edited by John W. de Gruchy
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 281 pp. ISBN: 052158786
Why another book on Bonhoeffer? What is this fascination of systematic theologians with dead white (usually German) males? These were the immediate questions in my mind when I first received The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Though I am a great admirer of Bonhoeffer's thought and life, and also of John de Gruchy's work and life, the question still presses itself. The initial feeling is deepened by the list of contributors to this collection of essays: only one of the twelve is a woman, further underling the sense of an 'old boys club', some of the 'big names' from the International Bonhoeffer Society
John de Gruchy's preface addresses the question head on, explaining that this volume indicates Bonhoeffer's stature and significance at the end of the twentieth century and into the next. This work coincides with the publication of the sixteen volumes of all Bonhoeffer's writings. De Gruchy explains that the Companion intends to provide 'a guide for those who wish to explore the legacy of this remarkable pastor, theologian and martyr, and to discover some of the reasons he has such an attraction for many people in many different contemporary contexts'. This Companion offers excellent material for the first of these purposes and a good deal towards the second, though there is scant indication of the 'many different contemporary contexts'.
Notwithstanding, this is an excellent book and does indeed provide a valuable guide to anyone wanting an introduction to Bonhoeffer's life and thought. The work begins with the background situation: the context of Germany between the World Wars and the various influences of home, society and church. Then follow several essays outlining the general shape of Bonhoeffer's theology, and a helpful piece by de Gruchy in which he describes how that theology has been recognised and received around the world. Here perhaps is the most specific response to my opening question.
The work has been only lightly edited, it would seem. There is some repetition of themes or topics within and between the various essays (e.g., at pp. 42 and 43). There are also a number of inconsistencies within the descriptive, historical essays. F. Burton Nelson's account of Bonhoeffer's life gives different dates for his arrest, at pp. 40 and 42, while on p.44 Isaiah 53 is quoted as 33. These minor features indicate a deeper failing with the opening section, however; for the introduction makes little attempt to connect Bonhoeffer's life with this context, except to the movement known as the German Christians.
Bonhoeffer came from an aristocratic family. Their affluence, education and privilege issued in such things as an interest in atomic physics, at a time when most German people were desperate for a decent livelihood. This position of social privilege gave him the freedom to travel, to explore a great breadth of scholarship, ideas and cultures, and even as a pastor he could engage in a range of occupations and contexts. Nelson does suggest, in one paragraph on p.35, however, several ways in which this life-style 'intersected' with the cultural and political context and the tragedy of his people. More detailed development of this theme would have been helpful, especially as it could lead to a consideration of one of the most fascinating questions about the man: How was it that a person of such a background, so deeply steeped in the traditions of the church and his own culture, a person of such deep spirituality and enamoured with the ideas of non-violence and passive resistance, came to engage in a plot to kill Hitler? What shift in his spiritual and ethical perspectives brought him to this point?
Today, when ethical perspectives are in such a state of flux, when theologians and pastors are everywhere trying to take context seriously as a formative factor, these elements of Bonhoeffer's life and thought are perhaps the most significant and valuable. This book does indeed offer an answer to these questions, and that answer is the reason I think this 'dead white male' is an important guide for us. Unfortunately, however, the reader has to piece together this answer from a number of the essays. But at least the elements are there.
Bonhoeffer's theology and spirituality provided him with the resources to engage constructively with a context where all the known ethical and cultural paradigms were falling apart. He was committed to context, to 'worldliness' as he put it, but also to discipleship, indeed to worldliness as discipleship. In our own post-modern and 'post-Christian' situation, it is these elements of his ethics, spirituality, and the theology which undergirded them, which are the most valuable. I am not suggesting that Bonhoeffer was intentionally offering us a post-modern theology or ethic. I think we need to allow, perhaps a little more than some of these authors have done, that he was at times struggling between paradigms, and that he was not always right. Perhaps he was even confused at times, or inconsistent. The temptation to hagiography is always present in a volume such as this. But if the de-constructivist literary approaches are at all right, we can acknowledge that we do not always understand all of our situation and therefore we do not know all that we mean. Bonhoeffer's ethics, in particular, provide an example and a pathway for our own quest for contextual, Christian living.
Thus it is in the second part of the book, the essays on major themes in Bonhoeffer's theology, that I find most value. Clifford Green's 'Human sociality and Christian community' brings us to the heart of the matter: Bonhoeffer offers a theology in which being is comprehended as the 'act' or intentional situation of being-in-relationship. God is, by Gods self-creating choice, relational. This is both a social and an active concept of God: God is the holy community, of which the life of the church is an expression. From this fundamental insight, the ideas of spiritual life, discipleship, the critique of social structures and the re-valuing of the world as God's, and in due course the ethical perspectives which speak of Christ 'taking shape in the world', the radical demand of the 'ultimate' and the critique of the church's addiction to penultimate things, all flow.
Andreas Pangritz helpfully charts the development of Bonhoeffer's Christology, showing that his question from prison, 'Who is Christ, for us today?' was in fact the central concern of much of his earlier work. Several essays explore Bonhoeffer's approach to ethics: Keith Clements' 'Ecumenical witness for peace' - which is the one essay which offers a genuinely critical appraisal and suggests possible ambiguities and limitations in his approach; Haddon Willmer on 'Costly discipleship', Larry Rasmussen, 'The ethics of responsible action' and Peter Selby's 'Christianity in a world come of age'. There is some repetition between the latter two, but they focus on the central challenges and importance of Bonhoeffer's approach for us today. Rasmussen in particular identifies the elements of Bonhoeffer's understanding of 'the world' and his development from a doctrine of 'orders of creation' (an idea used to describe oppressive structures as divinely intended) to 'orders of preservation'. These elements express 'mandates', and it was precisely here that Bonhoeffer found that degree of freedom, moral freedom, which made resistance and indeed overthrow thinkable. If the structures of society do not serve to 'preserve' God's creation the mandates work against them, not for them.
Ruth Zerner's essay on 'the Jewish question' and Geffrey Kelly's on Bonhoeffer's spirituality are also insightful and helpful, though I shall not comment on them here.
In conclusion, this Companion is a very worthwhile read and one that every library should have. It is quite inexpensive, well presented, and will further enhance the study and appreciation of a great disciple of Jesus Christ. Even more, if may help others of us also to be followers of Christ.
edited by C. Seitz and K. Green-McCreight
(Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1999) 396pp. ISBN 0-8028-4198-8
This collection of essays, written by students and colleagues of Brevard Childs to mark his seventy-fifth birthday, reveals something of the way in which the scholarship and teaching of truly one of the great Old Testament scholars of our era has impacted on the thinking of others in a number of directions; indeed the enthusiasm for, and appreciation of, Childs' contribution to stimulating their thinking is repeatedly acknowledged by the contributors to this volume.
An initial tribute to Childs by the editors (pp. 1-3) emphasises his humility, his focus on obedience to God's word, the grounding of his work in rigorous exegesis, and yet at the same time the breadth of scope of his scholarship that ranged beyond the Old Testament into New Testament studies, history of interpretation, and theology, since in his thinking all these are interrelated. In line with the broad ranging nature of Childs' scholarship the articles that follow are very diverse, picking up on different aspects of his work in varying degrees. Their grouping into three sections - "Canonical Method" (four essays, pp. 3-72), "Canonical Method and the Old Testament" (nine essays, pp. 73-270), and "Canonical Method and the New Testament" (six essays, pp. 271-394) - though helpful, does not do justice to the complex variety of this collection. For example, of the essays grouped under "Canonical Method" only that of R. Harrisville (pp. 7-25) explores Childs' approach directly. G. Lindbeck (pp. 26-51), writing as a systematic theologian, focuses on hermeneutics. He situates Childs' work as one model beside two others that he sees as seeking to retrieve classical or pre-modern hermeneutics in a post-critical age. And P. McGlasson (pp. 52-74), somewhat at a tangent to Childs' work, picks up on the catchword 'canon' to present a rather dogmatic and opinionated evaluative history, based on his concept of a canonical context, of attempts by various theologians to theologise in context. The essays grouped under "Canonical Method and the Old Testament" take up different aspects of Childs' thinking, ranging from: an exploration of how the definition of canon has varied with the different communities down the ages and where they perceive authority to lie in relation to tradition (C. Patton, pp. 75-95); through studies of the history of interpretation of specific texts (G. Anderson re 1 Tim 2:14-15, pp. 96-123; L. Brisman re Exod 32:25-29, pp. 162-181); through exegetical and literary studies of the final form of texts (C. Seitz on Exod 3:1-4:17; 6:2-9, pp. 145-161; M. Smith on the books of Exodus and Numbers, pp. 182-207; C. McGinnis in 1 Samuel from an Ignatian perspective, pp. 240-270); through interpretation of specific texts in relation to other texts in the canonical context (R. Moberley on Deut 6:4-5 in relation to Deuteronomy, 2 Kings 22-23 and the New Testament, pp. 124-144; L. Lyke on the Song of Songs 4:12 - 5:1 in relation to Proverbs and Genesis, pp. 208-223); to an exploration, primarily on the basis of Ezekiel and particularly the oracles against Tyre and Egypt, of how language might be revelatory given Childs' view of the text as an instrument of encounter with God (E. Davis, pp. 224-239). And finally, the essays grouped under "Canonical Method and the New Testament", also incorporating various aspects of Childs' thinking, covers such topics as: criticisms that can be made of historical Jesus research if one takes a canonical approach (K. Greene-McCreight, pp. 273-198); an exploration of the benefits of an 'inclusive' approach to the text criticism of John 1:34 (P. Rodgers, pp. 299-305); a testing and critique of Childs' canonical criticism by correlating some of its principles with examples of patristic exegesis of John 10 (R. Greer, pp. 306-330); a study of the relationship between Acts 15 and Galatians 2 from a canonical perspective, ie. according to the New Testament editors of the final form (D. Trobisch, pp. 331-338); a theological interpretation of Paul's self-characterisation in Gal 1:10 - 2:21 and Philippians 3:2-17, that incorporates literary observations but goes beyond New Literary criticism in seeing this characterisation in light of the broader context of Paul's understanding of God's activity in Christ (S. Fowl, pp. 339-354); and finally, an essay in the area of systematic theology that explores the implications of a divided post-reformation church for pneumatology and its relationship to the interpretation of Scripture, given Childs' view that Scripture's meaning is exposed to the church through the operation of the Holy Spirit (E. Radner, pp. 355-394).
It must be said, however, that there is a certain unevenness in this smorgasbord of offerings, and it might be helpful to outline which articles seem to this reviewer to be particularly good and well worth reading.
In terms of understanding Childs' approach, the article by Harrisville (pp. 7-25) is excellent, capturing well what motivated Childs, what has influenced his thinking, the concerns at the heart of his work, and the solutions he came to in relation to these. In the area of an Old Testament exegesis that seeks to take seriously Childs' approach and concerns, Moberley's study of the 'shema' in Deut 6:4-5 (pp. 124-144) presents a solid and illuminating analysis of the meaning of this text from a canonical perspective, situating it in the context of the book of Deuteronomy, 2 Kings 22-23, and the New Testament in order to interpret it as a text of Jewish and Christian Scripture and as expressing a theological truth. Along a similar line, but in relation to the New Testament, Fowl's article on Paul's self-characterisation (pp. 339-354) also captures well Childs' concern to seek the theological meanings of texts and to interpret them within the broader canonical context, in this case that of Paul's view of the activity of God in Christ. Smith's article (pp. 182-207) that seeks to interpret the final form of Exodus and Numbers which he sees as P redaction is not only in line with Childs' emphasis on the present text whilst also recognising redaction levels but is also insightful theologically and his interpretation of the text is very strongly argued on the basis of details in the text. Trobisch's interpretation of Acts 15 and Galatians 2 as they are presented in the final form (pp. 331-338) also presents an interesting perspective in the spirit of Childs' concerns. In the area of the history of interpretation, another one of Childs' interests, Anderson's presentation of the history of interpretation of 1 Tim 2:14-15 concerning Eve's deception - by fourth and fifth century scholars and in the works of Milton and Michelangelo - is illuminating, arguing that in these interpretations Adam is seen as just as guilty as Eve because of how the canon was used, such that Romans 5 took precedence over 1 Timothy as well as a process of synthesising of views taking place at the same time. Along a different line, but still in the area of the history of interpretation, Greer's article correlating and showing the differences between Childs' canonical exegesis and examples of exegesis from patristic times (pp. 306-330) is well argued and offers an interesting direction for further reflection on the canonical approach. Childs' concerns in his canonical approach are brought out well by Green-McCreight on the quest for the historical Jesus (pp. 273-298), as seen in her advocation, over against this endeavour, of taking the nature of the gospels seriously on their own terms, according to their own scope and orientation, ie. as canonical witnesses to Jesus Christ in which the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history cannot be separated. And finally, Childs' emphasis on the text as an instrument of encounter with God, and his concern in his canonical approach to hold together what is ultimate with concrete historical expression (the descriptive and constructive elements of biblical interpretation) is taken in a creative and insightful direction in Davis' exploration of mythical and metaphoric discourse in the book of Ezekiel (pp. 224-239) in which she argues that the former is exposed as idolatrous and the latter is seen to be the most accurate way of speaking about God, thus shedding light on the nature of revelatory language.
Although the standard of articles varies, the contributions made, and in particular those singled out here, form a fitting tribute to a truly great scholar and inspiring teacher who, as evidenced well in many of these articles, always asks the larger theological questions of the biblical text and has encouraged others to do so - something that inevitably leads to the sort of eclecticism and interdisciplinary exploration reflected here.
edited by Christopher Duraisingh
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 1998) 234 pp. ISBN 2-8254-1235-X
Any book that purports to describe the experience and findings of a conference is confronted with the challenge of communicating the essence and spirit of an event to readers who were not there. This challenge is acknowledged by the editor of this volume on the eleventh ecumenical conference on world mission and evangelism (CWME) held at Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, from 24th November till 3rd December 1996. He states that 'no printed report could ever fully capture the tone or texture of such a gathering nor adequately portray the depth of encounter among the participants'. Nonetheless, an event as important in the life of the Christian churches as this conference needs to be recorded as an instrument for ongoing study, reflection, ecumenical dialogue and conversation with the diverse cultures in which Christians seek to live and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus.
The book's foreword and preface provide brief (and therefore helpful) insight into the background of the conference and the organisation of the book. The two essays in Part I take us to the beginning of the actual conference. Most helpful is the sociological analysis of official conference participants according to number (400), geography (98 countries - further indicated according to global regions) and denomination. Statistics are also presented on lay (versus ordained) and women representation (both 43%), youth (16%), Orthodox (22%). We are also introduced to the politics of membership: for example the 29 Roman Catholic participants included a 10-person delegation named by the Vatican. Indigenous people were represented (22). There were almost two hundred non-officials present including journalists, observers, seminarians and conference staff. All this provides the reader with some 'feel' for the texture of the event.
The organisation of Part II - the major section of the book in terms of length and content-leaves something to be desired in terms of structural clarity. This is ever a pitfall for books including conference proceedings. Essentially, Part II is overloaded with official conference pronouncements, reports from four conference sections, and papers of ten presentations divided according to conference themes. Nevertheless, the persevering reader will find a host of challenging and insightful reflections on the relationship between gospel and culture. The best of these is to be found in a number of theme addresses written from the vantagepoint of specific cultural reflections: Russian, African, European; Australian Aboriginal; Brazilian; Jamaican; Indian; Afro-American.
Controversial issues raised in the two keynote addresses and other essays include syncretism, proselytism, cultural imperialism, religious pluralism, inter-cultural dialogue, and partnership versus competitiveness in mission. Needless to say, none of these issues is resolved or even dealt with in a systematic fashion. However, one need only read Metropolitan Kirill's discussion of mission and proselytism to hear his voice of accusation against this latest chapter of 'unrestrained assault from the West' with its ensuing 'ecumenical disaster'. Such moments of passion and challenge are in marked contrast to the restrained synthesis of views presented elsewhere. They are good to read if only to make us realise that the one hope, one gospel and one mission remain an ideal rather than a reality for the Christian churches.
Part III concludes the book with four essays reflecting on the experience of Salvador and its implications. If nothing else, one should read the final chapter, Salvador: A Signpost of the New Mission. Here the editor expresses the view that Salvador 'marks a shift in mission and practice from colonial to post-colonial and from Eurocentric to polycentric'. A number of implications are identified: evangelism needs to occur within each and every culture; mission will continue to occur in the context of ethnic violence and identity politics; the life and mission of local congregations will occur in increasingly pluralist societies; the need for commitment to common witness and the associated renunciation of proselytism. Most important is the recognition that there will continue to be diverse expressions of the gospel which require ongoing ecumenical and inter-cultural dialogue. This is the most erudite, academically rigorous and intellectually stimulating essay of the book.
Christians of all persuasions and confessions could well read this book with profit. Certainly, it is not an altogether easy book to read because of its nature as a record of conference proceedings. However, only those who completely set themselves apart from the shared struggle of the Christian churches to identify the gospel within diverse cultures will be left wondering as to its relevance for what Christian mission means today.
Douglas J. Brouwer
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) ix, 177 pp. ISBN 0802846211
This readable, challenging and informative book grew out of a sixteen week series of sermons the author gradually developed from his preaching as a Presbyterian pastor. The pressing question which motivated Brouwer to write the book was 'when we find ourselves up against life's toughest challenges, will the content of our faith be adequate to answer our questions? Do we know enough of the basics even to start asking these questions?'(p 4.)
Brouwer sets out to describe the Christian faith in broad terms, so that Christians may examine what they believe and consider how relevant it is for today, and how much it sustains the believer in everyday life and crises. In fourteen fairly succinct chapters he systematically addresses the basic tenets of Christian doctrine, that is General and Special Revelation, the three Persons of the Trinity, the Atonement, the Church, Sanctification, the Sacraments, the Trinity, Eschatology and the Incarnation.
Brouwer's method is to draw on 'people of faith' from the past, that is to learn from those who have already thought deeply about the faith and consider contemporary comment and analysis. Unashamedly writing from his Reformed position in which he has been raised and nurtured, Brouwer nevertheless draws from a wide range of sources to unfold the description, history and discussion of each doctrine. While due acknowledgment is given to John Calvin as the major influence in his tradition Brouwer includes excerpts from a wide variety of creeds, confessions and catechisms. (eg. the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Study Catechism and the Nicene Creed). In addition the text is peppered with quotations from an extensive range of theologians, writers and poets such as John Donne, John Milton, Robert Louis Stevenson, Augustine, St Ambrose, Dante, William Cowper, Christina Rosetti, John Wesley, Albert Schweitzer, Karl Barth, William Temple, T.S. Eliot , Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis.
As Brouwer's aim is for Christians to see their faith as relevant in the present world he goes on in each chapter to introduce a range of contemporary writers and theologians (Reformed, Presbyterian, Catholic and Lutheran ) sharing their insights, comments and current analysis of the particular doctrine in question.. These include child psychiatrist Robert Coles, sociologist Peter Berger, scientist Michael Behe, and theologians Eugene Peterson, Donald McCullough, Shirley Guthrie Daniel Migliore and Stanley Hauerwas.
While the book is written in an almost chatty conversationalist style which engages the reader easily it is by no means a superficial or narrow book. It is not an apology or a defence but an factual unfolding of the major Christian beliefs and practices as they originally presented, which, despite many developments and cultural accretions, he seeks to demonstrate are still relevant in today's world. The frequent quotations are scattered throughout the text in eye-catching boxes which do not distract from the text but add interest and information in their own right at appropriate points. The contribution of contemporary theologians and writers is discussed within the text. This method allows the combination of historical source and contemporary commentary to be integrated by the reader in a manageable fashion.
Brouwer's style is very respectful, never ridiculing the views which are not in agreement with his stance. His summing up of each doctrine is credible and persuasive in its clarity and simplicity, with which the reader is free to agree or disagree rather than be pressurised. Whatever the individual response the most likely is to be motivated to read further and explore in more depth at least one of the doctrines.
Each chapter ends with a set of questions for further study and reflection which both extends the reader and makes this book ideal for a study group or class discussion.
A minor criticism is the lack of chapter numbers, index , reference details and chapter notes of the many sources quoted which could cause some frustration for the reader stimulated to follow up the quotations. A bibliography for further reading does redress this lack to some extent.
The author set out to provide a broad view of basic Christian beliefs and in this I would say he is successful. He steers a middle path between being too heavily academic or too simplistic. He manages to combine a wide range of detail, information, scholarship and comment into a very readable format, tackling the major questions of the faith. No contemporary Christian could fail to be well informed of what traditional Christian doctrine comprises and to be convinced at least from their point of view that it is still perfectly valid for today. For those who would resist such a particular tradition they could not be offended but at least be able to affirm that such a position is feasible, and perhaps even accurate.
For these reasons Remembering the Faith is an ideal group study book, a source for a series of introductory talks on the Christian faith for seekers or new believers, an ideal text for any group involved in teaching the young, such as youth group leaders, Scripture teachers in schools or Sunday School teachers. It would also be a very useful text or book to read and review in any tertiary class seeking to offer students a basic introduction to the Christian faith such as in Religious Studies or Australian Cultural Studies.
Remembering how a wide range of South African political leaders from every point of the continuum eventually reached an acceptable point of consensus in voting for democracy through dialogue and sharing and listening to each other's stories, perhaps Remembering the Faith could be a tool in ecumenical discussion - or to get down to the bare bones do what the Naked Chef did for cooking and play the role of the Naked Theologian by getting rid of unnecessary accretions to rediscover the full savour of the original.
(New Yor:, Paulist Press,1999) 144Ppp. ISBN 0809138549
Edwards offers a valiant essay and comprehensive knowledge of contributors in this field. Edwards writes clearly and movingly in attractive prose. Edwards asks "How can we think of the God of Jesus as a God who creates through a process that involves random mutation and natural selection?(p.14) Edwards's rich insight is to search in John's gospel and Richard of St. Victor for an answer. Edwards finds in John the most developed theology of the threefold divine presence. "the Paraclete becoming present to the disciples, Jesus returning to the disciples, and the Father along with Jesus coming to indwell the disciples . . . So the love of Jesus and the Father in the Spirit, is a dynamic relational life of mutual indwelling, which reaches out to embrace us, catching us up in the open circle of divine love." From Richard of St Victor Edwards argues that the supremely good God has to be the supreme expression of self-transcending and mutual love, and that in the Trinity real love does not remain with the two but wants to share love with another, the 'condilectus', 'the common friend'. Edwards finds "mutual friendship is the fundamental principle from which all creatures spring." And one can proceed by this analogical notion of human friendship to understand the causation of the universe as personal, relational and communal.(24) Once finding God as relational, Edwards suggests that it follows that the fundamental nature of all reality is relational.
Edwards notes Zizioulas' finding that the Cappadocian "insight is that 'the being of God is a relational being….is communion…'" and that "communion is not a notion added to the divine substance, or something that follows substance." So, with Zizioulas Edwards affirms that "communion rather than substance is the fundamental ontological concept…reality springs from Persons-in-Relation." "Nothing is conceivable as existing only by itself. There is no true being without communion" (26-27). Edwards finds other authors Kaspar and La Cugna, agree: one is led to conceive of "'reality in which person and relation have priority'"(Kaspar); and for La Cugna "an ontology proper to the God of the economy of salvation ' understands being as being-in-relation not being-in-itself.' "While Edwards points to "an infinite difference between created being-in-relation and the divine communion", Edwards yet points to a linkage between them, "what continuous creation means is that created being-in-relation always springs from, depends upon, and in a creaturely way participates in, the being of divine Persons-in-Relation" (28). Biology, Edwards claims, suggests a world of cooperative, coadaptive, symbiotic and ecological relations, supporting a view that nature is fundamentally relational. Biology and theology both indicate a view of reality in which relationships have a primary place. Trinitarian theology and ecological biology can meet in an ontology, which understands the being of things as being-in-relation. Here is the fundamental and attractive thesis of Edwards's contribution in this book.
Edwards proposes as a basic tenet that we necessarily locate God in our images and concepts: even though we know of God's transcending both these and all our notions of space and time, we yet place God somewhere in relation to the universe. Edwards argues for "another image less inadequate": namely "that the universe can be understood as unfolding 'within' the Trinitarian relations of mutual love." And "The events of creation and redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ can be understood as taking place within the eternal dynamic life of the divine Persons." And Edwards notes von Balthasar adopts this approach.(30) Edwards joins with Moltmann in "that we need to think of the creation of the universe as involving a 'withdrawal' of God to make space for creation". (32) Edwards is drawn to a relational theology, and this has to be one in which " God becomes vulnerable"(40). And "it requires omnipotence to be able to take oneself back in the giving and to preserve the independence and freedom of the recipient." Edwards defines God's omnipotence as this kind of power, the capacity to give and to receive love. Edwards moves to correct a notion of a God who can do absolutely anything.(41)
But one may ask Zizioulas is it more accurate to speak of being in communion rather than speak of substance. Arian debate led Athanasius de facto to refine out the spatio-temporal in a term 'consubstantial', homoousios, that in fact meant that "all that is said of the father is said of the son, except the name father". Lonergan notes that this "rule" of Athanasius refers not to images, but only to concepts and to judgments. "Not only does this rule prescind from all images; there is nothing imaginable in which it can be grasped or understood." (Way to Nicea,1972, p.103). The Cappadocians only came to their clear new understanding of how the three persons were truly distinct by mutual relationship of origin, by their reflection upon the consubstantiality of the three, as one example shows "…We discover distinction of the hypostases; but in respect of such attributes as infinite, incomprehensible, uncreated, … there is no variation in the life-giving nature …of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In them …a kind of continuous and indivisible community of nature...while there is no empty interval separating them, for the mind to traverse. There is nothing inserted between them; nothing subsisting besides the divine nature, as to be able to divide that nature from itself, by the interposition of alien matter; nor any interval of vacuum, without subsistence, such as to make a gap in the internal harmony of the divine substance, and break the continuity by the interpolation of a void."(Basil ep.38.3,4 in Bettenson H. Ed., Later Christian Fathers,1970 p.80). Also here one notes how the Cappadocians remove clearly any spatio-temporality from the uncreated interrelating of the three persons.
So Nicene and Cappadocian theological reflection was moving, and had to do so, in controversy on the scriptural text and liturgical practice, to more scientific language in order to deal with further questions on the data of Scripture and tradition. Richard of St. Victor and the Scholastics undertook systematic inquiry and in a more thoroughgoing organised systematic way and language. May one suggest that the language of the everyday and the language of the forged systematic inquiry are both valid. Yet the ideas and terms of each inquiry are not to be confused, and when used in a way proper to each distinct inquiry are equally valid. And also, one may ask however, in thoroughgoing systematic study, can one without scientific language that is properly universal, avoid imaginatively incorporating the human spatio-temporal events into the non spatial eternal triune processions?
Edwards's research offers a wealth of acquaintance with modern theology. He is able to bring together rich insights of Rahner, Teilhard and Moltmann. He can call upon many theologians of different religious confessions and notice a common interest and inquiry. This is a laudable contribution. Edwards offers valuable insights into original sin and into the compatibility of creation and evolution. Edwards provides a wealth of illuminative understanding upon the operation of the Holy Spirit. (99-100) And "Jesus Christ is the absolute guarantee that the ultimate self-transcendence of creation into God will succeed"(106). And the Risen Jesus - Wisdom becomes a power transforming the whole of creation"(121).
Richard Bauckham & Trevor Hart
(London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1999) 233pp. ISBN 0-232-52284-7
Those acquainted with the theology of hope and with the work of Jurgen Moltmann will have met with radical readings of Christian eschatology in those places. As an exponent of Moltmann's theology ( see R. Bauckham (1995) The Theology of Jurgen Moltmann. 1999 & (ed.) God Will be All in All: The Eschatology of Jurgen Moltmann), Richard Bauckham is well-placed to write on the subject. The reader is understandably curious about how he and Trevor Hart will approach the subject of Christian eschatology in contemporary context.
While liberation theology attempted to free theology from aspects of the strangleholds of both orthodox theology and philosophy, this work thinks against the grain of postmodern culture as well. It brings us right up to date to the eve of the 'new millennium', beginning with a discussion of the excitement over celebrations prepared for its arrival. An interesting discussion on calendars and the various conceptions of time to which these give rise, introduces the themes that follow - including the nature of history, historical imagination and imaginaries of various kinds, especially the imaginary, and myth of progress, the language of eschatology and its relationship to the imagination, biblical images of hope and finally, the impact of eschatology on the world and on our present lives.
The hype on the approach of the new millennium (and who could have avoided it?) in 1999 and the significance attributed to it draws attention to the contemporary psyche and to the ways in which we have thought about time. The authors note that not only is the sense of 'nearly unprecedented epochal meaning in the year 2000 ... a trick our own calendrical magic is playing on us' (2), but that the very practice of thinking in centuries 'coincides with the dominant myth by which the modern age has lived', viz the myth of inevitable and unlimited human improvement (7). At the end of the last millennium, in the fin de siecle mood of the 1890's, there was an assessment of the progress of civilisation, but this occurred against a background of optimism. For us at the dawn of 2000, the process of assessment is ambivalent because we have begun, not only to doubt progress, but also to see it as threatening. Yet, in spite of this paradigm shift, the sense of significance of the end of a millennium is still imaginatively and psychologically driven by this myth. Though drained of life, we don't know what to put in its place.
Can we manage without meaningful hope for the future? Can we simply celebrate the millennium as a postmodern game? How does Christian eschatology interface with all this, both with the idea of progress and with its decline? The authors 're-source' Christian hope in the light of such questions by drawing upon the resources of the biblical promises of God in order also to restore its 'irreducibly imaginative' nature (xiv).
This is a rich book and it offers an inspiring response to both the postmodern context and to postmodern philosophical critiques of modernity. While, as the authors say, Christian faith can join in the critique of the myth of progress, especially the horror created in its name and while it joins in the plea for the oppressed and for the other, it also refuses to be locked into deconstructionist suspicion which ultimately paralyses and disempowers. This discussion points to the part that hope can play in response to the impasse, and to the postmodern tendency to view Christianity as another oppressive metanarrative. While the myth of progress suppressed the horrors of history by 'homogenising' its events through an imagined line of continuity, postmodernism which is a self-proclaimed culture of hopelessness amounts to no more than an effete 'nothing' that leaves the world unchanged. Hopelessness is unethical because it leads to inertia and irresponsibility. Human beings being what they are, hopelessness feeds despair and saps imaginative energy. One is reminded of the threat of 'The Nothing' in the film/book, The Neverending Story that advances against the forces of the imagination. Hope, on the other hand, fights such apathy and the nothingness created by the postmodern 'labyrinth of endless play' which absolutises the present, but goes nowhere. The retreat into our private televisual and computerised virtual realities which we can programme and control to our own delight and advantage ultimately leads to alienation and to a reduction of otherness. It is ironic that postmodernism itself can be charged with the likely eventual loss of the other, 'the one who confronts us and who places us under some irreducible ethical obligation as fellow human beings' because the cyberworld eliminates 'real' contact with 'real' otherness. Hope, in contrast to that is a decision against inertia on behalf of oneself and of the other.
Hope thus rejects the relativism of postmodernism but it also eschews the fundamentalism that is often the response to our uncertain times. Against fundamentalist and literal readings of eschatology which purport to give us certain predictions about the future, hope introduces another logic, the 'logic of imagination' (85) by which the present 'is transfigured by being configured differently' (86). The imagination extends the conditions and the range of possibilities of the present moment backwards and forwards in accordance with a body of known evidence. Eschatological hope, however, extends the imagination still further because its obvious other-worldliness posits 'a ditch, a discontinuity, a break between the fundamental patterns of reality as we know it and the shape of God's promised future in which all things are "made new"' (88).
In a helpful discussion on the nature of the language of eschatology and the genre of fantasy (as well as the interesting distinction between fantasy and 'the marvellous'), Bauckham and Hart show how Christian eschatological literature 'seeks to express the awkward recognition that God's promised future both is and is not like the present, both continuous and discontinuous with it, such is the radical nature of its essential newness' (95). Literal readings, on the other hand, ignore this bid for otherness and transcendence and for the real influence of God's future in our midst. But it is in the Resurrection of Jesus that God's 'disruption' of the present world 'reaches its climax and its decisive point' and points to the fact that 'All that exists is characterised by transience and the movement toward its own eventual demise. Nothing finally endures' (103). More than any other event, the Resurrection of Jesus 'scandalises and turns our view of the whole of reality upside-down. If we admit its reality then it leaves nothing the same' (103). In this light, literal, fundamentalist readings of eschatology are a failure of the eschatological imagination because they are thinking based on immanent possibilities. They are also a failure of mature faith in failing to acknowledge (literally!) the power of God to make all things new.
This point is reinforced by the long and enjoyable chapter on the various images of hope in the Bible. The discussion here reveals the freshness and radical newness of eschatological realities. For example, the section on Resurrection rejects the idea that eternal life is a temporal line extending forwards from the moment of death, 'but as a new kind of temporality into which the whole diachronic extent of a person's life is in some way taken through healing and transformation...' (126). There is both continuity and discontinuity, a paradox that cannot be explained by a modern understanding of biological development but it is reality that is left mysteriously in God's hands. The consideration of biblical images of hope strains our immanent, empiricist, 'flat' epistemologies, calling for an active epistemology that brings together the knower and what is known and anticipated in the known. For hope reminds us that the Christian story is not one that we 'possess' but one in which we dwell. Here there can be no claim to ultimacy or closure for, in the light of God's future, the 'here-and-now' while 'real', is 'opened to transcendence' (197). Hope is thus a 'negative capability' which, in the midst of the jaggedness and aporias of life, holds on to what is promised both as a reality and as an ultimate mystery.
This book is a rewarding read and an important contribution to Christian self-understanding in contemporary times.
..... As Christians, then, we are not limited to a hope which simply imagines something which is, as yet, notable by its absence. In and through our imagining of it, and in and through the presence and agency in our midst of the Spirit who raised Jesus from death, we actually experience what we hope for, albeit only in part and under the form of the things of this world. But in this way we are empowered to live history differently. In our experiences of this same Spirit 'God himself is present in us', and 'we are possessed by a hope which sees unlimited potentialities ahead, because it looks to God's future. The heart expands. The goals of hope in our own lives, and what we ourselves expect of life, fuse with God's promises for a new creation of all things. (199)
Winifred (Wing Han) Lamb
Alister E. McGrath
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn. 1998) Ix, 538pp. ISBN 0-521-62481-9
A contemporary theological book which goes through two reprints in a decade has clearly filled a significant role. Such is the case with McGrath's volume, now issued in a second edition (in one paperback volume instead of two hardbound ones). It is a significant work, both in filling a lacuna in (western) historical theology, and also in making its own contribution to theological reflection. The bibliography of McGrath's own publications reveals that the first edition was the result of a decade's sustained interest in, and work on, almost every conceivable aspect of the topic. If I were to express disappointment, it would be that the opportunity for revision which a second edition offers has not been taken up nearly as much as would have been helpful.
The most outstanding aspect of this book is the care taken to expound a wide range of theologians fairly, often leading to a brief explanation of common misreadings. Particular attention is paid to the variety of medieval schools: McGrath is keen to correct populist distortions of key thinkers - Ockham, Biel, and the various stages of Franscican, Lutheran and Puritan thought, for example. He is exemplary is tracing the continuities between the medieval and Reformation ages, and between the various Protestant orthodoxies and the modern period. He thus discloses the similarities in the struggles about understanding grace, predestination, justice and righteousness within various traditions. This treatment thus (unintentionally?) serves to undergird the truth that divisions deepen as new questions are faced, with new strategies developed by churches in isolation from one another - but more on that later.
McGrath writes very clearly, and his argument is readily followed. Yet two aspects of his language could well have been improved in the second edition. First, the use of male-gendered terms generically in a 1998 book will set many readers' teeth on edge - Chapter 1 opens, for example, by saying that "reconciliation has been effected between God and sinful man". Interestingly, this usage is most prominent in the first and last two chapters, in which English is the main language of the technical discussion: when Latin predominates, the individual and corporate meanings (and so non-generic) of '(hu)man' seem to take care of themselves more readily.
Secondly, original citations (of which there are rightly many) are not translated. A reader without Latin will struggle to follow some parts of the argument, while German (and a little Italian and Spanish) is useful for the final chapter. It is a pity that this was not attended to in the revision, or key phrases at least translated in the text. Some are given in a 'glossary', but it could have been much larger. Sometimes, later discussions explain terms introduced earlier (notably via moderna, debate about which is given an excellent discussion in sections 17-18 after many earlier mentions). Some English terms such as 'analytic' and 'synthetic', which have a variety of technical meanings, could well have been included.
As the subtitle implies, the volume is organised historically. Chapter 1 addresses preliminary issues of definition and language, making a distinctive contribution to a familiar aspect of the topic. Chapter 2 discusses "the fountainhead: Augustine of Hippo". It soon becomes clear that the subject is both predominantly western (Tertullian on arbitrium gets most pre-Augustinian space), and wider than the 'doctrine' of justification (a sixteenth-century notion). If I had one complaint about this most useful analysis, especially on 'will', it is that the change in context denoted by the beginnings of 'Christendom' is not considered. This failure to consider social context, a general lack in the work, could have been remedied in a second edition without too much more work.
Chapters 3-4 are brilliantly clear expositions of developments in soteriology in the medieval period. Though having a reasonable familiarity with the notions of will, grace and justification, I found the discussion of these to be immensely clarifying. The treatment of 'merit' is particularly well done, and I learnt a good deal from the delicate distinctions made between the Dominican, Augustinian and early and later Franciscan schools. The brief Chapter 5, however, while making the interesting claim that there are no 'forerunners' to the Reformation understanding of justification, repeats the last part of chapter 4, and the first part of chapter 6. Presumably it was the 'seam' for the two-volume work - it could well have been integrated into the surrounding chapters in the second edition.
Chapter 6 works carefully through Luther and Lutheranism, then the Reformed heritage. McGrath distinguishes beautifully between what mattered to Luther himself, and what was important in Lutheranism, by a year-by-year analysis of his writings. Likewise, his explanation of the familiar controversies surrounding Osiander, Major and synergism, and the various Reformed approaches to divine sovereignty, seemed to me to clarify these issues in the briefest space possible. The chapter ends with a first-rate analysis of the changes brought by Pietism, an analysis which makes a useful bridge to chapter 9, the 'modern period'.
The intervening chapters discuss Trent and England respectively - to me, an unusual order. The lead-up to Trent is worked through usefully, including a short account of the Italian 'Evangelists', who were new to me. After discussing the 'schools' present, we are taken step-by-step through key changes made to the Council's wording about duplex or unica righteousness, leading to an interesting and important conclusion: the variety within the Roman communion was not stifled by Trent (cf. the later debates over Baius, Jansen and Molina), but the parameters about justification and related matters were more closely set than previously. This is important in setting the stage for contemporary ecumenical rapprochement.
The 'legacy of the English reformation' receives surprisingly short shrift - just 13 pages! Cranmer et alia are dismissed rather peremptorily, as mere derivatives - even Hooker initially. More interest is shown in arguing that a reversion to a 'factitive' view took place among a small group of Caroline divines. Later we see why McGrath is concerned to show this: in going to discuss Newman (14 pages!) he argues that the latter's via media depends on seeing this small group as representative, when in fact they were not. In demolishing Newman, McGrath gives Hooker more attention - and in the process gives the most helpful account of Luther in the book (p 315). Whatever the thinness of treatment in regard to the English reformers, that given to the Puritans is first-rate, and every Anglican would do well to read McGrath's devastating response to Newman.
The final chapter covers a lot of ground - 1690 to the present! - and should have been divided in the second edition, as will become clear. It opens with the neat and persuasive thesis that Pietism gave way to Enlightenment on the Continent, whereas in England (via Wesley) it was the other way around - and this goes a long way to explaining the subsequent differences (though Wesley's distinctive approach to soteriology is touched only in passing). After noting deistic 'critiques', Kant and Schleiermacher are well handled (if more densely than usual for McGrath), and Ritschl receives a critically sympathetic hearing: McGrath is very deft in his discussion of this 'modern' continental theological world, as much as in his analysis of the medieval one. We are then thrust into Barth, the last theologian to be discussed. Here I sensed that McGrath was less 'at home', and I began to resist his analysis for the first time - but perhaps I need to re-read Barth!
A brief discussion of justification as a hermeneutical principle (Heidegger, Bultmann, Tillich) brings us to where the first edition ended (if I have read the Preface aright). Two new sections follow. First is a discussion of recent Pauline scholarship (Sanders and co), which seemed to me to rely more on summaries made by others than on the debate itself. It is followed by a glowing review of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue on justification, emphasising that they had agreed to differ honestly. McGrath fails, however, to mention the recent agreement between them - leading to a signed rapprochement between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Fellowship on Reformation Day last year, but announced before the publication date of the book. This raises questions about his analysis of the earlier Lutheran-RC dialogue.
McGrath follows up on 'ecumenical debates' with a brief and rather dismissive account of ARCIC's work, Salvation and the Church. Here I find it hard to be objective, as a member of that dialogue group. It is chided for not discussing the 'formal cause' of justification: this was clearly a key element in the 16-17th debates, but - as this book itself shows - it rapidly ceased to be a 'communion-dividing' issue, as debate continued within the churches following division. Further, 'formal cause' is nowhere mentioned in Anglican formularies: ARCIC only works with documented differences between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. One gets the feeling that McGrath is more at home in the more deliberately theological world of the Continent and its USA derivatives than in the milder climes of England.
The ending of this excellent book was thus to me its most unsatisfactory part. And here it is important to note some omissions, attention to which could have led to a new chapter dealing with the 20th century.
On the Protestant side, neither P. T. Forsyth (who emphasised the justification of God) nor G.C. Berkouwer (apart from one footnote reference to his work on Barth) are given attention, though (at least in my opinion) their work significantly and helpfully influences English and Reformed thinking.
Biblically, no mention is made of the developed approaches to 'metaphor', characteristic especially of feminist approaches to the New Testament. 'Justification' and 'sanctification' are here seen as metaphors drawn from different areas of life, but referring to the same reality, rather than to different 'stages' (whether logical or chronological): Peter Toon's book using this approach has long been a 'standard' seminarian text.
Further, the growing realisation that justification has profound links with justice is passed over: liberationist theologians have long argued this, to the point where the connection is readily accepted at 'popular' level. Perhaps this reflects the book's failure to relate shifts in doctrinal emphases to changes in social context.
And the issues raised by the Pentecostal phenomenon - especially about 'preparation', that much-debated post-Tridentine notion! - are not mentioned, despite considerable discussion in Reformed circles over the past two decades.
In sum, McGrath's book has many, many virtues. It brings together in one sustained way the 'story' of the soteriology of the western Church, and does so for the first time. The second edition is welcome - but a more adequately revised and updated third edition would be even more so!
edited by Christopher Rowland
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) xvii, 260 pp. ISBN 0521467071
In 1971 Gustavo Gutierrez published in Spanish A Theology of Liberation. The book was quickly translated and first appeared in English in 1973. Its stated purpose was 'to let ourselves be judged by the Word of the Lord, to think through our faith, to strengthen our love, and to give reason for hope from within a commitment which seeks to become more radical, total, and efficacious'. In the brevity of this statement we glimpse something of the complexity and breadth of liberation theology, we find a hint of why it has fired the imagination of people over the last thirty years, and we begin to understand why it has evoked so much discussion and controversy. Liberation theology has been one of the most dynamic movements in theology over this period, and has developed well beyond the countries of Latin America. It gave birth to many concrete strategies to make real the church's option for the poor. It has been accused of being Marxist, and even communist. It challenged governments of all persuasions as well as the giants of the corporate world and the architects of the global economy. And, it is probably true to say, it split the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in Latin America. Yet, the poor are increasing in number rather than declining, and many people are now opting for a more comfortable form of religion. Questions about liberation theology thus quickly spring to mind: Is it now a spent force, having lost the battle both in the church and the world? Has it been economically, socially and politically naïve? Does it have sufficient intellectual grounding to be worthy of the name theology? How does its methodology stand up to the critique offered over the last thirty years? What has it learnt from its contact with other disciplines? Such questions as these make the publication of The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology timely.
Part One contains four essays which show the diversity in liberation theology. Gutierrez brings the reader up to date on the situation in Latin America and explores the task and content of liberation theology. He emphasises the well-known point that liberation theology is contextual theology, but he also pushes the reader to consider what it has done for theology in general and the way we talk about God. A new language is being born which is, and indeed must be, both prophetic and mystical. Bastiaan Wielenga, from India, takes us into the multi-ethnic and multi-religious world of Asia. There the crucial task of liberation theology is 'to speak from the core of the biblical messages in such a way that the solidarity between Christian and non-Christian Asians and their sufferings and struggles gets enhanced, without obliterating their specific identities' (46). Edward Antonio, who is from Zimbabwe and worked in South Africa before taking up a position in the USA, relies on the work of James Cone to give a contemporary understanding of the situation and directions of black theology. Mary Grey, who is currently in the UK and who has written extensively on feminist theology, uses her essay to identify eight feminist theologies. In highlighting such diversity she indicates one of the most important characteristics of liberation theology. What she says of feminist theology could well apply to any liberation theology: 'feminist theology's authenticity is its openness to the challenge of new contexts, its ability to resist foreclosure, and its commitment to the working out of the theological implications of the new forms of oppression' (102).
The essay by Andrew Dawson, who gives a solid exposition of the origins and development of the base ecclesial communities, could perhaps be criticised for being singularly focused on Brazil. Why not something on the expansion and development of this phenomenon in other parts of the world? Yet, Dawson's essay ably demonstrates that to properly understand and appreciate the BCC movement one must be familiar with its flourishing in Brazil. Gerald West's essay, which takes us through a bible study he used among the poor in South Africa, focuses the reader's attention on the delicate interface between the often rarefied world of the scholar and the day to day experiences of the common people. Many a reader of this essay may well conclude that this 'liberation methodology' should characterise all forms of theology. The final essay in Part Two, by Charles Villa-Vicenzio, explores some of the issues and challenges facing liberation theology in the new contexts of the last decade or so. He writes challengingly about the new South Africa, and the quest for an economic alternative to capitalism.
By far the most exciting part of the book is Part Three, which offers excellent scholarly analysis and criticism. For the most part these essays allow their authors, often with specialisations beyond theology, to engage many of the broader issues and concerns raised by the existence of liberation theology. These authors are not afraid to ask the hard questions. An essay by Peter Hebblethwaite, published posthumously, acquaints the reader with the complex world of the Roman Catholic Church and its reactions to liberation theology. Hebblethwaite, a Vatican-watcher with long experience, was without doubt the right person for this analysis. However one should not read this essay without reading the one that follows by Denys Turner. The careful analysis of Marxism, and the conclusion that it is Feuerbach's atheism rather than Marx's which challenges Christian theology and that Marx truly challenges the Christian theologian to construct a theology 'which joins hands with the radicalism of the via negativa, and so, paradoxically with the theological radicalism of the apophatic mystical traditions of classical theology' (212), makes this the candidate for the most brilliant essay in the collection. Valpy Fitzgerald's essay is equally engaging. He notes that liberation theology has always used concepts of political economy in its analysis of the real world and ideological discourse. Nevertheless, he argues, there is yet to be a fully worked out 'theology of the economy'. His practical suggestions as to how this may be done (225) are well worth developing, although perhaps he is unaware of the work of the 1982 work of Enrique Dussel in Concilium on the sacral nature of bread.
The essay by Oliver O'Donovan concludes the critical analysis we have been treated to in the preceding essays. By exploring liberation theology within the larger perspective of political theology he raises important questions about the way it has developed and what it must do into the future. 'The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu' (244). A key to understanding the weaknesses of liberation theology, he argues, is that it has lacked a concept of authority. This is understandable because the presenting issue for liberation theologians has been poverty not authority. However, in the Northern hemisphere (and we would want to add, in countries like Australia and New Zealand) our issue is authority rather than poverty, and hence, claims O'Donovan, we have had little success in really putting liberation theology to work in relation to our questions.
The collection of essays in this book makes it a fitting addition to the Cambridge Companion series. A helpful introduction and conclusion is provided by the editor, Christopher Rowland. The book lives up to its claim to offer an evaluation of an important theological and social movement. It is a genuinely multi-disciplinary work and will enjoy a readership beyond the theological community.
(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999) Studies in Theology and Sexuality 3; 329 pp. ISBNI-85075-944-8; 1-85075-948-Opbk
The stated aims of this work are "to offer an unreserved commendation of Christian marriage at a time when it is widely disparaged and disowned" and "to contribute to a renewed vision for Christian marriage at a time of unprecedented social change" (p. 9). Although some aspects of it are less than convincing, the author, who is Professor of Applied Theology at the University College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth, England, goes far towards achieving his goals, especially the first.
Theological method, according to Thatcher, requires one to uphold a broad and diverse range of loyalties - to Christ, the people of God, Bible and tradition, on the one hand, and to experience and culture, on the other. For a consideration of Christian marriage, however, this involves a focus on two, related 'dialogues', namely the "internal dialogue among Christians about how the Bible and tradition are to be appropriated" and "the more important external dialogue between Christians and their more secular neighbours" who challenge Christian teaching (p.3 1).
In relation to the 'internal' dialogue Thatcher makes a strong case for recovery of a focus on care for children, one of the traditional 'goods' of marriage. In so doing he makes matters difficult for himself when, near the end of his work, he tries to show that this vision of Christian marriage is not prejudicial to homosexuals. He is however, more successful at maintaining the legitimacy of contraception in the context of marriage despite the importance he attaches to children. His attempt to defend the legitimacy of divorce is laboured from the Protestant perspective of this reviewer, while his suggestion that marriage be regarded not only as sacramental but as a sacrament is unconvincing. More impressive is his account of what does make it sacramental, in which he emphasises that marriage is a 'communal partnership' of 'covenanted love' with an often neglected but nonetheless vital spiritual dimension.
Despite all this it is in many respects the 'more important' external dialogue which determines the shape of Thatcher's vision for Christian marriage. He has little trouble in dismissing secular alternatives, of course. These are found wanting for a variety of reasons ranging from their individualism or romanticism to a selfishness which prevents relationships of commitment to others, including children. In secular developments of recent decades Thatcher thinks there is much to admire, however. Beyond the room made for contraception and divorce he finds a commendable appreciation of equality which should put an end to patriarchy, together with a sensible willingness to live together before proceeding to marriage. The latter, Thatcher argues, may serve to remind us that marriage is a process rather than an occasion and one that invites the church to recover the significance of betrothal as an important phase in this process.
Emerging from these related dialogues, then, is much that is worthy of consideration and it is, furthermore, lucidly expressed and clearly argued.
Again from my more Protestant and less Anglo-Catholic perspective, however, I must mention one major flaw in the work and some of its repercussions.
Thatcher would hardly be surprised to learn of my reservation because, towards the end of his work, he notes the risk of idolising a vision of the ideal. I do not accuse him of this but I am concerned at the case with which he seems to think that marriage can be a mutually satisfying, if not completely blissful, relationship. His optimism about this is reflected in the readiness with which he dismisses some of the more negative Biblical statements about marriage and the views of a theologian such as Karl Barth. More serious, however, is the way it blinds him to issues of power' in the marital relationship. Patriarchy may not be the best response to such issues but equality may not be so desirable an alternative as Thatcher tends to assume.
His failure to address these issues, to which his only citation of Stanley Hauerwas should have alerted him, casts doubt on other significant aspects of his work, in particular, the recommendations he makes about betrothal. Having noted Luther's concern about consent to betrothal "as an excuse for promiscuity " (p. 109), he has little further to say on this score except to argue for contraceptive measures during this phase of a relationship! In this connection it must be observed that one of the three traditional 'goods' of marriage, fidelity, receives surprisingly little attention from Thatcher. This, too, may be due to an unwillingness to face up to unpalatable features of human relationships, including marital ones. If so, he is in good company because, as I have remarked elsewhere (Accepting Life: The ethics of living in families, Melbourne: JBCE, 1994, p. 13), mainstream theology has found it difficult to come to terms with the prevalence of infidelity.
A dash of realism could also add substance to talk of the sacramental nature of marriage. For Christians what makes a marriage sacramental is not just the love that Thatcher, following Rahner, thinks he can find in "even a worldly marriage" (p. 247). It is also, and rather, the love of a body broken by sin yet transformed by the promise of new and authentic life. The sacramental ministry of a married couple is first of all, though not only, a ministry of reconciliation. Bonhoeffer talked about this in his well known wedding sermon but this is another Protestant document that Thatcher has overlooked.
In many respects, then, this is a commendable book but, from an ecumenical perspective, it leaves something to be desired.
John A Henley
Dr Peter Beer, Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Union Theological Institute, Sydney.
Dr Suzanne Boorer, Lecturer in Old Testament, Murdoch University, Perth.
Associate Professor Cynthia Dixon, Honorary Senior Fellow, Edith Cowan University, Perth.
The Revd Dr Gerard Hall, Lecturer in Theology, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.
The Revd Dr John Henley, Master of Queen's College, University of Melbourne.
The Revd Dr Gerard Kelly, Lecturer in Dogmatic Theology, Catholic Institute of Sydney.
Dr Winifred (Wing Han) Lamb, Lecturer, St Mark's Theological Centre, Charles Stuart University, Canberra.
The Revd Dr Frank Rees, Professor of Systematic Theology, Whitley College, Melbourne.
The Revd Dr Charles Sherlock, Senior Lecturer at Trinity College Theological School, Melbourne.
|Information for Contributors|
Unless otherwise stated, Copyright © ANZATS Ltd
Back to Colloquium Home