The Late Medieval English Church

Bernard Medieval

A review of G. W. Bernard’s, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability before the Break with Rome.

Many church history courses, books, and lectures only ever cover the late medieval church as a prelude to the Reformation which transformed it. The subject has therefore become a battleground for those who have very differing accounts of what that Reformation did, and whether it should be viewed as “a good thing.” The traditional view was one of ignorance, corruption, and growing anti-clericalism replaced by the re-discovered gospel, vernacular Bibles and liturgies, and increased lay devotion; this has been challenged in recent years by (amongst others) Eamon Duffy, whose Stripping of the Altars painted a picture of a vibrant and beloved church unjustly attacked and denuded by Henry VIII and his Protestant successors. With this debate in the background, in steps Professor Bernard, vice-president of the Royal Historical Society with a searching examination of the late medieval church on its own terms.

Bernard begins by claiming that much of the recent writing on this period, particularly of the Duffy “school”, does not tell the full story, and indeed leaves the subsequent Reformation “inexplicable.” Yes, there was vitality in the church of the middle ages, but within that there were serious and substantial vulnerabilities which have been ignored or played down. That is not to make the break with Rome and the eventual triumph of what the Coronation Oath calls “the true profession of the gospel… the Protestant Reformed religion” an absolute inevitability. Yet Bernard places provocative question marks over the revisionist accounts of late, and allows us to ask again what the proper criteria for judging the late medieval church should really be.

Within this big picture are many details, which the author handles with care and, at times, an appropriate scepticism. He questions whether the ruckus surrounding the alleged murder of the supposed “heretic” Richard Hunne in 1514 really does reveal a dangerous level of anti-clericalism, or that there were large networks spreading anti-Roman heresy in London at the time. His unfolding of the intricacies of “the monarchical church” of the middle ages — how kings controlled episcopal appointments and were both defenders of the church and extenders of the Christian faith — is deft and persuasive, and shows how the acceptance of royal supremacy under Henry VIII was by no means an untidy break with the past.

He assesses the role of bishops and clergy in the period, finding the former, for example, to be adequate administrators (“they muddled through”, page 67), but too deeply enmeshed in worldly politics to be of much spiritual good. One of the greatest vulnerabilities for the church in this period was the population’s ignorance of the Christian message: yes, they had sculpture and stained glass, a liturgical calendar, and pilgrimages, but the form of faith this perhaps engendered (“an underlying pagan-cum-magical religious understanding upon which christianity [sic] had more or less been superimposed”, page 107) was wide open to humanist and Protestant critiques.

This is, therefore, a salutary response to an overly positive assessment of the period, although in terms of its style does it perhaps raise more questions than it answers?

This review was first published in Theology 116/5 (September 2013).

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Hitting the Holy Road

Coulton Hitting

A review of Stuart Coulton’s, Hitting the Holy Road: A Guided Tour of Christian History from the Early Church to the Reformation.

This great survey of Church history has a new and interesting twist compared to others in that genre, such as those reviewed recently in my “The Lessons of History” review article in Churchman 125.3 (2011). This book focuses on place as a way in to the history. Each chapter begins in the present day with a short eyewitness guide to a place of importance in the story to be told, such as the catacombs in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Iona, Cluny, Assisi, and Wittenberg. The reader can imagine the author there amongst the ‘gruff’ attendants and ‘dodgy tour guides’, as he then moves on to recount the history of the place and its context.

At times it feels as if this approach may work better on a TV screen than on paper, but often there are some good lessons to be drawn from the approach, as when he contrasts the Christian art in the Roman catacombs with the dominance of images of Mary in Rome today. There are helpful timelines in each chapter, and side-bars on some fascinating tangential issues. There is also much Aussie humour as we hit the holy road: recounting the last words of Julian the Apostate, Coulton writes, “Julian died fighting the Persians in 363… [According to Theodoret] he died… saying, ‘Thou hast won, O Galilean!’ In reality he probably said, ‘Aarrgh!’”

There are several black and white photos in the book, but many of them are too dark and dingy to be of much use in illustrating the story, and I am not sure why we are treated to a picture of the fourth hole of the Iona golf course (Aussie humour again?). There is a missionary emphasis in several places, and each chapter ends with some useful reflections on the history and its lessons for us in today’s church. These are stimulating, though perhaps not always as critical as they might be (he is too positive about Francis of Assisi for example), and I also wondered if we might have had more on ordinary church life rather than just monasteries, universities, and palaces.  Yet there is little reason to dissent from the learned commentator who writes on the back cover that this travel guide history is “challenging and stimulating… enjoyable and immensely rewarding.” It is a shame it does not cover the last four hundred years, but perhaps that leaves room for a sequel?

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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On Giants’ Shoulders

Reeves Giants

A review of Mike Reeves’ book On Giants’ Shoulders: Introducing Great Theologians from Luther to Barth.

This is the companion volume to the author’s The Breeze of the Centuries which looked at the Apostolic Fathers, Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas. Michael Reeves, former theological advisor for UCCF, introduces the reader this time, in a lively and engaging style, to Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Barth. As with the previous volume, this one begins by paying tribute to C.S. Lewis’ view of the past and our modern tendency towards ‘chronological snobbery,’ which sets us up for what follows.

With a racy look at the historical narrative, the chapter on Luther takes a close look at the Heidelberg Disputation as a convenient way in to Luther’s thought, and a brief look at some of his other early works. The chapter on Calvin is similar, giving a good defence in the historical section of Calvin’s involvement in the Servetus affair (‘it seems absurd that Calvin should be held personally responsible’) and then (inevitably!) a broad look at the Institutes. In contrast to some modern scholars, Reeves thinks (quite rightly) that Calvin believed in the complete inerrancy of the Scriptures, and gives some good references for that in both Institutes and commentaries. He also looks at some of the disagreements between Calvin and the Lutherans, but doesn’t indulge (thankfully) in that other modern debate about whether Calvin believed in limited atonement.

Reeves on John Owen is an enlightening experience, and focuses mainly on Owen’s Trinitarianism. He mentions Owen’s many and varied works, including his massive Hebrews commentary, though I’m not sure what he is getting at (or that I quite agree) when he says, ‘commenting on commentaries can get very tedious’!

On Edwards, he helpfully steers us away from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and towards some of the theologian’s other works, so that we get a more rounded picture than usual of him. There’s even a joke about whisky in the footnotes. The inclusion of Schleiermacher and Barth in the volume is important for theological students, since they are required to have a working knowledge of these two theologians. It doesn’t, I suppose, do us any harm to know about them, though one is very far from sound and the other strangely idiosyncratic. It is a shame, however, that two more solid representatives could not be included for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is good, however, that Reeves recommends Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism at the end of the chapter on Schleiermacher, and he is frank that ‘all the Barth-speak’ can feel like razor wire designed to keep out the uninitiated.’

Each chapter includes a timeline so that the events described and books expounded can easily be placed in historical order. The author shows a competent grasp of the main secondary literature on each theologian and gives a useful bibliography at the end of each chapter too, for those who wish to read further.  I wonder if some direction towards internet resources might also be worth including in such an up to date work? My two criticisms are that there is not much criticism (where it is, occasionally, sorely needed), and there is also no index (which is a surprise).  More from Reeves will, I hope, be forthcoming.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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Recent commentaries on Ephesians

Arnold on Ephesians

A review of Arnold’s commentary on Ephesians, and that of Verhey and Harvard.

These two commentaries on Ephesians in two brand new series of commentaries cost exactly the same. But which is better for the preacher?  And what is distinctive about each?  Verhey and Harvard claim their commentary is “theological” while Arnold’s purports to be “exegetical.” This is too simplistic, however, and underplays the usefulness of Arnold’s theological contribution particularly. Verhey and Harvard is shorter and perhaps more chatty in style than the rigorous and well-footnoted Arnold, and it contains more in the way of “reflections”. These, however, are sometimes meandering, whereas Arnold keeps closer to the purpose and thrust of the text when he moves from exegesis to application. The former contains numerous “side-bars” with interesting quotes from Barth, Niebuhr, Brueggemann and others whereas the latter interacts more obviously with other recent commentaries on Ephesians and wrestles with the Greek text.

When it comes to details, to pick just one example, Verhey and Harvard claim to be nurtured in the Reformed tradition and so rightly do not see marriage as a sacrament. They interpret Ephesians 5:21-22 (on marriage) as indicating mutual submission. For them, this means mutual service of one another, in which submission finds its pattern in Jesus (although they stop short of saying Christ submits to the church, unlike Alan Padgett in his 2011 book As Christ Submits to the Church: A Biblical Understanding of Leadership and Mutual Submission). “We will not perform this passage well,” they tell us, “if we take it to be a timeless code.” Instead, it nudges us towards “God’s good future” where we do not simply adopt the role relations that were common in the first century.

Arnold on the other hand does not see the command to submit as applying to the husband in marriage but only to the wife. The instructions for a Christian marriage are based not on the Roman culture of the day (on which there is a long excursus) but counter-culturally on the timeless truth of the relationship between Christ and the church, so that husbands have a God-given role assigned to them, both then and now.

These are seemingly small but important differences in overall approach, and Arnold is far better at looking to the actual details of the text both here and elsewhere. His distinctive take on spiritual powers, magic, and folk religion are well known in NT scholarship, and are usefully summarised here, and he ends with a good section on the theology of the letter. Verhey and Harvard’s commentary is more lightweight in every sense, though for some (if used with discernment) it may stimulate some useful reflections near the end of sermon preparation.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/3 (2013).

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Schreiner on Galatians

Schreiner on Galatians

A review of Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary).

This new series of commentaries from Zondervan has been specifically designed to be useful to pastors and Bible teachers. It uses Greek, but does not assume the user is an expert scholar. It gives a “main idea” or theme sentence for each section of text covered (a sort of medieval scholastic idea which has enjoyed a revival in recent years). It contains up-to-date analysis of scholarly debates but does not get bogged down in them. And best yet, it has visual, graphic displays of the flow of thought in each passage which (and I am trying not to feel patronised!) was considered helpful for pastors. There’s even a nice “computer-like” graphic to illustrate scrolling down the outline of the book.

Each section ends with “theology in application” which has some suggestions for applying the text in a congregational setting, and there is a useful overview of “themes in Galatians”, interestingly placed at the end of the commentary rather than the beginning. Here and there throughout the commentary there is the odd grey box excursus looking at issues such as the role of Empire in Galatians, the translation of pistis christou, and “the Law of Christ.”

Tom Schreiner, a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary in Kentucky, will be known to many for his faithful work on the theology of Paul, excellent commentaries on Romans and Peter’s epistles, and for solid topical books on the Law, so-called “believer’s baptism” (i.e. adult believer’s only baptism), perseverance, and the gender issue. He is a prolific and careful scholar whose attention to detail does not preclude an understanding of the bigger picture, and he is clearly Reformed in his theological convictions. All this makes for an edifying, rich, and very useful commentary for preachers.

I was a bit puzzled by Schreiner’s description of the covenant theology of Galatians. For example, he asserts that “there is no straight-line continuity between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Paul does not conceive of them as the same covenant.” He also says “Paul does not think the addition of the Mosaic covenant constitutes a clarification of the covenant with Abraham. They are fundamentally opposed.”  But Sinai is “subordinated” to the Abrahamic promise, and is a conditional law covenant. Yet there is a “fundamental incompatibility” between them. However, later he claims “This is not to say that the Mosaic covenant was not a covenant of grace” (the very term usually employed by Reformed theologians to speak of the “straight-line continuity” of God’s saving purposes) and indeed that the law and the promise “are not contradictory but complementary.” They are incompatible, but they fit together? I was confused at this point – is he saying that the Mosaic law is a conditionally gracious, fundamentally incompatible but subordinated, complementary covenant? I also found some of his comments (on not treating the Old Testament as “a flat entity” for example) helpful, but others seemed to be somewhat removed from the point Paul was making in Galatians and to push Paul’s illustrative language a little further doctrinally than may be warranted by the rest of the New Testament.

But these are controversial issues and there has always been a range of recognizably Reformed opinions on how the Mosaic Law fits in. Plus, Galatians itself is pretty complicated in places! I found Schreiner immensely stimulating when preparing to preach a series on it, but by no means the last or clearest word. All the same, this is a fine all-round piece of work which robustly defends Reformation insights into the gospel against detractors old and new (including the New Perspective on Paul), and answers many of the questions a preacher will have. I look forward to further volumes in this promising series, which is edited by Clinton Arnold and lists Richard Bewes and Paul Gardner as Consulting Editors.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

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Medieval Commentaries on Galatians

Levy on Galatians

A review of Ian Christopher Levy’s The Letter to the Galatians (The Bible in Medieval Tradition).

Thirty years ago the historian of biblical interpretation David Steinmetz published a provocative article called “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.”  He argued that our understanding of scripture had not been entirely helped by nineteenth and twentieth century developments in historical criticism. “Until the historical-critical method becomes critical of its own theoretical foundations and develops a hermeneutical theory adequate to the nature of the text which it is interpreting,” he said, “it will remain restricted – as it deserves to be – to the guild and the academy, where the question of truth can endlessly be deferred.” More light could be gained, Steinmetz claimed, by returning to some aspects of the medieval approach to the Bible.

This volume, lovingly put together by Ian Levy, is an attempt to place a variety of medieval commentaries into the hands of Bible teachers and scholars, so we can see what Steinmetz was getting at. Previously, the six commentaries translated here (in whole or in part) lay un-translated, unedited, and so unloved by those without the energy or enthusiasm to chase them down and read them in Latin. This promises to be just the first volume in a new project to give us renewed access to “The Bible in Medieval Tradition” in a way that is similar to IVP’s excellent (and more Patristic-focused) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series edited by Thomas Oden.

Levy begins by giving us a weighty and very useful introduction to medieval methods and styles of biblical interpretation, so that we are well briefed on what to expect.  He then translates the whole of the Galatians commentaries by Haimo of Auxerre and Bruno the Carthusian, and the “Questions on Galatians” of Robert of Melun. To these complete works are added samples from Peter Lombard on Galatians 2, Robert Grosseteste on Galatians 3, and Nicholas of Lyra on Galatians 4. So the book covers the period from the ninth century to the fourteenth, and gives us an excellent idea of what medieval exegesis looks like, with helpful clarifications and historical notes from the editor (with the help of modern commentaries by e.g Betz and Longenecker) along the way.

I put this book to the test in preparing a series of sermons on Galatians. After reading the more recent commentaries of Dunn and Schreiner, I turned to these medieval glosses to see if they would bring me further light in my preparation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that on several occasions the technical discussions in the modern commentaries were mirrored by similar discussions in the medievals. We must not assume that ours is the first generation to read scripture with critical care and diligence. I was sad not to find the absurd allegories I had been led to believe were the stock-in-trade of pre-Reformation exegetes (always nice to have a giggle when doing sermon prep). Indeed, often the older commentaries were better written, clearer, nicely illustrated (verbally I mean, not pictorially), and certainly more aware of some of the theological implications of the text than many modern interpreters who attempt to make a virtue of isolating Galatians or other portions of the Bible from the canon, not to mention the history of Christian reflection. Parts of Bruno made it into the pulpit almost unedited (and unacknowledged) because he is so readable and often pithy. It was a joy to read of “faith alone” in Grosseteste, and that “through grace [Christ] is both the giver of faith and its very content.”

It is disappointing that although they were not entirely unaware of Greek and Hebrew, these men worked primarily from the Latin Bible, and so occasionally their etymology or grammar is not completely trustworthy. Renaissance humanism was, after all, a great gift to the church in making us more diligent to go back to the sources. Gordon Fee says in his Galatians commentary (2007) that he wants to read Galatians “as if the Reformation never happened.” This is naïve and impossible for us, but if we want to have a perspective on the text which takes it seriously as God’s word but which is not skewed in its approach by the massive upheavals of either the Reformation or the New Perspective on Paul (which can lead modern commentators to spin the text in particular directions) there is surely no better way to do it than to get this well-crafted little volume. I look forward to further volumes in a promising series.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

PS. I found this book inspiring as I was writing on Thomas Aquinas’s interpretation of Hebrews here.

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Evangelical Millennialism

Gribben Millennialism

A review of Crawford Gribben’s Evangelical Millennialism in the Trans-Atlantic World, 1500-2000.

Millions of evangelicals continue to expect the final transformation of a slowly dying world, and this book is a great guide to the sheer diversity of their opinions on the subject. Crawford Gribben has already written extensively on early modern and modern eschatology. His work The Puritan Millennium (Paternoster, second edition, 2008), for example, is a must-read for those who are serious about engaging sixteenth and seventeenth century millennial views, and he has also written on the modern penchant for rapture fiction. This current work, however, stretches the net even further, to take in evangelical views of the expectation of an earthly golden age on both sides of the Atlantic over the last five hundred years. Six roughly equal chapters engage with the emergence, formation, consolidation, expansion, content, and dominance of evangelical millennialism.

The book begins, innovatively, with a glossary. These are usually put at the end of course, but here it is vital to be clear on various terms and -isms right from the start. Some of this material is repeated at appropriate points as the book progresses, and Gribben proves an expert commentator on the vast literature and nuanced terminology of both evangelicalism and eschatology. He is a master of every fine distinction and exegetical turn but manages to combine this with a fairly light touch in presentation.

As someone who grew up enjoying Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (and Nostradamus!) but has come to appreciate the amillennialism of the major Reformation confessions, this book is a powerful reminder of just how many different options I could have plumped for and still remained evangelical. It is also a somewhat humbling shock to the system as one realises that great evangelicals of the past have differed so widely on these issues, and the author sees the continuation of this as strong evidence that end-times thinking is a secondary issue in many constituencies today.

Gribben is right to conclude that “the urgent and often political prophetic enquiry of North American premillennialists can seem closer to the puritan legacy than the passivity of many of their amillennial or postmillennial cousins”, but perhaps this should prompt us to action and to recall that one doesn’t have to be wacky to wonder what God is doing in the world, and when it might come to an end. It is a shame that this excellent little tour guide to the last 500 years of writing on this subject is outside the reach of many pockets.

This review was first published in Churchman 127/2 (2013).

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