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The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church
The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church
by Phyllis Tickle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but unreliable, 26 Oct. 2014
The purpose of this book is to tell the story of what the (Western) Church thinks it has learned about the Holy Spirit and what this divine agency of change is doing in the lives of the churches today.

The story as told by Tickle and Sweeney is in two parts. Part I comprises a brief history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity focusing particularly on the nature and role of the Holy Spirit. The authors breeze their way through to the Cappadocian formulation, which seems to represent the high watermark of Christian orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy) by way of such heresies as Arianism and Montanism. En route they also express serious doubts about orthodoxy with a small ‘o’ (a concern for doctrinal correctness). The section concludes with two chapters that summarize the Filioque controversy and take a clear stance against this Western creedal innovation.

Part II attempts to continue that historical journey through the second Christian millennium to the present day while at the same time moving forward our thinking about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. They begin in chapters 9–11 by effectively revisiting topics dealt with in Part I, warning again about orthodoxy’s pathological (p. 90) concern for doctrinal correctness and reiterating their earlier critique of the addition of the Filioque clause to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However, they also suggest that, although arising out of Western Christianity, the contemporary Emergent Church Movement aligns more easily with Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism.

Chapter 12 is a popular exposition of Joachim of Fiore’s doctrine of three ages, which concludes by hinting that Emergent Church may be a sign that his hoped for Age of the Spirit has finally arrived. Chapter 13 proposes that we think of the Spirit as the divine agency of change, asserts that Emergent Church is the authentic form of Church for today, and tacitly assumes that the Age of the Spirit has arrived.

The final three chapters begin by stepping back to the birth of Islam (Chapter 14), which is presented very much as a monotheistic reform movement inspired in part by Muhammad’s disquiet over the Filioque controversy (which, one suspects, grossly overestimates his familiarity with Christianity). One outcome of that foray into Islam is the proposal that we need to rethink Trinitarianism in ‘less biological’ terms. We then return in chapters 15 and 16 to the roughly historical approach of Part I and fast forward from the Middle Ages to the present day via medieval mysticism, the Reformation, and Pentecostalism.

This story is framed by two chapters. In an introductory ‘Back Story’ Tickle and Sweeney explain their fundamental assumption about the way the history of Western Christianity has been shaped. They see it as having been formed by a regular series of revolutions (or paradigm shifts): the Great Transformation (around AD 1), the Great Decline and Fall (AD 500), the Great Schism (AD 1000), and the Great Reformation (AD 1500). On this basis, they predict another significant paradigm shift occurring at the present (the Great Emergence).

Now I have no problem with the idea that Christian belief and practice have over the centuries been dramatically reshaped by a number of paradigm shifts (cf. David Bosch’s magisterial treatment of missiology). However, the near mechanical regularity of the shifts discerned by Tickle and Sweeney makes me uneasy. And I am more than a little sceptical about what they have identified as the key revolutions in this history. Take, for example, the Great Decline and Fall, which they date to about AD 500 (close to the high water mark of Byzantine culture in the reign of Justinian). If I were looking for critical dates around then to symbolize the decline of Rome (Western or Eastern), I would probably opt for the fall of Rome to Alaric (410) and its impact on Augustine’s thought (with all sorts of implications for the subsequent history of Western theology and philosophy) or the sieges of Jerusalem (637) and Constantinople (674–8), which symbolize the emergence of the Sunni Caliphate as a power to rival the Byzantine Empire. Again, while it is true that the formal date of the Great Schism was 1054, this was merely the final act in a drama that had played out over the preceding four centuries. But even if we accept their assertion that Western Christianity has been marked by a series of revolutionary changes spaced at roughly 500-year intervals, the attempt to use this ‘fact’ to predict a fourth happening now strikes me as an unwarranted generalization.

Based on that underlying assumption and the story they have told in the 16 intervening chapters, they conclude with a ‘Front Story’ in which they propose the Emergent Church Movement as a qualitatively new kind of Christianity. However, given that the authors are closely associated with this movement, which they have been at pains to identify with their putative Great Emergence, one can’t help feeling that the thesis is to some extent self-serving. Certainly, Emergent Church is cast in a very positive light and presented as the way forward, while one of its leading spokespersons, Brian McLaren, is likened to Martin Luther (p. 114).

They clearly hope that the Emergence perspective will bring with it an openness to new metaphors (such as fire), which may move us beyond the use of biological language in Trinitarian theology (by which they mean talk of ‘Persons’) towards a more theological account of the Trinity (e.g. p. 152). However, their repeated criticism of the language of ‘Persons’ as biological and their insistence that we need to move beyond such language if we are to achieve a properly theological account of the Trinity makes me profoundly uneasy. How are the three aspects of the Trinity to be understood if not as ‘Persons’? (NB the initial capital and scare quotes: theologians have always understood this language to be metaphorical, speaking of relationships of an ‘I–Thou’ rather ‘I–It’ kind, rather than literally biological.) Surely they don’t want us to see the different manifestations of God merely as the elements of a threefold impersonal force?

In conclusion, this book is interesting and well written. However, I can’t recommend it as a reliable guide to either the doctrine of the Trinity or the history of the Spirit’s dealings with the churches.


Basil of Caesarea (Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality)
Basil of Caesarea (Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality)
by Stephen M. Hildebrand
Edition: Paperback
Price: £19.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A helpful introduction to an important theologian, 14 Oct. 2014
Basil of Caesarea was one of the key theologians of the early Church. As such, he is well known to contemporary students of theology, but often only in a fragmentary way and often only as a theologian. In this detailed and lucid introduction to Basil’s life and thought, Stephen Hildebrand has integrated those fragments to give us a rounded picture of the man and his thought. More importantly, the book clearly relates his theology to his life and his radical spirituality.

After an introductory chapter outlining Basil’s theological and spiritual context, Hildebrand begins his study of Basil’s theology with anthropology. There are some strikingly modern notes in this chapter. Apparently Basil held that, at the heart of our identity, we are both readers and interpreters. He also argued in favour of the equality of men and women. But Hildebrand also offers interesting and useful excurses into Plotinus and Origen on the body and puts Basil firmly in his historical Origenist context while making clear his more positive view of the body.

One reason for starting with anthropology is that it forms a natural jumping off point for dealing with creation and Scripture in the next chapter. Central to this chapter is Basil’s description of creation as a book that declares the glory of God. Thus there are two books – creation and Scripture – in which God is revealed. The impression left by the chapter was that Basil held an instrumentalist view of creation: its raison d’être is revelation. I must admit I was surprised by this: Was Basil’s view of creation really so different from that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus?

From revelation, Hildebrand moves in chapters 4 and 5 to its subject: the triune God who accomplishes our salvation. In Chapter 4 he examines Basil’s credal and catechetical treatments of the Trinity followed by his better-known controversial works in Chapter 5.

Chapters 6 to 8 were for me the most interesting part of the book. They deal in turn with Basil’s understanding of Christian discipleship, the importance to him of Christian community, and the relationship between his theology and his spirituality.

I was particularly struck by the extent to which Basil’s approach to discipleship foreshadowed the Franciscan emphasis on evangelical poverty. It is a salutary reminder that Francis’s rejection of private property was no medieval innovation but rather a rediscovery of something that is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Perhaps with one eye on his potential audience (American, evangelical, and capitalist), Hildebrand is careful to stress that Basil’s rejection of private property had more to do with living in anticipation of the eschaton than with any this-worldly concern for social justice or equality.

The emphasis of living in the light of the eschaton is also a feature of Basil’s view of Christian community. And he expects this of all Christians: he makes no distinction between lay and religious lives. All Christians are called to participate in a communal renunciation of this world. Ultimately his spirituality is about the movement of human community towards God.

The portrait of Basil painted by Hildebrand is that of a reformer and innovator rather than a traditionalist. Yes, he turned to tradition to help him understand Scripture. But he was not afraid to use fresh insights from that understanding to modify and correct the received tradition.

In conclusion, Hildebrand’s book is a valuable introduction to the life of this key figure. It will be of particular value to undergraduate and graduate theologians and historians of early Church seeking a reliable overview of Basil’s life and work.


Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love
by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.99

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A helpful call to Christian environmentalism, 18 Jun. 2014
After an introductory chapter setting out her rationale for a dialogue between Darwinian theory and (relatively) orthodox Christian theology, Johnson embarks in the next three chapters on a much more detailed introduction to Darwin’s theory than is usually found in books relating science and theology. Readers who are not familiar with the theory will probably find this material helpful. However, there is perhaps too much emphasis on Darwin’s own account of the theory at the expense of current understandings. This is understandable in view of her interesting attempt to portray Darwin’s method as essentially contemplative, making him a potential model for Christian attention to the natural world, but it detracts from her claim to be establishing a dialogue between evolutionary theory (rather than a very dated expression of it) and theology.

In chapter 4, she does attempt to bring her account of evolution up to date. Unfortunately she allows herself to be sidetracked into an entirely predictable criticism of social Darwinism. She misses the point that the deployment of evolutionary theory beyond the bounds of biology was inevitable: We are metaphor-making animals so powerful explanatory principles in one discipline will inevitably be deployed in other disciplines. She also allows herself to stray way beyond evolutionary theory into brief accounts of cosmology and the anthropic principle.

The next four chapters offer a theological perspective on the natural world. Chapter 5, ‘The Dwelling Place of God’, suggests that a Trinitarian framework is fundamental to a properly Christian perspective on the natural world and our place within it; I agree, but I was disappointed that this did not come across more clearly in the rest of the book. On a more positive note, she does make very good use of biblical creation traditions here and throughout the book. While I take her point about creation as God’s dwelling place, I can’t help feeling that it would be more helpful (and more orthodox) to see God as creation’s dwelling place. Chapter 6, ‘Free, Empowered Creation’, explores law, chance and causality in light of Christian theology, asserting the genuine freedom and integrity of creation. Chapter 7, ‘All Creation Groaning’, puts the suffering of all of creation in the context of the cross of Christ and resurrection. Chapter 8, ‘Bearer of Great Promise’, picks up the evolutionary theme again and relates it to the Christian concept of continuing creation: the emphasis here is very much on the directedness of creation towards a final fulfilment.

The concluding pair of chapters focus more particularly on the place of humankind within the cosmos as envisaged by Johnson. Chapter 9, ‘Enter the Humans’, offers a thumbnail sketch of human evolution from Australopithecus to the present day concentrating particularly on our growing impact on global ecosystems and concluding with a call to ‘a deep spiritual conversion to the Earth’ (p. 258). 10. The final chapter, ‘The Community of Creation’, picks up where Chapter 9 left off: she critiques the ‘Dominion’ paradigm based largely on Genesis 1.28 and suggests instead a ‘Community of Creation’ paradigm, which makes more use of the Old Testament wisdom and prophetic traditions. She ends by calling her readers to a Christian ecological vocation informed by the latter paradigm.

I was surprised by the relative absence of reference to Franciscan tradition in this book. There are ample resources within that tradition, which could have helped enormously in the development of Johnson’s argument. Francis himself is arguably at the very root of the Christian form of the community of creation paradigm with his vision of the fraternity of all creation. Duns Scotus offers us a Trinitarian conception of creation, a view of Christ’s relation to creation that puts matter in a much more positive light than, say, the Augustinian view, and his insistence on the unique ‘this-ness’ of every creature. Even Bonaventure could be helpful except that she is too quick to accept Paul Santmire's criticism of him, which makes him out to be more conservatively Augustinian than is actually the case.

In conclusion, I was disappointed by this book, not because it is a bad book (on the contrary, she writes very clearly and makes a good case for Christians to take the natural environment more seriously) but rather because I had hoped for more.


The Prince of Lies (Night's Masque Book 3)
The Prince of Lies (Night's Masque Book 3)
Price: £6.38

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Something of an anticlimax, 1 Mar. 2014
This is the third of a series of fantasy novels set in Elizabethan England. The earlier volumes whetted my appetite for more, so I jumped at the chance to review it when Angry Robot made advanced reading copies available through NetGalley.

In the previous volumes Lyle has created an alternative Elizabethan England. The main distinguishing feature of this world is the discovery of another sentient species, the Skraylings in the New World. These creatures possess a range of magical powers, which cause them to be suspected of being in league with the devil. The context of the story is an uneasy truce between England and the Skraylings, which affords England trading advantages and leverage against her Continental enemies. However, a band of renegade Skraylings known as the Guisers is working covertly to gain political power in Europe.

In this volume, Elizabethan spy Mal Catlyn continues his struggles against the Guisers whose leader, Jathekkil, has recently reincarnated as the young Prince Henry Tudor. To make matters worse, the Guisers are experimenting with ways to transfer their powers to humans in the hope of creating an army of human sorcerors to support their bid for power.

Anne Lyle writes very well. Her characters are well crafted; in particular, having read the first two novels I have come to care about Mal and his wife Coby. Lyle’s world-building skills are also evident. Her alternative Elizabethan world has been carefully constructed and the magical system of the Skraylings has been thought out well. However, some readers may feel that she has been too faithful in trying to re-create an authentic Elizabethan worldview, for example in the attitudes to women displayed by the central characters including Mal.

The tale winds slowly (across a decade or more) to an action-filled ending. Ultimately, good triumphs over evil (at least for the time being). I have read several reviews of this novel that give the impression that this is the satisfying conclusion to a trilogy. Personally, I felt there were sufficient loose ends to warrant another volume (or possibly series), perhaps set a generation later.

To be honest I found this novel hard going. In spite of the quality of the writing and characterization I found it less easy to read than its predecessors. Lots of things happen in the story – too many things – I feel she has succumbed to the temptation to fill in as much of the story between volume 2 and the climax of this one as she could. The result of this attempt to cover too much ground is fragmentation and little sense that the story is going anywhere.

People who have enjoyed the first two volumes will want to read this one as well, but they may well find it something of an anticlimax.


The Republic of Thieves: The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, Book Three (Gentleman Bastards 3)
The Republic of Thieves: The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, Book Three (Gentleman Bastards 3)
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The best fantasy I read in 2013, 27 Jan. 2014
Republic of Thieves is the long-awaited third volume of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. It has been years in the making because of the author’s personal problems, but it is very welcome now that it is here.

Republic begins with a prologue that puts the story in context by detailing Locke Lamora’s first encounter with the love of his life, Sabetha. It then jumps forward in time to a point shortly after the end of Red Seas Under Red Skies: Locke is dying of an illness concocted by a group of Bondsmagi he has antagonized. This gives another faction of Bondsmagi the opportunity to make him an offer he can’t refuse: his life as part payment for rigging an election.

The bulk of the story is essentially an account of Locke and Jean’s efforts to rig the election. However, Sabetha has been recruited by another faction to rig the election in their favour, so it becomes a tale of the difficult relationship between Locke and Sabetha interspersed with flashbacks to their time with the Gentleman Bastards.

In the end, Locke’s faction win the election, the Bondsmagi apparently vanish, and Locke and Sabetha learn something unpalatable about his background. In the wake of that revelation, Sabetha leaves. Locke and Jean are left penniless but alive.
Lynch has created a set of strong, likeable central characters. Locke and Jean are already familiar from the earlier novels, but this story develops their characters further. Locke is more vulnerable here than in earlier novels, and we are given fresh insights into Jean as he is forced to become Locke’s protector. And, of course, we are at last introduced to Sabetha who has been well foreshadowed in previous novels by Locke’s brooding over her absence. In the course of the story, we gradually discover that the hints in the earlier novels have more to do with Locke’s idealized vision of her than the reality.

The tone of Republic is reminiscent of the amorality of the recent grim dark tendency in fantasy. But this is leavened by touches of humour, thoroughly enjoyable prose, and Locke’s sense of fairness.

An election campaign is not the most obvious setting for an action-packed novel, but Lynch marries the (dodgy) politics and the action very successfully. As a result, the pacing of the novel is every bit as good as its predecessors making it very hard to put down.

Republic is the third volume of a projected series of seven, but there is no sign of the loss of direction that so often plagues mid-series books. Lynch has deftly avoided this by shifting the emphasis to Locke’s relationship with Sabetha. And he has dropped some tantalizing hints about what may be yet to come with the (not entirely convincing) escape of the Falconer – Locke’s enemy from the first volume – and the suggestion that there is something out there that the Bondsmagi are afraid of.

In summary, this was by far the best fantasy novel I read in 2013. Like its predecessors, it is essential reading for anyone who enjoys fantasy literature.


Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples
Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples
Price: £12.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not my first choice, 1 Jan. 2014
This recent book from the pen of Michael Horton is essentially an abridgement (by about 50 per cent) of his larger volume "The Christian Faith" aimed at a wider readership. I must confess that I was disappointed. My expectations had been raised by reading earlier works by Horton (particularly his "For Calvinism") and particularly by the title, which reminded me of a passage in Jim Packer's "Knowing God" and led me to hope that this systematic theology was actually geared to the daily pilgrimage that is the Christian life.

In fact, the book is a fairly conventionally structured overview of Christian doctrine from a Calvinist perspective. Two introductory chapters deal with knowing God and the doctrine of Scripture. These are followed by: God (2 chapters), creation and fall (2 chapters), God's response to sin (3 chapters), salvation (5 chapters), sacraments and ecclesiology (3 chapters), and eschatology (2 chapters).

Two difficulties with this approach are worth noting: it seems to be comprehensive (it isn't; e.g. there is no treatment of the spiritual dimension of creation) and every one of the chapters could have been expanded into a book. The resulting breadth at the expense of depth inevitably paints theology in misleadingly black and white terms while at the same time lending the book an air of superficiality.

Worse than that, some of Horton's arguments seem tendentious. Other reviewers have commented on his tendency to caricature those he disagrees with (e.g. Jim West has questioned his treatment of Zwingli). For me, this weakness was particularly apparent in his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity where the so-called social (or, better, relational) model of the Trinity is dismissed as tritheism in a couple of sentences. In the course of this dismissal he makes (necessarily) highly selective use of quotes from Jürgen Moltmann, which is fair neither to Moltmann nor to the subject (Colin Gunton or Robert Jenson would make far better dialogue partners).

Having said that, this volume does have its uses. While it won't replace my first choice for a one-volume introduction to Christian doctrine (Mike Higton's "Christian Doctrine"), I would certainly recommend it to any evangelical who might otherwise be tempted to invest in Wayne Grudem's "Bible Doctrine".


Francis of Assisi: The Life
Francis of Assisi: The Life
Price: £9.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A refreshing perspective on Francis, 9 Nov. 2013
Given the new Pope's adoption of the name Francis, this is a remarkably timely addition to the many biographies of Il Poverello. However, this is more of a quest for the historical Francis than most. And since the author is a Dominican he may be less susceptible to the hagiography of Francis than some of his earlier biographies. As if in confirmation of that, Thompson places particular emphasis on Francis's own writings and the earliest testimonies to Francis's life while being clearly sceptical of later hagiographies (and quite dismissive of the Fioretti).

The result is effectively a quest for the historical Francis arranged in a broadly chronological structure. Thompson divides the life of St Francis into eight segments that are given roughly equal treatment.

Thompson begins with Francis's early life and strips away much of the romanticism associated with earlier biographies of the saint. This Francis is presented as a troubled young man, traumatized by war and behaving erratically. Perhaps most interesting is Thompson's sympathetic portrayal of Francis's father as a man genuinely concerned by his son's apparent descent into madness. The second chapter outlines the earliest beginnings of the Franciscan movement with Francis being joined by Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter who had experienced similar religious conversions. Over the next two chapters, Thompson presents the emergence of the Franciscan movement as largely spontaneous. It was certainly not intended by Francis. On the contrary, Francis is shown to be reluctant to take responsibility for the growing movement; leadership is forced upon him by Cardinal Hugolino. That initial reluctance gradually develops into a love-hate relationship with leadership: Francis happily resigns from his role as leader, but he remains the power behind first Peter of Cataneo then Elias. The concluding chapters offer a careful study of Francis's Rule, particularly the Regula Bullata (Chapter 6); in something of a departure from his erstwhile scepticism, an affirmation of the historicity of the stigmata (Chapter 7); and an account of how Francis's final days were stage managed.

I am not entirely convinced by Thompson's portrayal of Francis. He certainly does a good job of highlighting Francis's flaws, thus perhaps creating a more approachable Francis. However, I suspect that the difficulty with a quest for the historical Francis (like that of the long-discredited quest for the historical Jesus) is the re-creation of Francis in our own image. And the eccentric, vacillating, self-doubting man who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder glimpsed in these pages does seem suspiciously modern. Nevertheless, the book is well written and presents a refreshing alternative to the older biographies.

My thanks to Cornell University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book via the Netgalley scheme.


Imagining the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): How Worship Works
Imagining the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): How Worship Works
Price: £7.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, must read, 21 Sept. 2013
There is more to Christian discipleship than understanding the Bible or doctrine. Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a trilogy entitled `Cultural Liturgies' in which James Smith tackles this `more' by exploring how imagination, desire and story shape the way we are in the world.

I must confess that I haven't read the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom. Fortunately Smith has written in such a way that each volume can be read on its own.

In the first volume he argued that `we are, primarily and root, affective animals whose worlds are made more by the imagination than by the intellect--that humans are those desiring creatures who live off of stories, narratives, images, and the stuff of poiesis' (xii). Imagining the Kingdom picks up this argument and develops it in two parts.
The first part, `Incarnate Significance', explores the embodied nature of our knowing and acting, drawing on contemporary thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu to illustrate the importance of the pre-conscious contribution to Christian thought and praxis. In particular, he makes extensive use of Merleau-Ponty's concept of perception (or embodied knowing) and Bourdieu's concept of habitus.

Deploying these concepts, he argues that it is not the case that theoria is prior to praxis. We are predisposed to act in the world, but that action does not derive primarily from theoretical attention to the world. Our action is more instinctive than that. Rather our practice in world is shaped by our experience of world. And that experience is shaped by stories, `stories that have captivated us, have sunk into our bones--stories that "picture" what we think life is about, what constitutes "the good life." We live into the stories we've absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us' (32). Embodied knowing thus envisaged must be rooted in community: in shared stories and shared communal practices.

Part 2, `Sanctified Perception', weaves the theoretical considerations of Part 1 into an exploration of how worship works and of Christian formation for mission. This latter half of the book presents an appealing picture. It is important that we are reminded that there is far more to being a Christian than merely our attempts to give rational expression to the faith. Smith rightly points towards the important role played by repetition, ritual and story-telling.

The first chapter of this section looks at how worship works in the broadest sense. Drawing on Part 1, he defines human beings as imaginative, narrative animals. Our embodied knowing and our shared practices are formed by our imaginations. This allows him to present the world as liturgical, where liturgy is defined as `rituals and practices that constitute the embodied stories of a body politic'. He continues, `If liturgies are "rituals of ultimate concern" that form identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and that do so in a way that means to trump other formations, they do so because they are those story-laden practices that are absorbed into the imaginative epicenter of action and behavior.' (109) Our desires are formed by such `cultural liturgies', and Smith offers smartphone usage as an example.

The second chapter of Part 2 explores the implications for Christian formation for mission. For Smith spiritual formation takes place primarily through worship rather than catechesis. Through worship, we become immersed in the gospel narrative and reoriented to the story of salvation history. And this results in the gradual transformation of our reactions: In face of wrongdoing or injustice, we show mercy instead of revenge; in face of suffering, compassion instead of callousness; in face of tragedy, hope instead of despair.

Smith offers a sustained critique of intellectualistic piety without ever becoming anti-intellectual, a judicious relativization of the role of the intellect in Christian discipleship. Positively, he places a welcome emphasis on the centrality of worship in Christian formation and mission (though other reviewers have commented critically on the conservatism of his view of worship).

Having said that, my Barthian background makes me sceptical of any approach that relies so heavily on expositions of perspectives from outwith the Christian tradition(s). One has to ask oneself what presuppositions about the way the world is have been slipped into Smith's argument courtesy of his adoption of Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty. Is this account of human knowing and formation as uncontested as his presentation suggests? Are there other approaches that might supplement, complement or contradict this one?

In spite of that reservation, I think this is a well-written and thought-provoking volume that will repay careful study by theologians and pastors alike.


Against Calvinism: Rescuing God's Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology
Against Calvinism: Rescuing God's Reputation from Radical Reformed Theology
Price: £6.99

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Helpful critique of Calvinism, 22 Jan. 2013
This is the sister volume to Michael Horton's `For Calvinism', which I reviewed some time ago. Roger Olson has clearly drawn the short straw in this project: It is always more difficult to write a constructive critique of a view which you believe to be just plain wrong than to write an apologia for you own belief system. It might have been fairer to ask Olson to write something entitled `For Arminianism' but, of course, he has already written something very like that.

In the first two chapters, Olson explains the context for his opposition to (certain forms of) Calvinism and outlines the complexity of the Reformed and Calvinist family of Christian traditions. This is essentially a response to the Calvinism of the so called young, restless Reformed thinkers (e.g. John Piper) who have spearheaded the re-emergence of a radical high (or even hyper) Calvinism in the past three decades. Olson insists that they do not have a monopoly on the term `Reformed' (his own theological hero, Arminius, was also a Reformed theologian) or even `Calvinist' (Olson cites the Dutch theologian Gerrits Berkouwer as an example of a moderate Calvinist who would take issue with this new hyper-Calvinism) and challenges some of their more extreme statements about God's sovereignty. In his own words:

`I believe someone needs finally to stand up and in love firmly say "No!" to egregious statements about God's sovereignty often made by Calvinists. Taken to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism, which attributes everything to God's will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil.' (p. 23)

In Chapter 3 he defines what is commonly understood as Calvinism today in terms of the five points of Calvinism (or the doctrines of grace). His basic argument is that Calvinism has to be inconsistent in order to avoid making God the author of evil, and he expands on this in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 4, `Yes to God's Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism', affirms a `weak' view of divine sovereignty, namely that nothing happens without God's permission. He goes on to argue that a stronger view of sovereignty would make God the sole cause of all that happens and thus undermine the contingency of creation (p. 72). He traces this latter view from Zwingli through Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, R.C. Sproul, and Lorraine Boettner to Paul Helm and John Piper. As he sees it, this understanding of divine sovereignty is in tension with the goodness of God; taken to its logical conclusion it must lead to fatalism and an implicit belief that God is the ultimate cause of evil.

In Chapter 5, `Yes to Election; No to Double Predestination', Olson affirms the unconditional election of God's people as a whole and the conditional election of individuals. But he rejects the Calvinist notion of reprobation: in his view, that God pardons one sinner and condemns another who has committed the same sin makes God capricious rather than compassionate.

In Chapter 6, he argues that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is a deduction from other points of Calvinism (specifically unconditional election and irresistible grace), which lacks scriptural support. He maintains that it contradicts the love of God by making God partial and, indeed, actively antipathetic towards those he has not chosen. Olsen also devotes some space to refuting the Calvinist argument that the only alternative to limited atonement is universalism.

In Chapter 7, Olson questions Calvinist claims that any human contribution to salvation (synergism) reduces it from grace to work and again he devotes some space to correcting what he sees as Calvinist misrepresentations of synergism as covert Pelagianism.

Olson concludes his critique with a chapter summarizing the conundrums of Calvinism and a couple of appendices dealing with some Calvinist responses to his central criticisms and various Calvinist claims.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a critique of any theological tradition is attacking the belief without attacking the believer. Roger Olson has done an admirable job of challenging the implications Calvinism while acknowledging that most Calvinists do not press their beliefs to their logical conclusion. He concludes that `evangelical Calvinists are some of the best Christians in the world. I just think they are terribly inconsistent and teach and believe doctrines contrary to scripture, most of Christian tradition, and reason' (p. 179).

This volume makes a very readable companion to its sister volume by Horton. Nevertheless, just as I remained unconvinced by Horton's very attractive presentation of Calvinism so I reached the end of Olson's text feeling more than a little uncomfortable about the Arminian alternative. Is it perhaps the case that both Calvinism (at least in its modern `restless' incarnation) and Arminianism are tainted by the Pelagianism that theologians like Kathryn Tanner and Colin Gunton have perceived to pervade post-Reformation (and certainly post-Enlightenment) Western theology?

(Perhaps I should add that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of their blogger review programme.)
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God and Creation in Christian Theology
God and Creation in Christian Theology
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4.0 out of 5 stars The language of creation, 21 Jan. 2013
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How is it possible to affirm both absolute divine sovereignty and the existence of genuine freedom within the created order? For many people today this is simply not an option. Theologians and believing scientists alike carefully qualify the concept of divine sovereignty by, for example, referring to God's respect for the created order. Alternatively, those who are concerned to maintain divine sovereignty at all costs are prepared to allow determinism to creep into their accounts of the created order. Both sides tacitly admit that traditional theological attempts to maintain both were mistaken.

Tanner denies that widespread modern conclusion. She argues instead that traditional theological discourse is coherent so long as it conforms to certain linguistic rules about the transcendence and creative agency of God. The bulk of this book is devoted to uncovering those rules at work in certain traditional theologies. In a concluding chapter she examines the reasons behind the belief that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are incompatible.

The approach adopted in the book is unashamedly linguistic. Tanner readily admits that `In studying theology I am concentrating, not on what theologians are talking about, but on the way they say it' (p. 11). One effect of this approach is a pragmatic view of theology: it exists to help us live life in a `Christian' way rather than to promote understanding of the object of our faith. The association of this semantic ascent with non-referential approaches to religious (and scientific) discourse may well render it uncongenial to conservative Christians (or, practising scientists). However, the linguistic approach does enable her to lay bare a variety of rules of discourse which, taken together, enable the theologian to affirm coherently both divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom.

Turning first to divine transcendence, she examines the difficulties created by this concept in the Hellenistic context of early Christian theology. Transcendence and divine agency appeared to be mutually exclusive. Neo-Platonic efforts to maintain both were only partially successful, resulting in an emanationist understanding of creation. Christian theology had to hold together belief in a radically transcendent God and in his intimate involvement with every aspect of the created order. Tanner perceives two rules of discourse at work in the theologies which developed in the face of this requirement: as regards transcendence, the theologian must `avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and world and a simple contrast of divine and non divine predicates'; as regards God's creative agency, we must `avoid . . . all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner' (p. 47). Her argument is amply illustrated with analysis of particular theological cases, notably Aquinas and Barth.

She then repeats this procedure for Christian theological talk about the power and efficacy of creatures. At first sight the rule about divine agency appears to preclude talk about genuine creaturely freedom. However, Tanner maintains that in traditional theological discourse divine and creaturely power were not inversely but directly proportional: `If power and efficacy are perfections, the principle of direct proportion requires that creatures be said to gain those qualities, not in the degree God's agency is restricted, but in the degree God's creative agency is extended to them' (p. 85). This fundamental rule is then developed in a variety of subsidiary rules defending the Christian doctrine of creation against tendencies to deism or occasionalism amongst other errors.

Tanner concludes her study with an analysis of what has gone wrong in the contemporary climate. Why does the suggestion that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are compatible meet with such resistance today? She argues that a complex of ideas and intellectual methods widely regarded as the legacy of the Enlightenment is responsible. The result is an intellectual milieu in which talk of creaturely freedom is most naturally interpreted in a Pelagian fashion while talk of divine sovereignty is understood as advocating divine tyranny. In such a situation, attempts to reaffirm the traditional Christian doctrine of providence are fraught with difficulties.

Once again, Tanner illustrates her analysis with historical examples. Her choice (the theology of Gabriel Biel and the de Auxiliis controversies) is interesting. Implicit in this choice is a denial that the Enlightenment is the chief source of our difficulties. The tendencies which came to fruition then were already at work before the birth of the Reformation.

Finally, Tanner does not leave us without hope. The problems analysed in her final chapter are not intractable. We do not have to give up traditional claims for a transcendent creator God in order to speak to late twentieth century western culture. On the contrary, there are forces within contemporary culture which will enable us to do what Christian theology has always done, namely, `fracture anew the language of the ordinary, so that traditional affirmations about God and the world come to hang together intelligibly once again' (p. 169).

Stylistically, this book is far from easy. She writes in the opaque style beloved of American theologians and she assumes that her readers will have a good working knowledge of Christian theologies of creation. Nevertheless, what she has to say well repays the effort of reading her.

I have some reservations about her theological functionalism and her tendency to focus upon the language of theology rather than its referents. Nevertheless, I found this book fascinating. She does not offer us a Christian theology of creation and providence for the end of the twentieth century. However, her analysis of the rules of discourse lying behind traditional claims in these areas ought to be taken seriously by anyone who is working in this field.


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