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Not Augustinian Enough

September 19th, 2023 | 12 min read

By James Wood

What would Augustine write to the late-modern West? Christopher Watkin, in his widely lauded Biblical Critical Theory, seeks to answer that question by performing a similar type of social analysis for a very different context.

This is a unique work. I am not sure I have ever read a book that so thoroughly weaves biblical theology, systematic theology, and apologetics, all the while engaging prominent philosophers, whether Christian or non-Christian. But in some ways it is inspired by the author of the foreword. If you have listened to or read much of Tim Keller’s writings over the years, much of this will feel familiar in both style and content. Watkin invokes Keller’s own insights throughout the volume and engages many of the same figures who were commonly invoked in Keller’s writings and sermons, such as Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This is not a criticism of Watkin, who admits that he is not seeking to provide anything new. Rather, he wants to package many of these insights into a single compelling narrative. That he has accomplished.

Watkin’s is a quintessentially modern Reformed work, reflecting many of the emphases of second and third generation Neo-Calvinists. Other than Keller, Watkin refers to Francis Schaeffer, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, and Alvin Plantinga as key inspirations. The perspective here also bridges Neo-Calvinist and Radical Orthodox thought, as John Milbank is a regular figure who pops up, along with his friend David Bentley Hart, who is not technically part of Radical Orthodoxy, but travels alongside those figures. And, as such, James K.A. Smith makes frequent appearances. If you have trafficked in Neo-Calvinist circles for the past couple of decades, much of this material will feel familiar.

Something unique, however, is the textbook nature of this work. At the end of each of the twenty-eight chapters, Watkin provides a set of “Study Questions” to help the reader probe further. This lends a certain practicality to the work, making it accessible for small group discussions or even Bible college and MDiv classrooms.

The book is written as a “so what?” work. Watkin explains that the title of the book could have easily been The Bible: So What? and says that his aim is “to paint a picture of humanity and of our world through the lens of the Bible and to compare aspects of this image to alternative visions. It is a book about how the whole Bible sheds light on the whole of life, how we can read and understand our society, our culture, and ourselves through the lens of the Bible’s storyline.” Therefore, it is not fitting, as some might be prone to do, to criticize the book for its lack of scholastic rigor or systematic depth.

As mentioned above, across the twenty eight chapters, Watkin weaves biblical theology, systematic reflection, and apologetic considerations. The book is largely structured around the biblical story, but also around systematic loci with constant asides on modern and postmodern philosophers. Watkin explains that, though inspired by The City of God, the structure of his work is markedly different. Whereas Augustine spends the first half in that great text critiquing Roman religion and philosophy, and then traces the story of Scripture, Watkin constantly weaves examination of contemporary culture within the larger scriptural story. Yet it is worth considering which parts of the biblical story he attends to. After spending almost half of his book getting through Genesis 1-22, Watkin discusses the liberation narrative of Exodus, and then quickly jumps to the prophets. He explains that the people of God are freed to worship, but then spends almost no time talking about worship.

Very little is said about Leviticus and Numbers, and the cultic life of God’s people is severely under-examined. Similarly, there is insufficient attention to the law in general and its role in the story of God’s people. Thus, Deuteronomy is barely engaged, as are the more historical books such as 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles, which display how the law is applied and often misapplied or ignored, and what the consequences of that can be. So, we have a fascinating discussion of liberation and the prophets (and also very insightful material on the Wisdom literature), but what about priests and the law? and how these relate to civil power?

There are two primary devices that frame the material in the work: figures and diagonalization. Figures are patterns and rhythms that shape our sense of ourselves and the world around us. He provides six broad categories of figures: 1) language, ideas, and stories; 2) time and space; 3) the structure of reality; 4) behavior; 5) relationships; 6) objects. The dominant ensemble of figures in a particular cultural moment form a “world” in which we live and move. The “world” of the late-modern West is deeply imprinted by the Christian heritage that it increasingly rejects. This means that the Christianity retained by our culture is profoundly fragmented and distorted, and the principles that are harmonized in the Bible are set in opposition.

