Modern Christian Theology
Christopher Ben Simpson
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
THE first remarkable thing about this book is that it has both John Milbank, doyen of Radical Orthodoxy, and George Pattison, one of the movement’s sterner critics, singing its praises on the back cover: Milbank says it has “no current rivals”, and Pattison calls it “a good warning to those specialists insisting too loudly on the exclusiveness of their own claims”. Given that Milbank is almost certainly one of the people Pattison has in mind when he says this, Simpson seems to have pulled off quite a coup.
Once inside the book, we see what an impressive piece of work it is: Simpson is compendious, well-organised, and confident in handling a huge array of material from the end of the medieval synthesis to the complexities of contemporary theological idioms.
The introduction on secular modernity and the final chapter on post-modernity frame the enterprise under the tutelary gaze of Charles Taylor, and it has to be said that the treatment of the Reformation and Humanism is the most exiguous part of the book. But once Simpson gets into his stride we are lucidly introduced to an enormous range of Christian thought: both the fundamental philosophical re-orientations made by Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, and the historical-critical consequences of the rise of natural science and biblical criticism.
The book is not simply a paean to German academic theology either: we encounter Coleridge, Maurice, and Newman, and there is extensive coverage of the tensions in early-20th-century Catholic theology, from the obscurantism of the Syllabus of Errors to the Nouvelle théologie of the Ressourcement Dominicans and Jesuits immediately prior to the Second Vatican Council. There are odd omissions, serious enough, I suspect, to vitiate the whole project for some people: there is nothing on Möltmann or Pannenberg, nothing on René Girard, and nothing on Bernard Lonergan. This is particularly striking when such a lot of attention is paid to — to me — obscure revisionist theologians like Gordon Kaufmann.
The presentation of this book is impressive, too: apt illustrations, although sometimes a bit lazily chosen (a picture of an empty St Peter’s Square is not quite all we might want as the only illustration for the Second Vatican Council), and useful tables and boxes to highlight key terms and contrasts. Undergraduates with essay crises will find these textual oases very welcome.
Unfortunately, the index is not very good: I could find none of the feminist theologians discussed on page 333 in it. But, overall, a bold, ambitious and engaging book, for the clever sixth-former thinking about reading Theology, for the undergraduate a bit at sea with systematics, and for the student of other disciplines who needs to understand what modern theology has been about.
Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.