Book Reviews: The Gospel in China: Three Titles
- Written by: Dale Appleby
The Power to Save: A History of the Gospel in China.
Bob Davey. EP Books, 2011.
A New History of Christianity in China
Daniel H. Bays. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume II 1500-1900.
Samuel Hugh Moffett. Orbis Books, 2005.
China continues to be in the news for many reasons. Not least because of the growth of the Christian church there. A growth symbolised perhaps by Amity Press which, by the time of the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury in June 2015, had printed 135,602,476 copies of the Bible.
The existence of Amity Press is a remarkable political, religious and spiritual reality. The story of The Heavenly Man is perhaps better known to modern western Christians. Some will also know of the work of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission. And of other famous names such as Watchman Nee and Gladys Aylward. Beyond that not much is known.
Unfortunately. The story of the gospel in China goes back to Nestorian times. Around 1625, in the west of Xi'an a three metre high marble stele was unearthed. In Chinese characters and Syriac a Christian monk named Jingjing, writing in 781, tells of the history of Nestorian Christianity in China which started back in 635. It seems the gospel came via the Old Silk Road.
That church didn't prosper too long. Later Jesuit missions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries made significant inroads against strong opposition, led in the early days by the amazing Matteo Ricci who nurtured the Three Pillars of the Chinese church of the time, Paul Hsu, Michael Yang and Leon Li. The story of the Jesuit mission is worth studying. It practised many of the principles that Hudson Taylor was later to adopt. It provided a kind of mission training that modern ordination programs could learn from.
The story is told well in Daniel Bays book which is a brief academic study. Moffett's larger book contains very valuable chapters on China and is in some ways more thorough. All three books cover the period from the 19th century onwards. It should be noted that there is much more to the story than the amazing CIM. Bays and Davey give pretty up to date and detailed accounts of the 20th century, bringing the story back to the Old Silk Road and the Back to Jerusalem mission.
Davey's book is written for the broader audience. Bays is more detailed with lots of end notes but very readable. Moffett's is probably more detailed and of course ranges over the whole of Asia. The good thing about all three books is that they all show a heart for the gospel. The more academic books are not dry and detached but as much taken with the wonders of the gospel as Davey's is. Moffett concludes his book with a story of an unnamed Baptist deacon in Burma. Christian Karens in the hills were starving after rats had eaten their crops. They were reduced to eating the rats. The deacon brought ten rupees (5 dollars) to the missionaries from his church for the mission among the Ka-Khyen, a tribe further north. The missionaries said, no, you must use this for your needs. You are starving. The deacon shook his head. “Yes, but we can live on rats. The Ka-Khyen cannot live without the gospel.”
Dale Appleby, Bayswater, WA
Book Review: Standing on Their Shoulders
- Written by: Chris Porter
Standing on Their Shoulders
Heroes of the Faith for Today
Acorn Press, 2015
We live in an age where many people in the church will know more about the Marvel or DC comic superheroes than the historical heroes of the Christian faith. This small book from Rhys Bezzant seeks to redress at least some of this paucity of knowledge. Standing on Their Shoulders consists of twelve brief vignettes of Christians who have greatly impacted our modern faith. These vignettes begin with the church fathers—Athanasius and Augustine—through the Reformation era of Luther, Calvin and Cranmer. Continuing with the post-Puritans: Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, William Wilberforce, and Charles Spurgeon, before finishing in the 20th century considering the impact of Pandita Ramabai, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Billy Graham. Each of the twelve vignettes provides a short and succinct overview of the hero’s life and context, along with the biblical, ecclesial and social impetus that underpinned their ministry. Helpfully, each focuses on a relatively narrow aspect of the individual’s ministry while remaining historically broad. This allows the reader an insight into each person and their context without being overwhelmed with new information. Concluding each chapter is a series of reflective questions that help the reader to draw connections from history to their life. These questions also enable the book to be used in a teaching setting. (Bezzant originally presented these vignettes to his students).
While some attempts at this form of historical reflection end up in hagiographic territory, Bezzant here helpfully gives a rounded picture of each figure. The vignettes do not shy away from seeing the failings and troubles of each character, and even for some highlights how God still used them. However, two gentle critiques may be made. Firstly, the book focuses primarily on Reformation and post-Reformation figures, with Luther being presented in chapter 3. The thousand years of history between Augustine and Luther provides a host of other characters whose various profiles would also serve to edify the church, such as Thomas Aquinas, and John Knox to name but two. This gap causes the book to feel slightly lopsided as a result. Secondly, the book focuses relatively heavily upon Anglo-Saxon males, with Pandita Ramabai being the only female and majority world figure to be profiled in the later sections of the book. However both of these points are likely a product of the original setting for these chapters: as conference training talks and studies. Hopefully the rumoured second volume of the work will expand and address these gaps.
Throughout this book Bezzant’s complementary passions for teaching church history and edifying the saints shine through. The book is written in a pleasant and emotive style that assists in the absorption and understanding of the material. Throughout it seeks to challenge, encourage and edify modern Christians as we realise we are standing on the shoulders of giants to see further. This book is highly recommended for individuals, small groups and churches—indeed the whole body of saints.
Chris Porter, Melbourne, Vic
(originally posted on Euangelion.)
Book Review: The Good Bishop
- Written by: Ben Underwood
The Good Bishop: The Story of Mathew Hale
By Michael Gourlay
Mathew Hale Public Library, 2015
On September 2, 1847 Mathew Bladgen Hale sailed from England for Adelaide on the barque Derwent. He came to Adelaide with Bishop Augustus Short as archdeacon in the freshly minted diocese. Hale went on to become the first Bishop of Perth, and the second Bishop of Brisbane, and over the near forty year period of his public ministry in Australia this vigorous evangelical threw himself into serving Aboriginal people, establishing churches, advocating better treatment of convicts, pioneering education, recruiting and encouraging clergy and stirring up Christians to give to support new ministry in regional areas. Dr Michael Gourlay, a retired engineering academic from Brisbane, has expanded an address he gave at the Mathew Hale Public Library to mark the 200th anniversary of Hale’s birth into a brief, engaging biography of a very significant colonial ministry. Gourlay has interspersed many relevant illustrations throughout the text, and has frequently woven the words of Hale and his contemporaries into his account of events. I have many times walked past the statue of Hale with outstretched hand on St George’s Terrace in Perth, so it was wonderful to fill in my understanding of the man and his times.
Hale might have been thought a spent force in 1845, when, just short of his 34th birthday, he resigned from the busy parish of Stroud, Gloucestershire, having suffered an emotional breakdown following the death of his first wife, Sophia. He retreated to the quiet of his family’s rural parish of Alderley. But Hale was far from spent, and, having sailed to Adelaide to minister in the newly established diocese that stretched west to include Western Australia, he became first rector of St Matthew’s Kensington, and as archdeacon travelled to Albany, the Vasse (Busselton), Bunbury and Perth. In 1848 at Fairlawn in the Vasse, Hale met and, it seems, fell promptly in love with Sabina Molloy, eldest daughter of John and Georgiana Molloy. (The late Georgiana had been, by one contemporary assessment, ‘the best informed, the most accomplished, the most elegant, the most lady-like woman who ever came to the colony’ – p20). Sabina quickly became Hale’s second wife, and their marriage lasted all his life. Sabina died in 1905 in Tasmania, having lived with Hale in England during his retirement until his death, then having returned to Australia to her son Harold. I really enjoyed all this human detail in Gourlay’s telling, it gave individuality to people who have given their names to Western Australian Anglican schools.
Hale was so concerned with the vulnerable position of Aboriginal people in the harsh new realities of colonisation, and so moved to seek to bring them the gospel, along with Western education and training, that he gave himself to this work for six full years from 1850. Inspired by a Christian village for Aboriginals being established by Wesleyans at Wanneroo, north of Perth, Hale enlisted South Australian government support and also gave his own resources to establish The Poonindie Institute, which became a kind of English village populated by Aboriginal people. Hale hit his targets of evangelising and Europeanising the Aboriginals at Poonindie in many ways. One of the motives that shaped his work seemed to be to demonstrate to his fellow colonists that Aboriginal people were in no way sub-human, nor incapable of receiving and mastering whatever the colonists might have received or mastered. Hale’s concern for Aborigines was lifelong – in 1870 he proposed to resign as Bishop of Perth to become the chaplain of an orphanage for Aboriginals which was threatened with closure after its supervisor fell ill. A deputation of over sixty gathered to persuade him to continue as bishop. Later he became the chairman of the Queensland Commission for the Protection of Aborigines.
There is, of course, much more to the book than I have indicated here, and even more to Hale himself. Gourlay focusses proportionally more upon Hale’s later Brisbane years (he was 64 when he left Perth), than upon the bulk of his Australian ministry which took place in South Australia and Western Australia, but this hardly mars the work. Gourlay says of this biography that he has ‘attempted to bring the life and work of a truly good and faithful servant of Jesus Christ and loyal member of the 19th century Anglican church in Australia to the knowledge of 21st century Christian disciples.’ (p ix), and this is an excellent aim well carried out. The book is pretty well designed and well produced, and has plenty of supplementary end matter. I read it to my profit.
Ben Underwood, Shenton Park, WA
Book Review: Ezra & Nehemiah: Walking in God’s Words
- Written by: Wei-Han Kuan
Ezra & Nehemiah: Walking in God’s Words, Peter Adam (Aquila, 2014) ISBN 9781925041187
Why read Ezra & Nehemiah? Why read whole books of the Bible as they have come to us through history and tradition and the sovereign guiding hand of God? Why (as the Prayer Book enjoins us to do) read, mark, learn and inwardly digest all of the Scriptures – and not just our favourite selections?
This new book by Peter Adam gives us the answer. This book gives great help and encouragement. It does so all the way through the book, but it also starts as it intends to continue. In the six short pages of chapter one, Peter offers us brief but pointed, theologically-insightful and pastorally-helpful reasons for keeping on reading whole books of the Bible – like Ezra-Nehemiah. It’s a chapter well worth presenting again and again to maturing disciples as we encourage them to love - to read, mark, and learn - whole books of the Bible.
But perhaps we don't need all that much encouragement to get into Ezra & Nehemiah. Anyone who has been part of a church with a building programme has probably sat through a sermon series in these books – I know I have! The narrative is so rich in detail and interesting!:- benevolent Cyrus, returning exiles, the prayerful administratively-able leader, turning hearts and hands back to God, willing followers and co-workers, opposition and defensive tactics, the organised building plan. Its richness leads to the common temptation to preach these books as a kind of ‘how to’ manual and model. ‘How to successfully execute a church building programme’, or, ‘How to build a church wall – especially around the pesky youth group’.
What Peter does in this book is to examine all that rich detail, but within its richer historical and theological context. He thus drives our reflection, our appreciation and our ultimate application deeper in and further on. He does this consistently in every chapter, but let me highlight two in particular.
When I go shopping for a commentary one of the things I do is zero in on the troublesome passages. That’s often a litmus test for the quality of the rest of the commentary. How does this commentator deal with the difficult bits like the warning passages in Hebrews, the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2, anything in Revelation after chapter three? How does this book deal with the putting away of the Gentiles wives in Ezra 9-10?
Peter’s pastoral gifts come to the fore here. The relevant chapter of the book is entitled, ‘First Sins’, and there he highlights the significance of ‘first sins’ in the Bible, and, by implication, in us. Peter rightly calls the reader to develop our cross-cultural sensitivities. He notes that today we are particularly attuned against racism and towards individual choice in marriage. So to read Ezra & Nehemiah in our context means we need to work hard to understand their 6th century BC culture: in particular, the place of marriage in relation to corporate worship, religious syncretism and the corporate leadership of the people of God. Or, if you’re married today: what does your marriage have to do with church worship, with wholehearted devoted faith in Christ, and with your church’s leadership?
The Israelites put away their Gentile wives. How can that be right? What about the kids? Who paid their monthly maintenance? Peter’s handling of this tricky issue is considered, pastoral, biblically-informed, makes God the rightful hero of the narrative, set in the context of a deep concern for the honouring of both God’s Word and God’s people then and now, and gives the reader eminently helpful advice about marriage and holiness for today. All that packed succinctly into one chapter.
A second highlight revolves around a second tricky issue. How does Peter deal with Nehemiah’s repeated refrain at the end of the book for the Lord to remember him, and his deeds? Will Peter agree or disagree with Don Carson’s assessment that this marks Nehemiah – great and prayerful leader as he was – as ultimately still a person who didn’t get grace, and hence is another Old Testament pointer towards our need for the greatest leader and rescuer of all, the Lord Jesus?
What Peter does here is typical of him and his long ministry among us but sadly atypical among many Christians today. Peter reflects theologically and pastorally, within a robust biblical framework, on the repeated prayer. He draws our attention to additional evidence in Ezra & Nehemiah, in the minor prophets, indeed in the whole body of Scripture, Old and New Testaments. And then he drives it all home by applying his findings to our prayers and our relating to God today. This is very helpful stuff: for understanding the chapter, and for understanding how to work through difficult Bible passages.
The great achievement in this book, and indeed of the series itself, is that it condenses so much in so little. It does not aim to be a rigorously academic commentary, but this does not mean it lacks intellectual or theological clout. There’s a clear overview of the text, right attention to particular parts that need more detailed explanation, a firm focus on context and overall theme and purpose, informed and engaging theological reflection, and pastorally-helpful and challenging application.
It is not a simple thing to include so much value in such a small package. We should be grateful for this particular fruit of Peter’s labour – and take full advantage of it. It’s a valuable resource for when your church comes to this preaching series, full of solid food for preachers, every small group leader and every keen Bible reader.
Wei-Han Kuan is the State Director of CMS Victoria
Book Review: True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality
- Written by: Peter Adam
True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality. Allan Chapple Latimer, 2014. ISBN 9781906327279
Allan Chapple has written an excellent study of what is commonly called ‘the Christian life’, or ‘spirituality’, or, ‘the devotional life’.
The title of Allan’s book is True Devotion: In Search of Authentic Spirituality, and it is one of a series of Latimer Briefings, published by the Latimer Trust in England.
While much writing and speaking on this topic drives an artificial and ungodly wedge between head, heart and hand, Allan follows the Bible in refusing to separate them. We can distinguish between them, but must not separate them. So Allan’s quest is for true devotion, as well as for authentic spirituality, and devotion which transforms our lives.
In Part 1 he describes gospel spirituality as responsive to God’s word and work, paradoxical in living out the tensions of time, focus, death and life, and the already and the not yet. Then too gospel spirituality is relational, expressed in faith, love and hope, and expressed from our hearts, that is, from the core of ourselves.
In Part 2 Allan tackles a common expression of spirituality, that of mysticism, whether in its Protestant, Quaker, Catholic or Charismatic expressions. Here he provides a clarifying perspective on a complex topic, and helpfully points to all the relevant issues.
In Part 3 Allan describes the Biblical view of meditation, that is, meditation on the words and works of God. As he points out, Bible reading and prayer are not enough: we must practise Biblical meditation, so that we are not only informed but also nourished and transformed by God.
Here Allan provides the most positive way forward for those whose spirituality is often separated from the Bible, and also for those whose reading of the Bible is only intellectual, clarificatory, and disconnected from their inner selves, their emotions, or their actions. He wants to encourage a form of Biblical meditation which revels in the meaning of Scripture, and which also reads and engages deeply with the drama, the emotion, the power, and the practicality of God’s words.
In his words: “Meditating on Scripture….enables me to appropriate and absorb what the Bible says in a manner that makes it more personal and me more prayerful…it leads me to a heartfelt response to what the Bible teaches me. It makes me more prayerful by giving me lots of reasons for turning to God with thanksgiving and requests” [pp. 219-20].
Through all this, Allan provides useful and memorable insights from the saints of former days, and these greatly enrich his writing, and help us to focus on key issues and practices.
In my opinion the valuable insights of this book also need to be applied to the corporate life [the body-life] of the church. This would reflect the Biblical pattern of corporate spirituality, found so clearly in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, in many of the Psalms, in Colossians, and in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Communal spirituality has a big impact on every believer: we are shaped by the churches we belong to. While the Bible does describe personal spirituality, its greater focus is on the spiritual welfare of God’s people, and Christ’s church. The insights that Allan gives us could be applied just as significantly to our churches, and to the shape and content of our meetings or services. We need to hear the Bible read in our services, and then our preachers should help us meditate together on the words of Scripture
we have heard, and then turn our meditation to prayer and practise in our corporate life.
This book is deeply enriched by Allan’s theological, pastoral, and personal experience, and this experience is useful for others because it is so deeply shaped by the Bible.
I recommend this book very highly: it would benefit a young Christian, as it would benefit a seasoned believer. It would be useful as a discussion book for a small group or church book club. And it will not only help us in our own life with God, but also help us to encourage others as well.
Peter Adam, Carlton Vic.
Book Review: Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times
- Written by: Ben Sm art
Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. Os Guinness; IVP 2014. ISBN 9780830836710
In Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, Os Guinness grapples with questions surrounding the decline of the church in the West and whether or not there is hope for a renewal of vital Christian faith. Drawing upon biblical truth, keen cultural insight, and an extensive knowledge of church history, Guinness' response to these questions is marked by both a profound and confident hope, and at the same time a thoughtful and cautioned realism.
In the first chapter, our attention is brought to the decline of the Christian faith in the West. Churches are emptying in droves. Cultural captivity and worldliness are rampant even in the churches that remain. Many claim that modernity has dealt Christianity a death-blow. And even though the church in the Global South is exploding, why should they fare any better when the tide of modernity reaches their shores?
In response to this bleak and discouraging picture, Guinness affirms that we do indeed have real reason to have hope in a Christian renaissance. By this he is not referring to the 15th century Renaissance, but simply the revival of vital Christian faith. Whether you call it revival, renewal, rebirth, renaissance (the French word for 'rebirth'), or whatever else, Guinness argues that the character of God, the nature of the Kingdom, and the experience of church history all suggest that the current decline of the Church in the West should not be interpreted as its death throes.
He quotes G. K. Chersterton, who noted, “at least five times... the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died.”
Guinness builds a convincing case that it is not only possible and realistic for Christians to hope in a Christian renaissance, it is also necessary for us to do so, and to work towards it.
So how does he suggest we work for revival?
He is quick to point out that the work of revival is ultimately God's work.
But he is also careful to show that throughout the Bible, God's sovereignty never justifies our passivity. God is in control, but we are still responsible. And so while we must recognise that only God can bring about spiritual revival, we must at the same time roll up our sleeves and get to work.
He argues that cultural influence is a by-product of Christians faithfully living out our callings, following Jesus, and being “in the world but not of the world.” This is a well-trodden saying, but Guinness argues for its value and relevance in a persuasive way.
While Renaissance is a book marked by confident hope, it is anything but naïve. Guinness demonstrates a well-grounded realism. As one example of this, he cautions against looking back to any time in history – whether it be the New Testament era, the time of the Patriarchs, or the Reformation – and thinking that that was the golden era to which we must return.
Guinness reminds us, with many historical examples, that no 'Christian culture' is perfect. So we should pray and work for Christian renaissance, but always recognise that our golden age is not behind us. It is ahead.
Only when Christ returns and consummates His perfect reign will we experience our golden age.
Until then, Guinness argues, it is our job to live faithful and godly lives, to engage lovingly and critically with our culture, and to pray for God to bring about renewal – because ultimately, it is His work.
Guinness brings us back to the essentials and gives us firm grounds to trust in God despite the languishing state of the Church in the West. My one criticism of Renaissance is the lack of positive historical examples of Christians engaging their culture in the way that Guinness describes.
There were a plethora of examples throughout history where the church has failed to engage with the broader culture and become secularised. These were helpful warnings, but the absence of any positive examples of Christians engaging culture was sorely lacking. This would have provided a helpful point of reflection, encouragement, and application for the Christian reader.
On the whole, however, I would commend Renaissance warmly, especially to those disillusioned by the
state of the church in the West. A great read.
Ben Smart, Shenton Park WA