Review of A Gathered People

Hicks, John Mark, Johnny Melton and Bobby Valentine. A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Transforming Encounter. Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood, 2007.

A Gathered People is the last installment of the series that John Mark Hicks refers to as his “Stone-Campbell sacramental trilogy” (12), the other two volumes being Down in the River to Pray and Come to the Table.  True to his description, A Gathered People focuses on the mediation of God’s presence of grace through the sacrament of assembly.  Hicks states plainly:

My prayer is to reorient our thinking from an anthropocentric, human centered understanding of these events as mere acts of human obedience to a more theocentric understanding of these events as divine acts of grace through which God encounters obedient believers to transform them into his image through the presence of Jesus in the power of the Spirit (11).

Furthermore:

I would prefer to reorient the discussion [away from historical emphases] under a future (eschatological) horizon toward the notion of “practicing the kingdom of God” for the sake of transforming community and creation.

Practicing the kingdom of God is pursuing communal and individual habits (a discipled lifestyle) through which the reign of God breaks into the world, gives apocalyptic status to the community of God (we are resident aliens in the fallen world), and by which we experience the future into which God is drawing us” (14-15).

These two statements about “reorientation” highlight important themes of the work: theocentrism and presence, eschatology and kingdom.  The book presents a convergence of two major concerns: a biblical theology of presence and the context(s) of the Churches of Christ.  Another way to look at this convergence is to note the basic movement in the book between biblical theology and hermeneutical approaches.  Overall, the book progresses from a brief description of the predominant Churches of Christ understandings, through two chapters of biblical theology (one OT and one NT), on to two chapters with a historical perspective on the traditional hermeneutics applied to assembly, and finally to another chapter of NT biblical theology leading into some broad hermeneutical suggestions.

As for the Churches of Christ contexts, the first chapter unpacks a simple dichotomy between two fundamentally anthropocentric views of assembly that have dominated historically.  The first, the “Five Acts Model,” assumes assembly is something we do for God, and the second, the “Mutual Edification Model,” that it is something we do for each other (18).  Thus, the theocentric shift to what God does for us in assembly is a significant contrast.  Both standard views have their own issues, which the book addresses throughout.

The biblical theology in chapters 2,3, and 6 proves to be a solid foundation for “revisioning” the understandings of assembly common to the Churches of Christ.  At the same time, however, the chapters raise some unanswered questions—due in part, it seems, to their brevity.  The authors’ essential assertion, for which these chapters bear the burden of proof, introduces the OT chapter: “We believe we come ‘into the presence’ of God when we gather” (36).  It is not particularly clear what is at stake in that claim until the conclusion of the chapter, which makes an assertion of vital importance: “There is a difference between God’s omnipresence and his redemptive presence” (58).  This “redemptive presence” seems to be synonymous with the “sacramental presence” (15), “transforming encounter” (16), etc. that is supposed to characterize the assembly as a special means of grace (i.e., a sacrament).  What remains to be seen, at this point, is what the difference between omnipresence and special presence actually entails and, particularly, how it plays out in the NT drama.

The NT chapter, however, moves away from the theology of presence to consider some of the particulars of Christian assembly in Luke-Acts and 1 Corinthians.  The discussion returns to the notion of “practicing the kingdom,” and it takes on a bit more substance by virtue of Acts 2.  “Practicing the kingdom of God, therefore, involves the public proclamation of the kingdom of God (the apostle’s teaching) and the fellowship of sharing food, resources and prayer” (64).  The Lukan material in particular brings the assembly into conversation with themes from Come to the Table.  One one hand, the table seems inseparable from the assembly, but on the other hand, the authors advocate the “appropriateness” of the Lord’s Supper during the weekly Sunday assembly.  That is, although the book is addressing the sacramental significance of “any assembly intending to gather in God’s presence” (12), and despite the “daily rhythm” in Acts 2 (67-68), the sacramental dynamic of the Table-Assembly convergence seems relegated to Sunday.

As attention turns to the Corinthian assembly, an important exegetical caveat about the occasional nature (over against the legal nature) of the document sets the tone (70).  It is clear that the difference between the OT and NT chapters is rooted, in part, in the need to overcome some Churches of Christ tendencies when approaching these NT assembly texts.  The emphasis on context addresses the Five Acts Model’s tendency to see the examples in (some of) these passages as timeless laws (cf. 20).  As the alignment of the 1 Corinthians material with the notion of practicing the kingdom unfolds, there is a strong resemblance to the Edification Model’s view of these passages.  Thus, the authors add that “assembly is not fundamentally about edification” (77).  The conclusion of the chapter culminates in a definition of assembly:

Assembly—a praise-saturated Table where the Word is delcaired in word and deed—manifests the unity of the body of Christ as a community; it is the visible presence of the body of Christ as a community dedicated to the glory of God.  It declares the presence of the kingdom of God in the world and sends disciples into the world to participate in the mission of God (79).

This has a feeling of conclusiveness about it, but the NT work in chapter three simply does not extend theologically the OT chapter’s claims about presence.  In particular, the Spirit’s role as presence warrants more discussion.

The next two chapters are historical in nature, one dealing with the general history of church practice and the other with the “formative history” of the Restoration Movement.  For the earliest centuries, there is a recounting of what little is known, and selected liturgies represent the Eastern and Western traditions of the imperial era.  A deepening of interest marks the section on the Reformation period, due to the influence of the Reformed tradition on the RM, particularly Churches of Christ (96).  Here the authors introduce a vital hermeneutical key: the Reformed regulative principle.  “In simple terms, the Reformed-Anabaptist tradition believes that whatever God has not authorized is forbidden and the Lutheran-Anglican tradition believes that whatever God has not prohibited is permitted” (96).  Of particular importance for understanding the early RM milieu is the way the regulative principle is carried out in the Puritan tradition and in the Westminster Confession.  Herein the reader finds the roots of the disputes about “good and necessary consequence” (“necessary inference” in Restorationist lingo) and “circumstances” (“expedients”).

