Tag Archives: catholicism

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: Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan

This wasn’t a book that appeared on my reading list or that I picked up at random from wandering around a bookshop. It was a birthday present which I have only just got round to reading (my birthday was back in the autumn). My dad thought it seemed up my street as he had picked it for free in a clearance from a local Salvation Army centre.

The opening hypothesis poses this problem: a catholic, a Jew and a protestant walk into a bookshop and each says they want the whole bible and nothing but the bible. What does the bookseller provide to each?

Here, we come across a problem straight away which I must tackle. Pelikan regards catholicism and protestantism as two wings of one christianity, instead of being different faiths. For my part I always try not to conflate the two, so will hereafter refer to ‘catholicism’ and ‘christianity’ as being two distinct, though related, religions. (For more on catholicism, see here, for why I don’t use the term protestant, see here). He also uncritically uses the catholic (mis)understanding of Peter’s declaration of Jesus as being the Messiah as meaning that the church is to be founded on Peter, as opposed to the christian understanding that the declaration itself is what is foundational.

With that critique out of the way, what of the main substance of the book? For the most part, it is a history of how the bible has come about.  Having stated a critique, I must praise the writing style. Pelikan is great communicator and this is an excellently written book. It is well-researched and communicated in an engaging way. At no point did I feel bored or find the text to be turgid.

In terms of the details, what does Pelikan present us with? We open with “The God who speaks” where we note how the origins of the bible are in oral history and that to focus on written works is a relatively late development. Though it stops short of being a full-blown treatment of form-criticism, it serves as a useful reminder of the origins of belief where, unusually (but not unwelcome) for a nominally christian work, there is a highly sympathetic treatment given to the oral beginnings of Islam.

From here, the focus is the origins of Judaic writings, with a particular focus on the Torah and how it was used by the communities to which it related, along with the body of writings that accompanied it by way of interpretation. The challenge posed to the reader is an implicit dig at the notion of sola scriptura, though Pelikan is always quite sideways in his criticisms.

Moving from the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) to the New Testament, there is disappointingly little with regards to the actual composition of the texts, with the focus more on how the canon of the New Testament slowly formed. Though the endnotes cite Bruce Metzger his work, monumental to this field of study, is never directly referenced; neither is F.F. Bruce, which seems rather odd. In the discussion itself, there is a distinct downplaying of the role of Marcion in the idea of forming a new canon in the first place. So while Pelikan presents a well-written account of the evidence he chooses to submit, this reviewer felt that the evidence was somewhat cherry-picked so as to suit the narrative that Pelikan had chosen.

Likewise, as he guides us through several centuries of work, with a particular (and right) emphasis on Jerome’s Vulgate, when we get to the reformation, we again find a distinct downplaying of the crucial modes of thinking that led to the more protestant views of the bible, not least as a reaction against the medieval catholicism that was prevalent at the time. So while we are presented with a vague discussion over Jerome’s poor translation, don’t expect many details and don’t expect an account of the murder of William Tyndale.

Up to now, we have been dealing with translations of translations. But even the most biased of historians could not avoid the influence of the renaissance on the reformation, where the cry of “back to the source” was shouted out loud. And so with reformed christianity came a desire to study the Greek and do the best justice to the original meanings, a task which continues to this day.

In conclusion, what we have is an incomplete account. Though well-written, I could not help but see massive gaps and an over-sympathetic treatment to the mistaken views of catholicism, though from a cursory reading about Pelikan it seems he adopted Eastern Orthodoxy about 10 years before writing this book. Though this has been a fairly critical review, I would recommend the book to you, not least to see how an anti-reformationist might think. Though for a more holistic take, I would recommend follow-ups with works of F.F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger and Alister McGrath.

The one point on which I would say I vehemently agreed with him was on the nature of prophecy not as being one of ‘foretelling’ but of ‘telling forth’ which he puts rather brilliantly.

Labels

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine referred to me as a “protestant”. I’ve been mulling this over since then. It’s not a term I’m particularly keen on. It stemmed from a comment about christianity, and this chap, having grown up in Northern Ireland, had a dichotomy in his head: you are either catholic or protestant.

I’m certainly not a catholic. But I don’t really see myself as a protestant either. The term implies an ongoing protest. But the seeds of that protest are no longer seeds; it’s grown up, flowered and produced some very good fruit.

