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Book review: United in Love: Essays on justice, art, and liturgy by Nicholas Wolterstorff

03 November 2023

David Brown considers a theologian’s essays on a range of topics

WHILE the obvious senior British figure in analytic philosophy of religion is Richard Swinburne (b. 1934), one might select two comparable figures in the United States, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (both born in 1932). Both are products of the American Dutch Reformed tradition, and both live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

So, unsurprisingly, there are quite a few overlaps in their two approaches, but, whereas Plantinga has concentrated overwhelmingly on questions to do with the justification of religious belief, Wolterstorff has ranged more widely. It is this breadth that his two editors have sought to reflect in this collection of originally separately published essays. As such, they could provide an ideal introduction to several of the main strands in Wolterstorff’s thinking.

In each of the three areas, Wolterstorff has not been afraid to challenge dominant contemporary trends. So, with justice, he rejects the many writers who have portrayed Jesus as substituting agapeistic love for justice, among them Nygren and Niebuhr. Instead, he insists on the compatibility of the two concepts, in particular though defining justice as giving each person their due as formed in the image of God.

Again, in the case of art, he dismisses the contemplative model of art which he detects as in the ascendant ever since the 18th century, and under which certain types of experience are expected from such works. Instead, he suggests a focus on success in realising a form such as a sonata in the concert hall or in memorialising the Christian story in a painting, poem, or stained glass.

Finally, in liturgy, he seeks stronger emphasis on its primary orientation as towards God. So, for example, instead of a movement towards us in a eucharistic gift of divine presence, he follows Calvin in seeing the primary movement Godward, as a dramatic re-enactment in which the divine promises of salvation are confirmed and worshippers are thereby brought closer to the divine reality — not that this should be interpreted as a narrow Calvinism usurping more Catholic approaches. A natural ecumenical spirit has been augmented by his marriage to Clare, an Episcopalian priest.

Wolterstorff writes with great care and clarity, but, inevitably, given the extent of his divergence from positions more widely favoured, his discussions are perhaps best interpreted as provocations to further thought rather than necessarily right in themselves. For example, in his account of justice, he insists that he is following Jesus in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, where he seems to imply that the owner acted justly in paying everyone the same, despite the huge disparity in the number of hours that they worked. But are the relevant verses (Matthew 20.13-15) not intended ironically?

Again, while one sympathises with Wolterstorff’s desire to rein in the often exaggerated pretensions of modern artists who see themselves as a modern substitute for religion, one might question whether he, in turn, does not go too far the other way. However much the arts may have originated as crafts, they can now do so much more, in encouraging reflection, including religious reflection. So, religious art surely does very much more than memorialise the story of salvation. It can also set new questions about the precise significance of the events concerned.

Still, almost everyone will find something challenging here. I was particularly intrigued by his analysis of how statements about God work in liturgy, not as semi-redundant descriptions, but, he suggests, as ways of animating a particular kind of personal knowledge of the divine. Would that my mind were as lively and reflective as this 90-year-old’s!

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


United in Love: Essays on justice, art, and liturgy
Nicholas Wolterstorff, author
Joshua Cockayne and Jonathan C. Rutledge, editors
James Clarke & Co £27.50
Church Times Bookshop £24.75

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