I was going to write a review of The Casual Vacancy, but decided, having read LaVonne Neff’s excellent contribution, mine would be redundant at best. Read hers over at Books and Culture. I will add only one (minor) point–in Pagford, even the virtues of the villains are vicious while the vices of the heroes are tragically noble. That flattened out the characters and detracted from what was supposed to be a “realistic” story, skewing it more to the allegorical, which Neff deftly addresses.
Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Paul’s Ethics
James W. Thornton (Baker Academic, 2011)
Paul is not a theologian. Daring claim, but one that appears to be justified by James W. Thornton’s new book, Moral Formation according to Paul. This is not to say that Paul is not interested in theology. He is. Rather, it is to insist that ethics, far from being an add on to Paul’s theological thought, is the key to understanding Paul rightly. Paul’s theology grows out of a desire to shape the identity of the ethnically mixed Christian communities he founded through ethics. If Bultmann, in other words, sundered Paul’s letters into unrelated indicative and imperative sections, Thornton puts them back together by insisting that the imperative must come first.
Paul, says Thornton, stands squarely in the ethical stream of first century Hellenistic Judaism (Introduction and Chatper 1). Paul argues in the same way, often appealing to the same biblical texts. The Hellenists were concerned with maintaining Jewish identity in Diaspora by forming distinct communities. Paul, says Thornton, has a similar strategy with his fledgling churches, with two significant differences: his communities no longer have an ethic foundation, but are mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles and Paul’s Hellenistic approach has been radically re-oriented by Jesus. Paul’s communities will receive, mould, and maintain their identities by living lives worthy of the Gospel.
Subsequent chapters, (2 through 8) then look at specific examples in the Pauline and disputed letters that flesh out this thesis. Thus, community formation and moral instruction in the Corinthian Correspondence is the subject of chapter 2. This is followed by the place of ethics in Paul’s overall catechesis in 1 Thessalonians (chapter 3), the virtue and vice lists (chapter 4), the Law (chapters 5-6), the love command (chapter 7), and the disputed letters (chapter 8). The book follows with a conclusion that, drawing on previous chapters, presents a convincing argument that Paul’s moral vision is coherent (these are not haphazard or ad hoc instructions), and, while inevitably incomplete, contains the keys for further moral reasoning within the early communities in Paul’s absence.
Paul, concludes Thornton, is teaching his communities to read and live the Law, and especially the summary thereof in the holiness code of Leviticus, through the lens of the love of neighbor command which is given fresh emphasis by the Lord himself. Paul does not end the Law in other words, but keeps it at the core of his moral vision. It is changed by a Christological reorientation, but it is not set aside.
I am not a New Testament scholar. But I do expect that this book will create a stir in Pauline scholarship, especially in the renewed debates on justification. For if Thornton is right, justification by faith simply isn’t the article by which the church stands or falls. More than that, though, is beyond my competence to say.
This book is very important for pastors who, like me, are trying to convince their people that the Old Testament continues to be an abiding witness to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and an important ethical witness about how Christians are to conduct themselves. “Why can’t we just do what the disciples did in Acts 15 and throw out the Old Testament?” Have you heard that question? I have! Or “Jesus said nothing about sex. Why are we so hung up on it?” If I had a nickel. . . . Thornton gives pastors a powerful reading of Paul from which sensitive pastors and curious lay people can wrestle with these and other related questions, and come to some surprising answers.
If you are looking for a good antidote to “creeping Marcionism,” James Thornton has given you one here!
Review: Sam Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011)
If there is a prevailing mood in my parish these days, it’s anxiety. My people are anxious that their kids and grandkids are not going to be able to live the life that they did; that they are looking at a generation which, for the first time in a very long time, will not do as well as the one previous. They are anxious about the global politics and how they impinge upon them. The European debt crisis, the sluggish economic recovery in the US, the potential for the war in Syria to expand to expand beyond its borders: these aren’t far away problems. Their potential and actual impact upon friends, family, to say nothing of personal savings, makes them “down the street” instead of “across the world” events. They are anxious about their health—what will the next round of tests say?—their jobs—when will it be my turn to be axed?–
And I’m not immune. When I tuck my kids into bed, when I pray for them, when I talk with my wife about them, I feel fear. My trust in God is not so resilient, so strong as to be immune from these sorts of questions. Is yours?
If your faith community is like mine, if you are like me, you will devour Sam Wells’ book, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear With Faith (Brazos, 2011). Some of you might know Wells as the Dean of the Chapel at Duke Univserity or as a major young theological ethicist and interpreter of Stanley Hauerwas. Others of you might know him as the newly appointed rector of St. Martin’s in the Fields, London. Wells has worn academic and pastoral hats in his career. In this book, we hear the heart of the parish priest (indeed, much of it reads like it found its first life in the pulpit). It is a popularly written, engaging call not to refuse fear so much as to meet fear with the deep resources provided by Christian faith.
The book falls into five parts, with each inviting readers to be not afraid of death, weakness, power, difference, faith and finally life. The material is theologically and ethically rich. It is presented in a way that it would be a fine discussion book for a small group or Sunday School class of college age or higher. And while clearly not an academic text, academics will find much here to chew on—as I certainly did.
I was particularly struck by the arrangement of the first and last parts—be not afraid of death, and be not afraid of life—and how everything else: weakness, power, difference and faith fit in between. Wells, throughout, invites us to life and to live all the while finding our courage in Christ, who is our life.
Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit
Baker Books, 2011
In this book, Mark Galli, noted Christian author and senior managing editor at Christianity Today gives us a narrative account of the person and work of the Holy Spirit organized around the poles of chaos and control. In the first half of the book (the first 10 chapters), Galli moves us through Genesis, the Psalms, Prophets, Gospels and Paul, tracing the theme of liberation or chaos. The second half is a fusing of horizons—the contemporary world and the book of Acts. It seeks to interweave our narrative and the biblical one, wondering what might happen were churches and disciples bowled over by the holy chaos that the liberating spirit of God brings.
His exegesis in these chapters is “loose” (I think he would agree with that description) and uncritical (i.e., lacking notes or other scholarly apparatus). This approach is undertaken for two reasons. The first—he is aiming at a popular audience and while he hopes his exegesis is sound (as far as I can see, it largely is), he is not addressing the scholar and therefore doesn’t use the scholar’s tool kit. The second is more substantive. He wants to write in a way that supports his argument. And his argument is that living in surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit is about surrendering control to another, to set loose holy chaos in one’s life. And Galli fears that scads of notes, references to commentaries and controversies about sources and authors , etc., would actually undermine that argument by trying yet again to control the biblical witness.
Much of this book is edifying and parts of it are brilliant. My personal “aha” moment came on page 112 where Galli talks about the strange disconnect or lack of integration between the vertical (our relationship with God as expressed in the great truths of mercy and grace) and the horizontal (our relationship to our brothers and sisters as expressed in the great call to discipleship and the pursuit of justice). The result of the disconnect is a harsh Pelagianism that browbeats Christians with guilt, fear, shame, and moralism. This astute observation is not limited to this or that end of the evangelical ethical spectrum. One could easily evaluate the writings of, say, Jim Wallis and Ralph Reed here and see easily what Galli is driving at. The book is full of such insights—sometimes small, sometimes larger—that make one put it down, ponder a while, and then want to take it up again.
Still, I am not without my quibbles. There are two and both have to do with the notion of chaos. First of all, I don’t think chaos is a really helpful metaphor for helping us to understand the work of the Spirit. A garden, for example, even a very well-tended one, will, if it is thriving, look chaotic. But only at first or second glance. Beneath the apparently haphazard hum of insects and weeds and ripening fruit there is a deep harmony and order. It seems to me, the work of the Spirit is like that. It is not chaos all the way down. It feels chaotic only to those so addicted to control that they cannot trust the Spirit to do his own ordering work in his own way and at his own pace. On the other hand, and to use a different metaphor, rapid, random and finally chaotic cell growth is not a sign of life, but of death. Such chaotic and finally purposeless growth is, literally, cancer. Galli does recognize this and helpfully talks about obedience and discipleship in the second half of the book, but there did seem to me to be a disconnect between the halves here and I think it is embedded in the controlling metaphor. Could a metaphor that suggested uncontrollability, life, and trustworthiness and order (which is not the same as control) be found?
