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THE HOLY SPIRIT AND CHRISTIAN ORIGINS: Essays in honour of James D. G. Dunn

02 November 2006


Eerdmans £29.95(0-8028-2822-1)Church Times Bookshop £26.95

IF any general readers find their way to this book, they will not find much in the way of lightheartedness. Only one example, in fact. In 1958, we learn, the late Ulrich Simon, then teaching at King’s College, London, was asked by a student, “Dr Simon, what is a Festschrift?” He was answered: “When you are old, and have lost all interest in your subject, they give you a book of essays about those things concerning which you no longer wish to know.”

Anyone acquainted with James Dunn, to whom this book of essays is given by friends, colleagues and admirers, to mark his recent retirement from his Durham chair, will not for a moment suspect that his interest in the study of the New Testament risks imminent decay.

There are no fewer than 27 essays, by scholars from this country, the United States, Germany, and elsewhere. The range reflects Dunn’s central position in the world of NT studies over many years. His first publications, listed at the end of this book, came in 1970, and they have flowed steadily and abundantly ever since.

He has ranged pretty widely, but, if one theme has recurred in his work, it relates to the central thought of Paul the Apostle, especially the theme of the Spirit. Indeed, his first book, which created substantial interest, was Baptism in the Holy Spirit, a topic then of growing importance in some parts of the Christian world.

The present collection continues to reflect that interest, though without paying too much attention to ecclesiastical aspects. It concentrates on the writings of Paul, 11 essays being concerned with matters Pauline. This central bloc is preceded by essays on topics in the Gospels; and, apart from a handful on later NT books, the rest take the subject of the Spirit (without any startling results, except, perhaps, that absence itself?) in writings from the following period.

Any reader finds light more in one place than another. I followed to my profit the dense argument of David Catchpole on Romans 7, and its somewhat lighter companion on the same passage by Peter Borgen; also Morna Hooker on the baptism of John as a prophetic sign.

Any complaints or cautions? As is common with the genre, this is very much a book for the skilled member of the guild of NT experts and their near relations. There might be a reaction that it is the sort of book that gets academic theology, with its narrow specialising and its ever more introverted life, a bad name.

In being so far removed from even domestic church interests, this collection does not do justice to the life and work of the one for whom it was made. It would have been good if one or two contributors had been recruited who might have stood back a little and asked what much of the material here surveyed could now be taken to signify.

The book is indeed a product of Christian circles, chiefly Protestant, with a few Anglicans, but few appear to find themselves looking out through the windows, let alone opening the door.

Finally, perhaps there is one more joke — I am not sure. To keep referring to Professor Dunn as the book’s “honoree” was, in my view, a neologism. It seems to be of American provenance. It should surely be suppressed.

The Revd Leslie Houlden is a former Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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