Review of “Liberating the Gospel: Translating the Message of Jesus Christ in a Globalised World” by David Smith

liberatingthegospelLiberating 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!

2 thoughts on “Review of “Liberating the Gospel: Translating the Message of Jesus Christ in a Globalised World” by David Smith”

  1. I am looking forward to reading this book alongside the Africa Bible Commentary, I think David is right we have Anglicised the Bible, However one thing occurs to me and that is that it was and is with purpose that the Bible has been Anglicised and that purpose is that we may understand it in our own culture first, we have brilliant bible translators in this country and they are comfortable for me to read, well some go over my head if I am honest but that’s what dictionaries are for right!!

    But of course the cultural aspect of the gospel can only really be caught by those born and raised in a culture in much the same way as the Hebrew and Greek.

    The question is I guess does other cultures written bibles lose important facts in translation, I think the answer ls in the living gospel or personal communication with God , and if we are to truly minister to people from other cultures then we need to read and understand the gospel in the way they as a community understand it. there was an interesting quote in the African Commentary it was

    ” according to our culture it will determine how we manifest ourselves in Gods image” an interesting statement I thought. For cross cultural communication would mean that in the same building a diverse group of people would all be receiving God in a different way, we know that to be true, yet we always place more value on some peoples interpretation than we do others.

  2. ‘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’.

    An important part of the ‘whole life of Jesus on earth’ are the words which, according to the Bible, he did say, and, according to the Bible, he will say.

    Surely it matters whether or not Jesus said (and will say) all the things that the Bible asserts? Including the terrible things that none of us, in our ‘natural’ selves, want to believe? Because what he said and will say tell us a lot about who he is and what he is like and have a direct bearing on what the truth is about sin, final judgment and salvation.

    I don’t believe that Anglicans are agreed that he did say and will say all these things. This is one of the unmentioned prehistoric monsters in the room whenever vital matters are earnestly debated in the councils of the Church.

    Phil Almond

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