What Am I Reading? “Sanctified By Grace”

Kent Eilers and Kyle C. Strobel (eds.), Sanctified By Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

I am pleased to take part in a “blog tour” in support of this volume. Those interested in reading reviews from other bloggers are encouraged to check the index that will be provided at the T & T Clark blog.

It seems as though a not insignificant portion of the Protestant theological community in English speaking countries has become increasingly concerned with recent decades in “sanctification” broadly conceived. Consider, for instance, the immense popularity of Stanley Hauerwas’s ethical work, or – to speak of trends in my own primary subfield – all the interest in Barth’s ethics / moral ontology. In addition to works on Barth’s ethics, one regularly sees monographs on related topics, such as “virtue” in Barth or “prayer” in Barth. There is also the ecclesiological and “theo-political” aspect of all this, to which my own work contributes – both what I have done on Barth and baptism, and what I am doing on Helmut Gollwitzer. It was therefore only a matter of time before we were given a book of this nature, which seeks to consider the loci of systematic theology through the lens of sanctification.

Given my own theological proclivities, I turned to the table of contents in an attempt to discern whether this approach would do justice to the church’s missionary character and the political consequences of that character. Sadly, these topics did not make the cut to receive chapter-length treatments. I was further worried by the volume’s introduction in this regard. So often it is easy to think of sanctification or the Christian life in terms that are oriented toward one’s own inner life, or toward what we might call the inner life of the Christian community. Attention to the church’s missionary character and the political consequences of that character counteract this tendency and so bring what we might call a fitting dogmatic balance. This balance is not obviously found in the introduction. There we find language about how thinking through sanctification must keep “the ethical shape and form of the church always in mind,” and we hear that the Christian life is “oriented towards the witness of the church” (6). But I miss here any clear affirmation that church and Christian life must take a missionary shape and bear political fruit if it is going to be counted as such. The approach taken by the volume in the introduction and the thematizing evidenced in the table of contents suggest that it is possible to think of church and Christian life as first one thing and only then missionary / political, and this sequential approach dissatisfies me.

However, Tom Greggs’s chapter on “Church and sacraments” and Phil Ziegler’s chapter on “Discipleship” allay my concerns admirably.

Greggs sketches an actualist ecclesiology that emphasizes that because “the primary condition of the church is the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit” (160), it is necessary for the church to exhibit plurality and diversity which includes the fundamentally missionary point that the church is neither a culture unto itself nor inextricably wedded to any particular culture:
Identifying the event of the Spirit as the basis for the existence of the church should prevent us from confusing ecclesial form or cultures of any kind, which can all have the semblance of a church, with the reality of the event of God the Holy Spirit which is the primary condition for the presence of the church as the Spirt makes Christ known to communities of peoples in all their variety in the present. (p. 161–62)
Greggs concludes his chapter by addressing the church’s missionary character even more explicitly, arguing that the whole reason for the Holy Spirit making the church to exist is “the outwards movement of the church to all the world” (168).

For his part, Ziegler makes an important connection between discipleship and eschatology to develop an account of the former that is characterized by divine disruption: God’s “call [to discipleship] disrupts and dislocates the disciple” (179). Furthermore, Zielger develops the military metaphors at play in discipleship to characterize the Christian life as a battle into which Christians follow their “captain” Jesus (p. 181). In following Christ, discipleship must take the form of “active service and openness to the world for whose sake Christ came low to save” (184). The result of this approach is that discipleship cannot be described only in terms of “an inward mortification of the old Adam” without also involving “an outward insurgency against the powers of the age” (185). Thus it is that we reach the theo-political realm.

Slightly off-topic but also important, Ellen Charry contributed a chapter on “Theology” as seen from the perspective of sanctification. There is not a great deal of new material here for those already familiar with her work (although she does discuss Pannenberg and B. B. Warfield, which I haven’t seen before), but the chapter is a masterful statement of major themes on which she has worked throughout her career and it is certainly not to be missed.

These chapters are excellent and are well worth the price of the volume alone – which in this case was the fulfilment of a promise to write a review, but I would say the same had I paid the $39.99 USD cover price. (FYI, you can get a 30% discount through January 29, 2016 - more information here.) Furthermore, for those who (like me) have teaching responsibilities, the volume is divided into 15 chapters (about the number of weeks in the average semester) and could easily serve as the backbone to an introductory systematic theology course. Thank you to Kent, Kyle, and Bloomsbury for bringing us this stimulating resource.

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