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Colloquium 34.1 (2002)


FIRST AND SECOND KINGS THEN AND NOW.
IN THE MIDST OF CHANGE, GOD

John Olley
(Eastwood: Morling Press, 2001) 153pp. ISBN 0646408909

Biblical scholars know John Olley best for his provocative contributions covering both testaments but most often dealing with Isaiah. The book being reviewed here is different. The publishers claim it “is suitable for pastors, Bible study groups and others exploring the relationship between God’s Word and God’s world” (Rear cover, publisher’s blurb). This is an accurate summary. Indeed the text grew out of small group Bible studies in a local congregation.

For such a group or individual Olley provides a clear, concise, but stimulating, summary of the story told by selected passages from 1 & 2 Kings. He explains the social and moral issues inherent in the narrative in their setting in the Ancient Near East. He also relates these issues to contemporary concerns. The material is accessible to a wide range of readers, but may tax parishioners whose normal reading does not contain much intellectual fodder. For, although Olley uses simple and direct language throughout, the ideas are challenging.

The studies are divided into nine chapters (with preface, introduction and epilogue). Each focuses on a passage selected from the books of Kings, the biblical material covered ranges from one to nine chapters. Each chapter also focuses on an issue of contemporary relevance. The chapter headings indicate the range of material covered: Wisdom, Wealth and God (1 Kings 3-11), Buildings and God (1 Kings 5-8), Pragmatism and God (1 Kings 12-14), What does “One God” Mean (1 Kings 17-19), Property Acquisition and God (1 Kings 21), People on the Fringe and God (2 Kings 4-5), Revolution and God (2 Kings 9-12), Relying on God (2 Kings 18-20), Loving God with All One’s Being (2 Kings 22-23).

The great strength of the book is the connections it makes between the world of monarchic Israel and today. These connections are not trivial but rooted in social structures and behaviours. A good number and variety of discussion questions (at the end of each of the nine chapters as well as the introduction and epilogue) both support and encourage readers to extend the connections Olley suggests in the body of the chapter. These questions would allow a group leader to take up some of the hints in Olley’s text and stimulate their group to work towards conclusions. Olley does not provide prepackaged “the Bible says” solutions, but rather seeks to help educate his readers, and to engage them with responsible living in their own contexts.

The select and annotated bibliography (p.137-42) provides inquiring readers with a wealth of possibilities for further and deeper study.

My main disappointment with this book does not concern the content but the production. The type, though of good size and well spaced, is not easy on the eyes. This may be caused by the somewhat rough surface of the paper resulting in some blurring of the edges of the type. Olley’s light touch sometimes seems too gentle, for example in the chapter “Property Acquisition and God” dealing with the appropriation of Naboth’s vineyard. In the context of a post-colonial society (like the author’s Australia or the reviewer’s New Zealand) it seems strange not to make explicit mention of land issues rising out of colonial experience and its use of power to obtain land rights from indigenous peoples. Olley offers questions that could provoke discussion of these issues, but does not provide any more direct stimulus.

In summary, a group that worked through this material would be better aware of the contemporary world and their place in it. Through Olley’s light touch they would also be significantly better informed about the ancient world described in these biblical texts. Thus this book makes a useful contribution to the arsenal of resources that help reduce the gulf between academic biblical studies and the understanding of ordinary Bible readers.


Tim Bulkeley


WHAT DID JESUS MEAN? EXPLAINING THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT AND THE PARABLES IN SIMPLE AND UNIVERSAL HUMAN CONCEPTS

Anna Wierzbicka
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) xiv + 509 pp. ISBN 0195137337

Anna Wierzbicka is Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the Australian National University. Following an introductory chapter, in which Wierzbicka explains what she means by “simple and universal human concepts”, this book comprises three parts: I. The Sermon on the Mount; II. The Parables; III. Conclusions and Further Perspectives. Parts I and II make up the bulk of this book and constitute a commentary on Jesus’ aphorisms and parables.

Wierzbicka is aware that not all biblical scholars think the question posed in her title is relevant and meaningful, but she aligns herself with those who consider the question worthy of attention. Indeed, she asserts that her book proposes new criteria for testing the probability of certain interpretations of Jesus’ sayings. Describing her book as “a study in the semantics of religious language and in the interpretation of religious metaphors” (p. 5), she advises: “My primary focus in this book is to launch a new type of exegesis, which can be called semantic exegesis” (p. 6). Drawing from research in the field of linguistic semantics, Wierzbicka’s principal analytical tools are “conceptual primes” and “universal human concepts”.

For Wierzbicka, a conceptual prime is a concept that is simple and clear enough to be self-explanatory or intuitively comprehensible; in short, a concept that cannot be made more intelligible by recourse to some other concept. Examples of such self-explanatory concepts include GOOD and BAD, YOU and I, SOMEONE and SOMETHING, DO and HAPPEN, KNOW and THINK. According to Wierzbicka, cross-linguistic semantic research indicates that conceptual primes have “lexical exponents” (corresponding words) in all human languages, even if such words have more than one meaning. So, conceptual primes turn out to be universal human concepts, the bedrock of all human understanding. Wierzbicka refers to “the minilanguage of 60 or so simple and universal human concepts” (p. 19), which she calls a “Natural Semantic Metalanguage”, and she presents a table of the full set of universal concepts derived from cross-linguistic investigations, many of which are her own (p. 465).

Not surprisingly, in her discussion of Jesus’ aphorism about the eye being the body’s lamp (Mt 6:22-23 // Lk 11:34-36), Wierzbicka suggests that the existence of language universals supports the concept of natural law (pp. 161-69). Wierzbicka also maintains that although syntax is largely language-specific, some syntactic patterns are also universal. For example, all languages contain IF-clauses; on the other hand, not all languages have semantically matching imperative constructions. If I understand Wierzbicka correctly, in any language one can say the equivalent of “If you do good things for other people…” but not the equivalent of “Do good things for other people”.

Wierzbicka acknowledges that her translation of gospel texts into universal human concepts will strike many NT scholars as odd. However, she contends that by applying linguistic semantics to the study of the gospels, these texts can become “directly intelligible and illuminating to total cultural outsiders in areas of the world relatively little influenced by Christianity and Western culture” (p. 13). For example, the simple and universal concept behind the “kingdom of God”, a central idea in Jesus’ teaching, is that of people living with God. (Wierzbicka accepts that the term “God” is not a universal concept, and her discussion of this term on pp. 20-21 is concise and illuminating.) Whether the phrase, “people living with God”, adequately expresses what Jesus meant by the “kingdom of God” is doubtful, given Jesus’ Jewish mode of thought, but Wierzbicka’s semantic exegesis does enable someone for whom the Jewish and Christian traditions are totally foreign to gain a sense of this central feature of Jesus’ teaching.

How do Wierzbicka’s simple and universal human concepts help to explicate specific texts? Part I is entitled “The Sermon on the Mount”, but although this phrase also appears in the subtitle of her book, it is not, strictly speaking, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 that Wierzbicka discusses; rather, what she discusses is the Sermon on the Mount as reconstructed from Matthew 5–7 and parallels. So, for example, her discussion of the Lord’s Prayer concentrates on Lk 11:2-4, not Mt 6:8-13, and her discussion of Jesus’ tree and fruit sayings focuses on one scholar’s reconstructed Q-text thought to stand behind Mt 7:15-20 and Lk 6:43-45 and “therefore closer to the historical Jesus” (p. 207).

On Mt 5:17, Wierzbicka recognizes that the relation between Jesus’ teaching and Hebrew Scripture and tradition was an issue on which Jesus probably commented. But because it is impossible to reconstruct Jesus’ exact words from Mt 5:17-20 and Lk 16:16-17, she chose not to explicate specific verses but rather “the general drift of Jesus’ teaching on this point…” (p. 58). To explain Jesus’ teaching on his relation to Torah and the prophets, she offers a summary (using universal concepts) of key assumptions shared by Jesus and his audience. According to Wierzbicka, Jesus undoubtedly affirmed the divine source of Torah and prophetic teaching but also wanted “to go beyond them” (p. 59). Her translation into universal human concepts of Jesus’ saying as represented in Mt 5:17 reads:

Wierzbicka recognizes that the meaning of this “something else” is much debated. In the absence of a simple and universal concept to express “fulfilment”, one wonders how semantic exegesis might help to resolve whether “fulfil” in this context meant to obey, complete, radicalize, transcend, challenge, revise or reinterpret. To translate this saying into universal human concepts seems to take us further away from, rather than closer to, what Jesus meant. On the other hand, Wierzbicka’s semantic exegesis may convey the general sense of Jesus’ saying to someone for whom first-century Jewish thought-forms and assumptions are totally foreign.

On Mt 7:12 // Lk 6:31, the so-called “golden rule”, Wierzbicka accepts its probable authenticity. With respect to parallels in other religious and philosophical traditions, she asserts that “… despite the extensive literature devoted to this question, no genuinely close parallels that pre-date Jesus have actually been cited” (p. 192). By this she means that the closest parallels are stated negatively, for example, “What you hate, don’t do to someone else” (Rabbi Hillel). Wierzbicka uses semantic analysis to differentiate Jesus’ golden rule from alleged parallels. Her discussion is wide-ranging and sagacious, taking into account the role of the golden rule in Jesus’ ethical teaching as a whole. For her, the golden rule is neither the centre nor sum of Jesus’ ethical teaching but rather a corollary of his love commandment. Contesting the view that the golden rule is essentially identical to the “law of retribution” and therefore inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching as a whole, Wierzbicka articulates this hermeneutical principle: “If in one interpretation a well-attested saying appears to be inconsistent with Jesus’ overall teaching, one should question that interpretation before dismissing the saying itself as nonauthentic” (p. 194).

How does the golden rule read when translated into universal human concepts? Wierzbicka proposes the following:

The concept of “goodness” is absent from Mt 7:12 // Lk 6:31, but Wierzbicka points out that the contexts in which this saying occurs indicate that “goodness” is implied. Of course, Matthew and Luke, rather than Jesus, are responsible for the contexts within which one finds this saying. (It is a curious fact that with the sole exception of the golden rule, the relative sequence of shared sayings in Mt 5:2–7:27 and Lk 6:20-49 is identical.)

Wierzbicka is aware that attempting to explain the meaning of a parable in terms other than those of the parable itself is controversial (p. 301). To illustrate her approach to the parables, I have chosen her discussion of the parable of the leaven, partly because of its brevity and partly because even the most skeptical of critics regard it as authentic. Despite general agreement that this parable originates with Jesus and addresses a central aspect of his teaching, the parable’s meaning is widely contested. Wierzbicka notes various themes (transformation, hiddenness, mysteriousness, irresistibility, etc.) that provide clues to Jesus’ understanding of and teaching about the kingdom of God. Her semantic exegesis of the parable is too long (indeed, more than four times as long as Jesus’ original illustration) to reproduce, but in part it reads (p. 281):

For Wierzbicka, lines a-c express Jesus’ confidence in God’s intention to establish an all-inclusive kingdom - a theme passionately explored throughout this book - while lines d-h refer to the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ life and mission.

In Part III, Wierzbicka briefly considers Jesus’ teaching as a whole and defends its originality. She also provides an outline of Christian faith using simple and universal concepts, and she concludes by discussing the style of Jesus’ teaching, especially his eschatological sayings and parables. Although brief, the final three chapters offer a great deal of food for thought.
Whatever one decides about Wierzbicka’s semantic exegesis, this is a book of wide learning and deep reflection. One cannot help but be impressed with her engagement with secondary literature and, more importantly, her respect for the material under investigation. It is not often, in a book on the teachings of Jesus, that Berdyaev is cited as often as Bultmann, but this is one way in which Wierzbicka’s familiarity with the Eastern Orthodox tradition adds to the richness of this book. In connection with Jesus’ eschatological teaching, this expression of hope by Berdyaev (p. 472, n. 9) deserves careful consideration: “Moral consciousness began with God’s question, ‘Cain, where is your brother Abel?’ It will end with another question on the part of God: ‘Abel, where is your brother Cain?’”

David Neville


PHARISEES, SCRIBES & SADDUCEES IN PALESTINIAN SOCIETY

Anthony J. Saldarini
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans/Livonia: Dove, 2001) xxv, 325pp. ISBN 0802843581

This reprint in paperback of Saldarini’s 1988 study is testimony to the popularity, acclaim and continuing usefulness of the original work. The book is reproduced without change and focuses on these three major groups in Jewish society during the Second Temple period. His sociological approach is firmly rooted in three primary sources of literary evidence: the writings of Josephus, the New Testament and Rabbinic literature. However, Saldarini does not confine himself to sociological analysis and it is his blend of this approach with historical and literary-critical readings of the texts which results in his original contribution to the field.

He argues that both scribes and Pharisees belong to what he describes as the “retainer class” – a term borrowed from Gerhard Lenski’s analysis of agrarian empires such as the Hellenistic and Roman empires. The retainers “served the needs of the ruler and governing class… and gained most power when the governing class ceased to be effective rulers and left matters in their hands.” (p.41) Using Lenski’s social categories Saldarini discusses the relative political, social and religious influence of the three groups.

Saldarini’s style is lucid and well-referenced, if somewhat repetitive due to the structure of the book which is concentrically divided into three parts. In each part he returns to the three groups building on the findings of his model applied to the literary evidence and then synthesised and interpreted in the final section. His methodology is careful and disciplined so that his conclusions about our knowledge of the power and influence wielded by these three groups are cautious without claiming more than the evidence will bear. He acknowledges the limitations of the sources, eg. that we know very little about the origins and influence of the Sadducees (p.298) or about how the Pharisees supported themselves economically (p.48). He also emphasises the complexities of Jewish society and its interactions at this time.

A new addition to the reprint of this book is the foreword by James C. VanderKam, of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Here VanderKam aims to “revisit the book, to glance at reactions to it, and to sketch what has happened in the field since the hardback version appeared in 1988” (p.xi). In effect, what he provides is a summary of the book’s content and methodology for the first six pages. He then proceeds to quote from various reviews of the book, both positive and negative, followed by a list of recent publications on these groups, particularly the Pharisees, with extensive quotations.

Of more interest to the reader is the section on the Dead Sea Scrolls material which has become available since 1988. With the official publication of 4QMMT in 1994, VanderKam identifies a correspondence between the legal opinions expressed there and dating from the second century BCE, with those attributed to the Sadducees in later rabbinic literature. This provides something of a breakthrough in studying the previously little-known origins of the Sadducees and the influence of their legal decisions on other groups such as the Essenes. However, VanderKam makes it clear that similarities between such groups stop at this point for they differ substantially on theological issues such as the role of fate and angels.

Following Saldarini’s untimely death in September 2001, this reprinted version is a fitting tribute to his work. A paperback version makes it more accessible for students and teachers who are likely to continue to be the main beneficiaries of his labours.

Lynne Wall

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW IN CURRENT STUDY: STUDIES IN MEMORY OF WILLIAM G. THOMPSON, S.J.

Edited by David E. Aune
(Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001) xii, 191pp. ISBN 0802846734

A colloquium of leading Matthean scholars who gathered at Loyola University in Chicago in 1998 to honour the memory of William G. Thompson, S.J. gave rise to this collection of papers. An opening tribute by Thomas H. Tobin, S.J. highlights Thompson’s work as a “compositional critic” of the Gospel of Matthew, his emphasis on the pastoral implications and applications of New Testament study, and his love of scholarly debate. Each paper takes up one or other of these passions.

Using the headings from Davies and Allison’s retrospect in their ICC commentary on Matthew, Donald Senior, C.P. provides a lucid survey of recent Matthean scholarship, offering a balanced critique of Davies and Allison’s conclusions and suggesting directions for future studies.

Amy-Jill Levine calls for better communication and complementary use of methodologies across the divide between historical-critical methodology and feminist/postcolonial/postmodern approaches. She illustrates her argument with the interpretation of the story of the Canaanite woman in Mt 15:21-28, suggesting that from a Jewish perspective the interpretations from both camps are misreadings inclining towards anti-Judaism, despite the Gospel’s declaration of the priority of Israel in Jesus’ mission.

The question of whether Matthew was written only for a local community or for general circulation is taken up by Graham N. Stanton. From a study of the Oxyrhynchus papyri he challenges the view that codices were utilitarian texts for private use rather than carefully produced texts for authoritative public use. He also gives evidence for notebooks containing short quotes existing side by side with codices. He concludes that early christian communities may have been in closer touch than is usually supposed.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. focusses on using Matthew in pastoral ministry. He advocates complementary use of the discipline of historical-critical method and the diversity of more recent literary and hermeneutical methods for the task of interpreting and appropriating the Gospel. He raises the issues of Christian-Jewish relations, making practical suggestions for Christians and Jews together to be helped to a better understanding of the texts seen as hostile to Jews. He then outlines something of the contribution of Matthew to the development of contemporary spirituality, ethics and community. Harrington helpfully directs pastors to recent books on each of the topics he discusses.

The healing stories in Matthew 8-9 are considered by Elaine Wainwright, R.S.M. specifically as healing stories rather than a category of miracle. She gives particular attention to the healings of women, looking at them from a socio-cultural and medical-anthropological perspective. She notices the labels given to the healed women parallel the healing powers attributed to Jesus and concludes this may reveal the otherwise hidden authorization of women as medical professionals in the Matthean community.

Using evidence from Greco-Roman voluntary association inscriptions, Richard S. Ascough takes further the work of those who have identified the Matthean community as a type of voluntary association, noting both similarities and differences from typical associations. Ascough identifies Malina’s three stages of community formation by comparing material from the Gospel with inscriptions, and argues this material provides the history of the association that defines and guides it as it enters the performative stage signified by the commissioning in 28:19-20. The Matthean community, however, is distinguished from other associations by forgiveness, egalitarianism, humility and service exemplified in a divine patron who faced and overcame death.

Wendy Cotter, C.S.J. also compares Matthew with Greco-Roman material. She outlines and illustrates the main features of apotheosis stories. These stories of the elevation to immortality of political leaders were told by their successors in order to validate their own leadership. Cotter identifes the same features in Matthew 28:16-20, noting the use of Old Testament allusions to place Jesus in the Jewish context and at the same time highlight the unique feature that his authority is cosmic and eternal.

A narrative study of Matthew 1:18-25 leads Jack Dean Kingsbury to conclude that the primary emphasis of the so-called birth narrative is on the names given to Jesus. He argues that the narrative must be read in conjunction with the genealogy and is better understood as narrative of origin rather than of birth. Jesus, who has his origin in God, is named as Messiah, he who saves his people from their sins, and Emmanuel, and the reader thereby already knows the whole story.

The final paper, by Anthony J. Saldarini, picks up in greater detail than Harrington’s the issues of understanding, preaching and teaching Matthew in a way that is not anti-Semitic. He argues that the Evangelist’s attack is against the leadership of the Jewish community rather than Jews in general, that its purpose is to legitimate the leadership of the new minority group against the established community authorities rather than to replace Israel, and that the harsh style is the typical polemical genre of the time. Saldarini concludes with six rules for preaching and teaching about Judaism.

Consistent with the passions of William G. Thompson, whom it seeks to honour, this book presents a varied collection of cutting edge studies which are challenging for academics, yet remarkably accessible and interesting for pastors and students. I warmly commend it.

Gwen Ince


ORTHODOXY IN CONVERSATION. ORTHODOX ECUMENICAL ENGAGEMENTS

Emmanuel Clapsis
(Geneva: WCC / Brookline: Holy Cross Publications, 2000), 236pp. ISBN 2825413372.

Emanuel Clapsis, Professor of Dogmatic Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, is a frequent contributor to the Greek Orthodox Theological Review and The Ecumenical Review. Here the publishers of both journals have collaborated to produce a fine collection of Clapsis’ previously published articles, plus several new ones. But this is no loose or arbitrary collection. The constant theme of Clapsis’ work, as indeed his title suggests, is the conversation between the Orthodox tradition on the one hand and the contemporary world on the other: the Western churches, non-Christian faiths, and the concerns of secular culture. Clapsis shows himself to be an articulate representative of the Orthodox tradition who is also not afraid to look honestly at the hard questions the modern world puts to this tradition. His answers are never simply a matter of following some party line.

The book covers several clusters of questions. First, there are the large, human questions that face us all: How are we to respond to the ecological crisis, to overpopulation and to the increase in tribalism at the end of the 20th century? Second, there are questions that specifically face Christians in regard to our own tradition: How do we respond to the inherent sexism in our traditional naming of God? How do we respond to the needs of a suffering world? How do we acknowledge more appropriately the work of the Spirit in the Church? How do we evaluate the truth claims of other religions, and the relationships between gospel and culture? How does the church contribute to the current vacuum of ethical guidelines, for example in bio-medical research, and address the link between religion and violence? How can the church be an authentically missionary church? Third, there are the questions that tend to emerge in ecumenical conversation. What is the role of tradition? What of the claims different churches make in relation to ordination, apostolic succession and papal primacy? Finally, there are specifically intra-Orthodox concerns, though again, these have been prompted by conversation within the ecumenical movement and the contemporary world: What defines the boundaries of the Church, what is the role of the laity?

