John (de Gruchy) on John (Calvin): a commendation

De Gruchy - John Calvin

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.


The Quest for the Trinity: a review

The Quest for the TrinityStephen 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.

Tikkun Olam – a review by Lynne Baab

Tikkun Olam CoverJason 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.

Tikkun Olam – a review by Alistair McBride

Tikkun Olam CoverJason 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.

Butcher’s Crossing: a commendation

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?

An invitation to read in ‘community’

The Isolator, invented in 1925

The Isolator, invented in 1925

Dear readers,

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.



W. Travis McMaken reviews Hallowed Be Thy Name

Hallowed be thy nameThe latest issue of Reviews in Religion & Theology includes a review, by W. Travis McMaken, of my book Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth. I’m very grateful to Travis for penning this review and for the prod to again consider turning my attention to the challenge of writing an intellectual biography on this most creative of theologians in the tradition of British dissenters.

Those who don’t have access to the journal can read a copy of the review here.

Poems of Devotion. A Review

Poems of DevotionLuke Hankins (ed.). Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock, 2012). 236pp; ISBN: 978-1-61097-712-8

A guest-review by Mike Crowl.

Luke Hankins is not quite thirty. He’s already published a highly regarded book of poems, Weak Devotions, in which he ‘wrestles with the issues Donne, Herbert, Hopkins … also found worthy of their most impassioned work’ (John Wood), and a chapbook of translations from the French poems of Stella Vinitchi Radulescu (three of her poems are included in this book). He is also senior editor of the Asheville Poetry Review.

In Poems of Devotion, Hankins is aiming to present to the modern reader a substantial collection of poems on the theme of devotion, from a wide range of poets – American, English, and other nationalities, including some translations. If the word ‘devotion’ arouses thoughts of prissy, sappy pseudo poems that barely scratch the surface, you will find Hankins’ collection eschews such works; much of what is here is tough, painful, meditative, worshipful, and certainly deep enough to call you back again and again.

Hankins presents poets who are willing to wrestle with God. Many of them come from angles that are anything but devotional in the generally accepted sense. Some know from the outset where they’re going, but Hankins has looked more for poets who appear to work out their experience as they go along. As he writes in his introduction: ‘Great poems are – if not invariably, at least most often – an unfolding, not only for the reader, but for the poet in the process of composing’. And he quotes fellow poet, Charles Wright: ‘Writing is listening. Religious experience is silent listening and waiting. I have always been able to tell whether something I am writing is genuinely an expression of revelation or if it’s just me exercising my intellect. I can feel the difference, see it and taste it, but I don’t know how I can do that’. In the poems collected here, poetry is for the most part a means of meditating rather than an experience recounted.

That is not to say that these are floppy works without poetic structures: subtle rhymes and rhythms abound, the last lines are often a revelation; sharp metaphors of atmosphere and the spirit and creation are evident on every hand. The poets have taken their original searchings and crafted them well.

Many of these poets are not ‘saints’ in any ordinary sense, though they bring themselves to understand the need to submit to God’s will, even when it seems at odds with their very being, or when they haven’t found the answer they set out to look for. Old poets still look for answers in their old age. (Leonard Cohen has a couple of very good prose poems, for instance). There is also great joy and wonder (for example, in Luci Shaw’s Mary’s Delight; Shaw isn’t a poet I’ve greatly admired in the past, but this is a beauty) and praise (several poems are modern psalms) and worship (Thomas Merton’s Evening: Zero Weather, for instance).

Then there are the strange poems: Amit Majmudar’s extraordinary long piece about the angel we generally know as Satan; Michael Schiavo’s odd ‘dub versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets’, Bruce Beasley’s long, collage-like ‘Damaged Self-Portrait’.

Hankins offers seventy-seven poets in all. Some have only one poem, some have several, some provide several parts of a larger poem. But there’s no sense of stinting on the poets here; each one has room to breathe. There are some familiar names – T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roetke, E.E. Cummings, R.S. Thomas, Denise Levertov, Richard Wilbur – but the majority are unfamiliar – to me, anyway, and I suspect to many readers of the book.

The poems are book-ended by the substantial introduction, and a reprint of an interview between Hankins and Justin Bigos, which gives some background to Hankins and his poetic stance.

Review: Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change

ManifestoDonn Morgan, Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-8192-2768-3; 96pp.

A guest-review by Kevin Ward.

This is a very brief little book that at first glance does not have much relevance for the church in New Zealand. It comes out of the crisis facing theological education in the US brought about by having far too many theological schools faced with rising costs, declining student numbers and reduced financial commitment from churches. That is a challenge for theological schools in New Zealand also, as I am aware both through teaching in one and being involved at executive level with both the New Zealand and Australia New Zealand Associations of such schools. However, as I read it I realised much of what was being discussed, both in terms of challenges and suggested ways ahead, was generally true for the church in New Zealand as well as theological education.

The core argument is that the mission of the church has three basic elements: worship, service and learning. He argues that while worship and service are regularly prioritised, learning is no longer regarded as ‘an important part of the church’s identity and mission’. ‘Service and worship without education and formation risks separating mission and ministry from fundamental parts of our identity, and creating a kind of amnesia concerning our Christian faith and its particular expressions’ (p. 38). This is a concern I also share and is identified in many recent studies, particularly among young people and young adults. Morgan takes a holistic view of this, not just concern about theological schools, and argues that the most important level of education is what happens at a congregational level. Here, in my observation, it is sadly neglected in many churches. The consequence of this lack of concern is, of course, a lack of commitment of resources to it, both at a congregational level and also in supporting theological education. Giving our scarce resources, service ministries or providing exciting worship is what counts.

The book is helpful in summarising some of the changes that have occurred over the past 50 years which have impacted on churches and theological schools in similar ways in New Zealand. ‘There continues to be debate about both the causes of and the solutions to the mainline churches’ decline. Because some churches continue to thrive, some say this is just a wake-up call for those in decline. But the overall numbers in many denominations reflect devastating change that would appear to require radical rethinking of the church’s mission, of “how to do and be church”’ (p. 17). Rather than thinking about these issues and the wider challenges of the state of the church as a whole, most focus has been on the survival of our particular community and its sustainability. This fosters a foxhole mentality. I would suggest this is true of both theological schools and local churches.

When it comes to looking at implementing the changes needed, Morgan suggests that it is like being in the middle of a three ring circus. The first ring represents the perennial issue of resources, especially financial, and the lack thereof. The second represents changes in church and society, which are, of course, related to the first. But while we spend much time discussing and obsessing about these, there is a third ring where ‘we try to put financial realities together with the changes in church and society as we reconsider mission and ministry’ (p. 61). This is the place where we need to not merely talk about structural change, but get through to doing it. This is the ring that is all-too-rarely entered. From my perspective it is a problem many theological schools have not addressed; namely, why a number in New Zealand have closed over recent years, and others are at crisis point (although I would add that it is one thing the Presbyterian Church has done well). But it is an even bigger issue for mainline churches, none more so than the PCANZ, and although we have been aware of the need for it for over a decade, have done precious little to address it.

The final chapter looks at some of the problems faced along the way of change, such as ‘inertia and investment in the status quo’, ‘particularity and diversity’, and ‘competition’, which are equally shared by churches and education schools. So while this book, at one level, is about challenges facing theological schools in the US, reading it provides many helpful insights and suggestions not only for similar institutions in New Zealand but also for the church in the very challenging context we find ourselves in, where time is no longer our friend.

Review: Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving

Bob Burns, Tasha D. Guthrie and Donald C. Guthrie, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told us about Surviving and Thriving (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-8308-4103-5; 312pp.

A guest-review by Kevin Ward.

This is a book which every person working as a minister of the gospel would benefit from reading – indeed, more than reading, but also reflecting on and, in light of that, making changes to how they live and work. We are all aware that many of those who enter ministry in response to what they perceive as a life time calling drop out within a relatively short period of time. Precious few of those I trained with nearly four decades ago are still in church ministry. What kills them off is not what goes into sermons or worship services but, as the authors of this book point out, matters of life skills, behaviour patterns and character. This book not only identifies the core issues but also makes suggestions of what needs to change and how to action that.

Rather than just building on anecdotal evidence or personal experience, the book is based on solid scientific research. The team created three pastoral peer groups or cohorts (who were primarily Presbyterian) who met three times a year for two years. They were interviewed to identify the ministry issues they wanted to discuss. They then read books on those subjects, listened to experts who were brought in and then discussed the issues in their groups. The discussions were recorded, transcribed and analysed.

From the transcripts, the researchers identified five themes that they believe are keys to sustaining pastoral excellence. These were:

1. Spiritual formation. Ministers can be so busy in the multiple tasks of ministry that they neglect their own spiritual wellbeing, the source from which ministry flows. They need to internalise the spiritual rhythms of reflection, worship, sabbath and prayer.

2. Self-care. The ongoing development of the whole person: physical, mental, emotional, relational. This involves a range of practical issues including identifying allies and confidants, establishing an exercise routine, planning intellectual development and holidays and creating and keeping good boundaries.

3. Emotional and cultural intelligence. These are related to being aware of oneself and also attentive to and aware of other people, places and social dynamics. Much has been written recently about the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership but the awareness of cultural intelligence, crucial in our increasingly diverse world, is only just emerging.

4. Marriage and family. Unlike many jobs ministers are never really ‘off the clock’, and so the demands of ministry can constantly intrude on marriage and family time. It is, then, critical to be intentional about giving focussed uninterrupted time to spouse and children. The significance of the contribution of the spouse to a minister’s resilience in ministry came through again and again.

5. Leadership and management. I found these chapters full of good insight and found helpful the way they talked about these as the ‘poetic’ and the ‘plumbing’ side of leadership, both of which are essential to good and resilient ministry. The management side can be found addressed in many books but the poetic side of leadership is much more intuitive and harder to explain and there are some helpful concepts here.

As well as having lots of good information the book has questions for personal evaluation and reflection throughout, as well as suggestions for further reading and exploring through media. This is an area I have taught in for the past 15 years or so, and this book is as a helpful as any I have come across. It is both informed and practical. As well as its personal use for ministers, it would be ideal for a group of ministers to read and discuss together and perhaps also to work through with the lay leadership in their church. I certainly intend using it as an important text for my students.

[Those interested in reading more on this topic might like to check out Jason's series On the Cost and Grace of Parish Ministry]

‘The Conversion of the Māori’: a review

Timothy Yates, The Conversion of the Māori: Years of Religious and Social Change, 1814–1842 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013). ISBN 978-0-8028-6945-6. 150pp.

A guest post by Graeme Ferguson

When James Hamlin, my great, great grandfather, joined the CMS mission at Paihia in 1826, he came as an artisan lay missionary. His trade was flax dressing. He quickly found that not only was the New Zealand flax a distinctively different species, but also that the Māori knew a great deal more about flax weaving than he did. As a result, his life changed direction. He became a fluent idiomatic Māori linguist able to contribute to the translation of the Scriptures into Māori; he was a trusted mediator and negotiator between warring tribes; he was a faithful catechist and church planter in places where Pākehā rarely penetrated; he was a dogged explorer and a good farmer. In the last years of his long service, Selwyn was finally persuaded against his better judgement to ordain him. (Hamlin, after all, was not a ‘gentleman’.) With his wife, Elizabeth, they had twelve children. Two sons intermarried with local tribes-people so that their descendants reflect the unity in diversity of the meeting of the races in the development of this country. At Captain Symonds request, he called the hui of the Manukau tribes, in the area of Awhitu to witness the Treaty of Waitangi. Te Whero Whero who was present, ensured that few Manukau chiefs signed, since his authority as Māori king and Paramount Chief of Tainui was not to be compromised.

Hamlin’s life of undistinguished, faithful service encapsulates many of the questions that any writer on the formative years of the New Zealand mission needs to confront. It is with these questions that I approached Timothy Yates’ book in Eerdmans’ series Studies in the History of Christian Missions (SHCM).

Yates’ overview of the development of the Christian mission in New Zealand is a competent survey. It recognises the role of Māori in transmitting the Gospel so that missionaries in newly planted stations already found worshipping communities who had been told the Christian story. This could have been further developed. He deals with the relations between Anglican, Methodist and Catholic missions but may not have adequately considered the fraught nature of the different expectations in each group. He deals judiciously with difficulties relating to inappropriate moral lapses by Kendall, Yates and others and alludes to the tensions people coped with in establishing communities in the bush.

The strength of his work lies in his assiduous reading of the correspondence and reports between missionaries and their sending agencies – the CMS, the MMS and the Marist order in Paris. But the writer gives me less confidence that he has an adequate grasp of the socio-cultural context in New Zealand, within which the missions operated. He also shows both linguistic and geographic insecurity that does not enhance his work. (My favourites are the mis-spelling of Te Whero Whero, and various odd adjectival forms of Māori  places.) My evaluation is that the work is ‘worthy’ rather than ‘insightful.’

My first question relates to the way he interprets his primary source documents. The question is: who were these reports written for and what did they expect to hear? How far were they written to accommodate European attitudes and expectations which may or may not reflect the situation on the ground? To what extent could the recipients grasp what was happening in the encounter between the missionaries and the people of the land? I suspect that a healthy suspicion of what was being written is called for.

Secondly, I am interested to know what the effective points of contact were within which the Gospel was able to be shared. What was being offered and what was really being heard? Yates draws attention to the insights into local society and practices that the more insightful missionaries observed which were essential to good understanding and communication. I am interested in the differences the Gospel made in how people lived.

Thirdly, I would like to know the tenets of the Gospel that were in the forefront of missionary proclamation, what was heard and the degree to which it was appropriated and internalised. These people had very limited access to resources. Each mission had its catechism and tradition of teaching in books, like Wesley’s Forty Four Sermons or Pearson on the Creed, but few resources beyond these basic texts. All taught through methods of catechesis but in each case the content would be culturally alien to their hearers. There is the further question of the pedagogical value of catechesis as an educational tool.

Coupled with this is the role of worship in expanding the mission. Large groups are reported as gathering to worship. What were they doing? How far was worship another expression of traditional spirituality and how far an imposed foreign structure? What was going on?

The way in which missionary families lived within the host communities is crucial. The fact that many lived with mutual respect and good will and were trusted is a mark of the practical wisdom many brought to their service. I suspect that their impact was primarily experiential as they lived out the Gospel in community in the tradition of nineteenth century romantic sensibility.

A further question relates to extending the missions. One would like to know where the concentrations of population were that led to establishing stations in what are now oddly inaccessible places. Yates did this in discussing siting the initial station at Rangihoua because of the protection Ruatara was able to offer. I would like it more widely considered.

The overarching question is: what did the local people hear and what did they make their own? To what extent was the Gospel indigenised and internalised? This question is crucial and finds its high point in the reception of the Treaty of Waitangi itself. The dominant narrative on that occasion utilised the thought forms and cultural images of nineteenth-century evangelical Christianity on issues of covenant and promise, rule and governance, responsibility and citizenship, the rule of law and the place of land. The Treaty could be ratified in many places because those interpreting the terms of the Treaty were trusted in their communities. Like the wider transmission of the Gospel, the Treaty was reinterpreted in local cultural terms in order to be received and accepted.

While there is much of interest in Mr Yates’ book, it is written from the perspective of a disengaged observer. Years ago, Archbishop Appleton commented that if he were to have his time as a missionary in Burma over again, he would don a saffron robe and sit and listen for seven years before he began to share the good news of the Gospel. I suspect that more engaged listening would have improved this present study.

‘Missional God, Missional Church’: a review

Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-evangelizing the West (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012). ISBN: 978-0-8308-3955-1; 321pp.

A guest post by Kevin Ward.

The words ‘missional’ in general and ‘missional church’ in particular are real buzz words in the church at the moment, and nowhere more so than within the PCANZ. Put ‘missional’ in front of anything and it legitimates it. The missional movement has much to offer in thinking about our current situation and its challenges going forward, and is something I have engaged with ever since the book Missional Church (edited by Darrell Guder) was published in 1998 – yes that’s how long it has been around for. My great concern is that it has rapidly become a fad, and like so many of those that have come and gone in the forty-plus years I have been involved in church leadership, it too will go. Ross Hastings’ book is, I believe, one of the most important and helpful of all the books that have been published with the word ‘missional’ in the title. This is largely because it is called ‘Missional God, Missional Church’. The order is important. A missional church flows out of a missional God, and so the first task we face as a church is not developing new forms of ‘missional’ churches or new programmes that will make our existing churches missional, but actually coming anew to a proper understanding of who the God whom we know and experience through the Father’s sending of Jesus and the Father and Son’s sending of the Spirit truly is.

Hastings takes us back to these key foundational understandings, before moving us on to envision what this means for our understanding of the church and how we engage with the world in God’s mission in it. In the missional movement the key text is John 20:21, ‘As the Father has sent me so I am sending you’, which is followed by Jesus breathing the Spirit onto the disciples. Sadly, in the life of the church this has played second fiddle to Matthew 28:19–20. Hastings frames the whole book around a wonderful exposition of John 20:19–23, which he calls ‘the greatest commission’, arguing that in this picture of the frightened disciples huddled in the upper room with Jesus in their midst, all of the elements needed for the church to fulfil its calling as the community of the God of mission are present.

