EPIPHANY, A Theological Introduction to Catholicism. Aidan Nichols, Michael Glazier, The Liturgical Press, 1996, 491pp, pbk, ISBN 0-8146-5504-1, œ27.50
IN THE introduction to Epiphany, Fr Nichols commends this, his most recent publication, to:
“my fellow clergy in the hope that they may find it of use in the enriching of their ecclesial culture, and to all interested readers, but most especially the laity” (p 5)
It is indeed a bulky offering weighing in at almost 500 pages and œ30 in paperback. Clearly, a populist introduction is not what this prolific Dominican had in mind – and for this three cheers. However, exactly what sort of introduction this weighty tome amounts to is not entirely clear, at least to this reviewer. Is it really introduction or perhaps more corrective?
However, this was hardly my first concern as I began to read Epiphany. Rather I was eager to discover how this very able and challenging theologian was going to set about a task that is both demanding and of immediate importance. I have in the past both enjoyed and learnt much from (although not always agreed with) Fr Nichols’ work, and of late some of the essays collected in the two volumes of his Scribe of the Kingdom are to my mind exceptionally illuminating. Thus, to be offered an introduction to Catholicism under the title of Epiphany would, I anticipated, be shedding more of the same light: that is, a learned and culturally sophisticated, although never dryly academic exposition of the truth, goodness and sheer attractiveness of the Catholic Faith.
Epiphany is offered as a Summa of the Faith and as such includes everything from an explanation of the homoousion of the Son to instruction about saying grace before meals; and a good deal more besides. Fr Nichols begins, if not uncontroversially, with a chapter on “A Christian Philosophy” (itself the cause of much theological debate in modernity) before running into a series of chapters on the central theological topoi of the Faith: Incarnation, Atonement and Trinity; the doctrine of Creation appearing later in a chapter on “The Cosmic setting of Salvation”. There is always something to learn in these chapters and Fr Nichols’ sparing but effective use of quotations from the whole range of the Tradition (including, if not privileging, poetry and `spiritual’ writings) is illuminating indeed.
There then follows a series of chapters on the Church, the Religious Life and Mary before the book concludes with an examination of the moral vision and practice of Catholicism and its presentation of the “Ways of Holiness”. A last chapter on “Other Religions” seems an afterthought and doesn’t really get beyond simplistic and sweeping gestures: a pity really and at times, as in his dealing with anti-semitism, very weak.
At the end of this formidable and efficiently executed endeavour however I remained oddly dissatisfied, and this not because I had not learnt things, indeed many things, along the way, nor even that there were too many junctions at which I wanted to take a turning other than that taken by the author. No, the oddity in all this was that I remained strangely unmoved by it; undistracted by a volume promising the distraction of the deepest and most profound of lights – that of God’s grace.
There can be no doubt that Fr Nichols’ considerable concern for establishing a proper and creative fidelity to the dogmatic and liturgical tradition through which God has blessed his Church demands an obedience inimical to much theology in the market today. He states categorically that his (and in an important sense it can be none other than his ) is a `traditional theology’, consciously `non-liberal’ although not `illiberal’. The point is well made and even more so when this traditional approach is to be bedded down in a symbolics of `epiphany’ – of a shining forth of God’s grace which attracts and enraptures the deepest level of human being (as St Augustine so well understood). But when all this has been said, his theological introduction to this epiphanous and converting experience is given from a position of undisputed epistemological priority. It’s like this, and then it’s like this, and finally it’s like that, so there you are. To push the metaphorics a bit, there’s not much shimmering or refraction here; not much of Hopkins’ `shook foil’ if you will.
Now no doubt I could be accused of being just another woolly liberal critic here, and perhaps this is so, but still I would want to say one more thing. As I have read more and more of the work of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who I would want to reasonably claim is Fr Nichols’ theological master in much that he writes (and for very good reason), I have found repeatedly that my breath is simply taken away with amazement. Now Balthasar is not eveyone’s cup of tea but his is a rapturous and dangerous theology and I remain convinced that any theological engagement with Catholicism, and indeed one offered as an Introduction, must in some way or at some point evince this experience. And the point about this experience is that it introduces a disturbance into our ways of knowing and patterns of assurance which precisely remake our desire in new and manifold ways: ways that we can neither fully know nor fully be sure. I doubt Fr Nichols would really dispute this so I suppose all that I am suggesting is that his introduction should have given perhaps a bit more of a hint of this.
Anyhow, this said the book deserves to be read and pondered, and to be taken up in the spirit in which it is offered. I will certainly look forward to discovering my own students’ reactions to Fr Nichols’ substantial endeavour.
David Moss is the Director of Studies at St Stephen’s House.
RURAL PRAISE, A Parish Workbook for Worship in the Country Church, Leslie J Francis and Jeremy Martineau, Gracewing, Fowler Wright Books, Leominster, 1996, ix+126pp, ISBN 0-85244-388-9, œ9.99
THE WORD FOR ALL GOD’S FAMILY Year 1, Projects on Scripture, Leslie J Francis and Marian Carter, Gracewing, Fowler Wright Books, Leominster, 1996, 343pp, ISBN 0-85244-326-9, œ17.99
I HAVE lost count of how many of Leslie Francis’s books have landed on my desk. Typically Professor Francis co-operates with another specialist (in the two books here reviewed, first with Jeremy Martineau, National Rural Officer of the Church of England, second with Marian Carter from the College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth). Frequently he conducts and publishes surveys. Thus Rural Praise tells me, for instance, how many females under 50 years are neutral about whether hymn books and service books are in good condition (17%).
Statistics are often fairly uninformative: 33% of males like chanted psalms but only 29% of females. This gives us an average of 31%. The same average can be arrived at from 29% introverts, 31% extraverts and 33% ambiverts. More helpful is the information that the 31% who like chanted psalms is the average between those under 50 (only 19%), those 50-64 years old (34%) and those over 64 (40%). The lesson seems to be, if you want to attract the young, don’t chant the psalms. Robed choirs do better. Those over 50 prefer them but, of the under 50s, 42% are positive about robed choirs.
Rural Praise is far more than a collection of statistics. For each of thirty topics, there is a section called `listening to the statistics’, a reflection, an activity and some talking points. Nothing could be more helpful to someone preparing for or auditing rural ministry than a look through this book. More than that, it provides a very good basis for either a rural PCC or a liturgy planning group to make sensible and popularly acceptable decisions. The health warning, however, is not to trust some of the statistics. I am not questioning their authenticity or the scientific method which underlies them. It is common sense, though, that a robed choir, for instance, that sings appalling music appallingly and deprives the congregation of opportunities to sing will be less popular with all age-groups than a choir that sings good music well and facilitates good congregational singing.
I am less enthusiastic about the second of the books, The Word for all God’s Family Year 1. Ten years ago it would have been very welcome for its ideas and resources but it is now a bit late, surely, to produce a scheme based on the themes of the ASB lectionary. A fortnight before the publication of this book, the Church of England General Synod approved the replacing of the thematic two-year ASB lectionary with the three-year Revised Common Lectionary. The new lectionary will come into force on Advent Sunday 1997 and already many parishes are anticipating this with what, I understand, is called `an induction year’. True, there will be parishes that stay with ASB until the bitter end but, without further authorization, the bitter end is only three years away, for only two of which of years The Word for all God’s Family Year 1 will be of use. And will parishes which stick with the ASB until the bitter end be the progressive parishes which are looking for good educational material? Worse still, will the availability at the eleventh hour of such good educational material encourage lively parishes to stay with what is now judged to be an inadequate lectionary?
The ideas in The Word for all God’s Family Year 1 are so good that the publishers ought to show themselves to be as far-sighted as they usually are. My recommendation is this: resist any temptation to do a new print run or to produce the companion volume for Year 2. Instead, immediately re-package the ideas to suit the Revised Common Lectionary Year C (beginning Advent Sunday 1997) and then produce Years A (for 1998) and B (for 1999). The Revised Common Lectionary being so similar to the Roman Catholic lectionary, The Word for all God’s Family could become an ecumenical, and even international, resource. It may then have to compete with Joan Brown’s excellent Welcome the Word (Geoffrey Chapman, revised edition 1995) but it would serve a slightly different market. Sr Joan Brown is `celebrating the Liturgy of the Word with Children’ whereas Leslie Francis and Marian Carter are providing resources for the all-age worship of `all God’s family’.
Andrew Burnham teaches liturgy and music at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and is a member of the Church of England Liturgical Commission.
THE OXFORD MOVEMENT IN CONTEXT, Anglican High Churchmanship 1760-1857, Peter B. Nockles, Cambridge University Press, 1994, paperback edition 1997, ISBN 0-521-58719-0. œ15.95.
A book published in hardback for œ40 has just been published in paperback. The topic is one of great interest to our readers and therefore we reprint for their convenience an extract from a review which previously appeared in New Directions in September 1995. A.B.
…Nockles’ main line of argument is that the work of the Oxford Movement had been anticipated to varying degrees in that of the established High Church tradition (the `High and Dry’ party), and the Hackney Phalanx especially. Furthermore, they had been able to exert their influence without causing party divisions within the Church of England in the way that the Tractarians did.
To make his point, Nockles divides his book into an analysis of the five fields of ecclesiastical interest: church and state, patristics and the Church of antiquity, ecclesiology and apostolicity, spirituality and worship, and sacraments and justification. What becomes clear, however, is not so much that the `Zs’, the old High Churchmen, had already said most of what the Tractarians were to say but in a less aggressive way, but that they were, by and large, men of the establishment, frightened by the way the Tractarians were prepared to rock the boat…. Pusey, for instance, had come to the conclusion that `it was at the tribunal of antiquity that the Reformers had been tried and found wanting’ (page 127).
The crux of the argument, then, was ecclesiological. Because they believed that the Church of England was simply right, reformed yet apostolic, the old High Churchmen seemed to think that the catholic churches of West and East could best promote unity by conforming to Anglicanism. But the Oxford divines, especially Newman, were raising questions that went beyond the perceived faults of Roman Catholicism. What made the Church of England catholic when it was not recognized as such by the other catholic churches? Contrary to the High Church assumption that catholicity didn’t depend on intercommunion, the Tractarian response was to develop an understanding of the provisional nature of the Church of England. Anglicanism cannot be absolutely independent, be catholic and apostolic…
…Although Nockles’ book is well-researched and will be a valuable tool for the student of the nineteenth century, his judgement of the Tractarians seems harsh. One might argue that, although they certainly did have points of contact with the old High Church party, the time had come for them to raise certain questions in a new and radical way. And if that meant upsetting the establishment of the Church of England, then perhaps it needed upsetting. There are many parallels between the 1830s and the 1990s.
Christopher Smith is Curate of Wantage in the diocese of Oxford.
TEACH US TO PRAY, ed. D.A. Carson, Baker Book House/Paternoster Press, Grand Rapids/Carlisle, 1990, reprinted 1994. 362 pages. ISBN 0-85364-495-0
THIS IS one of a series of books published by the Faith and Church Study Unit of the World Evangelical Fellowship Theological Commission. The editor of this volume, Donald Carson, is well known to evangelicals both sides of the Atlantic as a major spiritual and intellectual force, with important offerings also to his name in the fields of New Testament scholarship, hermeneutics and contemporary western culture as well as spirituality. Thirty pages of thorough and referenced footnotes certainly gives this book the feel of a serious work of scholarship.
The eighteen contributors to this book are gathered from around the world, from the Americas to East Asia. British Anglicans will find new names here. All of this reflects the shift in the evangelical centre of gravity away from our shores to almost anywhere else. Another interesting sidelight is that, whereas we are provided with studies on the prayer habits of the contemporary church in places such as Korea, China, Africa and Latin America, the spirituality of the older, western churches is described from the Puritan era. This should give us pause. Says Carson: “Prayer and biblically-informed spirituality are not strong suits of the Church in the West.”
This book is written into a situation where evangelicals face two great dangers, internal fragmentation, and an apparent weakness in establishing a truly biblical spirituality – this at a time when spirituality in general is all the rage. Sunand Sumithra, who contributes a chapter studying Hindu prayer and spirituality, speaks of the “Protestant gap” – a perceived evangelical failure over many years to match its evangelism and theology with a truly satisfying spirituality. Other authors for some time have observed that this is one reason why evangelicalism has frequently failed to hold within its ranks a worryingly high proportion of those who have first come to faith through evangelical preaching of the Gospel. If this book can help to plug that gap, it will have made an important contribution.
Teach us to Pray falls into four major sections. Part One is a biblical theology of prayer, examining the nature and role of prayer in both Testaments. Part Two is an analysis of prayer and spirituality as practised within Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Latin American Catholicism. Part Three draws lessons in prayer from the worldwide evangelical church. The fourth and briefest section contains three personal testimonies challenging the reader to depend more on prayer.
As in many compilation volumes, the style and approach here is (perhaps inevitably) somewhat uneven. There is some excellent biblical work on offer, notably Howard Peskett on prayer in the Old Testament, and David Peterson’s two chapters on prayer in the Epistles. David Clowney provides a theological synthesis of the biblical material, and perhaps he says some of the most important things of all. “The Bible does not present an art of prayer; it presents the God of prayer,” he tells us. “Prayer is not introduced as a separate spiritual discipline; it rises as man’s answer to God’s address… Christian devotion has been tinged at times with forms of mysticism that reverse the biblical pattern.” In an age obsessed with technique and with self, an obsession that is sometimes reflected in our approach to prayer, here is a salutary warning.
The handling of prayer as practised in other faiths is sensitive, if at times labyrinthine. Michael Nazir-Ali provides some suggestive pointers for the communication of the Christian faith in Islamic cultures. He points out the tantalising closeness and yet distance that exists between Muslim and Christian thought and prayer. He describes the proximity of Islam to aspects of both Jewish and Christian spirituality, but is also careful to draw out the clear lines of distinction that mark them out from each other. All of this, he argues, offers interesting possibilities for the “inculturation of Christian spirituality in cultures which have been shaped by Islam” – a necessary stage in the communication of the gospel, for “the Gospel cannot be said to have been shared unless it is first translated or interpreted into the language, thought-forms and lifestyle of a particular people.”
Nunez’s critique of Latin American Catholic prayer habits may not make particularly comfortable reading for Catholics, but it is a reminder of how Catholic spirituality has repeatedly developed in cultures which have historically been virtually devoid of Protestant influence or corrective. Nunez is also critical of evangelical formalism, Pentecostal pietism, charismatic individualism and the politicised this-worldliness of liberation spirituality, all of which together form the varied tapestry of the Latin American scene.
The third major section of the book provides a useful insight into, and critique of, the prayer life of the church in areas where there has been sustained church growth or revival this century, written from the perspective of national Christian leaders. It becomes clear from these pages that, if churches in the west want to get back on the map and see similar revival, the path for us lies along the same road of serious and earnest prayer, such as we rarely see or perhaps even desire.
For all its breadth and range, this book is not in itself a guide to personal spirituality. A great deal of its material is factual, and operates at the level of information. Its title, Teach us to Pray, is perhaps therefore a little misleading. Those looking for an introduction to prayer must really start somewhere else. Evangelicals wanting to find out about spirituality in other Christian traditions will need to look elsewhere. At a time when there is a fascination in some evangelical quarters with various forms of prayer drawn from Celtic or Ignatian spirituality, it is a significant omission – at least for the British market – not to have given some attention to such variations: the time is ripe for a sensitive but rigorous critique of some current trends.
However, if talking about other people’s prayer leads us to desire to pray, there is plenty in this book to stimulate us to discover afresh what one contributor describes as “not only the vital breath of our spiritual lives but also the power that supports the whole of (God’s) Church.”
Steve Wilcockson is Vicar of St Paul’s, Howell Hill, Cheam, Surrey.
GOD THE ALMIGHTY: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love, Donald G. Bloesch, Paternoster Press, [date, pagination, ISBN and price unknown]
GOD THE Almighty is the third volume of a projected seven volume systematic theology, and the one Bloesch considers most important in this Christian Foundations series because of the “mounting controversy over the concept of God” (p 13). After an agenda setting introduction and a discussion of different attempts to define God, he offers four chapters on the attributes of God; a chapter on the Trinity; and two chapters providing a critique of alternative positions to his own which he describes as “The Biblical-Modern Synthesis”, which is largely liberalism, and “The Biblical- Classical Synthesis”, which is largely traditional theology. Bloesch describes his own position as “biblical-prophetic”, and as “centrist evangelical” (p 12).
It is a work which bears similarities to the fine multi-volume work of Berkouwer, published in English by IVP in the `60s and `70s, and this comparison highlights some of its strengths and weaknesses. Like Berkouwer, Bloesch provides brief summaries and judicious commentary on a wide-range of theological writing, both historically and doctrinally. However, Bloesch’s comments on a particular topic are to be found in different parts of the book, making it difficult to ascertain his position.
Further, while this series lies broadly within the Reformed tradition, it bears the marks of a particular debt to what he understands as Barthianism. Bloesch acknowledges “My particular mentors in this particular study are Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr” (p 14). This debt is found in a problematic doctrine of Scripture, which was the major weakness of Bloesch’s second volume, Holy Scripture. He draws a distinction between the words of the Scriptures and the words of God, writing, for example, of “the Word of God in Holy Scripture” (p 12).
This “Barthian” debt also shows itself when he writes that, “Our approach should be dialectical in the sense of trying to hold together polar opposites…” (p 13). This results in a frequent appeal to a dialectical position, but with the constant suspicion, in this reviewer’s mind, that this left his position often unclear, sometimes confused and occasionally contradictory. So, for example, he concludes a discussion on time: “I do acknowledge that God freely chooses to enter into a history of contradiction” (p 251). On predestination he concludes, “My position is neither compatibilism nor incompatibilism” (p 311, n 64). Further comment adds to my uncertainty as to what he really thinks when he writes, “I am here close to James I. Packer, who regards divine sovereignty and human responsibility as an antimony…” (p 312, n 65) and yet “Predestination is not the foreordination of whatever comes to pass (as in scholastic Calvinism)…” (p 257). In the light of this tendency, I felt that this book is more valuable for the stimulating criticism it offers of the positions of others, than for the articulation of his own position.
The main trend which Bloesch discerns and seeks to counter is the shift towards the biblical-modern synthesis, which he charges with “lacking.. a strong affirmation of the holiness and almightiness of God” (p 13). Many of his comments and criticisms of this “new immanentalism” (p 17) are well made. Perhaps more challenging for traditionalists is the chapter on the influence of classical philosophy on theology, entitled “The Biblical-Classical synthesis”. Here his stated aim is “to counter the inveterate tendency in so much traditional theology to make God remote from the human creation” (p 11). This is a wholesale attempt to “De-Greece” theology (to borrow a phrase of David Pawson’s.) Amongst many criticisms was the, by now common, affirmation of divine passability, as well an almost equally common rejection of the traditional notion of divine timelessness, although Bloesch’s alternative is by no means clear.
While it is perhaps asking too much from a book which already runs to over 300 pages, it would have increased the value of the book if more space could have been given to making more detailed application to contemporary debates. Often valuable comments were made, but briefly and with too little argumentation to persuade those not already sympathetic. For example, on feminist theology: “New symbols of the deity prepare the way for new conceptions of deity. When God is referred to as Father-Mother (as in Feminist theology) we no longer have trinitarianism but binitarianism” (pp 189-90): provocative and stimulating, but requiring justification in an area which is likely to become one of major conflict in our own church in the near future and for which I fear we are inadequately prepared. A valuable exception was an extended discussion in an Appendix on the “Free-will theism” of Clark Pinnock et al.
I was left with a question as to whom this book is aimed. Bloesch interacts with many of the big names of the history of theology, but he also includes writers who would probably be known only to those well-read in the area and who have little claim to orthodoxy. This suggests a more scholarly readership. However while I found this a stimulating book, particularly in its criticisms of other positions, the lack of detailed argument, and exegetical study, meant that I found it unpersuasive where I didn’t already agree.
Given these limitations over form, and suspicions over content, I should turn first to two other recently published books for a study of the doctrine of God. A major alternative is the volume by Gerald Bray (a regular reviewer in these pages) on “The Doctrine of God” in IVP’s excellent “Contours in Christian Theology” series. It contains a closer engagement with issues of contemporary debate in conservative theological circles, without avoiding criticisms of the traditional position where required. (Bloesch does note Bray’s work in a footnote, and judges the “classical theism” it represents as “questionable in the light of the total biblical witness” (p 21]). However, even Bray has to leave many avenues of exploration merely pointed out, and not explored. Another valuable, though less systematic book is the new edition of Donald Macleod’s “Behold Your God,” with an excellent survey of “The Doctrine of God in Christian Discussion” in the final chapter. Given the level of controversy in this area and its importance, major work is still required. Bloesch has provided us with a stimulating resource, but not a definitive guide, to this greatest of doctrines.
Andy Saville is Curate of SS Peter and Paul, Tonbridge.