Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Ambrose’s Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man
by Marcia L. Colish
University of Notre Dame Press, 208 pages, $15 (paper)

Unless one is a regular and diligent reader of the Pentateuch, the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis are known chiefly through vignettes: Abraham and Sarah learning they would have a son in old age, Isaac being led to sacrifice by his father Abraham, Jacob depriving his brother Esau of his birthright, Joseph resisting the blandishments of Potiphar’s wife. Yet the tales of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis offer rich narratives of individual lives, fuller than those of most other biblical heroes save the great kings of Israel. Ambrose seems to have been one of the few early Christian teachers to realize the potential of these stories for moral instruction, and Marcia Colish, professor emeritus of history at Oberlin, is the first scholar to grasp what can be made for modern readers of Ambrose’s four trea­tises on the patriarchs. The result is an original and suggestive book. She shows that Ambrose chose the patriarchs as subjects for exegetical talks (following the order of the text of Genesis) to catechumens who were soon to be baptized. In contrast to his other ethical treatises that focus on such specifics as vocations, virginity, and priesthood, these were addressed to men and women who were married, breadwinners, parents, and active in civic affairs. To introduce them to their new way of life, Ambrose chose models they could emulate and about whose deeds he could speak in specifics, not simply appeal to general principles or precepts. The message is that virtue is acquired over time and the path to a mature moral life is gradual and incremental. Colish’s insight is that in these treatises Ambrose present an ethics for the common man, a morality for faithful Christians who live in the world. This is not the conventional picture of Ambrose, but Colish knows what she is about, and her new book sheds a fresh beam of light on a beloved early Christian bishop.

Robert Louis Wilken

Who Owns The Bible? Toward The Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic
by Karl Donfried
Herder & Herder, 176 pages, $19.95

A spirited inquiry into contemporary Biblical interpretation, Who Owns the Bible? examines tendentious methods of reading the Bible in many of the mainline churches”which resulted in the introduction of an “alien hermeneutic” (that compromises the more rigorous demands of Christianity with a less judgmental “theology of inclusion”) and a weakening of densely textured articles of faith in favor of an affirmation of the Triune God as simply “a God of love.” By avoiding the difficult task of discovering how that love is to be worked out in the moral life, much of current mainline thinking falls prey to various forms of relativism. And, in the end, what the churches offer the modern world are various forms of “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized. Inclusive theologies have a difficult time with the high demands the Bible places on the believer; the Pauline maxim that one should work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling no longer has much resonance. Almost half the book is spent on how the Gospel of Matthew and the Pauline letters depict the moral life. The key points of departure are the way Matthew understands discipleship and Paul depicts justification. In both, Donfried sees the need to balance the electing hand of God that calls the Christian to enter the Kingdom with the gradual training in the life of virtue. On this view, justification by faith does not rule out good works; indeed, “good works” are the fruits of the spirit that will mark one’s life as transformed on the day of judgment. Salvation, in this view, is not an accomplished fact here and now. As Paul develops the concept, it must be understood as a radically eschatological affair that is solely in the hands of God. To be saved at the last judgment, one must hold fast to one’s faith and new life in Christ. To speak of being saved right now (as evangelical idiom is fond of putting the matter) is an error in theological grammar. There is also an extended discussion of what a biblical approach to the problem of homosexuality might look like. It was a bit surprising that no mention was made of Richard Hays’ contributions on this subject, since his approach is both well known and quite similar to that of Donfried.

Gary A. Anderson

Michael Oakeshott On Religion, Aesthetics, And Politics
by Elizabeth Campbell Corey
University of Missouri Press, 253 pages, $39.95

American interest in Michael Oakeshott’s work has been steadily increasing over the past decade, with the appearance of a significant number of dissertations, essays, and monographs on his work. Much of this is attributable to a group of remarkable younger scholars, such as Elizabeth Corey of Baylor Univer­sity. Oakeshott was the leading British political philosopher of the twentieth century. His analysis of Hobbes, his skeptical conservatism, his critiques of arationalism and ideology, and his theory of civil association and the rule of law are the most widely known and discussed elements of his thought. Now, with access to his notebooks and papers in the library of the London School of Economics, analyses of his ideas on religion and aesthetics have also begun to proliferate. An expert on these aspects of his thought, Corey introduces comparisons of, for example, Oakeshott’s critique of arationalism with Eric Voegelin’s critiques of agnosticism. This is a welcome extension of the terrain in which Oakeshott’s (and Voegelin’s) work is perceived. Oakeshott was a man of romantic spirit with an unconventional but deeply felt religious sensibility. He was a philosopher realistic about the human condition, but one discerns the poetic spirit in his prose that often transfigures the quotidian without disguising it. Oakeshott thought that preoccupation with politics is a mistake: Politics is to keep the ship afloat so that we are free to pursue the meaning of life elsewhere. Corey captures this with clarity and lucidity. A most worthy contribution.

Timothy Fuller

Conversations With Poppi About God
by Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold
Brazos, 160 pages, $18.99

One of our favorite theologians responds to questions by his grand-daughter about the really big things. Our editor in chief, who is also the girl’s godfather, says this on the dust jacket: “Eight-year-old theologians are not so rare as we might think, but few have a theologian grandfather with the patience and learning to appreciate their profundity. Readers will thank Solveig and Poppi for their winsome engagement with the surprising simplicity of Christian wisdom.” Father Neuhaus says he stands by that.

By a Slow River
by Philippe Claudel
Knopf, 208 pages, $23

Set in a French village close to, but tenuously protected from, the trench warfare of World War I, this relentlessly desolate story of murder, loneliness, the petty abuse of power, and general human beastliness will be relished by those few who share the narrator’s (and author’s?) belief that life is a series of tragedies to be remedied, however unsatisfactorily, by death and, if necessary, by suicide.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift