- Cass Sunstein reviews Jeremy Adelman’s new book, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman.
- Jim Gordon shares some good words from Nicholas Lash about teaching and learning.
- Travis McMaken is trying to get people to read Sallie McFague’s Metaphorical Theology. Good luck mate!
- Steve Holmes shares a deeply moving post on one of Britain’s most able and likable twentieth century theologians – Colin Gunton.
- Robert Fisk reflects on some implications of Israel’s intervention in the Syrian war.
- Christopher Brittain on ‘the real story of growth and decline in liberal and conservative churches’.
- The talks from Wheaton’s conference on Christian Political Witness are now up.
- Celebrating Kierkegaard with George Pattison.
- Patrick Stokes, Hubert Dreyfus and Tim Rayner talk Kierkegaard.
- Matthew Wilcoxen reviews Suzanne McDonald’s latest book, Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God.
- Reading about the ‘Pacific garbage patch’ made me very sad.
- Mark Farmaner asks, Is Aung San Suu Kyi the real enemy?
- 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions is the funniest book I’ve read in ages.
- Jim Davila and Mark Goodacre reflect on the work of Geza Vermes, 1924-2013.
- Some time well spent.
- I’ve been listening to some great sounds this week: Steve Earle’s latest, The Low Highway, and Hello Cruel World by Gretchen Peters. Peters’ latest DVD Woman On The Wheel came out this week. I look forward to seeing it soon.
- Finally, tomorrow is Uncle Karl’s birthday. How are you planning to mark it?
Chris E. W. Green, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom (Cleveland: CPT Press, 2012). ISBN: 9781935931300
Reading this study meant jumping some hurdles. First, while it may well say something embarrassing about me and my reading habits, it is not very often at all that I pick up a book of theology and get almost half way through it without recognising more than a handful of the names mentioned therein. Then again, I don’t read a lot of historical theology concerned to tell a particular chapter of Pentecostalism’s story. Consequently, there were times when reading this study by the young Pentecostal theologian Dr Chris Green (the Assistant Professor of Theology at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland) that it felt something like what I imagine it may have been like to visit a foreign country in pre-flying days where even if you recognised something of the language upon arrival there was simply no escaping that you were a long way from home.
And then there was the inkling that a book on Pentecostals and the Lord’s Supper represents something, to say the least, of an oxymoron. But Green has convinced me that while Pentecostals do still have ‘an “allergic response” to the sacramentalism’ (p. 35) of higher church traditions and their ‘sacramental baggage’ (as Amos Young calls it), it was not always so. Indeed, Green goes to considerable length, and depth, to build precisely such an argument, the presentation of which appears to serve his own apologetic purposes and assists him to avoid the cheap and undue polemics so often associated with wider discussions on the Supper.
The book proper begins with a helpful survey of the scholarly literature in which Green documents what Pentecostal scholars have said and are saying about the sacraments in general and the Lord’s Supper in particular. He begins by noting that while it is widely believed – both within and outwith Pentecostalism – that Pentecostals have attended little to sacramental thinking and practice, and that while Pentecostals have often spoken about the sacraments in predominantly negative terms, ‘this is far from the whole of the story’ (p. 5). Surveying the work of a long list of some 40 Pentecostal theologians – from Myer Pearlman, Ernest Swing Williams and C.E. Brown writing in the 1930s and 50s, to figures such as Simon Chan, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Jamie Smith and Daniel Tomberlin working more recently and whose work represents something of a ‘“turn” to the sacraments among Pentecostals’ (p. 71) – Green ably catalogues the development and state of Pentecostal theological reflection with regard to the sacraments generally and the Eucharist in particular. He draws attention both to the diverse paths that Pentecostal sacramental theology has taken – it is not an overly unified story – as well as to ‘some common ground’, namely an eschewing of any ‘magical’ views of the sacraments, and a shared allergy of ‘the dangers of liturgical formalism and clericalism’ (p. 72).
Green then turns our attention, in Chapter 3, to a careful and comprehensive reading of the early Pentecostal periodical writings from 1906–1931, attending to the breadth within the movements (e.g., the Wesleyan-Holiness and Finished Work ‘streams’) under the Pentecostal umbrella, and identifying the contours, convictions and habits that characterised early Pentecostal sacramental theology and practice. He concludes by noting that
It is impossible to appreciate early Pentecostal spirituality generally, or their sacramentality specifically, unless one discerns that they arose from a form of imitatio Christi. It was a following of Jesus ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ that fired their experience of the sacraments. They observed the ordinances of water baptism, Holy Communion, and footwashing as occasions for encountering and imitating the risen Jesus and mediation of the grace of divine transformative presence. These rites were never merely ceremonial or memorialistic, although their rich symbolism was not lost on the practitioners. The evidence indicates first generation Wesleyan-Holiness and Finished Work Pentecostals experienced these rites as ‘sacred occasions’, unique opportunities for the Spirit to work in the community. (p. 178)
Green also notes that early Pentecostals ‘did not find themselves compelled to explain the metaphysics of Christ’s presence in the Supper, even though plainly many of them did believe that Christ himself was present to the church through, or at least with, the observance of the Meal. For them, the Lord’s Supper was never merely a memorial feast. Numerous accounts of dreams or visions about the Supper illuminate in an inimitable way how formative the Eucharist was for early Pentecostal spirituality’ (p. 179).
With the literature and historical surveys complete, Green turns then to outline his own constructive proposal beginning, in Chapter 4, with a careful reading and commentary on a number of the key Bible texts, before turning, in Chapter 5, to assemble his own theological vision for a Pentecostal theology of the Supper. Green’s stated intention is to draw ‘heavily on the texts’ “effective history”, allowing what the texts have meant to other Christian readers, pre-modern and contemporary, to influence the shape of [his] own reading’ (p. 3). Matters of hermeneutics and the relationship between Spirit and Word are handled with a watchful and responsible eye, and readings of some key texts (especially Acts 2.41–47, 1 Corinthians 10.14–22 and John 6.25–59, etc.) unearth some creative and theologically mature results. On 1 Corinthians 10, for example, Green consistently and convincingly argues that the Supper ‘shows itself to be one of the ways in which Christ’s body is “there” for the church’ (p. 202), that it is a meal which makes the Community, and which forces on the Community the responsibilities of love such as creativity, humility and longsuffering patience. He suggests too that ‘it is helpful to see the church’s receiving of the Lord’s Supper as a romantic gesture, as a gift between lovers, a tryst with Christ who is jealous for his bride, and a way in which Christ, God fleshed, is bodily present to and for his church’ (p. 207). From the Johannine material, he concludes that because the Gospel teaches us that what happens to us in our sacramental encounter with Christ is beyond human understanding, that it remains too beyond our capacity to answer how it is possible, it also reminds us that the willingness to remain in eucharistic communion with Christ even in the face of confusion marks the decisive difference between those who believe in him and those who do not. Indeed, Green suggests that the mysteriousness of the meal makes possible the articulation of the abiding faith of believers. Furthermore, he proposes that Paul, Luke, and John – in addition to the communities for and to whom they spoke – understood the church’s celebration of the Supper as in some sense a continuation of Jesus’ own ministry, a re-enacting of Jesus’ life of sweeping, boundary-violating hospitality and his atoning death for the life of the world, while all the while pre-enacting the future messianic feast as well. Certainly, Green is, to my mind, correct to consider the Eucharist as both a ‘missionary meal that precisely in its strangeness draws all people to Christ’, and a meal which ‘precisely in its mysteriousness reveals God truly’ (p. 242). He does not neglect ways that the Supper also represents a sounding of divine judgement, even while resituating and re-narrating not only the Church but all creation too into the ‘one story of creation and redemption and consummation, the story of Israel and the church and the world for which they are called as God’s ambassadors and collaborators’. Insofar as the Supper is the promised location in which God in God’s gracious freedom is present in the power of divine love, the Supper is for us ‘the “present tense of Calvary”, and in some sense is also the present tense of all the feasts of God’s people, past and future, including of course the eternal messianic banquet’ (p. 241).
Chapter 5 represents the book’s theologically most constructive chapter, and is concerned with discerning and proposing a theologically mature Pentecostal theology of the Supper. Here is Green in full flight, attending in some detail to those issues that he adjudges to be especially important to Pentecostals. These Green identifies early in the book as ‘questions of how God works in and through the church’s celebration of the Communion rite and how Christ and the Spirit are personally present and active in the eating and drinking of the Eucharistic bread and the wine’ (pp. 3–4). Here he is also concerned with issues of praxis, and with forms of Eucharistic practice which are both recognisably catholic and distinctively Pentecostal. Against the perception – or reality – that many if not most distinctly Pentecostal theologies of the sacraments have tended to be carried out in exclusively baptistic terms, complete with an imbalance on the Supper’s memorialist dimensions and even being spoken of as ‘mere ordinances’, Green reminds his readers that this has not always been the case, and he proceeds in this chapter to bring ‘the fathers and mothers of the Pentecostal movement’, the exegetical work undertaken in the previous chapter, and dialogue partners from both within and outwith the Pentecostal tradition(s) to put forward a ‘constructive and revisionary proposal’ for a theology of the Supper, concerned to ‘remain true to the biblical witness and [to] the Pentecostal tradition’ (pp. 244–45). Along the way, Green attends to many of the familiar themes associated with theologies of the Supper – e.g., the Supper as Divine Lex, the Supper as thanksgiving, Supper as anamnesis, Supper as covenant renewal, Supper as a location for Spirit-led discernment, Supper and healing, Supper as divine-human dialogue, Supper and soteriology, Supper and sanctification or ‘moral formation’ (p. 312), Supper and theological method, Supper and mission, Supper and worship, Supper as a sign and foretaste of eschatological feast or what Green calls ‘an ontologically-transforming proleptic share in the metaphysics of the life everlasting’ (p. 271), etc. – and he does so in ways that betray a mind that is well read and conversant with the issues, with courage to identify practices and ideas that are problematic, and with a genuine concern for the church and her faithful witness to the Word of which she is a creature. The section on the metaphysics of the Supper, in particular, echoes rich Jensonesque tones, skilfully accompanied by John of Damascus and Sergius Bulgakov. It is Green’s contention that ‘Christ is really, personally, and bodily present in Communion because the Father wills it and the Spirit makes it so for the sanctification of the church on mission in the world. In the Eucharist-event’, he believes, ‘the Spirit “broods over” the cosmically-enthroned Christ, the celebrating congregation, and the elements on the Table, opening the celebrants to the presence of the risen Jesus who the Spirit makes in that moment bodily present for them with, in, and through the thereby-transfigured bread and wine’ (p. 282). Green also believes that short of the beatific vision, Christ’s ‘embodiment at the Father’s right hand includes the Eucharistic bread and wine, the preached Gospel, and the sanctorum communio’, and [that] these last serve as sacraments – effective signs in the present of the future eschatological state of things’ (p. 283). So, contra Herbert McCabe, Green contends that bread and wine are ‘both-at-once’ natural objects and eschatological objects. Put otherwise, bread and wine ‘remain natural objects that have been eschatologized’ (p. 285).
On the question of hermeneutics, Green argues that ‘the charismatic and Eucharistic community as it communes in the Spirit with the totus Christus is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture. As a result, it is in the context of the community’s Spirit-baptized and Spirit-led Eucharistic worship that believers learn best what Scripture is and is for, and over time learns the habits necessary for reading faithfully, with an ever-deepening appreciation for Scripture’s “fuller sense”. All the many other faithful uses of Scripture, whether scholarly or devotional, pastoral or evangelistic, should be judged in this light’ (p. 296). And on the question of how the Supper relates to Christian worship, Green is concerned throughout, and appropriately so, to ‘guard against the flattening and hardening of the sacramental celebration into mere ritual’ (p. 319). He is equally concerned that ‘the Eucharist-event should be recognized as the hub of the worship service … as the hearth around which all the other liturgical furniture is arranged’ (p. 316). Fair enough, but just how the Supper is to be both ‘framed and undergirded by Pentecostal practices, such as the altar call, “tarrying”, prayers for healing, testimonies, and footwashing’ (p. 317) is not spelled out, readers being left to work out on their own how such practices ‘underscore the communal reality of Communion’ (p. 318).
The study concludes with a description of major contributions and an invitation to further research.
My enthusiasm for this book does not mean that there are not things therein that disappoint or distract. Here I will note just three: The first concerns the scattering throughout of Latin and Greek phrases. Where such are necessary – and this, I suggest, is on a much rarer occurrence than we find here – some translation should have been provided, particularly for the benefit of those readers unfamiliar with the terms. As it stands, it may just be for many readers a distraction from and hurdle within the main flow of the writing.
Second, there is, from time to time, a creeping Pelagianism at work in this essay. Perhaps just one example will suffice. At the conclusion of Green’s stimulating and fruitful exegesis on some of the key New Testament texts, he suggests that ‘these texts teach us that the sharing of a common loaf and cup is truly the Lord’s Supper for us only as we faithfully respond to the Word of God that comes to us alongside, through, and as the sacred meal’ (p. 242. Italics mine). Not only does such a claim seem to be somewhat at odds with what Green has stated elsewhere in the book (for example, on p. 285: ‘the reality of Christ’s and the Spirit’s shared presence in the Supper does not wait on our believing (in) it. Christ is there by the Spirit, whether we believe it or not’. Italics mine.), but short of interpreting such statements in a more explicitly trinitarian framework, and that particularly in ways that highlight the vicarious humanity of the Son and the revelatory work of the Spirit, such claims on their own threaten to undermine or deny the depths of the twofold movement that God makes possible when and as the baptised gather around broken loaves and generous helpings of pinot noir.
Third, while Green’s essay has been strengthened significantly via (mostly) judicious engagement with voices from across the ecumenical amphitheatre, it is disappointing and unfortunate that there is relatively little engagement therein with the best of the Reformed tradition (to be sure, he draws briefly upon the work of Michael Welker, Jürgen Moltmann and J. Rodman Williams), and that for a number of reasons. Not only is the Reformed a project with considerable sympathy at countless points with that brand of Pentecostalism Green is keen to encourage, but also because such a conversation may well have served to bring some needed clarity around the issue I raised above regarding whatever creeping Pelagianism may exist. I wonder too whether if Green had drawn more on the Reformed (and especially upon John Calvin and, perhaps, George Hunsinger) and less on the Anglicans, the Orthodox and Robert Jenson (upon whom he relies heavily in the final chapter), the thesis would have been considerably better served and the book’s reception among Pentecostals better attend to Green’s own apologetic intention.
These three caveats aside, there is no doubt in my mind that Pentecostals – and not only Pentecostals – will be much blessed, challenged and inspired in the reading of this fine study, a study that is indeed intended ‘first and foremost as a conversation starter for the Pentecostal communities’ (p. xi). To be sure, some readers both from within and outwith that ecclesial tribe may lament that the volume lacks hard critique of current Pentecostal practice, and that Green’s presentation is so revisionist that one can only really read here a ‘Pentecostal’ theology of the Supper by underscoring the word ‘Toward’ in the title, but that would be most unfair, for Dr Green has served up a great dinner here, and I suspect that his readers will no doubt find themselves as I do – in his debt. Now let the conversation begin!
I was deeply encouraged this morning to discover that Professor Murray Rae has penned the following review/endorsement of one of my forthcoming books, Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (T&T Clark):
In this fine book Jason Goroncy engages in a critical and appreciative assessment of the theological work of P.T. Forsyth by directing our attention to the ways in which Forsyth understands divine action in terms of the Lord’s prayer’s first petition. This focus serves well the task of exploring the richness of Forsyth’s work. Goroncy’s beautifully crafted prose and astute theological judgement combine in a compelling case that Forsyth deserves to be reckoned with still.
I have just learned too that the book is scheduled for publication in March next year.
Most writers, from time to time, elect to set aside a little ink in order to get a few things off their chest. And it’s not uncommon for writers – and here I’m thinking of the likes of Charlotte Brontë, Dorothy Sayers and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few – to blow off a little steam about book reviewers (Brontë, for example, referred to them as ‘Astrologers, Chaldeans, and Soothsayers’). But in his very unextraordinary book, How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely takes the most sustained and pathetic shot at book reviewers that I’ve encountered:
I try not to hate anybody. ‘Hate is a four-letter word,’ like the bumper sticker says. But I hate book reviewers.
Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people’s work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.
Book reviewers live in tiny studios that stink of mothballs and rotting paper. Their breath reeks of stale coffee. From time to time they put on too-tight shirts and pants with buckles and shuffle out of their lairs to shove heaping mayonnaise-laden sandwiches into their faces, which are worn in to permanent snarls. Then they go back to their computers and with fat stubby fingers they hammer out ‘reviews.’ Periodically they are halted as they burst into porcine squeals, gleefully rejoicing in their cruelty.
Even when being ‘kindly,’ book reviewers reveal their true nature as condescending jerks. ‘We look forward to hearing more from the author,’ a book reviewer might say. The prissy tones sound like a second-grade piano teacher, offering you a piece of years-old strawberry hard candy and telling you to practice more.
But a bad book review is just disgusting.
Ask yourself: of all the jobs available to literate people, what monster chooses the job of ‘telling people how bad different books are’? What twisted fetishist chooses such a life? (pp. 146–47)
Certainly, it’s difficult to take this vitriol seriously. Perhaps it’s tongue in cheek, or satire. Yes, many reviewers are little more than poorly paid hookers for publishing companies or newspapers. Yes, many reviewers betray little evidence of actually having read the book under consideration, or of knowing its location in and contribution to the wider canon. Yes, many reviewers do appear to be ‘condescending jerks’. But Hely seems to have some seriously unresolved issues here, perhaps the most serious of all is that he appears to be entirely unfamiliar with John Updike who, as far as I am aware, never in all his days shoved a heaping mayonnaise-laden sandwich into his face.
By and large, I enjoy reading and writing book reviews. And I’ve mentioned before about my chat with a friend about the purpose of book reviews wherein he offered the following description of the reviewer’s task:
To help the writers know they are understood and appreciated without too much attention to their mistakes, to help the readers know whether or not it is for them, to identify one or two critical issues worth discussing along the way, and to ease the conscience of the reviewer about all the free books s/he has acquired through this means, not all of which were ever read.
I still like my friend’s ‘reviewer job description’ and, as a rule, it represents what I hope to do when I’m reviewing a book. During a recent binge with Updike (now there’s a reviewer!), my antennae were re-alerted to my responsibility as a reviewer to engage critically with the text/s under my surveillance, to dwell longer – though not for too long – in those somewhat less salutary spaces (whether they be factual or editorial) within the book’s covers, particularly when the book is otherwise especially praiseworthy, or when the author is a friend. By neglecting such a task, it seems to me that reviewer’s are doing neither the author nor the reader a favour, are abrogating an important responsibility, and are left feeling like the bookseller’s unpaid serf who has sold short the book’s author, publisher (good publishers and editors do care about this kind of thing), readers, and the reviewer’s own academic credibility (not that I hold the latter too tightly anyway).
If reviewing doesn’t act as a gate-keeper of sorts, the success of a book will come down only to the size of its publicity budget and the enthusiasm of its publishers’ tweets.
Of course, gate-keepers worthy of hire will be those who are cognisant of, and honest about, the limits of their knowledge; but they will endeavour to humbly keep gate, which is, I’m assuming, a somewhat different job to being a tourist guide, or to being an author’s, publisher’s, or bookseller’s hooker. Gate-keepers worthy of hire will certainly be those who, in Stephen Burn‘s words, talk less ‘about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories or using the book under review as little more than a platform to promote themselves and their agendas’. They will also be those who will, and that as best they can, tell the truth like Presbyterians; i.e., decently and in order.
- Baab, Lynne. Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World (IVP, 2011)
- Brewer, Christopher R. Art that Tells the Story (Gospel through Shared Experience, 2011)
- Busch, Eberhard. Barth (Abingdon Press, 2008)
- Carr, Simonetta. John Calvin (Reformation Heritage Books, 2008)
- Dekar, Paul R. Community of the Transfiguration: The Journey of a New Monastic Community (Cascade Books, 2008)
- Hill, Bartha. Trust God, Keep the Faith: The Story of Guido de Bres (Inheritance Publications, 2011)
- Holmen, R.W. A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle (Bascom Hill, 2009)
- Reader, John and Christopher R. Baker. (eds). Entering the New Theological Space: Blurred Encounters of Faith, Politics and Community (Ashgate, 2009)
- Sell, Alan P.F. Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction (Paternoster, 2008)
- The Rutba House (ed). School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism (Cascade Books, 2005)
- Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Paraclete Press, 2010)
Other reviews can be found here.
- Keith Thomas laments the state of the modern university, in Universities under Attack.
- Charles Simic on Serenity.
- Alan Hollinghurst and Jeffrey Eugenides on the art of fiction.
- The Changi POW artwork of Des Bettany is finally online – a beautiful project. Speaking of war art, check out Macy Halford’s piece on An Artist’s War.
- Chad Marshall reviews Mark S. Gignilliat’s Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah.
- Michiko Kakutani reviews Robert Hughes’s Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.
- Jarrod M. Longbons’s interview with Tracey Rowland on Pope Benedict XVI.
- The gospel according to Stephen Fry; and Fry on London.
- The Centre for Theology and Ministry (Uniting Church in Australia) is seeking a new Professor of Systematic Theology.
- Robert Fisk on bankers as the dictators of the West.
- Ben Myers looks through an icon of theophany.
- Rick Floyd reminds me of that old Bing Crosby cassette I probably still have laying around in a box somewhere.
- A Rowan Williams lecture on The Future of Interfaith Dialogue.
- Crispin Blunt’s lecture on Restorative Justice.
- Steve Holmes reviews Scot McKnight’s Junia Is Not Alone.
- Finally, I’m still relishing John Updike’s Higher Gossip.
We homo sapiens are, essentially, both a storied people and a story-telling people. So, a basic human question is not primarily, ‘What am I, as an individual, to do or decide?’ but rather, ‘Of what stories do I find myself a part, and thus who should I be?’; for we literally live by stories. The Church, too, understands itself as a pilgrim people, as a people storied on the way, as a people whose very way becomes the material which shapes the narrative that has long preceded it and which is being written with it. It understands that being human never begins with a white piece of paper. As Alasdair MacIntyre rightly reminds us in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, we never start anywhere. Rather, we simply find ourselves within a story that has been going on long before our arrival and will continue long after our departure. Moreover, Christian community begins with being found in the very act of God’s self-disclosure, an act which, in Jamie Smith’s words, ‘cuts against the grain of myths of progress and chronological snobbery’ and places us in the grain of the universe. And what – or, more properly, who – is disclosed in that crisis of discovery is one who provides memory, unity, identity and meaning to the story of our life. So Eberhard Jüngel: ‘We are not … simply agents; we are not just the authors of our biography. We are also those who are acted upon; we are also a text written by the hand of another’. Hence it is not just any story by which the Church lives but rather a particular story given to it – namely, Israel’s story in which, in the words of R.S. Thomas, it ‘gaspingly … partake[s] of a shifting identity never [its] own’.
Back in 1993, Robert Jenson wrote a great little piece titled ‘How the World Lost Its Story’ (First Things 36 (1993), 19–24). He opened that essay with these words:
It is the whole mission of the church to speak the gospel … It is the church’s constitutive task to tell the biblical narrative to the world in proclamation and to God in worship, and to do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative, that is, as a promise claimed from God and proclaimed to the world. It is the church’s mission to tell all who will listen, God included, that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead, and to unpack the soteriological and doxological import of that fact.
To speak the gospel and, in Jenson’s parlance, to ‘do so in a fashion appropriate to the content of that narrative’, the Church is given a pulpit, a font and a table; in fact, many pulpits, fonts and tables. And these remain the principle ‘places’ where the people of God can expect to hear and to see and to taste and to learn and to proclaim the story into which they have been gathered, redeemed and made an indispensable character. This is not, however, to suggest that these are the only places wherefrom the free and sovereign Lord may speak, nor to aver in any way that the gospel is somehow kept alive by the Church’s attempt to be a story teller, for the story is itself nothing but God’s own free and ongoing history in Jesus. As Jüngel put it in God as the Mystery of the World, ‘God does not have stories, he is history’. To speak gospel is literally to proclaim God, speech that would be a lie and completely empty were it not the story of God with us, of the saving history which has become part of God’s own narrative, of the world which has, in Jesus Christ, become ‘entangled in the story of the humanity of God’ (Jüngel), a story at core kerygmatic and missionary, and unfinished until all its recipients are included in its text. For, as Jenson has written in his much-too-neglected Story and Promise, the story of Jesus – who is the content of the gospel – ‘is the encompassing plot of all men’s stories; it promises the outcome of the entire human enterprise and of each man’s involvement in it’. To know this man’s story, therefore, is to know not only the story of God but also our own story. Indeed, it is the story that makes human life possible at all. As Jenson would write elsewhere, ‘Human life is possible — or in recent jargon “meaningful” — only if past and future are somehow bracketed, only if their disconnection is somehow transcended, only if our lives somehow cohere to make a story’.
And here we come up against the perennial question of human speech, and it’s back to Jüngel (and to Peter Kline’s article on Jüngel and Jenson) to help me out: ‘The language which corresponds to the humanity of God’, writes Jüngel, ‘must be oriented in a highly temporal way in its language structure. This is the case in the language mode of narration, [or] telling a story’. In other words, if Kline reads Jüngel correctly, Jüngel is suggesting that narrative or story is the mode of human language which most appropriately corresponds to the form of God’s life among and with us. Commenting on Jüngel, Kline argues that narrative alone witnesses to the change from old to new, can capture the movement and becoming in which God has his being, corresponds to the eschatological event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and brings ‘the word of the cross’ to expression in a way apposite to us. So Jüngel: ‘God’s humanity introduces itself into the world as a story to be told’. Kline notes that for Jüngel, the church is given a story to tell, but, in Jüngel’s words, it ‘can correspond in [its] language to the humanity of God only by constantly telling the story anew’. God’s humanity ‘as a story which has happened does not cease being history which is happening now, because God remains the subject of his own story . . . God’s being remains a being which is coming’. The community, Kline says, tells only the story of Jesus Christ’s history, and so it constantly looks back to what has happened. Yet the telling of this story is also always new because God’s entrance into human language that once happened continues to happen again and again as Jesus Christ continues to live in the freedom of the Spirit. God is not confined to his once-enacted history, to one language or culture; history does not consume God. So Jüngel again: ‘God who is eschatologically active and who in his reliability is never old [is] always coming into language in a new way’.
‘Telling the story anew’. ‘God … [is] always coming into language in a new way’. Which brings me to Chris Brewer’s new book, Art that Tells the Story. Others have already summarised the book, so let me simply say that Art that Tells the Story is a freshly-presented and beautifully-produced book which attempts to tell the old, old story … again. Boasting some intriguing prose (by Michael E. Wittmer) and coupled with well-curated images from a diverse array of accomplished visual artists including Jim DeVries, Wayne Forte, Edward Knippers, Barbara Februar, Clay Enoch, Julie Quinn, Michael Buesking and Alfonse Borysewicz, among others, herein, word and image work in concert to open readers up to hear and see again, and to hear and see as if for the first time, the Bible’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, inviting – nay commanding!, for the gospel is command – readers to comprehend in this story their own, and to enter with joy into the narrative which is the life of all things. A book this beautiful ought to be in hardback; but may it, all the same, find itself opened and dialogued with next to many coffee mugs, and in good and diverse company. Like its subject, this is one to sit with, to be transformed by, and to share with others.
Flannery O’Connor once confessed, in Mystery and Manners, that ‘there is a certain embarrassment about being a story teller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics’. ‘But’, she continued, ‘in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or statistics, but by the stories it tells’. And so the dogged persistence of theologians and artists. Indeed, it is stories – in fact, a particular, if not very short or simple, story – that Brewer’s book is primarily concerned to tell. That his chosen medium is the visual arts reminded me of something that NT Wright once said, and which is, I think, worth repeating:
We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art [on] the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we … And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public … with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in.
Art that Tells the Story is grounded upon the premise that artists and theologians can not only help us to see better, but also that like all human gestures toward the truth of things, the work of artists can become an instrument through which God calls for our attention. And here I wish to conclude by re-sounding a call trumpeted by Michael Austin in Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination:
Theologians must be on their guard against commandeering art for religion, must allow artists to speak to them in their own language, and must try to make what they can of what they hear. What they will hear will tell of correspondences and connections, of similarities, of interactions and of parallel interpretations and perceptions which will suggest a far closer relationship of essence between art and religion than many theologians have been prepared to acknowledge. As the churches at the beginning of the twenty-first century become more fearful and therefore more conservative there may be fewer theologians prepared to take the risks that embracing a truly incarnational religion demands of them. In particular what they hear may suggest to them that their many (often contradictory) understandings of God and redemption and salvation in Christ need to be radically reconsidered if a new world is to be made.
Chris Brewer’s Art that Tells the Story is just such an attempt. It’s good stuff.
- J.M Coetzee on The Angry Genius of Les Murray
- Yvonne Willkie ruminates about old sermons
- Peter Singer writes about Bhutan’s ‘gross national happiness’
- Ben Myers reviews Rob Bell’s Love Wins (btw: Steve Holmes did a series of helpful posts on Bell’s book back in April)
- Brad East shares some Luther who reminds us that the only God we know is the God who suckled on Mary’s breasts
- David Congdon reviews The Bible Made Impossible
- Evan Kuehn points to two recent articles on Schleiermacher: Robert Merrihew Adams’s on philosophical aspects of his Christology, and Johannes Wischmeyer’s on Schleiermacher’s involvement with the founding of the University of Berlin
- Matthew Milliner reminds us of the legacy of John Ruskin
- Paul Fromont on Allie Eagle’s latest project (which, by the way, includes that half-finished pastel drawing of yours truly featured on my author page)
- Rick Floyd (who has a new blog address) shares his 9/11 sermon, first preached a decade ago
- J.R. Daniel Kirk, who is normally worth reading, proves his fallibility once again with a shocker on Is Systematic Theology Necessary?
- Michael Jenson is reading James Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, and thinking about ‘oppressive egalitarianism’
- Garry Deverell shares his sermon on the paradox of forgiveness
Stories have always played an indispensable role in human life. Whether via oral tradition or in written form, stories provide a framework for transmitting values, heritage, culture and traditions, even for transmitting the self across spaces and generations, for keeping the self alive, as it were. Stories also enable us to acquire expectations about the world. These expectations then provide a framework for organising other pieces of incoming information. In short, without stories, we cannot process our experiences. Without stories, we do not know who we are. It is certainly true that the people of God have long known this, and even if that knowledge has at times been submerged deep in the common memory, our being and witness is grounded in story, a particular story to be sure – the very story of God – but a story nonetheless.
And here comes a rub; for as Flannery O’Connor once noted, ‘there is a certain embarrassment about being a story teller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or statistics, but by the stories it tells’. So tell stories we must. And, of course, the Church has a long tradition of telling and re-telling its own story. And there are radical implications for so doing, for, as Rowan Williams observes in Lost Icons, ‘Every “telling” of myself is a retelling, and the act of telling changes what can be told next time, because it is, precisely, an act, with consequences. The self lives and moves in, and only in, acts of telling – in the time taken to set out and articulate a memory, the time that is a kind of representation (always partial, always skewed) of the time my material and mental life has taken, the time that has brought me here … The process of “making” a self by constructing a story that is always being told is a prosaic and universal one’ (p. 144).
