Howard Snyder

One of my all-time favorite theologians and historians is Howard Snyder. Snyder is currently a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Canada and served as a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary. He’s a prolific author who is known for “thinking outside the box.”

Howard was very kind to endorse two of my books The Untold Story of the New Testament Church (2005) and Pagan Christianity (2008).

Recently, I caught up with Howard to interview him on his prolific work. Should any of these titles interest you, just click on the links and you will be taken to Amazon for the best discounts available. I have most of his books on my bookshelf.

Your book The Community of the King is my favorite title of yours. I like it so much that I selected it as part of my Best 100 Christian Books Ever Written list. Tell us the story behind that book. What motivated you to write it and how did you write it? 

Howard Snyder: I was invited by Leighton Ford to write a plenary paper on “The Church as God’s Agent of Evangelism” for the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization. Leighton had seen three articles I had published in Christianity Today and liked them; he and the program committee thought Lausanne needed specifically a paper on the church.

That paper was sent out in advance to the 3,000 or so Lausanne participants, and I received responses from all over the world with participants’ comments. These were very helpful. My family and I were living and serving in São Paulo, Brazil, at the time, with the Free Methodist Church.

I became convinced however that the issue was not just the church as “God’s agent of evangelism,” but the church as agent of the kingdom of God. So I decided to expand my Lausanne paper (and the response I wrote to it) into a book, which became The Community of the King. (Originally I was going to call it The Church and the Kingdom.)

By this time I had completed the manuscript for The Problem of Wineskins (which was published in 1975 and became my bestselling book), and I incorporated in a summary way some of my Wineskins insights into Community of the King.

I based Community of the King and Wineskins largely on my own personal Bible study, rather than on other authors, though of course I read fairly widely.

What has the response been to the book at the time it was published in 1977 and in recent years?

Howard Snyder: The responses I have received have always been very positive (in contrast to the controversy kicked up by Wineskins). It has been my second-bestselling book, and has never gone out of print.

I issued a revised and updated version of the book in 2004, at the request of Rene Padilla who wanted an updated version for the Spanish edition. The book has been translated into quite a number of languages.

More than any other of my books, Community of the King has been used as a textbook in colleges and seminaries and as a leadership training book in local churches and in mission organizations.

You’ve written several books on the kingdom besides The Community of the King. I’m mainly thinking of Liberating the Church, A Kingdom Manifesto, and Models of the Kingdom. Share the big points in each volume.

Howard Snyder: The Problem of Wineskins was my ground-breaking book and the one that has had the most impact. I keep running into people around the world who tell me, “That book gave me new hope and kept me from leaving the church when I was about to give up on it.”

Jim Sire of IVP related this story to me: Two pastors were talking and one said, “Our church has been studying The Problem of Wineskins, and it’s really brought renewal to our church.” The other pastor said, “Yeah, we read it too, and it split the church.”

Liberating the Church: The Ecology of Church and Kingdom introduced two new themes: Ecology as a theological and missional category, and the kingdom of God as a liberating force. I engaged Latin American liberation theology, showing in what ways the biblical gospel is indeed a theology of liberation. I also make a strong case for the Bible as the church’s “book of the covenant”; the ministry of all believers; and the full freedom of women to be leaders in the church.

The main point of A Kingdom Manifesto is to show how a biblical theology of the kingdom weaves together several biblical themes—particularly shalom, the people of God, the city of God, sabbath, jubilee, justice for the poor, and the earth as God’s land.

In this small book I try to show some of the implications of a kingdom theology for various areas of life and culture, including economics and international politics. This book, reprinted under the title Kingdom, Church, and World: Biblical Insights for Today, is still used as a textbook.

Models of the Kingdom was a sort of follow-up to Kingdom Manifesto. I realized that when people say “the kingdom of God,” they sometimes mean very different things. For some, the kingdom is heaven; for others, it basically means the church—and so on. The book sorts out the various ways “kingdom of God” can be and has been understood, using the approach of models.

I very much appreciated Avery Dulles’ book Models of the Church, and I essentially followed his methodology in putting my book together. It is one of my favorite books, because it combines Scripture, church history, and practical church life—and indirectly shows why Christians sometimes misunderstand each other.

One friend told me: “After reading Models of the Kingdom, I now understand my parents!” She came to see why her parents held certain beliefs and opinions that were quite different from hers.

