Religion Booknotes

Burning to Read
English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents
James Simpson
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, $27.95, 368 pp.

According to the standard argument of Protestant historiography, the sixteenth-century struggle to provide a vernacular Bible, with the corresponding doctrine that each person can come to a knowledge of faith sola scriptura, was a pivotal moment in Western culture. The reformers scored an early victory for what some would later come to call “liberalism” by striking down all mediating authorities dictating who could read and what they should get out of that reading.

In Burning to Read, James Simpson vigorously rejects that thesis: “Evangelical reading did not produce either readerly liberty or freedom from institutional constraint,” he writes. In fact, those advocating the private reading of Scripture met with enormous obstacles, and stirred such conflict that civil authorities often had to intervene to forestall anarchy.

Simpson focuses on a relatively brief period in the early sixteenth century—the age of William Tyndale and Sir Thomas More—when the English “Lutherans” promoted the doctrine of sola scriptura. The belief that every person could read the clear message of salvation was fraught with contradictions. It was manifestly not the case that everyone read Scripture in the same way, as the emergence of the radical reformers in Germany proved only two years after Luther’s break with Rome. Who, then, was the true reader of Scripture? Was it only the predestined, who had the word of God imprinted on their hearts? Was the true meaning available only to philologists who understood the nuances of Greek and Hebrew? The translation of key words was a source of titanic conflict. Prefaces to various biblical translations demanded no glosses to the text, no explanatory notes, and no reading by the less educated, all in an attempt to resist hermeneutical chaos.

Solidly orthodox Catholics like Thomas More were not slow to point out the problems with sola scriptura, nor were Catholic humanists like Erasmus, who saw that insistence on the literal meaning of the text had confused people in the past and would do so in the future. The reformers were ferociously opposed to the ancient practice of figural and allegorical methods of exegesis—the famous “four senses of Scripture,” used for centuries—until it became necessary to explain away unpleasant literal statements (for example, “This is my body”). The issue was particularly acute when reading books like Leviticus: Tyndale insisted that these were the literal words of God, even as he rejected the literal application of Old Testament laws. Erasmus predicted—correctly, as it turned out—that individual reading would lead to violence.

Within this “exclusivist, intolerant, persecutory, distrustful, and inevitably schismatic culture of reading,” Simpson writes, Thomas More’s was the voice that best showed the instability of reading a text literally. More perceived that a common text demands to be read within an interpretative community, and he fought with brilliance and learning against Tyndale and company in support of this point. At the same time, Simpson notes, More didn’t hesitate to employ a literal interpretation of Scripture, one that echoed the views of his English Lutheran opponents, when condemning heretics to death.

Simpson’s final point calls into question the way in which some modern liberals have invoked the sixteenth-century reformers. “The liberal tradition,” he concludes, “would understand the punishing demands of literalism better if it stopped tracing its own ancestry to the moment that produced its most vigorous opponent.”

 

Four Ways of Holiness for the Universal Church
Drawn from the Monastic Tradition
Francis Kline, OCSO
Cistercian Publications, $19.95, 184 pp.

Francis Kline died in 2006, before his fifty-eighth birthday. A monk of Gethsemani Abbey, he was elected abbot of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina in 1990, when he was in his early forties. He was a talented man who had graduated from the Juilliard School of Music (and made his name at the age of twenty-two, performing Bach’s organ works in a marathon series of recitals), only to enter the monastery a year after graduation. Four Ways of Holiness for the Universal Church, posthumously published with a loving preface by his friend the Jesuit canonist Ladislas Orsy, consists of four essays written after Kline was diagnosed with cancer. The second essay, simply titled “Suffering,” is a moving but completely unsentimental account of his health struggles and his reflections on this ordeal.

The first essay, “Conversion,” explores that radically monastic concept. The others were written while Kline was being treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. These are the reflections not of an academic but of a monk who made lectio divina central to his life. The third essay, “Desire,” is about the ultimate desire for God. Anyone acquainted with the great Cistercian masters of the twelfth century (who, in the words of Etienne Gilson, gave up everything for God except the art of writing well) will recall that the fundamental drive toward God—desiderium—is the orientation of their anthropology. Kline comments, as did Cassian before him, on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, arguing that the final ones represent the desire that stands at the door of Mystery. The essay “Unity Viewed as Holiness” discusses how, in the universal call to holiness (see Lumen gentium 5), there is also a fundamental call to unity-the desire to be holy is given to all, and that common destiny links all.

Kline rarely focuses on himself, apart from chronicling his health struggles. He reflects with austere honesty on the need for us to love ourselves-but also to remain cognizant of our own weaknesses and failings. These pages, written less than a year before Kline went back to Mepkin to die, are as powerful a spiritual testament as one is likely to find.

The book’s subtitle describes these reflections on holiness as “drawn from the monastic tradition,” but Kline is not speaking only to contemplative religious. He preached retreats, collaborated with his diocese, and hosted many ecumenical events. I knew Francis Kline quite well: I had been a guest speaker at Mepkin and spent time with him when he traveled to speak. In all his travels, his magnetic North was always his monastery in the low country of South Carolina. He was incredibly disciplined, faithful to a simple diet, always in choir for vigils—and always ready for conversation, where he proved a man of considerable wit. As Fr. Orsy rightly says, “Francis loved solitude, but he never built a wall around his heart.” His premature death was a real loss for the church, and this brief book is one testimony to his profound faith and deep monastic formation. Kline describes “conversion” as the transformation of the self in the Risen Christ. I have every reason to believe he now sees the Risen One he so earnestly followed in his all-too-short life.

 

The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature
Edited by John Witte Jr. and Frank S. Alexander
Columbia University Press, $33.50, 408 pp. 

No serious student of Christian theology can disregard the fruitful tradition of modern Orthodox theological reflection. The theologians of ressourcement in the decades before the Second Vatican Council were enormously enriched by their contacts with Orthodox thinkers exiled to France after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Orthodox were influential in reminding Western theologians to integrate their work more fully with the witness of both the ancient fathers and the liturgy itself. As John Paul II declared, the church must “breathe with two lungs.”

The Teachings of Modern Orthodox Christianity on Law, Politics, and Human Nature is one of a series of books inspired by a center at Emory University concerned with the intersection of law and religion. Though its title might suggest a narrow scope, it provides substantive profiles of five important Orthodox thinkers, ranging from the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, who died in 1900, to Dumitru Staniloae, who passed away in 1993. The other three are the somewhat eccentric Nicholas Berdyaev (d. 1948), the brilliant Vladimir Lossky (d. 1958), and Mother Maria Skobtsova, the twice-married-and-divorced mother turned Orthodox monastic who perished in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. Each biographical essay is followed by a generous selection of the subject’s writings, and since none of these writers was interested only in the subject of law and politics, an interested reader can learn a great deal about the “flavor” and substance of Orthodox writing.

In his cogent introductory essay, Paul Valliere points out that there are two general streams of thought in modern Orthodoxy (at least as represented by these five thinkers). One is a philosophical tendency, seen in Soloviev and Berdyaev, with roots that go back to German idealism. The other, best represented by Lossky, is called “Neopatristic” (an Orthodox form of ressourcement). Both tendencies are, as Valliere insists, “modern” in that they are shaped by the cataclysms of the twentieth century, especially the events in Russia early in the century and the rise of totalitarian rule. Given these circumstances, the relationship between law and religion was of obvious concern to modern Orthodox writers.

The thinking of these diverse figures had a major influence on the Maritains, Thomas Merton, and ressourcement theologians like de Lubac, Danielou, and Congar. Today Orthodox theologians contribute to everything from pneumatology to Trinitarian theology and ecclesiology. Many other writers—Paul Evdokimov, Georges Florovsky—could well have been included, but this volume is a useful introduction to the much wider world of Orthodox, especially Russian Orthodox, thought and literature.

 

Disciples of All Nations
Pillars of World Christianity
Lamin O. Sanneh
Oxford University Press, $19.95, 384 pp.

Western Christians tend to presume that there is a direct relationship between Christianity and civilization. In this study of world Christianity, Lamin Sanneh shifts the perspective from that of the Western Christian missionary to that of the people who received, or did not receive, what the Christian had to say. His approach is informed by two points: First, Western Christianity has been indelibly marked by passing through the Enlightenment; and second, wherever Christianity takes root outside the West, it inevitably carries with it the seeds of that experience.

With this in mind, the attitudes of Christians in non-Western cultures become more intelligible. We can understand the circumstances behind the atomized state of many African Christian denominations, and see how African Anglicans might perceive the ordination of openly gay bishops as a loss of moral fiber. We begin to see why a Vatican-independent Catholic Church exists alongside the Vatican-faithful church in China (apart from the obvious force of Communist xenophobia), and why many Chinese Catholics find it easy enough to go to either for their spiritual needs.

Sanneh, himself a Catholic (and a professor at Yale University), believes it is possible, and necessary, for Christianity to disentangle itself from its colonial roots and its self-identified mission civilatrice. He borrows from the thinking of Spiritan missionary Vincent Donovan to argue that a complete reconceptualization of the way Christianity lives outside the West would lead to a renewal of apostolic Christian growth. What Sanneh advocates is not a timid theory of “inculturation” (like building churches to look like pagodas), but a breaking of the cultural bonds in which much of Christian theory and practice is anchored.

Sanneh’s demographic projections indicate the urgency of this task. By 2025, there will be 600 million Christians in Africa, but only 250 million in North America. By mid-century, Sanneh predicts, 30 percent of China’s people will be Christian. These demographic shifts are vivid evidence of Karl Rahner’s observation that Vatican II marked the emergence of the Weltkirche, or “world church.” Sanneh alerts us that the Weltkirche will look very different from the church of the present and past, and that this change will be fueled from outside the West.

What Christian theology will look like when freed from its cultural bonds is not discussed in any sustained way here. That difficult subject could fill many other books, as the numerous theologians who have journeyed to Rome to explain themselves can attest. But this volume, part of a series under Sanneh’s editorship, is engagingly written, amply documented, and reasonably priced; and if other volumes are as informative, the series should prove a formidable resource for all who are interested in the catholic—which is to say, universal—church.

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: 
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Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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