Liberating The Gospel: Translating The Message of Jesus Christ in a Globalised World”, by David Smith (Darton, Longman and Todd, April 2016)
Do modern evangelicals really read scripture through the lens of Victorian theology, asking questions originally formulated at the Reformation, as Tom Wright suggested? David Smith draws on a range of modern scholarship to address the challenge, expressed by Tom Wight in 2009 in his book “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision”, that “It’s time to get back to reading [scripture] with first-century eyes, and twenty-first century questions”. He challenges us to apply “deep listening” to the historical and cultural context of the Gospel and apply it to the global society in which we now live. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 consider the way we read scripture, then chapter 5 poses the 21st century questions.
David’s particular qualifications for writing this crucial book are that he was a pastor in Cambridge from 1965 to 1976, then a missionary in Nigeria for many years, where he discovered a refreshing perspective on our comfortable, “Western”, Christianity, and since then has been an academic theologian, teacher and author in the UK. He brings first hand experience of the “Global South” to bear on the “21st century questions” of the last chapter.
The traditional creeds (Apostles, Nicene), and to a lesser extent, evangelical theology, skip “from the cradle to the cross”, bypassing the whole life of Jesus on earth. This book shows how Christians from outside the traditional Western church recognise Jesus’ earthly ministry as both revolutionary and highly relevant to their societies. We can learn from this fresh perspective on the Gospels: the grinding poverty of many in Jesus’ time, the construction of cities such as Sepphoris, within sight of Nazareth, the obscene riches of a small ruling and priestly class, and the extraordinary significance of both gentiles and women in the gospel story, especially as told by Luke, all resonate with life in the 21st century.
After “The Galilean Jesus” comes “Paul and his Gospel in Context” – an examination of Paul, from both Acts and the letters, in the light of new evidence about the social make-up of the early church. It was largely urban based, drawn from an “artisan” class, but also from slaves and former slaves, and including the very poor. It was a revelation to me (from several reliable sources, spelled out in the notes) that, as well as villas, Rome was made up of “high-rise slum dwellings” or “tenement blocks”!
N T Wright and other scholars are invoked to show how in Roman society “gospel” would normally be understood as a celebration of a Caesar, and how to claim that “Jesus is Lord” would have been frankly treasonous. Paul’s concept of “justification” involves horizontal as well as vertical relationships. His vision of the gospel, in context, is described as “striking in breadth”, grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, and looking even beyond the civilised world, towards Spain (Romans 15:9-24).
Chapter 4, “John of Patmos”, explores the Book of Revelation, and other post-Pauline writings, drawing especially on Adela Collins’ commentary (1984), and notes how drastic an event was the “genocidal” fall of Jerusalem in AD70, and how it altered the context in which Christianity was expressed, as seen in the letter of James, misinterpreted by so many in the developed world. The table (p.112) of Roman emperors and their impact on the church is helpful, illustrating the precarious context of the Seven Churches. Smith, following Collins, and also Bauckham (1993) shows how this parallels the contemporary experience of oppressed Christians across the Global South. I found it deeply unsettling to be told by David Smith that in our Western churches we need to read Revelation “as Laodiceans” – “rich, not needing anything, neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm” (p.121).
However, the visions seen by John in the rest of the book of Revelation had, and can still have, a positive impact on believers, encouraging us to “decide for the worship and power of God and against that of the emperor”, as “John’s description of the slain Lamb involves ‘a complete redefinition of omnipotence’”, thus refuting the imperialist interpretation of (North American) milleniallists!
The final Chapter, “Liberating the Gospel”, is headed by a quote from the late Prof Ray Anderson:
Contextualisation is largely an unknown and untried theological method for evangelical theologians. The viability of evangelical theology rests with its willingness to venture into the future, rather than reside in the present and take comfort from the past. (p.149)
This chapter is probably the most difficult to read, spanning as it does history, politics, philosophy and sociology before returning to the theological questions of the “post Christendom agenda”. But it is also the most original part of the book – here is an analysis of post-Christendom covering such issues as the role of the modern missionary movement in Western colonialism, the vast emerging church of the Global South (Africa, Central and South America, together with the Middle East and Asia), and the global scale and scope of God’s redemptive work in Christ (p.184-5).
The sheer range of the literature discussed is remarkable, and valuable. As a former medical academic, I was pleased to see reference to Wilkinson and Pickett’s “The Spirit Level” (2010), an important epidemiological and social analysis of inequality in developed countries, but each reader will doubtless find something familiar, but also much that is refreshingly new. Andrew Walls is given the (almost) last word with:
Can world Christianity, in all its rich cultural diversity, demonstrate its unity by the interactive participation of all its culture-specific segments… Will the Body of Christ be realised or fractured in this new Ephesian movement? (p.193)
This book seeks to “liberate the gospel” from the Western church’s narrow, parochial view of the world, and also perhaps from our limited view of Scripture and its contexts. I learned from and enjoyed this book, I think as a result of the author’s manifest humility and wisdom – if you are prepared similarly to be challenged, and to face the 42 pages of excellent end-notes (leading into 12 pages of bibliography, for further study), do read this book! It’s theological dynamite!
Peter has been a Reader in a rural group of four parishes in East Yorkshire since 2005, and previously was secretary of a Baptist church in Liverpool. He qualified in medicine at Oxford in 1970, and followed an academic career, retiring in 2008 as Professor of Primary Care Medicine at the University of Hull. He has a PhD in sociology, and now works, with his wife Janet, as a volunteer with refugees and asylum seekers in Hull. They have four children and five grandchildren.