Raber, Mary and Peter F. Penner, eds. History and Mission in Europe: Continuing the Conversation. Schwarzenfeld, Germany: Neufeld Verlag, 2011. Reviewed by Michael Bourdeaux.
Only modestly—on the back cover—does this fine book proclaim itself as a festschrift produced in honor of the outstanding Mennonite scholar and activist, Walter Sawatsky. At least he deserves a full-page color photo, rather than the four unobtrusive black and white ones set out in a strip along the middle of the back cover.
That grouse stated, one is able to welcome this book not only as a deserved tribute, but also as a many-sided work of interest to anyone who follows the destiny of Protestants in the former Communist countries of Europe. Walter Sawatsky is a Canadian Mennonite, well known to readers of this journal, but his interests have always spread far beyond the confines of his own denomination. Walter, it is stated (p. 12), visited the USSR 22 times before its collapse. For three years in the early 1970s he was my colleague at Keston College, Kent, after his secondment there by the Mennonite Central Committee. I was its founder and director, and this invitation to review History and Mission in Europe gives me the opportunity to add my tribute to a cool, calm colleague. Walter’s personal knowledge and impeccable judgment, in an atmosphere often riven by conflict of the KGB’s making, was an example to us all.
The 21 chapters go well beyond strictly Mennonite perspectives and discuss many practical as well as theoretical issues. The contributors include several who are not Mennonites, though the editors are. Dr. Mark R. Elliott, editor of this journal, writes a telling article on the uncoordinated burgeoning of Protestant theological educational institutions after 60 years of total suppression in the USSR (Ch.12). He provides wise counsel of how this training needs to be less diffuse, less exclusive, and more ready to abandon theory in favor of adapting “to the unique complexities of the post-Soviet environment” (p. 235).
One practical and selfless scheme in which Walter Sawatsky was involved as project coordinator was the production over nine years of a Russian translation of William Barclay’s 15 volumes of New Testament Bible commentaries. This was an immense team effort and the story is movingly told by one of the editors, Mary Raber (Ch. 16). How did the choice fall on Barclay? How was it practically coordinated? How was a text produced for an Anglo-Saxon reader culturally transformed into one whose allusions and quotes of poetic sources would be comprehensible to a Soviet reader? The answers are all here. During the long years of production the Soviet Union was transformed from a closed to an open society (at least temporarily), and soon after its completion in 1986 an official message came through from Moscow in February 1987, “Approval granted, send all commentaries.” There were some grumbles at the text from more conservative-minded Russian believers, but here was something which had cost countless hours of painstaking work and financial sacrifice in the West and bridged the immense gap until Russians could produce their own systematic commentaries.
How refreshing it is to read contributions by young Russians and Ukrainians. Here, though, we come across a problem. Three of the chapters are in Russian, two in German, albeit prefaced by adequate summaries. One of the contributions, “History of the Baptist-Initsiativnik Movement” (Ch. 7), is of great interest, but is in Russian only, thus inevitably cutting off the detail of its insights from many readers of the book. Tatiana Nikolskaia (St. Petersburg) has gained access to state archives and retrieved documentation about the origins of the devastating schism among Russian Baptists which originated in the early 1960s and persists to this day. She uses these sources to tell a moving story of resistance to persecution and of the indomitability of human nature. Yet one curious fact emerges. Ms. Nikolskaia mentions Walter Sawatsky’s comprehensive book of 1981 on Russian Baptists, but does not quote it. Indeed, her sole sources appear to be the state archives of the Russian Federation. The story she tells—with the excitement of uncovering something new—was first recounted in my own book, Religious Ferment in Russia, published in 1969. She has no knowledge of the immense wealth of the Keston Archive, now housed at Baylor University, Texas, which tells the story, but with a hundred times more detail. One waits for the day when Russians will know of the sources often richly existent in the West and Western scholars will have unrestricted access to Soviet archives.
The text is well edited, but nestling among the many interesting chapters of rich interest there are a few contentious points. For example, William Yoder’s acerbic piece, “Correct Losers—but the Wrong Winners” (Ch. 17), focuses on the dissolution of East Germany. Perhaps one who lives in Belarus and commutes weekly to Moscow might be expected to hold unconventional opinions, but I leave it to others to agree—or disagree—with his eulogy of President Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Minsk, for his social policies supporting his country’s poorest (p. 340). However, I cannot let pass his incidental remark criticizing the unbalanced reporting of Forum 18, a news service which emphatically does not inherit a mandate from “Britain’s erstwhile Keston College.”
