The Referendum and Christian Theology

The UK’s dies irae is almost upon us, and I’ve decided to take the last opportunity to pontificate on themes related to the referendum and EU membership from a theological perspective. I’ve done so because it’s interesting, because theologians ought occasionally to justify their place in civil society by actually engaging with it, and because I promised Bill I would in the pub weeks ago. I also need a revision break.

I’ll consider three issues arising from my own theological interests; perhaps others will add their own. First, I’ll look at the idea of sovereignty, a concept to which many have appealed but few have dissected. Second, to the history of the English Church as both a national and European institution. Third, I’ve a few semi-relevant thoughts on what Theology has to say about the relationship of the Universal to the Particular.

Three caveats: I talk as much about England as the UK, largely because I suspect that the UK is really a state rather than a nation (a sometimes relevant distinction), but also because England dominates the UK demographically, constitutionally and ecclesiastically. I also use the EU and Europe semi-interchangeably, not because I think they’re the same (look up the Council of Europe) but because despite protests I still think it’s valid to discuss the former in terms of the latter. Finally, bits of this are a bit tongue in cheek, in a typically Oriel-theology overstated-but-somehow-still-ringing-of-the-truth way.

To wit:

Sovereignty in the UK, or, A Very British Theocracy.


Photo: Getty Images.

Secularists in a British context are often wont to argue that the United Kingdom is a theocracy on the basis that it is one of only two countries in the world to have unelected religious leaders sitting ex officio as members of its legislature. The other is Iran, and we are supposed to conclude that the Lords Spiritual who sit in our upper house are a Bad Thing. You don’t need me to tell you that this is a somewhat simplistic argument which overlooks some significant theological and political differences between the garden variety Church of England bishop and one’s average Iranian ayatollah.

But I’ll concede the secularist this: the UK does seem to be a de jure, though not de facto, theocracy.

Strictly speaking, in the UK neither the the people nor the nation state is sovereign; the Queen is. Executive authority is wielded in her name, so that our government is properly HM Government, rather than that of the people or the nation. The armed forces swear allegiance to her, rather than to Britain. Judicial authority is held, in theory, to come from the Crown too; justice is dispensed in Crown Courts by judges appointed by the Crown, sitting under the royal arms. Even parliament, which in the Westminster system of government trumps all the above, is not sovereign over and against the Crown; the Crown is a constituent part of parliament. The sovereignty of the Queen-in-Parliament is most obviously encapsulated in the formula which enacts laws passed at Westminster:

BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows…

Yet this sovereignty, derived de jure from the Crown, is theologically legitimised and warranted. Look at any British coin (and indeed, many in Commonwealth Realms) and you’ll see the Queen proclaimed as Elizabeth II D[ei] G[ratia] REG[ina]. In all her official and legal titles, the Queen is Queen by the Grace of God. The Coronation Service involves an anointing with consecrated oil, a sacramental act inherited from ancient Israel via Constantinople and France, symbolising and effecting divine election and trust. That is, English sovereignty is sovereignty by God’s gift; it is properly only His, not hers, or indeed ours. This is of course, consonant with and a necessary corollary of Christian doctrine. There is only one sovereign power, besides whom there is no other, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19).


Image:, apparently.

This English doctrine of sovereignty is highly significant from a Christian theological point of view. First, it relativises human sovereignty in a helpful way. The sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament is held Dei gratia, and is therefore ultimately accountable to God. First and foremost, whatever the outcome of the referendum, theologians should articulate loudly and clearly the provisional, relative and delegated character of human sovereignty.

Second, the model and exemplar of Christian sovereignty Dei gratia must be Christ himself, the King of Kings. In our soft-theocracy, we have a properly normative pattern of sovereign action in Christ: his resolve to conform to the will of the Father, his views on violence and warfare, his concern for the poor and outcast, his view of the redemption (in various senses of the word) of man, and his willingness to suffer on behalf of those in his charge are always – the theologian ought to affirm – politically, ethically and (in the UK) constitutionally relevant to public discourse.

A further example: human rights. Christians believe that human rights are grounded in the status of human beings as beings-in-relationship with God, in his image and for whom He died, created only a little lower than God/the angels (Ps. 8). This provides in my view a strong (perhaps the only strong) foundation for human rights law and activism. The English doctrine of sovereignty as delegated by God, and responsible to God, joins the dots between legal and moral understandings of human rights: in the authority of the Queen-in-parliament, both are grounded in the great commandment which holds that love of God and love of neighbour are mutually implicative.

Finally, the English and Christian doctrine of sovereignty exalts the notion of personhood, in a way that is theologically satisfying and beneficial to citizens. In the British constitution, personhood takes priority over ‘the people’. Sovereignty is embodied, first and foremost in the person of the Sovereign herself, standing in a covenanted relationship with God and with her subjects. Our constitution is irreducibly personal, with sovereignty vested in the flesh and bones of an elderly woman, and of the various Lord Spiritual and Temporal, and in our elected representatives. The great mass of persons cannot be fully reduced to an abstract ‘people’ after the fashion of le peuple, or a homogenising, totalitarian Volksgemeinschaft.

What should we take from this? First, that quests for absolute sovereignty are, unless framed within the boundaries of Christian discourse, ultimately idolatrous. Sovereignty per se is a property of God, not any of us. Whoever wins the referendum must be reminded of this, and reminded of the theological underpinnings of their responsibilities to their fellow man. Second, we should consider the possibility that we have a responsibility to remind the European states of this concept of sovereignty, jettisoned by most of them during the long nineteenth century. Enlightenment absolutism – now democratic, then not so much – ought to be revisited and criticised from a Christian perspective. It may be that we have the power to do so from within the EU.

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

The popular perception of history in the UK is not particularly nuanced. This is perhaps partly due to a sense of being ‘in the right’ with regard to the greatest events of recent history: standing against the Kaiser, Nazisim and the Soviets. It’s also due to a popular historiography which hasn’t changed all that much (except perhaps with respect to social class) since Our Island Story, satirised and yet sustained by the likes of 1066 and all that. Elizabeth I is still ‘Good Queen Bess’; her sister still ‘Bloody Mary’. The EU, the Prime Minister, Boris, Gove, Sturgeon, Frau Merkel: in the tabloids they’re all fundamentally discussed as Good Kings and Bad Kings.

A major component of English history, and both sides in the debate are appealing to history, is its ecclesiastical history. And here we might want briefly to consider three main areas of interest.


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

First: Christian Britain and Christian Europe. It’s deeply unfashionable to consider in any depth, but both Britain and Europe have histories grounded in the thought and practice  of Christianity. Englishness and Britishness were both produced in strongly Christian contexts: the very idea of Englishness owes a great deal to the Venerable/Venemous (delete as appropriate) Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. One of the major factors in the formation of an English identity from the myriad Angle, Saxon and Jute settler groups, and from the great mass of pre-migration Britons, was their common experience of Christian identity as a Church centred largely on Canterbury and York. Yet this whole process was part of a much larger European movement: the missionary efforts of the Irish Church in Scotland and the North, and Gregory the Great’s decision to send Augustine to evangelise the South (non angli sed angeli). The popular perception of Anglo-Saxon Christianity is nineteenth-century and nationalist; tall blond men throwing Danes and Norwegians and Scots out of their lands. Few remember the victory of pan-European Roman Catholicism over Celtic provincialism at the Synod of Whitby; or the hugely influential archiepiscopate of the Asian-Greek Theodore of Tarsus at Canterbury; or Alfred the Great’s childhood visit to Rome for confirmation, at which he was invested as a Roman Consul! Even the historical, ecclesiastical geography of England is self-consciously European: London’s churches are as Roman as they get, with the two great churches of St. Paul and St. Peter (the Abbey!), and major parishes dedicated to such ultramontane saints as Clement and Pancras. Europe is stamped indelibly onto our Christian history. Britishness, though, developed in large due from the shared experience of the Protestant succession being defended post-1688 (boo! hiss!) against Catholic Europe; it is no coincidence that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to experience Britishness, and that the Republic of Ireland does not.

Second: England develops something recognisable as a proto-Westphalian sovereignty doctrine as part of the Henrician reformation. Brexit first happened in the 1530s, with the Statute in Restraint of Appeals (24 Hen 8 c 12) proclaiming:

Where by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles, it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.

Whatever one thinks of the principles involved in the Reformation Brexit, it bears considering its effects, not least to how “natural and humble obedience” was interpreted in a Realm shorn of right to appeal ecclesiastical cases overseas.

Third: those in favour of an ‘In’ vote stress the role that the EU has played in keeping Europe’s peace and advancing the cause of human rights over the last few decades. The counterargument stresses the equivalent role of NATO, a non-EU organisation. Here we might consider a third force, usually overlooked in this country: the influence of European Christian Democracy. Because the UK has no Christian Democratic party, we’re often blind to the historical and contemporary influence of this ideology on the continent and in the Union. Grounded in the social doctrine of the late-nineteenth and twentieth century popes, Christian Democracy has been a major factor in the post-war European settlement, motivating several of the great leaders of Europe from Adenauer to Merkel. I doubt either Boris or Cameron have read Rerum Novarum, but they should have done. It’s an important part of modern European politics.

The primacy of the Universal over the Particular.

Finally, Christian theology has something to say about universals and particulars; about unity and multiplicity. I won’t get into trinitarian analogies here, (a) because I’m suspicious of social trinitarianism, and (b) because they’re too trite even for me. But here are some thoughts:

Christianity does tend to put the universal ahead of the particular (not to be confused with the personal, see above). We believe in a human nature that can fall in Adam and be redeemed in Christ, whatever that means. Affirming that we share a single nature in imago dei, the Christian is pretty much bound to sign up to the late Jo Cox’s laudable affirmation that, “We have more in common than that which divides us.” [I note that this is a principle, not a policy, and is relevant to both the Leave and Remain camps in different ways]. In a similar vein, Ratzingerian theologians in the Roman Church have re-contextualised ‘eucharistic ecclesiology’ by pointing to the Church’s origins in the universal missionary function of the college of Apostles gathered around Christ, as prior to and the origin of the sum of local eucharistic communities. One might be tempted to apply similar reasoning to nations and states, as post-lapsarian realities, providential and God-given goods in themselves, which are nonetheless the result of tendencies in human society which Israel and the Church have classically discussed in terms of the story of the Tower of Babel. Whichever way the vote goes, Christian theologians in the UK and Europe are going to have a responsibility to articulate afresh a Christian theological vision of the relationship between mankind as a whole and our various national or ethnic subgroups.


Thoughts on the Feast of Christ the King


“For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Christ our God, cometh forth…”

The Feast of Christ the King, celebrated by the Western/Latin Church on the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year (today), is an odd feast. Unusual not only because of its novelty, being an observance introduced only in the 1920s, but also because it serves synthetically to combine several theological themes deemed appropriate for reflection and celebration at the end of the year and before Advent. I draw some of them to your attention here for your consideration, academic or otherwise:

  1. CtK affirms the continuing relevance of the history of Israel and Judah. The New Testament affirms that Christ is the last and greatest King of the House of David. The Gospels’ infancy narratives stress Jesus’s Davidic parentage (though many have puzzled over the fact that the genealogies given focus on Joseph’s royal ancestry, which is a little odd given their simultaneous insistence on the Virgin Birth). Even Pilate acknowledges, with bitter irony, that Jesus is rex iudeorum on the titulus affixed to the Cross. This (a) suggests that God has some eternal concern for the particularity of Israelite history; and (b) reminds us of the everlasting and irreducible Jewishness of the Son of God.
  2. The feast is of Christological significance; it further explores the central Christian conviction that God the Father is somehow manifest in Christ. It offers us a Christocentric reading of those Old Testament texts which speak of YHWH of Hosts as a king. One thinks particularly of how Christians use those Psalms which proclaim the enthronement or kingship of God with the refrain YHWH mlk, e.g. Pss. 47; 93; 95-99.It is also of more overtly dogmatic Christological importance. The Papal encyclical establishing the feast quotes St. Cyril (that darling of radical Orieldoxy) in connecting Christ’s sovereignty to his sharing in the divine ousia: “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.” Christ is necessarily, rather than contingently, King; he is not simply put at the head of creation by the arbitrary will of the Father. Incidentally, this is why (probably in response to the modalist tendencies of Athanasius’s friend Marcellus of Ancyra) the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed concludes its section on Christ by affirming that “his Kingdom shall have no end.”
  3. Finally, the feast is of political significance. It was instituted in an era when the ideologies of communism, fascism and empire were placing claims on humankind’s ultimate allegiance that no earthly power has sufficient authority to make. This is always an important political-theological point to make, but it seems particularly pertinent today when faced with a political-religious enemy in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, which claim to manifest the sovereignty of God on Earth via acts of brutal violence. Christianity’s response is to point out that Christ has already done this, and that He directly refused those among his disciples who wished to employ the sword in doing so.Given the feast’s eschatological placement – sandwiched between the various remembrances (ecclesiastical and civil) of November and the apocalyptic looking-forward of Advent – we might also note that in some small ways groups like ISIS do manifest the Kingdom. For example, on a beach in Libya last February, they showed the world twenty-one persons who witnessed to the Kingdom to the point of death (real martyrs die, rather than kill, for their faith), adding despite their diabolical best efforts to those “who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh”.


Oriel Theology and ‘reformed catholicism’ – introductory thoughts.

Several months ago, in a post offering an Alternative Manifesto for Oriel Theology, I suggested that the current ‘Oriel School’ of theology tends towards what I called ‘reformed catholicism’. Here I present a few thoughts suggestive of what I mean by that term, to serve as both an introduction to more things which I have to say, and as a springboard for others to discuss some of our collective theological tendencies.

Introductory theses

To my mind, ‘reformed catholicism’ entails something along the lines of the following theses:

(1) That Holy Scripture ought to be held as the ultimate arbiter and highest theological authority available to the Church on earth.

(To paraphrase N.T. Wright, a proper account of Scripture’s ultimate authority in the Church is to recognise the authority of God exercised through those writings of the people of Israel and the apostolic Church which the same Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, has come to recognise as inspired by the same Spirit).

(2) That Holy Scripture must be interpreted according to a rule of faith, passed down from generation to generation, within the proper context of the Church as divinely constituted.

(This includes the interpretation of the Scriptures within an ecclesial and liturgical context, and in particular in the context of the Eucharist celebrated by a clergy in historic and theological continuity with the Church of the apostles).

(3) That this involves accepting a theological heritage rooted in the oecumenical catholicism of the great church of Late Antiquity (i.e. the Niceno-constantinopolitan creed; the Chalcedonian definition, etc.).

(4) That the above theses are based on the dynamic and active Lordship of Christ over the Church as underpinning the teaching authority of both Scripture and the Church; the Church’s sacramental worship as a function of Christ’s own priesthood; and a recognition of divine providence in the historical development of the Church.

(5) That the oecumenical catholicism of Late Antiquity is mediated to us (particularly in an Oxford college) through both the mediaeval Latin Church and the Reformation-event.

(6) Accepting the authority of Scripture involves letting the Scriptures speak, to a certain extent, on their own terms; they must be read critically as well as within the tradition. In this, both analytic modes of thinking and historical-critical Biblical scholarship are useful tools.


While I feel that the above theses are the basis of a dominant tendency in ‘Oriel school’ theology today, a few issues arising must be noted. Here are three; I am sure you will come up with more.

(I) Oriel Theology benefits from and encourages differing viewpoints, including those of teachers and students from non-Christian religious traditions or none, and that this in turn benefits those of us inclined towards a ‘reformed catholicism’.

(II) That while Oriel as an institution, and many of its members as individual theologians, have historic and personal connections to the Church of England, and while ‘reformed catholicism’ is what the Church of England aims for in claiming to be “the ancient Church of this land, catholic and reformed” (the Revised Catechism), ‘reformed catholicism’ per se need not be ‘Anglican’. None of the above seems to me to preclude orthodox Roman Catholicism, or various other theologies.

(III) That the borders of ‘reformed catholic’ doctrine are ill-defined. Many of us would likely agree on the importance of Cyriline and Chalcedonian Christology on the basis of a historical and theological reading of the Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures; it seems likely to me that it would be harder to reach a similar consensus on more peripheral points of doctrine, e.g. with regard to individual theologians of the Reformation and modern eras, or on modern social-theological issues such as same sex relationships.

As I said, these thoughts and theses are only introductory. I have a few specific suggestions as to where a reformed catholic agenda might take us, both in general terms and with regard to particularly academic theology, but I’d like to hear yours too.

Radical Islam, orthodox Christianity, and world domination.

Caveat: this is intended to stimulate discussion. I’m not an expert on Islam by any means; feel free to offer corrections.

NB: in this piece I use ‘universalism’ as shorthand for a religion’s claims to universal truth, validity, applicability, etc. I do not mean soteriological universalism.

“The same thing we do every night…”

Longstanding members of the Oriel Theology community will be aware of Tara Isabella Burton’s hugely successful apologia for academic Theology as a liberal arts discipline; we have also recently heard Ed and Ed’s respective arguments regarding the relationship between the study of Theology and various kinds of good for human being. A third consideration is the relationship between Theology (or, more accurately, particular theologies) and current affairs both domestic and foreign.

One of today’s major policy challenges for those responsible for our government is undoubtedly to be found in the apparent threat of radical Islam. You don’t need me to list the various cultural, political and literal battlefields on which radical Islam is a major (and often hostile) force. The UK government, and those like it elsewhere in the West, offers cobbled-together responses to various Islamist threats (perceived or otherwise), which can be criticised for shortsightedness both with regard to threatening civil liberties and the dehumanisation of Muslim minorities in the UK, and to various laws of unintended consequences in foreign policy.

The (largely) secular and (largely) liberal ruling classes of the UK, and no doubt elsewhere, are theologically illiterate. Religion and theological belief are seen as matters of private, personal conviction. Mr Cameron, who describes his own Christian faith as fading in and out “like Magic FM in the Chilterns”, belongs to a particularly pragmatic kind of economic and social (neo-)liberalism. It is easy to imagine (though I am not privy to the details of his personal history) that before winning the leadership of the then Opposition he had little need to consider, and still less direct experience of, those whose politics are not only grounded in but actively directed by their faith and theological convictions.

It is, of course, easy to overstate this. Britain has had religiously and theologically inclined leaders in recent memory. Blair and Brown, for all their differences, were united in being motivated by the embers of an historic Labour Party Christian Socialism; a look at their cabinets reveals significant political players of similar and stronger convictions. Despite Alastair Campbell’s denials, New Labour definitely did ‘do God’.

Yet the secularisation of British politics and the British political classes appears to have continued apace since 1997; witness the recent agonising spectacle of Tim Farron’s repeated media roastings on the relationship between his evangelicalism and liberalism vis-a-vis the legal recognition of homosexual relationships. Our rulers seem vaguely aware of a stronger kind of theologically-charged politics, usually overseas and usually Muslim. It is engaged with politically, but not, and crucially, theologically. The end result is vaguely akin to the polemics of Dawkins-style evangelical atheism: denunciation of the other’s beliefs without engaging with the premises and processes which motivate and justify those beliefs.

In this piece I will argue that the British élites (and by implication, for better or for worse, Oxbridge…) must be theologically literate so as to engage with hostile forms of radical Islam at home and abroad. But I also want to point to similar theological tendencies in orthodox Christianity. I do so (a) because singling out radical Islam can so often be grounded, consciously or unconsciously, in various kinds of post-colonial racism; (b) because understanding Christianity’s radical political claims renders Islamist claims more intelligible to those of us from a Christian background; and (c) because the relative growth of the Church’s evangelical wing within British Christianity, and the growth of Christianity in countries like China, renders it more likely that the twenty-first century will see the resurgence of popular political theology in both domestic and foreign Christianities.

The universalist claims of Islam – ‘extremist’ and otherwise.

Political theology in action.

Pictures such as the one just above have become emblematic of the ideological gap between mainstream Western politics and the theologically-grounded politics of radical Islamist minority groups. The posters held by demonstrators display slogans offering radical interpretations – “Shariah the true solution”, “Islam will dominate the world” – of claims to universal validity inherent in Islam.

The West is slowly familiarising itself with the basic contours of some of these universalist claims. The ideas of a universally applicable shariah, of a global community of Muslims (ummah), and of worldwide Islamic political system headed by a single Successor of the Muhammad (khalifah) have become part of our  regular discourse. Lamentably, this has too often happened as a result of the activities and propaganda of groups like ISIS. Edwin has already shared helpful thoughts regarding the relationship between such groups and religion per se.

Popular and mass-media responses to this phenomenon have tended to fall into two categories. Some, rightly judging violent Islamism to be beyond the pale, divorce its extremist ideology from the legitimate sources of Muslim doctrine, and in so doing pretend that there is nothing Islamic about radical Islam. Others, perhaps also fuelled by less-than-pure or less-than-objective motives, consign Islam itself to pariah status, portraying virtually all Muslims as routinely hostile and habitually irrational. One might playfully suggest that here the Western world needs to recover the concept of heresy. More seriously, I actually suggest that we need to engage with the theological premises underpinning Islamic universalism. Failure to do so is a double mistake. It prevents properly theological criticism of inherently theological movements. It also prevents recognition of theological features of ordinary Muslim belief which are neither ‘extremist’ nor dangerous, and which have Christian counterparts.

Both ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ universalist theologies are built upon the same basic truth-claims of mainstream Islam, e.g. that Muhammad is the greatest and final prophet, that the Quran supersedes all previous revelations, that orthodox Judaism and Christianity are based upon corruptions of earlier, purer monotheistic revelation. Belief in the ultimate superiority of Muhammad’s supposed revelation, and of the theological, socio-political, and jurisprudential systems built upon it, is the basis of all different kinds of Islamic univeralist theology. Both moderate Muslims who hope for the peaceful conversion of non-Muslims and those set on violent jihad operate from the same premises. Only when the West is conversant in these relevant Islamic theological premises will we able properly to argue against radical Islamism’s particularly noxious brand of theological world-shaping politics.

Yet, as I intimated above, it is helpful to consider similar pretensions to world domination within Christianity. Indeed, they are often directly related. One of the Quran’s explicit predictions of Muslim world domination, found in Surah 21 ‘The Prophets’, foretells that “The righteous among my servants shall inherit the earth.” This is actually a direct quote from Judeo-Christian scripture, Psalm 37.29.

Christian equivalents.

A symbol of world domination.
A symbol of world domination.

If all this talk of Islamic supersessionism, theological supremacy and world-conquering rhetoric sounds bizarre and foreign to you – well, it shouldn’t. Its fundamental bases are very similar to orthodox Christianity’s own claims to world domination. Before we look at some of the relevant theology, look at the picture above. One day in 1953, our Sovereign Lady, the woman whom our coinage tells us reigns over the United Kingdom Dei gratia, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, was handed this object as a symbol of the context, the worldview, in which she holds power. The orb symbolises the world, dominated by the Cross of Christ. Its message is utterly triumphalistic: present and eschatological Christian supremacy. The slogans are implicit: “Christianity the true solution”, “Christianity will dominate the world.”

Several basic theological tenets inherent to any remotely orthodox Christianity tend towards world domination: the conviction that Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19.16); the command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28.19); the belief that before the end of time all creation shall bend the knee and confess Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2.9-11). Basic orthodox Christianity entails a political theology which calls for – though which perhaps need not enforce – a society in line with the teaching of the Gospels. Christianity assumes that it is the vocation of each and every human creature, and therefore of each and every nation or society, to live under the yoke of Christ. This is a submission parallel to  that demanded by orthodox Islam (in Arabic, lit. ‘submission’). We’ve forgotten this to the extent that we’re surprised when we see an English translation which properly renders Paul’s Paulos doulos Christos Iesou (Rom. 1.1) as “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus”.

At this point, we should recognise that these claims, while extreme and all-encompassing, do not amount to a call to violent conquest or the implementation of a Christian world-government. Nobody seriously thinks that the Queen, by all accounts a devout low-Church Anglican, harbours secret fantasies of subjugating non-Christians. What our government would regard as violent extremism is manifestly not inherent in political theologies which tend towards, aspire to, or assume the inevitability of world domination.

Whither world domination?

IOU a degree of religious freedom.
IOU… a degree of religious freedom.

One of the major challenges facing those opposed to radical Islam – including both orthodox Muslims and non-Muslims – is to articulate a theological framework in which inherent claims to religious world domination are balanced against inviolable and inalienable human rights. Classical Islam possessed such balancing acts – the Pact of Umar is perhaps the best known – but they are unsuited for the modern era, clearly relegating Jews and Christians to an intolerably inferior status, while offering no such space for other groups. The major theological issue for modern orthodox Islam is not therefore the question of world domination. As with Christianity, this is a given, and need not be harmful to others. Rather, our focus ought to be on the other side of the equation. A theological account of human rights is needed to persuade our enemies to abandon violent extremism, and to dim its lustre in the eyes of potential defectors to groups like ISIS. In the wake of the Second World War the Roman Catholic Church developed and popularised such theologies, particularly with respect to non-Christian religions, in Nostra Aetate. Our theological, if not ideological, allies in the world of orthodox Islam must be those who have made, are making, or can make similar moves. In Christian-Muslim dialogue, and in foreign and domestic policy, this is not a corner  which we can cut.

An Expanded Manifesto

Alec Siantonas’s recent piece offering An Oriel Theology Manifesto makes the case, in my view convincingly, that Oriel theologians have a distinctive style of theological thinking. He labels this as “both analytic and traditional.” First he draws attention to our tendency, largely due to Dr. Wood’s influence in undergraduate teaching, to think, discuss and argue in the rigorous manner of post-Frege philosophy. In particular Alec notes a duty to articulate one’s ideas as clearly as possible, enabling one’s interlocutor to identify individual premises and arguments as true or false, defensible or indefensible. This openness to scrutiny is a kind of intellectual humility, which generates the genuinely friendly and collegiate atmosphere of Oriel Theology. It also reinforces our common pursuit of proper (rather than superficial) understanding and sound arguments. Second, he notes Oriel’s commitment to a traditional way of thinking theologically. Alec offers an interpretation of the development of Christian orthodoxy proffered by many current and recent Oriel Theologians, namely that the analytic theologian can sympathetically read the theology of the Fathers as the gradual working out of the Gospel’s implications for our understanding of what God is said to have done in Christ. Their articulation of a ‘grammar of divinity’ was a search for theological clarity not dissimilar to ours; whether or not Oriel theologians hold Christian orthodoxy to be true, we tend to agree that is rationally structured, and interesting, and capable of being analysed analytically. Analytic and traditional – thus far Alec’s manifesto.

The thought-provoking responses which Alec’s manifesto has thus far received have touched on a few issues which I intend briefly to discuss. In particular, the relationship between analytic theology and the Biblical Studies, analytic method vis-à-vis the instability of language, and the relationship between Oriel Theology and Christianity. I hope the thoughts that I have to offer will help flesh out what some of us mean when we say that Oriel Theology is A Thing.

A dual-core department.

Dr. Wood’s short note on Radical Orieldoxy makes the point that “there really is a case to be made that tiny Oriel College has historically been one the most important centers [sic!] for theology and philosophy of religion in the world.” One reason for our strength in recent years has been our good fortune in having a couple of important professorial chairs based in College, namely the Nolloth Professorship of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion and the Oriel and Laing Professorship of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture. These two chairs have ensured that over the last half-century Oriel College has boasted some of the very greatest authorities in Christian Philosophy and the study of the Old Testament: Ian Ramsey, Basil Mitchell, Richard Swinburne, Brian Leftow; James Barr, the recently lamented Ernest Nicholson, and John Barton. Compounded by the fact that the average Oriel undergraduate experience in recent years has been dominated by the Wood-Nevader, all-American Theology and Bible teaching ticket, in turn supported by Strines, Marlattes, Lincicums and HWGBAA (He Who Goes By An Acronym), I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Oriel has what I rather lamely call a dual-core department. Due to personal influences and the structure of the BA programmes, few  in recent years have come through Oriel Theology without a decent dose of Old Testament, New Testament, Patristics and modern Christian theology. This has recently and happily been further augmented by the creation of a college lectureship in Old Testament held by Laura Quick. I feel reasonably confident in saying that Oriel will remain a dual-core department for a while.

This is a good thing because, as Dr. Wood has intimated, the analytic style of theological reasoning and Biblical Studies seem to have a good deal in common. The close reading of Biblical texts and the close reading of theological arguments are similar in exegetical method: premises are established, narratives and arguments followed, assumptions questioned, terminology interrogated, etc. Analytic theology and Biblical Studies have a common interest in cutting through prose and jargon to get to the meat of the matter, whether that be a question of historicity or coherence or whatever, and then analyse and re-present it with as much factual accuracy, clarity of thought and openness to challenge as possible. These are virtues common to Biblical Studies and analytic theology; indeed to pretty much all credible academic work in the humanities.

John Barton is a good example of an Oriel Biblical scholar whose work is characterised by a particular emphasis on clarity and rigour. His prose is famously easy to read; leafing through the introduction to his recent Ethics in Ancient Israel is a masterclass in conceptual clarity. His method is not analytic in the strict sense – we don’t have formal notation of his arguments – but his habit of offering a series of explicit statements as to his terminology, themes, theses, motivation in writing, etc., is a fine one. This is characteristic of more than just good academic writing, though. One finds a similar pattern of thought in his work on the authority of Scripture in Christianity, People of the Book? He argues that Christians ought to make carefully limited claims about the authority of Scripture, because the end result of overblown fundamentalist claims about Scriptural inspiration and sufficiency is often the kind of historical and theological confusion and imprecision that fundamentalists set out to avoid. That in this he follows the work of James Barr makes me confident in claiming these concerns as a distinctive priority in Oriel Biblical studies. Incidentally, Ed’s recent posts seem to lean in this direction, and it isn’t completely inaccurate to portray him as eschewing the analytic interpretation of Scripture in favour of semi-analytic and Bartonesque meta-level claims about Scriptural authority!

Language and Grammar

That a dual-core department exists, or that individuals within it have a common focus on clarity and rigour (terms now more disputed than when I scribbled a draft of this last week), is not really enough for the claim I’m supporting: that there is a distinctive style of theological thinking in Oriel. It is, however, a route into arguing that Oriel’s analytic theology and Biblical studies share a common basis in a particular kind of God-thought.

My greatest weakness as a Biblical scholar is that I’m not (hopefully not yet) a proper philologist. To really get inside the Bible one needs to be able to think in Greek and Hebrew and other ancient languages. As AKMA has (I think) argued elsewhere, low-level competence in Biblical languages produces decoders rather than translators. Biblical God-talk is shaped by Greek and Hebrew grammar and vocabulary; the medium effects the message. To talk about the Bible’s revelation of the Triune God is to work within the grammar (both linguistic and conceptual) of our Greek and Hebrew texts.

Those of us who have come through the Bill Wood school of patristic orthodoxy are no doubt familiar with the concept of a ‘grammar of divinity’, which I mentioned in my opening paragraph. The phrase is Lewis Ayres’s, used to argue that the Fathers weren’t so much trying to articulate true statements about God, as to articulate a grammar which would make such statements possible. After all, the Fathers would presumably say that we already have the true statement about God in Christ. The task of the theologian is to work out that grammar of divinity which gets us inside divine revelation and lets us interrogate it. Fides quaerens intellectum. Oriel’s concern for analytic theology, both patristic and modern, seems to be the appropriate way of carrying out this task in our current intellectual climate; in this particular place and time it is important for the articulation of the Christian grammar of divinity that it is demonstrated to be rational and coherent.

Nova et vetera

As has been pointed out, this search for clarity and rigour within grammatical systems is difficult because they evolve. Language changes and is unstable. Biblical Hebrew isn’t modern Hebrew; δόξα in the Classics is opinion, whereas in the Bible it is the glory given to God; the Prayer Book collect for Trinity XVII means more or less the opposite to how it sounds in modern English. By language learning and historically contextualised philology we clear up some of these ambiguities. I think much the same happens with Oriel theology.

Oriel during the Oxford Movement was at the vanguard of the re-appropriation of the Fathers for the theologians of the established Church. We’ve retained a strong preference that undergraduates complete a course in patristics as part of the BA programme, and the results of this preference are clear in the way we tend to engage with modern theology. Oriel undergraduates reading Moltmann tend to challenge his account of traditional orthodoxy, arguing that it is his presentation thereof which is incoherent, and not, say, Cyril on the impassibility of the incarnate Logos. In recent years the combined influence of Doctors Wood and Tobin have nudged some of us in the direction of mediaeval and reformation historical theology, and now Bill points out how helpful it would be to have analytic accounts of more recent figures such as Barth and Tillich. Our analytic theology is that Oriel theologians seem to aim not only for the internal coherence of Christian doctrine, but (wherever possible) for coherence with the theological traditions of the past.

Oriel Theology and Christianity

It has been correctly and importantly stated by several of us that Oriel Theology isn’t confessional. You don’t have to be a Christian to come here. I am in Old Testament largely due to the influence of Madhavi Nevader and Casey Strine; the three of us couldn’t be described as sharing the same religious beliefs. Jews, atheists and agnostics think theologically in the Oriel fashion: assessing the relationship between the premises and conclusions of Christian belief does not commit one to accepting those premises!

That said, it does seem that there is a group of Christian theologians in Oriel who find our way of thinking theologically fruitful beyond the tutorial or the seminar. Alec hints that the Oriel School seems to cohere well with Christian worship in a creedaly orthodox, liturgical setting. There are those of us who firmly hold that the presence of a Chapel in College (Church of England, but what I’m saying applies equally well to the few but regular Roman Catholic masses celebrated there) is significant to our theological thinking and praxis. Lex orandi, lex credendi seems to be becoming an Oriel School maxim. Indeed, some of us see theology as an inherently second-order discipline, with true pride of place going to the preaching of Scripture and celebration of holy mysteries. This is something that we need to think and talk about more.

Whither Oriel Theology?

I should stop writing now, as I can’t imagine many people wanting to wade through more of my stream of consciousness. I’ll finish off with a suggestion. Analytic theology relies upon the clear articulation of premises. Biblical studies clearly relates to these premises insofar as the Bible is a normative source for Christian theological engagement. And as I’ve just argued, the experience of the Word in a liturgical context is also peculiarly authoritative. An important next step in the development of the Oriel School of thinking theologically is sharpen our focus on the question of theological authority. How is Scripture authoritative? What exactly counts as authoritative Scripture? How is the Christian Tradition authoritative? What is the relationship between academic theologians and the teaching authority of the Church?

I have my own inklings as to how we ought to answer these questions. I’d say that the Oriel School tends towards a kind of reformed catholicism. But more on that later.