Second, I find chaos to be unhelpful because there’s chaos, and then there’s chaos. Theologians often have ecclesiological debates that reduce to a chicken or egg kind of question. One the one hand, there are those who say, “Where the Spirit is, there is the Church,” and on the other, there are those who insist, “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit.” I don’t want to enter into this debate right here, but I don’t think it will be settled with what I take to be Galli’s reframing of the dictum as, “Where the Spirit is, there is chaos.” Here, my objection might have something to do with audience. Standing in a liberal tradition that has, by and large, lost its way, I can say to Galli that not all that is chaotic is of the Spirit and to embrace chaos is not necessarily the Spirit. Or another example (Can I name names?): Todd Bentley has recently claimed the Holy Spirit told him to kick a woman in the face . Now that’s chaotic. And I will tell you categorically and without apology that the spirit Bentley is listening to is not Holy. The point is, many of us—who are not coming from straight-laced evangelical congregations—need help to discern the ordering work of the Spirit beneath the chaos so that we can discern just what chaos is His and what is not.
But these are not reasons to avoid the book. I am better for having read it. It is wise and wild and stretching. Ideal for an adult bible study class.
The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible
Baker Academic, 2011
I requested this book to review as part of a larger project I am working on in my parish. Beginning on July 1, I began to preach through the Old Testament lections not as illustrations of New Testament claims or themes, nor as the mere background through which the NT comes to us. Rather, I began to preach through the OT lections as Christian Scripture in their own right. What better resource, I thought, than the newest work by the foremost spokesperson for OT canonical criticism alive. I have not been disappointed.
In six chapters, Seitz wrestles with the claim that the OT has, on its own and in its literal sense, the character of Christian Scripture. The word character is important here for it acknowledges that the OT can in fact be read in various ways. Most obviously, it can be read as Jewish Scripture. This, of course, throws us back to the debates between Paul and his Jewish opponents in the synagogues as recounted in the book of Acts (cf. e.g., Acts 17:2-3). The question here is does the church’s confession of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah illuminate or distort the plain sense of the OT? Does it clarify or obscure what is already there? However much Christians have to learn from Jewish exegesis of the Hebrew Bible (and we do!) and, for that matter, Jewish exegesis of the NT (the stellar Gospel work of Amy Jill Levine comes immediately to mind), this question is one that is fundamental to the distinct identities of the two communities even as we share a common object of faith: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Even if the question of Jewish/Christian dialogue is simmering close to the surface, the OT’s “character as Christian Scripture” as Seitz sets it up here suggests there are other sets of conversations to be had also. Naming the OT as Christian Scripture, for example, is to aver that the literal sense of the OT texts is not delivered in a fundamental way when it is read as one of many ancient documents testifying to the religious life of the Ancient Near East. Again, while there may be much for Christian interpreters to glean from readings that operate from this assumption, Seitz rightly calls into question the relative ease with which some readings are carried over holus bolus from the academy into the church without attention to the incommensurate nature of the presuppositions informing those readings with those of traditional Christian faith.
More vitally, it seems to me, the OT’s character “as Christian Scripture” invites a series of serious conversations not between religious communities who share sacred texts, nor between the church and the academy, but within the church itself. Seitz (and I) is primarily worried that Christians are forgetting how to read the OT rightly. It is becoming, for example, mere illustrative material for NT claims. Worse, rather than being the foundation upon which the NT is built and which the NT illuminates, it is now regarded by some as being constrained by the NT. Only those OT themes explicitly echoed in the NT are valid, or the hermeneutics of the NT are the only valid ones to be deployed when reading the OT. The result, in whatever case, is a truncated Christian canon, an atrophied Christian biblical imagination, and a failure to hear the whole Word of God. The ghost of Marcion, it seems, still lurks.
It was this last concern that was foremost for me as a preacher. Through a series of what to me were startling conversations with parishioners, I came to the conclusion that many in my parish—who had, at least in some cases, been hearing the OT as a part of Christian worship far longer than I had—had simply tuned the OT out altogether. They knew the stories, but it had stopped functioning as word of God a long time ago. “Marcionite” might be too strong an adjective to describe the deafness to the OT I encountered, but we were definitely in the ballpark.
But back to Seitz himself. The chapters stand largely independently and can be read, with great profit, on their own. Nevertheless, they do build to a climax from chapters 2 through 7. Seitz takes readers from a helpful recapitulation of themes in the work of Brevard Childs (ch.2) through an application of these themes (ch. 3), with a particular view to the use of the OT in Hebrews (ch. 4) and the Psalms as Christian Scritpure (ch. 5). These issues then disclose the problems unique to a Two-Testment Bible, in which each is Scripture on its own and each sounds out the other in important ways. Finally, the climax comes in chapter 7, with a turn to the Rule of Faith as the hermeneutical key to the interpretation of Christian Scripture, both Old and New Testament.
I found this book to be tremendously helpful for clarifying just what it is I have to do as a preacher to move my congregation from “this is the word of the Lord,” after the reading to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the church,” after the sermon. I have to, with Paul and the fathers, hear the OT in its own voice as testifying to Christ, and bring the content of that voice to my people that they also may hear and confess that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; that they may hear and confess that the whole word of God continues to speak to today.
Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church
J. Todd Billings
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011
Calvinists are dour, predestination-obsessed, and obsessed with uncovering the fruit of their election. They have a God so transcendent, so beyond the normal understandings of words like good and evil, that they can ascribe to God in his sovereignty actions that practically all other right-minded people would name barbaric. Their understanding of salvation—flowing as it does from God’s absolute transcendence and sovereignty—has nothing whatsoever to do with the internal transformation of the human heart by the infilling of God’s love through the Holy Spirit as it does the entirely external transformation of God from wrathful judge to merciful father through the pouring out of his punishment on his innocent Son, at least for those whom he predestined from all eternity to be saved. For the rest—the vast majority—it’s just wrathful judge eternally.
There’s only one problem with this description. It’s false.
One way toward demonstrating its falsehood is to recover the Reformed doctrine of Union with Christ or Ascent. And a great place to begin the recovery is with J. Todd Billing’s new book on just this subject.
Billings holds the Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School and is associate professor of Reformed Theology at Wetern Theological Seminary. He has published two major academic books, The Word of God for the People of God (Eerdmans, 2010) and Calvin, Participation and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford, 2007). The latter work received a 2009 Templeton Award for Theological Promise and is the source from which most of the more popular Union with Christ is drawn.
A thread running through this book, and its key strength, is that a recovery of this doctrine will not only continue the recovery of Reformed Theology especially in evangelical churches (though also, please God, in others), but will also speak to contemporary challenges in ministry today.
Thus, in the first chapter, Billings sets out to counter not only the misperception of God as utterly distant in caricatures of Calvinism, but also the distant God of “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a label with which sociologist Christian Smith has defined the spirituality of emerging adults across the religious spectrum in the United States. We are, says Billings, united with Christ through a divine act adoption. It is, he says, a double grace. First, it is a legal matter in which we are reckoned righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. But this is just the beginning. This new identity is the beginning of sanctification in and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, who forever calls believers into their new adoptive relationship with the Father through their identification with the non-adopted Son. Thus, God is not distant, whether as a matter of transcendence or convenience. He calls us rather into a high-commitment covenantal relationship that can only be expressed in terms of family.
Similar moves flow through remaining chapters. Chapter two engages in a similarly rehabilitative effort with the T of the Calvinists’ TULIP—Total Depravity. Though this term is never used by Calvin or his first followers, it does nicely capture the notion that all human being is touched by sin. There is no part of us that is “unfallen.” Billings does not challenge this reading, but reminds readers that this stark statement of human inability works to the exaltation of humanity as conceived in Christ and united to Christ by the Spirit. Full humanity, true humanity, is humanity in full communion with God and redemption is none other than the recovery of that full communion in Christ. Following closely, divine incomprehensibility is considered in chapter 3. Without a strong understanding of apophasis, talk of union quickly reduces to “dating Jesus,” (12) and reducing God to an idol of our own erotic imaginations. Justice is then taken up (chapter 4), with Billings presenting union—especially when presented sacramentally at the eucharist—as the ground for a way out of the polarized rhetoric of the religious right and left, who conceive of justice as an optional extra to the Gospel or the sum of the Gospel itself respectively. With a strong understanding of union, the Law becomes the Law of love fulfilled in Christ, the Law which Christians are called to enact with gratitude and in dependence upon the indwelling Spirit.
