BOOK REVIEWS APRIL 1998


AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT
, Raymond E. Brown, Doubleday 1997, hbk, 840 pp. ISBN 0-385-24767-2

THE NAME of Raymond Brown looms large in the field of New Testament scholarship. Across the denominational and wider boundaries, he has earned the respect of his fellows in the academy for his weighty conmentaries on the Fourth Gospel and Johannine Epistles, as well as his detailed works on the birth and passion narratives of the gospels. Within his own Church, he has managed to combine a passionate ccmmitment to critical study of the Bible with a profound sense of the ecclesial tradition in which he stands: for this he was appointed to the Pontifical Biblical Commission by Pope Paul VI. On a popular level, his many accessible works have done a great deal to bring the insights of scholarship to a wider readership. Finally, speaking on a more personal level, he has been an important role model for someone who, like Brown himself, attempts to teach and nurture a love of the scriptures as a Roman Catholic in an ecumenical context. Now, in retirement, he has distilled the wisdom and insights of a lifetime’s teaching into a long-awaited introduction to the New Testament.

There are many different kinds of New Testament Introductions the market today: some (eg Helmut Koester) offer a reconstruction of the history of early Christianity, unfettered by the constraints imposed by the Church’s New Testament canon; others (eg Raymond Collins) attempt to introduce their readers to the differing types of hermeneutical methods. Brown’s introduction follows a rather more traditional approach, introducing the writings one at a time, attending, at least in part, to the mundane issues of authorship, dating and provenance. But it is also an introduction with a difference. Brown’s primary goal in writing this book is to get people to read the New Testament scriptures: so many similar works can very easily become substitutes for reading the text itself, and Brown is concerned that his work should not become yet another surrogate parent. Thus each chapter on specific texts begins (after a table providing a ‘Summary of Basic Information’) with a ‘General Analysis of the Message’ designed to accompany the reading of that book, and often functioning as a kind of ‘mini-commentary’ on the text in question. Only then does he turn to the traditional questions of authorship and dating and a discussion of the book’s peculiarities. Finally, he presents a section of ‘Issues and Problems for Reflection,’ attempting to encourage theological reflection on the New Testament writings and the making of connections with contemporary theological and ecclesial concerns.

There are at least two features of this introduction that are worthy of particular note. The first is the ecclesial dimension of much of what Brown has to say. Though this book will surely be warmly received by a very wide readership (and, indeed, the dustcover records the accolade of a Jewish rabbi), nevertheless this is unashamedly the work of a Roman Catholic, who stands within the Catholic tradition of exegesis. Thus, though Brown himself is primarily a historical critic, who is concerned to locate these writings within their primary first (and, in the case of 2 Peter, possibly second) century context, nevertheless he is acutely aware of the limitations of the historical-critical method. The discussion of hermeneutical issues, and in particular the difference senses of scripture, at the beginning of the book, is important here. Catholic Christianity has long recognised that the ‘literal sense’ - in Brown’s definition, not a naive kind of literalism which would demand that Balaam’s ass actually spoke, but rather ‘what the biblical authors intended and conveyed to their audiences by what they wrote’ (p35), i.e. the traditional concern of ‘historical criticism’ - cannot exhaust the meaning of a scriptural passage The sensus plenior is something which even Catholic biblical scholarship has been in danger of losing sight of, just as the Catholic tradition was at one time in danger of overlooking the ‘literal sense’. Brown is concerned to do justice to both.

Brown’s awareness of being a Catholic biblical scholar comes through in other ways too. His ‘Issues and Problems for Reflection’ at the end of each section often strive to bridge the gap between first and twentieth centuries. Thus, for example, having discussed the issue of Gentile circumcision in his chapter on Acts, he hints at how attention to what was arguably the most divisive issue in the New Testament church, and the way it was handled, might have implications for contemporary ecclesial debates. Similarly, his fairhanded treatment of some of the often-neglected New Testament writings is an indication of the importance he accords to the canon, eschewing any attempt to promote a ‘canon within the canon’. Thus almost as much space is devoted to the Epistle of James as to Paul’s Letter to the Romans (one wonders what Luther would have made of this), while the Apocalypse is paid a fitting tribute in no less than forty pages.

The second matter of note is the even-handed way in which Brown deals with scholarly opinions, and his care to present the majority view as well as his own, if that should differ. Thus he is a trustworthy guide to the state of scholarly play. Moreover, in his own conclusions, he is careful and judicious. For example, he plays down the claims of some that Palestine during Jesus’ life and ministry was particularly turbulent: for Brown, the only serious Jewish uprising was that led by Judas the Galilean in AD 6, and he quotes approvingly Tacitus’ assessment of Judea under Tiberius: ‘Things were quiet’. Likewise, he carves a careful ‘midpath’ between the excesses of the Jesus Seminar and the reactions of scholars such as Luke T. Johnson. Further, it is good to see that, unlike many of his compatriots, he does not assume that the existence of Q is something to be taken for granted. While accepting the Two Source Theory, he gives space to the alternatives, and firmly rejects some of the excesses of the ‘Q’ enthusiasts with their bold reconstructions of the theology of the ‘Q Community’. In short, Brown, like the wise scribe of the Matthean community, ‘brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’ (Mt. 13:52), rejecting nothing out of hand, learning from a whole host of scholarly approaches, while avoiding the excesses.

There are, of course, some minor criticisms. The other side of the coin to carefulness is over-cautiousness, and one wonders whether, for example, there is not more to be said in support of those who advocate a more revisionist chronology of Paul’s life (I am thinking not least of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s recent magnificent book), or who propose a rather more precarious socio-political climate during the ministry of Jesus. There are also one or two sections which somewhat disappoint: the question of the historical Jesus, for example, and the vast literature which that has spawned is consigned to a rather brief appendix, dominated by the concerns of contemporary North America (notably the ‘Jesus Seminar’), and dealing with the two hundred years from Reimarus to the post-Bultmannians in little more than two pages. If Brown is not to take up the challenge of writing ‘The Resurrection of the Messiah’ to complement his magisterial ‘Birth’ and ‘Death’, then might there be the possibility that he will turn his great learning and scholarship to a rather more satisfying account of ‘The Quest for the Messiah’?

Finally, some might be put off by the sheer heftiness of the volume, running to some 840 pages. That, however, would be unfortunate. Brown’s combination of erudition, scholarship and pastoral concern means that this introduction is not only immensely readable and accessible but also encyclopaedic and shrewd. In his foreword, he describes this tome as introductory, ‘and therefore not written for fellow scholars’ (p. vii); I think many of his fellow scholars would dispute this modest assessment. If one is looking to recommend one New Testament introduction which will not be in danger of sitting on the shelf collecting dust, then this is surely the one.

 

Ian Boxall is New Testament Tutor at St Stephen’s House.

 

GENERAL SACRAMENTAL ABSOLUTION: an historical, canonical and pastoral perspective, Scott M P Reid, Saint Austin Press, London 1998, ISBN 1-901157-65-2, 1.95

 

APOSTLES AND MARTYRS, Peter R S Milward, Gracewing, Leominster, 197, pbk, 146pp.

 

THE EARLY PAPACY, Adrian Fortescue, ed. Scott M P Reid, Saint Austin Press, London 1998, ISBN 1-901157-60-1, 7.95

 

AUGUSTINE OF CANTERBURY, Margaret Deanesly, Saint Austin Press, London 1997, pbk, 167pp, ISBN 1-901157-25-3, 12.95

 

 

 

IN A short booklet, General Sacramental Absolution, the present use of such absolution in the Roman Catholic Church is examined and discussed, and a historical background to its present availability is outlined. I was interested to read it. ‘General sacramental absolution’ is the giving of that absolution which is given to us in the sacrament of penance and is thus sacramentally covenanted by God to his Church (as opposed to the declarat ton of the forgiveness offered by God and the prayer of intercession which is found in ‘absolution’ in some rites for the eucharist and the offices) without prior confession by the individual of their remembered grave sins.

A case is argued that this form of sacramental absolution has become customary, whereas the canonical provisions made and the pastoral guidance given suggests it should be extraordinary and available only where certain conditions are fulfilled. I suspect this is a issue which the Roman Catholic Church faces in other countries more than it does in England and Wales. Be that as it may, it is not an issue which English and Welsh Anglicans face, and I know of very few instances where general sacramental absolution, as defined by this booklet, has been made available amongst us. The pastoral strength of general sacramental absolution would seem to me to lie in its communal expression of repentance and reconciliation. The Christian is never just an individual. The pastoral danger can lie in the guidance we may give those who ‘relish the prospect of attempting to celebrate the sacrament without individual confession’ (p 34). Do some seek the gain, ‘the buzz’, of absolution without the pain of facing up to their own sin, the pain, in short, of confession?

 

Apostles and Martyrs is an interesting, readable and inspiring collection retelling the stories of some of the key people and events in the history of the early church. Unfortunately it might, I think, have been a much better and more useful book, for there would have been more room to tell us about the post-apostolic figures of the early churrh if the first forty-five pages had not been spent retelling the tale of the Acts of the Apostles which we can read for ourselves. Sadly, its value for many people who might read it or recommend others to read it will also be severely vitiated by the fact that it gives no references to sources for the different stories of the different saints and martyrs: as the author touchingly confesses in his acknowledgements, ‘some years have passed since I wrote this book, based on translatlons either from Greek or from Latin. Now that it is to be published I can no longer recollect which source I used for which saint or martyr.’

The reprinting of Margaret Deanesly’s beautifully written book of 1964, Augustine of Canterbury, usefully marks the fourteen hundredth anniversary of Augustine’s landing in England. The Saint Austin Press are to be congratulated for making it available. I found (on reading it once again after many years) her picture of monastic life in Rome as Augustine would have lived it and of the monastic life as it might have been at Canterbury particularly evocative and informative. Professor Deanesly was particularly concerned to set Augustine’s work in context as chapter 7, ‘The Sequel to Augustine’s Work’ bears witness.

There were, I fear, a number of minor proof-reading mistakes which are repeated in the reprinting (eg a doubling of material on pp 96-7).

 

The Early Papacy is another new edition. Adrian Fortescue was born in 1874 and after a Jesuit secondary schooling was educated at the Scots College in Rome and Innsbruck University. Returning to England he worked in various parishes in Essex and East London, becoming parish priest at Letchworth in 1907 and died at the age of 49 after an operation for cancer. In 1919 he was engaged in controversy concerning the Petrine primacy in the columns of The Tablet, and in 1920 he collected the articles for publication. Now they are newly re-edited and reprinted, and it is useful to have suggested a cogent argument for the full devlopment of the primacy from the patristic thinking concerning it.

Here Fortescue argues for the papal prerogatives especially with those Catholic Anglicans of his time who relied on the first councils and the patristic writings in their controversies with Free Church thinkers and Anglicans of other schools but appeared to him unwilling to take seriously the message ot those councils and writings about the Petrine primacy. The articles make an interesting collection especially in the light of ARCIC and the subsequent discussion of the place of a universal primacy held by the successor to St Peter. A full response to the collected articles would take more room than I have in this review but two issues that passed through my mind were how Fr Fortescue explained the ecclesiological consequences of the Great Schism of the West 1378-1417 (especially in the light of pp 65-74) and how his modern editor thinks recent developments in the relationships between Rome and Constantinople have affected the argumentation given here.

 

J P Sheehy is the Principal of St Stephen’s House.

 

STRANGE VAGABOND OF GOD, John Dove SJ, Gracewing, 1997, 289 pages, pbk, 9.99, ISBN 0-85244-283-8

 

 

ONE OF Anglo-Catholicism’s most enduring characteristics has been its ability to nurture rebels. Frequently that rebellion has taken the form of liturgical extravagances but there have been other ways as well in which Anglo-Catholics have deviated from the norms of respectable English society. Anglo-Catholic missionaries, for example, have not been afraid to to 'go native’, to live at a very simple level and to accept the culture of those to whom they sought to minister. This is apparent in the history of missionary work in central Africa and in the Pacific. The legendary Charles Fox, who spent seventy years in the Solomon Islands, is the only European ever to have spent a significant period of time as a member of the Melanesian Brotherhood, an indigenous religious order that seeks to follow a style of life that is recognised as poor even by local standards.

In England, Br Edward and the village evangelists and many of the early Anglican Franciscans are examples of the same willingness to embrace poverty and live on the margins of conventional society.

We are told little in this book about John Bradburne’s. family background so we have no way of knowing how greater an influence it had on his later life. Did he, for example, come across Anglicans with a love for the poor before he entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1947? Fr John Dove has really written a memoir, not a biography. He gives us a mass of material, including diary extracts and verse, but many aspects of Bradburne’s extraordinary life remain unexplored. The seeds of his later spiritual development could well lie in his childhood. Two letters from Bradburne’s father suggest he was a priest of Anglo-Catholic conviction, not exactly the "parson" or "minister" to whom Fr Dove refers. "As a link between us I will say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary in the holy tongue’, he wrote to his adult son.

After Bradburne joined the Catholic Church, he spent years testing his vocation in various communities and travelling through Europe and the Holy Land. Like Charles de Foucauld, he was a restless soul, a seeker after God who never seemed to find his real vocation. In time he accepted that no religious order quite suited him and became a Franciscan tertiary. He lived a simple life of prayer and poverty, a poet and a musician, in his own words "a vagabond of God".

Finally, he found his home in Africa, arriving eventually at the Mutemwa Leprosy Settlement where he became for a time the Warden. Bradburne loved the lepers and cared for them with amazing sensitivity but, like most missionaries, he could be obstinate and tough when he felt there was a need. A clash with the Rhodesian Leprosy Association led to him relinquishing his position as Warden but, to the Association’ s dismay, he continued to live near the settlement. He was basically a solitary with a deep prayer life although this did not stop him caring for others or enjoying human company. Fr Dove describes his spirituality very well.

"One notices this aspect very much in John", he writes, "he was drawn by love. He was not a Pelagian-muscular Christian who drew himself up to God by the sheer weight of his penances, self-denials and studied practice of the virtues. The exciting thing about John was that he was in a sense unmortified, he would let go, but he was always drawn back on the path to God by love. He was brought to sanctity, if one may use that term, not by hard discipline but by his longing, his love for God". (page 252).

In 1979 John Bradburne fall victim to the violence that ravaged Zimbabwe. He was abducted and eventually shot after first being made to suffer ridicule and humiliation. His death aroused considerable interest in the world’s media, not least because of strange happenings at the funeral. After three lilies were placed on his coffin to symbolise the Trinity, three drops of blood were clearly seen to drop to the ground from the casket. The coffin was opened and John Bradburne was granted his last wish. He was clothed in a Franciscan habit.

This is a wonderful story of a man dedicated to God’s poor and the Blessed Trinity. One day a complete biography may give a rounded picture of this remarkable "fool for Christ" , but even if that ever happens, this vivid memoir put together by someone who knew him well and who loved him and was inf- luenced by him will retain its value.

 

Paul Richardson was Bishop of Aipo Rongo, 1987-95 and Bishop of Wangaratta, 1995-7.

 

 

JOSEPH RATZINGER: SALT OF EARTH, An Interview with Peter Seewald. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, pbk, 283 pages, 11.95, ISBN 0898706408

 

 

THE "PANZERCARDINAL" speaks out! In 1985 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gave an outspoken interview about the state of the church to an Italian journalist that proved to be a best-seller. Now he has spoken out again, with the same frankness, to a German journalist, Peter Seewald, a lapsed Catholic who makes no attempt to flatter or to avoid difficult questions but who is clearly impressed by the Cardinal’s honesty and intellectual ability.

Ratzinger’s faith is strong but he is also realistic about the nature of the crisis currently facing the church. He speaks movingly of the need for Christians to be people of joy and for them to recover a sense of the freshness and excitement of the gospel. His hero is Augustine, a figure to whom he refers time and again. By contrast, St Thomas Aquinas is not mentioned. Like Augustine, Ratzinger sees life as a choice between two kinds of love: a love of God that leads to sacrifice of self, even to martyrdom, and a love of self founded upon a denial of God’s claims.

In the last analysis, theological reflection and exegesis do not take away the simplicity of faith. To submit to God in the act of faith is to open doors through which the understanding can enter into the light; it is to find true happiness, the deep inner peace and security that flow from communion with the Lord.

It is often claimed that Ratzinger has changed his approach to theology. Some have even hinted that the young radical Professor abandoned his earlier position in exchange for ecclesiastical preferment. This book shows how baseless these allegations are. Ratzinger was certainly shocked by student excesses at Tubingen in the late 1960s, but he has never attempted to go back to the old, Roman, scholastic theology. Like Balthasar and de Lubac, he is still heavily patristic and scriptural in his approach and continues to proclaim his loyalty to Vatican II. "Many of us become more conservative as we grow older but I do not think there has been a fundamental change of direction or method in Ratzinger’s theology. He certainly holds his present beliefs with total sincerity and conviction but also with a willingness to enter into discussion with others.

Ratzinger has a clearer understanding than any Anglican bishop I have ever spoken to about the crisis of faith through which we are living in Europe, what J B Metz calls the "crisis of God". He would certainly not agree with some members of the General Synod who think that all we need is better spin doctoring and more astute media management. Nor does he agree with Catholics who think all will be well if mandatory celibacy was no longer imposed on priests or if women could be ordained or divorced people allowed to receive communion. After all, as he points out, Protestant churches like the German Lutherans, have done all these things and they are in a weaker position than the Catholics.

The future can only lie in a renewal of faith, the growth of a deeper spirituality and a richer understanding of the liturgy. The church may well have to shrink further in numbers but she will not wither away if she has the courage to be a sign of contradiction in a world gripped by selfish materialism. The last thing the church should do is to water down the creed or soften her witness. Pruning may well be necessary but that, after all, is a condition of fruitfulness.

"More and more", Ratzinger tells Seewald, "we observe that young people are underchallenged. In fact, the increasing membership in sects with radical internal demands can be partly explained by the fact that, first, young people are looking for certainty, they want a secure shelter, but then they want to be challenged. Somewhere deep down man knows: I have to be challenged, and I have to learn to form myself according to a higher standard and to give myself and lose myself".

The liturgy is clearly an issue close to the Cardinal’s heart. He pleads for a greater respect for tradition and the end to an approach that has turned the priest almost into an impresario, although he recognises that we cannot now go back to the old Latin rite. I suspect that many in his own church will echo his view that there needs to he a renewed emphasis on liturgical education, especially for priests, and a clearer understanding that liturgy is more than the invention of rites and texts; ‘it comes from what is beyond ‘manipulation", is how he describes it.

Anglicans may be surprised by Ratzinger’s appreciation of their church. He recognises that here is a body that has always contained Catholic as well as Protestant elements and he appears hopeful about the continuing role of Catholics within Anglicanism. inevitably (and, I would add, quite rightly), he rejects the possibility of changing doctrine by majority voting in national synods. Discussing the ordination of women, he draws attention to doubts about this now being expressed by Roman Catholic feminists. Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, for example, claims that the Anglican experience shows ordination is not what Catholic women want. She sees ordination as subordination and would like, instead, to see a church in which there is no ordained ministry, only a shifting leadership. Radical Catholic nuns I knew in Papua New Guinea were horrified by pictures of Anglican women in black, clerical outfits and thick plastic collars. This was not the kind of ministry they were seeking, So much for the complacent Anglican delusion that they are pioneers and trailblazers

The new "Ratzinger Report" is a fascinating tour d’horizon, an informative survey of the contemporary state of the church. Its great weakness is its focus on Western Europe with occasional glances at Latin America and the US. There is little real awareness of developments in Africa, Asia or the Pacific. Relations with Islam and Judaism receive some attention but there is no mention of Buddhism. Perhaps the Cardinal wanted to be careful after his incautious words on the eve of the Pope’s visit to Sri Lanka.

Contacts in bookselling tell one this book is now sold out in the UK. No doubt the importer has ordered more copies. Perhaps a publisher will bring out a British edition. But if you can get hold of a copy, read it. You will not be disappointed. These are the frank reflections of one of the sharpest minds not just in Rome but in anywhere in the world-wide church.

 

Paul Richardson was Bishop of Alpo Rongo,1987-95 and Bishop of Wangaratta, 1995-7.

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