Sources of the Christian Self

A Cultural History of Christian Identity

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James M. Houston, Jens Zimmermann
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     696 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“What does it mean to identify oneself as Christian?” (xv) is the question answered by a selection of essays that focus on specific individuals and some groups over a four-thousand-year period, starting with Abraham and concluding with the shared Christian communities of Africa. The editors state that the first use of the word Christian is found in the book of Acts (11:26), referring to those who simply and wholly identified with Jesus (xv), responding to it as a calling (xvi). They indicate that to be a Christian is both a deeply personal as well as a global matter, affecting one’s own life as well as those of others (xvi). They specify that the theoretical framework used is Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Harvard University Press, 1989), which showed “the importance of identity for shaping the horizons of meaning in our modern age” as well as indicating “the significance of religion for modern ideals of selfhood” (xvii). Other aspects they highlight are the crucial aspect of identity formation, namely metanoia, described as “experiencing a radical and countercultural paradigm shift of identity—as the subject discovers what it means to be in ‘Christ’” (xviii), the link between the past and present, and the various authors’ theoretical assumptions based on postmodern paradigms of knowing (xix).

Part 1 considers Christian identity (CI) in the Hebrew Bible. Through Abraham, Moses, David, and Jeremiah, the construct of CI is described as trusting in God, responding in faith to the call, praying, repenting, identifying with the Other (both the oppressed and suffering), and having intimacy with God.

Part 2 considers CI in the New Testament. Peter, James, Jude, and Paul together represent CI as the transformation from sinner to disciple, the role of Scripture in the process of transformation, the grace of God, the will of God, and “being in Christ” (100), meaning that  a Christ-follower has grace, justification, reconciliation, forgiveness, eternal life, and the blessing of Abraham through Christ. 

Part 3 considers CI in the early church and includes discussion of Justin Martyr, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory the Great, the unnamed captives in late antiquity, and Timothy I of Baghdad. Together these figures represent CI as belonging to and gazing upon Christ, godly behavior, the Christocentric reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, serving and dying for Christ, reintegrating the body and soul, awareness of the weaknesses of self, positive external influences upon CI formation, living as “free captives” (246), drawing others to Christ, praying, and remaining steadfast during societal changes.

Part 4 considers CI in the Middle Ages. Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Dominic of Caleruega, Jordan of Saxony, Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and Dante represent CI as an integration of intellectual rigor, interpersonal connectedness, and passionate spirituality, concern for others, prayer, caritas (love or charity, love in action), compassion, humility, poverty, an inclusive view of the love of God for all humanity, and loving God, neighbor, and self.

Part 5 considers CI in the Age of Reform. Thomas More, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Beccon, Teresa of Avila, and Fray Luis de León represent CI as self-less-ness, humility, receiving the Christ-self by faith, intimacy, being in Christ, dying well (not succumbing to temptation at death’s door), and being freed from self and centered in Christ.

Part 6 considers CI in the emergence of the modern world through the examples of John Amos Comenius, Anna Maria van Schurman, Madame Jeanne Guyon, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Wesley, Christina Rossetti, and Blaise Pascal. The authors connect these figures to CI in the ways in which they deal with loss, repent, practice mystical piety, show self-denial, lose oneself to find God, live a life infused with and refreshed by the Scriptures, are shaped by God for God, experience union with Christ, observe the work of the Holy Spirit, are a “martyr in will” by dying to self (543), are strangers and pilgrims who have a heavenly citizenship, and understand the contradiction of man’s glory and wretchedness.

Part 7 considers CI in the upheavals of the 20th century. Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Conner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Jacques Ellul, and African Christian communities represent CI as “a task that is undertaken before God and brought to fulfillment only in Christ” (570), responding to God’s call, freedom in and through Christ, loving God and others, replacing the self with a Christ-self, a passive diminishment or “the serene acceptance of suffering beyond our ability to change” (620), union with God through Christ resulting in a responsible ethical agency, celebrating one another’s individuality, and constructing “‘Christianness' in communion with other Christian communities” (682).

The books’ aim of describing to interested laypersons and cultural historians “what it has meant throughout history for someone to say ‘I am Christianios’” (xxiii) is accomplished through the various essays. Of particular interest are the themes of CI that emerge: namely trusting in God, prayer as a lifestyle, practicing repentance, identifying with the Other (either within one’s own cultural grouping or that of another), godly behavior, a Christocentric reinterpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, intimacy with God, being positively influenced by others (parents, friends, mentors, secular writers), contemplation, humility, freedom (from self and sin, to obey God and serve others, for God’s glory), self-denial, and identify being formed in community, not isolation. These themes have been observed through the lives of these selected individuals and communities who have now joined the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1-3) who precede us, and they remain an inspiration, admonition, and exhortation to contemporary Christ-followers to continue surrendering to the work of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, in the formation of their Christian identity. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shaun Joynt is a Postdoctoral Fellow at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James M. Houston is Founding Principal of Regent College in Vancouver. His other books include The Psalms as Christian Worship (with Bruce Waltke).

Jens Zimmermann is Canada Research Professor of Interpretation, Religion, and Culture at Trinity Western University and visiting professor of philosophy, literature, and theology at Regent College, Vancouver.


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