Books Read August 2018

BOOKS READ August 2018


Desiring the KingdomJames K A Smith

James K A Smith: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Volume 1 of Cultural Liturgies,  Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic 2009

Jamie Smith is associate professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan and has written widely from a Liberal Reformed Presbyterian point of view about many aspects of twenty first century culture and Christian thinking including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, Who’s Afraid of Relativism,  The Fall of Interpretation, You Are What You Love and Thinking in Tongues just to name a few tempting titles.  Desiring the Kingdom is the first of three volumes in the Cultural Liturgies series, Volume 2 being Imagining the Kingdom and Volume 3 entitled Awaiting the King.  Smith’s dialogue partners are broad in the extreme and include Roman Catholic scholars and a consistent interplay with Stanley Hauerwas, Martin Heidegger, Alisdair MacIntyre, Nicholas Wolterstorff and N T Wright amongst many other authors ancient and modern. In addition his books contain regular attributions and references to films, novels, music and other cultural icons.

Reading Smith requires concentration because (i) he is working at a consistent graduate or post-graduate level although there is no particularly unique philosophical terminology except perhaps for his considerable use  of Charles Taylor’s term a social imaginary*; (ii) his stye is not so much complex as bordering on the prolix…when he makes an argument he really makes it! (iii) along the way in each section he picks up related ideas from a vast array of co-thought creators, many of whom are only vaguely connected with his argument and the reader has to spend some time thinking through how the latest author quoted gels with Smith’s argument as it proceeds. The result is not so much a tedious book but a tiring book (although at times I did find it in need of some editing!)

Fundamentally Desiring the Kingdom is a reflection with two key divisions. The first is a critique of American Christian education particularly at the level of the Christian University or Liberal Arts College. Smith argues that such Christian colleges major on an intellectualized “world view/ cognitive beliefs approach which is heavily “head/brain centred” resulting effectively in a secular university with a “Christian world view wash”.  He contrasts this with the ”heart/kardia centred “ cultural liturgies of the average American twenty something which centre on the emotion/desire/ happiness/fulfilment/ attain liturgy of the shopping mall and the military/nationalistic liturgy of the sporting arena with its hand on heart anthems. In this section Smith effectively demonstrates that most of the human race, including theological and Christian College students operate more from the heart than the head!

The second major section of Smith’s work is an out and out plea for Christian universities and colleges to revert to a heart based “you are what you love”  and practical and practised approach to Christian education at all levels but focussing on the Christian university. To achieve this goal he redirects us away from cognitive Christian intellectualism to a social imaginary that orients, guides and shapes our desires and understanding of the world that is precognitive and pre reflective ….’carried’ in images, stories, myths and related practices. To achieve this Smith writes at length about worship and in particular about the importance of liturgy in worship with a significant nod to the work of Martha Dawn and Robert Webber.

At this point Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic readers stop and blink in amazement as Smith carefully, fluently, eloquently and theologically writes powerfully about all the desirable elements of worship (stuff they do every Sunday and don’t even think about!) including the welcome, the materiality, the praise singing, the confession, the absolution, the readings, the intercessions, the creed, the proclamation, the giving of the peace, the baptism, the eucharist, the collection and the farewell. He calls his reformed presbyterian colleagues  to a new monastic approach which forces us to put into practice the service and servant-hood proclaimed in our academic learning.

As I say readers who are members  of sacramental churches will wonder what all the fuss is about although the analysis of worship is indeed thoughtful and helpful. The concluding brief chapter is a direct attempt to explore how the above liturgical approach to learning and studying could be actually carried out in a Christian university or college. I understand these issues are dealt with in more depth in volumes 2 and 3 of this series.  In the end I found the effort of reading this book stimulating and deeply thought provoking but, yes, quite hard work!

The book comes with a useful set of diagrams and “to think about”  squared off sections which are further thought-provoking and encourage wider reading. There is a subject and author index but one has to troll through the footnotes for a detailed author bibliography which is not helpful.

*Charles Taylor In his book Modern Social Imaginaries, [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004] describes a social imaginary as the unconscious way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings with “thoughts that are much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality.”  Our behaviour and imagination and desire  when we are deeply in love, or at a grand final, or in a luscious shopping mall, or for that matter in powerful worship is “not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in emotion and deep feeling and in “ images, stories and legends.” The imaginary is more a kind of noncognitive understanding than a cognitive knowledge or set of beliefs.  [cf Heidegger’s distinction between “knowledge” (Wissen), which is objective and propositional, and “understanding” (Verstehen) which is “an inarticulate understanding of our whole situation.” ..more “know-how” than propositional knowledge..more imagination than intellect.” [Smith p65]   4 stars

Sylvia Plath: Ariel, London, Faber & Faber, 2015 [1965]

Unknown-1.jpegUnknownThis is my third attempt to read and feel positive about the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Ariel contains many accessible poems as well as a good collection of quite difficult material. As a young person Plath’s pre-occupations with death, horror, illness, Nazism and hurt overwhelmed me and made me angry.  Now in later life I still see these themes but they are interspersed with intense beauty and thoughtfulness..the power of moonlight, the brightness of a little child, the uncertainty about whether the bees should be kept or let freed, golden apples,  I am so stupidly happy and much more

As I approach the end of my sixth decade and much closer to the end than the beginning of my life I see a strength in Plath’s refusal to bend to the poetic prettying up of much of life’s brutality and horror including her own powerful and in the end undeniable drive to end her own life. I understand that she is “bored by eternity” and that she loves “the piston in motion”. I do not crave eternity either. I love the beauty, the passion and the joy of this life but I acknowledge also the tragedy in many lives, the vicious death of millions, the seeming meaningless suffering and death caused by random accident and illness.

So finally, I am glad to be reunited with Ariel and I am glad that she has written what she has written, even if it would take almost a lifetime to nut some of it out and a very good teacher, which I have had. [ ps I am still not persuaded that Plath should be inflicted on youthful and sheltered VCE students!]  4 stars.

Trevor Dudley – Smith (Elleston Trevor): By a Silver Stream, London, Gerald G Swann, 1947 (1944).


By A Silver StreamTrevor Dudley Smith

Beautifully written story for children about an English forest glade of talking animals and their activities based around the four seasons commencing with Winter. Sapiens the Owl leads a cast of Boggy-the-Frog, Smoky Barge-Rat, Little Push and Little Pull the field mice, Ted Hedgehog, Madge Magpie, Cyril and Towny Squirrel, Hector Woodpecker and Jackdaw. It is gentle and poetic writing with a romantic Wordsworthian air that is free from melodrama and quite enchanting. I must have read this book perhaps fifty or sixty times when a child and it made a deep impression on me. Reading it again today some sixty years later, it has lost none of its charm. Dudley-Smith wrote a whole series of “Glade” children’s stories but this is the only one I have read. Under many pseudonyms including commonly Elliston Trevor, he wrote a very large number of published works in a variety of genres.  This book for me will always be the book which began my reading career.  5 stars.

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Camberwell, Penguin, 1995 (1811)

Jane Austen jpegSense and Sensibility

Jane Austen’s first novel describes the joys and sorrows of two sisters, Elinor (Sense) and Marianne  (Sensibility) Dashwood with a very minor role given to youngest sister Margaret.  The  two eldest and very charming ladies’ restricted financial circumstances and other complexities that unfold inevitably mean that the course of true love does not at all run smoothly but as could be expected it all comes right in the end. As with all Austen’s work the joy is not really in the story but in the rich and complex delineation of the chief characters and their relations and beaux, the intricacies and multiple levels of early C19th English class divisions, the extraordinary elegance and fine distinctions in language and style and the inevitable tensions caused by various upsetting events.  The novel was produced in two widely separated drafts and still shows some evidence of a lack of cohesion in places but is, as with all of Austen, engaging and intriguing.  This Penguin edition is assisted by excellent notes and further reading and not one but two introductions, a fairly academic effort by Ros Ballaster(1995) and the original and brilliant Penguin Classics introduction of 1969 by Tony Tanner.  An amazing and complex first novel and the commencement of a career and popularity which has not run out of steam over 200 years. 5 stars.

More wrangling with Tom Wright: this time on “What St Paul Really Said”!

I These notes, questions and comments are based on Tom Wright:What St Paul Really Said,  London, Lion, 1997

 I think the best summary of this book is that by Tom Wright himself in his opening paragraph of chapter 8 …(God’s renewed humanity).

  1. p13   Paul has often been accused of Hellenizing Christianity, taking it a long way from its Jewish origins in Jesus’s teaching.  Both Albert Schweitzer and N T Wright pour scorn on this idea. What do we think?
  1. p14  Do you find the differentiation between exegesis and eisegesis helpful?
  1. p22  Is Paul simply the legitimator of an old style ‘preaching the Gospel’  or is he also concerned with many wider categories and larger questions in the Christian tradition? (so Wright)
  1. p24 I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge. Romans 10:2. Is this a fair summation of Judaism?  [I guess in one respect it is in the Bible so we have to agree???]
  1. p26. Wright describes Saul the persecutor of Christians l as a Shammaite rather than a Hillelite. Do we agree?
  1. p27 For Saul the persecutor the issues were not just about ‘lenient’ or ‘strict’ interpretations of the law but about aims and agendas for Israel: for the people, the land, and the Temple. Much the same today??
  1. p27. On the other hand, Saul the persecutor and the Masada “dagger-men” were deeply pious Jews. [cf the murderer of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 (p28)]
  1. p30  A key part of Tom  Wright’s complete theology of Paul and the New Testament (and often contested) is that many C1st  Jews were still awaiting the full restoration of the Temple and they did not believe the exile had ended. The promises made by the prophets after the release from Babylon had not been fulfilled. This is a complex argument based on many extra Biblical texts including the Dead Sea Scrolls and pseudepigraphical works such as 4 Ezra. Nevertheless,  What do we think?  [see also p43]
  1. p32 E P Sanders has been very influential in describing Biblical Judaism as “covenantal nomism” rather than strict “salvation by works” i.e. early Pelagianism,in his massive book Paul and Palestinian Judaism. i.e. they trusted God’s covenant and in response tried to keep the law but knew that it was not possible completely, hence the need for regular sacrifices and the Day of Atonement.  Wright agrees with Sanders on this major revision of our understanding of early Judaism but thinks that Sanders under-estimated Jews like Saul of Tarsus who was just as determined politically to free Israel from occupation as he was concerned about “getting in and staying in ‘heaven’.
  1. p33.  Wright underlines the importance of the covenant as designed “to undo the sin of Adam” and provide a blessing for all of humanity. Within this scheme “justification” becomes very important.  He believes it is a law-court theme meaning acquittal. God will judge the the nations and find in favour of his people.  The ‘righteous’ are the vindicated/acquitted..not the necessarily the “morally right”.  [Abraham believed God and it was “reckoned” to him as righteousness.]
  1. p34  Here Wright stresses that this final acquittal or justification will be eschatological meaning  major and cataclysmic events within history…not outside history. This is another standard theme of Wright’s…the transformed kingdom of God on earth. Do we agree?
  2. p35-6 Wright notes that Paul’s vision of the resurrected Christ was at a time when others had ceased to see Jesus…even after the ascension….it is not the language of mystical vision…it will not do to spiritualize or psychologize the event.   Do we agree? (eg in the Gospel stories of the resurrection, apart from Mary Magdalene the appearances were seen by several folk at once but in Saul’s case, the accompanying soldiers either saw or heard nothing (depending on which of three versions of Acts you read).
  1. p 37 This event forced Saul now Paul to redraw his view of Jesus…Jesus was no longer a failed would be Messiah; now he WAS the Messiah, God over all, blessed for ever Amen [Romans 10:5 …a verse fought over by scholars because if this is what the text says it is the earliest written Christian statement that Jesus was God!] In any case what an amazing turn around for Paul the Apostle…For Paul the eschatological event was no longer for some distant future; it had already begun with the resurrection.  [ I note that this is also what the  Gospels clearly say.  The kingdom of Heaven is among/within you. ]
  1. p39.  In spite of all claims to the contrary in various theological treatments of Paul’s theology the reality is that throughout his letters and his activities he remains stoutly and determinedly within the framework of Jewish covenantal and messianic theology with the exception that his view of God has become incarnational and radically different from strict Jewish monotheism.
  1. p40. Paul’s calling was to tell this new Jewish-Christian story to the world. He was to become “the herald of the King.”

16. p44 The more Jewish we make Paul’s ‘gospel’, the more it confronts directly the pretensions of the imperial cult, and indeed all other paganisms whether ‘religious’ or ‘secular’.

17.  p45-6 It is not, then, a system of how people get saved. The announcement of the gospel results in people being saved.  …’the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus….this proclamation is an authoritative summons to obedience…”the obedience of faith”….His announcement was that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead; that he was thereby proved to be Israel’s Messiah; that he was thereby installed as Lord of the world. Or, to put it yet more compactly: Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is Lord. See p49 lots of Jews were crucified; only one was resurrected….if Jesus had defeated sin, death could not hold him. If (conversely) he rose again from the dead, it meant he had indeed dealt with sin on the cross.

18. p47 In the crucified and risen Christ, God has reversed this world’s values. 

19. p50  Paul wasn’t just living in the last days. He was living in the first days. cf.p51 the end has already happened (in Jesus’ resurrection) and the end is still to happen  (when all Jesus’ people are raised to life.

20. p50.  In speaking of the resurrection body, Paul was talking about a  a new physical existence. 

21. p51-2 For Paul, ‘Christ ‘ is not a name. It is a title….Paul thought Jesus was divine; but the word ‘Christ’ , for Paul means ‘Messiah’…anointed one….its major referent in first-century Judaism was the coming king….[Paul] believed that Jesus was the true king. An unexpected king, yes. A king who turned everything, including expectations of what the coming king would do and be, upside down, …but the true king nevertheless. The resurrection proved it. To remind ourselves of this it would do no harm form time to time to translate ᾿Ιησους Χριστος not as ‘Jesus Christ’ , nor even as Jesus the Messiah, but as ‘King Jesus’.  Do you like this title?

22. p56-7 Paul uses the title ‘Lord’  [Κυριος ] for Jesus so frequently that the uses take up several columns in a small-print concordance. In Jewish context ‘Kyrios’ means God; in the Greco-Roman world it means Emperor. Either way it is amazing that he used it for Jesus almost automatically…don’t be lulled into thinking that you can serve two masters, that there are two lords of the world. [see also the discussion of Paul’s use of “kurios” for Jesus on p71).

23. p59 The ‘gospel’ is for Paul, at its very heart, an announcement about the true God as opposed to false gods. This announcement was, and Paul expected it to be, controversial.

24. p61 The word ‘grace’ is a shorthand way of speaking about God himself, the God who loves totally and unconditionally, whose love overflows in self-giving in creation, in redemption, in rooting out evil and sin and death from his world, in bringing to life that which was dead. Paul’s gospel reveals this God in all his grace, all his love.

25. p64-5First century Jews use five language-sets to speak about God…Wisdom, Torah, Spirit, Word and Shekinah (..the presence of the true God ‘tabernacling’ with his people.)…Paul took precisely this Jewish doctrine and redefined it —with Jesus , and the Spirit, within it.

26.  p65 -66…at the very moment when [Paul] is giving Jesus the highest titles and honours, he is also emphasizing that he, Paul, is a good Jewish-style monotheist….he was clearly not intending to add a second god to the pantheon…cf Galatians 4: 8 -11 Paul takes the Jewish Shema and manages to include Jesus.

27. p67 Paul has spied a new meaning of the word ‘God’, because the person he has firmly in views Jesus of Nazareth…Paul has taken the word ‘God’ itself and has filled it with a new content. [cf Philippians 2:9-11]

28. p68 Why has Paul developed a new content for ‘God’? Because, quite simply, [Jesus] has done what only the true God can do. The truth about God is revealed for Paul, supremely, on the cross….God commends his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us….that sentence, we should note, only makes sense, if, somehow, God is fully and personally involved in the death of Jesus Christ.

29. p71-2 There is no tension, for [Paul] , between Jesus being the totally human Messiah, the representative of Israel, and the one who is sent as it were from God’s side, to do and be what only God can do and be. Paul, in short, seems to have held what generations of exegetes have imagined to be an impossibility; a thoroughly incarnation theology,  grounded in a thoroughly Jewish worldview….this, of course, strained at the borders of  human language, even the God-given language of scripture; but one could clearly recognize ‘the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ [2 Corinthians 4:6]

30. p73 Paul strains the limits and borders of language a second time in speaking of the Spirit also as in some sense God and thus in several passages uses language that can only reasonably be described as “trinitarian”. e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:4-6


31.. p75 The one God, the creator, had now been made known in and as Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Messiah, the Lord of the world. The face that called the world into existence was turned at last toward the world in self-revelation, in rescue, and love. 

32 p78-9 .We have learnt that there is no such thing as ‘first-century Judaism,’only first century Judaismsthe word ‘pagan’  is a convenient Christian label to cover, as they might have said, a multitude of sins….we have little detail about many C1st non-Jewish beliefs. …we have to extrapolate from Paul’s letters as we have them.

33.p80 Many scholars, seeing that Paul is critical of Judaism, have assumed that he must therefore have a non-Jewish theology. Many others, seeing that his theology was thorougly Jewish, have found it puzzling to explain how he came to hold a critique of Judaism.  History of Religions methodology …is bad at separating polemical engagement and critique from within.

34. p81. The underlying reason for Paul’s polemical engagement with pagan culture is not, I suggest, far to seek. But it is so frequently ignored that I should like to stress it here as of first importance. It is found in the Jewish expectations about how the purposes of the one God would eventually include the whole world.Abraham (Genesis 12,15); isaiah 49. etc

35. p85. People have often attempted to explain the rapid growth of Christianity by arguing that the first-century pagan world was, so to speak, ‘ready for Christianity’. I am not so sure. The Athenians were not ready to hear about Jesus and the resurrection.  [Acts 17] I think this is equally very true of the Western world today. What do you think?

36 pp96-92 Wright suggests Paul challenged the pagan world in six major areas, all very present in today’s post-modern world .(i) the divination of creation (pantheism); (ii) the cult with its multiplicity of gods of all sorts (iii) power and empire (cf current pretensions of nation states to have the power to rule or hurt the world. (iv) True humanness  (cf modern challenges to the nature of humanness); (v) the true story of the world (cf modern myths about origins); (vi) philosophy and metaphysics (C1st Stoicism, Epicureanism and the Cult) cf modern existentialism, modernism, post-modernism, moral neutrality etc…Paul, in fact,  (p93) summons the whole world to repentance. Wright has written often about the new forms of paganism alive and well today…the gods of mammon, eros and power. (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche)

37. p95-6  Terminology problems. p96 Paul is writing in Greek, but aware of the Hebrew scriptures that stand behind what he wants to say; we are writing [and reading] in English, vainly attempting to find words and phrases which catch the flavour and emphasis of what was already a subtle and intricate train of thought.

38. pp96 -111. Detailed analysis of the meaning of the righteousness of God and Justification.  Chapters 6 and 7 have some complex and hard core theological analysis and is currently a hugely contested area  in scholarship. Basically Wright argues, correctly in my view, for a covenantal and law-court background for the meaning of these two terms and in particular (p98) against any sense that God ’s righteousness can be “imputed” or handed over to humans who have faith so that they can be saved. Wright argues that it is through the faithfulness of Jesus in his sacrifice on the cross that salvation comes to humanity. Jesus the suffering Messiah was the faithful Israelite who totally fulfilled the covenant God made with humanity and his death dealt with the results of wrath, God’s reaction to human sinfulness, defeating the power of sin and overcoming death. On the chart on p101 therefore Wright is pumping for A1 in the first column and A1b in the second column.  So Wright states on p108: The covenant always envisaged a worldwide family ..and on p110 Romans is often regarded as an exposition of judicial, or law-court, theology….but at the heart of Romans we find a theology of love.

39. p114 Wright argues that the doctrine of justification cannot be put right at the centre of Paul’s thought, since that place is already taken by the person of Jesus himself, and the gospel announcement of his sovereign kingship. 

40.  p116-117 There is simply no way that human beings can make themselves fit for the presence or salvation of God…When [Paul] describes how persons, finding themselves confronted with the act of God in Christ, come to appropriate that act for themselves…God works by his Spirit upon their hearts; as a result, they come to believe the message; they join the Christian community through baptism, and begin to share its common life and its common way of life….Paul speaks of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus, the work of the Spirit, and the entry in to the common life of the people of God.

41. p122 …God is now extending his salvation to all, irrespective of race…the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation is one of the centrally repeated themes of Romans.

42. Chapter 8. Wright writes about God’s renewed  humanity under the headings of :

  • turning from idols,
  • resurrection – the transformation into a renewed physicality in a new heaven and earth (against both pantheism and agnostic dualism)
  • holiness (transformed humanity)…p145 the church today looks for brilliant rhetoric and personal revelation, not for sharing the sufferings of Christ.
  • coherence of renewed humanity – love..p146   against the human habit of defining themselves against another.
  •   mission…p149 The Jewish hope, that Israel’s king would be king of the world, had come true in the Messiah.

43.  p151 The gospel’ itself is neither  a system of thought, nor a set of techniques for making people Christians ; it is the personal announcement of the person of Jesus. 

44. p152 The covenant was set up to deal with evil and death; it was never a matter of creating a smoothly progressing salvation-history and inviting people to get on board.

45. p154 Preaching the gospel means announcing Jesus as Lord of the world; and unless we are prepared to contradict ourselves with every breath we take, we cannot make that announcement without seeking to bring that lordship to bear over every aspect of the  world.  Wright argues that we cannot have a private system of piety which doesn’t impinge on the public world. 

46. p157-8 The gospel creates allegiance and experience per se…and now summons men and women everywhere to abandon the idols which hold them captive …there is no such thing as an individual Christian.  Do we agree?

47.  p159 Wright writes about folk in the past and present who are “justified by faith” without knowing it.    Do we think this is possible??

48. p163 The covenant…was never supposed to be the means whereby God would have a private little group of people who would be saved while the rest of the world went to hell…it makes nonsense of the Pauline gospel to imagine that the be-all and end-all of this operation is so that God can have another merely different, private little group who are saved while the world is consigned to the cosmic waste-paper basket.  How do we put this sentiment  positively without being universalist? What do you think?

49.  p164 Christians are to live in the present in the light of what God intends us to be in the future. 

50.  p167 Chapter 10 is a useful challenge to A N Wilson’s problematic, wildly skewed book on Paul the Apostle.  Wilson has since become a Christian and I doubt he would write the same book today!

Books read July 2018


Michael Meehan: Below the Styx,  Crows Nest Au, Allen & Unwin, 2010

Fourth book by Australian author Michael Meehan. Sardonic, learned and humorous  account of the story of Marten Frobisher, a publisher’s novel spotter, his marriage and the gradual breakdown of his marriage.  Entwined with his  story is a literary study of some depth.

In one of his  final quarrels with his wife Coralie, Martin Frobisher attacks her with an epergne* which features throughout the book!  Coralie dies from the attack but, as Frobisher flees from the house having called family and emergency help,  it appears a second person was also involved in Coralie’s death.

In prison awaiting trial Frobisher, a would be but unfulfilled and unpublished writer, uses his time to research the complex and tragic  life and early death of Marcus Clarke, author of For the Term of His Natural Life.  These chapters give a fascinating insight into the character of a man who appears to have worked hard to cover up his true nature and personality and about whom not a huge amount is known in spite of his importance in early Australian literature.

I cannot decide whether Meehan has successfully conjoined the two narratives. As a tract for our times about marriage and modern life in Melbourne it is insightful and entertaining. as a literary and historical study of Clarke it is mostly interesting. As one single novel it is just ok. I suspect if the average punter was not particularly interested in colonial Victorian history and literature the literary research about Clarke would be boring and annoying.  3 stars.


An *Epergne is a type of table centerpiece, usually made of silver, but may be made of any metal or glass or porcelain.

A B Facey: A Fortunate Life, Ringwood Au,  Penguin, 1981

Extraordinary story of Bert Facey, born 1894, one of seven children. He died in 1982 at 88 years old. His father left the family to go gold mining in Kalgoorlie and died of typhoid when Bert was 2. His mother took the two eldest children to Perth and basically walked away from the other four leaving them with his grandmother at Barker’s Creek near Castlemaine.  When his grandfather died the grandmother took the children to the West to force their mother to take of them but she had married again and was pregnant and could only take his sister Myra.  The young children eventually went to live in Kalgoorlie in  significant poverty with Aunt Alice, Grandma’s oldest daughter.

Bert never attended school and could not read or write. At eight years of age he went to work and never really returned to the family “home”. He eventually learned to read and write much later in life and kept notebooks of his exceptional life as farmhand, bushman, railway fettler, drover’s assistant, farm manager, well repairer, prize fighter, league footballer,  soldier at Gallipoli, tram driver, union organiser and many other roles. If only half this story were true it would be amazing.

To read this book is to have the highest regard for this exceptional man who survived so much,  got married and raised his own family.  Facey lived through the earliest years of the establishment of the West Australian wheat and farming industry, survived Gallipoli but with permanent injuries, maintained a family through the Depression years and lost one of his sons in the second world war. In later life he became a highly regarded union organiser for the tramways and an exceptional local government planning representative and highly regarded public figure.  This book is simply and factually written and more exciting than ten average fiction narratives put together. An ordinary man who really was a truly wonderful Australian.  5 stars.

Alex Miller: Prochownik’s Dream, Crows Nest Au, Allen & Unwin, 2005

I am an unashamed Alex Miller fan and have read the majority of his books so it is difficult for me to write objectively about a literary “idol”. The subject matter of this book, as with the magnificent Autumn Laing, is about art and artists. In this case the epicentre is modern Melbourne which is always particularly interesting for someone who has lived all their life within Melbourne and its outer reaches.  The action with one exception, all happens in the artist’s suburban studio and really zeros in on the inner life, thinking and motivation of Toni Powlett preparing to participate in a major show and “coming out” as an artist.  Towards the end of the novel he changes his name to Prochownik which was his migrant father’s name, forced to Anglicise it by his boss when he began work in Australia. Toni’s father, though dead for four years,  is a constant brooding presence in his painting and thinking. His father is the author of “Prochownik’s Dream”!

A secondary theme and completely intertwined with the inner mind of the artist is his marriage relationship which challenges and yet also completes Powlett’s (Prochownik’s) work as an artist. Miller writes with all his customary depth of human understanding, intimacy and the personal knowing of the thoughtful mind. Some of the most powerful statements of the novel come from the “words” of his now deceased father. Here are a few:

  • to dream is to have made sense of one’s life at the end, that is all.  (p44)
  • the priest’s irrational persistence, a faith that doesn’t ask why, just is (p47)
  •   for in art, and they all knew this, twas the perfect lie that was generative of the perfect meaning, not the literal truth. There was no place in art for the literal truth. (p114)
  • art makes life bearable and the other way around. (p126)
  • the purpose of art is to resist the world’s ugliness (p127)
  • the brutality of fact” [a quotation from the artist Francis Bacon)  (p154)
  • I should like to understand myself properly before it is too late.” (a quotation from Sartre: Nausea) (p223)
  • the artist, [or any one else in my view] is the only one ever to know how great his failure is. Other people see only what he achieves. Not what he has attempted. (p267).

The real power of Alex Miller is his ability, strangely, to force the reader (or this reader) into thinking very deeply about his own mind, life and motivations.

This is intense and engaging writing. I would not put it up there with The Ancestor Game, Autumn Laing, or Journey to the Stone Country, but it is a perceptive and powerful analysis of an artist and a marriage.  4 stars.

Alex Miller: The Tivington Nott, Crows Nest Au., Allen & Unwin, 2005 (1989).

This is Alex Miller’s second novel, first published in the UK in 1989. It is a an autobiographical account of Miller’s life as a labourer in Somerset on the borders of Exmore. Many of Miller’s future skills as a writer about relationships, about feelings, about hopes and dreams, about love and about life and its possibilities are on show here.  All the humour, emotion, attachment to environment,  deep descriptive power, exceptional ability to lock in the reader to the depth of writing are all present in this early novel.

The key story in this novel is the account af an amazing stag hunt. A nott is a deer (or a sheep or cattle) without antlers or horns.  There is an ancient nott  in Tivington whose lair is discovered by the author but the nott is not the hero of this story. Only “The Man from Snowy River” could match the account of the exceptional horse Kabara and the elongated day long hunt that involved the horse, the stag and the author. There is humour, tension, exhaustive drama and insightful character analysis. This is a hard to put down account of rural life in Somerset with all the tensions of the English class system in full swing. A powerful and insightful read.   4 stars.

Hilary Mantel: Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir, London, Fourth Estate, 2010 [2003].

Hilary Mantel has mesmerised the world with her account of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell in her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies as well as her latest book on the French Revolution, long in the making. This memoir is a book in two parts. The first is a capricious, highly personal and fiercely entertaining account of Mantel’s earliest memories and her childhood up to teenage years. It is difficult to put down with its winsome, funny, mysterious and always heartfelt story of growing up strangely in a house with two fathers!

The second half is a gruelling account of an appalling illness which was untreated and mistreated and misunderstood for the first twenty years of her life. This section is demanding and seemingly endless as doctor after doctor across three continents appears to be powerless to understand the cause of Mantel’s distress. At the same time Mantel manages to write publishable books which will eventually make her a household name. What comes across above all is her indomitable spirit of determination, joy in the darkness and sheer grit in her coming to terms with demons real and imagined. I am an undisputed Mantel fan but I cannot say I enjoyed this book. Part one I loved; Part two I suffered through with her. I am glad she did not give up the fight as she promises to write many more fantastic books and I for one, will read every one of them, God willing!  4 stars.

Tom Wright: What St Paul Really Said, Oxford, Lion, 1997.

One of N T (Tom) Wright’s earlier books,  this punchy summary of the theology of Paul the Apostle challenges many long held theological viewpoints on both liberal and conservative fronts. Along with Albert Schweitzer, Wright dismisses the long-held liberal scholastic view that Paul was a Hellenizing Greek who transformed the simple Jewish teaching of Jesus the carpenter into a complex philosophic and completely new religious faith accessible to the Roman world of his day.  For Wright,  Saul of Tarsus, the zealous hardline Shammaite Pharisee became Paul the Apostle..the equally zealous Jewish missionary teacher who was called personally by Jesus Christ to teach the Jews and especially the Gentiles of his own day that the covenant faith of Abraham was intended all along for the whole world and not just the Jewish nation. It was good news for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

Wright agrees with the epic work of E P Sanders in his magisterial Paul and Palestinian Judaism that Judaism was a faith of “covenant nomism” rather than the traditionally regarded works righteousness, but disagrees with Sanders’ idea that Judaism was preoccupied with “getting in and staying in” heaven.  Wright’s most controversial idea, consistently defended in this book and in all his much larger later works is that C1st Judaism was still looking for the fulfilment of God’s promise that their long exile was over. Yes the Jews were back in Israel, but they were held fast under cruel and tyrannical Roman occupation with their freedom to practise their ancient faith constantly under threat and their Temple besmirched with Roman symbols. Wright’s understanding of Paul is that through his road to Damascus vision of Christ’s victory over death in the resurrection God had indeed ended Israel’s exile …that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah promised in the Scriptures but also a radically different Messiah … a Messiah who also fulfilled the mission of the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy (ch 52-3); a Messiah who came for the salvation of the whole world, “while we were yet sinners” not just for the Jews. It was a mission of peace not war; the future of the Temple and its sacrifices were no longer important for Paul because the final sacrifice had already been made by Jesus. There was a new and much more vital proclaim to the world their true king, KIng Jesus,  so that the love and compassion  of God could spread through the life and being of the whole creation, not just the Jewish nation in occupied Rome.

Controversially for conservative theologians Wright argues in this book that the proclamation of the kingship of Jesus is indeed the centre of Paul’s theology, not justification by faith as it was understood in particular by Luther.  This is argued carefully in chapters 6 and 7 which can still be somewhat dense for readers without a considerable background in New Testament theology.

Equally controversial for conservative readers is Wright’s insistence that the Pauline message of salvation is not about “going to heaven when you die” but rather a vision of a new creation here on earth, transformed by the power and love of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. This renewal is for the whole world not just the personal salvation of individuals. It is a renewal involving turning away from the idolatry of the gods of mammon, sex and power (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche); a turning towards a genuine resurrection and away from new age pantheism and gnostic dualism. A renewal involving holiness as opposed to simply giving in to the secular world order of the morally bankrupt West. A renewal which involves the coherence and wholeness of love against the selfish individualism which dominates today in many societies.  A renewal which involves zeal ..zeal for the proclamation of the love of God shown in the Messiah’s death and resurrection;  a powerful replacement for  the sadness and emptiness of so much modern life.

Wright’s final chapter is a rebuttal of A N Wilson’s controversially brilliant but fundamentally flawed book on Paul published also in 1997… a rebuttal which Wilson today would probably be sympathetic with having in recent years returned to his earlier Christian faith commitment.  What St Paul Really Said  is not a technical book in terms of being filled with references but there is a very useful list of further books to think about. Wright’s work is filled with dynamism and a breezy energetic argument but still takes a lot of thinking out. It is worth the effort because it brings hope for a new vision of Christian mission in our current world order. It could also spark, or at least encourage,  a new dynamic for static parish churches. 5 stars.

Albert Camus: The Outsider. Translated Joseph Laredo: L’ Étranger, Ringwood Au, Penguin, 1983 [1942]

Algerian born French Journalist,  Existentialist novelist and wartime resistance hero Albert Camus wrote this brief novel in the heat and carnage of World War 11. The central figure Meursalte appears on first reading as almost a shadow man, busy with his unidentified working life in Paris, living on his own in a small apartment with desultory friends and enjoying brief moments of pure and dreamy joy in the quietness of late afternoon Parisian sunshine as he sits on a balcony listening to the late tranquil sounds of a large city quietening down before the evening rush. His one real joy is his passion for his girlfriend, the beautiful Marie  Everything changes when his mother, in a nursing home in Algiers dies  and he travels to her funeral. His grief which is real is not expressed outwardly and his apparent calm and nonchalant behaviour scandalizes fellow mourners and is noted by the manager of the home.   On his return to Paris Meursalt foolishly gets involved in an escapade with one of his desultory friends Raymond which entanglement eventually results in his killing a man on a beach in self defence and his arrest and trial for murder, resulting in a sentence of execution.  The heart of the novel is Meursalt’s trial in which his  refusal to do anything other than supply simple monosyllabic responses to both his lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge condemn him as a cold-hearted killer with no soul. In a brief essay written in 1955 and included in this edition, Camus explains: Meursalt doesn’t want to make life simpler. He says what he is, he refuses to hide his feelings and society immediately feels threatened….for me, Meursalt is not a reject, but a poor and naked man, in love with the sun which leaves no shadows. [p118f].  A disturbing and thoughtful book. 5 stars.

Books read June 2018

Walt_Whitman_-_.jpgWalt Whitman

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Camberwell, Penguin, 1959 [1855]

Walt Whitman (American poet, 1819-1892) may just be the true poet of the post-modern age.  His vast rambling poem Leaves of Grass went through many incantations and revisions throughout his life.  Most scholars seem to agree that he might have done better to leave well alone and that this 1855 first version of the poem is the best.

Leaves of Grass is a vast, rambling, wildly energetic and boisterous paean to America and to American life in the mid nineteenth century. It commences with a substantial prose essay which is equally rambunctious, opinionated and at times difficult to comprehend praise of the American poet. Why do I say the poet of the post-modern age?  Consider this passage from his opening essay (p22) [ Note: the series of ….’s are in the original]

There will soon be no more priests. Their work is done. They may wait awhile…perhaps a generation or two…dropping off by degrees. A superior breed shall take their place…the gangs of kosmos and prophets en masse shall take their place. A new order shall  arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be  his own priest. The churches built under their umbrage shall be the churches of men and women. Thought the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things. They shall find their inspiration in real objects today, symptoms of the past and future…They shall not deign to defend immortality or God or the perfection of things or liberty or the exquisite beauty and reality of the soul. They shall arise in America and be responded to from the remainder of the earth. Hmmm!

Similarly on p 15 I note: Whatever would put God in a poem or system of philosophy as contending against some being or influence is also of no account. The great master has nothing to do with miracles. 

The poem Leaves of Grass, subtitled in later editions, Song of Myself, runs along similar lines and themes as it celebrates the sheer beauty of human life, man, woman, creation, work, sex, breathing, the outdoors, the cities,  every conceivable occupation including prostitution, the lunatic, music, art, sailors, lovers, fighters, martyrs, the dying, everyone and everything. So Whitman writes

I know perfectly well my own egotism,

And know my omnivorous words, and cannot say less, 

And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.   [lines 1079-81, p74]

The editor of this Penguin edition, longtime literary editor Malcolm Cowley, compares Whitman’s writing with Hindu philosophy especially as it is found in the Bhagavad-Gita and I agree there are many similarities. There is a strong sense of metempsychosis and what goes around comes around, there is a divination and spiritualization of absolutely everything, even what is evil and cruel, there is a genuine identity of the self  with a universal spirit.  Whitman was not familiar with Hindu or Buddhist philosophy when he wrote this first edition of Leaves of Grass but in later editions he began to use specific terms from Hindu philosophical writings. Cowley is not suggesting  that Whitman was a Hindu devotee ..there is nothing about the Hindu pantheon of gods or indeed of Atman or Brahman in Leaves of Grass but there is plenty of “world soul”.  Consider these lines which would be quite at home in the mouth of Krishna speaking in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Swiftly arose and spread around met the peace and joy and knowledge that will pass all the art and argument of the earth; 

And I know that the hand of God is the elder hand of my own,

And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers…. and the 

women my sisters and lovers,

And that a kelson of the creation is love; 

And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,

And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,

And mossy scabs of the worm fence, and heaped stones, and elder 

and mullen and pokeweed.   [lines 82 – 98, p29]

Whitman also reminds us existentially that art and  poetry is only art and  poetry is only poetry when it is read, observed  and thought about.

All doctrines, all politics civilisation exurge from you,

All sculpture and monuments and anything inscribed anywhere

are tallied in you,

The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records reach is

in you this hour — and myths and tales the same;

If you were not breathing and walking here where would they all be?

The most renowned poems would be ashes…orations and plays 

would be vacuums.   [lines 88-90, p92]

What is slightly less post-modern perhaps is Whitman’s trenchant determinism.

The law of the past cannot be eluded,

The law of the present and future cannot be eluded,

The law of the living cannot be eluded….it is eternal,

The law of promotion and transformation cannot be eluded,

The law of heroes and good-doers cannot be eluded,

The law of drunkards and informers and mean persons cannot be eluded.  

[lines 84 -89, p102]

Whitman had a huge impact on the poets of the beat generation and writers like Hart Crane. It may be that he will find  a vast new crop of readers in the post-modern and world-weary West.   For me there are scattered jewels of brilliant insight but the breath-taking relentless onrush of verbalisation becomes wearying.  He would have done well to be more succinct methinks.  I leave my Whitman analysis with this gem.

Why would I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four,

and each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face

in the glass; 

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is 

signed by God’s name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will

punctually come forever and forever.        [lines 1276 – 1280, p83]

Samuel Butler: The Way Of All Flesh, New York, Airmont, 1965  [1903]


Samuel Butler.jpegSamuel Butler was the son and grandson of Anglican clerics and this semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of Earnest Pontifex, child of a strict clerical father and grandfather who rebels against this family tradition at some cost to himself. After graduating impressively from Cambridge Butler  broke completely with his family and left England for New Zealand successfully running a sheep station for five years. Surprisingly successful Butler returned to England independently wealthy and spent his life alternating between painting, extensive travelling in Europe with various close male friends and writing novels, literary and artistic criticism, criticism of traditional Anglican theology and works critical of Darwinian evolution.

Strongly critical of Victorian religion and morality, The Way of All Flesh was published posthumously in 1903 to protect his family. The novel is by degrees funny, sad, clever, tedious, at times horrifying  but  always manages to hold the reader’s interest. Butler’s criticism of Victorian Anglicanism and his account of evangelical/high church divisions demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Biblical narrative and of mid-C19th theological debate especially around Evangelical and High Church Anglicanism as well as varied Christian responses to Darwinian evolution.  Butler also wrote the satirical novel Erewhon, based on his life in NewZealand and on his return to England he wrote works on Italian art, Homer, Shakespeare and music as well as anti Darwinian but not anti evolutionary semi scientific works which attempted to defend a neo-Lamarckian view of evolution going back to Buffon.    This lengthy novel has never been out of print and reflects an agile, multi-layered, well-travelled and intelligent mind. He was effectively a moral philosopher.   4 stars.

Nina Wilner: Forty Autumns, London, Little Brown Book Group 2016

Factual account of a family torn in two by the establishment of a totalitarian Communist State in East Germany following the overthrow of Nazi Germany at the end of World War 11. Germany was partitioned between the Soviets and the Allies. The Soviet Government installed a Communist Government in East Germany led by Walter Ulbricht and later Erich Honnecker. The German Democratic Republic became increasingly isolationist eventually completely closing all foreign borders and isolating Eastern Berlin from West Berlin by a vast concrete wall which became increasingly  protected by lights, barbed wire, inspection towers, guards,  weaponry, tanks and a substantial cleared no-go guarded area on the East German side. Over forty years of isolation, more than one sixth of the East German population fled to the West and some 170 would be “escapees” were shot trying to get into East Berlin. The East German secret service (The Stasi), became increasingly involved in mind control, terror, murder and victimisation, with significant rewards going to those who signed up to become party members and significant persecution and harassment of those who did not.

Hannah Wilner was the second oldest member of 9 children of Opa and Oma Willner and was of an independent mind and spirit. On her third attempt to flee into West Germany she was successful and eventually married a German Jewish Nazi survivor and settled down in the USA seeing her East German family in the flesh only once in those forty years. Hannah’s daughter Nina, also a strongly independent and spirited person grew up in the USA and eventually was accepted into the US Military, and became a spy for the Western powers in Berlin, leading sortées into East Germany on many occasions.

Following the American/Russian détente at the end of the Cold War, much due to the efforts of Gorbachev and Reagan,  Hanna and Nina were reunited with their extended family and a remarkable tale unfolded of forty years of survival of the Willner family who became teachers and office workers,  one an East German cycling olympian, others just quietly surviving and keeping their heads down. Nina Willner’s book is meticulously researched and documented and contains an excellent family photographic record and family tree. It is a heart-warming, at times tragic and always a very tense and exciting account of courage, determination, survival, honesty, idealism and commitment. An absolute page turner proving once again that historical truth is stranger by far than fiction.  5 stars.

Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits, translated Magda Bogin, London, Black Swan,1986 [1985].


A prolific writer Isabel Allende, born 1942, is living an extraordinary life. Allende was  born in Peru, of Chilean parents. Her diplomat father, a cousin of Salvador Allende, mysteriously disappeared when she was three years old and her mother moved to Chile and married Ramón Huidobro, a Chilean diplomat serving in Bolivia, Lebanon, Argentina and Chile thus ensuring that Isabel had a truly international education.


Isabel Allende married engineering student Miguel Frias and worked in Europe, Chile and Venezuela for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation, and as a translator, TV personality, dramatist and journalist.   When Salvador Allende, Chile’s first Socialist President, was murdered in a CIA backed Military Coup in 1973 which installed Army Chief Augusto Pinochet as leader, Isabel, then living in Chile,  assisted her parents in providing safe  passage for opponents of the Coup to safely leave Chile. Eventually her own name was added to the hit list and she fled to Venezuela where she again worked as a journalist. In 1988 she married again , this time to American attorney Willie Gordon and eventually became an American citizen.

The House of Spirits was inspired by the imminent death of her 99 year old grandfather who had lived through a century of both inspiring and tragic Chilean history. In her own words Allende wanted “to exorcize the ghosts of Pinochet’s dictatorship” in Chile. Unable to find a publisher in the United States, the book was eventually published in Spain.

Spanning three generations but never straying far from the patriarch Esteban Trueba, The House of the Spirits is a complex, funny but always compelling tale of love, lust, political intrigue,  history, terror and courage. With much more than a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, Allende blends magic realism, historical insight, mystery and a remarkable cast of characters young and old to tell the savage political story of Chile in the second half of the twentieth century. The narrative centres around a rural estate and a classically designed urban mansion which accumulated many additional rooms and corridors over the years and provides a mysterious and fertile mystery house  from which many dramatic events emerge and in which many secrets are hidden. The moving spirit who upheld the spirit of opponents of the Pinochet Coup called simply “The Poet”, is clearly intended to be Pablo Neruda.

How much does a man live, after all?

Does he live a thousand days, or one only?

For a week, or for several centuries?

How long does a man spend dying?

What does it mean to say “for ever”?

Pablo Neruda

The first three quarters of the novel drift along in a somewhat dreamy and mysterious ‘magic realist’ mode which sometimes only barely holds the reader’s interest as the cast of characters mounts throughout the text.  The tension heightens significantly in chapter 12  (”The Conspiracy”)  and the novel assumes more realistic and tragic proportions. The complex politics of late C20th Chile with conservative, left-wing, Marxist, industrial and military factions interacting with sophisticated complexity is deftly described.  Allende’s novel achieves a  profoundly moving expose of the genuine terror of the Pinochet coup. The “disappearance” of many thousands of opponents of the regime has left a permanent mark on the Chilean psyche and joins with the Rwandan, Cambodian, East German, Korean, Balkan and now Afghan and Syrian tragic trajectory of post-world war 11 realpolitik.

Whilst I am not a great fan of magic realism the  brutal scope of the Chilean terror can perhaps only be countenanced and assimilated with a technique such as that mastered first by Marquez.I am surprising myself in giving this novel  5 stars!

Isabel Allende: Eva Luna, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Ringwood Au, Penguin, 1989 [1987]

Chilean author, now American citizen, Isabel Allende has written prolifically about fictional characters set in and around political  events in the last half of the C20th in South America and Europe. The major location in this novel is an unknown South American country with elements that fit at times with both Chile and Venezuela in both of which countries Allende lived for many years.

Once again there is to a degree an element of magic realism style in this novel but far less than in The House of the Spirits reviewed above. All sides of the political spectrum are considered …the conservative élite, the Indians, the left, the new rich, the guerrillas and the military and political leaders. Unlike the significantly large cast in The House of the Spirits this novel follows closely the adventurous and at times chaotic life story of Eva Luna from her birth to her mysterious and luminous mother Consuela to her eventual marriage to news cameraman Rolf Carlé.

The themes are more contemporary in this novel including much more racy sexual encounters and a key transgender character as well as characters at home in a modern media world. In general it is fair to say there is a degree of amorality in Eva Luna which is stronger than in The House of the Spirits.  Thus while rape, prostitution and sexual encounters occur in both novels Eva Luna herself seems to manage to have a sexual encounter with just about every major male person that enters her life. In addition the Catholic Church takes a beating in this novel.

Eva Luna is more a “search for love and meaning” story with a political background rather than a coherently historical saga after the style of The House of the Spirits.  Even so, perhaps due to the translation factor, the character of Eva Luna is so multi-faceted that it is hard to close the novel with a total sense of one “mastering” the character of Eva.  Some of the relationships and renewed meetings after many years appear somewhat contrived. In the novel, Eva Luna herself becomes an accomplished and published writer after many struggles and as one reads this novel there is the thought that parts of the narrative may be somewhat autobiographical. 3 stars.

Voltaire  [François-Marie Alouet]: Candide or Optimism, translated by John Butt, Mitcham Au, Penguin Books, 1947 [1759].

Unknown.jpegTranslator John Butt tells us that French philosopher and wit Voltaire wrote Candide at the peak of his career whilst living in Ferney in eastern France near the border with Switzerland , having been twice imprisoned and found unwelcome in Paris. In Ferney, he also wrote his dialogues, various short tales and his Philosophic Dictionary. Voltaire eventually returned in triumph to Paris in 1788 not long before his death.

Candide is an outright philosophical rejection of C18th optimistic philosophy represented in particular by Leibniz, who is mentioned specifically at the end of chapter 28 as one who cannot be wrong (p136).  Optimistic philosophy was also championed in the C18th by German polymath philosopher Christian Wolff and extraordinary C18th English social reformer Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury.

The key characters in Candide are Candide himself, the luckless son of a German baron of Westphalia, his beloved and very beautiful Cunégonde, whom he tracks all over Europe and South America finally marrying her in her ugly old age, and the irrepressible Dr Pangloss, philosopher extraordinaire representing Leibniz’ eternally optimistic view of life. The long essay satirically describes the fatuousness and brutalising stupidity of internecine warfare, the corruption of European hegemony in South America, the violence and pointlessness of the Franco-Prussian war, the natural? greed and lustfulness of men given the opportunity and, in the perfect hidden community of Eldorado a biting satire on the folly of faith in riches and the impossibility of protecting them from theft and eventual destruction.

One would need to be expert in C18th political life and literature to catch the meaning of all of Voltaire’s satirical barbs but, even in translation, the humour and the clear vitality  of his writing is evident on every page. His attack is not so much directly on Christianity as on man’s innate ability to corrupt the good and the fragility of moral human intention in the face of sexual and monetary temptation. A thoughtful and humorous read even after 250+ years. 4 stars.

Ed Shaw: The Plausibility Problem: the church and same-sex attraction, Nottingham, IVP, 2015

Ed Shaw is an evangelical church leader who is same-sex attracted and celibate. This remarkably honest and carefully written book documents his deep desire to express his same-sex attraction in sexual union with another man which is in conflict with his Christian commitment to what he regards as clear-cut Biblical teaching on this issue.

Shaw writes with a full realisation that some significant evangelical writers have found a way to maintain their evangelical commitment to the authenticity of Scripture and also accept same-sex marriage. These writers include Rob Bell and Steve Chalke (p.30). As Vaughan Roberts writes in his Foreward (p 15) his sights are not set on the predictable target —compromising liberals— but on those who belong to his own evangelical tribe.

The book is called The Plausibility Problem because in the C21st it is so plausible to see same-sex  marriage as the natural outcome of a blossoming of love between two people independent of their gender and this is the way it is seen by an increasing number of church denominations, especially in the United States but increasingly elsewhere. Shaw notes that in the evangelical churches in the 1990s same-sex attraction was a no-go area whereas today many churches are simply arguing that love is what matters, not outmoded Biblical teaching.

The major thrust of Shaw’s argument is that the evangelical church has magnified the problems of same-sex attracted people by nine “missteps” all of which need to be taken very seriously but the church today.   These ‘missteps’ are carefully argued, well documented and provide a very strong critique of the standard evangelical rejection of same-sex attraction. The missteps are as follows:

(i)  ‘Your identity is your sexuality.’  For individuals to call themselves “gay” is to define their identity sexually whereas to call themselves “same-sex attracted” is no different in reality from saying they are attracted to  beautiful women, pyromania or cleptomania. The misstep is the danger that some evangelicals often fall into of more generally defining ourselves as sinners rather than saints; as those in rebellion against God rather than his permanently adopted children. (p40)

(ii) ‘A family is Mum, Dad and 2.4 children.’ Many successful evangelical churches play to families/teenagers/young adults/young marrieds and families. They often struggle with singles especially younger singles who often feel estranged from church programs and proclamation. (p45) The church should rather be a real family…fully embracing all of its members.

(iii) ‘If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay.’ Shaw quotes Richard Hayes: the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen….we are in bondage to sin but still held accountable to God’s righteous judgment of our actions. cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral because it is involuntary. [in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, New York, HarperOne, 1996, p390] quoted on p.60.  The misstep is not spelt out in this chapter but presumably the Evangelical church has started to give away the doctrine of judgment.

(iv) If it makes you happy, it must be right.’  The misstep here is that the priority of happiness has infiltrated the evangelical church. Whereas three generations ago divorce was unacceptable in the church apart from the extremes of serial adultery or spousal abuse today in many churches it has become routine. Similarly although evangelicals claim to oppose the prosperity gospel we’ve joined the world around us in believing that money buys happiness. So we’ll  give away what we can afford, but only after we’ve paid for what we no longer consider luxuries …the third pair of shoes, the latest phone, the foreign holiday, the private school fees, the safest pension etc. …in many church contexts, the main group who are still being asked to do something that makes them unhappy are the Christians who experience same-sex attraction.(p24)

(v) Sex is found where true intimacy is found’….intimate friendships and relationships do not have to be sexual relationships.

(vi) Men and women are equal and interchangeable’…Shaw argues that men and women are equal but not interchangeable. It is a massive challenge to articulate the equality of the two sexes at the same time as the differences, and then to explain the importance of these differences and why we need to preserve them.

(vii)  Godliness is heterosexuality’….the call to sexual purity is a sub-section of godliness, not “the” defininition…..True, Chriat-like sacrificial love means saying ‘No!’ to any sexual activity outside marriage (p99)….we need to to measure Christianity by Christ-likeness (p100) …a constant recognition that at heterosexual  sexuality does does not guarantee godliness….(p103).  .The evangelical  church largely discounts this idea but goes hard on same-sex attraction….homosexual sex outside marriage is perceive as a much greater sin in our churches that heterosexual sex outside marriage. (p104)

(viii) ‘Celibacy is bad for you.’  Shaw writes: Pastorally, I ‘ve actually discovered more loneliness in marriages than among single people. (p109) Genesis 2:4 is stressing [man and woman’s] permanent (and sexual) union rather than saying they were incomplete beforehand….If we don’t communicate that celibacy is a plausible way of living, we make it almost inevitable for same-sex attracted Christians  (and those who care for them) to embrace ‘gay marriage’). The good sermon we’ve never heard that promotes lifelong singleness is there in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul is the preacher and he manages to promote with the gifts of marriage and singleness at the same time…(p110)…Singleness is a gift you have, unless it is taken away by the gift of marriage. (p110)

(x) ‘Suffering is to be avoided’.  ..following Jesus is no longer about our sacrifice and suffering. Western Christians have, by and large, stopped denying ourselves—we now talk more about our right to be ourselves. (p118)  We should ask What did Jesus do? not what would Jesus do?  (p119) So what have you denied yourself  to follow Jesus? There must be something. If there’s nothing, then you are not really following the Jesus who speaks to you here. (p119)

Conclusion: instead of keeping very silent on the issue of homosexuality, hoping to avoid all of the controversy that it brings us, we should begin to see both the people who experience it and the controversy it brings as a gift to the church. A divine gift, because it’s just what we needed at this time in our history to help us to see the whole series of tragic missteps we have taken, to the detriment of us all, as well as to the detriment of the world we are trying to reach.

Shaw’s book has helpful appendices:

  1. A useful essay on the plausibility of the traditional interpretation of Scripture’s account of human relationships – effectively a very useful summary of the Scriptural story (pp 136-154…very useful for a study group. 

2.  An essay on the implausibility of the New interpretations of Scripture in regard to human relationships.  Shaw suggests these “interpretations” are based on emotion (p156); polarisation (p157) and doubt rather than rejection of traditional biblical interpretation. (p158) In this section he argues that biblical passages are not interpreted in their full biblical context (p160); they rely on extra-biblical sources e.g. suggesting that Romans 1 is a response to Caligula’s excesses (p 161); they pitch scripture against scripture (p162) ..”repugnant” according to Anglican article 20!

Shaw also includes a very useful collection of recommended readings as well as the readings of his opponents. This is a brave,practical and clear book. Evangelicals ignore it at their peril!  5 stars!


William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, London, Vintage, 1996 (1930)

This is the first time I have read a novel by Faulkner, widely regarded as America’s finest novelist of the C20th in the tradition of Hawthorne, Twain, Melville and Henry James.  He is clearly an acquired taste because initially, for the unprepared reader, his writing is disturbing, often obscure, difficult to follow and with a vocabulary regularly made up and unique to the author. Thankfully a Faulkner “dictionary” is available online. The format of the novel is also unusual with some chapters made up of one simple and obscure sentence.

Set in the deep south of Mississippi around the created town of Jefferson the story line is simple. Stubborn, careful and stoic Farmer Anse Bundren’s wife Addie has died and her dying wish was to be buried in Jefferson, normally a three day wagon journey. Anse is a taciturn, ornery, skinflint, determined  and misogynistic old man who is determined that Addie’s dying wish be fulfilled. He sets out with his five children and his wife in a coffin made by one of his sons Cash.  But the gods are against him.  A wild storm has knocked out the only bridge at a major river crossing and in attempting to ford the swollen river the wagon is destroyed and one of the sons breaks his leg as they lose their mules, retrieve the coffin and their tools. One of his sons loses his mind on the journey and burns down a stranger’s barn.  The result is a ten day gruellingly agonising crawl to Jefferson in which the reader gleans a minute and often obscure insight into the inner elements of the lives of and thoughts of various members of the family, only two of whom are the children of Anse and Addie with the younger three being the secret offspring of Addie and the conflicted parson Whitfield.

A pervading sense of poverty, racial anger, sexual oppression, deceit and the iron will power of the very unlikeable Anse Bundren dominate this novel. Harold Bloom describes As I Lay Dying as Faulkner’s greatest novel. I cannot tell not having read any others.  I will need to recover a while before taking on another Faulkner.  To be fair to Harold Bloom, the only comparable impact of a first reading of a novel I can match to Faulkner is the memory of reading my first novels by Joyce and Lawrence, so perhaps  I will eventually become a Faulkner convert. But it is difficult indeed to find redemption in As I Lay Dying.    A preliminary 3 stars with the recognition that its true greatness may eventually reveal itself to me.

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women, Mineola, New York, Dover Publications,2000 (1868-69). [This  unabridged edition was published as a replica of the original, edited by Susan L Rattier and containing Part 1 Little Women, and Part 11, Good Wives.]

I wanted to read this book as background to reading March, by Geraldine Brooks. I was not particularly looking forward to reading a “girls” book published under the heading of Dover Juvenile Classics!   The truth is I found I could not put this book down and read its 548 pages in two days. Louisa May Alcott was the daughter of well connected American educationalist Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist and friend of both Emerson and Thoreau. Louisa clearly grew up in a rich literary environment. This book apparently is modelled on Louisa May Alcott’s own childhood experiences.

The story of four girls, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy growing up in straitened circumstances in New England with an absent father away as a chaplain in the American Civil War is written with sensitivity, humour, elegance and insight even if the language and sentiment of some 140 years ago is at times too sententious and saccharine and the mother Marmee too saintly for 2018 readers to stomach.  The adventures of the family of five and their next door neighbour Laurie, also a teenager bring humorous insights and surprising plot lines which preserve the text from mawkish melodrama and although the style has a traditional “feel”, in many ways the novel reads more easily today than say Dickens’ Pickwick Papers from roughly the same period.  There is a direct Christian spirituality throughout the novel but it is not forced or preachy and there are moments of deep sadness in the story line which had a compelling effect on this reader. I cannot recall ever a book producing tears for me as this one did in two places.

What makes this book much more than a child’s story is the extension  into Part 11 ( Good Wives)  in which the young children are found as young adults involved variously in travel in Europe, romance, marriage and in one case facing up to the death of a loved one. In this section Mr March has returned from the war although still playing a completely minor role in the development of the story and about whose character we are, surprisingly perhaps, told virtually nothing. It is a remarkable achievement that Alcott manages to maintain our interest in all four of the girls as individuals as well as Laurie, the boy next door. This novel thoroughly deserves its “classic” status. 5 stars.

Geraldine Brooks: March, Sydney, Fourth Estate, imprint of HarperCollins, 2005.

Australian born Geraldine Brooks lives in the USA with her journalist/historian husband, Tony Horwitz, learned, amongst other things,  in the history of the American Civil War.  Brooks writes both fiction and non-fiction but her  novels are nevertheless meticulously researched with both understanding and passion. I have read People of the Book,  Caleb’s Crossing and The Secret Chord and all bring to the reader a vivid and at times merciless picture of the historical period described and any further research one chooses to explore demonstrates that Brooks has done her work very carefully indeed. An outline of the research for March is found in the Afterword which commences on page 339.

As the reader of Little Women will know, Louisa May Alcott tells us virtually nothing of the life and character of Mr March except that in an unexplained attempt to help a friend he lost the entirety of a considerable fortune, leaving his family in severe poverty. He was of course, the father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy and wife of Marmee. In Part 1 he is absent  working as a chaplain in the Yankee army and in Part 11, Good Wives,  he is a warm hearted, somewhat reclusive and scholarly retired clergyman who plays only a very minor role in the family’s adventures.   Geraldine Brooks fills in this gap by creating a complex, and thoroughly human, non-conformist pastor whose self-doubt and overwrought conscience almost lead several times to his destruction.

Brooks based her portrait of March on an amalgam of two people. The first of these was Louisa May Alcot’s father,  A. Bronson Alcot,  an educator, idealist, Utopian radical  and philosopher and personal friend of both Thoreau and Emerson. Like March in Brooks’ novel Alcot began his life as a book peddler to the wealthy and fell in love with the leisured life of the mind. [p341] but he later in life became a passionate supporter of the anti-slavery movement. Alcot’s sixty one journals and his letters fill thirty severn manuscript volumes in the Harvard College Library,  [p340].   Secondly March’s character was based on the celebrated New England clergyman and Army Chaplain Arthur Buckminster Fuller. At the same time Brooks reveals to us a very different ‘Marmee” from Louisa May Alcot’s 1868 novel. Marmee’s fierce temper is just hinted at in Alcot’s Littlee Women. In March her temper is revealed in its full force.

March is revealed to us in Brooks’ imagination as an idealistic and well educated but diffident “progressive” Christian man who volunteers to fight in the Civil War without reference to his wife, who is unsuited either spiritually or physically to the rigours of a vicious and murderous conflict, who is vulnerable to beautiful women and who then idealistically seeks to solve the educational challenges of the Southern slaves who had been “freed” to work on the “contraband” cotton farms. These ventures were set up with limited capital after the abolition of slavery by idealistic and/or opportunistic northern speculators who had little idea how to work with slaves at all let alone recently “freed” slaves who were still vulnerable to occasional destructive waves of white supremacists who had yet to be persuaded that the war was lost. Apart from anything else this story removes any faint suggestion that the American Civil War was a fight between the good and right Yankee north and the evil and callous Southern slave owners. Brooks demonstrates that greed and self-serving opportunism were present on both sides and subsequent history has shown us that the “race problem” remains.

Somehow March does survive all this to be reunited with his family and yes Brooks allows us closure in her final sentence. But both Marmee and March have been through so much in the journey that one wonders for the future. 5 stars

Kevin J. Vanhoozer: Biblical Authority After Babel, Grand Rapids, Brazos, 2016

Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the USA.  He writes prolifically from a reformed position but with a broad sweep covering theologies, theologians and literature from many fields and approaches. His General Editorship of Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible is an impressive gift to theological scholarship.

Biblical Authority After Babel takes its title obviously from the Genesis 11 story of the Tower of Babel built by “mankind” to reach up to God. God was not pleased with their arrogance and “came down” and confused their languages so that they could not complete the tower.  Vanhoozer is responding particularly to Alister McGrath’s claim in his recent book Christianity’s Dangerous Idea that the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” led directly to the notion that every Christian has the right and authority in the Spirit to interpret the Bible for themselves. Thus according to one way of reading McGrath, the Reformation set loose interpretive anarchy upon the world,  a “Babel” of scepticism and schism which divides, confuses and continually multiplies into the many thousands of denominations and Protestant ideologies in the world today. At the same time Vanhoozer takes issue with other historians who argue that Protestantism, by its removal of any “magisterial” shared framework for the integration of knowledge, has been responsible for the gradual secularisation of the modern world See Brad Gregory:  The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society.