Although the catholic church took a backward step recently with the reintroduction of indulgences, on the whole the Council of Trent and Vatican II have resulted in a modern catholic church which is different (I hesitate to use the term ‘reformed’ – for obvious reasons) from that which Calvin disagreed with and which Luther wrote his 95 theses about.

The label was useful for a time, but I’m no longer sure it is needed. The negative connotations it brings, accrued due to un-Christlike behaviour on both sides of the dispute, are more of a hindrance than anything else. A dispute that may rumble on in some corners but for the most part is now history.

This is just an example. There are many other terms, in different walks of life, where choosing to label ourselves (either individually or as a community) may serve a useful purpose for a time. But what happens when that time passes?

I still listen to CDs. At one time, I put sticky labels on some as I knew they would be muddled up with other people’s. Afterwards, I tried to remove the labels. Bits of the paper front stayed stuck and the glue left a sticky residue. It makes me think about whether or not we really have the long term in mind when we apply labels to ourselves (or even, against their wishes, to others).

Last night, I was at a lecture given by Tom Wright at King’s College London, about his new (and very big) book on Paul. At the time of writing this, I’m at about page 470 – a little over a quarter of the way through. In the talk, and something evidenced in the first 6 chapters, is Paul’s emphasis on unified identity in the Messiah (in Christ). It’s a label I’m happy with, but more labels than that may serve to divide us, even if their original purpose was to unify a sub-group.

  • Are there any labels you have used that you now regret?
  • Are there labels you use to describe yourself and others that you think are helpful in the long term?

n.b. this was written off the cuff over lunchtime. Please forgive me for any typos.

Book Review: Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is a name probably more familiar to you than to me. It’s a name I’ve seen written about an increasing amount over the last few years. Yet I have still never heard his name mentioned out loud, so I remain unsure how to pronounce his surname. I had not read anything of his previously, though after reading this, I will be endeavouring to read a little more. You may well have read some of his other work, so may approach this from a different angle.

This is not a theological tome by any means, the subtitle was what caught me: A theologian’s memoir. It seemed fascinating to me to get under the skin of someone who has spent their life studying theology to see what makes them tick, what influences they have had and to see how that has shaped their work. He opens by asking what it means for him to be Stanley Hauerwas.

To answer this question, he goes right back to his childhood in Texas, learning the bricklaying trade under his father’s supervision. What may surprise some readers, it certainly surprised me, was that at times Hauerwas opts to maintain authenticity by using the rather coarse language of the building trade. As matter of fact as it might have been, one cannot help but think that Hauerwas encourages the reader to see a little metaphor for his later career as a theologian. In learning the trade, Hauerwas had to work in a time and place when racism was rife. Yet he was working alongside those who were marginalised as an equal, which may well have helped inform his later views. Though the coarse language aside, some of the other turns of phrase made me feel a little uneasy given their racial overtones.

What he doesn’t set out to do is to give an itinerary of his life, though the places he visits do form an unobtrusive background. One of the major themes of the book is how Hauerwas dealt with the erratic behaviour of his first wife, all the while developing as an academic. Punctuated by reflective musings, Hannah’s Child is a marvellous account of the behind-the-scenes workings of an influential writer and speaker. His love for his son radiates through the book, as does some of the anguish of dealing with psychotic episodes. For much of the book, one may feel overwhelmed looking at the names of writers and other academics that Hauerwas came across and worked with, each having an influence on him in one way or another. One could quite happily put together a reading list to last a few years based on those mentioned.

I cannot recommend this enough to you, whether you are familiar with Hauerwas or, like me, a novice.  There is much to prompt one into thinking, not least about the question of what it means to be a christian. But it would not only be to christians that I would recommend this. To those who view religion with a critical eye, this may serve as a helpful insight to see how a theologian works and what it means to the individual.

Book Review: Justification – Five views by Various Authors

This is the last book that I intend to look at (for now) in my continuing quest to understand the new perspective on Paul and the grounds for critiquing it. To date I have read the following:

Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E.P. Sanders
What Saint Paul Really Said by Tom Wright
Paul: Fresh Perspectives by N.T. Wight
The Future of Justification by John Piper
Justification by Tom Wright

You may note that of the main proponents of the new perspective, I have thus far omitted James Dunn. Well, Dunn is the representative of the new perspective here. So what we have are five essays from six different writers:

Traditional Reformed – Michael Horton
Progressive Reformed – Michael Bird
New Perspective – James Dunn
Deification – Veli-Matti Karkkainen
Catholic – Gerald O’Collins & Oliver Rafferty

The book is highly structured, with the editors, James Beilby and Paul Eddy, writing a lengthy introduction, giving the background against which the essays are set. There is a brief history of the doctrine of justification, including the broad sweep of theological thought of the Reformation. Helpfully, the editors have included a fair variety of denominations including Anabaptists and Pentecostals – strands of christianity which form part of the tapestry of my own faith.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the 5 essays and the reaction to each of them from the writers of the other 4.

Horton’s essay is very traditional and reminded me much of John Piper’s book on the same subject. Though he makes some good points, and presents his view very clearly and faithfully, I couldn’t help but think, having read some of the ‘new perspective’ writings already, that his essay just lacked some key aspects. It was like a landscape painting without the sky.

Michael Bird is not a theologian I had ever heard of before, though I liked his essay very much. This may be because of confirmation bias, I freely admit, as his view is very closely aligned with my own. While he recognises the value of traditional thought, this is not because tradition has intrinsic value; he recognises the fallibility of the likes of Luther and Calvin, who were merely doing their best to be faithful expositors and interpreters of the biblical authors. I will aim to read more of Bird’s writings in the future.

James Dunn was another that I liked. He is quick to point out that not all of the proponents of the ‘new perspective’ are univocal, and he does distance himself from one aspect of Wright’s writings that I found myself disagreeing with, namely the reinterpretation of “God’s righteousness” as “God’s covenantal faithfulness”. Indeed Dunn’s essay serves to highlight the fact that the real core of the arguments over justification are semantic. What do we mean when we speak of justification and righteousness and what did the biblical authors mean?

Karkkainen is an odd one. In his responses to the other essays, he rarely engages, but rather alludes to his own essay. His view itself is one that is completely new to me. To explain briefly, it is a sort of conflation of Lutheranism with Eastern Orthodoxy (the latter of which I confess near total ignorance, the former only slightly less so) whereby people are made to be ‘like God’ though Karkkainen is a little woolly in his definitions, a point picked up by one of the responses. I found myself interested, yet unconvinced by his essay. I know I will have to do more reading on this subject though to come to a more rounded, informed opinion.

The piece on catholicism is split into two parts. The first is a very straightforward statement of catholic doctrine written by Rafferty where his appeal is almost entirely to the Council of Trent. Some of the pronouncements of it are reproduced in Michael Horton’s earlier essay. Rafferty’s part does nothing to dissuade me from the view that the Reformation (and the council of Trent) marked the final separation between christianity and catholicism. Only a full renunciation could mark the beginnings of the restoration of Rome to the church of Christ. O’Collins’ section is a personal testimony. Here, he seems to take a very different line of thinking which is much more open to the possibility of the need of catholicism to change. His testimony culminates with his being part of a “joint declaration on the doctrine of justification” in 1999 between the catholic and Lutheran churches, though it is noted that this document is binding on neither church.

What I found most striking was that the deification and catholic pieces almost entirely discussed tradition. This was true to a fair extent of the Traditional Reformed piece, though not quite so much. It was really only the Progressive Reformed and the New Perspective views that gave any weight at all to scripture. Were these two omitted and one were to approach this without any prior knowledge, one could easily get the impression that the documents over which the debate occurs are the writings of Martin Luther and the decrees of the council of Trent. Jesus, Paul and James barely get a look-in.

Interestingly, I wrote the preceding paragraph when I was 90% of the way through the book, only to find a very similar critique in the last 10% made by Dunn in response to the essay on the catholic point of view. So while each essays, and the responses to them, are highly informative as to the stance of each of the writers, very little is given (with pun fully intended) by way of justification of their own view.

Overall, this is well worth a read and serves as a good summary of different points of view.

Book Review: Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

I picked this up because I do judge a book by its cover; or to be more specific, by its publisher. Of the christian books I own and have read, I tend to find the ones I like the best come from either SPCK Publishing or SCM Press. Christianity Rediscovered is part of the SCM Classics collection, a range which includes Letters & Papers from Prison, The Crucified God and The Early Church.

When I read the spiel on the back, however, something caught my eye: Vincent Donovan is a catholic. His catholic bias is evident, with references to Vatican II, the Council of Trent and of the sacraments as being functional rather than symbolic. However, he has a few comments which one would not expect from the typical papist.

For starters he states,

“…every theology or theory must be based on previous missionary experience, and that any theory or theology which is not based on previous experience is empty words, of use to no one.”

I would strongly deny this. If taken seriously, it would imply that unless you have spent time as a missionary (which would probably exclude most christians) then any amount of bible study, wider academic theology or experience learned through everyday life is useless. One might wonder if Donovan was familiar with any theologians, though he does quote Augustine, Tillich and Aquinas, none of whom were particularly noted for being missionaries.

He also says,

“I would like to invite the reader to go on that journey with me. But before commencing it, one would want to have the same open-mindedness toward it, with no convictions beyond the one that Christianity is something of value; no preconceived notions about God, salvation, Christ, the meaning of being a Christian, the church…or anything traditionally associated with Christianity.”

This is a particularly bizarre statement, as it would require that the reader hold a belief in the value of something completely unknown to them. However, the reasons do become clear, as I shall expand upon below.

Those criticisms aside, I want to move to the main substance of the book. This is a story, as much of the best of christian writings are. It’s the story of different cultures and how the gospel is above being defined within a culture, but also how it percolates through cultures. In this reading of it, there are 3 cultures at play: the Masai tribes of Tanzania, the American catholicism of the author and the English non-conformism of myself, the reader. The reader cannot but help be drawn in by Donovan’s writing, asking yourself the same questions that he asked. I could not say that I wholly agreed with his answers, though it would be even more wrong to say I rejected them.

Christianity Rediscovered was first published in 1978 and there are references to political situations which existed at the time which are no longer relevant; in particular, to the Cold War and to Apartheid. The portrait of missions that is presented is one that is completely alien to me. He talks of mission “compounds” where education and healthcare was provided first, before starting to introduce the gospel.

Of all the missions I have ever supported, this sounds like none of them. Instead, they are much more along the lines of the conclusions that Donovan eventually reaches. Whether this is because of any impact the book may have had is hard to say; I think it is more likely because the whole idea of missions that Donovan begins with is a very narrowly-focused, catholic idea.

With that in mind, the book is very much a diary of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he is discovering christianity for the first time, learning the principles that are well known to those who think in line with apostolic/reformed/nonconformist viewpoints. On the other hand, he’s trying to reconcile this to his catholicism and the unhelpful baggage that comes with that. He’s conscious that trying to teach a particular way of doing christianity is not the best method of being evangelical, but rather that communicating the gospel, so that it is understood, is then available to be either accepted or rejected (see my thoughts along these lines here).

In some ways it is quite a sad read, as Donovan gets close to some great ideas, yet refrains from these due to his catholic background. Nowhere is this more evident when he uses much of the same reasoning I did when discussing the nature of priesthood yet he fails to draw the logical conclusion and instead falls back on traditionalism.

At a little over 150 pages, it’s a short read, written in a simple, readable manner. It wouldn’t take long to get through if you just wanted to sit down on a wet afternoon and read a little about life in sunny east Africa, but I wouldn’t recommend it be read that way. Often without asking them explicitly, Donovan asks us questions about our churches (although I think his intention was more about American catholicism), how we approach mission and also fundamental questions about we understand the gospel. Questions we would do well to think long and hard about.

Catholicism and christianity: a response

Picture taken from Wikimedia Commons - usable under Creative Commons license

I recently received a very interesting comment on one of my earlier posts on church structure. You can read it here.

I am informed that my posts can be interpreted as being anti-catholic. I have been called “anti” many things in my time including anti-charismatic, anti-anglican and anti-evangelical. I do not consider myself to be any of these nor to be anti-anything, much (though do read to the end for a caveat to this). Rather, as explained recently I am much more interested in probing and exploring truth, as I best understand it. This entails pointing out what I see as mistakes or incorrect emphases in a number of issues, though what specific point I write about at any time may be either a matter of whim or it may relate specifically to something that has been in the news recently. This is not a new development in the blog, as can be demonstrated from something of a manifesto I published early on or to my take on creationism.

