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Participation in God: A study of Christian doctrine and metaphysics, by Andrew Davison

20 December 2019

David Brown considers an argument about participation in God

THE author will already be familiar to readers of these columns as a frequent reviewer known for his clear and impartial evaluations of others’ work. That same care and clarity is to be observed in this volume, but here these virtues are augmented by a profound knowledge of the complete range of the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, upon which he draws to advance the more Platonic interpretation of his writings which has become fashionable in more recent years.

While the general approach that Andrew Davison seeks to defend can also be found in theologians such as David Bentley Hart and Hans Boersma, readers might well enjoy this work more with its nice balance of erudition and clarity. Thus, Aquinas’s continuing Aristotelian elements are not denied, but, rather, fully integrated, while more contentious or difficult issues are relegated to notes at the end of each chapter.

In outline, “participation” is a metaphor (not his term) for the view that everything in the world is dependent upon and derived from God, not only, to use Aristotelian categories, through its efficient cause, but also its formal and final (roughly, determining pattern and ultimate aim). Even evil is assumed to have no independent existence, being merely an absence of something more positive.

While Davison’s enthusiasm for Aquinas often results in wonderfully clear expositions (for example, on divine simplicity), at other times he seems too reserved in admitting the saint’s limitations. Whereas Aquinas’s failure to accept the desirability of body and social existence in the afterlife is reluctantly conceded, for the most part faults are passed over in silence — for example, Scotus’s allowance of the divine to ride roughshod over the moral law is mentioned, but not Aquinas’s own limitations in this matter.

Yet those are matters of detail. For me, there are two major problems, one conceptual and the other empirical. The conceptual problems stem from the attempt to create a theological system without serious interaction with other points of view. Aquinas created something new by modifying both Platonism and Aristotelianism. Davison, however, engages within the text almost exclusively with scholars of a similar point of view.

In a rare exception, Moltmann’s idea of God’s making space for the world is declared unchristian, whereas from that perspective it is surely Davison, not Moltmann, who radically diminishes the divine nature in not allowing that God could ever create anything radically different from his own nature. Equally, Moltmann would offer a quite different way of thinking about the inexplicable and evil.

Again, the doctrine of the Trinity is simply assumed throughout, and no attempt is made to engage with why Platonism might have thought its introduction unnecessarily complicating in the conception of everything as derived from one single source.

Of course, Christianity had an answer in insisting on the introduction of the Trinity as revealed doctrine; but, again, except in his introductory section when discussing creation, Davison entirely fails to engage with the way in which our understanding of scripture has changed. St John’s Gospel is repeatedly quoted as though it gave us the historical mind of Jesus, but does it? And, if not, how easily can Aquinas’s account of the incarnate one survive? But what, even, of participation itself? It would seem odd to make the term foundational of all Christian thought if it is not found reflected somewhere in human experience. Yet Davison fails to discuss what might be meant by such experience.

With those qualifications, though, there is much to learn from this book.

The Revd Dr David Brown is Emeritus Professor of Theology, Aesthetics and Culture at the University of St Andrews.


Participation in God: A study of Christian doctrine and metaphysics
Andrew Davison
CUP £75
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

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