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EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

 

A Change of Heart 
Thomas Oden, IVP Academic, 2014

I’m getting tired of new books that pretend to be cutting edge Christian books and begin with Tom and Lucy looking out on their vegetable gardens and having some twee conversation. I’m also getting tired of books that have blurbs that give the impression this is the greatest book ever written but the content is empty and vacuous. Am I just getting old and grumpy – probably yes – but I’m also hungry for some substance.

One book that came as a pleasant weighty surprise is Sinclair Ferguson’s Some Pastors and Teachers. It’s a collection of many of Ferguson’s short articles linked to Owen, Calvin and others and since each chapter is about 6-8 pages long it can be read devotionally with great food for the mind and heart. If you have been waiting for something to fuel your faith this could be it.

Another Ferguson book worth reading is The Whole Christ which grapples with a moment in Scottish history when a young candidate for the ministry is asked if repentance is necessary to come to Christ. The young man said “yes” then changed his answer to “no” and was disqualified from entry. Men gathered around him to defend him and the book explains why. It introduces the knife-edge question as to whether people are hearing good news from us or not.

But another book that is a treat to read is A Change of Heart” by Thomas Oden. He was born in 1930 and died in 2016 – the first half of his life a liberal pastor and theologian – the second half a reformed academic. What makes the book so striking is that he exposes his own inner workings as he went down the liberal road – now writing as a repentant and orthodox man.

For example, he talks about reading his New Testament with the cross and resurrection deliberately pushed to the edge. His prayer life dried up and he found himself saying the creed in church with great difficulty. His new gospel became freedom from anxiety, guilt and boredom – the “theo” in theology had become a question mark.

“I loved the illusions… I imagined I was being critical and rational… I imagined I had a share in transforming human history… (but) I did not examine my own motives. The biblical words for this are egocentricity, arrogance and moral blindness” p.56.

The turning point came for Oden when an orthodox Jew accused him of being a lightweight – unfamiliar with the Founding Fathers of the Christian faith. He went back to the roots of the Church and found men with finer minds asking finer questions and giving finer answers. “I was amazed that the intergenerational wisdom of the ancient community of faith was completely accessible within modernity… I had been in love with modernity. Candidly I had been in love with heresy. Now I was waking up from this to meet a two thousand year stable memory… I came to trust the very orthodoxy I had once dismissed… I became even more relevant, not less relevant , to modern partners in dialogue… I found myself standing within the blessed presence of the communion of saints… the antiphonal choir with whom I was singing” p. 140.

Not only does Oden write humbly – but beautifully. It’s a delight to read how he expresses the faith in glorious terms.

The second half of his life takes him into many global opportunities – exposing the hypocrisy he knows so well but also building relationships across a wide spectrum of believers. I found his ecumenical spirit too generous for me but you can decide that one for yourself.

For those of us who have walked a pretty orthodox road most of our days and may find our doctrines getting familiar to the point of contempt this is a fresh set of eyes. For those who teach and toy with liberal scholarship – thinking your students cannot see the uselessness of your position – this is a devastatingly honest expose.

Simon Manchester, NSW

Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy? 
Paul Barnett, Cascade, 2019

The question of how the four gospels came to be as they are is intriguing and important for Christians (well, for everyone, really, but certainly for Christians). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, the ransom for many, the one who suffers, dies and rises from the dead according to the scriptures. The man they introduce breaks many rules of ordinary humanity, and the question is whether they paint a fair and faithful portrait of Jesus, or whether some more modest Jewish figure been transformed into the miracle-working redeemer of the gospels by some innocent or not-so-innocent process of exaggeration, embellishment, and exaltation. This pressing question is complicated by the fact that we have only hints (compared to what we might like to have) as to the process by which the gospels came to be as they are.

Paul Barnett has spent a career researching, thinking and writing about the earliest Christianity, from the life of Jesus to the completion of the New Testament and the close of the apostolic age. He has taken on the hard task of discovering what we can know about matters demanding ingenious historical detective work to bring into some view. He has also taken on those who would undermine the integrity of the New Testament as a reliable testimony to the true nature of the events and people in its pages. He was this year on the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, being made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the Anglican Church of Australia. He is a prolific author, who has this year added a new title to his list of publications, namely Making the gospels: Mystery or Conspiracy?

The burden of this book is to probe the mystery of the process by which we came to have the four gospels of the New Testament. In doing this, Barnett argues that although this process may remain in many ways a mystery, it is implausible and ungrounded to believe that it involved a conspiracy of any sort. The idea that the gospels present a figure confected by Paul, or Mark, or later editors of Q is not credible, given what the historical evidence makes likely about the production of the gospels. In summary, Barnett argues that the role of the disciples as witnesses of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus is to be taken seriously, and that we should respect the indications that the New Testament gives that its authors were committed to the faithful transmission of what the eyewitnesses had said. Neither the short period between Jesus and the gospels, nor the culture governing the transmission of the accounts of Jesus, make it plausible to suppose that great metamorphoses have been wrought upon the figure at the heart of these accounts.

One new conviction Barnett comes to in the writing of this book—a conclusion which takes him by surprise—is that Jesus most likely taught publicly in both Aramaic and Greek. In Chapter 19 he cites the work of Meyers and Strange who find that in the first century BC Aramaic declined and Greek gained ground even in country areas. The Twelve have Greek names among them (Philip, Simon and Andrew) and Jesus had conversations with Gentiles (the Syrophoenician women, the centurion, even Pilate) who probably had at best limited Aramaic. Jesus’ travels in the north and east of Galilee would make it natural for him to prefer speaking Greek in these places. Crowds came to him from Greek-speaking areas like the Decapolis, and the environs of Tyre and Sidon, and it would make sense for Jesus to teach in Greek for these hearers. The upshot of this is that Jesus’s teachings need not have existed originally only in Aramaic, and so they needed no subsequent process of translation into Greek for them to take the form they do in our gospels.

Barnett further notes the probable literacy (not illiteracy) of at least some of the disciples makes it plausible that accounts of Jesus’ teachings were ‘committed to writing in Greek from the earliest times’, beginning during the earthly ministry of Jesus itself (p. 93). This pair of conclusions relativises both the role of oral transmission of the accounts of Jesus, and of Aramaic as the medium of such transmission. This in turn means the written sources which underlie the gospels may be as close to the ministry of Jesus as any oral streams of transmission in Aramaic that may also have carried the knowledge of Jesus to the gospel writers. Barnett acknowledges this is a controversial conclusion, and somewhat out of step with the recent focus on modes of oral transmission by Kenneth Bailey and James Dunn, but he’s arguing for the substantial importance of individual eyewitness accounts in written Greek.

Barnett covers a great deal of ground, and touches on verbal parallels to gospel material in the New Testament epistles, on the provenance and theologies of Mark, Q, M and L, on the use of Mark by Matthew and Luke, on the audiences the individual gospels appear attuned towards and a host of other issues. Throughout it all his constant theme is that while there is indeed mystery surrounding the process by which the gospels came to be, this in no way licences conspiracy theories. It should not be accepted that Jesus— imagined as a Jewish rabbi of reformist, charismatic or sapiential character— has been dishonourably repackaged as a dying and rising redeemer. ‘The earliest “traditions” are focussed on the redemptive Jesus.’ (p. 235)

The whole is written in vintage Barnett style, exhibiting familiarity with current scholarship and an independent development of thought. Close attention to particular texts across the New Testament and their interconnections alternates with broad awareness of the history, geography and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world in its Jewish, Hellenistic and Roman modes. Barnett writes to communicate with the general reader but does not make his content ‘lite’. In this as in many previous works, he connects the general reader to the scholarly world and the historical scene in a way that few others have done, certainly amongst Australian scholars. Here is a concise, up-to-date account of the production of the gospels by a seasoned scholar and passionate student of the history and literature surrounding the central figure of the New Testament: Jesus, whom this Paul also serves.

Ben Underwood, WA

A strong collection of books were shortlisted for the Australian Christian Book of the Year AwardA strong collection of books were shortlisted for the Australian Christian Book of the Year Award2019. Reviews will be published in following editions of Essentials.

At the SparkLit Awards Nighton August 15 Th e Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian Historywas declared the worthy winner. Congratulations to Stuart Piggin and Robert Linder.

