24 December 2013

Christmas greetings

Wishing you joy and peace this Christmastide

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.

Come to us, Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,

Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

Note: The image is a mural of the Nativity in the Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist, Bethany Beyond the Jordan. The sonnet is from Sounding the Seasons by Malcolm Guite.

09 November 2013

Francis of Assisi: The Life

A review of Augustine Thompson’s, Francis of Assisi: The Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013):

Given the new Pope’s adoption of the name Francis, this is a remarkably timely addition to the many biographies of Il Poverello. However, this is more of a quest for the historical Francis than most. And since the author is a Dominican he may be less susceptible to the hagiography of Francis than some of his earlier biographies. As if in confirmation of that, Thompson places particular emphasis on Francis’s own writings and the earliest testimonies to Francis’s life while being clearly sceptical of later hagiographies (and quite dismissive of the Fioretti).

The result is effectively a quest for the historical Francis arranged in a broadly chronological structure. Thompson divides the life of St Francis into eight segments that are given roughly equal treatment.

Thompson begins with Francis’s early life and strips away much of the romanticism associated with earlier biographies of the saint. This Francis is presented as a troubled young man, traumatized by war and behaving erratically. Perhaps most interesting is Thompson’s sympathetic portrayal of Francis’s father as a man genuinely concerned by his son’s apparent descent into madness. The second chapter outlines the earliest beginnings of the Franciscan movement with Francis being joined by Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter who had experienced similar religious conversions. Over the next two chapters, Thompson presents the emergence of the Franciscan movement as largely spontaneous. It was certainly not intended by Francis. On the contrary, Francis is shown to be reluctant to take responsibility for the growing movement; leadership is forced upon him by Cardinal Hugolino. That initial reluctance gradually develops into a love–hate relationship with leadership: Francis happily resigns from his role as leader, but he remains the power behind first Peter of Cataneo then Elias. The concluding chapters offer a careful study of Francis’s Rule, particularly the Regula Bullata (Chapter 6); in something of a departure from his erstwhile scepticism, an affirmation of the historicity of the stigmata (Chapter 7); and an account of how Francis’s final days were stage managed.

I am not entirely convinced by Thompson’s portrayal of Francis. He certainly does a good job of highlighting Francis’s flaws, thus perhaps creating a more approachable Francis. However, I suspect that the difficulty with a quest for the historical Francis (like that of the long-discredited quest for the historical Jesus) is the re-creation of Francis in our own image. And the eccentric, vacillating, self-doubting man who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder glimpsed in these pages does seem suspiciously modern. Nevertheless, the book is well written and presents a refreshing alternative to the older biographies.

I must confess that I was irritated by the lack of notes in this book, a lack that is not really compensated for by the up-to-date annotated reading list. In fact, I discovered later that this book is little more than a reissue of Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell UP, 2012) with about a hundred pages of notes removed!

My thanks to Cornell University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book via the Netgalley scheme.

21 September 2013

Imagining the Kingdom

A review of

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K. A. Smith, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

There is more to Christian discipleship than understanding the Bible or doctrine. Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a trilogy entitled ‘Cultural Liturgies’ in which James Smith tackles this ‘more’ by exploring how imagination, desire and story shape the way we are in the world.

I must confess that I haven’t read the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom. Fortunately Smith has written in such a way that each volume can be read on its own.

In the first volume he argued that ‘we are, primarily and root, affective animals whose worlds are made more by the imagination than by the intellect—that humans are those desiring creatures who live off of stories, narratives, images, and the stuff of poiesis’ (xii). Imagining the Kingdom picks up this argument and develops it in two parts.

The first part, ‘Incarnate Significance’, explores the embodied nature of our knowing and acting, drawing on contemporary thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu to illustrate the importance of the pre-conscious contribution to Christian thought and praxis. In particular, he makes extensive use of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of perception (or embodied knowing) and Bourdieu’s concept of habitus.

