I am sorry that I missed posting the usual selection of reviews of recent theological books during the month of March. Here is April's list.
It is an stimulating selection of 10 new works including the writings of Fr Roger Greenacre, well known in this diocese, as he had served in St George's Paris and later in St Michael's Beaulieu-sur-Mer. In addition there are two very good introductory theologies, some apologetics, more on science and religion, the fascinating story of a Pope who resigned over 700 years ago, a review of human sexuality from a conservative perspective, a challenging theological critique of Facebook, and a collection of essays to celebrate last year's 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which includes one by our own Diocesan Liturgical Advisor, Professor Paul Bradshaw.
As usual, these reviews are based on the work of Dr Martin Davie, the Theological Advisor to the Church of England's bishops.
Te volo, bonam lectionem!
For the reviews, click on read more.
The Bible is a library of books written over many centuries by a variety of different authors, each of whom has their own particular theological perspective. However, the Christian tradition has also stubbornly insisted that alongside its human authors the Bible also has God as its overall author and that therefore, in spite of its diversity, the Bible has a coherent overall message. It was this conviction that led the English Reformers to declare in Article XX that it is not legitimate for the Church to ‘so expound one place of Scripture, that it may be repugnant to another.’ The branch of theology that seeks to discern and expound the overall message of the Bible is biblical theology and the new book by the Norwegian theologian Sigurd Grindheim is a helpful contribution to this field of study. In his introduction he states that ‘with all their differences’ all the books of the Bible ‘are witnesses of the one God and his master plan of salvation in Jesus Christ.’ In his view ‘we may liken the many books of the Bible to the different building blocks that are used to build a house. Each of these blocks may have a fascinating history of their own. Some of them may even contain materials that originally were used for completely different purposes. But when the house is built each of the blocks becomes part of a building. So also with the books of the Bible. Each book has its own history, but in the end they all become part of the final product, the Bible.’ From this starting point Grindheim describes how the message of the Bible as a whole is about the Triune God who interacts with His creation. God makes human beings to enjoy a peaceful relationship with him and although this relationship is broken because of sin God continues to reach out to human beings through a series of covenants. The human failure to be faithful to these covenants recorded in the Old Testament shows that God needs to intervene in a more direct way. In his Son Jesus Christ he comes to earth and achieves reconciliation, bringing about ‘a new creation where there is harmony between God and human beings and where the power of death is broken.’ This account of the biblical message is, of course, not at all new, but the message constantly needs re-telling and Grindheim retells it in a very clear and accessible fashion, drawing on insights from biblical scholarship and the Christian tradition to answer the major questions about the biblical material and making good use of examples, revision questions and charts. This book is written as an introductory text for students at the start of courses in the Bible, Theology and Ministry, and for those searching for a deeper understanding of the theology of the Christian Bible. It fulfils this role excellently and will also be of benefit to those who are past the introductory stage, but would benefit from a refresher course in how to read the Bible responsibly as a theological whole.
Dennis P Hollinger, The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life, Baker, ISBN 978-0-80103-571-5, £12.99 (Kindle edition also available).
