Old Athens and New Jerusalem: Some Signposts for Christian Scholarship in the Early History of Mission Studies

Article excerpt

At the end of a long and eventful life, the English Puritan Richard Baxter was engaging in the proper Puritan practice of introspection and self-analysis, highlighting the matters on which his ideas had changed, the things he would now do differently. "I was wont to look but little beyond England in my prayers, as not considering the state of the rest of the world. Or if I prayed for the conversion of the Jews, that was almost all. But now, as I better understand the case of the world and the method of the Lord's Prayer, . . . I cannot be affected so much with the calamities of the land of my nativity as with the case of the heathen, Mahometan and ignorant nations of the earth."' The old Calvinist confesses astonishment that divine providence has confined its favor so narrowly, and he reflects on the curse of "the division of languages." Could we but go among the "Tartarians, Turks and heathens" and speak their languages, he goes on, there would be no need to lament the recent legislation that had silenced so many English preachers of the Gospel for their nonconformity with the state regulation of religion.

The passage points up some contrasts between Baxter's day and our own. Had he been able to see the world three hundred years later, his puzzlement at the geographic restriction of the knowledge of salvation might have been modified. His Puritan instincts might have found relief in knowing that the majority of Christians would one day live in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific, while the land of his nativity steadily shed its Christian allegiance. He might also have modified his identification of diversity of language as the plague that inhibited evangelization. Language is but the outer shell of a much more fundamental diversity of thought and practice into which the Christian message must be translated. If Tartarians and Turks were to become Christians, the process would take Christianity itself into new pathways.

Baxter was one of the most catholic-spirited Christian leaders of his day and place, and such foreknowledge might simply have taken his thoughts to the New Testament exemplars of that conversion of the nations that burdened the prayers of his last years.

A Signpost in Old Jerusalem

The earliest model of Christianity, as described in the opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, is a Jewish one. The earliest Christians apprehended the significance of Jesus in essentially Jewish terms. Everything about Jesus made sense for them in terms of Jewish history and Jewish destiny. They were all Jews by birth and inheritance and were so attached to the Torah that their leader, Jesus' own brother, became known as James the Just-that is, James the Righteous, in the Jewish sense of heartfelt fulfillment of the law. What reason had they to abandon the Torah? Jesus himself had said he did not aim to destroy it; he would not sanction the loss of a single jot or tittle of it. So attached were they to the temple that it seems to have been their regular meeting place, the temple liturgy the staple of their worship.2 They had not abandoned animal sacrifice but saw it in a new context-the self-offering of the Servant of God.3 Above all, they saw Jesus as the Messiah, the Agent of God. In doing so, they transformed the traditional concept of messiahship by stressing his crucifixion and resurrection; but this did not destroy the traditional concept. Rather, it enlarged it by tying it to the symbols of Son of Man and Suffering Servant. Jesus, that is, was above all the national savior of Israel, the one who would redeem the nation and make its significance clear to the nations. Jesus for the early Jerusalem Christians was a Jewish savior, whose work could not be fully understood without reference to the destiny of the nation.

The earliest Jesus community did not immediately go into all the world to preach the Gospel to every creature. The believers had enough to do without going anywhere. …