Category Archives: Christianity

Book reviews on all things christian

Book Review: Thomas Aquinas – A Very Short Introduction by Fergus Kerr

A little while ago, I picked up a whole load of Very Short Introductions (VSIs) about christianity. I have already read and reviewed The Bible VSI. Moving chronologically forward, I now meet Thomas Aquinas. In case you’re interested, the others to follow are the VSIs on Protestantism and Pentecostalism.

Aquinas is not a figure I came to this work knowing an awful lot about. Some things are common knowledge, but one sometimes wonder about the extent of their truth. For example, I have previously understood him to be the person who incorporated Aristotlean philosophy into christianity. This hybrid version went on to form the foundation for medieval catholicism, but his influence has lasted long into philosophy and christianity as well, with Thomas being regarded as the last great philosopher prior to Kant. His Summa Theologica ranks as one of the great ‘large works’ of christian thought, alongside Augustine’s City of God, Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was also ranked recently in the Church Times top 100 books of all time.

So that’s how I approached the book. What of its content?

As is usual with the case when the subject of a VSI is an individual, the opening chapter is an overview of Aquinas’ life and times. It reads like an extended encyclopaedia article, placing Aquinas into his historical context. Following this, there’s a short chapter on Aquinas’ works, other than the Summa Theologica. So a student of Aquinas could well use this as a guide to his lesser known works.

Most of the book is written as a summary of the Summa Theologica. This then gives any potential reviewer a problem. Having not read the Summa from cover to cover, can one really critique how well the summary is done? If I critique the content of what I read, am I then really trying to critique Aquinas through an intermediary who may or may not have given a fair and accurate summary?

It certainly left me with the sense that I had read an overview of the Summa, and it was most interesting to note that Aquinas abandoned his project after his study of the sacraments, so that these read as a kind of culmination of the work. In the more conservative sections of the church, this legacy is evident when christianity is spoken of as being “inherently sacramental” even though the very concept of a sacrament was a post-biblical theological development.

This work then concludes with Aquinas’ legacy and how he is viewed today, in particular the revival of interest in Aquinas through the advocacy of Pope Leo XIII, as well as Aquinas’ influence on the modern human rights movement. Each of these could be expanded much more, so I must say that the ‘Very’ in Very Short Introduction is rather emphasised here. I doubt the experienced scholar who has looked at Aquinas for many years will find much to stimulate them here.

This is a book I think I’ll return to in the future, when I get around to reading Aquinas for myself, as it should serve as a useful guide. If any of you are more familiar with Aquinas’ work and have read this VSI, then your input would be much appreciated.

Book Review: The Bible – A Very Short Introduction by John Riches

You might think that I’d be fairly familiar with the bible, right? I’ve read it cover to cover once and dip into it most days. But it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of exactly what it is we’re reading. Having earlier in the year looked at it through the eyes of an American fundamentalist, this is a take from “a white, male, European, English-born, Anglican Christian teaching New Testament in a Scottish University.”

Riches begins by comparing the most widely read and the most influential books of all time. While he cites Das Kapital as an influential book, few have read it. Popular crime thrillers and romances may be widely read, but have had little lasting impact on the shape of the world. The bible (I stick with the lower case, as usual) has the unusual quality of being both widely read and hugely influential. It is this combination that makes of great interest to the literary scholar, sociologist, historian and just about anyone else who operates in the spheres where the bible has had an effect. He cites the Koran as another similar example, but makes no further comment, so I would refer readers to the VSI on that work.

Part of the reason it is so widely read is the variety of audiences that it speaks to. Riches gives some examples, including pro and anti apartheid campaigners, a Benedictine sister in the Philippines, a bishop in Mozambique as well as American fundamentalists (here Riches uses Timothy La Haye as his example).

The book really gets going with a brief overview of how the bible was written. This is soon followed by how it came to be put together. These twin topics could never be covered comprehensively in just a couple of dozen pages. Interestingly, Riches takes the view that a fair bit of the New Testament could have been written after A.D. 70. Clearly this goes against the view of F.F. Bruce and is not as extensively reasoned as the latter’s viewpoint. It almost seems to me like an axiomatic assertion upon which one’s view of the bible is shaped.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Bible in the world of believers’ Riches looks at one passage in particular and tries to view it from several viewpoints. That passage is from Genesis, where Abraham took Lot up the mountain with the intention of sacrificing him. It’s quite pertinent, as that is one of the passages I struggle with the most. Riches doesn’t answer the moral dilemma here, but gives a brief look at a few possibilities. However, the length of the book prevents a satisfactory answer; for that the author can hardly be deemed at fault.

There follows a chapter on biblical criticism, which starts with Martin Luther and ends with later German higher criticism. This is a really a whistle-stop tour of what this reader finds a very interesting field of study. Again, there is really insufficient room to do justice to the subject, but for one who is unfamiliar with biblical criticism, this serves as a useful taster.

In a chapter on the bible in culture, we get to see some of the art that has been inspired by episodes from the bible and the ideas within it. The focus here is on so-called “higher” culture, so many who consider themselves connoisseurs of art may well find themselves on familiar territory, though no doubt they may mutter at the omission of their favourite artists. I certainly chuntered at the lack of Titian. However, there was a greater oversight here which I cannot let pass. The chapter doesn’t mention the destruction of artwork by some of the more over-zealous reformers. For me, an understanding of christian art cannot be anywhere near complete unless one understands the use of art as a means of education for the illiterate, the artistic license that was taken which gave rise to poor theological thinking, the basis for accusations of idolatry by the reformers and the centuries of regress and subsequent marginalistion of art as a means of worship.

