January 21, 2014
Frances Young, God's Presence: A contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013, xiv + 474 pp., pb $29.99/£16.99
In 2011 Frances Young delivered a series of eight Bampton Lectures in the University of Oxford which, by all accounts, were well-received. She has now reworked them and added a good deal of supplementary material for which the original format was inadequate.
Dr. Young's aim was to take the theology of the church fathers and 'recapitulate' it for the modern world. As she says, the Fathers lived in a mental universe quite different from the one we are used to nowadays, which has sometimes led to their being dismissed as irrelevant to our concerns. This negative reaction has been particularly common among feminists, who have seen the Fathers as classic examples of the male chauvinistic attitudes against which they have done battle in more recent times. It is therefore especially important for a female theologian to address this question of relevance head on, which Dr. Young does not hesitate to do. She accepts that there is much in patristic literature that is alien to the modern age, but insists that there is still much that can be recovered and recycled for our benefit today. As she points out, much of the criticism which the Fathers have suffered has been hasty and ill-informed, and by a judicious selection and evaluation of the evidence, she hopes to demonstrate how they can still speak to the church today.
Within her own context, this approach represents a conservative turn. Dr. Young began her theological career in the company of men like John Hick and was a contributor to the notorious symposium The Myth of God Incarnate, a broadside attack on Christianity that appeared in 1977. She looks back on this as a stage in her life from which she has now moved on to a more willing acceptance of traditional faith. It is important to bear this in mind, because those who approach the subject from the starting-point of orthodox Christian teaching are liable to evaluate what she has to say rather differently. For, although she has some kind words to say about traditional Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and even Protestant Evangelicals (including Pentecostals), it is clear that she belongs to a liberal Methodist tradition which continues to guide and inform her judgments at key points. Thus, for example, she respects the Bible as the chief source of Christian teaching but not as the revealed Word of God. Penal substitutionary atonement is mentioned in passing as one possible view, but not regarded as the norm - indeed, she appeals to the Fathers as offering a way in which different atonement theories might be held in tension in the modern church. On the other hand, she repudiates extreme feminism and says nothing about homosexuality, which suggests that in some areas she is out of step with the diving forces of contemporary liberal thought.
It is very important for readers to recognise that Dr. Young's book is highly personal. Not everyone will know that she has been the chief care-giver to a highly disabled son for more than forty-five years, but everything she writes is set in that context. Arthur (her son) is a constant presence throughout the book, and it is clear that her theological positions have been worked out very much with reference to him. At times this can be very moving, and everyone who understands the demands that have been put on her throughout her career must respect her struggle and the commitment that has emerged from it. Facile answers to superficial questions are a luxury in which she cannot indulge and this dimension lends a weight to the book that it would not otherwise have.
In fact, the book really should have been conceived and written as a series of meditations on Arthur and other disabled people like him. Each chapter begins with a prelude which is a semi-imaginary paragraph or two that takes us into what purports to be a real-life situation of brokenness and challenge. The chapters also end with a lot of poetry on the same themes, poetry which Dr. Young has written herself. In between these bookends, as it were, there is a meditation on a series of patristic texts, followed by an exploration of how they might be read in a modern context.
Whether this formula works or not will largely depend on the reader's expectations and point of view. Those who are looking for a serious guide to patristic theology will be disappointed because Dr. Young's approach will not be systematic enough for them. She has isolated a number of important theological themes and chosen ancient texts that speak to them, but her selection is eclectic and not governed by any controlling principle like chronology or schools of thought. So we find writings from different periods and authors jumbled together because they appeal to Dr. Young and speak to what she wants to say, but which do not constitute a scientific investigation of what the early church thought or taught.
In some cases she is obviously mistaken. For example, she claims that the creeds of the early church began as liturgical texts and were later 'hijacked' to become tests of doctrinal orthodoxy (p. 417). It is true that there were a number of creedal statements, broadly similar to what we now know as the Apostles' Creed, that were used in baptismal liturgies, but from the beginning their purpose was to proclaim and impose doctrinal orthodoxy on those who came for the sacrament. What we now call the Nicene Creed was not introduced into the liturgy until some time after it was written, and it was always meant to be seen as a test of sound faith. This is so well known that it is astonishing to see Dr. Young fall into such an error. The fact that she has done so must alert the careful reader to the inadequacies of much of what she says about the early church, despite her familiarity with its literature.
What Dr. Young must know but does her best to ignore is that the church Fathers accepted the Bible as the revealed Word of God and submitted themselves to its teaching, even when they did not particularly like it. They were converted to a Biblical world-view, which they saw as the mind of Christ. This is something that Dr. Young cannot share in. As a child of her time, she rejects the concept of an infallible divine revelation and feels free to explore fresh directions, whether they stem from the text of Scripture or not. She is not bound to the deposit of faith in the way that the Fathers were, and so the judgments she makes of their work have a curiously inadequate feel to them. This would not matter so much if her purpose was purely academic, but it is not. She wants to appropriate the Fathers for today but on her terms, not theirs. Christians who see themselves as one in the faith with the early church will find this disconcerting at best, and unacceptable at worst. They will feel that we cannot pick and choose in this way, and that although the Fathers were not infallible, their heart was in the right place in a way that the heart of modern liberals is not.
For orthodox Christians, therefore, Dr. Young's attempt to recycle the teaching of the Fathers for today must be judged a failure. She means well, and within her own context she makes a brave stab at assessing material that others of her kind would ignore or deride. But to those who resonate with the tradition, and especially with the truths revealed in the Bible, much of what she writes will be jarring and appear to be divorced from any controlling theological principle. The recurring testimonies to her own experiences must be respected and often admired for what they are, but as an exercise in theological reconstruction the discerning reader will have to look elsewhere.
Gerald Bray is Research Professor at Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, AL