The Apostolic Church

Written by Everett F. Harrison Reviewed By Colin J. Hemer

This book is a competent survey by a veteran scholar, Professor Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary at Pasadena, California. After a short introduction to the political and religious background of the apostolic age, Harrison discusses briefly the history of the criticism of Acts, especially of its speeches, and affirms its historical value as a foundational document for much that follows. The main body of the book comprises three long chapters, tracing successively what he characterizes respectively as the external history and the internal development of the church, and concluding with accounts of eight individual NT churches.

This is a considerable repository of solid material, with warm and balanced expositions and thoughtful insights. Its approach tends to be thematic, theological and pastoral rather than primarily historical and critical. I suspect the treatment is directed more to the needs of the American seminary student than of the British university student, who might benefit from having the critical foundations argued more vigorously than Professor Harrison finds necessary to do here. The primacy given to Acts would for instance be strongly challenged by many. The case for the defence is well presented, but may seem a little bland and selective in the face of the radical criticism of some who may have the ear of students. But this is foundational. The ‘external history’ reads like a discursive theological commentary on the book of Acts. Indeed, the history is treated thematically, in a degree which fails to convey the dynamic of primitive Christian expansion. The events of the Jerusalem Council or the Galatian mission (pp. 57, 74) are skirted without indication of the cruxes they present. And the section on the break with Judaism comes to an end before AD 70 with little hint of the traumatic turning-point that must have been for both Christian and Jew. Professor Harrison clearly has his views on all these points, and occasionally draws attention to dischronic change (e.g. p. 83). In any case he generally operates within the temporal limits of Paul and Acts.

In fact the book is full of good things and my queries are mostly in areas of selection and presentation. Harrison majors somewhat on internal development, which is often the least accessible through the documents. He is most interesting in some of the accounts of individual churches, where he is dealing with the most concrete and particular. Evidence for early Christian teaching (e.g. pp. 110–114) is helpfully set out in numbered tabulations, and comments and summaries are often similarly enumerated. Ideas are frequently introduced through word studies. Altogether, it is perhaps more a book for reference than for rapid reading. That makes me regret the more the lack of an index. There is a good table of contents, but that is not analytical enough to supply the place of a detailed subject index. An index of authors discussed would also be very helpful, though there is a good select bibliography for each chapter and section. The notes are limited to references.

Colin J. Hemer