How the Early Christian "Third Way" Changed the World
- ISBN: 9781587434082
- Published By: Brazos Press
- Published: October 2019
Resilient Faith examines the development of early Christian identity as a unique, third way of life within its Greco-Roman historical and social context as a response to the distinct challenges facing Christianity today. According to author Gerald L. Sittser, the decline of Christendom, particularly in America, has left the church seeking new resources to articulate the distinctiveness of Christian faith and develop a persuasive and winsome religious identity. As Sittser states in the conclusion, “Christendom—the symbiotic relationship between church and society, Christianity and culture—made the Third Way unnecessary” (177). Avoiding nostalgic sentiments of a bygone age of Christian dominance, Sittser writes to a contemporary Christian audience facing a culture in which “Christianity seems unnecessary and obsolete” and “belief has become not only intellectually implausible, . . . but also personally irrelevant” (13–14). His main contention is that the way forward for Christianity today is by looking backward to the way early followers of Jesus understood their distinctiveness amid their Roman and Jewish neighbors.
Sitter’s thesis hinges on how Jesus’ life and the beliefs about Jesus as Son of God paved a new path, a third way, for his followers. Sittser borrows the term “third way” from the so-called Letter to Diognetus to situate early Christian identity as an alternative to the Roman and Jewish counterparts in late antiquity. This third way was a new community following a new kind of God in a new way of life. According to the so-called Letter to Diognetus, Christians were in many ways indistinguishable from others in Roman society, yet they embarked on a manner of living in society that was distinct and alien. Avoiding both accommodation and isolation, Christians in the Roman Empire thrived by following this third way. Chapters 2 and 3 illustrate Roman and Jewish reactions to the Christian community as well as Christian responses, expounding the controversial claims Christians made about Jesus as Lord and Jesus as fulfilling the story of Israel.
For Sittser, the heart of the Christian community and identity was Jesus himself. Early Christians reflected on their experience of Jesus come to be with creation as a human being and a divine person among the Father and Holy Spirit. They searched for language to express this experience and articulated it in ways that “seemed alien and strange” to the dominant culture (67). In mapping their Christian teachings, they expressed in their unique way of life their understanding of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus and the restoration of relationship to God he inaugurated.
Throughout the latter chapters Sittser uses a cardiovascular metaphor to illumine how beliefs, scripture, liturgy, authority, worship, morality, and catechesis were empowered by the example of Jesus and the desire of the Christian community to live into a new reality. In reference to leadership in early Christianity, Sittser writes, “Authority in the early Christian period functioned like a circulatory system, a vast network of arteries that circulated gospel blood from one central organ, the heart” (88). Sittser is also sensitive to tendencies to “idealize and romanticize” early Christianity, as though it embodied a nascent purity (101). This book balances the unity of early Christian focus on Jesus with distinctive doctrinal and contextual differences among early Christian authors.
This book is an excellent introduction to the development of a distinctive Christian identity in the Roman Empire. Sittser writes for a general audience, supplying ample historical context and sufficient primary-text references for nonspecialists to grasp the social, political, and religious world from which followers of Jesus emerged. Resilient Faith is superb text for college and seminary classrooms focusing on Christian distinctiveness in late antiquity, but is accessible enough for individual readers or book clubs. While readers will find Sittser’s thesis provocative and his supporting evidence persuasive, they will also find ample resources for further study of Christian origins as well as considerations for contemporary Christian identity within an ever-widening cultural frame.
Kyle A. Schenkewitz is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati.Kyle SchenkewitzDate Of Review:April 13, 2021