Category Archives: Books

Quick comment: The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


A book famous for being ‘important’ – make of that what you will – but not a straightforward read. It’s a self-assured survey of mostly self-assured enlightenment thinkers whose self-assured positions extremely clever-dumb.

The people Schweitzer surveys are no intellectual midgets, but all hold to starting positions and interpretive shibboleths that are frequently flimsy in the extreme.

For example of an assumed starting position is the facile division between ‘the Christ of faith’ and ‘the Jesus of history’. This seems to be pursuing ‘neutral’ historical truth – but no one is neutral, everyone is committed. There’s no justification in the method of argument that a theological or doctrinal claim is automatically non-historical. Especially if the claim of the whole Bible, including gospels, is that they relate God’s actions in history.

And example of an interpretive shibboleth is the way the theme of the so-called messianic secret is assumed to mean no-one anywhere thought of Jesus as the Christ, even as a possibility (exceptions to Peter, and later the other members of the Twelve). On this basis, other positions follow: there must not have been messianic thought on Palm Sunday’s entrance, because none thought of Jesus that way; John the baptist did not ask about Jesus being the Christ, because he would not have used that term; etc. Again and again, these ‘histories’ explain away the only real evidence they have – the texts – in favour of their accepted agendas.

In many ways, the ‘history’ Schweitzer describes exemplifies the awful dead end of seeing sources as the ‘real deal’. It’s seen in 19th and 20th century literary criticism of the Bible, as well as this historical reconstructionism. It says, texts are only hints to the blurred reality behind them, which we can reconstruct! Hooray for us!

If that seems a harsh judgement, here are two things to say. Firstly, of course there are many fascinating and insightful things written in the histories referenced by Schweitzer. But secondly, pick up the tone of this survey as given in the very first paragraph, and expressed throughout:

When, at some future day, our period of civilisation shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time. For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors-of philosophic thought, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling-without which no deep theology is possible.

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Quick comment: Metaphor and religious language

Metaphor and Religious Language by Janet Martin Soskice

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This work argues that metaphor is not a simple ‘pretty’ way of saying something that could be communicated with straightforward words, but it its own legitimate and necessary way of explanation. Metaphoric statements, at their best, say things that cannot be said in other ways. They also create opportunities for new learning, reflection, and avenues of enquiry.

Extending this, Soskice argues that both science and theology are – fittingly and necessarily – fields in which metaphor plays a major part. Her argument concludes that a realist position is entirely consistent with use of metaphor, in both science and theology. It’s fine, and actually productive, to speak of electrical ‘current’ or of the divine gift of ‘living water.’ This is not a naive realism, but critical realism (I don’t think Soskice used this actual term, but I believe its current use agrees with her argument). In this, the users of metaphor – and use is always of within a community – are able to ‘really refer’ to something, even without knowing all there is about that topic. Even transcendent realities can be, in part and approximately, apprehended (be they electrons, or God).

One matter not possible to be raised in this work, but I think related, is the possibility of historical knowledge. Looking at the science-theology parallels is wonderfully important. Soskice frequently mentions matters of religious experience as a part-parallel to scientific experiment. In this line of thought, metaphor and theory is always open to revision, at least in theory. That’s fair, to an extent, but opens up theology to too simple a comparison with science, and suggests to me that theological doctrines are as likely to change as scientific ones. Think, for example, of the disposal of the idea of phlogiston after Priestly’s discovery of oxygen: the old theory was dumped.

I think a difference between science and (Christian) theology is the historical givenness of events, especially the ministry of Jesus Christ. Knowledge of this history has everything to add to the knowledge claims of Christianity.

This is not to say Soskise should have covered this topic! She has done an amazing job in her survey of metaphor theory, as well as philosophies of metaphor use in science and theology. And all in fewer than 200 pages! What I do mean to say is that philosophies of historical knowledge will affect some of Soskice’s conclusions about the tentativeness and modifiability of religious statements. If Jesus is alive, then some religious models and metaphors are more solid and unchangeable than any scientific model.



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Quick review: Retrieving Nicaea

Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine by Khaled Anatolios

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is quite a book, even though I am certain my comprehension of it is far from complete. In other words: be ready for technical detail and argument.

My summary of the aim of Retrieving Nicaea is that Anatolios wants his readers to engage with fourth century Trinitarian theological grammar, rather than to memorise theological terminology. The why of the orthodox position (ontological unity between divine persons Father, Son, and Spirit) is his interest.

To get there, he starts with an overview before diving into three deeper specific studies: Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine. The overview itself is amazingly helpful. This overview divides the approaches to divine unity into two: unity of will (such as Arius), and unity of being (the Nicaean position). Both start with the supremacy of Christ but take different paths to express this, with major consequences. I am sure the three detailed studies also will continue to be influential amongst serious researchers, too – you know, those who understand all Anatolios says!

Read slowly, because that seems to only way to understand it. But do read it as part of developing a better understanding of the history and interpretation of Trinitiarian theology.



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Quick reaction to re-reading ‘Christus Victor’

Christus VictorChristus Victor by Gustaf Aulén

This is a very influential study of the atonement that I haven’t read since theological college. Aulén claims that his aim throughout was ‘an historical, not an apologetic’ one but that’s hard to believe. He’s really positive about Luther (not Lutherism, so much) and the ‘classic’ idea of the atonement, but not so positive about the so-called Latin and subjective views.

Rather than a review, here are some of my reactions to the book.
* Aulén presents the three positions as choices or alternatives, whereas more recent atonement books treat the theology of atonement as multi-faceted. Still, Aulén’s book reminds us that there are some incompatible theologies.
* The presentation of the argument feels all out of order. The final chapter presents the three views – why not the first? Even so, the book does not start with the New Testament but with the church fathers and then the NT evidence. It feels to me that the evidence does not prove his arguments, but has been assembled to make his position.
* Some distinctions that Aulén insists upon don’t really seem as sharp as he makes them, especially between aspects of classic and Latin.
* Penance. Aulén claims the idea of penance was essential to the development of the Latin view. While not convinced of that, I found it very helpful to read how human penance radically changes one’s formulation of how atonement occurs.
* Aulén is insistent on seeing atonement as a work of God not humanity. I have the feeling a more robust Trinitarian theology might mean his accusations against the Latin theory hold less weight. Overall, a worthwhile read but not as ‘the’ presentation of atonement theology. It’s a book to provoke more thought, deeper reading, and prayer.

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Quick review: 40 Rockets

40 Rockets40 Rockets by Craig Josling

“40 Rockets which, when translated, means 40 short and punchy tips on sharing the message of Jesus with people at work.” (With apologies to verses like John 1:42.)

Lots of good tips. And easy quick read, but not designed to be read quickly. Each tip is for thought and reflection. Preferably with someone else.

This is not a theology of the message of Jesus, nor of the reason to share Jesus’ gospel. It’s not a listing of all the blessings Jesus’ death for the world. This is not an academic treatise. But none of these things are a problem – for 40 Rockets does not aim to be any of these things.

So what is this book? Words from an experienced, but far from perfect, Christian to help us all do better at promoting the news of Jesus.

Here are some chapter headings to give a feel for the topics/rockets: Be convinced that the workplace is a great place to share Jesus; Be gracious in conversation; Don’t let work define your value; Memorize Romans 6:23; Give honest and sincere appreciation.

I’m thinking how to use this book, because it strikes me as totally usable. Some ideas:
* pair up, and have a 5 minute phone chat each week to discuss that week’s tip
* give a copy to every member of a Bible study group, spend a few minutes each week at the start of your group looking at that week’s rocket
* for two months of Sunday church, pick a rocket a week for someone to summarise
* include a rocket a week in the church bulletin
* read a chapter each day with housemates (in a share house, with family, whatever)
* read a chapter on the bus to work, and summarise it in an email for fellow believers in your business

Undoubtedly there are many more.

And I want to get on with using 40 Rockets when I am. From Matthia Media.

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Review: A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

A Reformed Approach to Science and ScriptureA Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture by Keith A. Mathison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good thing about buying a book that really is a book is that you get a sense of what kind of book it wants to be. A 600 page treatment is a different beast from an 80 page piece – neither is necessarily better, but the aims will differ.

With an ebook, this is harder. And, perhaps, easier to be disappointed. ‘I thought this was going to be in-depth, but it’s only a brief guide.’ Or, ‘I just wanted something simple, not the history of the universe.’

So let’s explain the intangibles of this book. A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture is a big title, huge. Science! Scripture! Reformed! Wow. Yet it’s not broad, deep, and exhaustive. It is a short work, so does not aim to cover all things.

Even more important, it’s not even really trying to be a reformed introduction to the philosophy of science. (Which I thought it might be – my mistake.) Instead, it is an expansion on some comments made by R.C. Sproul. At a conference, Sproul was answering the question, ‘How old is the universe?’

Sproul’s answer is wonderful. He did not merely indicate young or old, but in a few sentences touched on science, Christianity, and the relation between them.

The answer is quoted in full (tidied up a little for publication purposes). Sproul notes some of the issues:
* The Bible does not state how old the earth is, but some hints suggest it’s young
* Science has plenty to say that is relevant: expanding universe, astronomical dating, etc
* All truth is God’s truth, scripture and nature
* God’s revelation in scripture is infallible as also God’s revelation in nature is infallible
* We know times when natural revelation has corrected the church’s understanding of special revelation
* Nonetheless, that which is definitively taught in the Bible is never overthrown by science
* That is, scientists can be wrong, theologians can be wrong, and we privilege neither
* In conclusion: ‘I don’t know how old the earth is.’

This book by Mathison expands on these points. It has some theological points (eg, Augustine, Aquinas). It has some history (eg, Calvin and Luther on the geocentrism). It does not have much science or philosophy of science.

The crux of the book – and of Sproul’s answer – is the double infallibility of God’s double revelation, special and natural. This is, I think, both the strength and the weakness of the book’s argument.

It is strong, because it highlights the unity of all truth in God. Let God be true, though all men be liars (Romans 3:4). The saying catches it nicely: all truth is God’s truth.

Yet there are problems with the book’s argument. I think these are in the theological terminology used, as well as it’s application in the book. Imprecision is introduced: it does no real damage to this book’s argument, because it has a narrow focus. But such imprecision is problematic if it flows through the (huge) scope of science-theology understanding.

The problem: Mathison persists in speaking of natural revelation, when I think he would do better to speak of truth.

In speaking of natural revelation, Mathison has in mind the knowledge of God accessible to all humans through creation. As Romans 1:19-21 indicates, this knowledge is about God, and it makes us without excuse, because natural revelation cannot save. He helpfully quotes and alludes to Romans 1.

But the book then slides from this knowledge about God to science, without any reason put forward for the connection. Yet it is not evident that knowing more about the planets’ arrangement adds anything to natural revelation. We know more truth, certainly, but no more about God.

In other words, Mathison makes no convincing argument that the theological category of natural revelation also applies to science.

This imprecision has other effects. I note just one – the use of infallible.

Mathison return more than once to a group of seminarians asked two questions by Sproul.

“How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” They all raised their hands. I then asked, “And how many of you believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible?” No one raised his hand. It’s the same God giving the revelation.

Two helpful and provocative questions to put! Natural revelation is, indeed, infallible – it does not fail but achieves its purpose. The purposes of natural revelation succeed: people of faith praise the Lord (Psalm 19:1), and rebels against God find they have no excuse (Romans 1:20).

Infallibility is a term of theology, and relates to God’s purposes in his revelation. But Mathison, having assumed a tight link between natural revelation and science, has thereby partly imported infallibility into science, where it does not belong.

Now, that’s a long discussion about being precise in terminology. So let me emphasise this: I think this work well worth reading. Have a read, think well, and thank God that all truth is his.

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Quick review: Captured by a better vision

Captured By A Better Vision: Living Porn FreeCaptured By A Better Vision: Living Porn Free by Tim Chester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The prevalence of pornography in our electronic age is an important matter for the whole of society, and even more so for Christians who know that sexuality is a wonderful gift from God that can be awfully twisted into ugliness.

Chester is not all about ‘a technique’ to stop porn in one’s life. But he does not mock techniques, either, but places them in a better whole-of-life context. Use the skills (like accountability software, etc), but use them as tools in the bigger picture of life with Christ.

Chester’s five broad topics are, in my words: hate porn, love God, trust God, actively avoid porn, get help. As is clear, there are reasons why, and there are tips how. And both are important.

Chester quotes extensively from people who completed an on-line survey for him, and this illustrates his points nicely while introducing a chatty feel to parts of the book. This complements the parts which are more solid sections of thoughtful argument.

I have a few criticisms, but none of them are major.

    • Though a shortish book, about 160 pages, I think it could have been edited a bit more. The chapters seem to have long introductions before getting to the major point. And those intros don’t always really tightly connect to the main point, in my view.

 

    • Chester acknowledges that porn is a problem for both men and women, and can be expressed in ‘non-porn’ ways (like romance novels, or underwear junk mail). But I certainly had the sense this book was more about blokes with porn problems. If there was some editing out (above), then the book could edit in more on women’s experiences of porn.

 

  • Chester takes the line of Genesis 2:18 – that it was not good for the man to be alone – to mean he was lonely, needing companionship. That’s a tempting preaching point, believe me!, but is probably not the point of the text.

 

But to finish with negatives would be way off – this is a good book, on an important topic, written with gospel-shaped truth, which shows love to all touched by the damaging scourge of pornography.

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Quick review: The search to belong

The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small GroupsThe Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups by Joseph R. Myers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wavered between two options when it came to choosing a star rating for The Search to Belong. Because there are some powerfully helpful ideas, I considered four out of five. But everything else moved me towards two from five.

No matter which way I went, I knew that I disliked reading the book – even the bits I liked. So that decided the matter: **/*****.

What’s valuable: Myers picks up the analysis of Edward T Hall that society consists of four “spaces”: public, social, personal, and intimate. Each space has its own character, strengths, and modes of operation. And each is valuable in its own right, not as a mere stepping stone to the “really real” relationship of intimacy.

So, applied to churches, Myers urges readers to make sure people have room to relate in any and all of the social spaces. Excellent!

What I disliked does not undermine the benefit of those valuable thoughts. But what I disliked I really disliked. Some examples.

Myers has an ear for how people feel. He frequently speaks of how he felt in different situations. That’s a wonderful skill. But Myers turns how we feel into obligations: “people feel this therefore we must act in the following way.” There is apparently no possibility of people feeling the wrong thing, or entertaining awful desires.

Similarly, we are told people at churches can only lead themselves. “Only you can lead you.” It’s imperative, therefore that ‘leaders’ in churches get out of the way. They can supply a framework for people to grow, but must refrain from trying to lead people. The irony: Myers forcefully tells us – leads us – to the only possible truth, that there is no such thing as forceful leading.

The irony is one thing, but more significant to me is the biblical insistence that there are leaders (in church, home, and society) and that these leaders have God’s commission to lead. (See all the biblical language of authority and submission, to investigate further.)

For a third and final criticism, I think the book is a touch confused. In the first two chapters, for instance, Myers frequently spoke of the need to define connection, or community, or belonging. But I never found the definition. So I was not surprised to read a free interchange of terms: with loose definitions it’s easy enough to use any term that feels close enough. But that’s not good enough if you are trying to present a clear case.

My recommendation, then, is to read this book but to pare back the emergent packing and enjoy the thoughtful idea social spaces.

 


 

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Quick review: The mind’s eye


 

The Mind's EyeThe Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another enjoyable read from Oliver Sacks, this time on sight and the brain.

Seeing is not merely – or even primarily – a matter of the eye, but of the brain. The eye may experience all sorts of problems, and this book represents a number of them through the cases described. But Sacks’ work here is the written record of his fascination with perception, distortion, neural processing, face recognition, depth of view, three-dimensionality, imaging, and a number of related issues.

The longest chapter is on Sacks’ own visual medical problems. Naturally he has more information on himself as a ‘case’, but I suspect his greater interest in his own case led him to extend that chapter more than required.

This book is not, however, a clinical guide. It is more of an exploration of questions raised by various clinical observations. What is perception?, How does the brain cope with visual disturbance?, Can we truly communicate subjective experiences?

I love the way Sacks is fascinated with people – not diseases or pathologies, but people. It is in facing illness that he seems to detect the uncovering of character, of humanity.

Sacks’ writing also reminded me that we can’t assume much about the people we interact with, or that when we do we will often miss what is very significant for those people. The guy on the footpath might be struggling with one eye almost blind and a correspondingly huge blind spot to one side: it does not have to be that’s he’s a footpath hog. The workmate whose habits are a joke to the rest of the office might just be employing strategies to survive a visual degenerative condition that would paralyse us.

We simply cannot know what troubles people endure. So why not make allowances, and ask them, and make room for all the odd people of the world? After all, someone as high-functioning as Oliver Sacks was once numbered among such odd bods.

Sacks says, essentially, nothing about God-stuff. Yet he is not rude or dismissive of these points of view. He quotes extensively from at least a couple of Christian individuals (about their insight into blindness, rather than Christianity), all the while allowing that their trust positively shapes their experience.

As a Christian, I hope I can demonstrate such person-focussed interest and practice listening to people no matter what their views. And, again as a Christian, I am convinced that the reason we value such behaviour is due to Jesus and his summary of the law into the two love commands (Matthew 22:36-40).

It’s not that behaviour gets us to God. It is that when God got to us, he told us that trust has its behaviours. He/Jesus told us this, and we can be sure it’s a powerful truth – because in Sacks we have the example of a fine Western mind steered (perhaps unconsciously) by the words of Jesus.

For those of us who do follow Jesus, let’s deliberately show such gentle, inquisitive love.

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Quick review: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

The Atheist Who Didn't ExistThe Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science is the only sure method for knowing things.

Faith and reason are opposed.

People believe in God because they’re needy.

Atheism is not a belief at all – it’s just non-belief.

You can discover goodness without God at all.

If you’ve heard statements like these then you and I are living in the same world. They’re relatively common in the so-called ‘New Atheism.’

But if you’re convinced by any of these statements, then you’ve been duped. These arguments, and others like them, are all bad arguments, according to Andy Bannister. Note the alternate title for his book Or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments.

This book is all about the arguments of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens. And written in an accessible and light style. If you like quirky British humour – and I do – then you’ll find it even better (as well as find plenty of jokey distraction in the hundreds of footnotes).

Bannister is a Christian, but this book does not aim to present the Christian Gospel, I think. The news of Jesus is there, in brief snatches (especially the last chapter on Jesus and history). But the aim of this book seems to be what comes before presenting the Christian message: to convince us that it is worth looking at the message.

That is, Bannister urges readers not to prematurely write off the question of God and Jesus. And if it’s Dawkins and his buddies who have convinced you not to go near the God question, Bannister’s warning is that you’re really a victim of empty argument.

So The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist is apologetic and pre-evangelistic. Apologetic: for it gives reasons why it’s worth considering Jesus. Pre-evangelistic: because it opens the door to an honest reading of the Bible.

I loved the humour (except for Bannister’s disdain of goat’s cheese – he’s definitely wrong there). And I’d definitely give this book away to people entrapped by the empty arguments of Krauss, Dawkins, et al.

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