Based on a sound Trinitarian theology, the book moves on to develop a solid ecclesiology and missiology, both of which reflect the character of the God whose life they flow from. One of the great values of the book is that it corrects many of the false dichotomies that can be found in so much other work. The missional God is both a sending God and a gathering God, and so the church needs to both send and gather. Flowing from this, therefore, the church needs to be both deep and wide, grounded in the traditions of the faith as an alternative community but taking God’s shalom far and wide into the world. Both worship and mission are intrinsic to the life of the church. To do the latter it needs to inculturate the gospel without becoming enculturated itself. In other words, incarnate the gospel into the culture of the context it finds itself in without accommodating itself to it. Indeed, the theology of culture and personhood in the book is one of its great treasures. When it comes to the practice of mission, Hastings has a broad and holistic understanding of mission – what Renee Padilla calls integrated mission, which is much more true to a biblical understanding than the rather limited concept found in much of the missional church material. There are two final things I am pleased to find in this book. Missing in much of the other literature is a great love of and passion for the church, which while not being the goal of God’s mission, is certainly critical in it. Much of the missional church material takes a critical and almost dismissive stance toward the church. ‘The essential sociality of salvation, implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution is it’ (p. 133). Finally, Hastings gives adequate attention to the role of the Spirit in both the life of the church and God’s mission, something that is missing in much of the other material.

Ross Hastings parents were missionaries for 60 years in Africa, he has PhDs in both science and theology, has served as minister in two urban churches, and now teaches theology at Regent College in Vancouver. All of these factors help to make this a book which combines solid biblical and theological understanding, clear social and cultural analysis, pastoral empathy for people and the church, and a deep concern for mission in western societies – a wonderful holistic treatment. I cannot recommend it enough for those who are concerned to work in the deep and integrated way that is necessary if our churches are to truly live out the life that our missional God is calling us to.

Sally Lloyd-Jones and Sam Shammas, The Jesus Storybook Bible Curriculum Kit – a review

JSBBSally Lloyd-Jones and Sam Shammas, The Jesus Storybook Bible Curriculum Kit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan; 2012) – a review

A guest post by Judy Goroncy (the great)

Over the past two terms, our church’s Sunday School has been using The Jesus Storybook Bible Curriculum, the focus of which is to teach ‘the Story beneath all the stories in the bible’. As the product description has it:

There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories together tell one Big Story: The Story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them. It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the centre of the Story, there is a baby.

The Jesus Storybook Bible (JSBB) includes 21 stories from the Old Testament, and 23 from the New Testament. Each week’s accompanying lesson is based on one of the stories and follows a similar structure ­– a time to recap previous stories, a relevant activity, the story time (which can be presented by either the teacher, or with the use of the accompanying DVD/CD), unpacking the story (technically called exegesis), reflection on Jesus’s location in the story, prayer, learning the memory verse, and completion of a hand-out. One of the real strengths and blessings of the programme is that it is concerned at every point to teach the great Story of the Bible rather than focus attention on presenting a series of seemingly unrelated ancient religious stories that remain largely unconnected to their principle purpose. Every part of the JSBB, in other words, is concerned to bear witness to the One who is God’s principal revelation; namely, Jesus. ‘Every story in the Bible whispers his name’.

We have found the programme to be geared more towards children aged 4–7. However, those aged 2–10 seemed to all benefit from and enjoy it too. Accounting for holidays and other ‘interruptions’, the curriculum takes about a year-and-a-half to work through. The lessons are easy to prepare, are clearly set out, and come with various helpful media aids. Because the lessons are presented chronologically, connections can be made between the stories and so enable children – and their teachers too – to build on what they have learnt in previous weeks. Hand-outs provide not only an opportunity for children to revisit the teaching and memory verses, but also assist and encourage parents/caregivers to be aware of what the kids are learning at Sunday School, and so encourage further discussions about the Story beyond the Sunday morning.

Despite there being so much focus on the Bible, learning memory verses, learning books of the Bible, etc., we have felt it imperative that the children look up the verses in their own Bible (a real one and not the JSBB). While this component is not specified in the curriculum, we believe that it is vital that the children have an understanding that all the stories come from the ‘actual’ Bible and that they become familiar with and are able to look up books, chapters and verses in their own Bible.

As we draw near to the end of the Old Testament section, the children are enjoying opportunities to present what they have learnt to the rest of the congregation, typically through the Sunday morning service. They present an overview of the key events and people in the Old Testament in the form of drama, bible readings, memory verses and song, using all to bear witness to God’s Great Rescue Plan in Jesus.

I cannot recommend this curriculum highly enough. Too often, our children’s programmes are so geared at entertainment, or are so diluted of content, that the true message of what Christ has done is lost. This programme takes seriously God’s love, our sin, and that we need Jesus, our Saviour, to redeem us and our lost world.

Michael Card, A Violent Grace: Meeting Christ at the Cross – a review

A Violent GraceMichael Card,  A Violent Grace: Meeting Christ at the Cross (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000).  ISBN 978-0-8308-3772-4.

A guest review by Graeme Ferguson

I hope that Mr Card is a much better gospel singer than he is a writer. This book is intended to be a spiritual guide to bring people back to reflect on the cost of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross and to call them once more to a renewed and more costly discipleship. It fails badly.

At heart, Mr Card is a foiled romantic who wants the scandal of the Cross and its violence to be seen as ‘beautiful’ but he has neither the verbal skills nor the spiritual insight to be helpful or to draw people on into deeper faith.

He has a very cavalier way with Scripture and abuses the integrity of the text in order to press his points. He has an alarming inadequate understanding of prophetic discourse and tries to ‘apply’ prophetic imagery directly to the event of the crucifixion. The result is that texts are twisted in ways that are not helpful. One gains the impression that he has become entangled in a clutch of half digested proof texts but has not waited to discover how they might enrich his meditation.