Another earlier book, The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal (IVP, 1980) did surprisingly well and has been, I believe, my third bestselling book. Many churches found it useful as a resource in seeking congregational renewal, especially in the U.S. and the UK.

Every author who has something important to say gets misrepresented by someone. I recently featured an article by Alan Hirsch where he cogently responded to misrepresentations about his work. In what ways have some people misrepresented your work?

1. That in my ecclesiology I am advocating a radically free-church and congregational ecclesiology; maybe even a radically Anabaptist vision. One leader in my own denomination thought my Wineskins book was essentially advocating an (early) Plymouth Brethren ecclesiology—clearly a misunderstanding (which perhaps The Radical Wesley later clarified). Someone else said, “If he believes that, why is he still in our church?” I have responded simply by answering questions when I could, and by additional writing.

2. Some have thought that my writings about the ministry of all believers and my critique of “Superstar pastors” and the unbiblical clergy/laity dichotomy meant that I was undervaluing pastoral leadership. I have tried to make clear that it’s just the opposite: The task of equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-12) puts the highest possible priority on pastoral leadership. Pastoral ministry is the highest calling, I have often said. But in principle that is open to all Christians, based on gifts and graces and God’s guidance.

3. Many (such as Peter Wagner) have thought I am plain wrong in my strong criticism of the church’s often unquestioned dependence on church buildings. Every once in a while I get asked, “Do you still believe that?” I always say yes, indeed. Who can doubt that the church would be forced to reexamine its priorities and its mission if it did not have a building? My critique of church buildings is in fact carefully nuanced, however.

4. I suppose some have misunderstood my emphasis on the charismatic nature of the church. I deal with that more specifically in my little book (with Dan Runyon), The Divided Flame.

Tell us about your two recent books: Salvation Means Creation Healed and Decoding the Church. What are the main ideas behind each?

Howard Snyder: Decoding the Church (with Dan Runyon) argues for an organic/genetic model of the church, amplifying some of my earlier writings. Key points are the Trinitarian nature of the church and its mission, and a forthright critique of the traditional four “marks” of the church, which I show are one-sided and often tend to support a more institutional understanding of the church than is warranted.

I argue, for example, that the church is not only “one”; it is equally “diverse”; it is not only “catholic” or universal; it is equally and necessarily “local,” contextual. Both/and, not either/or.

Salvation Means Creation Healed is clearly and decisively my most important, critical, and paradigmatic book since Wineskins. If taken seriously, it will require a lot of rethinking about just what salvation really is.

The main argument is that most Christians (not just Evangelicals) have a non-biblical dualistic understanding of salvation, influenced by Platonic philosophy, because we almost totally ignore the biblical emphasis on the land. Walter Brueggemann said years ago that the Bible is not just the story of God and God’s people; it is the story of God, God’s people, and God’s land. Yes. Once you see it in Scripture, it’s unmistakable.

Too many Christians have the crazy idea that salvation is all about going to heaven, and that God has no permanent stake in what happens to the earth; the whole physical creation. In the Bible the direction of salvation is more “down to earth” than “up to heaven.” It is about the new and renewed heaven and earth; the reconciling of “all things” in Jesus Christ; the healing of the divorce between earth and heaven — in other words, creation healed.

My argument is highly biblical here. It critiques “Rapture” and “Left Behind” theology, the near-heretical innovation that infected the Western church in the late 1800s. The book reconceives the nature of the church and its mission today in the light of the biblical vision of the healing of all creation in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

Salvation Means Creation Healed is as revolutionary as Wineskins was. Any of its readers who take the Bible seriously will be forced to do some serious rethinking about salvation, spirituality, and mission.

As you look back on your writing and speaking ministry, how would you summarize your contribution to the body of Christ? What are the main points you’re trying to get Christians to understand that you’re passionate about?

Howard Snyder: Six points . . .

1. Take Scripture seriously, unfiltered, without blinders, inductively. “The Bible is a radical book” as B. T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church, wrote. (See my book, Populist Saints.)

2. The church is a spiritual/social organism with its own ecology. It is literally the body of Christ, the community of the King. Its revolutionary vitality does not depend upon programs but upon unleashing the power of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives, in community.

3. God is always in the business of radically renewing the church, if we are open to the Spirit and faithful to Scripture. A key “mark” of this renewal is a focus on justice and holy love, with a strong emphasis on the gospel for the poor.

