Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue
Benno van den Toren
Continuum, pb, £70.00
At long last apologetics is being recognised as a respectable subject for serious theological study. Given the neglect apologetics has suffered in Western theological colleges, it is not surprising that insights are being sought from the work of missiologists and missionary theologians.
Benno van den Toren is a Dutch theologian teaching at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, but he worked in French-speaking Africa before coming to England and the experience of cross-cultural ministry has helped shape his approach to apologetics.
Central to van den Toren’s thinking is a readiness to engage with post-modernism and an acceptance of the demise of foundationalism, that is the assumption there are certain basic beliefs which serve as the foundation to all knowledge. Evangelical apologetics emanating from the US has often taken a foundationalist approach. As van den Toren points out, even Alvin Plantinga is a foundationalist of sorts: he simply wants to argue that faith in God can be regarded as ‘properly basic’. Writers like Ronald Nash and Harold Netland, who attempt to lay down in advance criteria by which worldviews can be judged, are falling into the trap of seeking a universally shared starting point for human knowledge.
But although van den Toren rejects foundationalism he is no relativist and is ready to talk about the search for universal, objective truth. Rational reflection, starting from one particular tradition or perspective, can arrive at objective and universally valid knowledge. In making this argument, he calls upon the work of Alasdair MacIntyre in support.
Readers who worry that all this sounds technical and philosophical should not be put off. Once van den Toren has cleared the ground, he has plenty of practical advice to give about apologetics. We cannot argue people into faith, he tells us, we can only persuade. In seeking to persuade we have to pay attention to culture, wordviews and the ways in which individuals and communities deal with factors that do not fit in with their basic outlook.
Particularly valuable is the way van den Toren stresses the need for converts to integrate their past beliefs, either positively or negatively, into their new life. He could have taken this further and spoken of the importance of the Christian community being ready to welcome the gifts that converts bring. Very often churches do not grow because they have been taken captive by one particular class or culture and are suspicious of anyone who challenges the status quo. There is much in their former life converts need to reject but sometimes their past beliefs open their eyes to aspects of the gospel message others have downplayed.
Running through this book is a dialogue with Karl Barth. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is at the heart of van den Toren’s theology but he criticises Barth’s account of revelation in which we only know God because of God’s acts in the history of Israel and the life of Jesus and that even the scriptures only become revelation because God continues to act to reveal himself through them. Barth was worried by the human temptation to control and master revelation rather than submit to it. Against Barth, van den Toren argues for continuing presence of God’s revelation in both creation and the scriptures, pointing out that even knowledge of the physical world cannot advance if we simply see it as under our control.
Van den Toren also responds to Barth’s rejection of ‘points of contact’ and seeks to defend what he calls ‘bridgeheads’, not as a basis for faith but as a means by which people can be brought to see the truth of the gospel.
This is a stimulating and important book. It is written from a broadly ‘Reformed’ point of view and readers who belong to the Catholic tradition will wish that van den Toren had not made more of what he terms ‘general revelation’ or considered the converting power of liturgy and worship or the witness of the saints. Even so, this is a book that Christians of all traditions with an interest in apologetics and mission can read with profit.
John Dickson is an Australian scholar at Macquarrie University in Sydney with a gift for writing in a popular and accessible style. In Jesus A Short Life he dispels a lot of myths about Jesus and deals with such questions as When and where was Jesus born? Did he marry? What are we to make of the miracles he is reported to have performed? How should we treat the claim that he rose from the dead? Can we be sure that he even existed? This would be a useful basis for a series of short talks to a youth group or other church group.
Another book on Jesus, The Jesus Scandal (Monarch) by David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House, Cambridge, could be used in combination with John Dickson’s short survey. David Instone-Brewer looks at the areas in which Jesus scandalised his contemporaries to ask what they really thought about him and what we can learn from this. Jesus’ parentage, accusations of alcohol abuse, ‘fraudulent’ miracles, the dubious status of his followers, his anti-religious and anti-establishment teaching, his thoughts on suicide, shameful execution and possible resurrection are all considered. This is a thoughtful, well-researched book that presents Jesus as a figure with a strong contemporary appeal.
Ordained Local Ministry in the Church of England (Continuum) is a collection of essays edited by Andrew Bowden, Leslie J. Francis, Elizabeth Jordan, and Oliver Simon looking at the contribution made by OLMs over the past twenty years. As the book tells us, ‘Ordained Anglican ministry is changing rapidly. Soon the majority of clergy are likely to be volunteers and, especially in rural areas, female’. Have OLMs helped to revitalise parishes? Why have some dioceses developed reservations? This collection seeks to make an assessment. There is a contribution by Bishop Graham James.
Stimulating ideas for homilies, talks and dialogues for the seasons of the Church’s year are offered by Paul S. Glass in Creative Ideas for Using Scripture in Worship (Canterbury). The book comes with a CD.
The Art of Tentmaking (Canterbury) is a collection of essays honouring the work of Richard Giles. Giles is an Anglican priest who studied architecture as a student who has done much by his writing and ministry to show how church buildings can be ordered as centres of worship and community life. His work did not attract a great deal of attention until he moved to Philadelphia to serve as cathedral dean. Now he is living in active retirement in Newcastle. Contributors include Steven Croft, Stephen Cottrell, and Martin Percy. Highly recommended.
Recent years have seen a revision of opinion about the Reformation. Was it an event that was welcomed by ordinary church-goers or was the Catholic Church still widely accepted in England? Eric Ives gives a much-needed modern popular account of the Reformation in The Reformation Experience that concentrates on the impact it made on ordinary people.(Lion). Ives is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Birmingham.
Sacraments and Worship
Ed: Maxwell E Johnson
SPCK, pb, £25.00
This valuable new book is a comprehensive compilation of primary and secondary sources on the sacraments and liturgy throughout the Christian tradition. As Johnson’s introductory essay notes, the history of Christian liturgy is far from monolithic and the range of sources reflects this. Even from the earliest times Christian worship, as manifested for instance in the dating of Easter, or the ancient Eucharistic liturgy of Addai and Mari (which Maxwell includes), which lacks an institution narrative and is a famous example of diversity within the early church, showed marked variation.
To advocate an image of a monolithic sacred liturgy that existed in the past and can be brought back to life is therefore “almost liturgical fundamentalist.” So the sources gathered range through time from the Old and New Testaments to the brave new world of post-modern Theology and span an array of traditions, from Armenian Orthodoxy to Free Church Evangelicalism. Johnson hardly fails to show diversity. Thus even the obscure contributions of the Eastern churches after the Patristic era, such as Germanus of Constantinople’s liturgical commentaries, get their due.
As well as extensive Patristic and Medieval sources from East and West one finds ample coverage of the Reformation and more modern discussions of the sacraments and worship. Justice is done to the various approaches of the Reformers, from Luther to Zwingli. Indeed this book is perhaps worth buying for its portrayal of Calvin’s nuanced sacramental Theology in the first chapter. This is followed through with attention to the English Puritans and Wesley.
The worship of American 19th century revival meetings is revealed to be surprisingly well-planned. Liturgy is often seen as the domain of Rome and Constantinople; it is thus refreshing to be reminded that the Reformers thought otherwise, wanting to reform the liturgy not destroy it. The Enlightenment, represented by Kant, is covered, as is the modern ecumenical watershed of Rome’s Second Vatican Council, not to mention the documents of the World Council of Churches.
This is a fine book, though unfortunately no documents from modern African and Asian perspectives were included, at a time when Christianity is increasingly acknowledged as transcending the west. There are also, naturally, one or two regrettable omissions such as John Zizioulas’s ground-breaking work, from within Greek Orthodoxy, on the church and Eucharist. Hopefully this shall be rectified in a second edition. For now it is worthwhile to read the first.