To these questions, Clapsis brings a strongly eschatological perspective: “Orthodoxy derives its understanding of the gospel not from what God has done in the past… but from its experience of the future as it is sacramentally actualised and experienced” (p.31); “Because of their eschatological faith, Christians relate to others not on the basis of their past but on the basis of their future” (p.142); “Christians do not bring God to anyone through their mission, since God is always present and ahead of them. To say otherwise would be a denial of the universality of God’s presence” (p.160). This advent perspective Clapsis sets in contrast to a traditional western imitatio Christi model, with its tendency to refer back to the historical Jesus. There is a post-modern concern to develop, over against a prevailing fear of otherness, a theological appreciation of it (pp.139-40). There is an articulate defence of an appropriate reader-response interpretation of texts: “since there is no such thing as ‘exegesis without presuppositions’, critical exegesis should be conducted on the basis of ecclesial presuppositions” (p.17). There is a spirited defence of the “public intelligibility and accessibility” (p.145) of theological input into civic life, provided by a laity that is properly equipped for such a role: “the ministry of the laity is not just an amateurish and pale imitation of the work of the ordained ministry, but is visibly achieved and revealed in public life” (p.223). A theology of ordained ministry needs to “transcend …‘ontological’ and ‘functional’ definitions” (p.70). There is a concern to establish mechanisms for change, pin-pointing as problematic the “absence of formal criteria or authorities” within Orthodox polity (p.36), and commenting elsewhere: “Orthodoxy does not reject Roman primacy as such, but simply a particular way of understanding that primacy” (p.109).

Clapsis begins each article, almost without exception, by setting out the question and the argument he intends to develop. To each of these highly topical questions he brings a thoughtful, well-researched approach that emerges out of a clearly articulated Orthodox position, but which never simply resorts to restating the opinions of others. Thus Clapsis offers a lead to his fellow Orthodox to engage creatively with the contemporary world. To non-Orthodox Christians he shows that the Orthodox Church can and does make a unique and indispensable contribution to our lives as Christians and our engagement with the world we live in. The book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Eastern Orthodoxy or ecumenical dialogue. For anyone exploring any of the specific themes addressed here, Clapsis’ contributions are not to be overlooked.

Duncan Reid.


COMMUNICATION AND RECONCILIATION. CHALLENGES FACING THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Edited by Philip Lee
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 2001) xii, 97pp. ISBN 2825413410

Carlos A. Valle, the secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication, helpfully provides an introduction to this slim volume. He states that the “purpose of this book is to explore a variety of perspectives on the role played by communication in the search for reconciliation”. The contributors number eight and come from many parts of the world. The contributions themselves vary enormously in approach and style. Some are very convincing in the task of relating communication and reconciliation, others seem to have different aims in view and throw in references to communication in a rather contingent or even arbitrary way. All are concerned with reconciliation but some offer more practical suggestions as to how this might be achieved, beginning with better communication between neighbours and (former) enemies.

S. Wesley Ariarajah affirms that what is needed is a “culture of dialogue” before reconciliation can take place. He uses insightful examples from the tension that is steadily growing between Hindu and Christian communities in India.

In one of the most theoretically satisfying sections of the book, William F. Force analyses the nature of social alienation and decline in democracy in the USA. His twelve propositions on democracy are truly insightful. He sees the present day communications media as having a pivotal role in “creating alienation and defeating the democratic process”.

Dafne Sabanes Plou gives us probably the most moving testimony to the might of the powerless — the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. They, the mothers and grandmothers of those who “were disappeared” in Argentina during the military junta have played a fearless role in bringing the truth to light and then in fostering a slow and inevitably painful reconciliation. This is one of the sections that is somewhat weak in the area of “communication and reconciliation” — but no matter. It is also somewhat repetitive but this too has its own resonance.

The low point for this unavoidably mixed book comes in the section by Tissa Balasuriya, Communication Ethics with a Pluralist Worldview. The declaration Dominus Iesus is grossly misrepresented as expressing the view that “Catholic Christians [are] considered as more loved or provided for by God for eternal salvation”. He also states that “Christianity claims a monopoly on the truth”. Apart from such obvious howlers, his whole essay is rendered hollow by its largely unsubstantiated assertions and generalisations. Where he gets into practical proposals he is astoundingly naïve. Upon a crude calculation of the relative human population densities on the Indian sub-continent, Australia and Canada, he suggests that the people of India should be allowed free access to Australia and Canada to settle in the vast unoccupied spaces there. Just how uninviting those (desert and freezing) spaces really are does not seem to enter into the equation.

In her Restoring the Language, Cultural Memory and Identity of Estonia Epp Lauk tackles the theme of communication and reconciliation with commendable finesse. We are given fascinating details and illuminating examples that in themselves offer testimony to the power of language and communication. Of course language — is it to be Estonian or Russian? — is a major issue in Estonia. Cultural and personal identity is bound up very closely with this primordial and essential means of communication.

Bernie Harder and Marlene Cuthbert provide another North American perspective, and very different from that of William F. Force. Theirs is the view-point of the First Nations Peoples of what is now known as Canada. Their explanation of the connectedness of the First Nations Peoples with the land is most illuminating and resonant with that of other people such as the Maori in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The First Nations People have undoubtedly been wronged and forcibly separated from their land. Their community is based on spirit — the Creator — and is fundamentally related to the land. Acknowledging that community is essential for being human is an essential first step towards reconciliation and relationship.
Jahda Abou Khalil and Nawaf Kabbara remind us that “reconciliation begins when people begin to respect people with disabilities”. The position of the Indian Dalits (“untouchables”) provides the backdrop to V. Geetha’s The Politics of Reconciliation: A Story from India. She regards an ideology of exclusion — such as untouchability — as a barrier to reconciliation. Two historical approaches to this disagreeable phenomenon are examined and contrasted. One represented by Gandhi, more traditional but humane and essentially Hindu; the other, that of Ambedkar, more radical and inclined to see Hinduism as part of the problem rather than its solution.

By way of summary, we have here a very varied grouping of essays. The scope ranges from the particular to the general, and from the local to the global. Surprisingly enough, the sections that deal with the particular and the local are more convincing than those devoted to the general and the global. Ironically, the former also tell us more about reconciliation in general which begins with communication on the local scale.

Peter Janssen

 

LEARNING TO LIVE TOGETHER. INTERCHURCH PARTNERSHIPS AS ECUMENICAL COMMUNITIES OF LEARNING

Lothar Bauerochse
(Geneva: WCC Publications, 2001) viii, 196pp. ISBN 2825413437

The partnerships referred to in the subtitle are in large part the consequence of German Evangelical missionary activity during the colonial period. The word “interchurch” is used to describe these partnerships; however, a better word would be “intercongregational”. They almost always involve a special relationship between an Evangelical Christian congregation from the rich North (usually Germany) and its partner congregation in the poor South (especially Southern Africa).

The book begins with a very extensive historical survey of the development of the concept of partnership in mission. This section concerns itself largely with a succession of missionary and ecumenical conferences from world mission conference held in Edinburgh in 1910 till assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Canberra in 1991. This first section of the book could very profitably have been radically edited, since it presents a lot of detail that is often not directly relevant to the thesis. What is more, this section is referred to only once or twice in later parts of the book. One more significant historical aspect is that the term “Mission” has acquired a certain pejorative association with colonialism. Later a very good point is made that a positive way forward would be to rehabilitate the term “Mission” by emphasising its origin in the Missio Dei (God’s Mission) as well as its ecumenical goal in both Africa and Germany.

The term “partnership” arose within twentieth-century British colonial policy. It was very readily picked up by interactive Christian congregations in the latter half of the century as a most apt description of their relationship — the term “Mission” being seen as colonial, paternalistic and unilateral. It becomes clear, however, that the two congregational partners have different motives in seeking the partnership. The Germans are attracted to the warmth, vitality and spirituality of the African congregations. The Africans, on the other hand, seek an opportunity to experience the European way of life that is perceived as sophisticated and desirable, as well as to make contact with Christians of other cultures. Both groups consistently appreciate the chance to meet and interact personally with other believers (pp.106ff).

Within each partner congregation the people actually involved and affected by the partnership are usually a subset of the whole. There is a concentric circle effect radiating out from those who are actively involved in organising and participating in exchanges to those on the fringes who are hardly aware of the partnership at all (pp.109ff). Significantly, especially on the German side, it seems to be those that are active in other areas of the congregation’s life that are also the most concerned with the German/African partnership.

Even though the term “partnership” implies some sort of equality, there is a disconcerting imbalance in most of the relationships. The author finds the cause for this in the (over)emphasis on projects undertaken by the German partner on behalf of the African. Sadly, despite the best of intentions, the net result of most of the projects is an increase in dependence on the rich North rather than development in the poor South. According to the author, the way out of this is to limit the amount of resources spent on aid projects conceived in Germany and concentrate rather on meaningful aims. The essential question to ask is whether learning has taken place (pp.114ff). This learning does not happen in an ad hoc or automatic fashion. Conditions must be established and adequate time set aside for it to occur. This learning is for both partners. There should be a “conscious initiation of learning” (pp.130f). The character of the learning is to be ecumenical i.e. leading to a deeper awareness of the unity of the Church (pp.132f). Hand in hand with the ecumenical learning there should be a systematic evaluation of the partnership (pp.157f). A very useful programme based on the analysis by Sundermeier is presented (pp.172ff). What is certain to be a controversial conclusion/recommendation by the author “is to take project aid out of the partnerships altogether” (p.192). The author argues his case very convincingly and deserves to be listened to seriously.

This book comes out of and expresses what is sometimes called a “low” Evangelical ecclesiology. In such an ecclesiology the reality of the local congregation is foremost and it is often difficult to arrive at an appreciation of the unity and universality of the Church. It is most significant that these partnerships are set up and continue as congregation-to-congregation initiatives. The author’s strong suggestion that they put more emphasis and energy into ecumenical learning is eminently appropriate and if carried out would prove most fruitful.

