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The signs — and challenges — of Jesus    

by
06 January 2017

John Saxbee reviews two very different New Testament studies

The Gospel Miracles: What really happened? A systematic, open-minded review of the evidence
Michael J. Lowis
Wipf & Stock £12
(978-1-4982-0427-9)

 

What Do You Seek? The questions of Jesus as challenge and promise
Michael J. Buckley
Eerdmans £14.99
(978-0-8028-7395-8)
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

 

 

IF MIRACLES were once seen as providing compelling evidence for belief in God’s being and God’s ways, in more recent times they have tended to have quite the opposite effect on minds conditioned by logical and scientific reasoning.

Of course, the miracles associated with Jesus in the Gospels inevitably dominate this debate. So Michael J. Lowis focuses on the healing, nature, and exorcism miracles attributed to Jesus during his ministry, in this concise but rather unsatisfactory approach to the evidence.

Lowis is a chartered psychologist who has come to biblical and theological study later in life. His declared intention is “to examine each of the miracles of Jesus . . . with a view to seeing if the events could be explained rationally”.

He tries to establish the most accurate rendering of the text describing a miracle, and evaluates the supporting evidence, including how many of the Gospels record it, and how many witnesses could testify to its authenticity.

Here he assumes the priority of Matthew and repeatedly expresses confidence in Matthew and John as eye-witnesses. His rather cavalier handling of the relationship between the Synoptics is far from convincing.

But he is more sure-footed when it comes to cultural context and the prevailing assumptions and expectations that inform these narratives. With the help of a medical practitioner, he provides some interesting pathological and psychological background information.

He does not set out to prove that the miracles happened as described, but, rather, he explores alternative rational explanations to see if the miracles survive attempts to disprove them. If an account is deemed to be factually reliable, it is then tested to see if a non-supernatural explanation is sustainable. Account is also taken of allegorical and symbolic meanings which might not depend on historical veracity.

His conclusion is that supernaturalistic explanations do not generally survive challenges from alternative explanations. The reader is left to ponder, however, whether some of these alternatives are only marginally less credible than the literalist claim. Ultimately, though, Lowis argues that challenging such literalist claims does not rule out the working of divine providence through these narratives as revelatory articles of faith.

By contrast, Michael J. Buckley has compiled what he describes as a “slight” volume of meditations on the questions posed by Jesus in St John’s Gospel. But, if it is slight, it is far from shallow. It is a book to be read and re-read as a benign but very challenging companion on our journeys of faith and discipleship.

Buckley is Emeritus Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of Santa Clara, and also taught at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. As a popular retreat conductor, he naturally majors on Ignation Spirituality, and this emphasis is very much to the fore.

After a stimulating introduction to the uniquely important part played by questions in theological discourse, Buckley offers 14 reflections on Johannine passages containing one or more questions Jesus asked of others and, in one case (12.27-28), of himself.

Significantly, the first words spoken by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are in the form of a question: “what do you seek?” (1.38). This focuses the first meditation, but it also sets the tone for all that follows. Jesus is the ultimate disclosure of God and the necessary end-point for all searching after truth.

To use one of his own images, Buckley incisively expounds each question like a plough plunging deep into hard soil to reveal both the profundity and practical relevance of what Jesus seeks to bring to light through his persistent interrogations.

How to believe in the face of suffering and death, how to live Christ-like lives, and how to be a community of compassion and service are all treated with Buckley’s special brand of intellectual clarity and pastoral sensitivity. He has clearly felt the full force of Jesus’s challenges, and on almost every page we find a truth to treasure.

The passages where Buckley speaks directly to Roman Catholics demoralised by crises that have troubled and undermined the Church in recent years are deeply moving and will, of course, speak no less relevantly to Anglicans today.

The book is unflinching in its honesty — painfully so at times — but it is, above all, a testimony to the penetrating power of Jesus’s questioning, and to the ultimate vindication of hope and love in the lives of those who respond to him in faith.

 

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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