that lends support to Armstrong’s assertion of the (universal) Church’s inability to find agreement on some of the most core and longstanding beliefs in Christendom.
I appreciated hearing the author’s personal testimony and the detailed progression of his belief system being challenged and changed through his study, meditation, and willingness to be open to “universal” truth. Dr. Armstrong identifies a couple of these pivotal moments coming through his reading of John 17 (the prayer of Jesus) and his recitation of the Apostle’s Creed. Continuing his journey and conversion (emphasis mine) he found a common footing in the study of classical Christianity and the traditions of the church. Although my own path has been different, I was able to identify closely to John’s testimony as there were several commonalities we shared.
The Mark of a Christian
Chapters five through seven mark the most important points of part one in Your Church is Too Small. They might arguably be some of the most important chapters in the book in my opinion. It is here that Dr. Armstrong puts forth the evidence that supports the greatest common denominator for all Christians; the mark of true Christian love. Scripture references are long and deep to support the premise of “relational-unity” that Armstrong purports as the functional oneness that should characterize the body of Christ and all true believers. Other citations include writings from Francis Schaeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann, and Timothy Luke Johnson who help to build a case for relational unity within the sphere of Christian diversity. I continue to process the points addressed in these last three chapters of section one, especially chapter five, “Our Greatest Apologetic.” In this particular chapter, Armstrong discusses the detail and differences of unanimity, uniformity, and union; his final assessment is to declare (and rightly I believe) that “the aim of the early church was the evangelization of the world. The purpose of their oneness was to be a visible representation of God’s love.”
Finally, closing out part one “Past,” the following thoughts are shared concerning tension and conflict:
“Over time, I have noticed that people tend to stay in relationships and work through their differences when they love each other deeply and are committed to finding solutions… I’ve noticed that most divisions in the church are not because of a major doctrinal disagreement; they are the result of a breakdown in our love for one another…” (pp.72-73)
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” ~Jesus (John 13:34-45)
Lord, help us.
Part 2 – Present continues tomorrow…