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Saturday, 17 October 2009

Book Reviews for October 2009

Each month, Dr Martin Davie, the Theological Secretary to the Bishops of the Church of England, reviews some new theological books. I have his permission to publish his notes each month. I hope this will be of use to the clergy and Readers (lay ministers) of the Diocese in Europe, as well as to any interested in current theology. The 10 latest reviews are below. (For the full article, click on the read more link). 

Lucy Beckett In the Light of Christ: Writings in the Western tradition, Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-107-0, £15.50.

Lucy Beckett is a Roman Catholic writer who taught Latin and history at Ampleforth Abbey and College. In her new book she undertakes a survey of the entire Western literary tradition from Ancient Greece to modern times from a Christian theological perspective. The standpoint from which she undertakes her survey is the conviction that the writers with whom she is concerned only make sense ‘in the light of Christ.’ What she means by this is that the value of their works ‘that is to say, their truthfulness, beauty and goodness’ rests ‘in their relation to the absolute truth, beauty and goodness that are one in God and that are definitively revealed to the world in Christ..’ As she sees it, the reason that countless readers are attracted to these texts is because, finally, they reflect some truth about God even if, as in the case of some of the writings she surveys, their authors do not know Christ or even reject him. The purpose of her survey is to help her readers to see this so that in their exploration of the Western literary canon they are enabled to see something more of the truth about God. This is an important and stimulating work that will help people to expand their understanding of the spiritual value of the Western cultural tradition.

Mary B Cunningham & Elizabeth Theokritoff (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, CUP, ISBN 978-0-52168-338-8, £17.99.

Perhaps because of its emphasis on tradition, Orthodox Christian theology is often seen as something static and orientated towards the past. However, as this volume in the CUP Cambridge Companion series shows, this view of Orthodoxy is mistaken. Orthodoxy is a vibrant living tradition that has blossomed in the modern period and as well portraying the main figures, themes and developments that have shaped Orthodox thought in the past this volume also shows how the Orthodox theological tradition is understood and lived today and how for the Orthodox theology is an expression of the life of prayer. The contributors to this volume, who as well as the authors include Ephrem Lash, Hilarion Alfeyev and Andrew Louth, are scholars representing a range of Orthodox traditions and their essays cover both the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions as well as looking at the less well known Antiochian and Arab Orthodox traditions and the development of the Orthodox present in the West. This book is recommended for anyone who wants a wide ranging, authoritative and up to date overview of Orthodox theology.

Bruce Gordon, Calvin, Yale UP, ISBN 978-0-30012-076-9, £25.00.

This year sees the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin and this anniversary has seen the publication of a number of books to mark the event. The new biography of Calvin by Bruce Gordon, Professor of Reformation History at Yale Divinity School, looks like being one of the best of these. Gordon eschews both the hagiographical approach to Calvin going back to Theodore Beza and the demonizing approach going back to Jerome Bolsec. Instead he describes a complex character, devoted to God and to the work of God, but constantly struggling to tame a sense of his own superiority and looks at how Calvin’s distinctive theology emerged out of his own life and character and out of the theological, social and political context in which he lived and worked. This study looks like it is going to become one of the standard biographies of Calvin and should be read by anyone who wants an up to date account of his life.

George Guiver, Vision Upon Vision : Processes of Change and Renewal in Christian Worship, Canterbury Press, ISNB 978-1-85311-992-7, £16.99.

This new work by the Superior of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield explores the changing nature of Christian worship from the New Testament to the present day, charting the way in which worship evolved and changed through the great east-west divide, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the 19th century reaction to it. He rejects an idealized vision of the past that holds that there was at some point in the past a pure and pristine pattern of Christian worship from which the Church has declined and to which it should strive to return. He argues instead that Christian worship has always undergone processes of change and renewal and that it has always involved compromise with public life and borrowing from the drama of the theatre. In his book Guiver also highlights the significance of the default practices and customs that have marked the public worship and individual prayer of ordinary Christians and shows how the study of the past can help us to examine a range of assumptions and presuppositions about worship today. This is an important resource for anyone wanting to think more deeply about the nature of Christian worship.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, Yale UP, 978-0-30011-190-3, £19.99.

Professor David Bentley Hart is an American Orthodox philosopher and theologian. In his new book he challenges what he calls the ‘fashionable enemies’ of Christianity, writers such as Richard Hawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett who have produced best selling denunciations of religion in general and the Christian faith in particular. His argument is that the polemics of these writers are based on deep conceptual confusions and on facile simplifications of history or even simple historical ignorance. In response to this confusion, simplification and ignorance Hart presents Christianity as the most radical revolution in Western history. He describes the way in which Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways that many today have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruellest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He also contends that what has come to be called the 'Age of Reason' was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason's authority as a cultural value. Finally, he sets out the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values. A powerful antidote to the voices of the new atheists, exposing the facile and misleading nature of their attack on Christianity.

Gordon P Jeanes, Signs of God's Promise: Thomas Cranmer's Sacramental Theology and the Book of Common Prayer, T&T Clark, ISBN 978-0-567031-189-6, £24.99.

