Tag Archives: Review

Stanley Fish: Winning Arguments (Review)

Stanley Fish, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom 
(New York: Harper Collins, 2016) 
ISBN: 978-0-06-222665-5

Stanley Fish, distinguished professor of law in New York and Florida, argues quite simply that “argument is everywhere, argument is unavoidable, argument is interminable, argument is all we have” (3). The world, he says, is rhetorically constructed; we live in a world “bereft of transcendence” (12) and so absolute truth, certainty, and authority are beyond us. We can hope only for persuasion and must argue for it. Nor is there a world without argument or a language so purified of ulterior motives and hidden or overt agendas or rhetorical devices, so objective and factual that it transcends the need for argument (21). Argument arises on account of and in the context of doubt. If doubt may be introduced into the present consensus, argument ensues. In fact, argument can introduce doubt, if only to create its own momentum. Fish cites as examples the serpent in Genesis 3, or the smoking lobby. Thus when and wherever rhetoric is used to inspire doubt in order to progress its own argument, the only adequate response can be rhetorical—a counter-argument. Yet argument is two-faced and double-sided leading either to the Good—via ‘good persuasion,’ a rational sorting of argument based on answering the question, What’s the best thing to be done?, i.e. the good, the right, the best, the fitting—or to the Bad—via ‘bad persuasion,’ which aims at the sympathy of the audience and at leaving the opponent nothing to say. Its question: How do I win? (46). In the end Fish appeals to Aristotle: the best we can do is take care that rhetoric’s potent appeals are deployed solely in the service of truth. ‘Tether the undeniable power of the ethical and pathetic to a rational purpose…make ethos and pathos subordinate to logos and not the other way around; we can have our rhetoric and not be eaten by it too’ (47).

This is a synopsis of the first chapter of Winning Arguments. In the final chapter Fish continues his argument that there is nothing but argument: we live not in an abstract world of ‘undistorted or purified communication’ (Habermas, Orwell) where universal harmony is the goal and every word is weighed and cleansed, but in the realm of ‘instrumental purposes’ where every conversation is irremediably situated and local, the entire field of discourse ‘saturated with interest’ (200). This claim is problematic for both religious believers and for ‘liberals’ (those committed to the Enlightenment philosophical program inaugurated by Kant). For Fish, these two groups are both committed to a world without argument, the first by appeal to a higher authority to which all should give assent, the second to what Fish labels a ‘thin proceduralism,’ rules of engagement that bracket off interest-laden norms that produce social and political division (201)—what can and cannot be spoken of or assumed, and the formation of a public language of ‘such generality and metaphysical emptiness that to speak it is to commit oneself to almost nothing’ (202). Whereas religion privileges obedience to a higher authority, liberalism privileges the exercise of choice by the free and autonomous individual. The problem with religion is that not all hold the particular beliefs espoused by the religion; the problem for liberalism is the difficulty of securing a polity in which conflict gives way to harmony when the supreme value is the will of the individual.

And yet, although religion and liberalism are locked in an opposition for which there is no resolution, they are alike in one respect—their claim to be universal, albeit in different ways. Liberal universalism is to be achieved by subtraction, by removing or bracketing comprehensive moral dictates not everyone would recognize; religious universalism is inherent in the comprehensive claim of a religion to be bearing a truth everyone, including nonbelievers, should acknowledge. One kind of universalism says, ‘be an independent, rational chooser rather than someone chosen and scripted by deity or a pregiven morality’; the other says, ‘forgo your independence—you really don’t have it anyway—and allow yourself to be absorbed into a structure not made by hands’ (204-205).

Brian Smith for The Chronicle Review

Fish argues that we live in an unredeemed world in which there is no ‘God’s eye view,’ no ‘final meanings of the kind that would stop conflict in its tracks.’ These, simply, are unavailable. In such a world all we have is argument. This is real; it is also ideal: ‘no argument means no assertion, no exploration of alternatives, no movement, no advance in knowledge, no building of community’ (208). This is why the question, Why can’t we all just get along? is illegitimate: ‘a quarrel is evidence of co-existence’ (208).

The wish to escape argument is really the wish to escape language, which is really the wish to escape politics, and is finally the wish to escape mortality—and it won’t matter a whit. For one effect of inhabiting the condition of difference—the condition of being partial, the condition of not being in direct touch with the final unity and full meaning of the universe—is that we long to transcend it; and it is that longing, forever disappointed, that keeps us going (212).

Between the first and last chapters are four chapters dealing with political, domestic, legal, and academic arguments respectively. Each chapter brims with points and illustrations showing how arguments ‘work’ in each of these arena. The most humorous chapter concerns domestic arguments where Fish insists that the only way to ‘win’ in the domestic sphere is if both parties win and so transcend the argument, as it were. This is not to argue for a lack of argument or disagreement, but to show the way in which domestic arguments ‘work.’ The only forward in a domestic argument is to cease from the making of points—establishing whose facts are most correct—and taking up an entirely different mode of interaction altogether, the way of softness, pardon, and forgiveness. Is his point in this chapter at odds with his overall vision and claim? Could such a strategy work in politics or the court room, for example? His answer seems to be No because the context, the participants, and the goals are so different.

Fish writes in a way that is up-to-date, perceptive, at times humorous, and deeply insightful. The purpose of his book is to encourage his readers to engage in argument, passionately, intelligently, aware of the rhetorical and argumentative tactics and strategies at one’s disposal, and using them to advance the quest for that which is good, beneficial and true. He encourages us to become persuasive.

It is likely that many Christians will question his claim that we live in a world bereft of transcendence, that there is no God’s-eye view. Many Christians will rightly point to Jesus Christ as ‘the truth,’ to Scripture as inspired Word of God, and so conclude that Fish is wrong. Such reasoning is too hasty, however. I, too, affirm that Jesus is the Truth with a capital-T, and that Scripture is divinely inspired and authoritative. But our apprehension of this Truth is only ever partial; we see through a glass darkly, and this is the only way in which we can see, this side of eternity.

And so we must argue, intelligently and honestly, and in pursuit of a greater apprehension of the truth. And perhaps more importantly, we must demonstrate the truthfulness of our convictions by living them. The argument of the Christian must always be more than intellectual, more than merely words—though never less! Rather, in a pluralist world the church bears witness to the Truth that lies at the heart of all reality, and does so by the way in which it lives, as Kevin Vanhoozer has so ably stated:

The church’s aim should be to render a faithful interpretation of Scripture.…the reading that gives rise to a way of living that most approximates the life of Jesus himself, the harbinger of the kingdom of God.…The community of believers represents a prophetic counter-culture that challenges the gods and myths of the day with regard to which world and life view best fulfills humanity.…Again, this is not only a matter of correct doctrine but also a matter of faithful biblical performance. The church must be the cultural incarnation of the story of God in Christ (“The World Well Staged? Theology, Culture and Hermeneutics.” In God and Culture, Donald A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Eds) (Carlisle: Paternoster, 27-28).

Guretzki, An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth (Review)

David Guretzki, An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth 
(Downers Grove, Il.: IVP Academic, 2016). Pp. xiii + 223. 
ISBN: 978-0-8308-5137-9

Last week I reviewed Galli’s recent introductory biography of Karl Barth for evangelicals, and expressed the hope that evangelicals might engage with the Swiss master. This review is for those who have decided that they would like to do this but perhaps are unsure where to begin. Those new to Barth and seeking an understanding of his life and work will find David Guretzki’s new book helpful. Guretzki’s primary aim, restated several times in his text, is to ‘provide a guide—a handbook of sorts—explicitly designed to help new explorers of Karl Barth to get quickly acclimatized to his thought’ (xi). Further, he aims to get his readers reading Barth for themselves and relying less on secondary assessments and commentary (205; cf. 180). Whether he succeeds in these goals remains to be seen, but he has certainly written a text that makes it easier for new readers of Barth to engage directly with his work.

The book is divided into two parts: Getting to Know Karl Barth with five chapters, and Exploring the Church Dogmatics with four more chapters. In the first chapter entitled ‘Why Karl Barth?’ Guretzki gives two reasons in addition, of course, to his reputation and stature which requires anyone who wants to be theologically informed to come to grips with his theology (8). First, says the author, Barth is thoroughly Christ-centred, and second, he is thoroughly biblical (9). As such he is also ‘spiritually valuable’ (14). Guretzki is convinced that Barth’s theology ‘will persist not because he got it all right…but because it so consistently recenters our search for God in God’s own search for us in the person of Jesus Christ whom we follow in life and in death’ (41).

After a brief second chapter which provides a thumbnail sketch of Barth’s life and career, the third chapter addresses a list of seventeen very practical ‘frequently asked questions’ about Barth’s life, theology and work arising from many years of teaching students. The fourth and fifth chapters are the longest in the book, comprising almost 100 pages. Chapter four is an excellent, well-nuanced and judicious ‘Glossary of Concepts and People’ explaining twenty-four entries, which new readers of Barth will find very helpful. Many of the entries are focussed on methodological moves made by Barth (e.g. analogy, correspondence, dialectic, Historie and Geschichte, etc.), although some also explain material concerns. Of the many terms which could have been included, Guretzki has chosen those that he judges are used by Barth in a distinctive way (47). The final chapter of Part One suggests ten readings that novices might engage from Barth’s career prior to his work on the Church Dogmatics. In fact Guretzki laments that ‘so many are unfamiliar with the riches of Barth’s earlier works, many of which are often, in my opinion, far more interesting to read’ (93f.). I imagine that Guretzki has in mind the explosive rhetoric and fertile creativity that marks Barth’s formative theological work. In any case it is refreshing to see new readers being encouraged to ‘explore’ these early works. The chapter concludes with a brief ‘detour’ which accentuates the volume of Barth’s exegetical work outside the Church Dogmatics, and what one might expect from this biblical work.

The four chapters of Part Two serve as an orientation for new readers to the Church Dogmatics. Chapter six is a primer explaining the structures and features of Barth’s magnum opus, while chapter seven is called a ‘User’s Guide’ to the work. Here Guretzki argues that ‘the CD is read aright when used as a theological tool, not necessarily as an artifact to be viewed in and of itself’ (159). Guretzki introduces the reader to the Index, discusses preaching and the Church Dogmatics, and gives tips for starting and leading a Barth Reading Group, or writing a research paper on some aspect of Barth’s theology. The eighth chapter provides a very brief overview of the content of each part volume of the Dogmatics, together with a suggested reading plan for each part volume which is particularly helpful. The reading plan is divided into three categories for those who want to ‘sample’ Barth’s work, ‘study’ Barth’s work, or undertake a more ‘scholarly’ engagement with it. Those who follow the plan as a ‘sampler’ will end up reading about 10% of the Dogmatics, those who ‘study’ about 20%, and those engaging as ‘scholars’ about 33% of the whole work. The final chapter provides some suggested resources for further engagements with Barth scholarship and aids.

This is a very useful book for students and readers new to Barth’s theology. In my estimation Guretzki has succeeded in his task of preparing a guidebook which alerts the newcomer concerning the adventure to be had, things to look for, and pitfalls to avoid. I especially appreciated some of the excellent advice he gave along the way, such as the warning against relying too heavily on a single passage or volume when interpreting some aspect of Barth’s theology. He rightly notes that many errors of interpretation have been made in Barth studies because readers have read only part of what Barth has said on a particular topic, and not weighed what he has said on the same topic in other places (71). And he is clear that reading a guidebook about something is utterly different from experiencing the real thing. Guretzki has not written a book that will make reading Barth himself unnecessary, but a book that will help them read Barth for themselves, and equip them to understand his work more carefully as they do so, whether or not they finally agree with his proposals.

Galli, Karl Barth for Evangelicals (Review)

Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals 
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). Pp. xvi + 176. 
ISBN: 978-0-8028-6939-5

Mark Galli entitles his recent book on Karl Barth an ‘introductory biography for evangelicals.’ As a biography it is a faithful though simplified rendering of the broader and deeper story found in Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (1976), upon which it draws heavily. With respect to his intended audience, Galli is writing specifically for evangelical Christians, not as a Barth specialist, but as an appreciative student and fellow-traveller.

Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, has written his book to reintroduce Karl Barth to evangelicals for two reasons. First, initial evangelical introductions to Barth’s theology ‘got him wrong’ (6) with the result that a deep distrust developed among (especially North American) evangelicals so that even today his work is often ignored or dismissed by them (2). Nonetheless, the reception of Barth among evangelical theologians is now changing and it is only a matter of time, Galli suggests, before Barthian theology, ‘however chastened and revised, will make its way down into the pulpit and pews of evangelical churches’ (9). Second, and as a corollary to this, Galli believes that Barth’s insights have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism as they consider afresh what it means to proclaim the gospel and to ‘bear the cost of discipleship in these trying times’ (12).

After the introduction and first chapter provide the rationale for the book, Galli devotes nine chapters to a brief recounting of Barth’s remarkable life from his youth to his retirement years, highlighting his ‘conversion’ from nineteenth-century Liberal theology, his Romans commentaries, his participation in the church’s struggle against Nazism, his political activity in a post-war divided Europe, and his ongoing work on the Church Dogmatics. He considers Barth’s attitude toward Russian communism (‘in retrospect Barth does seem naive on this issue’ (103)), and his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum (‘it was clearly a case of emotional adultery’ (68)).[1] These chapters are supplemented by a further chapter on Barth as ‘preacher and pastor’ which also considers him as a family man, a person of prayer, and the struggles of his old age (‘he suffered from what we would today call depression’ (133)). This is a useful and very accessible biography for those new to Barth.

After the initial chapters of biography Galli has two chapters devoted to Church Dogmatics though in reality they address not the substance or structure of the work itself, but two theological issues of immediate concern to evangelicals: the question of Barth’s concept of the Word of God, especially as it relates to Scripture, and the question of universal reconciliation. In both cases Galli endeavours to provide a ‘larger understanding’ of Barth’s thought with regard to the issue, and with respect to Scripture concludes that ‘given this larger understanding, I don’t know that traditional evangelical theology has much to argue with’ (112). ‘Barth reminds us that Scripture is not something we preserve and manipulate, let alone protect, but the means by which the Word encounters us, preserves us, and, if you will, “manipulates” us—that is, shapes us into the beings we were created to be’ (115-116). Galli remains unsure as to whether Barth’s theology leads inexorably to universal reconciliation, and suggests that ‘insofar as Barth’s doctrines of election and justification move in the direction of universalism, of course, evangelicals rightly reject his views’ (121). Nevertheless he applauds Barth’s ‘fresh approach’ to long-standing theological conundrums, and ‘speaking personally, Barth has helped me talk about the gospel as unquestionable good news…[he] helps me as a teacher and preacher to proclaim good news that is really good news…with no ifs, ands, or buts. No quid pro quo. No qualifications’ (125-126).

In his final chapter ‘“Liberal” Evangelicalism,’ Galli returns to his rationale for writing the book only this time to argue that ‘today, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a liberal and an evangelical’ (141). In a rhetorical flourish he even suggests that ‘Schleiermacher has been born again in evangelicalism’ (144). Galli is clear that contemporary evangelicalism is not the equivalent of nineteenth-century liberalism, but is concerned at the extent it has assimilated much of its ethos, especially its emphasis on religious experience and Ritschlian moralism. For Galli, Karl Barth’s thorough-going battle against liberalism together with his clarion call to hear afresh the Word of God in Jesus Christ, will serve as a salutary summons to evangelicals. At stake, suggests Galli, is the very identity and mission of the church (145). The book concludes with an annotated bibliography useful for those new to Barth, and an index.

Galli notes that Barth ‘wrote his theology…as an attempt to think about Jesus Christ in the context of the challenges and problems of the day. He wanted to model a way of doing theology—grounded in the Bible—more than to champion a particular theology’ (137). If Galli succeeds in his attempt to reintroduce Barth to a new generation of evangelical Christians, students and pastors he will have rendered the movement a great service. While it is quite certain that evangelicals will continue to dispute with Barth over a range of issues, substantial engagement with his theology will assist them as they in their own way also think about Jesus Christ amidst the challenges and problems of the day. One hopes that this little book gains a wide readership amongst its intended audience.

[1] It is worth noting that Galli only became aware of the extent of the relationship and Barth’s justification of it, shortly after the publication of his book. See his comment and reflection at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/what-to-make-of-karl-barths-steadfast-adultery.html.

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.

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.

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (3)

Luther’s Reformation never settled during his lifetime; his vision was never realised. In the 1530s the movement faced questions and opposition on three sides, from the Anabaptists, the Catholics, and the Zwinglians. Of these, a rapprochement was possible only with the third, and this was the work of the princes in the formation of the Smalcald League, which sought to unify Protestants and Protestant territories. Indeed, as he aged, Luther remained or even grew more polemical, especially toward the papacy, but also toward Anabaptists and Jews. His hope that the true church would emerge and thrive at the preaching of the gospel was not to be. Even Wittenberg was “home to no more true Christians than any other place” (282).

For himself, however, Luther did not doubt. On the evening of his death he was asked by one of his associates whether he was ready to die trusting in Christ and standing by what he had taught. “A distinct ‘yes’ emerged from his mouth before Luther turned on his right side and went to sleep.” He died later that night without priest, confession of sins, or anointing with oil (284).

No doubt Luther never imagined some of the results which would spring from his activity. He gave the Germans a Bible in their own language, and many read it in their own way, some “enslaving themselves verse by verse to a paper pope” (228). His emphasis on Christian freedom was taken by some in antinomian directions, while others insisted on obedience to the law.

Separating religion from moralism was Luther’s revolutionary innovation and simultaneously the reason why he was often misunderstood and rejected. It defied the age-old purpose of religion: to gain access to the divine and then to please the gods in order to obtain their blessing and reward. … Christianity had mostly fit that template and Luther’s attempt to alter it was bound to meet enormous resistance, even though he was able to sum up his view in one sentence: “True religion demands the heart and the soul, not deeds and other externals, although these follow if you have the right heart. For where the heart is, everything else is also there” (233-234).

True religion is not and cannot be grounded in law and works: in accord with his vision of the gospel, it is faith that frees. True religion is not morality. Faith, and the life that issues from it, is all the work of the Holy Spirit. This did not mean, however, that Luther had no place for the law. Against his long-time associate and friend John Agricola who argued that the law should not be preached or taught lest people think that faith is insufficient for salvation, Luther said, “I myself, as old and as learned as I am, recite the commandments daily word for word like a child” (257). Hendrix notes that being Luther’s friend could be a precarious relation. His rejections of Karlstadt and Agricola suggested that Luther tied collegial friendships to like-mindedness and deference.

Since 1521, Luther believed he was subject only to the Lord himself, who had shown him the genuine gospel and entrusted him with its propagation. Feeling the weight of that divine sanction, Luther would do almost anything to ensure that the reformation prospered, and that included adapting the evangelical message to a shifting audience. Agricola could not accept the adaptation, and Luther’s heartless behavior drove Agricola away. … For Luther, the “adversary” was any person or group who would not cooperate with his mission to restore a purified Christianity to Germany (258, 264).

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). The true church is never the institution but the gathering of believers to hear, believe and keep the “pure” Word of God.

True Christendom, like true religion, consisted only of people who conveyed to one another the word of God, believed it, and kept it with all the freedom, charity, crosses, and shortfalls that it brought. Religious institutions served only as facilitators of that true religion (262).

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:

History is always a reconstruction of the past that reflects the bias and the unavoidable short-sightedness of those who write it. And when religion is the subject, there is no way to verify what was true or false. One person’s true religion was the other person’s heresy or fanaticism. Religious colloquies did not succeed in reconciling Catholics and Lutherans—not to mention other Protestants, Muslims, and Jews—because hidden beneath the differences about what was true and what was false were the stakes identified by Luther: mercy and life, or wrath and death. Tradition, customs, injustices, and ethnic loyalties also played their parts, as they still do in the choice and exercise of religion. In sixteenth-century Europe, however, religious conflicts were so bitter and conciliation so rare because, for most people involved, including Martin Luther, everything was at stake (269).

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (2)

In an initial post, I provided an overview of the first part of this book by Scott Hendrix.

The second part of the book is comprised of ten chapters covering the period from 1522-1546. Here the pace of the book 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. Luther steadfastly resisted rigorist developments which either enforced reform on unwilling participants or bound their conscience with all kinds of rules. Instead he sought to liberate consciences and counter “unthinking piety.”

Nor was Luther’s concern limited to spiritual matters. 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. In Luther’s view, God’s word and grace had given Germany an opportunity which it dare not refuse lest it fall back into misery and darkness, as had happened to the Jews, the Greeks, and now Rome and the Latins. Thus Luther’s vision included cultural as well as 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. Hendrix details formative ecclesiastical developments, especially the German mass, the new church order, and formal parish visitations for quality-control and oversight which together facilitated the establishing of a new form of (Evangelical) church. 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,

If all of that resembles the ideal monastic life of common prayer and work—although stripped of celibacy and the demand for perfection, and adapted for all “earnest Christians” outside the cloister—it is no coincidence. Luther never completely abandoned the monastic ideal. The man left the monastery, but the monastery never left the man (176).

Nonetheless, Luther’s refusal to limit the church to the “faithful,” faith-filled or fully-devoted is of a piece with his theology: we are ever sinners in need of grace. Thus Luther rejected the perfectionism of the monastery while retaining other aspects of its ideal of a life devoted to God. His Small Catechism sought to instil the fear and love of God as the manner of Christian life such that God’s people were free but did not “misuse” their freedom ((196-197).

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.

Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer (1)

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. Subtitled Visionary Reformer, we catch a glimpse of Hendrix’s purpose on page 115:

From this point on, 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. The decisive turning point in his life was not the ninety-five theses or the Diet of Worms. It happened at the Wartburg, where he adopted a new identity and a new purpose that he believed to have come from God. It was based on a vision of what Christianity could become – a vision he was intent on pursuing.

Hendrix has divided his book 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 many years of intellectual and academic development, accompanied with pastoral reflection.

Hendrix details Luther’s demanding schedule in the years prior to 1517 as a cleric, professor and administrator. “When the ninety-five theses made their splash, their author was not an insignificant Augustinian monk. Rather, Brother Martin belonged to the senior management of the Reformed Congregation” (46). His initial aim was reform of the curriculum at Wittenberg University, along humanist rather than scholastic lines, emphasising the study of Scripture and the early teachers of the church, especially Augustine. But the indulgence controversy caused the reforming impulse to move beyond the university. Here a pastoral motive emerges alongside the theological; this was theology applied for the nature of the gospel and the salvation of the people was at stake. Thus theological, pastoral, hermeneutical—and financial and political—factors combined to spark the Reformation.

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. His disputations at Heidelberg, and with Cajetan and Eck were apologetic attempts to commend his new theology. Only in 1520 did he “turn a corner,” believing that the time had come to “speak out” (89). By now he had given up on the clergy taking up the call to reform the church, and so turned to the German nobility to reform the practice of religion in Christendom. The papal bull Exsurge Domine, the edict of ex-communication, and the summons to appear before the emperor at Worms issued in Luther’s determination to recognise the authority of scripture as greater than that of the papacy. 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, holed up in the Wartburg, that Luther became then a man possessed of a new identity, vision and purpose, a “visionary Reformer.”

History by the Earful

A couple of months ago I purchased two new audio books to listen to while cycling. Often, while cycling, I listen to novels: they do not seem to demand as much concentration. Listening to non-fiction is harder, and I seem only to get a portion of what I am hearing.

The first of the books is Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. The sub-title indicates the bold, perhaps grandiose, vision of the book. Of course it is impossible to write a complete history of the world; that would be beyond any possible scholarly capacity.  Frankopan, however, has achieved much of what he has set out to do.

Frankopan argues that Asia and the Middle East constitute the “heart of the world,” and that major trading cities were strung across this region, across “the spine of Asia,” like a string of pearls. These cities became centres of mercantile activity from ancient eras to the present, and indeed, the world as a whole is pivoting back to this region as it once more fulfils its role (destiny?) as “the heart of the world.”

Frankopan’s history is deeply fascinating and somewhat depressing. He manages to include enormous detail and great sweeps and movements of history as he exploits the imagery of the “silk road.” The origin of the term refers, of course, to the trade routes linking China to the west so that silk production in the former might find its way to the latter. In Frankopan’s hands, the silk roads become the “road to heaven” (the crusades) and the “road to hell” (the Black Death or the plagues). He speaks of the “slave road,” and the “road to the Christian east;” the roads of furs, gold, silver, and black gold. The roads to compromise, genocide, and super-power rivalry; the roads of catastrophe and tragedy.

There is much in the book to inform Christian interest in church history, though Frankopan seems to regard religion as a human capacity. His treatment of the modern world, as expected, is more detailed than that of the ancient world. The British are portrayed as a particularly wicked empire, followed closely by the Americans, though Hitler is worst of all, simply and utterly evil. In contrast to the British, other brutal tyrants of history such as Genghis Khan seem almost tame by comparison. But perhaps I missed some of Frankopan’s nuance, due to the cycling.

So why was it somewhat depressing? Because the story is one of warfare, conquest, exploitation, bloodshed, and tyranny, and all this based on economics and the desire for power or glory. While trade has certainly opened up the world and brought its varied peoples into contact and communication with one another, it has also opened doorways to violent military conflicts that have devastated entire peoples and regions.

As I listened I was glad for relatively recent developments in international relations and law which serve to constrain some of these worst impulses, though obviously not entirely. I was also very aware that the privilege I enjoy as a member of a first-world society has been funded at least in part by injustice in previous generations and centuries.

Is there hope that the future might be different from the past? Might new systems and mechanisms of trade and development emerge that somehow privilege the under-developed nations and allow them to space to prosper, even if “economic growth” and “standards of living” in the wealthier countries do not continue to grow at the rates we seem to desire? Might warfare and violence be constrained, and its devastating impact on civilian populations (especially children) reduced? Can the international community find better ways of relating than via stand-off and conflict?

I am not overly optimistic about this. It seems humanity is fatally incapable of learning that the way of hubris and greed leads inevitably to destruction, both for others and ultimately, for oneself. Perhaps works like Frankopan’s will help stimulate deeper reflection across many constituencies, and so result in new movements towards peace and justice. Such movements are welcome and are to be encouraged.

In the end, however, I find I hope most in the eschatological and apocalyptic vision of the New Testament: that is, I hope for the return of Jesus Christ and the establishing of the kingdom of God. As Christians, it is this in which we hope, this that we are to image now in our life together, and this that we are to work toward.

I found this a very worthwhile book, one I will listen to again. I have also bought a Kindle edition and hope one day to read it as well. I can recommend it.