This is a book of Christian theology. Theology is what the Church does when it checks that it is fully expressing and passing on the word it receives from God. This book relates our understanding of time and history to Christian theology, to conform our understanding of ourselves to the theological truth that God is changing us. Sanctification is the term the Christian tradition uses for the process of our transformation. In this book I connect the concepts of paideia, our formation, and the doctrine of sanctification. It is a very old theme in Christian theology, associated with Irenaeus, that God always intended come to man and stay with him, and that in the course of this coming, man would grow up, a process delayed, but not halted, by sin and rebellion. This book discusses the ways in which Christian doctrine and biblical studies tackle this issue of the education or formation of humanity, and in particular the role of the people of Israel in this. It explores the relationship of sacrifice, along with other models of the work of Christ, to sanctification, and it re-examines the connections between Israel, Jesus Christ, time, history and Scripture, by closely linking them to the Christian doctrine of God.
This book compares the Christian view of who we are with other modern views. It suggests that modern thought, ever ready to take things apart but unable to put them together again, creates intellectual divisions which give us a series of partial, and so defective, understandings of who we are. In this book I suggest that the trinitarian doctrine of God alters the way we understand secularisation and the world of modernity, and avoids the tunnel vision that determine modern existence. To do this, this book makes some proposals about the relation of theology to the world.
1. Christian thought is political. It contradicts other systems of ideas and creates a real encounter and contest of world-views. Modernity is a religion, a deeply conservative one. It is contested by Christianity. Only Christianity can consistently point to a future. Modernity and Christianity are both forms of enlightenment, but modernity is the counterfeit version, Christianity the real one.
2. Christian thought is not just about ideas, but also about life, practice and action. It is not only about action, but also about the Church, the community in which the future of the world, and with it all plurality and diversity, is inaugurated by God.
3. This book gives a new account of human relations that shows that we owe one another all the being we have. God gives us the life and the being that we are to supply to one another. Our failure to provide this for one another means that we deny others the goods and recognition that God considers due to them, so they suffer a deficiency, for which the theological term is ‘sin’. We make other people sinful, and God will hold their deficiencies against us.
4. This more ontological treatment of the doctrine of sin puts the fall into a properly Christian framework, which determines that we it in the context of God’s ambitions for us, and of our redemption from it.
5. This book sets out a new understanding of the work, and the death, of Christ. It shows the cross and atonement, not as a metaphorical description of the human predicament, or a kind of mechanism, but as the labour of God.
6. It offers a Christian teaching that listens to the Scriptures, and suggests that Christian doctrine represents centuries of Christian listening to Scripture, and that contemporary theology and biblical scholarship can be in conversation with, and under the discipline of, the whole tradition of Christian reception of Scripture.
7. It gives an account that unites theology and modern political economy. Our talk about sin, guilt and morality has been separated from our talk about our material and financial interaction and exchange. This split of religious thought from economic thought means that we cannot see how our own public and economic behaviour can have a devastating impact on people beyond our field of view, and isolates us from the consequences of our (economic) actions. Religion has been turned into an inoffensive metaphorical talk, about our own inner spiritual or emotional states, that has no impact on the world. We have divided the theological confession of sin to create two parallel worlds, one in which the language of guilt describes some private state of our own, the other in which the language of credit and debit describes the external world – but is not thought to impact on our own inner being. This book attempts to re-connect these two worlds of thought.
None of these proposals is really new. Everything on offer here comes from the huge resources of the Church, in particular the early Church. These resources are discounted in modern theology and unknown to parts of the contemporary Church. Much contemporary theology, gullible enough to believe that it has discovered issues that really are new, does not imagine that the Christian tradition has the resources to respond and provide answers. Effective theological solutions have been forgotten, but they can also be remembered again. Only the Christian theological tradition can set an issue in the context in which its resolution can emerge.
So for example, the world is not increasingly secular. It is always secular, by definition, and the Church is here for the sake of this world. But it is not that society is secular while Christians are religious, but rather the other way around. All members of this secular society are propelled by unnameable forces, and defer to authorities that are the creations of fear and superstition. They are in denial about this, and unable to name these forces, and it is precisely this that makes these so effectively their religions. Christianity is a secular movement in that it frees us from submission to such phenomena. The gospel frees us from the gods of this world.
The book makes some suggestions about how Christianity is to respond to modern and postmodern thought. The Church must not take society’s claims and description of itself with too much too seriousness. When a social or religious movement is described as new, or when society is described as post-modern, the Church must point out that these phenomena are the return of some very old patterns. The society that does not cultivate its intellectual tradition, which are the resources of its memory, will always be proclaiming its own novelty and originality. The Christian community is here to remind our society of its intellectual parentage, and to express a healthy scepticism of its claim to be self-made. Though the current intellectual environment has little idea what it is, the Christian gospel is the most exhilarating thing in the marketplace. But, for the sake of the world, the Church must always to be concerned first about its own obedience to God, and concerned with the discipline that keeps it refreshed by that word and thankful for it.
Colin Gunton introduced me to many of the ideas explored in this book. Over many years of teaching at King’s College London Professor Gunton set the agenda for me, and much of this work has been thought through in conversation with him, or by listening to his colleagues Christoph Schwöbel, Francis Watson, Douglas Farrow and Alan Torrance. He presided hospitably and incisively over the weekly seminar of the Research Institute in Systematic Theology at King’s College London, and was always professing to learn from his students. Colin Gunton introduced me to two other thinkers who have taught me much of what you will find in this book.
The first of these is John Zizioulas. Professor Zizioulas, a visiting professor at King’s, represents the most profound and yet approachable expression of the resources of the early and Eastern Church. He is also inconveniently modest and elusive. He gave a number of papers at King’s that remain unpublished or inaccessible in English at least, which partly explains why the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds have not yet begun seriously to learn from him. Perhaps when these are published it will be easier to see that Zizioulas is at least as significant as the familiar names of early twentieth century Continental philosophy to which he is compared, perhaps more so.
Colin Gunton also introduced me to Professor Robert Jenson. Because Jenson is a student of Luther he is able to avoid the Reformed tendency to dualism. This makes him a good find for theologians in Britain, where Luther’s extremely dynamic ontology, erratically derived from a theology of the Word, is not well known. This has allowed him to identify modern ontology as the redundant old ontology in new guise, and cut it out in swathes, in its place putting a more scriptural account of God’s dealings with us. Professor Jenson has given me encouragement and warning, interceded for me, and led by example with the deftest scholarship and the driest humour.
I am grateful to all members of the Research Institute seminar at King’s for their responses to the many papers they have heard from me, and the same to other occasions and conferences. Many thanks to my students at Birkbeck FCE, Richmond, the South East Institute for Theological Education, and Ealing Benedictine Study and Arts Centre, who listened while I learned how to say things simply.
I am also very grateful to George Ille for conversations on the logic and responsibilities of God-talk, to Dan Bailey for explaining the state of play in German biblical scholarship, and to Jeremy Thomson for asking what sort of Church is presupposed in any theological approach. Many friends have either commented on drafts, or kept me going with their interest and encouragement, among these are Brian Brock, Chris and Hannah Roberts, Murray Rae, Luke Bretherton, Marion Gray, Mihail Neamţu and Lincoln Harvey.