The book finishes with a chapter on the bible in politics. Once again, Riches hit upon one of the themes that particularly interests me and it was good to see him give the anabaptists and Quakers a mention here. Riches gives a carefully balanced view which will likely both enrage and encourage people from all political backgrounds.

As I finished the book, I tried to think of what a certain reader might take away with them. This is a reader who is unfamiliar with the message of the bible but who is enquiring and wishes to gain an overview before embarking on the detail. Would they finish the book with a fair impression? I’m afraid the answer to that has to be no. There is much of some interest here, but it seems that the wood has been lost for a close examination of the shape of some of some of the leaves and the structure of the bark.

Book Review: Cranky, Beautiful Faith by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Before I begin, it should be noted that this book has two titles. In the UK it was released under the title Cranky, Beautiful Faith but in the US it was released under the title Pastrix. I am not aware of any significant differences in the contents of the book, but just in case you’d read Pastrix and were thinking of getting this book, I believe they are the same. All I can say is that the American spelling mistakes were left in the edition I read, published by the Canterbury Press imprint of Hymns, Ancient & Modern.

So what’s it all about? This a personal testimony, a memoir of half a life. For those who’ve never come across Nadia before, she is the minister at House For All Sinners & Saints (HFASS) in Denver. Yet this hasn’t always been her occupation. We get a whistlestop tour of how she came to be a pastor, having been “the religious one” in a group of friends of junkies, drop-outs and alcoholics. When one of them died at a hideously young age, she took his funeral. From then on, she took it upon herself to become a pastor. Yet Bolz-Weber was never going to be conventional.

Her first thing to do was to get a tattoo of Mary Magdalene (readily visible on the front cover of the book). There never seems to have been much of a plan either. The book is told almost as a series of anecdotes. Yes, there is a story that emerges and yes, it’s roughly linear in time, but each chapter lives in its own little space, with slightly thin walls separating it from the next, so that you can faintly hear the shouting from the room you’ve just left as you enter the new one.

The style of writing is probably what will appeal to most people. It has the peculiar feeling of being both rough n’ ready as well as being thoroughly thought through. It is as though it has been carefully crafted to sound uncrafted. In this respect, it is like a less staccato, less annoying version of Rob Bell’s writings. At least Bolz-Weber manages to write in paragraphs!

Bolz-Weber often gets rather close to the bone. One of the incidents that stuck firmest in my memory was her recounting a time when she was conned by a pimp posing as a survivor of hurricane Katrina. This is just one example of a world which, to this British middle-class accountant, seems rather alien. Yet there is a familiarity to the kind of situations and characters described. They are just so much more exaggerated than one normally faces.

One of the things that shines through is her passion for the inclusion of the outsider. The church she established, HFASS, became known as welcoming those who…..how can we put it…..aren’t generally associated with church. Not because they shouldn’t be, but because churches have done a dastardly good job of shutting people out or demanding conformity. The question of inclusion of the LGBT community is possibly one of the most divisive issues in the Church today. In noting that it is needlessly so, I am in full agreement with Bolz-Weber.

Yet while Bolz-Weber may come across as wonderfully liberal and rather bucking against conformity, she stills holds to quite a conservative, pro-liturgy ecclesiology. Throughout the book, then, there’s this tension between the liberal and the conservative. Just when you think you’re agreeing with her, she drops something in there that makes you think “Really? I’m not sure about that.” An example of this would be that while the book is heavy on practical and thin on the academic side, one of the few theologians she speaks highly of is the late Marcus Borg (see here for why I find this a questionable stance).

Holding these contrasts together, there is something beautiful in Bolz-Weber’s testimony. Not everyone will share in her extremes, but there is a vein of great honesty that feeds her narrative and makes for compelling reading. I’ve already compared her to Rob Bell, but I know that he annoys many and that some may be put off by that. So let me add two more names whose voices I heard echoed or imitated here: Rachel Mann and Stanley Hauerwas. If you’ve read them and found them stimulating, then this is definitely a book that will interest you. If not, then I still recommend it to you as a work to make you smile, shake your fist, weep and think.

Book Review: Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil

Disclaimer: This book is published by Taylor & Francis, a subsidiary of the company that I work for. I bought this book of my own volition and was not asked by anyone at work to review it. As ever, I write and publish these reviews purely on my own accord.

Simone Weil is a writer whose name I have heard a few times, but never really knew anything about her. Part-way between a philosopher and a mystic, she is an intriguing prospect. Jewish by birth, but choosing to be a christian, with activism amongst some on the radical left, this melting pot of cultures and thought seemed almost bound to result in fresh expressions of thought, of belief and highlighting aspects of life in ways alien to many, offputting to some and captivating to others.

It needs to be noted, as is made clear in the extensive introduction by her friend and confidante, Gustave Thibon, that this is not a book she set out to write. Rather, it was put together by Thibon from notes that she left him before she died. This is then the collection of those notes, ordered by approximate them.

The introduction gives an insightful background into Weil’s personality and her politics. It is very valuable, though does drag on a bit. The only word of caution I would give is that Thibon was a catholic, and as such he is rather muddled in his thinking and frequently conflates catholicism with christianity. This isn’t always the case, though. He does state that Weil wasn’t a catholic, though when I mentioned to a friend that I was reading this work, my friend was adamant that she was; just one who refused to take the sacraments. In a few references, her take is rather ambiguous and I would conclude that she certainly wasn’t catholic but neither did she fit into any recognisable stream of christianity. If anything, she might be regarded as a supreme non-conformist!

The idea behind the title begins with gravity. What Weil does is to adopt a well-known concept from physics (natural philosophy) and turn into a metaphysical analogy, even if it is more akin to entropy what she describes. The idea is that “nature” tends to descend, to fall to a lowest state. This is what she calls gravity. In this sense, low is regarded as being degenerate. My thought was that she was driving at the state of sin, though I don’t think this was mentioned quite so explicitly. The opposite of this is grace, which is something that defies this descent into entropy, a kind of anti-gravity.

The aphoristic nature of the book does make it somewhat to review, as there is no central idea being put forward and one paragraph may be nearly wholly unrelated to the one that either precedes or follows it. Some of the aphorisms are relatively straightforward and uncontroversial; others are verging on the incomprehensible. Unfortunately, this tendency increased as the book went on and I found it harder to take her seriously. At times, it was like looking down a bad Twitter feed where someone, puffed up with self-confidence, is pumping out material they think it deep, but which is just nonsense.

It made me think of a term used by the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett: deepity. There are some incredibly mundane and nonsensical things said here, but which have a thin veneer of thought on them. If one wants to believe that Weil says something profound, then you can fool yourself into thinking that she does, when in fact there are times when there is simply no substance to her writing. In contradistinction to Dennett, however, I would be willing to give Weil the benefit of some doubt and say that she was merely a poor communicator. But then, as this is a book review, it means I can’t recommend the book. There are good things said here, but they are too few and far between.

It’s not a book that will linger long with me and I won’t be rushing to read any more of her work.

Book Review: Hebrews for Everyone by Tom Wright

Of all the ‘For Everyone’ series of books, this one naturally provokes the most jokes, typically involving cups of tea. However, such frivolity is not the subject this book.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the ‘For Everyone’ series, they are commentaries on the bible. Tom Wright has written all of the New Testament commentaries whilst John Goldingay is making good progress with the Old Testament. In addition to providing commentary, Wright also gives his own translation of the book of Hebrews. The intention is to make it as accessible as possible. So while he discusses issues of great depth, he doesn’t go into all the depth that he could.

The format is such that you get a section of the text (say, 6-15 verses) followed by Wright’s take on it. Sometimes that interpretation begins with a radically left turn. We get little windows into Wright’s world, whether it be his family or professional life. But these are the mark of a preacher who wishes to relate to his audience an exposition of scripture that is firmly rooted in the life and world that people can relate to. Of course, this may be limited to 21st century British christians, but that happens to be a demographic into which I fit.

The overarching theme that Wright brings forth throughout the book is the idea of “better”. This is something that is prevalent throughout the book, and is by no means a unique insight that Wright brings. What he does bring is a gentle insight into the Jewish background against which Hebrews was written. For it was to a primarily Jewish-Christian audience. This was a somewhat more thorough approach than that adopted by my church, which began a series on Hebrews shortly after I finished this book. Their approach was to find 4 or 5 words scattered throughout the book that, in English, began with the same letter, and claim that these words form the key themes of Hebrews.

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright clarifies his particular nuances in relation to supersessionism, though here he doesn’t have the space to go into these, which may lead some to raise a quizzical eyebrow at his interpretation.

Another criticism I’d have is that there are times Wright goes off on a bit of a tangent, importing commentary that really belongs in other books, rather than concentrating on Hebrews. In other words, he incorporates some Lukan narrative as well as Pauline theology into his commentary, when he hasn’t established that either the Lukan or Pauline corpus was either available or known to the audience of the book of Hebrews. So while it may mesh with his other ‘For Everyone’ commentaries, it doesn’t always seem to stand up on its own.

My final critique is about the theme of priesthood. I’m not convinced Wright brings out the meaning of the text, and somewhat sidesteps the fact that Hebrews is not advocating an institution of a christian priesthood. I might suspect this is due to Wright’s own Anglicanism, which rather dilutes the radical nature of the text.

That said, it’s still a very worthwhile work and serves as a useful introduction to the book of Hebrews. That’s what it sets out to be, so it fulfills the brief.

Book Review: Taking God at his Word by Kevin DeYoung

After asking for reading suggestions at the start of the year, this was one of the suggestions that came up as a book to particularly challenge my thinking. Such challenges are always welcome. For my own view, I would recommend you read this and this.

It has to be said, it doesn’t get off to a good start. The way the book is structured is that DeYoung starts with his conclusion (that’s not just my view, he states it explicitly himself) and then spends the next 7 chapters attempting to justify that conclusion. So what is his conclusion? The subtitle of the book spells it out: Why the Bible is knowable, necessary, and enough, and what it means for you and me.

He begins by making a category error. He wishes to start with Psalm 119 but states that is an “intricate, finely crafted, single-minded love poem…about the Bible itself.” Really? The author of the psalm was writing long before the idea the bible ever existed. DeYoung is correct in stating that the bible is “a very long collection of books” but all too often he seems to treat it as though it were a single body of work with a single author.

Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, though. As this is meant to be a kind of executive summary, then all the supporting evidence and reasoning must come later. I just kept my ears pricked to see if anything in the first chapter was used as justification for later points. Such a possibility is hinted at as DeYoung states that he sees no problem with circular reasoning.

He begins each chapter with a passage from one book or another of the bible and uses this as his starting point. In particular he chooses 2 Peter 1:16-21, Hebrews 1:1-4, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Acts 17:1-15, 1 Corinthians 2:6-13, John 10:35-36 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17.

The chapter headings give a flavour of what to expect:

  • Believing, Feeling Doing
  • Something More Sure
  • God’s Word Is Enough
  • God’s Word Is Clear
  • God’s Word Is Final
  • God’s Word Is Necessary
  • Christ’s Unbreakable Bible
  • Stick With the Scriptures

Very early on, we see the most revealing statement that summarises what is wrong with this book. He gives a summary of an exchange with an unnamed “liberal pastor” about the historicity of the virgin birth. In it, he states this pastor wrote “I don’t claim that you need to accept my understanding.” Now that’s a very gracious and affirming statement. Nothing to be condemned there. I don’t force others to conform to my view. If I believe them to be wrong, I may point out why, just as others are welcome to correct me (and of course, both parties are entitled to a defence of their views). But DeYoung will not have that. His response to the pastor was “I do claim that you need to accept my understanding.” (emphasis original). In other words, DeYoung sets himself up as arbiter of the interpretation of the bible and claims himself to be infallible. Though his argument is trying to show that he thinks the bible is infallible, his de facto position is that he is a person of perfect understanding. If he were not, then his view may be open to questioning, to challenge and even to change. It is one thing to be firm in one’s convictions and robust in their defence, but this level of arrogance is sufficient reason to view DeYoung as an unsound, unhumble teacher whose work is not to be trusted.

As with many conservatives, DeYoung has an unhealthy preoccupation with the idea of authority. He wants to be able to view the bible as a stand-alone document that contains all the right answers. Obviously, if one could do this, then that would be wonderful. Clearly DeYoung thinks he has found his paradise and wishes to show people how to get to his enlightened position. Yet it’s not that easy. In arriving at his conclusion, he has abdicated his responsibility to “love the Lord your God….with all your mind”. For while he is correct in pointing out that christianity is not merely an intellectual exercise, the mind must form one part of our love. As someone so educated (the book cites he has an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) one would have hoped that he’d be a bit more serious when it comes to utilising the gift of logic and the skill of fact-checking.

One of the failings of the book is to be suitably specific. For example, in his view the bible is wholly clear and can be readily understood. But if you read the chapter, there is no evidence of his appreciating the times, the cultures or the languages the bible was written in, nor to the various audiences to whom the books were written. In the chapter where he argues that the bible is readily understandable, he doesn’t tackle any of the difficult problems that must be addressed by one wishing to assert such a view. The first example that sprang to my mind was of statement about being meeting Jesus in the sky in Thessalonians. Is this readily understandable? If one takes an English translation prima facie then it would be an obvious backup for “rapture theology”. Yet as soon as one gains an understanding of the cultural norms prevalent at the time Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica, where it was customary for a people to leave the city and welcome the returning king in as they approached (c.f. Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem about a week before he died) then it casts a wholly different light on the passage.

One of the telling signs in the book is the sources DeYoung quotes. Obviously, there are some scriptural references, though all too often they are piecemeal, stripped of context and have a strong odour of proof texting about them rather than the aroma of exegesis. DeYoung makes a few very loose and broadsided comments about “liberals” but doesn’t quote any or give the reader any insight as to where such claims about these liberal views may be checked. The closest we get is a single reference to Karl Barth, one of the most robustly orthodox of evangelical theologians of the last 200 years! Instead, we have what appears to be some straw man arguments. I cite as my example (see, it’s not that hard!), the question of historicity. DeYoung argues for a binary all or nothing: either the bible is a completely reliable record of the history it purports to document or one may take the “liberal” point of view where history doesn’t really matter. There is no room for nuance. Yes, some things are really important historically. I would fully affirm the historicity of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; those twin events are not only the lynchpin of christianity, but are well attested and can be relied upon as historical events as strongly, if not more so, than many an event in the ancient world. But what about the parting of the Red Sea? Is that even the correct understanding; perhaps it was the Sea of Reeds as some have suggested. Are we to understand the creation story as being in the same genre as we do the book of Acts? I would say, no. They were written for different purposes, in different styles, by different authors, in different cultures and at different times. This is where I find the approach of N.T. Wright much more reasonable, in his appeal to critical realism (see The New Testament and the People of God for more on this topic) as the way the historically-minded person ought to set about their understanding of christianity. But this seems like too much hard work for DeYoung, who wants to take the shortcut that gets him to a quick and easy answer.

One notes that his non-scriptural sources, aside from excluding any actual liberal sources, are very strongly leaning in one direction. J.I. Packer gets numerous mentions (see here for my review of his work, Knowing God), John Calvin gets a fair few, as does a work entitled Reformed Dogmatics. All of these seem to be chosen because they back up DeYoung’s view, not because they are necessarily the most appropriate sources to use. If they are indicative of DeYoung’s own library, then it is indicative that his focus is very narrow indeed, which has resulted in a certain level of cherry picking. A more balanced work would cite the views that DeYoung sees himself as opposing as engage with them.

Let me use an illustration now:

I have a colleague at work who regularly asks the question: “Can you send me the headcounts, please?” In their mind, they are very clear about what they are asking for. Yet to me, it is not. Are they asking for the number of employees or the number of full time equivalents. Are they asking for the latest figures, a snapshot as at the year end or an average over a period? As soon as one starts to ask these questions, there is evident confusion on the part of the other person, as they don’t understand all the distinctions. Sometimes, they merely repeat the simplistic, initial request hoping that the complications they hadn’t foreseen would simply dissipate.

