[K:NWTS 12/1 (May 1997) 41-44]
Edmund P. Clowney. The Church: Contours of Christian Theology. Downer's Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995, 240pp., paper, $14.99. ISBN 0-8308-1534-1.
The doctrine of the church has indeed fallen upon hard times. It is expected that the world would know little and appreciate even less, the nature and mission of the church. But now within the church itself, confusion and ignorance of the church reign. The world, with all its lack of interest in this topic, still associates the church with God and with a world beyond this one. Nowadays, the church, seeking to prove its relevance to the world, has become a place driven by the concerns of men, at the center of which is a religion of human interest and human need, where worshippers do not come to bow before God, but where God is made to bow before men. The church is big business, religion a commodity and the customer is king. Christianity and Americanism are indistinguishable from one another and churches and pulpits are turned into political action committees and promoters of a civic religion.
Edmund P. Clowney has been studying and writing on the doctrine of the church for a long time. Many are familiar with earlier works that have opened the scriptures to us on this all important doctrine (cf. Living In Christ's Church, Great Commissions Publications, 1986). Clowney's latest work The Church: Contours of Christian Theology, builds on the insights that were offered before and expands upon them to provide a comprehensive survey of the Biblical revelation concerning the church. He also interacts extensively with evangelical, Catholic and liberal theologians, not simply to dismiss them but to assess them and answer them.
For those who are interested in the eschatological perspective of the New Testament, the question of eschatology and the church is of extreme importance. Clowney's approach seeks to be faithful to that perspective. Chapter one introduces us to the church as "The Colony of Heaven" (p. 13). The church is the earthly contingent of the heavenly Kingdom of God. It is temporally on the earth with the mission to worship God (ch. 9), to confess Christ to the nations and gather the lost into Christ's Kingdom (ch. 11), and to reflect honor and glory on our home country and to honor and exalt our Lord and King. God in Christ has made us by grace to be citizens of heaven, therefore we are to live in an appropriate manner (p. 84ff.). This commitment to the transcendent character of the church is carried through to the end of the book, where commenting on the Lord's Supper, he writes: "The unchanging Christ still gives the bread and the cup, sealing his presence until the day when the mission of the church is finished, and with that host from every family and nation we will see him whom we love and he will eat with us again in resurrection glory" (p. 290).
Clowney gives the reader a concise summary of what his book contains (p. 25). He considers the church as it is to be understood in relation to the Trinity; the attributes of the church as they are spelled out at the end of the Apostle's Creed; the marks of the church; the ministry of the church and its relationship to the world; the structure and government of the church; some "much debated topics"; and a final chapter on the sacraments. A "Biblical theological method" (p. 25) is employed to trace these truths down through the Old Testament and into the New. The church progresses from being the chosen people of God, to the possession of the Messiah, to the church indwelt by the Spirit. Clowney follows the journey of God's people from Eden to Canaan to Jerusalem to the cross to the empty tomb and to the heavenly Jerusalem above. "For here we do not have an enduring city, but are looking for the city that is to come" (Heb. 13:14).
Clowney sees the character of the church as that of servant. "The church is called to serve God in three ways: to serve him directly in worship; to serve the saints in nurture; and to serve the world in witness" (p. 117). In worship, the vital concern is not to please men, but rather to glorify God. God exercises sovereign right over the way men approach him in worship. The church's ministry to the saints is to teach them "to know the Lord", "to do the Lord's will", and "to be like Christ" (chapter 10). "To be like Jesus ... is to follow in the way of the cross, in the life of sacrificial love" (p. 148). The church serves the world by proclaiming the gospel to it. The world's deepest bondage is sin and the church's message declares what God has done, in Christ, to save us from our sins. This proclamation will draw men and women to Christ and it will also harden the proud unbelief of this world. "Salvation comes, not by economic reform, political liberation or ecological stewardship, but by faith in the Savior, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life" (p. 165).
Chapter 12 deals with the church in relation to this world and its culture. Clowney's treatment of this topic is gratifying. Citing Adam and the garden of Eden we are reminded that the formation and development of culture, while righteous and holy tasks in themselves, still was not the goal for Adam. "Perfected fellowship with God is the goal of human history set before us in the Bible; it is a goal to be reached through God's blessing" (p. 173). Cultural transformation cannot be pursued directly without becoming like the world. The church's impact upon the world follows in the wake of the church's higher goal of communion with God in heavenly glory. "Jesus Christ, who comes to bring salvation, also fulfills the heart of the cultural mandate. Paul pointedly declares that Christ not only has dominion over all things, but that he fills all things (Eph. 1:23; 4:10; Gn. 1:28). The Second Adam has completed the calling of the first in both aspects" (p. 175).
Clowney's treatment of the parachurch will concern some readers (pp. 107-8). His treatment of the subject is not without its critique. There are cautions for parachurch organizations. But these ministries that seek to transcend denominational borders are "simply activities of church members" and are able in a greater way, to give expression to the unity of Christ's church (p. 107). But they need denominations also "because (the parachurch) does not provide the ordered structure of office, worship, sacrament and discipline that a denominational church offers" (p. 107). It seems to this reviewer that so much of what is written in this book is the very knowledge, importance and appreciation for the church that the parachurch lacks. Perhaps in an effort to gain an entrance to the parachurch and get a hearing among them, Clowney has wisely chosen to become all things to all men that by all means he might instruct some.
Forty-six pages of notes and indexes at the end make this book a handy workbook for reference and further study. The need for continued study of eschatology and the doctrine of the church is pressing. The Church: Contours of Christian Theology does more than make a beginning. It also moves us further into the Biblical depths.
Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian
Morgantown, West Virginia