Geering and God: 1965-71: The Heresy Trial that Divided New Zealand
by Lloyd Geering (BWB Texts, paper $14.99; e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Judith Nathan
This text is an extract from Sir Lloyd Geering’s autobiography, Wrestling with God, published in 2006, with a brief foreword about Professor Geering by Allan Davidson, a leading New Zealand church historian. Many older Dunediners like myself, and indeed older Presbyterians and others throughout the country, will remember the controversy aroused by the articles and speeches of Professor Geering, Principal of Knox College Theological Hall in the late 1960s. Perhaps I should state up front that I remember my father supporting Professor Geering’s views, so I came to this volume predisposed to admire it.
One wonders whether theological articles today could be so divisive as these were, and whether they would result in the author being not only vilified within his church but also interviewed on television. Christianity can still rouse intense public criticism but it is in relation to sects such as the Destiny Church, not a mainstream denomination. It is hard to imagine a 21st century trial for heresy.
But it was hard to imagine in the 1960s also. Lloyd Geering, then professor of Old Testament Studies, was clearly taken aback by the amount of controversy generated by the article he wrote in 1965 at the invitation of the editor of Outlook. In it, he said the Bible was not “the Word of God in written form”. He was aware that his next article in 1966, which denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, could upset people but decided against toning it down. In his autobiography he admits his naivety. After more articles and talks, he was charged with heresy by some of his fellow Presbyterians. It was fascinating to read his account of the 1967 General Assembly where the case was heard and the charges dismissed, as most church leaders stood by him.
These articles and their consequences changed Lloyd Geering’s life. It was most fortunate for him, and for the academic study of religion in New Zealand, that Victoria University set up a department of religious studies just at this time, enabling Professor Geering to move from a denominational appointment to a university one in 1971. The crucial question is what long term effect did the controversy have on the Presbyterian church in New Zealand? Did his articles damage his church? That is beyond the scope of this work and Sir Lloyd is not the most appropriate person to make that assessment.
For those of us who are unlikely to tackle the full biography, these extracts make interesting reading, throwing light on a unique and significant episode in New Zealand’s church history.
(Other titles in the BWB Texts series are reviewed here.)