To address this problem, Watkin turns to his second device of “diagonalization,” which refers to the way that the “figures” of the Bible cut across and rearrange the false dichotomies presented to us in our culture. Diagonalization shows how a cultural dichotomy splinters the rich biblical reality, resulting in fragmented options and unsatisfying compromises. It answers these with the biblical picture which reveals how the best aspirations of the options are fulfilled in a way none of the contemporary options could have envisioned. This is a type of “third-way” logic, something I have publicly critiqued, but Watkin’s use of this device is often satisfying for how it gives concrete content rather than just a default posture. It is tethered to the biblical figures, and through them, Watkin seeks to “out-narrate” the Bible’s cultural rivals, resolving late-modern tensions through diagonalized narration. At times, however, this diagonalization can appear forced, or a bit sloppy, and thus can fall into some of the standard pitfalls of third-wayism more generally.

The book has many profound strengths, starting first with the style and structure. This is a great sourcebook of quotations from some of the best Christian commentators on late-modern culture. One could simply pool these quotes for one’s own use, or follow these breadcrumbs to some of the most penetrating writings by Christian thinkers on Western culture over the past two centuries. Furthermore, the structure, in the ways it differs from The City of God, is, in some senses, rhetorically effective. For instance, today, very few actually read the first half of Augustine’s tome, which focuses on an immanent critique of his contemporary culture, but rather jump into the second half in which Augustine traces the history of the two cities through the biblical narrative. Watkin’s more integrated approach might serve to expose a greater amount of readers to the critiques of contemporary culture than a neat division would. And within this integrated approach, Watkin lets his “figures” wash over the reader. At times the reader can get overwhelmed with the sheer abundance of material, yet, the net effect at the end is that Watkin’s way of seeing the world becomes almost second-nature.

Besides the strengths of the style and structure, Watkin is actually quite impressive on particular issues. Some reviewers will draw attention to the confusing title of the book, which might make the reader assume that Watkin is either going to directly discuss “Critical Theory” and how Christians should view it through the Bible, or that Watkin will employ the tools of “Critical Theory” in some way. Watkin does neither, and this might frustrate some.

But Watkin is clear from the beginning that he is doing something analogous to Critical Theory, or rather that he is operating from a more fundamental understanding of Critical Theory, exposing and evaluating the often hidden assumptions and concepts that shape our society, and providing the outlines of a Christian social theory from the biblical story. And when he does engage concepts more closely related to what commonly goes under the label “Critical Theory,” he is actually quite helpful. Consider his discussion of the “marginalized” in Jesus’s ministry. Watkin first appears to uncritically embrace the logic of Critical Theory when he says that “Jesus’s ministry was ‘intersectional’ before its time, acknowledging and engaging with multiple intersecting oppressions,” referring to the ways that Jesus sought out widows and orphans, prostitutes, the blind, the lame, lepers, children, women, etc. However, Watkin quickly explains that Christ’s ministry cannot be simply defined by the categories of Marxist thought or Critical Theory. Jesus also reaches out to those whom Jacques Ellul describes as the “uninteresting poor,” who are not related to fashionable social causes.

As an example here, Watkin refers to Jesus’s ministry to tax collectors and Pharisees like Nicodemus, revealing that Jesus’s compassion extends further than the social justice warriors of our day. While Jesus exhibits a special concern for the poor, he does not follow what we would now call a Marxist logic. He does not pit groups against one another and treat one as innocent or guilty merely by their associations or social position. The poor are not saved because they are poor, nor are the rich damned because they are rich. Discipleship is not the exclusive domain of the poor or the powerful. Simplistic social binaries are ruled out in Jesus’s ethic.

Watkin is also particularly strong in terms of explaining how Christianity has shaped the modern world. He echoes the scholarship of many who argue that Christ’s teaching to “give … to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God's” provided the framework for the distinction between temporal and civil power and the resources to limit the claims of government power. One of the most compelling illustrations of the impact of Christianity on our social imaginary was Watkin’s reference to C.S. Lewis’s exploration of the imprint of the Christian ethic in “The Necessity of Chivalry.” The ideal knight combined what in most non-Christian societies is kept apart: guts and gentleness. This produced a chivalric culture that pervaded society.