The subsequent survey of Restoration viewpoints on the assembly brings together of a number of strands from previous chapters.  There is a section that highlights the importance of “special presence” for Campbell, though in relation to the Lord’s Day rather than the sacrament of assembly.  Then a further discussion of the regulative principle as Campbell’s “assumed understanding,” which gives the reader insight into the legal orientation of the of the historical RM that is at odds with the contextual reading of Scripture advocated earlier.  The chapter also suggests Campbell understood the assembly ordinances to “communicate grace”—that is, Campbell is conscripted into the service of the sacramental position on assembly, though this is a dubious conclusion (112).  A short review of the development of the “five acts” follows, accompanied by an explanation of the typical service.  Then final historical section deals with the emergence of the assembly as “the primary means of faithful obedience”—a test of fellowship (125).  The regulative principle is again at issue as its use develops in relation to the emphasis on “positive law” and the sanctity of the assembly.  Overall, the two historical chapters seem rushed and oversimplified, though the authors are aware of this to some extent (103).  This was perhaps the best choice for a general audience, yet while important issues were brought to the reader’s attention, some of them remained unexplained, to the detriment of the book’s objective.  Having used A Gathered People in a classroom setting, this reviewer encountered a general lack of understanding in regard to the regulative principle, for example, after students read the chapters.

Seemingly, the last two chapters are an attempt to answer the question, “Given biblical theology, our history and our present context, what is a God-honoring theology of assembly for Churches of Christ today” (125)?  As noted above, however, chapter six is laden with more biblical theology.  Thankfully, the chapter considers the role of the Spirit at length.  Unfortunately, while claims are made about the Spirit indwelling us (136) and mediating the presence of God in the assembly (143), at no point does the chapter touch on the difference between the two.  If there is a distinction to be made between the omnipresence of God and the special presence of God—and this is a critical point for the sacramental claims of the book—then must we not also consider the distinction, if there is one, between the Spirit’s constant indwelling of the believer (certainly a special kind of presence) and the asserted function of mediating an even more special presence in the assembly sacrament?  Instead, the chapter focuses on the eschatological experience of the assembly through the Spirit.  While the argument for the “proleptic experience of eschatological existence” seems sound enough, readers may tend to wonder what “experience” means.  Does the language imply a tangibly supernatural encounter with God and dead loved ones (148) or something more on the cognitive level?

The final chapter, as it turns out, does not attempt to provide a theology of assembly for the Churches of Christ, but, even better, attempts to substantiate a more helpful hermeneutic than the historical alternatives.  The readers are left to work out the question themselves.  The hermeneutic hinges on a “gospel criterion” that replaces the concern with Scriptural particulars.  As Scripture does not function to furnish the particulars, then, the next section deals with the nature of Scripture.  In essence, the authors appropriate the notion of “regulating” and put it to work through more general principles such as glorify God, serve others, and evangelize (154).  “Thus, assemblies are regulated by the principles embodied in the life of Jesus rather than by the specifics of ritualized covenantal legislation” (155).  The contextual nature of Scripture again arises.  Going a step further, however, the task is not simply recognizing and dealing with the occasions of Scripture but replicating the process that led to Scripture’s contextual conclusions—rather than replicating the conclusions themselves.

Consequently, what we really do is not so much apply Scripture so as to reproduce what is there but apply the theology that Scripture teaches so that we embody the gospel anew.  Thus, the task of restoration is not the reproduction of the historic practices of the early church but the reaplication [sic] of its theology—as discerned through its narrative and letters—in our own context.

Is is clear, therefore, why the authors opted not to produce a theology of assembly for all Churches of Christ today.  This hermeneutical model, built upon the groundwork of the previous chapters, is the pinnacle and major contribution of the volume.  The bold redefinition of restoration in terms of this interpretive task is vitally necessary.  The following section on contextualization demonstrates the place of missiology in the conversation.  The theological move toward contextualization is taking its cues from missiology, and the conclusion of the book depends on the viability of contextual theology, yet the section on contextualization wants badly for greater depth.  The authors have at least done us the favor of pointing out that a topic such as the assembly cannot be adequately addressed without a missional voice at the table.  The final pages of the chapter amount to an annotated list of gospel “principles” for the assembly:

Theocentric
Christocentric
Table-centered
Word-shaped
Praise-saturated
Gospel-enacted
Gospel-emobided
Communal-consciousness
Transformational
Missional
Authentic Encounter
Doxological Evangelism

These are, perhaps, a helpful indicator of the kind of theological substance that needs to be contextualized, though the principles themselves do little in terms of a coherent conclusion to the book.  As a whole, the chapter starts strong and ends with a bit of a fizzle.

The epilogue is a brief acknowledgment that a book on the assembly did not partake of the usual polemics pervading the “discussion.”  The list of issues not addressed and the comments on their relative lack of importance appears to be an attempt, by virtue of saying, “We know,” to forgo pointless criticism.  Good luck to the authors.

As for the layout of the book, this reviewer will never be happy with endnotes.  Two or three short quotations introduce each chapter, and discussion questions, a prayer, and suggested reading round out each chapter, all of which is quite engaging.  If the progression of the book is not entirely clear, it is still a unique and valuable resource for members of Churches of Christ thinking about the assembly.

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