Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Theology for Beginners: Four New and Recent Books

As a significant proportion of my work involves teaching theology in non-university settings and marking higher education essays at UK qualification levels four to six, I’m always on the lookout for helpful introductions to theology that may benefit students new to the discipline. Here are four I’ve come across in recent months.

Keith L. Johnson, Theology as Discipleship (London: IVP, 2016)

My relationship with theology is not quite love/hate, but I often wonder why I bother with it. I’m convinced about the subject’s worth in my own mind but dislike having to defend it before people who aren’t. Keith Johnson is well aware of this conundrum and so aims to explain why studying theology is an important aspect of Christian discipleship. Theology as Discipleship is not an introduction to theology as such but an outline of why we (should) do it.

Karin Spiecker Stetina, How to Read Theology for All Its Worth: A Guide for Students (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020)

How to Read Theology for All Its Worth stands ‘in the tradition of’ (says the book cover) How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Karin Stetina emphasises the need for theological study to be rooted in prayer and Scripture and aims to identify the skills necessary for people to become good theologians, especially anyone setting out on a formal course of theological study. Chapters address handling publishing details, identifying context, discerning theological frameworks, discovering sources, discerning the author’s views, and evaluating theology. Stetina includes six appendices and a glossary; among the appendices are outlines on how to lead and participate in theological discussions.

Graham McFarlane, A Model for Evangelical Theology: Integrating Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience, and Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020)

The model Graham McFarlane proposes is what he calls the ‘Evangelical Quintilateral’ (an extension of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral): Scripture, tradition, reason, experience – and community. McFarlane devotes a substantial chapter to each of these elements, and each chapter includes ‘pauses’ (asking questions) and closes with suggestions for further reading. Of the four books I’m featuring in this post, it’s McFarlane’s that would work best as a class textbook.

Geoff Thompson, Christian Doctrine: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark, 2020)

Christian Doctrine is not an introduction to theology or to specific doctrines but rather an introduction to what doctrine is – and because the book explores the concept of doctrine in relation to Scripture, ideas about truth, other disciplines, and so on, undergraduates and postgraduates alike will find reading this book worthwhile. Geoff Thompson draws from a wide range of theologians: the usual suspects (e.g., Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth) are here, but Thompson also includes, among others, Catherine of Siena, Sarah Coakley, Elizabeth A. Johnson, K. H.Ting, Wang Weifan, M. M. Thomas, Megan DeFranza, and Teresa Okure, making Christian Doctrine a model for how to write theology in our more globally aware age.

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Doing Theology in the Tradition of the Wesleys, by Jane V Craske (Grove Doctrine D5)

Jane V Craske, Doing Theology in the Tradition of the Wesleys. Grove Doctrine D5 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2020)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

The Grove Books website says ‘we are evangelical and Anglican, and seek to engage with, learn from and speak to others.’ I can’t speak for every series in the Grove Books range, but this desire to ‘engage with, learn from and speak to others’ is certainly true for Grove Doctrine: three of the six titles published so far are written by Methodists, and one of the others was written by an Anglican (me!) who nonetheless worked as part of the Methodist Church of Great Britain’s Connexional Team for exactly ten years. Perhaps like the denomination itself in many local communities, Methodism has a subtle but sure influence on the Grove Doctrine series.

Jane Craske’s Doing Theology in the Tradition of the Wesleys is an explicit look at what Methodism contributes theologically – or, putting it differently, on what theological priorities the Church catholic can find in Methodism for its own practices. Arguably, Doing Theology is best summed up by this lengthy quotation from towards the end of the book:

I describe the characteristics I draw together here as engaged theology. I have drawn from the Wesleys, in particular, a pattern of doing theology that focuses on what God does in human lives and in the world, through Jesus Christ, in response to what needs to change (the story of salvation). It is a theology that emphasizes, within that overall focus, the continuing transforming change that God brings about (holiness), without setting limits to it. Doing theology in the tradition of the Wesleys means giving attention to how all this is communicated, to whom and by whom (from Wesleyan preaching). We will need a holistic sense of theology that includes physicality, emotion, celebration (such as in singing), as well as nurture and the development of disciples (moving on together). We will have to attend to context, to the heart and the head, and to what disciples do. And theology will be done, as a practice, in community. (p. 25)

This book is ideal for anyone interested in what theology is and how it is practised, but perhaps especially for those who are involved in some form of Methodist ministry, including local preachers, worship leaders, and persons ‘on note’ and ‘on trial’.

