About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Book Review: Benjamin G. McNair Scott, Apostles Today

Benjamin G. McNair Scott, Apostles Today. Making Sense of Contemporary Charismatic Apostolates: A Historical and Theological Appraisal (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014)

I am grateful to Pickwick Publications for the review copy. In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Ben is a close friend of mine. He asked me to proofread the PhD thesis on which Apostles Today is based, and I also helped to prepare it for publication.

Many churches, especially those within the charismatic traditions, believe that God is gifting and calling more and more people to be ‘apostles’. According to these churches, apostles are those whom Christ calls and empowers by the Holy Spirit specifically for the sake of the Church’s ongoing development and mission (cf. Ephesians 4:11-13). Moreover, apostles are not necessarily ordained ministers; the term refers to a role rather than a title or a position. The belief that God is calling a new generation (or new generations) of apostles has ramifications for our ecclesiologies: How do the ‘newer’ churches and the more established, mainstream churches regard apostolic ministry? Is the so-called charismatic apostolate (CA; the phrase comes from Andrew Walker) a new phenomenon, or does it have historical precedent? And is the CA limited to churches within the charismatic traditions? In this thought-provoking study, Benjamin G. McNair Scott, a minister in the Church of England, reflects on the historical and biblical foundations of the CA and offers some suggestions on how it might influence (British) churches in the future.

The first section of Apostles Today, ‘Where We Are’, engages with the CA traditions in both the United States and Great Britain, and with a number of popular Christian authors, including Derek Prince, Peter Wagner, Mike Breen, Terry Virgo, and Kenneth Hagin. Drawing from these sources, McNair Scott identifies three different interpretations of ‘apostle’. First, there is the apostle type 1, which presents apostles as having supreme authority in the churches. Apostle type 2 refers to select members of a congregation who are gifted as apostles but remain under the authority of the local pastor or minister. Conversely, those categorised as apostle type 3s are non-select members of a congregation gifted to serve as apostles but who do not possess any special or absolute authority. (Essentially, the difference between apostle types 2 and 3 lies in the application of Ephesians 4:11-13: Are the gifts reserved for a chosen few or available to all?) McNair Scott demonstrates a firm understanding of his source material, and his categorisations (apostle types 1, 2, and 3) make sense of the diversity of literature.

In the second section, ‘How We Got Here’, McNair Scott sketches the history of charismatic apostles from the end of the first century to the 1990s. As might be expected, from the early centuries to the Reformation period, apostolic ministry is mainly identified with episcopal succession. However, many groups that remained dissatisfied with the extent of the reforms during the sixteenth century began to advocate an ongoing apostolic ministry directly inspired by the Holy Spirit rather than legitimised through tradition. This trend is widespread within modern charismatic traditions, and concepts of apostolicity germane to these traditions find extensive dissemination through various media, including popular-level books, television and radio programmes, and ‘gift courses’  – hence the increasing popularity and acceptance of the CA, especially among churches with declining memberships that desire nonetheless to have a greater missiological impact in their communities. The turn to some form of apostolicity, where specific church members are gifted apostles, is attractive.

The matter of the CA’s biblical support (or otherwise) is the theme of the third section, ‘What We Should Make of It’. Of particular importance are 1 Corinthians 12:28; 15:3-8; Ephesians 2:19-20; 4:11-13; and Revelation 21:14. McNair Scott’s analysis suggests that the pivotal issue concerns the supposed ongoing nature of apostolicity: Do the relevant New Testament texts point to an ongoing CA, or do they assume that the gift will be withdrawn once the Church has reached a certain developmental stage? Each position has its advocates, but McNair Scott refuses to camp on either side of the divide, and he holds that while the original twelve apostles, Paul, and other first-generation apostles are unique given their roles in establishing the Church, the biblical texts themselves do not rule out an ongoing CA. This does not mean that McNair Scott endorses all that modern proponents of the CA claim. Rather, given its legitimacy, McNair Scott seeks to determine how their general ideas about the CA can take shape within more mainstream traditions. Apostle type 1s do not help here; they do not allow for ecclesiological diversity, ecumenical interactions, or for legitimate expressions of the Church outside of the apostles’ own circles. Thus apostle types 2 and 3 allow for an interpretation of the CA that identifies it with pioneering ministers and church planters. Seen through these lenses, the CA is not such an incredible or exegetically indefensible phenomenon – even the Church of England has its pioneer ministers! – although each local expression of such apostolicity or pioneering will doubtless take on forms conditioned by the immediate context.

The fourth and final section, ‘Where it Might Go’, contains McNair Scott’s summary of his research and, importantly, his speculation about the future of the CA in Britain. He sees little potential for apostle type 1s; any influence they have will likely be through media or within the black Pentecostal Church. Apostle type 2s (and, to a lesser extent, apostle type 3s), interpreted as pioneer ministers and church planters, will find homes within both independent and mainstream Christian denominations. Even within non-Protestant churches, there is scope for the CA to exist, even if the term ‘apostle’ is not used. Thus the increasing attention paid to the CA is not an example of faddism; for McNair Scott, the CA, however it is conceived, is of paramount importance for the Church’s mission.

Apostles Today is a compelling account of certain trends within both the charismatic traditions and, increasingly, mainstream denominations. McNair Scott has shown that, despite employing terminology that resonates mostly with charismatic-type ecclesiologies, the concept of the CA is one found within a large number of churches, including McNair Scott’s own Church of England. Arguably, this book will appeal mainly to those who have some background in charismatic traditions; those unfamiliar with the teachings of, say, Derek Prince or Terry Virgo may wonder why the matter of an ongoing CA is important. That the matter is important and not merely fascinating is something that gradually becomes clearer during the course of the study, especially when McNair Scott draws attention to its mainstream instantiations (e.g. Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministry). Here lies the true value of this thesis: in effect, McNair Scott has demonstrated that the Spirit’s distribution of gifts, including apostolic ministry, is for the Church catholic and not just for particular traditions or denominations.

1 comment:

  1. Terry, thank you for the review. I will check out this book, but I met some type 1 apostles who are deeply concerned about the wider body of Christ. Perhaps they are overshadowed in the Christian media by the more authoritarian type 1 apostles that by my opinion overstep their boundaries.


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