Saturday, 21 October 2017

Book Review: John Webster, God without Measure, Vol. II

John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume ii: Virtue and Intellect (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

In the second of his two-volume collection of essays entitled God without Measure, John Webster considers aspects of moral theology and the human intellect. There are chapters on the relation between Christology and ethics; on matters such as dignity, mercy, sorrow, and courage; on the importance of mortification and vivification; on speech; on the intellectual life and intellectual patience; and on the place of theology as a university discipline. Each chapter is paradigmatic of Webster’s careful approach to crafting theology, redolent of earlier systematicians, and especially of Thomas Aquinas, whose influence is particularly noticeable. The effect of Webster’s writing is to lead the attentive reader closer to the triune God of Christian confession.

And judging by the topics addressed, such proximity to God is surely what Webster intends to foster. God without Measure ii is not a treatment of contemporary ethical issues from a Christian perspective, but an invitation to contemplate a properly theological account of creaturely life and activity—that is, an account founded on and resourced by God, the source of all being. Thus creaturely dignity (Chapter 3) is secured by God’s love for the creature, and courage (Chapter 6) arises from an assurance of God’s promises of good for the creature. Webster’s point is that an awareness of how to live and act aright can only be derived from a gospel-shaped consideration of God, and of God’s dealings with the world.

As with the first volume, God without Measure ii consists mostly of papers that are published elsewhere; this, along with its price, may have an impact on the desirability of the book. Also, as engaging as Webster’s style is, these essays require particularly focused attention, as his approach is more concerned to elucidate the theological principles underlying creaturely being and action than to provide examples of good ethical practice, and today’s activists and pragmatists are sure to be frustrated at times. Regardless, established scholars, postgraduate students, and advanced undergraduates and ministers are unlikely to deny the worth of Webster’s deliberations here.

This review was originally published in Theological Book Review 27:2 (2016), pp. 51–52

Friday, 13 October 2017

Book Review: John Webster, God without Measure, Vol. I

John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology. Volume i: God and the Works of God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016)

God without Measure i is the first of a two-volume collection of essays on Christian theology by John Webster. The essays are grouped into two parts. Part i is entitled ‘God in himself’, and here Webster examines theology proper – the life of the triune God, the importance of the Son’s eternal generation, the place of Christology in systematic theology, and an examination of the Christology of the letter to the Hebrews. In Part ii, ‘God’s Outer Works’, Webster focuses on creation, God’s relation to creation, and essential doctrines such as soteriology and ecclesiology.

Throughout, Webster is concerned to emphasise that any doctrine starting from the works of God rather than from God in se is likely to generate a host of unnecessary theological problems that only a return to theology proper can resolve. Thus Webster starts each of his doctrinal examinations first by attending to the triune God from whom all things have come, and to whom all things are ordered. In this, the influence of Thomas Aquinas on Webster’s contemplations is hard to deny, as is that of Augustine, John Calvin, and Karl Barth. But the voice pervading these essays is unmistakably Webster’s, and those already appreciative of his prior publications will likely welcome these carefully nuanced contributions.

It should be noted that most of the papers have seen print elsewhere; only the first and third chapters are original to this volume. While it is genuinely helpful to have some of Webster’s finest essays in one place, the fact remains that God without Measure i is an expensive book for an individual scholar to buy if all s/he requires are the two previously unpublished articles on the matter of Christian theology and eternal generation. Also, the nature of this volume as a collection of previously published self-contained pieces means that there is some repetition between the chapters – though the consistency of Webster’s thought soon becomes apparent. Established scholars, postgraduate students, and advanced undergraduates and ministers should all find much of value in this book.

This review was originally published in Theological Book Review 27:1 (2016), pp. 50–51

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review: Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth

I’ve been contributing reviews to Theological Book Review for a number of years now. Sadly, the publication shall soon cease. But I have obtained permission to reproduce my TBR book reviews, including this one (which will probably see print in 2018), on Sacred Wrightings.

Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2017; originally published by Cascade Books, 2015)

The instructions on orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 11–14 contain some of the most contested passages in the New Testament. These passages relate to head coverings (1 Cor. 11:2-16), to glossolalia and prophecy (1 Cor. 14:20-25), and to women’s silence (1 Cor. 14:33b-36). Whereas many scholars resort to interpretative gymnastics to reconcile ostensibly contradictory positions in these passages, Lucy Peppiatt employs a simpler approach: these controversial texts include the Corinthians’ own stances on these issues (found in 1 Cor. 11:4-5b, 7-10, 14, and 14:21-22, 34-35), which Paul is quoting in order to refute.

Peppiatt’s argument assumes that 1 Corinthians is in fact part of a wider epistolary conversation between Paul and the Corinthian church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-11), and that the Corinthian leadership would recognise Paul’s citations of its own slogans. It also presumes that this leadership consists of ‘a group of spiritually gifted and highly articulate male teachers who were both overbearing and divisive’ (p. 10), and who desire to promote themselves at the expense of other members in the church community. Thus Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 11–14 are designed to encourage humility, unity, and equality for all worshippers, regardless of gender, class, or giftedness.

Throughout, Peppiatt attends closely to the phrasing of the texts and the implied theology of different readings. She interacts judiciously with the more traditional interpretations in order to explain where they are lacking in coherence, and illustrates how her approach to 1 Corinthians makes sense of the theology in Paul’s other letters. Arguably, more space should have been given to the idea that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a later interpolation and not a citation; I suspect that textual criticism plays a far more important role in understanding these texts than Peppiatt perhaps admits. But the thrust of Peppiatt’s argument is persuasive and intelligently addresses many contemporary liturgical and pastoral concerns. Women and Worship at Corinth is essential reading, especially for anyone engaged in Pauline studies and/or involved in church leadership.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

What the Woman Said

It’s sometimes pointed out that the woman/Eve embellished the Lord God’s command not to eat of the tree of good and evil (Gen. 3:3; cf. 2:17); but all’s not as it seems.

First, the Lord God issued this command to the man/Adam before Eve was created. Thus, Eve presumably heard the command from Adam. But, secondly, this does not necessarily mean that Eve misinterpreted what Adam said, or that she added to what Adam had told her. It is quite possible that Adam himself misinterpreted what the Lord God commanded. On this account, it means that what Eve says to the serpent is entirely accurate—she is faithfully reproducing what Adam had communicated. And it should be noted, thirdly, that the text of Genesis 2–3 itself doesn’t appear to condemn this one way or the other. If the narrative flow of Genesis 3 is taken seriously, then sin enters the world only once Eve and Adam have both eaten the forbidden fruit: ‘she took of its fruit and ate; . . . her husband . . . ate. Then . . .’ (Gen. 3:6-7, my emphasis)

It seems to me that the Genesis text doesn’t make any comment about the misstated command. But this suggests that mishearings, misinterpretations, differences of opinion, and so on, aren’t sinful in and of themselves. The problems arise when such misinterpretations go unchallenged (Adam’s passivity in Genesis 3:1-7, perhaps) and are given enough credence to mutate into disobedience and disorder. This is what happens in Genesis 3—but I don’t think it has anything to do with Eve’s embellishment of the Lord God’s command.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Men are in Control: Women and Worship at Corinth

Another Sunday for the ladies at the First Church of Corinth

I’ve just finished reading Lucy Peppiatt’s Women and Worship at Corinth, which I shall be reviewing for Theological Book Review. Towards the end of the book, in the concluding chapter, Peppiatt summarises:

Paul addresses a number of problems in the public worship [at Corinth]. The first is that women are being made to veil when praying or prophesying, and being made to do so in a coercive manner. The second is that the men that Paul is addressing are behaving selfishly and greedily at the Lord’s Supper. The third is that the Corinthians (or some of them) are exercising spiritual gifts in an unloving and unhelpful way, possibly preventing others from taking part in bringing prophetic words, hymns, and revelations to the gathering, acting independently, or ignoring some parts of the body. The fourth is that the “spiritual” tongues speakers have implemented a strange practice of babbling in tongues all at once on the grounds that this is a powerful witness to unbelievers. The fifth is that they are subjecting married women to remaining silent. We know that he thought that their meetings were doing more harm than good. The section on worship [1 Cor. 11–14] includes at its heart 1 Corinthians 12:31b—13:13, in which Paul describes the “more excellent way,” the way of love, which must underpin all Christian worship and life together lest the church become a discordant and harsh noise to those around it. It begins and ends with two passages on the treatment of women in public worship. Traditionally, these have been read as Paul endorsing some sort of repressive or constraining practices in relation to women for the sake of propriety. I contend, however, that he is saying the opposite, and freeing women from these very practices. If this is true, then, interestingly, Paul begins and ends his section on public worship by addressing the oppression of women, and coming out as strongly as possible against it.

Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2017; originally published by Cascade Books, 2015), p. 135; cf. pp. 10–11

Peppiatt contends that the Corinthian church was effectively dominated by a certain type of authoritarian Alpha-male Christian leader:

[Scholars ask us] to imagine all kinds of scenarios in order to make sense of Paul’s thought, but all are predicated on the assumption that it is the women [at Corinth] who are rebellious and noncompliant. I question, however, whether it really is easier to imagine a group of wild and rebellious women who are so uncontrollable that they need the intervention of the apostle than it is to imagine the existence of a group of spiritually gifted and highly articulate male teachers who were both overbearing and divisive men. I propose that in a relentlessly patriarchal society, it is more plausible to believe the latter might be the case, that under the men’s influential leadership, certain oppressive practices had been implemented, and other destructive and selfish practices had remained unchallenged. (p. 10).

According to Peppiatt’s argument, the sections in 1 Corinthians 11–14 that appear to sanction the silencing of women and other liturgical oddities (11:4-5b, 7-10, 14; 14:21-22, 34-35) are in fact Paul’s quotations from the Corinthian church’s male leaders, reproduced in order to be refuted. I find Peppiatt’s claims more than feasible.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Struggle: Twice-Shy Christlikeness

Facebook has revealed I posted this eight years ago today (i.e., in 2009). I don’t think I’m currently in whatever place I was in when I wrote this, but I think there’s some redeemable stuff in here all the same.

To both of my regular readers, I apologise for not posting much recently. I think acedia has taken hold.

Anyway, as someone who is still trying to work through issues of anger, I found Angela’s post on anger and forgiveness interesting. And I found especially interesting her inference that having to forgive someone something heinous places an intolerable burden on the one who forgives, thus making that person ‘a victim twice over’.

Christians are ‘supposed to’ forgive, I’m sure... but it’s not easy. When forgiveness is offered, there is always the possibility that the forgiveness will be rejected (‘Why are you forgiving me? What have I done?’). But forgetting what has been done, as in ‘forgiving and forgetting’ - well, this is near impossible, especially for those of us who are ‘once bitten, twice shy’. As Angela intimates, is the victim really ‘supposed’ to subject him- or herself to yet another punishment?

The trouble is, is forgiveness something that we as members who supposedly live as a community, the community of the local church, really understand? Or are we too bogged down trying to live ‘Christian’ lives that we forget that living a ‘Christian’ life is pointless when ‘Christian’ is merely equated with ‘being nice’. I don’t want to live a ‘Christian’ life, because that would mean nothing more than tutting and moaning about the state of the nation, sort of like the way The Daily Mail does. Instead, I want to live a Christlike life; but I’m struggling.

And so my struggles with anger, resentment, fear, and all those kinds of negative emotions that Christians aren’t ‘supposed’ to have are irrelevant to those who think the Christian life is a matter of technique; that the Christian life is not a life of discipline, but of mastery and control. Legalism thus rears its beautiful head: You have been sinned against, but you must forgive, lest God will not forgive you. Great. Where’s the grace that accepts I’m struggling? Where’s the love that will not judge me while I work through my various issues?

It’s easy to talk about love, and I know I struggle to love my fellow Christians a lot of the time. But sometimes it really does feel that I’m the only one who struggles: to forgive, to keep calm, to love, to live a life worthy of my calling.

Reading through this post to this point makes me think that I’m whinging - something that I am prone to do. But there’s something a bit more pointed here, too: What’s our ecclesiology? How do we truly understand the community of the local church? And what is the place of the negative within that, even as each member strives to embody Christ in his or her life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? How do we embody forgiveness when smouldering, when struggling? These are questions to which I don’t have the answer. And I suspect there is no answer.

Friday, 8 September 2017

On Stabbing Elephants from Underneath

It gladdens the heart that the Church of England permits the reading of the Apocrypha ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’ (Article VI of The Thirty-nine Articles), otherwise this powerful passage from 1 Maccabees would go unruminated:

Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the animals [elephants] was taller than all the others and was equipped with royal armour. He figured that the king must be on it. . . . He ran courageously into the midst of a group of soldiers to reach it, killing men right and left so that they had to give way to him on both sides. He got under the elephant and stabbed it from underneath. He killed it, but it fell to the ground on top of him, and he died there. (1 Maccabees 6:43, 45-46).

My only question is: Is this a recommendation or a warning?

Monday, 4 September 2017

Hunting for Heresy in All the Wrong Places

The Revd Orson Portendorfer
The Old Rectory
Rectory Road
Smedley Netherwick
SP87 9TH

Dear Mr Portendorfer

My family and I very much enjoyed worshipping with you at St Corpulent’s this past Sunday while visiting incarcerated relatives in the area. We were especially heartened and welcomed by your churchwarden, Algernon, who ensured our pew was wiped clean of bat droppings and cobwebs. And I am grateful you did not scold my teenage son too harshly for his sniggering while you preached on Ezekiel 23. I suspect I am not alone in wondering why you decided to include PowerPoint slides for this particular sermon, but I do not feel the need to question you on this matter.
However, I do feel the need to question you on another matter, namely, the bread chosen for the Eucharist. I regard myself as a connoisseur when it comes to bread—I have been recognised by the industry for my discerning palate—and I could not help but notice that the bread used in the Eucharist was Kingsmill 50/50 (or perhaps Hovis Best of Both; my palate is not that discerning). I do not need to make explicit the Christological deficiencies that such a decision promulgates and trust that you will ensure that the ‘yeast’ of this particular heresy will not give rise to others.

Yours in Him,

Mr Noel Dankworth
Bandley Danoff

Monday, 28 August 2017

Job’s Three Friends, Ethical Issues, and our Guiding Metaphors for God

Here’s a quotation from David Atkinson about Job’s three friends, taken from a wider passage that I thought very interesting:

All [of Job’s friends] have begun with their conception of God, and all have moved on to the practical implications of their view of God for this pastoral need [i.e., Job’s plight]. And they are different. That seems to be of very significant pastoral importance. The picture we have of God, and the metaphors that guide our understanding of him are crucially important in the way we frame the moral and pastoral questions which confront us. If with Eliphaz we think of God primarily as holy, we will approach the pastoral situation in one way. If with Bildad we begin with God’s justice, we will approach it another way. If, with Zophar, God’s omniscience is the major theme, our approach will be different yet again. . . .
Our guiding metaphors for God dictate the ways our moral and pastoral questions are framed. If we begin with God as Creator and law-giver we may find ourselves talking mostly about obedience to divine commands, about sin and the need for repentance. If our starting-point is the compassion of God the Redeemer, we may see moral issues in terms of falling short of divine ideals and the journey of faith. If our starting-point is the love of God, we may primarily stress a personalistic ethic and the need for mutual acceptance and understanding. Many participants in various debates about personal morality, for example, never really engage with one another because their starting-points are different, and they are facing in different directions. The moral and pastoral conclusions we come to will depend to a very large degree on the guiding metaphors for God with which we start.

David Atkinson, The Message of Job: Suffering and Grace. The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP, 1991), pp. 61–62

This is stating the obvious, I know, but the various ethical quandaries currently being debated in the Church of England and other denominations are unlikely to be resolved until the various parties involved are able to reflect on their guiding metaphors for God and how these affect their various interpretations of human experience and biblical texts. Where are the forums for these sorts of discussions?