EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

The Gospel of the LordGospeloftheLord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus
By Michael Bird

Eerdmans, 2014

Reviewed by Bishop Stephen Hale

Any review of a Michael Bird book starts with a comment on his amazing output. I liked this comment from Nijay Gupta. ‘Now that Michael Bird has finished a major book on systematic theology as well as numerous works on messianism, the historical Jesus and the Theology of Paul, I wonder if it is time for Mike to extend his brand into cook books and romance novels!…. Let’s see if the Romans commentary he is working on kills him first.’

Michael lectures in Theology at Ridley College but has an extensive background in New Testament studies. ‘The Gospel of the Lord’ has received excellent reviews and was listed by Christianity Today as one of the books of the year in 2014.

The Gospel of the Lord is concerned ‘primarily with the questions of how the Gospels came to be, what kinds of literature they are, and how they relate to Christian discourse about God’(viii). It is not a Gospel survey, but rather a book that covers the complex issues related to the origins and development of the books we call ‘Gospels’ in the context of early church. Michael covers such matters as the transmission of the ‘Jesus tradition’, the Synoptic problem, the genre question, and the canonisation of the ‘Fourfold Gospel’, Mike deals with the non-canonical Gospels – why they were written, what they are about and how they were received by the early Christians.

In our highly skeptical age it is critical that we have a clear understanding of how the primary source documents for our knowledge of Jesus came into being and can be relied upon. Bird uses his typical aussie humour to enliven the book and traverses many scholarly disputes and discussions with clarity and a genuinely fresh perspective.

I enjoyed the book and gather from other reviews (from genuine Scholarly types) that it should become an standard academic text for years to come.

The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of ChristianityIslam Schumack
By Richard Shumack

Reviewed by Andrew Esnouf

Andrew was recently ordained as a deacon and is serving as Assistant Curate at St Andrew’s Brighton. He graduated from Ridley College and is pursuing further theological and philosophical study at the Australian Catholic University.

Apologetic dialogues and contributions often have a tendency to be high on rhetoric and caricatures, whilst simultaneously being low on clear thinking and generosity. Richard Shumack has sought to address this deficiency with his book ‘The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity’, specifically with a focus of the philosophical dialogue between Islam and Christianity. This philosophical dialogue has been somewhat lacking to date, with both the Christian tendency to react in a knee jerk fashion to Islam and the general Muslim reluctance to reflect critically on their faith, a point admitted by Muslim philosopher and Shumack’s main dialogue partner Shabbir Akhtar. (p. 10) Each chapter of the work focusses on different areas of discussion, with the problems of certain belief, God’s hiddenness, human sin, the trinity, the incarnation, the cross, inspiration & revelation of sacred texts,  divine ethics and political philosophy all given a robust examination.

The main contention of Shumack’s work is that Islam and Christianity operate under fundamentally different models of divine/human relations. The foundational understanding of Islam is that divine/human relations are legislative in nature, whereas the Christianity is understood in a fellowship model. (p. 14) He goes on to show throughout the book that the Christian fellowship model incorporates law but this is for the purpose of maintaining relationships, and that Christianity cannot be understood or rationally believed in if it is thought of in the legislative framework.

Shumack’s work is decidedly philosophical in its focus and approach, though this does not mean it is inaccessible. Shumack clarifies at the outset that this should not intimidate readers, reassuring that ‘philosophy is more about thinking carefully than thinking complicatedly‘, and that any ‘thoughtful person’ would be able to understand and enjoy this book. (p. 16) I can report with joy that this is certainly true, where difficult concepts arise there are clear explanations that are supplemented with helpful analogies. The discussion remains both thoroughly philosophical, the use of epistemology was particularly helpful, and remains accessible to the uninitiated, with the arguments for the incarnation titled ‘Coulda’, ‘Woulda’ and ‘Shoulda’. This balance is a real strength of the book.

Another strength of the book is the generosity that Shumack displays towards his interlocutors and integrity he upholds in presenting his own arguments. At every opportunity objections and objectors to the Christian faith were respectfully interacted with and presented at their strongest, without shying away from the tough questions such as the trinity and incarnation. For every philosophical delivery Akhtar bowled, Shumack played the ball and not the man. Special pleading from both the Bible and Quran is rejected at the outset to allow a genuine dialogue, this is not to say that Shumack does not believe in the authority of the Bible, he clearly does, only that his purpose is not preaching but rather apologetic dialogue. (pp. 20-21)

It is somewhat difficult to find any weaknesses other than the occasional editorial overlook, but it is important to note that this book is not the only resource you will need if you are engaging with Islam. Due to the philosophical focus of this book it does not tackle the common and important  questions about textual criticism and historical reliability. The only other critique I would offer is that I found the important argument for a relational understanding of Christian theology could have been bolstered in its presentation, particularly in its discussion of justice and the atonement. (p. 141)

Shumack’s work is a strong contribution to the dialogue between Islam and Christianity and would be rewarding for anyone reading with an engaged mind who is interested in apologetics, but also for understanding the Muslim or Christian faiths. ‘The Wisdom of Islam and the Foolishness of Christianity’ is a worthy contender for the Australian Christian Book of the Year.

TheologyFutureTheology and the Future: Evangelical Assertions and Explorations
Edited by Trevor Cairney and David Starling
T & T Clark, 2014

Life is not easy for theology at the head of the 21st century. After centuries in the ascendant as Regina Scientiarum the past 250 years have seen her stripped of her regalia and cast from her throne. Once acknowledged as the voice of wisdom, the very counsellor of kings, she now calls from outside the halls of power, and even then she is rarely listened to (what, after all, could she possibly have to contribute?). Once seen as the one to connect all spheres of knowledge to form a coherent vision of the whole, she is now derided by the academy as an irrational non-subject (though she may be mercifully permitted to continue her futile labour so long as she doesn’t cause any trouble, ensures that her operations remain quarantined within the bounds set for her, and manages to get enough students to keep herself financially viable). Once prized and honoured in the Church as directive of the life of God’s people, she is now regularly treated with suspicion as both divisive and disconnected from the practicalities of discipleship. In the public square, the university, and even the Church, theology’s fortunes have declined, and as a consequence, the question of her future is, for many, moot.

And for that reason it is wonderful to have the collection of essays that make up Theology and the Future available to us. Going against the tide of current secularist and positivist opinion, the contributors to this book contend, and seek to demonstrate, that theology not only has on-going viability both in its own right and as a contributor to the broad range of contemporary conversations; it even stands as the critical voice in those conversations. Within the bounds of that shared conviction, the fifteen essays are marked by a diversity that resists simple summary in a review like this. Consequently, rather than focusing upon particular contributions for appreciation and critique, allow me to highlight two themes that are discernable through the whole and which seem to constitute, for many of the contributors, critical elements in their vision of theology’s future, and to raise one question of the collection.

Depth: Retrieval.

If theological modernism has been characterized by a belief that the Great Tradition has run its course and needs to be rejected if theology is to have any staying power, contributors to this collection see the opposite as the case: it is through the retrieval of the classical sources and judgments of theology that theology stands to flourish. This is a major point of Michael Allen’s opening essay, but such a conviction is discernable within the arguments and appeals of most. Of particular note is the example within several papers of a recent, more widely observable theological surprise: the recovery of classical theism. Such a recovery was virtually unimaginable 20 years ago; yet here, explicitly within Stephen Long’s essay and embedded within those of Allen, Helm, Birkett and others, is a confidence that the future of Theology proper lies in the Theology proper of the past.1

Breadth: Inter-disciplinary engagement.

Christian theology has traditionally understood its field of study to be ‘God, and all things as they relate to God’. Consequently, it is an intellectual discipline that has concerned itself with everything. These essays see theology’s future as lying in a similarly catholic engagement. Against external attempts to keep theology cocooned within a limited field, and internal desires to retreat into the safety of that cocoon, these theologians have a cheerful confidence in taking up conversation with such diverse fields as educational theory (McDowell), literature (Jensen), the arts (Hart and Searle), the science and philosophy of emergence (Birkett), the nature of the modern city (Smith), and so on. In a cultural and academic context in which specialisation is the norm and secular rationalism would bid us operate with disconnected ‘facts’ – a context in which, as Chesterton put it, everything matters except everything – these essays demonstrate the imaginative resources of the gospel to enable a comprehensive and connected vision of humanity and the world, one which holds far more promise for the future than more atomised approaches.

A question of length: voices from the majority world.

Two essays in this collection address the future of theology from a non-Western perspective: Yeo’s call for humble cross- cultural conversation in the church and Chung’s illuminating discussion of the future of theology in Asia. (Another intended essay, on the future of theology in Africa, was unable to be completed due to illness.) That these essays are included is a great strength of the book; yet given that the shift of the Church’s energetic core from the West to the global South will be, arguably, the greatest shaping force for the future of Christianity and of theology with it, we might ask whether two essays (with a third intended) out of fifteen gives sufficient attention to this part of the Body of Christ. In particular, it would have been helpful to see theologians from the majority world contributing essays, not simply discussing Christianity in the majority world, but carrying out constructive theological work in their own right, as a glimpse of what the future may hold. Of course, the theological heritage of the West is something that will be of on-going importance – this affirmation is inherent in any vision of theology’s future that acknowledges the importance of retrieval (and indeed, picking up again the return to classical theism, such metaphysics are in many ways as foreign to the West today as they are to the South). But the church in the West – and perhaps we who are Anglican in particular – need to be quick and eager to listen to and dialogue with those brothers and sisters who represent what is increasingly the centre of gravity in the church’s mission and ministry, and no doubt will become so of her theology as well. We have much to contribute to the strengthening and equipping of the Majority church; but we equally have much to learn and receive from them. Any exploration of the future of theology will consequently benefit from their more extensive representation.

Thom Bull, Ellenbrook, WA

1 This return to classical theism is evident amongst recent Protestant (e.g. John Webster), Roman Catholic (e.g. Tom Weinandy) and Orthodox (e.g. David Bentley Hart) theologians.

A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible: Inside History’s Bestseller for Believers and Skeptics Dickson A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible
By John Dickson
Zondervan, 2015

Reviewed by Bishop Tim Harris
Tim Harris is Assistant Bishop in Adelaide.

Let me say at the outset that I think this is a terrific book. It is written in winsome style with candour, clarity and character. Even more impressively, it achieves a depth of thought and engagement that is particularly challenging to attain when writing a primer genre of book. It will stimulate and provoke many of the right sorts of questions for those genuinely seeking to understand the Bible’s great narrative and the worldview it reflects.

In many ways, I am the wrong person to review this book. I would love to hear feedback and reflections from the book’s intended audience. I know well the theological framework Dickson articulates, a biblical theology framework that comes with an extensive and sophisticated in-house terminology and short hand. The extent to which John has successfully stepped outside this and employed accessible language and explanations is for others to determine, but my impression is that he has made an excellent attempt to do so.

Firstly, a brief overview. The chapter titles pretty much flag Dickson’s narrative approach: How everything is good (the creation story); Why so much is bad (Adam’s story and ours); Life in three dimensions (the blessings of Father Abraham); The good life (Moses and his law); Justice for all (The violence of Joshua and the love of God); Kingdom come (the promise and failure of King David); Hope against hope (the Christmas story); The wait is over (almost): (Jesus and his gospel); The great work (the “Church” after Jesus); and finally, How everything is good again (the re-creation story). Those familiar with paradigmic biblical theology (as with Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom, and many others) will quickly recognise the contours of this narrative.

Responsible Dominion
A Christian approach to Sustainable Development
Ian Hore-Lacy
Second Edition, Kindle, 2016

A new edition of Ian Hore-Lacy’s 2006 Responsible Dominion: a Christian approach to Sustainable Development has just been published in Kindle: www.amazon.com/dp/B00YGJTUNE. It has a completely rewritten and expanded chapter 1 setting out a Christian perspective on resources and environment. “The thrust of this chapter is to establish the theological basis of a balance between respect for biodiversity and 'the environment' on the one hand and respect for God's purposes vis a vis people on the other, while steering clear of the kind of anthropocentrism just defined and critiquing ecocentrism.”

The introduction is recast to include mention of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. Hore-Lacy brings the debate up to date with respect to both theological and scientific developments. “...a significant counter to the widely-accepted views of contemporary environmentalism was published over the names of 18 individuals known for their environmental stance and writings.  'We call ourselves ecopragmatists and ecomodernists.' ”

“But we do have an evolving consensus regarding God's priorities in the world, expressed for instance in the Lausanne Statement and subsequent Cape Town Commitment from the same source, and stressing the importance of considering the physical needs of people alongside their spiritual needs.”
Updated theological discussion includes creation and fall, and the redemption of creation, and interaction with recent discussions by McGrath and Wright for example.

One of the helpful aspects of the book is that it takes issue with the impact of ideology on science. Many assertions are made in the name of science, which are not scientific but rather ideological or religious (in this case green religion).

Overall for those interested in the environment and sustainable development or who want another perspective on the emerging debate about nuclear energy, this is a good book, written from a biblical perspective and challenging many assumptions of the green movement.

Dale Appleby, Bayswater, WA