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Book Review: Athol Gill

Book Review: David Neville, Ed., Prophecy and Passion: Essays in Honour of Athol Gill, Adelaide: Australian Theological Forum, 2002.

Athol Gill was, by common consent of his peers, an outstanding scholar-prophet – perhaps the greatest Australian Baptists have produced. Not everybody agreed, of course: controversy comes with prophetic-territory. Baptists in Queensland and Victoria (yes, even Victoria!) voted him out of teaching positions in their seminaries.

Let’s begin with a typical Athol Gill paragraph, to put his emphases into perspective:

The fact that Jesus came from a despised town like Nazareth, worked with his hands, and ministered primarily among marginalised people is the ‘pre-Easter scandal’ of Christianity. In western churches where we have long grown accustomed to the idea of a crucified Messiah, it is this scandal which is a stumbling-block for us. We find it so difficult to accept that Christianity is based on grace and therefore our background, upbringing, education and social standing do not grant us special privileges with God. Because it is based on grace, the Christian life and the community of faith is open to everyone. And because it involves the justice of God, the poor and the outcasts have a special place. (Life on the Road, p. 52).

Now, who’d want to argue with that? Ah, but Athol had the gad-fly’s habit of ‘getting up the noses’ of the middle-classes, berating those people and churches for their self-centredness and lack of concern for the poor. It got him into trouble. He loved reiterating: ‘For the rich the gospel is bad news before it can be good news’. In retrospect we see him as an authentic prophet, of course – but that’s what happens to prophets in life, and after death.

At this point I should admit my small part in Athol’s story. Back in the late 1970s when I was pastoring the Baptist Church at Blackburn (now Crossway) I’d get feedback about Athol’s mutterings against Melbourne’s ‘Bible belt’: ours was the kind of church where Jesus would not have felt at home. But when he lost the Baptist Union vote to continue as professor of NT at Whitley College (the Baptist seminary in Victoria), and another meeting was called to reconsider that decision, guess who was prevailed upon by Athol’s supporters to speak for the previous motion to be rescinded? I did, and some others did, and the vote was overturned.

Among my valued possessions is a photocopied draft Athol sent me in 1990 of his soon-to-be-published The Fringes of Freedom. (But then I wasn’t pastoring a middle-class church, but working with World Vision as an advocate for the poor!).

Back to the feschrift. It’s a collection of essays written by those who knew him best – mainly colleagues and former students from Whitley and friends and mentorees from the community-houses of Freedom (Brisbane) and the Gentle Bunyip (Melbourne).

As with any feschrift, it’s like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts. Indeed occasionally brilliant (the two chapters by Graeme Garrett, combining passion-with-scholarship, are worth the price of the book). Some read like undergraduate essays (‘In the first part I argue that.’) or scholars talking to one another about matters which only interest scholars (in my professional work I don’t counsel too many pastors about their problems with the literary structure of the Gospel of Mark).

Ross Langmead’s essay on Anabaptist Perspectives for Mission is written with his usual thoroughness and clarity (it scored most of my underlinings). Ken Manley’s about William Pearce Carey will fascinate Baptists interested in the ‘social gospel’. (Carey was a former pastor at Collins St. Baptist Church, where Tim Costello and Rowena Curtis currently serve: Rowena has two contributions in the book – an excellent chapter on women in Mark, and a very moving Epilogue). John Hirt makes a good case for a conversionist missiology (though sometimes polysyllabic and cliched – ‘the life-praxis of Jesus’). And Ched Myers has some Athol Gill-type challenges for the western church. (Like: ‘Churches that comfort the propertied, scapegoat the afflicted and abide by divisions of gender, race and class will grow [his italics]. But that is not because of evangelism; it is because of good marketing’. P. 274).

Some challenging quotes:

# ‘The Christian community [according to Paul in 1 Corinthians]

distinguishes itself from a religious sect by living in critical openness to the world. Paul assigns a theological place to ‘non-members’, ‘outsiders’, ‘non-Christians’ and ‘unbelievers’ (1 Corinthians 14: 16, 22-25). (Thorwald Lorenzen, p. 120).

# ‘The poor are “those who are at the mercy of others, and who live with empty and open hands. Poverty means both dependency and openness”.’ (Frank Rees, quoting Jurgen Moltmann, p. 153).

# ‘The New Testament never quotes the Old Testament; it always interprets it ‘ (Keith Dyer quoting Athol Gill, p. 190).

# ‘Discipleship [consists] of a downward journey as well as an inward journey and an outward journey. The downward journey means a step at a time towards simplicity or generosity, the giving away of time, power, possessions and resources. It is a step at a time towards the poor, a step outside our comfort zone, whatever that may be’ (Ross Langmead, p. 343).

Rowland Croucher

April 2003

Pastor, Glen Eira Community Christian Church (Melbourne), and Director of John Mark Ministries (johnmarkministries.org).


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