Because of the fact that Archbishop Cranmer was the main mind behind the three historic formularies which have shaped the development of the theology and worship of the Church of England since the Reformation the question of Cranmer’s teaching about the sacraments has been much debated, with scholars seeking to understand what Cranmer himself thought and intended and to distinguish this from the later layers of interpretation that have been placed upon his teaching. This new study by Gordon Jeanes, who formerly taught liturgy and Church history at the universities of Durham and Wales, continues this tradition of scholarly investigation into Cranmer’s own ideas about the sacraments. Jeanes describes the traditional late Medieval understandings of Baptism and the Eucharist that formed the background to Cranmer’s thought and then explores how Cranmer’s understanding of the sacraments developed through the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI and came to be reflected in the 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books. His conclusion is that Cranmer’s sacramental theology ‘is coherent, prominent in what in the twentieth century we would call spirituality and able to speak of the grace of God with a clarity and immediacy lacking in many other theologies of the time.’ This is an important study that needs to be looked at by anyone who wants to understand more fully Cranmer’s thought and the teaching of the historic formularies.

Diarmaid MacCulloch , A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Allen Lane, ISBN 978-0-71399- 869-6, £35.00.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch is the Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and is well known for his biography of Archbishop Cranmer and his one volume history of the Reformation. In his new book (which is tied in with a BBC TV series) he moves beyond the Reformation to consider the whole history of Christianity from its beginnings to the present day, covering the main ideas and leading characters of Christian history, the development of the Church’s organisation and traditions of Christian spirituality and the ways in which Christianity has shaped politics, sex, and wider human society. Although his book is not, as the publishers claim ‘the first truly global history of Christianity’ it is marked by an emphasis on the development of Christianity outside Europe. Every historian has his own particular perspective on the events that he or she describes and MacCulloch’s approach, particularly perhaps his handling of the Patristic period, is likely to be problematic for Christians of a traditional and orthodox persuasion. Nevertheless this book seems likely to become a standard text on its subject and therefore one that everyone interested in the history of the Church needs to study and ponder, if only to determine why they see things differently from the way that MacCulloch sees them.

Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s letter at Ground level, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28105-931-7, £14.99.

There have been and are many studies of, and commentaries on, St Paul’s letter to the Romans. So what is distinctive about this new study by Peter Greenwood, lecturer in New Testament at the University of Manchester? The answer is that while most studies and commentaries on Romans have focussed on what St Paul was seeking to communicate through Romans Oakes’ study looks at the letter from the standpoint of those who first received it. Combining archaeology and biblical studies Oakes brings together the text of Romans and the archaeological discoveries from Pompeii to help us to think about the ways in which different people in the Christian community in Rome such as a slave girl, a cabinet-maker-cum-surgeon and an educated slave concubine might have understood Romans. This is an interesting new study that will be helpful for those looking for a fresh way of seeking to understand Romans in its original historical and social context.

Anthony Thiselton, The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought, SPCK, ISBN 978-0-28106-110-5, £12.99.

Professor Anthony Thiselton is renowned for his work in the fields of hermeneutics and New Testament studies and for his contribution to the theological life of the Church of England. Some of his works, such as his studies in hermeneutics and his commentary on 1 Corinthians have been very technical in nature, but his new book on the Apostle Paul is much more accessible. Joining other recent works on St. Paul by scholars such as the Bishop of Durham and James Dunn, Thiselton’s relatively brief new study is intended to introduce the Apostle to both theological students and general readers alike. Thiselton looks at St. Paul’s teaching afresh and argues that in spite of what is commonly thought he was not a misogynist, but believed in reciprocity and mutuality between men and women and in sexual relationships. Overall, he explains that St. Paul has much to say about the everyday things which concern Christians today, including vocation, giving, power and Christian unity. This is a useful introductory study that can be recommended with confidence to anyone who wants to begin to understand St Paul’s life and teaching.

Nigel Wright, The Real Godsend: Preaching the Birth Narratives in Matthew and Luke, BRF, ISBN 978-0-30011-190-3, £6.99.

This new book by the Principal of Spurgeon’s College, Nigel Wright, argues that the birth narratives on Matthew and Luke need to be rescued from Christmas in the sense that in order to understand their real significance we have to strip away the sentimentality and legend that so often obscures our reading of them. In order to undertake this rescue exercise Wright undertakes a verse-by-verse exploration of the verse narratives in the light of two convictions. The first is that these narratives are ‘works of theology – that is, their concern is to inform and persuade us about the God who has sent his Son into the world for our salvation. Jesus is understood in the light of this gracious God and is the Godsend, the one who comes to us freely as God’s greatest gift.’ The second is that ‘these passages are only to be interpreted as they are read against the background of the Hebrew Scriptures, the books of the Bible that we call the Old Testament. As we read them theologically with repeated reference to the Hebrew Scriptures, which shaped and formed them, they yield to us their rich witness and wisdom.’ This will be a vey helpful book for anyone seeking to understand or preach on the birth narratives in such a way that their full theological meaning becomes clear.
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