Rick Hogaboam’s Review of James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World” (Chp. 5)

Posted: June 24, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture, Missional Thought
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In Chapter 5, Hunter takes the reader through a sweeping overview of history , and church history in particular. He notes the incredible growth of Christianity from an “obscure sect to a threat significant enough to warrant persecution and philosophical refutation, and finally to the official religion of the Roman Empire” (49). Hunter earlier asserts that this growth is marked by “patterns” and “transitional moments” (48). Hunter also states, “…fate or God’s will must have directed it at every step” (emphasis mine, 48). Hunter clearly opts for a providentialist understanding of history and proceeds to discuss such within that framework.

Hunter notes that the Church began its mission in a Hellenized Jewish context and spread into the cultural centers, Rome being one of the most prominent. Christianity garnered wealthy and influential adherents in the imperial household and upper-class, who were then able to fund the ongoing mission. Interestingly, most all of the church fathers were born into prosperous, highly educated families. Hunter notes that this is not coincidental. Christianity, within a few centuries, began to dominate the culture and carried institutional clout. Christians today argue whether this was a good thing or bad thing. I will not engage that debate here, other than to say that this growth was phenomenal.

Hunter proceeds to provide a lengthy, though redacted, history of the church. This chapter deserves a lengthy review; however, I will only comment on those things that I take away from it, a reflection of sorts.

The rise of monasteries and monasticism – I found the development of monasteries and monasticism to be quite interesting in that it seemed to supplement the work of the church. I had always viewed the rise of monasticism as a wholesale rejection of the church and it is obviously much more complex than that. The missional impact of the monastery is quite remarkable.  St. Patrick is a shining example.

My perception of the monastics was that they were monastics as an end in itself, living in seclusion for communion with God in an ideal pursuit for pietistic bliss; however they were monastic for the sake of mission. I think there is something to learn from this. In order for our mission to be effective, we must have a Spiritual vitality that is genuine and recognizable.

The church cared for the poor – The church outdid the state in caring for the poor. Hunter (55) notes, “Basil’s role as a patron of the church’s wealth to the poor reached the entire region—organizing relief for the victims of famine, establishing a leper hospital, and providing food for the poor”.

Hunter notes that this ministry of charity for the poor and disenfranchised was revolutionary. So much so that imperial authority was weakened.  Julian realized the threat the church posed to the power of the state, stating (55):

These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, nut ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes…Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity…”

This got me thinking about the welfare state. The church was a powerful ministry of charity, but this has been displaced by the state. As such, the state knowingly creates a dependency from the people that necessitates the ongoing work of the church. You would think that this would marginalize the church, and yet the church continues to be a resource in aid for the poor and relief. Post-Katrina rebuilding was largely resourced by the church, even outdoing the government.

The church, though, seemingly does not take seriously the ministry of benevolence in the local church. The gov’t does health care, food stamps, etc and it seems like a wasting of money to cover services that the gov’t already offers.  This creates interesting deliberations among deacons and those who minister mercy.

The convergence of means in the Reformation – Allister McGrath states quite boldly that there would be no reformation without the precursor of humanism and the revival of scholarship. This is just one aspect. Hunter notes that there was a convergence of social, political, and economic factors in the reformation. What was particularly interesting for me was the rise of the commercial elite due to the rise of commerce. Hunter (65) notes:

Less and less was wealth and power concentrated in the nobility and landed aristocracy. The increasing prosperity and self-sufficiency of the towns and cities gave birth to a new and alternative commercial elite that were not only independent of the concentrated power of the church and its defenders, but who were eager to protect their growing political and, ipso facto, religious autonomy. The political autonomy of these towns and cities, combined with their increasing wealth, was a crucial enabling factor for the Reformation.

Hunter noted earlier in the book that in order to affect change, a rival needs to have sufficient resources and this was certainly true of the Reformation. The Reformers were first rate scholars and were able to offer credible criticism that would resonate with those in society. They established their own academies to rival the power brokers of the day and thus gained legitimacy. The works of the reformers were spread through the printing press and accessible to the masses.

The take away for me is that my vision for the church is too small if we want to have a lasting transformational impact in our community and the world. Being an independent church, we are not part of a network, don’t support denominational institutions of mercy, missions, education and the like. We are on our own. I need to ponder and pray for ways in which we work within our own community. If I was an Anabaptist, I would be content serving the flock of God and have no aspirations for the broader community, but I desire lasting institutional impact in our community. Calvin and Geneva is an example that it can be done.

A Global Calvinsim – Calvin was a refugee in Geneva and he was not alone. Calvinism grew among refugees and thus created an international network of sorts.  Hunter (68) notes:

A critical element of this infrastructure was the existence of international networks of Protestant merchants…Their support was not only financial but strategic too. it was the pastors and godly merchants who dominated the reformed communities of the time as ministers and elders, and it is they who are rightly credited with the successful propagation of the Reformation,  especially in its Calvinist strain. The net effect was a cosmopolitanism that was rare in history to that time; a cosmopolitanism that had an eschatological feel.

Refugees and the commercial elite combined to spread Calvinsim within an international network.

  1. joelmartin says:

    The fragmentation of churches is certainly a problem. I would think that there are trans-denominational network that you could be part of?

    • Yeah, we are supportive of the Gospel Coalition, but there is nowhere else we fit. Sometimes I wish the Church would have just listened to Luther, but then again, we have little diversity in the church today. The diversity is a strength and weakness. I think of it like having thousands of political parties and candidates on the ballot. Diversity is good, but it never allows for centralized power and influence.

  2. joelmartin says:

    You might consider:


    Just a thought.

    • yeah, looked into it before. They are too loosey goosey for me, especially the UK wing. Have a broader vision for the Church than being defined as those Charismatic Calvinists.

      • joelmartin says:

        I wouldn’t disagree with that at all, but there are only so many groups out there to pick from. I wouldn’t pick these guys, but they at least have some commonalities with you.

  3. Rich B says:

    Monasticism was essential to mission efforts in Alaska in the 18th and 19th centuries. Russia sent monks over, who set up monasteries in Alaska. The monks were set on integrating into the local culture. They learned local languages; St Innocent and St Herman taught and preached in Aleut and Yupik, among others. They even set up a seminary to train local clergy. By and large the community became Christian. Unfortunately, in the late 19th century, when Alaska was purchased by the US, native Alaskans got served the “native peoples'” treatment and the kids were sent to boarding schools in the lower 48, ironically, to Protestant-run missionary schools.

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