This message is obviously of most interest to those who are involved in such partnerships but others too would find it enlightening even if not so practically applicable. For instance for Catholics the local church is related primarily to the Universal Church and to neighbouring local churches rather than a congregation in another continent. This local/universal Church tension is quite different and more constant than that between German and African congregations who interact only briefly and intermittently. However, the central thesis concerning ecumenical learning is a key one for all Christians in their various communions and communities.

If the book has a major flaw, it is that authors and documents are quoted without references. In some cases the author is not even acknowledged (e.g. p.163). For the casual reader this may not be an issue — maybe even an advantage. However, it is very bad form, and most frustrating to those who want to study these matters further/deeper. Presumably, the serious student can find the references in the full and original German edition. The translation is competent but tends to be a literal English rendering of the German phraseology rather than being fully idiomatic. Some will find this a plus point.

Peter Janssen

 


RETHINKING THE BELOVED COMMUNITY

Lewis S. Mudge
(Lanham, Maryland:University Press of America, 2001) 303pp. ISBN 0761818669

Lewis Mudge is a notable figure in ecumenical dialogues both in the USA and internationally. In the foreword to Rethinking the Beloved Commmunity, Konrad Raiser prepares the reader for serious engagement with an “experimental theology [of Church] in the process of production”. Emphasis on the dynamic of “process” is particularly important in studying this work which continues an exploration commenced in The Sense of a People (1992) and The Church as Moral Community (1998).

Inspired by Bonhoeffer’s conviction that the Church should be “Jesus Christ existing in the form of a community”, Mudge has assembled a series of his earlier essays in such a way as to develop a contemporary “ecclesiogenesis”. His thesis is that ecclesiology can best be understood as social theory based upon the biblical narratives as read and interpreted by congregations in the concreteness of their own social existence. There is a valuable introduction alerting the reader to the author’s intent in organising his material into five, more or less, discrete sections: Social Reality (chs 1–3), Hermenuetics (chs 4–5), Ecclesiogenesis (chs 6–8), Civil Society (chs 9–10) and Householding (chs 11–12).

In developing his social theory of Church, Mudge has drawn extensively on philosophical sources (e.g. Gadamer, Habermas, Hobbes) and has been especially influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s analyses of biblical interpretation. At the same time he takes to heart John Milbank’s caution lest “political theologians” present an eclectical-theoretical mix that leaves little room for a transcendent Christian faith. Although he favours a strong theoretical context of the nature of human society, Mudge is careful to avoid interpreting the Church merely as a social institution. Rather, his theory of society acts “as a place in which ecclesia, as society’s true fulfilment, is, by God’s grace, coming to be”; which is to say that, as a visible institution, the Church “lives by acting so as to continually make space for that communal parousia”. The significance of the phrase “lives by acting” is insinuated clearly in reflection upon the Servant-nature of discipleship derived from “Servant” and “Spirit” christologies.

Coming as I do from a Roman Catholic tradition of theology, I have found reading this work to be both difficult and educative. It is useful to review one’s own ecclesiology from another set of premises. Ecumenical endeavour is surely advanced when different traditions provide each other with insight into the faith that is affirmed.

Important issues in this book invite dialogue. One such would be the often vexed question about the relationship between Church local and Church universal. Mudge’s focus on the virtual autonomy of each local congregation gathered by the Word of God differs significantly from Catholic communio ecclesiology where Word and Sacrament cohere so strongly.

Therefore, another issue to be raised would be that of the sacramental nature of the Church. Following Lumen Gentium (to which Mudge refers in passing) Catholic theology is still “unpacking” the theological significance of the explicit recovery of the tradition of the Church as sacrament of Christ. It might be argued that a predominantly social theory of Church masks the fact that the Church exists only as the sacrament of what is possible because of the divine oikonomia, that divine purpose made manifest in Christ because of the incarnation (cf. Eph 1:9-10).

A third question to be raised might concern Mudge’s emphasis on the Church’s unity at the eschaton. This would open discussion beyond the “not yet” to the “even now” manifestation of the eschaton when an ecclesiology in which the sacramental emphasis is paramount is considered; for then the Church and consequently the individual liturgical sacraments, manifest already the real presence of the Reign of God awaiting definitive fulfilment at the eschaton.
This scholarly work offers a “new” view of the Church from within the Reformed Tradition. It is well worth close study. From an ecumenical perspective, each of the various theological lenses through which Christians interpret the Church is worthy of attention. No theology offers the final word on the mystery of the Church. Lewis Mudge has contributed creative food for theological thought within ecumenical circles.

Marie Farrell

 


INTERPRETING TOGETHER: ESSAYS IN HERMENEUTICS

Edited by Peter Bouteneff and Dagmar Heller
(Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2001) xi, 164pp. ISBN 282541333X

This is an important book. And for anyone committed to understanding the role which the Bible contributes in the union of the Christian churches, it is necessary reading. In 1998, after five years of study, reflection and discussion, the Faith and Order commission of the World Council of Churches published A Treasure in Earthen Vessels: An Instrument for an Ecumenical Reflection on Hermeneutics. This document explores the central issues facing churches in their use and interpretation of the Bible. It defines hermeneutics as “both the art of interpretation and application of texts, symbols and practices in the present and from the past, and the theory about the methods of such interpretation and application” (p. 135).

The document then looks at the task of ecumenical hermeneutics in its effort to enable churches to live and interpret biblical texts faithfully. This task depends on a clearer appreciation of important ecclesial doctrines that have been barriers to fuller understanding among the churches—aspects like the difference between the one “Tradition” and many “traditions” and how the one Gospel can be proclaimed in many cultural contexts. The document also unpacks the reason why the Church can be described as a “hermeneutical community.” A Treasure in Earthen Vessels is groundbreaking and calls for attention and study among the churches. It is the book’s final chapter and readily available on the Web (www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/faith/treasure.html).

All the preceding chapters that compose this volume are the background papers and discussion articles which were available to members of the commission in the lead up to the 1998 meeting. These articles were influential in assisting members to arrive at the consensus reflected in A Treasure. Authored by an internationally representative group of scholars, they provide the backdrop to the study process of the Faith and Order and some were presented at commission meetings and consultations. Space does not allow for a detailed analysis of all of these essays, but a brief word about some would be in order.

Anton Houtepen in the opening chapter examines the communicative processes implied by “hermeneutics”. He understands hermeneutics as an interpretative “art” and raises the issue of how Scripture is read in the variety of church contexts. Houtepen is clear that the varieties of traditions of Jesus and the Word of God expressed in the Bible do not equate with exclusivity. It is this principle that Houtepen offers as a way through an impasse amongst some churches in their interpretation of the Bible and its hermeneutic. While affirming the historical conditioning of the biblical text, Houtepen focuses on the relationship between koinonia (“communion”) and metanoia (“conversion”). Both are fundamental for church life, ecumenism and for respectful appreciation of the different ways that churches interpret the Bible.

Ecumenical hermeneutics is also the interest of Michael Prokurat. From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, Prokurat suggests that a discernment of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church is the “hermeneutic” for interpreting the Bible. An authentic ecumenical hermeneutic must attend to this pneumatological aspect of Christian theology. Another helpful aspect of ecumenical discussion and picked up in Treasure concerns the difference between “tradition” and “Tradition”. This is discussed by Nicholas Lossky and Martin Cressy who posit that “Tradition” is the capacity of the church to receive the Spirit’s revelation offered to the churches. This work of the Spirit, they argue, is the reason that individual churches are able to acknowledge the Spirit at work among them uniquely (“traditions”). Treasure affirms this distinction and offers an important theological distinction: the one “Tradition”, it states, is the abiding redeeming presence of the resurrected Jesus in the faith community; “traditions” are the particular modes of this presence (p. 146).

William Henn’s chapter (“Hermeneutics and Ecumenical Dialogue: BEM and Its Response on ‘Apostolicity’”) the longest in the volume, explores the meaning of “apostolicity” amongst the various churches in their response to the WCC document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. Henn offers an analysis of these responses. He argues that the way churches understand and interpret apostolicity—fundamental to how a church perceives its faith link to the earliest believers—is a test case for hermeneutics. For Henn, such an interpretation is derived from a church’s faithful attention to the biblical texts that avoids ideological distortions through self-scrutiny. These interpretations, which are concerned about ecclesial identity, must further address questions of criteria and authority (p. 49).

Rudolf von Sinner’s chapter (“Ecumenical Hermeneutics: Suspicion versus Coherence?”) also deserves comment. In this short chapter von Sinner raises one of the most important questions that the ecumenical movement needs to answer: How do we communicate and deal with the “new diversity” of contextualised theologies that are emerging? The answer to this is found in reflection on an alleged conflict between a hermeneutics of suspicion and a hermeneutics of coherence that had been raised in the Faith and Order plenary commission meeting at Moshi, Tanzania in 1996. In this meeting, hermeneutics of suspicion was connected to a social agenda promoted by particular church communities, usually among the poorer peoples, and a hermeneutics of coherence was concerned about the quest for visible unity among the churches. The Moshi commission meeting saw the two in opposition to each other. Von Sinner regards the apparent conflict, reduced to issues over context (“suspicion”) and doctrine (“coherence”), as both equally important. They represent two aspects of the one theological reality. There can be no “pure” context with reflection on the religious tradition of the Church, nor “pure” Tradition without consideration of the social context in which this reflection emerges. An appreciation of a hermeneutics that takes into consideration both Tradition and context is the best path towards visible unity.

Though only some of the chapters of this book have been summarised above, all the essays in this collection are important and valuable. They keep alive the key issues on which the churches must continue to reflect, discuss and listen. What is exciting about this book is that it reminds us that the ecumenical movement is alive and healthy. Some of the central theological sticking points of the past that have made churches resistant to embrace fully the ecumenical movement are being resolved. Interpreting Together is a witness to this. It highlights those areas where there is mutual agreement and presents in a clear way the future theological agenda for those of us committed to ecumenism. At the heart of this future agenda lies the Bible and its interpretation. An appreciation of the art of hermeneutics will always be central to this agenda.

Michael Trainor


OTHER WAYS OF READING. AFRICAN WOMEN AND THE BIBLE

Edited by Musa
(Atlanta & Geneva: Society for Biblical Literature & WCC Publications, 2001) 254pp. ISBN 1589830091

 

Other Ways of Reading is exceptionally well named as it offers readers an insight into the creative methodologies and biblical hermeneutics emerging in African women’s contextualised reading of the Bible. The book took shape through the research programme of the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians and the energetic editorship of Musa Dube. The heart of the book contains 10 essays by established and lesser-known African women scriptural scholars who cogently discuss some of the ways that scripture is implicated in and perpetuates the oppression of African women and explores the underlying principles through which the Bible can be read anew by different groups of African women. All writers are familiar with Western feminism, liberation and womanist theology and biblical hermeneutics but the creative dimension of their work is that each sets her mind to the question of how reading the Christian scriptures may be life-giving for African women, and ultimately, the families of Africa. Each author attends to her particular cultural, geographical context –African, South African, Batswana, Northern Sotho or Shona.

