An extended review of a 2022 book by Scott Sunquist
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Book by By Scott Sunquist. IVP Academic, 2022. 192 pages. $26 (e-book $16)
How do we bring church history into the church today? This question becomes difficult when considering the diversity of the global church. Scott Sunquist of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary discusses the way Christianity is lived out in different cultural contexts and the ways in which some might be unfamiliar in mainstream contemporary Canadian Christianity.
Of course Canadian life is becoming increasingly multicultural, so many of these expressions, although historically less visible in Canada, are already thriving in some places and soon will be even more visible.
In this complex and dynamic context, how do we proceed as the body of Christ rooted in the historical church? Sunquist presents an approach to church history based on three interwoven strands: time, Cross and glory.
Sunquist argues that the Christian concept of time as having a beginning (creation), a centre-point (Jesus), and an end (God’s kingdom come) is an essential framework for Christian history. It’s different from the Greek notion of eternally pre-existing reality or some other frameworks of eternal cycles of days, months and seasons. Christianity presents a purpose and motion in time towards when God will bring all things before His judgment.
Given that cyclical time is important to many cultures that embrace Christianity, I wish Sunquist would have better clarified what he meant by Christianity introducing linear time. It is not a replacement for cyclical time – rather, it is the big-picture that stands over the cycles and gives them ultimate meaning and purpose.
The second point is what Jesus did on the Cross. “It is not possible to give an accurate portrayal of Christian history without in some way holding up the cross as a measure, guide, interpreter of the faith and even of humanity” (89). You cannot talk about Islam without Muhammad, nor Buddhism without Gautama Buddha. Christianity is a “centered” religion, not “bounded.” Christianity does have boundaries, but they cannot be the defining element. Rather, Christianity (and its boundaries) are defined by its centre – Jesus, God who became a man who died to reconcile us to God.
The third point is glory. As Sunquist says, “The theological taproot of the gospel is that suffering and death do not have the last word” (119). In many ways glory is the answer to the “why” of Christianity. Why do Christians surrender to suffering? Why do Christians hold to their faith in Jesus? This glory is our hope as Christians.
Sunquist presents glory as two-fold: big glory in God’s presence vs. little glories in the Church throughout history. This second element: the little glories today (and in church past) are things we can focus on when discussing church history. We see little glories through Basil of Caesarea in the 300s when he established the first hospitals; we see little glories in Calvin and Julia Mateer’s Christian education program in China in the late 19th century. And there are so many more examples worth learning and discussing.
As a soon-to-be church history scholar, I resonate deeply with, and mourn, the sad neglect and misunderstandings of history rampant among Canadian Evangelicals. Sunquist’s new book is one of the resources that gives me hope that pastors and leaders can incorporate church history into their ministry; it provides ways to make history fun and relevant, and insights that illumine its relevance in diverse contexts.
Books like this are wonderful resources to consider ways for us to tell the stories of the Church past and to revel in God’s work across the globe and time. We are part of a beautiful story, especially in Canada with the ethnic and cultural diversity; let us tell these stories! Let us focus on how they fit within the line of God’s time, how they revolve around the Cross, and point us toward our hope of Glory.
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