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Systematische Theologie: Dogmatik


Davies, Oliver


Theology of Transformation. Faith, Freedom, and the Christian Act.


Oxford u. a.: Oxford University Press 2014. 288 S. Geb. US$ 105,00. ISBN 978-0-19-968595-0.


Oliver O’Donovan

The presence of the exalted Christ, always at the centre of the language of faith, glorified in worship and authoritative in action, has been allowed to disappear from the discourse of academic theol-ogy. We are presented instead with an absent Christ substituted for by the Holy Spirit. The ecclesial body of Christ is reduced to the status of a mere analogy, and is no longer intelligible as the triumphant universal phase of Christ’s personal existence. Zwingli’s challenge to Luther’s doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body was symptomatic of a dangerous temptation at the beginning of modern theology. It has left us unable to answer the question »where is Christ?« as we should, finding him present in the whole material world, created new in him, and subjected to his authority.
That is the theological thesis around which Oliver Davies constructs an adventurous book, and it is a good thesis, well deserving of the exploration he gives it. He, in turn, is a theologian worthy of his thesis, able to think consistently and constructively, a theolo-gian of retrieval rather than revision. He is at his most compelling and memorable when exploring moments of theophany and glory in the Scriptures: an observation on the episode of the burning bush, a long discussion of Paul’s encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road, allow these familiar texts to emerge in new ways.
The most important consequence D. draws from his thesis is a sharp focus on the practical character of theology and its capacity to open a view onto ethics and politics. The moment of decision and action is the moment when the ascended Lord governs our imagination of our situation as agents. We understand belief most thor­oughly when we understand it in active terms, as the free enactment of his authority in our present moment of time, the »here and now«. And here a first anxiety arises: the »here and now« and »his-tory«, are the two meant as synonyms? The »here and now« is not a measure of time, and history reduced to the »here and now« is at best foreshortened, at worst taken out of time altogether. But agents under the authority of Christ, as D. presents them, seem to have no passage through time, no memory and no expectation, no past that offers rational grounds for their actions, no future that irradiates them with well-grounded hope. So his treatment of the ethical moment takes on a somewhat intuitionist character, cutting short the fuller exposition of Christian moral thought which seems to be promised.
There is a second major contention to engage with in D.’ book, a framing narrative about intellectual history and the place that theology and the sciences have occupied within it. It is a version of the now familiar story of pre-modern, modern and post-modern. First there was integration; then came the modern division of spirit and matter; now, led by the natural sciences, there is integration again. The change of scientific epoch occurring as we speak invites theology to resume its place among the sciences as an integrative discourse. »Transformational Theology« is the name D. gives to his agenda, which is to accomplish a total »reorientation« of the theological discipline to the intellectual conditions of the new age. With the solemnity due to such an epochal moment, Transformational Theology is presented to us not as a series of interesting proposals to be argued for and considered, but as a new phenomenon to be described.
But how does the framing narrative fit in with the primary theological thesis? The record of historical theology does not allow us to say that the Holy Spirit supplanted the kingship of Christ from the 16th century onwards. D.’ thesis may well expose a misplaced emphasis in the theology of the 20th century, but much 18th century theology defended the present reign of Christ, while the 19th had some strong advocates of his identity with the ecclesial body. And how does D.’ emphasis on practice improve upon the early-modern intellectual revolution, which was driven not merely by separating spirit and matter, as in Descartes, but by highlighting the role of the will in agency, stressing the inertness of natural forms and the life-giving wizardry of technical control.
The narrative serves D. as an overarching myth, situating our current intellectual endeavours in a historical narrative that seems to make them both necessary and inevitably fruitful. But, as myths do, it encourages the confusion of thought with life. Even if it may turn out, in retrospect, that the truth of our present times was as the mythical narrative projected it, and that the rich but vaguely indicated possibilities of a »non-reductive« natural science were not a chimera but a reality, we could never learn about these times from such a narrative, since we have first to live them before they can be a part of any narrative. The concept of a present moment in history is not itself a historical fait accompli; it is simply a concept, perhaps a possibility, an invitation to explore what may be done. When we are told, then, that a task so peculiarly of our own age and, as it seems, so peculiarly difficult, as »cutting across […] the differences between world religions«, is »easily« done, simply because Transformational Theology has told us that inter-religious discussion is not about »concepts«, we shall suspect a large measure of wishful thinking.
Narratives of intellectual history can be illuminating, but they need to be employed with discretion. D. is a theologian who thinks, which, with theology still dominated by the study of texts and liter­ature, is of special importance to us. His theological voice, which could speak very helpfully to our time, will be heard more clearly if it can discard the wrappings of an enframing myth which simply muffle it.