Book review: The Healing Tradition of the New Testament

A modified version of this review may appear in the journal Churchman. This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher for that purpose.

 

The Healing Tradition of the New Testament Book Review

In many ways this is a unique book. Posthumously published, broadly cessationist but not unconcerned with the miraculous, and echoing the authors own ministry in theological and chaplaincy settings, alongside a role in the Guild of St Raphael; this book demands a close reading. Pett is concerned that contemporary and popular views of healing and health, particularly in various forms of church contexts, are more a reflection of our present culture than echoing a faithful reading of the New Testament. Indeed, at the outset, Pett makes it clear that in his view only Jesus Christ ‘does’ healing, and fascinatingly he excludes the apostles from this activity.

Whilst I am wary of being too firm on the final publication of a late author, it is worth noting at the outset of this review that two key methodological/editorial problems plague this work. Firstly, and mostly of irritation to the reader, are over-long and unclear sentence construction. This is particularly prevalent in the opening chapter. That said, Pett is careful to highlight key elements of his argument – in ‘propositions’ that break up the text. These are welcome islands of clarity in a narrative sea of outdated opinion. Secondly, and more critically, is the slightly haphazard approach to sources engaged with. Whilst the overall attitude toward scripture is clear, the selection of conversation partners is bizarre at best and possibly ignorant at worst. It is also worth noting Pett’s effectively uncritical usage of ‘Q’ is a major weakness, and reduces the value of his contribution. There is a lack of engagement with serious Charismatic or Pentecostal scholarship, and an overwhelmingly ‘white’ and ‘Western’ bias.

Pett is arguably consistent in his approach – taking the scriptures at face value and seriously engaging with both his reading of contemporary culture (he is well aware of the mythical obsessions of our so-called ‘rational’ world; his ‘Omen’ could just as easily be mapped onto the contemporary horror juggernaut ‘The Walking Dead’), and the New Testament as basic source. His charge that the epistles of Paul do not dwell on healing is a good one – though somewhat negated by the book of Acts, and extra-canonical sources. This makes his early conclusions – about both the mechanism of healing in the ministry of Jesus, and the earliest documents of Christianity – somewhat tenuous. It is worth noting that Pett leans on the notion of Jesus’ authority as vital for healing, without really engaging with the explicit words of Matthew 28:18 and the ‘gift’ of this authority to the church.

Given the authors death, and the relatively late publishing of this book, I think it unlikely that Pett’s perspective will have its intended effect. Those who most need their theology challenged will not read it (for more on this see Nanez, Full Gospel, Fractured Minds [Zondervan, 2005)) whilst those of us with a theologically informed charismatic perspective can look to recent work by the likes of Craig Keener, Gordon Fee and others as a riposte. As I said at the outset of my review, a unique and interesting book, but perhaps ultimately something of a theological rabbit hole out of time.

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