Review: Journals of Anthony Norris Groves (2 vol.)

Author: Anthony Norris Groves (1795-1853) was a central figure in the founding of the Plymouth Brethren, best known for his Christian primitivism as applied to ecclesiology and missiology. He authored the booklet Christian Devotedness to expound his views, and he also served briefly as a missionary in Baghdad and afterwards ministered throughout India. A 2005 biography calls him “the Father of Faith Missions”.

Overview:

The journals of Anthony Norris Grove record his journey to Baghdad and his mission term there. They were originally published in two volumes:

  1. Journal of Mr. Anthony N. Groves, during a Journey from London to Bagdad, through Russia, Georgia, and Persia. Also, A Journal of Some Months’ Residence at Bagdad.
    This journal covers the journey which took place from June to December 1829. After a hiatus, the journal then contains “observations from Bagdad” from February to April 1830.
  2. Journal of a Residence at Bagdad during the Years 1830-1831.
    The second journal continues in medias res from the first, and covers from April 1830 to November 1831 and was published in 1832. During this time, his wife and youngest child died, as Baghdad was ravaged by a regional cholera epidemic and a city-wide flood, both together prompting a famine. Groves stayed in Baghdad until May 1833.

Long stretches of his journals record current events of the region, as well as Groves’ theological reflections. In fact, in the first sentence, Groves calls the collection “memorandums and reflections (for a journal it cannot be called)” (p. 1). The publishers were, of course, undeterred by the author’s intent!

He was accompanied by his wife Mary Bethia (Thompson) Groves, their two children, “his sister and another lady, a young Scotch missionary,” and John Kitto, who was deaf (v. 1, p. 3). They were joined by Mrs. Taylor, an Armenian and the wife of Major Taylor, who was to await them in Shusha (present-day Azerbaijan). In Tbilisi, they learned that he was in fact in Baghdad, almost 500 miles beyond Shusha. They had already travelled 1700 miles over land.

This was not the only change of plans. After arriving in Baghdad, Groves writes of plans to explore Kurdistan and survey the needs of Assyrian Christians in northern Mesopotamia; he mulls going to Basra, Bushehr, Shiraz, and Isfahan, little knowing the dangers of travelling in the region, or the disasters that awaited in Baghdad.

Timeline of Groves’ Mission to Baghdad

1829—June 12—The band set sail toward Copenhagen.
June 16—They land in Denmark for several days.
July 3—They reach Kronstadt (St. Petersburg).
July 23 to August 3—They are in Moscow.
August 8—They meet a Moravian colony at Sarepta (Krasnoarmeisk, near Volgograd, Russia).
August 11 to 23—They meet a Mr. G. in Astrakhan, working on a Persian Bible translation. Here Groves first mentions the “plague” (cholera) in Yerevan (Erivan), now the capital of Armenia. Cholera would continue to travel and eventually claim his wife, more than a year later.
September 1—They reach Tbilisi (Teflis), and hear that Major Taylor is in Baghdad, not Shusha (Shushee).
September 3 to 29—They spent a month in Shusha (present-day Azerbaijan), their original intended destination.
October 6—They reach Tabriz, lodging with the ambassador Colonel MacDonald and Mohammad Ali Khan, who had an English wife.
November 10—They leave Tabriz for Baghdad.
December 6—They reach Baghdad at daybreak, meeting Major Taylor. Groves’ journal here breaks off.
1830—February 14—Groves’ journal on Baghdad resumes. Having few auspicious opportunities, Pfander and Groves are working toward starting a school for Armenian children, with the hope of also learning (and teaching?) Arabic.
March 29—Roman Catholics (Arabic speakers) agree to send children to learn English. But Major Taylor soon asks them to postpone this aspect, the Muslims being “jealous” about teaching in Arabic.
April 19—School commences, 43 boys and 2 girls. (v. 1, p. 206)
April [May?] 2—The second volume of his journal begins. He says they have 58 boys and 9 girls. (v. 2, p. 1) Dates of the two volumes are somehow misaligned.
July 12—Reports of cholera at Tabriz.
September 14—Mosques ban Muslims from receiving books from the mission band.
October 10—Mary gives birth to a daughter.
1831—March 28—Cholera reaches Baghdad. At its peak thousands are dying every day.
March 29—The school breaks up.
April 10—The Tigris River floods, threatening Baghdad.
April 27—The flood breaks through the city wall, inundating Baghdad. Tens of thousands die as cholera and whole neighborhoods collapse.
May 14—His wife Mary dies of cholera.
May 24—John Kitto falls ill. He recovers.
August—Throughout August, Arab looters break into their home multiple times.
August 24—His baby dies “without a sigh”.
November 7—Groves stops keeping a journal.
1833—May 21—Groves departed Baghdad for Bombay. (See his Memoirs, p. 226.)