THE APOSTLES’ CREED: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism.THE APOSTLES’ CREED: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism.By Ben Myers (Lexham Press).COMING HOME: Discipleship, Ecology and Everyday Economics.By Jonathan Cornford (Morning Star)FOR THE JOY: 21 Australian Missionary Mother Stories on Cross-CulturalParenting and Life.Edited by Miriam Chan & Sophia Russell (Grace Abounding Books).THE FOUNTAIN OF PUBLIC PROSPERITY: Evangelical Christians inAustralian History 1740–1914.By Stuart Piggin & Robert Linder (Monash University Publishing).GOD IS GOOD FOR YOU: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times.By Greg Sheridan (Allen & Unwin)HEAVEN ALL AROUND US: Discovering God in Everyday Life.By Simon Carey Holt (Cascade Books).TEA & THREAD: Portraits of Middle Eastern Women Far from Home.By Sally Bathgate & Katrina Flett Gulbrandsen (Grace Abounding Books).THIS ONE LIFE: Conversations on the Journey of Life.By Sharon Witt (Collective Wisdom Publications)UNEXPECTED: Leave Fear Behind, Move Forward in Faith, Embrace theAdventure. By Christine Caine (Zondervan).WORKSHIP 2: How to Flourish at Work.By Kara Martin (Graceworks).

Marriage, Same Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission
The Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia,
The Anglican Church of Australia, 2019

This book review title should be The book that should be read but cannot be fully recommended.

Background

In 2017 the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, by motion, instructed its Doctrine Committee to “facilitate a respectful conversation in our church by means of a collection of essays on marriage and same sex relationships that explore scriptural and theological issues…”

To summarise the scope of the request: it sought to address Anglican Formularies, the exploration of state definitions of marriage and the church’s doctrine of marriage, our view of Scripture and the methods we use for coming to an understanding of them and the nature of our relationships where disagreement exists.

The outcome of the request was the production of the book, Marriage, Same Sex Marriage and the Anglican Church of Australia: Essays from the Doctrine Commission. This book was published in paperback in June and is currently free to download1.

The Relational Issue

The issues addressed in the book are not insignificant and, on paper, positions are easily expressed. However, one’s thinking on the issues cannot be divorced from all human relationships as expressed in the two great commandments, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself.” As the commands begin with an upward look to God so the outward look to others gathers importance. To neglect one is to fail the other. To miss the priority of the first unties us from a God-given accountability in our loving of others. If we are to glorify God, and if people are to enjoy him forever, then our discussion of something as close to us as our created, human sexuality requires more than human opinion or general observations, it requires God’s special revelation. As such the Scriptures are crucial to our discussion.

The Historical Issue

The problem for the Anglican Church of Australia as evidenced in the book and played out in the Anglican Communion around the world, is the disjunction between divine revelation and human opinion. Historically this problem is one of emphasis, expressed by the likes of Richard Hooker in terms of Scripture, tradition and reason, to which could be added experience. But even the history of the three – Scripture, Tradition and Reason – has suffered from the revisionists who in one breath declare Richard Hooker as their friend but in the next misrepresent the priority given by Hooker to the Scriptures over reason, tradition and experience. Bishop Michael Stead in the closing essay of the book offers an extended reflection on these four as he deals with the case against same sex marriage.

The Anglican Issue

There are eleven contributors to the book who represent divergent views on the issue of same sex marriage and blessing. The significance of these divergent views goes to the very core of a Christian Anglican identity. Most obviously, these divergent views on same sex marriage and blessings reveal divergent views on the authority of Scripture which is central to our Anglican identity. The 39 Articles of Religion highlight the place of the Scriptures as governing God’s church in all matters of faith and practice consistent with the reformation tenet of “sola Scriptura”, and most importantly, as defended by the Bible’s own internal witness to itself as God’s breathed out Word.2

Needless to say, divergent views of the Scriptures have led to divergent views on human sexuality that have inevitably caused a divide to occur across the global Anglican Communion. This divide has giving rise to the GAFCON movement and the establishment of new Anglican Dioceses, not recognised by Canterbury. These include Canada, Europe, Jamaica and most recently New Zealand and Polynesia. As the historical survey in the third essay makes clear the implications for the Australian Anglican Church are quite clear, “you can’t change the doctrine of the church and expect that people will continue to live in partnership, fellowship or communion”. It is why this book is so important. Its contributors expose the problem by their declared positions and as a result we, the readers, can reflect on the arguments presented and respond accordingly.

The Contents of the Book

After an introduction, the book has a series of essays to set the context, sketching out the history of these issues across the wider Anglican Church, and the highlighting the peculiarity of the situation of the Anglican Church of Australia, which has uniquely bound itself to the doctrine and principles of the Book of Common Prayer, Ordinal and 39 Articles.

These essays are followed by paired essays which respectively examine the arguments for and against samesex marriage, exploring hermeneutics, Old Testament, New Testament, the history of marriage and friendship.

Next a series of stand-alone essays on blessing, desire and godly disagreement. The final two essays seek to sum up the arguments for and against same-sex marriage.

The Key Issue

In the scope of this review, it is not possible to give a summary of all the arguments. Instead, I will focus on the one key issue which is the hinge on which the other essays turn.

One contributor to the book, the Rev. Dr Matthew Anstey, highlights what is key to the Church’s discussion of same sex marriage and blessing when he say, “that the role Scripture plays in the debate is where the most important differences lie.”3

To the uninitiated, the divergent views of Scripture may seem subtle but their outcomes are anything but subtle and the threat to the locus of authority in the church is of enormous concern.

So to the book itself. There is no substitute to reading the book for yourself and I acknowledge my subjectivity, which I hope is a Biblically informed one, in dealing with aspects of the book while hoping not to misrepresent its content.

The essays range in quality and complexity. While some papers stand alone, others provide a contributor’s view followed by another contributor’s critique. As a standalone essay, I found the Rev. Dr Rhys Bezzant’s essay on 'The Blessing of Same Sex Marriage' very instructive in offering a defence as to why we cannot bless same sex marriages. The most significant essays in the collection, however, centre on Scripture and hermeneutics. We could describe this section of the book and in particular Matthew Anstey’s essay and Mark Thompson’s response to it as the skeleton around which the discussion must be clothed. In terms of the church, the seriousness of skeletal damage will always be the bodily dysfunction that follows, so it is crucial to give the arguments our attention.

 To highlight the issue, it is worth listening to Anstey and Thompson.

The Rev Dr. Anstey, commenting on the evaluating of our doctrinal position on same sex marriage states, “The fact that such evaluation is occurring and books such as this are being written, speaks to the reality that the church is able to perceive and discern through the Spirit the work of God in the world and ‘decide for God’ in response to such discernment…”

As the essay proceeds the Rev.Dr Anstey is quite definitive, “…Let me be clear about my view from the outset, Scripture shows us how the people of God come to make moral and theological judgements rather than providing the substantive content of those judgements. Hence to be faithful to Scripture in this debate (as in all debates) does not mean we exegete Scripture and apply to living human experience a timeless moral-doctrinal precept (and such a so called ‘excavative’ approach is adopted by opponents to same sex marriage in this volume) but rather we seek to make our case for the doctrinal position we are arguing in dialogue with both Scripture and lived human experience.”

One must read all that the Rev Anstey writes to be fully cognizant of his position but to any exegete of the Scriptures who believes in the absolutes of God as set down, for example, in the Decalogue, his words are concerning.

In his response to the Rev. Dr Anstey’s essay, the Rev. Dr Mark Thompson takes quite a different theological stance when it comes to the Scriptures and I quote, “The 39 Articles, which include an endorsement of the Book of Homilies (Article XXXV) remains the confessional document of Anglicanism and so is included in the Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia. The Articles provide us with a strong statement of the identity of Scripture as ‘God’s Word written’, the final authority of biblical teaching, the boundary condition of recognising and honouring the coherence and unity of biblical teaching and the stance of the reader: humility, prayerfulness, a concern for the glory of God and restraint in exposition.”

The outworking of Anstey’s hermeneutic is consistent with his revisionist view of the place of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, just as the outworking of Thompson’s hermeneutic is demonstrated by sitting under the Bible’s authority not over it.  Anstey elevates the “Spirit”-led discernment of the individual above that of the Scriptures, and Thompson prioritises the Scriptures over the individual, who must sit under the Scriptures and surrender to them.

Anstey’s words, “…that the church is able to perceive and discern through the Spirit ‘the work of God in the world and “decide for God”…” are concerning in both what is said and not said. He separates Word and Spirit thus removing the objective basis on which to test the “spirit” of such discernment. By contrast Thompson sees the authority of the Spirit as expressed in the Word, thus holding the two together which is consistent with Christian Anglicanism as expressed in our Anglican formularies.

On personal reflection, a fallen humanity to “decide for God” under a spirit that cannot be tested seems like foolishness. The Rev. Dr Anstey’s essay could be accused of suggesting that God has inadequately communicated his will to us. It is no surprise that when we sit over God’s word and “decide for God” that humanity seeks to become a permission giver to things contrary to God’s will and not a servant of God’s will in calling people to repentance and faith. But equally when people begin to “decide for God” it is crucial to recognise that authority has moved from God to those who think they should decide. That would seem a recipe for authoritarian disaster that does not end in permissions but rule of law by the fallen.

Reflecting on both positions I see the distinctions best expressed by the words “interpret” and “understand.” The difference may be subtle but not unimportant.

Understanding the Scriptures requires you listen to what God has said and sit under his authority which requires the most careful exegesis of the texts of Scripture. Where a part of the Bible is unclear we do not ignore it but we look to the rest of the Bible to offer us further understanding. By contrast, interpreting the Scriptures makes you the authority over what God has said allowing outside influences such as tradition, reason and experience to determine your thoughts.

This is not just semantics. When we seek to understand, understanding submits our reason, tradition, and experience to God’s Word. When we seek to interpret, interpreting submits God’s word to our reason, traditions and experience. The outcomes can be significantly different when it comes to faith and practice.

Start with God and you start with the Almighty, the Sovereign, the Holy and Perfect. Start with humanity and every effort is flawed from the start by our creatureliness, weakness, and fallen nature. It is hardly surprising that when we get God wrong we get ourselves wrong. It is hardly surprising when we put ourselves in God’s place that we will compromise God’s absolutes.

Given that contrast, it can only be the sin of hubris that would have us pursuing interpretations that offer permissions to things God has spoken against rather than encouraging repentance and faith that comes with understanding God’s word.

Such hubris will heal no ills, trivialise sin, reduce Christ, profit no salvation and consign people to hell.

What a difference the truth understood makes. It puts God on his throne and straight-talks the problem of sin and the fallen nature of our humanity. By way of encouragement, the heavens proclaim his glory and his Word reveals the inspirational love of our maker and redeemer. It speaks to our reconciliation with God and offers the restoration of one’s person. In a lost and confused age the Christian gospel offers the repentant: new birth, justification by faith, atonement through propitiation and the substitutionary death of Christ and resurrection to eternal life. The Christian gospel does not offer permission to sin and warns of the judgement to come. For the repentant, God grants us the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to comfort and sustain us amidst the myriad temptations we face.

I would not normally recommend some of the essays in this book but they are educative in understanding why there are divisions in the Anglican Communion. Those divisions will inevitably impact the General Synod of our church in 2020 and our churches beyond. It is important for all God’s people to be informed and prepared should those who depart from the Scriptures force upon themselves their departure from the Christian Anglican Communion. Let us all pray for the humility to sit under God’s Word and repent such that the unity of God’s church would advance the mission of God for the salvation of the lost. Let us pray that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and then rightly love our neighbours as ourselves.

An encouragement

“Last eve I paused beside the blacksmith’s door,
And heard the anvil ring the vesper chime;
Then looking in, I saw upon the floor,
Old hammers, worn with beating years of time.
“‘How many anvils have you had,’ said I,
To wear and batter all these hammers so?’
‘Just one,’ said he, and then with twinkling eye,
‘The anvil wears the hammers out, you know.’
“And so, I thought, the Anvil of God’s Word
For ages skeptic blows have beat upon;
Yet, though the noise of falling blows was heard,
The Anvil is unharmed, the hammers gone.”

—Attributed to John Clifford

REFERENCES

1.https://www.broughtonpublishing.com.au/marriagedoctrineessays/
https://www.broughtonpublishing.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/marriagedoctrineessays.pdf

2. Articles of Religion 6, 19-22; 2 Timothy 3:16-17

3. Book p. 59

Bishop Rick Lewers, NSW

Unveiling Paul’s Women: Making Sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Lucy Peppiatt, Wipf and Stock, 2018

her recent book, Unveiling Paul’s Women, Lucy Peppiatt writes with reference to 1 Corinthians 7-10, that ‘The only real application of these verses, if we think that Paul wrote them, and we think that he is an authoritative voice for the church, is that women should wear head coverings in church when they pray and prophesy’ (p. 55). She had just pointed out that ‘there are no cultural reasons given in these verses for the shame that an uncovered woman and a covered man causes … the disapproval comes from God and the angels’ (p. 54). To deal with this Peppiatt proposes a bold re-reading of the passage. By an act of interpretive judo, she flips everything around and finds that Paul is actually arguing against the practice of women’s head covering. She writes, ‘Paul was faced with a group of domineering, gifted, prophetic men who had implemented oppressive practices for women in Paul’s absence. They constructed a theology to support their practices that was a blend of Paul’s original thought and their own distorted view of the world’ (p. 86). Paul is presenting their thinking (not his own) in vv4-5 and 7-10, which Paul then opposes with his own corrective in vv11-16. Verse 13 expects the answer ‘yes’, and the uniform custom of the churches is to allow women to pray and prophesy without a head covering.

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