29 Oct—4 Nov 2007

Issue No. 41

PE Satterthwaite: Thoughts on a Good (Old) Book

Over the past few weeks I have been reading a book first published at the end of the 19th century: James Orr’s Christian View of God and the World as Centring in the Incarnation (3rd edition; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1897). The very length and precision of the title, which announce an avowedly academic treatment of a theological subject, seem to take us back to a different world: could a Christian writer publish under such a title today and expect to find a readership?


James Orr was a significant figure in Scottish church circles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, being for a time Professor of Church History in the United Presbyterian College, Edinburgh, and later Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at the United Free Church College, Glasgow.


I first met his writings in the 1980s when I was lent a copy of his Problem of the Old Testament Considered with Reference to Recent Criticism (London: Nisbet, 1905) – another weighty tome with a long title! It was an attempt to evaluate and respond to contemporary critical views of the Old Testament, particularly the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch, which is still with us today. In some respects I found the book outdated, many of the positions he was criticising having since fallen by the wayside or having developed into other forms, as is the way in scholarship. But I was impressed by the solid learning of the book, and the way in which Orr patiently and respectfully set out his case, working his way through the arguments of those with whom he disagreed. Not the least impressive part of the book was that, though his field was really Systematics and Church History, he nonetheless felt it appropriate to inform himself about, and respond to, developments within Old Testament studies.


Accordingly, when I saw a copy of The Christian View of God and the World for sale in a list of second-hand books, I was interested enough to buy it, and I was not disappointed when it arrived. The book originated as a series of public lectures delivered in 1890–91. Successive chapters work through: the Christian view of the world in general and its main alternatives; the Christian understanding of God, nature, humanity, and sin; the incarnation, God’s purposes of salvation, and human destiny.


The argument is clear and detailed, each chapter being accompanied by endnotes which address particular points at greater length. The style seems a little ornate by today’s standards, and some of the sentences rather long; though my main thought on this score was that academic English has in general deteriorated greatly since Orr’s days. There are apt quotations from poets, novelists and philosophers. Orr refers to French and German scholars as well as English, and gives the impression of a man well abreast of contemporary thought.


The book having been written when it was, there are frequent references to the implications of Darwinian evolutionism for Christian thought. There are other fascinating insights into Western culture in Orr’s day: I had not realised that pessimism was such a pervasive feature of Western thought before the First World War; though, given that this was also a time in which many were moving away from Christianity this is not, on reflection, very surprising.


My thoughts arising from the book?


1. It is fine being up to date, but old books are also worth reading. Here is a man writing 100 years before BGST, but doing what BGST tries to do: present the gospel in a way that shows the bearing of Christian truth on contemporary culture. Have we something to learn from our forefathers? Have we ‘read’ our culture as thoroughly as Orr read his?

2. Orr faced objections to Christian belief with commendable honesty and directness. For example, on the question of natural evil (p. 186): ‘It is not sin only, but natural evil – the existence of pain and suffering in the world – which is made the ground of an impeachment of God’s justice and goodness. Everyone will remember Mr. J.S. Mill’s terrible indictment of nature on this score [quoted in a footnote: ‘In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are Nature’s everyday performances’]; and Pessimism has given new voice to the plaints which have always been heard of the misery and suffering bound up with life.’ There follow twelve pages of even-handed discussion. The whole book seems to reflect the conviction that Christian truth will emerge all the more clearly for being strongly challenged.

3. The world has changed since Orr’s day. It is clear from the references in his footnotes that when Orr was writing, theology in general, and the truth of Christianity in particular, were matters of interest to the general reading public. Extended discussions of these matters were conducted across the pages of learned periodicals like the Times Literary Supplement. You would not find that today, at least not in the UK, where theology is a non-subject as far as many are concerned, certainly not on par with politics, economics or sex in the eyes of the secular press. Christians in the UK are finding it hard to get anyone to listen to them, let alone take them seriously.

4. This leads onto my final thought: the book has gone through many editions and was reprinted not many years ago, but what impact has it had? That is a hard question to answer; but the fact is that during those 100 years most churches in the UK moved away from the kind of informed, well-thought out and doctrinally hard-edged view of Christianity represented by Orr’s book. We are still living with the consequences. (I see similar tendencies at work in contemporary Singapore.) Why did this happen? Did the book fall victim to one of the swings of fashion that have periodically affected intellectual life? Did Christians stop wanting to think issues through? Or is the point that learned books like Orr’s will only take us so far, that truth, as well as being defended on an intellectual level against opposing viewpoints, also needs to be clearly taught in the churches and well lived out by Christians?

Be the answer to these last questions what it may, I would encourage some of you to develop a taste for older books, and in particular, for Orr’s writings. You will be amazed at how challenging, stimulating and (with allowance for certain outdated features) up-to-date the writers of previous generations can be.


(Note: The Problem of the Old Testament is in BGST Library, but not The Christian View of God and the World. We will try to find a copy quickly.)


Text Box: Chapel Summary: 23rd October

It was Chapel with a difference when the “BGST Players” (not an official name, you understand) gave a recital performance on the theme of friendship.


Ng Seng Chuan, lecturer in Speech Communication, chaired the event, introducing  his students from both BGST and his own centre. He explained why  friendship is such an important element in our spiritual lives and how rare it is for us to experience true friendship.


In the first part of the performance, Cho Cho Wai (lady in orange) presented several pieces on various aspects of the theme. Among them was a poem describing how one makes a place for a friend in one’s heart, an essay about a deep friendship between 2 men from a wife’s point of view and another one on how money can affect friendship. She also read “The Giving Tree” which illustrates the cost of friendship and an extract from “Charlotte’s Web”.


The second half of Chapel was given over to a dramatic reading of Ruth which is a story par excellance about friendship. This was written by Seng Chuan himself. The liberties taken with the characterisation enabled the group  to give a lively and entertaining  rendition of Ruth which brought out the friendships within families and between friends.


Taking part in the dramatisation of Ruth were Chng Joo Ching, his wife, Jocelyn and Pauline Koe from BGST and Cho Cho Wai, Susan Kiong and Chi Geok Ying , students at Rhetoric Speech Consultants.








Text Box: This Week’s Highlight

Prof James Houston’s Public Lectures

We thank God for Prof James Houston who has come to minister among us. If you have registered  for his lectures we are certain you won’t want to forget to turn up. They are held on Friday 2 Nov (7.30 pm) and Sat 3 Nov (7 pm) at Telok Ayer Methodist Church. Please note that the  BGST library will be closed at 5 pm on both dates to facilitate these meetings.



31 Tanjong Pagar Road, Singapore 088454   Tel: 62276815   Fax: 62276816   Email: bgst@pacific.net.sg


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