Masenya and Dube give the rationale and examples of how story-telling methods match the Scriptures with African stories. They suggest that African stories could be another canon alongside the Scriptures, interweaving and illuminating one with the other for the mutual benefit of the message of each. Mbuwayesango and Ntloedibe-Kuswani discuss the problems of translating the scripture from English into African languages, rather than from Hebrew and Greek. They show that using African names for deity for the Christian God in the Scriptures has brought a supposed inculturation but at the price of embedding women more deeply in cultural and church patriarchy. For example, the seemingly inclusive decision to translate “God” as Modimo in the Setswana Bible has at the same time introduced sex differentiation to the mystery of the Divine thus alienating women from their formerly non-gendered Modimo and from the Christian God. Kanyoro and Plaatjie write of the insights that reading the Bible with non-academic women have given to particular biblical stories and to women’s lives. Masenya and Nadar outline womanhood and womanist methodologies. Nadar, a descendent of Indian labourers in South Africa, is the only author in this collection who is not indigenous African. In the last methodogical essay Dube outlines a Divination method of interpreting scripture, a method that I found fascinating and puzzling. I was relieved to see that both the respondents to the essays responded at some length to Dube’s method.

The book is instructive for a reader like me, a post colonial New Zealander, not least because it throws into relief the complex effects of colonialism and the missionary projects in Africa, apartheid, economic exploitation, cultural and family disturbance and the vice-like grip of patriarchy. There are many books now, which write poignantly of the reality of African women’s lives as the lowest of the low in poverty-ridden, war-torn, unbearable situations. They awake us to the enormity of women’s suffering and the patience of their endurance. This book however moves from the recitation of suffering and misrepresentation and comes to grips with the possibilities for reading the Bible in a more life-giving way with and among women in particular contexts in Africa. Each of the authors writes from her experience with her women, but they concentrate on the new possibilities for women’s relationship with each other, their families, and with the Mystery of God. The book represents a scholarly exploration of methods rather than a definitive canon. The authors do not pretend to have the answers but invite discussion, critique and response. The final two essays in the book provide a lively response to the foregoing work and set the stage for further discussion. All the essays exhibit a scholarly maturity causing me to agree with Mallee, the only male theologian respondent to the essays, that African women’s theologies represent the most creative dimension of African theology at his time.

Other ways of reading explores contextual biblical hermeneutics and methodologies for reading the Bible with particular groups of African women. It is an interesting book if only for the window it opens into biblical research in another part of the world. However, its fundamental value is the challenge such work gives to biblical scholars elsewhere. The women’s scholarship in this book is creative, committed and intimately related to the lives of African women disciples.


Ann L. Gilroy

THE PUBLIC FORUM AND CHRISTIAN ETHICS

Robert Gascoigne
(New Studies in Christian Ethics 19; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) xiv + 248pp

With the appointment of Archbishop Peter Hollingworth as Governor General, many Australians are asking about the propriety of a Church leader having so prominent a place in public life. The fact that Church members have raised some of the sharpest questions shows the extent to which we have internalised the secular, liberal democratic spirit of modernity. If an archbishop is to be head of state, then it will be an archbishop who believes that faith can support the humane ends of a liberal society without breaking the ground rules of that society by seeking to impose its own traditions.

Another Church leader, now Gascoigne’s own Archbishop in Sydney (Gascoigne is a layman teaching at ACU), faces a similar challenge. Recent protests greeting the enthronement of Archbishop George Pell cast individual freedom as the opponent of traditional Church teaching on homosexuality. How do Church leaders hold on to the freedoms that we all value in the modern Western democracies while advancing the cause of salvation? Finding some sort of common ground where the imperatives of the faith tradition can coexist with modern valuing of autonomy is the Catholic answer. And both Archbishops Hollingworth and Pell would broadly agree with this approach (though it is difficult to retrieve anything to do with human sexuality from complete subjection to an individualistic, consumer spirit nowadays).

Robert Gascoigne seeks to support all such well-intentioned efforts on the Church’s part, to speak its truth faithfully in ways that maximise the good it can do for people, while limiting collateral damage. His burden is to reconcile modern commitment to autonomy with convictions about proper human ends and the value of community—all of which are too easily lost nowadays. These values are insights of his Catholic tradition, but he also sees them emerging as “mediating principles” that warrant a wide acceptance apart from their confirmation by Christian revelation. One recognises here a wise Catholic reticence about the re-imposition of traditional sanctions on a free society—the risorgimento of the modern, anticlerical Italian state is but one example of the harm ecclesial impositions in former eras have done to the Church’s cause.

Gascoigne also shares the pluralist concerns of postmodernity, calling into question the Enlightenment commitment to universalising rationality. Nevertheless, he remains positive that some moral consensus is achievable on the basis of mediating principles he discerns, offering a minimal natural theology for our times. Indeed, Gascoigne seeks to make a virtue out of the necessity of dealing with radical pluralism. On the basis of his understanding of revelation, in terms of historical encounter with infinite mystery, he divines a crucial role for dialogue with “the other” if we are properly to appreciate revelation—by struggle to interpret revelation in conversation with plural partners, revelation is made all the clearer.

Gascoigne’s argument begins with Enlightenment attempts to ground a public ethics (Kant, Hegel), progressing through neo-Kantian attempts to achieve the same goal by tracing the logic of communication (Habermas, Apel). Finding no adequate basis in the arsenal of secular modernity for the sort of universal ethical claims Christianity is keen to support, Gascoigne analyses the nature of revelation and draws what amounts to a “radical orthodoxy” conclusion: it is in the Christian vision of human worth, revealed in the Gospel, that the worthy humanism of the Enlightenment project finds a reliable ground. (The analysis and experimental opposition one to another of three current models of revelation in Chapter 3 is one of the book’s several highlights). From this reflection emerges Gascoigne’s prescription for the common good, undergirded by Christian convictions about (among other things) the sanctity of human life. His book concludes with a sociological reflection on the morally isolating nature of late modern culture and the need for solidarity as the right balance between (proper) autonomy and (necessary) community.

Gascoigne is alert to major currents of contemporary culture and theology, offering deep engagement with a range of current options. He never lets his methodological guard down, nor does he settle for an easy solution. Indeed, the mediating stance he advocates between revelation and public truth, issuing in a Christian witness both politically (pastorally?) sensitive to the real politic of public policymaking and advocating structural witness to the Gospel through an actual community of committed discipleship is the most demanding path to tread amid current options. One could always be more sectarian, and cut the nerve of publicness, or else seek an entirely undercover Christian witness.

Despite the attempt to balance mediation with witness, however, I felt that Gascoigne nevertheless underestimated the Church’s need to embody a counter-cultural stance, holding fast its traditions even in the face of public disapproval. Having recently read (and been moved by) Torture and Eucharist, from American Roman Catholic William T. Cavanaugh, I have become suspicious of accomodationist Christian stances. Cavanaugh laments the silence of Roman Catholicism in Chile when faced by Pinochet’s terror. Guided by the “new Christendom” ecclesiology of Jacques Maritain, the Chilean Church exhibited the sort of parsimony in public God-talk that Gascoigne also advocates, in the hope that it might have a more powerful public influence thereby. But for Cavanaugh, it was only when the Church’s witness became more intentional and the united body of the Eucharistic community organised against fragmentation of the social body achieved by torture and betrayal, that the fascist monster met its match, and the social tide turned. Gascoigne is sympathetic to such advice, from post-liberal quarters, that the best service Church can give society is to be a good Church. Yet he believes that post-liberals underestimate the degree of ethical commonality possible within even a plural society. Yet sometimes agreement is not enough for evil to be restrained. What is necessary here is the counter-cultural witness of the Church, standing proud in its own traditional convictions, as a prophetic witness against evil. Despite recognising the need for the Church to give structural witness, Gascoigne never goes quite as far as I think it necessary in this regard.

And it is certainly issues such as the one that has brought activist ire down on the head of Gascoigne’s new archbishop that illustrate this—the limitation of mediating principles and the notion of Church as an aid to society in the cause of right. For every natural law opponent of allowing homosexual expression, there are others who allow it on the basis of its natural frequency in the population, or by shifting the discussion of what’s natural from genitals to relationships. George Pell’s only option, then (given his Church’s official inflexibility on the matter), is holding fast to his tradition and speaking counter-culturally. Opposition to abortion and euthanasia are other instances of the Church wanting to influence public policy but finding precious little of the middle ground to which Gascoigne points them. Perhaps there are times when the Church’s only option is to be a sign which is spoken against?

But for all that, let me say what an education Gascoigne provides in this book. My understanding of the history of ideas, the theology of revelation and my sense of the Church’s optimum form of public witness have all grown through reading the book. Some will cavil that Gascoigne works out his argument too much through dialogue with others and fails to make his own case clearly enough. Others will point to the repetitiveness that is a feature of the book. But the quality of Gascoigne’s exposition, the thoroughness with which options are analysed and the deft hand whereby debates are cut through makes me willing to forgive Gascoigne this, and more. My major practical concern is the unlikelihood that anyone will buy a book for $120. In fact, I am sure many will find the price a “proximate occasion for sin” and be tempted to run Gascoigne’s book under a photocopier! But if you can’t buy it, you should recommend it to your nearest theological librarian! And it certainly should be read. Gascoigne has helped me work through a problem that I have felt keenly, and has given a solid foundation for further study in the area.


Scott Cowdell

 


PLAYING GOD. ETHICS AND FAITH

Andrew Dutney
(Sydney: Harper Collins, 2001) 194 pp. ISBN 0226808386

Andrew Dutney’s book, Playing God, is representative of a generational-shift taking place in bioethics. First-generation bioethics writers suffered from what Richard Bernstein calls a “Cartesian anxiety”. Faced with the increasing pace of developments in medical techniques first-generation bioethics writers were too anxious and quickly began advocating various forms of principlism as a means to achieve ethical certainty.

The two most prominent principle-based approaches to bioethics, albeit from disparate philosophical traditions, are the four-principle approach by Beauchamp and Childress and the equality principle approach advocated by Peter Singer. However, this early confidence that principlism could solve ethical issues was misguided from the start. First, because bioethicists failed to take seriously well known epistemic problems associated with concepts like truth, and second, because various conclusions could be drawn from principle-based analysis. Thus the attempt to make bioethics more scientific (objective) turned out to be just as internally incommensurable as the more “traditional” approaches to ethics that it was seeking to supplant.

Andrew Dutney is Principal of Parkin-Wesley College and as senior lecturer in theology at Flinders University he knows what “playing God” means in the Christian community. Christians have used the term regularly since the birth of Louise Brown (first IVF baby) in 1978 primarily as a pejorative objection to what doctors and medical scientists were doing. Dutney suggests that the idea of playing God need no longer mean one thing because the time has come when “we are playing God because we must”. Dutney develops the idea of playing God using several interesting themes in the first four chapters of the book. We play God because We must (1), because We do (2), because We are able (3) and because We can (4). The second half of the book tackles specific instances of playing God. We play God with Life (5), with Death (6) and with Fertility (7). Before we look at what Dutney is claiming in the book it is interesting to reflect on a disclaimer he makes in the introduction. He claims that bioethics has too long been left to experts and the specialists: “[B]ioethics really belongs to those who have been wrestling personally with moral decision-making all along – patients and those who care for them, clients and those who counsel them, and the teams and committees that manage the context in which these ordinary bioethicists make their judgments and choices.”

This is an interesting claim in light of both the themes developed in the book itself and in the role that Dutney has on the South Australian Council on Reproductive Technology. The suggestion that bioethics belongs to patients, carers, counsellors and committees is initially rhetorical and seems like an invitation for non-specialist readers to participate in a conversation. However, it also reflects an ideological sensibility that becomes evident as the book proceeds.

The idea that we play God because We Must is a good place to start. Dutney says that the time for relying on Divine Providence is over. Human beings, Christians included, no longer behave as if God is in control of such fundamental things as conception, birth, health and death. Human beings have been taking over from what was traditionally thought of as “God’s business” progressively over the past two hundred years. Dutney uses several examples to make his point each reflecting the shift away from belief in Providence. The French Revolution represents a political and sociological shift. Revolutions in science and industry provided humans with what Dutney refers to as a “new sense of human potency.” Modernity was indeed a time when humans, as humans, began to take control of their own destiny. The future was to be shaped, “…not by nature or the supernatural but by the choices we ourselves are making, like it or not, we find ourselves having to play God” (cf. Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: the hidden agenda of modernity, University of Chicago Press, 1990).

While Dutney’s explanation of the development of human confidence reflects a standard view of this period his analysis of the pre-modern period is less so. The claim that “to an ever increasing degree our destiny is in our own hands” seems somewhat confused in light of what he is claiming occurred during Modernity. The destiny of human beings is no more in our hands now (or God’s hands for that matter) than it was in the past. Humans have not taken over from God because God never was controlling our destiny, at least not in any sense that allowed humans to know what God thought about specific issues of moral conflict. While it is true that pre-modern humans thought they were acting out of respect for divine providence in reality they were doing no more nor less than what was done in the modern period. Humans try to make sense of the world from within particular traditions. Claims about ethics from the modern period (objectivity, based on science or reason) are no less tradition dependent than pre-modern claims about ethics (objectivity, based on God or Nature).

Thus the example of cystic fibrosis that Dutney uses is not an example of humans playing God but an example of humans being human. There was a time when nothing could be done to prevent cystic fibrosis because no one knew what caused it. Then knowledge about the disease heredity enabled parents to decide whether or not to have children. Now genetic diagnosis can be done at the embryonic stage of human development. In the future defective DNA sequences that cause the problem will be removed and replaced both in somatic cells, to cure specific patients, and in germ-line cells, to remove the heredity potential of disease from the family line. The questions we ask about bioethics and disease vary in every generation and there is no constant to which we can appeal. The claim, therefore, that we must play God should be tempered with the realization that nothing has changed. The distance between human beings and God has always been “infinite and qualitative” to paraphrase Kierkegaard.

In the second chapter Dutney expands on the theme by describing different types of “human play” that that are now unavoidable in modern life. He begins by describing, first, the pretend play of Children, second, healing play, and third, why adults need to develop an attitude of play. Dutney’s explanation of how and why children play and the benefits of play is straightforward but it is not obvious how human play is connected to the central theme of playing God.

The third chapter concerns the discipline of bioethics and Dutney describes this activity as a particular kind of playing God. After providing a brief history of bioethics as it emerged during the previous four decades Dutney shows that the desire to make ethics more scientific should be tempered with the realisation that bioethics offers an opportunity to examine issues rather than solve them. He suggests that play is the most appropriate analogy to describe what bioethics does. Play is a serious activity but not one that we should get too pretentious or heavy-handed about. I am sure he is right about the limits of bioethics but it is not clear in the text itself how play can help bioethics, given that the discipline itself concerns activities, decisions and events between people who don’t communicate that well to start with. How well the various stakeholders can be taught to play remains unknown.

The fourth chapter concerns making sense of suffering. Dutney suggests that a theological answer is no longer appropriate, if it ever was. Asking why people suffer and what type of God allows suffering misses the point. Dutney’s suggestion is to approach the idea of God through human suffering. Suffering is at the core of human experience (birth, sickness, death) and is central to bioethics. Life is full of risk and playing God requires us to take risks. I am sure that Dutney is right that life is risky and that bioethics involves taking risks. However, I am not so sure that the idea of play helps one to know when to risk and when not to. Medicine already has pragmatic protocols in place that make risk-taking a community responsibility. Institutional ethics committees, and evidence-based procedure are examples of the type of risk-analysis that already exists. The idea that “playing God is all about risk” is used by Dutney to set the scene for the following discussion on specific issues of life, death, and fertility.

Playing God with life is the title of the fifth chapter and relates an internal and sometimes personal account of the way the Uniting Church in Australia dealt with abortion reform. As such it reflects more a social history of truth claims that sustain the Reform tradition of the Uniting Church than it does an explanation of what playing God with life is like. Dutney offers a fleeting comparison with the way Catholic and Anglican churches have responded to the abortion reform movement. Little is made of the difference apart from the claim that Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox are engaged in the process of “traditioning,” or finding “the way of light anew in our own generation” although I am not sure what this phrase means.

The sixth chapter, Playing God with death, is primarily a review of the diversity amongst Christians on the subject of voluntary euthanasia. Dutney prefaces his own analysis by describing the movement to “secure legally controlled access to assisted suicide, or voluntary euthanasia” and the widespread popular support that this movement has gained. The rest of the chapter is a pastoral suggestion that “numerous Christian thinkers and theologians…show that holding Christian faith and doctrine is consistent with supporting voluntary euthanasia.” While that is probably true the connection between voluntary euthanasia and main theme of playing God is ambiguous. A second problem is the way the terms voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide go unexplained. While most people do respond positively to a survey that asks whether an individual should be able to control their own death this does not tell us much about the practice of euthanasia in a hospital setting. Terms such as “voluntary euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” misrepresent what most people would allow in practice. Voluntary or autonomous choices about when to die do not necessarily have anything to do with illness or disease. Conversely, physicians are unlikely to assist someone who makes an autonomous request to die unless they are in fact seriously ill.

Chapter seven concerns playing God with fertility and Dutney’s description is based on an evaluation of Australian society repeated several times throughout the chapter, “…when it comes to fertility the basic imperative is that it should be controlled and the organising myth is that it can be controlled.” The first use of the phrase is to show that controlling fertility through assisted reproduction is simply an extension of “normal” control of fertility through contraception. Thus making the idea of “normal” problematic and criticism of people who do turn to reproductive medicine unwarranted. The second and third use of the term refers to the involvement of Christianity in controlling fertility. Dutney provides a cursory introduction to the different ways that fertility is controlled in the Christian community. He describes the contraceptive generation as “Christians who have grown up playing God with fertility” who can grasp by intuition the “self-limiting, self-giving, other-receiving, Trinitarian nature of God the Creator.” As one who belongs to that contraceptive generation I can’t remember ever experiencing such a grandiose intuition about the Trinitarian nature of God. The forth use of the term looks at the damaging aspects of the fertility myth, the claim that it can be controlled. The hope that a healthy child will arrive at the time of our own choosing is often dashed because of disability or death or remains unfulfilled because of infertility.

The closing sentence of Playing God encapsulates the pastoral theme that permeates the whole book. Dutney’s contribution to the next generation of Bioethics is a call to play God more compassionately, “…so that strangers will find a welcome with us—all kinds of strangers, and especially the strangers who are our own children.”

Philip Matthews


WRESTLING WITH DOUBT

Frank D. Rees
(Collegeville, MN.: The Liturgical Press, 2001) v, 238pp. ISBN 0814625908

This is a book for anyone who has ever experienced doubt in the Christian life, and been made to feel guilty about it. Frank Rees teaches at Melbourne’s Whitley (Baptist) College. Throughout, one senses his own struggle to overcome a culture of negativity about doubt and to proclaim a truly gracious God who “justifies the doubter” (Tillich). Rees’s book is an ecumenical, large-hearted plea for an evangelical theology more-rather-than-less biblical, able to celebrate the essential place of doubt in a blameless, faithful life. Moreover, Rees pleads for a Church secure enough in relationship with its “divine conversation partner” that doubt can be discussed openly, grown through and, if necessary, endured courageously. Perhaps, Rees muses, doubt leads to loss of faith rather than growth in faith only when the Church mishandles or excludes doubters.

The book is also a valuable critical survey of theological approaches to these questions. John Henry Newman on “assent” shows faith to be a complex personal matter both of sensibility and volition, supra logical, albeit too-quickly annexed to official Roman Catholic dogmatic requirements for Rees’s taste. Yet while applauding the dynamic understanding of faith’s emergence á la Newman, Rees also holds up the radically non-anthropological starting point of Karl Barth, who seeks certainty in God’s revealed faithfulness. Doubt remains problematic for these writers, despite valuable lessons Rees learns from them. Not so for Paul Tillich, however, with his genuine openness to doubt as an essential aspect of every adequate doctrinal “symbol”, transcending itself in the cause of truly “ultimate concern”. Rees embraces Tillich’s openness to doubt, just as he affirms Tillich’s call for trust - “courage to be” - in the face of doubt.

