BOOK REVIEWS

 

THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF GOD: One Being Three Persons, Thomas F Torrance, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1996, 260pp, ISBN 0-567-09741-2

PERSONS IN COMMUNION: Trinitarian Description and Human Participation, Alan J Torrance, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1996, 388pp, ISBN 0567 09740 4

We are publishing two reviews - one Catholic, one Evangelical - of these important books. One, David Moss on Persons in Communion, has already appeared (NEW DIRECTIONS, November 1996). The other, Robert Hannaford on The Christian Doctrine of God appears below. Here Tim Bradshaw reviews both books together. (AB)

BRITISH AND indeed world theology owes a huge debt to Professor Thomas Torrance, now retired from his chair in Edinburgh and one of the very few non-Orthodox theologians to have been accorded the honour by the Orthodox Church of being made a `proto-presbyter' in recognition of his work on the doctrine of the Trinity. Torrance's consistently high standard of theological scholarship has perhaps disguised the deep void of classical theology in England for decades. His latest work gives the reader once again his depth of patristic insight and determined exegesis of the divine life. This is an exercise in dogmatics, fides quaerens intellectum, unashamedly circular thinking which must revolve round the self-revealing God of Jesus. God is to be apprehended but cannot be comprehended in this mystery. The economic Trinitarian movement of God towards us, described evangelically, is distinguishable from the ontological Trinity, described theologically, but the two are fundamentally bonded as act to being. Already we detect the familiar guiding hand of Barth.

Athanasius also proves to be normative throughout the book, especially his homoousion, welding together divine being and revelation. Ousia, divine being, is the inward aspect of being, hypostatis, person, the external aspect. God is eternal communion, perichoretically mutual and self defining. God is for others in his very being, pouring himself out for us at Calvary in the hypostatis of the Son. Torrance is much more cautious about speaking of the passibility of God, preferring the patristic view that the Son did suffer humanly but that that is `intrinsically impossible, for in his own divine Nature he is not moved or swayed by anything other than himself or outside of himself' (p 248).

This will be a valuable refresher to the doctrine of the Trinity along classical Western lines to the many, we must hope, keen to return to the root doctrine of the faith. It is printed in rather small type, but its substance will help many preachers and teachers to re-appropriate this living doctrine.

Alan Torrance represents the next generation of the prolific theological family. Having taught in Erlangen, Aberdeen and Dunedin, he is now at King's London as Director of the Research Institute in Systematic Theology. This volume, printed in more user-friendly type, is a thorough revision of his thesis, but that fact should not alienate potential readers: it is not dressed up in the grey academic prose common to such works but it is easy to follow and accessible. This work complements that of Thomas Torrance in being more of an engagement with modern systematic theology and less rooted in the patristic era. Positions of the leading figures on the map are examined, while again the figure of Barth remains significant throughout. This is no bad thing since there is now a renaissance of appreciation for the work of the great Swiss dogmatician in this anti-enlightenment, post-modern era in which the story of Jesus Christ may be allowed to interpret itself.

Alan Torrance emerges as critical, however, of some aspects of Barth's revelational model of the Trinity and thinks that talk of community as a Trinitarian resolution of the problem of divine life does not properly fit Barth's line of theology. Moltmann's criticisms of Barth are adjudged to be mainly valid. As against the revelational model of the Trinitarian life, it is the author's view "that a `worship' or `communion' model is preferable", since it would better interpret the point contact between the divine and human, allowing a greater responsive human freedom room in the picture.

Zizioulas and Rahner are drawn interestingly into the discussion of the three-ness of the persons, and Zizioulas persuades this Torrance at any rate that communion is prior to revelation and that there is an integral relationship between truth and communion, persons disclose their being as truth as a mode of existence. The book finishes with a doxological emphasis woven into the need for semantic participation in the divine life.

This provides an accurate and thoughtful guide to key contemporary doctrinal reflection on the Trinity, much to be commended. Alan Torrance is surely correct to argue for a doxological stress, to complement that of revelation. Anglo-Saxon theology has been dominated by the epistemological problem and would do well to recover its sense of praise, wonder and worship of the holy God of Jesus: a note indeed which would healthily counterbalance the managerial, sociological and anthropocentric agendas obsessing the Church of England today.

Tim Bradshaw is Dean of Regent's Park College, Oxford.

THE CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE OF GOD, One Being Three Persons, Thomas F. Torrance, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1996, 260+xiipp, ISBN 0-567-09741-2

THERE IS undoubtedly a great deal of mistrust of professional theologians. Often as not, they are seen as a deeply sceptical bunch who care more about the academy than the Church and its faith. This, of course, is a caricature. Although some theologians - past and present stray far from the faith `once delivered to the apostles', the majority see their task as a vocation closely related to the Church's ministry of proclamation.

It might, then, come as something of a surprise to the non-theologian to learn that there has been a renaissance of trinitarian theology over the past fifty or so years. The origins of this lie in the work of such theologians as the great giant of modern protestant theology, Karl Barth, and the Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, whose work helped pave the way for the Second Vatican Council. Both lamented the demise of trinitarian theology during the preceding centuries and sought to recover the trinity as the heart of all Christian theology.

At the moment this revival of interest appears to be gathering pace, with more and more theologians producing books on the subject. This recovery has at least three important implications for theology. First, it reminds us that the gospel enshrines a unique message about the nature of God: Christians are not straightforward monotheists; they are trinitarian theists, celebrating a God whose very being is communion. Secondly, it focuses our attention on the trinitarian foundation of all Christian theology. God's trinitarian being is the ground and the substance of the gospel; he is for us what he is already in himself, and all theology has to be forged in the light of this central mystery of faith. Finally, and linked closely with this point, it represents a recovery of what Torrance terms the distinctive mind of the Catholic Church. Christian theology is an unfolding from this central point of reference or rule of faith.

All of these points and more are addressed in this major new study of trinitarian doctrine by Scotland's foremost living theologian. Central to Torrance's account is his belief that `God's being is not some abstract impersonal essence, but dynamic personal Being, for God is who he is in the Act of his revelation, and his Act is what it is in his Being' (p 4). This insight forms the basis of a detailed and scholarly unfolding of the rich edifice of trinitarian thought.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Although its complexity is entirely appropriate to the subject matter, it will limit the readership. However, if you already have a working knowledge of the development of trinitarian doctrine, then this will take you further and deepen your understanding.

Robert Hannaford is Senior Lecturer in theology at Christ Church College, Canterbury, and honorary assistant priest in the parish of Harbledown.

PRACTICAL THEOLOGY IN ACTION, Paul Ballard and John Pritchard, SPCK 1996, 186pp, pbk, ISBN 0-281-05012-0, 11.99.

WHEN WE teach pastoral theology at theological college or on ministerial training course, we are, I think, often trying to do two things. Both of them are, I would argue, equally important. First, we are informing the students about possible strategies, and the strengths and weaknesses of such strategies, in particular pastoral situations (e.g. ministry to the sick and dying, or the ministry of repentance and reconciliation). In an earlier age this was called `Pastoralia'. But secondly, we are trying to teach them to reflect theologically on the life of the Church as they find it in a variety of situations. It is the enabling of Christians to engage in that task of theological reflection that is the subject of this book. `Practical theology' is a term for this area of theology that has long been current in Scotland and is quite well-established in North America. There are now signs (and the title given to this book is one of them) of its introduction in theological education and ministerial formation in England and Wales.

The authors describe `practical theology' as a `descriptive, normative, critical and apologetic activity. It is the means whereby the day-to-day life of the Church, in all its dimensions, is scrutinized in the light of the gospel and related to the demands and challenges of the present day, in a dialogue that both shapes Christian practice and influences the world, however minimally' (p 12). The description and definition of practical theology and the establishment of models of its working and methods to be used is a major concern in the book.

It is a basic introduction, and reads a bit like a text-book. The authors admit that it is introductory. It aims at showing you how to do `practical theology' and suggests ways in which you might engage in the theological reflection which alone can keep the church's life and practice integrated with her belief and worship. You will not need to share the authors' views as to the likely content and conclusion of that theological reflection to find their enthusiasm for it valuable and their suggestions as to how to actually learn the art of doing it helpful. I shall be using it with my students, and giving it a place on bibliographies. I will recommend that it is read in preparation for vacation pastoral placements. I can also imagine recommending it to those who frequently supervise such students on placement and to training incumbents.

But, oh dear, it is tiringly `politically correct' and, what is worse, rather boringly predictable in some of its examples and illustrations!

Jeremy Sheehy is Principal of St Stephen's House and Director of Pastoral Studies.

THROUGH CHRIST OUR LORD, Gerard Mackrell, Gracewing, Fowler Wright, Leominster, 1996, xii+72 pp, pbk, ISBN 0-85244-301-2

VISIONS, J P Chilcott-Monk, with Preface by the Bishop of London, Tufton Books, London, 1996, vi + 88pp, pbk, ISBN 0-85244-400-1, 6.99

THROUGH CHRIST OUR LORD is a rare thing: a book about prayer which is tough, gritty, engaging and sensible. It does not always make comfortable reading, especially for those of us paid to practise and preach the Christian faith. Mackrell is unsparing of the tendency, most prevalent amongst the religious professional, to create something called a "prayer life" or a "spiritual life" and divorce it from the rest of existence; prayer, he says, is about others, and the distinctions which we so often draw between prayer and life do nothing but put other people off. This is strong stuff to take, but the tone is straightforward, robust and forceful rather than hectoring, and so we can take it - perhaps with a stiff drink to hand to ease it down.

In his introduction, Mackrell makes a plea for honesty in prayer, the honesty of the angry psalmist; and that includes honesty in praying about our unwillingness or inability to pray. It means honesty, too, in not trying to scuttle away from the Almighty when we are afraid we might be unworthy of him; "the definition of prayer as `a raising of the mind and heart to God' is accurate as long as the `mind and heart' that is `raised' really is what we think and feel". There is a lot in the opening few pages about anger, pain, suffering ("there must be no question of `faking' a mood of well-being in prayer while actually toying with the idea of suicide") again to be taken squarely on the chin; but the point is to remind us that we will know God only through ourselves as we are, bodies as well as temperaments, and that there is nothing to be gained in pretending otherwise. Our warts-and-all existence is the very sign of God's activity, for he creates us, moment by moment, speaking first to us in our own need to speak to him.

Honesty, integrity of prayer and life, brain and body, and the sense that our very desire and struggle to pray at all is God-given; these are the ideas which Mackrell explores in the book, first thematically ("Prayer of Listening", "Prayer of Compromise", "Prayer of Forgiveness") and then by looking more closely at the prayer of four figures from scripture, the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector, the Prodigal Son, and Cain. The first half of the book is probably the more satisfying, perhaps because Mackrell writes with such density (sometimes even too densely) that there cannot but be a slight falling-away as we go on, perhaps because the later material seems rather more familiar. Even so, the effort to squeeze new things out of the parable of the prodigal son, or to say old things in a new and arresting way, is better than most. And (to this reviewer, at any rate) original insight returns in one of the final chapters, "Prayer of Faith", in Mackrell's treatment of Matthew's account of the centurion with the paralysed servant. Thinking explicitly of the words of invitation to holy communion drawn from Matthew 8, Mackrell reminds us that we "cannot demand emotional returns on what we consider to be our religious investment" - a point articulated just recently in a rather different context by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps?

The final short chapter reminds us again that personal prayer can never be purely private prayer, as prayer always involves others and can only be prayed at all in relationship with another - "through Christ Our Lord," the person Jesus on whom we all depend as little children on their parents. Writing about prayer is often a fraught endeavour, and writing about books about prayer doubly so; a review such as this can hardly do justice to the full flavour of the book. Sometimes a little over-written, sometimes a little too eager, the words almost falling over themselves on the page, Through Christ Our Lord is always vigorous, provoking and intelligent, and is rich in appropriate and helpful use of scripture, as well as using a wide range of other literary texts. There are memorable phrases and striking verbal pictures; and - unlike so many "books on prayer", it is surely genuinely helpful. One to buy for Lent.

With Visions, we are in much gentler territory. The author relates a series of visions of episodes in the life of Christ as imagined by a number of "incidental" characters from the Gospel narratives - the Innkeeper in Bethlehem, a servant-girl in the service of Herod the Great [and Herod himself], the Centurion at the crucifixion, and so on. There is certainly nothing to offend, and there are some charming moments, but - bluntly - one is left feeling somewhat unsatisfied; underfed, perhaps. It could simply be the contrast with the first book reviewed here, but the writing seems thin, the material too repetitive, and the tone overly sentimental and cloying. It might have been better had the basic approach been to paint a picture of how each "minor character" perceived those events which they actually witnessed according to the Gospel accounts; instead, each is granted "visions" of not only the whole of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, but of the entire beatific vision, with choirs of saints and angels regularly appearing, and all punctuated with doctrinal double-underlinings. Things which are acceptable - inspiring, even - in a picture or a piece of stained glass jar a little when written out longhand [for example, a vision of Christ on the Cross in a richly embroidered chasuble], while other anachronisms which could otherwise pass with poetic licence [a first-century Palestinian girl envisioning "the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the beauty of heaven and in the company of all saints - all those who had fulfilled their vocations in life..."] can also irritate, especially when pressed into service again and again.

