Book Review–The Character of Christian Scripture

The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible

Christopher Seitz

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.

Review–Union With Christ by J. Todd Billings

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.

Review–Ethics in the Presence of Christ

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.

Review–Evangelicals and Nicene Faith

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.

Review–Mere Apologetics by Alister E. McGrath

Mere Apologetics

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.

Review–Retrieving Nicaea

Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine

Khaled Anatolios

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.

Review–Athanasius by Peter J. Leithart

Athanasius

Peter J. Leithart

Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spiriutality

Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, eds.

Baker Academic, 2011

With this book, Peter J. Leithart continues to establish himself as a thoughtful interpreter of early Christianity. Athanasius exhibits many of the strengths that mark his previous foray into the fourth century, Defending Constantine.

First, it is a solid biography. Athanasius has been for centuries a key figure in Christian thought. If his (in)famous opponent, Arius, was for centuries the heresiarch then Athanasius was the champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Even one of the back-cover blurbs on this book speaks of the Alexandrian bishop as a “superhero.” Leithart does readers a great service by introducing us to someone, however heroic, who was not “super.” That is, not beyond or above the affairs of us mortals. Athanasius is presented here as the champion of the Nicene faith, to be sure, but in a way that keeps his feet on the ground.

Second, it is theologically astute. This ought not to be surprising given the series in which this volume appears.  The series is not about history for its own sake. Such contributions are indeed valuable. But series editors Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering have crafted this series such that each volume will seek to allow its subject (in each case, a church father) to speak on matters of metaphysics, exegesis, dogmatic theology and spirituality not simply to a contemporary audience, but to one interested in furthering ecumenical conversation between evangelicals (Boersma) and Roman Catholics (Levering) and—I do hope—other Christians as well.

Leithart accomplishes this task well, setting the standard to which other contributors will be wise to aspire. We are treated not simply to a careful exposition of key themes in Athanasius (in a way that avoids the triumphalism of previous treatments), but to an exposition that maintains an eye to contemporary conversation with, among other people, Karl Rahner, Catherine Mowry LaCugna and Henri DeLubac.

Chapters 3-6 here deserve particular attention. Dealing with God, Creator/Creation, Salvation and Sancitifcation respectively, Leithart presents a fourth century father who finds the center of all his theological work in Christ, the Word made Flesh. The fact of Christ, we might say, forces a radical re-conceptualization of God and God’s relation to the world that completely transforms metaphysics even as it retains the classical language. With the happy result that Arius is presented as not being nearly radical enough in his attempt to articulate the Gospel using the metaphysical concepts he had to hand. Arius’ heresy lies not in the fact that he went too far, but in that he did not go far enough!

Some readers will certainly hear in that last paragraph more than a little of T. F. Torrance and it is clear that Torrance’s own work influences Liethart’s reading of the great Bishop. But this is no weakness. If anything, it is a reminder of just how much Torrance, and Barth before him, retrieved of the classical tradition when they turned again to Jesus Christ as the starting point of all theology and exegesis.

I warmly recommend this book as an introduction to Athanasius, as a work of theology in its own right, and as a continuance of the conversation among Christians who, while divided by the sixteenth century, are searching in the fourth century for ways to grow toward the One who has united us to himself in the Spirit to the glory of the Father.

Review–Defending Constantine

Defending Constantine

Peter J. Leithart,

InterVarsity Academic, 2010

Thanks to the generosity of InterVarsity Press, I was given a copy of this book in order to use it in a larger review-essay which would have also focused on Peter J. Leithart’s new book on Athanasius (Brazos, 2011). And I do think a larger essay could work, focusing on the sharp ways in which Leithart uses history for other ends. In Athanasius, for example, history is deployed to explore contemporary issues and challenges in exegesis, metaphysics, and theological method. In Defending Constantine, similarly, Leithart’s compelling historical narrative is pressed into theological, polemical, and ethical service.

But, I won’t be writing that essay. And the reason is quite simple: Defending Constantine is of sufficient importance to stand on its own. Athanasius will have to wait.

Readers of First Things will recognize Peter J. Leithart as one of that journal’s regular contributors. He is also senior fellow at New Saint Andrews College and a pastor at Trinity Reformed Church, both in Moscow, Idaho.  The author of several books and a regular contributor to the religious and secular press, Leithart is among a growing number of Christian essayists in North America seeking to carve out a distinctively Christian political voice. Many of that number—Chris Hubner, Doug  Harink, Paul Doerksen, for example—stand squarely in the tradition of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Leithart is almost unique in his unwavering insistence that “Yoderwas” (if Terry Eagleton can coin, Ditchkins. . . .), is wrong.

I first ran across that wonderfully liberating thesis in Leithart’s earlier and shorter book, Against Christianity. And I am very happy to see it expanded and developed here.

Defending Constantine functions on four levels. It is, first of all, a work of history. As such it is not, nor does it intend to be, original. Rather, Leithart draws from widely available translations of ancient sources and the very best secondary sources to give to a wider audience the historical consensus about Constantine. His purpose: to refute the claim made by writers as diverse as Dan Brown and John Howard Yoder that Constantine’s conversion is the “fall” of Christianity from a state of relative purity maintained by persecutions to a politically compromised, ecclesiologically corrupt, and theologically hollow institution.

Leithart’s narrative effectively silences the “fall” account for two reasons. First, he shows that the Church was neither as uniform nor as “pure” prior to Constantine as Yoderwas needs it to be for his version to stand. The Church—this is the most significant example—was divided on how best to live within the Empire and support its military well before the fourth century. And such divisions had, as often as not, not to do with Christian participation in coercive violence but how to deal with the non-Christian religious expectations that came with such service.

Second he shows—again powerfully—that Constantine’s conversion should be written without the scare quotes. He really did become a Christian. Did he continue to sin? Yes. Leithart, for example, faces squarely the charge that the Christian Emperor murdered his wife and son. Did Constantine delay his baptism until he neared death? Again yes. And Leithart does observe that once Constantine relinquished the Imperial purple for the baptismal white, he never took up the purple again. Suggesting—contrary to Leithart’s own case—that the Emperor himself recognized he could not fully execute his office and be a disciple at the same time.  These are, for Leithart, side questions. The real issue is Constantine’s legistlative record. Were the laws he passed seasoned by the Gospel of Grace? Did they make Rome not simply more Christian, but more humane? Here, the answer is, absolutely. Constantine’s legislative record went beyond favouring Christianity—though it did that. It was genuinely pluralistic (in a way unfollowed by later Christian emperors). It desacrificalized Roman public life so that Christians could participate in government but without outlawing either pre-Christian religions or Judaism. It strengthened the positions of women and children while weakining the status of the pater familias. It curtailed the bloodsports so prevalent in Roman society. Christian Rome was not, at the end of Constantine’s life, the Kingdom of God (the claims of Eusebius notwithstanding). But it really was Christian Rome. It was different from what it had been before. It had, with its Emperor, been baptized.

As I say, this is not a new interpretation of Constantine. It is a popular presentation of a scholarly consensus for an audience who, if they know anything about Constantine at all, likely believe he was a very very bad man indeed. Leithart’s picture complicates things. And that is very, very good.

Defending Constantine is, however, not only a history. It is also theology. And theologically, it has to do with sacrifice and baptism. The impact of Constantine’s conversion can be assessed negatively or positively. Negatively, he desacrificialized Rome.  This is no metaphor. Constantine removed the sacrificial requirements embedded in Roman public life and in so doing, gave human society a first: a polis—a public life—that was not founded on the literal shedding of blood. For, as Constantine well knew, the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, remembered in the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharist had forever ended such bloodletting.  Positively, Rome, like her Emperor, was baptized. Rome did not thereby become the Kingdom. But a real journey of discipleship—as displayed in Constantine’s legislative record—did begin. Every baptism—and that of Rome and of Constantine are no different—is an infant baptism in this way: it is the start of the journey of discipleship.

Third, Defending Constantine is a polemic—in the proper and best sense of the word. It is a sustained argument against Yoderwas in particular and the Anabaptist theology/ethic of withdrawal in general. Leithart contends that Yoderwas’s Constantinianism—when the Church loses its apostolic message and becomes content to do ethics for Caesar—rests on a particular telling of history. What we have called the “fall” narrative above. He shows—to my mind persuasively—that Yoderwas’s history is contorted, misleading and in many places, simply mistaken. And if the history is, then the heresy is too. Were there times when Bishops and Kings were too close? Certainly. Did Christendom bring in the Kingdom? No. But—and this is what Yoderwas asserts—was it a mistake from the ground up? Leithart argues—I think persuasively—that the answer again is no.

Finally, Defending Constantine is an ethic. Leithart writes with a view to taking a stance vis-a-vis public life today. And he is worried for our culture if too many follow Yoderwas to the isolation of the colony. Leithart does believe that cultures, legislative agendas, and even emperors can be baptized. That they can grow into Christian faith and practices. He agrees with Yoderwas that the West is re-paganizing, re-sacrificializing. It is returning to altars sated with blood, only this time, all of it human. He disagrees about what to do about it. Leithart’s conclusion—and he is right—is that the solution lies not in withdrawal, but in evangelization rooted in the conviction that today’s emperors can—like Constantine in the fourth century—bow the knee to King Jesus. That they can indeed be baptized.

Review–Developing Ears to Hear

Developing Ears to Hear: Listening in Pastoral Ministry, the Spiritual Life and Theology

ed. Aaron Perry,

Emeth Eress, 2011

Full disclosure: Aaron Perry, associate pastor at Centennial Road Church in Brockville, is not only my  co-author, he is my brother. So, you are free to consider this review as biased. It no doubt is.

Bias or no, this is a good book. Its thesis is easily summarized: “listening matters” (p. 197). Whether the focus is pastoral ministry, spirituality, or theology, the ability to listen actively is an overlooked skill. Perry aims to rehabilitate this virtue.  His goal is ambitious. He hopes his readers will leave his book not simply better equipped to listen to people, to God, and to the Church. He hopes that they will leave the book convinced that “listening” is the disposition that churches ought to adopt as they orient themselves toward the world.

The editor’s ambition is matched by the quality of the presentations, which—unlike many collections—are both even and consistently thought provoking.  As might be expected, the majority of the authors reflect not only Perry’s own Wesleyan tradition but also the denominational commitments of his publisher, Emeth Press. (The collection is the fifth volume in the “Asbury Theological Seminary series in world Christian revitilization movements in Pietist/Wesleyan studies”). Perry’s limits, however, are not rigid. He  has also secured Roman Catholic (Stephen H. Webb), Lutheran (Timothy J. Furry), Orthodox (Frederica Matthewes-Green and Edith M. Humphrey), and Anglican (Ephraim Radner) contributions. The absence of a Reformed contribution is notable. But this is a quibble (and, honestly, largely my own fault as I had to decline the invitation to contribute an essay because of other commitments).

Perry’s collection also has the virtue of focusing more on quality than on name recognition. Daryl MacPherson, Kenneth Gavel, and David Higle likely are names most of you don’t recognize. Their essays, however (on spirituality, the trinity, and college ministry respectively) need to be on the reading list of people in pastoral/parish ministry. They were certainly important to me in my transition from the secluded life of the academic to much more fulfilling role “in the trenches.”

So, are Perry’s ambitions met? His more modest ones certainly are. Many readers will come away convinced that our culture loves noise (just like Lewis’ Screwtape!) and listens badly, and that far too many Christian leaders have not paused long enough to see just how we have become captive to that noise.  His contributors’ advice will equip readers to shift out of that frenetic and loud environment.

The grander vision—to provoke a shift in many churches’ understanding of their mission away from business and toward contemplation—is a welcome one and deserves as wide a readership as possible. I hope its influence is pervasive.

Review–The Bible Made Impossible

The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.

Christian Smith,

Brazos, 2011

Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame deliberately leaves his chosen field behind for something more theological in this slim and very interesting book on biblical authority. The book is about why one understanding of biblical authority is incoherent and finally fails (Part 1) and what can be done about it (Part 2).

In part 1, readers are introduced to that understanding under the label, Biblicism, which Smith deploys as a descriptor that holds together ten assumpsions about the Bible:

1. Divine Writing: The Bible, down to the details of its words, consists of and is identical with God’s very own words written inerrantly in human language.

2. Total Representation: The Bible Represents the totality of God’s communication to and will for humanity, both in containing all that God has to say to humans and in being the exclusive mode of God’s true communication.

3. Complete Coverage: The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.

4. Democratic Perspicuity: Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.

5. Commonsense Hermeneutics: The best way to understand biblical texts is by reading them in their explicit, plain, most obvious, literal sense, as the author intended them at face value, which may or may not involve taking into account their literary, cultural, and historical contexts.

6. Sola Scriptura: The significance of any given biblical text can be understood without reliance on creeds, confessions, historical church traditions, or other forms of larger theological hermeneutical frameworks, such that theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.

7. Internal Harmony: All related passages of the Bible on any given subject fit together almost like puzzle pieces into single, unified, internally consistent bodies of instruction about right and wrong beliefs and behaviours.

8. Universal Applicability: What the biblical authors taught God’s people at any point in history remains universally valid for all Christians at every other time, unless explicitly revoked by subsequent scriptural teaching.

9. Inductive Method: All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together through careful study the clear “biblical” truths that it teaches.

. . .

10. Handbook Model: The Bible teaches doctrine and morals with every affirmation that it makes, so that together those affirmations comprise something like a handbook or textbook for Christian belief and living, a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance. (pp. 4-5)

I have taken the space to reproduce this constellation of assumptions hopefully to show that Biblicism is not intended to carry any prescriptive or pejorative force. Smith has in view a particular web of beliefs about Holy Scripture and practices arising there from, both of which most evangelicals will be very familiar. While they are explicit in evangelical theology, Smith shows just how they are at work at all levels of the movement—from the popular to the academic.

Further, Smith writes not as an unfamiliar outsider, but as an evangelical. There is a wrinkle here, however: after completing the book, Smith joined the growing number of evangelical or traditionally-minded Protestants who have become Roman Catholic. I’ll say more about that below. For now, it is worth noting that while Smith says he wrote his book as an evangelical, it is very clear to me at least that he wrote as an evangelical who was already on his way somewhere else.

Be that as it may, it is Smith’s contention in the remainder of Part 1 that Biblicism fails on its own terms. It fails because of pervasive interpretive pluralism. In other words, when the 10 assumptions are actually practiced, “sincere, committed readers” nevertheless come to “divergent understandings” on most topics of interest.  This is, of course, not a new criticism. Smith acknowledges this, tracing it to the mid-19th century, and the writings of Mercersberg theologian, John Williamson Nevin. Chapters 2-4 detail just how widespread the problem is. One cannot help but conclude that one reason why more evangelicals are not perplexed by pluralism’s presence is that it is ubiquitous. There is no issue on which there are not “three views,” with evangelical publishing houses, for example, publishing treatises in what has become a never-ending game of theological ping-pong.

Part 2 then turns to the constructive element of Smith’s argument. If pervasive interpretive pluralism is the theological Achilles’ heel for Biblicism, what can be done? Smith finds resources in Barth in chapter 5 as he argues that the Bible is, in the end, a book that bears witness to a person—Jesus Christ.  As a result, first, Christology should provide a hermeneutical key for the reading of Scripture. When read in this way, the saving message of the Holy Scriptures come to the fore while more minor matters—he returns several times to “greeting each other with a holy kiss”—recede.

Second,  Smith argues that we should read the Bible without assuming beforehand that it will always agree with itself. The Bible is at points irreducibly complex and at others, utterly ambiguous. Rather than play hermeneutical twister, tying ourselves up in knots trying to resolve perplexing passages, we should acknowledge memories, ambiguities and contradictions that will not yield, on the basis of a biblicistic hermeneutic, a unified or harmonious theology.

How then will readers attain to harmony? Smith answers that a better route to this goal lies in a better understanding of the need for a theological hermeneutic and a stronger understanding of the teaching office of the church. Theological constructs—the doctrine of the Trinity is a good example—teach readers which passages of Scripture to focus on, and which ones ought to serve as guides to the reading of others whose meanings are more murky. With regard to teaching authority, Smith does not simply contend that Biblicists must frankly acknowledge that some readers of Scripture are better than others and ought to be acknowledged as master readers, who carry more authority than others. Rather, he wants to rehabilitate some sort of ecclesial teaching office.

 One reviewer has taken particular umbrage with this last position, but not on its merits or lack thereof. Smith’s call for a stronger ecclesial teaching office, says Robert H. Gundry, along with Smith’s later book recounting his reception in the Catholic Church, is prima facie evidence that Smith is being less than honest when he says that his rejection of Biblicism came prior to his leaning toward and eventual conversion to Catholicism. I don’t think we need to accuse Smith of dishonesty, as Gundry comes quite close to doing, to recognise that the desire for dogmatic peace and clarity has been drawing conservative Protestants at least toward Rome (Nevin) if not into her arms (Newman) for some time. I’ll say more about that in a moment.

For now, I want to turn to Smith’s problem with Biblicism—namely, pervasive interpretive pluralism. Having taught theology in the Christian academy let me say that in my opinion, Smith’s diagnosis is accurate. There are few things more frustrating and discouraging for a theology professor than the casual dismissal of hours of exegetical and historical and dogmatic work in a lecture with “that’s not what the Bible says to me,” by a freshman. But, as accurate as the diagnosis is, I’m not sure the cure that Smith calls for will actually work. And this is the case for two reasons.

The first is largely cultural. The rejection of ecclesial authority (or authorities) that was one of the defining planks of the Reformation has, over the last 500 years, broadened to become the rejection of almost any authority. That is to say, pervasive interpretive pluralism is not simply the problem for Biblicists as for Western culture as a whole. Pervasive interpretive pluralism—at least in matters spiritual and moral—is a consequence of modernity’s turn to the subject and is a matter of concern both inside and outside the church.  In that sense, Alastair MacIntyre’s post-apocalyptic dystopia in After Virtue is an apt description of where we are when it comes to moral discourse in our culture. Moral argument is but half-remembered phrases wrenched from a framework in which they make sense trotted out to confirm what one had already decided to do based purely on personal preference. If that defines the wider popular culture, it is hardly surprising to find it in Church.

Which brings me to my second reason: even if one deploys Smith’s threefold programme for curing pervasive interpretive pluralism entirely, it will continue to exist. We need only look at the Roman Catholic Church to find that, a Christological or soteriological reading of the Scriptures, an acknowledgement of textual complexity and a (much!) stronger ecclesial teaching office does not solve the problem. Even the full exercise of that authority whether positively (requiring Catholic theologians receive a mandatum from their bishops) or negatively (refusing to acknowledge certain theologians who are Catholic as Catholic theologians) guarantees a harmonious reading of the Scriptures.

So, as much as I believe Smith is right in his assessment and as much as his solution is attractive, I do not hold out hope (a) that it will be embraced by the target audience—evangelicals or (b) that it would work were it to be adopted.

Finally, I want to return to Smith’s embrace of Catholicism, which, if Gundry’s review is any indication, will be the undercurrent for many Protestant readers and will be a reason for many to dismiss him, to their loss.

Smith is one of a significant number of evangelical or traditional Protestant academics who have found Protestantism ultimately untenable and sought refuge in Roman, Anglican or Orthodox communions.  R. J. Neuhaus, Robert Louis Wilken, Reinhard Hütter, Douglas Farrow, Edith Humphrey—I could continue, but you get the point. Why?

Is it, as Gundry implies, a perceived need for authority to settle disputes? If so, Gundry is right to point out that the stronger Episcopal authority in Orthodox and Roman communions at least won’t actually provide the relief these scholars are looking for. Of course, for one—like me—to become an Anglican is to seem to embrace the worst of both worlds. I am in a church where pervasive interpretive pluralism is rampant and where, despite appearances, the authority of the ecclesial teaching office is often weaker than it is for many free-church traditions.

The need for authority may be one reason—it certainly was for evangelicalism’s most (in)famous convert, John Henry Newman—but in my view, it is not the only one or even the most important one. Those who wish to cast aspersions on Smith, and others like him, who have left evangelicalism would do better to find out why than to sniff—as Gundry comes quite close to doing—“Well, what would you expect from a  Catholic?” and drop the matter.