I expect the last chapter will provide much grist for popular missional ministry mills, taking on as it does, the shibboleth of” incarnational ministry.” Billings suggests—oh my!—that it might not be such a good way to think about ministry. All that “dour Calvinist as caricature” work, accomplished so well in preceding chapters will be threatened. And yet, there’s no doubt that Billings is right. The incarnation is not a ministry model to be emulated it is an utterly unique act of God in the taking up of human nature by the Son of God. Incarnational ministry’s own goals would be better served by the more biblical image of union with Christ, through which we take on the same mind (Phil 2:5-11)through the presence of the Spirit. Believers are not little redeemers, little incarnations. We have been united to the Redeemer, and as such participate in the witness of the Spirit as he points to the saving Son.
This is a grand book for three reasons. First, it recovers a neglected theme in contemporary Reformed Theology. Second, in so doing, it challenges accepted caricatures thereof. And third, it shows how Reformed Theology, or traditional theology more generally, far from being ready for mothballs, continues to speak to contemporary challenges for ministry. I do think that Billings could have strengthened his book greatly—and especially chapters 4 and 5, with their focus on sacraments and justice—with a turn to the similarly neglected and overlapping doctrine of the Ascension. For it is Christ Ascended to whom we have been united, who reigns and is even now subduing his enemies. It is Christ Ascended who sends us the Spirit that, in and through the mysteries of bread and wine, we may continue to feed on him, be united to him.
But that really is a quibble. As one who tilts to the Reformed end of the theological spectrum, and does so with a very high view of the sacraments, I can only hope and pray that this book gets a wide reading from across all theological divides. It has much to offer.
Ethics in the Presence of Christ
Christopher R. J. Holmes
New York and London: T. & T. Clark, 2012
Christopher Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Otago, has become the latest young theologian standing in the tradition of John Webster in his conviction that theology is always best when it is theology qua theology. Theology, for Holmes, really flows from the conviction that God is who he is in his turn toward us in Jesus Christ and then seeks to re-describe everything from the perspective that such a conviction yields.
In this latest work, Holmes turns to the field of human action—ethics—long a perceived weak-spot in the Barthian perspective from which he writes. Ethics, Holmes wants to show, is not about human obedience (or not) to abstract, timelessly true moral principles. Nor is ethical reflection about churchly performance in the absence of Christ. Both are forms of exemplarism—an ultimately Pelagian posturing about what to do in Christ’s absence. Rather, Holmes proposes, Christian ethical reflection flows from the covenantal obedience of the one true human, Jesus Christ and discerning just what it means to be caught up in that one divine-human field of action.
The question for Holmes, as Professor Joe Mangina astutely observes (back cover), is not “What would Jesus do?” but “ Who is Jesus and what is he doing?” I agree and would but phrase it slightly differently. “What would Christian ethical reflection look like were we to really believe that Jesus has ascended, and has seated us with him in the heavenlies?”
To answer that question, Holmes continues the Christological re-orientation of the divine attributes begun in his earlier work, Revisiting the Doctrine of the Divine Attributes (Lang, 2007). Offering a detailed exposition of three episodes in the Gospel of John, Holmes pries ethics out of ecclesiology and asks what ethics might look like when considered Christologically. Specifically, he asks, What moral significance does the display of Christ’s power in John 5:1-18 bring to discussions of theodicy (chapter 2)? Then, what does the moral significance of Christ’s claim to the truth in John 18:1-19:42 bring to discussions of ethics’ objective referent (chapter 3)? And finally, how does the ongoing presence of Christ’s love as displayed in John 21 impinge upon discussions of mission and catechesis (chapter 4)?
Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance and above all, Dietrich Bonhoeffer figure heavily in these chapters, though Holmes also engages Oliver O’Donovan, Douglas Farrow and the Reformed Scholastics to great effect.
Finally, Holmes’ concluding chapter follows Torrance in guiding us to Holy Scripture as the place from which Christ’s prophetic voice speaks to the Church. The ethical command is thus extrinsic—coming to the church from outside; it is gracious—it is an always free, interruptive, and indeed disruptive divine act; and yet, it is authentically human—it is always undertaken by those who have already ascended in Christ and whose obedience is rendered possible and completed by his.
This is not simply another book on Christian ethical method. It strongly shows that theologians plowing in Barth’s furrows are not simply tone-deaf to problems of human agency. It is that we are trying to re-think human agency christologically. As such, it will, doubtless, frustrate many readers who come with their own ethical questions already framed.
Holmes, in my view, does need to take up those questions and I do hope a following volume will begin from the perspective sketched here to address the pressing ethical questions of our day, whether they come from the field of politics or medicine or somewhere else.
Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness
Ed. Timothy George
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2011
For over two decades, growing numbers of evangelical theologians and church leaders have been engaging in a resourcement of the Christian Tradition. Among the most influential early voices was that of Robert Webber, whose own quest began with Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1989), launched the journey for many evangelicals. His Ancient Future Faith books and website, along with his Institute for Christian Worship continue to introduce evangelicals to the resources of pre-Reformation Christian tradition, even after his death in 2007.
Of course, any essay in this subject must also name Thomas C. Oden, who, though he rediscovered the riches of the Christian past from a liberal Methodist perspective in his book, Agenda for Theology (1982) (republished as After Modernity . . .What? (1992)), has exerted a great deal of influence on younger evangelicals through his work with the Ancient Christian Commentary series published by IVP.
And finally, D. H. Williams is to be noted for his introduction of this subject from a self-consciously Baptist perspective to a self-consciously Baptist audience in his books, Evangelicals and Tradition (2005) and Retireving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (1999).
The subject the essays take up in this volume is one that has been wrestled with for years. The question that must be asked of this new collection of essays, then, is this: Over the last twenty years of ferreting and reclaiming and resourcing, what’s been missed?
I’ll come back to that. First, I do want to make some comments about the collection on its own.
And the first thing to be said is that the collection is strong, diverse, and—for me at least—interesting.
Gathering and editing a collection as lengthy as this one is a particular challenge for any editor and his or her assistants. Timothy George, founder and Dean of Beeson Divinity School, is therefore to be commended to assembling the range and depth of scholarship he has. It is perhaps a testimony to the demographic of American evangelicalism that the contributors are mostly white and male, but the voices of women and the third world are included. Of particular note, here, are the essays by Elizabeth Newman and John Rucyahana.
This is not merely a pining for the glory days of Christendom. It is an attempt to get to the roots of Christian faith in order to move into an uncertain future with both clarity and confidence. And that is good.
But that question—what’s been missed?—still nags.
And it nags because it is my conviction that what has been missed has been pointed out again and again; still, answers are wanting. Perhaps the most urgent yet passed over issue is the one voiced by Steven R. Harmon in “The Nicene Faith and the Catholicity of the Church: Evangelical Retrieval and the Problem of Magesterium.” Evangelicals have no “teaching office” in the way the Roman Catholic Church does and this begs the question (yes, in the proper philosophical sense of the phrase) of whether the Creed can be retrieved in any meaningful way for free church evangelicals. The “freer” the church tradition—the stronger the insistence on soul liberty—the more idiosyncratic the appeal to Creed becomes. And while it is gratifying to see a number of Baptists—both more traditional and emerging—in this collection arguing for the Creed’s presence in thought and worship, one must wonder with Harmon just how far such appeals can go. Harmon puts his thumb, again (it has been done in reviews of Williams’ work), on the neuralgic spot for Baptist evangelicals. But no answer has yet convinced.
Of course, I don’t belong to a vibrant but non-credal network of churches. I belong to a church which, in its Northern and Western iterations (with notable exceptions!) is thoroughly creedal and more often than not, lifeless. My situation, as is thoroughly documented in R. R. Reno’s In the Ruins of the Church (2002) gives a slightly different perspective on this collection. Which brings me to my second “missed” point. The turn to the Creed, I fear, bespeaks a sense of cultural dislocation and loss that evangelicals especially in America are experiencing but have yet to face fully let alone address. The tone sometimes seems to be, “we can avoid the collapse that beset the mainline if we recover. . . .” And I don’t know that this is true. My church didn’t need to recover the Creed. We had it all along. And we still wed the spirit of the age and now find ourselves widowed with its passing.
