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The theologians, You and I

By Dr. Oliver Langworthy, Associate Lecturer in Patristics, St. Mary’s

I recently published on the subject of how Gregory Nazianzus received the title of the Theologian. The article was awarded the Eusebius Essay Prize from the Journal of Ecclesiastical Theology (available here). While my interest in that article was on the historical attribution of the title of ‘the Theologian’ to a specific figure, my research made me pensive about what a theologian is and who might reasonably be called one today.

Is someone a theologian simply because they study theology? The Oxford English Dictionary does not clarify this: “A person who engages or is an expert in theology.” At what level of engagement is one reasonably identified as a theologian then? Most undergraduates who study theology in the United Kingdom don’t self-identify as such. Few enough postgraduates do so either. When one graduates from a doctoral programme studying theology or biblical studies, one is, at the very least, a doctor. Depending on the institution this might even be a ThD rather than a PhD, but is even a doctor of theology necessarily the same as a theologian? I tend to think not. It isn’t something granted by an institution but instead independent of formal training. Why not simply look to contemporary theologians and use them as a guide? A glance at Wikipedia’s “List of Christian Theologians” article yields a list populated by more than a few people who never called themselves theologians however much they engaged in theology.

Part of the problem is that ‘theologian’ is not a title of Christian invention. In Eusebius of Caesarea’s Preparation for the Gospel he identifies the figures of Orpheus, Musaeus, and Linus as the oldest Greek theologians. Eusebius elsewhere even makes mention of a figure called Seleucis the Theologian, a figure roughly dated to the first century AD who received his title for his books on the gods. If one asked Augustine, he might reject the idea of Christian theologians altogether. In his City of God, Augustine engaged with Varro’s tripartite division of theology into mythic, civil, and natural. While he permits that the natural theology of the philosophers can, in some cases, approach near the truth revealed in Christian Scripture they do not achieve it. They, Augustine argued, remain bound to the concept of sacrifice to multiple deities. This faint praise does not extend to mythic and civil theology, which he closely links and castigates for their shallowness and obeisance to the fantastic gods. Gregory of Nazianzus had plenty of his own scorn for, especially, mythic theologians. Writing against the Emperor Julian in his fourth oration he said that: ‘[F]able is the resource not of persons confident in their cause, but of those giving it up: but if these tales be fictions – in the first place let them produce us their undisguised theologians, in order that we may have to deal with them.’

This is not to say that Christians were averse to identifying their own theologians. In arguing for the divinity of the Spirit in his fifth theological oration, Gregory identified the most archetypal of Christian theologians: ‘For, tell me, what position will you assign to that which proceeds, which has started up between the two terms of your division, and is introduced by a better theologian than you, our saviour himself?’ Clement of Alexandria, in the first chapter of the Stromata, wrote that, ‘This Moses was a theologian and prophet, and as some say, an interpreter of sacred laws.’ Athanasius of Alexandria, in his Against the heathens identified the apostle John as a theologian. The company of those identified as theologians by the Fathers is therefore a fairly rarefied one: Moses, John, and Jesus. What about those of us who are not patriarchs, apostles, or the son of God, but still think to call ourselves theologians?

Evagrius of Pontus’ Chapters on Prayer provides a starting point: ‘If you are a theologian, you will pray truly and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.’ As this is very nearly a koan it benefits from some reflection.

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Posing a Question: On Analytic Theology and the Transcendentals

By Euan Grant, Gifford Research Fellow and PhD Candidate at St. Mary’s College

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At a party a couple of weeks ago, I overheard one philosopher of my acquaintance say to another, with some excitement, ‘I’ve found a continental philosopher, but he’s enlightened – he can talk analytic.’ I bustled off after these two, and the young man in question turned out not to be a philosopher at all but a student of theology, though in what one might call a cultural-critical mould. Think Charles Taylor and Alistair MacIntyre or, my suggestions to him for further reading, John Milbank and Cyril O’Regan. The conversation was spirited (in more than one sense), but tended to break down over a fundamental disagreement about what the point of ‘philosophy’ actually was. I spent a later part of the evening arguing with one of the analytic philosophers about the cogency of the convertibility of the transcendentals: the claim of the metaphysical identity of goodness, truth, and being.

This Friday, at the equally-exciting weekly Logos seminar, St Mary’s very own Kevin Nordby suggested to me, in a conversation over the suggestion that, as uncreated, God would not be directly perceptible in any created experience, that some sectors of analytic philosophy of religion tend towards a deliberate modesty in its understanding of God. This would lead to the sort of circumspection by which, before asking about perception or experience of God, one would have to ask about the possibility of there being a deity or deities at all.

Naturally analytic theology is not quite so circumspect, and we hear arguments reasonably often which concern the relatively developed idea of God called ‘classical theism’, a term which is somewhat variable in content, but would almost universally taken to imply claims that God is a perfect being; the triple-O of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence; and possibly a strong claim about divine simplicity to distinguish this as specifically classical theism, over against some suggested analytic reform.

It occurred to me, as these two conversations came together in my head, that my sense of classical theism, of the God of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, to make no grander claims, owes much more to the convertibility of the transcendentals than to the idea of ‘a deity’, or indeed, of a perfect being. God was not simply some existing thing of which some qualities might be truly predicated, even infinite or perfect qualities such as omnipotence and omniscience, but, as in Aquinas, being itself in which all other beings participate. Not simply truly infinite, but, as for Anselm, the truth itself by which all other truths are true. Not simply good, but, as for Augustine, the Good in person.

These identifications are all, of course, aspects of the theological tradition rather than, let’s say, the sort of direct assertions which one might find in the Bible and interpret by means of the methods of a New Testament scholar.  They are, furthermore, distinctly metaphysical claims, deeply embedded in the Platonic and Neoplatonic heritage of late antiquity and the Western Christian middle ages, and so we might think of them as the artifacts of a particular culture of reception, not necessary ingredients in the articulation of Christian truth. Certainly, some analytic approaches to classical theism, which sometimes seems to be made up of much less fulsome assertions than these, seems to suggest as much.

And yet, I would suggest both that these sorts of claims have obviously beneficial results for Christian theologians, and the metaphysics which underlies the convertibility of the transcendentals (and their identity with the God of the Bible, i.e., the Holy Trinity) provides a clear context of coherence and reasonability for the idea that the Bible, and the Lord, reveal the one, true God, beside whom there is no other.

To say that God is ‘the Good’, for example, that it is with reference to God that all things are good or otherwise, undermines the status of ‘Euthyphro problems’ arising from the limitation and anthropomorphism of a ‘merely personal’ God legislating by will or fiat. Equally, to say that God is not merely necessary over against possible or contingent beings, but that God founds the whole logical and ontological space of possibility closes off the suggestion that there are some things – logical possibilities, or perhaps Platonic numbers – which are neither God nor creatures. It affirms that God alone is creator and Lord, subject to no limitation but the divine being. If these obvious claims are not explicitly Christian, they at least cohere with the claim that Jesus Christ is final and definitive, the one Lord whom we cannot surpass.

Indeed, my sense is that this context of metaphysical ultimacy gives us reason for our interest in the question of God and revelation in Christ. It is because they are also questions about the good itself, about being, about truth, even about beauty, that questions about ‘whether there could be deity’ are of interest in a sense stronger than mere meta-cosmological curiosity. It provides a frame in which the ineliminable historicity of the Christian revelation, the story of God with Israel culminating in Jesus Christ, God dwelling on Earth, is of clear relevance not only to its own time, but to us and to all times past and future, founded ultimately and definitively in one and the same God.

My question, then, and my reason for writing this post in the first place, is to ask our analytic theologians what they make of this tradition. Is there a future for the convertibility of the transcendentals? Is this the sort of thing that the analytic method with its flair for specificity and problem-solving would revolt against as excessively ambitious system-building? Are the definitive metaphysical arguments ruling out the sort of place reserved, in the post-Augustinian tradition, for God both as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and also as Fount of Being? Are these questions not even of interest?

I look forward to hearing the thoughts of any of our analytically-trained colleagues on this question. I certainly wouldn’t turn down an invitation to a party convened for the purpose, but I would be more than happy to educate myself with a reading list!

The Theological Task Before Us

By Oliver D. Crisp, Professor of Analytic Theology, St. Mary’s College

 Theology is a way of life. That sounds like a platitude, or a cliché. Perhaps it is. Nevertheless, it is true. Theology is sometimes characterized as an intellectual discipline, with its own standards, canon, sensibilities, and way of working, and that is right in its own way. There are many different accounts of what theology is, and many of them maintain that this is how we should think of theology. However, it seems to me that if we reduce theology to this we are left with something that is lifeless, an empty shell. Theology is not merely an academic discipline. Theologians are not merely those who spend their time reading, thinking, and writing about God. They are also members of a community of scholars dedicated to such work. The communities of which we are a part are as vital to theology as the outputs we produce.

I was formed in important respects by theology in Scotland. I was educated in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen, one of the four ancient universities of Scotland. I was fortunate (though at the time I didn’t fully appreciate it) in that I had teachers who made a significant mark in their respective disciplines. Scholars like David Fergusson, Iain Torrance, Trevor Hart, W. Peter Stephens, I. Howard Marshall, and Brian Rosner made an impact upon me as an undergraduate. My doctoral work was done at King’s College, London, during the halcyon days when the Research Institute for Systematic Theology (RIST) was in full swing under the leadership of Colin Gunton. To me, he was a great English theologian—there are not too many of those! He did real theology—systematic theology in a constructive vein, and in serious conversation with the tradition, and with related disciplines as well. Curiously, one of the things that I took away from my time at King’s, which in many ways was as important as the terminal degree I sought there, was something that no one taught me. It was an idea: the importance of theological community. Colin Gunton lived theology as a way of life. His whole life (aside from his gardening) was given over to theology. He was ordained, and preached regularly in the United Reformed Church that he attended. And he was passionate about theology. It was an infectious passion. He brought it with him to academic life in the College, and it inspired RIST which Gunton co-founded with St Andrews’ very own Christoph Schwöbel (who had left for the University of Kiel by the time I got to London). But more importantly, perhaps, Gunton brought it into the research seminars in RIST.

I was not a student in Systematic Theology at King’s. I was a student in Philosophy of Religion. My mentor was Paul Helm—and a great model of clarity and precision he was. But my heart was in theology. Colin Gunton invited me to come along to the research seminars in RIST, and I did. I even presented work in progress at his invitation. There I found a theological community, one where Gunton encouraged students to participate and treated them as equals not as inferiors. That simple act of intellectual generosity made a huge impact upon me. It has informed the way I try to treat my own graduate students. (Later, I discovered other exemplars of this pattern of behavior in people like Alvin Plantinga, Gavin D’Costa, and Eleonore Stump. But Colin Gunton was the one in whom I first saw this sensibility.)

Theological community makes theology vital, in the sense of living, real, concrete. Since my days at King’s I have lived among other theological communities, and have learnt a great deal from those with whom I have come into contact. The community at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame (from where I write these words), the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton where I lived in 2008-2009, the University of Bristol where I worked from 2006-2011, and most recently, Fuller Theological Seminary where I have been a professor for the past eight years (2011-2019). Each has its own intellectual “flavor.” Each has its own contribution to make. I am the beneficiary of these communities, and they have marked me as all communities mark those who have lived in them.

I have said that theology is taught. Of course that is right. But theological community, and theology as a way of life—that cannot be taught. It is “caught.” As my family and I prepare to come to St Mary’s, I am struck by the importance of this insight for the task of theology. I am moving from one theological community, that of Fuller Seminary in California, to another, in Scotland. I am coming to what Judith Wolfe has called a “theological community by the sea.” (An evocative turn of phrase if ever there was one!) I hope that as I come I may be a productive and positive member of that community. I hope to make my own modest contribution, of course. But more importantly, I hope I may learn and grow and develop through interaction with others as we live theology together.

There is much speculation about the future of theology in seminaries and in universities  today (perhaps it was ever the case). Will there still be professional schools dedicated to imparting theological knowledge in a generation? Will Divinity be chased out of the “secular” research university? I do not share such pessimism. Theology is a vital subject, more vital today than ever in this world of religious, social, and political upheavals. Far from dissipating with the inevitable advance of scientific progress, religious questions have persisted, becoming even more pressing as we face increasing uncertainty in other areas of public life. The future of theology is in theological community—in lived theology. That is why St Mary’s is such an important place for the study of theology in all its many varieties. It is a community of scholars and students—of those learning together. It has been like that ever since I have known it when I began my career teaching in St Andrews back in 2002. I hope that as I come to live in this community of theology by the sea for a second time that I may be shaped by scholars and friends as I have been formed by the other places I have lived and worked, so that together—as professors, scholars, and students—we may provide an example of how theology can be a way of life.

The Case of Iconoclasm

By Dr. Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University, currently visiting St. Andrews under the “Baylor at St. Andrews” program. She is the author of Image and Presence and Beauty

Though the term iconoclasm has expanded its meanings and associations over time, it still evokes a more Protestant than Catholic approach to church life. Not only are Protestants on the whole warier about the dangers of images, but Protestantism was birthed in the pangs of Reformation iconoclasm. Even Anglican and Episcopal churches, many of which today commission and display powerful art, refused for a time to tolerate anything image-like, including crosses. Queen Elizabeth was rebuked for the silver ones she kept in her chapel.

In my own Protestant upbringing, I attended a church that did tolerate crosses, but little else. A floor-to-ceiling wooden cross positioned directly behind the preacher was the sanctuary’s lone adornment. There were no paintings, no sculptures, not even any windows. The carpet and chairs were dark brownish-orange, as if anything pleasing to the eye might prevent worship of the invisible God.

Like all official determinations, these aesthetic decisions were made by the elder and deacon boards, comprised entirely of men. Sometimes the women rebelled against the bleak setting by arranging flowers for the front or sewing Advent banners. I remember my own mother on more than one occasion trying to brighten the pulpit by wrangling greenery around it. It was fake, of course, because there were no windows.

And yet despite the possibility that aesthetic anxiety can lead to such dreariness, I want to commend an iconoclastic impulse as salutary to image-loving traditions like Catholicism, even like much of twenty-first century Protestantism. I believe the iconoclastic impulse need not lead to visual austerity, for it can actually help Christians love images better—and might even help Protestants and Catholics find more common ground on images. Attempts to maintain a stark contrast between iconoclasm and iconophilia break down in a way that leaves room for ecumenical hope. Certain forms of iconoclasm, like many images, can be modes of fidelity to Christ.

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Martin Heidegger and Catholicism: The Unexpected Enemy in the Black Notebooks

by Judith Wolfe, Professor of Philosophical Theology and the Deputy Head of the School of Divinity, St. Mary’s College

In the autumn of 1931, Martin Heidegger began to record his private thoughts and intellectual struggles in small black oilcloth diaries that he called the schwarze Hefte, or “Black Notebooks.” Even before the first tranche of the Notebooks were finally published in 2014, there were rumours about what they would reveal. It had long been acknowledged that Heidegger – one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era – had been a supporter of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. To what extent, and for how long, has long been one of the hot issues of Heidegger scholarship. One of the most striking lessons of the Notebooks is the extent to which Heidegger’s attraction to Nazism – and his later rejection of it – was animated by a quarrel with the Catholic Church. “Contemporary Catholicism”, Heidegger wrote to a friend in 1929, “must remain to us a horror”. The history of that quarrel is, to a large extent, the history of Heidegger’s philosophical life.

Heidegger was born in 1889 into a devout Catholic family in Messkirch, southwest Germany, the first child of the sexton of the local church. It was the height of the “Modernist crisis”, when a movement to introduce modern critical methods into theology and biblical studies was meeting ferocious opposition in the Vatican. The pugnacious counter-cultural perfectionism of the Vatican line impressed Heidegger. He tried to join the Jesuits, but was quickly dismissed because of an early manifestation of his chronic heart problems. Nevertheless, he remained intent on becoming a priest, and enrolled at Freiburg University to study theology.

In Freiburg, Heidegger came under the influence of Protestant critical scholarship, and when Pope Pius X’s anti-Modernist oath of 1910 forbade Catholic scholars to use such methods of enquiry, Heidegger was deeply conflicted. His health collapsed and he had to break off his studies for almost a year.

When he returned to Freiburg in late 1911, it was as a student of philosophy, not theology. His plan now was to work theologically within the philosophy faculty, developing a Catholic theology through a dialogue of medieval and modern Kantian thought. The anti-modern neo-Scholasticism championed in seminaries and Catholic theology departments now seemed to him a debased and mechanised system, straitjacketing the potential especially of medieval mysticism. Heidegger acerbically wrote to his doctoral supervisor: “The motu proprio about philosophy was really the cherry on the cake. Perhaps you as an ‘academic’ could apply for an even better procedure for gutting the brain of anyone who dares to have an independent thought, and replacing it with ‘Italian salad’.”

In March 1917, Heidegger married Elfride Petri, a Lutheran, in Freiburg’s Catholic cathedral. Elfride had indicated a willingness to convert to Catholicism; instead, by 1919, both had turned away from Catholicism. Many factors contributed to Martin’s estrangement: the break-down of his earlier engagement to a Roman Catholic; the failure of his ambition for the Catholic Chair in Freiburg, towards which he had been steering his career. But above all, it was his growing conviction that what theology needed was not a supposed God’s-eye view on the world as a grand, orderly system, but a theological language capable of expressing lived spiritual experience, particularly the persistent human feeling of inadequacy, affliction, and what he called “beginner-dom”.

At the age of 30, he declared that he had converted to an “undogmatic Protestantism”. He spent some years trying to develop an anti-metaphysical theology inspired by Luther, but, by 1924, he felt he had reached a dead end: a theology of grace and faith, which for Luther held out the solution to human affliction and inadequacy, seemed to Heidegger an intellectual cop-out. Not everyone was capable of experiencing grace and faith, he thought; and because they were completely gratuitous, bestowed by God seemingly out of nowhere, he felt they invalidated, rather than genuinely redeemed or made sense of, human experience. In other words, Heidegger came to reject as unrealistic the Christian idea that what had led to our estrangement from ourselves was sin, and that what was needed to fix it was grace. Estrangement from ourselves, he concluded, was instead an essential part of being human, arising from the stark and inescapable fact of our mortality. We are never fully “there”; we are always still on the way – and the end of that path, he insisted, is not fulfilment but death. We can only live truthfully by accepting, not by trying to overcome, this predicament. To be fully human means bearing the tension between our inalienable wish for fulfilment and our inability ever to reach it, without collapsing into fantasy or apathy.

This call to heroic finitude was the bracing centre of the epoch-making book that catapulted Heidegger to fame in 1927, Being and Time. But within the bubbling national crisis of late Weimar, he soon became dissatisfied with its narrowly individual focus. For years, he brooded over the question how to bring not merely philosophers but a whole nation to live authentically.

What excites me about the Black Notebooks is seeing this brooding at work for the first time. But it is disturbing just how much Heidegger found the great enemy of his search for an authentic national life in Christianity. Partly this had to do with university politics. But the substance of his quarrel with Christianity was his old criticism of Catholic theology imposing false structures and meaning on human experience.

Heidegger had by now reached his diagnosis of the contemporary malaise.  Modernity was unable to resist constantly grinding down the rich inner life of the world into a single homogenous mass of “useful” material: power stations, industrial farming, and factory towns were all signs of this trend. And the root of this problem, he concluded, was Christianity. By imagining a God who had created a world of fixed natures that could be defined and therefore utilized, humans had authorized themselves to know, measure, master, and use up that world. This, he thought, was where the mechanical and unreal theology of neo-Scholasticism had led. Heidegger resolved that something radically different was needed: a communal vision which, like his earlier calls to authenticity, would enable Germany to face suffering and struggle in the crucible of national identity.

Heidegger had no natural appetite for politics: he mocked the “fake vivacity of politics, whose intellectual-spiritual paralysis cries to heaven” in the same breath as he scoffed at the “cheap superiority of faith”. But in Autumn 1932, Adolf Hitler’s calls to self-sacrifice and a new history stirred his imagination. Heidegger wrote excitedly to his friend, the influential Protestant biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann, that National Socialism might be a movement with enough driving force to rouse Germany as a whole to the kind of “conscious life” he envisioned. Heidegger was no outlier. Many leading German philosophers rallied around Hitler in the early 1930s. Philosophers had accepted as theirs the task of re-formulating a vision of Germany after the trauma of World War I, and largely looked to the great nationalists of the nineteenth century – Fichte and Hegel – as models. Those thinkers had seen Germany as a quintessentially spiritual  nation, called to lead the world to enlightenment by education. It was this vision which had fuelled the long German dominance of scholarship. When Hitler swept away the timid and sluggish bureaucrats of Weimar, Heidegger was not the only intellectual who hoped he would renew the spiritual visions of these great German thinkers.

In April 1933, Heidegger took on the rectorship of Freiburg University, and joined the Nazi Party with great public fanfare the following month. He supported a political revolution which, he believed, by teaching the Germans discipline and an “instinct for the ultimate”, would prepare the way for a “deeper … spiritual”  revolution. What this was really about, he insisted, was that “exposed to the most extreme questionableness of its own existence, this people [should] will … to be a spiritual people”. If the Party did not “sacrifice itself as a transitional phenomenon”, he grandly declared, but instead pretended to be “complete, eternal truth dropped from heaven”, it was “an aberration and a folly”.

The Notebooks document Heidegger’s increasingly bitter realization that Hitler and his chief ideologue Rosenberg wanted nothing to do with this idealism: Germanness, to them, was a matter of race and territory, not of spiritual destiny.

He resigned as head of the university in April 1934. Within a few years, he came to see Nazism as merely another totalitarian technopoly, a sort of flip-side of the neo-Scholastic theology that dominated Catholicism. By 1936, Heidegger had turned to a mystical quietism, which he described mysteriously as the anticipation of an unknown “last god’’ who would both end and save us. After the war, he mellowed towards his Catholic past, noting cryptically in 1953 that one’s “origins always remain one’s future”. On his death in May 1976, at the age of 86, Heidegger had a Catholic funeral.

Neo-Scholasticism has been in retreat in Catholic theology since the 1950s, not least due to Heidegger’s influence on luminaries such as Rahner. The Black Notebooks remind us that although he could be a formidable critic whose questions must be taken seriously, his hatred was also myopic. Most importantly, unlike the Confessing Church with its unambiguous truth claims, Heidegger’s spiritual vision was not ultimately strong enough to provide counter-directives to the Nazi regime. When it came to the test, for all his talk of suffering, Heidegger’s religion of questioning did not produce any martyrs.

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Publication originally printed by The Tablet in 2017, re-published here with permission.

For more of Professor Wolfe’s work on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, see “Caught in the Trap of His Own Metaphysics” in Standpoint.

 

Oliver Crisp Appointed as Professor of Analytic Theology

The School of Divinity has announced the appointment of Professor Oliver Crisp to its newly established Chair in Analytic Theology. Prof. Crisp will take up his appointment on 1 September 2019. He will be a key member of the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology, as well as contributing to the School’s work in Systematic and Historical Theology and in Theology and the Arts.

Prof. Crisp played a role in founding the growing movement called “Analytic Theology”, and is one of its leading figures. With Michael Rea (Notre Dame and St Andrews), he is a senior editor of the Journal of Analytic Theology, and a series editor for Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology. He has written or edited twenty-five academic books, and is currently working towards publishing a systematic theology.

For the last eight years, Prof. Crisp has been professor of systematic theology at Fuller Seminary. There, he co-founded the annual Los Angeles Theology Conference, which has generated a series of important volumes published by Zondervan Academic, and led a major project entitled ‘Prayer, Love, and Human Nature: Analytic Theology for Theological Formation’, funded by a $2 million grant by the John Templeton Foundation. Since 2016, he has been involved in the Logos Institute as a part-time professor. As a collaborator and consultant he, along with Prof. Michael Rea, made a profound contribution to the conception and establishment of the Institute.

For more on Professor Crisp’s appointment, click here

An Interview with Professor Christoph Schwöbel

Professor Christoph Schwöbel, the 1643 Chair of Divinity, joined St. Mary’s this fall from the University of Tübingen. Below he offers thorough answers to questions pertaining to his position at St. Andrews, his plans with the MLitt program, and his academic interests. 

Considering your career at the University of Tubingen and elsewhere, when have you felt most excited about engaging in theological scholarship?

I can still remember the excitement with which I started studying theology and philosophy at the Kirchliche Hochschule Bethel, a church college that has the status of a Faculty of Theology in Germany. Now I could really focus on the questions that had fascinated me during the last years in grammar school without any distraction. This excitement has never left me and has accompanied me to the University of Marburg where I got my theological doctorate and later my Habilitation, from Marburg to King’s College London, and from there to chairs in the Universities of Kiel, Heidelberg, and Tübingen. However, this excitement changed over the years and was shaped by conversations with fellow theologians who became friends.

My teacher at Marburg, Carl Heinz Ratschow, was an incredible scholar, specialist in 17th century Lutheran orthodoxy, but equally competent in Aristotle, Nicolas of Cusa or Charles Hartshorne. Since Ratschow had started his academic studies as Egyptologist and had moved to theology through the influence of the Old Testament scholar Albrecht Alt, he had a lively interest for the world of religions. He could study the Qur’an in Arabic, the Buddhist traditions in Pali and Sanskrit and predicted much against the secular spirit of the time, that the theological dialogue with the religions would be the big theological task in the future. All this scholarship notwithstanding, Ratschow regularly conducted services and preached at the local church in the part of Marburg where he lived. He took me under his wing when I arrived in Marburg in my second year and made me study one philosopher each semester. At the end of the semester I had to submit an essay and discuss it with him. On such occasions the excitement came close to fear, and I certainly entered his study every time with a lot of trembling. After a relatively short time Ratschow was keen to get me started on my doctoral thesis. Much to my disappointment, he suggested a topic in historical theology and not in the philosophical theology. The reason was quite simple: “You will do enough philosophy of religion later on. You should do something respectable first.” So I spent many days in the bowels of the university library in Marburg sifting through the papers of the “liberal” theologian, journalist and politician Martin Rade (1857-1940), trying to decipher his handwriting and his idiosyncratic system of shorthand. Nevertheless, this also became very exciting when I stumbled on his correspondence with Karl Barth who had been the editorial assistant at Martin Rade’s journal Die Christliche Welt. Continue reading

The Season of Advent: Bonaventure on the Prophetess Anna in the Lukan Infancy Narrative

By Dr. William Hyland, Lecturer in Church History, St Mary’s College

Currently in one aspect of my research, I am engaged in exploring the interplay between exegesis, theology and devotion in the writings of the thirteenth century Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer St. Bonaventure, known as “the Seraphic Doctor”. As we approach the season of Advent and Christmastide, I would like to share some of his reflections on a specific aspect of the season. In his academic Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Bonaventure treats in detail the literal and spiritual meaning of the evangelist’s detailed discussion of the birth of John the Baptist, as well as the events surrounding and following the nativity and epiphany of Jesus.   His discussion of the meaning of the details of the narrative includes the figure of the prophetess Anna who was present at the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The Franciscan friar makes clear that all of creation plays an important role in the revelation and implementation of God’s will for the whole cosmos.

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Judith Wolfe on BBC4 program ‘In Our Time’

Hope (G.F. Watts, 1886, Tate Britain)

Judith Wolfe, St. Mary’s Professor of Philosophical Theology, spoke on Melvyn Bragg’s program In Our Time on the philosophy of hope.

To the ancient Greeks, hope was closer to self-deception, one of the evils left in Pandora’s box or jar, in Hesiod’s story. In Christian tradition, hope became one of the theological virtues, the desire for divine union and the expectation of receiving it, an action of the will rather than the intellect. To Kant, ‘what may I hope’ was one of the three basic questions which human reason asks, while Nietzsche echoed Hesiod, arguing that leaving hope in the box was a deception by the gods, reflecting human inability to face the demands of existence. Yet even those critical of hope, like Camus, conceded that life was nearly impossible without it.

Saint Bonaventure as Entrance to the Tradition

By Lance Green

When I first read St. Bonaventure for a class on the doctrine of God, I was committed to a particular brand of Lutheranism with little fondness for metaphysics or participatory language. I was especially wary of any concept of the Tradition as a theological guide. But persistently nagging questions pertaining to the relationship between scripture, the creeds, and the theological-logic behind their formulations left me open to new ideas. St. Bonaventure was the catalyst for shifting my theological paradigm.

I was not looking to abandon the tradition I was baptized into. Luther’s maxim “crux sola est nostra theologia” was chiseled into my bones. Approaches to theology that did not rigorously cling to the cross at every turn were of no interest to me. Further, because I was formed by Lutheranism’s unequivocal commitment to the real presence of Christ in the eucharist and the efficacy of the sacraments, anything that did not affirm a sacramental paradigm seemed like a dead end. In no way did I feel the need to react or respond to my Lutheran tutelage; rather, I wanted to broaden those themes that rang most true.

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