So it with Kevin DeYoung. I don’t doubt his sincerity, but it seems that in the few instances he pays lip service to serious matters like form criticism, he seems to lack an understanding of the questions posed by that school of thought. Instead, he offers us the off-handed dismissal that what Jesus thought

Ultimately, this is the work of a confused person who desperately wants to believe that they have a perfect textbook in front them, as to do so bypasses a lot of thinking that would otherwise be needed. Yet there is little appreciation of what the books of the bible are or what the intentions are that underly their purpose. Instead of having a holy trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, who are revealed to us in scripture, and whom we know through the revelation of the Spirit, through the communal life of the Church, through the determined study of the bible, scripture is, for DeYoung, treated as a member of the trinity: perfect, complete and unquestionable. Not only that, but his approach is wholly cataphatic.

In conclusion, it is not a worthwhile effort in reading if you want to gain a reasonable understanding of how to read the bible. Its main value is an example in how American conservativism works and how that can lead to a kind of fundamentalism. To finish, I am reminded of what Paul said to the church in Corinth: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned as a child…” On the basis of the evidence of this book, Kevin DeYoung still does.

Book Review: Theology of Hope by Jurgen Moltmann

It’s been a few years since my introduction to Moltmann, which came in the form the The Crucified God. Since then, I’ve read his autobiography, but have been putting off reading this work, his first, which launched his reputation in the theological world in the 1960s. The edition I read was the SCM Classics version with an introduction from Richard Bauckham. This introduction is warm, gracious and readily accessible. The latter quality is one that I cannot say applies to the start of the main text itself.

You see, part of the reason I keep reading works ahead of Moltmann is that he doesn’t make for easy reading. While some of this may be down to the translation from German to English, I suspect it is far more about the intricacies of the workings of Moltmann’s own mind, as communicated via the written word.

The theme of the book is eschatology. Is that an unfamiliar word to you? If so, this is perhaps not the best place to start; for that I would direct you to Tom Wright. Yet Wright treads partly in the footsteps of Moltmann. For eschatology is a longer way of saying ‘hope’. It is often written about by more conservative theologians as ‘end times’ but Moltmann is here keen to point out that that’s not quite right. It’s not wholly wrong, but the emphasis is misplaced, just as one theologian I know cannot pronounce the word ‘eschatology’ (which ought to be “esker-tology” rather than his unfortunate mispronunciation as “ess-scatology”).

Moltmann opens by trying to assess hope in the context of some of the greatest thinkers known to the Western world. With apparent ease, he moves from Parmenides to Kant, from Anselm to Bultmann. There is a dazzling array of references here which would only be readily understandable to someone who is far better read in philosophy and theology than I am. So I confess that much of section one was glossed over a bit. Yet this does give rise to a criticism of Moltmann. For though I am not a specialist reader, an intellectual if you will, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a well-written work should be reasonably understandable. Part of this is that Moltmann is rather fond of his Latin, with an obscure phrase used on just about every page, which the editors decided should go untranslated. I am no linguist and wasn’t taught Latin in school. So while I could work out something simple like fides quaerens intellectum, most were lost on me and I didn’t fancy doing a search on Google translate every 3 minutes.

It’s a humbling experience to read something and admit that you don’t understand it. I was definitely in this territory in the opening section, including a chapter entitled ‘The Theology of the Transcendental Subjectivity of God’. If that seems like small potatoes to you, then by all means, read on. If I were to be critical here, it might be said that Moltmann is showing off that he is a well-educated person, as much this section is peripheral to the central argument of the book, which comes in parts 2 and 3.

Part 2, entitled Promise and History, begins to really get to the title of the book. In it, Moltmann is keen to rescue eschatology from the hands of what we might call fundamentalists. He doesn’t engage them as such, but points out that thinking of eschatology as purely an understanding of “end times” misses the point. Instead, eschatology is an understanding of hope. Where his masterstroke is, is that when he comes to the subject of history, we can only understand the past if we can readily identify what the past has in common with the now. That common feature: the future. It is then that Moltmann details that how we think of the past, must be in terms of what the hopes and shapes of the future are. I couldn’t help but think in terms of understanding the civil rights movement and in particular Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ as a particular example. Here, we can only understand the movement if we understand what their hopes were.

One of the questions posed regards why it was that the nomadic Israel kept their God once they had settled and changed into an agrarian culture; one might have expected that once the promise of the land was fulfilled they would no longer need a God of promise, of hope. Yet they kept him. It’s not a question that I had thought about much before, but it’s an interesting one to consider.

The real meat of the book gets on to look at the resurrection and the hope that is for, and embodied in, Jesus. Here, my main bugbear is that, as with much of the rest of the book, in fact, it appears to be written as a stream of consciousness instead of in a methodical manner. So there is not so much of an argument to progress through as there is a splurge of thoughts that seem to come all at once and which Moltmann is struggling to write down.

In dealing with the resurrection, Moltmann flips the notion of history on its head and inside out. He posits that to ask the question “was Jesus physically raised from the dead” is to ask the wrong question. In Moltmann’s world, the question of hope takes central place and what we think of as history (which he argues is an example of positivism) is a wrong-headed construct. At times he seems to contradict himself. He agrees with Paul that the resurrection is the single event upon which the christian faith hangs or falls but goes on to say, “That the resurrection actually took place is not denied, but does not lie within the field of interest.” If you’re reading this review thinking Moltmann might be offering a line of reasoning within which to understand the evidence for the resurrection, then this is the point to give up and refer to N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God instead.

