Book Review: Paul's Understanding of the Church's Mission, by Robert Plummer
If there is one thing we all know that God expects of us as Christians, it’s that we ought to share the gospel with those who don’t know Christ. Evangelical Christians are evangelistic. It’s maybe the only thing self-proclaimed evangelicals agree on: God wants us to tell others about Jesus.
Yet think for a moment. Can you give me a text that commands Christians to evangelize the lost? Okay, you got Matthew 28:18-20, but keep your Bible closed and see if you can come up with another. The promise to Abraham to bless the whole world through him doesn’t count. Neither do the worship scenes in Revelation 5 and 7. I want verses that do more than show God’s heart for the nations or his promise to make the nations glad in God. I want texts which show that God’s people should be pursuing the nations with the good news of the gospel.
It’s not as easy as it sounds to come up with texts on evangelism. I should clarify. It’s very easy to come up with texts that show Paul (or one of the apostles) as an evangelist, but not as simple to demonstrate that Paul expected the early Christian communities to evangelize. That’s why Plummer’s book Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission is such an important book.
THE BIG IDEA
Paul’s Understandingis Robert Plummer’s revised Ph.D. dissertation. It is a dense, much footnoted book, just what you would expect from the dissertation of an assistant professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Thankfully, the book’s thesis is stated clearly.
In the end, this book seeks to show that Paul envisioned himself as an apostle who conveyed the dynamic gospel to his hearers, so that the same effective, self-diffusing word that characterized Paul’s apostolic mission also characterized the congregations he began. As extensions of the apostles’ ministry, the churches are agents of God’s word, which continues to work in and spread through them (e.g., Col. 1:5-6; 3:16-17; 1 Thess. 1:8; 2:13-16; 2 Thess. 3:1). By its very nature, the “apostolic church” must be missionary. (2)
In short, Paul evangelized and expected the churches he planted to do the same.
In Chapter 1 Plummer surveys the scholarly field, placing various authors into one of four categories: 1) pre-1950 continuity, 2) pre-1950 discontinuity, 3) 1950-present discontinuity, 4) 1950-present continuity. Continuity in this scheme means the scholars argue or assume that Paul expected his churches to evangelize; discontinuity means that the apostle did not expect the early Christian communities to evangelize as he did.
In the earlier period of continuity we find scholars like Roland Allen and Adolf von Harnack. Pre-1950 discontinuity scholars include Ernest Renan and William Wrede.
W.P. Bowers, David Bosch, and John Dickson (an Australian apologist who has written a number of popular, lay-level books on mission related themes) are among the later scholars who argue that Paul did not expect local congregations to evangelize.
In the last category (more recent arguments for continuity), Plummer examines several familiar names, including Peter T. O’Brien, I. Howard Marshall, Eckhard J. Schnabel, and G.K. Beale.
Plummer’s conclusion from the scholarly field is that there is no consensus, so we must give careful attention to the biblical text.
In Chapter 2 Plummer argues that Paul’s gospel was a “dynamic entity that propelled him (as an apostle) and the churches (as gospel-created and gospel-empowered entities) into the further spread of God’s word” (67). In other words, it is the nature of the gospel as a powerful force to go forth in mission. Plummer sees evidence of this dynamic gospel in texts like 1 Corinthians 14:36, 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 2 Timothy 2:8-9, and Colossians 1:5-7.
More to the point, Plummer shows how the word of God, once received, then advances through those who received it. This was especially evident in the Thessalonian church where the word was at work in the believers (1 Thess. 2:13-16), the word was running ahead (2 Thess. 3:1), and the word was ringing and sounding forth (1 Thess. 1:8). Plummer makes a convincing case that this language indicates evangelistic activity.
Chapter 3 is the most helpful section. Here Plummer examines specific, largely overlooked texts in which Paul tells his churches to proclaim the gospel.
- Philippians 1:12-18 suggests that Paul anticipated Christ being “proclaimed in every way” by the church in Philippi.
- The shoes (part of the armor of God) in Ephesians 6:15 should make the believers “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (NRSV).
- 1 Corinthians 4:16 exhorts the early church to imitate Paul’s openness to suffer as a result of proclaiming the foolishness of the cross.
- Similarly, 1 Corinthians 11:1 calls Christians to imitate the Apostle in his salvific concern for outsiders.
- We also see evidence that the Corinthians were to be concerned for the salvation of nonbelievers in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 and 14:23-25.
Besides these examples of “actively” sharing the gospel, several texts show how the early churches were to “passively” bear witness to Christ. Texts such as 2 Corinthians 6:3-7, 1 Thessalonians 2:5-12, and Titus 2:1-10 demonstrate that “all the various segments of the Christian community are to live praiseworthy lives—not simply for the sake of obeying God, but also because their behavior will commend or detract from the gospel” (104-5).
In Chapter 4 Plummer offers incidental evidence to support the claims made in Chapters 2 and 3. He points to three other facets of the apostolic mission that were to be replicated in the life of the church.
1) Miracles. Signs and wonders would serve a dual purpose of strengthening Christians and attracting the notice of outsiders.
2) Prayer. Paul prayed for non-believers (Rom. 10:1), gave thanks for churches’ missionary activity (Phil. 1:3-5; 1 Thess. 1:2-8), and prayed about his congregations’ relationship with outsiders (1 Thess. 3:12). These sorts of prayers were to continue in the churches themselves.
3) Teaching and building. Paul’s expansive missionary vision did not end with frontier evangelism but spilled over in the edifying of the churches he planted. This is another example of apostolic mission that was expected to be replicated in the early church.
Finally, Plummer wraps things up with conclusions and implications in Chapter 5. After a summary of the ground already covered, Plummer offers this final advice to today’s church:
Just like the ancient churches that Paul addressed, modern churches should be active in proclaiming the gospel, suffering for the gospel, authenticating the gospel by their behavior, confirming the gospel through miracles, building-up the church, and praying for missions and the church. (144)
Amen and amen.
EVALUATING THE BOOK
The book’s strengths are already hinted at in the chapter synopses. Plummer is organized in his structure and meticulous in his research. Most crucially, by examining dozens of texts, he makes a convincing case that Paul did in fact expect the early Christian communities to evangelize. This may seem obvious to most evangelicals, but it is important we see this conclusion backed by solid scholarship.
My criticisms of the book are entirely unfair, in that they all fall under the category “dissertations make bad books.” Actually, I shouldn’t say bad, just inaccessible. The final implication section was too short and many sentences were too long. Pages comprised almost entirely of footnotes can be daunting for even the hearty pastor, as can untranslated German. And I confess a general annoyance with the academic convention of constantly saying “we will do this, then we will do that . . . we did this and we did that.” Worst of all, the Paternoster cover just screams “I’m for super smart people who eschew good taste! Don’t pick me up unless you have a Ph.D.!” Designing a cover with blah shades of windswept blue may be all the rage in academia, but it’s a particularly effective way to keep away normal readers.
But, as I said, those criticisms are asking the book to be something it’s not. I only bother to mention the complaints because I like the content so much. I hope Dr. Plummer will consider publishing a popular level edition of the material which puts the cookies a few shelves lower and hires a graphic design team not so tied to the 1970s. Robert Plummer is to be commended for an excellent and timely work. I hope his insights are made available to the church far and wide.