Review of “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church”

Renewal of faith and the churches mission is often resourced by a return to the sources of faith and mission. Alan Kreider has written a very good historical reconstruction of the nature of the church in its first few centuries that has much to provoke and teach us today. His Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2016) provides a very careful historical reconstruction of the life of the early church. It focuses on the centrality of catechesis, baptism and worship in forming Christian habits that bring out attractive lives of faith. This is a big picture presentation that assumes a general uniformity in the life of the church but with a clear respect and detailed engagement with particular primary sources and with appropriate reference to secondary sources. It is a very readable summary for those interested in how the church lived its faith under Roman rule – suitable for those new to this topic as well as refreshing to those already aware of some of the details. Overall Kreider is arguing that the early church grew through the distinctiveness of the Christian lives being lived that were attractive to others. I would have liked a greater integration of life and theology and the study of Robert Wilken on The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is helpful here. Also, it is interesting that despite the desire for distinctiveness the argument seems largely that the early church was understandably shaped by the Roman culture it inhabited. The theme of inculturation would be worthy of further study in this regard as would the Jewish sources that also shaped the early church.

Patience is the virtue that Kreider sees as the key distinctive of the early church. He provides very helpful chapters on this theme, particularly drawing on Cyprian, Tertullian and Augustine. This is an often neglected virtue that is important to restore in the life of the church and its mission. Kreider links patience with the seeking of peace, rather than violence, and living Christian faith in situations where we are not in control and do not hold the power. To focus on the God who is in control and works through all things to grow His church is an important challenge of faith. Kreider draws gently on his Mennonite background in developing this theme. Having said this, the theme of patience occurs more at the start and end of the book and is less convincing as a theme through the central chapters that outline the practice of the early church. Perhaps it is being over-stretched to act as the characteristic of the early church. Also the critical questions raised in regard to a focus on patience are too quickly skirted over to my mind. Constantine and Augustine are the bad guys who negatively transformed an early church focus on patience to an impatience and power utilising approach to mission. In situations of oppression and heresy, and in situations where Christians do hold power, it is right to ask what positive difference this might make to our understanding of patience and mission. In line with his stress on patient and persuasive arguments Kreider presents a positive interpretation of the early church but, to my mind, gives less space to a more critical engagement with different views.

The presentation of the early church is seeking also to provide a model for the churches mission today. It repeatedly emphasises that the church grows through attraction and the early church had little mission strategy or travelling in mission. This approach has much in common with contemporary approaches that focus on discipleship and habitus for mission, although such sources are not engaged with. It helpfully highlights advantages in a counter-cultural approach to mission, yet it fails to engage deeply with the vast literature on mission, particular in regard to critiques of attractional models of church life. It does not engage the biblical materials and so leaves open the question as to why the model of the early church presented differs so much from that of Jesus and the church in Acts. The work of Erkhard Schnabel on Early Christian Mission presents a wider engagement that has much to offer this discussion. Also, the work of Michael Green on Evangelism in the Early Church, which inspired Kreider, is not critically engaged with. Despite general engagement with mission through Andrew Walls, Kreider’s argument for the nature of the churches mission is least convincing.

In short, our faith and mission should be open to renewal through a fresh reading of the life of the early church. Such a renewal does not rely on agreement with all of Kreider’s argument and indeed may gain from working through disagreements. His book stands as an excellent example of careful historical reconstruction and engagement with the theme of patience. I would have liked a more nuanced and critical engagement with better appreciation of mission thinking. But it is hard not to gain from reading such a good study that illuminates a variety of subjects.

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