Alan Sell

Alan P. F. Sell (1935–2016): A Service of Thanksgiving

Dr Karen Sell has asked if I might make public the details below about the thanksgiving service being arranged following the death of Alan Sell:

You are warmly invited to

A Service of Thanksgiving for the Gospel
 on occasion of the death of
 Alan Philip Frederick Sell
 The Church of Christ the Cornerstone
 Saxon Gate
 Milton Keynes
 Thursday March 3rd 2016 at 2.15 pm.

Refreshments will follow the Service.

If so wished donations may be sent to
Willen Hospice, Milton Road, Milton Keynes, MK15 9AD.

Alan Philip Frederick Sell (1935–2016): Per Crucem ad Lucem

Alan SellI am grieved to learn (via Kim Fabricius) that my dear friend Alan Sell, who had been quite unwell for some time now, has died. In an email sent to United Reformed Church ministers (current and retired), Helen Lidgett (Synod Clerk, East Midlands Synod) stated:

I am deeply saddened to report the death of Rev Professor Alan Sell. He died peacefully, content, and with great dignity at 9.00 pm on Sunday February 7th in Willen Hospice in Milton Keynes. Details of the Green Burial and Thanksgiving Service will be forwarded shortly.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Alan’s wife, Karen and their family.

Alan’s qualifications were: BA; BD; MA; DD; DLitt; PhD; HonDD; Hon DTh; FSA FRHistS; He was ordained in 1959 and had a very fruitful and world-wide ministry:

1959–1964: Sedbergh & Dent
1964–1968: Hallow, Worcester & Ombersley
1968–1983: Theological Lecturer & Professor in UK
1983–1987: Theological Secretary WARC
1988–1992: Theological Lecturer & Professor in Canada
1992–2001: United Theological College Aberystwyth

In retirement he continued to write and contribute to theological debate, including a valuable contribution to the discussion on the marriage of same sex couples at East Midands Synod in March 2015.

Alan was a good friend, and a wonderful encourager to me. I shall miss him and our frequent correspondences very much. Already, the world certainly feels poorer without him.

In pace requiescat et in amore Alan.

You can read my reviews of some of Alan’s work here:

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.

Christ and Controversy

The good folk over at Wipf and Stock have informed me that they have just released Alan Sell’s fascinating book Christ and Controversy: The Person of Christ in Nonconformist Thought and Ecclesial Experience, 1600–2000. Professor Sell’s name is no stranger here at PCaL. I was invited to pen a wee endorsement for the back cover (it’s SO much less work to get your name on the back cover of a book than it is to have is appear on the front). Here’s what I wrote:

This encyclopedic but accessible survey stands as witness to the church’s ongoing wrestle with an ancient question—’Who do you say that I am?’ It demonstrates Professor Sell’s acumen as a meticulous researcher, his contagious devotion to the nonconformist tradition, and his aptitude for bringing the dead back to life. With wit and sober-headedness, this bold and theologically-informed study records many christological enthusiasms and ecclesiological consequences that this perduring question has birthed—its invitation lingers still.

And the book’s description reads:

What may happen when Christians take doctrine seriously? One possible answer is that the shape of churchly life “on the ground” can be significantly altered. This pioneering study is both an account of the doctrine of the person of Christ as it has been expounded by the theologians of historic English and Welsh Nonconformity, and an attempt to show that while many Nonconformists held classical orthodox views of the doctrine between 1600 and 2000, others advocated alternative understandings of Christ’s person; hence the evolution of the ecclesial landscape as we have come to know it. The traditions here under review are those of Old Dissent: the Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians and their Unitarian heirs; and the Calvinistic and Arminian Methodist bodies that owe their origin to the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century.

Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction: A Review

Alan P.F. Sell, Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction (Studies in Christian History and Thought; Milton Keynes/Colorado Springs/Secunderabad: Paternoster, 2008). xvi+715pp.

In his book Defending and Declaring the Faith: Some Scottish Examples 1860–1920 (1987), Alan Sell had already demonstrated his ardour and gift for bringing the dead back to life, for turning strangers into friends, and for wading the small streams and largely-inaccessible rivers on the landscape of British ecclesiastical life. Now, over two decades later, Professor Sell, in Hinterland Theology: A Stimulus to Theological Construction, turns his binoculars south to introduce readers to some other forgotten saints, to those whose writings are not the staple of general undergraduate courses. These are the second eleven (actually ten), if you like, of Nonconformist Dissent – drawn from among those who served the Church in the wake of the Toleration Act of 1689 after which there was ‘no longer one authority to which appeals on religious questions could be lodged’ (p. 54), and in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Evangelical Revival, and in the wakes of modern biblical criticism and theological liberalism. From the outset, Sell suggests that ‘we have not fully understood the Lockes and Barths of this world until we have investigated what the hinterland people made of them’ (p. 2).

