Review: Early Christian Mission by Eckhard J. Schnabel

Early Christian Mission, published in 2004 by Eckhard J. Schnabel is a massive resource. The two volumes contain 1928 pages, 1588 of which are text. The size of the work will intimidate many but the thoroughness of Schnabel’s scholarship is rewarding.

Theologian and New Testament scholar Peter T. O’Brien gives this endorsement of this work:

The publication in English of Eckhard Schnabel’s magisterial work on early Christian mission is a major event for which both author and publisher are to be congratulated most warmly. This amazing achievement, which carefully sets the Christian mission within its wide-ranging historical and geographical contexts, and considers the mission theology of the biblical material, fills a gap left for more than 100 years since the appearance of Adolf von Harnack’s work on the spread of Christianity. … Dr. Schnabel’s comprehensive volume is a profoundly reliable guide and provides countless insights that will inform and inspire the reader. A former missionary to the Philippines, he writes fully, judiciously and with conviction about a subject that lies close to his heart. It is an outstanding work to which I shall return again and again. – Peter T. O’Brien back cover of Early Christian Mission, vol. I

In my own reading in the discipline of missiology, I have found, like the author that,

“Typically, understanding among evangelicals about the early Christian period and  about the endeavors of the earliest Christians is, more often than not, unconsidered, and sometimes naïve or romantic.” –Early Christian Mission, xxiii.

Schnabel clearly defines his topic:

When I use the term “mission” or “missions,” I refer to the activity of a community of faith that distinguishes itself from its environment in terms of both religious belief (theology) and social behavior (ethics), that is convinced of the truth claims of its faith, and that actively works to win other people to the content of faith and to the way of life of whose truth and necessity the members of that community are convinced. This definition of “mission” involves a threefold reality: (1) people communicate to people of different faiths a new interpretation of reality – a different, new view of God, humankind and salvation; (2) people communicate a new way of life that replaces, at least partially, the former way of life; (3) people integrate those whom they win over to their faith and way of life into their community. -11

In his Introduction, Schnabel makes a case for seeing the history of early Christianity as history of missions. He addresses issues of method and sets out a chronology of events in the first century. The rest of the work is divided into seven parts.

Part I focuses on the promise in the Old Testament upon which the early Christian mission stands. The author emphasizes Yahweh as creator and the universality of Israel’s faith. Genesis 12:3 promises that all nations will be blessed through Abraham. Schnabel explores the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles throughout the Old Testament. He then surveys Second Temple Jewish writings in Palestine and the Diaspora.

Part II is titled “Fulfillment” focusing on the mission of Jesus with subsequent discussion of the mission of the Twelve and the Seventy-two. Schnabel makes clear that some of the instructions to the 12 and the 72 are limited to the specific setting and do not carry over to the early church. After Christ’s resurrection, the mission takes on a world-wide dimension including all nations.

Part III focuses on the the mission of the apostles in Jerusalem.  The first chapter of this section, “The Apostles as Envoys of Jesus the Messiah” includes a helpful discussion of the Great Commission passages. Part III is rounded out with chapters on “Priorities and Convictions of the Jerusalem Apostles” and “Vision, Strategy, and Methods.”

Part IV: “The Exodus” describes “the mission of the Twelve from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.” The author starts this section with a chapter describing the historical, social and religious context of the Roman Empire.” Subsequent chapters include: “The Hellenistic Jewish Christians in Jerusalem,” “The First Transregional Mission of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem,” “The Missionary Work of Peter,” and finally, “The Jewish-Christian Missionary Work from Jerusalem to Rome.” This last chapter surveys what we know of mission work in the first century not mentioned in the book of Acts.

The second volume begins Part V: “Pioneer Missionary Work”, focusing on the mission of the apostle Paul. The first two chapters provide a description of Paul’s roots in Tarsus and Jerusalem and then his “Contacts, Conferences and Conflicts.” Part V is rounded out with chapters on missionary work in Arabia, Syria, Cilicia, Asia Minor, Greece and Spain, and finally, a chapter on missionary tactics and communication. In this last chapter, Schnabel has an excellent discussion of Paul’s speech on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31). He points out:

In the context of Acts 17, however, Paul’s speech at most is a special case of missionary preaching to Gentiles: the philosophers and the council members of the Areopagus asked Paul to give an account of the deity that he preaches. In other words, Paul did not explain his message of Jesus the Savior of the world when he spoke before the council of the Areopagus; rather, he explained his concept of God. It is not only the contextual framework but also the flow of the argumentation of the speech itself that indicates that the only topic is the concept and knowledge of God. -1393

Part VI: “Growth” concerns the “Consolidation and Challenges of the Early Christian Churches.” The two chapters are titled: “Realities of the Early Christian Churches” and “Mission and Persecution.”

Part VII: “Results” explores the “Identity, Praxis and Message of the Early Christian Mission.” The author describes the self-understanding of the early Christian Missionaries, how they carried out their mission, and the content of their message. His concluding chapter seeks to anchor twentieth and twenty-first century missions to that of the first century. Schnabel welcome attempts to model missions on lessons from Scripture, but laments,

However, one will quickly find that many attempts to learn and adopt biblical “lessons” make do without historical clarification, careful exegesis and hermeneutical reflection. It is not surprising, therefore, that “principles” of missionary work or church growth that are distilled from the New Testament sometimes are somewhat simplistic. -1569

I don’t imagine that many will read through this massive work, though it is good medicine for avoiding simplistic proof-texting. However, its indexes enable it to be used as a helpful reference work without reading the entire work. One can locate biblical passages or subjects and read those sections to aid personal study. As Peter O’Brien said on the back cover, “It is an outstanding work to which I shall return again and again.”

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