Natural Theology

‘Religious Language under Pressure’: Rowan Williams’ Edward Schillebeeckx Lecture

duck rabbit illusionOn 13 December last year, Rowan Williams was at the Radboud University in Nijmegen to deliver the Edward Schillebeeckx lecture, an event organised by the Soeterbeeck Programme and the journal Tijdschrift voor Theologie. In what was a very stimulating lecture – are Williams’s lectures ever otherwise! – Williams draws inspiration from Michael Leunig, Cornelius Ernst, Thomas Aquinas, Victor Preller, Buddhist meditation practices, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and, of course, Edward Schillebeeckx.

Picking up on the theme of the lecture, Williams argued that ‘Our language becomes “religious” when it is most under pressure; when what it does, says, or expresses, or embodies, is a kind of letting go under the pressure of recognising that we have to change the discourse, that the questions no longer work. We let go and ask – ask rather than answer! – “Are there other ways of speaking or seeing or being?”‘

And he unpacks five implications:

1. Language is not just ‘stimulus and response’, a system of cause and effect. We can’t predict or control speech or the way we understand it. Language is risky and unpredictable.
2. Language necessarily has an unfinished/unclosed character about it. There is always something more to be said. One implication of this is that repetition is not really possible.
3. Language is something one does with one’s body. Speech is a bodily event, an act which takes place from a particular location.
4. We place our language under pressure so that we can think better, think more deeply, discover something new; so that we can move out of the frame we started with.
5. Silence in our speech is significant. We expect silence to do some work for us. In other words, silence is never empty. It’s not even silent.

He concludes with these words:

Our religious language is no more than our ordinary language – a simple set of descriptions. We do not look out from the castle of our brain and label that object called ‘God’. On the contrary, when we believe we have found, for the moment, an adequate way of talking about God – a doctrinal formulation, an image, a scriptural text – we need to remind ourselves of exactly what it is we are talking about; which is, supremely, the uncontrollable, the unconditioned. Like the Buddhist, faced with what comes at the far end of meditation, we have to say there are no words that are going to hold this. However satisfactory what I have said so far may appear, I have to recognise what it doesn’t say. I have to put my religious language, so to speak, under the judgement of a God who can’t be exhaustively and finally spoken of. I have to allow my religious speaking to move in and out of silence for contemplation. To put it another way: I have to put my religious language under pressure; I have to make sure that the language of my faith, my creed, my doctrine, is not left to sit complacently without that tightening of the grip of mystery on it which prevents it from being authoritarian, or oppressive; which respects that ‘openness’ (once again to use Father Schillebeeckx’s word), [which] prevents that openness surviving.

And one of the paradoxes about this, a paradox well worth reflecting on, is that instead of this meaning that our religious language is ‘a shot at the truth which makes no great claim to tell us, truthfully, something about God’, the contrary is true: the more our religious language shows that it is under pressure – under scrutiny, under judgement – the more we recognise that what we have said may be true but not adequate, the more we speak truthfully about God, the more we declare and show what God is, or who God is.

Some people speak as though a tentative approach to the language of our doctrine, our creed, our liturgy, will somehow resign all claims to truth, or revelation, or whatever, somehow blur the clear boundaries of the faith we have received. But I don’t believe that. When I say the creed, I do so without any reservation, but I try to do so without any complacency. When I make the declarations I make in the creed – about God, about the Incarnation, about the last things – I accept that these are the best words I can find to carry what needs to be carried, and precisely because of that they remain something that falls short of what is really there. And in that recognition that they fall short, and in the continuous self-examination – [and the] self-questioning that comes with that – I show that God is more than just the content of my mind, or the collective content of human minds, or a construct of the imagination.

If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing something true about God. Let me just repeat that because I do think it’s crucial: If I am showing that it is difficult to talk about God, I am showing what is true about God. And those who speak easily, glibly, fluently about God, may be less truthful because there is less of that openness to the infinite, unconditioned, mystery of the God we speak of. That sense of infinite, unconditioned mystery surrounding our words and our actions, soaking through the practice of our faith, spilling over in different ways into the events and exchanges of the world; that sense of where we stand, how we speak, in the presence of the difficult God was, I believe, something profoundly close to the heart of Edward Schillebeeckx’s theology. What I have shared with you this evening owes a great deal to the inspiration of a theologian who was not afraid to say ‘If it is difficult to speak God, that’s because that is the truthful way to speak of God.

Theologians need, I believe, not to be afraid of recognising that creative, essential, difficulty as the way of finding truthfulness and, perhaps, as one way of recovering that natural theology faithful to human experience which Edward Schillebeeckx shared with us, and still does.

[HT: Thanks to Chris Green for drawing my attention to this lecture. Chris was particularly enamoured by the section around the 01:01:00 mark; i.e., with the section which I have typed up.]

Trevor Hart on natural capacity for God


‘Human beings, sinful and fallen, have no ‘capacity’ in and of themselves, for God, no natural predisposition to hear and receive his Word. Again, the Spirit of God must come and create (ex nihilo in this respect) precisely such a capacity. Faith is a gift of the very God towards whom it is directed. In this respect, the attempt to secure some ‘point of contact’ in humanity for God is parallel to the doctrine of the immaculate conception: it assumes that wherever God and humanity come into close contact there must be some prepared ground, some fertile soil, some openness to and aptitude for God’s purposes: as if Mary’s obedient response were the result of some inherent immunity to the sin which blights the rest of us, rather than a result of the working of God’s Spirit’. – Trevor A. Hart, ‘A Capacity for Ambiguity? The Barth-Brunner Debate Revisited’. Tyndale Bulletin 44 (1993), 301.

New Streams of Religion

There’s an interesting enough, if not wholly agreeable, essay in the latest JAAR. The piece, by Samuel Snyder, is entitled ‘New Streams of Religion: Fly Fishing as a Lived, Religion of Nature’ and explores fly fishing as a religious practice. As a fly fisherman, romantic and theologian (the order is not significant here), it was not difficult to be drawn to this article. In fact, it was one of the more interesting articles I’ve seen in JAAR. The problem was staying with Snyder once I’d arrived at his stream. More Gaia than Gospel, more neo-pagan than neo-orthodox, I found the recorded survey of what is a wide range of sources a completely unconvincing account of the relationship between spirit and materiality. That said, the piece would make a good enough discussion starter in many a context, and that not least with unbelieving fisherman [this is mainly why I want to draw attention to it]. A sample:

Like meditation, fly casting operates as the ritual practice allowing the angler to transcend into the sacred, or to pass from the realm of the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Throughout his essay, Snyder invites us to conceive of nature sacramentally. It seems to me that this is where he most obviously oversteps. To paraphrase what I have written elsewhere, the language of ‘sacramentality’ and nature must be approached with caution. Specifically, it must be approached christologically and christocentrically. For if we seek to understand sacramentality in terms of creation alone, we will inevitably flatten out all sacraments; that is, if everything is sacramental, then nothing is. We may, in the absence of another term, speak of natures’ ‘sacramentality’ whilst affirming that nature can never be a ‘sacrament’ as such. It has, so to speak, a sacramental nature, but it is not a sacrament. It is not a trout stream – or the experience of one – but Jesus Christ, the truth of God, who is the one Mediator between God and humanity, and who speaks the truth of the Father to us. A theology of nature can never usurp this place and is only being idolatrous when it tries. There is one Sacrament, and his name is Jesus Christ.

A final point, this time from Forsyth: ‘Many people escape into cosmic emotions, contemplating the grandeurs of nature, but though this may enlarge the intelligence and calm the mind it cannot satisfy the soul. If your soul is wrong all nature cannot put it right.’

Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures’: A Review

Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.

While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.

Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:

The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)

Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).

From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)

A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God’:

Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)

The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)

The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)

Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)

[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)

Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)

And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:

I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)

Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.

Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).

While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).

This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.

What Does It Mean To Be Saved?: A Review

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., (ed)., What Does It Mean To Be Saved?: Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002). 203 pages. ISBN: 080102353X. Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic.

‘This book shouldn’t be necessary’. So begins the Preface to this collection papers from a 2001 conference hosted by Regent College. Unfortunately, as each of the essays suggests, a book such as this will remain necessary this side of the Lord’s parousia. How well this collection, and the church itself, addresses such a perceived void ought in itself be a subject of some discussion too.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, and editor of Evangelical Futures and No Other Gods before Me?, has again placed us in his debt by gathering together a group of fine papers by a distinguished group of scholars: Loren Wilkinson, Henri A. G. Blocher, Amy L. Sherman, Rikk E. Watts, Cherith Fee Nordling, Vincent Bacote, D. Bruce Hindmarsh. The inclusion of two critically responsive essays, by John Webster and Jonathan R. Wilson, are a most valuable inclusion to this volume, identifying common themes among the various contributors, suggesting areas of concern and possible trajectories for further conversation.

Each essayist, from a wide range of specialisations, representing diverse confessions, various (Western, though not from lack of trying to include participants from the Two-Thirds World) countries, and different stages of academic life, though all with a common commitment to an evangelical expression of Christian faith, seeks to respond to a narrow understanding of salvation that amounts to ‘a sort of spiritual individualism that is little better than Gnosticism’ (p. 9) and point us towards a more holistic vision of what God is up to in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. The goal: ‘to prod evangelical theology out of its comfortable spiritual individualism and toward a vision of salvation as large as God’s mission to the world he loves and redeems’ (p. 10).

Stackhouse invites theology professors and pastors to move beyond the notion that salvation is not about ‘Christians going to heaven’. Instead, he suggests, ‘salvation is about God redeeming the whole earth. Salvation is about Christians – and perhaps others, also saved by the work of Christ but perhaps not knowing about him in this life – heading home to the God they love and the company of all the faithful. Salvation is about heading for the New Jerusalem, not heaven: a garden city on earth, not the very abode of God and certainly not a bunch of pink clouds in the sky. Salvation is not about the mental cartoons drawn by medieval illustrators and found in Far Side comic strips. It is about the splendid collage of images offered up in the wealth of biblical glimpses of what is to come. And salvation is not only about what is to come but also about what is ours to enjoy and foster here and now’. (p. 10)

In the opening essay, entitled, ‘The New Exodus/New Creational Restoration of the Image of God’, Rikk E. Watts fitly argues that a recovery of a biblically-informed and determined soteriology will transform our understanding of humanity as the imago dei. Specifically, our soteriology must maintain at or near its centre the notion of the new exodus/new creational restoration of our embodied humanity. Thus eschatology is fundamental to any soteriology worth its name. Watts traces this theme from creation as YHWH’s temple-palace though to the installation of YHWH’s image into that temple-palace, from the exodus as re-creation and image renewal to the final restoration of the imago dei in the Incarnation. This is a fascinating essay, and sets the ball rolling for multiple reflections throughout the book on the centrality of the imago dei for soteriology.

D. Bruce Hindmarsh’s essay, one of the most interesting in the collection, explores what being saved meant for the early evangelicals. He argues that the resources for a renewal and broadening of the grammar and praxis of soteriology that is called for by the Lausanne Covenant and the Manila Manifesto are to be found within evangelicalism itself. He suggests that there is a congenital weakness in the evangelical tradition that pulls evangelicals in the direction of withdrawal from society and a privatised, individualistic piety. The Lausanne discussions, he notes, along with a host of political, cultural, and charitable initiatives begun by evangelicals in the second half of the twentieth century, witness to a significant effort to redress the effects of the great reversal and restore a more balanced evangelical integration of gospel proclamation and social concern. The focus of Hindmarsh’s contribution is principally John Wesley, and Hindmarsh offers a beautiful account of early Methodism’s concern for the body and soul, for society as well as for individuals, for the poor as well as for the rich. He notes that Wesley understood his mission as privileging the poor, whom he believed have a ‘privileged place in God’s program’ (p. 48). Moreover, Wesley maintained a sociology of mission that understood that the gospel went to work on a society normally from the bottom up, not the top down. The very last to enter the kingdom, Wesley argued, will be the academics: ‘Last of all the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children, and enter into the kingdom of God”’ (p. 49). Hindmarsh cites John Walsh: Wesley ‘tried to re-sacralize the poor in an age in which moralists and economists often saw them only as a problem; as reluctant producers of labour, as a social threat, or at least a nuisance. For Wesley, the indigent were “poor members of Christ”’ (p. 51). Hindmarsh proceeds to note that the early evangelicals had a vision for the transformation of society and the entire cosmos, the gospel itself transforming first individuals, then families, Christian nations and finally non-Christian nations.

Henri A. G. Blocher, in certainly the most cogent historical-dogmatic paper in the book, seeks to redress the distortion in Aulen’s over-stated Christus Victor motif by bringing together the ‘classic’ and ‘Latin’ views of the atonement. He writes: ‘The key position of the doctrine of vicarious punishment answers to the privilege of personal-relational-juridical categories, within the framework of covenant, to deal with the divine-human communication, over against that of ontological participation and moral assimilation in other strands of the Christian tradition. This “mind” is biblical. However, such a position does not make other languages and schemes superfluous, and it does not rule out ontological dimensions and moral influence. The polemic presentation, especially, is a welcome complement: When one understands that Christ’s victory was based on his sacrifice, one should unfold the fruit of his death as radical and universal victory! Understanding that Satan was defeated as the Accuser may help us to retain the particle of truth in the awkward suggestion that God’s attributes of mercy and justice had to be “reconciled” by the cross: Though God’s attributes are one (descriptions of the one essence), once evil entered the world (through God’s wholly mysterious, inscrutable permission), his justice became in a way the enemy’s weapon – until the divine wisdom (and love) provided the way for God to be both just and the one who justifies sinners through faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26)’ (p. 90).

Vincent Bacote questions the adequacy of much evangelical soteriology, charging it with individualism and an over-concern with maintaining the status-quo. He proceeds to offer us what he calls ‘concrete soteriology’ which he describes as public in nature, political in character, pneumatologically inspired, and emphasises the need for place. ‘Concrete soteriology’ he argues, ‘recognizes that we were created to be at home somewhere and does not gloss over that fact by trumpeting the slogan, ”I’m just passing through this world.” While here, this life is not to be merely survived, particularly in nations and communities in which other Christians flourish’ (p. 112).

Cherith Fee Nordling’s delightful essay is one of the collection’s most instructive. Like Watts’, her concentration too is on the imago dei which she expounds as the relationality of the Triune Family into whose koinonia we are drawn to participate by virtue of God’s saving action. This reality also informs and defines humanity’s horizontal sociality and liberates sinners for fellowship. She then turns to the question of sexuality as an essential feature of the imago and argues that to be a human being is to be sexually differentiated, and therefore to be saved means that we continue to be female and male human beings in the age to come as new creations in Christ.

In the paper, ‘Salvation as Life in the (New) City’, Amy L. Sherman reminds us that the ultimate destination for believers is a city. She proceeds to define this city as characterised fourfold: (i) a refuge for the weak; (ii) a place of permanent residency; (iii) a place where we are named; and (iv) a place where we see Jesus face to face.

In the final essay, Loren Wilkinson tries to make a case for why ‘Christians should be converted pagans’. He suggests that Neo-paganism is ‘an attempt to recover an aspect of being human that is central to the gospel but is often obscured – that is, we cannot be fully human until our restored relationship with the Creator results in a restored relationship not only with other men and women but also with the rest of creation, which is seen and accepted as a divine gift. Paganism (old and new) sees that divine gift as the only essential revelation, and harmony with creation and its resident gods or spirits as the only salvation. Thus, paganism is forever inadequate for the wholeness its believers seek. But inasmuch as paganism does have open eyes to the gift-nature of creation, it glimpses a truth to which Christians are sometimes blind’ (p. 154). Beneath the puerility and plain silliness of a good bit of neopagan ritual, he argues, lies a longing for wholeness that can be fulfilled only through reconciliation with the Creator, a reconciliation that cannot be achieved outside of what God has accomplished in Christ. The danger for Christians today, he suggests, is that we are so afraid of the possibility of paganism or pantheism that we radically distance Creator from creation and understand salvation in such a way that it has no implications for creation. Until our understanding and our living our of new life in Jesus Christ involve a changed relationship with the earth, which God is also making new, we encourage an unconverted paganism, for paganism, rightly understood, is not an alternative to belief but rather a preparation for it. Wilkinson thus considers neo-paganism as a point of contact. He goes so far as to state that ‘a Christian who is not at the same time a redeemed pagan is in danger of a kind of Gnostic or Manichean denial of what it means to be a physical, created being enmeshed in the cycles of created. Thus, Christians need to be converted pagans’ (p. 155). Wilkinson’s essay is essentially a renewed defence of natural theology and, as Webster perceptively notes, highlights the incredibly high price that theology has to pay for its engagement in apologetics. Commendably, each contribution in this volume, and perhaps especially Wilkinson’s, is undergirded by a conscious concern for the mission of the church as part of the missio dei.

While this assemblage of conference papers has less of a ‘hit and miss’ feel to it than do many published collections, the combined voice of the essayists, although traversing a lot of rich soil with a good torch, still left me quite unsatisfied and somewhat concerned about the current state of evangelical theology. Allow me to note just a few of my concerns:

On a minor point, it is unclear who the intended audience for this book is.

More substantially, there is very little explicit discussion on the issues of justification, and none at all on sanctification nor on the question of universalism. Whether these areas are simply assumed (can they ever afford to be?), or ignored as being in the ‘too hard basket’, the absence of any discussion on these themes across the papers is a disappointment. Also, the absence of any exposition on the notion of God’s wrath and final judgement seems to reflect evangelicalism’s increasing embarrassment and failure to speak about wrath in the context of a positive soteriology.

The largely unqualified acceptance of some undefined form or other of natural theology is troubling, especially if this collection represents the future direction of any theology which wishes to retain the name ‘evangelical’. While not all evangelicals will want to echo a ‘Nein’ as strong as Barth’s here, all ought to share Barth’s concern at what is at stake in the question, and proceed with caution as wisely as Calvin or Forsyth does regarding this question. Far too much is at stake to do otherwise.

Finally, a call: Salvation is not an idea. It is an act! In a collection of this type, more ought to be have been made of this. As Hartwell has reminded us, ‘Objectively (de jure) all [people] are already justified, sanctified, and called in Jesus Christ in and through what He has done in their stead and for their sake. In Him, objectively, the old [person] has already passed away; in Him, objectively, we are already the new [person], represented as such by Him before God. However, though the salvation of all [people] is already objectively accomplished by Jesus Christ – without them and, as His Cross teaches, against them – many of them have not yet perceived and accepted what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. In order that Jesus Christ’s objective reconciling work may subjectively (de facto) bear fruit in the lives of individual [persons] and through them, as His witnesses, in the lives of other [persons], there is still needed as an essential part of the reconciling work of Jesus Christ the subjective apprehension, acceptance, appropriation and application of that work’. More attention could (and should) have been given to this reality than is given in this volume.

These concerns aside, Stackhouse and Co are to be commended for putting together a helpful assembly of essays (and responses) that address such a central question What does it mean to be saved? – and to do so in a way that engages with contemporary issues. Each essay invites us to reflect again on how wide is the love of God in Christ, and to broaden our soteriological horizons so that the things of this world may not grow strangely dim in the light of God’s glory and grace.


‘Evangelicals are still much divided, it seems to me, on apologetic method. On the one hand, there is a strong theoretical tendency to a quasi-presuppositionalist or even a Bathian position. On the other hand, in action evangelical apologetics evince a practical evidentialism. Appeals to reason and proof are commonplace, despite a very strong account of the noetic effects of sin. One underlying source of the problem is that, in the world of thought, there has been a troublesome period of transition between the older forms of empiricism and positivism and the radical skepticism of the postmoderns about all knowledge. Christians have a confused epistemology: but then, so does everybody else. Sell’s book is an crudite discussion of the major issues for Christian apologetics in the twenty-first century. He offers the work as a ‘prolegomena to Christian apologetics’ (p. 353). In his first section he enquires as to what it is that Christians would like to commend, and distinguishes Christianity’s central piece of good news as ‘in Christ’s death and resurrection God has done for us that which we could never have done for ourselves’ (p. 35). He proposes that buth the confessors of this gospel and those whom they address share the imago dei, and hence an epistemological common ground. As for the presuppositions of Christian apologetics, Sell argues that it is possible to understand Christian language as speaking of God, and that the transcendent God is active to save in human hislory. He then searches for a starling point and proposes that, notwithstanding the necessity of beginning with Christ in the gospel, it is not necessary to be completely skeptical about the role of natural theology and religious experience. Sell calls his approach a ‘reasoned eclecticism’: that which starts ‘from the Cross-resurrection event, and then, having regard to the witnessing context, draws in appropriate ways upon the deliverances of human reasoning and experience, and offers a viable method of commending the faith in an intellectual environment’ (p. 354). This, he claims, renders the articulation of a Christian world-view possible. It is, I agree, a far more plausible approach than both a rigid evidentialism, which is dependent on a particular view of human reason, and the idiosyncratic presuppositionalisrn of the van Tilian school.’

(Jensen, M. A Review of Confessing and Commending the Faith: Historic Witness and Apologetic Method, by Alan P. F. Sell. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002, in The Reformed Theological Review 64:2 (August, 2005), 96-97.)