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The Divine Ideas Tradition in Christian Mystical Theology by Mark A. McIntosh

22 April 2022

Andrew Davison reads an Anglican theologian who died last autumn

CHRISTIANS have characteristically held that creation is “out of nothing”: it is creation all the way down, with nothing underived from God. In the ancient world, the revolutionary thing was to see matter as part of the good things that God had made. Conceptually just as significant is the idea that the form of everything also finds its origin in God. That is where the “divine ideas tradition” comes in, every nature standing as some imitation of God, and the “divine ideas” as God’s eternal knowledge of how creation could imitate its source.

This approach traces the particularity and intelligibility of every creature back to God: we might say that they find their names there. Naturally, the divine ideas have therefore been associated with the Word (or Logos) of John 1. Perhaps the most valuable feature of this excellent book is to make this yet more Trinitarian, showing not only that the truth, or logic, of things lies at the heart of this tradition (with the Word), but also their delightfulness, with the Holy Spirit, as the divine bond of love. Indeed, this book is characteristically expansive.

Alongside creation and the Trinity, we find extended attention to the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ, sin and redemption, and eschatology: all unexpected in a discussion of this topic. The book is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the relation between doctrines (where so much of the allure of systematic theology lies).

We have been waiting for this book for a long time. Indeed, it seemed that it may never reach publication when Mcintosh was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (or ALS). His death on 13 October 2021 was a huge loss to theology, and for the Anglican theological world in particular. In the preface, McIntosh thanks friends who “encouraged me to forge ahead and write the book I could write and not be discouraged by the thought of what I was no longer able to achieve”.

Beyond that comment, this is not a book about himself, or his situation. There is no bitterness, and much delight. His worries are not directed towards his own health, but to the demands of the pandemic and the challenge of climate change. The joyful tone is disturbed only by what he sees as two long shadows from the late Middle Ages: voluntarism (exaltation of the will of God above the divine nature or intellect) and nominalism (denial that creatures truly have natures in common).

I might have expected him also to be wary of “illumination”, present in some of his texts, where that implies direct impartation of knowledge from God, outside of mediation by created things such as culture, the body, and its senses. That, however, he allows to pass.

It is difficult to criticise a book such as this, because of the circumstances surrounding its completion, and because it makes such an important contribution to its subject. I can note a little unnecessary repetition, but when the material is this good, that is hardly a problem. I am not sure that the word “mystical” in the title adds anything, and it may unnecessarily suggest a limitation to the significance of the book.

The writing often follows a similar pattern, with a quotation from a patristic or medieval text, followed by an exposition. That may be a little redundant for those familiar with reading those sorts of texts, but, again, this is a minor matter. Many readers will be in McIntosh’s debt for his clear explanations; all will be in his debt for his often rapt presentation of magical sources.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Senior Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow in Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College.


The Divine Ideas Tradition in Christian Mystical Theology
Mark A. McIntosh
OUP £65

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