Category Archives: Conferences

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: http://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

Formation and Interpretation

It’s three weeks until our upcoming Formation and Interpretation: Ways of Knowing and Knowledge of God conference.

Register here (£5 to cover refreshments, free for students of St Mary’s College)

We pause to meet one of our presenters Dr Tim Baylor. Tim, can you please tell us about your research?

“Much of my research focuses on Christian theologies of divine justice. I’m interested in the way that God’s justice informs our ideas about the nature of the moral life. This topic has real importance for a whole host of doctrinal questions about the character of God, the end and goal of God’s government, and the nature of God’s redeeming work. But it also has more immediately practical implications. For example, take Christian discourse in the public square. Christians routinely appeal to divine justice in support of their particular social or political visions, but they often disagree in fundamental ways about the nature of those visions. And these disagreements often stem from more basic differences in thinking about the nature of God’s justice.”

What’s your interest in “Formation and Interpretation”?

“Though my research focuses on the nature of God’s justice, one of the questions that interests me is how our moral formation actually shapes both our view God and the world. Scripture emphasises that there are some truths that we can understand only by faith and love. But if this is true, then it raises some important questions about how a sinner, a person whose love is disordered by sin, can learn to discern what is right, true, and good. This is particularly important when it comes to forming our beliefs about of God. To what degree can sinners (even redeemed sinners) have true knowledge of God, rather than simply an idol of their own making? One of the ways that the church has sought to cultivate the moral dispositions necessary for knowing God is by the imitation of Christ, and by the related discipline of meditation on the vanity of the world, sometimes referred to as the ‘contemptus mundi’ tradition. My paper will examine the reception of this spiritual tradition within a strand of Protestant practical theology. I think this will illustrate the complex relationship between Christian spiritual practice and moral reasoning. And hopefully, it will shed some light on a familiar problem, namely, the proper nature of and conditions for right moral reasoning.”

St Andrews is a beautiful place to visit anyway but why should people come and listen to you on this topic?

“Spiritual and moral formation is one of those topics where the common interest between the academy and the church is most obvious. Pastors and church leaders labour in the ministry of the Word and Sacrament in order to form the church so that it might better inhabit the gospel and offer a clearer witness to the love and faithfulness of God. And spiritual practice often grows cold and ineffective where it is not critically examined. On the other hand, in order to remain true to its subject matter, academic theology needs to be reflective about its own practices. In particular, it needs to consider whether its methods are capable of cultivating the kind of faith and love that are necessary to know God. In that respect, I think a conference on the relationship between personal formation and theological practice addresses not only a topic of considerable academic interest, but a deeply ecclesial interest as well.”

See here for details of other speakers.

Register online and direct inquiries to Rebekah Earnshaw ree3@st-andrews.ac.uk