Book Launch for Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022.

Barney Zwartz, 18/11/22

Reformed Theological College, Level 3, 221 Queen Street, Melbourne

I am privileged to be here tonight launching Biblical Critical Theory, because this is a remarkable book. It is a profound contribution to 21st century theology and apologetics. I am highly impressed by the breadth and depth Chris achieves; his ambition; his erudition; his ability to find striking and helpful illustrations; to cut through and make highly complex subjects accessible. He writes with authority about theology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, atheism, science, metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics, among others. And all this is from the proper theological perspective, which is to say, Reformed. In fact, and this is high praise indeed, I think it can serve, in its more specialised field, as a parallel to Tom Holland’s Dominion, the new book I have most admired recently and reviewed in The Age.

I’m not sure about the name, Biblical Critical Theory. Any book with “critical theory” in its title does not sound succulent and appetising. But this is certainly a highly contemporary term, and Chris sets it properly against the many other forms of critical theory dominating academia right now.

Some 30 years ago, I began a PhD at Melbourne University entitled “Cornelius Van Til and the limits of philosophy”. It soon meandered more into moral philosophy, an interest of mine with which my supervisor was more aligned, but – alas – life circumstances meant I could not complete it. So because Van Til is in my comfort zone, and clearly also in Chris’s, I want to talk most about Chris’s discussion of worldview.

A worldview is the lens, not that we look at but that we look through to see everything. Chris rightly describes how until relatively recently Christianity provided the overarching lens through which we all sought to discover reality. C.S. Lewis, by the way, described this beautifully:  “I believe in Christianity,” he observed, “as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

But the transformation of the centuries-long rise of secular materialism has made Christianity just one lens among many, all seen today as optional and most as more legitimate. Instead of the overarching framework, it has become one choice among many, such as science or psychology, and today secularists regard it as incoherent. Too many Christians concede these presuppositions and try to engage secularists from within those inadequate frameworks.

Melbourne philosopher Rai Gaita has written about the uselessness of the philosopher’s God, who can be described by a list of attributes A to N and who knows my telephone number. 

Chris, in his different way, also dismembers this impersonal account which so often dominates discussion. Time and time again, Chris points out divisive arguments in which each pole has a point, but both have overlooked the special insights that the Bible opens.

So our biblical lens is not just epistemological. Believers, too, must remember that Christianity is not a set of propositions to which we assent. Religious faith is more than just a series of cognitive claims about God and the ultimate nature of reality. Instead, as Chris puts it, we have “a true story of the whole universe, a true tale of love, loss, promise and costly rescue, in which we all play a role”. We have a way of seeing and experiencing life that can completely transform who we are, how we relate to others and to our world, and what we make of our selves.

Of course, our task is not to condemn the culture around us, nor to approve it, but to examine it through the biblical lens. As Chris says, “what is required is a patient, compassionate, open-eyed engagement with culture that seeks culture’s flourishing”. He also notes that we must assume – unless and until proven otherwise – that those who have helped build it are also seeking the good as they understand it. That generosity is often lacking in modern discourse.

Chris says a number of times that nothing he says is necessarily new. I can’t know whether that is so, because his breadth so exceeds my own. He states two aims. The first is to present ideas that are often overlooked or misunderstood, so that Christians can extend the way they engage with wider culture. The second is to join many different discussions that might seem fragmented so they present a coherent whole. In highlighting the truth, beauty and goodness of Christianity as presented in the Bible, Chris has made an outstanding attempt.

– Barney Zwartz