Contributions of Non-Evangelicals to Theology (5)

The Post-Secular Spirit of Radical Orthodoxy

The lineaments of what is called Radical Orthodoxy are still to be fully shaped. However, thanks to the voluminous output of its major protagonists, it is possible to describe Radical Orthodoxy to a large extent.

The three main figures within this movement are John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Catherine Pickstock, all of whom teach at English Universities. The movement they spearhead is most certainly an academic one, but it is one which is beginning to make its presence felt in North America. It is our prediction (unsubstantiated for sure) that it will garner a great many supporters, both beyond evangelicalism and within it. One of its major points is that it is not a theological perspective like Reformed or Lutheran, but is a reflection which may be incorporated more or less into a number of traditional theological strands.[1]

Not that it is an evangelical movement. Indeed, the leaders eschew evangelicalism (especially in its North American guise) as out of step with, yet seriously permeated by the operating assumptions of post-Enlightenment secular thinking. And it is just at this point where Radical Orthodoxy grabs the attention. Its basic assumption is that the spirit of secularism, be it modern or postmodern, is, in fact, fraudulent, being built out of the raw materials of religious theism.[2] The “Western perspective,” then, is a sham; a deception that ought to be publicly exposed and called to account. But by what? Milbank explains concerning the modern interpretation of society:

[Modern social theory] interprets the theological transformation at the inception of modernity as a genuine “reformation” which fulfills the destiny of Christianity to let the spiritual be spiritual, without public interference, and the public be secular, without private prejudice. Yet this interpretation preposterously supposes that the new theology simply brought Christianity to its true essence by lifting some irksome and misplaced sacred ecclesial restrictions on the free market of the secular, whereas, in fact, it instituted an entirely different economy of power and knowledge. (Emphasis added).[3]

What Milbank is saying is that the modern secular outlook is not, (contrary to the way it portrays itself), the original mindset. It is actually a distortion of the theological mindset of pre-modernism.[4]

If this is so then what happened in “the Age of Reason” was the institution of a form of paganism – since the very idea of ‘the secular’ is a misnomer. “In short, there is no secular, if by “secular” we mean “neutral” or “uncommitted”; instead, the supposedly neutral public spaces that we inhabit – in the academy or politics – are temples of other gods that cannot be served alongside Christ. (Emphasis original).”[5] This in turn means that the theological way is more valid than the secular. “Therefore Radical Orthodoxy defers to no experts and engages in no dialogues because it does not recognize other valid points of view outside the theological.”[6]

Not that Radical Orthodoxy offers a transcendental confrontation with non-Christian thought, as does Cornelius Van Til. Indeed, the theology which they lay as a foundation for their critiques is fairly thin, and so cannot be the source of a ‘Christian worldview.’ But what it does have to offer is a platform. This platform is informed by two things, a powerful critique of secularist assumptions, and a rallying call for believers to treat life as a sacred gift.[7]

Radical Orthodoxy is involved in reading the signs of the times in such a way. It looks at “sites” that we have invested much capital in – the body, sexuality, relationships, desire, painting, music, the city, the natural, the political – and it reads them in terms of the grammar of the Christian faith; a grammar that might be summed up in the various creeds. In this way Radical Orthodoxy must view its own task as not only doing theology but being itself theological – participating in the redemption of creation.[8]

These are important insights alright, and we would suggest that any of them might be taken up by a meaningful theology and re-presented in theological colors both theoretically and practically. But now the vital question must be put; where is this grammar of faith grounded? From certain statements from this camp it may appear that they have a ready answer. Milbank tells us that this means “a thinking out of the resources of revelation alone.”[9] But if one inquires as to the full identity of this revelation one is met with a resistance to the equating it with the Bible. “Revelation” is Divine intervention, or better, participation with the world – not at all in a pantheistic or panentheistic sense – but in a sacramental sense.[10] Albeit, in exactly what way it is revelational and not merely circumstantial is never (so far as we can see) properly articulated. This seems to make the agenda of the movement one that is less based in ontology (how things are) and more based in ethics (how things should be). But who decides? While Radical Orthodoxy argues that society ought to be ‘theologized’ to find its true self, some counter-movement could justifiably put up resistance to what it may see as a purely preferential outcome. And this is surely the root matter in not just Radical Orthodoxy’s view, but also in those other approaches we have briefly examined. At the end of the day there is a refusal to stand on Scripture and to speak authoritatively from Scripture. As Alister McGrath comments,

Like George Lindbeck, Milbank seems to assume that the Christian tradition is just there, without being attentive to the complex story of how this complex tradition emerged through historical development. Inevitably, this historically shallow approach leads him to marginalize both the historical and contemporary role of the Bible in theological reflection.[11]

This does not mean that conservative evangelicals cannot learn from this approach (or, indeed, the Barthian and Neo-Liberal approaches). They sometimes make very important observations. Indeed, they can at times sound better than their respective methodologies allow. Still, it is the subject of true method that this study is concerned with, and so we must leave off these non-evangelical views[12] and turn our attention to traditional methodologies.

Positive Contributions?

Radical Orthodoxy does not make a contribution at the methodological level. However, what it does do well is worth having in mind as we do theology. These are:

a. A comprehension of the fraudulence of Secularism’s claim to be the normative disposition of human beings.

b. An appreciation of the expanded role that Christian thinking must play in view of the above.

c. The participatory element that this encourages, especially the duty of love.[13]

d. The requirement that Christian thinking can be an academic exercise.

e. Treating life, living, and responsibilities under the rubric of gift.

In sum, it is possible to study non-evangelical scholars to derive some benefit from their thinking. We have tried to show both some of the problems with as well as some of the positive contributions of these men. That they have made any contribution is down to the common grace of God, and to the propositional nature of Scripture.[14]


[1] See John Milbank’s essay, “Alternative Protestantism: Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition,” in James K. A. Smith and James H. Olhuis, eds., Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 26.

[2] This recalls somewhat the theme of a book written in the 1950’s by the English thinker Harry Blamires called The Secularist Heresy, (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980).

[3] John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 10.

[4] This is not to say it advocates a return to pre-modernity, just a theologically informed postmodernity.

[5] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 42. Smith adds that, “secular paradigms are, ultimately, pagan.” (Ibid).

[6] Milbank quoted by Smith, 70. I owe much of my understanding of this movement to Smith’s book.

[7] This emerges particularly strongly in Milbank’s work.

[8] Graham Ward cited in Smith, 79.

[9] Milbank cited in Smith, 51.

[10] Smith, 229.

[11] Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 123-124.

[12] See our critiques of Natural Theology and secularism in general.

[13] Milbank, “Alternative Protestantism,” 33, 37.

[14] Even though nearly all non-evangelicals deny propositional revelation.

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6 comments

  1. I am an apologist from India and this is my first opportunity to visit your website, which I enjoyed very much. Those in the field of apologetics need to do much to bring the doubting Thomases to faith and also to strengthen those who wish to get answers.

    First of all, I was fascinated by the subtitle “reluctant dispensationalist”.

    Thanks for your in depth writing on Contributions of Non-Evangelicals to Theology. I hope read many more of your contributions.

    Dr. Johnson C. Philip
    India

  2. An interesting read, though I am not Evangelical myself, I was once, and I would agree with your evaluation. The combination does bring the 14th thesis to mind:

    “Radical Orthodoxy is focused on the recovery and non-identical repetition of an authentic pre-Scotist Catholicism. It finds elements of an authentic continuation of the same in High Anglicanism, but also in many other places and countries as well. It detests evangelicalism, because it is creepy, voluntaristic and therefore nihilistic.”

    I will certainly be reading your subsequent posts in the future, a very interesting perspective indeed! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks Benjamin. Although there’s evangelicalism and evangelicalism. While much of what calls itself evangelicalism is trite and a tad “creepy” I think it is a feature of the academic isolation of people like Ward and Pickstock (Milbank not so much) which calls forth adjectives like “voluntaristic” to describe the movement. Relatively few within the fold of what might be termed “old evangelicalism” could be smeared with that word. Although many, myself included, would hold to soft determinism in their view of providence.

  4. Soft determinism and voluntarism are quite far disposed, I would think?

    I don’t think I was ever taught Calvinist style election, there was always more emphasis on conversion counts and the one-prayer-salvation than the fate of the unfortunate Other. Sola fides et. al. I guess the Church I used to attend did fall into what you call old evangelicalism.

    It is something of a testimony to the limited possibilities of RO that I don’t think any practising Church has actually emerged from the movement (“sensibility”, as Ward would have it). I suppose that was always unlikely, the high church isn’t particularly in vogue at present (and insofar as it is a counter-reformation, I suppose the high CoE/Roman Catholic Church sort of count).

  5. Some soft-determinists within Reformed theology do veer very close to voluntarism in their view of freewill. But this is not necessarily so. I think some of the problem comes from our penchant for seeking to explain things too far above us. This isn’t using mystery as an escape clause; only knowing when to get off the bus.

    “By faith alone” is a biblical doctrine (Eph. 2:8-9). In fact, Paul’s whole argument in Romans 1-5 is to show the necessity of “Sola Fide.”

    RO, btw, is making real inroads at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids.

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