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Navigating a World of Grace: The promise of generous orthodoxy by Graham Tomlin

02 September 2022

Maurice Elliott reviews a book that finds room for church doctrine

WITH its perceived potential to offer an expansive and ungrudging framework for belief, the category of “generous orthodoxy” is fast becoming a significant locus of research; and, with the publication of Graham Tomlin’s Navigating a World of Grace, those interested are likely to recognise a “go-to” text within the field.

Taking its lead from the metaphor of a journey through a beautiful island (the life of faith) towards the isthmus of an even more glorious and far-reaching destination (death in Christ leading to a heavenly eternity), Tomlin’s text argues persuasively for the centrality of the creeds, working in tandem with scripture, as the definitive badge of authentic Christian adherence. Within this regula fidei, according to Tomlin, generosity cannot supplant orthodoxy, and neither will orthodoxy unhelpfully constrain generosity.

In keeping with the title, Tomlin expounds the theme of God’s “gracious gift” in creation, redemption, and life in the Spirit. His depth of scholarship is impressive, and yet his easy style and the relevance of his applications, even with the philosophical underpinning of the various heresies against which the creeds were formulated, makes the writing engaging, as it reminds the reader of continuing pitfalls.

Given his definition of “holiness” as the willingness to live generously towards others, Tomlin emerges as one fully invested in the project of generous orthodoxy, inhabiting precisely the kind of personal attributes which it suggests.

Whereas the book refers to a wide range of contemporary issues to which the principles of generous orthodoxy apply (racism, colonialism, climate change, wealth, diversity, disability, and social media), it is a pity that Tomlin has chosen to avoid the hot-button issue of human sexuality: it would have been fascinating to see whether/how the parameters of generous orthodoxy might inform this aspect of church life. Such an omission will inevitably raise reservations that generous orthodoxy, while well-intentioned, may ultimately shy away from actual doctrinal positions, suggesting itself therefore as somewhat idealised.

Again, while Tomlin makes recourse to numerous Patristic and contemporary sources, some may wonder whether his treatment overall might not have warranted more substantial engagement with Reformation worthies for whom the creeds were also of paramount importance. And, in his discussion of the three main ecclesial constituencies (Evangelical, Catholic, and Charismatic), some may find Tomlin’s overview rather generalised.

That said, this book represents a welcome expression of the kind of generous orthodoxy which it seeks to promote. The island of the Christian faith is large, and hence Tomlin’s call for humility and relationality is well placed. In that it will prosper the discovery of authentic humanity and Spirit-filled discipleship, Tomlin’s work is rich and hope-full.

The Revd Dr Maurice Elliott is Director of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.


Navigating a World of Grace: The promise of generous orthodoxy
Graham Tomlin
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