For reference, I usually write (this being an exception) a long time in advance of publication. Forthcoming posts currently in production include 2 very long series (one on Peter, one on the Psalms) and a variety of individual posts on subjects including saints, priests, whether christianity ought to be considered a religion, what a faith school is really like (I did, after all, attend one for 9.5 years), egalitarianism & feminism, the theology of holy spaces and finally one looking at when christians err entitled “Christians are people too.”

Some of these have been in production for several months and some posts I write to clear way for later posts. So there may be many besides my book reviews, which end up being published earlier.

Back to the point. I covered some thoughts on catholicism when the subject came up whilst looking at denominations where I concluded that there is no clear dividing line between what constitutes a denomination and what may be regarded as heretical offshoots, though we may see examples that fall easily into one category or another. My personal view is that catholicism, though related to christianity, should be not be conflated with it. I regard the relation as being very similar to that of Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There may be much common ground in the foundations, but there is so much either taken away or added to as to make it unrecognisable as being the same faith that I have. I could go further into these, though I think they are adequately  and more eloquently expressed by Antia Mathias in her post: Why I am no longer a catholic.

There is always a fine line to be trod between toleration and lovingly pointing out where others go astray. I don’t pretend that I have always got things right and I would hope that no reader interprets this blog as being dogmatic in any way. I simply state the truth as I see it, giving my reasons for doing so. I hope this makes the reader think or at least to view some aspect of the subject in a new way, even if this does mean on occasion challenging a line thought which I think to be incorrect. And this is a two-edged sword of course. I welcome challenges to my own point of view, as the original comment which prompted this post did. Sometimes those challenges come from myself, as I have binned quite a few pieces or severely modified them after changing my mind subsequent to the start of writing them. I know that I may well be wrong about this, as with many other things. All I ask is for the evidence or reasoning to be presented for consideration, as I attempt to do for you.

With specific reference to my “unwarranted Marxist-inspired critique about [catholicism’s] clerical hierarchy” my main referent which I had in mind was not catholism at all, though on another reading, I can see how my inclusion of the word “pope” could be interpreted as being more specific when it was intended to be more encompassing, which is why the others included more anglican terminology. It was predominantly based on my experiences in *some* anglican and baptist churches, where the term “laity” has been used as a derogatory term or where there is a very clear superiority complex exhibited by the church leaders. In some of these churches, those are not ordained are even forbidden from administering communion to the rest of the church, which is certainly a great way to make you feel like a 2nd class citizen. This may then be contrasted (at this point, the baptists drop out of the picture) with the extreme deference that I see and read afforded to some bishops. Though I acknowledge this may be due to a different emphasis in reading 1 Tim 5:17,18. Though upon further consideration, this idea may have reached its reductio ad absurdum in the unbliblical catholic doctrine of papal infallibility.

When I say that I regard catholicism as an heretical offshoot, that is not to make any judgement of an individual. I say that as a reference to the institutional church and its beliefs where they do not coincide with sound biblical theology. I have even come across quite a few catholics who recognise this and who professed themselves to be both catholic and christian, making clear the difference between the two. They were often brought up within traditionally catholic families and are happy to participate in the elaborate pageantry of mass whilst at the same time rejecting many of the beliefs which distinguish the catholic church from others.

I might add that my forthcoming posts on saints and priests do also touch on some areas of catholicism that have crept into some christian thinking. The former has been completed and will be published soon, while the latter is currently at an advanced stage of writing. There is no intended anti-catholic bias in these, as I simply wish to affirm what I see as the biblical point of view, but where this differs from the catholic point of view, such differences are pointed out, evidenced and reasoned.

If I am anti anything within christianity, it is this: I am opposed to those who would choose to reject the freedom that Christ affords us by turning christianity into religiosity, where pomp, ceremony, institutionalism and traditionalism mask the truths of the crucifixion & resurrection and which hinder us from loving God and those both inside & outside the church to the full extent of the human heart, mind, soul and strength.

Book Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam

When I first saw this book (I forget where) it seemed just about as ‘up my street’ as a book could me. My main two passions are christianity and science. So books that cover the two (without being needlessly antagonistic towards each other) tend to end up on my reading list.

