Category Archives: Books

Theology as Discipleship 1

Keith Johnson’s Theology as Discipleship arose from his work in the classroom in which students sometimes asked concerning the value and relevance of theological study. His response is to “argue that the discipline of theology and a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ are integrally related because the practice of theology is one of the ways we participate in the life of the triune God” (12). His argument unfolds over seven chapters, beginning in the first with a historical narrative to explain how Christian theology became separated from Christian faith and the life of the church and discipleship; that is, it became subject to canons of thought and presuppositions alien to its own confession. In the early centuries of Christianity the context of theology was the church, and its practice was related to pastoral and devotional concerns, and faithful life in the world. The presupposed connection between theology and discipleship began slowly to change, however, during the medieval period when the discipline of theology became part of the university curriculum. This change accelerated in the modern era as the role of the university and what counted as academic learning evolved.

Theologians felt pressure to justify their conclusions according to the academic criteria that governed the university. This meant that rather than starting with faith—which might distort their ability to assess evidence rationally—they had to begin with universally accepted premises and employ the methods of critical reason. No longer could they appeal to the authority of the Bible or the church’s tradition to defend their claims (29).

This pressure intensified as modernity progressed, and Johnson notes a further shift that occurred with Schleiermacher, who argued that theologians should “demonstrate that the church’s practices are a ‘necessary element for the development of the human spirit,’” and that they should employ a genuinely deliberative character in their work (30, citing Schleiermacher, Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study, 10-11, 97). Theologians must now be scholars in addition to saints, and their work was not simply for the church but for the welfare of the modern state, and so they were accountable not only to the church but also to the university. The best theologians had always engaged other disciplines, seeking to draw them into the intellectual framework of Christian faith. Now the direction of engagement shifted: “Theologians interacted with these same disciplines not in order to reframe them in light of their faith but to secure theology’s place in the academy alongside every other discipline” (31).

Formerly, theologians had pursued theological training in order to acquire knowledge, habits and skills that would shape them into the pattern of Jesus Christ for the sake of their service to the church. … Now, with the discipline of theology housed primarily in the university, the primary goal of theological education was to provide students with the technical skills they needed to perform responsible critical enquiry so that the church’s faith and practice could be brought in line with the standards of critical reason (31-32).

Thus Johnson proposes that theology begin with its own distinctive confession—the lordship of Jesus Christ according to Romans 10:9—and work itself out from there in accordance with its own rationality and in dialogue with other disciplines. In Johnson’s view theology must be both faithful and academic; to require a division between these is to misunderstand the nature and practice of theological inquiry. The remainder of the book is his attempt to view the discipline in this light.

The Gilead Novels (Marilynne Robinson)

I have read Gilead and Home twice now, and I have just finished reading Lila for the first time. I have also listened to the audio versions of Gilead and Home. These are beautifully written novels, gentle, slow, and humane. Robinson’s gift is bringing her characters to life in an easy and unforced manner, letting them grow in depth, colour and texture as the novels proceed. The novels are set in the 1950s, although they recall earlier periods of American history as the stories of the characters’ lives unfold.

Each of the novels centre around the Iowa town of Gilead where Rev. John Ames is pastor of a small Christian congregation. Late in life—and to his utter surprise—Ames marries and fathers a child. Gilead tells something of his story, of Lila, and of Robert, their son. It also introduces the Boughtons who have been lifelong friends of Ames, and still are. Home picks up the Boughton’s story, especially that of Glory, one of the daughters, and of Jack, the wayward and troubled son come home.

Each of the novels unfolds from the inner life of its major character—John Ames, Glory Boughton, and now Lila Ames. Detailed observation and rich dialogue introduce and develop the other characters and provide the drama of the novels. Through the dialogue and reflections we are introduced into the complexity and wonder of human life and relationships. Surprises and intrigue emerge, as does a portrayal of human life and relationship in all its messiness and meanness, glory and hope.

The religious permeates the pages. Robinson brings depths of theological reflection into her work, including her admiration of Calvin and her undying conviction of the supremacy and triumph of divine grace. One of the amusing sentences in Lila has Lila responding to something Ames says:

“That’s Calvin. The way he talks about it, they must still have been doing it in the sixteenth century. Four hundred years ago.”

“I didn’t even know he was dead. Calvin. The way you and Boughton talk about him” (Lila, 131).

It is likely, however, that stricter Calvinists will be less than happy with her universalist tendencies which are present in each volume, but especially so in Lila. Lila fills in the back story of Mrs Ames, and is a very different novel, because Lila’s is a very different voice. Abandoned and stolen as a child, and cared for by a fugitive, Lila grows up isolated and lonely, scared and suspicious, hurting and ready to flee. Lila’s inner reflections run seamlessly between reminiscences of an earlier time, and present thoughts and conditions. Much of the novel is about her learning to live a different life, to relax into a new kind of life completely foreign: to be loved, and to be happy. That she is married is as much a surprise to her as it was to Ames. That she will be a mother is a revelation, and the ground of new anxieties and hopes.

There is much to savour here, not least the beautiful and evocative style Robinson brings to her work. Her vision is of life suffused with grace, utterly permeated with divine providence even in the midst of the sheer ordinariness of everyday existence if only we have eyes to see it. Indeed, the providence is there even when we cannot see it, or can see it only dimly or in hindsight. But there is no easy faith here. Life may be ordinary; it may also be banal, cruel, and tragic. And yet divine grace is all around, tugging and calling gently to any and all. And grace—the divine goodness at the centre of it all—cannot bear to be without that which it loves.