The current debate about sexual ethics in the Church can often be reduced to a debate about particular issues. Is it right to marry two people of the same sex? Would it be right for the Church of England to bless Civil Partnerships? Should someone in a sexually active gay or lesbian relationship be ordained? These are all important issues, but in order to address them properly it is necessary to do so not in isolation, but in the context of an overarching Christian understanding of sexual ethics. The new book from Dennis Hollinger, who is President and Professor of Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the United States, seeks to offer just such an overarching perspective. The book is two parts. Part I is entitled ‘Frameworks’ and it covers ‘ethical theories and sex,’ ‘worldwiews and sex,’ ‘the Christian worldview and sex’ and ‘the purposes of sex.’ Part II is entitled ‘Issues’ and it covers ‘sex before marriage,’ ‘sex in marriage’ ‘the challenge of homosexuality,’ ‘reproductive technologies and sexual ethics’ and ‘living in a sex-crazed world.’ Professor Hollinger argues that there are ‘four main purposes of the gift of sexual intimacy: consummation of marriage, procreation, love and pleasure. These purposes are implicitly taught in Holy Scripture, but have also been evident to human beings down through the ages via reason and human experience – that is through natural revelation.’ In his view ‘these are God’s designs for physical intimacy and our Maker desires that they be held together as unit.’ In the second half of his book he looks at particular issues in the light of these four main purposes of sex, suggesting that the ethics of any sexual act needs to be ‘tested against the ability to encompass these four ends, or at least be in the context of these four ends.’ Professor Hollinger’s overall conclusion is that in today’s world of widespread confusion about sexual ethics ‘faithful sexual living will only arise from a clear commitment to the Christian meaning of sex.’ He goes on to say that ‘As a church we must teach the whole counsel of God, including the Christian meaning of sex, embodying its tenets, while constantly reaching out in grace and forgiveness to those who stumble and fall. And in the midst of society, as individuals and the church, we will not only keep ourselves holy for God’s sake, but for the world’s sake, seeking to be salt and light in a culture that thinks sex is a merely private affair.’ Professor Hollinger takes a largely conservative view on the major issues in sexual ethics and his book is written from an American perspective. However, one should be put off from reading it either because they are not conservative or because they are not American. As one reviewer has said, this book offers ‘a careful, well-researched, up-to-date and well written evangelical account of sexual ethics’ and as such it is a book that has the capacity to help everyone to think more deeply and clearly about what they believe about sexual ethics and why they believe it.
One of the key features of the Catholic movement in the Church of England is devotion to the Virgin Mary. From the perspective of this tradition devotion to the Virgin Mary is rooted in Scripture and the teaching and practice of the Church down the ages and across the world and as such it forms a key part of the Church of England’s Catholic identity. The late Canon Roger Greenacre was one of the most respected Anglo-Catholic priests in the Church of England, and this new book brings together a collection of his sermons and writings about Mary in a way that clearly illustrates the central place that she has in Catholic Anglican theology and spirituality as well as being a tribute to Canon Greenacres’s life and work. The collection, which was put together by Dr Colin Podmore, Canon Greenacre’s literary executor, is in four parts. Part I ‘Roger Greenacre’ consists of a brief biography of Canon Greenacre by Dr Podmore and addresses given at his funeral requiem at Charterhouse and at the Requiem Mass held for him in Chichester Cathedral where he had been Chancellor and Precentor. Part II consists of sixteen homilies relating to Mary preached by Canon Greenacre, grouped under the headings of ‘Mother of God Incarnate,’ ‘Blessed among Women,’ ‘Queen of heaven’ and ‘
St Joseph.’ Part III consists on a series of
papers by Canon Greenacre which outline the story of devotion to Mary in the
history of the Church of England both before and after the Reformation.
Finally, Part IV consists of a series of reflections by Canon Greenacre on the
place of Mary in ecumenical dialogue, including his reflections on the ARCIC
document Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.
The following quotation from a sermon he preached at an ecumenical pilgrimage
in honour of Mary at Durham Cathedral in 1998 gives a flavour of the collection
as a whole. He states that what is required from those taking part in such a pilgrimage
is at least three things ‘First, sorrow that the figure of one whom our Lord
and Master Jesus Christ loved and reverenced as his Mother has been allowed to
become the focus of controversy and division, and penitence for our own
complicity in this tragic confrontation, in which Catholics have used their
rosaries to flog the backs of Protestants and Protestants have used their
Bibles to bash the heads of Catholics. Secondly, sensitivity to the convictions
of our fellow Christians and an awareness of those points in our own tradition
that can scandalize and hurt our fellow Christians. Thirdly, a conviction that
we and the churches to which we belong are called, in this domain as in so many
others, to a real conversion as we try to confess together with one voice the
Faith of the Scriptures and the Creeds and as we seek for the right language in
which – in obedience to her own Magnificat – to call Mary blessed.’ This is a very
helpful volume for anyone who wants to understand how Mary is understood within
the Catholic Anglican tradition today or who wants to be stimulated to think
more deeply about the place that should be given to Mary in Christian theology,
spirituality and ecumenical dialogue.
