Friends to aid all Christian reflection

The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought - The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible
August 3, 2001

In a human companion we want someone who is friendly and who can relate to where we stand; someone who is interesting and illuminating about a range of subjects, some of which we know something about and others of which we are very ignorant; someone who has a point of view but who is not oppressive with it. The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought admirably fulfils these criteria. You could sit conversing with this book for weeks without getting bored. You would, however, find it difficult to take it on your travels in a rucksack. Decently printed and designed, it weighs 5lb 10oz.

It is important to be clear what this companion is and what it is not. For basic factual information about Christianity and the church, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (third edition, 1997) remains massively authoritative and indispensable. This companion is not competing on that territory; rather, what we have here are more than 600 entries, many of them substantial essays, which give an overview of Christian thought both historical and contemporary. It can be highly recommended as a way into a whole range of subjects. So often we pick up a number of details of an issue but cannot find a way of seeing it whole. Or we know one or two contemporary views but do not know how those views fit into the current debate. These articles enable one to see subjects as a whole and, as such, many readers will be grateful for the way they can dispel anxiety and guilt about ignorance in so many spheres and increase confidence in tentatively putting forward one's own views. The only worry is that this book might be used too mechanically by grateful students in writing essays.

What counts as Christian in the book? Adrian Hastings, the chief editor, in his own article on Christianity, writes: "Christianity is best understood as comprising the entire range of beliefs and practices which, across 2,000 years, the followers have subscribed to as defining their following, or as consequent upon it. IEverything that Christians, with or without the guidance of the Holy Spirit have made of it. It must then be defined inclusively, not exclusively." The entries are therefore global, including essays on Christian thought in Africa, China, Japan, Latin America and so on. The companion also includes articles on the main non-Christian religions of the world and how Christian thought has related to them. Hastings himself (who sadly just died) has been astonishingly versatile in writing 76 of the articles himself from, in alphabetical order, Abhishiktananda to witchcraft.

While the articles are essentially balanced in their approach, this does not mean they are neutral. On the contrary, they tend to take a definite point of view, though not one imposed by the editors. The article on abortion, for example, tends to sympathise with a developmental view of the human embryo, so that an early abortion is seen as seriously regrettable without implying that it has the moral gravity of homicide. The article on homosexuality argues that "the burden of proof is on those who claim that homosexual relationships are illegitimate. In this light, it has to be asked not which side of the argument is unbalanced or the more convincing, but rather how convincing the newer arguments against homosexuality are. Here, there are grounds for considerable doubt."

If these points of view seem somewhat "liberal" then a number of the other articles take a distinctly traditional stance. The best of them get beyond these stereotypes, as for example in Hastings's article on the devil. "That the 'Devil', shorthand for evil at its most potent, truly exists is unquestionable. 'He' was present throughout the witch craze but in the hearts not of its victims but its inquisitors. He was present at Auschwitz. His face appears only too often in the daily papers. The danger in demonology is not that it has overemphasised the need to struggle with the 'Powers of darkness' but that, too often, it has misplaced and even belittled the extent of their true identity."

Inevitably, a reviewer also has a point of view. This is a companion that reflects current debates, and there are articles on a wide range of individual liberation theologians as well as some who have had disputes with the Vatican, though Hans Kung receives surprisingly short measure. At the same time it is very good that there are entries on a number of relatively unknown but weighty figures, such as Donald McKinnon, a profound influence on me at Cambridge as on so many, and Alan Ecclestone, but there is nothing on W. H. Vanstone or H. A. Williams, two of the most influential Anglican thinkers in recent decades. Both were more creative than John Robinson, for example, who receives an enthusiastic entry, helpful though Robinson's theology was from a pastoral point of view. More serious is the omission of Austin Farrer, sometimes described as the one genius produced by the Church of England in the 20th century. In an otherwise sensitive and deeply felt article on suffering, the bibliography does not mention Farrer's Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited , surely the most profound attempt to grapple with the mystery of evil and suffering in the 20th century, and one that John Hick drew on significantly. On the positive side, it is good that some thinkers who have been out of fashion in recent years receive sympathetic treatment, for example Teilhard de Chardin.

This companion contains all the articles one might expect on mainstream Christian subjects, together with extensive overviews of particular centuries. What is good, though, is that it also encompasses cultural expressions of Christianity in the arts. Here again, there are inevitably questions. There is a separate article on Bach but none on Mozart, yet we all know that Karl Barth thought that God listened to Mozart en famille . It would have been good in the general article on music to have had some discussion of the intense modern interest in works of sacred music in the past. There is an article on the novel, as well as individual articles on Tolstoy, Graham Greene and the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. But there is no discussion of either William Golding or Patrick White, both Nobel prizewinners for whom Christian themes were seminal and who are perhaps the only two modern novelists who have actually tried to reflect the resurrection of Christ as well as his crucifixion in literature. There is an article on the cinema and one on poetry, as well as individual articles on T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson. W. H. Auden does not even get a mention in the index, yet he has been as influential as any on modern poetry and his beliefs were as Christian, if not so overtly stated, as Eliot's. A splendid piece on Shakespeare by Hastings himself argues that the great playwright was a Catholic and that Christian themes are fundamental to his plays. Almost all those teaching in Stratford Grammar School, which Shakespeare attended, had Jesuit links and his father had signed an uncompromisingly Catholic "spiritual testament". At the age of 16, Shakespeare appears to have been one of a group of "sub-seminarians" under Edmund Campion's influence. "It is more than time for Christianity and theology alike to be readmitted into the core of Shakespearean interpretation."

It is good to see Reinhold Niebuhr in the companion, for uniquely among Christian theologians he influenced a whole generation of well-known politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Niebuhr also wrote one of the best short pieces ever on the relationship between humour and faith (printed in Discerning the Signs of the Times ) and it would have been good to have seen this included in the bibliography of the article on humour. There is no article on satire, though there is a rich tradition of Christian satire, broadly defined, from Jonathan Swift, through Samuel Johnson and Sydney Smith to Evelyn Waugh. I regret the omission of Swift and even more of Samuel Johnson, the greatest lay person produced by the Church of England. On the other hand, I rejoice at the inclusion of short magisterial articles on people such as Simone Weil and Ludwig Wittgenstein, to mention just two of many.

The companion covers ethics, as well as history, both fundamental questions about the basis of Christian ethics and particular issues. I was sorry to see no mention of Paul Ramsay, who was such a formative thinker in the 1960s and 1970s in relation to the morality of nuclear deterrence, as well as some issues of medical ethics. He refined Christian thinking on the issues of discrimination and proportionality which, though not obtaining universal agreement, have shaped the debate since then. Similarly, in the article on revolution, it would have been good to see a distinction between tyrannicide, as for example justified by John of Salisbury, and the much more considered "just revolution" tradition, in which certain criteria have to be fulfilled for a government to be opposed by force, associated with people like Francisco Suarez.

I hope that this book will remain in print for at least ten years and then a revised edition is brought out. For that I would make two suggestions about method.

First, there is a great deal of inconsistency in the bibliographies attached to articles. I should like to see reference made to certain key works by the subject of the article, if it is a person, and a biography if there is one, together with a couple of works discussing the writer's significance.

The other point is the question of whether issues that all belong to as it were the same family, should be written by a single author. There are for example excellent articles on metaphor, allegory, analogy and religious language. But it would have been helpful to have had more discussion about how these different themes relate to one another. Occasionally, with two authors, there can be overlap, as with the highly distinguished contributions of Kallistos Ware and Rowan Williams, as well as others, in dealing with orthodox, particularly Russian 20th-century thought. Similarly, it would have helped to have had more discussion on the relationship between divine command ethics, natural law ethics and virtue ethics, which are all dealt with by separate authors.

Christianity's relationship with Judaism comes under a number of different headings: the Holocaust (the editors sensitively asked a Jewish author to write this article), Jewish-Christian relations, Judaism in the 1st century, Israel and anti-Semitism. It would I think be better to refer to Christian hostility to Judaism before the 19th century as anti-Judaism, which prepared the way for anti-Semitism but was in itself something different.

There are three articles on the visual arts. The one on iconography deals with the orthodox understanding of icons in a way that is self-contained and sound, but while the one on the depiction of Jesus contains some suggestive ideas, this and the one on the visual arts in general perhaps cover too much ground to be satisfactory and the latter article contains some strange and anachronistic assertions.

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible contains illustrations, though only 16 colour plates. Nevertheless, it is the text in this book that matters; the illustrations, while helping to interest a reader or give the eye a break from reading, are not fundamental. In short, this is not a coffee-table volume but a book about the Bible that is at once scholarly and accessible. It is divided into four sections. The first on the making of the Bible, considers the historical background to the Old and New Testaments and the Aprocrypha. The second section, on the making of the Bible, considers its text and translation. Getting an agreed text of the New Testament is, I suspect, a very great deal more complex and difficult than nearly all readers of the Bible would allow. For example, 100 years ago a rich source of early Christian material was discovered in the town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. So far, 65 volumes containing the text of 4,441 papyri have been published, 33 of which contain a New Testament text. A scrap of half-a-dozen verses of St John's Gospel from this find, dating to the period AD125-150 is still the oldest surviving copy of any part of the New Testament. Until these finds it had been assumed that the earliest manuscripts were from the 4th century. As David Parker writes: "The text of the New Testament has changed greatly since the time of Erasmus and his fellow pioneers. A late medieval text became a 4th-century one, and that in turn has at least in part become an even older one. What is to come is still unsure."

The third section deals with the study and use of the Bible, including chapters not only on different ages of Christian interpretation but one on the Bible in Judaism. This brings out the great complexity of Jewish interpretation of scripture, though it ends on a rather pessimistic note by Philip Alexander when he refers to the growth in fundamentalism. Recent commentaries take absolutely no account of modern philological, historical, or critical study of the Bible, nor even of the more radical options of the great classic Jewish commentators, but offer the reader simply an extremely pious anthology of pre-modern and highly traditional exegesis. There is also a chapter on the Bible in literature by David Jasper, which moves from the 8th-century Dream of the Rood to Geoffrey Hill via Piers Plowman , The Canterbury Tales , Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Matthew Arnold and James Joyce. He points out how Deuteronomy 34: 1-4, the account of Moses's view of the promised land from the summit of Mount Pisgah, was a seminal passage for a number of writers including Charles Kingsley, Ruskin, Tennyson, Swinburne and Matthew Arnold, though for the last named there is no promised land but only death without consolation.

The final section looks at contemporary interpretation, with chapters on feminist scholarship, liberation theology and Latin America, Africa and Europe. An epilogue by the editor John Rogerson is critical of post-modernist approaches to the Bible. He writes that he prefers, however, "the term late modern to postmodern because I believe in the Enlightenment project, and because radical criticism of that project from within is not essentially new. I also view with alarm some of the implications of postmodern theories, such as that texts only have the meanings that can be accepted by interpreted communities." Nevertheless, as he says, whatever we choose to call our present culture, we are certainly operating in a different world compared with that of 40 years ago.

Both these books are good examples of work which is at once serious and accessible. They are of interest not just to Christians but to anyone who takes our cultural heritage seriously.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.

The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought

Editor - Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper
ISBN - 0 19 860024 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 764

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