Drawing upon letters, sermons, tracts and monographs, and with an eye on doctrinal controversies, the prevailing intellectual winds, and impressively alert to pastoral challenges, Sell has penned an encyclopaedic dictionary of rarely-mentioned theologians – Thomas Ridgley, Abraham Taylor (who ‘shot across the London sky like a volatile theological meteor’ (p. 41)), Samuel Chandler, George Payne, Richard Alliott, David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, Walter Frederick Adeney, Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Apart from Chandler, who was Presbyterian, and Tymms, who was Baptist, the rest were Congregationalists, and all but two (or perhaps three) were sons of the manse. Each chapter begins with a comprehensive biography of the chosen personality before turning to introduce and then engage with their thought, contribution and intellectual location. A familiar encore of themes appear over the period surveyed (1667 to 1981), including deism, miracles, apologetics, supernaturalism, Bible, Trinity, theism, Arianism, Calvinism, Unitarianism, Roman Catholicism, theological method, the eternal generation of the Son, kenotic christology, divine impassibility, natural theology, ecclesiology and pastoral ministry, among others, suggesting that theological adjustments and time-lags, and the ongoing ‘construction through conversations’ (p. 1) conducted by hinterland theologians, significantly stimulated the philosophico-theological landscape, and bore significant fruit – for good and for ill – in the Church.

After a brief Introduction, the book is presented in five parts. In Part One, ‘In the Wake of Toleration’, and with colour and wit, Sell introduces us to Thomas Ridgley whose ‘greatest contribution lay in the field of theological education’ (p. 13), and to Abraham Taylor and his defence against John Gill’s charge of antinomianism, and his plunge into the debates over the doctrinal declension betrayed in eighteenth-century trinitarian controversies and, in particular, his dissatisfaction in these matters with fellow Congregationalist, Isaac Watts. (Taylor charged Watts with sponsoring Sabellianism and Socinianism, with teaching that Christ possessed a super-angelic spirit, and with displaying a lack of clarity over the nature of divine personhood, among other things). Sell also introduces us to Samuel Chandler, the ‘moderate Calvinist’ and ‘apostle of liberty of conscience and freedom of thought’ (p. 85) who also wrestled with John Gill (on the relationship between morality and the will of God) and with Anthony Collins, John Locke and Thomas Morgan (on deism), and with John Guyse (on what it means to preach Christ),who spoke at Watts’ internment, who (from 1732 to 1739) was a prime advocate of the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts that precluded Dissenters from holding state or civic office’ (p. 77) and whose greatest talents most conspicuously shone forth from the pulpit.

In Part Two, ‘In the Wake of Enlightenment and Revival’, Sell considers the life and contribution of George Payne, a thinker who ‘set out to be “useful” but was perceived as “dangerous”’ (p. 123). Sell’s discussion here introduces us to the landscape of early-nineteenth century thinking on metaphysics and ethics, on moderate Calvinism, and on the Trinity. Sell turns next to the inexorable logician and winsome evangelist Richard Alliott, who was ‘among the first Congregationalists to notice Schleiermacher in print’ (p. 191) and who, while longing for the revival of the Church, insisted that there would be no revival until believers ‘experience within stronger faith in the presence and word of our God, in the finished work of Christ, [and] in the indwelling of the Spirit in our hearts’ (p. 200). But Alliot, who by 1860 held the Chair of Theology and Philosophy at Spring Hill College,  held no misconceptions that ‘piety by itself will not sustain a ministry’ and that ‘scholarship will render a preacher more effective’ (p. 203). Sell describes Alliot, who authored Psychology and Theology (1855), as ‘a theologian between the times’ in whom ‘classical theism’s cosmological-causal head came together with Romanticism’s heart, and the whole was undergirded by the Evangelical Revival’s concern for souls’ (p. 222).

Part Three is titled ‘In the Wake of Modern Biblical Criticism’. Here we are acquainted with David Worthington Simon, T. Vincent Tymms, and Walter Frederick Adeney. Describing Simon as ‘the most spiritually anguished, the slowest-burning, and the most pioneering scholar – and hence the most highly suspect – to fall with the confines of this book’ (p. 227), Sell recalls Simon’s study at Lancashire College and in Germany (a land to which he returned again), his oversight of the newly formed church at Birkenhead from 1855, and his call to serve as Resident Tutor and Professor of Theology at Spring Hill College, ‘an institution where at least relatively open theological enquiry was the order of the day’ (p. 236), and then, from 1883, as Principal of the Scottish Congregational Theological Hall in Edinburgh, and thereafter as Principal of Yorkshire United Independent College on Bradford (1893 until 1907). Alive to the changing intellectual environment, Simon, championing what Sell names as a ‘biblical-historical-pneumatic epistemology’ (p. 250), championed a marriage of both intellectual and spiritual depth, resisting attempts by some to divorce the historical and the spiritual and arguing that the soul’s relation to God is not independent of biblical facts. From Simon, Sell turns to Tymms, tracing the Baptist theologian’s journey from Regent’s Park College, to his pastorates at Berwick, Accrington and Clapton, to Vice-President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, to President of the London Baptist Association, and to the Presidency of Rawdon College, Leeds. Sell reflects on Tymms’ widely-read book, The Mystery of God, and his embroilment in controversies over Bible translation, particularly as such affected the Indian mission field. He notes that Tymms distinguished himself by encouraging ‘original thought among his students rather than … prepar[ing] them for examinations’ (p. 311), and by his Forsyth-like witness to the centrality of Christ’s Cross which has ‘irradiated the world with light, and is filling the moral universe with songs of everlasting joy’ (p. 317). Tymms would press further still, insisting in his stimulating and judicious book The Christian Idea of Atonement, that ‘the cross is God’s definition of Himself’ (p. 340). Moreover, the cross is, Tymms insists, the only word of theodicy available to the Christian: ‘The cross is … precious because it reveals that God is not a mere passionless watcher of an agonising evolution, but is Himself a partaker of the universal travail, and has been constrained by love to take the chief labour on Himself’ (p. 345). Sell introduces us next to Adeney, Congregationalist minister turned Professor of Church History and New Testament, whose attention to the centrality of the cross fell some way short of Tymms’, but among whose enviable gifts included an ability to ‘write at varying degrees of technicality, and … a particular concern to reach ministers, people in the pews, and children’ (p. 366). He was one of those ‘believing biblical critics’, like Westcott, Hort, Peake and W.H. Bennett, who ‘harvested the fruits of modern biblical criticism in such a way that only the most suspicious conservative evangelicals’ (p. 410) would think to accuse him of undermining Scripture. No advocate of sentimental theology, Adeney championed the truth of God’s fatherly love – love expressed in the ‘essentially Christian’ (p. 399) doctrine of the Trinity – as ‘the source and spring of the Christian gospel’ (p. 395). Still, he warned that ‘speculation about God always plunges us into darkness’, an observation which draws the following comment from Sell: ‘It is, no doubt, an unsanctified thought, but one sometimes feels that some present-day theologians think that they know as much about the inner working of the Trinity as some older Calvinist divines thought they knew about God’s inscrutable will’ (p. 411).

‘In the Wake of Theological Liberalism’ is the equally-revealing title of Part Four, and the subjects here are Robert S. Franks and Charles S. Duthie. Again, Sell locates each personality in their biographical and intellectual context before turning to introduce and appraise their writings and thoughts. Sell highlights the former’s engagement with the thought of Kant, Abelard, Anselm, and Schleiermacher, and the latter’s engagement with Pascal, Barth, Thielicke, Ferré and Tillich. Of these last two named, Duthie’s introducing of their thought to both Church and students (he spent 30 years of his life training ministers) was ‘not because [he agreed] with all the main positions they occupy but because [he felt] deeply that they are concerned to fashion a living theology for our own time, a theology which is faithful to the “given” Gospel in terms of man’s predicament today’ (p. 521). In calling the Church to its evangelistic task, Duthie suggested that we not only read Tillich with Barth in hand, but also the reverse.

After 562 pages, Sell still has more to say, and the book’s final part is a 71-page conclusion wherein Sell retraces the landscape he has just surveyed, recapitulates key themes, offers suggestions about contemporary practice, and recalls that the voices of hinterland theologians – past and present – are ‘frequently constructive, occasionally provocative, and variously stimulating. They have pertinent observations to share on our current theological agenda, and they challenge us by reminding us of some themes which we may have been inclined to overlook’ (p. 635).

Readers already familiar with Professor Sell’s writing will know that he is a meticulous researcher whose reading is extensive, whose commitment to ecumenism is exemplary, whose love for, and devotion to, the Nonconformist tradition is contagious, who is not shy of noting error and distortion of the Gospel when and where he sees it, whose acumen for critically-identifying contemporary theological trends is cultivated and well coached, and whose writing betrays not a few hours of pastorally-informed reflection. While Hinterland Theology could certainly have done with a more meticulous proof-reader, with this hefty tome Sell has given us a rich resource. That he decided to take the trouble to write this book leaves the Church in his debt. This volume will be of interest to historians, theologians, philosophers, and a must-read for those with a particular interest in British Nonconformity.


‘Ecumenical and Eclectic’: A Review

Anna M. Robbins (ed.), Ecumenical and Eclectic: The Unity of the Church in the Contemporary World: Essays in Honour of Alan P. F. Sell (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007). xiv + 313 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227 432 3. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

Anna M. Robbins is a lecturer in Theology and Contemporary Culture at the London School of Theology. She completed her doctoral work under the supervision of Professor Alan Sell, and has continued to benefit from his work and friendship. Thus it is entirely appropriate that she gather together this volume of fifteen essays dedicated to honouring the ministry of Professor Sell. And it is entirely appropriate that this volume be published in this series of Studies in Christian History and Thought, a series to which Sell has been a contributor and of which he is one of the editors. My appreciation for both Professor Sell’s work and for the series in which this particular book belongs has already been noted here and here.

The diversity of essays – their themes and countries of origin – is itself a significant reminder of the testimony to the influence and interests that Alan Sell has so faithfully dedicated his energies towards: Reformed theology, ecumenism, philosophy, nonconformity, church history, mission, ethics and apologetics among them. As the introduction to this volume notes, ‘Throughout [Sell’s] work, he has sought to expose unsatisfactory divisions amongst the people of Christ, to pose necessary challenges to those who hold sectarian attitudes, and offer constructive proposals for ongoing dialogue and other expressions of unity’ (p. 1).

The essays in this volume are organised in three movements. The first, ‘Ecumenical & Eclectic: Roots’, includes essays by Donald McKim, D. O. Thomas, Martin Fitzpatrick and Andrew MacRae. McKim begins his essay as many of the contributors do, by acknowledging his appreciation for Sell’s work and friendship. He writes of Sell, ‘There is no one I respect more as a theologian and whose work I appreciate more as a Reformed theologian’ (p. 7). High praise indeed. The essay proceeds to consider how some Reformed foundations serve the unity of the Church. Specifically, that the unity of the Church is Christ and is from God, that it is a unity of faith, that it is unity that acknowledges diversity, and that it is a unity that is both given and sought as divine gift. Unsurprisingly, and appropriately, McKim draws heavily from Calvin. Thomas’ essay examines the nature of the distinction between abstract and practical virtue in the thinking of Richard Price, again with an eye on the question of Church unity in the context of dissent and divine authority. Fitzpatrick too proffers a number of philosophical reflections on unity and dissent. Surveying the thought of the unitarian Joseph Priestley, and the eighteenth-century Rational Dissenters, Fitzpatrick argues how dissent may actually contribute to the unity of the Church. The final piece in this section is entitles ‘The Power of Christian Unity’. Here, Andrew MacRae, with an eye on both Scripture and more recent ecumenical developments, proposes a theological exposition on the power of Christian unity. His argument is that there can be multiple brands of ecumenical movements, all of which may contribute to the unity of the Church without being intrinsically divisive.

The second section is entitled ‘Ecumenical and Eclectic: Reflections’. With this group of six essays the focus shifts more to analyses historical, biblical and sociological. Clyde Binfield opens the section with one of the densest and heavily-researched pieces of writing on church history that I’ve ever read in a collection of this sort. He examines the sermons of William Page Roberts in order to demonstrate the relationship between change and continuity in the life of the Church. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay, but be warned, it really is one that you need to read when you are completely awake. David Peel invites us to reflect both appreciatively and critically on the legacy of Lesslie Newbigin, and David Cornick considers some of the ecumenical reflections of Olive Wyon. As one who has always wondered who this woman who translated Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics was, I was especially excited to be introduced to her through this essay. Indeed, Brunner once confessed that his theology was better in her English than his German. Cornick writes:

[Wyon] travelled the world, but Geneva made a great impression on her. She was particularly influenced by her contact with the Community of Grandchamp, founded by a group of Reformed women in 1931 as a centre for prayer, silence and meditation, but which developed into a Women’s Religious Order that worshipped according to the Taizé Office. That experience convinced her of the value of Christian community where ‘… men and women find each other in Christ and begin to pray and work as never before for the extension of the spirit of unity.’ She valued her Reformed roots deeply, but they rooted her in Scripture and therefore in the experience of all Christians, and she drank deeply and with delight from other wells. It is that combination of roots and generous openness that make her still a compelling guide to the spiritual life. (p. 150)

Cornick’s essay proceeds to explore her contributions to prayer (principally through her 1943 book, The School of Prayer), vocation and ecumenism. He notes that Wyon begins her exploration of the relationship between prayer and Scripture with the Barmen Declaration: ‘The Bible deals with God, and with nothing apart from God. Whoever seeks God in the Bible will find God there; for God comes to seek and find us in His Word…’. This, Wyon argued, is the core of the relationship between Scripture and prayer. Cornick comments on Wyon’s urging: ‘Being alone with Scripture and taking it seriously is a dangerous business, for we meet with Christ there. In his light we find ourselves judged and can “suddenly … find that Christ steps out of the pages and confronts us with an absolute demand”. Being alone with the Bible means risking a revolution in one’s life. That sounds austere and frightening, but judgement is merely the obverse of salvation; so Scripture also leads us to a knowledge of the trustworthiness of God, of forgiveness and mercy and “infinite support”‘. Citing Wyon, Scripture is the ‘springboard from which we may dive into the fathomless ocean of the love of God’ (p. 151).

The General Secretary of the United Reformed Church then proceeds to note Wyon’s ‘profound sense of the vocation of the church’ (p. 153). He cites Wyon: ‘The world is waiting for a “revelation” of God in community. The church is called to be this living community, in which all barriers between man and man, class and class, race and race, are down for ever’ (pp. 153-4). This is not something that the Church can achieve but is the work of God. Cornick then introduces us to Wyon’s book, The Altar Fire: Reflections on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, wherein she describes Reformed worship thus:

… the service begins with the revealed Word. That is: the first note struck in this rite is not the need of the worshippers, but the fact of revelation. From the very first the Christian Church realised that all worship must begin with God Transcendent. It is from such a God that we receive the revelation of His Being and His purpose. We begin with God, the high and Holy One, ‘who inhabiteth eternity’. We listen, first of all, to His Word (p. 154)

Cornick notes that Wyon was an exceptionally well-read theologian, who gently corrected the tendency towards individualism which is so characteristic of Western Protestantism by stressing the way in which the New Testament always speaks of the priestly activity of the whole church. ‘It is the whole church which is intended in the good purposes of God to bring God to humanity and humanity to God’ (p. 156).

The next essay is from the pen of John Tudno Williams who considers two Welsh New Testament scholars – namely C.H. Dodd and W.D. Davies – and their contribution to thinking on the nature and unity of the Church. Peter Ball, Chair of New Testament Studies at Károli Gáspár Reformed University in Budapest, contributes a paper on whether it is parents or Christ who have the foremost authority in the family and what it means for how children should honour their parents. He asks ‘Did the first Christians fulfil the expectation to honour their parents?’ (p. 175). The final contribution in this second section comes from lrving Hexham, who considers the work of Weber and Troeltsch with respect to the development of the grammar of ‘sect’ and ‘cult’. He concludes that such language is sectarian and ideologically loaded, and so ultimately unhelpful.

The final section is headed ‘Ecumenical and Eclectic: Resonances’ and invites reflection on the future of ecumenism and the practices of church life. It consists of essays by Keith Clements, Alan Falconer, Botond Gaál, Anna Robbins and Gabriel Fackre. Clements reflects on where two decades of intentional ecumenism in Europe has led us, highlighting its future uncertainty. Falconer, Gaál and Robbins also explore this theme in terms of ecumenical dialogue, the latter in light of how the church’s fragmentation weakens its voice to speak on issues that affect the whole world and about which the world is concerned. In the concluding essay, Gabriel Fackre takes on board some of Sell’s own apologetic methodology and explores the question of divine impassibility by reflecting on Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ. He argues that ‘the film can be an occasion for confessing and commending the faith if treated as a Reformation-like “teaching moment”, the interpretive Word conjoined to the visible Word’ (p. 270). Fackre proceeds to use the film to talk about ‘the very heart of God’ in the cross. In an interesting turn, Fackre seeks to resurrect the ancient fishhook-bait analogy of the early Fathers. Commenting on the cry from the cross, ‘My Lord’, Fackre writes:

… it means that the knowledge that the effects of our sin reach into the very heart of God overwhelms us. Is that what prompts the tears of worshippers in the theatre pews when they view this film? How else do we know ourselves to be the sinners that we really are unless we see our hand in the very crucifixion of God? And hear from the Victim’s lips, ‘Father, forgive …’? No power in this world can so drive us to our knees. Only this Power of the divine powerlessness, the Christ who reigns from the cross. The fishhook-bait analogy has yet another meaning. The Devilfish did get caught. The power of God in the powerlessness of Jesus accomplished its purpose. So Aulén, interpreting Irenaeus, says: ‘The redemptive work is accomplished by the Logos through the Manhood of His instrument, for it could be accomplished by no power than by God Himself.’ Can we put it this way? God stoops to conquer. God comes into our midst in human form in Galilee and on the road to Calvary in order there to expose us for who we are. We see first-hand One who is as we should be and strike out at this embarrassing Presence. Yet it is, paradoxically, only through our lacerating and crucifying ways that God can disclose as well as expose, disclose the suffering Love that makes reconciliation possible. The proper emphasis on the suffering of Jesus when it excludes the suffering of God constitutes the discontinuity Aulén rightly criticizes. Without making the mistake of this discontinuity, we can yet affirm the concern to preserve the role of the humanity of Christ in the Work of salvation, while knowing that it was the God who was ‘in Christ’ who evokes our repentance and brings forgiveness to the sinner. (pp. 280-1).

He concludes by asserting that defenders of divine impassibility are ‘right in what they affirm – the tearless power of God at the beginning and end of the cosmic drama, and wrong in what they deny – the God who weeps in and for Jesus at the centre of the Story’ (p. 282)

Like most edited volumes, Ecumenical and Eclectic is not immune from its weaker contributions. However, every essay bears witness to something of the work of the one to whom it is meant to honour, and has something important to donate in its particular area of concern. Unfortunately, there is no essay devoted to theological education, an area which Sell has contributed not a little. That said, those interested in many themes that so interest Alan Sell will not be disappointed with many of the papers in this book. It also includes a comprehensive 27-page bibliography of Alan Sell’s work.

‘Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century’: A Review

Alan P. F. Sell and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2003). x + 398 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227 221 3. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

This book, edited by Alan Sell and Anthony Cross, is another worthy addition to what is an excellent series of Studies in Christian History and Thought, a series comprising monographs, revised dissertations, and collections of papers which explore the church’s witness through history. The series includes some important contributions to scholarship, among which is David Wright’s Infant Baptism In Historical Perspective, Byung Ho Moon’s Christ the Mediator of the Law: Calvin’s Christological Understanding of the Law as the Rule of Living and Life-giving, and David Bebbington’s brilliant 1998 Didsbury Lectures, Holiness In Nineteenth-Century England.

Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century is a collection of papers presented at the second conference of The Association of Denominational Historical Societies and Cognate Libraries, held at Westhill College, Birmingham, in July 2000. The result is twelve papers from scholars representing a number of Nonconformist traditions which invite reflection on Nonconformist contributions to biblical studies, theology, worship, evangelism, spirituality, and ecumenism during the twentieth century.

Sell’s own contribution, ‘The Theological Contribution of Protestant Nonconformists in the Twentieth Century: Some Soundings’, is an embryonic version of his 2006 Didsbury Lectures, published as Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century and reviewed here (I wish I’d noticed this before I was near the end of the chapter, although it was great to read over this material again). He again reminds us that Nonconformists are nothing if not diverse. Employing Dale’s summary on the question of the final fate of the impenitent, Sell writes:

The twentieth century provided Nonconformist theologians with both inner-family and external stimuli to theological endeavour. As the century opened the Wesleyans were earnestly debating the question of eternal life. The particular question at issue was the final fate of the impenitent. Discussion of this topic had been rumbling on at least since the eighteenth century, and R.W. Dale had specified the options in 1877. There are, he said, those who cannot make up their minds on the subject: ‘They cannot warn men against eternal condemnation, because they are not sure that any man will be eternally condemned.’ There are those who hold that the impenitent are to be condemned to suffering, whilst hoping that ‘there may be some transcendent manifestation of the Divine grace in reserve, of which as yet we have no hint.’ There are those who believe that the Christ who came to seek and to save the lost will persist in this effort even though, because of the invincibility of human freedom, it cannot be affirmed that all will in fact be saved. There are those who believe that God’s love cannot finally be thwarted, and hence all will finally be saved; those who hold that the impenitent will nevertheless enjoy an eternal life on a lower plane than the saved; and those who deny that the impenitent can finally be restored. (p. 36)

While all the studies are certainly erudite and deserving of comment, I wish here to identify a few for special mention. Norman Wallwork’s piece, ‘Developments in Liturgy and Worship in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’ is a helpful survey of the general issues and particular contributions that concern Nonconformist worship. The contributions of Unitarians, Free Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, the United Reformed Church, Congregational Federation, Baptists and are all attended too with care, and the Quakers, Methodists, Independent Methodists and Salvation Army are also considered. Wallwork writes:

Of all the Free Churches the Unitarians were the most given to textual revision of the Book of Common Prayer [no surprises here], but their demise included their destruction of the Trinitarian theology which undergirded the Anglican tradition. However, Martineau’s love of good liturgical language passed over into all the Free Churches not least into Congregationalism. The Free Church Catholic and ritualistic revival under Lloyd Thomas and Orchard was short-lived, but the prayers in Orchard’s Divine Service furnished other service books for over fifty years. The movement for liturgical renewal which hit the Free Churches in the 1960’s and created the Joint Liturgical Group produced some fine liturgical texts and created new service books centred on classical eucharistic texts, an increase in the frequency of communion, a shift to morning all-age celebrations, and a much greater emphasis on the Christian year. In the end, only the Methodists and the United Reformed Church would place a eucharistic rite in the hands of their congregations. In all the traditions worship leaders and preachers turned to a variety of available resources, often without the approval of any recognizable magisterium. The memory of revival songs from the Sankey and Moody era helped to secure a place for lively and spontaneous worship revived among the Free Churches, as in Anglicanism, by a new wave of charismatic prayer and praise and the new tradition of heavy ‘biblical teaching’ in Sunday worship. This movement had its strongest support among the Baptists and many of the original ‘Plymouth’ Brethren congregations who now renamed themselves ‘Evangelical Churches’. The influence of the High Genevan school of the English Reformed tradition was still seen in the liturgical texts of the United Reformed Church but much of its worship was dominated by the twin calls to inclusive all-age worship and to be relevant and engaged in issues of local and international justice. Several babies went out with the bath water. (pp. 130-1)

Other essays I particularly valued were David Bebbington’s, ‘Evangelism and Spirituality in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’, and ‘Protestant Nonconformist Attitudes towards the First World War’, by Alan Ruston. Ruston, who is editor of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, surveys how WWI witnessed Nonconformist churches becoming increasingly part of the establishment, particularly in attitude. They became, he writes, ‘an integral element within the political machine in almost the same terms as the established church. But flying into the sun in this way burnt their wings and like Icarus they fell to the sea. They did not drown like Icarus but the weakness engendered by the war remained with them for the rest of the century’ (p. 240). Ruston’s contribution to this volume is a powerful reminder of how voluntaryist assumptions about church, state and society inform Nonconformist contributions to religious, social and political life.

Those who identify themselves with the Nonconformist family, and those with an interest in (particularly early) Twentieth Century theology and history would be well served by reading this book.

Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century: A Review

Alan P.F. Sell, Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006). 239 pages. ISBN: 9781842274712. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

Readers already familiar with Professor Alan P. F. Sell’s writing will know that he is a meticulous researcher whose reading is extensive (much of the material cited is now well out of print), whose commitment to ecumenism is exemplary, whose love for, and devotion to, the nonconformist tradition is contagious, whose acumen for critically identifying contemporary theological trends is cultivated and well coached, whose affection for PT Forsyth – and the centrality of the Cross in Forsyth’s thought – is laudable, whose writing betrays not a few hours of pastorally-informed reflection, and whose ability to get to the heart of things with an elegant economy of words makes not a few of his readers (including me) jealous. If all these accolades are accurate, then this published set of Alan Sell’s 2006 Didsbury Lectures is classic Sell, and Nazarene Theological College is to be congratulated for extending the invitation to Professor Sell to give these four distinguished lectures; furthermore, Paternoster are to be saluted for continuing to publish the series of which these lectures form a part. Certainly, here Sell deservedly joins the ranks of some distinguished scholars.

