Divine Teaching

As much as it might appear counterintuitive, I’m going to begin my review of Mark McIntosh’s Divine Teaching with his concluding paragraph:

‘My aims throughout have been two: to help you move toward a deeper understanding of what Christians have believed and taught over the centuries, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to give you a taste for the sort of theological teaching and inquiry that have their perfect form not simply in classrooms but in that life of communion with God that Christians think is heaven itself.’ (p.228).

McIntosh’s basic premise in Divine Teaching is that God- the author of all created reality- is the real teacher of Christian theology, and he seeks to unpack that basic thesis in two clear sections- Part I: Becoming a Theologian and Part II: Theology’s Search for Understanding. Throughout the book, McIntosh seeks to orient the reader to the ways in which historical theology has construed of both theology and the theological task, drawing on theologians from Origen, Aquinas and Barth, to Irenaeus, Augustine, Blaise Pascal and John Zizioulas.

In the first section (on how God makes theologians) I felt as though McIntosh was simultaneously rebuking my pursuit of certitude through biblical studies (via historical criticism), and inviting me into a life of fresh wonder and awe in pursuit of God. The idea that theology is an adventure in which ‘the theologian, lured by ungraspable truth, ceases to devour everything and is herself or himself “devoured,” transformed by a reality too real to be, in Augustine’s terms, dragged back into the mind’s manipulations.’ (p.17) was an arresting thought: is it me who is doing the learning at Cranmer Hall, or am I being devoured, consumed by an altogether more beautiful reality? Then, McIntosh’s construal of analogical theology as verbal piracy made me laugh out loud before putting the book down for a moment to reflect: I have an unattractive tendency toward theological pedantry- toward commandeering language about God- but even though the words I might use about God (e.g. goodness) are true, they are not the reality to which they refer. This is chastening but also very liberating, for now I am freed from the need to define (a task that surely shrinks reality) and for the task of exploration and encounter. ‘It is as if the erstwhile theologian-pirates discover that the language vessel they thought they had commandeered was in fact mysteriously sent by Someone to fetch them.’ (p.20)

The second major section of the book (‘Theology’s Search for Understanding’) makes the interesting step of beginning with the doctrine of salvation. McIntosh is closer to Karl Barth than to Friedrich Schleiermacher, as his construal of salvation places the emphasis upon God’s saving action in Christ as the lens through which we understand everything else (p.65) as opposed to Schleiermacher’s emphasis upon human experience that then ascends to an understanding of God as Trinity. By placing soteriology before the doctrine of the Trinity, McIntosh seems to nuance Barth’s thinking slightly by suggesting that any human understanding of God as Trinity flows from the historical reality of salvation in Christ.

McIntosh proposes that ‘the Christian vision of God as Trinity emerges organically from early Christians’ experience of their own transformation by means of relationship, through Jesus, in the Spirit, with the Father.’ (p.117) Although the full flowering of doctrinal formulation of the Trinity would not emerge until the fourth century, experience of the the crucified-yet-risen Jesus (both pre- and post-passion) has this profound sense of the eternal abundance of the divine life. For McIntosh, the resurrection of Jesus is the extravagant outpouring of the life of God in the world, viewed as ‘an infinite giving, the free self-sharing of the Father to the Son and in the Spirit, or what Christians call the Trinity.’ (p.118)

I have to confess that this was a refreshingly new way of thinking about both the gospel narratives (and epistles) and- having spent far more time in recent years contemplating Christology from a historical-critical perspective- reimagining key events in the life of Jesus as evidence of the overflowing abundance of the triune life of God in the world is nothing short of breathtaking for me! I can’t imagine casting aside all critical apparatus in my study of the gospels, but McIntosh has certainly opened up new vistas of understanding which, to be honest, feel incredibly life-giving.

Another pleasant surprise was just around the corner. In discussing the Trinitarian language of fourth and fifth century creedal developments, McIntosh suggests that the reader has to read between the lines as it were, to try and discern how attempts are being made to articulate what- by definition- cannot be defined (p.123)

I found this to be both chastening and refreshing- chastening because I had become slightly wary (and even a little cynical about creedal formulae) and refreshing, because all of a sudden I was receiving a fresh insight into what these patristic theologians were attempting to do.

If I may skip to the final chapter here, I found the idea of creation as the overflow of the divine life (rather than a necessity) and the resurrection of Jesus in the power of the Spirit as creation’s return to God (beatification) to be both beautifully articulated and deeply compelling. That God is sheer existence and that creaturely existence began in the mind of God and is then given, gratis, to the creature in order for creation to come to share in the life of God is mind-blowingly beautiful! Hans Boersma articulates this in a similar way by referring to creation’s sacramental sharing in the life of the eternal Word of God. Both McIntosh and Boersma- I think- are saying that creation does not have its own autonomous existence, and neither is creation another sort of rival existence. Rather, creation participates in the life of the God whose very self is sheer existence.

In the final few pages of Divine Teaching, McIntosh engages with Thomas Traherne, proposing that humanity’s ability to recognise the divine life in creation might lead to an extension of creation into its ‘intended fullness and resonance, precisely by appreciating it in praise.’ (p.227) This may serve as a powerful antidote to the use and abuse of creation by humanity, while also pointing forward to the telos of creation. In McIntosh’s view, the sacredness of creation is not so much to be located in the fact of its existence, but rather in its being willed in the mind of the triune God and therefore somehow a reflection of God’ s triune life, construed as life for the other, even so radically other as creation!

To conclude, as I reflect back on this section of McIntosh’s book, I am conscious of some deep resonances with what God is currently doing in my own life. During a recent time of contemplative prayer at my home church in York, I became aware that I had been grasping at knowledge; trying to learn and to extract all I could from my time at university. I sensed the Holy Spirit speak to me about receiving, not grasping- that study and knowledge is a gift to receive, not a possession to be taken.

With that thought fresh in my mind and McIntosh’s book in my hand, I have noticed a fresh sense of wonder and awe at God growing in me, (particularly related to contemplative practice), a heightening of my senses (?) in that I perceive myself to be more aware of God’ s presence, and a developing sense of epistemological humility when it comes to theology. I feel increasingly comfortable with mystery and free from the need to batten down the theological hatches! If nothing else, Divine Teaching has contributed to this process, both correcting and encouraging me as a wannabe theologian, fanning the flames of love for the triune God and whetting my appetite for further study. I didn’t find it all easy to read the book- some sections in the middle of the book that engaged in conversation with theologians less familiar to me were a bit stodgy- but my overall impression is that McIntosh’s work has been a vital, life-giving and significant piece for me at this stage in my life and ministry.

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