In section 4, he reverts back to the philosophy and heuristics of history. This section begins with a puzzle: if history is constantly in motion, changing from moment to moment, yet philosophy is inherently atemporal (that is, it is true regardless of the time frame), then how can there be such a thing a philosophy of history? For my mind, I then wondered if he might extend this to questioning whether there can be such a thing a history of philosophy, though this isn’t a point Moltmann actually raises.

The whole of the 4th section is entitled “Eschatology and History” but for much of it, the eschatological aspect is conspicuous by its absence. Ironically, it does drift in towards the end of the section with an intriguing discussion on the nature of tradition. Moltmann argues that what christianity understands by tradition is vastly different from what most others do. For most, tradition means harking back to the past (and my opinion is that many expressions of christianity do this, though not helpfully) but Moltmann argues that christian tradition, though rooted in the past, is inherently a forward-looking thing.

The book concludes by returning from the world from of high philosophy and back into the real world that most people inhabit day by day. Entitled ‘Exodus Church’, I had expected to see here the roots of liberation theology, a feature of the 1960s and 1970s theology in which he played a significant part, but any resemblance to it here is only as much as the resemblance between an acorn and an oak.

Probably the fairest summary of the book is given by Moltmann himself, with this quote from near the end of the book:

“If, however, the Christian Church is thus orientated towards the future of the Lord, and receives itself and its own nature always only in expectation and hope from the coming Lord who is ahead of it, then its life and suffering, its work and action in the world and upon the world, must also be determined by the open foreland of its hopes for the world.”

Book Review: How God Became Jesus by Various Authors (edited by Michael Bird)

This was written as a response to Bart Ehrman’s recent work, How Jesus Became God. With two subtitles, ‘A Response to Bart D. Ehrman’ and ‘The Real Origins Of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature’ it should be clear to any would-be reader that this should not be read as a standalone book. If one were to do so, then it might appear a bit of a hodge-podge of different aspects of christology.

The lead editor of the work is Michael Bird, who contributed to the introduction, conclusion and two of the chapters. The other contributors are Craig Evans (1 chapter), Simon Gathercole (1 chapter), Chris Tilling (2 chapters) and Charles Hill (2 chapters). After obtaining an advanced copy of Ehrman’s book, this team set about a quick response, which is why this was published almost in conjunction with How Jesus Became God.

As far as my reading is concerned, I embarked on reading both. I have linked to my review of Ehrman above, so I approached this work half-expecting many of my more critical points to be repeated and expanded by the various contributors to How God Became Jesus, though I was a bit wary of the fact that the publishers were Zondervan, whose tastes in theology tend to be a bit more conservative than my own.

I was particularly looking forward to reading Michael Bird’s contributions as I greatly enjoyed his contribution to Justification: Five Views where he advocated the ‘progressive reformed’ view of justification. How disappointed I was, then, when I read the flippant tone with which Bird had written. Appealing to mass popular culture, he takes some cheap pot-shots at Ehrman, unnecessarily denigrating him and failing to treat Ehrman’s views in a mature and reasonable way. Later on, he attempts to pass these incidents off as humour, but there is nothing funny about them. Rather, it is demonstrative of a poor lack of judgement on Bird’s part.

Thankfully, the other responses are, on the whole, much more carefully thought out. To pick up on one item, there is a good response to one appeal made in form criticism: that of the criterion of dissimilarity. If you’re unfamiliar with it, please allow me to summarise:

In textual criticism of the gospels, there is a presumption that if there is something written which resembles early christian belief then it must be an anachronistic back-projection of the gospel authors, writing into their books things that reflect the beliefs of their (later) times. The flip side of this is that anything present in the gospels which doesn’t readily seem to fit with early christian belief then that is much more likely to be a genuine reflection of the historical Jesus. To many this seems to be an obviously absurd viewpoint, yet in the world of form criticism there has been a loss of sight of the wood for the trees; one that Ehrman falls prey to, and which is dealt with swiftly and bluntly.

Probably the chapter that chimed most with my own critique of Ehrman’s work is that by Chris Tilling, where he questions the use of the word ‘divine’ and casts doubts upon the doubts raised by Ehrman as to whether Judaism was truly monotheistic. In particular, one of the targets is Ehrman’s use of Galatians 4:14 as the primary text through which to understand all of Paul’s christology.

Craig Evans’ chapter on the burial traditions makes for a fascinating read and could well be explored further. In some was, it was indicative of a slight problem with the book. That is, it is so specifically written as a response to Ehrman that some potentially fruitful and enlightening avenues are left unexplored. Had such routes been covered in more depth, then it would have made for a much longer book.

In conclusion, Ehrman was not openly seeking to deny Jesus’ divinity, but he writes with a kind of dog-whistle theology that is intended to show that the case for Jesus being one and the same as God is not as clear as modern christianity teaches. Such scepticism is needed for healthy belief, so one cannot reasonably object to the person who wishes to cast doubt upon the veracity of tradition. What this work does is cast doubt on the work of the doubter. There is by no means a complete rebuttal of Ehrman’s work here, but there is sufficient work done to cast doubt upon Ehrman, just in case one were to read him uncritically.

Book Review: Simply Good News by Tom Wright

Disclaimer: I was given this book by the publishers, SPCK, free of charge. I was not asked to review it, so, as ever, I publish this review off my own back.

