The Free Church and the Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide

By Kreider, Alan | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

The Free Church and the Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide


Kreider, Alan, Mennonite Quarterly Review


The Free Church and the Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide. Edited by D. H. Williams. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans. 2002. Pp. 183. $16, paper.

The early church has been problematic for the free churches. Free church scholars and layfolk alike have been concerned to be biblical and to accord primary authority to the life and witness of the apostolic church. Although they have at times made courteous comments about the early church, they in practice have vaulted across the centuries to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, at which point "church history," as they conceive it, begins. Hence the free churches (with one exception, as will emerge later) have largely left scholarship in the early church to scholars in the Catholic traditions.

This useful book signifies a change. Its writers--Baptists, Campbellites and a Mennonite--indicate various ways in which insights from the early church are being appropriated by contemporary free church thinkers. Editor Daniel Williams, a Baptist, argues that free church Christians today need the resources of the ancient church in order to "construct a uniquely Christian vision in our present day." Williams uses the language of "rediscovery" and "recovery" in a way that will be familiar to Mennonites. Among Mennonites the "recovery of the Anabaptist vision" has been a potent impetus for renewal of thought and praxis. Does the early church hold out a parallel source of renewal for free churches, including Mennonites?

Many articles in this book indicate the benefits that can come to the free churches by learning from the early church. One is coherence, especially regarding sola scriptura. The eminent patristics scholar Frederick Norris, who argues that the scriptural canon is the product of the late fourth-century church, asks provocatively: "Does it make much sense to say that the fourth-century was making very good decisions about the Bible but mostly poor ones about everything else?" Since the canon is situated within the church, Norris would have us draw wisdom from other aspects of the church's life--episcopacy, councils, creeds and ethical canons. A Mennonite theologian, Gerald Schlabach, in a penetrating study of Augustine, argues that Augustinian themes of grace and caritas can do much to correct the gracelessness and "blunt voluntarism" of free church ecclesiology.

Schlabach also opens up another theme that deserves more development in this book--the benefits to the church catholic when scholars schooled in the free churches study the early church. Schlabach's sensibilities, shaped by Mennonite upbringing and theology, enable him to argue that Augustine's use of force to coerce erring Christians into the Catholic church represents an aberration from Augustine's own theology of continence--"an act of incontinence, not trust, of a pride that was surely subtle but hardly the christlike humility that had converted him." Schlabach, who has drunk deeply from Augustinian wells, is nevertheless able, precisely because of his Mennonite roots, to see things in Augustine that are new and profound and have ecumenical resonance. When he invites other free church thinkers to engage in "the debate that is Augustinianism," I wonder what response he will get.

Another contributor, Church of Christ scholar Everett Ferguson, has for many years been at the center of the worldwide guild of patristics scholars. …

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