Reviews – October 2015
Meet the Fathers
If your knowledge of the early Church Fathers is a little hazy and sketchy – as mine was until I read Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s book – and you are not sure how relevant the Fathers might be to your faith today, then please buy yourself an early Christmas present and invest in this book.
Who Were the Church Fathers? is everything you could want it to be: Easy to read, clear, full of vitality, thorough and honest. It includes chapters covering the period of nearly 700 years from Clement of Rome to Pope Gregory the Great, and other chapters focusing on the great Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. If this sounds boring, believe me, it is not. The characters and the events portrayed come to life, warts and all, and many of the issues that exercised them in the early Christian era, still exercise us today.
Dr D’Ambrosio writes from a generous Roman Catholic perspective – the book is genuinely catholic with a small c. There are some subjects about which a Protestant would not be comfortable sharing the Church Fathers’ opinion: An elevated view of the authority of bishops perhaps, their insistence on the historical fact of apostolic succession and its significance, or their belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. In other areas, though, the views of the Church Fathers would be acceptable to a remarkable range of theological perspectives: The celibacy of priests, for instance, the honouring of saints and the seriousness with which baptism needs to be treated. The book’s account of how the doctrine of the Trinity developed is helpful indeed.
Any book which attempts to cover the thought and history of 700 years is inevitably selective, and no doubt glosses over a great deal. However, Dr D’Ambrosio’s book is an excellent introduction to the Church Fathers, designed to whet the appetite, and succeeding in that aim. The book has a good bibliography of both primary and secondary sources to encourage readers in pursuing issues further, and is eminently accessible to the non-specialist reader.
Ruth Allen is a retired church minister based in Ilkeston, Derbyshire
It is a pleasure to see the third volume of Michael Watts’ magisterial study of Dissent in print; it is the culmination of one of the outstanding works of contemporary Church history. Sadly, it is also the final volume because it is published posthumously, with a most helpful introduction by David Bebbington surveying more recent literature which Watts would undoubtedly have covered had he lived.
This volume begins in 1860 and concludes with the Liberal landslide election of 1906 when the new prime minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, noted: “We have been put into power by the Nonconformists,” and the Baptist leader John Clifford told his congregation: “We are at the dawn of a new day.” All was not as rosy as it seemed, as Watts’ threefold analysis ably reveals.
Nonconformity’s intellectual crisis was that it lost the power of hell to convert sinners as scientific and historical scholarship changed perceptions of the world irrevocably between 1860 and 1900. The story is exemplified by three generations of the Martin family – David, the Calvinist minister of George Street Congregational Church, Oxford; his son Basil, who forsook Congregationalism for Unitarianism, and his grandson Kingsley, atheist editor of the New Statesman.
The treatment of attempts to adjust Nonconformity to that new age is told with even-handed fairness. No aspect of mission is left untreated. It can read like a tale of heroic failure upon failure, but Watts values the imagination and sheer hard work of men like RW Dale and Sylvester Horne, and sets their stories against compendious statistical analysis (as in volume two) which allows us to trace the shrinking of the social base of Nonconformity in wider demographic change.
Finally, Watts shows us just what a loose coalition Nonconformity actually was in the heyday of its partnership with Liberalism. There is much to be proud of here: Stead’s campaign against prostitution, the involvement of churches with the emerging labour movement, and their part in the agitation for state pensions – even if the new day never properly dawned.
David Cornick is general secretary for Churches Together in England
Commentary on Corinthians
This book is part of The Westminster Bible Companion Series, which is intended to help lay people “read the Bible more clearly and intelligently” and thus address the issues of daily life and be helped in their teaching ministry. Many of us look to books like this one for help as we prepare to lead worship, Bible study or take time for personal devotion.
As a lay preacher, I look to commentaries to, amongst other things: Give me facts about the context of the book and its writer and/or audience, provide themes and greater understanding of words or phrases, and provide pointers to aid my own reflections on the links with the 21st Century world in which we live and minister.
In John Proctor’s commentary, the introduction, with its information about Corinth in the First Century – its geography, social, religious and cultural context – is all one could hope for. The introduction to Second Corinthians draws the distinction between the two books. All of this is written in an easy and accessible style. By the end of the introductions, I was drawn into the story, ready and eager to read on and discover what the letters contain and how they might speak to us today.
The relatively short reflections relating to passages of varying length contain impressive amounts of information, e.g. the background to specific names, the shades of meaning of Greek words and theories relating to particular customs of the time. There are comments on Paul’s use of language and writing style to make his point. Mr Proctor suggests that Paul’s tone ranges from direct to challenging to personal and even to, on occasion, ironic. Again the writing is clear, dealing with the complex thinking of the letters but always making the important links with our world today.
This book certainly fulfills the series’ promise and would be an excellent place to start learning more about the letters to the Corinthians and what they say to us in our context. I am delighted to be able to add the book to my bookshelf as an additional resource in preparations for leading worship.
Val Morrison is a lay preacher and church elder serving in Doncaster. She is a former moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly. This book is available from the URC’s online store: www.urcshop.co.uk
Ministry on the margins
Bishop Laurie Green has spent his ministry working alongside residents of housing estates in Birmingham and the East End of London. This book is the fruit of years of listening to what the poor have to say, and shares the new light that their perspective brings to the Bible, theology and mission.
Telling the story of how he came to be called to this ministry, Green says he visited a likely parish and was driven around a rather prosperous neighbourhood by the parish staff. Passing houses of a distinctly lower quality than had been viewed so far, staff commented: “Oh that’s our council estate. But don’t worry, they don’t ever bother us.” Green says: “On hearing that, my decision was made.”
Laurie Green’s book is well researched and readable, bringing to life the lives of many who are on the margins of society, all within the context of his struggle to fully understand what “blessed are the poor” really means. Green backs up his commentary, of life alongside poor people on housing estates, with regular accessible journeys into the Bible: “Unlike our society, which labels the poor as loathsome and shameful, the Bible singles them out as God’s special ones,” he says.
Green concludes his book by saying: “The poor of our poorer housing estates must not be forgotten. They offer us all, supremely, the perspective from which to see the truth about our society… God does not forget them; he teaches us to learn many things from them, and he asks them to play a privileged part in the drama of the Kingdom.” Prophetic words indeed.
This book would make quite an interesting candidate for a church study group. It is a shame that a paperback book of just 200 pages with the title Blessed are the Poor costs nearly £20! I would think twice about it if I had to buy it – which is a pity, as it has a lot to offer.
Simon Loveitt is a church-related community work minister serving in Sheffield
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Reform.