Recommended Books March 2011

Written 14 March 2011

CR Seitz Prophecy and Hermeneutics
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007

This book is subtitled “Toward a new Introduction to the Prophets”, and the author names his approach late in the book as “canonical-historical”. He applauds the fruits of socio-historical enquiry, but bemoans the tendency to see everything in the Scriptures from an historicist perspective. One of the main fascinations with this book is that its major focus is on the last Prophetic Book of the OT, ie the book of the Twelve. The first part of the book sets out Seitz’s methodology, and it is not particularly easy reading at least for this reviewer, but the 2nd part illustrates his thesis with reference to the literary and theological, as well as historical, links among the Twelve, and this part is notable both for the cogency of the author’s contention and the subtle but demonstrable networking in the juxtaposition of the texts. So. A game of two halves, in which the second was an engaging improvement on the first.

Paula Clifford Theology and International Development
London: Christian Aid 2010

The Bishop of Oxford, formerly “of this parish”, has written the Preface to this short but compact theological reflection on international development, as typified by the work of Christian Aid. It is a model of how doing contextual theology might look. She starts with the experiences of poverty and human rights and then identifies key theological perspectives on them, embracing Scriptural outlooks but also the views of 20th and 21st century commentators. Not surprisingly, liberation theology is evaluated, but perhaps more intriguingly reactions to the HIV/AIDS epidemic are prominent. Dr Clifford’s closing two chapters indicate how doing theology is integral to the management of a development agency and to the process of eradicating poverty. She doesn’t answer all the questions, but like all good theologians she does make sure that the important questions are raised and explored.

R Horsley Christian Origins
Minneapolis: Fortress 2010

This book is volume 1 of a series entitled A People’s History of Christianity, in which a selection of mainly American commentators chart Christian developments from the earliest days up to today from the perspectives of ordinary people rather than those of the leaders and well known. In this first volume, a number of writers show how early expressions of Christianity both encouraged dissent from some of the prevailing social and political conventions of the Roman Empire and yet generally and at the same time also urged congregations to accommodate them pragmatically. There are particularly engaging illustrations of this ambiguity with reference to Mt 17:14-17 and Mt 22:15-22. In addition, there are fascinating readings of the Temptations narrative in Mt 3 and the healings of deaf and paralysed people, with only thinly disguised political implications. Other particularly helpful chapters concern the social constitutions of agrarian and urban populations, including some acute observations about Jewish and Christian outlooks on some of the social conventions of the day, eg slavery. This is an important volume and series for those who seek to make social and political sense of their Christian faith throughout history and in the contemporary world.

M Edwards Catholicity and Heresy in the Early Church
Farnham: Ashgate 2009

This is one of those books that is at one and the same time stimulating and difficult. The difficulties are caused by the author’s use of rare words and awkward sentence structures, while the stimulation comes from his thesis about the fluidity of thought between so-called othodox and heretical believers in the first five centuries of the Church’s life. He highlights Irenaeus, Tertullian. Hippolytus, Clement, Athanasius, Cyril and Leo from the orthodox side, and Valentinus, Apollonarius, Arius from the heretical side, while Origen is located, as by many, in both camps. Edwards’ evidence forhis claims is meticulous, and I applaud the way he shows how later orthodoxies have emerged from Gnostic or heretical origins. This book is written rather for the interested scholar than for initial learners, which is a pity, because the form of his enquiry could offer the Church a valuable model for addressing the disputes that divide today’s traditionalists and liberals/radicals.

MJ Borg & JD Crossan The First Paul
London: SPCK 2009

The subtitle Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the Church’s conservative icon is a strong clue to the focus and direction of this book. In the process, it is also a splendid introduction to Paul as a man and as a Judaeo-Christian writer. There are no footnotes, all technical language is explained, and the arguments are set out clearly. Borg and Crossan concentrate on the widely accepted seven Pauline letters, and their comparisons with the Disputed and Non-Pauline letters serve to show the progression, or regression, of thought and practice as the churches developed in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. Their contention is that Paul’s challenge to slavery in Philemon, his strong endorsement of women’s status and ministry in Romans and 1 Corinthians, his urgent plea for unity between Gentiles and Jews, Christians and Jews, Gentile and Jewish Christians and between believers and Rome are distorted in the later writings. They highlight also Paul’s conviction about “justice”, which they prefer, with good reason, to the usual term “righteousness” and his understanding of justification by God’s grace. They dismiss substitutionary views of atonement, which they ascribe to the 11th century Anselm rather than Paul, and they show how Paul’s understanding is that Jesus died on our behalf and invites us to participate in his and God’s sacrificial love. There is much else to captivate, inform and enthral in this engaging read.

NE Elliott The Arrogance of Nations
Reading Paul in the Shadow of Empire
Minneapolis: Fortress 2010

Over the last twenty years or so, Pauline scholars have increasingly turned their attention to Paul’s understanding of and challenges to the Roman Empire and its prevailing ideologies. This book is fruit of that enquiry, and its potential is both to re-write our interpretation of the Letter to the Romans and to re-conscientise our contemporary world about the effects of imperial hegemony today. The author is American, and his sharpest critique is reserved for his own country’s arrogance, but no-one in the relatively affluent west or north is immune to his questions. Centuries of theological and ecclesial interpretation of Paul’s letter have led us to see in it the further working-out of Paul’s understanding of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers. However, Elliott points to something far more interesting and world-facing: he takes Paul’s use of key terms such as justification, faith, mercy, holiness as a commentary on and an alternative to the imperial framework of justice, faith, clemency, piety and virtue. A lot, but not all, depends on translation of key words: for example, we are used to seeing Paul underline the importance of “righteousness”, but what happens when, quite properly, we translate the Greek word by “justice”? We then see a completely different orientation in the letter. Elliott faces, and struggles with, the awkwardness of Rom 13:1-7, with its apparent endorsement of the national and local authorities, but overall he presents a cogent case for his thesis that paul set out to engage critically with imperial ideology. His observations about Romans are intertwined with comments about contemporary experiences of imperial autocracy.

Richard Bryant

Reviewed By Richard Bryant

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