In his introduction Hannam sets out his aim which can be summarised as “myth-busting.” Some may regard it as revisionist, though I think that would be a little harsh. The central myth is that the latter middle ages did not contribute much to scientific thought, and that the Enlightenment emerged out of a medieval intellectual vacuum of The Dark Ages; the latter two terms Hannam regards as prejudicial and which are then subsequently rarely, if ever, used again.

Hannam also goes so far as to cite the particular examples which he considers have given rise to popular misconceptions, with John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science being probably the most famous example.

The structure of the book is one of multiple mini biographies. These are given in pretty much chronological order. The timeline covered is roughly A.D. 999, when Gerbert of Aurillac became pope, through to 1642 which saw the death of Galileo. Given this time period and the number of figures involved, it can be hard to keep track of who is who, though the appendix does contain a very helpful timeline as well as a list of characters with a 2-4 line summary of why they are important.

At the start of the book, one could be forgiven for questioning whether or not it’s a science book, as much of the discussion is theological in nature, and could be considered a summary of medieval church history, particularly given the inclusion of several popes into the discussion as well as Thomas Aquinas, famous for his Summa Theologica. But that’s kind of the point. As the book progresses, we get more and more towards what our modern 21st century sensibilities recognise as science, but it is a gradual process with no sudden great leaps.

I know from having read some other reviews of Hannam’s book that his viewpoint is not universally accepted. I myself am no expert in this period of history so cannot really comment on its validity. The strength of the book is its meticulous cross-referencing, where original sources are preferred over secondary and an extensive bibliography is also included. So any time a claim is made that may go against one’s preconceived notions, the author gives the reader all the help they need to check the relevant facts. But this is not merely a scholarly book; it’s written with evident enthusiasm for the subject being discussed, like a highly energetic tour guide taking you round an exhibit for which they have a passion. It’s this exuberance that comes off the page which makes it pleasure to read, as well being highly informative.

How do you define a christian? Part 4: Denominations, cults & heretics

Link to Part 1: Self-definition
Link to Part 2: Creeds & confessions
Link to Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

To say one is a christian, but to not identify exclusively with one denomination can be like saying that you’re a football fan but refusing to be drawn on which team you support; it’s possible but really quite unusual. You are generally expected to pin your colours firmly to one mast or another.

I am very happy in a large number of different types of churches. The church I attend at present is usually described as Pentecostal, though I would consider it to be quite non-denominational. I do not include a link here as I am not a spokesperson for the church and the views expressed here are my own. *waves to the one church elder who I know reads this blog*

Though I made reference to “my church” there are actually several that I attend, depending on whereabouts in the country I find myself on a Sunday morning. Of those that I attend, the one unifying theme is that they have a culture of “come as you are.” They could all be described as a “jeans and t-shirt” church where all are welcome and no one is elevated above anyone else by use of an elaborate garb.

I will admit to feeling less comfortable in Anglican churches. There are a few reasons for this: I sketched my thoughts on high Anglican worship recently, so I won’t cover that again. My other objection, and here I use Anglicanism as an example, though the objection extends elsewhere, is that it has become a hierarchical organisation. [I ought to note, for honesty’s sake that I started to ramble at this point, but have cut much out and will save for a later post on why I am not a fan of hierarchical organisation as a substitute for church]. Then we have the problematic issue of Roman Catholicism, which I will come onto shortly.

As I see it, the differences between most denominations are barely skin deep. It might be fairest to describe such differences really as issues of emphasis rather than of fundamentally different beliefs. I find it helpful to think of a picture that has some sort of computer editing going on. One denomination may emphasise the blue hues of a picture, another may emphasise the reds. Nonetheless, they are looking at the same picture, with the same lines and forms, though to an outside observer, they may note the slight differences without spotting the overwhelming similarities.

But what about denominations that take things away from the gospel that others would consider essential? I think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unitarians, neither of whom recognise Jesus as being equal with God. In this respect, their theology is far more like that of the Ebionites, who considered Jesus to be fully man, and a good man, great teacher, etc. but without acknowledging him as being one with God. Are they christians, or a quasi-christian cult?

Then what about Mormons? With their additional book by Joseph Smith, have they added to the gospel, and maybe in so doing taken something out of it? I find it quite interesting actually to compare the origins of Mormonism with that of Islam, with the author of their key books claiming it was given to them by an angel. I can’t help but think Joseph Smith nicked the idea somewhat.