Despite significant works by historians Clyde Binfield, Dale Johnson, David Bebbington, Mark Hopkins, and Jim Gordon, and the wonderful 4-volume series of Protestant Nonconformist Texts, Paternoster’s Studies in Evangelical History and Thought series, and numerous other works by Sell himself, it could still be argued that too little ink has been spilt in recent years exploring the enormously rich contribution that nonconformist theologians have made, and continue to make, to theological conversation and Church life. Sell’s book needs to be considered as one of many – and one of the best – that continue to fill a gap in this area.

Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century is broad in its scope, offering a well-textured balance of historical contextualisation, theological grappling, contemporary application, and anecdotal stories. Areas of divine providence, the New Theology (associated with RJ Campbell), baptism, Feminist Theology, Natural Theology, Process Theology, Calvinism, God’s Fatherhood, merely-Incarnational theology, the reception of Karl Barth into British theological conversation, and contemporary theological education all fall under Sell’s discerning gaze.

In the first lecture, Sell provides an erudite survey, a ‘bird’s-eye-view of the landscape’ (p. 38) of Protestant Nonconformist theology in the twentieth century, particular the century’s first half. The historical terrain, theological motifs, and ecclesiological realities, and their ongoing relevance for understanding and informing contemporary theological thought, debate and practice are all well covered in this chapter, which sets the tone for the remaining three.

Sell then turns in Lecture Two to the ‘doctrinal peaks’ of Christology (pp. 41–66), Pneumatology (pp. 66–71), the Trinity (pp. 71–84), and confessions of faith (pp. 84–89), attending fruitfully to each within their historical context while harnessing contributions from an enormous range of nonconformist theologians. Resisting the temptation to here rehearse multiple citations, I will offer just this one:

‘No Nonconformist theologian did more in the last two decades of the twentieth century to place the Trinity in the centre of theological debate than Colin Gunton. So all-embracing is his Trinitarian vision (an analogy might be drawn with the centrality of the Cross in the writings of P.T. Forsyth) that it is difficult to place him in a study of this kind’. (p. 81)

In the third chapter, Sell turns to discuss one of his great passions: ecumenism. Herein he seeks to address a number of questions: How did the mainline Nonconformist traditions understand themselves in the twentieth century? How did they reach out to one another and to more distant communions during the so-called ‘ecumenical century’? Is their traditional witness as Free Churchpeople still required, or even viable? Sell provides an at times provocative discussion on the relationship between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism (pp. 91–96), wherein he cites favourably the Congregationalist historian Bernard Lord Manning: ‘Protestantism … is not the opposite of medieval Catholicism: it is simply an improved kind of catholicism. Protestantism is not a negative thing. It is a positive re-statement of catholic truth’ (p. 93). True catholicity, Sell argues, is not found in a book, nor in a church, but in that true authority over book, Church and conscience – Jesus Christ, and the effectual word of his Cross, ‘to which the conscience owes its life’ (P.T. Forsyth, Rome, Reform and Reaction, 136). It is not here only that Sell walks abreast with Forsyth.

Professor Sell then accents the many published nonconformist studies on ecclesiology. It is a breathtaking reminder of the central place that ecclesiology has played in informing nonconformist theology, from John Oman to R. Newton Flew to Lesslie Newbigin and Daniel Strange. He notes that while all these contributors were not singing the same part, and ‘occasionally a faintly discordant note was struck’, they were ‘clearly singing in the same choir’ (p. 99), which is a fresh reminder of the breadth within the tradition. In more than one way were these theologians non-conformists.

With a newly sharpened pencil, this internationally known scholar of ecumenical studies turns our attention to ‘an abiding issue of global significance’ (p. 136): that of the historic episcopate. After noting that nonconformists are not simply Protestants but ‘Free Church people’, and as such have played significant roles in various ecumenical councils, he witily suggests that ‘the question for us now is whether there is any theological topic distinctive of Free Churches as a whole and not of one denomination only, on which the Nonconformists of England might be expected to speak with a united voice? Living alongside the only remaining Anglican established Church as they do, the obvious candidate is the establishment question’ (p. 136). Sell recalls that nonconformists have not been those who have denied the necessity of the state recognition of religion; ‘it was, after all, the state which accorded religious toleration’ (p. 137). Nonconformists have well understood the appropriateness of proper Church-state relations, but have (rightfully) questioned the very principal of a national church. Again, he cites Forsyth: ‘What we protest against is not the abuses but the existence, the principle, of a national church’. The very existence of a state church denies the Church’s catholicity. Again, Forsyth: ‘However Establishment may seem to work at a given time, the thing is wrong … For my own part, any doubt of the truth of our Nonconformist principles would mean doubt of the truth of what is most distinctive in Christianity itself – free faith, free action, and free giving, as the response of men who have been moved and changed and controlled by the free gift of God and grace in Jesus Christ’ (P.T. Forsyth, The Charter of the Church, 32). A state church is, as Congregationalist John Whale once noted, a ‘contradiction in terms’ (p. 139). Rightly suspicious of attempts towards dialogue in the past that were based on purely pragmatic principles, Sell looks hopefully towards the future, and towards those Anglicans and Free Church folk who are currently engaged in discussion about issues of establishment. He pleads: ‘May their outlook be ecumenical and their thoughts in the first place be theological’ (p. 144).

