Review: The Greater Life and Work of Christ

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: In addition to The Greater Life and Work of Christ, Alexander Patterson is the author of The Other Side of Evolution: Its Effect and Fallacy (1903), and Broader Bible Study.

Overview:

The Greater Life and Work of Christ (1896) is a novel take on a genre known well in Patterson’s day: “the life of Christ.” Many famous theologians published attempts at biographies of Jesus in the second half of the nineteenth century, most of them titled simply The Life of Christ. The focus of this genre was to present a kind of narrative gospel harmony, and sometimes a more introspective, speculative, or biographical look at how Jesus interacted with people and went about his day. Some popular and typical examples include that of Dawson (1874), F. W. Farrar (1875), James Stalker (1880), Joseph Parker’s Inner Life of Christ (1883), and Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883). Some more modern examples include R. J. Campbell’s Life of Christ (1921) and Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1948).

Patterson’s book differs significantly from all of the above. In the preface to his book, he states his theme:

It will be seen at a glance that this is not a life of Christ in the usual sense. It is not a review of the events of the earthly existence of our Lord. There is a greater life and a larger work of Christ of which his life on earth is but a single chapter. . . . The great defect in the study of Christ is to consider him in but a single chapter of his life and work.

Thus, literally, “Christ in His Earthly Life” is only one of Patterson’s seven chapters. The table of contents is worth a long look:

I. Christ in the Eternal Past
II. The Word: Christ in Creation
III. Jehovah: Christ in the Old Testament Age
IV. Jesus: Christ in His Earthly Life
V. Jesus Christ: Christ in His Present State and Work
VI. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords: Christ in the Day of the Lord
VII. Christ in the Eternal Future

Chapter IV has its source texts mainly in the Gospels; chapter VI and VII have their source texts mainly in the Revelation. The other chapters, though, are fascinating composites of thoughts drawn from a variety of Scriptures. When you read about “Christ in Creation” you will marvel at how many Scriptures speak of Jesus at Creation, and wonder why you have so seldom heard a sermon on such a worthy topic. I also enjoyed the meditations on “Christ in His Present State and Work”—the comfort of the intercession of Christ for us was a topic constantly on the lips of the Puritans, but it is a topic seldom explored at any length today.

Patterson is rather ahead of his time on some topics. He takes a bird’s-eye view of Scripture that is attractive for its thoroughness. The first three chapters are often in innovative territory as he draws together Scriptures in new ways. Interestingly, he was an early opponent of evolution, and there is one section of “post-colonial” thoughts that sounds like it was in yesterday’s Christiantiy Today, even though he lived at the height of the British Empire.

Because it follows a chronological scheme, this book may seem at first like dispensational theology, but that is really outside its goal. Rather, Patterson’s purpose is to present the unity in Christ’s work throughout history, over against its disparities.

Meat:

The very idea of this book is thrilling in itself, beginning in eternity past and ending in eternity future. There is such a variety of thoughts and Scriptures that it is difficult to choose only a few quotations.

One high point of the book is that Patterson takes an essentially missional view of the Church.

The church exists for a specific work—the proclamation in all the world of the gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ as declared by himself and his apostles. This we dare not neglect for any other mission, however good.

Along these lines, in Chapter VI, he usefully differentiates Christians from Christendom—meaning the historically-Christian or majority-Christian nations of Europe and the North America. His comments here were remarkably ahead of their time, written in the 1890s, and I felt it was worth sharing the whole section:

What will be the record of Christendom? It has laid hands on the fairest regions of the world “for their good” and ostensibly to “extend civilization,” really to extend national power and trade and to enrich the merchants of the dominant nations. It has taken, without compensation, from weaker nations their God-given heritage . . . The work of the missionary of the gospel has been taken advantage of, and has been followed by the trader, and he by the soldier. There has followed them the train of evils which have destroyed these peoples. Opium was forced into China by Christendom. Rum is being poured into Africa by Christendom.

Where the so-called Christian civilization has appeared, the native races have gone down by its drugs, drinks, and diseases. It has put into the hands of these races, arms and material of most diabolically consummate perfection for the destruction of human life. It calls the arming of these peoples with these infernal weapons “advancing in progress and civilization.” It lends them money for this purpose and sends them teachers who instruct them in the satanic art of wholesale butchery of human life, and sets them at war with each other, and profits by their mutual destruction.

There has been given the nations of whole continents, in place of their original paganism, a bastard Christianity more difficult to overthrow than their pagan faith. . . . The God of heaven and earth is not oblivious to the awful sins of Christendom.
(p. 273-274, 2017 ed.)

Bones:

This book is very long but very good. The only part where I felt very bogged down was the eschatology. A reader cannot help but think that many of the thoughts presented are speculative. That being said, I highly recommend that you finish the book if you can, because the conclusion masterfully synthesized all that preceded and fully compensated for the less exciting sections.

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