Every now and then a book comes along which excites people so much that no number of superlatives seem sufficient. This is what has happened with Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory (Zondervan, […]
Every now and then a book comes along which excites people so much that no number of superlatives seem sufficient. This is what has happened with Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory (Zondervan, 2022). Just take the following extended commendation by John Dickson:
Commendations of this book will likely sound like wild exaggerations. They are not. Christopher Watkin has done something remarkable. He has given thoughtful believers and doubters a whirlwind tour of both the biblical narrative and the myriad ways that narrative critiques, commends, and completes the best thoughts of thinkers from Plato to Popper. Watkin is a thoroughly reliable guide to complex biblical material, whether the patriarchal narratives, eighth-century prophets, or apocalyptic literature. And when he steps on the field of his main expertise—modern intellectual history—he truly shines. He does not attempt to dazzle us with his intimate knowledge of often-impenetrable thinkers like Heidegger, Marx, and Foucault. Instead, he shows why such figures deserve their place among the greats, how their ideas continue to influence contemporary life, and why they are wrong when they are wrong, only because they preserve a half-truth that is found complete in the Bible. This book is a magnificent achievement. It is a must-read for Christian leaders wanting to think biblically about our de-Christianising world. It is also a gift for those who aren’t sure what to make of the Christian faith. Here is a total defence and commendation of Christianity like no other. But it. Read it. Ponder it. Pass it on.
Dickson is by no means alone in his effusive praise. Commendations are also made by a veritable who’s who of contemporary evangelicalism. For example; Vanhoozer, Strange, Horton, Edgar, and Ashford with the foreword by none other than Timothy Keller who writes, “For the past several years I’ve called for a “Christian High Theory,” and what Chris Watkins is working on in this book is exactly what I had in mind.”
Augustine’s City of God for the 21st Century
Biblical Critical Theory (BCT) is Watkin’s attempt to replicate Augustine’s Christian classic, City of God. It is a magnum opus not just of scholarly reading and research, but an incredible synthesis of showing how the Bible provides a better meta-narrative for making sense of the world than anything else. Watkin helpfully summarises his approach on page 25 of his introduction.
As can be seen above, Watkin follows precisely the same approach as Augustine but with one major difference. Watkin allows the flow of the Bible’s salvation history to consistently shape the narrative of his own work. And at each point, Watkin shows how God’s Word provides the best answers to the different questions the world is asking.
Watkin labels this approach with the neologism ‘diagonalisation’. That is, it’s not a simple left vs right cultural dichotomy—the world bad, God’s Word good—but as he quotes Esther Lightcap Meek as explaining, “a positive and viable third way”. This is because Watkin believes that, like oil and water, “Christianity and contemporary culture comprise two completely distinct set of figures”. To quote T.S. Eliot: “bishops are a part of English culture, and horse and dogs are a part of English religion”.
Better than Francis Schaeffer?
Rory Shiner makes the provocative observation in his review of BCT that Francis Schaeffer, the great reformed apologist of last century, had a “significant weakness”. And is, as Shiner explains:
He [Schaeffer] often didn’t know what he was talking about. He had all the quirk and eccentricity of an autodidact. In his wonderful corpus there is ample evidence that he sometimes hadn’t understood (and possibly hadn’t read) the literature he was discussing. Christopher Watkin is original, but not an eccentric autodidact. In his day job, Watkin can be found teaching French studies to tertiary students at a major Australian university. It shows. Watkin knows what he’s talking about.
Shiner may well be correct, only history will show which of the two men will have the more lasting impact. Watkin writes in a way which is highly engaging, spiritually warm, and often with a clear sense of humour. Just because Watkin is well-read, doesn’t mean he is boring, turgid or dull. Indeed, there is a deep desire for the reader to see the glory of God’s special revelation while respectfully disagreeing with the alternative.
This is a book which is sure to have an impact for many years to come. Indeed, it is already being ear-marked as the benchmark upon which all future serious apologetic works will have to engage. Watkin is a first-rate scholar and this is a remarkable academic achievement, especially for someone who is still—professionally and relatively speaking—so young. John Dickson and Co are right. This is a must-have volume for anyone who is serious about engaging with the philosophical challenges to the Christian faith in the 21st century.
– Mark Powell