Rees then undertakes two excursions into religious biography, with Harry Williams and Val Webb. Williams excoriates the fragile pretence of much conventional religiosity, in favour of psychological wholeness and realism; Webb has made a liberating feminist journey away from narrow religious conservatism to advocate the sort of Church praxis Rees craves. Both are too liberal for Rees’s taste, as is Tillich - all these stand rather lighter to doctrinal grammar than Rees believes necessary. And it is this doctrinal grammar that Rees goes on to explore, with the aid of various post-liberal guides (such as Walter Brueggemann). Thus Rees advances to reclaim healthy doubt in the name of faith and to offer relief for unhealthy doubt.

The Bible is explored in two chapters as a book of doubt, for doubters, in which the life of faith is portrayed “conversationally” - God challenges the believer, and vice versa. Protest and lament from psalms, prophets and wisdom literature feature in Rees’s discussion of the Old Testament, while in treating New Testament epistles and Gospels he shows that trust in Jesus leaves room in the community of disciples for doubt about aspects of belief (although the texts are plainly less tolerant when a failure of trust is involved, as with the “double-minded” in James). And what is Rees’s conclusion? I think he is commending a post-liberal faith in God revealed through scriptural narratives, with which the Church is called to struggle in engagement with a complex, plural world. Here is the place for doubt as part of faith’s dialectical emergence. Importantly, Rees does not bind for us an unbearable burden of expectation by assuring us that doubt will eventually disappear. He does, however, seem to suggest that in time the nature of our doubting changes, the fever of it departs and, with the right context and encouragement, doubting is thereafter continually sublimated into “faithing”. Thus Rees offers us an earthy, robust, non-sentimental challenge to “doubt boldly but have faith all the more” (paraphrasing Luther on sin and repentance), befitting a life in conversation with the God of Job, Jeremiah and Jesus.

By way of criticism, I would have appreciated the dots joined a little more as Rees makes his case and to have seen his own argument more fully worked out—at times the “conversation” with others swamped Rees’s own voice (at least for this reviewer). Indeed, I think Rees-the-evangelical might himself have a very interesting story to tell on the subject of doubt, and I would like to have heard it. To take the cheapest shot in reviewing, I want to suggest other writers Rees might have discussed (though I limit myself to two only!). One is James Fowler, with his ever-more-refined theory about stages of faith. Rees mentions him in passing. But if faith is to be seen as the journey of a lifetime, along the course of which much inadequate baggage will inevitably be shed, then Fowler’s analysis must surely loom large. The other writer is Kierkegaard. Rees mentions the melancholy Dane, and elsewhere he seems to appreciate existentialism’s particular gift for doubting in his discussion of Tillich. Yet for all his truly laudable compassion and broad-mindedness, I think Rees ends up a bit too chipper about our prospects when faced by doubt. Kierkegaard is so good on Angst, and if that particular problem is not addressed at sufficient depth, then trusting the conversational God - not to mention trusting the (alleged) conversational community of the Church - is not possible.

One last thing. Rees dreams of a Church in which belonging matters more than believing, in which exploration and disagreement are the ligaments of robust unity, and in which all God’s creatures can find a place. Many in my own liberal catholic tradition of Anglicanism claim that this is the very thing we have achieved, by and large. Yet one yearns on occasion for a bit more plain conviction and unity of purpose - all doubts aside! So, Dr. Rees…beware what you wish for! But thank you for writing a book that will no doubt be an education for many - and a blessing, too.

Scott Cowdell

EARTH REVEALING, EARTH HEALING: ECOLOGY AND CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY

Edited by Denis Edwards
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2001) xx, 245 pp. ISBN 0814659519

Over the past 25 years, there has been a wealth of literature in the area of what we have come to call ecotheology: the names of Thomas Berry, Leonardo Boff, Sean McDonagh, Sallie McFague, Diarmuid Ó’Murchú and Rosemary Radford Ruether come readily to mind. Australians (including Charles Birch, Paul Collins and the Rainbow Spirit Elders) have been prominent in this important and creative area of theological endeavour. The internationally acclaimed Earth Bible Series, under the enthusiastic leadership of editor Norm Habel in Adelaide, is engaging in a reconsideration of biblical texts.

Denis Edwards, another Adelaide scholar, has already made a huge, internationally recognised contribution to this theological task with such readable books as Jesus and the cosmos (1992), Made from stardust (1992), Jesus the wisdom of God (1995) and The God of evolution (1999). He now presents us with an edited volume of twelve essays, carefully crafted by people associated with the Adelaide College of Divinity.

Earth revealing: earth healing offers a great deal of food for thought. The writers demonstrate a good working knowledge of a range of current issues and an ability to relate these creatively to some key theological themes. They demonstrate once and for all that ecotheology is not a minor addendum to the doctrine of creation, but an impetus to rethinking all theology. Thus, Stephen Downs explores the relationship between nature and human culture on the one hand and theological anthropology on the other. Christine Burke discusses globalisation in relation to ethics, conversion, the Trinity, incarnation and sacrament. The common human experience of refreshment and renewal through contact with creation is elegantly linked with the presence of the Holy Spirit by Denis Edwards. Duncan Reid invites us to rethink the incarnation in relation to our vision of creation. Respect for the otherness of creation by taking seriously our understanding of the Trinity is urged by Patricia Fox. Lorna Hallahan explores the experience of disability on the one hand, and environmental destruction on the other, relating both to healing and salvation.

The various remedial approaches advocated in the literature on the environment is surveyed in Anthony Lowes’s article. He then suggests “a new anthropic principle” which takes seriously the doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation, thus cherishing the non-human. Feminist theology provides a basis for Lucy Larkin’s explorations of relationship, which range across discussions about sin, redemption, immanence and justice and ultimately healing, thus offering a basis for relationship with non-human creation. Gregory Brett pleads for the place of eschatology in ecotheology.

The importance of place in ordinary human experience sits uncomfortably with the neglect of place in official Christian theology. This provides the foundation for Philip Tolliday’s reflections on our understandings of God, the creation story, incarnation and the life and ministry of Jesus. James McEvoy argues that the solution to planetary crisis is not to be found in science alone, but also in a reconsideration of the human person – and sees in Rahner’s later thinking a way forward. Andrew Dutney’s closing article claims a place for a new (really, the older) understanding of bioethics, not as centred on medical science and the professional responsibilities of medical practitioners, but on the well-being of the cosmos which is caught up in the life of the triune God.

The thirteen illustrations and poems by artists associated with Dunnilli Art at Nungalinya College in Darwin (whilst not being on the common campus in Adelaide, Nungalinya is also a member school of the ACD) add an important dimension to the volume. Theology is not just done by discursive thinking, but also through artistic expression.

As with much of the ecotheological enterprise, there is little consideration of ecclesiology (although there are passing references in Burke’s and Dutney’s chapters).

What has no doubt helped to enhance the value and depth of this volume is the process employed to develop it. This is no mere collection of projects individuals happened to be working on. The intense critical discussions of each chapter, the peer reviews and collaborative discussions led to several rounds of re-writing. It also resulted in more cohesiveness than is usually found in an edited volume of individual essays. The frequent cross-referencing to each others’ work is evidence of that.

This very useful volume is a tribute to genuine ecumenical commitment in theological research and teaching. The collegiality and synergy created by the common campus at Brooklyn Park and, in particular, the Centre for Theology, Science and Culture, has no doubt helped to make this possible.

If good theology is demonstrated by faithfulness to the theological tradition and re-thinking the tradition to make sense of contemporary issues so as to offer some new directions for the future, then this is good theology.

Robert Bos

THE WORK OF LOVE: CREATION AS KENOSIS

Edited by John Polkinghorne
(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans & London: SPCK, 2001) xiv, 210pp. ISBN 0-8028-4885-0 & ISBN 0-281-05372-3

The quality of the discussion in this collection of articles is already indicated by the contributors to this volume, most of whom are well known for their previous contributions to the theology of creation. These contributors include Ian G. Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, Holmes Rolston III, Malcolm Jeeves, John Polkinghorne, George F.R. Ellis, Michael Welker, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Paul S. Fiddes, and Sarah Coakley. The backgrounds of these contributors vary from systematic theology to neurophysiology.

The book is not simply a collection of independent writings centred on a common theme. Its preparation brought together the above group of scientists and theologians for an initial discussion on the book’s intended theme which drew inspiration from the writings of Jürgen Moltmann and Canon Bill Vanstone. Drafts of the chapters were discussed at a later meeting and subsequently revised. This has allowed the reader to benefit from some interaction among the final articles that comprise this volume and from a degree of coherence among the various contributions in spite of the widely different disciplinary backgrounds of writers.

The central theme of the book is an exploration of the kenotic view of creation. A kenotic view of creation as understood in this volume sees creation as brought about by the action of the God of love. A key biblical text in this discussion is the hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. This view of creation places us in that area of theology where questions are raised about the nature of God, essentially about the omnipotence and immutability of God as understood in classical theology. Indeed, the basic question is still the age-old one: if God is omnipotent then God cannot be good, for God allows humans to suffer. Or if God is good and does not will suffering, then God cannot be omnipotent. Most of the writers in this volume find the classical concept of God’s omnipotence problematic today. The chapters in this book investigate a range of contemporary answers from that of Process theology which sees God constrained by necessity to the proposal of voluntary restraint exercised by God in order that there be human freedom because suffering is a necessary result of humans being free. This is an age-old theological question. What is different in the contemporary debate as exemplified in the contributions to this book are the very recent understandings of the universe from the physical and biological sciences on such matters as indeterminacy, chaos, and the evolution of life.

Also intrinsic to this discussion is the question of human freedom. Human freedom is under question not just from classical theological positions on God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge but also from contemporary debate on scientific predictability and such popular metaphors as the “selfish gene” with its implications for biological determinism and the improbability of real altruism.

Sarah Coakley’s contribution to the volume is rather different from the others in that she has the last say. Her contribution is last in the book and consists of a critique of the previous chapters. In her critique she points out that the classical writers were sometimes more aware of and responsive to the above questions than their contemporary critics, including the writers of this volume, have given them credit for. Coakley also points to the key question of how we define “freedom” in the first place. In many of the articles in this book it is implicit that human freedom and divine immutability or foreknowledge are incompatible. Coakley points out that this assumes a “libertarian” view of freedom. There are other analyses of freedom where the conditions for freedom have to be created by someone else, and this freedom has to be nurtured and protected by someone more powerful or more wise.

All of the articles in this book make thoughtful and often fascinating contributions to the debate on the intense question of how the Christian emphasis on self-sacrificing love affects our understanding of the world, the nature of God and human freedom. My own main criticism of the overall tone of this book is that I left it wondering how it is that so many of these writers know so much about God. One of the major things that contemporary theology has learnt from the physical and biological sciences is a sense of the immensity of the universe and the complexity of life within the tiny planet Earth. If we look for distinctions between contemporary theology and classical theology, then some very solid reasons for adopting a deep humility about our capacity to understand the Creator of all this bewildering immensity and intimacy would be one of those distinctions.

Indeed many of the writers in this book do acknowledge the value of an apophatic or negative theology, but do not then follow its cautions. This is not to say that we have nothing to say about God or the nature of the universe. But it does mean that our theology becomes very sensitive to the implication that our God language is mainly about the relations among human beings themselves and with the larger world, as for example, in regard to human freedom as pointed out by Coakley. This is perhaps the point at which we could look forward to another but similar project that brings about an interaction between theology and the social, psychological and historical sciences. But that of course is beyond the scope of this particular volume. This particular volume is a high-quality discussion by eminent scholars on the interaction between theology and the physical and biological sciences focused by that quite central and critical Christian belief in self-giving love.

Neil Darragh

GOD AS COMMUNION: JOHN ZIZIOULAS, ELIZABETH JOHNSON AND THE RETRIEVAL OF THE SYMBOL OF THE TRIUNE GOD

Patricia A. Fox
(Collegeville Minnesota: Michael Glazier, 2001) 265pp. ISBN 0814650821

It is an exciting challenge to read Patricia Fox’s recent book on two major contemporary theologians - John Zizioulas and Elizabeth Johnson. Fox examines the theology of Trinity emerging from both, and in a thorough and insightful manner draws links between their theologies and concludes with her assessment for the future of Trinitarian theology.

I use the word “challenge” of Fox’s work for three reasons. First, her study of these theologians conveys much significant material within relatively concise summaries. Her accounts of the Trinitarian theology offered by each are helpful and well researched. The absorption of such material demands the reader’s continuing focus. Second, the structure of Fox’s work - introduction to the topic (ch.1), summary of both theologians’ perspectives on Trinity (chs 2-7), assessment of their common and particular Trinitarian perspectives (chs 8-11) and her offering of suggestions towards further Trinitarian theology (ch.12) provided me, as reader, with an ongoing challenge. I felt I was on a journey, sometimes teetering gingerly or sympathetically between two theological perspectives. Before reading the final chapter, I tried to work out (in the light of Fox’s material thus far) what I gauged would be the six strands she had selected for any “retrieval of the symbol of God”. It is not often that theology engages me in detective mode. It did this time and she and I agreed on four of her chosen strands! The third reason for suggesting the word “challenge” is that this book makes clear that all three theologians - Fox, Zizioulas and Johnson - stress the need to connect any understanding of the Trinity with implications for daily life.

It is not possible to offer a comprehensive summary of this book. However, I will mention several aspects that appealed. Fox’s choice of the two theologians provided a fruitful contrast from which to approach the Trinity. In the Orthodox theologian, Zizioulas, we encounter a theology of Trinity drawing extensively on Eastern patristic sources, focussing on the koinonia of divine persons, engaging church teachings with issues such as today’s ecological crisis, linking christology intimately with pneumatology, stressing the ecclesial nature of the Christian person and bringing together humanity and creation in the action of worship. In the Roman Catholic theologian, Johnson, we meet Trinitarian theology that draws extensively on biblical understandings of Sophia and of Jesus as well as on the classical tradition of Aquinas, that starts from the position of women’s experience, that engages concepts of God with issues of suffering and ecological destruction, that begins from an awareness of Spirit-Sophia, that uses a critical edge to theological understandings, that retrieves lesser known Christian sources and constructs a theology that offers emancipation for all, especially for the marginalised.

If Zizioulas’s vision includes humanity’s and creation’s journey into the ultimate glory of God’s future, Johnson’s vision includes God’s compassion for the entire cosmos revealed through the subversively inclusive Jesus and the intimate, ever-present Spirit. For both theologians, the Trinitarian mystery centres on God’s being relational “within God” and also “with us”. It is in the tiny word “with” that much power lies. Zizioulas stresses Jesus’ existing with and for others, the present being with and towards the future. Johnson speaks of God’s being in solidarity with the cosmos, Jesus’ being in solidarity with all who approached him, humanity’s being in solidarity with the whole of creation. For both theologians, Chalcedon’s clarification of Jesus’ being both human and divine points to the great mystery of God’s being, in the person of Jesus, with and for others. It is in living and expressing the implications of “being with”- communion - that people today live Trinitarian theology.

The questions addressed by Zizioulas and Johnson are major contemporary ones and Fox allows their questions to stimulate us. For example, what aspects are highlighted in regard to the ecological crisis when one discusses it from a liturgical and ecclesial theological basis (Zizioulas) rather than from a liberating theological base that connects nature, women and the person of the Holy Spirit (Johnson)? How are I and economia treated in both instances? Likewise, in regard to the question of God’s presence in the suffering world, is it sufficient to preserve God’s transcendence, freedom and power by allowing the symbol of God to offer hope at a distance? Or, does one try to preserve divine transcendence, freedom and power by reflecting on a God who freely engages in the suffering world, while at the same time re-imaging God’s power and allowing for the reality of God to exceed all of our understanding? Fox’s articulation of these difficult issues in relation to the doctrine of the Trinity is for me a very valuable contribution. How does one “do a new thing” in theology? If Trinity is the foundational doctrine of Christian faith, how does one speak meaningfully (Johnson says “rightly”) of God in our present age? And, what are the theological and pastoral implications of any hinted answers that emerge?

I get the sense when reading God as Communion that a careful scholar is at work. Fox allows the intricacies and qualifications of Trinitarian discussion to emerge. When, for example, Zizioulas talks of “hierarchy” in Trinity, he qualifies this reality as being not that of a Western perception but a hierarchy that refers to specific divine relationships in which “perichoresis” is simultaneously involved (ch.10). When Johnson opts for a theology of a God who suffers, she simultaneously recognises the dangers of such theology for women (ch.6). Fox enables differing perspectives to appear with many of their complex ramifications. In the final chapter, when she offers her six “signposts” for future Trinitarian theology I found myself wanting her to follow through on this development. Hopefully, she will.

The book is written in a careful and ordered style with valuable material in footnotes and bibliography. Fox has undertaken the creative task of engaging in “conversation” two theologians with quite different stances. Each of their individual contributions is significant. Their theologies, when seen in dialogue, reveal some similarities. For instance, both write to reclaim Trinitarian theology; both stress the importance of “communion” at various levels. At the same time, Fox’s bringing of them together reveals their distinctive contributions. Johnson’s feminist methodology leads towards a reclaiming of the often hidden world of women and of all that is overlooked - nature and the Holy Spirit included. From this, emerge new and life-giving understandings of the triune God. Zizioulas’ attentiveness to the Cappadocian focus on “persons in communion” leads him to highlight koinonia in God as the foundation for personal, ecclesial and eschatological life. There is a coherent strength in Zizioulas’s total vision. There is a boldness in viewing theology from “the outside in” (i.e. world in relation to theology) that is found in Johnson’s vision. Fox, while favouring one or the other at different times, and ultimately tending to align with Johnson’s project, judges both as making rich contributions to the theology of Trinity.

In conclusion, I note two things. First, God as Communion is not, in my opinion for a popular audience. It is directed rather towards serious theological students and theologians who are keen and open to addressing rather complex issues linked with the centrality of the triune God in today’s “faith” and “secular” worlds. Second, I believe that an audience already familiar with some Trinitarian writings of John Zizioulas and Elizabeth Johnson would benefit the most from this work. Newcomers reflecting on the thorough summaries that the author offers might be tempted to venture further. In reflecting on two quite different theologians, Fox offers a lively and creative contribution to Trinitarian discussion. This book reminds us of some of the gems that have emerged from the Trinitarian theology of the past few decades. It also reminds us that much of this “newness” is founded on gems from a deeper past. As such, it deserves wide readership. We look forward to more contributions from Patricia Fox.

Helen Bergin

Reviewers


Dr Helen Bergin, OP., Lecturer in Systematic Theology, University of Auckland.
The Revd Dr Rob Bos, National Director, Theology and Discipleship, Uniting Church, Australia.
The Revd Dr Tim Bulkeley, Lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College, Auckland.
The Revd Dr Scott Cowdell, Principal, St Barnabus’ Theological College & Senoir Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Flinders University, Adelaide.
The Revd Dr Neil Darragh, Principal, Catholic Institute of Theology, Auckland.
Sr Marie T. Farrell, RSM, Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Catholic Institute of Sydney.
Dr Ann L. Gilroy, RSJ, Dean of Studies, Catholic Institute of Theology, Auckland.
The Revd Dr Gwen Ince, Dean, UCA Theological Hall, Melbourne.
The Revd Peter Janssen, Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Mt St Mary’s College, Auckland.
The Revd Philip Matthews, Lecturer in Philosophy and Ethics, University of Notre Dame and Curtin University, Perth.
Dr David Neville, Lecturer in New Testament, St. Mark’s National Theological Centre, Barton.
The Revd Dr Duncan Reid, Dean, United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.
The Revd Dr Michael Trainor, Lecturer in New Testament, School of Theology, Flinders University, Adelaide.
The Revd Dr Lynne Wall, Ranston Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Trinity Methodist Theological College, Auckland.

BOOKS RECEIVED


Anna M Aagaard & Peter Bouteneff, Beyond the East and West Divide (Geneva: WCC, 2001) 282541350X
David M Coffey,The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2001) 0814625193
Andrew Dutney, Playing God. Ethics and Faith (Melbourne: Harper Collins, 2001) 1740500008
P. A. Fox, God as Communion (Collegeville, Minnesota: Glazier, 2001) 0814650821
Gideon Goosen, Bringing Churches Together. A Popular Introduction to Ecumenism (Geneva: WCC, 2001 – revised and enlarged edition) 2824513488
Joan L. Mitchell, Beyond Fear and Silence. A Feminist-Literary Reading of Mark (New York: Continuum, 2001) 9780826413543
Lewis Smudge, Rethinking the Beloved Community (Lanham: University Press of America/ Geneva: WCC, 2001) 0761818669
Rowan Strong Episcopalianism in Nineteenth-Century Scotland. Religious Responses to a Modernising Society (Oxford: OUP, 2002) 0199249229
John Tonkin, Cathedral and Community. A History of St. George’s Cathedral, Perth (Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2001).



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