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Book Review: ‘Anger, Sex, Doubt and Death’ by Richard Holloway

January 13, 2011

I’m currently working with the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) as I work towards a selection conference for training in the Church Of England. As part of the process he asked me to read a book read by someone with ‘liberal’ theological views and furnished me with a copy of Richard Holloway‘s book. I found this book interesting as I had never really read something by a ‘liberal’ author and as I tried to understand the authors thinking and theology. Overall though I found his arguments and theology unconvincing for four reasons a) his use of caricature, b) picking and choosing of scripture which he likes flowing from c) his low view of scripture and d) his failure to help the very people he is seeking to reach. Rather than go through the whole book, here are my thoughts using primarily his chapter on Anger, that is divine anger, though I use two quotes from his chapter on Sex.


Throughout the book, Holloway battles not with the orthodox faith, not with biblical faith, but rather with a caricature of orthodox faith and hopes that by winning the battles with the caricatures he will convince the reader he has defeated orthodoxy. For example, on p.5 Holloway argues against a caricature of what is understood as predestination and rightly destroys it; but then I can’t believe anyone believes in predestination like he explains it. What he fails to do however, because he never examines it, is to show that the orthodox view of predestination is wrong. I think we should all be open to hearing different thoughts and interpretations of Christian doctrine, and if necessary to change our view if a better one is forthcoming, but if Holloway is to get anywhere, he must deal with the doctrine as it is understood and believed, not as he caricatures it.

Furthermore to make his case, Holloway picks on teachings from different sides of the church, rather than engaging with one complete systematic theology and, as well as this, deals with abandoned theological frameworks. For instance in attacking the medieval church’s misuse of sacramental confession and absolution as a method of controlling the population for political reasons, Holloway argues against a theology which no one would claim to hold to anymore and one which the Catholic Church, not to mention the Protestant churches, have rightly distanced themselves from.


A further fault of Holloway is the way he deals with Bible. Scripture presents some very difficult passages which could be understood in ways which appear to contradict other passages. Holloway seems to therefore pick the ones he likes and dumps the ones he doesn’t, but the Church has rightly understood all of Scripture to be divinely inspired and calls on Christians to accept the tensions and find the truth which lies within. So, for instance, is God one or three. Understood as literal or mathematical you would find these statements mutual incompatible, but Scripture affirms both and therefore both must be accepted. As we accept both we begin to understand that God is bigger than we can possibly imagine and in God both can and are true. Holloway seems to agree with this (p.11) and goes on to explain his grace filled Gospel, but again offers a stark choice between either a Grace based religion which closes its eyes to the behaviour of its adherents or a work’s based religion which leads to hate. Both have their scriptural backing claims Holloway, so we must choose. Quoting Russian Orthodox theology only confuses the situation here, because he uses their correct reading of theology to back up his own faulty understanding by selective quoting.

Taking the quote which Holloway uses on p.12:

[the gospel is] the love of God for man, meeting with the love of man for God, and God loves the vicious and the criminal and the idle as well as He loves the industrious and the honest and the truthful and the abstinent.’

This is correct and an orthodox, as well as an Orthodox, reading of scripture but that needn’t leave us with universalism as the only option which is where he is heading with his chapter. Holloway’s whole point is that God is a God who loves everyone and forgives everyone by His grace, without works being taken in to account; but orthodox theology has always held the two as inseparable and I think the Russian Orthodox would be rightly surprised to find their theology interpreted to back up universalism.

To be fair, at times Holloway writes some useful passages such as on p.13 where he says:

The paradox is, of course, that Christ’s acceptance of me in my sinfulness is more likely to woo me out of my sins than the hectoring moralizers…’

which of course is true and as is the essence of the attractiveness of the gospel and the orthodox gospel at that. Later on, on the same page, Holloway rightly sums up the choice as:

God either declares the guilty innocent, forgives them, reprieves them time after time; or He punishes the guilty and rewards the innocent… We are either saved by God’s mercy or we procure our salvation or damnation by our own efforts’.

This neatly sums up the choice which the world faces and which is so helpful set out in any number of places in scripture not least the Epistle to the Romans. However,the Apostle Paul, having made a similar statement to Holloway doesn’t then lead us on to a universal gospel where God’s grace saves everyone, regardless of their response to Him. Rather Paul puts faith, a human response to God’s grace, as the necessary condition of salvation:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.’ (Romans 5:1-2)

Is this faith enough if we then continue to live in sin, the Apostle James says no:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save themfaith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ (James 2:14,17)

Scripture affirms that true faith, saving faith, is seen in the way we live out our lives, whereas Holloway implies that all are saved by grace, regardless of any actual response. In fact Holloway says there is something noble in rebellion

‘There is also the sinner’s heroism, expressed by the defiant ones who refuse to repent…’ (p.4)

it strikes me that refusing to repent is far from heroic!


Holloway is able to come to these conclusions and this distinctive theology because of his low view of scripture. He sees it as a text written by fallible human beings about a God who they didn’t really understand and which modern people can rightly correct with their superior knowledge:

‘This evolutionary approach may appear to contradict Scripture and will, of course, be forced to repudiate those aspects of Scripture that reflect, not knowable divine truth, but the social and cultural context of the time…’ (p.45)

This comes across particularly clearly in his second chapter on sex. Talking about homosexuality Holloway says:

‘…but there is scarcely any doubt that the Bible as it stands seems sternly to disapprove of same-sex activities… [but] alongside this undeniable fact we must place the emergence… of an understanding of homosexuality, not as a chosen perversion… [but as a] fixed normative variation, to which scriptural references are irrelevant…’ (p.45)

If you hold that scripture can be irrelevant, presumably when it disagrees with your own views, then how can you claim that the parts you like show correctly who God is and what He is like. Holloway has removed the very ground the Church is standing on.


Throughout his book, Holloway seems concerned with those outside of the church who have been put off, over the centuries, by what are sometimes bad understandings or caricatures of the Gospel, and are other times just Christians behaving badly. Holloway wishes to rescue the Church from these mistakes and in so doing reach out to those who have been put off. The problem is though Holloway seeks to do this by ditching theology which isn’t popular, and instead, refining his message to a distortion of the gospel which won’t help anyone even if they are attracted to it. Holloway seems to have a heart for those who trapped in their sinful ways and points to the fact Jesus hung out with such as these, but again misses the point that Jesus called them to stop living such lives saying:

‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’ (John 8:11)

The ultimate sadness is that, those he seeks to help, will either end up following him to nowhere, or else will be put off by one more false explanation of the Gospel. What the Church needs to do is to overcome the bad explanations with better ones, defeat false ideas of the church as a holy club for particularly good people, with the truth that the church is a place for sinners saved by grace. The church should be, and at its best is, a place for the down and out and the outcasts, who have been given the good news that God loves them and wants to live with them and help them to become the people He has made them to be. Such a message is good news and its proclamation is the job of the whole church, one which we regularly fail at, one which we regularly get wrong and which we’ll only get better at, if we work together to follow Jesus better and work hard to understand the whole of Scripture including the difficult parts.

In conclusion, this is a helpful book if your aim is to get your head around liberal theology as mine was, but other than that probably not worth bothering with.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 1, 2011 1:25 pm

    Great analysis of the book! I generally read from more conservative authors as well: John Piper, J.I. Packer, etc. but at times try out some new ones, sometimes from the liberal camp. You brought up some great points…one can’t pick and choose from scripture to make an argument that makes them feel good…we have to look at it in it’s entirety and have upmost reverence towards scripture as we seek, with humble hearts, to understand the truths and knowledge God has put in it for the benefit of mankind.

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