BOOK REVIEWS

Holding to the tradition and teaching the faith

UPON THIS ROCK
David Dale
Regina Orthodox Press, 314pp, pbk
1 928653 08 1, £17.95

 

David Dale has done the Church a service with this book. It should be in the hands of every Christian who is serious about the faith and wants to understand the vocation of the Church. It ought to be compulsory reading for those in training for the sacred ministry.

Subtitled ‘Doctrine, Dogma and Church Authority’, it is a wonderful introduction to central understandings of the faith which, in the hands of too many writers, often leads to boredom or bafflement. Not with Dale. This is the perfect antidote to the liberal school of theology that too many of us had to endure at theological college. This latter could be briefly summarized in the accurate parody of the New Testament lecturer thus, ‘Jesus probably didn’t say that. If he did, he certainly didn’t mean what he appears to be saying. If Jesus were alive today, he wouldn’t say that now anyway.’

Dale will have none of this. Doctrine is lived reality. It is inextricably linked to our salvation. It cannot be reduced, compromised or traded for an easy agreement. It is not a matter of opinion (a curious modern Anglican view) but the discerned revelation of God which the Church has authority to teach. How the Church discerns and teaches is the great question of our time.

Nowhere more than in Anglicanism has the fundamental misunderstanding and abuse of authority wreaked greater havoc. It is the central fault-line in our ecclesiology, our understanding of the Church. We live in the ruin created by an archbishop and synod of a minor province arrogating to themselves an authority which they do not and cannot possess.

Upon this Rock explains the centrality of doctrine and its direct effect on the lived Christian life. It looks at the different kinds of authority, structural, personal, charismatic and, above all, divine before moving on to the authority of the Bible. ‘The discernment of the authority of God is never simply a matter of curiosity. We cannot take it or leave it as we can take or leave historical or scientific information. We would be taking or leaving salvation if we did.’

Dale then moves on to the nature of the Tradition and the Church (‘The Tradition is the life of Christ in the Church’) and helps us understand how the Church distinguishes between the peripheral, temporal, mutable and the real and unchanging expressions of the eternal. There are fascinating chapters on the discernment and criteria of Christian truth. In addition, there are several helpful appendices including ones on heresy, sexuality, Roman additions to dogma, and a glossary of technical terms so that no one need get lost if they have no academic background.

Dale is an immensely practical theologian. He began his working life in a cavalry regiment before reading for the Bar and then being called to the priesthood. For 35 years he was a school chaplain and parish priest in the Church of England, coincidentally adding a history degree and researching biblical and patristic revelation. He is brilliant trainer of laity. In 1998 he left for the Orthodox Church. Never a dull read, Dale’s work is a rare combination of sound theology, enthusiastic evangelization and punchy polemic. RL

 

FOUNDATIONS OF FAITH
1 – God, Revelation & Creation
2 – Our Lord Jesus Christ
3 – Sin & Reconciliation
Tufton, 50pp each, A4 ring-bound
0 851910 35 1 etc, £8.99

 

At last, the parish teaching material we have been promised. Before you start planning next year’s courses, note that the next three programmes, to complete the full set of six, are to be published shortly: 4 – The Holy Spirit in the Church; 5 – The Church; 6 – Christian Discipleship. Each programme has five sessions, so at a week each that makes 30 weeks. One could, therefore, have Lent sewn up for the next six years; one could devise a full year’s teaching, with strategic breaks for holidays; one could use different parts for different groups.

There are other teaching courses that are more expensive, sophisticated and detailed. What, then, is the special value in this one? It is clear and simple; you might always want more material (to do the work for you), but there is greater value in not being bogged down in irrelevant detail, or distracted by too many interesting ideas. We should be grateful to the writers for honing the teaching into a coherent whole. I can already think of otherwise good teaching clergy, who might benefit from the discipline of not saying too much.

Its greatest value may prove to be that it is ours. There is so much Christian teaching available, that an ordinary lay person does not entirely know what or whom to trust (I speak from experience). If this is the teaching course for parishes in our integrity, then we know that we drink from a common and trustworthy fountain. If you were to move from one parish to another, you would find the same shared structure. Neighbouring parishes would more easily be able to share experience, best practice and supplementary material.

The programmes are designed for two levels, confirmation classes for the basics of the faith, teaching classes for those wish to deepen their faith. Much use is made of discussion, and while the opening and closing questions are clear and helpful, it is evident that the form of the teaching will depend upon the members of each group. It is Bible-based throughout, with additional material from the Fathers and from the liturgy. It is clearly possible, and intended, that lay people who have experienced the course themselves should be able to take up the role of teacher.

The only part I did not warm to were the sheets for photocopying and distribution. Once again the content was simple and clear, but the presentation (in today’s sophisticated world) was rather limited. I only hope that some enterprising parish might produce some improved examples, for different ages; so that as and when the course is used a second time in the same church, albeit with different people, the public material will not look tired and past its sell-by date.

There are many other courses from many other groups, Alpha and Emmaus and so on. This one will not do the work for you, and that itself is a commendation. It is a clear and reliable framework for sound parish teaching of the faith. If your vicar has not yet seen it, buy a copy and start planning the parish teaching for him. SR

 

ST WILFRID
John Nankivell
SPCK, 140pp, pbk
0 281 05445 2, £7.99

When was the greatest age of the Church in this country? The sixteenth century? Possibly, but a good case could be made for the mid seventh to early eighth. The century that saw Oswald first English Christian king, Aidan missionary from Iona, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Hilda of Whitby, Theodore perhaps the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury, the Venerable Bede father of English letters, not to mention Willibrode apostle to the Fresians, Chad, Cedd, Etheldreda of Ely, and many more. What an extraordinary time of conflict and innovation and victory and sheer hard work.

And in the middle of all this, Wilfrid, the whingeing Romanist, who every time he was thwarted in his political ambitions went scurrying off to Rome to complain to the Pope. Living in the north, I have always given thanks that I have never had to worship at a church dedicated to him. That may be unfair, but he is not a sympathetic saint among so many others of greater charm, erudition, heroism and goodness.

This is an excellent little study that does much to rehabilitate him. Nankivell has an fine grasp of the complex and changing Saxon world of that momentous century; he has a lightness of touch that gives life to the historical detail, and while he may be rather too uncritical of Wilfrid’s motives, he does explain why his style of strong, bureaucratic, legally sophisticated, church leadership was of such importance to the emerging Ecclesia Anglicana.

Born about the time that Oswald was martyred, and educated at Lindisfarne, his most notable contribution was his further studies and scholarly work in Rome and then Lyon. When, therefore, he returned to England and founded a community at Ripon, he brought with him a European perspective that added substance and breadth to the Christian enterprise in this still anarchic country. It was this solid learning that carried the day in the debate over Easter at the Synod of Whitby, and that subsequently made him popular as a bishop among those kings who needed the arm of the Church to support their political aims of civilizing the lawless counties of their particular segment of England.

Wilfrid was powerful man, who knew where the real power lay. The great value of this study is that it convinces us of his merits, and gives the lie to the romantic historical rewriting that weeps for the brutal destruction of the Celtic Church. RW

 

Great Churchmen of the Twentieth Century
Peter Morris

PGM, 62pp, pbk
0 9542183 0 2, £xxx

It is not often that parish magazine articles become the material for a book, but this is precisely what Peter Morris, sacristan at Emmanuel Church, West Hampstead, has done. And it is a good read, and in each of the twenty-five biographies one wants to know more. Helpfully, Morris provides a bibliography, though this is sometimes limited to the more eulogistic – on Ramsey, De-la-Noy rather than Chadwick, and on Runcie, David Edwards and friends rather than Carpenter.

It is in reflecting on the overall picture however that one gains the greatest value from this helpful collection, not least in the changes in church and society that have taken place in the last century. There are deprived areas in our inner cities but not the depth of poverty that Basil Jellicoe, Dick Sheppard and Studdart Kennedy faced and fought. But would thousands line the streets for a priest’s funeral as they did for Studdart Kennedy’s? Or 100,000 pay respect as they did as Shepperd lay in state in St Martin-in-the-Fields?

We can see change too in the Church, reflecting a more egalitarian society. Almost all those described come from a privileged background of public school and Oxbridge, and of course it was only with the revelations by Canon Bennett in 1987 that elitism in the Church met its end, the last bastion of the principle of ‘gentlemen and players’. But at the same time the scholarship of many in this collection is also a relic of the past. Who today, apart from Rowan Williams, is a scholar bishop of the calibre of Ramsey, Gore, Lang, Wand and Inge?

Churchmen still display an active social concern, and there are signs that the new archbishop will make the final journey, already begun, that will return us to an involvement based on Christ rather than any man-made political dogma, in which love of people rather than of ideas will be the motivation. We can still learn, even in our much-changed world from the example of George Bell, Tubby Clayton and so many other truly great churchmen of the twentieth century.

George Austin is Archdeacon Emeritus of York.

 

THE INCOMPARABLE CHRIST
John Stott
IVP, 250pp, pbk
0 85111 485 7, £8.99

John Stott’s most recent book, completed in his eightieth year, is both surprising and unsurprising. Surprising in that, given its title theme and size, 35 pages are devoted to the New Testament epistles and twice as many to the Book of Revelation. The four gospels together are accorded less than twenty pages. In these last, the author discerns length (of history, Matthew), depth (of humility, Mark), breadth (of humanity, Luke) and height (of divinity, John). Such hallmark neatness is memorable so long as we are on our guard against too ready labelling.

These Bible sections are parts one and four, respectively ‘the original Jesus’ and ‘the eternal Jesus.’ Between them come a dozen aspects of ‘the ecclesiastical Jesus’, from the second to the twentieth centuries, and a dozen more of ‘the influential Jesus’ and his impact on many notable lives. Some of our Lord’s interpreters (Justin Martyr, à Kempis, Renan, Gutierrez) are closely questioned or firmly challenged. Others, perhaps, might have been. The second dozen are not in chronological order, and the one woman among these is another surprise. But George Lansbury, Wellesley Bailey, and Samuel Brengle are well worth meeting.

The unsurprising features are the familiar clarity of Dr Stott’s prose, his urgent prioritizing of the Christian evangel, and his humble yet undeviating loyalty and devotion to Jesus Christ. If the Apocalypse has cornered the lion’s share of these pages, at least this chapter-by-chapter tour is luminously readable. Preachers, we hope, will not simply serve up Stott’s summaries, but be encouraged to pursue his themes more fully themselves. By implication, all readers are invited to add their own cameos from history or contemporary thought.

Based on a series of lectures given to mark the millennium year, this is a less original book than the author’s unsurpassed work on the cross, the Bible, the gospel controversies and preaching; but it does draw on many of the strands, and exemplify many of the virtues, which have made him one of the twentieth century’s great teachers. Here his influence spills elegantly and incisively into the twenty-first. CMI

 

THE FACE OF TRUTH
William Edgar
P&R Publishing Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 136pp, pbk
0 87552 178 9, £8.95

As evangelistic tracts go, this may seem a bit pricey to a mere Brit. Perhaps an American student keen to find out what Christians believe might fish out his credit card for it; if not, you will have to buy it for him. Or her. I would suggest it as a useful study by would-be evangelists, but it is meant as front-line material rather than further encouragement to chat among ourselves.

Coming from a Professor of Apologetics who is also a virtuoso jazz keyboard player, this is a book solid in its doctrine and also aware of what is going on around. ‘If God is not the Trinity, then we do not have an adequate basis for our faith.’ You do not have to be American to read it, just ready for the occasional ‘Just tell God you have blown it big timer and that you have nothing to recommend you.’ It’s better than rehashed Victoriana. But he hasn’t quite got the hang of 1 Corinthians 10.13. It’s a warning, not a comfort.

Professor Edgar revisits Galileo’s career and the nineteenth-century evolutionary debates, with some not-entirely-expected results. If the rationalists don’t like our myths, don’t let them get away with theirs. An encounter with a Taiwanese Taoist temple guide who grew up in a Christian home is specially poignant; the author is at least aware what not to say to her by way of witness. Our silences too can be persuasive. More ancient but straight from today’s news is the African Alypius, Augustine’s student, whose new faith found its greatest and near-fatal struggle against the lure, not of sex, drugs, money or fame, but of sport in the stadium.

Sadly, the book shows an old evangelical blind-spot in saying virtually nothing about the Church. So I’m facing the truth; what now? CMI

 

MORAL RELATIVISM
Neil Levy

Oneworld, 230pp, pbk
1 85168 305 4, £10.99

Some interesting philosophy comes out of Australia. Not all of it nice (think of the dreaded Peter Singer and his animal rights agenda – ‘save a monkey; kill a baby’), but most of it interesting. Do not be put off by the publishers’ blurb suggesting that he argues for ‘a more modest form of relativism’; that is rubbish; what he does is much more important and valuable.

Within the constraints of modern, liberal, secular ethical norms, he outlines the limitations and contradictions of the almost mystical, modern creed of ‘moral relativism’. He is so fair-minded, it sometimes drives you mad, but just keeping reading, skip the excess, and you will find this an excellent and valuable book.

How can we state the problem? You and I know that being a fundamentalist is ‘a bad thing’. But we desperately, passionately need to know, also, that moral relativism is wrong, that there are some moral truths to the world God created and in which we live. How are we to condemn the ultra-liberal cynics, without being stuck in the world of Christo-fascism? I know we do not talk about this in public, because we do not parade our fears before our colleagues and co-traditionalists; nevertheless in private, we often tremble.

There is a descriptive relativism, meaning that as a matter of fact people do differ widely in their moral beliefs. This we would all accept. Levy has an excellent chapter questioning this seemingly obvious truth, pointing out that unless we share some fundamental values and the means of coming to those values, we would be unable to recognize this ‘different’ system before us as any form of morality. We can almost say that descriptive relativism is only true in so far as it is false.

There is a moral-requirement relativism. This means that different cultures seek and expect different responses from those within other cultures. Shared values, within different circumstances, may lead to different requirements. Much of this is essentially trivial, the simplest analogy being driving on the left or the right hand side of the road: what matters is not which side, but that everyone, within any country, keeps to the same rule.

There is a meta-ethical relativism. This is the problem. This is the modern ‘creed’ that threatens the sharing of serious moral debate. It argues (this is only a poor summary) that since each moral system comes from within a particular culture and can only make sense within it, there is no over-arching, absolute or shared moral judgement that can decide between conflicting moral commands.

It is his analysis of this last error that is the book’s most valuable contribution. Most telling of all is his discussion of tolerance. ‘Relativism is good because it encourages, even requires, tolerance,’ say its proponents. ‘Contradictory and intolerant rubbish,’ is his reply. But you will have to read the details for yourself.

Many of his examples are short extracts from anthropological studies and not especially interesting (Aztec sacrifice being one), but at one point he tackles head on the question of women’s rights within Islam. He describes well the differences of perspective, he is sympathetic as to why an honour system should lead to such apparent discrimination, he lays the groundwork of the culture clash; and then he has in effect to tell them why they are wrong. He may not succeed, but it is a powerful nail in the coffin of moral relativism as a coherent or moral philosophy. NT

 

DON’T DROP THE COFFIN
Barry AIbin-Dyer, with Greg Watts
Hodder & Stoughton, 280pp, hbk
0 340 78664 7, £16.99

‘As a funeral director my job has many dimensions: I’m part-counsellor, priest, doctor, lawyer, social worker’; another 26 descriptions follow including DJ, master of ceremonies and bouncer; to which he could have added embalmer and now author.

To say that any book is essential reading is always a bit of a bore; but all clergy and others who minister to the bereaved could learn much from this one. It is not quite true that all are equal in death, since this Bermondsey impresario clearly relishes the big occasion with showbiz, gangland, police or TV in tow. But something of the meticulous care required for every death, including the multiple, bizarre, and least pleasant demands of the job, comes across in these lively (sic) chapters.

This is not just an undertaker’s collection of funny stories, though some are hilarious beyond any fiction. Clergy may distance themselves from some pages but be humbled by others. It is not all comfortable reading. And Barry Albin-Dyer is disarmingly open about his own faith, mortality and even money; he has opted for burial, not cremation, and has provided for the future of his family firm.

If he seems hard on some unnamed local vicars, he is more than kind to those he identifies. Clergy who are not interested in taking funerals, or count such laziness a virtue, have much to answer for. If ‘My Way’ has taken over from ‘Abide with me’ as Number One at the crem, whose fault is that? There is, though, a sharp divide between urban and rural. Using 200-year old gravestones as rubble may not appeal to the village congregation, but a walk around Nunhead Cemetery (where the blackberries are particularly fine) could make some of us think again.

Local MP Simon Hughes writes a Foreword for his ‘great friend’, Barry; politicians seem to have so many; but this could just be real. The ghost-writer certainly had the best of reasons for backing the book and offering professional help. Not everyone wants a hearse with ALBIN as the number-plate, but with this man, what you see is what you get. The main sadness is that in all the variety of South London deaths, he records not one where a Christian dies at peace with God, in full assurance of faith, and goes singing into glory. Just one of those, with a joyful thanksgiving to match, would put the latest American craze for ‘cryonics’ (freezing for eternity: details within) into some kind of perspective. CMI

 

EZEKIEL
Ernest Lucas
BRF, 240pp, pbk
1 84101 040 5, £7.99

For richness of imagery, breadth of imagination, grandeur of vision as well as anachronism and absurdity, the prophet Ezekiel is in a class of his own. We know we ought to read him, but his writings keep slipping down the list; he is the one to be studied tomorrow rather than today. Lucas’ commentary keeps it within bounds, while opening up the variety of themes in this strange book.

Dividing the 48 biblical chapters into 103 sections, he devotes two pages to each, offering careful exposition, and a wealth of cross-referencing that enables the prophet’s message to be understood in the wider Old and New Testament context. A slight tendency to say too much, he fills his allotted space with hardly a line to spare; and a slight tendency towards taming the text. But if by the end, you want stronger meat, give thanks to this gentle introduction for leading to that point. NA

 

Turning the Diamond
Exploring George Herbert’s Images of Prayer
Dennis Lennon
SPCK, 116pp, pbk
0 281 05470 3, £7.99

This is an inventive, engaging and rewarding book. It is inventive in taking George Herbert’s poem ‘Prayer’ and exploring the depth of the metaphors in a series of chapters. It is engaging because the style is lively and direct, dealing with the experience of prayer rather than the theory. It is rewarding because the author follows up thoughts by using other Herbert poems as illustration and example. There are also pointers to other trustworthy spiritual guides – Farrer and von Balthazar crop up frequently. Sometimes the style becomes too didactic (as befits an evangelist); Lennon is at his best in drawing out the last drops from the well of each Herbert word in sustained reflection. AH

 

TROUBLE IN THE VILLAGE
Rebecca Shaw
Orion, 88pp, pbk
0 75283 760 5, £5.99

Life in a country village, with all the necessary ingredients – a rector with marriage problems, a furtive new verger, the old verger and wife, two Sir-and-Lady’s, the village store and pub. Problems galore, including drug dealing and assault. A mystery with a bit of everything, but nothing in any depth, except what was going on in a tomb in church. A gentle read, to while away a couple of hours. AT

 

THE TRUSTWORTHINESS OF GOD
Perspectives on the nature of Scripture
Edited by Paul Helm and Carl Trueman
IVP, 300pp, pbk
0 85111 476 8, £14.99

‘Breakdown of trust’ we are reminded near the end ‘is among the salient characteristics of our times’, from media leaks or vicious vicars to (wait for it) library books missing from the Bodleian. This comes in one of two ‘Responses’ to the fourteen main chapters which are strangely unnumbered but divided between Old and New Testament studies and more general topics. Colin Gunton’s ten page response calls for action informed by resurrection. Francis Watson’s four pages demand that the good news of Christ should permeate all such talk.

The word of God, say our authors, can be trusted. If some of the detail seems laboured or needlessly polysyllabic, it does provide models of careful textual work on awkward evidence as of the scientist poring over his tiny but crucial laboratory specimens. Such are David Instone-Brewer on ox-muzzling and David Peterson, Principal of Oak Hill College, on Hebrews. Gary Millar is masterly on Deuteronomy but PJ Williams makes rather heavy weather of Micaiah the son of Imlah; has he never tried 1 Kings 22 as a dramatic reading?

Gerald Bray reminds waverers that all the Church Fathers, without exception, believed that the Bible was God’s word written, and that it could therefore be fully trusted in everything that it affirmed to be true. Co-editor Carl Trueman makes some useful points on unconditional promises; Calvin he says regarded doubt as more dangerous than deceit but the reformer sometimes needs a new translator. Paul Helm’s fine chapter ‘The Perfect Trustworthiness of God’ might have come nearer the beginning.

Timothy Ward, who writes on the Bible’s diversity and sufficiency, speaks of the need for Evangelical believers ‘always’ to respond to what others are saying on the subject: well and good provided they do not in the process lose sight of the evangel. Meanwhile the seats at the crematorium’s Garden of Remembrance are still chained to the railing. CMI

 

AN ANNOTATED ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH HYMNS
Edited by J P Watson
OUP, 480pp, hbk
0 19 826973 0, £35

If it takes a Methodist professor of English to write the century’s first major study of hymns, at least an Anglican bishop (Timothy Dudley-Smith) provides the Foreword and, later, four of the seventeen texts by living authors out of a total of 251.

More important, the compiler’s main landmarks for the past 150 years, or two millennia if we include translations, are Hymns Ancient and Modern, from 1861 to 2000, and the 1906 English Hymnal. We are constantly reminded how magically and how often A&M’s first music editor WH Monk found the perfect match of text and tune. No music is printed here, but the usual tunes are all mentioned with commentary.

It is also striking how indispensable John Mason Neale has become for the singing and study of the ancient hymns; unless we all go back to the sometimes elusive Greek or Latin. Of 31 texts printed and discussed in the first chapter, ‘Ancient and Medieval Hymns’, no fewer than 16 have his name attached. The remaining eleven sections take us through the ‘natural’ historical periods, including material on American hymns; Wafts and Wesley have a chapter each, and the indexes cover first lines, tunes, authors and composers.

Professor Watson’s comments are expert without being flawless: his assessments charitable without claiming to be final. Whether or not we argue with his selections and omissions, his book sets down a marker for our generation. It is both a joy to read through and a vital work of reference. No serious student of hymns can now do without it, the nearest volume yet to that much-desired dream The Oxford Book of Hymns. CMI

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