Vanhoozer states early on that there is no merit in giving pat answers to complex questions, (p9) and this book is certainly no easy read due both to Vanhoozer’s carefully worded and detailed writing but also to the double layered layout of the book. Thus there are two over-arching themes of the book.

The first is Vanhoozer’s attempt to use “retrieval theology” to analyse again the fundamental theology and thinking of the C16th Reformation. “Retrieval theology” is the name for a mode or style of theological discernment that looks back in order to look forward. (p23). What Vanhoozer seeks to “retrieve” are the four classic Reformation “Solas” and explain their true intention and meaning.  Sola is the Latin for “alone” and Vanhoozer deals with Grace alone; Faith alone; Scripture alone; and In Christ alone.  He adds his own fifth sola ..For the Glory of God alone.  Vanhoozer has a final chapter in which he attempts to synchronise Protestantism with Evangelicalism and in a sense to retrieve Evangelicalism, a term which is increasingly confused and under fire.

The above would be meat enough for one book but on top of this significant retrieval  analysis Vanhoozer details and defends his version of the interpretative practice of “mere” Protestant Christians (p62) channelling C S Lewis at this point.  To do this, Vanhoozer  creates a total of twenty theses  throughout the book to delineate this Protestant interpretative practice sometimes using philosophical/theological terms such as material principle, formal principle, the triune economy of light and so on which are not always clearly enunciated.(to me anyway). The result of these two over-arching themes is that the reader is divided between sorting our the “five” solas at the same time as getting a handle on the “twenty” theses of Protestant interpretative practice and it takes care and patience to push through to the finish line.

In spite of these difficulties Biblical Authority after Babel is a far-reaching and worthwhile read and indeed it provides a program for Protestants and evangelicals to understand what they have in common and to direct their energies towards the unities of Protestant belief and practice rather than concentrating on the relatively minor issues that divide some Protestant believers.

In particular Vanhoozer argues strongly for the necessary existence of the church community as also an interpretive community, creating an essential guard against individual flights of fancy and heresy in personal Biblical interpretation. In other words the worshipping community itself is the  “interpreting community” for each individual Christian. The worshipping community including its eldership/leadership becomes the safeguard agains the “interpretive anarchy” so feared by the modern opponents of the Reformation’s impact. 

On the other hand Vanhoozer has stayed away from any actual issues in this lengthy discussion choosing rather to focus on a theoretical way forward. Much as I admire his attempt it seems to me that the book would have been stronger with at least a chapter on the hard issues. Aside from one indeterminate footnote he has avoided the same-sex attraction issue which, at least in the Anglican Church , has already caused substantial division and heart ache and won’t be going away any time soon. Equally the coherent and jaunty writing and podcasting output of Rob Bell’s influential body of work has a vast world wide following. Bell can still, I believe,  be considered “evangelical” while calling for a radically different approach to many conservative doctrines and earning the ire of hardliners like John Piper. Vanhoozer’s “model” may find a way to deal with issues like these two but it would have been useful to have a chapter with attempts at a practical way forward.

Vanhoozer’s very impressive reading guide alone is one major value of the book. There is enough food for thought here for a solid one year course in Biblical and Theological hermeneutics. An impressive and thoughtful book but only for those who are committed to theological analysis and prepared to stay the distance.   4 stars.

Vaccillating with Vanhoozer on Biblical Authority 500 years after the Reformation.

Notes from Kevin J Vanhoozer: Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Grand Rapids, Brazos, 2016.

Kevin Vanhoozer is a Reformed Systematic Theologian and Philosopher and the research professor of systematic theology at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Wisconsin. This book is written largely in response to recent arguments that the C16th Reformation, by its doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” has introduced a tidal wave of different Christian denominations (about 35 000 at the last count and rising). In addition some Reformation critics argue that not only did the Reformation invite  Biblical interpretational anarchy it also led inexorably to secularisation by calling into question the authority of the one church with its official teaching magisterium. Two books which Vanhoozer  frequently references and seeks to respond to, are:

Alister McGrath: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First, New York, HarperOne, 2007, [which focuses on the dangers of biblical interpretive anarchy and:

Brad S  Gregory: The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society, Cambridge MA, Bleknap Press of Harvard University, 2012 [ which led to the loss of any shared framework for the integration of knowledge -> Protestant pluralism -> Post-modernism [Gregory p.327] He also notes as significant Richard Popkin: History of Scepticism: From Savaronola to Bayle, revised and expanded edn,, Oxford, OUP, 2003.

Vanhoozer sets himself the task of using Retrieval Theology to recover and defend the four “solas” of the Reformation. “Retrieval theology” is the name for “a mode or style of theological discernment” that looks back in order to move forward. [quoting W.David Buschart & Kent D.Eilers: Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church. (Downers Grove Il, IVP Academic, 2015]. The four “solas” are: Grace alone; faith alone; scripture alone; and in Christ alone. Vanhoozer then adds a fifth “sola”, the Glory of God alone.  Finally he concludes with a chapter in which he seeks to establish evangelicalism as the standard bearer of Protestantism.  In addition to the five “solas” Vanhoozer further sets out a series of twenty “theses” which effectively summarise and outline his general defence of Protestantism in regard to the interpretation of the Bible.

The theses are listed without comment below followed by some more general comments and notes from his book. Whilst the theses may sound a little odd at first once you think about them they actually do summarise, in my view, what many Protestant Christians understand about reading the Bible and their relationship with Christians of other denominations. I have bolded some of the theses which I think are important for critics of Protestantism to understand.

  1. Mere Protestant Christians agree that the many forms of biblical discourse together make up a single unified story of God’s gracious communicative initiations. (p62)
  2. Mere Protestant Christians agree that the Bible is fundamentally about grace in Jesus Christ. (p63)
  3. Mere Protestant Christians believe that the Bible, the process of interpretation and the interpreters themselves are all parts of the triune economy of grace. (p64)
  4. Mere Protestant Christians are themselves interpreters who are themselves caught up in the triune economy of light and who therefore read the Bible as children of light (p66)
  5. The authority principle of mere Protestant Christianity is the say-so of the Triune God, a speak-acting that authorizes the created order and  authors the Scriptures, diverse testimonies that make known the created order as it has come to be and to be restored in, through, and for Jesus Christ. (p104)
  6. As persons created in God’s image and destined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, mere Protestant biblical interpreters believe that the Spirit both summons them to attend and authorizes them to respond to the voice of the Triune God speaking in the Scriptures to present Christ.  (p104)
  7. Mere Protestant biblical interpreters believe that they will have a better understanding of what God is saying in Scripture by attending to the work of other interpreters (and communities of interpreters) as well as their own community’s work. (p105
  8. Mere Protestant Christians believe that faith enables a way of interpreting Scripture that refuses both absolute certainty (idols of the tower) and relativistic scepticism (idols of the maze). (p105)
  9. The mere Protestant pattern of interpretative authority begins with the Trine God in communicative action, accords first place to Scripture interpreting Scripture (the canonic principle), but also acknowledges the appointed role of church tradition (the catholic principle) in the economy of testimony. (p143)
  10. “Sola Scriptura” is not a recipe for sectarianism, much less an excuse for schism, but rather a call to listen for the Holy Spirit speaking in the history of the Scripture’s interpretation in the church. (p145)
  11. “Sola Scriptura”  entails not a naïve but a critical biblicism. (p146)
  12.   A mere Protestant practice of “sola scriptura” constitutes a catholic biblicism. (p146) A mere Protestant practice of “sola scriptura” constitutes a catholic biblicism.  [ie mere Protestant interpreters do well to consult and be guided by the theological judgments of earlier  [and current] generations of Christians and of Christian communities in other parts of the world.
  13. Mere Protestant local churches have the authority to make binding interpretative judgments on matters pertaining to statements of faith and the life of the church members insofar as they concern the integrity of the gospel. [i.e. “the power of the keys”]
  14. Christ authorises both the congregation as a whole and its officers in particular to minister the same word in different ways. [p174]  [eg baptism?]
  15. Christ authorises the local church to be an authoritative interpretive community of the Word of God. [p175]
  16. Mere Protestant local churches have an obligation to read in communion with other local churches. [p176]
  17. Mere Protestant Christianity, far from encouraging individual autonomy and interpretive anarchy, calls individual interpreters to join with other citizens of the gospels as members of a universal royal priesthood and local embassy of Christ’s kingdom in order to represent God’s rule publicly. [p210]
  18. Mere Protestant Christianity is a confederacy of ‘holy nations’  (local churches) united by a single constitution, and committed to reform and renewal through a continued rereading of Scripture.  [p210]
  19. The genius of mere Protestant Christianity is its distinct converse (i.e. conversational “conference” ) generated and governed by Scripture, and guided by a convictional conciliarism that unites diverse churches in a transdenominational communion. [p211]
  20. The glory of mere Protestant Christianity is the conference and communion of ‘holy nations’  [local churches], itself a gift that glorifies God in magnifying Jesus Christ.

The following notes are taken from Vanhoozer’s book with occasional comments from me.


p3. The story of the Reformation and  Protestantism in general  can be told in differerent ways with different emphases, some positive, some negative.   Vanhoozer notes 10 different stories

(1) Ephraim Radner: “The end of the Church”. Vanhoozer notes  the argument  by Radner in The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West , Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1998 that a divided church is a church without the Holy Spirit, and thus a church that is unable rightly to read Scripture.    Radner’s view it seems to me is at odds with Scripture itself which clearly demonstrates serious division within the New Testament church e.g. between Peter and Paul at Antioch, between Paul and John Mark over the mission of the Church, between Jewish and Gentile Christian churches, between Euodia and Syntyche and so on. It also implies that the Western church was in the past united but that is to ignore the  Nestorian, Arian, Marcionite, Donatist and Pelagian controversies to name a few, let alone the tragic C11th  separation of Eastern Orthodoxy from the West and the Conciliar/Papist debates again just to name a few major divisions. (p4)

(2)  Friedrich Schleirermacher: “the introductionn of academic freedom”.  In an address to the theology faculty of Berlin, on the occasion for the 300th anniversary of the Reformation (November 3, 1817) Scheliermacher praised the Reformers for introducing academic freedom into theology, namely, the critical (i.e. scholarly) principle that is the only antidote to (Roman Catholic) dogmatism. (p5)

(3) Wilhelm de Wette:  “Political Freedom”. The spirit of Protestantism …leads necessarily to political freedom. (p5)  [cited from T A Howard & M A Noll: “The Reformation at Five Hundred: An Outline of the Changing Ways We Remember the Reformation.” in First Things, 247 (November 2014):43-48.

(4) G W Hegel: “The freedom of humanity”  Hegel viewed the Reformation as an essential step in the history of the Geist toward freedom:”This is the essence of the Reformation: Man is in his very nature destined to be free.”  [cited from Hegel: The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, Mineola,NY, Dover, 1956 p417]  (p5)

(5)  Ernst Troeltsch: “individualism”. Troeltsch argued Protestantism’s progress is a matter of basing beliefs not on an external authority but on inner personal conviction: “Protestantism became the religion of the search for God in one’s own feeling, experience, thought and will.”   (p5) [ cited in Troeltsch: Protestantisim and Progress: The Significance of Protestantism for the Rise of the Modern World, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1986]

(6)  Paul Tillich: depicted the “Protestant principle”  as dialectical: a prophetic “no” to any earthly authoritarianism, and a creative “yes”  to the ground of being (love)  that empowers new shapes of human freedom. (p5) [cited from Tillich: The Protestant Era, Chicago, UCP, 1948]

(7)  H Richard Niebuhr: “Constructive Protestantism”.  Richard Niebuhr’s The Kingdom of God in America, (1939) is an account of the arrival of English Protestants in the USA to form the  Massachusetts Bay Colony. He describes how Protestants confessed the direct rule of God, apart from any institutional mediation, but it was not clear how God’s Word was to order society.  “The new freedom was not self-organising but threatened anarchy in every sphere of life.”  (p6) [cited from H R Niebuhr: The Kingdom of God in America, 1937, repr. Middletown CT, Wesleyan University Press, 1988, p43] The resultant chaos especially following the trial of Mrs Anne Hutchinson for disturbing the peace “ and her subsequent banishment to Rhode Island, almost destroyed the Massachusetts settlement completely.

(8) Alister McGrath: “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea”.  Molecular chemist turned systematic theologian and historian McGrath borrowed his title from Daniel Dennett’s title of his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, [London, Penguin, 1995] McGrath used the biological idea of mutation to describe Protestantism as a meme: an idea, value, or practice that spreads from person to person, culture to culture, nation to nation,  through not genetic, but cultural replication…[this factor ] ..accounts for the unpredictability of new developments (such as Pentecostalism) and its capacity to adapt to new situations.  [cited from A McGrath: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, New York, HarperOne, 2007]

(9) Brad Gregory:  “Secularization”   …the unintended consequence of the Reformation’s refusal of the church’s final say-so was the loss of “any shared framework for the integration of knowledge” …leading eventually to religious wars over disagreements as to precisely what Scripture said, and eventually, to the Enlightenment’s elevation of “sola ratio”  (reason alone) to the position of unbiased referee,…demoting faith to the realm of private (subjective) opinion. (p11) [quotation cited from Gregory: The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularised Society,  Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2112.]

(10) Hans Boersma & Peter Leithart:  “Schism”.  Boersma laments the Reformation as “fissiparous”  (inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups). He regards  the Reformation not as something to be celebrated but as something to be lamented….turning away from the allegorical to the natural and losing the sense of mystery, the supernatural, the sacramental and creating modernity as well as tearing apart the previously seamless body of Christ, the church. [cited from Boersma: Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2011, p85;

Leithhart  criticizes Protestantism’s tendency to “just say no”  as simply identifying itself oppositionally, in contrast to the “other “ of Roman Catholicism. He quotes T S Eliot: The life of Protestantism depends on the survival of that against which it protests. [in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, (London, Faber & Faber, 1949 p75). Protestantism/evangelicalism is always against something. (p13f)  and Peter J Leithart: “The Future of Protestantism: The Churches Must Die to be Raised Anew”, First Things, 245(August/Septmember 2014):p23-27.  Leithart goes on to say we are all in it, not just Protestants,. None of the strategies for building consensus —neither Protestant nor Catholic—-have been successful in uniting the whole church. 

p16  …the distinction between “fundamentals”  and “little things” brings us back to what many consider the Achilles heel of Protestantism: the lack of centralised interpretative authority….the formal problem…the lack of a consensual criterion for discerning whose interpretation of Scripture is right.  

p17….Sociologist Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, (Grand Rapids, Brazos, 2011) argues that the problem is not the Bible but biblicism. He  defines “Biblicism” as a theory about the authority of the Bible that posits its clarity, self-sufficiency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability….Biblicists must be in denial if they cannot see what everyone else sees: on important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches.  (p.ix)  In response Vanhoozer argues the way forward is not to abandon biblicism but to distinguish between a naïve and a critical biblicism, between a pervasive interpretative problem, on the one hand, and a unitive interpretative plurality, on the other. (ie a plural interpretative unity).  I think he means in the end, a unitive and peaceful agreement to differ in interpretation …but who decides which things matter and are critical  and which should not disturb unity??eg the same-sex marriage issue.

cf John Dryden: Religio Laici, 1682

The Book thus put in every vulgar hand,

Which each presumed he best could understand,

The common rule was made the common prey,

And at the mercy of the rabble lay. 

p18. Catholic critics argue against “sola scriptura” on the grounds that Protestants disagree about interpretations. e.g. Devon Rose: If Protestantism is true, all we have is fallible opinions about infallible books. [cited in Rose: The Protestant Dilemma: How the Reformation’s Shocking Consequences Point to the Truth of Catholicism, San Diego, Catholic Answers Press, 2014]

Yet the reality is that Roman Catholic scholars themselves disagree about interpretation (eg Hans Kung) and of course many Roman Catholics ignore “official” Roman Catholic dogmatic pronouncements e.g. on birth control.

p20  A further problem is what theorists have called extreme interpretative egoism…the view that privileges my interpretations simply because they are mine.

p21. Literary critics such as Stanley Fish of course argue that textual meaning [in general, in any literary text] is a function of the interpretive assumptions that happen to be in force in a particular interpretive community. …There is no single way of reading that is correct or natural, only “ways of reading” that are extensions of community perspectves. (p21f)

p25 In defining the purpose of his book Vanhoozer states the following: The present work contends that retrieving the five Reformation solas helps to address the contemporary problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism, and retrieving the priesthood of all believers (ecclesiology) helps to address the problem of the authority of interpretive communities….Together, these two principles will enable us to retrieve a third, what I will call the final principle of the Reformation, namely, catholicity;  a differentiated or “plural”  interpretive community, a rich communion that is both creature of the Word of God and fellowship of the Spirit.

p28. The solas are not a substitute for credal orthodoxy but its servants. The solas do not develop the doctrine they presuppose it….They also provide resources with which to respond to the charge that the Reformation unintentionally loosed interpretive anarchy up.on the world. In subsequent chapters I argue that the solas provide a pattern for reading Scripture theologically that enables Protestant unanimity on theological essentials, and thus the possibility of genuine fellowship in spite of secondary and tertiary doctrinal differences.

p29f.  To put it more provocatively: in retrieving the royal priesthood of all believers, I am pursuing what amounts to a virtual sixth sola : sola ecclesia (church alone)….Church alone what? The short answer: the church alone is the place where Christ rules over his kingdom and gives certain gifts for the building of his living temple.

p30. Philip Schaff shocked his audience when, in an 1844 inaugural address on “The Principle of Protestantism” to the German Reformed Theological Seminary at Mercersburg (Pennsylvania), he declared the Reformation to be the “greatest act” of the catholic church. Schaff judged the Church of Rome to be subcatholic in refusing to acknowledge the Reformation as its legitimate child. This is not to say that he gave Protestant churches a free pass. He identified the great defect of modern Protestantism as its sectarianism. 

p31  Protestantism has always suffered from two dangers identified by Andrew F Walls, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, Edinburgh, T & T Clark p74….Walls identifies the dangers as pride (the instinctive desire to protect our own version of the Christian faith ) and indifference (the postmodern decision that no one can know for sure, so why bother ruling some versions out). Catholicity is not chaos, however. It is the standing challenge for the church to display its unity in Christ despite its differences. ….however, catholicity need not entail institutional unification.

p32   The problem is that evangelicalism itself has become a fractious, fissiparous …movement that began as a renewal of confessional Protestantism but that now too often attempts to maintain itself by seeking renewal by means other than confessional theology. However renewal without a direct object — the gospel as articulated by the Protestant confessions — is energy poorly spent….Bereft of an institutional means to deal with difference,  evangelical cells simply continue to split : not “divide and conquer” but “divide and rancour”. This is Protestantism’s dangerous idea at work!

p33  Exegesis outside the church will ultimately yield no unity—one must not only be a person of one book but of one church—the unity in diversity that local churches have in Christ…In this book I present the solas as seeds for a perennial reformation of the church. The kind of Protestantism that needs to live on is not the one that encourages individual autonomy or corporate pride but the one that encourages the church to hold fast to the gospel and to one another. The only good Protestant is a catholic Protestant — one who learns from, and bears fruit for,  the whole church. 

p35 ..revelation and redemption precedes the work of interpretation..

p36.  Although all three persons [of the Trinity] are involved in everything that God does, we may assign to the Father the ontology of grace, the giving of the love that creates (originating grace); to the Son the economy of grace, the giving of the life that redeems (saving grace); and to the Spirit the teleology of grace, the giving of the light that sanctifies (illuminating grace). Vanhoozer notes in fn 2 p36 that although everything that God does is the work of all three persons, it is fitting to ascribe certain actions, to particular divine persons on the basis of what we observe in the outworking of God’s plan. (i.e.the economy). The technical term is “appropriation” .   Phew! Not sure about the value of such “separation of functions”!

p38f Vanhoozer quotes  Roland Bainton quoting  Martin Luther’s own words [presumably Bainton translated the German himself]:…then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies [acquits] us through faith[fulness]. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage in Paul became to me a gate to heaven… [Roland H Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, New York, Mentor, 1950 p49f] Vanhoozer comments Luther had discovered the passive righteousness, and the freedom of the Christian, in the active righteousness, the effective promise of God. [ I am not sure I understand Vanhoozer’s distinction between passive and active righteousness. Righteousness is after all “acquittal” ..I presume active righteousness is effectively the sanctification that occurs when we accept God’s acquittal through faithfulness. (πιστις  = pistis = faith or faithfulness)

p40 ..Grace contradicts every system of religion precisely because God’s free mercy cannot be predicted, calculated or manipulated.   So also Rob Bell!

p41  Vanhoozer takes a standard Reformed view of natural theology.  Theologians of glory [natural theologians unnamed] extrapolate from what they see in nature to the supernatural being of God. This is natural theology freed from the discipline of revealed theology, an autonomous endeavour who’s principal method is the analogy of being. Natural theologians identify God-like properties in creation  and then extrapolate and inflate them until they reach infinite proportion, at which point they describe God’s being as all-good, all -powerful, together with all the other God-making properties. 

This is harsh in my view and does not take into account Romans 1:19 [What can be known of God, you see, is plain to them. Ever since the world was made, his eternal power and deity have been seen and known in the things he made, since God has made it plain to them. As a result they have no excuse…and then in Romans 2:1 So you have no excuse —anyone, whoever you are, who sits in judgment….[ Translation from Tom Wright: The New Testament for Everyone, London, SPCK, 2011, p 338f]

Vanhoozer does soften his position in fn16 p41 noting Reformed theologians display a certain ambivalence [there was no ambivalence at all with Karl Barth…Nein!] about natural theology. Paul speaks of “what can be known about God (Romans 1:19) in nature. However Calvin insists, first, that such knowledge (i.e. of God’s existence and power) is not saving… With all due respect to Calvin, he seems to have misread Romans 1:19. Paul says “they have no excuse” …according to Paul, God is taking natural theology very seriously…”they have no excuse” …they could have been saved… hmmm…more work to be done on natural theology for those who have not heard the Gospel of Christ or who have heard it poorly delivered methinks!

Vanhoozer goes on to quote Luther at his Heidelberg Disputation:  A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. [p41] Vanhoozer then quotes Freud: “Religion” —the theology of glory —is indeed what Freud says it is : the future of an illusion, namely the idolatrous preference for one’s own thoughts about God. p41f [Sigmund Freud: The Future of an Illusion, trans. & ed. James Strachey, New York, W W Norton, 1989] …And yet does not Psalm 19 say clearly The Heavens declare the glory of God…much more work to be done here!  Personally I think the future of natural theology is much more positive than the future of Freud!

p43  Luther resists the idea that Christians read the Bible as they would any other text…”there is a priority of Scripture itself over its readers and hearers. Vanhoozer notes For Luther, it is not so much that individuals justify this or that interpretation; rather, a theologian “is a person who is interpreted by Holy Scripture, who lets himself or herself be interpreted by it.” quoted in Oswald Bayer: Theology the Lutheran Way, ed. and trans. Jeffrey G.Silcock and Mark C. Mattes, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2007.  Vanhoozer further notes that Luther points out that the Gospels themselves can be (wrongly) read as law if the interpreter depicts Christ as an example of how to live one’s life. Readers who make this error make a Moses out of Christ. “What would Jesus do?” is  not yet to proclaim the gospel.

p45 – 46 But did the Reformers deny the sacramental -hierarchical picture of the world that went with the authority of the church Magisterium?  Vanhoozer argues that eveything depends, however, on what we mean by “grace” and how it relates to nature in the first place.  It is a significant question, pertaining to what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls “the last essential difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. 

Vanhoozer  quotes Thomas Aquinas: Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.

p47   Vanhoozer notes that Scholastics deployed the concept of pure nature to counter the Protestant teaching about the total depravity of human nature….It was Henri de Lubac, one of the important figures influencing Vatican 11, who first called attention to the trajectory that led from pure self-enclosed nature to modern secularism…Several of the leading Catholic theologians involved in Vatican 11 themselves lay at least some of the blame on the scholastic and neo-scholastic misreadings  (on their view) of Aquinas. When nature is viewed as oure or autonomous grace becomes ontologically “second order,” and the result is what Karl Barth rightly described as the “secular misery” of modern theology.  [Dogmatics, 1/1 pxviii]

p48  For de Lubac, the notion of pure nature is a nonstarter, for planted deep in human nature is a desire for God. [Surnaturel: Études historiques, Paris, Aubier, 1946] Vanhoozer quotes Leihthart that Neoscholasticism’s view of a supernatural realm “outside and above” nature actually “contributes to the triumph of atheism by making the supernatural superfluous to man’s existence.” [Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2011.] Vanhoozer continues: In de Lubac’s view, “secular humanism” is a contradiction in terms, for human beings by nature have a desire for God, who transcends nature.  The idea of a closed order of nature is nothing more than a metaphysical fiction….de Lubac  and the nouvelle théologie…held that “natural” being participates in and is oriented toward God, even in its fallenness…..Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, proposes the concept of a “supernatural existential” to signify how human beings are constitutionally open to receiving grace, whether or not faith is present. (fn. 45) [cf Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians”?]

p49   Vanhoozer notes that both neb-scholastics and their nouvelle detractors appear to chalk up humanity’s distance form God to their createdness, not fallenness. On the contrary: the problem is not that God (or the supernatural) is “external” to creation but rather that the whole realm of creation has become alienated from God through sin. [and it is, in my view, the Biblical position that this “sin/rebellion” was in the world prior to humanity e.g. the narrative of the bent serpent in Genesis 3 and Paul’s references to the fact that we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.. [Ephesians 6:12].

Vanhoozer and Reformed theology in general distinguishes between the grace of participation in being (created existence) , and from the special grace of participation in Christ (covenant existence), and from the further grace associated with the Spirit’s illumination. My personal view is that what Reformed theology calls “covenant grace” and the further “illumination of the Spirit” is for vocation, not predestination (ie Israel as a “light to the nations”  [Isaiah 49:6] and Christians “called to God’s service in Romans 8:28. Otherwise there is the perennial problem of the billions of individuals who have never heard or did never hear of the loving call of God for their lives to be lived in and with His Spirit.

p50f  Vanhoozer writes: We are not to read the Bible like any other book, as if it were an element in the immanent economy of natural reason, but rather with eyes and ears opened by grace, open and operative in the communicative domain of the Triune God….it is to the praise of God’s glorious grace that he has chosen us in Christ  “before the foundation of the world” .  [Ephesians 1:4] In my view,   for vocation, not for predestination to heaven!

p52  Vanhoozer notes that Theologians do well not to speculate about God’s immanent being…but p52  is a serious discussion about the nature of the interpersonal communications in the Godhead….

p53 …grace is not some third thing between God and human beings, a supernatural substance or power that gets infused into nature to perfect it. Rather, grace is the gift of God’s beneficent presence and activity—that is, the communication of God’s own light, life, and love to those who have neither the right to them nor a claim on God.  All the more reason, in my view, why Christians have a responsibility to use these gifts to reach out to others and play our part in the renewal of the kingdom of God on earth as indeed many selfless men and women are doing in the world today.

p54-5  According to Jonathan Edwards, the end for which God created the world was self-communication. [Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 13, The “miscellanies,” ed.Thomas A. Schafer, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1994, p277] Vanhoozer continues..Creation is fundamentally a theatre for God’s glory, a place where God can be seen to be God by those who are not God…Again in my view these sentiments are all very fine but can mean nothing to those whose lives have been tortured by murderers, or bombed to bits in war or subjected to bitter slavery, or suffer incurable birth defects or illnesses,  or who have subjected themselves to the slavery of drugs etc. If the world is at present in Edwards’ theory the “theatre of God’s glory” it is in fact a “theatre of terror and horror and starvation” for many in the world today.  We who share in what Vanhoozer calls the mystery of Jesus Christ have vast responsibilities for the use of our time and gifts and resources.  Yes, I agree with Vanhoozer, that we have been transferred into the kingdom of the Son (Col.1:13) but we have been transferred for a very serious vocation indeed which will involve participation in his suffering.

p56 Vanhoozer writes of God’s covenant love and grace towards Abraham and notes This Abrahamic promise lies at the heart of the covenant of grace, and it is associated with a second Hebrew term, חֶסֶד  [hesed] (steadfast love), God’s special covenant kindness.  This is the blessing that is to be the light to the Nations.

p57 God freely sets in motion both creation and redemption, the latter a process of self-communication what would prove to be unsurpassingly costly. For Jesus Christ is the gratutitous promise of God made flesh, the חֶסֶד, the steadfast love, the the shining face  [שְׁכִינָה] and λογος Word of God, up close and personal, “full of grace and truth (John 1:14; Exodus 34:6-7)…What Christ communicates is his filial status and relationship, something that we could never attain by our own dint of effort. [all of this for our vocation, not for our predestination!]

p58 Jesus Christ is the shining face [שְׁכִינָה] of God, in whose light (and through whose Spirit) the church lives, moves and has its being…….the Word , who directs our knowing  and the Spirit, who directs our doing.

p59  Vanhoozer quotes Bonhoeffer: the church is God’s new will and purpose for humanity. [Sanctorum Communio:A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford J Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss & Nancy Lukens, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol 1, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1998 p466.]….Vanhoozer notes: Alfred Loisy’s famous observation that “Jesus announced the Kingdom and what came was the Church” implies a discrepancy! [Loisy, L’Evangile et l’Elise, 2nd ed., Bellevue, 1903 p155]  Hmmm!

p60  The grace of God’s self-communicative activity results in the grace of communion: a communion of the Trinity, but also of the saints. It is the special task of the Holy Spirit to create a “fellowship of differents”. [taking a phrase from Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2014.

p61 The teaching ministry of the church is itself a gift of the risen Christ, an important part of the economy of God’s grace…in response to the basic criticism ..that the Reformation’s emphasis on “sola scripture” and the priesthood of all believers desacralized the church…

p62 Christianity is not primarily a system of ideas but an account of how the Creator has reached out with both hands, Son and Spirit, to lift up a fallen world in a loving embrace….Mere Protestant Christians may differ over precisely how to read the story and what it means, but not about the main persons and events.

p63  There is one gospel, but four Gospels, just as there is one mere Protestant Christian understanding of the gospel story but several denominational interpretations as to its precise meaning. Even the New Testament authors tell the story of Jesus in different ways, but they all tell the story of Jesus…..Everything depends on a distinction between doctrines of differing dogmatic rank … In fn 80 Vanhoozer notes: I am aware that one person’s (or denomination’s) second-order doctrine is another’s cherished first-order truth. Interestingly, for Paul the things “of first importance” included Jesus dying for our sins and being raised on the third day (1 Cor.15:3-4)—events in a story rather than particular interpretations of these events.

p64  Vanhoozer quotes Luther: Unless one understands the things [res] under discussion, one cannot make sense of the words {verba]…Vanhoozer then notes: It is worth observing that in viewing the Bible as fundamentally a discourse about the mystery of God’s grace revealed in Christ, we are following the interpretive lead of Jesus himself, who consistently explained his person and work by reference to the Old Testament, as the fulfilment of previous divine communicative initiatives.  “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”  (Luke 24:27).

To rely on one’s own native interpretive powers is to succumb to the temptation of a “hermeneutics  of glory” —that is, the expectation that one can discover God’s Word through one’s own natural exegetical abilities…Many in the modern academy read the Bible, in the words of the C19th Oxford  biblical scholar Benjamin Jowett, “like any other book”.  [The Interpretation of Scripture and Other Essays, London, George Roultledge & Sons, 1907 p1-76] much that Michael Legaspi links the modern rise of biblical studies, a specialist discipline, with the “death” of Scripture, [The death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies, Oxford, OUP. 2010)

p65  To read the Bible through the lens of an interpretive framework derived from elsewhere than Scripture is to insert both text and interpreter into a this-worldly economy of criticism (nature) rather than a triune economy of revelation (grace). Whilst I understand where Vanhoozer is coming from in this statement if needs to be balanced by the importance of understanding the various literary genres of the Biblical text.  Poetry and epic story (eg Genesis 1 – 3) cannot be read as scientific history …to do so leads to misunderstanding. cf Blocher: The interpretation of the Bible must not be overshadowed by the hypotheses current amongst scientists today. Moses knew nothing about them and we must put them out of our minds if we are going to understand his meaning properly without inteference in the meaning of the divine Word. But after that it would be irresponsible to extend this methodical neglect. The universal reign of the one true God forbids such schizophrenic compartmentalisation. The believer can avoid neither cautious critical examination of the theories nor the task of linking his conclusions to the teaching of divine revelation. Everybody, obviously, must do this within the limits of his own calling. [Henri Blocher, In The Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis, Leicester, Downer’s Grove, Inter-Varsity Press, 1984. The quotation is from the Appendix: Scientific hypotheses and the beginning of Genesis, p213]

Vanhoozer notes that grace restores interpretive agents to right-mindedness and right-heartedness and reorients interpretive acts to their proper end: receiving Christ into our hearts and minds. [ it could be argued that Vanhoozer’s remark above can be read as “if you don’t agree with my interpretations (or my interpretive community’s interpretations) you are obviously not grace – filled!“ Hmmm.

p66  …we must give our full attention to what the Lord is saying to us in Scripture rather than try to discover what we wish he had said!  Vanhoozer’s fourth “thesis” states that  Mere Protestant Christians are interpreters who themselves are caught up in the triune economy of light and who therefore read the Bible as children of light. While I agree with this in theory, the reality is that different “children of light” will still interpret biblical words differently e.g. אָדָם = Adam in Genesis 1 – 3.  Does it mean “mankind” or “Adam” the individual historical person.  Many translations mix it up  depending on the context but it is still a matter of significant debate.

p68  Grace is what accounts for the life and light of God ad intra being poured out ad extra on undeserving sinners.   This is an interesting sentence. John 1:9 states that Jesus is the true light, which gives light to everyone.  Indeed, everyone is an “underserving sinner” God’s grace is freely given to all..not just some specially “chosen” ones.

p69 The Spirit illumines the faithful, opening eyes and ears to see and hear the light of the world, the Word of God dazzling in the canonical fabric of the text:  God’s unmerited favour toward us shining in the face of the biblical Jesus.  Not sure about the underlined clause…not all of the fabric of the biblical text dazzles unless with the help of some heavy handed allegorization.

p75  Vanhoozer notes that Luther’s appeal to the original text —an exercise in philology — overturned the tables  of Scripture’s Latin translators. At first, Luther was unaware that he had unleashed a conflict over interpretive authority; he was convinced that his critique of indulgences would receive papal support. His critics quickly disabused him of his notion that philology trumps papal authority, and Luther eventually (and somewhat reluctantly) came to see with increasing clarity that the real issue underlying everything else was the locus of authority — the source of authoritative statements of the truth of the gospel.

p78 Vanhoozer challenges those who justify their scriptural  interpretation by direct appeal to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Direct appeal to the Spirit’s authority are shortcuts that lead back to another kind of abbreviated Protestant principle, where Spirit effectively eclipses Word.


p79-83 What authorises mere Protestant Christianity? The answer, I suggested, has something to do with philology and pneumatology —-with the Spirit using words to effect faith.  Vanhoozer proceeds to look at three alternative authorisations:

  1. Mediaeval allegorizing …problematic, because Scripture can be made to mean pretty much anything the interpreter wishes it to mean (p79f)
  1. Modern historical criticism …cf Spinoza: the rule of [biblical] interpretation must be nothing more than the natural light of reason which is common to all men, and not some light above nature or any external authority.  [Theological-Political Treatise, ed. Jonathan Israel, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel, Cambridge, CUP, 2015, p116]. Cf Rudolf Bultmann [who] believed that he had inherited the Reformer’s exegetical mantle: “ Indeed, de-mythologizing is a task parallel to that performed by Paul and Luther…the radical application of the doctrine of justification by faith to the sphere of knowledge and thought. [Rudolf Bultmann: Jesus Christ and Mythology, New York, Scribner, 1958, p84] Like justification by faith, demythologizing “destroys every longing for security”. [ibid] Bultmann views faith  as radical insecurity, epistemological as well as existential, and thus the demand to abandon every effort to make our existence, or our knowledge of God, secure. Gerhard Ebeling, one of Bultmann’s students, went even furthere, arguing that the historical-critical method is the hermetical counterpart of sola fide, and hence a distinctly Protestant form of biblical interpretation. The reality of all this is that there are “Conservative” and “Liberal” biblical scholars and they come to equally radically different conclusions. (p80f)
  1. Postmodern Pragmatism pp81-83… Christians today inhabit a situation in which there are not only multiple biblical interpretations but also multiple ways of reading the Bible jostling for position in the academy….we live in a time of pervasive intepretive plurality….The one indubitable fact about biblical hermeneutics is that its interpreters do not agree on what the text means. Consequently, what begins as faithful criticism ends in interpretive pride, and often violence: “Anxiety about relativism morphs into arrogance.” [Merold Wesphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church:  The Church and Postmodern Culture, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2009, p47 ]
  1. James K A Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College, agrees; the knee-jerk reaction to relativism is to seek absoluteness, but the claim to have absolute or even objective knowledge comes close to claiming that one knows what God knows. Smith thinks that we need to come clean and acknowledge the finitude and contingency of our creaturehood, and thus the relativity of our perspectives and interpretations, of texts and everything else.
  1. If individual interpreters cannot achieve objectiviy thorough philology, what stops the slide into interpretive relativism? The short answer: faith community traditions. Westphal draws on the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadder to remind us that we are not autonomous but rather traditioned individuals., members of communities that shape the way we see, think, and talk about things. [op.cit.p74] . This position is postmodern because it rejects the autonomy of modern liberal individualism, and pragmatic because what bears authority is not universal reason but community practice. The basic idea is that of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Meaning is use, and we learn how to speak about things by participating in language games  associated with a community’s form of life.
  1. There is much to appreciate in this postmodern retrieval of community tradition. Yet the problem—the conflict of interpretations and interpretive communities remains: for if our grasp of meaning and truth, and our sense of what makes for a “good” interpretation, depends on the faith community to which we happen to belong, then for all intents and purposes what bears interpretative authority is the interpretive community.  But which one? It is highly ironic that Protestants, of all people, are now appealing to sola fide in support of the authority of interpretive communities. Moreover, it is far from clear how postmodern pragmatists could explain Martin Luther, or any person who launches a prophetic critique against the tradition of interpretive community that formed him or her.

p84  The principle of authority. he principle of authority… Authority gets little respect.  A 2014 Gallup poll showed that public faith in the US Congress had reached a historic low, with just 6 per cent of Americans approving. I wonder what the percentage is in the Trump era!

p86  Who are the Biblle’s authorised interpreters, and who/what authorizes them?

p88   Adam and Ever were the first heretics (I use the word in the sense of its Greek verbal derivation,  ἁιρεομαι (haireomai) , “to choose for oneself”.

p90f The authority principle in Christianity the triune God in communcative action. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Word who was with God and was God, made flesh…Jesus alone is thus both able and authorised to reveal the Father: he is the image of the invisible God…This explains why all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. (Matt.28:20)….in the light of this claim, it is easy to understand why some theologians want to locate all authority in Christ. For example, P T Forsyth wants to locate authority not so much in the Bible as in the Gospel, alluding to William Chillingworth’s famous phrase even as he turns it against him: “The Gospel and the Gospel alone, is the religion of Protestants….fn62. Chillingworth wrote: “The Bible, I say the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants.” [Works of William Chillingworth, p46] Perhaps Bernard Ramm had Forsyth in mind when he wrote: “The difficulties of a single principle of authority (rather than a pattern of authority) appear clearly in discussions of the authority of Jesus Christ. Frequently the authority of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures are opposed. [Ramm, The Pattern of Religious Authority, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1957, p46]

Vanhoozer notes: This opposition of sola scripture and sola Christus is deeply to be regretted—and studiouslly to be avoided). The Gospels show Jesus delegating authority to others. The apostles are authorised interpreters of Jesus’s person and work, inscribers of the meaning of the Christ event whose written discourse is part and parcel of the triune economy of communicative action. [fn.65 :Though I cannot argue the point here, I believe that “inspiration” qualifies not the disciples as persons but their written discourse. cf Paul to the Corinthians: Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? [1 Cor.9:1]

p92 Apostolicity is one of the four traditional marks of the church, along with oneness, holiness,  and catholicity. Minimally, apostolicity means that a church in whatever place and time must be in line with the apostles if it is to be considered genuinely Christian.  

p93 …on the other end of the spectrum, is the scholarly option, which locates authority with the expert. We live in an age of specialisation. Does having knowledge —epistemic authority—superior intellectual knowledge —on ancient Near Eastern archaeology, for example, constitute scholars as authorised biblical interpreters?

The third option is fundamentalism. Fundamentalists refuse to bow the knee either to popes or to modern biblical scholarship, emphasizing instead the exclusive authority of the Bible —a read by fundamentalist leaders. Well, they don’t say that exactly, but this is precisely the concern of both evangelicals like Bernard Ramm [The Witness of the Spirit, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1959] and liberals like James Barr, [Fundamenatalism, London, SCM, 1981]. They worry that fundamentalism is an interpretive community that covers its own presuppositional tracks. Their leaders proclaim,”The Bible says,” but then they deliver their own tradition-bound interpretations (of course, fundamentalists are not the only ones guilty of that). “Only by concealing their role as interpreters are fundamentalist authorities able to wield their immense power over ordinary believers. [Kathleen C. Boone: The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1989, p89]

p95f “Extreme epistemic egoist” … a person who refuses to take anything on authority. [ Linda Zagzebski: Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief, Oxford, OUP, 2012]  Interestingly, extreme epistemic egoists can be either rationalists of fideists: they can stubbornly rely either on their own reasoning or on their own believing,  independent of any reasons….Alvin Plantinga defines “fideism” as “the exclusive reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a disparagement of reason.”  [Ed. Alvin Plantinga & Nicholas Wolterstorff: Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, Notre Dame IN, UNDP, 1983, p87] Vanhoozer notes; is irrational —less than epistemically conscientious—to trust one’s own epistemic faculties and not those of others. [Richard Foley: Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others, Cambridge, CUP, 2001]

p98 It is noteworthy that Plantinga identifies the content of faith with “the central teachings of the gospel” rather than with particular doctrinal (and denominational) definitions. He here follows Jonathan Edwards’ emphasis on “the great things of the Gospel”….The emphasis is on the story, not its possible interpretations. fn98 Plantinga insists that Christian belief about the gospel is warranted simply on the basis of hearing/reading the biblical testimony, quite apart from historical evidence or argument.  [A Plantinga: Knowledge and Christian Belief, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015 p65].

p99 Vanhoozer notes: In the light of the preceding, it therefore seems that the all-too-common tendency to tar Protestant Christianity with the brush of epistemic autonomy is seriously misguided. Sola fide is not a hammer with which to reinforce the authority of one’s own private judgments. It accords better with Zabzebski’s thesis about the importance of trusting others….The pertinent question remains: Which others? The apostles of course, because their testimony is that of Spirit-guided eyewitnesses. But whose interpretation of the apostolic message? No one can serve two martyrs (from Greek  μαρτυς = martus = “witness”). No one can avoid placing one’s faith in some authority whether oneself or another.

p99f An epistemically conscientious person will admit, “Other normal, mature humans have the same natural desire for truth and the same general powers and capacities that I have. [Zabzebski, op.cit p55] When it comes to biblical interpretation, the question is whether other normal, mature humans are also being guided into all truth. Stated differently: Are all interpretive communities created—and redeemed—equally? Obviously, I cannot examine every Christian interpretive community. It will suffice to distinguish those communities that nurture a primary trust in their own authorised interpreters and interpretations and those that nurture a primary trust in Scripture’s self-interpreting authority.

p100-103 All knowing begins with what Michael Polanyi calls a “fiduciary framework” (fiduciary = pertaining to fides, “involving trust”): an interpretive framework that one takes initially on faith until it proves itself by yielding a harvest of understanding. [M. Polanyi: Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, corrected ed. Chicago, UCP, 1962, p266] …The church is not like other interpretive communities. Its reading must not be a text for its own purposes. For the church is “a creature of the Word”—an interpretive community that exists not to have its own way with the text but to let the Word have its way with the interpreters….What kind of authority does the church have?…the church is a mother that teaches her children to trust the truth.. [Hank van den Belt: The Authority of Scripture in Reformed Theology: Truth and Trust, Leiden, Brill, 2008,p325] “A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.” [M. Polanyi, op.cit. p53]

p105 Biblical study alone can become one more variation on the theme of justification by works—scholarly works. It is equally misguided to appeal to the Holy Spirit as an interpretive shortcut, like some get-out-of-hermeneutical-jail-free card. “Faith alone’” was never meant to encourage epistemic egoism.

p106  Pride in the “assured results” of critical reason is the besetting temptation of modern biblical scholarship.

p110 While it is true that a certain degree of doctrinal chaos came after the Reformation, it is fallacious to argue that sola scriptura  was the primary reason. Vanhoozer has a right to object. There was a high degree of doctrinal chaos well before the Reformation. Consider the Arian, Nestorian, Donates and Pelagian controversies just for starters. Throw in the C11th split with the Eastern Orthodox Church and the authority debate between conciliarists and papal supporters and the Redormation starts to look small in comparison. It was also inevitable with the growth of European nationalism shaking up the basis of the Holy Roman Empire. As Vanhoozer notes: One cannot infer that one event caused another simply because the alleged cause came before the alleged effect. fn 4 the technical term of this logical mistake is post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this therefore because of this) or to confuse chronology with causality.

p110  Sola Scriptura does not mean Scripture apart from the community of faith or  even Scripture independent of church tradition….it is an element…in the pattern of authority.

p111 The Reformers had Rome to the right of them and enthusiasts to the left of them; they therefore had to hammer out their understanding of Scripture’s authority against those who exaggerated human tradition, on the one hand, and those who exaggerated the immediate revelations of the Spirit, on the other….Luther had a suggestion: the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures is his own interpreter. In addition, the Word is in a certain sense its own best interpreter. “Scripture interprets Scripture.”

p114  Scripture is materially sufficient (“enough”) because God has communicated everything we need to know in order to learn Christ and live the Christian life. 

p116 The Reformers never meant to imply that the Bible does not need human interpreters.

p117 is not that the church interprets Scripture but that Scripture interprets the church….Similarly, “it is the Scripture that comes to interpret the exegete.” [Gerhard O. Forde: A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, ed Mark C. Mattas and Steven D. Paulson, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans,2004, p71]

p119 The nineteenth century saw an increase in papal authority, marked by lengthy encyclicals and culminating with the dogma of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1869-70)…Nothing essential has therefore changed with regard to Rome’s sola magisterium since the Reformation. 

p120 What Luther protested was not Roman Catholic tradition as such but the departure from received tradition…the notion, common in the church fathers, that the Rule of Faith provided a “single exegetical tradition of interpreted Scripture. 

p121 It may seem as though one is espousing a high view of Scripture, but in fact solo scriptura is not biblical: “Scripture itself indicates that the Scriptures are the possession of the Church and that the interpretation of the Scripture belongs to the Church as a whole, as a community…Solo scriptura is something altogether different from sola scriptura: the latter affirms “that our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a Scripture that is alone. [Keith A Mathison: The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Moscow ID, Canon Press, 2001, p240.]

p122 Vanhoozer quotes Stanley Hauerwas [who] identifies sola scriptura as the “sin of the Reformation” because it is the doctrine that opened up what we have described as the Pandora’s box of Protestantism, namely, the unchecked subjectivism that follows from the assumption  “that the text of the Scripture makes sense separate from the Church that gives it sense. [Hauerwas: Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Nashville, Abingdon, 1993, p155]   Vanhoozer argues in response that sola scripture  serves the church precisely by preserving intact the distinction between text and interpretation, and thus the possibility that the prevailing cultural practices and linguistic habits may be challenged and corrected by Scripture.

p123 Vanhoozer defines “interpretive authority” as the right to authorise what should be said and done on the basis of Scripture. [p123]

p124 We can all think of examples of theologians who come to the text with a system of conceptual categories already in place and then proceed to bend the text to their wills, forcing it into some procrustean philosophical bed…I condone no approach to interpretation that forces the Bible to conform to a prefabricated ideological mould. On the other hand I don’t think that sola scripture is a general hermeneutical principle..

p124f  Does sola scriptura favour biblical theology over systematic theology?  Vanhoozer says “No!” Don Carson says “Yes!”  Vanhoozer quotes Carson: Systematic theology attempts to organise what the Bible says according to some impose a structure not transparently given in Scripture itself. In contrast, biblical theology works inductively uncover and articulate the unity of all the biblical texts taken together, resorting primarily to the categories of those texts themselves.  [D A Carson, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of the Bible, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, Downers Grove II, InverVarsity, 2000, p101.] Vanhoozer sees it differently, such that sola scripturea authorises biblical and systematic theology alike…

p127 Sola Scriptura is not simply a principle, but a practice. The practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture…..Canon is the crucial concept, for it refers to the means by which God rules his people. Canon involves authority (κανων = kanōn = “measuring rod” or “ruler”), interpretation ..and community (i.e. those interpreters fro whom just these books are authoritative scripture.

p128  Paul refers to all who walk by this rule, (Gal. 6:16)…Philip personifies canon  the work of biblical and systematic theology, connecting the dots of redemptive history, explaining how they converge on Christ…and he…personifies canon consciousness and exemplifies “ruled reading” of Scripture when, in imitation of his master, Philip starts with Isaiah and proclaims to the Ethiopian eunuch “the good news about Jesus”. (Acts 8:35)…This is also the purpose of the ancient Rule of Fatih (regula fides): to encourage canon-conscious and Christ-centred reading. [Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:8, 10]

p129 The Father works his sovereign, merciful, wise will to reign over his people in Christ through the Spirit by means of the Bible in the church. 

p130 Catholicity (Greek κατα = kata = with respect to + ὁλοσ = holos = the whole) pertains to the church universal, but everything depends on how we construe wholeness.  The Reformers reacted against the narrowing of catholicity to the institution centred on Rome…Mere Protestants are catholic Christians too, though they conceive catholicity differently…the whole in question refers to the communion of those who hear and respond in faith and obedience to their Master’s voice speaking in the Scriptures. [of course those who have never seen or heard of the Scriptures nevertheless have “the heavens declaring the glory of God and also the Holy Spirit speaking in their hearts with their conscience convicting and guiding them about what is right and what is wrong …if they have not bludgeoned it into submission to their will]

p131 Vanhoozer seems to struggle a bit with the Jerusalem Council and James’ words in Acts 15:28 ..” it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” . Vanhoozer comments: We can infer that this unanimity was a sign of the Spirit’s presence and activity in guiding the community to interpret the acts of God in light of the Scriptures in a way that was consistent with the truth of the Gospel.  Acts also has Peter being taught by a vision of unclean animals rather than “by Scripture” although of course this story is now part of our Scripture.

p133 The Reformation should be seen as at one and the same time a reaction to the failure of the Conciliar Movement and a perpetuation of conciliar ideals by other means.

p134 McNeill points out that the “Protest” of the Diet of Speyer, so often trotted out as clear evidence of the Reformers’ putting all their dogmatic eggs in the basket of individual conscience, is instead “the reiteration by the Lutheran princes and cities of the conciliar principle inculcated by Luther himself. [John T McNeill: Unitive Protestantism : The Ecumenical Spirit and Its Persistent Expression, Richmond, John Knox, 1964, p106]

p136f. A church council is not an individual, as is a conductor, but rather a corporate personality.  This better reflects the Reformers’ belief that the welfare of the whole church resides in the whole church…The Reformers’ main objection to Roman Catholicism was not its catholicity but its centrelines on Rome. The Reformers believed that they were more in line than Rome when it came tradition, for they (the Reformers) believed what the early church believed about tradition, namely, that it was the church’s consensus teaching on Scipture’s fundamental story line. Indeed, the one thing on which patristic and mediaeval theologians were agreed was the notion that doctrine must be grounded in Scripture…Rome is is downright sectarian in its insistence that there were some truths or customs handed on orally to the apostles alongside Scripture.

p139 ..tradition has no independent authority…..Tradition is not the Word of God; it is testimony to that Word…tradition bears the authority of a witness rather than a judge.

p140 If we are epistemically conscientious and spiritually honest, we have to admit that other Spirit -guided believers are seeking to bear faithful witness to Scripture as much as we are. 

p141  Still, the authority of tradition is provisional….like memory, tradition too is a reliable belief-producing mechanism when corporate witnesses are testifying properly in the church, the environment that is not only designed but sustained by the Holy Spirit precisely for the purpose of guiding believers into the truth of Scripture’s own testimony to Christ.

p142. To be a person of good theological judgment is to be a good listerner—above all to the voice of God speaking in the Scriptures, the writings of God’s commissioned witnesses.

p144 Scripture alone is the supreme authority, but God in his grace decided that it was not good for Scripture to be alone. He thus authorised tradition….Not everything is the history of theology is worth preserving, but what we must not neglect are the efforts of those who have gone before us to listen to, and hear, every word that has come out of the mouth of God and was written in Scripture.

p145 Naive biblicism confuses sola scriptura with solo scripture. So do many of its critics. While the Bible is the final and primal authority for making theological judgments, strictly speaking it is not alone. “Critical biblicism” affirms the supreme (magisterial) authority, determinate meaning, and unified truth of Scripture (= biblicism) while acknowledging the secondary (ministerial) authority, plurality, and fallibility of human interpretations (= critical). The critical biblicist appeals to biblical authority in the manner of a critical realist. Scripture interprets itself, but there is no guarantee that one’s grasp of what Scripture says coincides with Scripture itself.

p146 “Catholicity is the only option for a Protestantism that takes Sola Scriptura seriously.” [Peter Leithart, online comment noted in fn128 p146]

p147 “Where Christ is, there is the catholic church”. Ignatius. …those who cherish the gospel must also cherish the church, for the church is an implication of the gospel, a figure of its τελος [ = telos = end, destiny, completion,] giving body to the lordship of Christ.

p148 Christ authorizes a royal priesthood of believers not only to proclaim the gospel but also to put hands and feet on it. I therefore propose to treat solus Christus in connection with corpus Christi: the body of believers in the midst of which the risen Christ exercises his rule on earth…A Protestant ecclesiology [is] rooted in the singular gospel that nevertheless affirms the church’s uniity-in-diversity.

p149 Theology is the joyful science of describing astounding reality that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. In fn8 p149 Vanhoozer notes that Goldsworthy focuses on “Christ alone” as providing the interpretive key to Scripture and the whole universe. [Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation, Downers Grove ll, IVP Academic, 2006 p47f.]

p153  fn25 Lesslie Newbigin identifies the “virtual disappearance of the idea of the Church as a visible unity “ as the “second distortion” of Protestant ecclesiology, the first being an overintellectualizing of the content of “faith”. [The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, New York, Friendship Press, 1953, pp53 -58]

p154 Vanhoozer notes the danger of radical anti-clericalism and quotes Brown: the danger inherent in sectarian Christianity is that it will assume that the treasure can be possessed apart from earthen vessels, and that therefore the vessels are no longer necessary. [Robert McAfee Brown: The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford, OUP, 1965]

p155 …Christ’s work had as its aim the establishment of a church….for the church is the concrete social form that one’s personal relationship with Jesus takes…As Luther said: “God’s word cannot be without God’s people and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word. [ Luther: On the Councils and the Church, 1539]

p157 Significantly, the word “priest” is never used to refer to the church’s ministers…. Vanhoozer notes Some Southern Baptists have the priesthood of all believers to the Baptist concept of “soul competency”—that is, “all persons have an inalienable right of direct access to God.”  But as Timothy George rightly points out, soul competence is a “natural” capacity the soul has for God, whereas the priesthood of all believers refers to Christians only. [Timothy George: The Priesthood of all Believers and the Quest for Theological Integrity”, Criswell Theological Review, 3, 1989, p284f.

p158 Vanhoozer notes that in the New Testament, the term is a “priesthood of gathered believers” (plural), never a singular priesthood. The phrase is not a charter for rank individualism.

p159  Vanhoozer notes that every Christian is a priest to every other Christian. The “priesthood of all believers” does not imply individuality; it necessitates community… a congregation …for the building up of the body of Christ…hence the importance of the vernacular translations, sermons, Bible study and reflection.

p160 Vanhoozer notes O’Donovan’s comment that the church is the community that lives under the authority of him to whom the Ancient of Days has entrusted the Kingdom. [Oliver O’Donovan: The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, Cambridge, CUP, 1996, p158] Vanhoozer notes that the church is a political community: Augustine called it the πολις  (polis), or city of God. …the church does not will itself into existence,not does it exist by permission of the state; rather it “exists by the express authorisation of Jesus.” [Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, Wheaton, Crossway, 2012, p21]

p163 Vanhoozer notes that the church is made up of those who are both already and not yet seated with Chrsit in the heavenlies, where they are blessed with every heavenly blessing. But to leave the church in heaven is to fall prey to a deceit view, for the church is also a local and historical concrete entity, an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, a visible gathering…the church on earth is “polity-ized.” 

p167  Vanhoozer writes: What sets the steward or pastor apart is the divine call, which the congregation duly recognises and authorizes: “It is true that all Christians are priests, but not all are pastors. For to be a pastor one must be not only a Christian and a priest but an office and a field of work committed to him. This call and command make pastors and preachers. [Martin Luther: “Sermons on Psalm 82”, 1530]

p168 Vanhoozer notes: As a seventeenth century Reformed theology text puts it: the right of public interpretation of Scripture and of adjudging the truth of interpretation in public do not belong to all, but only to those who have been supplied with both the gifts and the calling to the task.” [ Synopsis purioris theologiae, cited in Richard A Muller: Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca.1520-to ca.1725, 2nd edn. 4 vols. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2003, vol 2 p469]

p171 Re “the power of the keys”. Vanhoozer quotes Leon Morris: “Jesus meant that the new community would exercise divinely given authority both in regulating its internal affairs and in decided who would be admitted to and who excluded from its membership.” fn101 in Morris: The Gospel According to Matthew, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992, p427]

p180 Mere Protestant churches have nothing to do with health-and-wealth gospel that has unfortuntely become one of Nother America’s major exports. 

p183.  Vanhoozer notes: With Calvin, I lament the “unhappy contests” that have divided Christians over the interpretation of Jesus’ words  “This is my body”.

p186-213  Vanhoozer notes that the question has been asked: Can Protestants be Prostestant, and yet also be committed to the unity of the Church? I think the question could also be turned around. Can Roman Catholics be Roman Catholic , and yet be committed to the unity of the catholic church?  Vanhoozer analyses the unity of Protestantism under the headings of Ecumenism (“The One”); Sectarianism (“The many”]; and Denominationalism (“The Fissiparously Many”] All are unsatisfactory. Denominationalism can be “weak”, “radical”,  “strong”. There needs to be communion in the church (and between the churches) …a communion of communions.

p188 Protestant Chrisitianity is not sectarian but there is no adequate definition of ‘sectarian’…one person’s sect is another’s denomination. 

p189 Vanhoozer notes that zeal for the Gospel is more important zeal for the denomination.

p190 Vanhoozer quotes Barry Ensign-George: No denomination is ever the full embodiment of the church universal in this time. [in Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category: Ed. Paul M Collins & Barry Ensign-George, 1 – 21, London, T & T Clark, 2011, p7]

p191 Where the gospel is, Christ is; where Christ is, there is the church.

p194 Vanhoozer notes: Binding and loosing —otherwise known as fraternal admonition or what the first Anabaptists called “the rule of Christ” — is a central church practice, derived from Matthew’s teaching in Matthew 18:15 – 20 about how the church should deal with a  recalcitrant sinner….John Yoder claims that “the process of binding and loosing in the local community of faith provides the practical and theological foundation for the centrality of the local congregation.  [John Howard Yoder: The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, Ed. by Michael G. Cartwright, Scottdale PA, Herald, 1994, p352.

This process however can sadly and tragically be misused by sectarian cult and church leaders who set one set of rules for their church members but do not do not apply them to themselves especially in the areas of money and sex.  See especially Morag Zwartz: Apostles of Fear: A Church Cult Exposed, St Mary’s SA, Paranesis Publishing, 2008. Vanhoozer also notes in fn42, p194. “Sadly, it appears that Yoder may not have practised the politics of Jesus consistently. In 2104 the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary issued a formal condemnation of Yoder’s sexual victimisation of women. See further Rachel Goosen’s article “The Failure to Bind and Loose: Responses to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse”, The Mennonite Journal, 2 January 2015. [website noted p194fn42]

p195 Vanhoozer notes that church unity is based not only on agreements  but also on the awareness that disagreements need not lead to division but, rather, prove the existence of a reconciling community.

p197f  Vanhoozer challenges the view of D. Broughton Knox and Donald Robinson, that when the New Testament speaks of ἑκκλησια (ekklēsia), it refers to either a local or a heavenly gathering (with an emphasis on the activity or actuality of the gathering). According to Knox and Robinson, there is no evidence of a ‘third place”, an earthly ecclesial entity larger than a local congregation. In fn.63 Vanhoozer notes: Donald Robinson …admits that Acts 9:31 seems to refer to a regional as distinct from a local church. However, “as the context beginning at 8:1 reveals, this is still the Jerusalem church, attenuated or dispersed through persecution. But the conception of a church which extends territorially while remaining the same church, however it may appeal to our modern frame of mind, has no further development in the NT.” [ed. Peter Bolt and Mark Thompson: Donald Robinson: Selected Works, Vol.1, Assembling God’s People, Camperdown NSW, Australian Church Record: Newton NSW, Moore College, 2008,pp 216-17] Vanhoozer rejects this view on the grounds that the textual evidence for Acts 9:31 supports the reading “church” rather than “churches”. Metzger notes: The range and age of the witnesses which read the singular number are superior to those that read the plural. [Bruce M Metzger: A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, London, United Bible Societies, 1971 p367 although his “B” rating for the singular does indicate that there is some degree of doubt concerning the reading selected for the text. [Metzger p.xxviii]. Vanhoozer notes; Might there be biblical support after all for the notion of one, translocal, visible church?

p200 Vanhoozer challenges and “corrects”  McGrath’s mutation analogy for Protestantism in Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. Vanhoozer writes:  Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the bodies’ infections. 

p201 Vanhoozer notes the 1973 Leuenberg Agreement in Europe reaffirming the unique mediation of Christ at the heart of the Scriptures and that “the message of justification [acquittal] as the message of God’s free grace is the measure of the Church’s preaching…as of today, [2016?] over one hundred Protestant denominations have signed the Leuenberg Agreement and are now known as the Communion of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE). [The Leuenberg Agreement can be found at

p202. The most difficult challenge for churches not  agreeing to sign up to the Leuenberg Agreement remains the formulation of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

p204 Vanhoozer notes: The telltale sign of Christian unity is our love for Christ and for one another in Christ …not “agreement with them in every matter of theology.”  [W.David Buschart: Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theology Hospitality, Downers Grove Il, IVP Academic, 2006, p260.

p207 Vanhoozer uses the literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of reading a text with “outsiders” to assist churches and theologians to achieve conciliarism in biblical interpretation. Vanhoozer notes:There is one gospel, but it takes many voices from various times and places, perhaps even different confessional traditions, to apprehend and comprehend fully its meaning….Christians too are finite and do not know everything at once

p210 Catholicity helps to address, even cure, the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism by countering it with comprehensive interpretive unity —at least as concerns the economy of the gospel.

p211f. Vanhoozer uses the work of George Steiner, a humanist and author of The Idea of Europe: An Essay, [London, Overlook Duckworth, 2015] to defend Protestant pluralism. Steiner admits that the idea of Europe may have run its cours  (some are saying something similar about Protestantism. He is aware that the Contintent has produced both great poets and terrible dictators, classic works of art and wars of ethnic cleansing..Yet Steiner identifies the real genius of Europe with what William Blake terms, “the holiness of the minute particular”: “It is that of linguistic, cultural, social diversity, of a prodigal mosaic which often makes a trivial distance, twenty kilometres apart, a division between worlds. [ibid. p59]. The genius of mere Protestant Christianity, similarly, is its great unity-in-diversity.

p215f  ..the genius and glory of mere Protestant Christianity —is best realised in the transdenominational movement known as evangelicalism. The true catholicity of the church is a catholicity determined by the gospel….even though critics like Darryl Hart  contend that “evangelicalism is a construction of religious historians…nothing more than a generalization. [Darryl G Hart: Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2004 p29, 196] Cf Mark Noll: The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind. [Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1994,p3]

p219 Evangelicalism is a booster shot in the arm to a tired and decrepit Protestantism, opening up the possibility of a unity of confession on first-order doctrines but not necessarily on second – and third-order doctrines. At the same time the evangelical movement has become riddled with cultural cancers: that to a doctrinally deprived immune system, it has also caught a social disease, MTD (moralistic therapeutic deism). Protestantism can now return the favour by supplying confessional stem cells to the compromised evangelical body.

p223. fn 24 Many rivulets and tributaries feed into and proceed from the river of Protestant evangelicalism, including Puritanism, Pietism, and, most recently, Pentecostalism.

p224 ..each Protestant church seeks to be faithful to the gospel, but no one form of Protestantism exhausts the gospel’s meaning….There is one gospel, but several interpretive traditions.

p225  …church unity is ultimately eschatological…

p226 ..the Protestant churches must evince the fruits of the Spirit …humility, gentleness and patience.

p227 …until such time of consummated catholicity, however, when God will be all in all, the church must make do with Pentecostal  (i.e. plural) unity.

p229 …Every Protestant evangelical is a martyr to the Word in the double sense of (1) witnessing to what God says rather than one’s own interpretations, and (2) suffering the conflict of interpretations with other Bible-believing Christians. 

p230  Vanhoozer quotes Anthony Thistleton: “if the only viable criterion of meaning is that which coheres with what their reading community regards as conducive to “progress,” all interpretation becomes corporate self-affirmation,” [Anthony Thistleton: Can the Bible Mean Whatever We Want it to Mean? Chester UK, Chester Academic Press, 2005,p18] Vanhoozer comments: wretched interpreter that I am! Who will deliver me from this corporate will to interpretative power?”

p232 Vanhoozer notes that  historian David Bebbington lists four characteristics of Protestant evangelicalism ..crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism. [David W Bebbington: Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, London, Unwin Hyman, 1989,pp2-17. Vanhoozer would add multi-denominationalism.

p233 Protestant evangelicals believe that one’s fidelity to the church must be measured by the degree of the church’s fidelity to the gospel.  [Brown, op.cit. p217]

Was Freud a philospher?

Sigmund_Freud_LIFE copy

Photo from Life Magazine.

I note that Frederick Coplestone doesn’t seem to include Freud in his 11 volumes of the History of Western Philosophy and I wondered why.  Here is what the internet tells me.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)

Was Freud a Philosopher?

Sigmund Freud and the philosopher’s stone.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes:

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was a physiologist, medical doctor, psychologist and influential thinker of the early twentieth century.

It’s reasonable to equate “thinker” with “philosopher”. Any meaningful and honest pursuit of knowledge requires the ability to discern it.


Freud elaborated the theory that the mind is a complex energy-system, the structural investigation of which is the proper province of psychology. He articulated and refined the concepts of the unconscious.

Freud’s innovative treatment of human actions, dreams, and indeed of cultural artifacts as invariably possessing implicit symbolic significance has proven to be extraordinarily fruitful, and has had massive implications for a wide variety of fields including psychology, anthropology, semiotics, and artistic creativity and appreciation.

[Freud was] a highly original thinker.

[He] was arguably the first thinker to apply deterministic principles systematically to the sphere of the mental.

Deeply associated with this view of the mind is Freud’s account of instincts or drives. Instincts, for Freud, are the principal motivating forces in the mental realm, and as such they ‘energise’ the mind in all of its functions. There are, he held, an indefinitely large number of such instincts, but these can be reduced to a small number of basic ones, which he grouped into two broad generic categories, Eros (the life instinct), which covers all the self-preserving and erotic instincts, and Thanatos (the death instinct), which covers all the instincts towards aggression, self-destruction, and cruelty.

Freud’s account of the unconscious, and the psychoanalytic therapy associated with it, is best illustrated by his famous tripartite model of the structure of the mind or personality… This model has many points of similarity with the account of the mind offered by Plato over 2,000 years earlier. The theory is termed ‘tripartite’ simply because, again like Plato, Freud distinguished three structural elements within the mind, which he called id, ego, and super-ego.

The id is that part of the mind in which are situated the instinctual sexual drives which require satisfaction; the super-ego is that part which contains the “conscience,” namely, socially-acquired control mechanisms which have been internalized, and which are usually imparted in the first instance by the parents; while the ego is the conscious self that is created by the dynamic tensions and interactions between the id and the super-ego and has the task of reconciling their conflicting demands with the requirements of external reality. It is in this sense that the mind is to be understood as a dynamic energy-system.

All objects of consciousness reside in the ego; the contents of the id belong permanently to the unconscious mind; while the super-ego is an unconscious screening-mechanism which seeks to limit the blind pleasure-seeking drives of the id by the imposition of restrictive rules.

Freud also followed Plato in his account of the nature of mental health or psychological well-being, which he saw as the establishment of a harmonious relationship between the three elements which constitute the mind. If the external world offers no scope for the satisfaction of the id’s pleasure drives, or more commonly, if the satisfaction of some or all of these drives would indeed transgress the moral sanctions laid down by the super-ego, then an inner conflict occurs in the mind between its constituent parts or elements. Failure to resolve this can lead to later neurosis. A key concept introduced here by Freud is that the mind possesses a number of ‘defense mechanisms’ to attempt to prevent conflicts from becoming too acute, such as repression (pushing conflicts back into the unconscious), sublimation (channeling the sexual drives into the achievement socially acceptable goals, in art, science, poetry, and so forth), fixation (the failure to progress beyond one of the developmental stages), and regression (a return to the behavior characteristic of one of the stages).


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In a New York Times opinion piece (“Freud as Philosopher”, the following case is made:

Sigmund Freud, that seer of the psyche, taught that you could be angry and not know it. You can also be a philosopher and not know it. And Freud was just that, an unconscious philosopher of the unconscious — one who had nary a positive word to say about philosophy. Just listen to him grouse in 1933:

Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations… But philosophy has no immediate influence on the great majority of mankind; it interests only a small number even of the thin upper stratum of intellectuals, while all the rest find it beyond them. (New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, Lecture xxxv)

Still, as Philip Rieff observed in his classic 1959 book, “Freud: The Mind of the Moralist,” the father of psychoanalysis was also a moralist, and a conservative one at that — conservative in both his personal mores and in his deep seated conviction that repression and self-restraint are essential to civilization. In his science, Freud prescribed a vision of the good life and in that regard he was, for all his sneering at philosophy, a member of the Socrates guild.

For all his sneering at philosophy, Freud was a member of the Socrates guild.

What is the best knowledge?


My partial answer to Coleridge’s question in aphorism 40.

40.  The worth and value of Knowledge is in proportion to the worth and value of its object. What then is the best knowledge? The exactest knowledge of things, is to know them in their causes; it is  then an excellent thing, and worthy of their endeavours who are most desirous of knowledge, to know the best things in their highest causes; and the happiest way of attaining to this knowledge, is to possess those things, and to know them in experience.    [what things does Coleridge mean? The love and salvation of God? The love and commitment between a man and his wife? being present at the safe birth of your own child?The extraordinary beauty of creation ..the sea in the morning air? snow on the highest mountains? the South Gippsland hills? birdsong in the morning? The singing garden of C J Dennis at Toolangi? Simpson’s Gap at dawn? a Spring garden on the Bell’s Line of Road in the Blue Mountains? Tuscany in late summer?  being lost in Venice? sitting quietly  overlooking the view from the oracle at Delphi? fireflies on a summer’s evening in Champagne Illinois: the power of Niagara Falls? Giraffe grazing in the Akagera Game Park in Rwanda? Gazing for an hour at a huge Constable landscape in London or Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal in St Petersburgh? standing still at the  overgrown graves of William and Jane Morris at Kelmscott or the view of the Thames near their house? Stourhead Garden in late afternoon,? standing in the middle of Sherbrooke Forest at daybreak? reading Tolstoy, D H Lawrence, Milton, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Eliot  or Alex Miller? pondering the immensity and deep beauty and wonder of the universe with modern photography? a faithful and loving dog? listening to Bach’s St John Passion?  Lying in the middle of the Eyre Highway on the Nullabor Plain at midnight? watching the moon rise over Mont St Michel in Summer? assimilating the view beside St Biago in Montepulciano in Summer? walking quietly in a temple garden in Kyoto? sitting quietly in a boat on the Gordon River surrounded by 3000 year old rainforest in Tasmania? standing quietly in Bourges Cathedral (or Chartres, or Durham, or St David’s in Wales, or the Hagia Sophia or a mountain peak in Switzerland or on top of the Great Wall of China? a true and lasting friendship? sitting in a library of personally selected books and thinking? being still and knowing that God is God? singing hymns of faith with a huge crowd at Belgrave Heights Keswick Convention? the privilege of being alive? the joy of teaching receptive students?]

Battling with Borg over Meeting Jesus Again for the first time.

QUESTIONS ARISING FROM Marcus J. Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, San Francisco, Harper, 1995

American Marcus Borg was brought up in the Lutheran tradition and became an academic and theologian and writer of 28 books on theology, many of them very popular including this one.  He was a leader in the “Progressive Theology” movement and a member of the Jesus Seminar. His influence in the Uniting Church in Australia has been substantial.. In the two books of his I have read I notice the substantial influence of controversial and “out there”  Church historian John Crossan and the early C20th English/American psychologist and philosopher of religion William James.  Borg died in 2015.


  1. p1 For many Christians, especially in mainline churches, there came a time when their childhood image of Jesus can become a problem. (p1). Does this resonate with anyone?
  1. Borg argues that our earliest images of Jesus are either fideistic consists primarily of believingor moralistic, it is about being good.  In his view Christianity is about a relationship with God that involves us in a journey of transformation. (pp2-3 and see also p17)  What do you think?
  1. p5 A vivid sense of urgency was taught in Borg’s early church experience,  about mission because of the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel..”haste, thy mission high fulfilling, to tell all the world that God is light, That He who made all nations is not willing, One soul should perish, lost in shades of night, Publish glad tidings, Tidings of peace, Tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.” (p5). Is this still the teaching of the church in our day? Should it be?
  1. Borg’s first academic study of theology was at a liberal theological academy. (p8) Was this a good idea?
  1. Borg’s whole approach assumes a late date for the writing of the Gospels…written in the last third of the first century, they contain the accumulated traditions of early Christian communities  and were put into their present forms by second- (or even third-) generation authors. (p9). This is standard liberal orthodoxy but based on minimal evidence. For example Leon Morris, a careful scholar (he was a scientist before he studied theology), writes in his 824 page Commentary on John’s Gospel, p25: It is hard to understand why there should be such a consensus, for there is very little evidence for it (p25)…in recent years a number of critics have drawn attention to some considerations that favour an early date. (p27). He cites R M Grant, a major historian of C1st Roman history: The only grounds on which [ a late date for John’s Gospel ] can possibly be “proved’  lie in a general theory of the development of early Christian thought, and the chief support of this theory is provided by the Gospel itself. Since the argument is circular we shall do well to neglect it.”  (p27) Morris puts the  date of John around 50 A.D.   Similarly J A T Robinson, outstanding scholar with generally liberal views (of Honest to God fame) wrote a strong defence for dating the whole of the New Testament prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70A.D. which, to my knowledge, has never been satisfactorily refuted. [John A T Robinson: Redating the New Testament, London, 1975. As we know John, the Son of Zebedee lived to be over 90, there is no reason why he could not have written this Gospel.  As for Mark, we have Papias’s (who knew Polycarp who knew John) 120 A.D. written papyrus  statement that “Mark’s Gospel contained “the reminiscences of Peter”.  My question is: Does it matter to us whether or not Matthew’s and John’s Gospels were written by the disciples who bear those names? (re Luke there is little dispute because of the “we” passages in Acts. Luke was in the early Christian action!  The film Paul the Apostle throws useful light on the possibility that Luke came to Rome to care for and interview? Paul at the end of his life imprisoned in Rome.
  1. p11 The contrast between the synoptic and Johannine images of Jesus is so great that one of them must be nonhistorical…Do you agree with Borg’s verdict. [Borg himself seems aware that Midcentury Jesus scholarship was marked by thoroughgoing skepticism… [p12]
  1. p14 Borg became an atheist after studying theology at a liberal academy at tertiary level… (hmmm)…after about 10 years I had a number of experiences of what I now recognize as “nature mysticism”…experiences that Rudolph Otto described as “experiences of the “numinous” …they gave me a new understanding of the meaning of the word “God”.  [p14]  What weight do you put on such experiences? Have we experienced them ourselves?
  1. p15 Borg distinguishes strongly between the pre-Easter Jesus (he could be known    [p16]  and the post-Easter Jesus [he could only be believed in.] Is this a helpful distinction? What caused the change?
  1. p17 John’s Gospel is “true,” even though its account of Jesus’ life story and sayings is not, by and large, historically factual.  Borg solves this apparent contradiction by comparing John’s Gospel to the “truth” we find in e.g. parables or stories..for example Lewis’s Narnia stories. (my example, not Borg’s). Is this a helpful way of understanding John’s Gospel? Borg says he would have titled his spiritual autobiography “Beyond Belief”.


  1. p22. Did Jesus have a wider mission than just reaching out to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” ? (Matthew 16:25).
  1. p22. ..Christians have frequently been guilty of conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism. The horror of the holocaust has been a major driver of New Testament theology since WW11. Many scholars have deliberately worked to establish the Jewishness of Jesus and to oppose the notion of supersessionism (the idea that Christianity is the logical superseding or replacement of Judaism. The work of E P Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism) has introduced the language of “covenantal nomism” rather than “legalism” to describe C1st Jewish theology and many Christians would argue that the covenant is irrevocable and that it is inappropriate to attempt to evangelise Jewish believers..(not including N T Wright). What do you think?
  1. p24 Borg regards the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, including the Bethlehem location as rich symbolic affirmations, rather than historically accurate narratives. Borg also believes the story of the boy Jesus debating in the temple is also historically unreliable (p25). What do you think?
  1. p28 The Quest of the Historical Jesus was the title of Albert Schweitzer’s influential analysis of C19th and early C20th studies of the “real” Jesus in which he concluded that scholars usually end up with a view of Jesus very similar to their own views about the Christian faith.  A mid 1960’s second quest fizzled out but in the 1980s a “third quest for the historical Jesus “  has made scholars more confident that we can, with a reasonable degree of probability, know something about the historical Jesus. (E P Sanders). I think this is further evidence that growing up as a Christian in the 60s ->80s  “era of liberal theology” was bad for your theological health!
  1. p29  A degree of contradiction in Borg’s writing:  (a) the self-understanding and message of the pre-Easter Jesus were in all likelihood non-messianic. (b) next sentence: By this I mean simply that we have no way of knowing whether Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah or as the Son of God in some special sense. Question:  If we have no way of knowing, why is Borg so certain that Jesus self-understanding was non-messianic?  I believe a more coherent reason why Jesus was reluctant to use messianic language about himself is because he was introducing a more complex, but still Jewish idea of the Messiah, viz the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 – 53. i.e. a messiah who was not a military leader but rather one who in some mysterious way made atonement for the sins of many…the same prophet who predicted that Israel’s role was to be aa a light to the nations. [Isaiah 49:6]
  1. p29 Borg refers to my research and evaluation of the best Jesus scholarship convince me…sentences like these usually refer to “research and scholarship which thinks like I do!”  (we all tend to do that!)
  1. p30 Borg lists four characteristics of the pre-Easter Jesus: (i) a spirit person; (ii) a teacher of wisdom (iii) a social prophet; (iv) a movement founder.  What do you think of this list? Is anything missing?
  1. pp30-31 Borg’s description of Jesus includes Jesus’ remarkable language ..metaphorical, poetic, imaginative, memorable, compelling. He was clearly exceptionally intelligent…and clever in debate…  He used dramatic public actions e.g. eating meals with untouchables. Did Jesus have a meal with say Zaccheus just to make a teaching point?
  1. p31 Jesus was a remarkable healer. Why does Borg accept Jesus’s healing and exorcism capabilities but denies the nature miracles? [in his book with N T Wright: The Meaning of Jesus.]
  1. pp31-45  What does Borg mean by calling Jesus a “spirit person”..a mediator of the sacred. (p32) ? In fn 27 p42 he writes though “spirit person” sometimes strikes me as an odd phrase, it seems superior to its possible alternatives.. e.g. holy person, sacred person, divine person. …p32 ..the realization came to me initially not from the study of the Bible or the Christian tradition, but from the study of non-Western religions and cultural anthropology….the older technical term is ‘holy man’…someone who has vivid and frequent subjective experiences of another level or dimension. In fn 29p43 Borg agrees with George Lindbeck: The Nature of Doctrine 1984, that each religious tradition is a cultural-linguistic world…Borg writes: thus the religions of the world are clearly not all the same; they are as different as the culture from which they come. Yet I remain convinced that the impetus for creating these cultural-linguistic worlds comes out of certain kinds of extraordinary experiences that are cross-cultural. On p37 he states ..imaging Jesus as a particular instance of a type of religious personality known cross-culturally undermines a widespread Christian belief that Jesus is unique….rather than being the exclusive revelation of God, he is one of many mediators of the sacred. At this point I think Borg has moved to a position which cannot be equated with Christian orthodoxy. Jesus becomes one of a special kind of  person who mediates God for us but is not God incarnate in human flesh as commonly understood in Christian tradition.  What is your view about this?
  1. p33f The experience of spirit persons suggests there is more to reality than …the modern world view, derived from the Enlightenment [that] sees reality in material terms, as constituted by the world of matter and energy within the space-time continuum….a non-material level of reality, actual even though nonmaterial, and charged with energy and power.
  1. p37 the question that surfaces is: Do you believe that Jesus was God? The image of Jesus sketched in this chapter suggests that the answer is “No, the pre-Easter Jesus was not God. In Fn41p44 Borg then writes: this denial does not preclude affirming that Jesus was an epiphany or disclosure of God, or, as I will suggest in Chapter 5, the embodiment or incarnation of the Word and Wisdom of God. (a) Has Borg satisfactorily explicated these two apparently contradictory statements? And (b) if Jesus was the “incarnation of the Word and Wisdom of God” where does this leave all the other Spirit persons he mentioned earlier? 


  1. p49  Borg sees a conflict between the OT be holy as God is holy (Lev. 11:44) and the NT Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful (Luke 6:36]  Is there a conflict?
  1. p51 Borg suggests that Christian theology altered the meaning of “sinner” [Greek ἁμαρτωλος = hamartōlos]  from the Jewish understanding of those who do not follow  the purity system…although in the next sentence he says “sinners” had a range of meanings in first century Palestine but did not ever apply the term to everyone. He believes the NT application of the word to apply to everyone has encouraged a view that sin is a matter of being impure or “dirty” and render one “untouchable”.  Yet when I read Romans it seems to be that Paul is simply saying no-one can stand pure before God…all have sinned..Jew and Gentile …all need God’s forgiveness and love. I would have thought Jesus was making the same point in his parable about the Pharisee and the “sinner” in the temple.   Are Christians hung up about “sin” making us dirty or unclean?
  1. p54 Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the  community that mirrors God. Do we agree?
  1. p56 the meals of Jesus are the ancestor of the Christian eucharist. I would have thought that the Passover meal was the ancestor? What do we think?
  1. p59 It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code’s perception of homosexuality. In fn 14 p63 Borg quotes anthropologist Mary Douglas’s view that defines a purity system very broadly as an orderly cultural system of classification…making the terms purity system and culture  virtually synonymous.  Do we agree?


  1. In general I think chapter 4 is a useful study of subversive wisdom but I think he is too harsh in his condemnation of conventional wisdom. The Bible as Borg says uses both . What do you think? Is subversive wisdom the only useful wisdom? e.g. on p76 Borg writes: Conventional wisdom has both social and psychological consequences. Socially it creates a world of hierarchies and boundaries. Yet in this book Borg, Crossan and the Jesus Seminar are setting  up the harshest of boundaries around the “acceptable” teaching of Jesus (It would seem to me to shore up their own views about all sorts of things!…I guess Borg now knows who is right and who is wrong!
  1. p69 Jesus was a teacher of wisdom. This is the strongest consensus among today’s Jesus scholars.  Once again I suspect these are the “Jesus scholars” Borg used to hang around with.
  1. pp77-78  Borg uses Freudian psychology of the superego and Fowler’s sociology of the stages of life to symbolise the internalised voice of culture. He does not like Western culture, seeing it as grim, in bondage to dominants, all about measuring up, anxious striving, the “performance principle” and the “conformity principle”, the lordship of culture, a life of profound self pre-occupation and limited to Fowler’s “conventional-synthetic” stage..and of course there is an image of God which goes with the world of conventional wisdom…the one whom we must satisfy, the one whose requirements must be met. So the Christian life becomes a life of requirements; is the most common form of conventional wisdom….  I have never never liked Freud’s wisdom; Fowler is very helpful but Borg’s combination and interpretation is gloomy, hopeless, desperate and totally negative about society. I don’t see “society” like that amongst my Newhaven millennials who are individualistic, morally active, idealistic and wanting to do things in the world. Likewise the staff. Borg comes across to me in these pages as a “grumpy old man” (though he wasn’t when he wrote this book), tired of life and very superior towards his Christian brothers and sisters (especially I suspect the evangelicals ..who are no doubt his greatest critics!) What do you think?
  1. p79 Borg dislikes the bumper sticker Christians aren’t perfect — they’re just forgiven!  He writes There is a smugness and divisiveness in the statement that comes out of the marriage between conventional wisdom and Christianity. Of course, let it not be said that Borg was ever divisive!   I think the sticker is ok, telling a truth which is “we all need acceptance!”  What do you think (about bumper stickers in general? and about this one?)
  1. p83f Borg has to write about the parable of the Prodigal (it is so powerful) even though it does not pass the Jesus Seminar test because it only occurs in one source!
  1. p85  Borg writes…I think he [Jesus] probably believed in an afterlife.   Phew!!!
  1. p88 Borg distinguishes between first- and secondhand religion…believing what we have heard from others or what the Bible says compared with a relation with..that reality we call God or the Spirit of God. He seems to be putting the experiential ahead of the teaching (verbal or written). He should love the C20th Pentecostal/charismatic explosion although I suspect he didn’t approve..he never mentions it.What do you think of the distinction between first and secondhand religion? Isn’t it a case of both/and?


  1. p99 Borg in this chapter appears to me to exchange the notion of “Son” (a masculine term)  for the notion of “Sophia/Wisdom” (a feminine term).  Both Borg and Crossan are obsessed with the Wisdom tradition which I think is really important but it is one part of God’s revelation e.g. Borg never mentions prophecy; (it is also, the way he plays it a little skewed towards the highly intelligent and hidden from all the ordinary old conventional types who just don’t get it!)   Is it possible to interpret Sophia (Wisdom) in Proverbs 1 and Genesis 1:1 as the Holy Spirit? I am a little surprised Borg does not consider this possibility. What do you think?
  1. p103  Jesus is the spokesperson for the compassion of Sophia/God.  A rather odd sentence…also Borg seems to have managed the whole book without talking anywhere about the love of God. Why is this so?
  1. p104.  An excellent defence of to Jesus, Paul is the most important person in the history of early Christianity.   Go Paul!
  1. p108 Borg creates a functional equivalence between the logos in John 1: 1 -10 and Sophia/Wisdom. I think this is a major category mistake. He loses all the clear hook up between John 1 and Genesis 1 for starters and the gender of nouns in both Greek and Hebrew does not in any way relate to what we consider male and female “words” should be. (I think it is the same in French!) What do you think about the equivalence of logos and sophia? stretching the bow too far??
  1. On the other hand I loved  in fn 52 p117 the quotation from Sandra M Schneider: God is more than two men and a bird!  What do you think?


  1. p119 Borg recaps his whole argument with this summary: His [Jesus’s] own self-understanding did not include thinking and speaking of himself as the Son of God whose historical intention or purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and his message was not about believing in him.  I do not believe the argument in this book has in any way established this finding. If it has for some it is because Borg/the Jesus Seminar has systematically removed from the Gospels any material that points in the direction of Jesus’s intention as summarised above.  What do you think?
  1. p120 Borg emphasises the importance of story in the Bible. I agree it is very important. What do you think?  and by the way is there a bit of a problem with systematic theology?
  1. Borg cites three “macro-stories” in the Old Testament.  They are (i) The Exodus Story ( I agree); (ii) The story of Exile and Return ( I agree ..but it is an unfinished story …so NT Wright);  and (iii)  The Priestly story ( I is not even a story). What do you think of Borg’s choices? Has he missed some stuff?  For me he needs to consider: the Creation story (Isaiah, Job and Psalms, not just Genesis); the origin of the human separation from God story; the universal blessing of mankind through Abraham and Isaiah 49:6 Israel as a light to the nations story..this is the number 1 story in my view; the Prophets and Kings story; The Psalms story of praise; the Job story of suffering;  and the apocalyptic story  (which Borg had earlier dismissed)
  2. p129 Borg suggests the Priestly story has dominated Christian life to the present day. This might be true of the Lutheran church (I don’t know) and possibly of the Anglo-Catholic church … but it is not my experience of the evangelical Anglican churches and Baptist churches where I have frequently worshipped for many years.  What do you think?
  1. pp 130-131 Borg praises the priestly story for its message of acceptance …just as we are; our assurance that our sinfulness does not stand between us and God and that we no longer need to feel in bondage to our past and any guilt that might constantly hurt us.   But Borg believes the priestly story has many limitations which are: (i) the Christian life becomes a repeated cycle of of sin, guilt and forgiveness, resolved each Sunday then repeated; (ii) it creates a passive understanding of Christian life ..God has already done what needs to be done; and passivity towards culture e.g. the needs of many for liberation (Exodus story) or deliverance (Babylon). (iii) it is primarily a religion of the afterlife. (iv) it images God as law-giver and judge …what did happen to ‘God is love’  in Borg’s life? (v) this story is hard to believe..God’s only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world , and God could not forgive us without that happening. (vi) Some people do not feel much guilt.  Borg’s solution is to combine all three stories into the megastory so everything can be covered.  What do you think of these 6  criticisms and the solution?
  1. pp133 – 137 Borg finishes his book with a reminder that the Christian life is a journey …and p135  that journey is in his company, in his presence…and also p135 journeying with Jesus means to be in a community, not on an individual path, and p136 discipleship means becoming compassionate, and, p136 the Christian journey is one of transformation…and finally, p137 believing is of the heart, not the involves the deeper level of one’s self. What do you think of Borg’s summary of the journey? Has he left anything out?





Books read April 2018


Sarah Krasnostein: The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster, Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2017.

This book is strong meat for queasy readers and also several books in one. First it involves the reader in the graphic world of the trauma clean up industry. I had never thought before about the fact that neither the police, firefighters, emergency services, ambulance operators or other emergency services do trauma clean-up.  It is brutal, sickening and physically challenging work and done by specialists. The staff turn-over is frequent and the leadership of such a company needs to be folk with strong stomachs and psychological and physical strength. Sandra Pankhurst is just such a person in spite of her own physical health problems. The story of trauma clean-ups is demanding indeed and yet manages to be in many situations a positive experience!

Secondly the book records the events in the lives of folk who need trauma clean-up.  Of course there are the suicides and murders but perhaps even more desperately there are the hoarders who  are suffocating in their own mess and won’t let go; the older folk whose family have just neglected them and faded away leaving them helpless; those who have suffered severe shock for various reasons and simply cannot cope with “normal” living whatever that is! Finally there are those rejected by society including sex offenders. At times these stories distract and get in the way of the story of Sandra Pankhurst we want to know about but in the end it is one continuing story because Sandra’s traumatized life is somehow mirrored in her customers’ lives and in a way she can do her job because of what she has been through herself.

Thirdly Krasnostein, an American who has also studied and lived in Australia has written a partial sociological history of elements of the past fifty years in Melbourne. In particular we have the beginnings of a history of the developing gay scene in Melbourne from the 1960s and 70’s in particular e.g. p89ff and p93ff and elsewhere especially the developing clubbing and nightclub scene; secondly a potted history of the developing medical approach to sex-change operations (p115f); thirdly a study of prostitution e.g. Kalgoorlie (p121f) and changes to laws relating to prostitution (eg p159f) and especially the appalling and almost too horrific to read rape scene of chapter 10 with a graphic description which defies imagination if it were not true; finally we have, somewhat surprisingly at the end of the book what looks like some findings of  a research program with references regarding the study of vulnerability, shame, hurt etc and how to maintain normal relationships in the face of such traumatic and humiliating experiences. I personally found these pages intrusive and academic and unhelpful to the style and thread of the novel. I would have preferred to see this material in an appendix as it is didactic and unwelcome character summarisation by the author in strangely C19th style when perhaps we would prefer to come to our own mind about how she should react to her reunion with her/his two children.

Fourthly, as if the above were insufficient, we have the unfolding tale of an early applicant for a sex change including the traumatic early life of an unwanted adopted child, the initially happy marriage and children and gradual disintegration, the period of drag-queen excitement and new exploration, the traumatic life of prostitution, and the dawning realisation of the desire of a man to really be a woman including his disinterest in the trans community, his ill-fated attempt to produce a child prior to his sex change and its tragic denouement, his doomed love affair and unlikely happy/successful then unhappy marriage and the final ambiguous reconnection with his first family.

I am not sure that the author has satisfactorily glued all of the above elements together into a satisfying read but it is nevertheless a brave attempt.

I suppose I should also say that this is not the book to read if you are feeling depressed about life, or vulnerable or desperately unhappy for whatever reason. This book will not cheer you up. Nevertheless if there was ever a person who managed to create a successful life from the most exceptional hardships and challenges it is Sarah Pankhurst and once read, I doubt this is a story that could ever be quickly forgotten…and you cannot say that about every book you read!  3 stars!

Morag Zwartz: Apostles of Fear: A Cult Exposed, St Mary’s SA, Parenesis Publishing, 2008

Investigating Christian cults is a tortuous and courageous activity.  Whoever is brave enough to expose well resourced,  controlling and secretive groups runs the risk of vilification and abuse. Moral Swartz is a freelance journalist who has already worked in this area, publishing Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Church Cult, Adelaide, Open Book Publishers, 2005. This is an account of a secretive perfectionist cult labelled “The Fellowship” based in three Victorian Presbyterian churches and centred on the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Camberwell Melbourne.

Labelled “The Fellowship” this group was founded by Ronald Grant and Alan Neil who served as missionaries with the South Seas Evangelical Mission in the Solomon Islands. Ronald Grant’s younger brother Lindsay Grant led a similar perfectionist cult in the 1940’s Sydney which was described in David Millikan’s 1991 book Imperfect Company.  “The Fellowship”  was unusual to the extent that its members were involved in “normal” Presbyterian parishes but accepted the leadership of a secretive group of elders; the “Fellowship” was also largely made up of upper middle class professionals, doctors, lawyers etc who were well connected and respected in Melbourne society. The elders of “The Fellowship” were eventually expelled by the Presbyterian Assembly with legal appeals and actions by the Presbyterian church continuing.

The six elements of the Perfectionist cult which were found to be i. accepting “feelings” as revelation from God equal to the Bible; ii. that contact with non-Fellowship members leads to defilement; iii. that the Fellowship claims higher loyalty than members’ families; iv. that Christians can be controlled by “generational curses’ or evil spirits; and vi. that God’s forgiveness depends on confessing to other people or on personal holiness, the form of which is prescribed by the leaders.

I list the above elements at some length because, from my own experience in cult busting students at School level, these elements are similar in most cults.  Separation from families is a major goal; control of money and work is always present along with a high degree of misogyny and repression of women as well as freedom in both both morals, money and lifestyle for the small group of leaders at the top.

Apostles of Fear is a difficult read..It is heart wrenching in its account of the destruction of generations of families whose only crime was seeking to be faithful to God by being members of a “church’.  It is confronting  because cult beliefs are usually exaggerated or twisted doctrines based loosely on Biblical quotations but slanted and misused out of context. The confrontation occurs for the reader because you start to doubt the meaning of any Biblical text or doctrine.It is frightening because one recognizes the skills of winsome, charismatic leaders and preachers who, on the surface are light bearers but who inside are motivated by greed, power and a desire to control and manipulate, as well of course as a desire to maintain an expensive and often immoral lifestyle.

The cult described by Swartz focusses on two churches, the Immanuel Church which became  The Melbourne Christian Fellowship founded originally by Ray Jackson and the The Brisbane Christian Fellowship founded by Vic and Lorraine Hall which eventually took over the Melbourne Christian Fellowship as well following the expulsion of Ray Jackson for immorality. The churches created The Calvary Bible College which drew students from New Zealand and Australia to train as leaders and these were sent out to start churches both in Australian, New Zealand and elsewhere overseas especially Indonesia. Other branches of the cult were formed in Toowomba, Stanthorpe, Maryborough, Hervey Bay, Sunshine Coast, Forster, Sydney, Shepparton, Nhill, Frankston, Sunbury, Laverton, Seville, Bendigo, Geelong, Portland, Warrnambool, Leongatha, Wangaratta, Adelaide, Perth and Cairns.

The churches were charismatic in flavour, strongly emphasing tithing and double tithing, separation from family members and above all a powerful emphasis on male headship with the deliberate destruction of marriages where there was any detection of a person opposing church doctrine or giving total submission to the husband. Rebaptisms in “the Name” was required as were a requirement to hear and respond to “the messenger” to whose messages one was required to “adjusted” or be “under correction” which was a process of repulsive public confessions and social rejection designed to break completely and control the spirit of the person under correction. There is no way out of the Christian fellowship treadmill of confusion, despair and defeat. A case study of the break up of the marriage of well known doctor and elder Graham Pomeroy and his wife Helen makes for excoriating reading, not for faint hearts. The fact is it is difficult to believe that people could allow themselves to come under the control of such teaching. Meeting an “escapee” from the cult as well as having an aunt, now deceased, who was a member of the Stanthorpe branch of the church has enabled me to see the workings of the cult from the inside.

A key early figure in the original Immanuel church was well known and respected church leader the late Kevin Conner who confronted Ray Jackson about his immorality and tried to assist folk who had been hurt by the church. He eventually left the church with his family to minister in America.  When he returned to Australia Conner became involved with Richard Holland and the Waverley Christian Fellowship and completely separated from the Melbourne Christian Fellowship. Swartz is critical of Conner for not calling out Jackson publicly. Kevin Conner’s son Mark currently is the Senior Minister of CityLife Church which meets in the auditorium of Beaconhills College in Berwick where I was a chaplain for a number of years. As far as I could see this church is quite free of the abuses and weird doctrines of the Melbourne Christian Fellowship although I did not personally attend worship at the church.

Morag Zwartz is to be commended for her commitment to unravelling the tortuous documents, tapes and writings of leaders in this movement which has created untold and irreparable  damage to many well meaning Australian families. Unfortunately the book is out of print and hard to find but well worth the effort. My only criticism is that an annotated bibliography would have been helpful as the collection of books listed is a quite a mixture of resources.  4 stars.

Betty Churcher: Notebooks, Melbourne, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing,  2011,  and The Forgotten Notebook,  as above, 2015.

The late Betty Churcher was the Director of the National Gallery of Australia for eight years and previously the Director of the Western Australian Art Gallery. She was herself a prize winning artist and a teacher of Art for many years.  Towards the end of her career, as she was going blind, she made a final tour of the world’s galleries studying for the final time her favourite paintings. She had special permission at the National Gallery of London to remain after hours to spend lengthy periods analysing paintings, making her own sketches and simply remembering the images.  Her sketches and comments highlight aspects and details of these paintings which, when we look at them we don’t even see until she points them out and the sketches  are works of art in their own right. Churcher often also reproduces paintings from the NGV which have been influenced by the paintings from overseas galleries chosen for her studies.  The Forgotten Notebook was a collection of sketches she had indeed forgotten, found in her belongings when hunting for something else. It is our good fortune because it is a stunning collection of sketches and the paintings are displayed in a larger exercise books size format which is to die for.

The Miegunyah Press was set up and made possible from funds provided by bequests under the will of Mab and Russell Grimwade, Victorian  industrialists and philanthropists. “Miegunyah” was the home of the Grimwades from 1911 to 1955 and is now part of Melbourne Grammar School.  The result of the bequests is publishing of the highest quality and beauty. These are books to savour and keep and articles of beauty in themselves. The paintings and Churcher’s sketches and notes reproduced in both books are of the highest quality and the design and feel of the books is luxurious indeed. If you like books because they are beautiful books then these two books are a must.   Artists discussed and presented in Notebooks are: Titian, Rembrandt, Willem De Kooning, Piero Della Francesca, Piero Di Cosimo, Arthur Boyd,  Cézanne, Manet, Vermeer, Gauguin, Picasso, Courbet, Velázquez Goya, Jeffrey Smart, Botticelli, Francis Bacon.

Artists presented and discussed in The Forgotten Notebook  are Leonardo Da Vinci, Piero Del Pollaiolo and Antonia Pisanello (early Renaissance portraitists), Piero Della Francesca, Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo, Mantegna, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rubens, Goya, Géricault, David, Manet and Courbet. These are books to treasure.  5 stars

Marcus J Borg & N T Wright: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, New York, HarperOne, 2007 (1999)

Arguably two of the most influential theologians of the twentieth and twenty first centuries hammer out their often opposing view about the historical Jesus. Both studied at doctoral level at Oxford under G B Caird and have remained firm friends since even though their approach to theology differs greatly. Wright has been a pastor and  bishop of the Anglican Church and taught New Testament Studies at McGill, Cambridge and Oxford for twenty years. He is currently Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and a prolific author focussing on Paul, New Testament history and commentary and popular books on just about every Christian topic except perhaps (so far) on John’s Gospel. His writings have been deeply influential in the lives of many evangelicals seeking a more strongly based historical approach to Christian studies which challenges liberal orthodoxy at many points.

The late Marcus Borg was brought up a conservative Lutheran but after studying theology became disillusioned with the Christian faith and turned to atheism for a period of ten years. Following what in his own words a number of experiences which he called “nature mysticism” he returned to his Christian roots and became a hugely influential theological teacher and prolific writer. Before his death Borg was the Hudere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University. His friendship with Church Historian John Crossan led to both of them becoming influential leaders in the Jesus Seminar. Borg’s work in hammering out a platform for “Progressive Christianity” has been a life-saver for many  Western C21st Christian folk who can no longer believe in traditional Christian orthodoxy.

In this very readable book both authors take up the same central themes and write a response, having read the work of the other.  There is no final resolution. Readers are left to ponder well crafted arguments on both sides. The topics discussed are How do we know about Jesus?  What did Jesus do and teach?  The death of Jesus (why was he killed and what did his death mean for Christian faith); The Resurrection; Was Jesus God? The Birth of Jesus; The Second Coming  and Jesus and Christian Life.   Two very different approaches with perhaps some surprising rapprochement in the final chapter.   A very worthwhile read for thinking Christians and seekers.  5 stars.

Marcus Borg: Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus & The Heart of Contemporary Faith, San Francisco, Harper, 1995.

This is an earlier book than the one discussed above and written just prior to the publication of the controversial findings of the Jesus Seminar. A reader’s reception of this book will depend on the current state of their thinking.  Borg is helpful in tracing his journey from conservative Christian up bringing through to atheism and then returning to Christian faith. He writes persuasively in a way which enables him to maintain much of his liberal scepticism about many aspects of the Jesus story as recorded in the Gospels. This attempt to maintain meaning and passion for Christian belief in the midst of a materialistic and hard boiled Western thought pattern and against vocal and often poorly thought out Christian fundamentalism will be helpful to many C21st seekers after spiritual truth.

On the other hand the overwhelming dominance in this book of the Jesus Seminar findings with its hard and fast rules regarding what should be “in” the “true” text of the Gospel story of Jesus and what is invalidly out because it reflects later Christian tradition puts this book on the edge of Christian orthodoxy. This is not the place to delve into the complexities of New Testament and C1st  church history and C1st Judaism in the Mediterranean. Suffice to say that the radical conclusions of the Jesus Seminar including knocking out the whole of John’s Gospel as late, including elements of the Gospel of Thomas  (thought by many to be C2nd) and strict rules regarding the criterion of needing more than one source for any valid  N T doctrine or teaching and the criterion of dissimilarity from the teaching of Jesus as against early Christian tradition all end up with a very thin volume of authentic Jesus teaching and history in the Jesus Seminar “New Testament”.  This “thinness” is well represented in Borg’s analysis and as such will either delight or infuriate readers depending on their theological  position. I have had discussions with folk on both sides! In general I think this is a book written in the first flush of excitement of the Jesus Seminar. The book reviewed above is perhaps a more nuanced account of Borg’s views.    3 stars.

Jeanette Winterson: The Passion, London, Vintage Books, 2014 (1987)

This is a lightly written text which explores the theme of passion in the lives of two very different people who come together in unlikely circumstances. Set in Napoleonic Europe notably France, Russia and Venice the novel engages the reader more by the thoughtfulness and delight of its prose rather its unusual story line.  Henri, with  a young man’s passion for the power, inventiveness and energy of Napoleon is crushed by service in the traumatically disastrous Russian campaign.  A young woman in Venice, who enjoys dressing as a man, discovers a passion which will not be commanded  for  a married woman. Somewhere between fear and sex passion is, writes Winterson and Villanelle, a boatman’s daughter born with webbed feet will not let her passion go. Passion will not accept another’s left-overs…and the one you fall in love with for the first time, not just love, but be in love with will always make you angry.  The rather sad lives and  unlikely meeting of these two thwarted passions plays out in unexpected ways and drifts to a fairly unsatisfactory end for those who look for resolution.  This is an early work for Winterston who has become extremely popular with her many novels, children’s books, non-fiction and even a screenplay.  3 stars.