Symposium Introduction

God’s Presence is a book adrift. This isn’t to say that it lacks purpose or direction—it has both—but rather to note the relative ease with which it glides across vast oceans of discourse, near harbors historical, pastoral, homiletical, philosophical, and poetic, without ever docking. Its buoyancy is, to extend the metaphor, afforded by its methodological engine: Frances Young thinks the task of theology better performed as exploration than explanation. Hers is an exploratory journey, then, an “endeavor to expound patristic theological argument” whose central purpose is to “cross boundaries within the discipline of theology in a search for integration.” Young charts a course navigated principally by patristic thinkers—Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Macarius, and their like—whose work severally and collectively represents the kind of integration she thinks modern theology places under erasure. What that integration entails is on Young’s account nothing less than a recovery of theology as a first-order discourse. So construed, theology has proper to it not only intimacy with and entanglement in the life of the church, but also an acknowledgement of prayer and preaching as its primordial font. That theology seldom recognizes this is a deep lack, Young thinks, and so it’s to an awareness of such that her book is ordered.

The exploration Young navigates proceeds along eight lines of inquiry, each of which form a chapter whose first draft formed one of the eight Bampton Lectures she delivered at Oxford in 2011. She begins with chapters on theology’s first principles, on the doxological shape of Christian cosmology, on the creation and restoration of the soul, and on the imago Dei and theological anthropology, all of which marshall patristic insights for contemporary debates about theodicy, emergentism, evolution, and so on. The last four chapters render other systematic themes (soteriology, pneumatology, mariology, and Trinity) in vivid shades: we get, for instance, a subtle ecumenical reflection on the ordination of women centered around patristic models of Mary as ‘type’ of the church. Nowhere throughout does Young’s fixed attention on prayer and preaching as the stuff of theology stray: a sermonette and a poem (sometimes two) crown each chapter. There, exactly because the theological patterns sketched in the chapters are embroidered with homiletical and poetic accents, we get the sense that Young means more to show than simply to tell us why and how prayer and preaching are among theology’s paradigmatic exercises.

The broad spectrum of theology’s topoi on offer here invites diverse response. Ilaria L.E. Ramelli speaks with Young’s text in a largely historical key, which is to say she appreciates and offers dubia—the last belongs properly to the first—about Young’s reading of patristic texts. She sees in Young’s synthesis of historical, pastoral, and systematic thought, further, a way of going on; a model, that is, for retrieving and redisplaying patterns of patristic thought for use and delectation. John W. Wright takes up one of the dubia Ramelli flags, namely what both take to be Young’s sometimes ambiguous relationship with her patristic sources. To appropriate or translate these texts with an end toward rendering them more palatable to or resonate with contemporary concerns, Wright worries, is already to admit of (post)modern bifurcations. He wonders, too, reflecting on a recent loss of his own, whether the witness of Arthur doesn’t already transcend these and other bifurcations. Hannah Hunt sees in Young a fellow laborer in fields patristic and poetic whose trade-tools are words. Words gather Hunt’s reflections, then, about the non— or extra—verbal language, about Ephrem’s poetics, and about biblical naming. Tamsin Jones, last, reads God’s Presence as an apologia in the classical sense, a bit of rhetoric meant to render seductive the cosmos that patristic texts create and lovingly burnish. It’s exactly because Jones finds Young’s reception of patristic thought so persuasive (because so careful) that she wonders if scientists of the sort Young addresses will find their tradition as delicately portrayed, too. Only a book like Young’s can stimulate such varied conversation in so open a space.

“The sublime Word plays in all kinds of forms,” Gregory Nazianzen wrote—a description Maximus Confessor took as an overture for the Christian to imitate and participate in divine revelry. She never mentions this bit of ancient wisdom, but Young’s work embodies it: God’s Presence is a protracted performance of theology whose revelry contributes to (instead of detracting from) its rigor. Her cool indifference to fixed genres of theological style, too, is as refreshing as it is stimulating; it’s the kind of theological writing, I suspect, that only a long and deep intimacy with patristic texts, sustained by a longer and deeper intimacy with Arthur, can yield—a suspicion confirmed in part by her poignant epilogue. Read Frances Young for that playfulness, then; read her for her expert know-how. But read her.


The Panelists

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli

John Wright

Hannah Hunt

Tamsin Jones

About the Author

Frances Young previously served as Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology, Dean of Arts, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham. She is the author of The Making of the Creeds (1991), Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (1997) and Brokenness and Blessing (2007). She is co-editor of The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature (with Lewis Ayres and Andrew Louth, 2004) and the first volume of The Cambridge History of Christianity (with Margaret M. Mitchell, 2006).

Tamsin Jones


New Wine and Old Wineskins

The postmodern attempt to avoid the pitfalls of modernity through a retrieval of the premodern is a well-worn strategy during the past thirty years, especially in discourses of continental philosophy of religion. Certainly, late antiquity’s striking compatibility with a number of postmodern concerns (e.g., pluralistic and performative theories of textual interpretation, emphasis on distance and alterity, the conventionality of language) has been well attested. Different rationales for this retrieval can be identified: contemporary thinkers may be seeking to garner the patristic stamp of approval, offering the earlier texts as bona fides of their present arguments. Or, more constructively, turning their backs on the over-plowed ground of modern thinkers and texts, they may turn to the early thinkers of Christianity in search for a richer soil in which to plant the seeds of their ideas. In either case, the return to patristic texts bears the added appeal of returning to the beginning—ad fontes! The retrieval can be done well—responsibly and creatively—or not—irresponsibly and fruitlessly. (And debates can be had about what counts as responsible and creative in this context.)1 It is sometimes performed with apologetic intent and sometimes from polemical motivations. However, in most cases, it is a retrieval and translation located primarily in scholars and thinkers of postmodern stripes reaching back to the earlier sources.

What Frances Young offers in her “contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity” is something different: a historical theologian deeply and primarily steeped in the ancient texts, reaching forward as a translator of conceptual approaches and modes of thinking, rather than backwards as a collector of felicitous ideas or terminology. Furthermore, if she is engaged in apologetics it is not to evangelize; her project is not a marriage of convenience which seeks a shared alliance in order to battle together the evils of modernity. Rather, it is an apologia in the patristic sense of the term: an attempt to constructively translate the meaning, worth, and relevance of these ancient texts for a contemporary audience.

There is a running theme throughout the book which identifies the past as a source of richness to respond to some contemporary imbalances or difficulties. The following statement is emblematic: “My argument will be that the integrated position implied in the thinking of the Nicenes is worth appropriating and extending in relation to, and sometimes in critique of, contemporary assumptions” (175; see also 30, 75, 94, 105, 193, 243, 331, 404). But Young also recognizes the limits of the appropriation. Aspects of patristic writing—its supercessionism, inclusion of a divine horizon which the modern world would identity as “super-natural,” optimism about the possibility of timeless and universal truths (even if accompanied by austere humility regarding our inability to ever attain or possess those truths)—all point to “a gap between us and the fathers” (410). This gap does not challenge Young’s primary aim, however. An appreciation for, and appropriation of, patristic thought, according to Young, is less about taking on board a specific content, than it is about a shared starting place and approach: for instance, to gain a richer understanding of scripture is it important, not simply to read Origen, Augustine, or Gregory of Nyssa, and take their scriptural commentaries as pertinent to us now, but rather “to learn not simply to repeat what the fathers did, but to re-forge it for a different world” (412). It is to share in the central methodological insight of the early writers of Christianity; namely, to do theology is to be “engaged with the best knowledge of their own time and faced the challenge of bringing that together with what scripture seemed to mean when read in their context” (118). Doing theology was always a matter of translation and interpretation. Nothing has changed today, according to Young, except that her canonical corpus has widened beyond scripture to the tradition of the church.

Her contemporary interlocutors, however, are not generally the postmodern philosophy of religion crowd. Instead she remains in conversation with modern science. For instance, in her chapter on creation, she engages physicists and evolutionary biologists; likewise she considers the work of neurobiologists, developmental psychologists, cognitive scientists, and materialists to construct her anthropology. I’ll consider the latter—Young’s treatment of the human person in its ideal form as something created in the “image and likeness” of God—in greater detail to see how the two discourses are made to speak to one another.

Young approaches her theological anthropology starting from the end; that is to say, she argues that a focus “on the ultimate destiny of humankind throws significant light on its fundamental nature” (94). What does a belief in the resurrection tell us? Most obviously it attests to the patristic confession of the goodness of creation, in particular the goodness of materiality (96), as well as the inseparable unity of the body and soul to form the human person. Young highlights the way in which this confession challenges regnant Greek philosophical ideas with her focus on Gregory of Nyssa who, despite his own Platonism, was convinced of the necessity of overturning some of its most basic intellectual norms: specifically, Nyssa argues that the mutability inherent to created nature, especially human nature, is not inherently negative but precisely that which allows humans to transform and progress infinitely towards the divine, a belief that was founded not only on the radically innovative idea of God’s infinity, but also a creation ex nihilo (99–100). Young identifies a number of ways in which a modern reader might want to appropriate such patristic2 insights to the present context: (1) a non-dualistic view of personhood; (2) the sanctity of all human bodies; (3) the social and corporate dimension of personhood; (4) and the insight of one’s mortality and creatureliness as a bulwark against the hubristic self-aggrandizement of the autonomous modern subject.

The latter three ways of appropriating a patristic anthropology all perform a correction to modern assumptions. Her second and third arguments regarding the sanctity of all human bodies and the social dimension of human personhood most accurately captures the sense of community, mutuality and interdependence that one finds at L’Arche communities. Young writes that here “beauty is perceived in damaged bodies. . . . In the everydayness of attending to [another’s] bodily functions” (107). The insight that “we belong to one another quite fundamentally” (108)—an insight again rendered beautifully visible in L’Arche communities (Moi-même tout seule pas capable)—reveals how illusive is the modern preoccupation with autonomy and independence.

Further, she argues a renewed sense of the giftedness of life and our creatureliness is a necessary antidote to the “modern pursuit of ‘superman’” (109). Only this acceptance of human creatureliness will provide the needed balanced perspective poised between a “reductionism and exaggerated humanism . . . between the Enlightenment tendency to over-estimate the superiority of human rationality and the tendency of naturalism to treat our whole being, personal and social, as explicable through biochemistry and evolutionary theory” (130).

Despite these correctives, Young also identifies a number of places at which the earlier Christian writers find themselves to be in agreement with modern scientific notions of selfhood. For instance she discusses Nemesius’ understanding of the person as a psychosomatic unity in which the soul pervades and energizes the body “remarkably similar to our conception of the central nervous system” (115). The first way that Young argues a modern reader will want to retrieve a patristic anthropology—the articulation of a non-dualist understanding of the human person—corrects the too-common assumption of the instrumentality of our bodies as something that needs to be kept in good nick in order to enable our “real” incorporeal selves to be fulfilled. However, it also guards against the opposite view that treats personhood as nothing more than an aggregate of diverse biological needs and drives. In antiquity, she instructs her reader, the “‘I’ that remembers, makes decisions and hopes, as well as feeling hungry or lost, experiences itself as both being a body and having a body” (118).

Young connects this insight to the contemporary discussion through the writings of Kenan Malik, in whom we find the same attempt to articulate the part of the human that enables it to be a “self-reflective subject with moral agency” but one which, nevertheless, “emerges” from a physical body that itself “lives in and relates to a community of thinking, feeling, talking beings’” (Malik, in Young, 120). Here, ironically, Young will argue that the contemporary physicalist position of a thinker like Malik in its refutation of a Cartesian mind-body dualism converges more essentially with “the more complex patristic analysis” than the “elitism and individualism” of Cartesianism (123). For this reason she concludes, “modern discussion cannot avoid reflecting the debates of antiquity” (121).

The unambiguity of this last statement could be challenged in a way that constitutes my one critique of Young’s project. Modern discussions might, indeed, benefit from engagement with early Christian thought, but surely the vast majority of these discussions have proceeded, and will continue to proceed, without any reference to, or knowledge of, the earlier writings. Young’s claim begs at least two questions, neither of which am I qualified to adjudicate: is her reading of modern science as representative, fair, and careful as that of the ancient world? Has she been able to convince any of her interlocutors of the pertinence of the premodern writings of bishops and monks from the second through fifth centuries of Christianity to their intellectual worlds of cosmology, ethics, ecology, and psychological development?

At the heart of her endeavor is an assumption about reading texts that would be familiar to Origen, to Gregory of Nyssa, and to Augustine—that “texts (whether classical or canonical) potentially have a future, and may become transformative” (2). The purpose she sets out to explore in this book, then, is to identify the texts which continue to have a future in our present, and to share their potential to transform us as readers benefitting from her treasure of a life’s worth of erudition.

Young’s scholarship is unquestionable; yet the book moves beyond the purely “academic.” Young explicitly combines the voice of historian and systematic theologian, with that of the pastoral preacher and parent (see 404–5)—the latter two adding both gravitas and pathos to the sophia of her scholarship. Of course, all thinkers are always some combination of identities, which cumulatively forge their individual voice. However, what is satisfying about Young’s approach is not merely that it pulls back the veil of objective scholarship to reveal the person behind the words, but rather that it does so in a way that synthetically deepens and enriches her thought. Each part of her identity—scholar, priest, mother—holds her to a higher standard in each separate realm, in such a way that the variety of perspectives encroach on one another and raise the bar for what might be an acceptable response. Her reflections on L’Arche, disabled persons in community, or redemption in a broken and waning church community, are radically and explicitly informed by careful and responsible historical research. In so doing, she herself exemplifies for us a mindfulness of the “sense of ‘creatureliness’ as a fundamental constituent in theological reasoning in the Christian tradition, as well as in liturgical and ethical responses to life’s giftedness” (5). This is at the heart of her recapitulation of early Christianity for the questions and issues of our contemporary world. In this way we are persuaded that, in this case it would seem that old wineskins can, not only safely hold, but on occasion also needfully season, new wine.

  1. See Scot Douglas and Morwenna Ludlow, eds., Reading Forwards and Reading Backwards: Conversations about Reading the Church Fathers (T. & T. Clark / Continuum, 2011).

  2. Young also considers Augustine in this section on anthropology.

  • Frances Young

    Frances Young


    Response to Tamsin Jones

    This response to my book is pleasing. It clearly differentiates my work from self-conscious postmodern attempts at retrieval of the premodern and recognises that as a historical theologian I am more concerned with making sense of the past in a way that constitutes more than mere archaeological reconstruction. Intellectually formed when the modern historico-critical enterprise was still at its height, my concern is with hermeneutics, or, as Jones puts it, “an attempt to constructively translate the meaning, worth, and relevance of these ancient texts for a contemporary audience.”

    There is, of course, an issue about relevance. Recently reported in the Guardian newspaper was a tweet: “I left school 15 years ago and I’ve not used Pythagoras’ theorem once or even seen a Bunsen burner.” This comment highlights the way in which so many in our culture look for immediate relevance rather than appreciating sheer curiosity or desire for knowledge and understanding for its own sake. As a researcher and educationalist I have over the decades often argued that intellectual life and “blue skies” research need no justification—they are humane values in themselves. But no one is entirely insulated from the dominant pragmatism of our age, and I suppose at one level my book might be regarded as an old lady’s reversion to the question she asked herself as a Classics student: what was all this study of ancient dead languages leading to? What was it for? Back then I found the answer in using the competences acquired for the study of theology, a subject which more obviously impinged on people’s lives. But specialising in early Christian studies I ultimately face the same issue—unless one imagines, as indeed some do, that it is possible simply to accept as the truth what the authors of the New Testament and/or the Fathers said, once you’ve ascertained exactly what it was.

    For me the Fathers have always been fascinating and infuriating, strange and stimulating. I eventually found the “development of doctrine” approach unsatisfactory—because the arguments that led to evermore precise attempts at credal definition belonged to a larger “ecology” of theological discourse, which itself belonged to a larger cultural and philosophical ecology, and one very different from our own. In broad terms one may contrast the “evolutionary” patterns of thought which shape so much of our historical, social, political and personal discourses, not to mention biological and scientific frameworks, with the static, Platonising and “essentialist” categories of ancient views of the world. This difference deeply affects the questions asked, the categories within which answers were and are found, as well as the approach to levels of meaning in both exegetical and metaphysical discussions. The onus on the part of the scholar interpreting the Fathers is both to make a leap of imagination so as to engage truly with what they were after, and to enable a double process of critique and appropriation for the sake of hearing what they might say to a very different intellectual and cultural world. Jones has recognised that that is what I was attempting.

    The final paragraphs of Jones’ response are also pleasing. For this project was not simply an exercise in interpretation, but an attempt at the end of my career to integrate and make theological sense of every aspect of a life that might seem torn in different directions. The very fact that an ordained woman should attempt to make sense of the past is a novelty as far as long-standing Christian tradition is concerned, let alone the mother of an adult son with profound learning and consequent physical disabilities. So the last paragraph of all not only probes to the heart of the book but also explains why it was bound to be science rather than philosophy with which my discussion principally engaged. The reductive impact of science on the notions both of creation and of the possibility of human transcendence, coupled with the questions posed by one born with brain damage and therefore without the intellectual capacity which was so often identified as God’s image in the patristic tradition, necessarily drove me to ponder the issues of creation in general and human nature in particular, with Darwin and contemporary neuroscience to the fore: Richard Dawkins’ books The Selfish Gene (Oxford: OUP, 1976) and The God Delusion (New York: Bantam, 2006) are after all the most powerful generators of atheism in our day.

    Married to a physicist I would be the first to admit that I do not have the same competence in science as in my own professional field, and in any case the fields of biology and brain science are extremely fast moving. So what I tried to do was to inform myself, but grapple principally with the theological questions raised by the contemporary scene, rather than make any fixed marriage with contemporary theory, a path which certainly produced some theological dead ends in the past. In other words I tried to do the very thing Jones quotes with approval: “to do theology is to be ‘engaged with the best knowledge of their own time and faced the challenge of bringing that together with what scripture seemed to mean when read in their context.’” It was not, I think, incumbent upon me to persuade the “dialogue partners” whom I read that the Fathers had something to contribute to their specialisms, nor did I mean that any contemporary thinkers consciously or deliberately parallel the debates of antiquity—the comment quoted from p. 121 is misconstrued. It was an observation on parallels discernible to one engaging with contemporary discussion alongside serious anthropological discussions of antiquity, at least as I interpreted them. My work does, after all, offer a critique of widespread oversimplifications of the Fathers’ body-soul dualism—a point not made much of in this review.

    In general the extended summary of my treatment of anthropology is excellent, and the decision to concentrate on that particularly apposite. Given the fact that I attempted in the book to engage with all the core doctrines of the Christian faith, selection was inevitable. The creaturely condition of humankind is a theological point that lies at the heart of my experience, but also, I believe, at the core of patristic theological discourse—indeed generative of classic Christian doctrinal formulations. That is an argument I am in process of developing, and for which there is no space here . . .



No Apology Needed

I stirred from my light sleep as the gurgling noise increased. I sat up from my reclining chair to notice brown secretions seeping from the tracheotomy tube in my ninety-two-year-old mother’s neck. Three weeks earlier she had “gone to town” to pay a bill; a written check suggested that she planned to “get her exercise” by walking to the bank. Her blood pressure probably collapsed after she climbed a set of stairs in the village where I grew up. She fell backwards, whiplashing the left side of her skull into the concrete pavement. She never fully regained consciousness. Her seeing but unseeing eyes did open that night after I gathered the nurses to “clean her up”—a euphemism for vacuuming secretions from the lungs. Soon I could hear the familiar snore that I had heard many times before as she would fade to sleep on the living room couch. I picked up Frances Young’s God’s Presence to read myself back to sleep as I accompanied my mother in making the hard journey from life to life everlasting through death. I failed. Mom was tough; she lived longer than the doctors anticipated. I returned to my home, half a continent away to engage responsibilities to begin the semester. A week later I returned for the funeral.

In a significant passage, perhaps the central passage of her book, Young discusses the impact of Arthur, her severely disabled son on her:

For me, a shift from struggling with theodicy was facilitated by discovering a profound thanksgiving for Arthur, and enjoyment of relationship with him for his own sake. Doxology in the everyday, thanksgiving for the sheer gift of existence—these are the potential gifts of patristic theology. Humanity, the fathers affirm, is no exception to the general order of creation but subject to the mortality and vulnerability of all the rest of the natural world, and necessarily limited; yet, oriented to God, receiving life as gift, learning how to relate in love to all that God has made, allowing the fruits of the Spirit to mature in everyday life, humankind not only points beyond itself as God’s image on earth, but is also fitted to receive God’s promise of new life. (138–39)

God’s Presence at its best returns to the sources of early Christian thought to help us unapologetically give an account of all things, particularly the drama of human existence, in light of the Triune God.

Thomas Aquinas argues at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae that theology entails both speculative and practical tasks. Ultimately, however, he argues that theology “is speculative rather than practical because it is more concerned with divine things than with human acts; though it does treat even of these latter, inasmuch as humans are ordained by them to the perfect knowledge of God in which consists of eternal bliss” (ST I.I.4). Perhaps no deeper commitment severs the classical Christian theological task from the modern and postmodern anthropocentricity of academic theology. A theodical, apologetic task permeates the post-Kantian, post-metaphysical reduction of theology to practical reason or formative practices as practical reason. The theologian does not need to receive Arthur as a gift, to listen to his vocalization as a friend, to speak of Arthur as loved by God in Christ as an ontologically true statement; professional theologians often conceive that the modern and postmodern theological task calls them to function as Arthur’s voice, to legitimate his existence as given, to work for his expressive and liberative rights within the politics of the Western liberal nation-state.

Young writes differently. Young understands the practical formations in which theological discourses participate and how language works on others and its ability to activate injustice or justice. She knows, however, the beauty and the suffering, of Arthur’s voice. She doesn’t need a theological imagination to justify Arthur’s existence nor her care for him. She needs to speak about and to the Triune God in order to render an account intelligible to herself and others about what she has actually experienced in the gift and struggles of Arthur as they together, with many others, have journeyed on their way from God, through God, and to God. She has encountered the Scriptures within the early Christian discourses in their witness to Christ. She bears witness to her analogical participation in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The reader should not receive the poems that conclude each chapter as aesthetic ornamentation. They function centrally to help the reader likewise to participate analogically in the Beauty of the Presence/Absence that is the Triune God.

Young uses good Methodist testimony so that the reader does not miss the import of speaking of the Triune God and all things related to God outside the constraints of theodicy. The gift of Arthur again provided the divine spur that pushed Young both beyond and before late twentieth century “relational” or “dialectical” Protestantism. The divine love for Arthur, in which Young had, has, and still does participate through Christ, pushed her past apologetic modern and post-modern anthropocentricity:

After years of struggling with the theodicy questions raised by the birth of Arthur, release came in grasping the same point in a radical way—God’s existence no longer depended on my capacity to believe it! The moment remains vivid; I remember precisely what chair I was sitting in that I was sitting on the edge of it, ready to get up to go and do something in the kitchen, when a “loud thought” came into my head; “It doesn’t make any difference to me whether you believe in me or not.” I had a sense of being stunned, of being put in my place. (385)

Classical language about God and all things related to God rendered intelligible her experience beyond the modern theological languages of a suffering, or as I am wont to say, a pathetic deity. “Forty-five years of caring for Arthur” showed Young that “compassion requires a love which transcends anxiety, is calm and calming. . . . ‘Apathetic’ or ‘impassive’ was never meant by the word apathes; it was always consonant with affirmation of God’s goodness, justice, love and providential care—indeed, guaranteed the constancy of these” (383). The truth, beauty, and goodness of the classical Christian language about God and all things related to God, perhaps most deeply witnessed in her retrieval of Gregory of Nazianzus, empowers Young’s words: “The sense of God’s utter otherness enhances the amazing generosity of the divine grace which, withdrawing in love and self-emptying in humility, allows things other than the divine self to exist, and then loves to the end” (385). At such times she shows “that a re-appropriation of patristic perspectives could both reveal the theological impoverishment within which post-Enlightenment debates have been conducted and permit scientific discoveries about life on earth to be embraced as offering liberation from the tight constrictions of theodicy” (62–63).

Ironically, her engagement with the fourth-century Christian writings opens up conversations with non-anthropocentric, non-modern thought that has recently arisen in philosophy,1 the humanities,2 and in the sciences.3 She gestures toward the refusal of the “nature/society” modern constitution4 in her engagement with Mary Midgley within theological anthropology. She creatively engages evolutionary thought via the fourth-century Christian discourse on creation and human beings. Here, however, she prematurely loses confidence in the radically Christianized Platonism of the fourth-century writers. Evolutionary biology no longer is our grandparent’s neo-Darwinian synthesis with its sole emphasis on adaptability. Biologists continue to discover the importance of form within evolutionary processes. For instance, to articulate how innovation occurs to “nature” variations to select, Andreas Wagner, a prominent biologist from the University of Zurich, invokes “a Platonic world of crystalline splendor” “compatible with Darwinism but going far beyond it . . . is key to understanding how nature creates.”5 A non-apologetic engagement with fourth-century Christian thought may provide a depth of apologetic engagement with contemporary biological and philosophical thought. If an object-oriented ontology or assemblages or networks of humans and nonhumans replace the human/nonhuman dichotomy, the philosophical anthropocentricism behind apologetic modern and postmodern professional theology dissolves. Form literally emerges in importance—and Young’s early Christian engagement on creation and anthropology takes the reader far beyond the tired politics of textual identities that continues to dominate so much of academic theological discourse.

The book thus contains an ambiguous stance toward the very sources of the Christian tradition to which Young returns. This ambiguity, even as she witnesses to its existential revitalization of her life, pushes her work back into the modern/postmodern apologetic mode for substantial sections. Each chapter provides a hinge section entitled “Appropriation” that moves from her historical work to contemporary concerns as a type of correlational bridge. Particularly chapters 4, 5, and 6 on the image of God, fall and redemption, and atonement, do not engage in a non-identical repetition of the emergent orthodox tradition. Instead the chapters provide a correlational translation into contemporary political, anthropological, and experiential givens. Fall and restoration “is part universal story, part particular story: on the one hand, Jesus Christ focusses the story, deepens it and sharpens it, but on the other, it is the story of ‘everyman,’ and a story that rings true to life. So it is both ‘myth’ in the technical sense of a transcendent, symbolic, unverifiable story that gives meaning to existence, and history in the sense that the ‘myth’ has intersected with the actual existence of a certain person on this earth at a particular time in a particular place” (222–23).

It seems that Arthur’s presence also changes in these chapters. Arthur appears in the beginning and ending chapters of the book as God’s gift who already witnesses to the apathetic Love that is the Triune God; he, therefore, becomes the reader’s teacher as his participation in God taught and transformed Professor Young, the book’s author and his mother. In the middle chapters, the author uses Arthur to solve a problem by fitting him into a mythic/historical anthropological system already given. At the same time, the middle chapters stand in tension with the defense of Chalcedonian Christology in the final chapter. As Young recognizes, the Chalcedonian Definition presupposes the speculative task of understanding creation in light of God as given in the opening chapters of the book: “Chalcedon worked in the end, I suggest, because the differentiation of Creator from creature meant that the divine nature was conceived, insofar as it was possible to conceive it at all, by contrast with created beings. So it did not suffer from the same limitations as created entities” (389). The speculative theological task, theoria, an account of God’s presence, has profound implications for practical reason, particularly when one encounters the least of these, whether it is a beloved son, disabled from birth, or the dying breathes of one’s mother.

Young’s work gestures toward the discursive power of moving forward through a return to the sources of the church. It does not possess the consistency, and if I may, the ontological and metaphysical depth of the twentieth-century Ressourcement movement and its heirs of which it is part. Yet perhaps their work does not witness to the existential depth of an early Christian scholar, turned elder and theologian, who birthed and has cared with others for her disabled son over forty-five years.

I didn’t finish the book while I and my brother sat beside our mother as she slipped toward death. The night when I called upon the nurses and then picked up the book was the last time I saw her eyes open. Yet she remained my mother even without consciousness, in the fullness of the giftedness and difficulty that she presented to me. Even in her weakness, perhaps especially in her weakness, she was not a burden, but a gift. Over the days that we moved toward death, her silver hair began to regrow, even as her body wasted away. God’s Presence remained with me then, as it has afterwards. It presents its deepest apologetic argument, both speculatively and practically, when it works non-apologetically with early Christian thought in its witness to the Triune God revealed to us through the Son by the Holy Spirit. As Young concludes, “Christian theology becomes the confession in life and worship of Father, Son and Spirit, ever creating and re-creating, ever secretly at work, bringing truth, beauty and goodness to fruition within a creation set free in its otherness for response to the generous love of the Triune God; while the accommodation of the transcendent, divine self to our level is celebrated in constant liturgical re-play, in sacramental anamnesis” (418).

  1. See the Edinburgh University Press series Speculative Realism, edited by Graham Harman, http:/C:/dev/home/

  2. See, for instance, Richard Grusin, ed., The Nonhuman Turn (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

  3. See, for instance, Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Henry Holt, 2015).

  4. See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  5. Andreas Wagner, The Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolutions Greatest Puzzle (New York: Current, 2014), 29.

  • Frances Young

    Frances Young


    Response to John Wright

    The opening and closing paragraphs of this commentary capture one profoundly significant aspect of my theological journey, relating it in a moving way to the commentator’s own personal experience. It is because popular culture cannot positively embrace creaturely vulnerabilities, such as disability and death, that open expression of grace and giftedness—rather than angst or attempts at theodicy—seems to strike a different note. Yet what Wright highlights in this way is far from the whole of my purpose. It is the comments on the shift in theology from theocentricity to anthropocentricity for which I am most grateful. This sets my work in a significant framework, and one which I had not myself clearly articulated. I also appreciate the recognition that the poetry and testimony is not marginal to the theology, and I am intrigued by the references to recent trends in philosophy and science which might have enabled a more confident appropriation of Platonism in an evolutionary context—I note, however, that most of the footnoted references on this have appeared since the publication of God’s Presence. There is indeed much in this response which sensitively reflects what I was about, and interestingly extends it.

    There are perhaps two aspects of this commentary which underline the difference in intellectual background of commentator and author. The first is the suggestion of my “ambiguous stance toward the very sources of the Christian tradition to which [I] return.” My theological formation was in the heyday of historico-critical methodology, before postmodernism was heard of. Inevitably, therefore, whatever subsequent influences have been important, I am acutely aware of the fact that the past is another country. A degree of cultural and historical relativism and critical distance is inescapable, and appropriation involves not just a hermeneutic of retrieval but a hermeneutic of suspicion. I have in earlier publications explored the notion of “ethical reading”, one element of which is to recognise the otherness of texts from the past—“otherness” is almost a postmodern cliché, but it also revalidates the historico-critical discipline involved in handling literature from other times and cultures. That “ambiguous stance” was inevitable. Furthermore, the awareness of such critical difference works both ways. For our own culturally relative presuppositions are exposed by engagement with that otherness—I have spent much of my career challenging the superior position that modern scholars adopted in relation to “allegory” or “outdated substance-language” or the Platonising approach of certain Fathers, while failing to notice how their own contemporary cultural assumptions have determined their developmental/evolutionary approach to the study of, for example, doctrine.

    The second aspect is revealed in Wright’s tendency to treat the “middle chapters” as a reversion to apologetic, and his accusation that Arthur is “used to solve a problem.” If this work appears apologetic it was meant only to be so in the sense of self-apology—faith seeking understanding, and recognising the challenges to faith in the world which the seeker is inhabiting. A certain defensiveness about the “Christian myth” may be the outcome of my early experience of being one of the authors at the centre of media reactions to the notorious book of the ’70s, The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM press, 1977). Modern philosophy as such is not the world that has shaped me intellectually or conceptually. Rather being married to an agnostic scientist who accepted Arthur without question while my theologian’s mind and heart struggled with this challenge to the goodness of the Creator inevitably set an agenda.

    This book was a long dreamt of retirement project in which I attempted to integrate the various aspects of my life and career into a meaningful systematic theology. It should be read as that—possibly a self-indulgent project, but one which one might hope would speak to others making parallel if different spiritual or intellectual pilgrimages. It incorporates and/or summarises material developed not only in academic contexts but for church groups, retreats, worship services and the l’Arche community. A lifetime of engaging with patristic sources could no longer be approached simply as a professional historical exercise, nor simply as a response to theological authorities—these had to be “dialogue partner.” Arthur was bound to challenge assumptions about what it means to be human, as well as offering what Jean Vanier described as my “gateway to God.” That he appears in every chapter is no accident, yet he is not the principal subject of this work, as he has been in some of my other, less academic, publications (Face to Face, with Assistance from Arthur (London: Epworth, 1985); Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990); Arthur’s Call: A Journey of Faith in the Face of Severe Learning Disability (London: SPCK, 2014). These various aspects of my program of integration are well represented in this response. But what would the Fathers have made of an ordained woman in the Methodist tradition, with Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox soul-friends, with some of whom, according to ecclesial rules, shared Eucharistic communion is impossible? These other elements in the book receive no mention here; yet, as fundamental as the sense of being confronted by God—a point so well brought out in Wright’s response—is a catholic sense of the church moving through an ever-changing history, and of each of us being part of something much bigger than ourselves.

    One aspect of Wright’s commentary which I much appreciate is its selection of quotations from my work. These are well chosen to introduce it to future readers, and in some cases point beyond the particular issues this commentator has chosen to focus on. The suggestion that God’s Presence is a work of existential and practical theology rather than one of ontological and metaphysical depth is fair enough: theological speculation is probably something which induces in me a certain nervousness—theology for me has always had to be earthed in reality as we know it. Yet theoria as insight, as a “seeing through” that reality to recognising the unknown depths of God’s loving presence in scripture, tradition, the community of the church and our daily lives—that is what I have sought, and in so far as I have found it, it is what I have attempted to communicate in this book.



Theologia perennis

The most significant point in this volume is certainly the bold decision to bring patristic theology to bear on (sometimes thorny) issues of contemporary theology, and in general on constructive, systematic theology. This suggests that there is, so to speak, a theologia perennis, as a parallel to a variously identified philosophia perennis. This decision is bold, as I mentioned, but perhaps more natural on the part of a patristic scholar than, say, of a scholar in contemporary theology or even systematic theology. Yet, this book is neither an exploration into historical theology alone, and specifically patristic theology, nor into systematic theology alone (covering here Christology, soteriology, Mariology, spirituality, anthropology, doctrine of creation, ecclesiology . . .), but into both. And more, one could even say; for it incorporates homilies by the author, expanding into a pastoral dimension, and poetry by her, often reflecting her own living out the mystery of suffering—the mystery of the Cross of Christ—which brings in an autobiographical, spiritual, and mystical hue. This too is in fact theology, for the theologian who always retains a keen awareness of apophasis and at the same time knows that the infinitely transcendent Godhead does manifest itself in human life, and everywhere, even and especially in frailty and weakness, and does turn out to be intimior intimo meo.

Thus, no marvel that Young’s theology here resonates so often with the theology of the church fathers. When, for instance, I read that “the God of the Bible is one who, at the same time, lets things be, yet is always at work, hidden yet active” (420), I cannot help thinking of Origen’s core thesis that human free will and God’s infallibly saving providence, active through Christ-Logos, are never incompatible, contrary to what many other (especially non-patristic) thinkers will suppose. Manere quidem naturae rationabili semper liberum arbitrium non negamus, sed tantam esse vim crucis Christi . . . (Comm. in Rom. 4.10). God’s providence extends to all, but always respecting the freewill of each logikon. This is why the logika will reach salvation in different times—which is the way Origen interprets Paul’s “each one in its own order” (1 Cor 15:23).

Similarly, when Young programmatically warns that “theology is an exploratory rather than an explanatory discipline” (2), this is quintessentially the “zetetic” spirit of Origen, who imported Greek philosophy’s heuristic method into Christian theology. The very dialectic between God’s transcendence and God’s immanence, to which I have referred above with a quote from Augustine (Conf. 3.6: itimior intimo meo), and which is often brought up by the author (e.g., 405), is so present in patristic theology, notably in Gregory Nyssen, who defended metaphysically the supreme transcendence of God, also in the light of Plotinus’s theology (see my “The Divine as Inaccessible Object of Knowledge in Ancient Platonism: A Common Philosophical Pattern across Religious Traditions,” Journal of the History of Ideas 75.2 [2014] 167–88), and yet, possibly more than anybody else, insisted that the divine power διὰ πάντων διῄκει, “extends through all, permeates all.” Likewise, when Young in a chapter on ecclesiology notes that “what the church is transcendently is not yet realised on earth” (351), this reminds me first of all of Origen’s and Gregory Nyssen’s notion that the church will eschatologically coincide with all humanity, and even all rational creatures, who are “the body of Christ” (see my “Clement’s Notion of the Logos ‘All Things As One’: Its Alexandrian Background in Philo and Its Developments in Origen and Nyssen,” in Alexandrian Personae: Scholarly Culture and Religious Traditions in Ancient Alexandria (1st ct. BCE–4ct. CE), ed. Zlatko Plese [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015], and The Christian Doctrine of Apokatstasis, the chapters on Origen and Nyssen).

In some other passages, the engagement with patristic theology is more direct, for instance when the author presents Gregory of Nyssa’s elaborations on the identification of the poor with Christ and the consequences of this (18–19). I have analysed Gregory’s full arguments and their implications in “Gregory Nyssen’s Position in Late-Antique Debates on Slavery and Poverty and the Role of Ascetics,” Journal of Late Antiquity 5 (2012) 87–118, and now, in a much broader context and against a wider background, in the forthcoming monograph, Legitimacy of Slavery and Social Injustice? Ancient Christian Views against the Backdrop of Greek Philosophy and Ancient Judaism, and the Role of (Philosophical) Asceticism. In this work I also investigate what I call Gregory’s theology of freedom, which Young in fact highlights briefly, but with exactitude, in a separate chapter (171). This is also one of the three main theological arguments deployed by Gregory against slavery and social injustice.

Dealing with Basil’s doctrine of creation, Young rightly concludes that “for Basil, the fact of a beginning implies an end—the universe is finite and time-bound, not coeternal with its Creator” (46). Indeed, Basil was applying to cosmology the “perishability axiom,” widely used by Neoplatonists, “pagan” and Christian alike: what has a beginning in time must also come to an end in time. The author also remarks, correctly, that for Basil the subject of Genesis was “the creation of the concrete material world, not some spiritual universe” (47). Evagrius, the disciple of Basil and of the two other Cappadocians (not only Gregory Nazianzen, but also Nyssen), was probably remindful of Basil when he maintained that Moses narrated the creation of this world—which came to being after the first judgment of God, i.e., after the fall of rational creatures—but there is no account whatsoever of the creation of the primary world, i.e., rational creatures, who came into existence before the judgment (KG 2.64).

About Origen’s Περὶ ἀρχῶν (34–35), Young suggests that the ἀρχαί were the foundations on which theology is built, namely scripture and tradition examined in the light of reason inspired by the Spirit. I would propose an additional, complementary identification of these ἀρχαί or first principles, which Rufinus in the preface to his translation of the first two books of Περὶ ἀρχῶν translated both principia and principatus according to the double meaning of ἀρχή, “principle” and “power.” These ἀρχαί are likely to be the three Hypostases of the Trinity. With these Origen begins his masterpiece, and these appear again as τρεῖς ἀρχικαὶ ὑποστάσεις both in Eusebius and in the titles given by Porphyry to Plotinus’s treatises in the Enneads (probably under the influence of Origen: see argument in my “Origen, Greek Philosophy, and the Birth of the Trinitarian Meaning of Hypostasis,” Harvard Theological Review 105 [2012] 302–50). For Origen, God is the ἀρχή of all, and replaces the three ἀρχαί of Middle Platonism, God matter and forms; but God is triune: hence the necessity of positing three ἀρχαί. Origen himself in Heracl. 3.20–4.9 rejected μοναρχία, the positing of only one Hypostasis (God the Father) as one single principle or ἀρχή instead of three. In the very treatise Περὶ ἀρχῶν, Origen calls God the Trinity ἀρχική: archiken, id est principatum omnium gerentem, Trinitatem. The explanation id est principatum omnium gerentem will easily be a gloss from Rufinus, but the use of ἀρχική in reference to God the Trinity is surely Origen’s. And in 4.1.27, from the Philocalia, Origen explicitly says that “the Trinity is the beginning and cause of all things,” i.e., the ἀρχή. The Trinity is formed by the three ἀρχαί or, as Porphyry and Eusebius put it with the use of Origen’s very adjective, the three ἀρχικαὶ ὑποστάσεις.

Also, treating Origen in a section aptly entitled The First Principles of Christian Theology, Young, following Mark Edwards (Origen against Plato [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002]), admits that “Origen also challenged Platonism” (38), which in a way is certainly the case and which has also been maintained by Panayiotis Tzamalikos. Only, this challenge to Platonism must be qualified: Origen’s was a challenge to the “pagan” Platonism and the “Gnostic” Platonism of his day, rather than a challenge to Platonism tout court. What he intended to construct was an orthodox Christian Platonism that countered “pagan” and “Gnostic” Platonisms as well as pantheistic Stoicism and “atheistic” philosophies (Epicureanism and Aristotelianism). Plato himself was expounding the same doctrines as the Bible because he was inspired by Christ-Logos either directly or through the very scriptural Logos. The framework in which this ambitious plan of providing an “orthodox” Christian Platonism took shape is neatly indicated by Young: “Serious engagement with questions of truth cannot avoid using reason to identify where to challenge contemporary intellectual culture and where to take account of its reasonable analysis of the way things are” (38).

Speaking of the patristic ideal of apatheia, i.e., the absence of passions or negative emotions, the author rightly emphasises that for Evagrius there is no incompatibility between love (ἀγάπη) and apatheia, to the point that he describes love as the product of apatheia (Praktikos 81). Now I refer readers to the works by Monica Tobon, Apatheia in the Teachings of Evagrius Ponticus: The Health of the Soul (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014); Kevin Corrigan and Gregory Y. Glazov, “Compunction and Compassion: Two Overlooked Virtues in Evagrius of Pontus,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 22 (2014) 61–77, and my Evagrius’ Kephalaia Gnostica: Propositions on Knowledge, forthcoming. Young meditates on Cyril of Alexandria’s theology of the Eucharist: “The holy body of Christ is life-giving, when ‘mingled with our bodies,’ because it is united with the Word [Logos] that is from God, and so with ‘the body of him who is Life by nature’ and ‘filled with his energies’” (221). This, I add, is the eucharistic theology of Gregory Nyssen. It is very possible that Cyril knew it. A systematic study of Origen’s and Nyssen’s impact on Cyril is still lacking.

Young is also right, in a section on Christ as the image of God, to remark (166) that Eusebius illustrated the Son’s relationship to the Father’s divinity by means of Col 1:15, Phil 2:6, and Heb 1:3: “the radiance of the glory and the express image of the hypostasis” of God (χαρακτὴρ τῆς ὑποστάσεως αὐτοῦ). I note that Eusebius’ reflection, and its very biblical foundations, are certainly shaped after those of Origen, his great inspirer, and his theorisation of the Trinitarian meaning of ὑπόστασις, which was so important and influential as to probably affect even “pagan” Neoplatonism (see my “Origen, Greek Philosophy” cited above). Young also correctly observes that for Origen the one true image of God is Christ, that humanity is made according to this image, κατ᾽ εἰκόνα, and that the philological basis for this interpretation is found only in the Septuagint, and not in Hebrew (158). This is why, I add, this was notably the interpretation of Philo of Alexandria, who worked on the Septuagint, and maintained that humanity is in the image of God’s Logos, who is the real image of God. Origen drew his own interpretation directly from Philo, of course identifying God’s Logos with Christ.

There are also reflections on biblical theology, which too can be illuminated by patristic exegesis. I found particularly suggestive the interpretation (20–21) of Lazarus as a person with a disability, whose two sisters remained unmarried to care for him. This is also why Lazarus died young. Jesus—as the author reflects drawing on Vannier on the basis of the Gospel of John—knew that, if he raised Lazarus, he would be condemned to death. Yet he chose to resurrect this special person, out of love for Mary, Lazarus, and Martha. Young comments lucidly upon patristic exegesis: “the fathers recognised that God accommodated the divine word to the human level not only in the incarnation, but also in the human language of the scriptures” (27). The parallel, I add, went so far that the Bible was considered to be another incarnation. Thus, Origen spoke of OT and NT as constituting the body of Christ, and of the reflection-rumination on the Bible as a eucharistic act: the manducation of the body of Christ. “The scriptures,” Young continues, “like Christ, are in two natures—the flesh and inadequate human words both reveal and conceal the true Word [sc. Logos] of God. So exegesis is necessary; it has to be explanatory—but it also needs to be adventurous and exploratory.” Note again the “zetetic” method, which is to be applied not only to theology (see above), but also to exegesis. And again, this is exactly what Origen did. He imported this method from philosophy to exegesis as well. This is clear in a number of passages, such as Princ. 4.2.9, where Origen applies philosophy’s heuristic terminology (ζητεῖν, ζητητικωτέρους, ἐξετάσεως, πεῖσμα ἀξιόλογον) to scriptural allegoresis (analysis in my “The Philosophical Stance of Allegory in Stoicism and Its Reception in Platonism, Pagan and Christian,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 18 [2011] 335–71, esp. 356–57).

Young’s highly inspiring reflections on the Most Blessed Virgin Mary reach the conclusion that “Mariology persists as a challenge to Protestants,” but “Mary also challenges Orthodox churches and Roman Catholics, particularly about the role of women in the church,” because the logic of Christianity “confesses that Mary’s intercession sums up and models the priestly ministry of the church.” Thus, “the veneration of Mary could point to future possibilities, if doors are not closed in advance by inherited prejudices, and we continue to engage in honest ecumenical dialogue” (342). Young argues that in orthodox feasts and icons there is “much that places Mary in a priestly role,” for instance the Ascension icon in which she is orans at the centre of the group of the apostles; the Deesis icon in which she leads the saints of the New Covenant in intercession—since “leading the church in intercession is surely a priestly role”; the Temple Presentation icon, in which she becomes typologically the high priest entering the Holy of Holies; the hymns of these feasts, in which Mary is celebrated as the Ark of the Covenant, the place of God’s presence, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Tabernacle of God’s Logos, who mediates God to the world in Christ as the living Temple; “she is all-holy, her purity from contamination making possible the incarnation, and so our purification. Again we may speak of a priestly role” (329–30). I would propose a parallel with the Ethiopian Harp of Glory, a hymn to the Virgin very probably composed by a monk, in which Mary is seen as the very coronation of Jewish high priesthood.

The author approvingly cites Ruth Edwards’ remarks that the ideas of ministry in the NT suggest inclusion: spiritual gifts are given to all, irrespective of gender, Paul’s fellow-labourers are both male and female, and the model for men and women is Christ. Thus, according to Edwards, “Women’s ministry should be seen as a natural consequence of the Gospel message, comparable to the admission of uncircumcised Gentiles to table-fellowship, carried out despite Jesus’s original command not to go to the Gentiles” (325). In this connection, both Jesus and the Twelve were, not only men, but also Jews, and yet the consequence was not drawn that priests and bishops should only be Jews, or that there should not be Chinese or African bishops because Jesus and the Twelve were neither Asiatic nor black. It was only concluded that priests and bishops must be only men. But “the claim that no woman can be a type of Christ is an extraordinary misunderstanding of the dynamics of typology” (328). Some minor points in this treatment may be questionable, such as the assertion that “of course, given the social context, the apostles were all men!” (325). Certainly the Twelve were, since they represented the twelve tribes of Israel, but there were other apostles besides the Twelve, such as Paul, and among these there were also women, like Junia, described by Paul as “eminent among the apostles” (ἐπίσημος ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις) and as being in the Lord even before himself, probably because she was created apostle by Jesus in person. Not to speak of Mary Magdalene, celebrated as apostola apostolorum. Young remarks upon the existence of deaconesses in the first millennium, whereas she is more skeptical about widows as a ministerial order proper; it could be added that there were women who were presbyters, and possibly even some bishops (see Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church. A Documentary History [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2005]; my “Theosebia: A Presbyter of the Catholic Church?” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26.2 [2010] 79–102; Mary Schaefer, Women in Pastoral Office: The Story of Santa Prassede, Rome [Oxford: OUP, 2013]).

As the author observes that her intellectual journey has been shaped by three main factors (404–5), I feel particularly close, since I share at least two: (1) “the move from struggling with theodicy to seeing that, through Arthur, I have privileged access to the deepest truths of Christianity;” (2) “the discernment of God’s reality in the living faith and worship of ordinary people;” (3) “professional engagement with the theology of the fathers.” I share primarily (3) and (1), in the form of the experience of sharp, prolonged suffering over many years, and secondarily also (2).

In reference to Greek philosophy, I would speak of “philosophical henotheism” rather than “philosophical monotheism” (379). Also, I have doubts concerning the assertion referring to Macrina in Gregory Nyssen’s dialogue On the Soul and the Resurrection: “she roundly rejects its [sc. soul’s] immortality as pagan nonsense” (101). In fact, in the first part of the dialogue, devoted to the soul, Macrina argues for its immaterial, intellectual, adiastematic nature and its immortality, against materialistic views such as the Epicurean and the Stoic, which countered Plato’s thesis of the immortality of the soul. Precisely the immortality of the soul can account for the reconstitution of the body at the resurrection-restoration, since the soul will recognise the constitutive elements of its body (see my commentary in Gregorio di Nissa sull’anima e la resurrezione [Milan: Bompiani-Catholic University, 2007]). But these are quibbles.

Looking for the relevance of patristic theology to contemporary theology is challenging, fascinating, and tempting. This, at any rate, is what I myself try to do, if not in my scholarship and lectures, certainly in the classroom, at my graduate courses and seminars. Especially in graduate courses on Christology as a branch of systematic theology, I organise my systematics in such a way as to be inspired by patristic theology.

  • Frances Young

    Frances Young


    Response to Ilaria Ramelli

    I welcome the opening paragraph of this review, particularly

    • for its recognition that my work bridges patristic and systematic theology
    • for its indication of the fact that it covers the principal topics of systematic theology
    • for its appreciation of the nonacademic discourses of homily and poetry as being just as much theology.[/BL]

    That attempting this kind of integration is far from mainstream is unconsciously confirmed by Ramelli’s description of this “contemporary recapitulation of early Christianity” as “bold,” and by the confession in her final paragraph: the relevance of patristic theology to contemporary theology she describes as “challenging, fascinating and tempting,” something she herself attempts in graduate courses and seminars, but not in her scholarship and lectures.

    What I’m not sure about is the suggestion that my project implies a theologia perennis. Deeply formed by historical studies I tend to avoid concepts that might imply static rather than dynamic categories. I would accept that I do presume the continuity, within history and in ever-changing cultural contexts, of a community with a certain identity comprised of core beliefs, practices and theological commitments, summed up in the classic doctrines of the faith. More than many in my own Methodist tradition, with its evangelical Protestant roots, I value tradition, and this reviewer clearly appreciates the fact that my outlook is deeply ecumenical. But I have myself been shaped by the historico-critical tradition, and would not underestimate the quite fundamental differences between the manifestation of Christianity in different socio-cultural environments, nor the problems of now appropriating ideas developed in the early church in a totally different intellectual and cultural context. Those classic doctrines, originally expressed largely in frameworks influenced by Platonism, need to be critically examined and rearticulated, not simply repeated. That is why Ramelli is right to compare my work with “the ‘zetetic’ spirit of Origen.” Only if her notion of theologia perennis has that kind of searching quality can I accept this description. Perhaps, given her many references to Origen, I should deduce that it does.

    Much of the Ramelli’s response is devoted to rather piecemeal endorsement of my reading of the Fathers on various topics, with useful comments extending the subject-material and additional references, for all of which I can only be grateful. I would, however, respond to the principal “quibble” in the penultimate paragraph. I think here we are talking past one another. I would, of course, accept that Macrina argues for the soul’s “immaterial, intellectual, adiastematic nature and its immortality,” an immortality which can indeed “account for the reconstitution of the body at the resurrection-restoration, since the soul will recognise the constitutive elements of its body.” The point I meant to highlight was Gregory’s implicit critique of Plato and Origen with respect to the soul’s origin: the soul is neither eternal nor preexistent, but created out of nothing along with the body.

    It is interesting that this response engages with the issues of feminism and women’s ordination. It has long been evident to me that in Protestant circles, which traditionally emphasise the priesthood of all believers, the issue of women’s ordination has always been easier than it is for the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches—except where biblical fundamentalism prevents it by reference to scriptural texts insisting on man’s authority over woman. I particularly appreciate the positive response in this review to my reflections on Mary’s priesthood as a potential model to counter the negative position of Catholic and Orthodox traditions. My use of Ruth Edwards was, of course, directed at the scriptural arguments arising from evangelical traditions. Ramelli’s critique of some of the points made appeals to the classic feminist strategy of looking for the tiny number of potential early precedents. I remain sceptical about these moves. One reason concerns the question of what ordination has come to mean—even if widows were some kind of ministerial order they were not ordained as priests, and therefore cannot be used as a valid precedent. The other concerns the very different social and cultural setting, with profoundly different assumptions about gender and roles in society. Here, of all topics, the “otherness” of the past needs to be faced and not quickly assimilated to norms taken to be perennial. Ancient society was inherently hierarchical and predominantly patriarchal, and models of church leadership arose from a combination of social norms and scriptural typology. What we have inherited was further shaped by the development of the mediaeval Prince-Bishop. None of this suits well modern democratic societies. So I am unapologetic as an ordained woman regularly presiding at communion, but I do not need to justify this by appeal to potentially shaky precedent. What I do find necessary is theological reflection which attends to the objections, and engages with the issues ecumenically. As for Junia’s apostleship, any New Testament scholar is aware of the fact that Paul uses the term “apostle” in a far more generalised way than most early Christian authors, and whether you like it or not the Twelve were men, as indeed Ramelli admits herself.

    For all that I do appreciate Ramelli’s sensitivity to my persona as theologian “retaining a keen awareness of apophasis,” and at the same time knowing “that the infinitely transcendent Godhead does manifest itself in human life, and everywhere, even and especially in frailty and weakness.” It is pleasing, too, that she recognises that in this my theology resonates with the Church Fathers.

    • Avatar

      Ilaria Ramelli


      Thanks to Frances Young

      I am very happy that Frances Young appreciated my review, just as I highly appreciated her book. She is definitely right to assume that my notion of theologia perennis has a prominent ‘zetetic’ quality, so I am delighted that she accepts my description of her project in these terms.

      I also agree that whatever the precedents for women’s ordination in the first millennium, the main reason for ordaining women should be found in robust theological and anthropological reflections, ecumenically inspired, and the unmasking of more or less veiled patriarchal fundamentalism. I readily acknowledge the different social and cultural setting, with profoundly different assumptions about gender and roles in society, between first-millennium Christianities and today’s Christianities. Only, I think that historical precedents for the ordination of women do exist and might even abound,  and that historical elements too, alongside and after theological arguments, should be taken into account by those confessions which still restrict ordination to men. That the Twelve were men, as Young reminds us, is a fact, and indeed they had to represent the twelve patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, but they were also Jews, non-Asiatic, and non-Black probably. So one should ask why only women should be excluded from ordination on this argument, and not also Black or Asiatic men, and all non-Jewish men.

      Regarding “Gregory’s implicit critique of Plato and Origen with respect to the soul’s origin: the soul is neither eternal nor preexistent, but created out of nothing along with the body,” this is what is often assumed. In fact, Gregory criticises Plato and certainly ‘pagan’ Platonism, with its doctrine of the preexistence of disembodied souls and metensomatosis, but very probably not Origen, who did not accept metensomatosis (opposing to it his ensomatosis doctrine) and very probably rejected also the preexistence of disembodied souls.   Gregory insists for sure that soul and body are created at the same time, but we should determine which soul and which body, whether the mortal body or not – since there are problems here involving the so-called perishability axiom. (Now it is impossible to delve into the details. I address this thorny issue in forthcoming essays, within edited volumes for CUP and HUP; a monographic treatment would be needed).

      In conclusion, I wish to thank once again Professor Young warmly for her inspiring book, as well as for all of her so important scholarship.

      Ilaria Ramelli



In Praise of Word(s)

Frances Young integrates into her study of how God may be present to humans today a brave, frank appraisal of how the severe handicap of her son, Arthur, has made her reevaluate the Christian message. For Christians, Jesus is God’s “Word,” and the implications of this in terms of verbal communication resonate throughout her book. In particular she examines how what she terms “pre-verbal” people such as her son, who has no conventional voiced language at his disposal, can be included by a society which rationalises and categorises people and their faith by an ability to comprehend and communicate. Having volunteered in a l’Arche-type residential home some years ago, I had already asked myself some of her questions, and now as a poet as well as theologian, I find the issue of “language” and its ability to communicate particularly intriguing. In my response to her study I am focusing on the concept of Word and word(s), and how language may be only one means of conveying meaning and community.

Young views the contemporary Christian dilemmas with the aid of patristic and biblical proof texts, mindful that this is, in itself, a contentious activity, since both heretics (or heterodox) and orthodox writers drew on the same written texts to reach very different conclusions. She acknowledges as an example of this the way in which Irenaeus knew that Gnostics used the same texts as he did, but, by using a different framework, they “proved” different teachings about the person and work of Christ.[footnot]Young, 2013, 32.[/footnote] Similarly the same Qu’ranic teaching about greater and lesser jihad is taken by Islamic fundamentalists and their peaceful Muslim brothers and sisters, and distorted only by terrorists into justification for a slaughter of the innocent.

In addition to these more conventional and familiar sources, Young includes her own poetry and sermons as translations of the meaning of her academic findings. I have therefore included at the end of my contribution a poem I have written in response to the messages of the book under discussion, in the form of an Ephremic hymn with refrain.1 I hope this will be an extension to a suggestion I have made that “perhaps all poetry is a translation of sorts; an honouring of the language already used by others, re-crafted to new ends.”2

In her introduction, Young asserts that “language is necessarily the medium of theology, but theology can never be reduced to language.”3 She is keenly aware of how language can be confining, explaining that “language carries constraints within itself—it is possible to misunderstand, and language teachers mark real mistakes.”4 But it is also liberating: “appropriate language always points beyond itself.”5 And it may do this by employing different forms and registers which fit the needs of the reader or audience. Its possibilities are “infinite,” especially when the writer moves from conventional rhetorical or polemic prose, so passionately adhered to by many Patristic writers, and engages with less literal interpretations, as found in the Antiochene school of theology. I’d agree that “especially in poetry, a reader may discern meaning which was not consciously envisaged by the author, and this applies to all language that is metaphorical, parabolic or visionary.”6 For me this suggests several different and important hermeneutical tasks.

The first is to do with the ways in which words may be melded with other media, often involving physical senses that are not primarily associated with hearing spoken languages. In the modern world, mass media and evolving means of communication are, perhaps, beginning to erode the reliance on words within worship and as a means of understanding the Christian message. There is a graphic version of the Bible; some forms of worship focus more on projected images and music than a “head in hymn book” approach; tele-evangelists employ lighting and theatrical effects. Choral singers of the great canon of church music, from Byrd to Bach to Elgar and Lauridsen will be familiar with a visceral response to the interplay of words and sounds in music as it is performed. My own students are likely to access Bible references mentioned in class via their iPads or smart phones bypassing the censor of conventional publishing methods. “Language is always changing,”7 reminds Professor Young—and so is its means of transmission. So why not learn and “listen” to the language of the body, for those who cannot form comprehensible words within their mouths? Young cites McGilchrist’s insight that “most thinking, like most communication, goes on without language,”8 and details the physiology of left and right hemispheres of the brain, with the right side responsible for nonverbal communication. She attributes this partly to the fact that it is believed by some researchers that music, to which many persons with impaired intellectual capacity respond, is probably an “ancestor of language,” and a right-hemisphere brain activity.9 It would be interesting to compare Arthur’s responses and experiences to those of people who lived as fully able-bodied prior to traumatic head injury which terminated their ability to speak.

Secondly, as a theologian, church historian and latterly poet I have become intensely aware of the contribution to theological understanding of poetic modes of expression. As the renowned Syriacist Susan Ashbrook Harvey wrote, “All religious language is metaphorical because no language is adequate to convey God.”10 I explored the concept of metaphorical depictions of the Word in my recent book, Clothed in the Body: Asceticism, the Body and the Spiritual in the Late Antique Era (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012) in which I explored the Syrian translation of the concept of the Incarnation in the words “he was clothed in the body.” To cite Ephrem, the “clothing” metaphor begins with God himself, before he “clothed” his “Word” in flesh for our comprehension:

[EXT]He clothed Himself in language,

so that He might clothe us

in his mode of life.11[/EXT]

Sebastian Brock sees this as constituting “a parallelism between God’s two incarnations, first into human language when ‘He put on names’ in Scripture, and then the Incarnation proper.”12 Ephrem’s Hymn 31 on the Faith employs its first five stanzas to elaborate on this idea, and this is echoed in Hymn 11 on Paradise (stanza 6), where the poet-theologian praises God’s condescension in clothing himself in language “in order to bring him to the likeness of [Grace].”13 Human understanding of words is limited and unreliable. Perhaps there is a place for the apophasis (going beyond words) of the Palamites, who distinguished between the essence and the energies of God, bypassing the “inadequate” concept of word/Word, which is in itself a human construct.

Young picks up on this when she states Ephrem chose to write his theology in poetry since for him, God was “incarnate, or rather inscribed, in words (including types and symbols and metaphors which point beyond themselves).”14 Professor Young establishes “Ephrem’s precedent” as the justification for her “poetic postludes.”15 A core insight of the Late Antique Syrian church was that nature was as much of a witness to God’s creation as Scripture; this is extensively discussed by Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey.16 It makes sense therefore to allow aspects of the created world other than rational language to witness to Christ: It also means that exegesis is necessary, whether that be translation of texts, their setting to music, or their re-moulding in metaphorical forms such as poetry. This seems to be to follow Young’s requirement that exegesis necessary needs to be “adventurous and exploratory.”17 Before humans enjoyed language they expressed themselves in art (the wall paintings in caves occupied by Stone Age men and women are now seen as evidence of symbolic attempts to communicate in a social context. This maybe connects to the insights of Kenan Malik which Young cites in several places.18

Finally I want to consider how language “names.” An infant learning to speak babbles and its parents see and hear “mum/mom” and “dad” in the primitive sounds and in the infants’ smile. Young discusses the naming of Lazarus, an apparent “nobody.”19 I’d argue that the New Testament offers examples of where women (predominantly) and men “name” Jesus it is as much by actions as words. The evangelist has a vested interest in disclosing the identity of Jesus as not only Rabbi but Son Of God and Messiah, and he uses various characters as exegetes of the divine mystery. Not infrequently these characters are questioners, or people on the margins of society (like disabled people?). Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” challenging Jesus and yet he can see Jesus as Rabbi, Son of God and King of Israel (John 1:46–49). The Samaritan woman at the well, a manifold outsider to Jewish society, questions whether he should accept hospitality at her hands, but again, like Nathaniel, is “known” by Jesus and immediately able to see his Messiahship, and to carry that message back to her community—a risky endeavour (John 4:1–42). Luke’s Sinful Woman is spurned by the righteous Pharisee who is in turn chastised by Jesus for the narrow limits of his love. The woman’s actions in weeping over his feet and drying them with her hair speak volumes for her penitence and faith, and she is rewarded accordingly (Luke 7:36–50). Lazarus’ sister Martha challenges Jesus for coming late and failing to prevent her brother’s death; she, too, names Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God”’ (John 11:27). And Mary Magdalene at the tomb on the first Easter Day is another misfit—a woman whose testimony will bear less weight than that of a man merely because of her gender. Yet it is she who sees the metaphorical gardener for who He is (John 20:16).

Those people not blessed with coherent verbal language communicate in other ways. And the Jesus who felt the woman touch his robe and felt power leaving him surely speaks and listens in apophatic ways.




Hymn in praise of Word(s)


Divided tongues of heavenly fire

descended on the faithful ones,

and filled with the Holy Spirit

they gave voice to the divine words.20


Refrain: Tongues, lips and teeth employ

to utter praise to Him

who gave us his Word.


The seraphim brought a live coal

to touch and cleanse the unclean lips,

so purified Isaiah then

went to proclaim the Lord of Hosts.21


Refrain: Tongues, lips and teeth employ

to utter praise to Him

who gave us his Word.


At the end of this age the Word

will cast into the hot furnace

all those who offend lawlessly

and there will be gnashing of teeth.22


Refrain: Tongues, lips and teeth employ

to utter praise to Him

who gave us his Word.


May those of us who have language

use it to protect the voiceless

whose every gesture speaks to God

who sent his Word to save us all.


Refrain: Tongues, lips and teeth employ

to utter praise to Him

who gave us his Word.

  1. My poetry has been published under the name of Hannah Stone. Especially relevant are the poems in Oz Hardwick, ed., New Crops from Old Fields: Eight Medievalist Poets (York: Stairwell, 2015), as these integrate insights from my work as a church historian/theologian and my creative activity as a poet.

  2. Hannah Stone, New Crops, 95.

  3. Young, 2013, 4.

  4. Young, 2013, 30.

  5. Young, 2013, 4.

  6. Young, 2013, 31.

  7. Young, 2013, 31.

  8. Young, 2013, 191.

  9. Young, 2013, 190.

  10. “Embodiment in Time and Eternity: A Syrian Perspective,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 43.2 (1999) 109.

  11. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymn 23 on the Nativity, stanza 2, in Sebastian Brock, trans., St. Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990), 155.

  12. Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World of Saint Ephrem (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1992), 32.

  13. Hannah Hunt, Clothed in the Body: Asceticism, the Body and the Spiritual in the Late Antique Era (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 137.

  14. Young, 2013, 4.

  15. Young, 2013, 4.

  16. For more on this, see chs. 7–10 of my Clothed in the Body.

  17. Young, 2013, 27.

  18. Young, 2013, 120–21.

  19. Young, 2013, 19–21.

  20. Acts 2:1–4

  21. Isaiah 6:6.

  22. Matthew 13:42–43.

  • Frances Young

    Frances Young


    Response to Hannah Hunt

    This response to God’s Presence is intriguing: rather than being in any sense a comprehensive review, it singles out the issue of language, which certainly is one element that runs through the work, but to me, the author, it seems not to belong to the substance of the book so much as to lie amongst its underlying intellectual frameworks. So Hunt made me reflect first on why it is so constitutive of my approach.

    A number of key elements in my intellectual formation come to mind, some already implicit or explicit in Hunt’s comments:

    • Language and literature were the principal focus of my education from the age of 16, my first undergraduate degree being in Classics at a time when translation into, as well as out of, the languages was still core to the syllabus. Nothing could be more effective in shaping a mind that is self-conscious about the subtleties of verbal expression and its forms. This was, and is, reinforced by family traditions of verbal wit.
    • Philosophy of religion in Cambridge in the ’60s had a strong focus on religious language, from logical positivism to Wittgenstein. This meant that for me talk about God could never be straightforward.
    • Years of teaching New Testament Greek underlined the fact that error and misconstrual are real possibilities, but also the potential elasticity of linguistic meaning and the necessary coinherence of translation and exegesis.
    • Postmodern challenges to straightforward assumptions about how language relates to the world, and a resurgent interest in metaphor, not least among feminist theologians, reinforced caution about linguistic literalism, though George Steiner’s book Real Presences (London: Faber & Faber, 1989) enabled the retention of a subtle, almost sacramental, realism with respect to linguistic representation of reality.
    • A research focus on patristic exegesis meant a reassessment of symbolism and allegory, not to mention typology, and this engagement also highlighted the close integration of patristic theological language with its exegetical rooting.
    • Preoccupation with how and how much my pre-linguistic, disabled son understood was probably inevitable given the kind of formation described.
    • My own turn to writing poetry both capitalised on all that and reflected the precedent of Ephrem, as Hunt notes.[/BL]

    My second reflection turns to the way issues about language have impacted on some modern approaches to patristics. I well remember as a student encountering the argument that patristic Christology and the Chalcedonian definition were conceived and stated in old-fashioned and static “substance-language”; replacement with dynamic categories was all the rage. Yet the nature of this critique was surely misconceived. The whole point of “substance” in ancient philosophy was a concern about identity—what is it that makes a thing what it is? Issues concerning identity remain crucial in consideration of the major topics of Christian theology, especially Christology. The answer to “Who is this?” may easily be reduced to a matter of role(s), but increasingly there has been a shift in approach, particularly an emphasis on narrative as the best means of answering this. But identity also involves recognising particular characteristics, and differentiation from others. The Fathers’ “substance-language” was a way of pursuing exactly these questions. Which is why we need a hermeneutic of their hermeneutics. Language is always fraught with challenges—even without the need to translate and reach across gaps in historical and cultural experience—yet basically it is about communication, and proper attention to the “other” always contains the hope of genuine encounter, of some measure of understanding and the discovery of common human experiences and insights: our common biological identity undergirds our diverse, multicultural, social and historical lives.

    My third reflection focuses on the significance of the “word” in biblical theology, a point hinted at but not developed very specifically in Hunt’s piece. There is a sense in which most of the Fathers were interested in knowledge of God, their idea of revelation being a kind of face-to-face encounter, despite their recognition, given their resistance to any degree of anthropomorphism, that this was far from literally possible. By contrast it is intriguing that John’s Gospel opens with focus on the Word, and speaks of the only Son “exegeting,” or perhaps “providing a narrative of,” the Father (John 1:18). There are, of course, theophanies in the Scriptures. The glory of God is associated with blazing, dazzling light, but often this is dangerous: Moses is denied a vision of God’s glory because no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20; John 1:18). God passes by, and hidden in the cleft of the rock, Moses sees only God’s backparts. Isaiah sees the Lord, but hardly—for the hem of God’s robe is enough to fill the temple and what Isaiah really sees is but the Lord’s environment—the seraphs flying about offering praise to the Holy One. Likewise is Ezekiel’s elaborate vision of God’s chariot throne, with just a likeness of the glory of the Lord. In each case, attention is shifted to a voice or a word. To the prophets comes the Word of the Lord. Moses cannot see God, though the Lord speaks with him face-to-face as one speaks with a friend (Exodus 33:11), and Moses’ face so shines with God’s glory from talking with God that he has to put a veil over it (Exodus 34:29). The burning bush is a sign of God’s presence, but it is God’s call and commission that is centre of attention. Ditto Elijah: on Horeb, God was not in the storm, or the earthquake, or the fire, but from the sound of silence comes a voice (1 Kings 19). Words and communication constitute God’s revelation, and one might speak of the incarnation as God’s “body language.” The true image of God is not a static idol or a symbol, but a living being, with a story, embodying God’s love and so exegeting God’s identity; and as Paul put it, picking up the Moses story, we all with unveiled faces, seeing/reflecting the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the self-same image from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

    So to the extent that God’s communication lies at the core of the Scriptures, language lies at the heart of Christian theology.