Ben Nasmith has posted a wee ‘response’ to my book Hallowed Be Thy Name. I’m grateful to Ben for engaging with my work.
The Theodicy of Peter Taylor Forsyth: A “Crucial” Justification of the Ways of God to Man, by Theng Huat Leow. (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011), xviii + 268pp. ISBN: 9781608994359.
‘To justify God is the best and deepest way to fortify men. It provides the moral resource and stay which is the one thing at last. With open face to see the glory of God in things as they are, to blink nothing of the terror and yet to be sure of the Kingdom of God with all our heart – that is more for the courage of man than any nationalism or any patriotism when heart fails and grief benumbs’. So wrote one of the most able theological minds that Britain produced during the nineteenth century – P. T. Forsyth, in his extraordinarily astute book The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy. What is, perhaps, most remarkable about such a claim is that it was published, as the subtitle indicates, at the height of the Great War, the event in which God, according to Forsyth, entered the pulpit and which brought to the surface again the ‘old dilemma’. But contra the Stoics and Gottfried Leibnitz and Joseph de Maistre, it was Forsyth’s claim that the solution of the great world juncture is at last a provision from God which both taxes all the resources that faith has, and settles faith in a certainty grounded in but finally from outwith history and its moral order – in the world’s moral crisis, in tragedy, in the great divine commedia, in Christ and his cross.
In this well-researched, and clearly-written exposition of Forsyth’s ‘Theodicy’, Theng Huat Leow (Lecturer in Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore) provides an able and constructive introduction to Forsyth’s theological oeuvre via a consideration of a subject of central concern to the Scottish Congregationalist theologian – God’s self justification in the face of evil. And because of Forsyth’s open-textured approach to theology, an approach that refuses the kind of tidiness for which most theology strives, a study like this occasions opportunity to engage with Forsyth’s thinking on a range of subjects, a prospect appropriately exploited by the author. Hence, Leow introduces Forsyth’s thinking on the relationship between evil, sin, and suffering, his appropriation of Martin Luther’s theologia crucis, his understanding of divine election, his conviction that, no matter how ‘devious’ and ‘dreadful’ the way, creation would willingly ‘go through it again at the Father’s will’ for ‘the last things shall crown the first things, and … the end will justify the means’, his ‘Christian universalism’, his constructive and cautious engagement with evolutionary theory, and the important distinction Forsyth makes between God’s primary and secondary acts of judgement, his commitment to divine passibility and to sailing along the rocks of ‘true patripassianism’, his view on the origin of evil, among other subjects. Leow notes Forsyth’s conviction that the problems of evil are ‘essentially insoluble from an intellectual or theoretical perspective’, and considers Forsyth’s approach to theodicy along ‘practical’ and ‘historic’ lines. What this means, as Leow makes plain, is that Forsyth resolves ‘to treat the existence of evil in our world as a given reality, and [to] direct his focus on God’s practical overcoming of it through his act on the Cross’ (p. 180), a move which gives to Forsyth’s theodicy ‘unity, cohesion and groundedness in the historical reality of this world’ and so renders, in Leow’s assessment, Forsyth’s justification of God to be one which ‘far surpasses’ (p. 235) corresponding attempts penned in Forsyth’s day.
Avoiding hagiography, and with judicious editorial judgement, Leow brings Forsyth’s thought into conversation not only with those with whom Forsyth himself was most interested to engage – e.g., G. W. F. Hegel, Wilhelm Windelband, Albert Schweitzer, R. J. Campbell, etc. – but also with more contemporary voices known for their engagement with the subject at hand, such as Albert Camus, Marilyn McCord Adams, David Bentley Hart, Paul Fiddes, Dorothee Sölle, J. K. Mozley, Jürgen Moltmann, and others.
Greatly to be welcomed is Leow’s taking seriously the much-too neglected and ‘subjective aspects’ of the atonement, highlighting, most obviously, the role that prayer – and especially protest prayer – plays in Forsyth’s thought: that it may be God’s will for us to resist God’s will; that to struggle with God is one way of doing God’s will, one way of saying, ‘Thy will be done’; that, as Forsyth would insist in his profound essay The Soul of Prayer, the divine will is ‘to be resisted as much as indulged’.
But a quibble and a most unfortunate miscalculation ought also be noted. Regarding the quibble, curious is Leow’s heavy reliance throughout the book on Richard Bauckham’s reading of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a near-essential reference, it seems, in any essay on the subject of theodicy. Why then, did he not engage with Dostoyevsky’s characters directly rather than have them mediated through Bauckham’s interpretation?
If my memory serves me correctly, Forsyth’s Justification was my entrée into Forsyth’s corpus. I was a theological abecedarian, it was not an easy read, and I had no Beatrice to guide me. Dr Leow’s book is a Beatrice: but this Beatrice brings along a partner who too often distracts and detracts from the conversation, rather than enhances it, steering it away from its substantial themes and terms and, in so doing, rearranges the parameters of discussion in ways that leave Forsyth, at times, misheard and misrepresented, and with his thought systematised in ways that castrate some of its spirit. This, in my view, is the most substantive setback with Leow’s study. The most apparent candidate for this less-welcome friend is John Hick and his Evil and the Love of God. This is evident in Leow’s frequent – and very odd – description of Forsyth’s theodicy as ‘Irenaean’ (see pp. 188, 195–96, 209, 223, 227–30, passim), and, not unrelatedly, in his suggesting a view of sin that is considerably tamer than is Forsyth’s own. The Aberdonian insisted, in the strongest possible terms, that there could be no Hegelian integration of God’s antithesis into God’s final purposes for the world – ‘Die sin must or God’! To be sure, Leow is aware that for Forsyth there can be no possible compromise at this point (see, for e.g., pp. 17, 237), but, because of the distractions generated by Beatrice’s friend, the implications of that principal conviction struggle to arrive at their proper end.
However, those desiring to engage the questions that give rise to theodicies generally, or those wishing to better understand one of that project’s most daring and able theological minds, ought not allow these criticisms to dissuade them from taking up this composed and valuable study.
In due course, a version of this review will appear in Colloquium.
The most recent edition of the journal Horizons (42.1, June 2015) includes a review (pdf), by Kevin P. Considine (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Calumet College of St. Joseph, Indiana), of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth.
The book is now available in paperback at a friendlier price too.
Donald McKim (Academic and Reference Editor for Westminster John Knox Press) has penned a short review (pdf) my book, Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth for Religious Studies Review.
I am grateful to Professor McKim for his kind review, and for his assessment of Forsyth as ‘undervalued’.
The Presbyterian minister and historian John Roxborogh has been accumulating research notes and scraps of information on Christianity in Malaysia and Southeast Asia for thirty years. Some of the fruit of that work is now available to us in his recently-published (and very-reasonably priced!) A History of Christianity in Malaysia (Armour, 2014). The volume comprises of a series of intelligent, well-researched, and accessibly-written reflections on how Christianity has been – is – part of the Malaysian story, not only from the beginning of ‘Malaysia’ in 1963, but through the centuries leading to the nation’s creation as well.
Roxborogh’s aim throughout is twofold: to offer a framework for further study, and to ‘provide an integrated narrative of how, as a universal faith, Christianity became a religion that was part of Malaysia at its formation’. Among the kaleidoscope of stories are accounts of some early generations of missionary scholars who felt pressure to recast stories in order to win support at home, while others worked to document more honestly the way of life of those they found themselves among and because of such better recognised the need to champion the cause of others rather than their own. This is, of course, a story that is not without echoes elsewhere. And part of the achievement of Roxborogh’s disciplined attention to its Malaysian contours is how it assists us to not only better understand the Malaysian parts of that story but also to interpret other contexts in more informed light.
The final chapter, ‘Praying and Belonging: 1989 to 2013’, owes some debt to Grace Davies, Kevin Ward, and others who talk about ‘believing and belonging’ as separable variables in European and Western Christianity. In Malaysia, praying and belonging is, according to Roxborogh, a fair description of the current situation. It also indicates something of the dynamic change in Christian self-identity and sense of mission that has taken place, in Malaysia and elsewhere, over the past 60 years. We need to know more about that story, about why it has happened and is still happening, and to think more deeply about what might be involved in faithfully documenting the story as it continues to unfold. Here in this book, Roxborogh shows us one way that this can be done.
I understand that some thought is already being given to a Chinese edition. Were such to eventuate, this may occasion an opportunity to consider additional themes and emphases, and to revisit too the ones that Roxborogh has already attended to but in a new light. For example, as Roxborogh is well aware, the challenges that attend being both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Christian’ is mirrored in the dilemma of how to be both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Chinese’, or ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Indian’ and ‘Eurasian’. Such questions remain pressing ones, and ones that are not to be discarded when the weight of being an indigenous church in Malaysia is now carried primarily by large groups of local Christians from East Malaysia.
Understanding Christianity as a global movement demands taking Asia and the Pacific Rim – its histories, practices, and theologies – seriously. Roxborogh’s study ably helps to serve this end.
Jason A. Goroncy, Hallowed By Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). ISBN: 9780567066824; xvi + 291pp.
‘My debt of gratitude to you is not nominal, but a real thing’, the nineteenth-century Congregationalist preacher James Baldwin Brown wrote to Thomas Carlyle, recalling how the experience of reading the latter’s 1836 novel Sartor Resartus had led him to abandon his legal studies for the pulpit. ‘To the course of study and thought to which the meditations of that period have led me, I owe it that I am not a member of a purely worldly profession for which I was then educating’, Brown confessed, ‘but a preacher of the living Word, into the proclamation of which I can at any rate throw as much earnestness and life as I have in myself’. By all accounts, Brown – ‘the greatest Independent of our times’, Peter Taylor Forsyth would later declare – had a great deal of earnestness and life in him, making him a highly attractive figure to a young man whose own reputation for ‘ethical passion, spiritual insight, intellectual grasp, and personal piety’ (to quote from Forsyth’s eulogy of his former pastor) would by the end of the century eclipse his own.
Having graduated with first-class honours in Classical Literature at the University of Aberdeen, where he was known for his proclivity to grandiloquence as much as for his remarkable intellectual capability (and where also he came under the influence of the Professor of Logic, and founder of the philosophy journal Mind, Alexander Bain), Forsyth had taken up William Robertson Smith’s suggestion that he should spend a semester in Göttingen listening to Albrecht Ritschl, then at the height of his influence. As Jason Goroncy shows in his marvellous study of Forsyth’s treatment of sanctification, he would never discard the most important lesson he had learnt from that theologian, namely, that ‘Positive Christianity… is Christianity which recognizes the primacy of the moral in the shape of life, and of holy life’. Neither would he shake off his teacher’s deep suspicion of metaphysical speculation, which following Kant, both Ritschl and Forsyth treated as not only beyond our ken but as ultimately destructive of moral seriousness. A ‘metaphysic of things’, Forsyth would claim in an article published in 1914, is ‘merely shells of ruined towers that let heaven be seen through their cracks rather than their windows’. ‘God has given men feet not wings, and the order is fight not flight’, he would exclaim in a sermon on Psalm 55.6 and Jeremiah 9.2. ‘We reach heaven step by step, fighting all the way. What we need most of all for this life is the courage of the prosaic’. There was little, however, that was prosaic about Forsyth’s prose, which contemporaries described as volcanic. One declared him the ‘Ibsen of British theology’, and he would later be called, no less felicitously, theology’s Browning. ‘What a mental energy he had!’, a friend and disciple would write to Forsyth’s daughter after his death. ‘There was something demonic in it’, which helped to explain the difficulty of a style which, like Brown’s, bore indelibly the marks of ‘the man himself and his passion’.
It is no disparagement of Forsyth’s theological genius to note the extent to which his moral imagination was shaped by a nineteenth-century romantic tradition that can be traced back through Kant to Rousseau. Yet it is not the least virtue of Goroncy’s study that while he shows Forsyth drawing upon the neo-Kantianism of Ritschl and Wilhelm Windelbrand, the literature of Carlyle and Lord Tennyson, the music of Wagner, the Maurician tendencies of Brown, he also attends to the influence of quite different traditions. Forsyth’s intellectual debts are difficult to identify because he hardly ever identifies them himself, but Goroncy is surely right to suggest that the sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin, the seventeenth-century puritan Thomas Goodwin, and the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century biblical scholar Adolf Schlatter all figure prominently in the background to his thought. Perhaps the greatest influence of all on Forsyth’s moral and theological vision was scripture itself, which he studied assiduously and with the aid of the resources of higher criticism. A third of his considerable library was in German, and much of this consisted of commentaries on scripture. As with Windelbrand and Calvin, Ritschl and Goodwin, Forsyth keeps his debts to biblical scholarship close to his chest, but the depth of his engagement with scripture can be seen indirectly – for example, in his claim that no one should talk about theology in public until they had mastered the New Testament. This was a tall order, but one that Forsyth had evidently met himself, since he often talked about theology in public, not least in the sad controversy with R. J. Campbell, during which he had to point out how theologically out of his depth Campbell was. Forsyth was also an extraordinarily good preacher who spoke to people who knew what extraordinarily good preaching looked like and so had very high expectations. Some of those best qualified to judge such matters claimed, after hearing him, that he had exceeded their expectations. Some still recalled the power of a particular sermon decades after the fact. In all of the sermons he gave he was meditating upon scripture, and he would have spent hours consulting his German commentaries in preparation.
Although Forsyth remained committed to the conviction that ‘the moral is the real’, he would come to reject Ritschl’s gospel as ‘unevangelical’. In so doing he was rejecting the liberal Protestantism which was becoming increasingly attractive to late nineteenth-century Congregationalists partly because it promised to assuage Victorian anxieties about holiness. ‘Tired of moral precepts and attitudes which represented Christianity as “just human nature at its best”, and God’s kingdom as “just our natural spirituality and altruism developed”’, Forsyth, writes Goroncy, accused ‘his generation of succumbing to cheap comforts, or muffling the moral note, of seeking a form of idealized Christianity divorced from a historic and perennial Christ and of interpreting sin “in a softer light than God’s”’. The accusations could themselves sound like a form of Victorian moralism but for the fact that they were based upon its inversion. The Victorians conceived of holiness as a human quality, and one to be construed in negative terms. For Forsyth, this negative idea of holiness, ‘cloistered and feeble’, was not something that had come from Christ. Neither was holiness, in the first instance, a property of human beings. Holiness was, he claims in The Cruciality of the Cross (1909), ‘God’s very essence and nature: changeless and inexorable’. Of course, this insight was not, according to Forsyth, one purchased by speculative thought, but was instead disclosed in ‘the central act and achievement of God and of history in the Cross of Christ’, which he calls the ‘continuous evangelical centre’. It is at that centre that sin is revealed for what it really is – not simply a transgression of an abstract law which God might in his mercy overlook, or even forgive at no cost to himself, but rather a protest against the absolute holiness of God, and so an assault upon and threat to God’s being. In the light of the cross, there can be no question of God letting sinners off the hook, as it were, because what is at stake is not a principle that God can set aside, but God himself. ‘The holy God must go out in judgment against all that mocks and flaunts holiness because God’s Godhead is at stake’, Goroncy writes, ‘and because God is committed to hallowing all things’. That God’s being is in question here is not unrelated to the divine commitment to hallow all things: in effect, these are two sides of the same coin. The very nature of God is holy love, and when God creates the world he calls into being creatures who are sustained by – and who must answer to – God’s own ‘hungering holiness’. It is this holiness that ‘constitutes and directs all being, binding a coherent universe in such a way as all remigrates to its source in God’. When human beings refuse this creative holiness, it is not some kind of abstract moral order conceived independently of God that is put at risk, but the one who is committed by virtue of his very being to hallowing all things. To pray ‘hallowed by thy name’ is to recognise that what sin places at stake is God’s being itself.
It was Hegel who had claimed in his Philosophy of Religion that ‘God cannot find satisfaction through anything other than Himself, but only through Himself’, although this was an insight that already had a long history within the Christian tradition by the time that Hegel came to it. Anselm of Canterbury, for instance, had insisted that the debt incurred by sin could only be satisfied by God himself. But while Forsyth drew upon Anselm’s account of the atonement in Cur Deus Homo, he is sceptical of what Paul Fiddes calls the eleventh-century archbishop’s ‘excessive objectivity’, preferring more ethical and personal categories to Anselmic jurisprudence. Certainly, Forsyth moves far beyond Anselm when he speaks, as he does in The Pulpit and the Age (1885), of ‘[t]he living God’ as ‘the dying God’ and of ‘the Eternal principle of Eternal life’ as ‘always and only possible even to God by Eternal Death’. As Goroncy points out, the debt to Hegel is clearly evident when Forsyth contends that in the death of Christ, God makes death part of his own eternal life, and so (to quote Hegel) ‘comes to Himself’. While it might seem as if such talk of divine ‘self-realisation’, of God finding or coming to himself, which is intrinsic to Forsyth’s reading of the cross as divine theodicy, risks reducing the atonement to an exercise in divine solipsism, one of the great strengths of Forsyth’s account of God’s ‘hungering holiness’ is that it effectively rules out such suggestions. God’s regard for the holiness of his name – for, that is, the integrity of his very being – is a regard also and at the same time for human beings. If the atonement is divine self-reconciliation, its work is not done, Goroncy notes, ‘until there is created a “reciprocal communion” between humanity and God’.
‘The great theologies are epics’, Forsyth would write in The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). This seems as good a description of Forsyth’s own theology as any. It is usual for scholars to comment upon the unsystematic quality of his work. Nothing could be more wrong-headed. Forsyth’s writing is certainly occasional, each essay, sermon, lecture, and book called forth by some specific need. But his moral and theological – and by now it should be clear why the distinction should not be pressed too hard – vision is highly coherent. Like Calvin, Forsyth gives us ‘a gospel deep enough’ with ‘all the breadth of the world in its heart’, as must any theologian who knows what they are about. Unlike Calvin, Forsyth’s theology demands that he takes the word ‘breadth’ with a kind of ultimate – one might even say metaphysical – seriousness. In his final chapter, Goroncy shows that everything, or everything that matters, about Forsyth’s doctrine of sanctification necessitates a commitment to universalism. The cross is where ‘all things are (so to say) tied up’, Forsyth writes in his great theodicy, The Justification of God (1916). ‘All history, through his great act at its moral centre, is, in God, resolved into the harmonies of a foregone and final conquest’, he affirms in The Cruciality of the Cross. Admittedly, such claims do not themselves entail a full-blown universalism, but in their light it seems a bit churlish not to go all the way. At any rate, Forsyth holds to a ‘hopeful’ rather than ‘dogmatic’ universalism, which is certainly a respectable theological position. But Goroncy persistently pushes Forsyth on this point, and his persistence pays off. As he shows, Forsyth cannot take refuge, as others have, in the doctrine of divine freedom because for him God’s freedom is ‘already bound up in his determination to hallow all things’. And since what is at stake in this hallowing is the very being of God, the price of one everlastingly unrepentant sinner is not the existence of hell, nor even the defeat of the purposes of God, but the collapse of divine being itself. There is simply no possibility of the coexistence of divine holiness and its antithesis. While Forsyth makes this point repeatedly, he does not follow his own logic, which Goroncy shows, ‘demands either universalism or annihilationism’, to its end. As Goroncy also points out, there are serious difficulties with the idea that God might, after a suitable term of punishment, annihilate creatures that he had brought into being. Forsyth really has only one option available to him. And yet he hedges.
It is interesting to speculate – and here this is all that can be done for lack of evidence – as to why Forsyth tacitly refuses to draw the necessary consequences of his theology. The author of This Life and the Next (1918) was hardly unconcerned with the last things, so that cannot be the reason. In all likelihood, as Goroncy suggests, ecclesial and theological politics played a factor in Forsyth’s public agnosticism, which may have seemed to the principal of a congregational college and leader within the congregational community to be the most prudent course. There may have been another reason, which Goroncy does not mention. It is possible that in hedging on the question of dogmatic universalism Forsyth was, perhaps even unconsciously, questioning the Hegelian assumptions that made that universalism a necessary consequence of his theology. There is a lot of Hegeling in Forsyth’s work. Perhaps in the end he wanted to say something different.
And perhaps in the end he did. Forsyth was often tempted to ‘flirt with the mythological’, as one of the most astute of his twentieth-century admirers once remarked. This is true not least when he talks of the ‘dying God’ or construes sin as the antithesis of, and a threat to, the divine being itself. The Augustinian conception of sin as privation, along with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo on which it depends, is an attempt to rule out something like Forsyth’s account of sin (and with it, any notion that God’s being might be subject to threat). Forsyth was nervous about the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, because it seemed to him not to be ethical enough – a criticism which suggests that he was reacting against the rationalist orthodoxies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rather than Augustine or Thomas. Curiously, while he rejected the metaphysics of what he calls ‘Chalcedonianism’, and for all his Kantian objections to speculative thought, what Forsyth offers is nothing if not a profound essay in the metaphysics of divine being. Goroncy, perhaps Forsyth’s finest interpreter, captures the heights and depths of this metaphysical vision in Hallowed Be Thy Name, revealing the richness and coherence (questions about universalism aside) of Forsyth’s thought, because he knows that the metaphysics are always in the end an attempt to wrestle with the ‘evangelical centre’. But the attempt was perhaps not entirely successful. In his memorial speech for Brown, Forsyth described his early mentor as ‘more a Paul than a John’. We might wonder whether the implied distinction between the historical and the metaphysical served Forsyth all that well. As Goroncy remarks, those who object to metaphysics, tend to end up doing it badly. Had Forsyth been less eager to denounce metaphysical speculation, he may have been more critical of the highly speculative tendencies of his own thinking. Yet whatever criticisms one might want to make of Forsyth – whether of his eschatological reserve or of some of his more fundamental concerns – it is worth remembering that he was, perhaps first and foremost, a reader of scripture. When, as Europe had descended into the terrible nightmare of the Great War, Forsyth insisted that ‘[w]e have no final weal but our share in that worship and glory of the Father by the Son’, he was drawing not upon Hegel or Kant, but the New Testament. So too, when he contended that the invocation ‘hallowed be Thy name’ was one that stood over all Christian prayer and work. In his wonderful and authoritative study of Forsyth, Goroncy shows how breathtakingly audacious his metaphysical theology is in both form and scope. But perhaps in order to gain the measure of the man, we also need a comprehensive study of his engagement with the bible. One might begin with Goroncy’s recent publication of Forsyth’s sermons, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Pickwick, 2013).
University of Otago, Research Assistant
[A less satisfying version of this review was also published in Candour]
Jason A. Goroncy, ed. Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-60899-070-2. 396pp.
A guest review by Kim Fabricius
Somehow, I’m ashamed to say, P. T. Forsyth flew under my radar during the three years (1979–1982) I studied at Mansfield College, Oxford. I vaguely remember hearing about this former College Pastor and ‘Barthian before Barth’ – an epithet as complimentary to Barth as it is to Forsyth – but as I’d already been nurtured in the faith by Uncle Karl, why bother with a distant relative? Then, shortly after my ordination, a retired Old Testament professor who was downsizing his library offered me some of his books. Among them was Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909). It was seriously impressive. Forsyth’s relentless Christocentrism, theologia crucis, and kenotic soteriology were an inspiration and encouragement to my own early theological formation. Over thirty years later – far too long – it’s been a pleasure to renew my acquaintance with the great Congregationalist scholar-pastor through this generous collection of sermons and addresses. A thousand thanks to Jason Goroncy for arranging the meet, and for his superb introduction, which not only reminded me of what I’ve been missing but also, with both affection and erudition, wondrously surveys it.
Every preacher should buy this book. It won’t tell you anything about sermons – for as Forsyth insists, ‘your duty as preachers is not to preach sermons, but to preach the Gospel’ – but it will indeed draw you more deeply into the Gospel you are called to proclaim. If, that is, you pay attention and persevere. These sermons are not an easy read (though they were surely an even harder hear!). They begin with no winsome appeal, they proceed with thick thought and lengthy exploration, they range with polymathic breadth, but they have a passion and energy that sweep you along like a river in flood, and they repeatedly stun you with powerful and memorable phrases. And while the sermons are based on texts, they proceed less by exegesis and more by focussing on the res, the heart of the matter.
My marginal notes on the sermon ‘Mercy and the True and Only Justice’ and ‘The Bible Doctrine of Hell and the Unseen’ read, respectively, ‘Wow!’ and ‘Wow x 2!’. Refusing a competitive understanding of the divine love and justice (God’s love is holy love and God’s justice is his ‘love in action’); denying the endlessness of the wrath of God (‘you offer men a devil to worship’) as well as the ‘miserable doctrine of annihilation’; dismissing the ‘whole immoral’ theory of (penal) substitution and – the hermeneutical key – declaring that ‘if Christ’s cross means anything, it means the destruction of evil everywhere and for ever’: here Forsyth gestures towards (without arriving at) a doctrine of universal salvation. He also anticipates and funds, by well over a century, the so-called new evangelical universalism.
These two sermons are, for me, the diamonds in the pack, but there are many gems. ‘The Pulpit and the Age’ should be required reading for ministers thinking of answering – and for churches thinking of issuing – a ‘call’. At a time when congregations have the attention span of a mayfly and the PowerPoint image threatens to turn the spoken word into a sound bite, one hears with an ‘Ouch!’ Forsyth’s deadpan declaration: ‘I believe myself that short sermons are mostly themselves too long.’
‘Dumb Creatures and Christmas: A Little Sermon to Little Folk’ is a delightful ecological plea for recognising that Christmas is not only ‘All Children’s Day’, it is also – because in becoming creaturely flesh, the Word hallows all animate creation – ‘All Creatures’ Day’.
One more favourite: ‘The Problem of Forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer’. Here Forsyth exhibits a truly evangelical understanding of forgiveness and repentance. Not only are we reminded that God forgives us before we repent, that God’s forgiveness provides both the power to repent and the motive – thanksgiving – for forgiving, we are also astounded to learn that ‘The love of God forgave sin before we sinned, and slew the Lamb before the world was.’ Because the heart of God is cruciform, it is also omnibenevolent.
Nobody, however, is perfect. In the midst of First Wave Feminism, Forsyth can be disconcertingly patriarchal. His take on colonialism is rather blithely Kiplingesque. He addresses the moral but not the material conditions of society; he was interested in socialism, but too suspicious of it to endorse a Social Gospel. It is not good enough just to say that Forsyth was ‘a man of his times’, but notwithstanding these deficits, his theology is lucratively in the Bible-black.
Finally: it is a largely unexamined cliché that you can’t judge a book by its cover: often, I think, you can. Certainly the thoughtful aesthetic of the cover of Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History is marvellously expressive of the formidable intelligence and fine sensibility of the person whose sermons it adorns and announces. There is a photograph of Forsyth – terrific moustache! – leaning his head on his arm. The pose is conventional, but so capacious is the man’s brain that one wonders whether the head is resting on the arm, or the arm is propping up the head. And beneath the photograph – the image of a painting: a trellis of colourful crosses, a perspicuous small white cross, and a lovely blue flower with a yellow pistil. On the back cover, in fine print, we learn that the artist is Sinead Goroncy.
Carlton Johnstone, Embedded Faith: the faith journeys of young adults within church communities (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013). ISBN: 9871625641236; 213pp.
A guest review by Geoff New
I have been aware of Carlton Johnstone’s work for some time. The thought of reading his book was akin to the thought of going to the dentist; I probably need to but I’m scared of the pain that will no doubt result. The anticipated pain of reading this book was centred on the anxiety I held about the young adults in my congregation. Why? I’m jealous for the young adults in my congregation because I have pastored them since they were in primary school. The prospect of reading this work was like hearing what your children have been up to from other ‘concerned parents’. Denial was a tantalising option. Nevertheless, I decided I needed a check-up so I read the book. Spoiler alert: insofar as the emotional effect upon me as a pastor, it was exactly as a dental assistant once said to me, ‘Today dentistry is a painless exercise’. Surprisingly!
Allow me to begin with a generalisation. For a busy minister who will be choosy about what they read and for how long, Embedded Faith is not an easy read. It is very academic in style and its main discipline is sociological rather than theological. If you are intending to buy this book, it’s important to know that. Also, this is not a how-to book; it is a what’s-happening-and-why book. As a reader, you will find a helpful map of what lies ahead in the Introduction (pp. xvi–xvii). Orientate yourself with this and then begin reading with your own people in mind.
Allow me to continue with what might appear as a painfully obvious point. Different chapters and sections will resonate and challenge leaders depending on the nature of their context and the length of time they have been in such a place. For me, I was intrigued with the chapters entitled ‘Worship and Modes of Engagement’, and ‘Preaching and Interpretative Communities’. What struck me about the findings articulated in these chapters was that with good authentic relationships with young adults, anxious leaders do not have a lot to be anxious about. Urban myths about what younger generations are after are debunked by the stories, experiences, and aspirations shared in these pages. Yes, there is work to be done but there is less of a them-and-us dynamic going on than is often claimed. This book, to a significant degree, is actually a tribute to the spirituality and conscientiousness of young adults that God has graced the church with.
The book reaches a conclusion where Carlton coins the phrase ‘two-timing’ to describe the spiritual practice of young adults attending two churches. At risk of over-simplifying this conclusion, a main feature is that it takes more than one church for the participants described in this book to enjoy spiritual nourishment. Outrageous? Well, in reading that section my mind went to Revelation 1–3 when the ascended and glorified Christ appeared to the apostle John on the island of Patmos. He then addressed the seven churches of Asia Minor at that time. His opening comment to each of the churches featured one or more aspect of the original description of Christ in Revelation 1.12–16; but no church had the entire vision presented. In other words, it took all seven churches to present the full vision of Christ. Maybe that’s where this research is heading? By the book’s end I was wishing for more application and reflection in terms of ‘what-now?’ It is there, but it is all too brief and general.
In my view, this work calls forth a commitment to a particular kind of open-hearted relationship with young adults. As mentioned earlier, it is not an easy read due to its academic style and referencing; but it is an empowering voice for young adults and encouraging for over-anxious pastors who feel like they are in the dentist chair.
Ed. In the spirit of both full disclosure and sheer delight, Carlton is one of my students. This means, among other things, that I am particularly happy to give his book a wee plug here at PCaL. – JG.
John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), pp. x + 298, ISBN 978-0-8028-6716-2 (pbk).
‘Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85-year-old woman who flinches because she thinks he’s a stranger’ (p. 287).
Dementia directly affects some 800,000 people in the UK alone, two thirds of whom are women, and 17,000 of whom are young persons, plus some 670,000 carers; and the numbers are growing. Consequently, it is a subject of increasing interest to medical research, bearing significant implications for government and other funding and care bodies; and accompanied by a growing anxiety amongst a public still largely ignorant of its medical and social realities. John Swinton’s informed, intelligent, accessible, and honest engagement with this subject seeks to speak into and to earth these realities, and to specifically remind us that dementia is as much a relational and spiritual condition as it is neurological. At core, he argues that a relationality characterised by real presence and by the promise of a God whose memories of us are constitutive for our full humanity offer a much-needed antithesis to the malignant narratives often provided by some social psychology and theology. He challenges the inference that to live meaningfully in the present requires the cognitive ability to remember, to recall our past, and to imagine. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his prison letters, more than is understood is present.
Among the book’s many strengths is the care that its author takes to explain and introduce difficult concepts – whether medical, theological, psychological, or philosophical – that are indispensable for thinking constructively about dementia. It also offers many (perhaps too many?) lived examples of how our relationships with those who have become strangers to us can be honoured and sustained in meaningful ways. Insofar as it does this, Swinton’s study serves as a helpful introduction to this troubled subject. Its foremost strength, however, is to champion the claim that this subject might be something that Christian theology, theologians, and communities could be interested in, might learn from engaging with, and about which they might have something valuable to contribute.
Swinton’s stated intention to offer a specifically Christian ‘theological perspective on dementia’ (p. 6) is, however, finally unsatisfying. Specifically, his twin claims that ‘memory is first and foremost something that is done for us, rather than something that we achieve on our own’ (p. 198) and that our being remembered by God is ‘our only real source of identity and hope’ (p. 217) is offered with insufficient regard for the foundation and centre of Christian theology itself; namely, God’s personal entrance into our estranged humanity in Jesus Christ. Had he explored beyond mere paradigm, for example, the ways that the divine journey into memory’s tomb in Holy Saturday – that ‘non event’ and ‘time of waiting in which nothing of significance occurs, and of which there is little to be said’ about which Alan Lewis writes in his extraordinary book Between Cross and Resurrection – might transform and deepen and provide the theological grammar for our understanding of his claim about the divine memory, and had he attended more critically to the ways in which his articulation of social trinitarianism (on pp. 158–60) might actually undermine his claims about the relational ontology of human personhood, the book might have offered a more robust witness to the deep resources within the Christian tradition that speak most acutely to the subject at hand.
With these reservations aside, the book is good news for those who embark upon love’s costly journey of remembering and caring for those who, in Andrea Gillies’ words, ‘are no longer able to make memory’. It is also a welcome contribution to theological conversations about the radically-contingent nature of human personhood.
A version of this review will appear, in due course, in the International Journal of Public Theology.
John Chryssavgis (ed., with contributions by Brian Daley and George Florovsky), Dialogue of Love: Breaking the Silence of Centuries (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014). 96pp. ISBN: 9780823264001.
A guest review by Graeme Ferguson
Dialogue of Love was prepared to coincide with the meeting between Pope Francis and Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople, on 25 May this year in Bethlehem. Dr Chryssavgis – who has edited three volumes of the writings of Patriarch Bartholomew, along with his own writings on ecology, on the theology of the Desert Fathers, and on spirituality – is one of Australia’s leading theologians with wide ecumenical experience. He is ideally suited to edit this celebratory gift to the Church both East and West. (He has recently been elevated to the post of Ecumenical Archdeacon of the Throne by the Patriarch.)
Although the meeting between the leaders of the Churches of the East and of the West was overshadowed in the secular news by other significant gestures by Pope Francis during his weekend visit to Jordan and Israel, it marked fifty years of changing relations between the Churches since the day when Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI first greeted each other in Jerusalem in May 1964. When Athenagoras was asked by reporters what he would say to the Pope, he replied: ‘I came here to say “good morning” to my beloved brother, the Pope. You must remember that it has been five hundred and twenty five years since we have spoken to one another!’ This breach was the ‘great silence’ that had marred any communication between East and West.
Dr Chryssavgis details the steps in the ‘pilgrimage towards unity’ with loving regard and a fine attention to the momentous nature of the changes first raised in the Second Vatican Council. This chapter gives an insightful overview of the steps that have been taken. Relations between East and West have become cordial and mutually gracious.
Fr. Daley has been closely associated with the theological conversations between the Churches in North America. He deals with the theological questions that have needed to be considered in ecumenical conversations. His chapter is a fine reminder of the way ecumenical courtesies are fostered and developed as people work together to overcome the breaches of past centuries.
The third contribution is a previously-unpublished paper giving Fr George Florovsky’s evaluation of the 1964 meeting where he dealt with the questions that gave rise to the breach and the style of dialogue needed to move once more towards unity. He writes of the hope that lies beyond the contradictions in the self-understanding of the Church of Rome, as the watchman watches for the morning to break (Isa 22.11). Florovsky taught in Edinburgh as well as Princeton, and helped both catholic and protestant theologians to act with respect and grace towards each other.
Together, these articles focus well the grace and courage with which the leaders of the Churches bring to their meetings with each other. They are theologically perceptive, written by people who engage in the dialogue as it continues, and convey a sense of joyous hope as people begin to discern the outlines of a restored and reconciled Church. Dr Chryssavgis has prepared a gift which warms the heart as it stimulates the mind. It is an encouragement to continue the pilgrimage further.
Graeme Ferguson is the former Principal of United Theological College, Sydney.
A guest review by John Stenhouse
Kate Malcolm has written a superb historical novel about one of her Scottish Presbyterian ancestors, the Revd. James Begg. The author trained in history at the University of Otago; it showed. One of the book’s many strengths is how well the author placed it in the historical contexts necessary to understand the life and times of James Begg and his family, church and nation. Historians are trained to avoid anachronism – language, ideas, objects and practices chronologically out of place in the period about which the author is writing. It is a tribute to Kate Malcolm that she avoided anachronism almost entirely.
Chapter one depicts young James Begg growing up the son of a Church of Scotland minister in New Monkland. The author’s account of a Scottish communion gathering conveyed a sense of the drama and excitement of occasions that caught up entire communities. Here, as elsewhere, Malcolm combined impeccable historical research with a novelist’s eye for her subjects’ inner worlds of thought and feeling.
After making a name for himself as a powerful preacher, James Begg joined the Free Church exodus out of the Church of Scotland during the Disruption. Here the author nicely captured the volatile mix of social, intellectual, political and theological tensions between the Moderate party and the Evangelicals, led by Thomas Chalmers, who reluctantly led the latter out of the established church in 1843. Academic historians who have difficulty understanding how deeply past generations felt about theology, politics and their interconnections have sometimes written accounts of such controversies that are too dry, dispassionate and cerebral. In Malcolm’s telling, by contrast, we can feel the anger of the Begg family when well-heeled Moderates and their supporters imposed a minister on an unwilling congregation. The author brings to life the Disruption – probably the most important event in nineteenth-century Scottish history – by refusing to confine theology to the private sphere of heart, home and house of worship. Weaving together theology with politics, law and social history, Malcolm brings our Presbyterian past to life just a few years before Free Church folk founded the Otago settlement. It is worth remembering that the Evangelical party left the Church of Scotland because they did not believe that the dominant Moderate party was keeping the church in vital contact with the mass of the Scottish people. Free Church visions of society as a godly commonwealth did not suddenly disappear; this tradition significantly shaped Otago, Southland and New Zealand history well into the twentieth century.
While the author writes about her subjects with empathy and understanding, she avoids hagiography. She depicts James Begg as a gifted and passionate preacher and dedicated pastor but not as a plaster saint. I found myself cringing at how harshly this Presbyterian patriarch sometimes treated his eldest son, Jamie. Sensitive and uncertain, Jamie responded to his father’s disapproval by withdrawing. It is a painful story that illuminates a shadow side of Scottish Presbyterian culture.
One of James Begg’s sons, Alexander Campbell, emigrated to Dunedin, where he played a lively and sometimes controversial role in Presbyterian church life as a staunch defender of tradition. Strongly attached to the Westminster Confession, A. C. Begg encouraged southern Presbyterians to try the Revd. Professor William Salmond and the Revd. James Gibb for heresy in 1888 and 1890 respectively. Begg’s support for prohibition, Bible-in-Schools and strict Sabbath observance annoyed working class radicals such as Sam Lister, whose Otago Workman newspaper regularly attacked ‘Ace’ Begg as a domineering old bigot.
Modern New Zealand historians have tended to side with Lister. In a famous article appearing in Landfall in 1953, Auckland poet-historian Robert M. Chapman, who later became professor of political science at the University of Auckland, identified Scottish Presbyterians and English Evangelicals as the main carriers of ‘puritanism’ to New Zealand. And puritanism, claimed Chapman, was the root of almost evil, plaguing society with interpersonal violence, marital discord, family dysfunction, female frigidity, latent homosexuality, patriarchy, self-hatred, and the ‘dominant mother.’ During the 1950s, with his friend and fellow poet-historian Keith Sinclair, Chapman translated into history and the social sciences the anti-puritanism burgeoning in literary circles since the 1930s. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the universities expanded, antipuritanism grew into a powerful new orthodoxy. Many of our writers, artists, historians and social scientists sought to save us from puritanism (or Calvinism, as they sometimes called it) and the churches that brought it here. Just how far this antipuritan crusade transformed attitudes to our Scottish Presbyterian forebears may be illustrated simply. In The Land of the Long White Cloud (1898), William Pember Reeves, our most influential nineteenth-century historian, praised the Revd. Thomas Burns, spiritual leader of Otago’s Free Church pioneers, as ‘a minister of sterling worth.’ In 1959, by contrast, Keith Sinclair’s Pelican History of New Zealand described Burns as a ‘censorious old bigot.’ Had Burns changed so much in sixty years?
‘Amor ipse intellectus est,’ wrote Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a saying we might translate into English as ‘love itself is the knowing faculty.’ In a labour of love, Kate Malcolm has rescued one of her Scottish Presbyterian forebears – and ours – from the condescension of posterity. This beautifully written book deserves a wide readership.
The Englewood Review of Books has published a friendly two-part review, written by Rachelle Eaton, on my edited volume Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts. Rachelle has picked up on the story told in Mark 14.3–9 and referred to a number of times in the book, of the woman who anoints Jesus (i.e., prepares his body for its forthcoming burial) with ‘very costly ointment’, as a way into reflecting on one of the recurring themes to surface in the book. You can read her review here and here.
A recent edition of Theology Today (70.4, January 2014) includes Rick Floyd’s review of my book Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth (T&T Clark, 2013). Therein, he writes:
Dr. Goroncy is a felicitous writer. He knows his Forsyth, and he also knows the late Victorian world in which Forsyth lived and worked. He leads us ably through the material and brings us to his conclusion, which is that the trajectory of Forsyth’s thinking should have led him to dogmatic universalism, but did not. This is the most controversial (and most interesting) part of the book. The subject of universal salvation has recently gained wide public attention sparked by the popular book Love Wins by Rob Bell (Harper One, 2011). Goroncy’s thoughtful, nuanced treatment of this timely subject adds depth to this conversation …
It is good to see a new generation of scholars take up this important theologian. And now that Forsyth’s writings, once hard to find and largely out of print, are widely available in print and electronically, I hope to see renewed interest by scholars and preachers of this great ‘‘preacher’s theologian.’’
Me too! Access to the remainder of the review is available here.
I am grateful to Rick for his kind words about my book, not least because he knows his Forsyth too! His own study on Forsyth’s thought, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement (Pickwick Publications, 2000) is a very clear reading of Forsyth’s testimony to God’s most unpopular work – the atonement. I warmly commend it.
John W. de Gruchy, John Calvin: Christian Humanist and Evangelical Reformer (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-62032-773-9. 240pp.
John de Gruchy’s little book on John Calvin is a great read! One of its real achievements is that its author has succeeded, in little over 200 pages, in capturing something of Calvin’s spirit and energy. It is certainly no hagiography – de Gruchy is not shy to point out those areas where paradox exists in his subject, and where he thinks that the reformer simply got it wrong! In an honest effort to introduce one of the most important figures in Western intellectual, theological, and social history, it picks up some themes that marked and gave anatomy to his work. De Gruchy is especially keen to retrieve Calvin and the tradition that exists most consciously in his wake as constructive expressions of Christian humanism, a movement of social transformation that is at once liberating, ecumenical, and humanising.
Writing with a non-technical style, and out of his own experience of witnessing both the beauty and the ugliness of the reformed project played out in his native South Africa, de Gruchy builds a compelling case for why we should take Calvin’s thought seriously as a resource for what it means today to engage in the public commons, and for encouraging the kind of flourishing of human society that God desires. Certainly not everything in Calvin’s thought lends itself to such a project, but there is much that does, and these are the features that de Gruchy identifies and develops. He concludes his study by offering six affirmations about Christian humanism and its public vision. They bear repeating and thinking about as a way into considering Calvin’s own vision, and its portability today. They are:
First, Christian humanism is inclusive in its vision of humanity. It recognises that being human is our primary identity – coming before those of religion, race, culture, social class or gender.
Second, Christian humanism affirms both the God-given dignity of being human and the concomitant responsibility of being human. Given human brokenness, it understands the gospel as God’s way of restoring human dignity and awakening our responsibility for the world in which we live.
Third, Christian humanism is open to knowledge and insight from wherever truth is to be found, but it draws most deeply from the Christian Scriptures and the long history of their interpretation through the centuries, embodied in what is called ‘Christian tradition’.
Fourth, Christian humanism insists that love of God is inseparable from love for others; that faith and discipleship belong together; that theology and ethics are part of the same enterprise, and that the renewal of church life and public life are intrinsically connected.
Fifth, Christian humanism places justice, good governance, ecological responsibility and global well-being above national and sectional interests. It is concerned to ensure that scientific and technological development serve the common good and the well-being of the earth.
Sixth, Christian humanism encourages human creativity and cherishes beauty. It insists that goodness, truth and beauty are inseparable, though distinct. Just as it places a premium on moral values and the search for truth, it also regards the development of aesthetic values and sensitivity through the arts as essential for human well-being.
I warmly and enthusiastically commend this book, particularly for those for whom Calvin remains something of a persona non grata, or an embarrassing – or worse! – spokesperson for the Christian faith, and for those who wish to gain a clearer sense of the world-embracing vision of the reformed project at its best.
Stephen R. Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 9780830839865.
The Quest for the Trinity makes plain again that Steve Holmes is among the most erudite and trustworthy theologians working today. His acquaintance with the tradition’s own wrestlings to articulate its speech about God, and its nuances and real game-shifting moves, is extraordinary, and his ability to communicate these in an accessible, albeit at times dense and somewhat dry, 200-page account is nothing short of remarkable.
