How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World
By Gerald L. Sittser
A review by Dwight A. Moody
“I did not set out to write the book you have before you,” Gerald Sittser writes to open the concluding chapter of this book. And I confess that it is not the book I set out to read, either. I thought I was getting an original interpretation of those first few centuries, one that would translate to our own time and place with compelling relevance.
Maybe it was the marketing strategy of the publisher (Brazos Press); or maybe I failed to read closely the title, subtitle, and promotional text; or maybe my expectations prevented me from hearing what Sittser was saying; or maybe the book is, in fact, an original interpretation of those first few centuries and I simply am not learned enough to know; or maybe it does, in fact, offer a way—perhaps even a third way—for the Christian community today and I am too dull to perceive it.
Any of these are possible, I confess, and some are more likely than others.
What is true is this: Sittser is a fine writer, a well-read scholar, and a passionate follower of Jesus who has a desire for a more vibrant Christian community. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago and teaches theology at Whitworth University (Spokane, Washington).
And this is a fine book, an excellent one, in fact; and I would use it were I teaching church history to college students, or even if I had in my care a class full of educated, open-minded adults who were gathering week by week to look into the things of scripture, history, and religion—a Bible class, for instance, or a reading group.
Sittser provides a very engaging review of those first few centuries of Christian life, when the Jesus movement was navigating its way between the dominant Roman religions (the First Way) and the older Jewish traditions (the Second Way), a process that gave rise to the Christian community (the Third Way). He describes the literature from which he draws his information, the leadership that produced this literature and guided the community, and the organizations and rituals that gave structure to this movement. He highlights the role of the bishop, the emergence of the New Testament, and the importance of The Lord’s Prayer, the early creeds, and communal meals.
But the most intriguing element of his book is the attention he gives to the social or moral lives of the Christians, how they were characterized by equality, humility, discipline, generosity, simplicity, and compassion; and how these qualities set them apart from the broader Roman populace, and how these precise qualities gave credibility to their profession and preaching in such a way as to stimulate the steady flow of converts.
For instance, he describes the great and deadly plague of 250 c.e. when up to 20% of the population of the empire died. In this social crisis, many Christians ignored threats to their own health and committed themselves to caring for the sick and dying. Their actions saved the lives of many, created a kind of immunity among themselves, and highlighted their belief in, and anticipation of, miracles of healing.
But here is the rub: the Christian Community described and lauded by Sittser appears to be sanitized, scrubbed of its uglier parts and painted over with the colors of cohesion, cooperation, and consistency. There is little attention to diversity, dissension, and division. There is not enough written about women, children, or slaves. More fundamentally, there is no critique as to why this “third way” was impotent in preventing the church of Jesus Christ from succumbing to the glory and grandeur of Christendom.
And in a larger frame: what in this “third way” of yesteryear helps us today? If Christianity then had two primary competitors, we have at least four: Islam, secularism, science, and Christendom in all its forms around the world. Reading this book left me wondering: what pieces of the “resilient faith” of our spiritual ancestors can help us solve the puzzles of our own day?
I cannot help but think the answer to my own question is in the plural, that there is no “way” but many “ways” for faith and obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord to shape our communities and our worlds so as to have the kind of long-standing impact that will inspire Christians in, say, another two thousand years: how the “fifth ways” of 21st century Christians changed their world.