Nevertheless, there are good things here; material for meditation, for prayer groups in the parish - for sermons even! If I can conclude only "this didn't do a great deal for me", it may well move and inspire others; and it is clearly a book born of a sincere desire to bring the scriptures to life imaginatively and devotionally, and to help others to appreciate them in the same way.

Jonathan Baker is Priest-in-Charge of the Parish of St. Mark and the Parish of the Most Holy Trinity, Reading.

GOOD NEWS FOR A SUFFERING WORLD, Philip King, Monarch, 1996, 190 pp, pbk, ISBN 1-85424-277-6, 7.99

THE DECADE of Evangelization is nearly three-quarters over. Many of us must have suspected that, effective as the idea of a decade of this or a decade of that is as a way of describing the past (`the roaring twenties'), it would not be an effective way of prescribing a programme for the future. In a more secular context we had the proclamation by journalists of the `caring nineties' as a similar attempt to organize and set an agenda for the future. The decade of evangelization has done better than the `caring nineties' but I am fairly sure that, by any of the normal measure of numbers, the `decade of evangelization' will not be judged in retrospect to have been a success.

To say this is not to criticize the Pope, who called for a `decade of evangelization', nor yet to criticize the Chief Rabbi for himself calling for a `decade of renewal'. Still less should we criticize Anglican bishops for calling for a `decade of evangelism'. Planning for the future, and in particular making plans to counter what looks like a poor future, is a sensible strategy that all prudent communities employ. It is important, however, not to be disheartened by the failure, in absolute terms, of such a strategy. To have arrested somewhat what was in some places almost free-fall decline is not a failure.

The Judaeo-Christian culture is in massive decline in Western Europe and our children and grandchildren will probably not see the end of that process of decline. Yet there is nothing specific about the Judaeo-Christian culture that makes it more likely to decline than anything else, rather the reverse; as men and women of faith we should expect that decline to be less catastrophic than the corresponding decline in other great religious traditions - a decline which, incidentally, is giving Christianity elsewhere, Asia for example, immense opportunities. As the world changes, we shall see Christian faith as less and less the established religion of civilized countries. More and more Christian church groups will function counter-culturally as the salt, the leaven and the light of a world the Lord has called them to be. After all, as Lionel Blue says somewhere, the map of the world at the end of the nineteenth century was mostly coloured pink and yet that did not mean that the religion of Christian Britain had put an end to exploitation, hunger, sickness, violence and war.

Philip King's Good News for a Suffering World is about evangelism come-of-age. He is an experienced minister, formerly General Secretary of the South American Mission Society, and now Secretary of the Church of England's Board of Mission. The book has none of the naivete and less of the triumphalism that has sometimes characterized evangelicalism. Indeed, this is an `evangelical' book mainly in the best sense of the word. `Evangelism is the announcing and inviting dimension, and prayer and spirituality describe the resulting relationship', he tells us (p 17), which is not quite the Catholic way of putting it. Yet he goes further: if prayer and spirituality have an important place, so too does the social dimension of evangelism. The gospel is about incarnation, acceptance, reconciliation, peace, justice, liberation, unity, community, transformation, salvation, love, life, celebration, worship, hope and eternity. These are the themes which give hope to `Planet Earth', faced as it is with the vicious spiral of population growth, poverty and pollution.

The introduction gives us some mission theory. `Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, together with his invitation to become his disciples, and to join with him in his work of transforming the world' (p15) is the definition of evangelism which King adopts. He accepts the different scale of values on which Christianity depends - '...effectiveness in evangelism is not dependent on deep theological understanding - sometimes the reverse is true' (p18) - but points out how churchy our context for lay ministry sometimes is. The Bishop, visiting to confirm, meets someone whom the vicar introduces as `the senior server'. The vicar `failed to mention that he was also the chief executive of the Local Health Authority. Both activities could be described as ministry, but compound Christianity will focus on the few hours spent on ministry in the compound to the exclusion of the week spent on ministry in the world' (p 147).

In a chapter called `Church, Mosque and Temple' there is common sense about multifaith relations and evangelism. `The principles of listening, understanding and dialogue are valid for all evangelism', he says (p 182) and, one might add, the delicacy of evangelism in the multifaith context highlights well the need for delicacy in all evangelism. How often have Christianity's most fervent untrained evangelists contributed to the discrediting of the whole business of evangelism!

What the decade of evangelization will have achieved - here and there, but here and there very convincingly so - is a change of mind set. From a pastoral model, which has declined into doing more and more for and with less and less people, the Church will have begun to discover a missionary model, and thus begun to learn how to bring good news to a suffering world.

Andrew Burnham is Mission Tutor at St. Stephen's House, Oxford.

WALSINGHAM...that place in Norfolk, Janet Marshall, The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (Resource Pack 9.95; Video 8.95; Resource Pack and Video 19.95)

`IN A secular age where there is a limited understanding of holy places, this resource pack and video will be invaluable.' With these words Terry Waite CBE ends a short frontispiece to Janet Marshall's new offering from the Education Department at Walsingham. The resource pack is aimed at teachers for Key Stages Two and Three, as well as children's clubs and youth groups. The resource pack itself falls into three main sections. Firstly, a booklet for Religious Education containing teacher's notes and activity sheets for children. Secondly, a similar booklet for teaching history and English with a flavour of Walsingham and thirdly a video designed to tie in with these two booklets.

First impressions are very good. Both booklets are in A4 format and the work sheets are well-designed for photocopying (for example, simple black and white photographs are used which should copy well). The history and English booklet covers a wide range of material. There is something on the foundation of the Abbey and on the restoration of the image and foundation of the shrine by Fr Hope Patten in the first half of this century. The role of Henry VIII and the effect of the dissolution of the monasteries are given good coverage along with some reflection on the significance of this for the Church of England today. English activities centre on journey and pilgrimage as a story and children are clearly given encouragement to think of their own lives as a pilgrimage.

The Religious Education booklet covers a variety of issues which might be raised in the classroom in connection with pilgrimage. There are particularly useful sections on icons, statues, Our Lady (of course) and prayer, including the importance of prayer for both Christians and people of other faiths. All the work-sheets allow plenty of scope for classroom discussion and reflection, and encourage children to research for themselves various aspects of Christianity.

The accompanying video follows very much the theme of pilgrimage. We see both a parish group and also a youth group from Sunderland as follow them from their home parish to Walsingham. The video itself makes a good introduction to Walsingham and the work of the Anglican and Roman Catholic shrines and ties in with some of the material on the activity sheets in the resource pack booklets. Parish pilgrimage, the pastoral care of the sick and some good theological reflection on the function and nature of pilgrimage are covered here and, along with the interviews of young people, should prove to be thought-provoking. One suspects, though, that this video will work better with the upper age group that this pack is intended for.

So far so good on our pilgrimage through this resource. Yet there are some small quibbles. Whilst I can see some advantage in covering the material in two separate booklets, I cannot help wondering why they could not have been combined in one single booklet. Indeed, for a youth course or even for RE classes there is much I would want to take from both booklets. Yet I remain unconvinced that schools, certainly at Key Stage Three, would tackle a Walsingham pilgrimage as an interdisciplinary subject.

A `resource pack' is very much what it is. This is not a quasi-confirmation course or an instant RE programme, although it could lend itself as a good basis for either. Some sections may need to have additional supporting material from teachers or youth leaders. Sections on the mass are short and there is, perhaps surprisingly, little on the sacrament of reconciliation which is a prominent part of many pilgrims' journey to Walsingham, including children.

These are, in the end, quibbles. The pack comes across as lively and informative and should provide a good challenge to young people to reflect on the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham's activity and function and the place of pilgrimage in the life of Christians, and those of other faiths. In an age when the National Curriculum places an emphasis on children visiting special places, this pack will also help parish clergy faced with compling similar resource packs for schools visiting their own churches.

Despite minor criticisms, I would gladly find myself using this resource. I am confident that WALSINGHAM...that place in Norfolk deserves to find a useful home in the school and youth group schedule, and should serve well to encourage both schools and youth groups to make their own pilgrimages of discovery to Walsingham and to reflect on what they will discover there.

Gary Waddington is Assistant Curate of the Parish of the Holy Spirit, Southsea

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