4. God has “a plan for the fullness of time to bring everything in heaven and earth together under one head, even Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:10), and we are called to actively, redemptively participate in this reconciling work. This is, in fact, the work of the kingdom of God.

5. Christians are “stewards of God’s grace” (1 Peter 4:10) and stewards of the earth. The two go together, giving us the potent biblical understanding of stewardship. If we take this seriously, we will be a revolutionary force in the world, a movement that both sees people transformed and that renews the earth, even as we await the final appearing of Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom on earth in its total fullness.

6. God is always at work to renew the church, and church history is largely the story of a succession of renewal movements, from the early church right up to today. My theology of renewal and renewal movements is found especially in my book Signs of the Spirit: How God Reshapes the Church, which was based on my Notre Dame doctoral dissertation.

Tell us about your writing schedule (when you’re crafting a book). If we observed you write a book for a solid week, what would we see on a day to day basis?

Howard Snyder: I always try to get at least one hour of writing in quite early, after my devotions—usually between about 6:00 or 6:30 and 7:30, whatever else is going on. (This keeps me going; the juices flowing.)

When I can block out time for more intensive writing, I usually get two or three hours in, in the morning, and an hour or so in the afternoon, after a nap and reading awhile. Under deadlines, of course, I may block out more intensive time and occasionally burn the midnight kilowatts, though generally I function much better very early in the morning than at night.

What can we expect next from the pen of Howard Snyder?

Howard Snyder: One book project is still secret, but should stir interest. The other is a book which I may call something like Jesus Story: Christian Doctrine and Global Mission. This will be a relatively small and accessible (though deeply researched) summary of essential Christian doctrine in a narrative, crosscultural, and missional mode.

It will be a kind of worldview book in the sense that it will show how basic Christian doctrine relates to (for example) music and the arts, economics, politics, science and technology, sexuality, family life, culture formation, etc.

I would like eventually to do a book (something like The Radical Wesley) on St. Francis’ way to renew the church.

Currently I am writing weekly blogs or short articles that are appearing in Asbury Seminary’s online ministry, Seedbed. For example: http://seedbed.com/feed/the-ten-commandments-are-ecological.

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Comments

  1. Ahiba Stephane says

    Hi Frank!
    Thank you for the interview. I really appreciate it, especially the main points which he was passionate about.
    I’ll start paying attention to his writings elsewhere.

    Thanks to you and to brother Howard.

    Stephane

  2. Pat says

    Thanks for sharing the interview Frank! I haven’t read any of Mr. Snyder’s books, but plan on ordering some. They sound very interesting!

  3. Lisa A Brown says

    Hi Frank,

    This is a great interview you had with Howard Snyder. I had noticed his book “The Community of the King” in your list of books but I had never read any of his books. He certainly has written quite a bit and by the sounds of it his books appear to be very deep and thought provoking. I can’t wait to read some of them now.

    I have a question for you Frank because I’m curious and I have been thinking about this for some time now and I was just wondering what your conviction was regarding this matter also. Do you agree with Mr. Snyder’s statement that the ““Rapture” and “Left Behind” theology, the near-heretical innovation that infected the Western church in the late 1800s.?” I understand what he is saying when he speaks of “the nature of the church and its mission today in the light of the biblical vision of the healing of all creation in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.” In matter of fact I have been hearing and thinking about it more and more lately. I have also been really thinking about the church’s mission in regards to the poor and … in light of James 2:18. I have just been doing a whole lot of thinking in regards to these particular matters lately.

    Again, I was just curious as to what your thoughts were concerning the view of the rapture? If this is not the time or the place to be posing this question I do apologize.

    On another note. I have been reading your latest book, “JESUS A Theography.” I am in chapter 4 now. I have been taking it very slowly. So much good stuff to digest. Both you and Mr. Sweet bring out so many wonderful insights from both the OT and NT that I have never heard or thought about before. It is really beautiful. I have grown and learned so many things from both your books and your blog.

    Thank You,
    L.B.

  4. says

    What I love about this interview is that Howard Snyder comes across as a man who really understands and has honed his own message and is bringing it into conversation with contemporary discussions. I’m a big fan of Kingdom, Church & World and recommend it whenever I find someone who wants to understand better the kingdom of God. Reading this interview makes we want to go and read some of his more recent stuff. Thanks for the post.

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