The heart of the problem is that he rushed to write but did not wait to be renewed by the texts he is attempting to meditate on. As a result there is no authentic insight and no sense that here is a humble and wise guide who has struggled and wept and written slowly and with restrained care.

It has not occurred to Mr Card that sacrifice as his preferred image for the Cross needs to be placed in a very demanding context before it can begin to sing. Genocide, holocaust and nuclear bombing, torture and abuse are all images of suffering to be addressed and lived through before anyone can dare speak of the Cross as once and for all sufficient for the sin of the world. We all speak far more hesitantly than Mr Card realises.

The production of the book is regrettable and gives Christian publishing a bad name. The print faces attempt to reinforce the sad romanticism of the writing. The steel engraving, in the style of nineteenth century devout religious pictures, are sad pastiches, and they are unacknowledged.

I hope that this severe critique is not simply a clash of cultural expectations. I approached the book looking for guidance from a spiritual master. I gained little.

‘Outspoken: Coming Out in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand’ – a review

OutspokenLiz Lightfoot (ed.), Outspoken: Coming Out in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2011). ISBN: 9781877578083; 218pp.

A guest review by André Muller

In mid-2009, Liz Lightfoot, an independent researcher working under the supervision of Dr John Paterson of the University of Waikato, interviewed eleven subjects as part of a project aimed at documenting the stories of gay and lesbian people within the Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. Whatever the merits of the ‘Listening Process’ upon which the Anglican Communion embarked in the wake of the 1998 Lambeth Conference, it has become clear that many gay and lesbian Anglicans feel that their stories have not in fact been heard. In publishing the edited versions of her interviews, Lightfoot hopes, in a modest way, to redress this situation, if only by showing that at least some gay and lesbian people have been so hurt by the Church as to have abandoned all hope that the ‘Listening Process’ is anything other than a charade concealing a profound lack of courage on the part of those charged with leading the Church. If this reveals an irony at the heart of a project commended as a contribution to that process, it is perhaps one that brings a measure of clarity to the situation in which Anglicans (and, by analogy, members of other Churches), find themselves, by drawing attention to the limits of an official process that has, by its inability to bring about effective change, done a great deal to foster cynicism on the part of the very people it is claiming to serve. Such a process is yet to prove itself a means by which the complexity and depth of the often painful experiences of gays and lesbians within the Church is rendered audible to clergy and laity alike. To talk of the need for honest dialogue while in practice allowing a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy to flourish at both official and unofficial levels, is simply to have failed to hear the voices of gays and lesbians.

It may seem rather strange to press the logic of Lightfoot’s book in this way, since it is presented as a piece of qualitative research that aims to conform to academic standards (indeed, it is published by a university press). But Lightfoot is aware that the role she is playing is more than that of the neutral observer. She believes her research to be ‘primarily about justice and about what is done, how people are treated in the name of God’ (p. 15), and this as a way of outworking a ‘gospel bias … to the oppressed and towards justice … to the suffering and towards healing … to the captives and towards liberation’. Given such commitment, it is curious then that Lightfoot hedges at the very moment when most is at stake, claiming that when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, ‘the definitions of justice, healing and liberty are up for debate’. This is fine in so far as empirical descriptions of the way in which that issue, or rather, set of issues, is being played out within the Anglican Communion go, but it is clear that the justice with which her research is concerned is incommensurate with policies that would exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in the Church. To appeal here, as Lightfoot does, to the supposed ability of the Anglican Church to accommodate a range of views on the subject, or worse, to theological clichés that insist that ‘God is beyond theology’ and ‘sexuality is no barrier to God’s love’ (p. 16) is to beg the very question at stake. It is hard, particularly when reading the introduction, not to feel that Lightfoot wants to answer that question while, at the same time, pretending that she isn’t.

The bulk of Lightfoot’s book is, of course, taken up with the edited versions of the interviews she conducted between May and July 2009. The experiences of the eleven interviewees are, as one might expect, enormously diverse, and it would be perilous to attempt any generalisations were it not for the fact that Lightfoot herself encourages us to do so by offering at the end of each interview some reflections that ‘might help the reader’s understanding of the participant’s experience’, and by summing up the key themes that emerge from her interviews in a concluding ‘postscript’. There is a quite proper sophistication to the analysis Lightfoot offers in the concluding pages of her book, recognising that the process of ‘coming out’ is an enormously complicated one for gay and lesbian people within the Church. ‘The cost of integrity in the church is devastatingly high’, one of the interviewees remarks, and Lightfoot sees in this comment a way of approaching one of the key problems that gay and lesbian Christians face. Indeed, notions of personal integrity, and therefore, notions of the self, play a profoundly important role in many of the experiences of Lightfoot’s interviewees. To cite but one example, after coming out to his wife (of more than thirty years) and children, ‘Rob’ (all the names are pseudonyms) tells Lightfoot that he decided to write them a letter, saying ‘I love you and all the rest of those nice, humane and truthful things but I have to be true to myself too. There’s not much point living a lie and having you people happy and me not. I’ve got another thirty years perhaps, if I play it right’. If many of the other interviewees come off sounding less childish than this, the imperative to be ‘true to myself’ is one that continually resurfaces throughout the book as an explanation, even justification, for often painful, and sometimes tragic, decisions.