Tom Wright manages to write books faster than most can read them. While I’ve caught up with all published volumes of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series and dip into his New Testament for Everyone commentaries every now and then, there are many more works that I’ve not yet got into. Most notably, these would be Virtue Reborn, How God Became King, Simply Jesus (though I bought this last year, it’s not yet percolated its way to the top of my reading pile) and Surprised by Scripture.

This work, subtitled ‘Why The Gospel Is News And What Makes It Good’ could be thought of as “Simply Paul”. For as some of his works published as “Tom Wright” have been closely linked to, and could be thought of an shortened version of, his longer works published under “N.T. Wright”, there is much here that is in common with Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If anything, this could be summed up as the ‘gospel according to Paul, according to Tom Wright’.

The major thesis is that what we refer to as “the gospel” is often misunderstood. He is not here proposing that the church has wholly misunderstood christianity, but that when we speak of the gospel, it is often more spoken of as advice rather than as news. Of course, there is a right an appropriate response to the news, but that response should not be mistaken for the news itself. So calls to repent are not inherently the gospel. Giving your life to Jesus is not the gospel. Taking part in the sacraments is not the gospel.

A master of the analogy, Wright begins by taking us not to the gospels, but to England’s victory in the rugby world cup final in 2003. The game was in Australia, but Wright was in America at the time (a country not exactly well known for its love of rugby). He was excited by news of the victory but found that anyone he wanted to tell simply didn’t care. Until he found some Australians, that is, who weren’t exactly keen on hearing the news of England’s triumph. His excitement about England’s victory was irrelevant foolishness to the Americans and was unwelcome to the Australians. It is in this way that Wright gets across what he understands by Paul’s statement that gospel is foolishness to the Gentiles (what does anything to do with a Jewish teacher have to do with us) and a scandal to the Jews (this person cannot be the Messiah if he died in ignominy).

The heart of the book is laid out very early on. What is the news? Firstly, it is a development, something unexpected happening within a wider context. Secondly, it is an announcement not only that something has happened, but that because of it, things will be different from now on. This then brings about a period of hopeful, expectant waiting.

The rest of the book is the fleshing out of this. So we get an overview of what the wider context was. This entails an overview of 1st century Judaism and the Roman Empire. The second part necessitates the “now and not yet” of christianity to be discussed, though Wright skillfully avoids the technical jargon of inaugurated eschatology, which can be so off-putting to many. Indeed, throughout the book, the theologically well-informed will recognise many a familiar concept, but Wright communicates them with the utmost clarity and gentleness.

In reading this, I could not help but think that the misrepresentations of the gospel Wright is so keen to correct are largely that of the more right wing American churches. In so doing, he does seem to rile up others who interpret him as saying that the whole church has failed to understand the gospel for centuries but thank goodness that Tom Wright has now arrived to correct us all. I don’t think that’s what he intends at all. It is rather that he is here trying to write for as wide an audience as possible, but having in mind particular ways of teaching of christianity that miss the central point of the gospel.

So he is neither being an heresiologist nor a general teacher, but trying to incorporate both aspects in his writing. A tough task, indeed, yet it is my view he does this just about as well as anyone could hope for. In so doing, he does bring a challenge; a challenge to our current understanding and our ways of communicating the news that God has come to earth to restore creation through Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and that we are all invited to be a part of that ongoing story which has already reached its dénouement in his death and resurrection.

To finish this review, one must think of who it would stand to gain most from reading this work. Might it be for the curious non-christian who wants to find out what we mean by ‘the good news’? Perhaps, though Wright does assume a level of familiarity with the ancient world that the person on the Clapham omnibus doesn’t have. Maybe it is more suited to the more Calvinist christian who, though familiar with the bible, doesn’t always seem to get the emphasis right. Maybe it is best for the person who has recently become a christian but is still trying to navigate their way around the rich, vast and multitudinous expressions of christian belief across different churches.

I would suggest that it may be read in conjunction with a few other works. Firstly, the gospels themselves. Examine the source material and make an assessment for yourself. Secondly, it might go well with Rowan Williams’ Being Christian or C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I hope that gives you a fair impression. If it at all piques your interest, then please do read it. It is well-written, gently provocative and has the gospel of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, running through it like a stick of Brighton rock.

Book Review: How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman

I’m rather fond of Bart Ehrman. I have often found him to be a great communicator, hugely knowledgeable and yet wields his learning with gentleness so as to not alienate people needlessly. I first heard of this book when he took part in a debate (no doubt as part of a promotion) on Unbelievable, the Saturday afternoon apologetics programme on Premier Radio. His foil in that argument was Simon Gathercole who was one of several writers who had contributed to a riposte to Ehrman’s latest work (and which I shall be reading and reviewing in a month or two’s time).

As the title implies, this is a look at Jesus and how he came to be regarded as God. While Ehrman is no longer a christian, he retains his key interest in the origins of christianity. His opening thesis is that that while theologians tend to focus on questions of incarnation (i.e. how God became human) it is less frequently asked how Jesus came to be regarded as God. The obvious answer (that he was seen as God because he was God) is discounted as too simplistic and reliant on an uncritical reading of the gospels. His overall thesis is that Jesus wasn’t thought of as God in his lifetime and that a high christology only developed later on. Incorporating Jesus as the 2nd member of the Trinity was a much later development still. First, though, he lays out his approach for tackling the problem at hand.

He begins with a nicely deceptive piece of writing where he describes a charismatic figure from the backwaters of the Middle East, who had a group of followers who came to think of him as a god.

What he does, and this is what makes him such a brilliant writer, is that he makes some general points that makes the reader think. As I read from a christian perspective it is inevitable that some of his points are dissonant with my current understanding. Many of these objections are then addressed in a very short space of time.

Much of the argument over what is early and what is late in terms of theological development hinges on an assumption of a late authorship of the gospels. Unsurprisingly, John is portrayed as the last of the gospels to be written, though Ehrman puts the date of all four as after 70 CE. He references one of his earlier works in support of this claim, but no further backup is given. It’s an assumption that stands in stark contrast to, say, F.F. Bruce who advocated an earlier date of composition.

Clearly, the earlier the date, the less room there is for an elongated period of oral history. The shorter that period, the less time there is for corruption and therefore the more likely it is that the gospels are a faithful record of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to oral history, though, Ehrman seems unreasonably dismissive. In what is a clear sideswipe at Kenneth Bailey, he states, “Some people today claim that cultures rooted in oral tradition are far more careful to make certain that traditions that are told and retold are not changed significantly. This turns out to be a modern myth, however.” It seems to be a pretty obvious reference to Bailey’s Informal Controlled Oral History and the Synoptic Tradition, yet Ehrman isn’t even willing to grant Bailey a namecheck, let alone any engagement with the subject.

One of the most irritating features of the book, though, is Ehrman’s frequent use of the “many scholars” fallacy“. Throughout the book, he cites “scholars” who either support his view or whose work support a particular aspect of the argument he’s making. Frequently, though, they are not named or sufficiently well referenced, so it is impossible to follow up to make further enquiry. As a result, even the reader who comes to this work in anticipation of Ehrman’s critical analysis will be left frustrated there is insufficient support at crucial stages of the argument and therefore the force of the point being made is not as well backed up as Ehrman would like his readers to think.

As one would expect of a good scholar, he traces his steps carefully. He begins the study by looking at beliefs in gods who became human and humans descended from gods. The examples cited all came from the Roman and Greek worlds. He also postulates different levels of divinity, whereby a human exalted to the form a deity was only of a low form of a deity, not necessarily to the same level as, say Apollo.

Following the outline of the book, he then draws parallels with the above to the Jewish world (making much hay from the Nephilim) to try to say that a human being elevated to the status of God was not at all against the grain of mainstream monotheism. Crucial to Ehrman’s view is an idiosyncratic usage of the word ‘divine’. While in christianity and Judaism, this is an adjective to mean ‘of God’, Ehrman takes it to mean ‘heavenly’. The distinction soon becomes apparent when, having noted the various different expressions of divinity in the Greek and Roman worlds, he tries to construe Judaism as a polytheistic religion. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, most notably from Francesca Stavrakapoulo, but which seems to be reliant on a particular eisegetical way of reading a few cherry-picked passages and ignoring the whole sweep of monotheistic Judaism. In short, it is a category mistake.

From here, he moves onto a couple of chapters on the resurrection. Those who know me know that this is an area of particular interest as it’s the criteria upon which I believe christianity rests. Ehrman’s approach is somewhat novel. First of all, one has to note that Ehrman stops short of denying the resurrection. That’s not his aim. Rather, his idea is that there is insufficient evidence to be confident in its historicity. But he does think that the disciples and early church genuinely thought that Jesus was raised from the dead. So he doesn’t endorse the ‘stolen body’ hypothesis. In an interesting turn, he notes that many attempts to debunk the historicity of the resurrection have failed so he takes a different approach. Going back to the statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (interpreted as a creedal formulation), he takes his critique not to the idea that Jesus died, nor that he was raised, but to the idea that he was buried. He cites, without endorsing, the view of John Dominic Crossan that Jesus’ body was eaten by dogs. Instead, he puts forward several ideas, without being too firm on any of them. Just to cite one, he says it’s possible that Jesus’ body was thrown into a communal grave with a lot of other criminals.

The rest of the book is then spent charting how views of Jesus emerged over the life of the early church. He does come to express that there was an early high christology, as expressed in the writings of Paul. But he stops short of saying that was an expression of something that had already been understood. In other words, any evidence from the early church, whether that be in Paul’s writings or in the gospels, which indicate that Jesus was God are thought to be later interpretations. Yet Ehrman seems unaware that his approach is wholly dependent on confirmation bias. If one assumes that Jesus was not thought of as God in his lifetime, then any expression must have been invented. He discounts the other two possibilities: 1) it was a later realisation (epistemological) of an extant fact (ontological) or 2) that Jesus was actually thought of as being God, and understood himself to be such, during his lifetime.

The reason I’ve spent some time on the critiques is not to be mean to Ehrman. No, this is one of the instances where I have attempted to review in the same style that the book is written in. So it is something of an homage. So while I think there are gaps in argument, it is right to point them out just as Ehrman sees fit to point out holes in the arguments of christian orthodoxy. It is a well-researched, and brilliantly written book. Yes, there are flaws in the methodology, but it is my view that christianity needs voices like Ehrman who take a close look at the subject matter, ask probing questions and can communicate to a wide audience.

I intend to follow up with the response book, How God Became Jesus, so it will be interesting to see what aspects of my critique may be picked up (and probably articulated much more clearly) and what aspects I may have overlooked. For now, though, I do heartily recommend you read some of Ehrman’s work if you’ve not already done so.