Every reader of this journal would be stimulated and enriched by reading this book. Could we have a second edition with the entire text in English? F
Canon Dr. Michael Bourdeaux is the founder and president of Keston Institute, Oxford.
Puzynin, Andrey P. The Tradition of the Gospel Christians: A Study of Their Identity and Theology during the Russian, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Periods. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011. Reviewed by Matthew Miller.
Andrey P. Puzynin serves as adjunct lecturer of Nyack College/Alliance Theological Seminary at its extension site in Kyiv, Ukraine. This book, which draws on his University of Wales doctoral dissertation, analyzes shifts in the self-understanding and doctrinal positions of the Gospel Christian movement. This is a very significant book, since few scholarly works systematically explore the history of Russia’s Evangelical Christians, as they are more frequently identified. (In 1944, the Union of Evangelical Christians merged with the Russian Baptist Union to form the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.) Since the end of the Soviet Union many believers have chosen to identify with the Evangelical Christian heritage rather than with the organization formed in the 1940s.
Puzynin breaks down his comprehensive study of the movement into five periods, each marked by a key leader: Lord Radstock, Vasily Aleksandrovich Pashkov, Ivan Sergeevich Prokhanov (two periods), and Aleksander Vasilevich Karev. For each period Puzynin highlights the formative experiences, doctrinal trends, and dominant themes of self-identification. One theme that runs through the book is how the identity of Gospel Christians has been shaped by contemporary geopolitical forces. For the first period (1873-1878) Puzynin describes the St. Petersburg ministry of Radstock, his Keswick holiness and premillenial beliefs, and Radstock’s hope for the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church. During the second period (1878-1902) Pashkov expanded the ministry of his English mentor, developed restorationist views, and built stronger connections with Western Protestants after his exile from Russia in 1884. After the establishment of limited religious freedom in 1905 Prokhanov emerged as a leader and continued until he left Russia in 1928. He led ventures in publishing and education, organized a Russian branch of the ecumenical Evangelical Alliance, championed adult baptism, and expressed an optimistic postmillennial eschatology. After 1944, Karev, a Gospel Christian, provided leadership for the merged denomination. He operated under limitations enforced by the Soviet regime and did not openly challenge the discrimination and persecution faced by believers in the USSR. Under Karev dispensational premillennialism grew in influence and overshadowed the postmillennialism expressed by Prokhanov. Denominational leaders began to exert strict controls over local congregations.
This reviewer welcomes the publication of a volume which addresses so many significant questions. Puzynin provides a critical evaluation of many valuable sources; footnotes and an extensive bibliography point readers to primary works and secondary literature. The author’s evaluations of recent research will doubtlessly produce the most discussion among readers. Puzynin rigorously criticizes the recent historical and theological writings of Russian and Ukrainian writers such as Marina S. Karetnikova, Sergei V. Sannikov, and Mikhail N. Cherenkov.
This book raises a number of concerns, which can be categorized as identification and interaction. First, the author does not clearly define the Gospel Christian movement and seems to assume that readers have a prior understanding of the basic historical narrative. He also does not adequately explain the current status (location, membership, leadership) of Gospel Christian churches today. He mentions that several groups use the label, but he briefly focuses on only one current leader. When discussing major events in the life of the movement, he pays little attention to the evangelistic growth of the 1920s or the repression of the 1930s—these broader developments deeply influenced the self-understanding of the group. Also, he provides little context on developments in society or the Russian Orthodox Church. He mentions the Russian YMCA and the Living Church movement more than once—but his footnotes do not direct the reader to the most significant secondary literature. Finally, Puzynin does not clearly explain or justify his methods of historical and theological interpretation. He discusses post-liberal theology as a way to develop a better understanding of Gospel Christians, but he does not adequately define or evaluate this recent American movement.
Second, a more significant concern is Puzynin’s interaction with other scholars. Hopefully, in future works he will demonstrate a more gracious attitude toward other writers while energetically critiquing their writing. He shows little respect for more experienced authors who had fewer educational opportunities. It is possible to provide rigorous criticism of research without calling authors’ professional training and competence into question. Puzynin’s comments create the impression that he alone has adequately analyzed his topic. He is a talented scholar who will make significant contributions—if he is able to serve in a civil and collegial manner with fellow writers.
The bottom line? Buy the book, evaluate his arguments, and welcome the gradual growth of scholarship on the history of Christianity in Slavic lands. F
Matthew Miller is assistant professor of history at Northwestern College, St. Paul, Minnesota. From 2005 to 2008 he taught church history and biblical studies at the Russian-American Christian University in Moscow.