What is Marriage? (Part 4)

The first three parts of this series (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) detailed the positive arguments made by the authors for a “conjugal” view of marriage. The remainder of the book—chapters four through six, the conclusion, and the appendix—address objections to the view that the authors have presented. The fourth chapter, “What’s the Harm?”, addresses an objection commonly put by advocates of same-sex marriage, that extending the institution to same-sex couples will increase the blessings of marriage while doing no harm to existing marriages or marriage itself. The authors list six harms (53-72) that may arise from changing the definition of what a marriage is. Their argument is based on the ideas that Law tends to shape beliefs; beliefs shape behaviour; and beliefs and behaviours affect human interests and well-being (54). The particular harms identified are:

  1. Redefining marriage redefines it for everyone. Opposite-sex unions would increasingly be defined by what they had in common with same-sex unions; that is, they would come to be seen primarily or even exclusively as emotional unions, and this would make the basic goods of marriage traditionally understood, more difficult to realise. For example, choosing a suitable partner might be reduced to emotional signals of compatibility rather than a prospective partner’s fitness for such prosaic things as domestic relations and parenting.
  2. By making marriage about emotional union, the norms of marriage make less sense. If sexual complementarity is optional, so too are permanence and exclusivity. As the norms weaken, so might the emotional and material well-being that marriage gives to spouses.
  3. Conjugal marriage reinforces the centrality of reproduction and parenting, and the idea that men and women bring different, complementary strengths to the tasks of parenting. As the connection between marriage and parenting is obscured, no parenting arrangement will be recognised as ideal. The problem here is not that same-sex couples cannot be excellent parents, but the development of the idea that mother or father is superfluous. The authors argue that the result will be the diminishing of the social pressures and incentives for husbands to remain with their wives and children, or for men and women to marry before having children. Ultimately, because having a loving biological father and mother is ideal for child development, many children, and so the state also, will be worse off.
  4. The authors suggest that moral and religious freedom will be threatened for anyone who does not agree with the new legal definition of marriage. If support for conjugal marriage is really akin to racism—as has been claimed by those supporting changes to the definition of marriage, then those who support the traditional view should be subject to similar cultural and legal treatment that racists receive.
  5. The revisionist view will undermine friendship and make things harder for single people. As marriage is defined simply as the most valuable or even only kind of deep communion, it becomes harder to find emotional and spiritual intimacy in nonmarital friendships.
  6. Finally the authors address the so-called “conservative objection” that extending marriage would impose its norms on more relationships, which can only be a good thing. This objection fails, they suggest, because the state could not effectively encourage norms for which there is no deep and rational basis. “Rather than imposing traditional norms on same-sex relationships, abolishing the conjugal view would tend to erode the basis for those norms in any relationship” (67, original emphasis).

Chapter five, “Justice and Equality” (73-81), addresses the criticisms that the conjugal view is inconsistent when dealing with infertile marriages, and at odds with the principle of equal access to marriage. The second objection is easily addressed:

Laws that distinguish marriage from other bonds will always leave some arrangements out. You cannot move an inch toward showing that marriage policy violates equality, without first showing what marriage is and why it should be recognized legally at all. That will establish which criteria (like kinship status) are relevant, and which (like race) are irrelevant to marriage policy (80-81, original emphasis).

The authors argue, as noted in an earlier post, that infertility does not invalidate a marriage, for even the infertile couple engage in an act of bodily union that is fit for and capable of reproduction even if the goal is never achieved. Further, the infertile couple demonstrate that marriage is a human and social good in itself, that marriage is more than merely reproduction. Of course a friendship between two men or two women is also valuable in itself, but “lacking the capacity for organic bodily union, it cannot be valuable specifically as a marriage; it cannot be the comprehensive union on which aptness for procreation and distinctively marital norms depend” (76, original emphasis).

Is support for the conjugal view of marriage “a cruel bargain”—the title of the sixth chapter (83-93)? Does it win support for the many at a cruel cost for the few? Why argue for a position that harms the personal fulfilment, practical interests, and social standing of same-sex-attracted people? The authors agree that same-sex couples, and indeed many other kinds of relational partnerships seeking practical legal benefits (such as recognition as next of kin, financial and medical rights, etc.) should not be hindered from obtaining them. Further, because every marriage policy will keep some people from legally recognised relationships, we must fight against arbitrary or abusive treatment of those for whom this is the case, with the same force and diligence that we use to oppose unjust distinctions by race or sex (91).

Legal recognition does not include changing the definition of marriage, however, for sheer legislative will cannot erase the very real differences between the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, or make disregarding them harmless to the common good. “Redefining civil marriage means pretending otherwise” (87).

The same-sex civil marriage debate is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. … Legal recognition makes sense only where regulation does: these are inseparable. The law, which deals in generalities, can regulate only relationships with a definite structure. Such regulation is justified only where more than private interests are at stake, and where it would not obscure distinctions between bonds that the common good relies on. As we have argued, the only romantic bond that meets these criteria is marriage, conjugal marriage (90, 92).

The authors conclude, therefore, that marriage is a particular kind of union with distinct and essential features which cannot be set aside without fundamentally changing and weakening what marriage is. They make this claim on the basis of philosophical and legal considerations without appeal to religious or theological authorities. They have amassed a great deal of evidence to highlight the rationality of their arguments, and to show how and why counter-arguments fail.

Marriage is not a legal construct with totally malleable contours—it is not “just a contract.” Instead, some sexual relationships are instances of a distinctive kind of bond that has its own value and structure, which the state did not invent and has no power to redefine. As we argued in chapter 1, marriages are, like the relationship between parents and their children or between the parties to an ordinary promise, moral realities that create moral privileges and obligations between people with or without legal enforcement. Whatever practical realities draw the state into recognizing marriage in the first place (e.g. children’s needs), the state, once involved, must get marriage right to avoid obscuring the shape of this human good (80, original emphasis).

Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society. When the arguments against this view fail, the arguments for it succeed, and the arguments against its alternative are decisive, we take this as evidence of the truth of the conjugal view. For reason is not just a debater’s tool for idly refracting positions into premises, but a lens for bringing into focus the features of human flourishing (97).

What is Marriage? (Part 3)

Chapter three addresses the interest of the state with respect to marriage. Girgis, Anderson and George put the matter simply:

The universal social need presented by relationships that can produce new, dependent human beings explains why every society in the history of our race has regulated men and women’s sexual relationships: has recognized marriage (39).

These relationships alone produce new human beings. For these new and highly dependent people, there is no path to physical, moral, and cultural maturity without a long and delicate process of ongoing care and supervision—one to which men and women typically bring different strengths, and for which they are better suited the more closely related they are to the children. Unless children do mature, they will never become healthy, upright, productive members of society; and that state of economic and social development we call “civilization” depends on healthy, upright, productive citizens. But regularly producing such citizens is nearly impossible unless men and women commit their lives to each other and any children they might have. So it is a summary, but hardly an exaggeration, to say that civilization depends on strong marriages (38).

The reason marriage is regulated by the state is therefore on account of the long-term common good of the society and culture as a whole. As such, marriage is more than a personal arrangement designed to address personal issues; it is a social institution developed to solve a social problem: the care of children that the mere desire for children and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve. Although marriage is universal in practice, however, it is also fragile and costly, requiring a strong marriage culture. Indeed, people “tend to require social pressures to get and stay married” (39).

By regulating marriage entry and exit, and by helping and sometimes requiring the government as well as individuals and civic institutions to treat certain couples as a unit, marriage law sends a strong public message about what it takes to make a marriage—what marriage is. This in turn affects people’s beliefs, and therefore their expectations and choices, about their own prospective or actual marriages (41, original emphasis).

Having argued that marriage is a social institution, the authors go on to argue that it is fitting that the state regulate marriage in order to facilitate society-wide coordination and support of this public good. This regulation of conjugal marriage, however, “need not and should not involve prohibiting any consensual relationship” (42). The aim is to support this vision of what marriage is, not restrict the liberties and relationships of those seeking other forms of relationship.

When considering the social benefits of this particular relationship, the authors suggest that “common sense and reliable evidence both attest to the facts that marriage benefits children, benefits spouses, helps create wealth, helps the poor especially, and checks state power” (42). Citing and utilising numerous research studies, they detail the evidence for each of these claims though also acknowledging that, “obviously, none of this is to suggest that any marriage is perfect or that spouses never fail to live up to their vows. We are speaking here in generalities, in light of the accumulated social-scientific evidence” (117).

The final section of the chapter addresses the criticism that “marriage is not a naturally generated institution with certain essential elements,” but has been “constructed over time” and reflects “larger social power relations” (117). Obviously the authors have already argued that marriage is a basic human good with certain distinguishing and naturally inherent characteristics. They do recognise that the specific characteristics of marriage differ between one period and another, and that other marital forms such as polygamy and arranged marriages have existed in many cultures. Such variations do not invalidate their central claims:

No moral truth of much specificity has enjoyed universal assent … It is natural rather to think that the most basic ethical principles would be most widely held; while those derived from more basic principles would meet with patchier understanding and assent. … What [the conjugal view] considers most basic to marriage—like bodily union and connection to family life—are nearly universal in marriage practice. And what it and our argument treat as grounded in these basics—permanent, exclusive commitment—is less represented (48-49, original emphasis).

For the several thousand years that we have records of philosophical and legal traditions, sexual intercourse between men and women has been regulated. Other forms of sexual intimacy have never been recognized as consummating a marriage, while other matters such as infertility or old age do not void the relationship. “The law [in western traditions over 2400 years] reflected the rational judgment that unions consummated by coitus were valuable in themselves, and different in kind from other bonds” (50).

If it is the case that marriage is simply an endlessly malleable social construction, there is no natural right to marriage that existing laws violate by being defective, and if it is considered just to extend those laws to include other forms of relation, it would be unjust not to recognize other relations such as polyamorous unions unless there were clear and heavy social costs to including them (50-51). Nevertheless, the authors suggest that most advocates on both sides of the current debates reject constructivism. “They agree that marriage has certain necessary features. They only disagree on whether sexual complementarity is one” (52).

What is Marriage? (Part 2)

The second chapter of What is Marriage? sets forth the authors’ rationale for their view of conjugal marriage, which they further define as “Comprehensive Union.” Comprehensive union is grounded in biological and social realities: without bodily union, a relationship cannot be considered “comprehensive” even if it includes other aspects such as companionship and common domestic life. Further, just as the organs of one’s body are coordinated for the single biological purpose of the whole that they form together, just so “for two individuals to unite organically, their bodies must coordinate toward a common biological end of the whole that they form together” (25, original emphasis).

There is one respect in which this highest kind of bodily unity is possible between two individuals, one function for which a mate really does complete us: sexual reproduction. In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone. … Here the whole is the couple; the single biological good, their reproduction (26, original emphasis).

The authors note that it is this coordination toward procreation which makes the union, not the achievement of procreation in itself. Comprehensive union is of value in itself, and not simply as a means to an end. Because it has a unitive as well as a procreative function, the failure to conceive a child does not invalidate the bodily coordination.

Because marriage is uniquely ordered to having and raising children, marriage calls for the wide-ranging co-operation of a shared domestic life to support that end: “the demands of marriage are shaped by those of parenting” (28). Again, the argument is not “that the relationship of marriage and the comprehensive good of rearing children always go together. It is that, like a ball and socket, they fit together: that family life specially enriches marriage; that marriage is especially apt for family life, which shapes its norms” (29, original emphasis). Procreation is the good that fulfils and extends a marriage because it fulfils and extends the act that embodies or consummates the commitment of marriage: the same act by which spouses make love also makes new life; it both seals the marriage and brings forth children (30).

The authors continue to use the biological complementarity of the male and female, and the organic analogy to argue for permanence and sexual exclusivity as norms which characterise the marital relation; comprehensive union requires comprehensive commitment. Marriage is possible only between two because no act can organically (bodily) unite three or more parties. The raising of children and establishing of family is an open-ended task calling for whole-of-life commitment and coordination which in turn requires undivided commitment. Divorce and infidelity undermine the stability conducive to this task and commitment. Because the conjugal view of marriage understands it as distinguished by bodily union and its natural fulfillment in children and family life, it is able to make sense of a pledge to sexual exclusivity, which the revisionist view finds difficult to explain (33-34).

An account of marriage must explain what makes the marital relationship different from others. In our view, the kind of union created by consent to marriage is uniquely comprehensive in how it unites persons, what it unites them with respect to, and how extensive a commitment it demands. … In short, as most people acknowledge, marriage involves a bodily as well as mental union of spouses, a special link to children and domestic life, and permanent and exclusive commitment. All three elements converge in, and go to constitute, the conjugal view (35-36, original emphasis).

Continued Soon…

What is Marriage? (Part 1)

What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012) by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, began its life as an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 2010,  245-287), which was both well received and heavily contested. The book is an expansion of the original article as well as a response to the discussion which arose in the aftermath of the article. At the time of publication Girgis and Anderson were doctoral candidates at Princeton and Notre Dame Universities respectively, while George was Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School and Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. The authors also present their argument in person at a Wheatley Institute lecture.

The book is relatively short (xiv + 133 pages) and comprises six chapters together with an introduction, conclusion, and appendix. It is very concisely and clearly argued, as well as carefully circumscribed: they explicitly state that the argument is not about homosexuality, the morality of homosexual acts or their heterosexual counterparts; they are not making a religious argument; they are not offering an historical or social-scientific argument, although these play a supporting role in their argument. They are detailing a philosophical and legal defense of what they term a “conjugal view” of marriage over against a “revisionist view.” The revisionist view informs many heterosexual approaches to marriage and is not limited simply to those advocating same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, that the question is highly conflicted in the present context provides an occasion to revisit the arguments made, and to reflect specifically on the question of same-sex marriage. Finally, I note that the book was published prior to the US Supreme Court decision of June 2015, allowing same-sex marriage, and reflects that milieu and state of play.

The authors set forth their argument in brief, in the introduction:

Our essential claims may be put succinctly. There is a distinct form of person union and corresponding way of life, historically called marriage, whose basic features do not depend on the preferences of individuals or cultures. Marriage is, of its essence, a comprehensive union: a union of will (consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences. It has long been and remains a personal and social reality, sought and prized by individuals, couples, and whole societies. But it is also a moral reality: a human good with an objective structure, which it is inherently good for us to live out.

Marriages have always been the main and most effective means of rearing healthy, happy, and will-integrated children. The health and order of society depend on the rearing of healthy, happy, and well-integrated children. That is why law, though it may take no notice of ordinary friendships, should recognize and support marriages.

There can thus be no right for nonmarital relationships to be recognized as marriages. There can indeed be much harm, if recognizing them would obscure the shape, and so weaken the special norms, of an institution on which social order depends. So it is not the conferral of benefits on same-sex relationships itself but redefining marriage in the public mind that bodes ill for the common good. Indeed, societies mindful of this fact need deprive no same-sex-attracted people of practical goods, social equality, or personal fulfillment.

Here, then, is the heart of our argument against redefinition. If the law defines marriage to include same-sex partners, many will come to misunderstand marriage. They will not see it as essentially comprehensive, or thus (among other things) as ordered to procreation and family life—but as essentially an emotional union. … to the extent that marriage is misunderstood, it will be harder to see the point of its norms, to live by them, and to urge them on others. And this, besides making any remaining restrictions on marriage arbitrary, will damage the many cultural and political goods that get the state involved in marriage in the first place (6-7, original emphasis).

The introduction also provides a sense of the terms “conjugal” and “revisionist,” that the authors use to describe two visions of marriage. The conjugal view sees marriage as a comprehensive union, joining spouses in body and mind, begun by consent and sealed in sexual intercourse. It is “especially apt for and deepened by procreation,” which then calls for broad sharing of domestic and family life. Uniting spouses in an all-encompassing way, it “objectively calls for all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive.” Such comprehensive union is inherently good, though “its link to children’s welfare makes marriage a public good that the state should recognize and support” (3). The revisionist view which has informed marriage policy now for half a century or so, sees marriage “as a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it” (1-2). The view of marriage as an intense emotional bond was ratified by the US Supreme Court judgement.

The first chapter, entitled “Challenges to Revisionists,” begins by claiming that marriage, as traditionally understood, is a basic human good. It is not, of course, the only human good, nor the only means to a good life. To redefine marriage, then, is not simply to change a legal artefact or title, but to misunderstand a basic human good, and so to diminish the possibility of living out the real thing (14). The chapter argues that the revisionist view fails on its own terms, for it cannot coherently account for the three points common to both sides of the debate: that the state has an interest in regulating certain relationships; that interest exists only if the relationships are sexual; and it exists only if they are monogamous (15).

If you insist as a matter of principle that we should recognize same-sex relationships as marriages, the same principle will require you to accept (and favor legally recognizing) polyamorous—and, as we saw above, nonsexual—relationships as marriages. In other words, on the best accounts on which two men or two women can marry, marriage consists of emotional union and domestic life. But as pleasing and valuable as emotional union can be, there’s nothing about marriage so understood that also requires it to be dyadic, sexually closed, or even sexual at all. Yet bonds that lack these features just aren’t marriages. So the best theories by which any two men or women can marry are mistaken: they get other, less disputed aspects of marriage wrong. … As we deprive marriage policy of definite shape, we deprive it of public purpose. Rigorously pursued, the logic of rejecting the conjugal conception of marriage thus leads, by way of formlessness, toward pointlessness: it proposes a policy for which it can hardly explain the benefit (20-21, original emphasis).

Continued tomorrow…

Hendrix, Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (Review)

Hendrix, Scott H., Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). Xxiv + 341pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-16669-9

Scott Hendrix, Emeritus Professor of Reformation History at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written an articulate, detailed, and highly readable story of the remarkable life of Martin Luther. The book is divided into two parts. Part one, “Pathways to Reform,” covers the period 1483–1521, while part two, “Pursuit of a Vision” treats 1522–1546. The first part consists of eight chapters that introduce Luther and set him firmly in the context of late medieval Germany. Hendrix’s Luther is very much a normal (sixteenth-century) man, “neither a hero nor a villain, but a human being with both merits and faults” (xi). Drawing on a lifetime of learning, and extensively referencing German, Latin, and English-language sources, Hendrix rejects the “popular version” of the “cliché” or “myth of Luther the hero” (33, 39). Luther did join the monastery against his father’s wishes but whether solely as a result of the storm is doubtful. Although we know he posted his ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albert of Mainz, we cannot be quite as certain that he posted them on the doors of Castle Church. He was not a solitary or isolated figure, but embedded in communities and friendships which functioned as networks of support during the Reformation. Although he did struggle with his conscience, his psychological state must not be over-emphasised. His theological breakthrough was not simply the result of a monk’s desperate search for a gracious God, but also of many years of intellectual and academic development, accompanied with pastoral reflection.

Although by 1517 Luther was “pushing reform on two fronts: academic theology and popular piety” (68), he was not yet the “visionary Reformer” he later became. Only in 1520 did he “turn a corner,” believing that the time had come to “speak out” (89). The decisive change occurred while holed up in the Wartburg. Cast out of the church, released from his monastic vows, officially an outlaw, and in hiding for his life, Luther faced, to put it mildly, an uncertain future which neither he nor his friends nor his protector could fathom (112-113). It was in this liminal space, suggests Hendrix, that Luther became then a man possessed of a new identity, vision and purpose, based on a vision of what Christianity could become – a vision he was now intent on pursuing (115).

In the second part of the book the pace slows a little as Hendrix explores the developments of the Reformation’s progress, and Luther’s role and responses in them. Chapters nine and ten treat the early reforms at Wittenberg, initially without Luther, and later stabilised by his presence. Luther’s reforming movement is presented as a “massive campaign of reeducation” (138), equipping the laity with sufficient theological and devotional frameworks, and knowledge so that their consciences and consequent religious practice were formed and reformed. He was concerned also for marriage as one of the goods of creation given by God, and for the education of children and well-run schools. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as spiritual and ecclesial renewal. It was for these reasons that Luther resisted what he considered false initiatives and directions taken by some of his own associates such Karlstadt and Müntzer. According to Hendrix, the tragedy of the Peasant’s War arose because “Müntzer had his own vision of what Christianity should be” (151)—a radical, politicised and apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God realised in a purified Christian state. Luther believed the movement stirred by Müntzer was threatening to undo not just the Reformation but the whole social order.

Hendrix identifies 1525 as a pivotal year during which the profile of the German Reformation began to change from a populist movement driven from the bottom up, to a more formal institutional movement of renewal with momentum coming from the top down. That is, after 1525 the civil authorities began to bring the reforming energies under control. “As a rule, historians have lamented the shift from populist movement to government-authorized reforms, but for the most part Luther did not” (173): the Reformation required the support and protection of the civil authorities if it were not to be put down by its powerful opponents.

Luther wanted release from hierarchical control and false beliefs, but not from worship, order, faith, sacraments, and word. Evangelical worship would be “informal and spontaneous,” arising from the communal experience itself and not imposed from above. Religion would not be confined to churchgoing but would spill over into daily life. Hendrix acknowledges that Luther’s vision resembled the ideal of monastic life stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection: “Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man” (176).

Luther, of course, did not pursue his vision alone. Without Staupitz, Philip of Hesse, his many associates and those who took up the cause in other towns and regions, his Reformation would not have succeeded. In particular, Hendrix notes the crucial role played by Melanchthon—even in Luther’s mind:

For this I was born: to fight and take the field against mobs and devils. Therefore many of my books are stormy and war-like. I must pull out the stumps and roots, hack away at thorns and thistles, drain the swamps [!]. I am the coarse woodsman who must blaze a new trail. But Master Philip comes neatly and quietly behind me, cultivates and plants, sows and waters with joy, according to the gifts that God has richly given him (215).

“Luther was the bushwhacker willing to reject and condemn everything contrary to the gospel and let God take care of the consequences. Melanchthon was the gardener willing to cultivate an agreement between opposing sides so long as it did not silence the gospel” (219). In the end, both were needed and both played their part.

The issue that dominated Luther’s thought in the final years of his life concerned the identity of the true church. In Luther’s view, the rise of Protestantism was not a split from the Roman Catholic Church, but the preservation of the true church which had always existed. It was the Roman hierarchy which had betrayed true Christianity and as such had become a false church (268). In reality, however, Hendrix argues that it was practical issues—the lived spirituality—of the different groups that hindered reconciliation, rather than the politics or theology of the day. Even when some rapprochement appeared possible, neither Catholics nor Protestants were “willing to budge on the same practical issues that had divided them since the ninety-five theses of 1517: indulgences, celibacy of priests, enumerating sins at private confession, private masses, and so forth” (262). “Doctrines were discussable because they were concepts that mattered mainly to theologians; but religious practices were not negotiable because they gave access to the presence and power of the divine, and that access was the reason religion existed” (221). Where the divine is concerned, where everything is at stake, compromise becomes impossible.

In his Martin Luther’s Theology Bernhard Lohse remarks that attempts to characterise Luther typically reflect the theology and values of the interpreter as much as those of Luther himself (3, 6). Hendrix locates the centre of Luther’s theology and reforming vision in the idea of freedom. “Freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free” (115). While other interpreters might locate this centre elsewhere, Hendrix’s proposal at least has substantial warrant from Luther’s own works and words. This is an excellent biography that not only introduces Luther the reformer but also humanises Luther the man. It is likely that all interested persons, from Luther scholars to laity, will find here much to consider, inform, and inspire.

Approaching 1 Samuel (1): The “Author”

Francesca Aran Murphy

When I began reading through the books of Samuel a month or so ago, I knew I had no commentaries on these biblical books on my shelves. I set out immediately to rectify this long-standing and obvious lacuna, and, although the bookshop did not have much to offer, I did find two to help my initial engagement with these texts. Both written by women—an added bonus, considering the somewhat marginal-though-critical role women play in these books—neither would be recognised as “real” commentaries by some scholars.

Mary J. Evans, former academic dean at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, and vice-principal of London School of Theology, wrote The Message of Samuel in the Bible Speaks Today series (2004). This work is self-consciously not a commentary in the traditional sense of the word, but an “exposition” that seeks accurately to expound the biblical text with a view to contemporary insight and application (9). Evans writes, however, “with the conviction that the books of Samuel are a vital part of God’s Word” (10), and so takes them “seriously as the word of God” (15). Like a commentary, her exposition pays close attention to details of the text, the narrative structure and flow, the historical context, etc. This is a useful and accessible introduction that would benefit any Christian reader of the books of Samuel.

I have really been taken, however, by Francesca Aran Murphy’s 1 Samuel in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (2011). Murphy, professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, has written—if the first chapter covering 1 Samuel 1–3 is any indication—a remarkable exposition of this biblical book. The Brazos series “enlists leading theologians to read and interpret scripture creedally for the twenty-first century, just as the church fathers, the Reformers, and other orthodox Christians did for their times and places” (blurb, emphasis added). Thus the work differs from more typical commentaries which analyse historical, linguistic, semantic, and thematic matters associated with the text, or explore and utilise particular hermeneutical lenses in their reading.

Of course Murphy employs the fruits of research into such matters, and has her own hermeneutical lenses. In her introduction we gain a sense of her approach to 1 Samuel when she reflects on what constitutes an author—particularly the author of 1 Samuel, and so also on the nature and function of this biblical text. She appears to reject the idea of the book as the product of editors working with collections of ancient documents. But she also rejects the “heroic sole author” of romanticism. Both these images, she suggests, derive from seventeenth-century British and European culture. Rather, her view includes the figure of a prophet whose immediacy to the divine grounds their religious authority. However the shift from oral to written tradition (or, revelation), is not merely the work of the prophet alone. The prophet provides the moral vision of the work, but this work is also carried out communally. Murphy analogises: perhaps there are similarities to modern script-writing for television drama series; “the best television series have as their executive director a mastermind…[who] gives the series an overall moral vision” which is then worked out collectively by a group who crafts the vision (xviii-xix).

Murphy utilises this image again, in the structure of her commentary which is divided into seven “series” (we might say, “seasons”). Each series (“season”) is composed of a number of episodes. Thus “season one” is “Grace and Nature”; season two is “The Carnival of the Ark”, and so on until season seven, “The Death of the Brother.” Season one has six episodes: Two Wives (1 Sam. 1:1-10); The Political and the Personal (1 Sam. 1:11-20); Samuel Handed Over (1 Sam. 1:21-28); Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2:1-11); Worthless Men (1 Sam. 2:12-36); The Call of Samuel (1 Sam. 3). This structure certainly resonates with me: I can “see” each episode as though on television.

For Murphy, then, “we will term the anonymous script writer of 1 Samuel its “author” because the term retains the shadow of the prophet and his mantle. This is important for Murphy because it provides insight into the function of the text—for both ancient and contemporary readers—and so also provides an orientation to the text itself.

The author of 1 Samuel was not only an independent historian, but also a writer who put his historical gifts at the service of the church. Independent but not autonomous, he wrote as one responsible for a religious community. His task was more like that of a bishop writing a pastoral letter or like that of a prophet, than that of a scholarly historian. For an individual scholar, history is a piece of the past about which he writes, perhaps imposing a philosophy of history upon it. For a people, on the other hand, “history is the remembered past,” the past as it belongs to us. One over-dramatizes the contrast if one says that the author of 1 Regum was a liturgist not a historian: and yet, there is something in it, since our “prophet” was sowing the seeds of a communal memory (xx, citing Lukacs, Historical Conciousness: or, The Remembered Past new edition (1985), 152).

Over the years I have read commentaries that approach the biblical text simply as “history” – or ideology or legend, etc., and some which certainly impose their own philosophy onto the text. Some will argue, and correctly to an extent, that it is impossible to do otherwise; we cannot help but bring ourselves and our own experiences and philosophical perspectives to the text. And it is often the case that these readings illumine and inform us in fresh ways.

But Murphy’s approach tends to viewing 1 Samuel not merely as “history” but as scripture, and so as a word that continues to speak. Its function is not simply an etiological account of the Israelite monarchy, but has religious, liturgical and prophetic functions, and to be read most fruitfully, must be read in account with its nature as such, its prophetic dimension continuing to inform the contemporary reader open to listening to it as such.

I will give some indications of how this plays out in Murphy’s exposition in a follow-up post.

Barth: A Guide for the Perplexed (Review)

Nimmo, Paul T., Barth: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017). Pp. xiv + 210. ISBN: 978-0-567-03264-5

Introductions to Karl Barth’s theology continue to arrive, each distinctive in its own way, and more or less helpful and memorable. Those new to Barth and seeking an entry to his major work will find Paul Nimmo’s new book a helpful guide, fulfilling its purpose in the Bloomsbury series. Nimmo’s approach to his subject is straight-forward. After an initial survey of Barth’s life, and an orientation to his theology in chapter one, there follow six chapters in which Nimmo provides terse expositions, or better, synopses, of the various sections of the Church Dogmatics, interspersed with brief reflective comments on Barth’s doctrine in those sections. Thus chapter two examines the first volume of the Dogmatics—the doctrine of the Word of God. Chapter three details volume two on the doctrine of God, and chapter four addresses the doctrine of creation in volume three of the work. Nimmo breaks the pattern when he reaches volume four. He devotes two chapters to an exposition of the doctrine of reconciliation, and here, instead of working through each part-volume in order as he has in the other chapters, he works through each doctrinal theme across the part-volumes, thus treating each doctrine as a unity rather than in parts as Barth did. Chapter five gives attention to Barth’s Christology and his doctrine of sin, while chapter six examines his soteriology, and the work of the Spirit in the church and in Christian life. This method of exposition has the advantage of providing a clear overview of each of these doctrines in a unified account. The final chapter is also a departure from a straight-forward exposition. In this chapter Nimmo treats Barth’s ethics, drawing together material from the each of the volumes, and including a brief exposition of the lectures published posthumously as The Christian Life.

Nimmo’s comments at the conclusion of each section highlight areas of ongoing conversation or dispute in Barth studies (for example, with respect to the doctrine of election), or methodological insights (for example, Barth’s grounding of the divine perfections in scriptural exposition). He is aware of contentions with respect to Barth’s interpreters, shows the various sides of the arguments, but remains impartial with respect to the issues. Although his own commitments are not the focus of his exposition, they do surface at times as part of his discussion. Thus Nimmo takes up common concerns that Barth is fideist, or has no place for human agency, or that his soteriology is universalist. In particular, he emphasises the event nature of God’s being and work, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in the doctrine of reconciliation. Although it is clear that Nimmo writes with great sympathy for the Barth’s project, he is no epigone, writing that “although theologians today should certainly think about Barth and with Barth, they are also called to think after Barth in their work, acknowledging that he does not have the final word” (201). While we do well to learn from the Swiss master, we do even better to follow in his way of doing theology with “responsible obedience” and “joyful freedom,” attending to the revelation given us in Christ, and aiming at the witness of this same Jesus Christ in the world.

Nimmo has provided a well-written and able overview of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. That he could accomplish this task in a work of this size is quite remarkable. That he succeeds in making Barth’s magnum opus accessible for those wanting to engage the Church Dogmatics is a worthy achievement. The real success of his work, however, will be measured in accordance with those who, having read this introduction, go on to read Barth for themselves, and then to think with Barth and after Barth in their own contexts.

Leal, On Gay Marriage (Review)

Leal, Dave, On Gay Marriage (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2014) pp. 27 
 ISBN: 978-1-85174-906-5

This is a booklet rather than a book, part of the Grove Ethics series (E174). Dave Leal teaches at Oxford in the Philosophy, and Theology and Religion departments. Written in 2014 soon after the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, it deals with and alludes to issues more familiar with the British context than I am. The brief format of the series means that it is quite compressed in style, as Leal includes more ideas in the work than he can clearly explain—though that is very possibly more my shortcoming than his.

The booklet is divided, after a one page introduction, into three chapters of roughly equal length. The first is entitled “Gay,” the second “Marriage,” and the third “Gay Marriage.” The first chapter opens with the apparently controversial statement that “Christians can live without gay.” He quickly proceeds, however, to an equivalent statement that “Christians can live without straight.” It is the practice of mapping human being according to various purported sexualities that he finds problematic. Leal explores the connection between “sexuality” and identity, and indeed challenges the reality and relevance of the notion of “sexuality” at all, understood in terms of identifying or labelling either oneself or others according to sexual preferences or practices as though these are part of a person’s “essence.” A Christian perspective on identity, he suggests, must be grounded primarily in our fundamental relation to God, in the light of which all other identity commitments are provisional.

The second chapter plumbs the meaning of marriage, which Leal intentionally de-centres as a primary mode, at least of Christian life. The focus of the chapter is much more on legal questions with metaphysical questions concerning the nature of marriage bracketed. The reason for this is that marriage takes and has taken different forms in different cultures and historical periods; there appears to be no “essence” of marriage accessible to public reason, although it is true that different groups have what John Rawls has termed a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” of marriage. Thus multiple legal patterns of marriage have emerged in different jurisdictions. This is not to say that marriage across jurisdictions does not share some central ideals, and Leal identifies three as primary—sexual exclusivity, permanence, and consent. Noting these features, Leal suggests that the “goods” of marriage might be articulated in terms amenable to public reason and the “human good,” as a guide to those responsible for drafting legislation, that it serve this human good. An important issue addressed in this chapter asks whether marriage is simply a cultural-legal matter which may change in accordance with social and cultural shifts. Does marriage “evolve,” as suggested by one minister in the British parliament? Leal comments:

It is certainly a matter of historical fact that once there was Marriage [according to the Marriage Act 1754], and later there was Marriage [according to the Marriage Act 1949], but this does not suggest that marriage evolves. Perhaps all the Culture Secretary meant was that we change our minds about what we mean by marriage, which would not, of course, be a comment about marriage at all (16).

Perhaps metaphysical questions about the nature of marriage cannot be bracketed after all.

Having laid the foundations of his discussion in the first two chapters, Leal now asks, What, then, of gay marriage? and asserts that, “Christians have no reason to expect marriage laws accurately to reproduce their own conception of marriage” (18). Leal is no doubt correct in this assertion, particularly given the secular, liberal-democratic context in which he writes—a context shared by Australia.

However, he is unprepared to leave it at that, and offers arguments to suggest that changing marriage laws to affirm same-sex marriage may not be a good idea. He argues, on the basis of consequences deriving from liberalisation of divorce laws, that it is simply not the case that liberalising marriage laws to include gay couples will have no real impact on heterosexual marriage—or marriage itself. Further, marriage was never conceived as a form of relationship for heterosexuals in any case; “Who, after all, believed in heterosexuality before the nineteenth century?” (19). Marriage, as a form of human relation, pre-exists any human laws regulating it, and arguably, any religious development as well.

Marriage was traditionally conceived as a form of relationship binding male and female, accepting the biological relation between the two, along with the form of natural sexual reproduction of humans, as a reality to which marriage corresponds. This conception may arise from a religious perspective . . . or it may simply be rooted in a sense of respect for the natural, without any additional religious dimension. This appeared to be the main conviction of those who identified themselves as homosexual but opposed changes to permit same-sex marriage. Those who opposed the introduction of same-sex marriage did not principally see marriage as answering to the particular appetites and identities of types of people (19).

This concern with creaturely reality, especially with respect to procreation and childcare (though this is a point not developed by Leal), suggests that marriage itself is something, that it is grounded in the nature of how things are, and thus not simply “what we say it is,” or the mere creation of legislation.

“Marriage is what we say it is” would separate marriage from that conception of human reality it has traditionally been seen to belong to. If that conception of reality is deemed to belong to a comprehensive doctrine not defensible in public reason—or dismissed as merely the present mood of past centuries—it is not at all clear that the alternative conceptions of reality, such as the sexuality map . . . are in fact any more publicly defensible. The result looks unlike discernment, and more like the choice of a different doctrine, the triumph of a different partiality. The loss, then, is perhaps precisely that of tradition, and if that is indeed lost, to be replaced by mere legislative contingencies, the harm done to marriages by that move remains to be seen. There were never any winners here though. If a stated aim was to open up marriage to same-sex couples, but in doing so marriage necessarily lost its original meaning, we may wonder whether anyone has made a significant gain (20).

One may guess that the long-term effect of the recent changes to marriage will be to reinforce the conception of it as a creature of the legislator’s and participant’s wills, and therefore make it more fragile as a social institution, and more readily rejected, with unfortunate consequences for those that the institution might be concerned to protect (24).

This is a thoughtful essay attempting, successfully for the most part, to contribute a reasoned argument in non-sectarian terms to an issue fraught with tension in the public sphere. Leal includes many more ideas than could be expansively developed in the format of this series, but what he has developed is worth careful consideration.