At this point we begin to see the sort of work that is being done by Lightfoot’s insistence that ‘people’s lives are sacred ground’. Although it is not immediately clear what she means by this claim, it effectively functions as a way of forestalling any attempt to question the Emersonian framework that supplies the moral imperative to be ‘true to myself’. It was the American novelist and host of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor, who once remarked that Ralph Waldo Emerson had a great deal to answer for, not least because his writings encouraged men and women who would have made fine accountants and bus drivers and lawyers, to become very bad writers and musicians and artists, and to find in their supposedly artistic temperaments the warrant for jettisoning ordinary virtues like kindness and patience. They were told to throw caution to the wind, to escape from the ordinary obligations and responsibilities that constrained their lives, and to be true to themselves. Only the selves they were being true to were selves in the process of becoming monstrous precisely to the degree that they were being extricated from concrete and unspectacular obligations to others. Monstrous and, we might add, incoherent (which may be the same thing), since the attempt to orientate myself, to find my bearings within the world, by appealing to myself is necessarily self-defeating. Not only does it trade upon an essentialism that is profoundly problematic – a stable self, at one remove from our interactions with others (a self, therefore, behind the public, historical self), that is simply there to be known; it also presumes that knowledge of that self is a rather straightforward affair. It was the early church theologian Augustine of Hippo who pointed out that we are not, in fact, perspicuous to ourselves; that we cannot simply lay ourselves out like a map. There is no vantage point from which we can obtain a clear enough vision of ourselves for us to be able to say, at any one point in our lives, ‘now, at last, I am truly being myself’.

The question here is whether the Emersonian logic to which many of the interviewees in Lightfoot’s book appeal as in some sense offering justification for actions they have committed can actually do the work it is claiming to do. When ‘Rob’ tells his family that he has to ‘be true’ to himself, or ‘Edward’ says that one of the best things about his new homosexual life is ‘just being open … just being myself’ (p. 33), or ‘Janet’ suggests that the root cause of the sense of emptiness she felt while married was that she was ‘unfulfilled in terms of who I am’ (p. 41), or ‘Gareth’ says that it is out of ‘my spiritual journey that I’ve discovered and come to terms with who I am’ (p. 151), even when ‘Naomi’ says that ‘the Church is my home, where I am myself’ (p. 118), one has to ask whether the sort of clarity that is being presumed here is the sort of clarity that human beings can have with respect to themselves. And if it is not, we have to admit that if we are to try to come to terms with the experiences of those interviewed in Lightfoot’s book, we must press them to provide deeper, more adequate, accounts of those experiences. ‘What precisely do you mean when you say you are just being yourself?’ is the sort of a question a good interviewer ought to ask. At the very least, we might expect Lightfoot’s postscript to contain some analysis of the Emersonian framework that plays such an important role in many of the interviewee’s account of their experiences. Instead, Lightfoot offers her readers an exemplarist Christology that has itself been thoroughly domesticated by that framework. ‘What I see in the life of Jesus’, Lightfoot writes, ‘is someone integrated. Not someone living, as we all do to some extent, on conflicting, disparate planes. He was what he seemed; he was what he claimed to be’ (p. 214). To point out that such a picture of Jesus bears little resemblance to those offered in the Gospels would be to misunderstand what it is that Lightfoot is doing here. She is not commenting on the historical, flesh-and-blood Jesus, but rather seeking to legitimate one particular – and highly modern – account of what it means to be human. ‘My understanding is that our Christian journey is one towards integration of the parts of us that we might prefer not to face’ (p. 214). Only an Emersonian could write of the Christian life in such terms, freeing it from any real connection to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, indeed, reinventing that life so that it conforms to pictures of what it means to be human that would have been sheerly unintelligible to pre-moderns.

Lightfoot’s book is marked by a curious naivety. She wants to make a number of substantive claims without engaging in the sort of critical analysis that those claims demand if, that is, they are to be convincing. She asserts, and then pulls back at the very points when most is at stake. In so doing, she is not serving the subjects of her interviews, but abandoning them. Neither is she serving her readers, who find that they are unable to gain real purchase on the experiences of those they are reading about precisely to the extent that the notion of ‘being myself’ remains unexamined. In the end, what we are left with are stories that in themselves are rather unremarkable: a man leaves his wife for his gay lover, only to find that some people in his local church are not sympathetic; a devout woman discovers that she is a lesbian, and has to rethink certain aspects of the conservative theology with which she was brought up; and so on. Such stories are valuable in their way, but not very interesting. And this because Lightfoot does not allow us to get into the inside of them, in the way, for example, that Conrad enables us to gain some purchase on the experiences of Tuan Jim, or Stryon on those of Peyton Loftis. If Lightfoot is right to say that selves are ‘sacred’, then this must be an invitation not to call a halt to our enquiry, but to probe further, knowing that in the end, as Augustine understood, it not we who confer meaning on our lives, but one who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Alan Sell’s The Theological Education of the Ministry: Soundings in the British Reformed and Dissenting Traditions: a review

The Theological Education of the MinistryAlan P. F. Sell, The Theological Education of the Ministry: Soundings in the British Reformed and Dissenting Traditions (Eugene, OR.: Pickwick Publications, 2013). ISBN 13: 978-1-62032-593-3; 328pp.

A guest review by Graeme Ferguson

Alan Sell, who served for a time as Theological Secretary of the WARC and who taught in Manchester and Wales, has indulged himself in retirement, writing a very readable account of the thinking of several theologians who helped form ministry in the reformed tradition in Great Britain and whose contribution should not be forgotten.

It may come as a surprise that the English dissenting tradition is as angular and stubborn today as it has been through the years in shaping the Church. Sell, as an unrepentant Congregationalist, knows the ins and outs of this history well. He has worked with the theologians who shaped ministry in the last fifty years. He has the patience to track through some of the more tortuous paths of dissent both in England and Scotland and celebrates several churchmen who are not widely remembered.

He begins with Caleb Ashworth and the dissenting academy he set up in Daventry. This sets the tone for remembering the costs involved in bearing witness to the faith outside the mainstream of English church life.