In many ways, as G.K. Chesterton explained, this amalgam is being lost as Western societies continue to turn their backs on their Christian heritage. But when biblical principles are separated from the whole of Christianity, they become dangerous distortions. One can see this today in the vitalist turn to a Nietzschean conception of masculinity as a reaction to the loss of any positive conception of masculinity in the late-modern, post-Christian West. Watkin eloquently illustrates how similar dynamics are at play in modern liberation frameworks that are inspired by the Exodus. Modern appropriations are ready to see oppression everywhere, simplifying the Exodus narrative in a victim/oppressor binary, predicated also on modernity’s illusion of “an absolute and unmitigated oppression pitted against a pure and unconditioned liberty.” This helps to explain how even Christianity itself has come to be seen as one oppressor from which modern society needs to be liberated. And yet, echoing the Tom Holland thesis, even the predominant critiques of Christianity today are shaped by the Christian imprint. But since these critiques are predicated on aspects of Christianity separated from the Christian whole, they distort reality. Thus, more diagonalization is in order to cut across the binaries set up in worldly ideologies.

Though the book has many strengths, it has numerous shortcomings as well. We can begin with style. The book is simply too long and there is too much material in it. It creeps over 600 pages and each page is densely packed not only with illuminating exposition of Scripture, but also distilled summations of complicated philosophical concepts. While the reader will appreciate the insightful quotes provided throughout, there are too many. At times the reader will wish Watkin would develop his arguments more in his own voice, pushing many of his references and quotations in the footnotes for further exploration. And while he packs in too much material, on the other hand there are important topics that he almost wholly ignores. I can recall hardly any mention of abortion or the sexual revolution, and for neither is there an entry in the index. To be sufficiently “critical” of the underlying values, assumptions, and narratives of our day, there needs to be much more attention to those issues.

These stylistic problems also betray some larger substantial issues with the book. When Watkin does talk about pressing political issues of our day, sometimes he can oversimplify things, rushing to a naive and vacuous third-wayism. This happens in his discussions of capitalism and socialism. Simply presenting these two as opposed to the biblical vision without more nuanced attention to their particular and disproportionate errors places them in a false equivalence and provides little guidance for how best to proceed with the limited set of options before us. A similar dynamic is evident in Watkin’s discussion of both multiculturalism and homogenizing secularism as falling short of the eschatological vision of Revelation 7.

Related to the eschaton, Watkin is also weak on the normativity of creation. For him, it is redemption that provides the positive, normative guidance that complements the critique of our fallen condition. Here there is too much rupture with creation, and this is evinced also in neglect of natural law in the work. This applies also to Watkin’s discussion of neighbor love, which, while insightful in certain respects, lacks attention to the tradition of “ordering love” that would round out his “anarchic” conception. These issues give the book a more Barthian than Augustinian flavor in certain areas.

Indeed, that is my core concern–this book is insufficiently Augustinian. This would not be such an issue if the work weren’t presented in the endorsements as an “update of Augustine’s City of God” and if the author did not himself frequently refer to that great text as inspiration. The Augustinian deficiencies are evident in a few areas. Watkin is very good at explaining the Christian character of late-modern Western societies and even their critiques of Christianity. But his reflection on and response to the anti-Christian nature of these societies is a bit lacking; availing himself of more Augustinian resources might help. Remember, Augustine himself wrote The City of God when the empire, that had been “Christianized,” was in peril. Many pagans blamed Christianity for the empire’s internal weakness and capitulation to external enemies. What was Augustine’s response?

Well, it was not simply to diagonalize across the binaries of the day, or to merely explain how the culture’s deepest longings were subversively fulfilled in Christianity. I am not sure that positive out-narration is sufficient, though it is necessary. Some polemic might be called for. Augustine is helpful here: Much of the first half of The City of God is a relentless polemic against the civic religion of Rome. Augustine was willing to use some harsh words, to mock even. Watkin admits that in the Bible the prophets were willing to use harsh language as well, but he then appears reluctant to practice or promote any such rhetorical strategies himself. It seems that he thinks that our very Christian post-Christian society can be persuaded with a merely positive vision. I am not so sure. Our societies are not simply defined by “Christian heresy,” but by replacement religions.

Here we might find help from two other important recent works on our post-Christian societies: Pagans and Christians in the City by Steven D. Smith and La Fin de la Chrétienté by Chantal Delsol. Both of these address the forms of positively anti-Christian, neopaganism that have replaced Christianity. To overplay the “Christian” nature of the critiques seems a bit naive. New religions have emerged to fill the gap of a once-dominant Christianity. We need to think seriously about how to deal with replacement religions. Our neighbors and societies won’t be easily wooed back by reminding them of what they have left behind and how their value systems are more effectively reconciled in Christianity. This brings me to another Augustinian angle that is lacking in this work: recognition of demonic forces. Third-way approaches to cultural engagement often lack this element, preferring to remain in the realm of ideas, seeking to show how binaries are transcended, how Christianity completes all incomplete systems of thought, etc. Augustine dealt with the demonic forces in Roman society also in the first half of The City of God. He exposed the demonic forces that were behind the civic religion of the empire and how these led to social and moral corruption. Augustine did not hold back in explaining how the civic religion of Rome was demonic and a disease to the body politic. A truly biblical critical theory, especially one inspired by Augustine, needs to provide a similar assessment of and response to our sociopolitical orders.

Watkin could also benefit from more Augustinian perspectives on the government and the church. Watkin has very little to say about the positive role that political mechanisms can play with regard to our social imaginary. His strongest point here is a quotation from Jamie Smith: “‘Laws function as ‘nudges’ that are habit-forming.’” Watkin does not develop this idea at all. If one were to follow Augustine and his great student Thomas, one would recognize that law is a teacher and plays a positive role in the inculcation of virtue and values according to truth. Including these Augustinian categories would also amend Watkin’s overemphasis on martyrdom as the predominant figure for thinking about Christianity and culture. The options are not merely Eusebian enthusiasm, Donatist separatism, or martyrdom. Augustine, even after chastening his earlier Eusebianism, could still conceive of the provisional fulfillment of prophecy in history as rulers submit to Christ, establish laws against impiety, and protect and promote the witness and worship of the church. Though this is difficult to imagine today, and martyrdom must always remain a possibility for which Christians are prepared, it is not wrong to hope for such developments for the good of the church and broader society.

I also mentioned that Watkin writes from a Reformed perspective. And here I have to say that his view of the church is insufficiently Reformed. He claims that there is no church in the Old Testament, but that goes against much Reformed teaching—for example, Belgic Confession 27, Heidelberg Catechism Q 54, Second Helvetic Confession 17. And I don’t think I have to explain how far this is from Augustine’s view of the church, since he relates it closely to the city of God, which has its human origins in Abel.

Watkin has written a fascinating tome. He has honored Keller’s request for a “Christian High Theory,” and it is a gift that Keller saw its fruition before departing into glory. Though I do not believe this book will see a legacy similar to that of The City of God, no work should be burdened with this pressure. It speaks in profound ways to our moment. It would be great for the types of classrooms mentioned above, and will be helpful on the shelves of many pastors, providing signals for further research. I am grateful Watkin pushed me to read my Bible more closely and appreciate its comprehensive relevance for late-modern life in fresh ways. That is success.

James Wood

James R. Wood is an assistant professor of theology and ministry at Redeemer University (Ancaster, ON). He recently defended his dissertation on the political theology of Henri de Lubac at Wycliffe College (Toronto). Previously he worked as an associate editor at First Things, a PCA pastor in Austin, TX, and campus evangelist and team leader with Cru ministries. His writings have appeared in various academic and popular publications, and they focus primarily on matters pertaining to political theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology.