‘SCM Core Text: Christian Doctrine’: A Review

Mike Higton, SCM Core Text: Christian Doctrine. London: SCM Press, 2008. xi + 413pp. £22.99.

While the finest of Christian dogmatics employs the grammar of praxis, proposition and imagination, much of what passes for ‘orthodoxy’ privileges proposition and is (to varying degrees) suspicious of those attempts to faithfully make sense of life encountered and interpreted in a specific time and space biography, drawing upon God’s action corporately experienced, and upon the narratives and metaphors that inform Christian imagination. As invaluable as propositions are, they ought not be, according to Mike Higton, ‘extricated from the Christian lives and imaginations’ (p. 73) that provide the context for comprehending and evaluating all things in light of that one determining Word of God who has taken on flesh and who, in the Spirit, is dancing created humanity into participation in God’s life in the world. It is this grand narrative that stirs Higton’s theological project in Christian Doctrine (part of the SCM Core Text series), and provides the matrix through which he seeks to assist readers to make sense of life as individuals and communities in relation to each other, and in relation to God.

Knowing and loving God, Higton presses, is more akin to knowing, loving and sharing identity with a piece of music – it is to resonate with, and to participate in, even to become an aspect of, God’s eternally-playing melody – than it is to ‘grasp fully, define and explain’ (p. 57) the otherwise unknowable God. Such knowledge is interruptive, transformative and self-involving, drawing a responsive participant into – to be ‘caught up … grasped by’ (p. 57) – the same love and justice that is God’s life and which God has revealed to the world in Jesus of Nazareth and made real by the invading, transforming and overwhelming Spirit who draws human persons to Christ, ‘impels and enables participation’ in God’s kingdom, and who produces a response ‘consistent with the claim that God is love’ (p. 255). While ‘imagining how the immanent life of God functions is not our business’ (p. 99), Higton is confident that what God makes known in the economy is the ‘dance’ of God’s own immanent life – God’s one endless threefold way; that is why, according to the author, God can be trusted and known. ‘The economy is enough‘ (p. 102). As Higton repeatedly reminds, the triune God who is love ‘all the way down’ is ‘immanently Christlike’ (p. 71):

[To] learn to speak appropriately about God’s immanent life is to learn to see the human being Jesus – a graspable, knowable, historical, economic reality – as the coming to the world of the ineffable, eternal Son; it is to learn to see the Father who appears in one’s economic imaginations and words as the coming to the world of the eternal, ineffable Father; it is to learn to see the shakings and stirrings of the Spirit’s historical, economic work as the coming to the world of the ineffable Spirit. It is to learn to see the whole patterned drama of the economy, into which Christians believe all are called, as the opening up to the world of God’s own immanent life’. (pp. 101-2)

Christian Doctrine emerges out of a certificate course in theology that Higton teaches at Exeter, and is targeted at second- and third-year undergraduate students. Resisting all attempts to merely download the tradition, Higton seeks to encourage the critical making, breaking and remaking of sense that is all around us, and to do so with careful attentiveness to the transforming light of the Christian story – at the heart of which is God’s love and justice.

The book consists of two parts: The first, ‘Life in God’ (pp. 1-166), explores with startling clarity questions of epistemology, the indivisible relationship between knowing and loving (here he draws upon Exodus 3:13-17 and 1 John 4:7-21), God-talk, God’s trinitarian economy, and God’s human life. On the latter, Higton draws upon depictions of Jesus in painting and film, contrasting Piero della Francesca’s Baptism with Antonello da Messina’s Le Christ à la colonne, and two parts of Matthias Grünewald’s Eisenheim Altarpiece. The author presses that triune love made flesh – that is, one ‘utterly human, unreservedly and unadulteratedly human’ (p. 130) – is ‘God’s way of loving the world’ (p. 124), and belief in which occasions rearrangement and transformation of every area of one’s life and every aspect of one’s world. The book’s first part concludes with a chapter on pneumatology, on the enlivening Spirit who sustains, animates and enlivens all life, who draws out and nurtures skills, wisdom and justice, who erupts against idolatry, injustice, darkness, estrangement and oppression, and who patterns human persons for their deeper share in ‘unfragmented communion’ (p. 161) in God’s life through a ‘journey of learning and unlearning’ (p. 152) while working to complete and perfect creation. ‘It is the Spirit’s work to draw what might otherwise be a cacophonic disunity into symphony. The Spirit worked to transcribe God’s music for playing on the human instrument of Jesus of Nazareth; the Spirit now works to orchestrate that theme for an ensemble of billions’ (p. 161)).

Part Two, ‘Life in the World’ (pp. 167-404), seeks to unpack the implications of God’s threefold action for our assessment of creation, providence and freedom, eschatology, suffering, love, theodicy, harmartiology and soteriology, and the four traditional ecclesiological marks. The discussion on the Church’s sacramental activities (pp. 314-24) deserves careful reading. Higton presses that the two sacraments ‘don’t simply say something about what the Church is, but are part of the process by which the Church actually becomes what it should be’ (p. 316), and is ‘redescribed’ (p. 321). In the two final chapters, Higton identifies some popular lenses – ‘settlements’ – that are often employed to interpret the Bible’s message(s), before offering his own proposal, what he names ‘trinitarian settlement’ which, he suggests, understands the core narrative of Holy Scripture as concerned with a journey into the triune life itself; the Bible being read not as a ‘moral handbook’ (p. 379), but ‘around Jesus’, ‘in the Spirit’ (which means at least read ecumenically, in conversation with the tradition, in openness to previously excluded voices, and in hope), and ‘on the way to the Father’ (pp. 376-400). Throughout, Higton is concerned to relate central Christian doctrines to the experienced realities of human being, resolute to show how such doctrines affect how one conceives, interprets and lives with everything else, all the while pressing that the ‘world is called to the fulfilment of its creatureliness, not the abandonment of it’ (p. 182).

There are a number of underlying commitments that find expression in Christian Doctrine. I will name four: (i) a deep commitment to Trinitarian theology: ‘The word “God” simply refers to the reality that Christians come to know, and whose life they come to share, as they find themselves, in the Spirit, caught up in the Son’s love of the Father and the Father’s sending of the Son’ (p. 90). Higton is suspicious of those attempts to describe the triune life along social trinitarian lines (see pp. 96-101) because, he argues, such steer too close to positing ‘three realities that share the same defining characteristics’ (p. 97). He suggests that such attempts threaten (at least temporarily) to lose sight of the particularity of the persons and that if trinitarian theologians are serious about the nature of community, they must ground their theology not in a general account of personhood and relationality, but in reflection of the life specifically of the three Persons. ‘Talk about the Trinity’, he insists, ‘should not ever be something different from the Bible’s talk about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (p. 100). Moreover, Higton rightly rejects throughout all attempts to think about, talk about or imagine God by way of going behind the economy and beginning with a set of abstract propositions (see pp. 97-9); (ii) that the goal of human life is theosis – being drawn in time and space to share in the love and justice which is God’s life; (iii) an unashamed commitment to helping those within and without the Church to value and ‘do’ theology; and (iv) that theological realities ought to inform all aspects of life in the world.

Presumably, because of the classroom context out of which this material arose, it is at times unnecessarily repetitious. This makes the volume longer than it needs to be. Also, the chapters are qualitatively uneven; I found chapters 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 10 and 13 to be the strongest. Another reservation is that whereas Higton situates his theology in a covenantal context, there is very little discussion of the place of law in his exploration of central Christian doctrines. Moreover, while the ‘not-yet’ of holiness is properly explored, the author’s discussion on the Church’s mark of holiness inadequately explores the Church’s faithful confession of its ontological life as the ‘set-apart’ of God, and the divine election by virtue of which the Church is already holy. Also, occasionally (e.g. p. 177) Higton expresses a somewhat more panentheistic vision of reality that some readers may feel moves beyond that witnessed to in Scripture, even though he is careful throughout to distinguish – while not separating – divine transcendence from divine immanence, and to not conflate creation into divinity.

These shortcomings aside, Christian Doctrine is a lucid introduction to the subject, and it is encouraging to see a work targeted at mid-level undergraduate students. Pastorally sensitive, receptive of the tradition, accessibly written, and inviting of conversation, Higton attractively resists over-presuming on his claims and he models an unashamed agnosticism on matters where less sober minds might push for sight (see, for example, his treatment on the parousia on pages 218-21). Exegetically informed, Higton patterns a theological commitment which requires that one approach Scripture expectantly and vulnerably, prepared to be ‘unsettled, overthrown and remade’ (p. 400). The book’s structure, and that of each chapter, serves the reiteration of key teaching points, each of which are also helpfully illustrated with well-chosen examples from life, Scripture and/or the arts. The inclusion throughout of carefully-chosen exercises, discussion starters and suggestions for additional reading well compliments each section. A useful complement to recent introductions by Migliore, McGrath, Ford and Gunton, Christian Doctrine is a constructive introductory volume for the student, and a helpful model for the teacher – an all-too-rare combination.

[NB: A version of this review has been submitted to IJST]

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