Whatever good retrieving the Creed will provide (and I do believe it will!), it will not prevent Western evangelicalism from going the way of its mainline predecessors. Indeed, it seems to be going the same way but even faster. Its decline will be (is?) quicker and brighter because the quickened pace of our society over the last 50 years has accentuated the perceived need to be relevant and the perception of just what relevant is.
But that is to get me away from my nag. Which is, the turn to the Creed, though a good thing, will not stop or even slow the decline of North American evangelicalism and it is unwise to think it shall. On my brighter days, I pray that credal worship and reflection will give free-church evangelicals streams of life among the ruins.
On my not-as-bright days, I feel like I’m standing on the banks of a river, torn between trying to decide whether to turn my back to it and back toward the ruins or “tryin to get a glimpse of what’s over on theother side.” The river’s name is Tiber.
Alister E. McGrath
Baker Books, 2012
At its best, evangelical Anglicanism (note the adjective and the noun) in the twentieth century was both well-educated and self-consciously populist in its orientation. That is, John Stott, J.I. Packer, Michael Green and others whom many of us cut our theological teeth on could quite easily have had successful careers in the academy, but chose instead to focus their energies in pastoral and popular ways. A primary expression of this focus was writing solid books for lay people. This, I think, in large measure explains the evangelical resurgence in the Church of England from the 1950s to the present.
As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, it seems that populist bent is being drawn upon again. N. T. Wright, writing popularly aimed commentaries (the For Everyone series (WJK)) and theological books (Surprised By Hope (HarperOne), God and Evil(IVP)) continues in the classic trajectory of edifying the faithful and inviting the de-churched back to church. Alister McGrath, on the other hand, seems to be breaking new ground with a series of attempts to introduce a scientifically informed and rational Christian faith to an increasingly un-churched and thoroughly secular audience.
His latest work, Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics find Faith (Baker Books) continues this theme, not so much by engaging this new audience directly but by inviting lay people to become “Mere Apologists” themselves.
The title of the book clearly plays on C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity but alerts readers the fact that where Lewis could engage in certain kind of apologetics suited to a still Christian culture, McGrath must begin elsewhere. He, and those who wish to follow his apologetic programme are in the position of having to take much less for granted than did Lewis, or even the Stotts and Packers of the intervening generation.
The book’s nine chapters proceed logically and thoughtfully, beginning with defining what apologetics is, moving on through questions of cultural transition, theology, and audience, to considering whether Christianity is reasonable, the variety of ways in which it might be shown to be so, and how to move confidently from apologetics to evangelism. Each chapter helpfully concludes with lists for further reading.
Professor McGrath—and it must be said, like Stott and Packer before him—will be criticized for blurring the line between popular and simplistic in this book, as he has been in others. Although I can see where such criticism comes from, I do find it in the end to be misplaced. McGrath is not writing to “Ditchkins,” here, nor even especially about him (Ditchkins is, you will recall, the personalization of the huff-puffy new atheists championed by Dawkins, Hitchkins, and Harris). He is writing to Christians who wish to share their faith in a way that takes intellectual objections seriously, but who may have no theological training at all.
With Mere Apologetics, McGrath stands very well alongside Stott and Packer who shrugged off the sneers of their academic “betters” and got on with offering good basic training for good, basic Christians.
This book is ideal for small group study in a parish setting.
Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine
Baker Academic, 2011
With this new book, Khaled Anatolios, professor of historical theology in the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, cements his position as a leading contemporary interpreter of the Council and of its great champion, St. Athanasius. The book is every bit the equal of his earlier work, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (Routledge, 2004) and merits a close reading by patristic scholars and contemporary theologians equally.