The book has an encyclopaedic and ecumenical character about it. Holmes writes with a disciplined handle on the primary literature, its various nuances and theo-historical location, and is conversant with, but not distracted by, much recent secondary literature. His treatments on Irenaeus, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine, Aquinas, Hegel, Schleiermacher and Dorner, in particular, as well as of the various anti-trinitarian movements between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, are exceedingly helpful and clearly laid out.
Holmes is concerned to defend the thesis that apart from some relatively minor disagreement and development, the doctrine of the Trinity was basically settled by ecumenical consensus in the fourth century, enjoyed ‘essential stability’ until the eighteenth century, and has been the accepted position of the church, with no significant modification, until the modern period and its various ‘recoveries’. Holmes believes that rather than representing a genuine recovery of a lost doctrine, however, the modern ‘trinitarian revival’ represents a departure, misunderstanding, and misappropriation of the received tradition, sometimes in the name of underwriting some social, political, or ecclesial programme. He builds a strong case, and those who believe particularly that unambiguous continuity with traditional articulations of doctrine central to the faith remains an indispensable feature of doing theology responsibly today will find much here to bolster that claim.
Of course, there are additional ways to tell the story of faith’s efforts to think and speak about God – ways which are no less responsible to revelation, which are not necessarily at odds with the articulations offered by the Fathers but which offer some different ways of expressing such claims, and which remind us that we might be better to acknowledge a greater plurality of expressions within the one tradition.
Whether Holmes holds that such different accents represent voices too insignificant to hear, or too far removed from settled orthodoxy, or whether it is due to editorial concerns, he chooses not to engage with modern contextual (including feminist) accounts of the Trinity, or with the work of Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich, or with some other ways that faith has sought to ‘speak’ of the Triune God: for instance, ways that some visual artists and poets and musicians have taken. Here, the catholic and innovative work of Sarah Coakley is to be much welcomed (for it represents both a fruit of the tradition that Holmes is keen to guard as well exhibiting something that is actually demanded by it), along with that of J. S. Bach, William Blake, Dorothy Sayers, and Marlene Scholz.
These niggles aside, The Quest for the Trinity is an extraordinary and timely achievement, and no reader – even those who may finally remain not entirely convinced of Holmes’ thesis vis-à-vis modern accounts and retellings of the tradition – could fail to learn much here, and to be challenged again about what it means, and about how, to speak of Father, Son and Spirit, and of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity. Such a challenge is most urgent, particularly for those of us whose task it is to preach the gospel, and it may be most timely for those of us who have looked primarily to the likes of Rahner, Zizioulas, Pannenberg, Moltmann, Gunton, Jenson, Volf, and/or Plantinga to interpret the history, and articulate the meaning, of the doctrine for us. On those parts of the tradition given attention by Holmes, teachers and students alike will find here a reliable and fruitful guide, and, for some of us, a challenge to rethink what we may have been taught about the apparent gulf that exists between Latin and Greek doctrines of the Trinity, and about accounts that have painted the Fathers to be working at some odds with the authors of the Bible. Indeed, if Holmes’ thesis is anywhere near correct, then most of what passes for ‘trinitarian theology’ today will have to be re-thought.
Jason Goroncy (editor), Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). ISBN: 9781610979221; 208pp.
A guest review by Lynne Baab
In recent years, congregations are engaging more intentionally with the arts. Music and, to some extent, poetry and drama have always played a role in congregational life and worship, but now the visual arts are becoming more prominent as well. Increasingly, congregations display or even create visual art during worship. Some congregations have established temporary or permanent art galleries showcasing artists and craftspeople from within or outside the congregation. Christians are discovering that the all the arts – visual art, music, theatre, poetry, etc. – are a wonderful way to make connections with the wider community. In the midst of this growing interest, theological reflection about theology and the arts is welcome.
Tikkun Olam gives the opportunity for us to listen to a range of voices on this relevant topic. Several of the voices will be well known to New Zealand Presbyterians. Contributors include Professor of Theology and Presbyterian minister Murray Rae, Presbyterian minister Jono Ryan, and Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership Intern Carolyn Kelly Johnston, and the editor of the volume is Jason Goroncy, Lecturer and Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre. Most of the ten chapters in the book began their life as presentations at a 2011 symposium and art exhibition in Dunedin. Two of the chapters are written by internationally known writers and speakers on Christianity and the arts: William Dyrness, Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Trevor Hart, Professor of Divinity and Director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. The additional contributors come from New Zealand, Australia and North America.
Jason Goroncy, in his Introduction, mentions that the opening two words of the title, Tikkun Olam, appear first in the Mishnah and can mean ‘repairing’, ‘mending’, ‘welfare’, ‘perfection’ or ‘healing’ of the world. The choice of title indicates the role that contributors believe the arts play, which includes an acknowledgment that things are not right with the world and that Christians need to explore all possible means to bring healing. Jason expands on this idea by citing Rowan Williams, who writes about the ‘acute awareness of the world not being at home in itself’. Artists, Jason believes, are called to speak responsibly into that reality, ‘to speak with fidelity not only to time but to eternity, and to acknowledge the meaningful relation of both to human being in the world and, in so doing so, dignify the human condition’. Jason quotes a W. H. Auden poem and notes that the poem describes the role of poetry in pointing ‘the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous’.
I particularly like the subtitle of the volume which avoids the temptation to focus on a biblical basis for the arts or a theological foundation for engagement with the arts. ‘Confluence’ implies overlaps and reflection, and the essays accomplish that task well. I’ll illustrate what that confluence looks like by describing the chapters written by people familiar in the PCANZ.
Jono Ryan, minister at Highgate Mission in Dunedin and New Zealand coordinator of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, has titled his chapter, ‘Questioning the Extravagance of Beauty in a World of Poverty’. Using the story of the woman who poured the expensive jar of ointment on Jesus’ feet (Mark 14:3–9), Jono describes the reasons why questions about the extravagance of art might be asked today in the light of world poverty. He affirms the significance of the questions, but also argues that the woman’s ‘excessive’ action has true parallels with Christ’s extravagant gift to us on the cross. He acknowledges that we cannot definitively solve this question but that we need to keep wrestling with it: ‘To be a follower of Jesus means, among other things, to live attentive to the cry of the poor. But it also means to live attentive to the beauty of God, which does not distance itself from poverty and injustice, but seeks to transform it’.
Carolyn Kelly’s chapter is entitled ‘Reforming Beauty: Can Theological Sense Accommodate Aesthetic Sensibility?’ Using Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility as well as the same story Jono cited about the woman anointing Jesus’ feet, Carolyn discusses some of the history of theological ‘sense’ juxtaposed with artistic ‘sensibility’. She argues that theology and the arts must meet each other in order for us see the aspects of both that ‘we have become inured to’.
Murray Rae’s chapter, ‘Building from the Rubble: Architecture, Memory and Hope’, focuses on architecture after disasters, including World War 2 and September 11. He cites the architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin as an example of the way a building can help people process grief, participate in the world’s brokenness and move toward healing. Murray writes: ‘Architecture itself cannot heal our brokenness. But what we build and how we build it can reveal the extent to which the Spirit is at work within us, nudging us toward forgiveness and reconciliation and a true mending of the world’.
The other chapters include these titles: ‘The Artist’s Role in Healing the Earth’, ‘Cosmos, Kenosis and Creativity’, ‘Living Close to the Wound’, and ‘New Media Art Practice’, showing the range in the essays. I long for congregations and their leaders to continue to grow in seeing the arts as a way to experience God’s beauty and engage with the wider culture. This volume made me think more deeply about the role of the arts in healing the world.
