Institutions of the Emerging Church

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Sven-Olav Back, Erkki Koskenniemi
Library of New Testament Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , August
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Institutions of the Emerging Church is perhaps the best book I have ever reviewed. It is incredibly clear, rigorously academic, critical yet traditional, and somehow manages to speak to modern theological discussions in a way that is at once personally engaging but neither forced nor simplistic. Sven-Olav Back and Erkki Koskenniemi’s most recent contribution to contemporary biblical and theological scholarship is a ruby of a book.

Back and Koskenniemi’s edited volume is a collection of essays that asks two main questions. First, chapters 1-3 survey the earliest Christians’ notions and institutions of religious authority. These chapters explicate the notion of apostolicity and apostolic succession in the first two centuries of Christianity, and do so with virtuosic skill. Second, chapters 4-6 attempt to exegete and explain the earliest Christians’ understanding of the nature and socio-ethical implications of baptism and the eucharist. In both of the major sections the authors give serious and detailed attention to the most important texts from early Christianity—those contained in the New Testament, and those composed by the post-apostolic writers.

One of the key strengths of Institutions of the Emerging Church is that the contributors consistently refuse to follow either a thoroughgoing “hermeneutic of suspicion” or an uncritical “hermeneutic of trust.” Rather, the volume throughout wisely discriminates between traditions which should be rejected in light of the findings of modern critical scholarship, and those traditions which should emerge intact from the acid-bath of Western religious scholarship. Though perhaps the reader of this volume will differ with this or that conclusion in the book, the authors have nevertheless adopted a wise and imitable methodological approach.

Growing from their rejection of a thoroughgoing hermeneutic of suspicion, Institutions of the Emerging Church presents quite provocative theories about early Christian theology and practice. In the introduction to the volume, Back claims that the church existed from the very beginning (i.e., it originated with Jesus himself) and was always understood to possess some measure of divine authority. This is a flat contradiction—equipped with compelling arguments—of the general assumption in New Testament scholarship that the earliest Christians were a group of persons in a loosely defined movement which had no hierarchical structures, authorities, or boundaries, but which subsequently developed (more or less rigid) authority structures as time progressed. The thesis of the volume, it must be reiterated, claims that the church was intended by Jesus, and was not a subsequent and stifling development. For this provocative thesis alone and its defense the book is worth the rather short amount of time it takes to read.

Paired with the volume’s provocative thesis about the church’s origins, Jostein Ådna’s chapter 5, “The Eucharist in Paul and in Hebrews,” presents substantial arguments for the claim that Jesus himself interpreted the Last Supper as an atoning sacrifice, intended to take away sins and reconcile persons with God. If it were not for Ådna’s rigorous, detailed, and thoroughly scholarly arguments, which do not so much prove his case as vindicate it as possible, one would imagine the thesis to be merely apologetic. But, in keeping with the volume’s approach, the argument is presented with as much scholarly and self-critical force as can ever be expected of any serious academic work. Again, for this provocative thesis alone the book is worth reading.

Though the theological bent of Institutions of the Emerging Church usually remains as an undercurrent in the essays, perhaps one even unanticipated by the authors themselves, it occasionally rises to the surface and demands the reader’s attention. The final chapter, Tord Fornberg’s “The People of God,” begins as a word-study on the Greek words laos and ethnos, with their corresponding Hebrew lexical equivalents ‘am and gôy, but ends with an engaging discussion on how and in what sense Jews and Christians have recognized and should recognize one another as “the people of God.” Fornberg’s study begins with the New Testament texts and their diverse answers to this question, proceeding then to briefly chart the fateful “parting of the ways” evidenced in the Epistle of Barnabas and other texts, through anti-Jewish rhetoric in Christian Western Europe, to the Holocaust, and beyond to Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II’s momentous reversals of traditional Christian thought on the relationship between Jews and Christians. This topic is both widely discussed among theologians of both traditions and is incredibly important in the broad and pluralistic contemporary world, as persons of both religions attempt to navigate how they are to interact with the Other.

In conclusion, Institutions of the Emerging Church has my unqualified endorsement. Though I do not endorse every specific conclusion reached in the book, the eminently admirable methodology, the many provocative theses the essays present, and the perfectly lucid readability of the collection ought to be enough to recommend the volume to any serious scholar of early Christianity. I myself am deeply grateful to the authors for their excellent contribution to early Christian scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gerhard Stübben is a graduate student in Biblical Studies and Languages at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sven-Olav Back is a member of the Theology Faculty at Åbo Akademi University, Finland.

Erkki Koskenniemi is adjunct professor of Biblical Studies at Abo Akademi University, Finland. He is author of The Old Testament Miracle-Workers in Early Judaism (2005) and The Exposure of Infants among Jews and Christians in Antiquity (2009).


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