27 October 2014

The Age of the Spirit

A review of The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church by Phyllis Tickle with Jon M. Sweeney, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of what the (Western) Church thinks it has learned about the Holy Spirit and what this divine agency of change is doing in the lives of the churches today.

The story as told by Tickle and Sweeney is in two parts. Part I comprises a brief history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity focusing particularly on the nature and role of the Holy Spirit. The authors breeze their way through to the Cappadocian formulation, which seems to represent the high watermark of Christian orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy) by way of such heresies as Arianism and Montanism. En route they also express serious doubts about orthodoxy with a small ‘o’ (a concern for doctrinal correctness). The section concludes with two chapters that summarize the Filioque controversy and take a clear stance against this Western creedal innovation.

Part II attempts to continue that historical journey through the second Christian millennium to the present day while at the same time moving forward our thinking about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. They begin in chapters 9–11 by effectively revisiting topics dealt with in Part I, warning again about orthodoxy’s pathological (p. 90) concern for doctrinal correctness and reiterating their earlier critique of the addition of the Filioque clause to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However, they also suggest that, although arising out of Western Christianity, the contemporary Emergent Church Movement aligns more easily with Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism.

Chapter 12 is a popular exposition of Joachim of Fiore’s doctrine of three ages, which concludes by hinting that Emergent Church may be a sign that his hoped for Age of the Spirit has finally arrived. Chapter 13 proposes that we think of the Spirit as the divine agency of change, asserts that Emergent Church is the authentic form of Church for today, and tacitly assumes that the Age of the Spirit has arrived.

The final three chapters begin by stepping back to the birth of Islam (Chapter 14), which is presented very much as a monotheistic reform movement inspired in part by Muhammad’s disquiet over the Filioque controversy (which, one suspects, grossly overestimates his familiarity with Christianity). One outcome of that foray into Islam is the proposal that we need to rethink Trinitarianism in ‘less biological’ terms. We then return in chapters 15 and 16 to the roughly historical approach of Part I and fast forward from the Middle Ages to the present day via medieval mysticism, the Reformation, and Pentecostalism.

This story is framed by two chapters. In an introductory ‘Back Story’ Tickle and Sweeney explain their fundamental assumption about the way the history of Western Christianity has been shaped. They see it as having been formed by a regular series of revolutions (or paradigm shifts): the Great Transformation (around ad 1), the Great Decline and Fall (ad 500), the Great Schism (ad 1000), and the Great Reformation (ad 1500). On this basis, they predict another significant paradigm shift occurring at the present (the Great Emergence).

Now I have no problem with the idea that Christian belief and practice have over the centuries been dramatically reshaped by a number of paradigm shifts (cf. David Bosch’s magisterial treatment of missiology). However, the near mechanical regularity of the shifts discerned by Tickle and Sweeney makes me uneasy. And I am more than a little sceptical about what they have identified as the key revolutions in this history. Take, for example, the Great Decline and Fall, which they date to about ad 500 (close to the high water mark of Byzantine culture in the reign of Justinian). If I were looking for critical dates around then to symbolize the decline of Rome (Western or Eastern), I would probably opt for the fall of Rome to Alaric (410) and its impact on Augustine’s thought (with all sorts of implications for the subsequent history of Western theology and philosophy) or the sieges of Jerusalem (637) and Constantinople (674–8), which symbolize the emergence of the Sunni Caliphate as a power to rival the Byzantine Empire. Again, while it is true that the formal date of the Great Schism was 1054, this was merely the final act in a drama that had played out over the preceding four centuries. But even if we accept their assertion that Western Christianity has been marked by a series of revolutionary changes spaced at roughly 500-year intervals, the attempt to use this ‘fact’ to predict a fourth happening now strikes me as an unwarranted generalization.

Based on that underlying assumption and the story they have told in the 16 intervening chapters, they conclude with a ‘Front Story’ in which they propose the Emergent Church Movement as a qualitatively new kind of Christianity. However, given that the authors are closely associated with this movement, which they have been at pains to identify with their putative Great Emergence, one can’t help feeling that the thesis is to some extent self-serving. Certainly, Emergent Church is cast in a very positive light and presented as the way forward, while one of its leading spokespersons, Brian McLaren, is likened to Martin Luther (p. 114).

They clearly hope that the Emergence perspective will bring with it an openness to new metaphors (such as fire), which may move us beyond the use of biological language in Trinitarian theology (by which they mean talk of ‘Persons’) towards a more theological account of the Trinity (e.g. p. 152). However, their repeated criticism of the language of ‘Persons’ as biological and their insistence that we need to move beyond such language if we are to achieve a properly theological account of the Trinity makes me profoundly uneasy. How are the three aspects of the Trinity to be understood if not as ‘Persons’? (NB the initial capital and scare quotes: theologians have always understood this language to be metaphorical, speaking of relationships of an ‘I–Thou’ rather ‘I–It’ kind, rather than literally biological.) Surely they don’t want us to see the different manifestations of God merely as the elements of a threefold impersonal force?

In conclusion, this book is interesting and well written. However, I can’t recommend it as a reliable guide to either the doctrine of the Trinity or the history of the Spirit’s dealings with the churches.

14 October 2014

Basil of Caesarea

A review of Basil of Caesarea by Stephen M. Hildebrand (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014)

Basil of Caesarea was one of the key theologians of the early Church. As such, he is well known to contemporary students of theology, but often only in a fragmentary way and often only as a theologian. In this detailed and lucid introduction to Basil’s life and thought, Stephen Hildebrand has integrated those fragments to give us a rounded picture of the man and his thought. More importantly, the book clearly relates his theology to his life and his radical spirituality.

After an introductory chapter outlining Basil’s theological and spiritual context, Hildebrand begins his study of Basil’s theology with anthropology. There are some strikingly modern notes in this chapter. Apparently Basil held that, at the heart of our identity, we are both readers and interpreters. He also argued in favour of the equality of men and women. But Hildebrand also offers interesting and useful excurses into Plotinus and Origen on the body and puts Basil firmly in his historical Origenist context while making clear his more positive view of the body.

One reason for starting with anthropology is that it forms a natural jumping off point for dealing with creation and Scripture in the next chapter. Central to this chapter is Basil’s description of creation as a book that declares the glory of God. Thus there are two books – creation and Scripture – in which God is revealed. The impression left by the chapter was that Basil held an instrumentalist view of creation: its raison d’ĂȘtre is revelation. I must admit I was surprised by this: Was Basil’s view of creation really so different from that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus?

From revelation, Hildebrand moves in chapters 4 and 5 to its subject: the triune God who accomplishes our salvation. In Chapter 4 he examines Basil’s credal and catechetical treatments of the Trinity followed by his better-known controversial works in Chapter 5.

Chapters 6 to 8 were for me the most interesting part of the book. They deal in turn with Basil’s understanding of Christian discipleship, the importance to him of Christian community, and the relationship between his theology and his spirituality.

I was particularly struck by the extent to which Basil’s approach to discipleship foreshadowed the Franciscan emphasis on evangelical poverty. It is a salutary reminder that Francis’s rejection of private property was no medieval innovation but rather a rediscovery of something that is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Perhaps with one eye on his potential audience (American, evangelical, and capitalist), Hildebrand is careful to stress that Basil’s rejection of private property had more to do with living in anticipation of the eschaton than with any this-worldly concern for social justice or equality.

The emphasis of living in the light of the eschaton is also a feature of Basil’s view of Christian community. And he expects this of all Christians: he makes no distinction between lay and religious lives. All Christians are called to participate in a communal renunciation of this world. Ultimately his spirituality is about the movement of human community towards God.

The portrait of Basil painted by Hildebrand is that of a reformer and innovator rather than a traditionalist. Yes, he turned to tradition to help him understand Scripture. But he was not afraid to use fresh insights from that understanding to modify and correct the received tradition.

In conclusion, Hildebrand’s book is a valuable introduction to the life of this key figure. It will be of particular value to undergraduate and graduate theologians and historians of early Church seeking a reliable overview of Basil’s life and work.