His chapter on Scottish religious philosophy in the later nineteenth century is a sharp reminder of how effectively and fully Scottish theologians engaged in the intellectual debates of the day.  Theological professors such as A.C. Fraser, Robert Flint, A.B. Bruce, James Iverach, and others, came out of the realist tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. They were committed apologists for the faith, formulating forms of knowing that gave an assured intellectual basis for strong faith. Their books were found on the shelves of many New Zealand ministers who followed these debates closely.

His chapter on John Oman of Cambridge not only traces his formidable philosophical contribution to personalist modes of knowing God but also has a fascinating segment on Oman’s church background in the secessionist groups of the islands of northern Scotland. Oman is an Orcadian who for all his life retained that mystical spirituality of the northern lights. I was glad to see that Sell added the story about Oman’s portrait which hangs in the dining hall at Westminister College. One person asked the artist if the sitter’s face was that of a fisherman; another suggested a philosopher, and a third that he had the face of a saint. The artist was content that he had captured Oman’s heart.

In writing about N.H.G. Robinson and Geoffrey Nuttall, Sell speaks about people he knew and valued. Robinson was an ethicist in St Andrews, a careful scholar committed to clarity and precision in developing his ideas. Sell develops a set of theses to encapsulate Robinson’s thinking. Nuttall was an angular and difficult church historian of English dissent who taught in London and with whom Sell had a long friendship. Not only did Nuttall not suffer fools, but he was also an authority on Puritanism and dissent. Both men influenced a generation of students to value sound scholarship and appreciate the richness and depth of lively faith.

This book needed some strong editing. In trying to ensure that each scholar could speak for himself, Sell quotes extensively. There are some personal interjections which may be endearing but which read as self-justifying. A good editor would have picked up infelicities of language and dates that wobbled into the wrong century. Also, the bibliographies are far too long. But the book was well worth persevering with as a fascinating study of people, with their foibles, personal loves and hates, and passion for sound scholarship, who influenced generations of people serving in ministry.

A review of ‘Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth’

Barth's Interpretation of the Virgin BirthBarth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth: A Sign of Mystery, by Dustin Resch. Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. ix + 218pp; ISBN 978 1 4094 4117.

In Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth, Dustin Resch (Assistant Professor of Theology and Dean of the Seminary at Briercrest College and Seminary) offers us a clearly written introductory survey to Barth’s presentation of the doctrine of the virgin birth, unencumbered with detail and critical interaction.

With a view to setting Barth’s contribution in its theological context, the study begins, appropriately, with a brief overview of the doctrine in the Western tradition. Here, particular attention is given to treatments by Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Strauss and Brunner, and to the ways that the pre-Reformation articulations of the tradition tended to evaluate the doctrine in terms of its ‘fittingness’ with the broader themes of christology, pneumatology and original sin. This emphasis, Resch argues, ‘slipped into the background during the Reformation, which aimed to chasten what the Reformers took to be undue speculation, particularly about Mary’ (p. 36), only to emerge again during the modern period, albeit in ways that argued for its fundamental un-fitness in the courtroom of critical biblical scholarship and modern biology, and therefore without any significant theological value. Resch proceeds to argue that Barth takes up the Augustinian heritage of the virgin birth, but revises it such that Barth believes he escapes the criticisms of its modern despisers. The success or otherwise of Barth’s efforts here are left largely untested by Resch.

In the second chapter, Resch offers an exposition of the methodological and exegetical features of Barth’s development of the doctrine from his early work at Göttingen and Münster up to the introductory volume of Die Kirkliche Dogmatik. Locating Barth’s unembarrassed claims on the virgin conception vis-à-vis the Augustinian, Schleiermacherian, Harnackian and modern Roman Catholic traditions, and as a dogmatic bookend to Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, Resch convincingly rehearses throughout the ways in which, for Barth (post-Münster), the virgin birth functions as a fitting theological ‘sign’ (Zeichen) of the mystery of the incarnation – rather than making any claims about the constitutive significance of Jesus’ person as the Logos incarnate or about biology and the wonders of parthenogenesis – which directs the church to a number of its basic dogmatic claims. As P.T. Forsyth – the so-called ‘Barthian before Barth’ (a great compliment to Barth!) – had earlier shown, the virgin birth is really a theological rather than a critical question. It is not a necessity created by the integrity and authority of Scripture per se but a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the gospel, and by the requirements of grace. In terms of epistemology, for example, it recalls that ‘the beginning of our knowledge of God … is not a beginning which we can make with God. It can be only the beginning which God has made with us’ (CD II/1, 190). For Barth, the Bible’s presentation of the miracle of the virgin birth has ‘no ontic but [only] noetic significance’ (Credo, p. 69), its concern being the mystery of God’s free grace. Hence the Bible evidences a complete lack of concern with scientific explanation and is wholly concerned with the question of the sheer mystery and grace of revelation, a mystery and grace which announce, among other things, the foundationless nature of all our presuppositions about, and our semi-Pelagian gropings for, God. It is, literally, to begin again at the beginning; i.e., with God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ. Ontology, in other words, for Barth, must always precede epistemology.

Notwithstanding the comments made above vis-à-vis Scripture, Resch suitably notes, however, that Barth’s treatment of the virgin birth as a sign relating to the mystery of the incarnation rather than as a constitutive element of Christ’s person was one that was ‘derived exegetically and was not a theological decision made simply to avoid the criticism of modern theology’ (p. 62). So Resch:

For Barth, the criteria by which the church should make its decision to adopt the biblical attestation of the virgin birth into its understanding of the biblical message should be the same as the criteria by which the New Testament authors themselves decided to incorporate the virgin birth into their witness. In both cases, questions of the age and source value of the tradition were not conclusive. Instead, the doctrine was accepted because of its ‘fit’ with the central elements of Christian faith. (pp. 73–74)

The Great PromiseThis theological reading of the Gospel texts, as Resch notes in a number of places, enabled Barth to avoid many of the charges often laid at Augustinian interpretations of the doctrine, and that while guarding the mystery of Christ’s person from being collapsed into a general truth or principal. That said, Resch is also concerned to map how, for Barth, the virgin birth functions as a ‘paradigm’ through which to understand not only the shape of God’s work upon human beings but also something about the corresponding posture of faith’s being-before-God, features borne out well by Resch not only in terms of Barth’s treatment of Mary but also, and perhaps especially, through his attendance to the largely ignored figure of Joseph who ‘clearly has no capacity for God, but rather is elected to serve Christ in the world as his guardian. Understood this way’, Resch notes in a later chapter, ‘Joseph becomes an excellent metaphor for Barth’s view of the church’ (p. 175). In Barth’s own words:

Though I am very averse to the development of ‘Mariology’, I am very inclined to ‘Josephology’, because in my eyes Joseph has played a role with respect to Christ which the church should adopt. I know that the Roman Church prefers to compare its role with the glorious role of Mary. It brings the Christian message to the world in the same way in which Mary has given us Christ. But the comparison deceives. The church cannot give birth to the Redeemer; but it can and must serve him with humble and discrete enthusiasm. And that was exactly the role that Joseph played, who always held himself in the background and left all fame to Jesus. Exactly that should be the role of the church, if we want the world to rediscover the glory of the Word of God. (‘Über die Annäherung der Kirchen: Ein Gesprach zwischen Karl Barth und Tanneguy de Quénétain’, Junge Kirche: protestantische Monatshefte 24 (1963): 309)

Chapter Three is concerned to examine Barth’s doctrine of the virgin birth in relation to his presentation of Christ’s sinless humanity and original sin in the Church Dogmatics. In particular, Resch maps the ways that, for Barth, Christ’s birth through the virgin Mary attests to both the ‘Yes’ of God’s grace to humanity and, because of the absence of a human father, to God’s ‘No’ of judgment against sinful human beings: ‘The natus ex Maria virgine unambiguously negates the possibility of viewing revelation and reconciliation as a possibility latent within human beings by describing the mystery of the sovereign act of God in the incarnation. It does this “by an express and extremely concrete negative”. This negative – symbolized by the removal of the man – indicates the limitation of human participation in the incarnation’ (p. 85).

In Chapter Four, Resch brings Jesus’ conception into conversation with Barth’s pneumatology, noting how the former, which remains sui generis, functions, for Barth, as a pattern for, and a heuristic tool – ‘a distinctive mark’ – to interpret, the work of the Spirit in the lives of those who ‘perceive and accept and receive [Jesus Christ] as the Reconciler of the world and therefore as their Reconciler’ (CD IV/1, 148). It is argued that, just as Mary was enabled by the Spirit to conceive Christ within her womb, so too are Christians enabled by the same Spirit to receive the revelation and reconciliation of God.

Mary’s role in Barth’s theology is given fuller attention in the final chapter where Resch helpfully outlines how Barth’s treatment of Mary’s ‘readiness’ (Bereitschaft) before God informs both his understanding of the relationship between divine grace and human agency, and his evaluation of Roman Catholic Mariology, noting the ways that Barth’s acceptance of the virgin birth happens by the same criteria by which he rejects Mariology; namely, with its fit with the mystery of the incarnation. ‘Barth’s main problem with Mariology’, Resch avers, ‘is simply that in it Mary is treated in relative independence from Christ. While never completely severed from Christ, Mary has come to have her own special dignity, merit and ministry. In contrast with the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and particularly the New Testament, according to Barth, Roman Catholic Mariology fails to use the term Theotokos as an exclusively Christological title … The Catholic Mary is, for Barth, the symbolic portrayal of the philosophical concept of the analogia entis’ (pp. 168–69, 177). Conversely, Barth will insist that human readiness for God – and God’s readiness for humanity – is found in, and is synonymous with, Christ alone.

Throughout the essay, Resch successfully illustrates ways that Barth’s thinking on the virgin birth remains both broadly Augustinian insofar as the doctrine relates to that of original sin, and radically revisionist insofar as Barth departs from Augustine’s interpretation of the virgin birth as that which mysteriously preserves Christ from the tainting effects of concupiscence and original sin and conceives it instead as a symbol of the dialectic that the incarnation itself announces – the futility of all human willing, acting and striving for the grace of God, and the divine determination and gracious freedom to call into existence things that do not exist (Rom 4.17).

Readers (and I suspect Resch himself too) may well be left asking, however, whether Resch has bought too uncritically into Barth’s Protestant critique of Mariology, and whether his heavy reliance on a somewhat limited scope of Barth’s work (mainly The Great Promise and CD I/2) leaves his presentation less satisfying than it might be. More frustrating, however, is the exhausting repetition throughout the book. Where the reader may be hoping to find a new vista around the next corner, or an idea further developed in conversation with other themes pertaining to the subject (e.g., the doctrines of election and creation, the relationship between ‘sign’ and ‘ontology’ and between this particular ‘sign’ and other ‘signs’, the relationship between the objective basis and subjective experience of faith’s participation in the faithfulness of Christ as the vicarious human given by God, discipleship and prayer, how Mary’s and Joseph’s fittingness relates to that of other characters throughout the Bible, etc. are all left too uncooked) or with at least some significant secondary literature, the reader discovers instead that he is simply back where he has been numerous times before, and little the wiser for the effort. I suspect, nonetheless, that we are not here dealing with a case of an author who does not know where the real questions lie – indeed, he identifies some very worthwhile trajectories for further thought in his conclusion; Barth’s rather one-dimensional presentation of Mary divorced from her existential situation, for example – but perhaps with a matter of confidence and/or energy to traverse there within the bounds of this project. One hopes that in future work, he builds on the reliable foundation laid here.

[In due course, a version of this review will appear in The Journal of Theological Studies]