by Eckhard J. Schnabel
Eckhard Schnabel has written the most detailed and comprehensive history within the last one hundred years of the Christian missionary movement in the first century AD.
InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, 2004, 1928 pages, $90.00.
—Reviewed by Joel F. Williams, associate professor of Biblical Studies, Columbia International University, Columbia, South Carolina.
Eckhard Schnabel has written the most detailed and comprehensive history within the last one hundred years of the Christian missionary movement in the first century AD. In two volumes and almost two thousand pages, Schnabel carefully examines the historical developments and geographical spread of the early Christian missionary movement and provides an interpretation and theological analysis of all the missionary teaching found in early Christian texts. Although his focus is on early Christianity (which he defines as the time period of Jesus and the apostles), Schnabel examines both the portrayal of the nations in the Old Testament and in intertestamental Jewish literature, and an occasional glimpse into Christian missionary work after the age of the apostles. Schnabel’s book can function as an encyclopedia of missions in the first century. The book is clearly written and reads as a continuous historical account of early Christian mission. Schnabel also provides both helpful summary chapters at the end of the major parts of the book and an entire section at the end of the second volume describing the results of his study.
Schnabel’s own experience as a missionary leaves its mark on the two volumes. He served with Operation Mobilization in Latin America and Europe and with Overseas Missionary Fellowship in Asia, teaching at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, Philippines. He is currently associate professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Based on personal experience, Schnabel recognizes that missionaries need to understand the cultural context of where they are working. This includes missionaries in the first century. He therefore provides geographical, historical, archaeological and religious information about cities and towns where Jesus and the early Christian missionaries preached, including detailed descriptions of places stretching from Spain to India. This background information serves to convey challenges faced by early Christian missionaries. Schnabel’s experience in missions also provides him with a realistic picture of what is plausible in a missionary context. On occasion, he chides scholars in the academic world who show a fundamental lack of insight into missionary work and passion, especially when this leads to skepticism concerning historical accounts in the New Testament.
Early Christian Mission is a book primarily about the history and theology of the early Christian missionary movement. It does not seek to systematically answer “What principles should we learn from the missionary work of Jesus and the apostles for contemporary missionary practice?” However, Schnabel does touch on how today’s lessons should be drawn from the early Christian mission. He welcomes the attempt to adopt principles from the missions of Jesus and the apostles, but he insists they not be simplistic. Instead, principles must always be based on careful historical study, faithful interpretation of scripture and sustained theological reflection. Schnabel says it is naive to assume that every experience of the early Christian church can or should be repeated today. Historical experiences took place within a complicated set of circumstances that cannot be reproduced or duplicated. This does not mean history is without significance, but only that interpreters must be careful to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is prescriptive within the New Testament accounts of early Christian missionary work.
At times, Schnabel does touch on issues of relevance for contemporary missionary work. In those instances, he makes his applications with care. He comments on the church growth movement and the homogeneous unit principle (365-67), the role of women in missionary service (513-15) and the fate of those who have never heard the gospel (1403-4). His comments on contextualization are worth mentioning (1552-55). He sees a place for taking into account the cultural perspectives and religious convictions of others, but he also insists that early Christian missionaries refused to “contextualize” their message in such a manner that the scandal of a crucified Messiah would disappear (1553). Their commitment to a scandalous message directly related to the success of the early church. This irony makes the history of the early Christian mission and Schnabel’s book all the more intriguing.
Check these titles:
Green, Michael. 2003. Evangelism in the Early Church. Second ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Köstenberger, Andreas J. and Peter T. O’Brien. 2001. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Missions. New Studies in Biblical Theology 11. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Larkin Jr., William J. and Joel F. Williams, eds. 1998. Mission in the New Testament: An Evangelical Approach. American Society of Missiology Series 27. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis.