Book Reviews

Cultural Landscapes and the Bible

J. W. Rogerson, Beauchief Abbey Press

JOHN ROGERSON is an Old Testament scholar of amazing learning, versatility, and skill in exposition, notable also for his commitment to applying biblical insights to the demands of the modern world. This large volume consists of his most significant papers over a span of about 40 years. (A previous volume contained some of his many contributions to biblical ethics, an interest that is, therefore, not represented much here.)

The areas covered include social anthropology, sociology, the history of biblical interpretation (Rogerson probably knows more than anyone else in the English-speaking world about the history of German scholarship), philosophical issues relating to the Bible, and biblical translation. Everything is suffused by Rogerson’s academic rigour, philosophical sophistication, and, above all, commitment to social theory and social justice.

Some of the pieces here have become classics, and it is useful to have them available now in one place: for example, “The Hebrew Conception of Corporate Personality: A re-examination”, from 1970; “Structural Anthropology and the Old Testament” (also 1970); and “The Old Testament View of Nature: Some preliminary questions” (1976). These call in question ideas that were in common circulation at the time, and that are still encountered today, alleging that ancient Israel had a distinctive mind-set that we cannot now recapture. Rogerson carefully undermines the relativistic implications of that view, as he does in a much more recent and previously unpublished piece on post-modernism and Old Testament studies, from 1996.

In many ways, the heart of the collection is a group of papers on the history of biblical studies. It is here that his encyclopaedic knowledge of German (and British) scholarship is most in evidence. There are essays on his favourite 19th-century scholar, W. M. L. de Wette, and also on Herder, Colenso, Vatke, Wellhausen, Geddes, Robertson Smith, and Houbigant; and there are thematic pieces on the writing of Old Testament history and on reactions to Darwin.

But more miscellaneous contributions show the same critical acumen, as in the history of the Manchester Faculty of Theology, a study of William Temple as philosopher and theologian, and an essay on the Old Testament and the environment, in which Rogerson’s well-known commitment to ecological causes is grounded in the Old Testament, and shown to involve issues of justice.

A number of the papers are translations from Rogerson’s own German originals, and were delivered in various universities in Germany.

For me, one of the most interesting points that Rogerson makes concerns the difference between German and British approaches to the Bible — arguably as evident now as it was in the 19th century, and a cause of much misunderstanding of “the Germans” in Anglo-Saxon theology and church life. Rogerson writes: “The philosophical-theological climate of Christianity in Britain in the period 1770 to 1840 was characterised as consisting of truths conveyed by revelation, approved by reason, accepted by faith, and put into effect by moral conduct, and by worship and prayer. [Whereas the climate in Protestant Germany] can be characterised, by contrast, as follows.

“It is personal experience of a liberating God, who can be glimpsed in the deepest feelings of the human soul, and in the processes of history, and whose reality is confirmed in the biblical record of God’s dealings with his people, which record is also a means whereby God becomes a living reality to the believer.”

Rogerson shows that the philosophical background of the two approaches is quite different: Locke on the British side, Kant and Leibniz on the German side, mediated through Schleiermacher, Fries, Schelling, and Hegel. Unless this is understood, British readers of German commentaries and books on the Bible are almost bound to get the wrong end of the stick.

Theological students, Rogerson suggests, should be given some basic grounding in philosophy before they undertake biblical studies. Otherwise, “most of them will retreat into an acquiescence in biblical criticism, for the purpose of satisfying examiners, but basically, they may well be untouched by biblical criticism. They will not find it liberating, and some may reluctantly be driven into a sophisticated form of fundamentalism, perhaps derived from C. S. Lewis.”

This is a magnificent collection, forthright, and yet also subtle and sophisticated. No one seriously interested in the Bible can afford to miss it.

John Barton, Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford.
Church Times, 18 September 2015

Rogerson’s Legacy

J W Rogerson and the young Beauchief Abbey Press have collaborated for yet another intriguing volume, this time a collection of Rogerson’s academic essays pertaining, quite broadly, to biblical studies …

Though one would rightly be glad for the new opportunity to access these essays in one place, this is not all that is new about the volume. Rogerson has also translated many of his essays, originally in German, into English, and has moreover offered one new, previously unpublished essay, ‘Post-Modernism and Old Testament Studies: An Attempt at a Balance Sheet’.

For most readers, both students and scholars alike, reading Rogerson’s essays will delight and provoke. His writing is engaging, his questions unrelenting, and his conclusions straightforwardly reasonable. His scholarship has his readers looking both ways, both firmly rooted in the history of interpretation, and peering forward, as in the Post-Modernism essay mentioned above.

This is undoubtedly a welcome contribution to biblical scholarship in both its breadth of scope and depth of insight.

Dr Kurtis Peters
The Expository Times, 127(4)
January 2016

Unexpected Discovery

John Rogerson is a biblical scholar whose sermons reflect his rigorous engagement with the scriptural texts, and frequently seeks to apply them to some big theological or cultural questions (Is religion a private matter? How do we respond to celebrity culture? What does the Bible say about marriage?) They are coloured by the desire to reconcile the historical critical approach to biblical interpretation with living faith . They deserve a wide readership.

James Walters, Chaplain to the London School of Economics.
Church Times,12 December 2014

History and Faith: The Story of the Passion

Charles Kingsley Barrett

These published radio talks are vintage Barrett. In carefully crafted prose, Barrett the historian guides us expertly through the gospel texts and their Jewish contexts, with all their complexity, in order to tease out how the early Christians came to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is nothing hackneyed here – instead, there are plenty of original, often arresting ideas. And through and beyond this brilliant historical reconstruction, Barrett brings the past into the present with challenging reflections on the theological shape and purpose of the Christian life.

The rare combination of historical integrity and spiritual sensitivity makes these talks as instructive and inspiring today as they were in 1967, while their broadcast form makes them easily comprehensible to a wide audience. It is a treat to ‘hear’ again Barrett’s quietly authoritative voice on such a central New Testament subject.

Professor J M G Barclay
Professor of Divinity, University of Durham

The Case for Ernst Lohmeyer

J W Rogerson
Beauchief Abbey Press

LOHMEYER is a two-fold hero: first, as a brilliant New Testament scholar, often going against the stream of contemporary German biblical scholarship, and, second, as a disciple of Jesus Christ and member of the Confessing Church, persecuted by the Nazis and executed by the Soviets.

We are indebted to Professor Rogerson for this spirited and successful attempt to rescue him from undeserved obscurity and to persuade English-speaking readers to reconsider his work “and especially the philosophical thinking that characterised it”.

The main influences were the philosopher Richard Hönigswald and the poet Stefan George, who together led Lohmeyer to think and write in a quite different way from other theologians. He anticipated by sixty years scholarly interest in the social setting of Early Christianity; and he applied what he had learnt from the Bible to the situation in Germany, notably in his Rectoral Address at the prestigious Breslau University in 1930, in which he credited Israelite religion with the development of the idea of a people (Volk).

This alarmed and alerted the rising Nazi party, which in 1935 removed him from Breslau to provincial Greifswald, academically comparable to the self-inflicted move of Professor Ratzinger from Tübingen to Regensburg in 1969.

It is, however, his exegetical work that is most likely to vindicate Recusance championing. It is characterised by close attention to the Greek text, underpinned by Hönigwald’s philosophy and full of imaginative and inspiring insights. Because of the war, his monumental commentary on Matthew is an Unfinished Symphony; and so is his most seminal work, a critique of Bultmann in his 1944 lecture on “The Right Interpretation of the Mythological”.

Rogerson ends by describing an imaginary conversation between Bultmann and Lohmeyer, which serves to highlight the tragedy of his early death in 1946. A continued conversation between these two in real life would have enriched post-war theology beyond all imagining.

We may be thankful that Lohmeyer completed The Lord’s Prayer, which places prayer at the centre of the life of every Christian, including himself.

John Arnold
Church Times, 21 October 2016