The Theology of Anthony Norris Groves

The following are some theological distinctives of Anthony Groves, which he shared with the Plymouth Brethren movement:

  • Literal reading of Scripture, which included pacifism and head coverings. Groves treated the New Testament as his “missionary manual”.
  • Rejection of church hierarchy, including ordination. Groves writes that the laying on of hands has no meaning if it does not confer the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • Rejection of a state church. Groves speaks disparagingly of churches with state backing. In this the Plymouth Brethren are aligned with the Moravians, Anabaptists, and other “Free” churches (Free Church of Scotland, Congregationalists, Evangelical Free, etc.).
  • Pacifism. Groves takes literally Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek”. Thus, he travelled through Kurdistan with no armed guard, which was considered highly unusual.
  • “Faith” missions. In a well-known pamphlet published several years before he left for Baghdad, Groves taught that ministers should never solicit funds. This idea found its roots in Pietist thought, and was further popularized by George Müller and Hudson Taylor. (I plan to assess this teaching in upcoming posts.)

Lessons from Groves’ Journals

There are many valuable statements in Groves’ journals showing the need for reform in churches and missionary sending agencies. Most of these are directed toward his Anglican upbringing; Brethren teaching is very disdainful of centralized, state-controlled churches.

Groves also criticized a colonial spirit, in which missionaries depended on trade or the colonizing state for finances, mixing moral and material incentives.

“The colonizing spirit extinguishes that of the missionary.”

Anthony Norris Groves, Journal (vol. 1), p. 65, dated August 18, 1829

Several times in his journals, he portends an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that would make language study needless.

“Much time will be required in acquiring a facility in the language . . . till the Lord is pleased to pour down from on high, his gifts of the Spirit.”

Anthony Norris Groves, Journal (vol. 2), p. 252, dated September 14, 1831

In the same year and volume, he makes similar statements on March 16 (p. 84) and October 28 (p. 281). These are interesting as showing the radical, missionary roots of the Plymouth Brethren. For more on missionary tongues, see this review.

Criticisms

Overthinking Circumstances

Anthony Norris Groves is a very important figure for missiology. One biographer calls him “the Father of Faith Missions”. Groves is also hailed as one of the earliest Protestant missionaries to Arabic-speaking people. He hardly ministered to Arabs, though, and does not have a positive word about them in all his journals. Although five-sixths of Baghdad (by his estimate) is Arabic-speaking, he interacts mainly with Armenians, and is distracted by Persian and Turkish. I believe that his mission band could have made more headway with any one of these groups if they had been more focused and strategic. As it was, they taught Armenian (Christian-background) children because this was the only work read for them to do—but it doesn’t seem that anyone got very far in any of the languages. This is not surprising for a first term; but it’s not exemplary either.

As soon Groves’ wife Mary fell ill with cholera (May 7, 1831), he speaks of her being “taken away”, and what a wife she “has been” to him. On June 17, his daughter also falling ill, he writes, “when the Lord takes from me this sweet little flower, I shall indeed be desolate.” But his daughter did not die for several months! This seemed morbidly pessimistic, and not a Christian attitude to take—especially for someone who writes so much of “faith”. It was characteristic of the religion of the time period (early 1800s) to fatalistically over-interpret the circumstances as “Providence”.

Literal Interpretations and the Old Covenant

It is a major fault of his theology that he tries to take all Scripture at face value, practically ignoring context, author, and audience. As a result, he lives on the wrong side of the covenant. If something good happens, he’s full of praise for God’s favor. If something bad happens, God was taking away an idol because of the hardness of their hearts. Scripture invites us to see God’s activity everywhere, but it is dangerous to try to see divine motive in each and every circumstance.

Before the plague reaches his house, he writes first that it has not reached Baghdad; then that it has not reached the Christian Quarter; then that it has not reached his house. He thinks God has kept the “angel of death” away from their doorstep, and that the Lord has “commanded the man with the ink-horn to write [them] down to be spared” (alluding to Ezekiel 9). He quotes Psalm 91, that the plague will not touch them. Finally, when his wife, her servant, and their daughter all die, he is left in a shambles. He writes that he has misunderstood Psalm 91. After he is bereft, he says Mary must have been an idol to him, that God had to take away.

“I had intentionally renounced the world, yet the Lord saw that I held more of it than I knew in the dear object he has removed.”

Anthony Norris Groves, Journal (vol. 2), p. 162, dated May 21 1831

How selfish and self-centered, to think that God would “remove” your family by death for your own spiritual formation! This blended image of the bright, resurrected Jesus as the darkly angel of death is the bastard child of his imbalanced theology of faith, which yields an ascetic obsession with “unlimited dependence” on God. It sees God’s agency and purpose in the sick room where Jesus instead took the hand of the dying and bid them stand. Death is an enemy and the human response is to grieve. David sings, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” (Ps. 119:71, NIV) Celebrating a God who “turns evil to good” is a far cry from saying that God ordained the death of a family member for your spiritual good.

Have Miracles Ceased?

“I have had some conversation with [Karl] Pfander on the cessation of miracles, and find our views very similar. He thinks with me, that the promise of miraculous interference is now as open to the faith of the church as ever, but that she ceases to exercise faith on the promises which relate to such help. As miracles were designed for unbelievers, and not for the church, we must expect to see them arise among missionaries to the heathen; but while we find hardly any missionaries at all, and of these few who enter into the spirit of faith on God’s promises, . . . there will seem to be no need of the promises of miracles.”
Anthony Norris Groves, 1829

Journal of Mr. Anthony N. Groves, Missionary, during a Journey from London to Bagdad. Also, a journal of some months’ residence at Bagdad, p. 99-100.

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Writing in the Dark

Wordsworth tells us that his greatest inspirations had a way of coming to him in the night, and that he had to teach himself to write in the dark that he might not lose them. We, too, had better learn this art of writing in the dark. For it were indeed tragic to bear the pain, yet lose what it was sent to teach us.

A. J. Gossip, The Hero in Thy Soul

Review: New Testament Greek for Teachers and Preachers

Rating: ★★★★★

Author:

Neal Windham is Professor of Spiritual Formation at Lincoln Christian University in Illinois.

Overview:

New Testament Greek for Teachers and Preachers: Five Areas of Application (1991) is an intermediate-level manual for getting the most of the Greek New Testament. He gives step-by-step instructions on how to do a word study, or a passage study, and how to use it in a sermon or lesson. The book also includes a great introduction to textual criticism, which is seldom covered in such books. Discourse is also seldom more than mentioned, and his chapter on it was brief, useful, and could easily be understood by beginning Greek students and beginning linguists. Thus, the topics covered are textual criticism, morphology, word study, syntax, and discourse. It is a very practical treatment.

Windham includes a wealth of examples of studies he’s done with applications. These examples include exactly the kinds of insights into the Greek text of the New Testament that a beginning Greek student is longing to be able to make.

My favorite part of the book was his explanation of textual criticism. In New Testament studies, textual criticism is frequently confused with higher criticism (epitomized in the Jesus Seminar), and is thus sidestepped by many theologians and popular authors. But if you buy the most popular Greek New Testament, the Nestle-Aland text, you will be faced with a “text-critical apparatus”, often taking up half of the page, giving details of minor differences in New Testament manuscripts. Windham gives a straightforward and memorable explanation for how you can get the most of the text-critical apparatus. He gives the principles by which textual experts judge what must be the original wording of a passage. We would expect to hear about the age of manuscripts and the number of manuscripts supporting a certain reading; Windham adds that we also need to assess the logical or theological difficulty of a reading. Counterintuitively, the more logically difficult reading is often judged to be the original reading, because difficulties are prone to be ironed out—not introduced—during transmission.

All of this is presented in a way that can be used for discipleship and teaching.

This book also explores the interface of modern linguistics and Koine Greek in a way that few works do. If you want more along that line, I would recommend David Alan Black’s Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek.

