Author Archives: David Rathel

Report from the Symposium on Creation and the Reformation

We are grateful for Euan Grant for authoring this report on the recent Creation and the Legacy of the Reformation Symposium held in St Andrews.


The doctrine of creation provides not only a glimpse into the ways of God with the world but also a vital lens through which the broader and sometimes more diffuse theological questions raised by our contemporary situation can be brought into focus. That was, to my mind, the central affirmation of last week’s public forum (available to view online here: https://vimeo.com/275212632) and symposium on the doctrine of creation and the legacy of the Reformation. With the particular panel of eminences assembled, Professors Christoph Schwöbel, Simon Oliver, Katherine Sonderegger, Paul Nimmo, and Oliver O’Donovan, could it have claimed any less?

Interestingly for an event probing the significance of the Reformation, the focus remained more cosmological than theological: more at issue were the results of the Reformation as theological, cultural, and historical moment than the doctrine of the Reformers themselves, though the significance of Luther’s thought for Professor Schwöbel shone through at a number of points. Disenchantment appeared early as a theme in the opening questions of the public session, and meta-narratives of one sort or another were in constant attendance thereafter.

In connection with the various narratives – and attitudes to narratives – offered in the symposium, the question of the location of ‘meaning’ within creation, and of how we understand ourselves to be addressed by it, appeared as a central point canvassed, in one way or another, by each of the papers in the private session. What, for example, is the relationship of meaning to teleological thinking – and its eclipse in the scientific culture of the seventeenth century? How is it to be related to the divine economy in creation? Both a broader and a more Barthian, Christocentric trinitarianism were offered as models, while the spirit of John Webster informed the question of whether and how creation might appropriately be treated as a cardinal doctrine, in the full etymological sense of the term. Perhaps this was the most strictly doctrinal or dogmatic theme of the discussions – where, within the ordering of theological material, is what one might call, from another tradition, the relative integrity of creation to be located? How does all of this, finally, fit into the historicist paradigm not only of the modern natural sciences but of Christian doctrine itself?

As ever, different themes will appear with greater clarity or fascination to each of us. That my interests run towards the metaphysical and eschatological implication of claims of meaning and teleology in the created world I can hardly deny. On this Professor Schwöbel’s Luther-inspired stress on ‘inherent meaning’ set up a fascinating contrast with Professor Oliver’s more Aristotelian-Thomist focus on teleology. The intervention of Professor O’Donovan’s warning against an over-reliance on the category of ‘nature’ (especially in the Aristotelian sense) in Christian reflection further pressed the looming question of what sort of relationship it is to God’s creative action which guarantees the presence and discernible nature of meaning, purpose, and significance within creation. Cosmology leads back to theology, and as the majority of the scholars involved are either pressing towards, in the midst of, or coming down from large-scale constructive projects, the symposium provided a fresh impetus and context for turning to and attempting to understand their larger works.

Thanks are due to Professors Schwöbel, Oliver, Sonderegger, Nimmo, and O’Donovan for a highly stimulating discussion, and also to Dr Tim Baylor for bringing together such an impressive panel on so central a theological theme. The papers will be forthcoming, Deo volente, in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. We look forward to its release with considerable anticipation.

Dr. Tim Baylor on the Upcoming Symposium on Creation and the Reformation

We are excited about the upcoming symposium entitled Creation and the Legacy of the Reformation. Join us on June 12 at 7 pm in Parliment Hall for an exciting night.

Dr. Timothy Baylor, Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, recently sat with Jared Michelson to answer questions about the event. Jared is presently a PhD candidate in St. Mary’s College. The questions presented in bold are Jared’s; Dr. Baylor’s responses appear underneath. We appreciate the work that both of them have put into this project.


The doctrine of creation in particular seems to be an issue of increasing importance in contemporary dogmatics. Why choose the doctrine of creation as the theme of the symposium?

Some of today’s most important theological conversations circulate around the doctrine of creation in one respect or another. Pressing practical issues pertaining to matters of ecology, sexual ethics, and economics all fundamentally depend on decisions made in the theology of creation. The doctrine also proves to be decisive for a number of issues at a higher theoretical level — such as the nature of God’s freedom and perfections, the conditions of human flourishing, and the place of human action in the work of salvation. All of these are topics of fundamental and perennial theological interest, and all of them have important conceptual correlates in this doctrine.

Why frame the symposium around a discussion of Protestantism and the doctrine of Creation?

In recent years, a number of works have been published implicating Protestant theology in the widespread agnosticism and atheism of our time. The story goes something like this:

Contemporary atheism and agnosticism is the result of a disenchanted view of the natural world. Generations before us conceived of creation as being radically dependent upon God, and so as participating in God’s power. Accordingly, they were able to discern God’s presence and action within the natural order. We, by contrast, presume the natural order to be self-moving and self-sustaining — the kind of thing that requires God’s intervention only in the most exceptional circumstances. This view of the natural order stems from a theology of creation in which God’s action is always interruptive in nature — breaking in from the outside. Though this theology had its genesis in the late Medieval Nominalists, the Reformers implicitly adopted this vision of nature as a means of critiquing Catholic theologies of mediation. The Reformation thus became a vehicle for spreading this nominalistic theology of creation. Though contrary to the intentions of the Reformers themselves, they served as accelerants of the entrenched skepticism and deism of the Enlightenment because they lacked a theology capable of affirming the participation of the natural order in God.

Of course, genealogies such as these are not strictly impartial. Often they are oriented by a very definite theological vision and serve as a means of discerning the causes of that vision’s decline. To the degree that this is the case, these genealogies function to narrate the drama of our culture’s engagement with God, or, in this case, what John Webster once called the “spiritual history of [its] neglect”.[1]This, of course, is not new. In some ways, these narratives function similarly to the types of historical narratives that the Reformers often gave, in which the Reformation is depicted as an advent of God’s grace and mercy standing at the end of a long season of spiritual decline.

That indicates, I think, that what is called for here is not simply a return to the history of the early Modern or Enlightenment periods to inspect the faithfulness of this narrative, though certainly that too is warranted. I think it also calls for a properly theological reflection — one that contemplates the normative question: Is there a Protestant doctrine of creation, and if so, how should it function?

The symposium includes a fascinating line-up of theologians, who come from a variety of divergent theological perspectives. What motivated the invitation of these particular participants?

We are very fortunate to have such a gifted group of people to be part of this conversation. Each of our participants is known for his or her contributions to the study of theology. All of them have written on the doctrine of creation or topics closely adjacent to the doctrine. And it was important for us to have a variety of different voices represented as part of this conversation. This is a topic on which there are no easy answers. You expect Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic thinkers disagree with one another, but on a topic like this one, it is just as common for them to disagree amongst themselves. In order to move the conversation forward, in other words, it is crucial that we skillfully engage a variety of different perspectives. And each of our participants have a long history of doing just that.

 


[1]“What Makes Theology Theological?”, God Without Measure, I, p. 215.

Symposium: Creation and the Legacy of the Reformation

We will be hosting a public conversation on the doctrine of creation and the legacy of the Reformation, involving an exciting group of dogmatic theologians from around the world. The doctrine of creation sits at the intersection of some of the most interesting debates in contemporary theology. This conversation will consider how varying approaches to the doctrine of creation fund distinct trajectories within contemporary Protestant thought, as well as engage contemporary critiques of modernity that depict Protestant theologies of creation as a catalyst for modern skepticism and atheism. It promises to be a fascinating evening including a public conversation followed by a wine reception. For more information, see below or contact Jared Michelson at jm282@st-andrews.ac.uk

Review of The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity

We are grateful to Johannes J Knecht for this excellent review of Karl Shuve’s recent work. Johannes is a PhD candidate in St Mary’s College. Warm wishes to him and Stefania on their upcoming wedding. 😉


Shuve, Karl. The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity. The Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 2016. xx + 236 pp. Hardback: £55.-.

Karl Shuve’s monograph concerns the development of the use and exegesis of the Song of Songs in Latin traditions up until Jerome. Shuve observes that the Song grew to become “one of the most popular and influential books of the Bible in Europe during the Middle Ages.” (p. 1) The seeming oddity of this popularity has been extensively discussed by modern scholarship: why would male, monastic and ecclesiastical communities draw from an erotic love poem—which supposedly is the plain sense of the text—to defend and argue for ascetic principles? (pp. 4-5) It is with aiming to resolve this paradox that much of recent scholarship has been concerned. Shuve, by contrast, challenges this assumed plain reading of the text: “Rather than presuming that early Christians shared our presuppositions about the ‘plain’ meaning of the Song and then asking how they reconciled it with an ascetic agenda, I examine how patterns of citation and allusion can help us to understand what were the ‘automatically recognised’ meanings of the Song in the Christian communities of the Western Roman Empire and how these meanings were subsequently contested, changed, and subverted in response to cultural and theological conflict.” (p. 13) In other words, Shuve aims to describe a gradual exegetical development within the Latin tradition that would account for the very natural ascetic associations with the Song in subsequent centuries.

Shuve’s work is divided into two main parts, each containing three chapters. Part I looks at the use of the Song of Songs in North Africa and Spain (pp. 23-106), whilst the second focusses on Italy (pp. 109-208). The first chapter describes how in the work of Cyprian of Carthage and the theology of the Donatists (as found in the work of Augustine and Optatus of Milevis), the Song is used to argue for the impregnability of the church’s boundaries. The ‘enclosed garden and sealed font’ (Song 4:2) signify that only those who are actually inside the garden and close to the water have access to the vivifying power of the church’s sacraments. Any sacrament—and baptism most pertinently—administered outside the strict boundaries of the church cannot be regarded as efficacious. (p. 31) Shuve explicates that Cyprian does not aim to make the ‘erotic imagery’ acceptable, but “Cyprian quotes the Song because he presumes that it has independent probative value regarding the nature of the church’s boundaries and the efficacy of its sacraments.” (p.36) Although the underlying baptismal theology changes with the Donatists, the hermeneutical approach to the Song remains the same: The Song describes the boundaries of a separated, pure community. (p. 48)

Chapter 2, turning to the works of Pacian of Barcelona, Tyconius, and Augustine, explains how in the work of Pacian and Tyconius the Song is again used in an ecclesiastical manner, be it to argue for the plurality of the church. Pacian uses the image of the garden to further his argument that, just like a garden is made up of a myriad of plants, so too is the church made up of a variety of people. (pp. 58-60) Tyconius, in turn, uses the Song (i.e., 1:5 and 1:7) to argue for the ‘bi-partite’ nature of the church—a current offspring of Abraham both containing boni and mali, two ‘peoples.’ As Shuve summarises Tyconius’ approach: “Maintaining the boundaries of the church is a futile exercise. There will be evil and impurity within.” (p. 65) Lastly, Augustine, realising the truth residing in Tyconius’ appreciation of the pure church’s hiddenness, reallocates Song 4:12 and 6:8 in the eschaton. Again, even though the content of the ecclesiastical theology changes significantly, the Song remains a source for reflection on the nature of the church. It is in the third chapter that Shuve describes a significant development in the exegesis of the Song, found in the work of Gregory of Elvira. Whilst maintaining the tradition of using the Song to explain ecclesiology, Gregory introduces two crucial aspects: I) the separated identity of the church also implies moral purity and chastity, and II) Gregory starts using the image of a virgin and an adulterous women to describe the church in relation to the profane, outside world.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters—the second part of the book—focus on Ambrose of Milan and Jerome. Ambrose, on Shuve’s telling, “fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Song’s interpretation in the West.” (p. 109) Ambrose utilises the multivalence inherent to the image of the bride in the Song to apply the meaning of the Song to the integrity of the virgin’s body (cf. De Virginibus), her soul (cf. De Virginitate), and the church. (pp. 17, 115)  “This turn to identifying the bride with the individual Chrisian—and, more specifically, the individual virgin—is in marked contrast with the well-established Latin tradition of understanding the bride to be the corporate church.” (p. 109) For Ambrose in De Virginibus, the individual virgin stands as a physical, tangible image of the purity, holiness, and hope of God’s salvation and the church. (p. 123) Just as the virgin’s body is protected against intrusion, so too must the church be protected. (p. 125) De Virginitate, written after the De Virginibus, aims to couple more strongly the physical integritas with the integritas of the soul. (p. 132) “Ambrose, in effect, transforms the soul into a virgin.” (p. 136) This interpretation of the Song’s bride is further worked out in the fifth chapter in relation to the ‘Virgin Soul’ (pp. 139-50), the ‘Virgin Church’ (pp. 150-8), and the ‘Virgin Mary’ (pp. 158-72). Shuve ends with a chapter on the work of Jerome. Although Jerome has a distinctly different approach to the place he gives to virgins in society—critique rather than support the ecclesiastical authority in the city, as Ambrose had argued—Jerome as well has a thoroughly ascetic reading of the Song.

Shuve described how the ascetic readings of the Late Antique and Early Medieval church were thoroughly based on and grounded in the Song’s ecclesiastical interpretations of the earlier Latin traditions, exemplified by Cyprian, the Donatists, Pacian, Tyconius, and Augustine. Simply put: The Song’s garden or dove typifies the enclosed church (Cyprian and the Donatists), the enclosed and protected church, in turn, becomes the pure and chaste church, of which a virgin is the image (Tyconius). This image subsequently opens the door to connect the Song’s bride with the physical integritas of the consecrated virgin, and by extension the integritas of her soul (Ambrose and Jerome). Seen from this overarching narrative, Shuve’s suggestion that ascetic, monastic readings of the Song in the later Middle Ages follow quite naturally from the manner in which earlier traditions had read the Song, seems quite convincing indeed.

Introduction to Lectio Divina

This post from Dr. William Hyland, Lecturer in Church History at St. Mary’s College, continues our series of blog posts on monastic spirituality. This series originated from lectures Dr. Hyland delivered at All Saints Church in St. Andrews. We are grateful for the many ways in which Dr. Hyland contributes to our academic community, and we appreciate his expertise in this area.


Lectio Divina is Latin for Divine Reading. It is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation, and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God’s Word. Lectio Divina does not treat Scripture merely as text to be studied but as the Living Word.

Lectio differs from the ordinary act of reading and even from spiritual reading. Lectio goes beyond the words on the page. The four basic steps given by Guigo II, the 9th prior of Grande Chartreuse monastery from 1174-80, are Lectio, Meditatio, Oratio, Contemplatio:  Reading, Meditation, Prayer, Contemplation.

Step One

The first step is the reading of Scripture. In order to achieve a calm and tranquil state of mind, preparation before Lectio Divina. An example would be sitting quietly and in silence and reciting a prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to guide the reading of the Scripture that is to follow.

Following the preparation is the slow and gradual reading of the Scriptural passage, perhaps several times.  The attentive reading begins the process through which a higher level of understanding can be achieved. In the traditional Benedictine approach the passage is slowly read four times, each time with a slightly different focus. When the passage is read, it is generally advised not to try to assign a meaning to it at first, but to wait for the action of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the mind, as the passage is pondered upon.

Don’t invest time looking for a passage that is pleasing. Either choose the reading beforehand, perhaps the day’s liturgical readings, follow some theme, choose a consecutive reading of the whole Bible, or book of the Bible, or simply flip to a page and start.

Step Two

The second step in Lectio Divina thus involves meditating upon and pondering on the Scriptural passage. To meditate on the passage that has been read, it is held lightly and gently considered from various angles. The emphasis is not on analysis of the passage but to keep the mind open and allow the Holy Spirit to inspire a meaning for it.

Benedictine meditation is different from the styles of meditations which suggest approaches to disengage the mind; rather the focus in lectio divina is to fill the mind with thoughts related to Scriptural passages. Benedictine meditation aims to heighten our personal relationship based on the love of God, to stimulate thought, and deepen our spiritual understanding.

Step Three

In the Benedictine tradition, prayer is understood as dialogue with God.  It is a loving conversation with God who has invited us into an embrace.

Prayer during Lectio Divina can take many forms. It can be compunction, formulaic, praise, tears, petition, thanksgiving – silence can also be a response.

Step Four

Contemplation takes place in terms of silent prayer that expresses love for God.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines contemplative prayer as, “silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’ Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love.  In this silence, unbearable to the “outer” man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence, the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.”

As Bernard Olivera, OCSO writes, “To contemplate is to take silent delight in the Temple which is the Risen Christ.”

Final Thoughts

Gervase Holdaway in The Oblate Life has likened Lectio Divina to feasting on the Word. First, the taking of a bite (read); then chewing on it (meditate); savoring its essence (pray) and, finally, “digesting” it and making it a part of the body (contemplate).

 

Review of A Companion to Job in the Middle Ages

We are grateful to Prof. Mark Elliott for this review of a new book in Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition series. Prof. Elliott serves as Professor of Historical and Biblical Theology in St Mary’s College at the University of St Andrews. You can find his research profile here.


Franklin Harkins and Aaron Canty, A Companion to Job in the Middle Ages (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 73; Leiden-Boston: Brill,2017.

This is a truly outstanding collection of essays, one of those rare cases where the word ‘Companion’ is well deserved, because it leads the reader over the ground so well, mixing information with insight. Even where there is not detailed inspection there is at least a sketch and pointers towards further research.

The second chapter (K. Steinhauser, ‘Job in Patristic Commentaries and Theological Works’) is to be singled out for the wide-range and depth and ease with scholarship. Job as ‘athlete of God’ was the Pelagian poster boy. For Julian of Eclanum (57) ‘God permits the good to suffer in order to demonstrate their devotion and increase the merit’, and Ambrose while taking sin and Job 14:4-5 seriously held that Job was not a type of Christ but rather a virtuous example for Christians. (Job and David in the Psalms complement each other in Ambrose’s treatment.)

All this helps explain the pre-history to what many assume to be the starting point: Gregory the Great’s Moralia. Carol Straw then takes this on and shows how Gregory viewed Job’s suffering as excessive, being more than his sin-virtue account deserved, such that (analogously to Christ) Job was due recompense for that amount. Yet on the other hand Job in his protesting was ignorant, due to an incomplete submission and thus in danger of pride, such that restoration required forgiveness by God of Job. The lesson was: ‘When something bad happens, blame yourself, confess, and do penance’ (100) The Glossa Ordinaria draws heavily on the Moralia and could be held to be ‘128 ‘better than Gregory himself at transmitting his blunt moral lessons.’ Yet there is an issue that Lesley Smith deftly shows us: we do not have a proper critical edition of the Gloss (apart from the late Mary Dove’s edition of The Gloss on the Song of Songs), and Rusch’s early modern printed edition cannot simply be relied upon.

Franklin Harkins then offers a masterly treatment of Job in Lombard’s Sentences and Albert and Thomas’ commentaries. Whereas Albert sees Sir 24:5-6 as framing subject matter of Sentences, ‘Thomas and Bonaventure understand Job 28:11 as determinative of the material of Book I and of the fourfold causality if the Sentences, respectively.’ (133) The one who ‘probes the depths of the rivers and has brought hidden realities out into the light’ is applied to both Christ and the theologian.
Albert liked Job 26:14 (‘since we have hear barely a drop of his word, who will be able to behold the thunder of his greatness?’) The ‘small word’ is that about creatures; much trickier to comprehend is the ‘thunder’ that is the doctrine of God. ‘It is precisely because human words are inadequate to explain fully the theological mysteries set forth in the Sentences that Albert, Bonaventure and Thomas have repeated recourse to divine discourse-the words of Job and other scriptural books-in their efforts to shed as much light as possible on these sacred truths.’ (135) So it is on hard questions such as ‘whether God enjoys himself’ that theology has to give way to biblical exegesis. This is a surprising and fascinating theme. Is the similitude to God a vestige? Well yes, in that it represents God in a ‘confused’ way. Let the mystery ‘sink in’.

A second chapter on Albert (by Ruth Meyer) traces how the great Dominican viewed the dialogue in terms of a formal disputation. Elihu claims to have received revelation such that his statements should be regarded as first principles: but that is precisely not how to practice theology, and he badly misrepresents Job’s position. However, Job himself finally receives such illumination. Eliphaz contends that one receives recompense in this life, Bildad thinks that happens only after death, while Zophar is agnostic about that. As with the previous chapter, Scripture is held by Albert to be deeper than theology in its symbolic form. Job is morally exemplary and mirrors God’s wisdom-led providential ordering of the world. Job’s testing built up his faith. Lyra too has a sympathetic view of Job who is praised for honesty and speaking truthfully about God: A. Canty is a sure guide in leading us through Nicolas’ interpretation.

The chapter by Ronald Rittgers on Job in the German Reformation is a model piece of scholarship, pointing the way to uncharted territory (e.g. Lavater on Job), while making good use of what scholarship is available (e.g. Clines on Luther’s interpretation. Luther liked the Vulgate’s (mis-) translation of Job 9:28 ‘verebar omnia opera mea’. Rittgers traces how the importance of humility receded in Luther’s interpretation. The point was that for the righteous, any suffering does not proceed from divine wrath. Testing means more something like ‘strengthening’ ‘Job felt utterly abandoned by God and yet was in fact very close to God’s heart.'(269) God even allows saints to falter in adversity in order that a deeper salvation emerge. The presentation of J. Brenz’s exegesis is disappointing, only because, in the form of a continuous commentary, it is so similar in content to the Wittenberg Reformer: one should know one’s poverty apart from God’s sustaining presence. Likewise, for Osiander, Job’s cursing the day of his birth meant ‘he learned that the vice of impatience was deeply rooted in his nature, something he would not otherwise have recognised’ (275). Tantalisingly, we only get a snippet of the Catholic Eck’s response to this: Job was actually cursing the “day” of human mortality and sin as he looked forward to the eternal day of salvation. Reinforced by the brief study of lay Lutheran theologians like Linck and Weller is the notion that Job is indeed sinful and in that risks the removal of God’s protection, a hypothetical possibility for believers. It would have been good to have had the Catholic riposte to ‘Job the sinner’ outlined, but perhaps that was not that different from Gregory the Great’s observations.

This reviewer’s lack of expertise means that Part 2 of the book (roughly one-third) is devoted to ‘Vernacular and popular perspectives’, i.e. non-theological reception of Job, will be treated cursorily. One learns about: Church architecture and Job’s relationship to purgatory, Peter of Riga’s presentation of Job as a prototype for Christ, whereas in Old English Literature ‘Job’ speaks of Christ and the Church. For Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Job is an illustrious penitent and for Lollards one whose virtue reflected adversely on the 14th-century church as it proudly ignored God’s law.

The book is well supplied with a bibliography although it is odd to see a number of primary sources listed under ‘Johannes’.

 

How to Apply for an Academic Job in the UK

Dr. Holmes

We are grateful to the Rev. Dr. Stephen R. Holmes for composing this helpful post on UK-based job applications. Dr Holmes serves as the Head of School for St Mary’s College. You will find his research profile here.

 


I don’t, off-hand, know how many appointments I have been involved in within the UK university system—I do know that I have been doing it for about twenty years, and I have done six in 2017 alone (and I’m about to start another one). I have read, down the years, many hundreds of applications, some from hopeful newcomers who haven’t quite finished their PhD, some from famous names applying for prestigious chairs, and of course many from people in between. I have spent many evenings (it tends to end up an evening task) reading through application after application, and I can say from experience that most (75%?) of the applications are bad—and that this proportion strangely doesn’t change much up and down the seniority ladder.

I’m not saying that the candidates are bad—a few are, but in recent appointments I’ve been very struck by the general quality of people applying: faced with a stack of around a hundred applicants, you actually find yourself hoping quietly that half of them will be obviously poor and easy to reject quickly; for us, presently, it is around 10%. Perhaps 70% are various shades of ‘if he were the only applicant, we’d certainly at least talk to him’—and about 20% are ‘we’d be really lucky to get her!’ The candidates seem very strong—but the applications are depressingly weak.

The worst part of this is that we tell candidates exactly what to do to put in a good application; we work hard to make it very clear; and then three in four or so ignore what we’ve told them to do. Let me explain.

UK universities are not quite public sector bodies, but we are generally held to the same standards. This means, inter alia, that we follow received best practice in appointment processes, which means a ‘competency based’ approach. When we have a vacancy, we are required by our HR department to specify carefully what experience, skills, and knowledge—what competencies—we are looking for in a candidate, and how we will evaluate whether a given candidate has these competencies.

So, when we write a set of ‘further particulars’ for a vacant post—the document you download if you click the link in the advert—it has a list of the things you will need to prove to be considered for the post, and of where we will be looking for proof. In St Andrews, the list comes in the form of a table, with three columns. The first lists ‘essential criteria’, the second ‘desirable criteria’, and the third ‘means of assessment’, under which we typically list ‘application’, ‘presentation’, or ‘interview’.

For an academic post, probably the first essential criterion is ‘PhD in a relevant discipline’, and the ‘means of assessment’ listed is ‘application’. I get your application; I scan it for evidence that you have a relevant PhD. If I can’t find that evidence, your application goes on the reject pile, because this is an ‘essential’ criterion. (Actually I don’t use piles; I have a custom spreadsheet. If I can’t see evidence of an essential criterion, I type ’N’, and the cell automatically turns red. End of story.)

The moral? Make it easy for me to see that you have a PhD. I mean, really easy—I might be reading a hundred of these things, and I am only human; the small print on page 17 might, I confess, pass me by (and I can say from experience that anything after page 50 or so of your cv will very definitely pass me by…)

Of course, something like a PhD is a brute matter of fact—you have one, or you don’t (or, just possibly, you soon will, and we might be able to finesse that). And no-one misses their PhD off their application in my experience.

But: ‘Essential: evidence of excellence in teaching. Means of assessment: application.’ This is where wheels start to fall off. Every candidate will list their teaching experience, often in excruciating detail, but we’re not asking for experience; we’re asking for excellence. How, on your application form, are you going to give me and my fellow panel members credible evidence of excellence? There are lots of ways. A report from an external reviewer is probably the gold standard, but copies of student evaluations are pretty good; any sort of prize for teaching scores loads of points; a history of attending training courses or membership of something like the HEA will certainly get you over the line for a junior post. At worst, give us a teaching philosophy that shows you have thought a bit about what excellent teaching means. Give us something—or don’t bother applying; you’re wasting your time and ours.

Probably 50% or more of our candidates get the point about teaching excellence. I generally end up shouting at my computer screen over another issue. In St Andrews, an inevitable criterion (generally ‘desirable’ not ‘essential’) is called something like ‘credible plans for applying for external research funding’ (‘means of assessment: application’).

Look, at this point we’re placing the ball three yards out, tying up the goalkeeper, and inviting you to have a shot. And 80% or more of our applicants fail to score. ‘Credible plans’—at the lowest level you don’t need to have done anything, to have any experience, to have done anything more than noticed the point. You just need to say ‘Yup, I want to apply for some money for something’. Do ten minutes’ research on available funding sources, name a plausible scheme, and you are several steps up the ladder here. And—even at chair level in my experience—a large majority of our applicants will look at the ball, glance at the open goal, and then disdain to kick the one towards the other.

I confess that the word ‘moron’ has passed my lips on observing this, even when I know that the candidate concerned is far more academically able than I am.

So what should you do? It’s not rocket science (although the same rules would apply if it were): we’ve given you a list of things we either need or want to see in your application materials. Show us them. Re-order your c.v. to highlight what we’re asking for. Write a covering letter that goes through the points one by one and shows us the evidence. Send us a video demonstrating how you fulfil each criterion through the medium of interpretative dance (actually, don’t do that one…). Just somehow make it really easy for me to type ‘Y’ on my spreadsheet and see all my boxes turning green.

This won’t get you a job. It will (100% guarantee) get you on the longlist for a job, though, and it might well get you on the shortlist, and so to an interview. And if you get to an interview, you’ve always got a chance, because seemingly excellent candidates routinely shoot themselves in the foot, or indeed the mouth, on interview days.

But that’s a subject for another time.

Prof. Elliott on The Vocation of Scholarship

Our own Professor Mark Elliott recently offered a short article on The Lab, the academic blog of Logos Bible Software. Prof. Elliott’s post, entitled The Vocation of Scholarship, is well worth your time. I link it here: https://academic.logos.com/the-vocation-of-scholarship/


Interested readers can learn more about Prof. Elliott by visiting his staff profile or by reading this appreciative post written by one of his former students, Dr. Eric Covington.

 

SST Meeting 2018

The annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Theology will soon arrive. We asked Dr. O’Donnell, an Executive Committee member of the SST, to share her thoughts on the upcoming meeting. For more information, visit https://www.theologysociety.org.uk


This April will see the gathering of the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Theology (SST) at the University of Nottingham, 9-11 April. The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Theology, Culture, and Unbelief’ with keynotes from Miroslav Volf (Yale Center for Faith and Culture), J. Kameron Carter (Duke Divinity School), Katie Edwards (Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies), and Julian Baggini (Philosopher and founder of The Philosophy Magazine). Alongside these outstanding speakers we will also be hearing from our President—Karen Kilby—in her presidential address, and Robert Beckford (Canterbury Christ Church University) will discuss his 2014 monograph Documentary as Exorcism: Resisting the Bewitchment of Colonial Christianity (London: Bloomsbury) on a panel with Carol Tomlin (University of Wolverhampton), Chris Shannahan (Centre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations, Coventry University), and William Ackah (Birkbeck University of London).

This incredible line up of speakers and panelists will be joined by presenters of a wide variety of short papers on the conference theme on the Tuesday. This year we are also convening, for the first time, a special stream on Theology and Popular Culture. It’s not too late to propose a paper on the conference theme (deadline 29th Jan 2018). More information on how to do this, as well as an outline of the call for papers, can be found on our website at https://www.theologysociety.org.uk/short.asp.

The Wednesday of the SST conference is always an opportunity to hear papers on the seminar topics. These are theological papers not associated with the conference theme but with one of our regular seminars. These include Philosophical Theology, Christology, Sacramentality, and Ethics as well as a number of others. The deadline for papers is also the 29th Jan 2018 and more information on the call for seminar papers is available here https://www.theologysociety.org.uk/seminar.asp.

SST also features a call for posters on either the conference theme or other theological research with a £50 prize for the best poster. We are also pleased to offer a bursary fund to support postgraduate attendance at the conference. Again, more information about both of these can be found on our website pages, as can information about our mentoring scheme if you would like any guidance and support on proposing a paper.

I first came to SST as postgraduate student and found it to be a very welcoming and stimulating environment—I liked it so much I’ve been back every year since, and am now a member of the Executive Committee. It is a brilliant place to present your research and receive thoughtful and insightful feedback. It’s also a great opportunity to hear about the brilliant theological research that is happening across the world. The atmosphere is very friendly and the conference offers plenty of social time to enjoy catching up with old friends and making new ones—the onsite bar is always very popular for this! We look forward to welcoming you in Nottingham later this year. In the meantime you can keep up to date on conference news using #SST2018.

 

Karen O’Donnell, Research Fellow in Digital Theology & Pedagogy, CODEC Centre for Digital Theology, Durham University. SST Executive Committee member. @kmrodonnell

Announcement of Prof. Dr. Christoph Schwöbel

The School is delighted to announce that Prof. Dr. Christoph Schwöbel will take the 1643 Chair in Divinity in September 2018. The chair fell vacant at Prof. John Webster’s death in 2015.

Prof. Schwöbel is presently Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen, where he has been since 2004; prior to that he held the chair in Systematic Theology and Ecumenical Theology in Heidelberg. He is the author of six monographs and editor of twenty two academic volumes, and he has also published approximately two hundred articles in academic journals or scholarly essays in books.

Alongside his research publications, Prof. Schwöbel has served the academy and the church with great distinction through his career. He has served on many significant academic committees in Germany, and chaired the Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft für Theologie 2008-11. He has a particular commitment to engaging in dialogue with theologians from Asia, and is a founding member of the East-West Theological Forums. He has been editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie since 2007, and is on the editorial boards of several other leading journals.

In the ecclesial realm, Prof. Schwöbel’s contributions to ecumenical discussion in particular have been immense. He was a member of the Leuenberg Fellowship 1989-1994, and drafted its influential statement, ‘The Church of Jesus Christ’; and he co-chaired the Meissen Conference 2004-2010. More recently, he has been very influential in developing Christian-Muslim dialogue in Germany.

He will be joined in St Andrews by his wife Katrin Bosse, who will take an Associate Lectureship in the School, teaching in the areas of systematic theology and the theology of religions.

Head of School, Steve Holmes, said, ‘We are delighted to welcome Christoph and Katrin to the School, and greatly look forward to working with them over the next years. By any estimation Christoph is one of the leading systematic theologians in the world today, and his arrival in St Andrews continues and strengthens our commitment to being amongst the best in the world in that area. Katrin will help us in our ambition to develop new programmes in religious literacy, helping the School to respond to changes in the cultural context we serve.’

Enquiries from prospective doctoral students who would like to study with Prof. Schwöbel should be directed to the School postgraduate secretary. Prof. Schwoebel will also take a leading role in our MLitt in Systematic & Historical Theology, for which applications are now open.