Anatolios contends that “Nicaea,” that is, the doctrinal outcome of the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, the identification of God as Trinity, is not the result of speculation, whether about the nature of God or the nature of persons, but in fact expresses “coherent construals of the entirety of Christian faith” (1). In other words, the doctrine of the Trinity articulated at these councils and confessed in the Creed is not simply one doctrine alongside others. Its value lies in its explanatory power not simply with regard to the identity of God, but insofar as confession of this identity in turn shapes the rest of Christian faith.
This is a sweeping and attractive thesis. But one that is obviously difficult to demonstrate historically. Anatolios wisely eschews the diachronic route, and chooses instead to exposit three major interpreters of Nicaea: Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine of Hippo. His choice of exemplars is deliberate: the great champion of the fourth century followed by two fifth century figures, determinative for the shape of Trinitarian doctrine in East and West respectively.
First, however, some historical groundwork is laid with two opening chapters. The first details the run up to the Council of Nicea (325) and the years of ongoing controversy afterward. Anatolios rightly points out that the issue was not whether God was Trinity, but how. In the fourth century, the pivot on which this debate turned was the primacy of Christ. Was Christ united to God the Father as a matter of divine will or divine being? Although the major combatants leading to the Council were the presbyter, Arius and his bishop, Alexander, Anatolios helpfully demonstrates substantial theological diversity on both sides. This diversity ensured, further, that the controversy would continue for decades after the Nicene formula had been “settled.” In truth, it was as much the determination of Athanasius to defend the Council afterwards that made it the watershed in the history of Christian theology. These chapters rehabilitate both Arius and Alexander by effectively getting them out of Athanasius’ shadow and presenting them as able Christian theologians in their own rights.
With the groundwork then laid, Anatolios can begin his expository work. His chapter on Athanasius devotes extended attention to the Orations and On the Incarnation as well as other works (Anatolios takes what is to me a novel stand—for him, the Incarnation does not antedate the Arian controversy, but is subsequent to it). Through his exposition, he shows how the debate about Nicaea’s homoousios is not simply about the primacy of Christ, but also how that primacy informs Christian faith as a whole and divine transcendence in particular. Athanasius’ position is that the Father-Son relationship is constituitive of God’s identity. As a result, Christ’s saving work is a manifestation of the divine nature as philanthropia (156). The Holy Spirit, futher, is the creative and salvific agent of that same philanthropia. As a result, not only is there is no divine “remainder” outside the confession of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but all of Christian existence takes place within that confession.
In his turn to Gregory of Nyssa, Anatolios highlights the vision of God as irreducibly active “within the dynamism of the Trinitarian life,” and who is, therefore neither static with regard to nor removed from creation. Rather, the dynamic life that is the perichoretic unity of Father Son and Holy Spirit—which is the divine goodness—spills over into creating and redeeming that which is not God. On Anatolios’ reading, Gregory is not a Neo-Platonist who revels in divine ineffability and his mysticism is not “the Poltinian ascent of the alone to the Alone” (240). Rather, Gregory’s conception of divine ineffability is better understood as plenitude or inexhaustibility. It is because God, who really is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has in his goodness and activity drawn humanity into his very life that human beings will forever be moving “further up and further in” (to borrow from C.S. Lewis) to that life and our understanding thereof.
Augustine and his magisterial De Trinitate is then consulted as Anatolios reflects on what kind of knowledge of the Trinity is possible for human beings. Again, the doctrine of the Trinity is presented not as an abstract and speculative exercise but as one, reflection on which, leads to spiritual formation and the production of a particular kind of person. The real issue on Anatolios’ reading is not the “proof” of Trinitarian doctrine according to human reason to the deployment of analogies to ratify it according to standards of human rationality. Its purpose rather is first to expose and then to heal “the deep wounds of a radically uncertain self through the revelation of God through Chrsit and the Spirit” (279).
Finally, Anatolios’s conclusion draws together the expository strands of previous chapters to show how a robust conception of the Nicene doctrine of God is not isolated, but continues to impinge upon Christian understandings of Scripture, Tradition and hermeneutics, worship, creation, salvation, and humanity. Although a fitting, and from my perspective, very satisfying conclusion, readers who are not interested or trained in patristics might want to read it before the long expository chapters. It will help orient them, and indeed give them a persuasive argument to stick with the longer chapters when the exegesis gets detailed.
Highly recommended to specialists and interested non-specialists.