Barney Coombs, “Dealing with what life throws at you”

Before I went away, I was reading Barney Coombs, Dealing with what life throws at you, (2004).

Coombs is someone unknown to me.  But apparently he was one of the “fabulous fourteen” of charismatic leaders in the UK during the 70’s.  He aligned himself with the stricter group led by Bryn Jones from Bradford, classified as “Restoration 1”[1], whose vehicle was the Dalesweek bible week (on which I myself was converted in 1979, as it happens).  Derby Community Church is aligned with Coombs, and I was led to look at a sample volume of his work to get an idea of what sort of thing he teaches.

The book is very sound.  Clearly Coombs has a great deal of pastoral experience, and it shows.  Unfortunately I finished this book just before going to Iceland, so the impression has faded rather.  But I noted various interesting points as I read.

He highlights that “failure” can be anything but.

Firstly, we can never afford the luxury of self-pity. …

Secondly, never give up hope.  Even if it seems that you fail at almost everything you attempt to do, you could yet leave your mark on history.  …

Thirdly, determine to be convinced that through all the failures of the past, you have been acquiring invaluable wisdom.  Those failures can be stepping stones to success.[2]

There are sections on bereavement and rejection, full of good sound practical advice for the Christian.  I wasn’t reading it in order to seek help, but I can see that it would help.

The centre of the book is chapter 7.  Unfortunately Coombs has allowed himself to use some strange terminology here — “scandalized” –, which means that anyone reading the chapter must mentally retranslate the terms whenever he encounters it.  His point in this chapter is that we can become prisoners of what has happened to us. 

The book, in other words, is a good, God-centred piece of work.  It is not primarily aimed at people like me, nor, I suspect, most Christian readers of this blog, but then neither was the New Testament.

All books coming out of that movement tend to feel “harsh” to me.  There is an abrasiveness at points in what is said, as if the object is to make people feel uncomfortable in order to get them to submit to the discomfort.  But it is possible that this is merely how working-class Christianity actually is, and has to be in order to be heard by people who are not particularly educated nor particularly sensitive.

If this is the standard of work in those churches, they are to be commended.

  1. [1]By Andrew Walker in his analysis, Restoring the Kingdom.
  2. [2]p.22-23.

Christophe Guignard on Julius Africanus’ letter about the genealogies in Matthew

I’ve started to read the volume of Christophe Guignard, La lettre de Julius Africanus à Aristide sur la généalogie du Christ, De Gruyters (2011).  It’s full of good things, like a well-baked cake in which every bite includes a nut or a raisin.  I have, so far, merely nibbled at it.  It is, in truth, a formidably expensive volume at $210.

Now I bought  the volume at half price at the Oxford Patristics Conference, after Dr. Guignard came to the stall where I was selling copies of the text and English translation of my Eusebius, Gospel Problems and Solutions (=Gospel Questions).  But thereby hangs a tale.  For I find that I was only just in time.  Today a correspondent writes to say  that he was also at the conference, and had gone out to a leisurely lunch with Dr. G.  My friend rushed back to the De Gruyter stall to buy the book, only to find that “some slyboots” — me! — had made off with the only display copy of the book.  Fortune favours the brave!  But probably De Gruyter will honour conference prices, if asked.

I’m not that interested in the letter of Africanus.  But the process of retrieving its fragments takes us over all sorts of sources for early Christian bible commentaries.  It is, in truth, very interesting indeed and full of nuggets of information.  It’s the polished version of a PhD thesis, which will amaze many who have seen anglophone dissertations.  But it makes most of those look babyish.   Evidently French theses achieve a level simply unknown to UK and American PhD supervisors.  The notes make clear a level of reading and knowledge far beyond my own, and I hope to give you, in translation, some bits of the book which will be of general interest. 

For this evening, I thought that I would give you a bit of the foreword in my own English translation, as I found myself translating it as I read last night.

The present work is a lightly reworked version of my doctoral thesis in protestant theology and Greek and Latin philology, completed at the universities of Strasbourg and Bari under the direction of professors Rémi Gounelle and Luciano Canfora, and submitted at Strasbourg on the 28 September 2009.

After I had started with the religious problem posed by the simultaneous coexistence of pagan and Christian elements within the Africanian corpus in my final thesis for theology studies, Julius Africanus: Réexamen d’une énigme (under the direction of prof. Eric Junod, Lausanne, 2004), I at first considered the project of composing for this author a comprehensive study, both biographical and literary.  Very soon, however, the Letter to Aristides attracted my interest.  Claudio Zamagni, that great scholar of the subject, had already drawn my attention to the presence of new extracts of the text in the Syriac tradition of the Gospel questions of Eusebius of Caesarea.  The attribution of the fragments, in two independent branches of the tradition, which not only had remained unknown to the last editor of the letter, W. Reichardt, but also did not fit into the system, on the basis of which he had constructed his edition, convinced me of the necessity to undertake afresh and extend the study of the tradition of the text.  To my great surprise, this process has allowed me to bring to light an unpublished fragment of the Greek, since I was convinced that all the materials for the Greek text had already been identified.  This discovery significantly altered the direction of my research, since, more than ever, it was necessary to give a fresh edition of the text.  Such is therefore the first aim of this work, but, since the text has never been translated as a whole, I have thought it useful to add to it a French translation, as well as a study, in part on the polemical context within which the letter of Africanus was written, and on the other hand on the argumentation which the author deploys to support his arguments and the origin of the traditions which he invokes.

The introduction continues with Dr. Guignard’s thanks to the various people and institutions who made this study possible.  All of them, in truth, should be proud to be associated with it.   It is truly excellent.  More later.

Review: The heresy of orthodoxy, part 1

Andreas J. Köstenberger and Michael J. Kruger have written an interesting book by the title of The Heresy of Orthodoxy.  They contend that New Testament studies is being corrupted by a theory originally advanced by Walter Bauer in 1934 in his book Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im Ältesten Christentum, and popularised by an English translation and the works of Bart Ehrman, and that this in turn is dripping nonsense into our culture in general. 

The book begins with a short introduction, indicating the purpose of the book — to refute Bauer’s book — and also containing the usual thanks and dedications, plus a note that this is by no means an academic issue alone because of the widespread use of the theory by those seeking to attack Christianity in contemporary society.  This last statement indicates that the authors are Christians, but it is the only such statement in part 1 (I have yet to read parts 2 and 3).

According to K&K, Bauer’s theory was a classic bit of revisionism.  He took the narrative of early Christian history, found in all ancient sources that discuss the matter, and inverted it.  

In the primary sources, we have Christ teaching his disciples, the apostles preaching and founding churches, and the churches transmitting that teaching, and rejecting one deviation after another down the centuries, with theology developing, but not changing, through this process.  But in the sources, there are also the heretics; those who want the name of Christianity, but want to attach it to other teaching.  This other teaching depends on their background; initially it is borrowed from Judaism, but thereafter it is usually borrowed from contemporary pop-paganism, right down to our own times.  Catalogues of these heresies and their infinite variety of teachings exist, such as the Panarion of Epiphanius or the De haeresibus of Augustine, and these often name Simon Magus as the first of them.

K&K tell us that Bauer asserted, in contrast, that the teaching of Jesus had no specific content, and that the movement that derived from him was very various in nature and teaching.  Out of this, at a later date, arose what they call “proto-orthodoxy”, a narrowing of the originally broad and diverse movement.  This better organised faction pushed all the other forms of genuine Christianity out of the nest, so to speak.

In chapter 1, K&K discuss the reception of the theory in North America. The book presumes the reader speaks only English, and there are no direct references to non-English sources in the literature.  But unless the libraries to which they have access are scant indeed, presumably this is a deliberate choice, in the belief that their audience, sympathetic or otherwise, will be familiar with the literature but will not have access to scholarly literature in French and German.   It may be relevant that scholars in North America rarely referred to the work until it was translated in 1971 as Orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity (p.26, n.6).  

Chapter 2 reviews a key element in the Bauer theory.  Bauer examined the data on four early centres of Christianity; Asia Minor, Edessa, Egypt and Rome.  He claimed that in each case there is evidence of heresy predating evidence of orthodoxy.  K&K spend a couple of pages on each, with varying levels of success.  The first portion, on Asia Minor, successfully rebuts the claim.  But only two pages are devoted to Edessa, and there is no mention of Syriac, which makes this portion of the book much too skimpy.  Marcion seems to be the heretic in view, and certainly Ephraim dedicates part of his Prose Refutations to dealing with the Marcionites.  Nearby, Eznik of Kolb in early Armenian likewise attacks the group, who were therefore plainly strong in this region.  Yet … when we look at the list of pre-fourth century literary texts, we think, not of Marcion, but of Bardaisan and The book of the laws of the countries.  We also consider the translation of the Old Testament into Syriac, presumably in this period, perhaps by Jews, perhaps Christians, but probably not by Marcionites.  Surely a better argument could be made here.  The authors might have verified whether any ancient source conclusively records Marcionites as present in any region before Christianity — the catalogue of data in Harnack’s Marcion: Das Evangelium vom fremden Gott would tell them — and if not, then we need not consider the idea that Marcion preceded orthodoxy in Edessa without positive evidence.  Positive evidence is not forthcoming.  The section on Egypt is better, and that on Rome is well-considered.  These sections do refer, in a shallow way, to the data in question.  The next part of the chapter then discusses the patristic view, concentrating exclusively on the regula fidei.  Perhaps the remarks of Tertullian ca. 200 AD on heresies, their origin and attitudes, in De praescriptione haereticorum 1-7 might have deserved a mention, considering its accessibility in the splendid translation by Greenslade, which I think the authors would enjoy if they read it.  Finally there is a discussion — much too shallow — of heresy in the Fathers.  Curiously they only treat gnosticism, presumably because this is the heresy advanced by most of Bauer’s admirers. 

This seems to be the right moment to mention a feature of the book, one common to most of the books on New Testament studies that I have seen.  The primary data plays a minor role, not unnaturally since it is a fixed and small corpus which the authors presume everyone knows.  Instead it digests modern book after modern book, balancing one on another and thereby telling the tale.  Unfortunately it means that much of this part of the book is essentially unverifiable to anyone who does not have the pile of books referenced before him, and looks up each in turn to see whether it does establish what the authors claim.  What I would have liked to see, instead, is a very much larger book.  In that book, each element of the argument would be established from first principles by the authors, based on the primary data and referencing only technical authorities, and describing other authors as they have contributed to the argument.  In 100 pages little can be done.  But in a sense it torpedoes the value of a book, since that value depends on the value one ascribes to the “authorities” referenced.  Some of them look a little unlikely to be able to bear the weight placed on them.

Chapter 3 discusses how heresy is seen in the New Testament.  The treatment is sound, and the authors rightly sidestep the pitfall of arguments about the dating and authorship of New Testament documents.  In the section where they discuss the pastorals, referring to “Paul says”, a footnote indicating that the authorship was not of importance for the argument would have avoided some captious criticism.

At the end of the chapter, a rather rushed set of conclusions in fact introduce new and important material in a way liable to mislead.  Part of the Bauer argument is that orthodoxy triumphed because of ecclesiastical politics.  K&K instead suggest that this is anachronistic, and that the real answer lies in the belief of the early Christians that the gospel message itself was supernatural, and that the attitude to authority was to look for what was divinely bestowed rather than organisationally conferred.  They instance Paul’s own apostolate as an example.  There is something in this, although Paul himself took care to obtain the backing of the organisation that Jesus had left behind him.  They suggest that failure to recognise this reflects an anti-supernatural bias in Bauer, and a prediliction for seeing everything as movements of men and politics, rather than allowing for the ‘charismatic’ attitudes likely to exist among the early believers.  Probably he was so biased, and, like many a scholar, far too removed from such movements to ever instinctively understand how they work.  But the point is made ineptly, and the phrasing is likely to lead to criticism as if they were writing sermons rather than arguing issues.

On the whole part 1 is a success.  On to part 2.

Review of James Hannam’s “God’s philosophers”

I’ve now written a review of James Hannam’s book God’s philosophers: how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science, and it’s available here

The book is very useful and should help to correct many misunderstandings.  I suspect it would film well, and wouldn’t be surprised if some form of TV programme comes out of this.