Monday, 27 November 2017

Book Review: Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed

Simon Oliver, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017)

The Christian doctrine of creation is not simply concerned with the universe’s origin, but also, as Simon Oliver notes, with its nature and purpose. Moreover, the current focus on scientific endeavour and the natural order is in many respects a detour from the paths established by earlier scholars whose faith in God allowed them to interpret all things as inherently meaningful and belonging to a system of signs in which they moved towards their final completion in God. This change of direction occurred during the Reformation period, when theologians began to champion the literal sense of Scripture over the moral, allegorical, and anagogical; and this particular approach to Scripture in turn contributed to an intellectual climate which allowed for the objectification of creatures previously saturated with the sacred. Thus theology’s present task is to recover this lost sense of significance, something best done, Oliver implies, by working through the implications of the traditional doctrine of creation from nothing: that everything, including creation itself, is a gift of God.

Oliver builds his case first by exploring the biblical portrayal of creation in Genesis (Chapter 1) and then by discussing how the doctrine of creation from nothing affects our understanding of God, the world, and the providential relation between the two (Chapters 2–3). Chapter 4, on creation and science, is arguably the most important: here, Oliver notes that science–religion dialogue needs to do more than simply find areas of agreement, as the scientific enterprise has so shaped our understanding of the universe that it is practically impossible to treat the world as anything other than an object. This is why an account of the universe as God’s gift (Chapter 5), a gift to be received with gratitude, is so important for today.

Occasionally, Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed presents more as a case for Thomistic metaphysics than as an introduction to the topic of creation as such, but it is an illuminating and immensely satisfying read, and one that should enjoy a wide readership.

This review is due for publication in Theological Book Review.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Destruction and Violence: A Remembrance Sunday Sermon on Habakkuk’s Complaints

I preached today at my church’s Remembrance Sunday service. This coincided with the first of a three-week sermon series on the book of Habakkuk, supplemented with whatever the Gospel reading for the day happens to be. Here’s my effort.

Habakkuk 1:1–2:1; Matthew 25:1-13

Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day we commemorate the servicewomen and servicemen who have given of themselves to help restore or bring peace to a world of destruction and violence. These are the women and men who have left families and friends and homes to journey to faraway countries to serve a perceived greater good. Some serve out of a sense of honour; others for an ideal; still others, out of duty. Each and every servicewoman and serviceman will have their own reasons to serve. Regardless of what we think of war, of the rightness or otherwise of entering and escalating and diffusing conflict around the world, we are all shaped in some way by the actions of those who have given up all that is dear to them—even, in far too many cases, their own lives. Today, these servicewomen and servicemen are in our thoughts and prayers. We will remember them.

But we’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s all for nothing. Read the newspapers, watch the news: destruction and violence are all around us. Since the turn of the century, UK servicewomen and servicemen have been involved, or are still involved, in a number of conflicts around the world, including Eastern Europe, Sierra Leone, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. And, of course, the UK is not the only country at war or threatening violence. Who can forget, for example, the recent standoffs between the United States and North Korea? Destruction and violence are all around us.

And what about here in the UK? Read the newspapers, watch the news: stabbings, bombings, shootings, acid attacks, vehicle crashes, instances of domestic violence, suicides, self-harming, substance abuse, bullying, sexual predation. These sorts of things happen all too often, and some only down the road or around the corner—or perhaps even in our own homes. Even here, even in south-east London, destruction and violence are all around us. The servicewomen and servicemen—we will remember them. But who will remember us? Will our government remember us? Will our politicians and business leaders remember us? Will God remember us?

This is Habakkuk’s complaint. Habakkuk lived in Jerusalem at a time when Judah and several of the smaller nations in the region were constantly squeezed by various aggressors. As soon as one empire moved in, another would come and see it off, leaving the people of Jerusalem and other major cities to suffer in their trails of destruction and violence. The kings of these smaller countries would make treaties with their new rulers, but they would also be on the lookout for a chance to rebel and side with the next up-and-coming superpower. The ordinary people of Jerusalem would be caught up in all of this and suffer the fallout from imperialist expansion and political expediency. And so Habakkuk complains: ‘Lord, we are your people—so why aren’t you helping us? Where are you? Do something!’

And the Lord replies, ‘I will do something.’

‘Great!’ Habakkuk’s getting excited. His prayer is being answered.

‘Look at the nations,’ says the Lord. ‘Get ready—I’m going to do something really amazing! You really won’t believe what I’m going to do!’

‘Excellent!’ Habakkuk’s really pumped now. ‘Wonderful! Revive our nation, O Lord!’

‘Habakkuk,’ the Lord replies, ‘here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to send the armies of Babylonia to attack you!’

Silence. Seriously? Is that what the Lord’s going to do? Can you imagine what Habakkuk is thinking and feeling at this point? He has approached the throne of grace, laying before God all his concerns about the destruction and violence in the world, including in his own backyard in Jerusalem, protesting and lamenting God’s inactivity, praying to God for help—and God’s response is essentially: ‘I’m going to make it worse before I make it better.’

The Babylonians (or the Chaldeans in some Bibles) were fast becoming the most destructive force of the day, swallowing up nations left, right, and centre. ‘They are very mean,’ the Lord tells Habakkuk. ‘They move quickly. They terrify others. Their horses are faster than leopards. They are meaner than wolves. They swoop down like ravenous eagles. They want to slaughter, they want to mock, and they want to rule.’ You can almost picture the Lord salivating in delicious anticipation of the destruction and violence to come.

Does this image of the Lord disturb you? It disturbed Habakkuk—so much so, that he comes back to God, challenges God. ‘Lord,’ he says, ‘Lord, you are a holy God who cannot look at evil—so why are you doing this? Why are you sending the Babylonians to attack us? Do our sins really warrant that? We’re saints by comparison! How can you do this to us? How can you raise up Babylon—Babylon!—of all the nations to bring peace to our land when all they want is destruction and violence? Why don’t you sort them out first?’ Habakkuk realises there is something very wrong here and he camps out on the city walls, waiting for the Lord to respond.

And there we must leave Habakkuk, at least for now. God’s response comes in the rest of chapter two, but we’ll need to wait until next week to hear what God says. For now, all we’re left with is a portrait of an Old Testament prophet, haggard and exhausted, watching and waiting for a sign, any sign, of God’s favour towards Jerusalem, watching and waiting, watching and waiting . . .

It is important to watch and wait. Habakkuk has to watch and wait—he can’t do anything else. But Habakkuk’s watching and waiting arises from his willingness to take his difficult questions to God in prayer and his expectation that God will respond. In many respects—and hopefully, this isn’t too tenuous a connection—in many respects, Habakkuk is not unlike the five wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable we heard earlier. If we allow the bridegroom to stand for the Lord in this parable, then we can see that Habakkuk and the five bridesmaids are cut from similar cloth. They all had to watch and wait and be prepared in one way or another. But whereas Habakkuk is left watching and waiting for the Lord to deal with destruction and violence in the land, the bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive and kick off the wedding celebrations and ultimately to consummate his marriage.

And who are the bridesmaids? We are the bridesmaids! We are the ones whom God calls to watch and wait for the Lord Jesus to bring lasting peace to this world! We are the ones whom God calls by God’s Holy Spirit to show the world the peace brought about by Jesus’s death! We are the ones whom God calls to tell of future transformation guaranteed by Jesus’s resurrection! And we are the ones who can do all this because we know Jesus is coming soon! We are the ones who can watch and wait even as we ask, and continue to ask, ‘How long, O Lord?’

Every war, every conflict, every pain inflicted on one person by another—can we see all these as questions directed to God, as longings for a world free from destruction and violence, as unspoken prayers for the completion and peace only God in Christ can bring? Can we, like Habakkuk, and as faithful and wise bridesmaids, embrace the unspoken prayers of this world, this nation, this part of London in our own prayers and ask God, again and again, ‘How long, O Lord, how long until you come and make us whole?’ Can we do this? Can we do this, for ourselves and for our world? We can and we must—but only because we know that God in Christ will not let destruction and violence be the last word. There is a last word, but that last word is a name—and that name is Jesus.

Today is Remembrance Sunday. All the servicewomen and servicemen who have lost their lives ostensibly in the name of peace, and all the servicewomen and servicemen who aim to maintain peace today—we will remember them. But today, Remembrance Sunday, let’s also remember that God has not forgotten us as a world, nor as a nation, nor even as individuals. Let’s remember that God loves each and every one of us, including the people or nations we hate or fear most. And as we take communion this morning, let’s keep watching and waiting, remembering all that Christ has done for us and all that Christ has promised to us. We will remember him.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Book Review: Bradley Green, Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine

Bradley G. Green, Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine: The Theology of Colin Gunton in Light of Augustine (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 2012)

It is no secret that the late Colin Gunton held St. Augustine responsible for many of the problems besetting Western thought and culture. However, recently, a number of commentators have intimated that Gunton’s interpretation of Augustine’s theology is not as fair as it should be. Brad Green is one such commentator.

