When I was in seminary, we used Bruce Demarest’s The Cross and Salvation as our textbook in soteriology. That was my introduction to the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, and I liked it so much I picked up another volume, To Know and Love God, which proved very useful for theological method.
When I was reading through Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology about 18 months ago, I noticed in a footnote that he had a forthcoming book on the church in the series, and from then I eagerly awaited its publication (because I’m nerdy like that). I was able to get a review copy of it, and so here we are.
The intention of the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series is “to address all areas of evangelical theology with a special emphasis on key issues in each area” and “to incorporate insights from Scripture, historical theology, philosophy, etc., in order to produce an up-to-date work in systematic theology.” (17) Most of the writers are thoroughly evangelical in their theology and from a broadly Reformed perspective. The series aims to be “understandable to the beginner in theology as well as to the academic theologian,” so the authors take care “to define whatever technical terms they use.” (17)
With that in mind, Gregg Allison is offering a textbook on ecclesiology which is evangelical and broadly Reformed. Allison teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, so it’s a Reformed baptist perspective. He is an elder at Sojourn Community Church, and if you’re familiar with that church/church planting network, that means this is an ecclesiology from a Reformed Baptist perspective that is in favor of multi-site churches (which he provides a defense for at the end of chapter 9).
The book itself is split into 7 parts:
- Foundational Issues
- The Biblical Vision – Characteristics of The Church
- The Vision Actualized – The Growth of The Church
- The Government of The Church
- The Ordinances of The Church
- The Ministries of The Church
The opening two chapters cover first, a general introduction to the study of the doctrine of the church, and second the basis of the church in the new covenant. Allison explains his method, and makes a good case that this is an important doctrine. Just as a side note, it is a doctrine that one of my profs at Dallas said was perhaps the most vital doctrine for the contemporary evangelical church to recover. We tend to either overlook or simply ignore studying ecclesiology, and Allison’s book aims to fix that issue.
The second part of the book turns to the characteristics of the church, or we could say the marks of a true church. Allison splits his marks into those related to the origin and orientation of the church (chapter 3) and those regarding the gathering and sending of the church (chapter 4). The resulting list is as follows:
- Doxological (3)
- Logocentric (3)
- Pneumadynamic (3)
- Covenantal (4)
- Confessional (4)
- Missional (4)
- Spatio-temporal/Eschatological (4)
By “doxological,” Allison highlights the orientation of the church towards worship. By “logocentric,” Allison means the church is both Jesus centered and Scripture centered. “Pneumadynamic” fills out the trio of adjectives from chapter 3 and refers to the Spirit’s animating presence within the gathered body of believers. When it comes to chapter 4, I think you probably get the gist of what the first three adjectives mean (covenantal, confessional, missional) but spatio-temporal/eschatology might be a bit opaque. By it, Allison means that the church is an assembled historical reality (spatio-temporal) that has a future looking hope that affects how it functions in the here and now (eschatological).
With the vision in place, Allison continues on the growth of the church. His first chapter is on the purity and unity of the church. Here Allison draws a clear line between true and false churches, but allows for flexibility within true churches for them to be more or less pure in the faithfulness to the biblical vision. Chapter 6 finishes out this section with a discussion of the nature and significance of church discipline.
This provides a good segue to part 4 which concerns the government of the church. Allison begins with the offices of the church (chapter 7), before looking at the different types of church government (chapter 8). It is at this point that I think denominational concerns start to play a more significant role. Up to here, I think most denominations would agree with Allison’s articulation of the biblical vision for what the church is. But, starting with discussion of the offices, and then moving to government, we get into territory where Allison must start presenting and assessing different view points and come down on a specific position.
When it comes to church government, Allison presents three models: episcopalianism, presbyterianism, and congregationalism. For each, Allison gives a description, biblical and theological support, and misapprehensions and misgivings. In the following chapter (9), Allison presents his own model, which draws lessons from episcopalianism and presbyterianism, and integrates them into a semi-congregational model. The result is a plural-elder-led congregational model that sustains strong connections to other such churches. It is within this context that Allison provides his excursus on multi-site churches, arguing in favor of them.
This brings the reader to part 5, which has a chapter on baptism (10) and communion (11). Allison argues in favor for a believer’s baptist position in 10, but not without giving a sustained consideration to the arguments for paedobaptism. He also provides a brief history of the development of baptismal theology and practice. When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, Allison offers a similar treatment; first covering the historical development and then the five principal views. He finishes with his own perspective and theology of the Supper.
The final two sections are a chapter each. First, Allison surveys the ministries of the local church through the perspective of the spiritual gifts. His principle ministries or activities are as follows:
- The Church Worships the Triune God
- The Church Proclaims the Word of God
- The Church Engages Non-Christians With the Gospel
- The Church Disciples Its Members
- The Church Cares for People
- The Church is for and against the World
The final point is to underscore that the church is to be in the world but not of it. While Allison doesn’t offer a full-blown discussion of the relationship between church and culture, he does touch on it with this last point. The book is then brought to a conclusion with a final section and chapter.
Overall, I found Allison’s book to be very helpful. It is a strong contribution to the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, and a well grounded work on ecclesiology that is sensitive to current practice and historical precedence. For a doctrine that is somewhat neglected, and in some cases very contentious, Allison’s work provides an accessible textbook for beginning to intermediate study. Reformed Baptists will find Allison’s work most helpful, but other evangelicals of different denominations should also benefit from Allison’s even-handed discussion. His arguments for multi-site church, as well as his treatment of baptism are worthy of critical interaction. If you are a pastor or church planter, this book definitely belongs on your shelf, and even if you’re not, it’s a great addition to a growing theological library!
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