Doing Theology is available for £3.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Creation and Ecology, by Joanna Leidenhag (Grove Doctrine D4)

Joanna Leidenhag, Creation and Ecology: Why the Doctrine of Creation ex nihilo Matters Today. Grove Doctrine D4 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2020)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

Creation ex nihilo, or creation from nothing, is a touchstone of Christian doctrine. It is not merely a description of how the universe came into being, however; it has much to contribute, too, to how we view God’s ongoing relation to the world, as well as humanity’s relation to God and to other creatures. In Creation and Ecology, Joanna Leidenhag teases out some implications creation from nothing has for ecological ethics.

In the opening chapter, Leidenhag acknowledges Christianity’s ambivalent role in creation care but contends its doctrine of creation from nothing, properly understood, can do much to shape our attitudes to the world. Chapter two discusses Genesis 1:1–2:4a and shows why theology and modern science are not in competition with one another. In chapter three, Leidenhag largely explores how the doctrine of creation from nothing developed from Scripture in the second century ad in dispute with contemporary philosophies. The ideas which came to be encapsulated in the phrase ‘creation ex nihilo’ are:

the identity of the one God as both creator and saviour; the sovereignty of God as unlimited in power; the goodness of creation; the dependency of all creation on God; and the hope that all creation will be redeemed. (p. 16)

The fourth and final chapter explores how these ideas affect creation care:

The doctrine of creation ex nihilo underlines how humanity’s power is different from and relies upon God’s power. When we use our creativity and resources in line with God’s, then creation flourishes. (p. 19)

Discerning the presence of God in the city and the jungle, the abattoir and sanctuary, will change how we live, work and rest alongside other creatures. Viewing space as a network of relationships can make us more sensitive to how human activities can be either invasive or cooperative to other creatures. (p. 21)

According to the creation ex nihilo doctrine there is one ultimate distinction in reality—between God and creation. . . . Humanity is not closer to God than an earthworm or eel. As Creator of all, God is equally close to every creature and lovingly holds each one in existence. (p. 21)

Fossil fuels, cities, rising temperatures or plastic are not evil in and of themselves. Instead, these are symptoms of a world out of balance and signs that in a network of interdependence one creature is trying to be independent of all others. (p. 22)

The Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo directly links the first creation to the hope for new creation, because there is one God who is both creator and saviour. (p. 23)

Christian environmental action is a way to participate in the gift of creation and respond to the grace of God. (p. 24)

The God who made this universe from nothing, sustains its being in every moment, and is intimately present in every millimetre of the cosmos, will redeem and heal the evil consequences of human activity. . . . God invites us, as created beings whose existence depends on God and God alone, to join in this great work of grace. (p. 24)

Creation and Ecology is available for £3.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops. Click here for Leidenhag’s interview on her book with the Logos Institute.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Shepherd and Saviour – The Name of Jesus: A Sermon on John 10:11-18 and Acts 4:5-12

I preached again yesterday, this time using the lectionary readings. As interesting as I found the passages when I began digging into them, I just couldn’t do anything substantial with them. The sermon below is probably the least satisfied I’ve been with a sermon for quite some time – even my wife said it wasn’t ‘all that meaty’! And regardless of substance, I’m not even convinced it’s especially coherent or that it holds together even at the level of grammar and punctuation! Anyway, I’m still posting the text: not only does it mean my blog remains active (!), but it also shows (perhaps) my willingness to invite (kind) critical comments in an attempt to improve my homiletical abilities.

John 10:11-18; Acts 4:5-12

https://charlies-names.com/en/terry/
Hello, everyone: my name is Terry. Not ‘Terence’; ‘Terry’. It says so on my birth certificate. The name ‘Terry’ apparently originates from Old German and means ‘power of the tribe’ or ‘ruler of the people’. I don’t suppose my parents had such lofty ambitions for me when they named me ‘Terry’, but I couldn’t say this for sure, and they’re not around any more to ask. In fact, I vaguely remember being told that ‘Terry’ was a last-minute change: I was originally going to be called ‘Barry’. I don’t know why my parents changed their minds and, like I say, they’re not around any more to ask. And so I stand here before you today as Terry: husband of Ruth, father of Isaac, son of Elaine and David.

Names are important. At a very basic level, names are simply ways of referring to particular people or places or things. But names often frame our identities, who we are, and our identities are sometimes rooted in our names. Telling someone our name is in some respects an act of revelation: we are telling someone who we are, who we recognise ourselves to be: I am Terry – not ‘Barry’, not ‘Optimus’, not ‘Anakin’, and, once my life story is taken into account, a particular ‘Terry’ at that. By letting you know my name, I’m saying this is how I want you to know me, this is how I want you to address me, and you need my permission and approval if you want to call me by another name.

There are situations, of course, where this doesn’t happen. Cast your mind back to when we were going through Daniel. Daniel and his friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, were taken captive by the Babylonians and given new names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These four men from Judah were given new names showing they were now going to be defined primarily by the Babylonian Empire, by its culture and politics. I’m not absolutely certain, but I believe similar things have happened to enslaved peoples throughout history: empires move in and shape colonies in the image of the homeland, including assigning different names to the indigenous peoples. And I suppose that, in the English-speaking world at least, many people whose birth names derive from non-Germanic languages feel obliged to change their names so they sound more agreeable to the dominant ethnicities.

And lest you think I’m reading too much into things here, let me say just one more thing on this: Think about a time when someone called you a name, when someone insulted you by using a name that put you down because of your skin colour, because of your height or your weight, because of a disability, your intelligence or your education, your upbringing, your job, whatever. How did you feel, being called by a name you didn’t or wouldn’t choose for yourself, a name intended to shame you or ridicule you, making you look small and pathetic in the eyes of others? How did you feel? Names are important.

This takes us, not too tenuously (I hope), to today’s reading from Acts and the council’s question, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ (4:7). The background to today’s reading and the council’s question is the healing of a man born lame. This man, at least in his forties (4:22), and who had never been able to walk, would sit outside the Jerusalem temple and beg for money. But the disciples, Peter and John, didn’t give him any money this time. Instead, Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk’ (3:6) – and the man stood up, began to walk around, leap about, and praise God, testing the legs that for so long had been mere attachments to his torso. I don’t suppose the sight of someone jumping around the temple was especially common, let alone of a man known for his inability to walk, and news of his healing quickly filtered through to the authorities. The next day, Peter and John and the previously lame man were standing – standing! – before the council to explain what had happened.

What was this council? At this stage in the history of Judaism, it was a formal group comprised of Jewish priests, lay leaders, and people trained to interpret the law of Moses. This is a crude and inexact analogy – and I’m trying to make a comparison without being snarky – but think of this council almost like a jury made from archbishops and bishops, public-schooled politicians and gentry, and government advisors and experts. This council was convened at short notice to ascertain precisely what happened to the man born lame, and to see what threat there might be to the beliefs and practices of Judaism; hence the question: ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’

The Bible translation we use perhaps gives the impression that the council simply wanted a chat with Peter and John and the man, but make no mistake: this was an interrogation, a pre-trial hearing, all to determine whether or not something sinister to Judaism was happening. I don’t know what was going on in the minds of the council’s members as they cross-examined the two disciples, but I can imagine that any member who was a Sadducee was feeling threatened. The Sadducees denied the possibility of resurrection, and so seeing a supposedly lame man jumping around the temple, and hearing Peter and John ascribe this strange phenomenon to a man who had been crucified not too long ago – well, I can imagine the Sadducees found themselves in the uncomfortable position where reality challenges one’s theology. As for the priests and the experts, maybe they were concerned about yet another challenge to their authority, and perhaps their social power, too. But while individual priests and experts in the law may have been corrupt or self-serving, we shouldn’t forget the actual roles were sanctioned by the law of Moses and other ancient texts, and many of the council’s members probably would have been jealous for the God of their ancestors in the face of some new power. ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’

Peter’s response is simple: ‘Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.’ (4:10).

The power belongs to Jesus, the name is Jesus Christ of Nazareth – or, better, the Messiah of Israel, who is Jesus from Nazareth. This name is important: the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘God saves’ (Matt. 1:21) and names a person recently crucified but who now, Peter says, but who now is raised from the dead: alive, transformed, resurrected. What’s more, says Peter, the fact that a previously lame man can now stand up and walk around and leap about is evidence the man named Jesus from Nazareth is alive. The fact that a man who once had never walked a single step in his life can now tear around the temple like a six-year-old playing football in a park should prove to the council that Jesus from Nazareth is alive and the Messiah of the God of Israel.

And lest the council be in any doubt: God’s Messiah has come, and the Messiah’s name is Jesus. This name ‘Jesus’ is the name by which and through which God makes God known to the world. The name ‘Jesus’ is the name given to the only human who reveals exactly what God is like, exactly who God is, and we can know this, says Peter, because Jesus had died and now lives his risen life at the side of his Father in heaven. This name ‘Jesus’ is not merely important, but all-important, because, as Peter concludes, ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ (4:12). Do not reject God or set yourself in opposition to God any longer, says Peter, but listen to God’s voice as spoken by the risen Jesus, and know God by the name of the person in whom God is revealed: Jesus.

Let’s move now, hopefully not too tenuously (again), to our Gospel reading from John. Here, Jesus names himself as ‘the good shepherd’ (10:11). Unlike bad shepherds (see Ezek. 34), unlike hired hands, the good shepherd is concerned for and protects the sheep in his care, even to the point of giving his life if necessary – though, of course, this would be rather extreme! I want to home in on verses fourteen to sixteen in particular, because in these verses are similar themes of listening to God and knowing God that I tried to draw out a moment ago from Acts 4. If names are important, telling others who we are and how we wish to be known, then what is Jesus saying by naming himself ‘the good shepherd’? How might Jesus’s words here encourage us and challenge us in equal measure? Here are some basic ideas to get us started.

First of all, Jesus says here that he knows his sheep and his sheep know him (10:14). This doesn’t really mean much more than the shepherd knows which sheep belong to the flock in his charge, and that the sheep recognise the shepherd as the one who is taking care of them. The encouragement here is that Jesus knows you and that, if you are already a follower of Jesus, you know him. The challenge here is not to follow any other shepherd. To continue the shepherding imagery, there will always be other shepherds, other people, who appear to have more food, more means of protection, more space to grow, but who ultimately are bad shepherds. The good shepherd is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.

Second, when Jesus says he knows his sheep and his sheep know him, he is not speaking merely of his awareness that the sheep exist, or that he knows how large his flock is. In an earlier part of this chapter we didn’t read today – thank you, lectionary! – Jesus says he calls his sheep by name (10:3): he knows each and every sheep in his flock, and each and every one of his sheep knows Jesus is their shepherd. And not only do the good shepherd and the sheep know one another, but Jesus says this knowledge between them is ‘just as’ that between Jesus and his Father (10:15). When Jesus says he knows his sheep and his sheep know him, and when Jesus says he knows the Father and the Father knows him, he presupposes a depth of knowledge and a level of intimacy that is hard to put into words and, it seems, can only be conveyed through the Word made flesh, that is, Jesus himself. And with this depth of knowledge and level of intimacy comes the possibility of truly hearing the words of God spoken with the voice of Jesus. The encouragement here is that this depth of knowledge and level of intimacy with God in the name of Jesus is available for us all: Jesus calls each of us by name. The challenge is to take the plunge and press on in our discipleship, living out the intimacy of our life with Jesus in front of everyone around us, just as Peter and John did.

Third, Jesus says he has ‘other sheep that do not belong to this fold’ (10:16). In context, Jesus means people who hadn’t been born Jews, that is, people from the nations who would hear and listen, really listen, to the good shepherd’s voice. And in hearing Jesus’s voice, and by listening to his words, these people would become part of the people of God for whom the shepherd would lay down his life. Each of us here today who confesses Jesus as Lord in some way has heard him call our name and responded in faith through the Holy Spirit. We have but one shepherd, we are part of the good shepherd’s flock, and we are drawn ever more deeply into the intimate relationship Jesus has with his Father. The encouragement here is that we are well-placed to hear what God is saying to the world and pass it on; we are well-placed to demonstrate God’s love for the world by speaking and acting in the name of the risen Jesus. The challenge, of course, is to admit we’d rather not.

Names are important. They tell others who we are and how we wish to be known. Our Bible readings today from John 10 and Acts 4 show that God, too, has given us the name by which God is known: Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, the good shepherd who took it up again as the Messiah of Israel and saviour of the world. And because we know Jesus as both saviour and shepherd, let’s listen to his voice and, by the Holy Spirit, do all we can to encourage and challenge one another to follow wherever he, and he alone, leads. There is, after all, no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.

Monday, 12 April 2021

Out Soon: Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume 4

I am pleased to see that the fourth and final book in William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action series is out soon – in just over a month, if the publishing schedule remains true. Judging by the contents page (see below), this is going to be an excellent book.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

New Testament Manuscripts and Classical Literature: Comparing the Numbers

There are charts available online and presumably elsewhere comparing the amount of New Testament manuscripts with certain other ancient texts (e.g. Caesar’s Gallic Wars). The purpose of these charts is to emphasise the New Testament’s trustworthiness: if we have no need to doubt the reliability of the Gallic Wars, the reasoning goes, then certainly we should have no need to question the New Testament, which is far better attested. The flip side of this, of course, is that if we doubt the authenticity of the New Testament, then we should doubt that of classical texts, too.

The problem here is that while the logic appears sound, the data used in the charts is often outdated. This means Christian educators and apologists relying on this data are in fact relying on false data to prove a point. In Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019), James B. Prothro contributes a chapter (‘Myths about Classical Literature’, pp. 70–89) in which he tackles how to compare the New Testament texts and classical literature responsibly. I don’t want to go into Prothro’s chapter in detail here—you should read his essay and the whole book if you can—but I do want to produce my own chart comparing the numbers. And I want to do this partly so I can have a quick reference point for my own occasional teaching, but also because Prothro himself doesn’t tabulate the data. However, for his numbers, Prothro appears to draw largely from an article by Clay Jones which does contain a chart.

The following table is essentially a version of Clay Jones’s one but with minor amendments drawn from Prothro’s essay, pp. 75–78. It’s the kind of chart that will need to be updated from time to time as new manuscript discoveries are made. Please do leave a comment if you know of any numbers that need to be taken into account here.

Author

Work

Date Written

Earliest Manuscripts

Time Gap (years)

Number of Manuscripts

Homer

Iliad

800 bc

c. 400 bc

400

1,757

Herodotus

History

480–425 bc

ad 100–200 fragments

c. 600

109

Plato

tetralogies

400 bc

895

1,300

210

Caesar

Gallic Wars

100–44 bc

9th century

950

251

Livy

History of Rome

59 bc—ad 17

early 5th century

400

150

Tacitus

Annals

ad 100

1st half: 850; 2nd half: 1050

750–950

2 + 31 (dated 15th century)

Thucydides

History

460–400 bc

3rd century bc

200

96

New Testament

 

ad 50–100

ad 130

40

5,795