Deploying these concepts, he argues that it is not the case that theoria is prior to praxis. We are predisposed to act in the world, but that action does not derive primarily from theoretical attention to the world. Our action is more instinctive than that. Rather our practice in world is shaped by our experience of world. And that experience is shaped by stories, ‘stories that have captivated us, have sunk into our bones—stories that “picture” what we think life is about, what constitutes “the good life.” We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us’ (32). Embodied knowing thus envisaged must be rooted in community: in shared stories and shared communal practices.

Part 2, ‘Sanctified Perception’, weaves the theoretical considerations of Part 1 into an exploration of how worship works and of Christian formation for mission. This latter half of the book presents an appealing picture. It is important that we are reminded that there is far more to being a Christian than merely our attempts to give rational expression to the faith. Smith rightly points towards the important role played by repetition, ritual and story-telling.

The first chapter of this section looks at how worship works in the broadest sense. Drawing on Part 1, he defines human beings as imaginative, narrative animals. Our embodied knowing and our shared practices are formed by our imaginations. This allows him to present the world as liturgical, where liturgy is defined as ‘rituals and practices that constitute the embodied stories of a body politic’. He continues, ‘If liturgies are “rituals of ultimate concern” that form identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and that do so in a way that means to trump other formations, they do so because they are those story-laden practices that are absorbed into the imaginative epicenter of action and behavior.’ (109) Our desires are formed by such ‘cultural liturgies’, and Smith offers smartphone usage as an example.

The second chapter of Part 2 explores the implications for Christian formation for mission. For Smith spiritual formation takes place primarily through worship rather than catechesis. Through worship, we become immersed in the gospel narrative and reoriented to the story of salvation history. And this results in the gradual transformation of our reactions: In face of wrongdoing or injustice, we show mercy instead of revenge; in face of suffering, compassion instead of callousness; in face of tragedy, hope instead of despair.

Smith offers a sustained critique of intellectualistic piety without ever becoming anti-intellectual, a judicious relativization of the role of the intellect in Christian discipleship. Positively, he places a welcome emphasis on the centrality of worship in Christian formation and mission (though other reviewers have commented critically on the conservatism of his view of worship).

Having said that, my Barthian background makes me sceptical of any approach that relies so heavily on expositions of perspectives from outwith the Christian tradition(s). One has to ask oneself what presuppositions about the way the world is have been slipped into Smith's argument courtesy of his adoption of Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty. Is this account of human knowing and formation as uncontested as his presentation suggests? Are there other approaches that might supplement, complement or contradict this one?

In spite of that reservation, I think this is a well-written and thought-provoking volume that will repay careful study by theologians and pastors alike.

13 August 2013

Asteroid mining comes a step closer

Some folk at Strathclyde University have just posted an interesting paper to arXiv. Entitled ‘Easily Retrievable Objects among the NEO Population’, it identifies no fewer than 12 small asteroids in near Earth orbits that could be ‘retrieved’ using more or less our present level of rocket technology. I put scare quotes around the word retrieved because (for fairly obvious reasons) their idea of retrieval does not involve attempting to get these objects to the Earth’s surface. Rather, they propose that these objects could be nudged out of their present orbits so that they end up at one of the Earth–Sun Lagrangian points.

Doubtless the folk at Planetary Resources (a company set to to begin mining asteroids as soon as possible) will be examining this list with some interest: some of these objects could be ideal test cases for them.

12 August 2013

ReactOS … watch this space

For years I have been a reluctant user of various Windows operating systems – initially because I couldn’t afford an Apple machine and later because I am tied in to Windows by software that can’t easily be used on other operating systems. I have tried emigrating to Linux once or twice. but I have not enjoyed the experience of running Windows programs under Wine. So the emergence of the ReactOS project is welcome news for me.

According to their website:
ReactOS® is a free open source operating system based on the best design principles found in the Windows NT® architecture (Windows versions such as Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows Server 2012 are built on Windows NT architecture). Written completely from scratch, ReactOS is not a Linux based system, and shares none of the UNIX architecture.
The main goal of the ReactOS® project is to provide an operating system which is binary compatible with Windows. This will allow your Windows® applications and drivers to run as they would on your Windows system. Additionally, the look and feel of the Windows operating system is used, such that people accustomed to the familiar user interface of Windows® would find using ReactOS straightforward. The ultimate goal of ReactOS® is to allow you to use it as alternative to Windows® without the need to change software you are used to.
ReactOS 0.3.15 is still in alpha stage, meaning it is not feature-complete and is recommended only for evaluation and testing purposes.

It looks as if I’ll have to wait a bit longer for a replacement for Windows, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.

23 July 2013

Radical Christianity: property is theft

I imagine most people in (post)modern capitalist Western societies think the phrase ‘property is theft’ is a Marxist sentiment. In fact, the phrase was coined by the nineteenth-century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Marx was critical of the idea on the grounds that the concept of theft entails a concept of property and therefore ‘property is theft’ is self-refuting.

The phrase may come from a nineteenth-century anarchist, but the underlying sentiment is much older and has been recognized as a core part of Christian social teaching by some of the greatest Christian theologians. Thus, speaking of giving to the poor, Ambrose could say:
You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.
Drawing on this, Thomas Aquinas argued that anything we possess above and beyond what is necessary to satisfy our reasonable needs ‘is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance’ (Summa theologiae II-II.q66.a7). Indeed, Aquinas goes even further:
It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need. (ibid.)
Putting that in twenty-first century terms, it is not theft when someone goes shoplifting to feed their children. Nor (contra agri-businesses like Monsanto) is it theft when a third-world farmer saves and re-plants seeds from a GM crop.

This piece of traditional Christian teaching puts Francis of Assisi in a rather different light. Modern biographies often present his persistent giving away of possessions to the poor as a (possibly eccentric and certainly unusual) virtue. And contemporary works on Christian spirituality often treat such simplicity/self-imposed poverty as something most of us can only aspire to. But, from the perspective of Ambrose and Aquinas and most theologians before the modern (capitalist?) era, Francis was simply doing his duty as a Christian.

I don’t know about you, but I find that scary. I call myself a Christian (and a Franciscan), but perhaps in light of the above that means I need to listen more literally when Jesus says to the rich young man, ‘go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ (Matt 19:21, NRSV).

22 July 2013

God of love or God of wrath?

Several things have conspired to make me think a little about the wrath of God recently:

  • I am currently learning the tenor part of Mendelssohn’s Elijah for a performance in October., and one of Elijah’s arias, ‘Is not his word like a fire?' contains the very insistent and scarily memorable lines 'For God is angry, angry with the wicked ev’ry day’.
  • From time to time I drop in on Louis Kinsey’s blog, Coffee with Louis. Recently he asked the question ‘“Sometimes God gets Grumpy” Doesn’t He?’ [The short answer is ‘no’, grumpy is not a word that can appropriately be used of God.]
  • And while reading through a couple of psalms the other day I was struck by: ‘They provoked him to anger with their evil deeds’ (Psalm 106:29).

One of the perennial challenges for Christians is reconciling what the Bible has to say about the wrath of God with what it has to say about the love of God (e.g. ‘God is love’, 1 John 4:8). Are we sinners in the hands of an angry God? Or sinners in the hands of the God who is absolute love?

I think the way forward is precisely to emphasize that God is absolute love. Implicit in such an assertion is an assertion of the holiness of God. A God understood as absolute love is quiet simply incommensurable with evil. God and evil cannot coexist. And I read the Bible’s talk of God’s anger as a vivid way of expressing this ontological intolerance of evil. God and evil cannot mix. If God is love, for God to tolerate evil would be for God to cease to be God.

20 July 2013

Current research interests

I started writing this blog entry about a week ago. When I started, the idea was to say something about my current theological research interests and writing projects. The point of the exercise was to make me focus. Otherwise, I am liable to flit like a butterfly from one interesting subject to another without stopping to do anything worthwhile.

Here’s the list I started with:

  • Franciscan spirituality
  • Environmental theology
  • Relational understandings of the Trinity
  • Duns Scotus
  • Physical science and theology
  • Violence and religion
Faced with that list, I had to admit to myself that I no longer have the energy and I certainly don’t have the time to pursue more than half a dozen parallel lines of research. I need to concentrate my energies on just one. And that one has to be Franciscan spirituality, partly because the Franciscan movement has been an important part of my life for over twenty years and partly because a project on Franciscan spirituality (and the associated theology) should also embrace significant aspects of most of my other interests.


A lot has been written on Francis and the Franciscans in recent years (and the new Pope’s adoption of the name Francis I means there is likely to be no let up in such publications), so why waste time going over such well-trodden territory? What (I hope) will make my contribution distinctive are the following:
  • a focus on the relevance of Franciscan spirituality for Christian life in a postmodern culture;
  • and a recognition that the Franciscan movement is much bigger than Francis (or even Francis and Clare); so I shall be paying more attention to some of the later shapers of Franciscan thought, prayer and action.

And just how will I work my other interests into a project on Franciscan spirituality?
  • Environmental theology: I began my theological research here, and it was my interest in this that first led to me exploring the Franciscan movement. In fact, it is almost a cliché to associate Francis and Franciscans with environmental concern. I need to revise my early research and publications, which were strongly informed by a stewardship/earthkeeping ethic, in light of the deep sense of relatedness to the rest of creation that one finds in Francis (and to a lesser extent the early Franciscans).
  • Relational view of the Trinity (sometimes misleadingly called the social view of the Trinity): Thanks to Colin Gunton, this approach to the Trinity underpinned my original research on environmental theology. Since Colin’s death it seems to have become rather unfashionable in British theology, which I think is a pity. As for connecting it with Franciscan spirituality, Franciscan approaches to spirituality have usually been strongly Trinitarian, and somehow a relational approach seems more appropriate in this context. (There is also the fact that Colin thought that the theology of Duns Scotus had important things to say regarding both the Trinity and creation.)
  • Duns Scotus: Since I want to broaden my approach to Franciscan spirituality beyond the usual tight focus on Francis and Clare, the most significant theologian of the Franciscan movement seems a natural person to get to know better.
  • Science and theology: Another perennial interest of mine. And how does it relate to Franciscan spirituality? I think it is very significant that it was the Franciscans who were largely responsible for the explosion of interest in natural philosophy in the thirteenth century. More specifically, it has sometimes been suggested that Duns Scotus’s approach to metaphysics played an important role in laying the foundations for the development of modern Western science.
  • Violence and religion: Another of my long-standing concerns has been the perversion of religion into abusive and violent forms. This is the very antithesis of the Franciscan ethos: Franciscans are called to be peacemakers. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker in a culture that seems to be wedded to the myth of redemptive violence? And how do we make peace across ethnic and religious divides when the powers that be in our own societies are bent on responding with violence (e.g. the ‘war on terror’)?

12 July 2013

No longer linked in

People keep telling me that to market my editing and writing effectively I need to be actively involved in social networking website like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Twitter has never attracted me; I abandoned Facebook because of privacy (and copyright) concerns.

Now my experiment with LinkedIn has come to an end: I closed my account last week after I started receiving messages from complete strangers saying that they had accepted my invitation to link with me. It did occur to me that perhaps LinkedIn was automatically extracting email addresses from my gmail account and sending out invitations on my behalf. But I checked the latest example – someone from Dublin who works in telecommunications – no sign of her email address anywhere in my gmail account!

10 May 2013

The joyful science

No, I’m not thinking about poetry! The other day, Steve Holmes posted a very moving blog entry about Colin Gunton. Among other things, he pointed out the importance of joy in Colin’s practice of theology:
theology done properly must be cheerful work. How can we speak (read; write) of God’s infinite grace poured out without limit in the gift of Jesus Christ, and not find our hearts warmed, our sorrows comforted, our failures rendered into proper perspective? How can we not be basically joyful, if to do this is our life’s work?
And that, of course, immediately put me in mind of Karl Barth:
The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science. May God deliver us from what the Catholic Church reckons one of the seven sins of the monk – taedium [loathing] – in respect of the great spiritual truths with which theology has to do. But we must know, of course, that it is only God who can keep us from it. (CD II/1: 656)
That attitude, so effectively inculcated by Colin, is what underlies my own personal rule of thumb for judging the theology I read: There is something profoundly wrong with any theology that is arid, boring or depressing. (And the same might be said of sermons too.)

So theology is essentially joyful work, but I would want to add that this joy is other-directed. Theology, when it is done properly, leads directly to praise. Or, as Evagrius of Pontus put it: ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’ (Treatise On Prayer, 61). Extending the above rule of thumb, there is something profoundly wrong with any theology or sermon (my own or that of others) that does not make me want to engage in praise and prayer.

06 May 2013

Colin Gunton, 1941–2003

Colin Gunton died ten years ago today. He was arguably the finest British theologian of his generation with publications spanning virtually the entire breadth of Christian doctrine. In particular, he made important contributions to contemporary thinking about the doctrines of the Trinity and of creation. Sadly he died before he could write his projected multi-volume systematic theology, so we have to make do with the summary he left in the form of The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Theology.

From 1984 to 1988 I had the privilege of being one of Colin’s research students. I remember a quiet, questioning man who gently probed and raised issues that greatly improved the quality of my work. He was gracious and generous in acknowledging the contributions that his students made to the development of his own learning. For example, when he introduced me to his Doktorvater, Robert Jenson, he made a point of saying how much he had learnt while supervising my thesis (and I recently discovered that he footnoted some of my work in his The Triune Creator).

In addition to being an academic theologian, Colin was a URC minister and he brought his pastoral concerns to his academic work, caring for his students in practical ways. When, for various reasons, I was looking for part-time work after I had completed my PhD, Colin put me in touch with Lesslie Newbigin. That led to my involvement in The Gospel and Our Culture, a project that had been set up the the former British Council of Churches to explore the implications of Lesslie’s work.

It was a privilege to know him.

11 March 2013

Track changes without tears


I suspect many copy-editors dislike Word’s ‘Track changes’ features. Personally, I dislike the mess it makes on screen when changes are visible and its ability to mess with the functionality of Word when changes are hidden. Specifically:

  • It does not play nicely with several of my editing macros, so I have to remember to switch TC off and on again when I use them. That’s a particular nuisance when the macro does something that a client wants me to track.
  • When TC is hidden, it messes up Word's ‘Search and replace’. Specifically, words that have already been changed in some way become invisible to S&R.
  • Track changes has difficulties with Word's automatic notes; in fact, at times, it seems to lose track of changes to the note numbering.

I could go on, but there is a very simple solution to this problem. It turns out that improvements to Word’s ‘Compare documents’ feature have rendered TC superfluous (at least in Word 2007 and later). If a client wants a document that displays tracked changes, all I need to do is compare my final edited version with the client’s original files. The result is a third document with all the differences displayed as tracked changes! What is more, I can tinker with what differences are actually displayed so that I can show only the changes that are of interest to the client.

15 February 2013

Augustine and Science

I received a pleasant surprise in the post yesterday: a complimentary copy of Augustine and Science edited by John Doody, Adam Goldstein and Kim Paffenroth, which has just been published as part of the Augustine  in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation series by Lexington Books. According to the publisher’s website:
This collection addresses current controversies about the relationship between science and religion, in which Augustine is appealed to by opposing sides, showing his continuing relevance, as well as the subtlety and complexity of his views. Questions on evolution are especially focused on, and from a variety of perspectives, often with quite different conclusions between the essays. This is truly a conversation about Augustine, science, and religion.
And, according to a couple of reviewers:
This highly readable collection of essays covers a vast range of topics, as distinguished scholars from various fields bring Augustine's prescient and sometimes surprising views on nature into a dialogue with modern ideas in evolutionary biology, geography, astronomy, cosmogony, field theory, and more. The essays pay close attention to the relevant texts and succeed admirably in showing the enduring importance of Augustine's thought for modern science and for the debate regarding faith and reason. Reading this book deepened my admiration for Augustine's breadth and originality. (Peter Kalkavage, St. John's College, Annapolis) 
Augustine and Science not only addresses challenging questions regarding Augustine’s views on issues in science or natural philosophy, but also shows how Augustinian ideas and principles are central to some of the key current debates of science and religion. This volume in the series is another testament to Augustine’s lasting legacy. (Seung-Kee Lee, Drew University)
The table of contents:

Part 1: General Observations on Scientific Method and Biblical Interpretation
1: Augustine and the Systematic Theology of Origins (Paul L. Allen)
2: Augustine’s View of Creation and Its Modern Reception (Andrew Brown)
3: The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science (Wolfhart Pannenberg)
4: The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine’s View of Creation (Davis A. Young)
5: The Franciscans and Natural Philosophy in the Thirteenth Century (Lawrence Osborn)

Part 2: Astronomy
6: Augustine and Astronomy (Nicholas Campion)
7: Augustine and the Shape of the Earth (C. P. E. Nothaft)

Part 3: Evolution
8: Augustine on Evolution, Time and Memory (John Caizza)
9: An Augustinian Perspective on Creation and Evolution (Rodney D. Holder)
10: Science: Augustinian or Duhemian? (Alvin Plantinga)
11: Modern Science and Augustine’s Account of Evil and Suffering (Patrick Richmond)
12: Augustine, Evolution, and Scientific Methodology (James S. Spiegel)

22 January 2013

Against Calvinism

A review of Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (Zondervan, 2011):


This is the sister volume to Michael Horton’s For Calvinism, which I reviewed some time ago. Roger Olson has clearly drawn the short straw in this project: It is always more difficult to write a constructive critique of a view which you believe to be just plain wrong than to write an apologia for you own belief system. It might have been fairer to ask Olson to write something entitled ‘For Arminianism’ but, of course, he has already written somethingvery like that.

In the first two chapters, Olson explains the context for his opposition to (certain forms of) Calvinism and outlines the complexity of the Reformed and Calvinist family of Christian traditions. This is essentially a response to the Calvinism of the so called young, restless Reformed thinkers (e.g. John Piper) who have spearheaded the re-emergence of a radical high (or even hyper) Calvinism in the past three decades. Olson insists that they do not have a monopoly on the term ‘Reformed’ (his own theological hero, Arminius, was also a Reformed theologian) or even ‘Calvinist’ (Olson cites the Dutch theologian Gerrits Berkouwer as an example of a moderate Calvinist who would take issue with this new hyper-Calvinism) and challenges some of their more extreme statements about God's sovereignty. In his own words:
I believe someone needs finally to stand up and in love firmly say “No!” to egregious statements about God’s sovereignty often made by Calvinists. Taken to their logical conclusion, that even hell and all who will suffer there eternally are foreordained by God, God is thereby rendered morally ambiguous at best and a moral monster at worst. I have gone so far as to say that this kind of Calvinism, which attributes everything to God’s will and control, makes it difficult (at least for me) to see the difference between God and the devil. (p. 23)

In Chapter 3 he defines what is commonly understood as Calvinism today in terms of the five points of Calvinism (or the doctrines of grace). His basic argument is that Calvinism has to be inconsistent in order to avoid making God the author of evil, and he expands on this in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 4, ‘Yes to God’s Sovereignty; No to Divine Determinism’, affirms a ‘weak’ view of divine sovereignty, namely that nothing happens without God’s permission. He goes on to argue that a stronger view of sovereignty would make God the sole cause of all that happens and thus undermine the contingency of creation (p. 72). He traces this latter view from Zwingli through Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, R.C. Sproul, and Lorraine Boettner to Paul Helm and John Piper. As he sees it, this understanding of divine sovereignty is in tension with the goodness of God; taken to its logical conclusion it must lead to fatalism and an implicit belief that God is the ultimate cause of evil.

In Chapter 5, ‘Yes to Election; No to Double Predestination’, Olson affirms the unconditional election of God’s people as a whole and the conditional election of individuals. But he rejects the Calvinist notion of reprobation: in his view, that God pardons one sinner and condemns another who has committed the same sin makes God capricious rather than compassionate.

In Chapter 6, he argues that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is a deduction from other points of Calvinism (specifically unconditional election and irresistible grace), which lacks scriptural support. He maintains that it contradicts the love of God by making God partial and, indeed, actively antipathetic towards those he has not chosen. Olsen also devotes some space to refuting the Calvinist argument that the only alternative to limited atonement is universalism.

In Chapter 7, Olson questions Calvinist claims that any human contribution to salvation (synergism) reduces it from grace to work and again he devotes some space to correcting what he sees as Calvinist misrepresentations of synergism as covert Pelagianism.

Olson concludes his critique with a chapter summarizing the conundrums of Calvinism and a couple of appendices dealing with some Calvinist responses to his central criticisms and various Calvinist claims.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a critique of any theological tradition is attacking the belief without attacking the believer. Roger Olson has done an admirable job of challenging the implications of Calvinism while acknowledging that most Calvinists do not press their beliefs to their logical conclusion. He concludes that ‘evangelical Calvinists are some of the best Christians in the world. I just think they are terribly inconsistent and teach and believe doctrines contrary to scripture, most of Christian tradition, and reason’ (p. 179).

This volume makes a very readable companion to its sister volume by Horton. Nevertheless, just as I remained unconvinced by Horton’s very attractive presentation of Calvinism so I reached the end of Olson’s text feeling more than a little uncomfortable about the Arminian alternative. Is it perhaps the case that both Calvinism (at least in its modern ‘restless’ incarnation) and Arminianism are tainted by the Pelagianism that theologians like Kathryn Tanner (see my review of her God and Creation in Christian Theology) and ColinGunton have perceived to pervade post-Reformation (and certainly post-Enlightenment) Western theology?

(Perhaps I should add that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of their blogger review programme.)

God and Creation in Christian Theology

A review of God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? by Kathryn Tanner (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988). (Originally written for Science and Christian Belief.)


How is it possible to affirm both absolute divine sovereignty and the existence of genuine freedom within the created order? For many people today this is simply not an option. Theologians and believing scientists alike carefully qualify the concept of divine sovereignty by, for example, referring to God’s respect for the created order. Alternatively, those who are concerned to maintain divine sovereignty at all costs are prepared to allow determinism to creep into their accounts of the created order. Both sides tacitly admit that traditional theological attempts to maintain both were mistaken.

Tanner denies that widespread modern conclusion. She argues instead that traditional theological discourse is coherent so long as it conforms to certain linguistic rules about the transcendence and creative agency of God. The bulk of this book is devoted to uncovering those rules at work in certain traditional theologies. In a concluding chapter she examines the reasons behind the belief that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are incompatible.

The approach adopted in the book is unashamedly linguistic. Tanner readily admits that ‘In studying theology I am concentrating, not on what theologians are talking about, but on the way they say it’ (p. 11). One effect of this approach is a pragmatic view of theology: it exists to help us live life in a ‘Christian’ way rather than to promote understanding of the object of our faith. The association of this semantic ascent with non-referential approaches to religious (and scientific) discourse may well render it uncongenial to conservative Christians (or, practising scientists). However, the linguistic approach does enable her to lay bare a variety of rules of discourse which, taken together, enable the theologian to affirm coherently both divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom.

Turning first to divine transcendence, she examines the difficulties created by this concept in the Hellenistic context of early Christian theology. Transcendence and divine agency appeared to be mutually exclusive. Neo-Platonic efforts to maintain both were only partially successful, resulting in an emanationist understanding of creation. Christian theology had to hold together belief in a radically transcendent God and in his intimate involvement with every aspect of the created order. Tanner perceives two rules of discourse at work in the theologies which developed in the face of this requirement: as regards transcendence, the theologian must ‘avoid both a simple univocal attribution of predicates to God and world and a simple contrast of divine and non divine predicates’; as regards God’s creative agency, we must ‘avoid . . . all suggestions of limitation in scope or manner’ (p. 47). Her argument is amply illustrated with analysis of particular theological cases, notably Aquinas and Barth.

She then repeats this procedure for Christian theological talk about the power and efficacy of creatures. At first sight the rule about divine agency appears to preclude talk about genuine creaturely freedom. However, Tanner maintains that in traditional theological discourse divine and creaturely power were not inversely but directly proportional: ‘If power and efficacy are perfections, the principle of direct proportion requires that creatures be said to gain those qualities, not in the degree God’s agency is restricted, but in the degree God’s creative agency is extended to them’ (p. 85). This fundamental rule is then developed in a variety of subsidiary rules defending the Christian doctrine of creation against tendencies to deism or occasionalism among other errors.

One implication of her theological functionalism and her linguistic bent becomes clear at this point. She argues that the rules she has uncovered are dipolar and, thus, a force for theological diversity. Specifically, Reformed and Roman Catholic theology are two sides of the same coin. They are functional complements arising from differences of emphasis within the rules of discourse for responsible Christian theology as a result of different cultural contexts. This will surely come as a surprise to many theologians on both sides of the divide. I venture to suggest that the reason for their surprise will be that, unlike Professor Tanner, they have not bracketed out the object of theology.

Tanner concludes her study with an analysis of what has gone wrong in the contemporary climate. Why does the suggestion that divine sovereignty and creaturely freedom are compatible meet with such resistance today? She argues that a complex of ideas and intellectual methods widely regarded as the legacy of the Enlightenment is responsible. The result is an intellectual milieu in which talk of creaturely freedom is most naturally interpreted in a Pelagian fashion while talk of divine sovereignty is understood as advocating divine tyranny. In such a situation, attempts to reaffirm the traditional Christian doctrine of providence are fraught with difficulties.

Once again, Tanner illustrates her analysis with historical examples. Her choice (the theology of Gabriel Biel and the de Auxiliis controversies) is interesting. Implicit in this choice is a denial that the Enlightenment is the chief source of our difficulties. The tendencies which came to fruition then were already at work before the birth of the Reformation.

Finally, Tanner does not leave us without hope. The problems analysed in her final chapter are not intractable. We do not have to give up traditional claims for a transcendent creator God in order to speak to late twentieth century western culture. On the contrary, there are forces within contemporary culture which will enable us to do what Christian theology has always done, namely, ‘fracture anew the language of the ordinary, so that traditional affirmations about God and the world come to hang together intelligibly once again’ (p. 169).

Stylistically, this book is far from easy. She writes in the opaque style beloved of American theologians and she assumes that her readers will have a good working knowledge of Christian theologies of creation. Nevertheless, what she has to say well repays the effort of reading her.

Setting aside my doubts about her theological functionalism and her tendency to focus upon the language of theology rather than its referents, I found this book fascinating. She does not offer us a Christian theology of creation and providence for the end of the twentieth century. However, her analysis of the rules of discourse lying behind traditional claims in these areas ought to be taken seriously by anyone who is working in this field.

21 January 2013

Taking technology too far?

While on my way to the post office this morning, I spotted someone checking their gas meter. Nothing unusual about that except that this person, instead of scribbling the meter reading on a scrap of paper, was struggling to photograph the meter with their smartphone!

If your only tool is a smartphone, . . .

02 January 2013

Quote of the day

I just came across the following passage on Language Log (here), which neatly sums up my philosophy of copy-editing (and which, I think, should be every copy-editor’s new year’s resolution every year):
Copy editors are meant to be gnomes working invisibly below decks to ensure that the engine of prose runs smoothly. They shouldn’t obtrude themselves conspicuously into the middle of a clause, so that the reader has to break off his attention to the writer’s argument and do a little mental stutter-step before he can remark to himself, “Oh, I see—it’s that data-must-be-plural business.” Copy-editors desirous of such notice should try another trade, one where they’re not required to hide their LittB under a bushel.
I wonder if anyone out there has any other new year’s resolutions for copy-editors?