Justification is an important theological topic on which opinion has begun to shift in recent years, largely as a result of new interpretations of St Paul. In Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum) Alan J Spence, a URC minister, offers a historical overview and introduction to the subject. At the end, the Pauline texts are examined and an attempt is made to say what place Justification can have in the modern world where the idea of divine judgement has little appeal. James Beilby and Paul Eddy, who have already edited a book in which five writers offer different views of the historical Jesus, have now edited a similar work on Justification. Called simply ‘Justification: Five Views’ it is published by SPCK and offers a traditional Reformed view, a progressive Reformed view, a new perspective view, a deification view and a Roman Catholic view. Surprisingly there is no Lutheran view. Beilby and Eddy contribute chapters looking at the historical perspective and the modern debate. James Dunn and Gerald O’Collins are two contributors whose names will be familiar to British readers.
God’s Rich Pattern (SPCK) is a book of meditations written for those whose faith is shaken. Dr Lin Berwick, the author, is a very remarkable woman. Born with cerebral palsy and now totally blind and forced to use a wheelchair, she starts each meditation with an incident in her own life. She believes that although we don’t know where God is leading us, his pattern is woven into everything we do. We may think that it is impossible for everything to come right but we have to live by faith and hope, trusting that all will be made clear in the end. This is a richly inspiring book.
“Clinical depression is an illness, a medical condition. This means two things. First, we do not need to blame ourselves. Second, we can get better.” These words sum up the starting point of an encouraging book Encountering Depression (SPCK) written by Andrew and Elizabeth Proctor. A large proportion of the population suffers from depression at one time or another. This book will be a huge help to them and their carers.
At this time of year we need to remember that Lent leads up to Easter and that all too often Christians spend more time keeping Lent and preparing for Easter than they do pondering the meaning of the Resurrection. Glorious Christianity (SPCK) by Cally Hammond can help to remedy that omission. Hammond is Dean of a Cambridge college chapel and a classicist by training but she has also spent time in parish ministry and is a good communicator.
Craig Evans is a New Testament scholar who has written many books as well as co-authoring one with Tom Wright, In Jesus and His World (SPCK) he looks at what archaeology can tell us about the world in which Jesus lived, the accuracy of the gospels, and what the home town of Jesus was really like. He also asks whether the tomb of Jesus has actually been found.
The Unintended Reformation,
Harvard, hb, £25.00
There are many different versions of how the modern world developed. Pride of place is usually given to the Enlightenment although Radical Orthodox theologians like to stress the role of Duns Scotus. Brad Gregory, who teaches early modern history at Notre Dame, makes a case of seeing the Reformation as the watershed.
In saying this he might be thought to reverting to older views that did give an important role to the Reformation in helping to create the modern world but these older views usually saw this happening through the overthrow of priestcraft and an emphasis on the private interpretation of scripture. Weber famously ascribed great importance to Puritanism in the growth of capitalism.
Gregory does not entirely disagree with some of the old views but he modifies them considerably. On his account, secular modernity was the unintended consequence of the Reformation. By overthrowing old notions of community and teleological ethics, the Reformation paved the way for a society in which individual choice and the accumulation of personal wealth is paramount.
Gregory is not afraid to combine moral judgement and historical narrative but although he has his own point of view it is one he is able to support with a good deal of historical knowledge. His book has to be read as whole to appreciate the theme but he divides his work into six, inter-related chapters, looking at the impact of the Reformation on faith in God, belief in Christian doctrines, control of the churches, understanding of morality, the growth of capitalism, and the universities and the pursuit of knowledge.
Although Gregory discusses complex and intricate questions, he writes with verve and the excitement generated by the argument carries the reader along. He certainly tries to be fair and never attempts to downplay the corruption of the Catholic Church on the brink of the Reformation. On his account (which some Protestants will want to challenge) it was not theological weakness that let the Church down but a failure of clerics to live by the gospel they preached.
Gregory is clear that Protestants, no more than Catholics, wanted to see the growth of unrestricted capitalism. “The great irony of the Reformation era with respect to economics,” he writes, “is the fact that, despite themselves, Catholics, magisterial Protestants, and radical Protestants collectively forged the very things they condemned.”
Given the low esteem with which capitalism is currently held, it is Gregory’s remarks on the economic impact of the Reformation that are likely to attract the most attention but those drawn to the new atheism should pay careful attention to what he has to say about the discrediting of revelation and the emergence of a univocal metaphysics that saw God as one being among other beings. Gregory agrees that a univocal metaphysics already characterised late medieval concepts of God but claims it was given a big boost by the Reformation. Eucharistic theology was unable to make sense of the real presence when God was seen as merely one actor among many others.
Gregory is able to draw on the work of other scholars such as John Milbank, Michael Buckley, and Alasdair MacIntyre, but he is not afraid to disagree with them at certain points. As well as the magisterial Reformation, he gives attention to the radical reformation as well. But the Reformation is only a starting point as Gregory continues wth the story down to the present, paying attention to such figures as Adam Smith, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche and Descartes.
This is a formidable work of intellectual and religious history that is likely to provoke considerable debate. While I find the overall theme persuasive, questions remain. Given that Gregory admits that seeds of new thinking were present in the late Middle Ages one wonders if the Reformation can be ascribed mainly to corruption in the church. Didn’t a philosophy like nominalism also play a major role? Gregory writes as if there were no divisions or basic doctrinal divisions in the medieval church but what of Eastern Orthodoxy or the debate with Islam, seen by some medieval theologians as a Christian heresy?