The truth is, I’m not really sure how to write about this subject. I merely think that the issue needs raising and perhaps one of you, who I am sure is a better writer than I, can take it up. To my mind, there is something of a sliding scale with no real demarcations between denominations, cults and heretics.

A battle I constantly face is one of balance between judgement and discernment; a battle that I don’t think I always get on the right side of. On the one side, christians have the famous instruction: “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” whilst at the same time the books of the New Testament are littered with calls to be discerning and to avoid false teachers. In general, I am in favour of what is known as the “ecumenical movement” (cue mental images of Father Jack!), which is a fancy way of saying “have lots of different churches work together.” But I do sometimes question whether in a search for unity, that sometimes there may be a danger of accepting something which is false. At one extreme, you may abandon discernment and accept all & sundry; whilst at the other, you may exclude just about all apart from the Baptist chapel across the road. I have seen both extreme ends of this in practice.

On the subject of heresies, I would heartily recommend two books I have read recently on the topic: My review of Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities may be found here and a review of Alister McGrath’s Heresy is here.

One thing McGrath helpfully describes in his book is that such groups just about always arise from within the ‘mainstream’ church (however you define that: though that may be a significant part of the problem). When I talk of cults, the most obvious examples I have in mind are the cults of Jim Jones or the Branch Davidian cult of Waco fame.

But then there are other groups, which may not be as well known about, that share similar characteristics. One that I have come across, and after prayerful consideration decided it would be best to not have anything to do with, call themselves The New Mystics. This group is quite different in structure from some other cults in that they do not isolate themselves off from the world. Nonetheless, they would claim to be christians and openly preach ‘a’ gospel. What they declare though is very often cherry-picked (though if I’m honest, I’m sure most christians, and non-christians too, have done this at one time or another to try to back up their point). The key feature of the New Mystics is that they are a group of “experientialists.” In other words, there is no place for truth in their teaching apart from the truth of what you feel; it’s all about “experiencing God.” It is noticeable that many of their key figureheads (the most notable being John Crowder) is that they are former drug addicts, and as such their whole worldview is based around the language and imagery of drugs.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking cultural adaptation. Jesus himself was great at using the everyday examples he had around him as communication tools with his followers. But when the symbolism is used as substitute for the thing which it is meant to represent, you are on deeply dangerous territory. In this respect, I think the New Mystics have much in common with the Roman Catholic take on communion.

The observant among you will notice that in much of what I say and write, I will often draw a distinction between what I would call christians and Roman Catholics. This may be seen as antagonistic, though it is never meant to be. I know quite a few catholics who are christian, but even they recognise that the two are not synonymous. The issue here is not of taking things away from the gospel per se, but rather the “add-ons” which detract from the gospel. I won’t go into detail here, but to summarise the things I am uncomfortable with in Catholicism include (but are not limited to): papal status, absolution by priests, forbidding of marriage, mass, saint worship and the over-emphasis on Mary.

As noted by McGrath in his book on Heresy, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Germany, an act which ultimately resulted in the Reformation, he was considered be a heretic by the catholic church. However, he successfully rebutted the accusations and demonstrated that the ideas of the reformation were not new, but were rather a partial restoration of the early church model.

At this point, history should record that Catholicism join the list of heresies that has been rejected by mainstream christianity throughout the centuries, placing it alongside Docetism, Pelagianism, Valentinism, Ebionitism, Arianism, etc. It is just a curious feature that the organisation as retained adherents and survived to this day. I know that’s not a particularly popular view, but it is the truth as I see it.

But does this mean that adherents to such views are not christians? No. That’s not what I’m saying. While I believe them to be mistaken, I am not in favour of the “excommunication” route. As christians, we do make mistakes and get the wrong end of the stick, just like anyone else. But what is so amazing is that we are given the freedom and grace to make such mistakes. Holding incorrect views doesn’t nullify salvation. I believe the church should be open to all, and that any such views which may cause division or misunderstanding only become an issue when it comes to what the church teaches.

So where does that leave us in our search for how define a christian? Well, I’ll wrap up in a concluding post (which should hopefully be shorter than this one) soon.

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.