Volume 3 - Issue 3

Letter to the Editor

Viña del Mar, Chile

Dear Dr France,

Owing to postal delays and my absence on leave in England I have only just read the January 1977 edition of Themelios and, although it is a bit late, I would like to bring a couple of points to your notice about the review by Gerald Bray of Christian Believing (p. 64).

First, I found its tone a bit unpleasant. Is it necessary to use words and phrases such as ‘invidious’, ‘replete with fatuities’, ‘Well, well, well!’, ‘professed conservative evangelicals’ in the way they are used here? They convey an impression of dogmatic bias which could put people off, give ammunition to those who wish to criticize ‘fundamentalist lack of charity’, and generally hinder the witness of the journal.

Second, it seems to me that the review falls short of the standards required of an academic journal. Leaving aside the question of the tone of the article, the reviewer makes his points by misleading and selective quotation; he seems not to have grasped that much of the document is concerned with the present state of opinions within the church and is descriptive rather than prescriptive (e.g. p. 35—‘What follows is a description of the main types of attitude …’). I think I ought to substantiate this remark and will do so by considering the various quotations made in the review.

The first three, from pages 9, 10 and 11, are all dependent on a paragraph from page 7:

It will be best to begin by attempting to set out what we may call the negative side of the argument, the reasons why to many there does seem today to be a quite unprecedented challenge in this field which Christians must face.

They are presented in the review as a conclusion of the commission which, as the context shows, they are not. The second is very worrying since in the review two paragraphs have been run together and the question which ends the quotation is in fact answered in the words which conclude the paragraph of which only the last sentence is quoted (p. 11), the author having omitted among other phrases the following important words,

Given such an appraisal of the situation, the natural results in a Christian context are: …

The extent to which the review has misrepresented the report becomes even plainer when one reads the short paragraph which immediately follows the citation made from page 11:

This, then, is one side of the argument. But another, very different reading of the situation is possible, and to this we must now turn.

So far as the quotation from page 18 is concerned, I will say no more than that it ought to be read along with the preceding sentence:

One method of handling this problem (that of finding some coherent logical approach to our positive statements about God) which has a real but limited usefulness is that which applies the principle of analogy to what we say about God.

—and that in my opinion the words which are so roundly rejected are quite a good summary of the philosophical doctrine of analogy, given that one has half a paragraph to devote to the purpose.

Moving on to page 21, the best I can do is quote the paragraph’s opening sentences in their entirety:

The Bible, therefore, does not come just from ‘the past’, but from many different ‘pasts’, some of which were already so unfamiliar even in biblical times that they were plainly mis-understood by other biblical writers. Neverthe-less, there is one fact which gives all this material at least a common external frame of reference. The Bible contains not only the earliest surviving records of Christianity itself but also an extensive sample of the historical process within which Christianity emerged. The principal reality in the background of Christianity is Israel; and in the Old Testament the life of Israel is documented over a longer period and from more aspects than that of any other ancient society. There are gaps.… But … it is still true that the Old Testament is an essential source-book without which many things in the New Testament would be totally incomprehensible to us.

This brings us to another unifying factor within the Bible as a whole.…

Two comments can be made on this section: first, that the Commission does not deny the unity of the Bible in the cavalier way implied in the reviewthey are concerned to find ‘unity within diversity’ (cf. p. 25 ‘In showing, therefore, that the theologies underlying the Bible do belong to a single family, and share fundamental family resemblances, the biblical theology movement has brought to light a genuine community of witness in Scripture which makes talk of the ‘unity of the Bible’ more than an idle phrase, and does show, moreover, that this unity is in essence theological and not merely cultural’). Secondly, if the thrust of Mr Bray’s remark about God being outside time is that one should say that ‘the principal reality in the background of Christianity is God (and not Israel)’, then I object strongly to God’s being relegated to a back seat—the whole doctrine of the incarnation brings him on to the stage.

So far as the allusion to page 34 is concerned, I would agree that the reviewer is probably right in his understanding of Augustine’s attitude; it would however be far neater to make the point by commenting that the phrases cited are helpful to man because they are descriptive of God, if not ex-haustively so. The last reference (to p. 38) needs no special treatment since it again confuses a partial description with a definite affirmation.

I could go on to take up several interpretations of the report—e.g. ‘Credal language … is the product of its time (and hence intrinsically defective)’—but I reckon that I have said enough. There are real weaknesses in the report, but it could have been reviewed in a positive way.

I’d like to close by saying that I do much appreciate the articles in Themelios and the majority of reviews. They all help to keep me in touch with what is going on.

Yours most sincerely,

John Cobb.

Gerald Bray replies:

It is difficult to answer Mr Cobb’s complaints in a short space, but I would urge the following points in response to his criticism.

First, I am well aware that the report is largely descriptive, not prescriptive, in nature, but I fail to see that this makes much difference in practice. As subsequent events have amply demonstrated, the report of the commission was a ballon d’essai for introducing radical ideas to the general church public. It is true that the quotations I selected were prefaced by qualifying remarks as Mr Cobb points out, but to imagine that these were any more than window-dressing seems to me to be naive.

Second, the real question raised by Mr Cobb’s letter is how far the principle of comprehensiveness should extend. The Church of England has a duty to make its fellowship as wide as the gospel, but it is equally bound to abjure heresy. I know this is a cause of great unpleasantness, and deplore this as much as anyone, but heresy is an ugly word for an ugly thing. It is quite plain to me that the general thrust of Christian Believing is destructive of the faith once delivered to the saints, nd as such must be opposed by all who love our Lord in sincerity and truth.

Gerald Bray.

[Readers’ letters are always welcome, and we are pleased to consider them for publication if space allows, when they deal with matters of general interest arising out of our articles and reviews.