– Lynne Baab is the Jack Somerville Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at the University of Otago and Adjunct Tutor at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership.
Jason Goroncy (editor), Tikkun Olam – To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). ISBN: 9781610979221; 208pp.
A guest review by Alistair McBride
My review copy arrived on the day National Radio were playing the third of the 2013 Reith lectures featuring the potter, Grayson Perry, speaking in Londonderry on the role of art in society with the title, ‘Nice Rebellion: Welcome in’. The introduction focussed on the role of shock and rebellion then he commented on the nature of pluralism, marketing and attitudes. He said:
‘Detached irony has become the kind of default mode of our time in the art world … it was dangerous when art became synonymous with shock, which it did for a while in the sort of 1990s. There was so much art that was seen as shocking that it became what people looked for when they went to art, when in fact you know art can be lots of different things’.
In recognising that multi-role function, Grayson was able to extend the discussion beyond the simplistic ‘Art as shock’ motif. That became clearer in a response to a question where he said, ‘Art does have a very powerful thing that it can offer you and that is you know when you get involved in making something, you kind of forget yourself for a moment as well; and you also, in little ways you are affecting the world. You know if you feel powerless and depressed or something, if you’re making something you are in a small way changing the world. You do have that power, you do have that opportunity’.
This collection of papers from the symposium all offers approaches to this second view of art. They traverse a range of the arts looking at poetics, aesthetics, literature, painting, architecture, multimedia worship and song. Some offered a more theological, others philosophical, while two contributions were self-reflective with a quite personal approach.
Goroncy’s Introduction provides an excellent overview of the theme with pointers as to how each essay fits into place, as well as some commentary as to where the idea of ‘tikkun olam’ has developed from, namely the Mishnah and its revival in the 16th century by Rabbi Luria (p. 14). Goroncy builds a framework for us using W. H. Auden and Rowan Williams as points of intersection. The theme leads ‘with “unconstraining voice” the way towards healing’ in a world which is dislocated by its hurt and ‘busy griefs’ (p. 2). He understands the essays are ‘birthed upon the premise that artists and theologians can help us to see and hear better’ (p. 5). Underlying such a claim is the idea that there is a truth about the world and that truth telling reveals both present condition and future possibilities, and that for the Christian, ultimately that truth telling is grounded in the divine revelation which illuminates human lives and concerns. He concludes with a description of a leitmotif that runs through most of the essays, that of the question of beauty and its place in the search for the justice of which the kingdom speaks, and responses to the various answers given to that and the hope for the world that is engendered.
I found I responded to the essays in different ways. The most accessible were the offerings of Libby Byrne and the conversation between Joanna Osborne and Allie Eagle. Each used images by the artist that gives the reader a sense of where the journey of each has taken them, as well as allowing an appreciation of the imagery used and how it illustrates the theme. I have always appreciated having commentary with titles for works of art so that I can reflect on what I am looking at and these two pieces of work provide that. I found myself clearly engaged with Libby’s story and her exploration of the wounds in the world through her own work and that of Anselm Kiefer. In her conclusion she speaks of having chosen to live close to the wound so that she is ‘open to the possibility of being transformed, made more whole than [she has] been before’ (p. 111).
The second pair was Murray Rae’s and Steven Guthrie’s essays using architecture and music. Rae’s exploration of Daniel Libeskind’s work in Berlin and his approach that won him the competition for redeveloping the Ground Zero site in New York was enlightening. It showed how the work of architects is also to be included in this mending of the world through what we build and how we build it to ‘reveal the extent to which the Spirit is at work’ (p. 150). In a quite different way, Guthrie’s exploration of our contemporary environment, drawing from both the Psalms and from Pythagoras’ idea of the music of the spheres, offered a new way to understand the act of communal singing, both choral and congregational. Each of these essays gave the reader something to hang their understanding on.
Carolyn Kelly and Jonathan Ryan both take as their focus the Markan story of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus. Carolyn explores how aesthetics has become lost from theological discourse particularly in the Protestant sphere, while Jonathan explores notions of beauty and extravagance using this story as the vehicle to address the issue of poverty and injustice. Each adds something to our reading of the text as well as inviting the reader to explore how art might have a role to play in our wider understanding of mending the world.
Julanne Clark-Morris explores the role of multimedia in worship. As she used two video pieces in her presentation that cannot be accessed through the medium of print, the essay becomes something of a taster with the promise of more behind it.
The last group of essays – by Bill Dyrness, Trevor Hart and John Dennison – all use literature and come across as more academic pieces. John Dennison’s essay on Seamus Heaney’s prose poetics I found heavy going and will need careful re-reading. I was unsure of which voice I was to hear – Heaney’s, the critics’ or Dennison’s; yet Heaney’s faith and his understanding of the role of poetry and the poetic imagination in the world certainly address the theme of the book.
Most of the essays give very good bibliographies that enable the reader to explore their own responses to each presentation. This has been a rich experience exploring a side of the world that I don’t often appreciate, and as one whose personal world is in need of mending I found particularly in Byrne’s essay something that, for me, makes the whole collection a worthwhile addition to my library.
– Alistair McBride is the minister of Scots and St Stephen’s Presbyterian Churches, Hamilton.
I recently finished reading – very slowly, because this is a book that deserves much time – Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Like Williams’ Stoner, this book is a masterpiece. At core, it is a critique of the Emersonianism that has dogged the American dream, and a commentary on American history itself – marked by the triumph and tragedy of human conquest on the frontier, the ambiguity of friendship, the pursuit of individual identity and the risk of its loss vis-à-vis the natural world, the temptation of escape from the common, and the seductions of violence in its cold and mindless destruction. All that is told by way of a story of a group of men who leave Butcher’s Crossing, a little town in Kansas, and head off into an isolated valley in the Colorado Rockies in search of buffalo, wealth and self.
I’ll not write any more lest I give away too much of the plot, but here’s a section that could have been penned by Qoheleth himself:
“Young people,” McDonald said contemptuously. “You always think there’s something to find out.” “Yes, sir,” Andrews said. “Well, there’s nothing,” McDonald said. “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you—that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re too old.” “No,” Andrews said. A vague terror crept from the darkness that surrounded them, and tightened his voice. “That’s not the way it is.” “You ain’t learned, then,” McDonald said. “You ain’t learned yet … Look. You spend nearly a year of your life and sweat, because you have faith in the dream of a fool. And what have you got?
I hope that this finds you well, and firing on all (or at least on most) of your cylinders. I have a request to make of you: if/when you have read one or more of my books or anyone else’s books, may I ask you to please resist the urge to read in isolation and instead share your thoughts on what you’ve read, whether via a blog (it seems that us bloggers used to do this more often in the ol’ days than we do now), or via Goodreads, or via penning a few ‘review’-like words on the relevant Amazon or other bookseller’s site … or even with an actual person. I ask this because I’m increasingly bothered by the way that most of us read ‘alone’. One of the reasons that I greatly appreciate emails from readers about my books—and I will continue to welcome such!—is that the conversations and comments that emerge in such correspondence are very often of mutual help to both reader and author. Most of this could be widened.
I’ve ummed and ahed about writing this ‘letter’, mostly out of fear that it is motivated by a desire to increase sales. I sincerely hope that this is not the case, although my—and probably yours too—adroitness for self-deception is significantly developed. On my most conscious level, this request is motivated by a conviction that anything that helps readers read and to both articulate and gain a guileless assessment of a book is helpful, especially when one feels free to be as ruthlessly honest and as critical and as fair as one needs to be.
Thank you for considering this wee request.
Over at First Things, Peter Leithart reviews my edited volume ‘Tikkun Olam’—To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts.