Why does theology need undoing?

A guest post from Chris Greenough, author of the latest SCM Research title Undoing Theology

Decades ago, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) produced some pioneering work on the concept of gender which built on the work of postmodern thinkers and sexologists. She exposed how gender is a kind of performance. So, whereas gender had been previously considered as part of our essentialist nature, it was revealed as a construct. This construct was political, as gender was produced through power and social relations. So, Butler exposed how gender had no foundations but our understanding of gender had come about through ideals of male and female being constantly repeated. In one famous example, Butler exposes how a drag queen breaks the concept of gender in terms of performativity. In 2004, Butler authored Undoing Gender, a reconsideration of her earlier thoughts and principles in Gender Trouble, considering transgender, intersex bodies and queer theory. Queer theory serves to rupture the repetitions, and once gender is no longer repeated, it is undone.

Despite the enormous importance and influence of Butler’s work, it is highly theoretical. Viviane Namaste is critical of this, as she writes ‘Undoing Theory’ (2009), pointing to the fact that Butler’s work does not engage with real lives. Bringing Butler and Namaste together, I state that the challenge for Christianity in the 21st century is to become undone. To undo theology is an act of practical theology, which engages head on with issues of life stories, gender and sexuality.

Undoing Theology therefore moves away from what has been traditionally constructed in theology. The building blocks of theology are often referred to as scripture, tradition or reason, yet theology must engage in conversations about God rooted in real living experiences. The book undoes theology by looking at ‘non-normative’ lives. By ‘non-normative’ I refer to people whose self-identifications and/or sexualities rub against traditional Christian understandings of gender and sex. Traditional theological talk about non-normative gender and sexuality has often been damning to queer lives, resulting in negative positional statements from the churches and the use of the Bible to condemn LGBT lives, for example. Whereas some see non-normative sexuality and Christianity as irreconcilable, the process of undoing theology allows them to become bed friends. In the book, I focus on life stories from three non-normative Christians and on how non-normativity helps to articulate the protagonists’ expressions of faith.

The first life story comes from Alyce, an intersex identifying Catholic. Alyce and Jerry share the same physical body. For sixty years, Alyce has been a hidden part of Jerry’s gender presentation. Her narrative describes how the concepts of sin and shame have shaped her self-understanding in terms of her intersex body. She describes how she has felt ‘neither this nor that’ in terms of trying to fit in with the traditional models of gender: male or female. Reflecting on her own experiences and her strong faith, Alyce uses a metaphor of the Trinity to see how she understands herself as truly created in God’s image. The idea of being both, and neither/nor is reconciled in a third person which offers the opportunity for gender satisfaction. The importance of undoing theology for Alyce is that is allows her to reflect theologically on her own non-normative experiences. She sees herself as God’s creation.

An ex-gay minister provides the platform for the second story, from Caddyman. This life-story exposes the internal and emotional struggles from an individual whose life is spent wrestling with being gay and Christian. In spite of his own struggle, Caddyman reveals how he moved into a large US based gay conversion therapy group, and spent almost twenty years praying the gay away by offering the possibility of ‘conversion’ for other men struggling with their faith and sexuality, as a leader of the conversion therapy. His story ends in the present day where he accepts his own homosexuality and is in a relationship with another male. The change in viewpoint and story exposes how the stories we tell about our own lives and beliefs are temporal and can be constructed and reconstructed. In terms of theology, this points to the instability of theology which has been repeated, but which can be rewritten.

The final story offered in the book is from Cath, a Christian woman who engages in kink activities. Cath’s life story describes her youth as saturated in ideas of what a ‘good girl’ should be in Christian terms, an identity which she found difficult to maintain. As a heterosexual identifying female, Cath’s non-normativity lies in the BDSM practices she engages in, which are physically and spiritually transforming for her. The practices offer an emotional release, and for Cath, this is similar to prayer. Not only is theology undone in terms of the beliefs of Cath, but also in terms of her worship practices.

Undoing Theology breaks the repetitions of traditional theology, by offering a bottom-up approach to story-telling from messy lives. This is the plural opposite of traditional theology which offers a top down approach from scripture, tradition or reason. The story-telling approach shows how our understanding of ourselves as Christian or anything else is constructed and reconstructed, edited and amended, made and unmade, done and undone. Yet this extends to God too. Undoing Theology exposes how God has been constructed as a fixed identity by theology, whereas the very nature of God is unfixable, uncapturable and unpredictable. The point of engaging in sexual storytelling is to see the possibilities of imagining God alternatively on an individual and subjective level. Undoing Theology allows a space where the messiness of life and the divinity of God can merge. By undoing God, we free the divine from bondage which has been repeated through a rigid, traditional theological frame. Undoing Theology allows us to peek through the blinds and break the binds of Christian theology in order to offer a wider, more creative understanding of God in the lives of individual Christians.

Chris Greenough is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religion at Edge Hill University. His work explores the intersections of sexuality, gender, biography, living experiences and faith.


The cross in the trenches

The First World War chaplain, G.A. Studdert Kennedy, known as Woodbine Willy was born 135 years ago today, on the 27th June 1883. Earlier this year we published an annotated critical edition of his book The Hardest Part. In the book Studdert Kennedy reflects movingly from within the trenches on where God could be found in all the horror and misery of the western front. This extract comes from the first chapter. 

Image result for christ in the trenches

It’s about my time to strike off to the left – on my own. There’s the wood in which I’ve got to find a place for an Aid Post. It’s being shelled pretty heavily. I believe I’m getting windy again. Damn all nerves! Dear Christ, Who suffered on the Cross and wouldn’t take that sleeping stuff, give me strength to be a decent chap. Come on. How I hate being alone. It’s rotten. One pal makes all the difference. But He was alone. It’s funny how it is always Christ upon the Cross that comforts; never God upon a throne. One needs a Father, and a Father must suffer in His children’s suffering. I could not worship the passionless potentate.

He who did most has borne most, the strongest has stood the most weak
’Tis that weakness in strength that I cry for, my flesh that I seek.
In the Godhead – I seek it and find it.

I don’t know or love the Almighty potentate – my only real God is the suffering Father revealed in the sorrow of Christ. That was a near one. These Boche shells can’t have as much in them as they used to have or I would be – “Today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.” Yes, that’s it.

*     *     *    *    *

Good Lord, what’s that? A dead Boche. I kicked him hard, poor little devil. He lies like a tired child that has cried itself to sleep. He looks puzzled, as if he were asking, Why me? My God, my God, why me? What had he to do with it, anyhow? Not much great blond beast about him, He couldn’t hurt a decent well-developed baby. That little chap is the very fly-blown incarnation of the filth of war. You can see all Europe asking questions in his weak blue eyes. War serves them all alike; good and bad, guilty and innocent, they all go down together in this muddy, bloody welter of mad misery. How can a man believe in an absolute Almighty God? What is He doing? “Peradventure He sleepeth.” The God that answers by fire let Him be God. It is an odd thing God doesn’t seem to work that way now. It would be a simple way of solving things, but Heaven makes no sign.

*     *     *    *    *

Here’s the very place I’m looking for. It will make a splendid Aid Post. I wish it was not shelled so heavily. The Red Cross makes no odds. Nothing makes much odds. God Himself seems non-existent – the Almighty Ruler Whom all things obey. He seems to have gone to sleep and allowed all things to run amuck. I don’t believe there is an absolute Almighty Ruler. I don’t see how any one can believe it. If it were a choice between that God and no God, I would be an atheist. But how near the God Whom Christ revealed comes at a time like this: nearer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet, the Father of sorrow and love Who spoke through the crucified Son.

O Christ my God, my only God, so near, so suffering, and so strong, come down into my soul, and into the souls of all my comrades, and make us strong to suffer for honour and for right. Christ the Lord of courage, kill my fear and make me now and always indifferent to death that I may live and die like Thee.

*     *     *    *    *

That is the lot now, Doc. The sergeant died, so we did not bring him down. I’ll bury him up there to-morrow. It’s quiet now. They’re all going well over. What a lovely night! A million stars, like an army with torches marching through the darkness to the dawn. Points of light they seem, and they are shining worlds. All our astronomy does not bring us much nearer to the truth. I suppose all astronomy started with

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.

And it leaves us wondering still – only more so. Almighty God! When you look at them, “Almighty” seems the right word still. It kind of says the mystery right, the mystery of life that science only makes more deep. God’s fruits, the silent silver beauty of the stars, but – ugh! how that poor chap groans. All my togs are covered with his blood. Doc, I’m going to sleep. Call me in an hour. “Father, into Thy hands.” It’s always the Cross in the end – God, not Almighty, but God the Father, with a Father’s sorrow and a Father’s weakness, which is the strength of love; God splendid, suffering, crucified – Christ.  … There’s the Dawn.

Extract from The Hardest Part: A Centenary Critical Editionedited by Thomas O’Loughlin and Stuart Bell


Can we be Apathetic about the Apophatic?

Here’s a guest post from the Revd Canon Dr Janet Williams, West of England Ministry Training Course Dean at Ripon College Cuddesdon, and author of Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginners Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality. 

When you let a book loose upon the world it’s a like a sort of childbirth – the thing you’ve conceived and nurtured in your interior privacy now has its own independent existence in the world, for good or ill.  Your darling treasure may go to nursery and have his hair pulled, his name corrupted into an insult, his charming lisp mocked.

Not that Seeking the God Beyond is so much of a treasure, nor am I (I hope) so precious a parent as all that. Nonetheless the wits who take this to be a book on ‘Apathetic’ theology give pause for thought. What if they’re right??

After all, you could interpret my argument, that none of the words we use of God are entirely reliable, as implying that it doesn’t matter which words we use. Or whether we use any words at all.  You could interpret the emphasis on silence and on non-thinking as a rich source of excuses for not doing any serious theology at all.

Couldn’t you?  After all, isn’t that what all the appealing to mystery actually comes down to, in the end?  A refusal to do any hard thinking about God?

It’s hard to imagine why anyone would bother reading a book on apathetic theology. Or why anyone would bother with all the sweat and stress of writing one, for that matter.


Of course, we lovers of apophasis could take advantage of the occasion to talk about the true meaning of ‘apatheia’, a Greek philosophical term for the state of mind that can no longer be taken hostage by passion, that is resilient in the face of emotional storm. In this technical sense, apophatic theology really is apathetic theology: a way of talking about and with God that is rooted in a balanced mind, where anger, fear, shame, ambition, contest, and so on can no longer drive us into the dust and leave us choked and filthy. However, academic appeals to technical terminology are likelier to invite than to rebut the threatened apathy among my readers.

A wiser response might be to take the misnomer with a pinch of salt. Yes, indeed, the apophatic theologian is just as unlikely as the apathetic theologian (if such a creature exists) to mount the barricades when disputes arise over holy words. Such disputes at some level simply elicit wrinkled brows and a ‘Meh!…’ autoresponse.

But the apophatic theologian’s indifference to sacred words is relative, not absolute as the apatheist’s is.  To find the God beyond word and thought, we still need to go through speaking and thinking, seriously.  Words may not catch God in holy entirety, but they can and do hold us safe for a while, anchoring us to the mountainside when the wind gusts and the scree slips, until it’s safe to pack up and move on again.  Words are capable of more than conveying limited information about God: they give voice to our desires and pains; they paint pictures, frame supposals, unfurl the prayer-flags of imagination, give shape and texture to our songs. Words are like meals: we will die without them, and equally will grow ill if we hold on, tight-arsed, to too many of them and refuse to let digestion run its course.  What drives the apophatic theologian beyond any particular words is not a lack of passion but a surfeit of it – an insatiable desire for a real encounter with God, and not just a description of someone else’s meeting once-upon-a-time.  What we desire is holy intimacy, and we are prepared to put our whole selves at risk for the sake of its possibility.

Apathy? Let’s talk about apathy, then. Apatheists are the ones who don’t care whether God exists or not, aren’t moved by the possibility of a cosmic love-story, can’t be bothered to find out what Jesus really meant. Some apatheists pontificate loudly about religion. Some of them regularly go to church, voting for the beauties of inherited liturgies and buildings, over any claims to have good-news of a revolution to tell.  And the apatheists have a lot going for them when you line them up against the ones who are willing to do battle over the meaning of Biblical words.


It was 1969 when Jonny Cash released A Boy Named Sue. Back then, a boy with a girl’s name was apt to provoke ridicule, taunting. A boy who went to school in a dress would surely get beaten up, quite possibly by the headmaster. One lad I went to school with got beaten up just for choosing to go to cookery class instead of woodwork.

Times have certainly changed.  Scottish kilts and Arab thawbs are reasonably familiar sights. From time to time, boys go to school in skirts. No-one seriously polices the gender allocation of names anymore: multiculturalism, as much as identity politics, has accustomed us to take people as we find them. But back then, Cash’s words resonated with many who had had it rough for other reasons: “It seems I had to fight my whole life through… I grew up quick, I grew up mean.”

Well, bring it on then. Call this holy journey to the God beyond a tawdry jaunt into apathy, if you like. Let’s just see how it turns out.

Seeking the God Beyond is available now via our website. Order before the end of June to buy the book at a special launch price.

9 New Titles Coming This Summer…

There’s plenty on the way over the summer months. Here’s a run-down of what to look out for.

In August, we’re publishing Eve Poole’s new book Buying God: Consumerism and Theology. 

In the book, Dr Poole who is the Third Church Estates Commissioner argues that the Church does have vital and useful things to say about the economy, rooted in theology; and a vital role to play in redeeming the marketplace both at home and abroad. Deeply theological but nonetheless accessible, the book is a fascinating and engaging call-to-arms for Christians to take seriously the need to understand their role and responsibility as consumers.

The theologian and ethicist Peter Sedgwick describes it as “a wonderful book. It is very accessible, theologically sophisticated, and rooted in a deep knowledge of commerce, management and consumerism, in which Eve Poole is an expert. I know of no better book for guiding Christians in the day to day world of consumerism. Inspiring, compelling and very easy to read, it deserves a wide readership”

The New Monastic Movement is a vibrant source of renewal for the church’s life and mission. Many involved in this movement have quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conviction that the church must recover ancient spiritual disciplines if it is to effectively engage “the powers that be.” Melodies of a New Monasticism adopts a musical metaphor of polyphony (the combination of two or more lines of music) to articulate the way that these early Christian virtues can be woven together in community. Creatively using this imagery, this book draws on the theological vision of Bonhoeffer and the contemporary witness of George MacLeod and the Iona Community to explore the interplay between discipleship, doctrine, and ethics.

Written by Craig Gardiner, tutor in Christian Doctrine at the South Wales Baptist College, the book has been described by Rowan Williams as “a work of outstanding originality, a hugely fresh and far-reaching essay on Christian community.” It’s published in August.

In July, we’re publishing Being Saved: Explorations in Soteriology and Human Ontology. With contributions from leading theologians and philosophers, including Oliver Crisp and Paul Helm, Being Saved brings together a series of essays on the major topics relating to the doctrine of salvation. The book provides readers with a critical resource that consists of an integrative philosophical-theological method, and will invigorate this much-needed discussion. The editors are Marc Cortez, Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, Joshua R. Farris, Assistant Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, and S. Mark Hamilton is a PhD candidate at the Free University of Amsterdam.

Professor Charles Taliaferro, Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College says of the book: ‘This is a brilliant, multifaceted collection of original, engaging essays on the Christian concept of salvation. Being Saved is evidence of the dynamic, robust flourishing today of Christian philosophy and theology.”

Two new Studyguides will be published in the coming months. Our Studyguide to Liturgy by Stephen Burns has long been important core reading on introductory modules on Christian Worship. The 2nd edition of the studyguide is fully revised, updated and expanded. The book takes account of new developments in scholarship, engages with new contexts for liturgical celebration (notably, fresh expressions as part of a mixed economy of church), encompasses recent revisions in liturgy and seeks to broaden the engagement beyond the British context to consider the wider global context. It will ensure the book continues to be an essential introduction to the topic. The new edition is published in August.

In September, we’re publishing a brand new studyguide, The SCM Studyguide to Catholic Liturgy, Written by liturgists – pastoral and academic – who make up the Liturgical Formation Sub-Committee of the Department for Christian Life and Worship of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, this studyguide offers an introduction to Catholic Liturgy.

Covering the history, content and debates around the use of liturgy in the Catholic church, each chapter includes points for reflection, end of chapter questions, and an indication of further reading. A book-wide glossary is also provided.

It will offer a vital resource  across the various courses and initiatives linked to Catholic ministerial formation as well as Catholic lay education

e have arrived at a critical juncture in the postwar order that has prevailed in Europe since 1945. Confronting Religious Violence: A Counternarrative begins with the premise that violence committed in God’s name is always an act of desecration. Hope of redress must start, the book argues, in re-imagining the intended relationship amongst the Abrahamic faiths. Contributors come together to consider how a re-reading of the hallowed texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might mitigate the militancy whereby group identity can lead to deadly conflict. The book brings together an impressive lineup of contributors, including Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at the
Yale Divinity School; Guy G. Stroumsa, Martin Buber Professor of Comparative Religion
Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. Other stellar contributors include the Director of the Center of Theological Enquiry in Princeton, William Storrar and the journalist and poet Eliza Griswold.

Joint-edited by the philosopher, scholar and former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, the book is due for publication in September.

John Atherton, Visiting Professor in Religion, Ethics and Economics at Chester University and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation in Manchester, sadly died in 2016. He was the author of numerous notable SCM Press titles, including Challenging Religious Studies, and Transfiguring Capitalism. In September, we’re publishing Theology for Changing Times: John Atherton and the Future of Public Theology edited by Chris Baker and Elaine Graham. From wealth creation to wealth distribution and social ethics, from urban mission to religious studies and psychology the work of Atherton was breathtaking in scope and variety. Unifying all of his work, however, was a concern with engaging the work of theology with wider society.

With contributions from some of the leading lights in public theology today, including Anna Rowlands, Malcolm Brown, Ellen Charry and Jonathan Chaplin, this book offers not only an appreciation of John Atherton’s work within a prodigiously large array of disciplines, but also an attempt to ask `what next’, taking his work forward and considering where the future of public theology might lie. John Atherton’s last published article is also reproduced.

Qualitative Research in Theological Education brings together a diverse group of scholars to consider the theological values arising from and contributing to their use of qualitative research in scholarship and teaching. The book offers a careful consideration of the pedagogical and administrative challenges involved in teaching qualitative research and its various sub-disciplines such as ethnography. As a whole, the book argues that the teaching of QR methods is critical to the theological, ethical, spiritual, and/or pastoral formation of ministers and theological scholars Contributors include Elaine Graham, Dawn Llewellyn, Anthony Reddie, Brett C. Hoover and David Mellott

Finally, many Christian commentators have been taken aback by the seemingly unstoppable rise of the `mindfulness revolution’ that has occurred over the past decade. But there are many Christians who worry that mindfulness techniques constitute a covert import from Buddhism. How far are Christians adopting Buddhist techniques, ideas and ideologies? Do we risk squaring Buddhist ideology and approaches to fit the Christian circle? Beginning with an exploration of the practice of mindfulness in its Buddhist origins, Christian Mindfulness: The Prayer of the Heart reflects on the practical use of mindfulness, its place within the Christian tradition of prayer, and its future within the Christian tradition. Professor Peter Tyler (St Mary’s University, Twickenham) argues that far from a foreign import mindfulness is not only endemic but essential to the Christian understanding of how the human person relates to the divine. Each chapter concludes with practical exercises to help the reader in their understanding of mindfulness in the Christian context.  Published in September.

How does the shape of your theology affect the shape of your church?

A guest post from Andrew Dunlop.


I consider myself a pioneer. I was not ordained as a pioneer — that designation hadn’t quite come into use at the time of my selection by the Church of England, and in any case at that point in my life I was still getting my head around calling to ordination, never mind anything else. Over the course of my training and curacy I became more and more inspired hearing stories of Christians doing innovative things in order to reach out to those beyond the fringes of Church. The Fresh Expressions movement was just beginning. After training, I was a curate in Plymouth, and the nearby TubeStation, the surf-church formed next to the beach of Polzeath, Cornwall, was just starting to make waves (if you will excuse my expression).

At the same time in Plymouth I was a part of a very successful ministry to parents and toddlers set up by the previous curate. A popular mothers and toddlers group had been running for some years on Friday mornings, yet beyond using the church hall and interacting with the volunteers, there was little flow into church life. The previous curate saw the missional potential of that popular group and brought in three simple changes. First, they were to offer holistic hospitality. Volunteers began not only to welcome people, and serve the tea and cakes, but to actively take an interest in the lives of those who came. In fact, each week people would be on the rota simply to ‘be’, not to ‘do’. Second, they became unashamedly Christian. This didn’t mean forcing anyone to worship, but a simple change of focus during the closing group story and song time gently introduced Bible stories and Christian children’s songs. These two changes, in particular the trusting friendships that formed between church members and parents, paved the way for the third. A Christian basics course (in this case, Christianity Explored) would be offered at the same time for anyone who wished to take part. The parents were already used to coming to the building at that time, and because they knew and trusted the volunteers, they were happy to leave their children in their care for and hour. These changes resulted in a fair number taking the course and making professions of faith. Some also joined the Sunday morning family worship congregation and midweek house groups.

However, out of those who professed faith, only relatively few made the jump to Sunday morning. What was happening? I came to think it was two things. First, although the Sunday morning service was lively and friendly and full of families, there was still a significant culture gap. The parents had come to faith by watching short punchy videos, having engaging discussions, and praying together. Sunday mornings required them to sing corporately and sit and listen to a 25 minute teaching slot. There was no time for discussion. Bible teaching was important to me, and important to the church I was a part of and this shaped the form of church that occurred. Even though these Sunday morning Bible expositions were usually engaging, they were a far cry from the interactive participative mode of discovery that the new Christians had experienced in coming to faith. Second, these new Christians, from unchurched backgrounds, simply did not prioritize Sunday mornings. There were many other competing demands on their time. What I came to realize in hindsight (but unfortunately only after I’d left Plymouth!), was that a better approach may have been to make Friday mornings their ‘church’.

Like many pioneers and church planters I became concerned that the way we were doing church was not making it easy for those new to the faith to fully engage and I started investigating fresh expressions of church. I was appointed to a pioneer role on a new-build development on the edge of Northampton and began to try to put these principles into practice. I wanted to make disciples, and I thought the best way to do that in a new development where there was no pre-existing community would be by creating community — something most residents were hungry for. After five years we ended up with a network of neighbourhood activities which aimed to bring people together. Alongside these were various groups that enabled people to explore aspects of faith. The story of what we did is told in Out of Nothing: A Cross-Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions.

In my case, as in the case of the traditional church I where served my curacy, theology shaped the church. My approach was based on a desire to see people come to faith which arose from my understanding of mission. This then drove me to create close community (koinonia), and from there to make disciples and form church. Theology shaped my missiology which shaped my ecclesiology. In other words, what I believed about God – who he is and how he interacts with the world – affected my understanding of mission which then shaped how I formed the new church. This is an important realization, and it is worth reflecting on the theology we bring into a new venture, as this will inevitably affect the shape of church that emerges.

This is one of the central arguments of systematic theologian Peter Schmiechen, who, first in Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church, and then in Defining the Church for our time, argues that Christology and ecclesiology are inextricably linked. For example, he claims that a concentration on Christ’s incarnation leads to a sacramental understanding of church. A theology which emphasizes scripture and a personal response to faith (most often communicated alongside a justification or penal substitution theory of atonement) can result in a church that is heavily intellectual and teaching-based. Different atonement theories can affect the practical outworking of church with regard to how the sacraments are understood and practiced and how Christians are encouraged to respond to Christ, what the role of the Holy Spirit should be, how one participates in community, how the church engages in service to others or shows solidarity with the suffering.[1] Later Schmiechen focuses on a different element of Christology, indicating that the promise of Christ’s return offers hope for the present, thus shaping the church into becoming ‘communities of hope’, which ‘see, celebrate, and pray for the coming of the Kingdom.’[2] This approach could then reveal itself ecclesiologically in churches which aim to bless the community through practical service and social action.

Taking this idea that theology shapes missiology which shapes ecclesiology, in my book Out of Nothing, alongside telling the story of my experience of birthing a new form of church, I have tried to assess different approaches to theology and their value in forming missional church. As I looked back and saw what God was doing, I wondered whether a theology that began from a place of encounter (based on Christ’s once-and-for-all and ongoing work of atonement) may be a better place to start. In the big picture, God’s action comes about entirely through Christ’s work in his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. Within the atonement we find reconciliation, salvation, sacrifice, forgiveness, victory, justification, sanctification and so on. I certainly saw God in action in these ways in the lives of those we lived amongst on our new-build development in Northampton. What would a church look like if its primary work was understood as creating space for God to be known and experienced? It would be a place where people could come to experience justification, reconciliation, sanctification, and the whole breadth of Christ’s atoning work in their lives and in their communities.

[1] Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 353–7.

[2] Peter Schmiechen, Defining the Church for Our Time: Origin and Structure, Varied and Viability, (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2012), pp. 112–3.

From September 2018, Andrew Dunlop will be tutor in Context-based training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Previously he taught at Cranmer Hall, Durham and led the  East Durham Mission Project.

Out of Nothing  is published at the end of the month, but you can preorder a copy now with a special pre-publication discount. 

Found in the SCM Press Archive: “Is Hitler God’s Judgement on Us?”

Image result for hitler and crowdAs the Second World War gathered pace, the Church found itself asking some penetrating questions about where God was in all the mess of war and the horror of Nazism. In this extract from the first chapter of Britain and the War,  published by SCM Press in 1941 and recently uncovered in the SCM Press archive, the author, Daniel T. Jenkins, asks whether Hitler could in some way be God’s judgement. 


“To discuss the subject of Britain and the Future in the spring of 1941 must appear to many as the height of rashness. At the moment we can see nothing but the black clouds closing in upon us for a new storm, and we can have few ideas of what the landscape will be like when the storm has passed. That is true, and I am not going to be so foolish as to make prophecies about the post-war world and the balance of forces in it. But it is equally try that, under God, there will be a future and that unless we are equipped to do so properly we shall only repeat the mistakes of the past. The pressure of events is very great upon us at present, and most of us are living from day-to-day. It is all the more important, therefore, that we should try to make the effort, especially those of us who are young, to stand outside events for a time and ask ourselves what they mean, to inquire where we are going and whether it is the right direction and what we need to equip us for the journey.

…Now the first condition of a right attitude to the future is a right understanding of the present and of the past. Part of the vague reluctance to think about the future which so general to-day is undoubtedly due to our failure to understand how we allowed ourselves to reach our present desperate position. After all, we did try hard in the twenty years between the last war and this to prevent war happening again, and yet there have been more wars in the last five years than history has ever known before. We are at a loss therefore to know what to do about the future.

…There are many, however, who feel no difficulty about the future…Our course of action in the future is perfectly simple. First, we must win the war decisively. Then we must establish order in the world…And then we must set ourselves to the work of reconstruction in our own land…What is the meaning, then, of all this talk of Hitler being God’s judgment on us? Our hands may not be spotless, but they are much cleaner than those of most people, and there will be no reasonable doubt that it is God’s will that we should break Hitler and deliver Europe from his barbarous tyranny. Indeed, if God be the God of justice and of mercy we can confidently claim that He is on our side. To talk about Hitler being God’s judgment on us is therefore sentimental cant and, what is more than that, it is rank defeatism.

This attitude is very common. We might call almost call it the ‘official’ attitude towards the war….But the situation is not as simple as that. The speeches and the treaties, the invasions and the battles with which the politicians deal and which the newspapers record are not the whole of history, and situations cannot be judged by them alone. Hitler did not spring up suddenly from the void.

..Men everywhere have lost their understanding of what their true nature is and what the things by which alone they can live are. The spiritual capital of Europe and of the whole of the modern world through which Europe was built up by the faith of our forefathers in the living God who made and rules all things and in the light of whose revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ they saw their own true nature and the way to attain to the fulness of manhood. He showed them from whence they came and to whither they go and how to overcome the forces of sin, death and the devil, and to enjoy the liberty of the children of God together as one family.

…Civilisation is cracking up and men are either being driven to desperate measures like Fascism and Communism to keep it together, or else they lapse into dreary and hopeless indifference…The great sign of this is the transformation of democracy, from which we expect so much, into the mass. We must never forget that it was out of democtracy that the tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin emerged…God has not sent Hitler merely to punish us for our sins. He has sent Hitler to be a startlingly vivid reminder to us of what man without God is like.”