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Colloquium 29.1 (1997)

 

BOOK REVIEWS

THE JESUS QUESTION: THE HISTORICAL SEARCH

Robert Crotty (Blackburn, Vic.: HarperCollins Religious, 1996)

228pp. ISBN 1 86371 681 5

Robert Crotty writes ‘not primarily..for professional theologians or biblical scholars’, but to help ‘intelligent people to participate in the debate on modern Jesus research’ (p. 1). The book provides an introduction to the issues of the historical search.

The first chapter describes the rise of historical interpretation of the Bible. This forms the background for a description of the ‘three quests’ for the historical Jesus. The author includes discussion of the response of the Roman Catholic Church to biblical interpretation. This is an aspect to which the author returns at various points throughout the work and which will be helpful for Catholic readers, in particular, without being sensed as a distraction by others.

The description of the quests is also handled in the context of the shift to postmodernism, an aspect which informs the book and its conclusions. Crotty’s espousal of postmodernism is reflected in his emphasis on literary method. The second chapter, ‘Reading Gospels as Literature: the Skills of the Interpreter’, introduces the methods of textual, source and form criticism. The treatment includes also the relevance of these for historical research.

The following two chapters, ‘Second Temple Judaism: the Gospel Context’ and ‘New Discoveries and Ancient Texts’ continue to provide the intelligent reader with important background information for the discussion. The chapter on second temple Judaism is strong on political and social history, but somewhat meagre on the religious ideas of the various strands of Judaism in the period. The chapter on texts focuses on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi discoveries. While these have been the new discoveries, the book could leave the impression that other writings of the period are less significant. I would have thought that such an introduction would need some discussion of the many other writings of second temple Judaism, which have been ‘rediscovered’, so to speak, in recent decades. In a book which will place Thiering’s and Eisenman’s Jesus beside the reconstructions of Crossan, Borg and Meier, the prominence given to the Scrolls is disproportionate and perhaps gives those two constructions undue prominence.

In chapter 5 Crotty introduces the historical reconstructions of Crossan, Borg and Meier. The methodology of each is clearly described. The reader is given a fair and reasonably detailed picture of each reconstruction. Crotty is careful to point out that Crossan draws the analogy with Cynics tentatively, a point often missed, partly because of Crossan’s use of the designation of Jesus as ‘a peasant Jewish Cynic’. It is disappointing to find no critical discussion of Crossan’s work. ‘For the moment it is sufficient to say that Crossan’s Jesus is plausible and well presented’ (p. 144). But the same descriptive mode continues in the account of Borg. Crotty writes: ‘Crossan and Borg rely on much the same sort of sources in order to reconstruct their respective historical Jesuses. The reader is left with a choice’ (p. 148). The same approach characterises the treatment of Meier. These are very informative descriptions of what these authors are saying and why they are saying it. Why no engagement with their scholarship?

The treatment of Thiering and Eisenman follows a similar pattern. First Crotty describes the emergence of the ‘consensus view’, as he describes it, and the grounds which underpin it. He then introduces Thiering’s view. It is not inappropriate in an Australian publication that her work be given fairly detailed treatment. It is a very clear and fair exposition. Crotty mentions that Thiering’s views have ‘affronted mainstream Christian belief’ (p. 167) and highlights her alternative explanation of the virginal conception and of the resurrection. But why not mention the response of critical scholars to her work? One is left with pop-postmodernist impression: one interpretation is as good as another.

The conclusion to the chapter comes closest to some critical assessment, but all in the space of a single paragraph (p. 175) in very general terms: Identifications of characters of the scrolls with characters of the gospels cannot be verified beyond doubt; ‘both deny that the recent carbon-14 results affect their theories.’ Crotty goes on to point out that we have no evidence that Jesus was connected with the Qumran community and there are significant differences between his historical life style and theirs. The final pages of the chapter include a discussion of the way the various constructions outlined in this and the previous chapter might impact on Christian faith. The focus is again primarily descriptive.

In the following chapter Crotty moves to judgement. It is to the effect that for Christian faith the foundation is not historical reconstructions but the Jesus-Myth. In a postmodern age we are to recognise the historical reconstructions as relative. I find a correlation between this perspective and the lack of critical engagement with the reconstructions. Instead the energy is towards arguing that the Jesus-myth such as we have it in Mark is what sustains faith. Much of this chapter is a lucid exposition of Mark. ‘The central feature of any literate religion is not its sacred text, ...but its quality of religious experience - the quality of human reaction that it aroused by a deep-felt contact with Ultimacy’ (p. 182). The text of Mark as expression of the Jesus-myth can evoke that sense and did so in the context of a mythological world view which saw Jesus as deliverer from the powers of evil.

Crotty’s argument is that the gospels need to be rediscovered as myth. The Enlightenment turn to history led to a clumsy misuse of Mark as history, a project which did not succeed. ‘The point being laboured in this chapter is this: neither Mark nor any other gospel text has been found to be historical because they were never meant to historical’ (p. 216). In his conclusion Crotty presses the point home. Mark’s myth does not require historical reliability. ‘Like all myths, it may or may not be historically true. Its utility does not depend on any historical verification’ (p. 220). He continues: ‘Salvation is by experience, and experience comes from myth and ritual, not history’. The failure of the reconstructions of historians has a ‘negative value but an important one. Christian faith obviously cannot be constructed on history’ (p. 220). The search must be for the authentic Jesus-myth, not the authentic historical Jesus.

For Crotty, ‘literary methodology ... controls the Christ of Faith’, not historical methodology (p. 221). Nevertheless, he argues, literary methodology requires sensitivity to the fact that the myth is ‘more easily read in the first century than in the twentieth’. He then acknowledges that this means that ‘reading a gospel text from the first century CE is not for children; it is for mature and skilled adults’. ‘Life seen through the focus of the Jesus-myth, with all of its Jewish trappings, would be an exciting vision’ (p. 223).

It will have been this kind of insight which led Crotty to write this book and to include in it the material about historical background so essential to understanding the myth. That then raises the question whether, if that is the case for ‘the Jewish trappings’, the historical information about the historical church, and, more to the point, the historical Jesus is not also relevant for understanding the myth. You cannot have it both ways. Once you give importance to one part of history for understanding myth, it must surely apply to all pertinent history.

There is much about the centrality of myth (whether historical or not) with which this reviewer agrees. Christian faith revolves around a living story, not least, as many would go on to say, a living Christ. Yet to make a virtue out of diversity among historical reconstruction is an old move and one which, to my mind, fails to come to terms with the issues. Historicity and its risks are part of the reality, including the unknown, with which Christian faith is saddled, as long as it has not cut loose the myth from history. People may weigh the relevance of that history differently, some as an instance others as unique incarnation in time.

For Crotty it is the Jesus-myth of the first century which has primary value. By contrast, Thiering’s is a twentieth century myth, and Eisenman’s, no myth at all; and the various attempts of Crossan, Borg, and Meier to make a link are failures. The book shows no interest in engaging them at a historical level. ‘The Historical Search’ (subtitle of the book) is irrelevant; only the Jesus-myth is the answer to ‘The Jesus Question.’ I am not so sure.

William Loader

 

GALES OF CHANGE

RESPONDING TO A SHIFTING MISSIONARY CONTEXT

THE STORY OF THE LONDON MISSIONARY SOCIETY, 1945-1977

Bernard Thorogood, ed., Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994

viii, 345 pp. ISBN 2825411264

One of the chief outcomes of the evangelical awakenings in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was the rise of the modern missionary movement. The great passion of the evangelicals was evangelism, evangelism at home and to the ends of the earth. As a result, a number of societies and voluntary organisations came into being, in which Christians of different churches and nations banded together to win the world for Christ. These movements and societies were unconscious pioneers of cooperation and Christian unity and thus helped the emergence of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century. The London Missionary Society was one of the earliest of the missionary societies thus formed and epitomised in its structure and policies the evangelical passion for mission and the ecumenical spirit. When formed in 1795 as a union effort of British evangelicals from four or more denominations, it stated clearly its intention not to send Presbyterianism, Independency, Episcopacy or any other form of church order or government to the heathen, but the glorious gospel of the blessed God.

The story of the LMS from its beginnings in 1795 to 1945 is told by Richard Lovett and Norman Goodall in their histories. The book under review tells the story from 1945 to 1977, when the LMS became part of a wider Council for World Mission. It specially focuses its attention on how the LMS responded to a shifting missionary context during this period, which was indeed a period of great change. ‘The years between 1945 and 1977 saw major rapid and permanent change in the political map of the world community, in the social context of many countries, and in the witness of Christian churches’ (p. 1).

In the first chapter, the editor of this volume enumerates some of these changes that have raised questions for churches and missionary societies, challenging them to rethink the structure, programmes and priorities of the missionary movement.

The LMS, which began as a non-denominational organisation, later became the missionary organ of the Congregational Church in England and, by 1977, it became part of a Council for World Mission, in which younger churches were also included. The changes and challenges were felt not only at the world level, but also in local areas. Most of the chapters in this volume are written by local people and describe how the churches and missions have responded to the changes and challenges in particular areas of the world, such as South Africa, Zambia, Madagascar, India, China and South East Asia, Papua-New Guinea, the Pacific Islands and Guyana and Jamaica. These are important stories and they are not merely the stories of LMS congregations, but of the world church as a whole. Joseph Wing speaks of the response of the Congregational churches and mission in South Africa to the political situation that prevailed during the apartheid era. ‘For the past half century the witness of the church in South Africa has demonstrated convincingly that it had been conditioned and shaped by the political, social and economic events and their direct impact on the lives of the people’ (p. 19).

One of the difficult questions faced by western missionary societies, especially after the Second World War, was the relation between the missionary societies and the ‘younger churches’. The volume gives attention to this question and mentions how the transformation of missions to churches has taken place in different areas.

The formation of the Council of World Mission was, in part, the response of the society to this issue. In the last chapter, the editor reflects on the work of the LMS in the past two centuries and points out the essential character and gift of the society.

This is a very useful book for all those who are interested in the history of mission.

T. V. Philip

 

 

A LABORATORY FOR ECUMENICAL LIFE: THE STORY OF BOSSEY 1946-1996

Hans-Ruedi Weber (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996)

viii, 145pp. ISBN 2825412155

This is the story of the Ecumenical Institute of the World Council of Churches, told by a person who was involved in the life of the Institute and also in the World Council of Churches. The story he tells not only reflects the life of the Institute for the past 50 years, but also of the world, the Church and the ecumenical movement as a whole.

The Institute was started in 1946 by the great vision and efforts of Visser ‘t Hooft and others, even before the World Council of Churches was officially organised in 1948. It opened in Chateau de Bossey, a chateau built in 1720, about twenty kilometres outside Geneva. The programme of the Institute included training courses for lay people, theological students, pastors and missionaries, and consultations and conferences from time to time on issues facing the life and mission of the church. In 1951, there was added a four and a half month course for a Graduate of Ecumenical Studies, which in due time became a central feature of the Institute.

One of the important discoveries in the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century is a new understanding of the relation between the church and the world, the world and the gospel. The programme of the Institute generally reflected this new understanding. In this, the pioneers were J. H. Oldham and Hendrik Kramer. The question they faced was, ‘How can the churches be present as heralds of and forces for God’s kingdom in human history?’ (p.17). It was in connection with this important question that J. H. Oldham spoke of the role of the laity. For Kramer, the first Director of the Institute, the main question was how to relate church life and the world’s burning questions.

For the ecumenical pioneers of this century, for the Christians coming from different denominations, ‘the Bible is our meeting place’. Corporate Bible study forms a central place in the programme of the Institute. In the early days, the Bible studies were guided by the well known study leader Susan de Dietrich.

Since its foundation fifty years ago, thousands of women and men from all over the world and from every Christian confession, have come to Bossey for seminars, conferences and graduate school. Living together, studying together and worshipping together, they have experienced a fellowship beyond their confessional, cultural or national boundaries and loyalties. It has created a universal network of friendship and ecumenical fellowship. It is this story of Bossey as a laboratory of ecumenical life that is told in this book. It is a very fascinating story.

T. V. Philip

 

 

BETWEEN TWO CULTURES: ECUMENICAL MINISTRY IN A PLURALISTIC WORLD

Stanley J. Samartha (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996)

xiii, 157 pp. ISBN 282541171X

The author of this book, Stanley Samartha, is a well known professor of history and philosophy of religions in India and was, for several years, on the staff of the World Council of Churches as the first director of its sub-unit on Dialogue. The book is the author’s personal account of his journey into the area of inter-religious dialogue and the struggle he had to wage to make inter-religious dialogue a serious concern of the WCC. He also discusses the implications of inter-religious dialogue for Christian theology, missiology and for the life of the church in a pluralistic world.

Although India is the home of some of the major religions of the world, the Christian community in India generally neglected the study of Indian culture and failed to establish relationships with the people of other faiths among whom they lived. There were exceptions. P. D. Devanandan was one of them. The author tells that, when he was appointed to the faculty of United Theological College in Bangalore, Devanandan, who earlier taught history of religions in the College, told him, ‘For seventeen years I taught religions in the college and they always made me feel that it was a marginal subject’. It is to the credit of Devanandan, Samartha and some others that this situation has gradually changed. The situation in the ecumenical movement when Samartha joined the staff of the WCC in 1968, was no better. Since 1955 there existed, first in the International Missionary Council and later in the WCC, a study entitled, ‘The Word of God and the Living Faiths of Men’. As the ‘Word of God’ was put on one side and the ‘living faiths of men’ on the other, it inevitably led to a confrontational rather than relational theology of religions. Any dialogical attitude toward people of other faiths was precluded by the very definition of the topic (p. 42).

The fear of syncretism was very widespread among western theologians and missionaries. This was also true with regard to several of the leaders of the ecumenical movement in Europe. The European opposition to dialogue with people of other faiths was seen in its intensity, when the report on dialogue in community was discussed in the Nairobi Assembly of the WCC in 1975. Instead of discussing the report, the assembly raised questions such as, ‘Does dialogue lead to syncretism? Does it compromise the uniqueness, supremacy and the finality of Christ? Does it betray the Christian mission?’.

It was in such a difficult atmosphere that the author had to direct the work of the sub-unit on Dialogue. ‘My responsibility was to take initiatives, suggest new lines of approach, set up studies on the biblical and theological basis for new directions proposed and persuade colleagues and members of the policy-making committees to permit us to go forward’ (p. 29). The book under review tells the story of the various conferences and consultations held and the insights gained, the steps that were taken to implement the findings and the changes that had taken place in the WCC with regard to the programme on dialogue during the twelve years of the author’s work with the WCC. Today, there is general recognition in the ecumenical movement that dialogue is not a secret weapon in the armoury of an aggressive Christian militancy, but a means of living out our faith in Christ in the service of the community. It is not out to replace other religions with Christianity, but to relate the living faith of the Christians to the living faith of other people in a pluralistic world.

We are grateful to the author for writing the book and to the WCC for publishing it.

T. V. Philip

 

 

THE ORTHODOX CHURCHES IN THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES: TOWARDS THE FUTURE

Todar Sabev (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996)

100 pp. ISBN 2825411841

Since the early 1990s, there is, in the ecumenical movement, a search for a common understanding and vision of the World Council of Churches. The World Council has initiated a number of studies and consultations on its self-understanding, orientation, priorities and relations. The book under review is an Orthodox contribution to this on-going study by a theologian of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church who was a former deputy general secretary of the WCC.

The book examines the present ecumenical situations from an Orthodox perspective and asks whether the current ecumenical vision is still valid. It suggests, from an Orthodox point of view, requirements and ways towards unity.

The encyclical of 1920 of the ecumenical patriarch calling for the formation of a koinonia of churches paved the way for the Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement. The Orthodox participation in the WCC has considerably increased after the New Delhi Assembly, when a number of Orthodox Churches joined the membership of the World Council. Since then, a number of Orthodox delegates, advisers and guests have attended ecumenical assemblies, world conferences and consultations.

There is an Orthodox Task Force in the WCC office, active in advising the staff regarding relationships with the Orthodox Churches, the development of relevant programmes and co-sponsoring of meetings.

Such involvement in the World Council of Churches is mutually beneficial. The Orthodox Churches have benefited from their involvement in a world fellowship. The ecumenical movement has been instrumental in bringing Orthodox churches closer to one another. It has enabled them to discover the universal dimension and the ecumenical nature of orthodoxy, and its missionary awareness and potential. It has made them aware of the need to witness together with western Christianity. In turn, the Orthodox Churches have contributed to the ecumenical movement as a whole. The Orthodox contributions to the ecumenical movement in the areas of trinitarian theology, Christology and ecclesiology are significant. The use of koinonia to refer to the unity of the Church in recent Faith and Order discussions owes much to the Orthodox influence. The author points out that ‘unity as koinonia compels all members of the Body of Christ to review their assessment of the real though not full communion in faith and life they share with other churches, and the appropriate way to protect and strengthen interchurch relationships’ (p. 63).

With regard to the Orthodox perception of the World Council of Churches, the author does not see any need for changes in the constitutional basis of WCC. He affirms the specific nature of the WCC as both a church body and a dynamic ‘frontier’ movement of the churches seeking unity, renewal and the diaconal expression of responsibility in the world. He does not approve of the efforts in some churches, in recent years, to reshape the WCC into a fellowship of Christian World Confessions or regional ecumenical organisations. In general, the author endorses the present programme of the WCC and calls the Orthodox Churches to a fresh commitment to ecumenism.

In our search for unity, one way to move forward what the author suggests is to recognise in the Church a ‘hierarchy of truths’. By this, he does not mean a doctrinal compromise or reduction of truth and ecumenism as a search for the lowest common denominator. Rather, he points out that, for centuries, trinitarian theology, Christology and pneumatology dominated patristic works and that theological reflection on other questions was very much related to these central Christian beliefs (p. 77). The word ‘hierarchy’ is rather confusing or misleading. The word ‘central’ may serve the purpose. What he suggests is the need to distinguish between the essential and non-essential teachings of the Church. In this, the Orthodox approach is: In necessary things unity, in doubtful things freedom and in all things charity

The Orthodox Churches have always insisted that re-unions of churches can take place only on the basis of the common faith and experience of ‘the undivided church of the seven ecumenical councils’. ‘This is the way of achieving unity in doctrinal teaching, sacramental life and polity’ (p. 57). The Orthodox Churches consider themselves as the depositories of the spiritual treasury of faith, life and tradition of the universal church. They believe that they have a great responsibility and opportunity to witness to this truth in the ecumenical movement. While this is said with sincere conviction, they often forget that there was no time when there was an ‘undivided church’ and that there were Christians and churches outside the Roman empire who also claim to hold the true apostolic faith, but may not share the tradition of the churches in the Roman empire. How are we to understand the Christian tradition?

This book is of great help in knowing the position of the Orthodox Churches regarding some of the important issues discussed in the ecumenical movement today.

T. V. Philip



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