As I noted in my review of his last book, Matt Knell is a brilliant young historical theologian with a knack for communicating useful truth to people from a wider variety of backgrounds, education levels, and perspectives. It is with this in mind, I imagine, that this book came about. Linked to his Spring Harvest Seminars on similar themes (the endorsement from Malcolm Duncan echoes that), this is an excellent little book that reminds readers why church history is important, truth matters, and encourages Christians to stand firm in the face of challenge and attack. Broadly divided into 3 main chapters, with associated parts, this is a readable and well-laid out little book.
After a brief introduction to the premise of the book, Matt opens with the example, life and teaching of Irenaeus of Lyon. This chapter, Defence against Cultural Attack, is a very helpful examination of both Irenaeus, and the challenge of cultural attacks on the church. Matt focuses on Irenaeus’s engagement with Gnosticism (which arguably ‘infects’ the church today, as Tom Wright suggests in Spiritual but Not Religious [SPCK, 2017]), looking at how trends from a pagan culture can come in and start to subtly and ultimately dangerously change the beliefs and practice of the church.
The second early Church figure considered is Basil of Caesarea. In Defence against Theological Attack, Matt walks us through Basil’s life and teaching, focusing particularly on the role and divinity of the Holy Spirit. This was probably my favourite chapter, as Matt compares and contrasts Basil’s and the early church’s views of the Spirit with our own – whilst also noting the fascinating way in which understanding developed between the time of the New Testament, and now. Both this chapter on Basil and the predecessor on Irenaues demonstrate both the importance of understanding church history, and offer the reader/teacher a masterclass in thinking about and explaining complex doctrinal issues.
The third chapter of the book is divided into two parts, chapters 3a and 3b, focusing on the Church in China. The first part, Defence Against Political Attack is Matt’s own humble understanding and summary of the present reality – very interesting, both in terms of prayer fuel and myth-busting. The second part, Considerations from Within the Context, is a real treat. Matt offers up his platform, and significant space, to three Chinese Christians, including one involved with the ‘official’ church, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. This gives a much more illuminating perspective on the reality of the Chinese Church than any one voice – and much food for thought. As a reader, I found myself grateful for Matt’s relationships and care in asking questions. The lessons from the Church in China for the West are varied and important, touching on matters of leadership, worship, persecution and more.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. By considering serious threats to Christianity, in a way that moves beyond contemporary Western culture wars, Matt does the reader a great service in reminding us about what matters, whilst also challenging us to think. With it’s Spirit-led blend of early and contemporary Christianity, Defenders of the Faith is a book I’ll have in mind in a wide number of conversations I’m involved in. More practically, this would make a good read for folk thinking about how church history and church present relate, those wondering about how best to pray for the Church in China, and anyone interested in faithfully communicating the Gospel in a changing world.