The final chapter, entitled ‘Rivers, Rivulets – and Encroaching Desert?’, turns our attention to eschatology, the atonement, and a collection of other themes that Sell identifies as important for understanding nonconformist theology, but have largely been overlooked in the preceeding chapters. He recollects that debates concerning the final fate of the impenitence were hotly contested, not least by Unitarians. Sell’s focus here is mainly on notions of universalism, annihilationism and the possibility of post-mortem probation. The discussion is fascinating, revealing again that there really is nothing new under the sun. I will limit myself here to one quotation. Sell introduces us to Sydney H. Mellone, Principal of Manchester Unitarian College, and his 1916 work Eternal Life Here and Hereafter. Mellone writes,

The assertion, sometimes made, that Universalism means in effect ‘it does not matter what we do, for we shall be all right in the end’ is unworthy of discussion. Universalism rests on the same foundation on which rests our belief in the eternity of goodness and truth in God … The ethical motive of belief in immortality means that compensation and retribution, to be real, must be redemptive. The religious motive means that final communion with God is the destiny of every soul, and not alone of those who know in this present by living experience what such communion is. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. (cited on p. 150.)

The chapter, and the book, concludes with Sell offering some hard hitting words as he critically reflects on the demise of the Church’s vocabulary, the integrity-eroding effects of political correctness on inter-faith dialogue, the revival of interest in the Trinity during the last 30 years, the side-lining of the atonement in the Church’s proclamation, the necessity for theologians to not merely speak ‘from faith to faith’ but to commend the faith to others, and the current state of theological education, particularly in England. On the latter, and in the same manner as his champion PT Forsyth, Sell argues that the Church desperately needs a more thoroughly trained clergy than it is currently receiving.

As a devoted churchman who served two pastorates in the United Kingdom from 1959 to 1968, and who has served internationally as a theological educator since, and so not unaware of the practical and financial hurdles that pastoral ministry candidates, their churches and their colleges are often forced to jump, Sell urges churches to take steps to ‘ensure that their younger candidates at least receive a full and rigorous academic course. If this means fewer visits to hospitals and prisons during a candidate’s college years, so be it; required in-service training for licensed probationers prior to ordination is not impossible to provide, and it is never more readily received than by those at the pastoral “coal face”.’ He continues,

I see no viable substitute for practitioners’ having a solid grounding in the Bible, a thorough acquaintance with the history of Christian thought (which is broader than historical theology, but includes both it and the linguistic competence to read salient texts), and sufficient philosophical-analytical skills to probe presuppositions, analyse arguments and avoid the writing of incoherent gobbledegook. None of this is achieved without real time and effort; and the churches would do well to encourage in all possible ways those ministerial candidates whose gifts take them in these directions, and whose academic lungs can withstand prolonged immersion in extensive and sometimes choppy waters (p. 191).

At times throughout the book, Sell makes claims that invite clarification and further comment. For example, he states that ‘there is a common defining essence underlying all genuine religious phenomena’ (p. 37). Does he have something like Otto’s notion of holiness in mind here [which I have written on here, here, here, here and here], or Feuerbach, or something else? I would have liked Sell to unpack this just a little. But this is really an insignificant squabble. More disappointing is the fact that Sell spills comparatively little ink on the second half of the century to which the title of his book flags. Apart from infrequent and brief discussions of the contributions of Paul Fiddes and Colin Gunton, by and large the lectures are heavily weighted towards the century’s first half which, to be fair, is by far where most of the material published by twentieth century nonconformist was birthed. As a consequence, the albeit scarcity of significant contributions from within Pentecostalism, the Brethren, Black churches, and independent evangelical churches are all but ignored. (This says more about the dearthly state of more recent nonconformist scholarship in England than it does about Sell’s treatment of the material.) Congregationalist, which receives the most attention, Baptist, Methodist and Unitarian contributions are, however, well represented. Some readers may also be disappointed that Sell limits his discussion to the nonconformist scene in England and, to some extent, in Wales. While a book that seriously took in any more would expand the book’s length considerably (and I think in this case with little profit), perhaps the title of the book could have been more revelatory here. That said, the book is no poorer for that.

The volume includes a helpful list of biographical references of some of the major personalities discussed in the lectures, as well as an impressive bibliography. Those concerned with the life and theological contribution of the nonconformist family specifically, and those interested in the shape that theology took in twentieth-century Britain more generally (and may be taking in this century) will be prodigiously served by reading this book. An encyclopedic, but accessible, study!