There are at present two books on my desk which seek to contribute to this long tradition of helping the Church to know itself by retelling its own story. As it happens, they are both books which are accessible to children, which is particularly exciting because I’m always on the hunt for ways to tell my children, and others too in my community of faith, their own story. The first is by New Zealand writer Bartha Hill, and is called Trust God, Keep the Faith: The Story of Guido de Bres. It recounts the inspiring story of pastor and theologian Guido de Bres. De Bres was a student of both Calvin and Beza, and is best known as the author of the Belgic Confession (1561). The book paints the story of de Bres against the background of an eventful sixteenth century in Europe, events which proved to be costly for many of those who stood on the Protestant side of church reform. It can be ordered from Inheritance Publications or, if you are in New Zealand, directly from the author. For the latter, contact Bartha directly via email.
The second book is John Calvin by Simonetta Carr, and is nicely illustrated by Emanuele Taglietti. It is published by Reformation Heritage Books and is targeted at children from 6–12 years of age. Like Hill’s book on de Bres, Carr’s too wonderfully introduces readers (and their imaginations) to the narrative, humanity and rich theological contribution of its subject, and does so in a clear, readable and attractive way. The Church, and its young families, is much in need of the kind of resources that these two small volumes evidence. Both would make great gifts too.
I recently accepted the illustrious mantle of reviews editor for Candour, a magazine for ministers and leaders of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. The aim is that each edition of Candour will include a medium-length review of some kind, mostly of books but hopefully also of plays, music, dance and film. Consequently, I’m now on the hunt for possible reviewers, i.e., for those who would be willing to do the occasional review, and pick up a ‘free’ book in the process. If you’d like your name added to the list of reviewers that I can call on from time to time, then please let me know via email, indicating the kind of areas (e.g., missiology, history, fiction, prayer, etc.) that you are most interested in writing about, and any relevant qualifications you may have.
Eberhard Busch, Barth (trans. Richard Burnett and Martha Burnett; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008). viii+95pp. ISBN 9780687492466.
Those who help us read and understand the great theologians of the church are themselves a great gift to the church. In this volume, an eminent doyen of contemporary Barth scholarship, Eberhard Busch, with striking clarity and warmth, and with unequalled familiarity (at least in print) with his subject, introduces neophytes and those long-familiar with Karl Barth to the Reformed theologian’s life, location and work.
Busch, who is Professor Emeritus for systematic theology at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, provides readers with a map which, if followed carefully, will assist them to more accurately locate Barth’s contribution within a wider landscape of theological conversation and, more particularly, to navigate their way into Barth’s magnum opus, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, highlighting key markers apart from which Barth’s readers easily wander off course, and steering readers clear of the slippery climbs of the secondary literature. Busch is an outstanding guide.
The book begins with an entrée into Barth’s early period as an assistant pastor in Geneva from 1909 to 1911 (a period in which he was fundamentally shaped by the theological liberalism associated with Schleiermacher), his ministry at Safenwil, and his move by 1916 into the strange new world of the bible wherein he discovered the Godness of God, the grace of revelation which ‘hits us’ like an ‘arrow from the other side of the shore’ (p. 5). In Chapter Two, ‘The Rise of the Confessing Church’, Busch traces the way that Barth pressed his theological knowledge into the service of the church, championing the reality that the one binding Word of God is Jesus Christ. Here, Busch introduces readers to the Barmen Declaration, noting that ‘wherever the church looses herself from any bond which is to God’s Word and at the same time to worldly power, wherever she listens solely to God’s Word, she will not cease to speak out politically, but she will do so from a different position’ (p. 12). In Chapter Three, Busch lays out the ecclesial, political and historical context in which Barth penned his thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics, attending to the part that reason, natural theology, freedom and church played in Barth’s thought, and sketching Barth’s involvement, after the Second World War, in ecumenical efforts, in post-Vatican II discussions as well as discussions with American theologians from 1962 onwards.
Having so set the scene, the remainder of the book, pages 23–83, are given to summarising Barth’s Dogmatics. Beginning with an explanation of Barth’s understanding of the graced nature of theology, of the fact that divine speech ‘is not and can never be a presupposition that falls into our hands’ (p. 26), Busch attends to Barth on religion, faith, knowledge, the trinity, divine freedom, the relationship between Israel and Church in the one covenant of grace – the reconciliation which is ‘so essential that the covenant would risk falling “in the void” … were it not fulfilled’ (p. 43) in Jesus Christ – God’s calling and bringing of creation into correspondence with his covenant, God’s triumph in the creation of faithful servants in their own free decision (what Barth in CD II/2 calls the ‘autonomy of the creature’), the relationship between Gospel and Law, prayer, the sin which is nothing, real and misunderstood, the relationship between sanctification and justification, theodicy, and Christian community in relation to Christ, the world and the vocation ‘to be God’s witness within her own times’ (p. 76). Busch concludes by outlining how Barth understands Christ’s resurrection and its relationship to ‘historical facts’ (p. 80), to history itself as past, present and future are bound together in Christ, and to Christian hope. Each chapter concludes with a set of questions for further reflection.
A junior cousin to Busch’s earlier book The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology (Eerdmans, 2004), significantly briefer than Bromiley’s Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, and more lightweight than Hunsinger’s How to Read Karl Barth, Busch’s Barth is a genuine introduction which impressively fulfils the brief of the ‘Abingdon Pillars of Theology’ series (of which it is a part) – of assisting college and seminary students to ‘grasp the basic and necessary facts, influence, and significance of major theologians’.
Alan P.F. Sell, Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Milton Keynes/Colorado Springs/Secunderabad: Paternoster, 2008). xvi+715pp.
In his book Defending and Declaring the Faith: Some Scottish Examples 1860–1920 (1987), Alan Sell had already demonstrated his ardour and gift for bringing the dead back to life, for turning strangers into friends, and for wading the small streams and largely-inaccessible rivers on the landscape of British ecclesiastical life. Now, over two decades later, Professor Sell, in Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction, turns his binoculars south to introduce readers to some other forgotten saints, to those whose writings are not the staple of general undergraduate courses. These are the second eleven (actually ten), if you like, of Nonconformist Dissent – drawn from among those who served the Church in the wake of the Toleration Act of 1689 after which there was ‘no longer one authority to which appeals on religious questions could be lodged’ (p. 54), and in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Evangelical Revival, and in the wakes of modern biblical criticism and theological liberalism. From the outset, Sell suggests that ‘we have not fully understood the Lockes and Barths of this world until we have investigated what the hinterland people made of them’ (p. 2).
Drawing upon letters, sermons, tracts and monographs, and with an eye on doctrinal controversies, the prevailing intellectual winds, and impressively alert to pastoral challenges, Sell has penned an encyclopaedic dictionary of rarely-mentioned theologians – Thomas Ridgley, Abraham Taylor (who ‘shot across the London sky like a volatile theological meteor’ (p. 41)), Samuel Chandler, George Payne, Richard Alliott, David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, Walter Frederick Adeney, Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Apart from Chandler, who was Presbyterian, and Tymms, who was Baptist, the rest were Congregationalists, and all but two (or perhaps three) were sons of the manse. Each chapter begins with a comprehensive biography of the chosen personality before turning to introduce and then engage with their thought, contribution and intellectual location. A familiar encore of themes appear over the period surveyed (1667 to 1981), including deism, miracles, apologetics, supernaturalism, Bible, Trinity, theism, Arianism, Calvinism, Unitarianism, Roman Catholicism, theological method, the eternal generation of the Son, kenotic christology, divine impassibility, natural theology, ecclesiology and pastoral ministry, among others, suggesting that theological adjustments and time-lags, and the ongoing ‘construction through conversations’ (p. 1) conducted by hinterland theologians, significantly stimulated the philosophico-theological landscape, and bore significant fruit – for good and for ill – in the Church.
After a brief Introduction, the book is presented in five parts. In Part One, ‘In the Wake of Toleration’, and with colour and wit, Sell introduces us to Thomas Ridgley whose ‘greatest contribution lay in the field of theological education’ (p. 13), and to Abraham Taylor and his defence against John Gill’s charge of antinomianism, and his plunge into the debates over the doctrinal declension betrayed in eighteenth-century trinitarian controversies and, in particular, his dissatisfaction in these matters with fellow Congregationalist, Isaac Watts. (Taylor charged Watts with sponsoring Sabellianism and Socinianism, with teaching that Christ possessed a super-angelic spirit, and with displaying a lack of clarity over the nature of divine personhood, among other things). Sell also introduces us to Samuel Chandler, the ‘moderate Calvinist’ and ‘apostle of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought’ (p. 85) who also wrestled with John Gill (on the relationship between morality and the will of God) and with Anthony Collins, John Locke and Thomas Morgan (on deism), and with John Guyse (on what it means to preach Christ),who spoke at Watts’ internment, who (from 1732 to 1739) was a prime advocate of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts that precluded Dissenters from holding state or civic office’ (p. 77) and whose greatest talents most conspicuously shone forth from the pulpit.
In Part Two, ‘In the Wake of Enlightenment and Revival’, Sell considers the life and contribution of George Payne, a thinker who ‘set out to be “useful” but was perceived as “dangerous”’ (p. 123). Sell’s discussion here introduces us to the landscape of early-nineteenth century thinking on metaphysics and ethics, on moderate Calvinism, and on the Trinity. Sell turns next to the inexorable logician and winsome evangelist Richard Alliott, who was ‘among the first Congregationalists to notice Schleiermacher in print’ (p. 191) and who, while longing for the revival of the Church, insisted that there would be no revival until believers ‘experience within stronger faith in the presence and word of our God, in the finished work of Christ, [and] in the indwelling of the Spirit in our hearts’ (p. 200). But Alliot, who by 1860 held the Chair of Theology and Philosophy at Spring Hill College, held no misconceptions that ‘piety by itself will not sustain a ministry’ and that ‘scholarship will render a preacher more effective’ (p. 203). Sell describes Alliot, who authored Psychology and Theology (1855), as ‘a theologian between the times’ in whom ‘classical theism’s cosmological-causal head came together with Romanticism’s heart, and the whole was undergirded by the Evangelical Revival’s concern for souls’ (p. 222).
Part Three is titled ‘In the Wake of Modern Biblical Criticism’. Here we are acquainted with David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, and Walter Frederick Adeney. Describing Simon as ‘the most spiritually anguished, the slowest-burning, and the most pioneering scholar – and hence the most highly suspect – to fall with the confines of this book’ (p. 227), Sell recalls Simon’s study at Lancashire College and in Germany (a land to which he returned again), his oversight of the newly formed church at Birkenhead from 1855, and his call to serve as Resident Tutor and Professor of Theology at Spring Hill College, ‘an institution where at least relatively open theological enquiry was the order of the day’ (p. 236), and then, from 1883, as Principal of the Scottish Congregational Theological Hall in Edinburgh, and thereafter as Principal of Yorkshire United Independent College on Bradford (1893 until 1907). Alive to the changing intellectual environment, Simon, championing what Sell names as a ‘biblical-historical-pneumatic epistemology’ (p. 250), championed a marriage of both intellectual and spiritual depth, resisting attempts by some to divorce the historical and the spiritual and arguing that the soul’s relation to God is not independent of biblical facts. From Simon, Sell turns to Tymms, tracing the Baptist theologian’s journey from Regent’s Park College, to his pastorates at Berwick, Accrington and Clapton, to Vice-President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, to President of the London Baptist Association, and to the Presidency of Rawdon College, Leeds. Sell reflects on Tymms’ widely-read book, The Mystery of God, and his embroilment in controversies over Bible translation, particularly as such affected the Indian mission field. He notes that Tymms distinguished himself by encouraging ‘original thought among his students rather than … prepar[ing] them for examinations’ (p. 311), and by his Forsyth-like witness to the centrality of Christ’s Cross which has ‘irradiated the world with light, and is filling the moral universe with songs of everlasting joy’ (p. 317). Tymms would press further still, insisting in his stimulating and judicious book The Christian Idea of Atonement, that ‘the cross is God’s definition of Himself’ (p. 340). Moreover, the cross is, Tymms insists, the only word of theodicy available to the Christian: ‘The cross is … precious because it reveals that God is not a mere passionless watcher of an agonising evolution, but is Himself a partaker of the universal travail, and has been constrained by love to take the chief labour on Himself’ (p. 345). Sell introduces us next to Adeney, Congregationalist minister turned Professor of Church History and New Testament, whose attention to the centrality of the cross fell some way short of Tymms’, but among whose enviable gifts included an ability to ‘write at varying degrees of technicality, and … a particular concern to reach ministers, people in the pews, and children’ (p. 366). He was one of those ‘believing biblical critics’, like Westcott, Hort, Peake and W.H. Bennett, who ‘harvested the fruits of modern biblical criticism in such a way that only the most suspicious conservative evangelicals’ (p. 410) would think to accuse him of undermining Scripture. No advocate of sentimental theology, Adeney championed the truth of God’s fatherly love – love expressed in the ‘essentially Christian’ (p. 399) doctrine of the Trinity – as ‘the source and spring of the Christian gospel’ (p. 395). Still, he warned that ‘speculation about God always plunges us into darkness’, an observation which draws the following comment from Sell: ‘It is, no doubt, an unsanctified thought, but one sometimes feels that some present-day theologians think that they know as much about the inner working of the Trinity as some older Calvinist divines thought they knew about God’s inscrutable will’ (p. 411).
‘In the Wake of Theological Liberalism’ is the equally-revealing title of Part Four, and the subjects here are Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Again, Sell locates each personality in their biographical and intellectual context before turning to introduce and appraise their writings and thoughts. Sell highlights the former’s engagement with the thought of Kant, Abelard, Anselm, and Schleiermacher, and the latter’s engagement with Pascal, Barth, Thielicke, Ferré and Tillich. Of these last two named, Duthie’s introducing of their thought to both Church and students (he spent 30 years of his life training ministers) was ‘not because [he agreed] with all the main positions they occupy but because [he felt] deeply that they are concerned to fashion a living theology for our own time, a theology which is faithful to the “given” Gospel in terms of man’s predicament today’ (p. 521). In calling the Church to its evangelistic task, Duthie suggested that we not only read Tillich with Barth in hand, but also the reverse.
After 562 pages, Sell still has more to say, and the book’s final part is a 71-page conclusion wherein Sell retraces the landscape he has just surveyed, recapitulates key themes, offers suggestions about contemporary practice, and recalls that the voices of hinterland theologians – past and present – are ‘frequently constructive, occasionally provocative, and variously stimulating. They have pertinent observations to share on our current theological agenda, and they challenge us by reminding us of some themes which we may have been inclined to overlook’ (p. 635).
Readers already familiar with Professor Sell’s writing will know that he is a meticulous researcher whose reading is extensive, whose commitment to ecumenism is exemplary, whose love for, and devotion to, the Nonconformist tradition is contagious, who is not shy of noting error and distortion of the Gospel when and where he sees it, whose acumen for critically-identifying contemporary theological trends is cultivated and well coached, and whose writing betrays not a few hours of pastorally-informed reflection. While Hinterland Theology could certainly have done with a more meticulous proof-reader, with this hefty tome Sell has given us a rich resource. That he decided to take the trouble to write this book leaves the Church in his debt. This volume will be of interest to historians, theologians, philosophers, and a must-read for those with a particular interest in British Nonconformity.
John Reader and Christopher R. Baker, eds, Entering the New Theological Space: Blurred Encounters of Faith, Politics and Community. Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology (Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2009), pp. xiii + 241, £55.00, ISBN 978-0-7546-6339-3.
Nicholas Lash, in his book Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, gives voice to the difficulty of thinking Christianly in ‘a culture whose imagination, whose ways of “seeing” the world and everything there is to see, are increasingly unschooled by Christianity and, to a considerable and deepening extent, quite hostile to it’. He notes the serious and dangerous demands posed in such a situation by continuing to hold the Gospel’s truth rather than paying mere lip-service to ‘undigested information’ (p. 4). Believing that the time has come to help missiological communities to engage and digest in the linear spaces opened up between post-Christendom politics and interfaith actualities, institutional monads and inter-organisational networks, rural and urban spaces, the status of paid and unpaid, and the contested and evolving relationship between faith and science, for example, the contributors to Entering the New Theological Space seek, in different ways, to map such space ‘by means of a triangulation between narrative, praxis and theory’, to ‘offer some idea of the complexity and interdisciplinarity associated with this new space’ – a so-called ‘third space’, the ‘space of the both/and’ (p. 5), a more fluid space which discards the oft-maintained binarism of the either/or space – and to assist readers to analyse the significance of such ‘blurred encounters’ which, the editors believe, are ‘forcing the church to develop increasingly fluid and experimental forms’ (p. 10).
Each of the fifteen essays in this volume are in their own way stimulating, and most are well-researched and eruditely penned. They cover a range of topics, from John Atherton’s ethical-economical-theological reflection on a ‘pilgrimage’ down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to explore places where ‘inevitable and potentially creative’ (p. 25) ‘“edges” have become mainstream’ (p. 19), to Malcolm Brown’s essay on the ‘social atomisation’ and ‘rootlessness’ (p. 70) of London’s suburbs, to Margaret Goodall’s exploration of human personhood in a thought-provoking essay on dementia, to Clare McBeath’s piece which asks whether a community or a city can be said to ‘suffer from mental illness’ (p. 147), to Philip Wagstaff’s reflection on the fluidity and stability of rural ministry.
Two essays merit special mention: Martyn Percy’s considers the nature of the cultural dynamics, implicit theology and ‘invisible religion’ (p. 179; the phrase is Thomas Luckmann’s) that continue to birth requests for baptism (or ‘christening’) of children from non-churched families. He writes concerning the ‘deeply coded ways in which people talk and act about God’, that ‘religious language is carried in the emotion, timbre and cadence of worship’ and that ‘deeply coded language is not [necessarily] a strategy for avoiding explicit theological language’ (p. 184). Percy’s attempt to sketch a theology of cultural conversation, and to explore some implications of such conversations for missional and risky engagement in the ‘areas of overlap and hinterlands between the life of the church and the world’ (p. 179) merits further thought.
Drawing upon the work of Bruno Latour and Slavoj Žižek, and bringing their thought into conversation with events surrounding the 2007 outbreak (in Surrey) of foot and mouth disease, John Reader contributes an intriguing, if somewhat undercooked, essay on the nature, possibility and linguistic challenges posed to truth speech by the mutual encounter of science and theology. He concludes by stating that it is ‘only by keeping the insights and theories of both faith and science in circulation’ that we can be ‘certain of remaining “in the truth”‘, and that it is ‘only by loading into the process that contact with the wider world’ that we ‘avoid an unhealthy closure of questioning and debate’ (p. 208).
Some reservations: the noticeable absence in this volume of any discussion on the significance and place of technology (blogging, social media and gaming, for example) in theological and ecclesial discourse and praxis, and vice-versa, represents a disappointing gap. Also, there is in this volume a significant number of typological, grammatical and factual errors (John Knox, for example, was not the ‘first Presbyterian minister of St Giles and Scotland’ (p. 20)), errors which one expects would be corrected before print and to be rare in a book wearing such an inflated price tag. Finally, while one may well concur that ‘all the essays in this book are a testament to the ongoing adaptability and robust mutuality of Christian thought and the church’ (p. 7), if this volume represents ‘the new theological space’ then one might be forgiven for observing that, with one or two exceptions, such space is a little light on the theology front.
These reservations aside, not a few of the essays in this volume deserve wide reading, and the ongoing conversations encouraged therein are to be commended. Social planners, missiologists, pastoral practitioners and those training them will all benefit from reading this book, and from taking up the challenge to engage in the interdisciplinary and multilayered interstices of cultural, political and theological realities.
My friend Lynne Baab has a new book out – Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World (IVP). Via an array of stories gleaned from many dozens of interviews, Lynne, who has a PhD in communications and who blogs at Gathering Voices, maps the ways that new technologies and social media are changing the form that many friendships take (even the word ‘friend’ itself has become a verb), threaten to both cheapen as well as promote friendship, and invite us to reassess the nature(s) of friendship itself. She wants to know what makes friendships work, what actions initiate and nurture friendships, why nothing in friendships is permanent, and what does it look like to be a friend in a world shrunken by new communication technologies. Lynne, who is a Facebook devotee, writes with great enthusiasm and warmth, in a very personal style, with a complete absence of academic jargon, with an open Bible, and with an eye on practical concerns. Don’t expect here a treatise on friendship in the manner of a Seneca, or an Augustine, or a critical discussion on the use of technology itself, as that offered by Jacques Ellul – it’s simply not that kind of book. Each chapter concludes with a set of questions for reflection, journaling, discussion or action that could well serve as the basis for group discussion, or a conversation among friends.
Paul Dekar’s book, Community of the Transfiguration: The Journey of a New Monastic Community (Cascade Books, 2008), maps the historical, theological, liturgical and missiological life of Holy Transfiguration Monastery [HTM], or what many of us know better as The Breakwater Community – a Baptist monastic community in Geelong, near Melbourne. HTM was birthed in the early 1970s and bound together by ‘a common calling to contemplative prayer, simplicity, a Eucharistic focus, and the nurture of monastic spirituality’ (p. 33). How this birth happened, and the shape that the life birthed has taken, and is taking, is a focus of this book, but by no means the only focus.
Dekar, who is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism and Mission at Memphis Theological Seminary and (as I understand it) a ‘Companion in identification with HTM as a spiritual home’, locates the story of the Breakwater Community among the wider stories and history of Christian monasticism in both its ancient and contemporary forms: ‘HTM exhibits many generic traits of its monastic forebears and of the new monastic communities. These include the centrality of Jesus Christ, communal life under a rule of life, vital worship, use of the visual arts, care for youth, care for the natural world; and ministries among marginalized persons. In this sense, the life of Community members is neither unique, nor original, perhaps only “newly born … a spirit and an endless trying, changing and beginning again”’ (p. 57). That the members of the Community have sought to explore and live out of traditional monastic spirituality for over thirty-five years has, in Dekar’s words, ‘made the Community somewhat of a working model, or bridge, between past and contemporary forms of monastic religious life’ (pp. 61–2).
Dekar believes that ‘the radical love Community members have extended to lay people, pastors, denominational leaders, critics, and even enemies is perhaps its greatest gift’ (p. xvi). That I can count myself as one among many who has been, on more than one occasion, the recipient of the hospitable love of this extraordinary and permission-giving community (once in the form of home-made lemonade and a pumpkin – food for the journey, so to speak), is but one the reasons that I was so keen to read this book. But from my brief experience and observation as a former pastor in the Baptist Union of Victoria, among the greatest gifts bestowed by the Breakwater Community to the wider Church is the centrality, rhythm and theological maturity afforded to gathered worship, and the attendant invitation to live all of life as an expression of and participation in the One who gives himself in the eucharist. It is, I believe, appropriate, then, that Dekar devotes a significant portion of the book to introducing readers to some of the liturgical resources and prayers authored by the Community, and to outlining the theology and practice of HTM’s worship, the shape that a community in which ‘the nurture of warm, personal intimacy with the Holy Trinity’ (p. 89) lies at the heart of common life.
On occasion, Dekar gets sidetracked from the main story and expends ink on some of his additional interests which, although loosely related to the book’s subject, disrupt its flow. Still, this moving and challenging book records a fascinating and important – albeit small – chapter of the story of Victorian Baptists, and locates that story in both a wider and more grassroots ecumenical and catholic context. Those already familiar with the inspirational life and witness of the Breakwater Community and its relationship with the Baptist family in Victoria, and those interested in hearing a more-detailed account of one community that religion sociologists might locate in a movement known as ‘New Monasticism’, will find much of interest here.
In The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2010), Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove seeks to write a book about ‘staying put and paying attention’. In a culture characterised by unprecedented mobility, he believes that ‘the most important thing most of us can do to grow spiritually is to stay in the place where we are’ (p. 1). The author insists that the life of Spirit is, in Rowan Williams’ words, impossible ‘in abstraction from the actual business of living in the body of Christ, living in concrete community. The life of intimacy with God in contemplation is both the fruit and the course of a renewed style of living together’. Or, in Wilson-Hartgrove’s words, ‘Apart from stability in the life of a community, the songs of Zion quickly begin to sound like wishful thinking’ (p. 63).
Drawing from the experiences of the monastic fathers and mothers, and from his own journey now as a minister of St. Johns Baptist Church and member of Rutba House, Wilson-Hartgrove properly argues that the practices of stability cannot be ‘reduced to a quick fix for the spiritual anxiety of a placeless people’, and that ‘if our feelings of rootlessness are what drive us to the practice, we’ll need something more than an immediate sense of relief to help us stay’ (pp. 110–11). He turns then to consider three ‘midday demons’ which require resistance if we are to be serious about not being perpetual pot plants but being planted in soil where our roots have room to reach deeper. These are ambition, boredom and vanity.
He writes of ambition: ‘ambition tempts us to forsake the mundane for the sake of unlimited growth – or, at least, new opportunities. We are so easily unimpressed by the ordinary, longing for the feeling of excitement that comes with a new task to take up, new people to engage, new challenges to face (p. 114). And of boredom: ‘Whereas ambition pushes us toward perpetual motion, boredom paralyzes, leaving us unable to love our neighbors or even take care of our own basic needs. Though different in character, these midday twins tempt us to the same lack of care. In their grip, it is impossible for us to find joy in community’ (p. 118). And of vanity: ‘Vainglory comes midway along our journey to suggest that all our care is best directed toward self-preservation … Vainglory will try to persuade us that there is nothing more important in the world than our own stability, encouraging us to defend it at all costs against any potential threat’ (pp. 122, 123).
There is wisdom in these words, and there’s much to like about the book. Still, I have two reservations about commending it: First, it’s nauseatingly repetitive, yet another example of a standard article-length piece being padded out to make a book. Second, and more substantially, there is, surprisingly, a drift towards an unearthed nostalgia here which works to undermine the author’s basic thesis. (It may be, of course, that my cultural eyeglasses are simply the child of a different prescription to those of Wilson-Hartgrove’s.) Walter Brueggemann once observed of memory that it is that which ‘may be enmeshed in a nostalgic longing for normalcy and “the good old days,” when life was simple and agrarian, settled, and well-ordered. That nostalgia is all intertwined with evangelical memory, so that the nostalgia has a vague religious feeling about it. There is a need to sort out the normative memory from this other vague yearning’. I’m unconvinced that Wilson-Hartgrove (in this volume) succeeds fully in doing the kind of sort out that Brueggemann, rightly to my mind, calls for.
For me, the highlight of the book was this poem (on p. 106):
The house was built in ’98,
prior to my arrival.
And a big maple tree at the corner of the porch
was run over and buried lots of times by wagons
moving in materials to build the house.
And the other maples what Daddy had planted,
they had no trouble at all.
But they all died and this one lived that had such rough treatment.
And there’s a saying
“Rough weather makes good timber.”
It may be
that the trouble with folks today
is that they’re raised like hothouse flowers,
and they don’t have much to go on
at the end.
I remember the first time I read Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean. It was the early 90s. The book is an outstanding achievement. Interweaving the latest in biblical scholarship with an imagination fuelled by Scripture’s heart and with an evangelical zeal to simply tell the story, Theissen helped to bring the Gospels, and their central character, to life for me. And he reinforced for me what I think I first learned via a deep immersion in the liturgical practices of my faith community – that the communication of divine truth demands the work of the very imagination it is determined to sanctify. So Jonathan Edwards: ‘Unless you use imagination, unless you take a truth and you image it – which of course is art – you don’t know what it means’. Or, as Nicholas Lash puts it in Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, and citing John Henry Newman first up:
‘It is not reason that is against us, but imagination.’ … The ways in which we ‘see’ the world, its story and its destiny; the ways in which we ‘see’ what human beings are, and what they’re for, and how they are related to each other and the world around them; these things are shaped and structured by the stories that we tell, the cities we inhabit, the buildings in which we live, and work, and play; by how we handle – through drama, art and song – the things that give us pain and bring us joy. What does the world look like? What do we look like? What does God look like? It is not easy to think Christian thoughts in a culture whose imagination, whose ways of ‘seeing’ the world and everything there is to see, are increasingly unschooled by Christianity and, to a considerable and deepening extent, quite hostile to it.
In such a situation, continuing to hold the Gospel’s truth makes much more serious and dangerous demands than mere lip-service paid to undigested information. Unless we make that truth our own through thought, and pain, and argument – through prayer and study and an unflinching quest for understanding – it will be chipped away, reshaped, eroded, by the power of an imagining fed by other springs, tuned to quite different stories. And this unceasing, strenuous, vulnerable attempt to make some Christian sense of things, not just in what we say, but through the ways in which we ‘see’ the world, is what is known as doing theology.
This is precisely why I welcomed reading Obie Holmen’s A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle. Holmen seeks to do with the Apostle to the Gentiles something like what Theissen did with Jesus ‘the Apostle and High Priest of our confession’ (Heb 3.1) – situate Paul in his geographical, social, historical and psychological landscape, and gift us with a creative way of hearing afresh the letters that make up the bulk of the New Testament.
According to Holmen, prior to his fire-side conversion-encounter with Yeshua (Jesus), ‘Paulos (Paul), the defender of orthodoxy, had acquired a proud identity and a status; self-righteousness became the dressing for his wounds, masking his inner torment’ (p. 75). Indeed, ‘the wretched man wandered the streets of Tarsos, lost and alone, accursed and condemned’ (p. 54). Thereafter, Holmen paints Paulos as one who is seeking to carve out the implications – for Torah, for Jewish privilege, for our understanding of God, etc. – of this radical encounter with Yeshua. The entire story takes place, markedly, against Paul’s own conflict – the ‘inner torment’ – between his inherited (and then reconstituted) theology and his homosexuality, the latter manifest in his relationship with Gentile friend Arsenios. Augustine once suggested, to the shock of some of his fellow bishops, that St Paul may have been ‘greatly tainted by sexual desires’. In his portrait of the gay Apostle Paul, Holmen exploits this suggestion beyond what the old bishop of Hippo may have had in mind, and some readers may well lay the book down because of such. But such action would, in my view, represent a premature judgement.
A Wretched Man is no The Shadow of the Galilean, to be sure, but Holmen is a gifted writer, and his well-researched yarn is certain to encourage readers to read the Bible in a new light, with a deepened awareness of the groundedness of its message, with a new appreciation of the real humanity of its figures, and – I suspect most importantly for the author – a renewed wonderment of the magic of divine grace.
An annotated name index would help the reader. The book has a dedicated website here.
On 14 January 1935, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned the following words to his brother Karl-Friedrick: ‘… the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this …’
Whether we are thinking about explicitly religious, or of broader, expressions of new ways of being human community, the birthing of new types of monasticism has long been a feature of ecclesial existence. While having at times drifted in and out of neomonastic communities, and while wrestling frequently with the kingdom-foreignness of the way of being-in-communion that my own introverted default setting reboots to, I’ve mainly been an intrigued onlooker who has read very little in the last decade or so that has come from within the movements themselves that articulates in any depth the intentionalism of such life together. (Whether or not all such communities characterise the ‘new type of monasticism’ for which Bonhoeffer longed is not the point here.)
But I’ve been eager to read and think more. I was delighted, therefore, to discover Wipf and Stocks’ New Monastic Library Series, of which School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, a book edited by The Rutba House, is a part. (I’m also currently reading Community of the Transfiguration: The Journey of a New Monastic Community by Paul R. Dekar, and “Follow Me”: A History of Christian Intentionality by Ivan J. Kauffman, both of which I’m enjoying immensely.)
The ‘new’ monasticism differs from the ‘old’ in a number of ways. Here are three, for example: (i) vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience are relatively rare; (ii) while geographic proximity of members is preferable, it is not necessary; and (iii) distinctive religious habits have been largely replaced by non-distinctive Levis.
The movement of the Spirit from which this book is birthed sees itself as characterised by the following twelve marks:
1) Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire;
2) Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us;
3) Hospitality to the stranger;
4) Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation;
5) Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church;
6) Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate;
7) Nurturing common life among members of intentional community;
8) Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children;
9) Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life;
10) Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies;
11) Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18; and
12) Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life.
This book attends to these marks, one chapter on each, exploring each theme drawing upon Scripture, contemporary examples, and personal experience.
Taking up Alasdair MacIntyre’s challenge to construct ‘local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us’, the contributors to this volume believe that when such longing as this instructs the church, ‘the local forms of community for which MacIntyre calls are no longer primarily for the sustenance of intellectual and moral life. Nor are they communities that withdraw from the world to insure their own survival and the flourishing of their members. Rather, within the life of the church a new monasticism exists to sustain knowledge of the gospel of the kingdom that was proclaimed, embodied, and accomplished in Jesus Christ. And the communities of the new monasticism exist for the sake of witness to Jesus Christ who is the life and hope of the world’.
This book is written not by theoreticians or monasticism-virgins cutting their idealistic and yuppie teeth in a utopian wilderness for a while before retreating back to ‘the real world’. Rather, these challenging essays betray a maturity and realism that one might expect from those who have the runs on the board, so to speak, whose commitment to embodying the kingdom which is truly the life of the ‘real world’ is humbling and utopia-destroying, and who love the church as God’s community in travail and often so slow to be on the way.
A review of Timothy Harvie, Jürgen Moltmann’s Ethics of Hope: Eschatological Possibilities For Moral Action (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009).
It was Karl Barth who, in his Ethik (1928), reminded us that Christian theology is always ethics, that ethics belongs to theology proper precisely because God makes himself responsible for us, and that ‘ethics as a theological discipline is the auxiliary science in which an answer is sought in the Word of God to the question of the goodness of human conduct’. It is of little surprise, therefore, that such a commitment is shared by one of Barth’s most prolific students, Jürgen Moltmann, whose own articulations concerning theological ethics remain valuable though, in his own words, ‘an unfinished task and an unfulfilled wish’ (p. ix).
Timothy Harvie’s volume (a ‘slightly revised version’ of his doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Aberdeen and supervised by Professor John Webster) represents an attempt to consider and extend an unfinished trajectory in Moltmann’s theology; namely, and appropriately, an ethics of hope. It is, in the words of its author, ‘not a piece of applied ethics engaging specific moral quandaries or the nature of Christian virtues’ but rather ‘an attempt to theologically describe the sphere of Christian moral action and the means by which this is enabled to take place’ (p. 3). Harvie makes it clear in the Introduction that his essay will argue that Moltmann does not begin with antecedent ethical presuppositions and then mould dogmatics to fit these concerns. Rather, ‘Moltmann begins with an investigation of theological concerns stemming from the biblical history and then attempts to articulate the moral relevance this theological conception has for the current social situation of humanity’ (p. 6).
The book is divided into two parts. In Part I, Harvie attends to the christological, pneumatological and eschatological foundations for an ethics of hope, and offers readers (and particularly those unfamiliar with Moltmann’s oeuvre) an accessible entrée into a number of vistas fundamental to Moltmann’s theological project. Through four chapters, Harvie’s aim is to rehearse how Moltmann is principally concerned with articulating the Christian gospel, and subsequently concerned to point to how the Church’s convictions about the gospel inform her ethical assertions.
He opens with a chapter on hope and promise, noting that the generative thrust and unambiguous priority of Christian hope, for Moltmann, is birthed in the divine promise given in a particular locus in history, and creating and securing a new trajectory for history and for human existence: ‘In the midst of a history wrought with injustice, turmoil and sin, the promise of God (given definitively in the resurrection of Jesus Christ) secures a new future which contravenes the sinful status quo of the present with a new creative work of God for a redeemed cosmos. This new, creative work secured in the promise is a novum in history which moves towards the present’ (p.15). Harvie proceeds to cite Moltmann – ‘The simple prolongation of the status quo no longer provides a future for which it is worth living’ (p. 26) – and avers that eschatological hope grounded in the cross-resurrection means that Christian living becomes subversive, demanding not onlookers but, in Moltmann’s words, ‘combatants’ (p. 26). The promise of God in Jesus Christ creates in history an interval between promise and fulfilment, a Zwischenraum or ‘between-space’, which sets in motion a way of living adumbrated in the promised future but ‘enacted through the creative work of God in such a way that in Christ humans [i.e., the Exodus community, Exodusgemeinde] may now participate in this space … in contradistinction to the world’ (p. 28). This way of living is ‘life commensurate with the Kingdom of God’ (p. 36).
The Kingdom of God, another topic of decided importance for Moltmann, is the subject of Chapter Two. Herein, Harvie outlines the way that Kingdom and christology are inextricably bound up together, and attends to the way that, for Moltmann, the Kingdom represents not only a positive description of the content of Christian hope but also ‘a foil to critique societal situations [Moltmann] perceives to be unjust’ (p. 40). Jesus’ embodiment of the Kingdom, it is noted, means table fellowship with sinners, liberating proclamation and praxis for the poor, and healing to the broken.
Chapters Three and Four attend to the role that pneumatology and the doctrine of the trinity, respectively, play in Moltmann’s theology, and how each informs the ethical shape of his theology of hope. With clarity, Harvie outlines that while, for Moltmann, the trinitarian history of the divine life with the world begins with the history of the promise, a history which culminates in the death and resurrection of the Son, it is the faithful and historical efficacy of the Spirit which ‘constitutes the continuing presence of the Kingdom’ in both Church and world. ‘This’, he continues, ‘in no way denigrates the future horizon of Christian hope for the Kingdom, but rather structures the initial fulfilment of the divine promise, which creates a surplus of expectation and hope for the eschatological novum’ (pp. 57–8). He notes how, for Moltmann, those empowered by the Spirit are ‘led to be non-conformists with the unfulfilled present, which leads to death. The Church, through the work of the Spirit, is empowered to resist in its Zwischenraum of tension, to overcome death with life, violence with peace, and hate with love’ (p. 92). Harvie is critical of Moltmann’s emphasis on a ‘universal society’ (p. 85), arguing that such ambiguity blurs the distinction between the Spirit’s work in the Church and in wider society. In Chapter Four, Harvie gathers up many of the already-attended-to themes and brings them into dialogue with Moltmann’s exposition on the trinity, noting that the creature’s moral living does not equate principally to imitatio of the trine life so much as, by the Spirit, being ‘taken up into the divine communion as an-other … to participate in and live out of the divine love’ (p. 109). Herein, as Moltmann explains it, the ‘lived circulation’ (p. 118) which is the divine life has two kinds of openness: first, there is an intra-Trinitarian openness between the three persons; second, and implying no deficiency of being, the Trinity is open for communion with creation. ‘This divine openness’, Harvie suggests, ‘fundamentally alters the moral life of the Christian through justification and sanctification’ (p. 122). In an interesting conversation with work by Carl Schmitt and Richard Bauckham, Harvie notes how Moltmann’s thoroughly trinitarian theology creates an eschatological ethic which rejects both clerical and political monotheisms, and he follows Bauckham’s critique of Moltmann that the tendency to inadequately distinguish between the triune life in se and the social life of creatures has ‘no biblical basis’ (p. 128). Turning then to the way that creatures participate by the Spirit in the fellowship of love, Harvie considers how, for Moltmann, the notion of divine apatheia both sponsors a utopian hope and undermines the command to be ‘present in open, loving solidarity with those who suffer’ (p. 135).
Harvie then turns – in Part II – to a more focused consideration of the ethical shape that the theological foundations he has outlined in Part I take in creaturely existence. He does this via three discussions on hope: on (i) time and space for hope, (ii) hope for humanity, and (iii) hope for the economy.
In the first of these, what I found to be the most stimulating part of the book, Harvie draws upon Augustine and Bauckham to very helpfully explicate how Moltmann understands, and makes use of, christologically-determined categories of time over against, say, Kathryn Tanner’s ‘futureless eschatology’ (what Carl Braaten calls ‘eschatology sans eschaton’) and time’s modern myths, and how these then inform what Moltmann wishes to aver about the theo-ethical implications of such in the kingdom of God wherein space – conceived as both Zeitraum and Zwischenraum – is opened up for hope and moral action. The present earthly time – the time of promise – is ‘characterized by expectation and anticipation of the novum which is anticipated in the promise and ensured by the divine faithfulness’ (p. 151) and, by the tension created between the divine-human covenant which existentially orients creaturely perspective to the future, sensitises covenant partners to the incongruous nature of their surroundings. Contra Mark Lewis Taylor and Rubem Alves, Harvie notes that, for Moltmann, ‘the ethical space envisioned in a moral theology of hope is not simply the space of human structures where moral action is attempted through one’s own empowerment to one’s own end. Rather, it is a space created by the promise of God through the death and resurrection of Christ in which human structures are transformed by the efficacious work of the Holy Spirit to manifest the eschatological Kingdom. This space orients Christian moral action, through the divine promise, to the future. The result is that this space is then in tension with those structures, circumstances and actions which are not located within the Kingdom of God or brought about through the beneficent work of God through the Spirit’ (p. 167).
Harvie turns, in the final two chapters, to the subjects of human nature, human dignity and human rights, and to outline how he understands Moltmann’s theology of hope might inform conversations about economics. He rightly notes that for Moltmann, the imago Dei depends upon, and says more about, God than it does upon any human trait per se, that the imago Christi is paramount for an ethics of hope, and that ‘it is precisely at this Christologically focused point within eschatological history that the Zwischenraum of tension … is understood to constitute the sphere of Christian moral action’ (p. 172). He also rightly notes that ‘the claim that human beings have equal and intrinsic worth is difficult to maintain as a universal presupposition apart from God’s revelation as creator and redeemer of the world’ (p. 181).
These concluding chapters, however, are disappointingly conservative in their application of the ethic that Moltmann’s thought invites. Harvie proposes no genuine protest to the structures of that world put to death in the crucified God, and very little hint of the novum created by the radical interruption of Jesus’ resurrection and the life that this event births. The praxiological content of the eschatological Zwischenraum which is characterised as life in the Spirit, in other words, is left drastically underdeveloped. The ethical implications of Moltmann’s professional project call for a more radical engagement – or what Ernst Wolf calls a ‘creative discipleship’ – of the ecclesia than Harvie outlines here. Moreover, as Moltmann avers in Theologie der Hoffnung, we must speak not only of the historic transformation of social and public life but also of the suffering, self-surrender, self-expenditure and sacrifice that attend such ‘day-to-day obedience’, and which mark a different way from the glories of self-realisation and the miseries of self-estrangement arising from ‘hopelessness in the world of lost horizons’ – ways disclosed to the laos tou theou in the future of the crucified God in whose life they participate, and to whom they look for the coming of the kingdom in fulness. At the end of the day, Harvie tumbles into the very trap that Hauerwas outlines (and which Harvie cites on p. 183): ‘One of the things that bothers me about such discourse is the designation “us,” meaning Christians, and “them,” meaning the poor. Such language inherently presupposes that Christians have no convictions that might not make them poor. As a result we privilege our place as rich Christians who can justify our being rich because we are concerned about justice’.
While the essay is unduly repetitive, it is amiably unencumbered with distractive engagements with secondary literature and side issues. Where these are relevant, they are appropriately attended to, and that so as not to sidetrack the reader from the main line of enquiry; namely, Moltmann’s own presentation of a foundation for an ethic grounded in trinitarian space-making and orientated toward the future in the kingdom of life and love. And while the ethical implications drawn by Harvie are, to my mind, drastically undercooked, there can be little doubt that those interested in exploring a rich theological foundation for Christian ethics will find much here of value.
The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom (Polyglossia: Radical Reformation Theologies) by Tripp York. Scottdale/Waterloo: Herald Press, 2007. Pp 199. $19.99, ISBN 978-0-8261-9393-0.
Through recalling the truthful performances and writings of the early church (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp and Cyprian) and of those on all sides of the Reformation, through examination of Augustine’s account of the analogical relationship between the Civitas Dei and the Civitas Terrena (each with their rival soteriologies), through a biography of Oscar Romero which is itself ‘a gospel’, and drawing heavily on the work of William Cavanaugh and John Howard Yoder, York reflects on the natures of, and relationship between, word and deed, and reminds us that martyrdom is the kind of public, political and liturgical witness – a second baptism, and ‘a moment in rhetoric’ (p. 146) – that unapologetically reveals the world to be the world, and reminds the church, as does the eucharist itself, that ‘allegiance to the heavenly city presumes an exilic posture that confers a missionary stance’ that sometimes, though not always, takes the shape of martyrdom (p. 100). But martyrs are not victims; neither is martyrdom tragic. Rather, as York reminds us, the logic of martyrdom belongs in the world of the apocalyptic, the witness participating in ‘the ongoing creation of not an alternative world but an authentic world: a world inaugurated by the cross and the empty tomb’ (p. 147). While few readers will follow York on every point, and many will want to go deeper and wider than this essay does, this book is a clear, insightful and ecclesiologically-fruitful introduction to the relationship between martyrdom and discipleship.
Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, by David Gibson. Pp. xiii + 221. London/New York: T&T Clark, 2009, ISBN 9 780567 468741.
In the summer of 1922, the young Karl Barth taught a course on the theology of Calvin. As he struggled to prepare lectures, he immersed himself passionately in Calvin’s thought – even cancelling his other announced course (on the Epistle to the Hebrews) so that he could concentrate solely on the Reformer’s writings. In a letter penned to Eduard Thurneysen that same year, Barth expressed his astonishment at the strangeness and power of what he had discovered: ‘Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin’. Certainly any project which attempts to bring these two giants into conversation is, to say the least, ambitious; particularly, perhaps, when it comes to their respective doctrines of election.
Unprepared to simply accept various readings of Calvin’s and Barth’s doctrines of election, David Gibson, in a ‘lightly revised version’ (p. xi) of his PhD dissertation completed at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Francis Watson, turns to Calvin’s corpus (particularly to his commentaries and to the Institutes) and to Barth (CD II/2 principally) in order to investigate and then compare their respective articulations of the doctrine, and to enquire about what relationship election has with christology in their projects. Moreover, Gibson is concerned to attend carefully to their exegeses, and to the ‘role of text-reception in theological construction’ (p. 11) in both thinkers. His argument is that ‘the exegetical presentations of Christology and election in Calvin and Barth expose a contrasting set of relationships between these doctrinal loci in each theologian’ (p. 1) and that this differing relationship between the two doctrines flows from and informs two contrasting approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. Gibson helps his readers appreciate how, for both Calvin and Barth, doctrine and exegesis are not tasks to be taken in isolation, but are, rather, united around, in different ways, the subject of their enquiry; namely, Jesus Christ and the caelesti decreto.
Employing and qualifying Richard Muller’s distinction between ‘soteriological christocentrism’ (so Calvin) and ‘principial christocentrism’ (so Barth), Gibson suggests a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’. A ‘Christologically extensive’ hermeneutic is evident, Gibson contends, when ‘the centre of Christology points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other’. Here christology ‘may influence and shape’ other loci, but christology neither dictates nor controls them. This, Gibson argues, represents Calvin’s christology. Conversely, a ‘Christologically intensive’ hermeneutic describes when ‘the christological centre defines all else within its circumference. Within this circle, Christology draws everything else to itself so that all other doctrinal loci cannot be read in Scripture apart from explicit christological reference’ (p. 15). So Barth, whose intensively christological hermeneutic ‘privileges the name of Jesus Christ in ways which go significantly beyond Calvin’s understanding of how Christology functions in exegesis’ (p. 27).
Gibson traces these two distinctions through Calvin’s and Barth’s approaches to christology, election and hermeneutics, illustrating that while much of the same grammar is employed, and many of the same biblical texts examined, and while their respective exegeses of election exist within ‘christological horizons which show how doctrine itself may be a hermeneutic’ (p. 16), Calvin and Barth often sing in different keys, and at times different songs though with no less exegetical reasoning in either.
In Chapter 2 – ‘Christology and Election’ – Gibson deepens his basic thesis by further sketching the relationship between Christ and election in Calvin’s and Barth’s exegeses. He argues that, while Barth’s position is not as radical as some recent interpreters have claimed, Barth’s understanding of the pre-existent Jesus as the subject of election sponsors two different understandings of election’s trinitarian basis than we see in Calvin. Gibson’s basic point here is that Calvin’s christocentrism emerges as distinctively soteriological while Barth’s is radically principial: ‘Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree’ (p. 30).
In Chapter 3, Gibson illustrates his thesis in detail by outlining Calvin’s and Barth’s reading and use of Romans 9–11. He shows that both theologians operate with different understandings of the relationship between covenant and election because of the location that each grants to christology. This leads to two contrasting ideas of Israel’s vocation and relationship to the Church. Moreover, whereas for Barth, Christ himself is the subject of election, and for whose sake Israel’s election occurs, Calvin reads Romans 9–11 as an exposition of the eternal decree in which christology recedes into the background. In other words, christology, for Calvin, is concerned with the economy of salvation rather than, as it is for Barth, with the eternal ground of salvation itself. Gibson concludes the chapter by asserting that ‘whereas for Calvin, Israel is typological of the church, for Barth both Israel and the church are typological of Christ, so that both forms of the community are “initially the two different but then inseparably related aspects of the fulfilment of the one covenant of grace in Christ”. These radically different conceptions of the covenant in Calvin and Barth issue directly from different forms of christocentrism’ (p. 153).
Gibson turns then in the final chapter to survey how christology shapes the way that his two subjects read Scripture. His aim here again is to show how Calvin’s christologically-extensive theology of interpretation explains how he intends election to be read in Scripture, and how this differs from Barth’s christologically-intensive approach. Gibson describes the latter’s reading of election as a ‘hermeneutic of patience and complexity, of interaction between the individual, multi-faceted predestinarian texts and the christological whole of which they are a part’ (p. 192). He also explores how ‘underlying these different hermeneutical approaches are two fundamentally different conceptions of the doctrine of revelation’ (p. 155).
There is much to commend about Gibson’s study: (i) He offers the reader a clear, careful and fair reading of Calvin and Barth on a doctrine that is, in the latter’s words, ‘the sum of the Gospel’ (CD II/2, p. 3); (ii) He is refreshingly appreciative of the ways in which the connections and motifs internal to Barth’s own thought are deeply indebted to the Reformed tradition, and particularly to Calvin: ‘For all his independent and creative genius, Barth’s theology is profoundly catholic, soaked in dialogue and debate with centuries of tradition and modulated with a Reformed accent’ (p. 18); (iii) The comparative reading (in §3) of Romans 9–11 yields much that is fruitful, and superbly illustrates the thesis of the entire volume. But, to my mind, the supreme value of Gibson’s study is (iv) the reminder – and there is little doubt that current Calvin and Barth scholarship needs such! – that at core, both Calvin and Barth are exegetes of Scripture, and that the neglect of the exegetical contours which shape their respective dogmatic projects is ruinous to providing a faithful reading of their corpuses. ‘For both interpreters, Holy Scripture is the quarry from which their dogmatic structure for election is hewn. Repeatedly, in the writings of both theologians, the emphasis on reception – it is in Scripture and not in their own theologizing that election is properly learned – is accompanied with a stress on right reception’ (p. 198). Gibson also addresses a brief word to contemporary Barth scholarship: ‘It is likely that where Barth’s doctrine of election is debated without attention to his practice as an exegete, and specifically to the very question which mattered most to him – “Does it stand in Scripture?” – then a debate occurs within parameters which Barth himself would not have recognized’ (p. 199). Such an approach is to be enthusiastically welcomed.
There are, however, a few less-satisfying aspects of what is otherwise a very valuable study. I will name five: (i) To my mind, Gibson appropriates too uncritically Muller’s reading of Calvin, and those readers less confident that Muller has read Calvin rightly may well be left wondering just how robust Gibson’s argument is; (ii) The focus of Gibson’s treatment of Barth tends to be too narrowly focused on CD II/2 and so neglects to attend to the nuances and developments in Barth’s understanding and articulation of election in other places. This leads at times to a flatter presentation of Barth’s (and of Calvin’s) thought than if greater attention had been paid to the historical and polemical natures of their projects. In Barth’s case, for example, of the way that his ‘principial christocentrism’ serves as protest to post-Kantian theology; (iii) Not a few readers will be disappointed that there is so little engagement with the secondary literature. For example, while Matthias Gockel’s and Suzanne McDonald’s PhD theses on Barth and T.F. Torrance’s study on Calvin’s hermeneutics are less concerned with the detail of biblical exegesis in their subjects than is Gibson, Gockel’s project is quickly dismissed (on p. 26) and any engagement with McDonald’s and Torrance’s work, and the kinds of systematic terrain that they are concerned to explore, is noticeably absent from Gibson’s essay. They would, if handled carefully, inform and strengthen its own foci; (iv) Most readers would no doubt prefer that extended quotations in Latin be accompanied with translation; and (v) Finally, Gibson resists offering any substantial critique or evaluation of his subjects’ method and doctrinal conclusions. Such may have served to draw out in constructive detail some of the places where Calvin and Barth are less than rewarding to us.
These reservations aside, this study deserves a wide reading, and will be of particular interest to Calvin and Barth scholars, to those interested in the development of the theo-logic of the doctrine of election in the Reformed tradition, and to those who are interested in seeing how two of that tradition’s major voices – one early modern and one late modern – read and used the Bible.
Intimate Horizons is an erudite and intriguing overture to post-colonial Australian literature and, via such, into the psyche of a nation. Its enquiry proceeds on the assumption that the twentieth-century’s final defeat of the gods is injudicious and that Australian authors working after the savageries of two world wars – and as indigenous peoples began to speak back to their colonisers, and in so doing open up new vistas of understanding about the land and about human relationships – began to “encounter the sacred as a region of difference, transformation and empowerment” (2).
The clear movement of Australian literature at the middle of the century is away from time – and its correlates such as history and rationality – to space which overwhelms it, and to the bodies and the proximate material world, and their stories, around which space is constituted. The conclusion to be made from this is that the literary engagement with place during this period, veering away from the horizontal sublime towards the sense of the sacred in the proximate, ordinary and material world, undertakes an unconscious movement towards Aboriginal experience, towards place as an embodied presence – characteristic of Aboriginal culture. (22–3)
The works of Francis Webb, Roland Robinson, David Malouf, and others, echo a fugue of common themes replayed across genres and decades, and which relate to the sacredness of place and embodiment, and the production of aesthetic “presence,” both of which are demotic and proximate, which stand in tension with those inherited forms from Europe, and “in which the sacred is glimpsed outside structure of interpretation” (18). Indeed, the authors of this volume (Bill Ashcroft, Frances Devlin-Glass and Lyn McCredden) believe that art and literature have been the “cultural discourses most successful in shedding the European yoke” (4) and have created, in Joseph Addison’s words, a “spacious horizon” as liberating as it is terrifying and which intimates distance and “placelessness” (8) that overwhelms the colonial imagination, disrupting the Romantic notion of the sublime and opening up the way to an acuity of the sacred in the broad spaces that characterise the horizontal experience of place. The authors are particularly critical of that literature which “seeks refuge in a melancholic and privileged mythologising of Australian history and white settler responses to it” (258).
Perceptive chapters on Patrick White (who “seemed to promise a new imagining of what is meant to be Australian” (33)), James McAuley (whose poetry speaks in a “haunted, homeless and displaced register” (105)), and Judith Wright (whose “‘parabolic’ vision … ‘runs beside or beyond the world of everyday’” (143)), are complemented with follow-up chapters exploring the “creative collision/encounter of paradigms of bush nationalism … and earthed sacredness” (165), and, drawing upon the work of Xavier Herbert, Kim Scott and Alexis Wright, “versions of the Indigenous sacred” (206) which find voice from the ecological depths of indigenous epistemology.
Chapter Seven, perhaps the most engaging of the chapters, surveys some contemporary Australian poetry which invites us to embrace questions of sacredness – a “theology of the earth” (285) – through “an immersion in the material world of place and time, and the material processes of poetic language” (244). Here we are introduced to poems by Kevin Hart, Robert Adamson, Gwen Harwood, Les Murray, Robert Gray, Lionel Fogarty and Sam Wagan Watson, whose poetry “triggers possibilities for change, even as it keeps the horrors of the colonial past in sight (283). Heirs to Webb and Wright, each of these poets, it is argued, when read within the context of the sacred, can be seen “grappling in new, demotic forms of language with the thisness of place, … with the intricate, lived realities of history in Australia” (245), and that partly by a refusal to be “pale reflections of European forms and ideas” (250). Such particularities, it is suggested, “are never merely backdrops to the poetry; nor does some abstracted ‘other’ seem to be the desired goal. Rather, in different but related ways, the poets confront this palpable, earthed, proximate place, Australia, through processes that do not cede any simplistic or monolithic access to the sacred” (245). This is evident, our authors observe, in “the drive to find new words” – “earthed, demotic languages of the sacred” – in order to respond to the “tangible realities of this place” (248). One place where this drive is evidenced is when Murray (a Roman Catholic) and Gray (one deeply influenced by Buddhist and Dharmic thought) are brought into conversation: “Gray’s Australia is permeated by the moral and spiritual meditativeness of a solitary poet, a cosmopolitan intellectual and sensualist, given to the detailed ‘thinginess’ of this place, but facing finally towards universalising formulations garnered across the centuries, into his reading and writing. Murray’s is a much more embattled, idiosyncratic and restless imagination” (277).
The final chapter considers the ways in which contemporary Australian fiction operates in a continual and heteroglossic dialogue with “earlier voices, a dialogue between different perceptions of the sacred sublime, and increasingly a dialogue between white and Aboriginal, between meaning cultures and presence cultures … [and which] constantly avoids closure” (288). It is one thing to suggest that the apotheosis of language adheres to an “intimation of the horizon of meaning at the edge of language” (321), to treat language as in some sense “sacramental” (232), to avoid monologism and to embrace a “multiplicity of voices” (288); it is another entirely to avoid clarifying the basis upon which such a discourse might take place. It is of little help to the reader to confess (after wading through over 300 pages!) that this book “avoids defining the term [‘the sacred’] because the very ground of our discussion – the concept of Presence, of meaning which exceeds final interpretation – makes definitions useless” (325). To be sure, I am not calling here for a kind of “doctrinal statement,” what I take the authors to mean by “orthodoxy” (288). Rather, as a Christian theologian, I wish to suggest that the dialogue and quest for new languages that a “metaphorically displaced society” (318) is groping after are literally given to us not in silence (as the authors suggest) but in the noise of divine incarnation, in the enfleshment of the divine in a particular location and story – in the ordinary – which is indeed “realised in the creative imagination” (300). As it stands, the pseudo-mysticism assumed throughout the book is as destructive of discursive knowledge as it is of birthing ethical action, concerns which are, I suspect, not far from some of the writers herein considered.
Those with deep allergies to natural theology – of the grammar of “place that remains the path to the sacred” (32) – will find much herein to baulk at: in its starkness, a borrowed fight which reminds the reader that while escape into cosmic emotions contemplating the grandeurs of antipodean place and space has some draw, any enlargement of the intelligence and calm of the mind is offset by the starvation of the soul groping for what Murray calls “unpurchased lifelong plenishment.”
The authors of Intimate Horizons assume much of their readers. They assume knowledge of Australian history, of post-colonial literature, of aboriginal spirituality, of the basic contours of theological grammar, of current discourse around race-relations, of the sense and sacramentality of place, and of antipodean attitudes to sentimentalism and religion. Some grasp of Heidegger’s notion of “Being” would be of help too.
The book highlighted again for me the legitimacy of Ian Anderson’s claim (in his Introduction to Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians, edited by Michele Grossman), that “in the context of settler colonial states, such as Australia, colonial structures have never been dismantled. Colonial ways of knowing are not historical artefacts that simply linger in contemporary discourse. They are actively reproduced within contemporary dynamics of colonial power. Yet this fundamental observation does not really seem to have penetrated mainstream postcolonial theory” (24). Still, this stimulating book invites, and deserves, close reading. It helps one read Australian fiction and poetry – and, indeed, a national mythology – with more informed and sharpened eyes.
[An edited version of this review is to appear in Colloquium in due course]
- Some forthconing books to look out for: Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology by John Milbank, Creston Davis, Slavoj Žižek; Commanding Grace: Studies in Karl Barth’s Ethics by Daniel L. Migliore; Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart; and The Paradox of Disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and L’Arche Communities from Theology and the Sciences edited by Hans S. Reinders.
- Robin Parry points us to a fascinating article by Dale Martin titled ‘When Did Angels Become Demons?’ which why ‘Christian systematic theologians should not feel bound to explore angelology and demonology within the confines of the traditional Christian view and might find fruitful ideas worth exploring in earlier biblical thinking in which angels and demons were two different kinds of creature rather than good and bad versions of the same kind’.
- An upcoming conference (and call for papers) considering ‘Perspectives on Evil’.
- Richard Hays on (not) burning the Quran.
- Brian McLaren, the Artful Dodger.
- Hauerwas on learning how to speak Christian.
- Clark Pinnock has finished the race.
- Davey Henreckson posts on Westminster and the ecumenical creeds and shares some Westminster-related links.
- Paul Helm reviews Bob Letham’s latest book, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context.
- Finally, they can keep their ipads, kobos, kindles, nooks, (Sony) readers, and pocket books; I’ll have one of these man-size e-readers any day:
[Image: Members of the staff of the Bank of New Zealand, on Lambton and Customhouse Quays, Wellington, gather around the first electronic book-keeping machine installed in the bank, 1960. HT: National Library of New Zealand]
- The Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) has posted two recent interviews with Paul Fiddes. And there’s more Fiddes here on ‘The End of the World: A Work in Progress’.
- Frank Rees posts on ‘Christian Freedom’ and a free church.
- John Pilger on why Tony Blair must be arrested.
- A public lecture by Professor Steve Reicher (professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrew’s) titled ‘Beyond the Banality of Evil’. The lecture, which goes for about 85 minutes, critically addresses Hannah Arendt’s hypothesis on the banality of evil arguing that those who commit extreme acts are not aware of the consequences of their actions; rather, they celebrate these consequences as moral.
- Jim Gordon posts on R S Thomas, the Crucified God and the virtue of metaphysical humility.
- Rick Floyd posts on Disability and Grace.
- Kimlyn J. Bender reviews Gunton’s The Barth Lectures. My own review of Gunton’s volume can be read here.
- Sung-Sup Kim reviews David Gibson’s Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth. My own review of this is here.
- Ben Myers, aka Mr Tomato Plant, shares two chapters of his forthcoming Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel on gelato and the girl who buttons her coat as her ‘dad arrives to close the shop’.
- Here’s two books I’m waiting for: The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson, and Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart
- Finally, I’m enjoying U2′s Go Home: Live from Slane Castle.
A Review of Myk Habets, Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance (Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies; Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), x + 212 pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6799-5; EISBN: 978-0-7546-9407-6
This book represents the published version of Myk Habets’ PhD dissertation recently completed at the University of Otago under the supervision of Ivor Davidson. In the Introduction, Habets offers a brief outline of the history of the doctrine of theosis (or “divinisation” or “deification”) in both the Eastern Church (represented by Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, Symeon the New Theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas and Gregory Palamas) and in that of the West (here he considers Augustine, Aquinas, the Finnish School of Luther interpretation, John Calvin – in whose thought the notion of theosis finds its voice in the grammar of “union with Christ” – the Oxford Movement, the Wesleys and modern Pentecostalism). He suggests that T.F. Torrance functions as something of a mediating theologian insofar as his soteriology betrays a “creative continuity” (8) with both Eastern and Western notions of atonement and gathers them around “the controlling metaphor of theosis” (ix).
Through an examination of Torrance’s doctrines of creation, anthropology, incarnation, reconciliation and spirit-ecclesiology, Habets identifies that while theosis is not the central point of Torrancean soteriology, and that “direct references to theosis within Torrance’s work are relatively few” (14), (Torrance prefers to employ the grammar of “union,” “communion,” “participation,” “atoning exchange,” etc.), “it is a necessarily crucial integrating theme within his overall theological oeuvre” (16). Habets’ study examines these themes in their theological contexts and concludes that “what emerges is a complex but coherent Torrancean doctrine of theosis,” albeit one which raises “critical questions, deficiencies, and indications for further study” (15–16).
Chapter One explores Torrance’s claim in The Christian Doctrine of God that creation is “proleptically conditioned by redemption,” that from the beginning creation’s telos is both revealed and actualised in the incarnation. With striking clarity, Habets outlines the mutual history that creation and redemption share, a history which is brought together in a creative synthesis in Torrance’s doctrine of theosis. This work of theosis is the purpose of Holy Love’s gracious determination to not live for himself alone but to bring into being an-other, namely creation, which might share, in Torrance’s words, “the Communion of Love” which constitutes the Triune life. This, Torrance insists in the aforementioned book, is the “secret of the creation, hidden from the ages” but has now in Christ “become disclosed to us” (218), secured in the act of God’s incarnation, and fruited in the human experience of redemption which comes as the gift of the Holy Spirit. Habets contends that while “Christ is central to creation as a whole, [and] not simply to humanity” (27), humanity is given “the function and privilege” to assist creation to both “realise and evidence its rational order and beauty and thus to express God” and to “realise its priestly vocation, in order to bring forth the requisite praise that God deserves” (45).
In Chapter Two, Habets attends to the core of Torrance’s theology – Jesus Christ – and he outlines the redemptive nature of the Incarnation and how, for Torrance, Christ’s entire life concerns the work of divinisation. Rehearsing the central motifs in Torrance’s christology (namely, the retrospective/prospective aspects of the atonement, the homoousion, the vicarious humanity, mediation, and ascension of Christ, etc.), Habets recalls Torrance’s indebtment to the Greek Fathers in “constructing a doctrine of theosis around two distinct but interrelated movements” that take place in the hypostatic union (a doctrine with significant epistemological currency in Torrance’s thought), namely the “divinising” of the human nature of the Logos and the subsequent application of this to the human subject in “deification” (55). So Habets: “In the person of Jesus Christ we see true humanity partaking of true Divinity by nature in such a way that by union, communion, and theosis with Christ by the Spirit we too, by grace, can participate in the divine nature” (62). The ultimate achievement of this divinising action is reached in the ascension of the Son: “As a man, Jesus Christ has perfect fellowship with God, and because of the eternity of the hypostatic union, the one person of the Son is in the ‘place’ (topos) and ‘space’ (chora) of humanity in and with God” (89). While otherwise sympathetic to Torrance’s theology, Habets charges Torrance with a “lack of detailed attention to actual historical life of Christ” (83), with misrepresenting patristic sources, with embracing a form of divine passibility which leaves his christology too ambiguous at points (see 84–7), and, more substantially, with a deficient and underdeveloped pneumatology, particularly that as concerns the bond of union in Christ’s theandric nature. On the latter, Habets contends that Torrance’s over-correction of Edward Irving’s apparent Ebionite christology leads to Torrance going “too far in the direction of Alexandrian christology” (74) and so under-emphasising the atoning work of the Spirit in Christ’s life.
Habets turns, in Chapter Three, to examine the dynamics of how believers are brought into relationship with God. He properly highlights Torrance’s indebtment to Calvin (and to Barth) and argues that the Church’s doctrines of theosis are compatible with Reformed theology’s understanding of participation. In many ways, the discussion on union with Christ (97–115) takes us to the very heart of the Reformed account of the doctrine of theosis that Torrance represents. This informs Habets’ thesis that theosis functions as a “controlling metaphor that gives coherence to the disparate themes of Torrance’s soteriology” (94). Some readers may feel that Habets has overplayed his hand in proposing that the doctrine of union with Christ is determined by a deeper and distinct-though-related doctrine of theosis within Torrance’s theology; others, that Habets has not made his case, or that he remains too uncritical of the character of theosis that Torrance outlines and whether it remains too incompatible with the Reformed ontology with which Torrance otherwise operates. Habets is not unaware of these criticisms, however, and devotes some ink to wrestling with them. Throughout, Habets consistently avers that the hypostatic union means that humanity’s centre and God’s coincide, that in Christ the Triune God and humanity dwell in each other in mutual personal satisfaction in such a way that humanity is gathered up into the space of the triune community but without loss of creaturely status, nor blurring of the Creator–creature distinctives.
Pneumatology and ecclesiology are the subjects of Chapter Four, “Community and Communion.” Here Habets, in the most constructive of the book’s chapters, argues for the indispensability of an adequate pneumatology (which is “perhaps the least examined aspect of Torrance’s theology” (140)) for a doctrine of theosis as “it is here that the reality of the believer’s participation in the divine nature emerges” (139). He notes that the same Holy Spirit who equips and enables the incarnate Son to offer the “wonderful exchange” for us is also the “bond of love who unites believers to the incarnate Son and enables them to be drawn into the life of God” as well as “the bond of communion who constitutes the church as the locus of theosis” (139; cf. 168–70). Habets (tentatively) agrees with Jason Yeung’s assessment (in Being and Knowing: An Examination of T.F. Torrance’s Christological Science) that while Torrance is right to never isolate pneumatology from christology, Torrance’s pneumatology remains under-developed. Moreover, Habets charges that Torrance’s robust emphasis on the objective elements of soteriology are not matched by corresponding subjective aspects. He recalls the gracious action of God who in/by/with the Spirit unites the Church to the response, obedience, faith and worship of Jesus, and raises that communion up in Christ to participate in heaven’s worship and in the eternal communion of the triune family. Put short, “theosis is worship from beginning to end, for it is an active participation in Jesus Christ made possible by the Spirit” (192). The “central ecclesial acts” in which “theosis occurs” (170), Habets notes of Torrance’s thought, is in Baptism and Eucharist. “Participation in the sacraments is … the path to participation in the divine nature, a mystery of the faith that unites the believer to Christ by the Spirit” (184). Baptism functions as “the liturgical mediation of forgiveness” (176), as the event through which believers participate in the incarnate Son’s theopoiesis, and as that action which “inaugurates theosis in the believer” (178). Habets understands that the Eucharist, like Baptism, is a mediating rather than a constitutive form of God’s saving action. Moreover, it is a form in which Christ’s real presence reflects the hypostatic movement evident in the incarnation and in Christ’s priestly work. In answering the question “How close is the union that believers have with God in theosis by means of the Eucharist?”, Habets recalls Torrance’s claim that “No union, save that of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, could be closer, without passing into absolute identity, than that between Christ and His Church as enacted in the Holy Eucharist” (182).
The book’s conclusion draws together and recapitulates the main themes of the study before naming some concerns that the author has about some details of his subject’s theology, evidencing that Habets is a grateful though not uncritical reader of Torrance. Habets remains unconvinced, for example, of Torrance’s insistence that Christ assumed fallen human nature, that Torrance has done enough to articulate the compatibility between the model of theosis he is proposing and a Reformed doctrine of justification by faith, and that Torrance’s theology of unio mystica is pneumatalogically sufficient in those areas where the concern presses beyond epistemology. Moreover, Habets believes that Torrance’s theology of theosis, while compatible with the Church’s teaching and with contemporary scholarship, requires additional maturity, sophistication and some “specific discussion beyond that which he provides of what theosis ‘looks like’ in everyday life” (189).
While the book could do with an additional proofread and edit (there are a number of typographical and grammatical errors, particularly in the footnotes), it joins work by Colyer, McGrath, Dawson and Molnar as an insightful and clear introduction to Torrance’s extensive oeuvre, and makes a real contribution to ongoing conversations about the shape and location that the Christian doctrine of theosis assumes in systematic and ecumenical theology, and in theological anthropology.
[An edited version of this review is to appear in Colloquium in due course]
This volume, co-penned by two scholars well published on the book’s subject, traces the life and thought of John Knox. It does so not via an attempt at what we might call ‘straight biography’ but rather through a chronological examination and interpretation of his writings. The interpretation of Knox offered here is sympathetic but fair, helpfully introduces some secondary literature on Knox, avoids an over-romanticised reading of the preacher whom Stewart Lamont described as ‘a cross between Ian Paisley and the Ayatollah Khomeini’, and avoids the temptation succumbed to by many contemporaries biographers of judging too harshly the personalities of the past against the values of the present.
A very accessible and (apart from some editorial oversights and typos, for e.g., an incomplete bibliography, and who is T.F. ‘Torrence’?, on p. 21) well-researched introduction to a complicated yet decisive period in Scottish history, and that via the life and thought of one of its great saints. John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works is an easy book to commend, and those looking for a genuine entrée on the life and thought of a volcanic prophet with ‘the courage of a lion’ could do little better. Those hungry enough to also want a main course would be well served in the devouring of John Knox by Rosalind K. Marshall too.
Anthony B. Robinson, Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 199 pp; ISBN 978-0-8028-0759-5.
Changing the Conversation is a sequel to Anthony Robinson‘s most recent books Transforming Congregational Culture (2003) and What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church (2006). It builds upon and complements work done by Diana Butler Bass, Darrell Guder, Michael Foss, Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren and others in their quest for the Church to find ‘a third way’ of being that moves beyond stereotyped polarities all-too-typical of its life and seeks a redefinition from a new centre which finds its pulse in its defining narrative – that is, in the divine economy. Robinson invites congregations to walk upon a way paved by the rediscovery of fresh language (which includes a rediscovery of ‘older words and concepts of the living tradition of our faith’ (p. 2)), the development of new conceptual frameworks, the formulation of new agendas and imaginings for being and doing church, and the fostering of new ways of framing both internal and external challenges and relations.
Robinson (who has served as an ordained Minister of the United Church of Christ and has remained in touch with the realities of congregational life), understands that change is an inevitable and indispensable part of congregational life, that good leaders know and embrace this, and that a significant part of healthy change involves ceasing the typically dead-end conversations that congregations engage in, embracing reality accurately, and framing the challenges adequately. Drawing upon Ron Heifetz’s distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges, and rehearsing Peter Drucker’s two simple questions – ‘What business are you in?’ and ‘How’s business?’ – this book identifies and is shaped around ten conversations that Robinson believes are requisite in order to initiate, deepen, sustain and grow congregational and denominational life.
The opening chapter is concerned to map in broad outline some of the important historical and cultural shifts that have shaped, and been shaped by, the Church’s baptism of and in Christendom, and how the emergence of a post-Christendom North America is impacting historically mainline Protestant congregations and their ministry from one of chaplaincy to one of mission. One feature of Church that he believes will need to undergo a significant shift in both conceptuality and praxis concerns the role of pastors: ‘Instead of being chaplains to church and community, they will be congregational leaders and spiritual directors. They will not do most or all of their ministry on behalf of the larger church. They will support that ministry through preaching and teaching, mentoring and guiding’ (p. 29).
William Stringfellow once observed, ‘These are harsh days for Protestants in America. American Protestants suffer the pathetic anxieties of a people once ascendant and reigning, but now defensive and in retreat’. How congregations might respond creatively (and in ways that move beyond lament and complaint, bewilderment and apathy) to the challenges and opportunities of this post-Christendom situation is the subject of Chapter Two. Rather than denying or bemoaning the sea change, Robinson asks if congregations might find a way to discern God at work among them and to respond by birthing new and more productive conversations and hopeful, engaged responses. He reminds us that ‘the word “Protestant” does not mean perpetual protest’ but rather derives from pro (‘for’) and testari (‘to testify). So, he asks, ‘what testimony do we offer about God and about God’s work in our midst?’ (p. 44).
The third conversation, ‘A New Heart’, is an invitation to think about how the renewal of hearts and minds is at the centre of mainline Protestant congregations, is not reducible to a formula or recipe, and is always more important than any technique or program.
In Chapter Four, Robinson turns to the issue of leadership, arguing that the work of leadership in the post-Christendom period is to assist congregations to face their own most important challenges and make progress on them. He defines pastoral leadership as ‘mobilizing a congregation … to engage its own most pressing problems and deepest challenges’ (p. 84). Part of the task of leadership (not necessarily of the ‘ordained’) is to read the context and congregation, to name and describe the challenges accurately, and to ‘remind a congregation (or other group) of its theologically and biblically informed purpose and core values. In other words, leadership should keep before the congregation the issues of “who are we?” (core values) and “why are we here?” (purpose)’ (pp. 85–6). Robinson observes that many congregations suffer a ‘leadership vacuum’, that instead of pastoral leaders and governing boards, they have chaplains and a group that is either ‘listening to endless reports or trying to micro-manage the operational administration of the congregation. The future’, he continues, ‘belongs to congregations that call and empower pastors who are leaders, and then also call and prepare governing boards that provide effective policy direction and leadership’ (p. 96).
This directly raises the question of purpose, which is the concern of Chapter Five. The ‘Why are we here?’ question is, according to Robinson, always the most important question to begin with. He avers that congregations need reasonable clarity about their core purpose if they are to foster any new vitality and to shift, as Foss believes, from ‘a culture of membership to a culture of discipleship’ (p. 101). In making the important distinction between purpose and vision, Robinson, following C. Kirk Hadaway, contends that purpose is more important than vision, the former both precedes and shapes the latter: ‘Without a fairly clear sense of purpose, congregations can get caught up in the game of cultural catch-up or what’s newest and latest’ (p. 105).
Robinson continues to labour this distinction and its logic of priority in chapters six to eight, drawing upon Heifetz’s notions on ‘adaptive challenges’. In Chapter Six, the concern is to explore the relationship between vision and purpose, on how congregations move from naming their raison d’être, to identifying the key challenges and then authoring a vision statement or strategic plan that serves their ministry. One vital emphasis here is that the work of the congregation does not fall to experts or authorities, nor to the pastor, or a consultant, or a small group designated to solve their problems for them. Rather, Robinson insists that ‘it is the people with the problem themselves, the people facing the challenge, who do the work. If the work is “discovering again God’s purpose (mission) for our church,” we can’t simply assign that to a mission committee’ (p. 122). While he acknowledges that most congregations face a combination of technical problems and adaptive challenges, to the extent that they understand those challenges as technical problems only, they will fail. Moreover, they would have ‘missed important, God-given opportunities to experience new hearts and minds’ (p. 123).
In some ways Chapter Seven represents the book’s thesis most clearly: that the governance and organisation that many congregations are working with are outmoded and incompetent because designed for, and assuming of, a Christendom rapidly passing away. Here’s his basic point:
Underlying the Christendom-era structures of church life are two notions: (1) the best way to involve people in Christian life and church participation is to get them serving on a board or committee of the church; and (2) the job of laity is to manage the church. If your church assumes that the best way to involve people in Christian life and the church is to get them on a board or committee, there’s a good chance that your congregation will have a lot of boards and committees to accommodate them. The result is often structures that are either Byzantine in complexity or Catch-22-like in absurdity. The second unhelpful assumption is that the really important job of lay Christians is to manage the church, its buildings, finances, property, and personnel. This effectively takes the team off the playing field and gives it the task of managing the clubhouse. Instead of inviting people to do ministry, current systems invite them to manage the ministry. You put these two assumptions together and let the whole thing settle for some decades, and the result would make for a good Monty Python skit … Could it be that the real job of dedicated Christians is not to manage the work of the ordained or the operational administration of the church facility, but to represent Christ to the world? I suspect that many would affirm this in theory, yet our church structures tend not to support the theory (pp. 137–8, 140).
The eighth conversation attends to another arena of adaptive work facing mainline congregations; namely, public theology. It asks what shape and what voice the Church might embody in the public square in an age of redefined relations. ‘Death and Resurrection’ is the title of Chapter Nine. Here Robinson suggests that while, for some situations, congregational renewal is possible, sometimes a death – or something that looks and feels very much like death – is required before a resurrection is possible. The final conversation is a bit of a ‘Where to from now?’ chapter.
Changing the Conversation will be read with profit by denominational staff, seminarians studying congregational life, and leaders of congregations. It offers a clear vocalization of some important theses and synthesises some valuable material on mission and vision. That said, some readers will want to question whether Robinson himself offers a decisive enough severing from the Christendom mindset that he is so properly concerned about. At the very least, the book’s pages frequently require some translation from a North American congregational context into other local dialects. Finally, how one assesses this book depends largely on whether one is seeking a handbook of tools or nutrition for a renewing of ecclesiological imagination. While there are indications that Robinson is seeking to offer both, it is more of the former rather than the latter that is to be found in this book.
Harry Hazel, The Joy of Teaching: Effective Strategies for the Classroom (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2010). xii + 158 pages. ISBN: 978-1-60608-613-1. Review copy courtesy of Wipf and Stock.
Since I read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do, I’ve tried to keep abreast with books on teaching, books which seek to hold up before me the teacher’s task and to encourage me to attend to its craft. Recently, I read The Joy of Teaching: Effective Strategies for the Classroom by Harry Hazel, Professor of Communication Arts at Gonzaga University and author of Art of Talking to Yourself and Others and The Power of Persuasion, and co-author of Communicating Effectively: Linking Thought and Expression.
In researching for this book, Hazel collected reactions from over one hundred North American teachers about why they like what they do. Most emphasised the joy of helping students learn and seeing those students develop their potential: ‘Good teachers challenge, cajole, prod, push and move each student as far as they can’ (p. 5). Hazel observes that while good teachers ‘give away’ knowledge, those who find little joy in giving to others will find little joy in teaching. Moreover, great teachers exhibit a passion for their profession which leaves no doubt that they enjoy, at a deep level, what they were doing. They hold learning in high esteem and are committed to ongoing formation and to professional development.
He shares a number of other findings:
- excellence in teaching has more to do with an exceptional grasp of the material and clear communication techniques than with popularity.
- the best teachers demand much of their students.
- good teachers take time to find out how students in a class learn best, and then adapt. Like Bain, Hazel too notes that there is all the difference in the world whether we are teaching a subject to students or teaching students a subject, and that effective teachers will employ whatever method they believe will best develop an individual student.
- good teachers respect and love their students: ‘It may seem obvious that liking students is a prerequisite to liking education, but some teachers don’t really like most of their students. They tolerate them because they have to. Once the class is over, they have little contact with them. Happy teachers, on the other hand, really like the students they encounter’ (p. 133).
Against Gerald Goldhaber’s prophecy (in Organizational Communication) on the death of the lecture, Hazel draws upon Plato, Aristotle and Joseph Lowman’s work in Mastering the Techniques of Teaching to defend the use of ‘what can be an excellent teaching tool’:
Properly delivered, a lecture lights up a room. If a teacher is well organized, presents her ideas clearly and sprinkles theory with riveting examples, she has a good chance of keeping the attention of her students. But if she speaks in a monotone, wanders all over her subject and hovers in the clouds of abstraction, most of her students will tune out. The bland lecture competes with the Quaalude as a way to induce sleep. (p. 37)
While some will find The Joy of Teaching a little anecdote-heavy (a sad trend, it seems, in much recent North American literature), and few engaged with adult-education will find much here that inspires, the book will certainly be read with profit by secondary school teachers and by those who care about what is happening in our high schools.
Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology, by Edwin Christian van Driel. Pp. xii + 194. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 536916 8. £45.
It was the brilliant John Duns Scotus who recalled that ‘God is not in a genus’ (Deus non est in aliquo genere), reminding us that our knowledge of God is impossible in any general sense. Indeed, Christian theology is premised on belief in divine self-disclosure and, moreover, that such disclosure is an act of grace. Duns Scotus also supposed that creation’s purpose and destiny concerns ‘co-lovers’ participating in the Triune life. It was for such that the Word of God became flesh, unveiling for us the causa finalis of our humanity. That this is God’s way for us – even if sin had not come into the human scene – bespeaks the inner meaning of the grace which precedes sin and testifies to the gospel logic of the incarnation.
Supralapsarianism, the subject of Edwin Chr. van Driel’s book Incarnation Anyway (a reworked version of his doctoral dissertation completed at Yale University), is a doctrine whose beginnings reach back at least as far as the twelfth century, even if van Driel’s treatment is concerned with its less hypothetically-speculative nineteenth- and early twentieth-century articulations. The first part of his essay (pp. 9–124) attempts to chart and examine the ways in which supralapsarian christology has been articulated. It does so via a consideration of three forms that the doctrine assumed in its nineteenth-century revival, namely in Friedrich Schleiermacher (‘the first major supralapsarian theologian since the Middle Ages’ (p. 9)), in Isaak August Dorner and in Karl Barth (on whom the most ink is spilt), attempting in each case to attend to the three ways in which God is thought to relate to God’s other – in redemption (Schleiermacher), in creation (Dorner), and in eschatological consummation (Barth). While there are occasions when readers may feel that van Driel constrains his subjects’ thought with a rigid logic foreign to their projects, in each case he attempts to expose the inner logic, coherence and strength of each articulation while not neglecting to draw attention to any weaknesses.
Van Driel argues that the conceptual structures of Schleiermacher’s supralapsarianism is determined both negatively and positively by the notion of absolute dependence and the inferred forms of divine omnipotence. He notes that, for Schleiermacher, sin is not excluded from the scope of divine causality – that God is the author of sin calls for a different locus for sin in the divine decree. God ordains sin in order to make humanity receptive to redemption. This move means that human sin acquires determining and logical priority over the incarnation. Indeed, van Driel outlines how in Schleiermacher’s schema, ‘sin and redemption are essential parts of our relationship to Christ. We need Christ because of our sin, and only because of our sin. If there were another reason why we relate to Christ, God would not have to introduce sin in the divine decree. We are connected to Christ only through his redemptive activity. There is no space for a meaningful relationship with Christ that is not marked by this’ (p. 25). And again: for Schleiermacher, ‘human beings will not be receptive to the divine gifts in Christ unless these gifts address an evil in their lives’ (p. 126). Under van Driel’s examination, the identified ‘fault lines’ in Schleiermacher’s ordo salutis (especially his sympathy with a felix culpa account) widen as the essay proceeds.
For Dorner, the incarnation is the necessary fruit of the divine decision to create ethical persons and of the divine determination that such become ‘full personalities’, a reality only possible in ‘interpersonal interaction with the ethical’ (p. 49). Dorner premises his arguments on the notion that God is a lover of love – the amor amoris – whose passion is to aggrandize the life of love in his other. This twofold surrender (of God to human beings, and of humans to God) is embodied in religion, the divine contribution to which is revelation, the consummation of which is the incarnation. For Dorner, the incarnation is a basic implication of God’s decision to create: ‘Decisive for whether one takes the incarnation to be means or end is what one takes to be the divine motivation behind it. For Dorner, the motivation for incarnation is embedded in the motivation for creation’ (pp. 59–60). This move, van Driel suggests, sponsors an unsatisfactory stepping stone in Dorner’s doctrine of creation and highlights what van Driel considers to be the most troubling and deep-lying ambiguity in Dorner’s supralapsarian christology. He continues:
In [Dorner’s] proposal, it is the necessity of God’s creative act that sets everything else in motion. God’s ethical necessity is expressed in the act of creation; given the nature of the ethical necessity, creation will be brought to consummation; given the same ethical necessity, this will be done by way of incarnation. None of this follows, though, when the act of creation is a contingent act. Of course, it could still be argued that God leads creation to consummation, and that the incarnation is central to consummation. In such a scenario, the governing divine act would not be given with God’s nature, but would be the result of a free act of God’s will. And if creation were embedded in God’s will rather than God’s nature, it would be better to start one’s theological account thereof not at the beginning but at the end of God’s work: What goal had God in mind when God freely called creation into being? What motivated God to create? Systematically this means that the argument for supralapsarian incarnation should not be embedded in the doctrine of creation but in eschatology. (p. 62)
With that note, van Driel turns to Barth’s ‘argument from consummation’, that requisite feature of Barth’s doctrine of election upon which van Driel will construct his own proposals. Van Driel observes how Barth’s supralapsarian christology takes its shape in his actualism. God’s election of Jesus Christ is primal in order, self-giving in nature, gracious in its motivation, creative in its effect, all-inclusive in its scope and supralapsarian in character, and the latter in a twofold sense – in terms of both predestination and christology: ‘Divine predestination is not a first step in a divine response to sin and neither is the incarnation … God’s election of Christ’s human nature is thus the first action in the divine relating to what is not God’ (pp. 67, 68). Again: ‘At the heart of Barth’s supralapsarianism lies … his reading of the biblical narrative as a narrative of election. Election is an eschatological category; and the eschaton is the first in order of the divine decrees. Object and subject of these decrees is Jesus Christ – not the Son as λóγος ασαρκος the preincarnate Word, but the Son as Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The incarnation stands thus at the very beginning of God’s relating to what is not God’ (p. 81). From here, van Driel turns to the question of the relationship between epistemology and sin: ‘That God unveils Godself by way of veiling is partly due to our sinfulness, but not wholly. The ontological and epistemic principles that govern divine revelation are not a result of sin, but given with the nature of Creator and creation. Incarnation, as the necessary means of divine self-disclosure, is therefore a supralapsarian event’ (p. 77).
Certainly Barth’s supralapsarian narrative recalls that creation forms the stage for covenant’s story – a story authored in the loving event called triune being, and whose meaning requires both soteriological and eschatological achievement – and that the creation which makes covenant possible does not exist for itself but for the gracious God upon whose will its future and being is contingent. However, according to his evaluation of Barth, van Driel identifies some adverse consequences of Barth’s account. He reserves most ink to attend to a concern regarding creational entropy, that ‘creation, in and by itself, will necessarily lapse into evil’ (p. 85) by ontological necessity. This elicits a helpful discussion by van Driel on time, eternity and history (pp. 111–17), and on the relationship between supralapsarianism and das Nichtige (pp. 118–24).
Building on Barth’s work (which van Driel finds to be the most satisfying of the three accents), van Driel turns in the second part (pp. 125–70) to expand on the notion of eschatological consummation, arguing that the logic of the incarnation is not contingent upon sin in any way (no felix culpa) but points to a divine will for (i) eschatological superabundance, (ii) the beatific vision, and (iii) divine friendship. The first of these attempts at a constructive argument is premised on the relation between the eschaton and the proton of creation, contending that the eschaton births an abundance and richness in intimacy with God and in human transformation which the proton did not know: ‘In Christ we gain more than we lost in Adam’ (p. 151). And because the notion of felix culpa makes such promise contingent upon sin (which by its very nature only alienates us from God), eschatological fulness (the embodiment of which happens in Christ) can only be understood in supralapsarian terms. Van Driel’s second supralapsarian argument directs us to the visio Dei. Here he extends his first argument and defends supralapsarianism on the basis that full enjoyment of the beatific vision for bodily beings requires sensory contact such as we are given sui generis in the incarnation, resurrection and ascension of the human God. Finally, van Driel arrives at the destination to which his entire essay seems directed, namely the notion of friendship with God and that of such a deep kind that the divine availability attested to in the logic of supralapsarian christology is the most compelling. Such friendship, van Driel avers, is not dependent finally on God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity but rather in the very opposite truth: God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity finds its origin in the divine will for friendship. The fullest expression of this will is undressed in the incarnation and best attested to in supralapsarian logic. Throughout, van Driel resists concerning himself with the hypothetical situation voiced by the medievals of whether the incarnation would have taken place had humanity not sinned, and concerns himself with ‘Christ as we have him’ (p. 164). He also exploits the tendency (as he sees it) in infralapsarianism to minimize the eschatological dimensions of creation and those inclinations to reduce creation to that which exists, falls and is then redeemed, in favour of an account which witnesses to the divine determination to bring creation to its goal in Jesus Christ apart from any dependency upon a creation-fall-redemption schema.
Against those who would defend some version of felix culpa (and here van Driel names Schleiermacher, Gregory, Milton and Barth), Incarnation Anyway challenges Supralapsarians to ‘explore the meaning of the incarnation, the presence of God among us, as an excellent good in and of itself, and not take refuge in a doctrine of sin to beef up incarnation’s meaning. We do not need the bad to enjoy Christ’ (p. 131). Again: ‘we do not have to preach sin before we can preach Christ; we can preach Christ as the offer of love and friendship with God; and it is thereafter, in the light of that offer of friendship and love, that human beings discover themselves as sinners’ (p. 166).
A final section (pp. 171–5) offers a very brief, but helpful, genealogy of supralapsarianism. Some readers may benefit by reading this section first.
Incarnation Anyway could have been a much better book than it is. Unfortunately, too frequently it reads somewhat like a collation of separate and uneven pieces, not a few of which seem largely unrelated to his subject. It is unclear, also, why van Driel reserves disproportionate space (pp. 90–101) in this forum to continuing his debate with Bruce McCormack. Or why he includes a discussion on ‘more-dimensional reality’ (pp. 167–69). As interesting as both conversations are, as they stand they contribute little to his overall thesis. More substantially, I remain incredulous of van Driel’s articulation of the distinction between incarnation as gift to human nature and that as gift to human persons. He suggests that for those who contend that the Word’s assumption of fallen flesh changes the ontological status of humanity from the inside out then the ‘logic of assumption’ does all the work, and Christ’s over-againstness of our human natures is undermined. While the distinction van Driel identifies remains valid, the inclination to separate them is unfortunate, the description and analysis offered for each is unclear, and the available resources for holding both together in the tradition (not least the Reformed tradition out of which the author speaks) is ignored, even if here the critique of Dorner and Barth finds some traction. Finally, this study most properly belongs to a larger project, as the Bibliographical Appendix indicates, and would have been strengthened significantly had its author attended more fully to the genesis and developments in supralapsarian thought in Rupert of Deutz, Robert Grosseteste, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great and, perhaps especially, in John Duns Scotus and his theology of election. That said, van Driel’s essay remains a welcome and too-lonely contribution to a topic of great import, and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating more from his pen on this topic, especially in those areas where he offers his own constructive proposals.