Green’s volume, most likely the first book-length treatment of Gunton and Augustine, is divided into seven chapters. The opening chapter summarises Gunton’s critique of Augustine (Gunton’s evaluation effectively centres on perceived deficiencies in Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity) and outlines other responses – negative and positive – to Augustine’s views. Chapters 2–5 deal with Gunton’s theology and Augustine’s theology in turn: chapters 2 and 4 consider creation and redemption (first in Gunton’s thought, secondly in Augustine’s); chapters 3 and 5 analyse being and ontology. In Chapter 6, Green offers his own assessment of Gunton’s reading of Augustine’s theology, concluding that had he engaged more fully with Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, especially as expressed in the latter’s De Trinitate, Gunton would have found support for his own (commendable) theological project. As Green notes in the concluding chapter, the differences between Augustine and Gunton and their motivations are not major.

Not all of Green’s arguments will convince (Gunton would have defended himself quite effectively against some of the comments); the overall presentation suffers stylistically from some repetition through restatement (to be fair, this is undoubtedly necessitated by the close reading required for such a thesis); and more than a few typographical errors have escaped elimination. These relatively minor points aside, Colin Gunton and the Failure of Augustine is a welcome contribution to the body of literature on both theologians. It should not be ignored.

This review was originally published in Theological Book Review 24:1 (2012), p. 42

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Christopher Holmes on ‘Revisiting the God/World Difference’

Modern Theology has just made available a paper by Christopher Holmes: ‘Revisiting the God/World Difference’. Here’s the abstract:

On what basis do we distinguish God from the world? I argue that the doctrine of creation, more specifically the analogical notion of causa, supplies a salutary foundation. My conversation partners are Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas. I take up the former’s five conditions for a right theological use of causa, demonstrating that despite his basic misreading of Thomas, both theologians share some basic convictions regarding God’s independence. I argue, moreover, that Thomas provides a more theologically satisfying anchor for what distinguishes God from what is not God. I conclude by reflecting on the importance of experience in articulating the distinction.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

This song is dedicated to Martin Luther . . .

. . . so starts this song on Lust Control’s We Are Not Ashamed album. I’m sure Martin Luther pinned his theses to the door five hundred years ago precisely so this song could be posted on my blog today.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Book Review: John Webster, God without Measure, Vol. II

John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume ii: Virtue and Intellect (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

In the second of his two-volume collection of essays entitled God without Measure, John Webster considers aspects of moral theology and the human intellect. There are chapters on the relation between Christology and ethics; on matters such as dignity, mercy, sorrow, and courage; on the importance of mortification and vivification; on speech; on the intellectual life and intellectual patience; and on the place of theology as a university discipline. Each chapter is paradigmatic of Webster’s careful approach to crafting theology, redolent of earlier systematicians, and especially of Thomas Aquinas, whose influence is particularly noticeable. The effect of Webster’s writing is to lead the attentive reader closer to the triune God of Christian confession.

And judging by the topics addressed, such proximity to God is surely what Webster intends to foster. God without Measure ii is not a treatment of contemporary ethical issues from a Christian perspective, but an invitation to contemplate a properly theological account of creaturely life and activity—that is, an account founded on and resourced by God, the source of all being. Thus creaturely dignity (Chapter 3) is secured by God’s love for the creature, and courage (Chapter 6) arises from an assurance of God’s promises of good for the creature. Webster’s point is that an awareness of how to live and act aright can only be derived from a gospel-shaped consideration of God, and of God’s dealings with the world.

As with the first volume, God without Measure ii consists mostly of papers that are published elsewhere; this, along with its price, may have an impact on the desirability of the book. Also, as engaging as Webster’s style is, these essays require particularly focused attention, as his approach is more concerned to elucidate the theological principles underlying creaturely being and action than to provide examples of good ethical practice, and today’s activists and pragmatists are sure to be frustrated at times. Regardless, established scholars, postgraduate students, and advanced undergraduates and ministers are unlikely to deny the worth of Webster’s deliberations here.

This review was originally published in Theological Book Review 27:1 (2016), pp. 51–52

Friday, 13 October 2017

Book Review: John Webster, God without Measure, Vol. I

John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume i: God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

God without Measure i is the first of a two-volume collection of essays on Christian theology by John Webster. The essays are grouped into two parts. Part i is entitled ‘God in himself’, and here Webster examines theology proper – the life of the triune God, the importance of the Son’s eternal generation, the place of Christology in systematic theology, and an examination of the Christology of the letter to the Hebrews. In Part ii, ‘God’s Outer Works’, Webster focuses on creation, God’s relation to creation, and essential doctrines such as soteriology and ecclesiology.

Throughout, Webster is concerned to emphasise that any doctrine starting from the works of God rather than from God in se is likely to generate a host of unnecessary theological problems that only a return to theology proper can resolve. Thus Webster starts each of his doctrinal examinations first by attending to the triune God from whom all things have come, and to whom all things are ordered. In this, the influence of Thomas Aquinas on Webster’s contemplations is hard to deny, as is that of Augustine, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. But the voice pervading these essays is unmistakably Webster’s, and those already appreciative of his prior publications will likely welcome these carefully nuanced contributions.

It should be noted that most of the papers have seen print elsewhere; only the first and third chapters are original to this volume. While it is genuinely helpful to have some of Webster’s finest essays in one place, the fact remains that God without Measure i is an expensive book for an individual scholar to buy if all s/he requires are the two previously unpublished articles on the matter of Christian theology and eternal generation. Also, the nature of this volume as a collection of previously published self-contained pieces means that there is some repetition between the chapters – though the consistency of Webster’s thought soon becomes apparent. Established scholars, postgraduate students, and advanced undergraduates and ministers should all find much of value in this book.

This review was originally published in Theological Book Review 27:1 (2016), pp. 50–51

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth

I’ve been contributing reviews to Theological Book Review for a number of years now. Sadly, the publication shall soon cease. But I have obtained permission to reproduce my TBR book reviews, including this one (which will probably see print in 2018), on Sacred Wrightings.

Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2017; originally published by Cascade Books, 2015)

The instructions on orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 11–14 contain some of the most contested passages in the New Testament. These passages relate to head coverings (1 Cor. 11:2-16), to glossolalia and prophecy (1 Cor. 14:20-25), and to women’s silence (1 Cor. 14:33b-36). Whereas many scholars resort to interpretative gymnastics to reconcile ostensibly contradictory positions in these passages, Lucy Peppiatt employs a simpler approach: these controversial texts include the Corinthians’ own stances on these issues (found in 1 Cor. 11:4-5b, 7-10, 14, and 14:21-22, 34-35), which Paul is quoting in order to refute.

Peppiatt’s argument assumes that 1 Corinthians is in fact part of a wider epistolary conversation between Paul and the Corinthian church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-11), and that the Corinthian leadership would recognise Paul’s citations of its own slogans. It also presumes that this leadership consists of ‘a group of spiritually gifted and highly articulate male teachers who were both overbearing and divisive’ (p. 10), and who desire to promote themselves at the expense of other members in the church community. Thus Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 11–14 are designed to encourage humility, unity, and equality for all worshippers, regardless of gender, class, or giftedness.

Throughout, Peppiatt attends closely to the phrasing of the texts and the implied theology of different readings. She interacts judiciously with the more traditional interpretations in order to explain where they are lacking in coherence, and illustrates how her approach to 1 Corinthians makes sense of the theology in Paul’s other letters. Arguably, more space should have been given to the idea that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a later interpolation and not a citation; I suspect that textual criticism plays a far more important role in understanding these texts than Peppiatt perhaps admits. But the thrust of Peppiatt’s argument is persuasive and intelligently addresses many contemporary liturgical and pastoral concerns. Women and Worship at Corinth is essential reading, especially for anyone engaged in Pauline studies and/or involved in church leadership.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

What the Woman Said

It’s sometimes pointed out that the woman/Eve embellished the Lord God’s command not to eat of the tree of good and evil (Gen. 3:3; cf. 2:17); but all’s not as it seems.

First, the Lord God issued this command to the man/Adam before Eve was created. Thus, Eve presumably heard the command from Adam. But, secondly, this does not necessarily mean that Eve misinterpreted what Adam said, or that she added to what Adam had told her. It is quite possible that Adam himself misinterpreted what the Lord God commanded. On this account, it means that what Eve says to the serpent is entirely accurate—she is faithfully reproducing what Adam had communicated. And it should be noted, thirdly, that the text of Genesis 2–3 itself doesn’t appear to condemn this one way or the other. If the narrative flow of Genesis 3 is taken seriously, then sin enters the world only once Eve and Adam have both eaten the forbidden fruit: ‘she took of its fruit and ate; . . . her husband . . . ate. Then . . .’ (Gen. 3:6-7, my emphasis)

It seems to me that the Genesis text doesn’t make any comment about the misstated command. But this suggests that mishearings, misinterpretations, differences of opinion, and so on, aren’t sinful in and of themselves. The problems arise when such misinterpretations go unchallenged (Adam’s passivity in Genesis 3:1-7, perhaps) and are given enough credence to mutate into disobedience and disorder. This is what happens in Genesis 3—but I don’t think it has anything to do with Eve’s embellishment of the Lord God’s command.