The audience of this book is intermediate-level Greek readers. It assumes that you are at least conversant with the text of the Greek New Testament and at least know basic terminology about Greek. It would probably be difficult for beginners, unless, perhaps, they were a strong beginner or had a background in linguistics.

If you’re interested in a summary, you can read another informative review of this book here.

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Review: Purpose in Prayer

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) was a clergyman in the Methodist Episcopal Church South and held a pastorate in Franklin, Tennessee. During his time in Tennessee, he led a spiritual revival and eventually began an itinerant ministry. He only published two books during his lifetime, but nine others were arranged from manuscripts and published after his death—most of them on prayer. He spent three hours a day in prayer and emphasizes a life of prayer as the one essential of the Christian life.

Overview:

Purpose in Prayer (1914) is a compilation of E. M. Bounds’ writings on prayer, with exhortations. If you enjoyed Power Through Prayer, I would recommend this as the next follow-up. Homer Hodge, the editor, calls Purpose in Prayer the companion volume to Power through Prayer. It was published the year after Bounds died.

The theological background in this book is a development on Wesleyan understandings of prayer. The first chapter bears the title, “God Shapes the World by Prayer.” This is a theme that was developed by Wesley himself.

This book contains strong medicine against fatalism and complacency. Bounds, like Wesley, sees our prayer as effecting real change in the history of the world. Some events only become possible through prayer. Prayer is not trivial; it is not just something ordained before an already-ordained event, having no power of decision in it. It creates new possibilities. There is purpose in prayer.

Some reviewers complain that Bounds doesn’t provide enough biblical backing for his assertions about prayer. In my opinion, that probably shows that they were expecting a theology book, which this is not. Moreover, Bounds does provide plenty of biblical grounding for purpose in prayer, but this is secondary to the goal of the book; his classic books are written to inspire you to pray, not to convince you of his specific theory of prayer.

I don’t recommend reading this book in a compilation (if you have a choice) because I think the compilation obscures the unity of theme that is found in this book, apart from his other books.

Read:

Like all of E. M. Bounds’ books, Purpose in Prayer is available for free in PDF format on the Internet Archive.

Similar:

If you enjoy Bounds’ books on prayer, you might enjoy Praying Clear Through by W. J. Harney. It is written in a very similar theological stream.

Quotes:

“I think Christians fail so often to get answers to their prayers because they do not wait long enough on God. They just drop down and say a few words, and then jump up and forget it and expect God to answer them. Such praying always reminds me of the small boy ringing his neighbor’s door-bell, and then running away as fast as he can go.”

Review: Hus the Heretic

This is not really a book review per se. It is more of a long footnote concerning a fabricated document, related to the trial of John Hus. This book is easily accessible to those doing research. In English it has been published under at least four different titles:

  1. The last days of John Hus, a historical romance (1909)
  2. The infallibility of the Pope at the Council of Constance; the trial of Hus, his sentence and death at the stake, in two letters (1930)
  3. The trial and burning of John Huss! An eye-witness account (1991)
  4. Hus the Heretic (1997-2003)

The book includes two sensational letters, purportedly giving an eyewitness account of the trial and death of John Hus. But the letters are nineteenth-century fabrications, written to stir up fervor against Catholicism.

Who (supposedly) wrote these letters?

The author is given as Poggio Bracciolini, or, in some versions, “Poggius the Papist”! Poggio Bracciolini attended the Council of Constance, and even wrote about the death of Jerome of Prague in 1416. As far as we know, Poggio Bracciolini did not attend Hus’ trial.

What is in the fabricated account?

 Here is a famous portion of Hus the Heretic:

. . . With such Christian prayers, Hus arrived at the stake, looking at it without fear. He climbed upon it, after two assistants of the hangman had torn his clothes from him and had clad him in a skirt drenched with pitch. At this moment the elector of Palatinate, Ludewig, rode up and prayed Hus with fervor to recant, so that he might be spared a death in the flames. But Hus replied: “Today you will roast a lean goose, but a hundred years from now you will hear a swan sing, whom you will leave unroasted and no trap or net will catch him for you.” Full of pity and filled with much admiration, the Prince turned away . . .

The saying about the goose and the swan (referring to Martin Luther) is first recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs; most of the other details and dialogues in Hus the Heretic are not recorded in any other sources. The book concludes:

I wanted to acquaint you with this story of a heretic, my dear Nikolai, so that you might know how much fortitude of faith Hus had shown before his enemies and how blissful, in his faith, this pious man’s end had been. Verily, I say unto you, he was too just for this world!

John Hus died in 1415, but this book first appeared more than four centuries later, in German. It has also been translated into Czech, Dutch, and Latin.

Why did someone fabricate this?

Historian Richard G. Salomon gives a detailed historiography in his article “Poggio Bracciolini and Johannes Hus: A Hoax Hard to Kill.”

The letters appeared first in 1845 in serial form in an obscure periodical . . . and one year later in book form, without the name of an editor.

It first appeared in book form under the German title Hussen’s letzte Tage und Feuertod [Hus’ Last Days and Burning at the Stake]. Salomon goes on to explain that there was a rise in sectarian conflict centering around the figure of Johannes Ronge, who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic church in 1845.

What was this book based on?

Probably the most insulting part of this fabricated book is that it is based on a true letter that Poggio Bracciolini wrote about Jerome of Prague. Poggio Bracciolini didn’t write a 60-page eyewitness account of John Hus’ death in 1415; but he did write a glowing 5-page letter describing Jerome of Prague’s martyrdom! One historian has called this Poggio’s “dangerous letter”; Poggio was employed at the papal court, and it was a very odd choice for him to write a letter praising a condemned and executed heretic!

Bracciolini waxes eloquent concerning Jerome of Prague. He begins his account:

I confess that I have never seen anyone, who came so near the eloquence of the ancients, whom we so greatly admire.

This is another case in which truth is stranger than fiction.

‘Tis strange,–but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction: if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
(Lord Byron, Don Juan)

Review: On Fire for God

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Victor Budgen is the author of two books: On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus and Charismatics and the Word of God.

Overview:

Victor Budgen’s On Fire for God: The Story of John Hus (1983) is an important biography of one of the key figures of the early Reformation.

John Hus was a Czech preacher and reformer who is known today especially for his dramatic martyrdom on July 6, 1415, at the Council of Constance under the Roman Catholic church. During his lifetime, however, he was also regarded as a prolific scholar and teacher, an important exponent of the teachings of John Wycliffe, and a starting point for Czech nationalism.

The World of Hus

Budgen’s biography takes great effort to explain the social and religious context in which Hus lived and died. He contextualizes Hus as one man in a theological movement that is inspired by key theological tenets of Wycliffe and the English Reformation, but also independent of that movement, with its own grounding in Scripture and an experience of God’s grace. Similar arguments are also presented in Matthew Spinka’s John Hus and the Czech Reform; though Wycliffe was a major influence on Hus, Hus disagreed with Wycliffe on important points. This is important to understand because, at the Council of Constance, charges of “Wyclifism” were brought against Hus. Though he was unwilling to recant, it was through loyalty to God, not to Wycliffe.

Budgen’s description of Hus and Jerome of Prague collecting Wycliffe’s books may resonate with readers, and is worth reading in full:

The works of Wyclif still continued to appeal strongly to many of the Bohemians. Although the bringing over of books was often a risky business, there were those who volunteered for the task. Jerome of Prague himself transcribed and brought over material, as he himself admitted. Two other Bohemian students were surreptitiously gathering texts in England in 1406 and 1407. We have a glimpse of them paying a pious visit to Wyclif’s tomb in Leicestershire en route (and taking a fragment of the tomb), probably visiting Sir John Oldcastle, a prominent Lollard of high rank, and then going on to do their main copying in Lollard hide-outs in country villages in Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire. Since Oxford was a place closely watched, they only stopped there briefly in order to correct their texts. There was an eager readership waiting for this highly explosive theological material, for this time a lot of theological works were brought back. Hus was among the keenest of the readers. By the end of his life he himself had accumulated copies of nearly all of Wyclif’s writings. This was no mean feat. It denoted a genuine enthusiasm for the works of the English reformer. (pp. 101-102)

Here I will give quotations on three convictions that Hus and his movement shared with John Wycliffe.

1. Vernacular Preaching

At Bethlehem he preached in Czech not only because it was stipulated in the foundation, but because it was his conviction. As the years went by he was to express himself increasingly in his native language both from the pulpit and with the pen. This was not a total innovation but there were not many precursors. The large numbers of works in Czech produced at the close of his ministry are the logical outcome of all this. (p. 96)

Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, now restored as a museum, plays an important role in the beginning of Hus’ story. Not only was preaching traditionally done in Latin; but there were also large numbers of German speakers in the university setting in which Hus found himself. In a classic case of religious (bilingual) diglossia, Czech was regarded as merely a spoken language, lacking in structure. Hus not only preached in Czech, but he also worked to reform Czech orthography, which would make spelling more nativised and literacy more accessible.

2. The Priesthood of Believers

Every holy man is a priest, but not every priest is a holy man. (p. 95)

The priesthood of believers is a straightforward New Testament doctrine, but it is revolutionary in hierarchy-oriented societies. Because Hus believed in the priesthood of believers, he believed that he could take issue with the theological whims of the cardinals, or the Pope—or even, in his case, the three popes!

3. Authority of Scripture

Here is the nub of the issue. Hus knew and experienced the Scripture as a living Word breathed out and conveyed by the Holy Spirit. His opponents were strangers to the experience so vital for saving faith. (p. 170)

Like Wycliffe before him and Luther after him, Hus affirmed the absolute centrality of Scripture. Though we may disagree with these early reformers on certain issues of biblical interpretation, it is the authority and transformative power of the Bible that they could not deny.

Where he is inconsistent or less than fully scriptural, we must not lose sight of his pioneering role. These were ‘forgotten remedies’ which he was, with others, restoring to the light of day. (p. 86)

Budgen covers these issues in great detail, comparing and contrasting Wycliffe and Hus. He also spends a large portion of the book clarifying the precise circumstances of Hus’ death, using sound historical research. This is much needed work since there are so many spurious accounts regarding Hus’ death.

Quotes:

“Supporting myself with this most holy and most helpful example of the Redeemer, I appeal to God from the grave oppression, the unjust sentence, and the pretended excommunication of the pontiff, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the judges seated in the seat of Moses. To him I commit my cause, following in the footsteps of the Saviour Jesus Christ.” (p. 163, ch. 14 endnote 17)

“I will confess the evangelical truth as long as God permits, for I trust in that Witness whom no multitude of witnesses can divert from the truth, nor any Roman curia can terrify, nor any gift can suborn, nor any power can conquer.” (p. 170, ch. 15 endnote 15)

“Even a peasant can understand that he who has never fed sheep is not to be called a shepherd.” (p. 92)

Proclaiming a crusade against Ladislas, Pope John [XXIII] issued two bulls in the September and December of 1411 excommunicating Ladislas in blood-curdling terms and imporing men ‘by the blood shed by the Saviour’ either to take up the sword against Ladislas or to provide money for someone else to fight. This was termed ‘taking up the cross’ in papal terminology. The bull promised remission of sins for which the guilty parties were contrite and which they had confessed. (pp. 145-146)

“Finally, I did not appear at the papal court lest I lose my life for nothing. For every place was full of my enemies, both Czech and German, seeking my death.” (p. 133, ch. 12 endnote 3)

“I am ever ready … to render full account of my faith which I hold in my heart and confess by word and in writing, even if fire were lighted during the hearing.” (p. 143, ch. 12 endnote 24)

“Lords, understand me. I said that I heartily aspire to fulfil the apostolic mandates and to obey them in everything; but I call apostolic mandates the teaching of Christ’s apostles. In as far as the mandates of the Roman pontiff are in harmony with the apostolic mandates and teach . . . to that degree I am most willing to obey them. But should I find any of them opposed, those will I not obey, even if the fire to burn my body were placed before my eyes.” (p. 154, ch. 13 endnote 15)

“However, as concerning fleeing from the truth, I trust the Lord that he will grant me to die in that truth.” (p. 165, ch. 14 endnote 24)

“One must not sin in order to avoid death . . . He who speaks the truth will have his head broken. He who fears death loses the joy of life. [Yet] Truth conquers all things.” (p. 172, ch. 15 endnote 25)

‘Look, Master John! We are laymen and know not how to advise you; therefore see if you feel yourself guilty in anything of that which is charged against you. Do not fear to be instructed therein and to recant. But if, indeed, you do not feel guilty of those things that are charged against you, follow the dictates of your conscience. Under no circumstances do anything against your conscience or lie in the sight of God: but rather be steadfast until death in what you know to be the truth.’ (p. 261, ch. 23, citation 15)

Review: The Road Back to You

Rating: ★★★

Full Title: The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery

Authors: Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile teach the Enneagram as a tool for self-discovery and spiritual growth.

Overview:

The Road Back to You (2016) is a popular introduction to the Enneagram. Superficially similar to Myers-Briggs and other personality typing models, the Enneagram is touted as a tool for self-discovery that can lead to meaningful spiritual formation and improved relationships.

As a semi-spiritual counseling tool that has flourished among Catholics, the Enneagram is low-hanging fruit for fundamentalist critics. But many Christians of all streams have found it to be a meaningful model for describing personality. You may find it be a helpful model of patterns in human behavior; but you also may find it reductionist, like the many personality tools that came before it.

The Enneagram is a model of human personality. It divides people into nine distinct but interconnected personality types. As it is explained in The Road Back to You, our enneagram types are “masks” that we create to protect ourselves after we begin to experience hurt as a child.

The strength of the Enneagram is in how it deals with sin by bringing personal awareness. Many of our interpersonal problems (sin or not) are rooted in our own insecurities, often related to our core needs. “The true purpose of the Enneagram is to reveal to you your shadow side and offer spiritual counsel on how to open it to the transformative light of grace.” (p. 31) The book ties our “shadow sides” and core needs to the nine Enneagram types.

As the Gospel Coalition (predictably) points out, the weakness of the Enneagram is also in how it deals with sin. We are frequently reminded Though Carl Jung is not mentioned in the book, the phrase “shadow side” which they adopt is a term from Jungian psychology. In The Road Back to You, we are told that we have “a shadow side they need to guard against.” (p. 191) But in Jungian psychology, the “shadow side” is a subconscious element to be released, not guarded against. Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The Enneagram literature thus muddles together the frameworks of Jungian psychology with Christian theology. I believe the authors would freely admit that it doesn’t have grounding in any academic field.

The very idea that people have “personality types” that are permanent is an idea grounded in Jungian psychology, though perhaps it has an ancient analogue in astrology. There is nothing in the Bible to make us think that we fall into any finite set of “types”, or that our personality does not change.

I also don’t think that the Enneagram should be considered a tool for “spiritual growth”. The self-affirming and therapeutic message found in The Road Back to You seems like it may improve self-esteem and interpersonal relations; self-esteem is not spiritual formation. Making better decisions because you have learned something about yourself is not spiritual growth.

In my opinion, it is more helpful to think of the Enneagram as one of several “models”—rather than a “hypothesis” or “theory” that explains the way the world works. A dictum in science is, “some models are useful.” Models may lack explanatory power, but they could still be useful in elucidating patterns. Maybe the patterns are not the whole, but we know more than we did before we started. We can also accept that in many instances, the model is not useful. In the case of the Enneagram, its limitations need to be stated more explicitly.

Reading about one specific number may resonate with you. In the complex lore of the Enneagram, though, a person of type 4 (a “Four”, an “Individualist”) may have a type 5 (“Investigator”) or type 3 (“Achiever”) “wing”. And this type 4 person takes on characteristics of a type 2 (“Helper”) when stressed, and a type 1 (“Perfectionist”) when secure. So a person of one type can share the characteristics of four of the nine types. At that point, I feel that the Enneagram is quite overdescribed. The writers could just as easily have tried to convince me that a “Individualist” becomes a “Perfectionist” when stressed and a “Helper” when secure. The goal here doesn’t seem to be realistic counseling; it seems to become a Theory of the Universe. This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with the Enneagram. It is overextended in its uses. Like other psychological tools, it can make it easy to try to “explain” someone to himself or herself, rather than letting them tell you who they are and want to be. If at all, it should be taught with caveats and in conjunction with other balancing ideas.

Lastly, I should point out, Ian Cron has a finely honed writing style, even if this book has been somewhat overproduced. These writers have given us an admirable introduction with which to begin to explore the concept. They begin from a viewpoint of skepticism about the beginnings of the Enneagram, which adds plausibility to their arguments. Cron tells memorable stories and anecdotes with zest and snarky humor. The book has been written for a modern audience. I felt that the authors sympathized with my short attention span. In my opinion, that is what makes this book so popular, as much as the persuasiveness of the Enneagram.