The title of this book by the American Roman Catholic writer, Jonah Lynch, who now teaches in a seminary in Rome, highlights the fact that there are some things, such as conveying the touch, taste and scent of lemons, which electronic technology simply cannot do. In this book Lynch tells how his attempt to care for lemon trees brought to light an impatience resulting from his involvement in the speedy processes of electronic technology. He argues that such involvement leads us to become hunters constantly searching for data, but that this in turn detracts from the patient and deep attention required for other tasks such as cultivating lemon trees. Lynch records the way that the missionary order to which he belongs now has effortless international conferences on the internet, but observes that virtual contact has an inevitable `disincarnating' effect on relationships. Writing `ha ha ha' on a chat screen bears no comparison with laughing among friends. Furthermore, this ‘disincarnation’ means that, like pornography, the internet is guilty of an extreme materialisation: ‘after having reduced the infinite beauty of loving relationships to a pure physical mechanism, we are decomposing them into the banal virtuality of a group of pixels on a back-lit screen'. Lynch considers the theological dimension of all this: `The human person made in the image and likeness of the One and Triune God is made for communion. This explains the extraordinary growth of Facebook, which interprets this ultimate desire. But what does Facebook do with it? Friends become a quantity...close friends, simple acquaintances, and ex-girlfriends are all on the same level.' He also reflects on the harshness of the internet. Like the mind of God it records everything, but unlike a merciful God it can use the memory of every detail against us even when we lament of our errors. The book ends with accounts of how, as a seminary Rector, Lynch employs forms of `technological fast' to help his ordinands build up their prayer life and friendships. It is real relationships in the flesh in the context of small and local communities that are the key to a re-vitalisation of humanity and Church, and virtual networking needs to serve rather than replace these real relationships. This book is a timely warning of the danger of the virtual world that so many people (Christians included) now inhabit and an important summons to Christians to think how corporately and individually they can learn to put electronic technology into its proper place as an adjunct to, rather than a replacement for, real experiences and real relationships and the time and attention that these require.
Bishop Tom Wright’s ‘For Everyone’ series of commentaries have been very successful in mediating top quality biblical scholarship to a wider audience. In the light of this, SPCK have commissioned Professor Alister McGrath to write a five volume introduction to the leading themes of the Creeds along similar lines under the general title Christian Belief for Everyone. Faith and the Creeds is the first volume in the series and it will be followed by four subsequent volumes: The Living God, Lord and Saviour - Jesus of Nazareth, Spirit of the Living God and The Christian Life and Hope. As Professor McGrath explains in his introduction ‘traditional introductions to Christian belief have tended to treat its ideas – such as incarnation or redemption or the creeds (to which we will return later) - as if each is a little box or watertight compartment, unconnected to any other, to be opened up and explored individually. I would like to take a different approach, one that emphasizes the importance of seeing the whole, not just examining its constituent elements, because it seems to me that in order to appreciate individual beliefs, you need to see the big picture of which they are a part. So in this volume we will begin with the ‘panorama’ as it were; then in the next four volumes we will move on to the ‘snapshots’ as we look at individual beliefs in more detail.’ In exploring the ‘panorama’ in his first volume Professor McGrath draws on the work of C S Lewis, G K Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers and, following Lewis, what he seeks to present is ‘a consensual basic Christianity, using accessible and engaging language and images.’ The big argument he presents in this volume is that Christian faith present a more comprehensive and more satisfying understanding of reality than scientific materialism. ‘It is about realising that a surface reading of things is simply inadequate. There is a big picture to be discovered that goes far beyond the limited and impoverished view of things that results from skimming the surface of reality. The creed of many around us may be ‘what you see is what you get.’ Yet we are called to go ‘further up and further in,’ and help others to raise their horizons and open their eyes to a deeper and richer understanding of reality...Although we can’t prove that this new way of seeing things is right, it makes so much sense that we are prepared to commit ourselves to living on this basis, knowing that millions before us have found it reliable and resilient. Reciting the creeds is about holding hands with those who’ve walked before us along the road of faith and talked through it great themes.’ Living in this way, he says, ‘is about entering into and acting in accordance with this bigger picture, aligning ourselves with its vision of reality’ and this turn leads not to disengagement from the world, but a desire to change it, ‘A vision of the New Jerusalem makes us yearn to bring about at least some of its values and attributes in our own age, trying to shape the present in the light of God’s coming kingdom.’ This is an accessible and stimulating introduction to the nature of Christian belief and where the Creeds fit into the picture. It will not, probably, do that much for the average man on the Clapham omnibus, but it an excellent resource to put into the hands of an educated enquirer or new Christian who is prepared to expend a bit of time and intellectual effort to try to see what belief involves and why it makes sense.
Paul K Moser, The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived, CUP. ISBN 978-1-10761-532-8, £ 18.99
Although St. Paul talks about the severity of God in Romans 11.22, the idea of God’s severity is not one that has attracted much attention from theologians. In this new book Paul Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University in the United States, seeks to correct this oversight. Professor Moser’s focus is on how the concept of divine severity relates to the nature of life in this world with all its difficulties and challenges. As he notes in his Preface, ‘Human talk of God is often cheap and easy, and self serving too. It thus leaves us with a god unworthy of the morally perfect title ‘God.’ This book takes a different route, in order to move way from counterfeits and towards the real article. Our expectations for God, if God exists, often get in the way of our receiving salient evidence of God. We assume that God would have certain obligations towards us, even by way of giving us clear evidence, and when these obligations are not met we discredit God, including God’s existence. This is a fast track to atheism, or at least agnosticism. We need, however, to take stock of which arguments for God are fitting and which are not, given what would be God’s perfect moral character and will.’ The moral argument against God, invoked in so called ‘protest atheism.’ holds that God, if he exists, is not exercising proper control over the world and is therefore unworthy of our worship and obedience. Professor Moser’s response to this argument is to ask whether this way of thinking is not based on a failure to think through sufficiently rigorously how it would be proper for God to behave. Perhaps, he suggests ‘God is not casual, but intentionally severe, in a sense to be clarified, owing to God’s vigorous concern for the reception of divine righteous love (agapé).’ As he sees it, if God's aim is to extend without coercion his everlasting life to humans, then commitment to that goal could manifest itself in his making human life severe, for the sake of encouraging humans to enter into that life of cooperative good. In this scenario, divine agapé is conferred as free gift, but the human reception of it involves ‘severe difficulty, discomfort, anxiety, stress, or insecurity for human beings’ in the face of conflicting powers and priorities. In this view of things what we often see as evidence against God and his goodness is in fact God operating in truly good way that enables human being to freely share God’s life for ever. This is a highly stimulating essay in philosophical theology that encourages those who are up to the intellectual challenge to think in a fresh way about why God acts as he does and what counts as evidence for God’s goodness.
2012 marked the 350th anniversary of the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer and this book, edited by the Chairman and Secretary of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, has been produced as part of the celebrations of this anniversary. The book consists of ten essays. Six of these essays were first presented at a symposium at the British Academy in March 2012 and are presented here in a revised form, accompanied by four additional essays produced for the book itself. The essays are as follows: Stephen Platten ‘All Such Good Works: The Book of Common Prayer and the Fashioning of English Society,’ Gordon Jeanes ‘The Tudor Prayer Books: That ‘the whole realme shall have but one use,’’ Hannah Cleugh ‘The Prayer Book in Early Stuart Society,’ Peter McCullough ‘Absent Presence: Lancelot Andrewes and 1662,’ Brian Cummings ‘The 1662 Prayer Book,’ William Jacob ‘Common Prayer in the Eighteenth Century,’ Bryan D. Spinks ‘The Transition from ‘Excellent Liturgy’ to being ‘Too Narrow for the Religious Life of the Present Generation’: The Book of Common Prayer in the Nineteenth Century,’ Paul Bradshaw ‘Liturgical Development: From Common Prayer to Uncommon Worship,’ Paul Avis ‘The Book of Common Prayer and Anglicanism: Worship and Belief’ and Christopher Woods ‘Epilogue: A place for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in the twenty-first-century Church?’ As this list reveals, the essays in this collection are written by some of the world’s leading liturgical scholars and historians and they offer new and original scholarship about the background to the development of the Book of Common Prayer in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, about its use in the Church of England since 1662, about its impact on the life of the Church of England and English society in general and about its place in the Church today. The book is aimed primarily at scholars and students in theological colleges, courses and universities, but the essays are sufficiently accessible to make the book of interest to a wider audience in the Church of England and beyond. As Fr George Guiver has commented, ‘This engaging bird's-eye view gives a sweep of the history of the use of the BCP, through the long period of its glory days, reigning supreme, widely treasured, and on to choppier modern waters, where we are no longer sure what place the BCP should have, and modern reforms lack its ability to focus the character and self-understanding of Anglicanism. This seamless book, which almost reads as if by one author, is both scholarly and accessible to the ordinary reader, and you are likely to have difficulty putting it down.’
As its title suggests, the purpose of this book by Gerald Rau, a former biology professor at Wheaton College and Trinity Christian College, is to map the current debate both inside and outside the Christian Church about the origins of the universe and of the world that we inhabit. In the book Professor Rau looks at six models of origins, naturalistic evolution, non-teleological evolution, planned evolution, directed evolution, old earth creationism and young earth creationism. The first model has no place for God. The second gives a place to God in starting off the universe, but no place for Him after that. The third sees God as not only crating the universe, but creating it so that it would develop according to a specific plan. The fourth sees God creating the universe and continuing to intervene in it in order to direct it to its intended end. The fifth see science and Genesis as giving distinct but non contradictory account of the creation of the universe and are happy with the idea of the earth being extremely old. The sixth reads Genesis as a literal account of a seven day creation and on this basis holds that the earth is in fact very young, being only a few thousand years old. . Professor Rau looks at each model in turn and exploring how it assesses the scientific evidence in relation to four different kinds of origins: the universe, life, species and humans. As he works through the models he investigates the nature of science and looks at how each of the six models presupposes an underlying philosophy that its adherents take on faith and how difference between Christians about the nature of God’s creative activity reflect different views of the proper hermeneutic for the interpretation of Scripture. In the end, he shows not just what the differences are among the options, but why those who hold disagree and why we shouldn't expect any resolution as long as the philosophical and theological assumptions involved remain unchanged. This is not a book that gives a particular answer to the question of the origins of the universe and of planet earth. Readers who want that will be disappointed. What it does do is to identify in a level headed and even handed way the key issues involved in looking at this question and why people looking at the same evidence continue to disagree about the answer to it. What this book offers its readers is the opportunity to become better informed about the current debates on origins and better thinkers about the issues at stake and for that reason it is well worth reading.
News coverage of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has suggested that this was an almost unprecedented event. It is true that before Pope Benedict no Pope had resigned for six hundred years, but in the course of Papal history as a whole Popes have resigned on a number of occasions. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists a series of possible examples of Papal resignations during the first thousand years of the history of the Church, but the evidence for these is obscure and disputed. The first historically unquestionable Papal resignation was that of Benedict IX in 1045 and this was followed by the resignation of Gregory VI in the following year, Celestine V in 1294 and Gregory XII in 1415. The Pope who Quit, by the American Catholic historian Jo Sweeney is an account of the penultimate figure on this list, Pope Celestine V, who was Pope from August to December 1294. Pope Celestine was previously known as Peter Morrone and before becoming Pope he had been a hermit and had founded the Celestine order. In 1294, after a conclave had failed to elect a Pope for two years, Peter sent the Cardinals a letter warning them that the vengeance of God would fall upon them if they failed to elect. The Cardinals then decided that Peter himself was God’s man for the job and against his better judgement Peter was persuaded to accept the Papacy. After five months and eight days in office he resigned after having realised that he lacked the necessary authority to be Pope and went back to being a hermit. However, fearing that he would be set up as an anti-Pope, his successor Boniface VIII had him arrested and imprisoned and after ten months in prison he died. Peter’s supporters suggested that he had been harshly treated while imprisoned and ultimately executed and in 1313 he was canonised. In The Pope Who Quit Jon Sweeney vividly re-creates Celestine V’s life and times, explaining the reasons for his swift election and equally swift resignation and the mixture of religious and political intrigue that surrounded him both during and after his occupation of the chair of St, Peter. This book is worth reading as a lively account of a generally forgotten piece of church history, but it also raises fascinating questions about what a truly holy man should do when he is appointed to a job that he really does not want and quickly comes to realise that it is also a job that he cannot do. Should he continue in office on the grounds that this is a burden laid on him by God or resign to let some one else do the job better? Since his death Pope Celestine has been viewed as both a coward (he is often thought to be the figure depicted by Dante outside the gates of the inferno ‘who through cowardice made the great refusal’) and as hero worthy of sainthood. Read the book and make up your own mind!