Monday, May 24, 2010

An interview with Oliver Crisp

GD: Hello Oliver Crisp and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

OC: Well, I teach philosophical theology at the University of Bristol in the UK. I'm married to Claire and have three children: Liberty Alice (10), Elliot Anselm (8) and Mathilda Anais (3). Apart from theology and philosophy, I am keen on literature, music, art and walking. In my sparetime (of which there is very little with three children!) I like to paint a little.

GD: What made you want to be a theologian?

OC: Encountering Jesus.

GD: Great answer. How do you see the relationship between your work in academic theology and the Church's task of proclaiming the gospel?

OC: Theology that is not done in the service of the Church is seriously defective, in my view. Although I work in a so-called 'secular' university, I am very conscious of the need to address the Church in what I do. I hope that in some small way my own work may be of use to the Church through the trickle-down effect of students of theology and prospective ministerial candidates getting trained in theology and reading the sort of stuff I write. I have taught in both secular and confessional contexts in the UK and North America, and I think effective theological education is of vital importance for the life of the Church. If we want an educated and effective laity, we need an effective and educated clergy to teach them.

GD: You describe your new book God Incarnate [reviewed here] as a work of 'analytic theology'. What does that entail?

OC: Analytic theology is a way of doing theology using the aims and methods of analytic philosophy. The last quarter century has seen some terrific theology being done - increasingly by analytic philosophers. Analytic theology is about bringing this back into theology departments, using analytical rigor to pursue a properly theological (rather than philosophical) programme. Same method, different ends. Theology is always wedded to some sort of metaphysics. I am keen to see more analytic metaphysics in contemporary theology. It seems to me that such an approach has much in common with the tradition of western Christian theology. If one reads St Thomas or St Anselm or Turretin or Edwards one is quickly struck by how 'analytic' their theology actually is.

GD: How would you configure the relationship between Holy Scripture and the traditions of the Church?

OC: I've recently dealt with this in detail in the first chapter of my book, God Incarnate. I think that Scripture is the norming norm, the bedrock of all Christian theology. The 'tradition' consists in a cluster of different, subordinate norms, such as the catholic creeds, confessional statements (e.g. the Westminster Confession) and the works of particular theologians. But these are all subordinate to the Word of God.

GD: I have sometimes heard Evangelical preachers say that Jesus became a human person at the incarnation. Do you think that Evangelicals are sufficiently aware of the creedal heritage of the Church?

OC: No, I don't. The creedal heritage of the Church is very important. We cast it aside at our peril. Some evangelicals are very much embedded in the tradition (e.g. some Episcopalians or Lutherans or Presbyterians). But evangelicals in what we might loosely term 'non-confessional' traditions, such as some baptistic denominations, and charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to be less concerned about confessions, thinking they can simply leap over the tradition to Scripture. This is a mistake. We read Scripture in the household of faith, in company with the saints before us, not in isolation from them. And in so doing, we learn from our forebears (from their triumphs and their mistakes). It is folly and hubris to think one can set this great cloud of witnesses to one side in theologizing. Not that I think the fathers and Reformers of the Church trump Scripture. But they help us to understand Scripture better just as a teacher helps the student to understand matters that might be difficult to grasp were the student to be left alone with the class textbook.

GD: In the chapter on The Election of Christ you give attention to Karl Barth's attempt to reconfigure the doctrine of election. Barth's influence seems to be on the rise these days. Why do you think that may be?

OC: Because he is a theological titan. I am a critical, but I hope appreciative, reader of Barth. In some ways, I am more sympathetic to Barth than I used to be, though it is sometimes a sort of love-hate relationship! But Barth is a profound theologian by anyone's estimate, and someone worth wrestling with. One is unlikely to find any theologian with whom one concurs on every point of doctrine. Yet great theologians like Augustine or Anselm or Thomas or Calvin or Luther or Edwards or Barth are the sort of thinkers with whom we can engage with fruitful results. In some ways, Barth is frustrating and difficult. His language is hard, his way of expressing himself sometimes ponderous and pedantic. But he makes some very interesting and (I think) important contributions to theology. His doctrine of election is one such, although in point of fact, I think that there are several doctrines of election that can be found in his work not one. And although I disagree with the precise form his doctrine of election takes, I have learnt much from thinking through his understanding (or doctrines) of election. It has driven me back to the sources of the Reformed doctrine of election, to think through the precise shape of the doctrine once more. For that I am very grateful.

GD: Some aspects of the book are quite speculative. I'm thinking especially of the discussion of whether Jesus might have become man apart from the virgin birth and the idea of multiple incarnations. How do you square this speculative approach with your emphasis on Christology and the evangelion?

OC: I don't really see any conflict of interest here. Calvin often decries theological speculation in the Institutes. But he does plenty of it when it suits his purposes, as Paul Helm's recent work on Calvin has shown. So I am not convinced that all theological speculation is inappropriate - though some might be. The questions I address in the book which might be called 'speculative' are, I think, pushing at the limits of our understanding of what God reveals to us in Scripture. If we ask, 'What does it mean to say Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate?' we are already engaged in the sort of task I am interested in. Could God the Son have become human without a virgin birth? This is a question about the relationship between the fundamental act of God's self-revelation in Christ and the means by which he brings this self-revelation about. I think that is a legitimate theological question. As to multiple incarnations, this is another important matter, because it bears upon the question of the uniqueness of the Incarnation, and, by implication, the Christian gospel. Could there have been more than one such revelation? Could God reveal himself elsewhere, and at other times, in different ways from the way he has revealed himself to us in Christ? These are pressing questions in a world where religious pluralism, syncretism and downright relativism are live options.

GD: In some respects is analytic theology a retrieval of the methods of medieval scholasticism and Reformed Orthodoxy?

OC: Yes, you might think of it in that way. As I have already indicated, I think it is in keeping with much of this tradition of theology. I hope it is a legitimate successor to a scholastic or Reformed Orthodox approach. It seems to me that both the medivals and the Reformed (and Lutheran) orthodox have much to teach us today. There is a theological richness in their work that we have lost. Theirs is also an unapologetically dogmatic approach - what John Webster has recently called 'theological theology'. That is the sort of theology I am interested in. I am not concerned with paddling in the shallows of theology, spending all my time in methodological or apologetic matters. I am not terribly concerned with questions about whether we can do theology or not. I am interested in getting on with the job of doing theology in the service of the Church.

GD: In a footnote you say that there is no good theological reason for believing the zombies exist. What if you are wrong?

OC: That was supposed to be a bit lighthearted. I don't think there are any zombies ... but, you know, I could be wrong! As a matter of fact, I shall be teaching on this subject in the autumn. There are non-trivial issues in the neighbourhood here, which contemporary philosophy of mind has raised. For instance, what is consciousness? How can we tell that an individual is conscious, and not simply fashioned in order to imitate consciousness such as (one might suppose) a zombie does? Consciousness, the image of God and the soul - even, whether we have souls - these are closely related matters which cross the boundaries between neuroscience, philosophy and theology. And such issues are front-and-centre of much cutting edge contemporary research. So there is also a non-trivial aspect to my quip about zombies as well. You might think of zombies as a sort of test-case that makes us think more carefully about these matters.

GD: Zombie theology. Cool! Now, if time travel were possible, which figure from church history would you most like to meet, and what would you say to him/her?

OC: I'm not sure time travel is impossible. Certainly time travel to the future seems physically possible, given a sufficiently advanced technology. It is very difficult to isolate one voice from the great chorus of those who have gone before us as THE person I would like to meet if I had the chance. But in my top five (and in reverse diachronic order) would be Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, Augustine of Hippo. Asking me to choose between these would be difficult indeed, but perhaps St Anselm would be ahead by a whisker. As to what I would say to him, I think I would ask him about his idea of ratio fidei (the reason of faith) or about his doctrine of free will, which is very perplexing. But more than that I would love to go to a service of worship with him. Singing the psalms with the Benedictines in Canterbury Cathedral sounds very appealing.

GD: You are an artist and the cover of God Incarnate features your painting, "Jesus of Nazareth". What is the theological reasoning behind your attempt to portray Christ in that way? I mean, isn't it Nestorian to try and depict Jesus' humanity apart from his divine person?

OC: It would only be Nestorian if I said 'this is a picture of a human person called Jesus of Nazareth'. But this is not supposed to be a portrait of a human person; it is supposed to be a portrait of God incarnate. So I'm not really sure why this is Nestorian. I think more Protestants should read St John of Damascus' Three Treatises on the Divine Images. There is much more there to challenge Protestant sensibilities about religious art that one might think. As to the theological reasoning for my portrait of Christ, I wanted to depict Jesus as a Semite (not a white European) and in an aspect that emphasized the seriousness of dealing with the God-man. I was tired of seeing the sort of saccharine, 'Gentle Jesus, meek and mild' portraits of Christ one often sees in popular religious devotion and on the cover of books.

GD: Care to name your top three songs/pieces of music?

OC: That is a tough one, because I really love music of many different sorts. But, for now, these three come to mind:
- Lotti's Crucifixus: short and sublime.
- Bach's St Matthew's Passion: moving and achingly beautiful.
- The medieval pilgrim songs collected in the album ‘On The Way to Bethlehem’, especially Dinerasade, Melvana and Mari Stanko.

GD: What is the most helpful work of theology that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...

OC: Jonathan Edwards, The End of Creation in Paul Ramsey, ed. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8, Ethical Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). To my mind, this is surely the most sublime account of the motivation God has for creating the world ever penned by human hand. It is by turns intellectually stimulating and deeply moving as a piece of spiritual, as well as philosophical theology.

GD: Do you ever read theology blogs, if so which ones do you enjoy and have you ever thought of entering the field? "Crisp Theology" would be a great moniker.

OC: I do read theology blogs. In fact, I was introduced to them by my friend Ben Myers, whose blog, Faith & Theology I check most days. I do enjoy his posts. I also drop in on the Prosblogion sometimes, and on other blogs too, mostly philosophical or theological (e.g. Brian Leiter, Paul Helm's Helm's Deep; Robin Parry's Theological Scribbles; Steve Holmes's Shored Fragments amongst others). I must say I find it a fascinating medium. I have not seriously entertained the notion of entering the field myself, though. I'm not sure that I would not have enough of interest to say!

GD: Not having something of interest to say isn't something that unduly perturbs a lot of theology bloggers. But moving swiftly on, what is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

OC: What a question! I am not sure I am qualified to answer it. But one considerable problem (perhaps not the greatest, but a large one) is the intellectual torpor of much of evangelicalism. Too much of the time we simply don't know our theology or intellectual heritage well enough. That generates real problems because shallow theology means, more often than not, shallow spirituality. Robin Parry in his book Worshipping Trinity makes this point really well when he says that too many evangelical Christians he speaks to are effectively binitarians, not Trinitarians. Their understanding of the Trinity is borderline heretical. It would be incredible to think that someone might be romantically involved with someone else, and yet not care about finding out who that person was, or what they were like. But too many evangelicals seem to adopt just this sort of attitude to God: we want to worship but we don't want to know about him. Being a Christian involves loving God with heart, soul and mind. The first two are crucial, of course, but the last thing is not an optional extra. I think we need to recover our theological heritage and our sapiential love of God. This is the sort of Christian eudaimonism one finds in so many great theologians from Anselm to Edwards, for whom loving God is a holistic affair, not a matter of separating out heart and mind. If contemporary evangelicals did more of this, we might find ourselves surrounded by a far larger cloud of witnesses than we were expecting. For we will find that St Thomas and St Anselm are standing right alongside Edwards, Luther and Calvin in their adoration of the one Triune God.

GD: Now there's a thought to end on. Thanks for this fascinating conversation, Oliver. All the best! Bye.

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