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50 key concepts in theology

30 November, 1999

This excellent book by Hugh Rayment-Pickard is a model of clarity and accessibility. It introduces the key themes, movements and thinkers in theology and religious studies.

170 pp. Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. to purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk 



Biblical Criticism
The Death of God
The Divine Attributes
Feminist Theology
Heaven and Hell
Inclusive Theology
Liberal Theology
Liberation Theology
Narrative Theology
Natural Theology
Negative Theology
Philosophy of Religion
Post-modern Theology
Process Theology
Proofs for the Existence of God
Radical Orthodoxy
Religious Language
Scriptural Reasoning
The Soul
Systematic Theology
Theological Ethics
Theological Realism
The Trinity
The Truth

Index of Names and Topics



The conviction that God does not exist.

In the ancient world the word ‘atheist’ tended to be used to describe those who failed to believe in particular gods. Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius were regarded as atheists because they challenges certain theistic ideas, but they did not reject all possibility of divine existence. It is not until the modern period that ‘atheism’ becomes distinctive and widespread philosophical position.

The history of modern atheism begins in the Enlightenment, with many different kinds of argument being launched against belief in God. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, offered a rational critique, arguing that the world around us does not offer definite evidence of God’s existence. There were moral objections – for example, from D’Holbach – to belief in a bloodthirsty God who punishes people by burning them eternally in hell. Ludwig Feuerbach offered a psychological argument for atheism, saying that God is only a projection of our inner human need for meaning. Nietzsche argued that belief in God is an illusion that inhibits ‘the will to life’. Karl Marx offered a political critique of theism, saying that belief in God is a drug (‘the opium of the people’) that deadens our desire to fight for justice. Sigmund Freud argued that belief in God is a cultural projection of our need for a ‘father figure’ to protect us from the hostile forces of nature.

The philosophical difficulty with atheism is that it is defined by what it is against rather than by what it believes. So it is no more possible to speak about the positive content of atheism than it is possible to speak about the positive content of ‘not being English’ or `not being a fish’ There are also numerous possible conceptions of God, so a total atheist position would have to supply an exhaustive list of all the gods that are not believed in.

And there is a logical paradox at the heart of atheism: it requires the concept of God in order to define itself, so to some extent atheists give credence to the gods they are against precisely by pointing out their non-existence. If there were a campaign to show that the man on the moon doesn’t exist, it would automatically give status to the counter-claim that the man on the moon is in fact alive and well. A perfect atheism would have to pass beyond disbelief to a complete indifference to the question of God’s existence.

Many atheists have not reached this point of equanimity and rail with an almost religious zeal against God – for example, the Darwinian, Richard Dawkins. It is often said that atheism is just another faith and that there are no better grounds for atheism than theism. It is argued that atheism is just another religion, but a self-deceiving one, because it never admits its own dimension of faith – that is, the faith that God does not exist.

The 2001 UK census recorded that 15.1 per cent of the population are non-religious. After 200 years of scientific and cultural critique of theism, this is a rather unimpressive statistic. The more remarkable fact is that so many people still believe in God (nearly 77 per cent according to the 2001 census) after so many decades of secular criticism and indifference.

Richard Dawkins
(1941– ) argues passionately that belief in God is an irrational delusion and that religions are dangerous.
Democritus (460-370 BC) argued that the universe is made up of material atoms and denied the existence of spiritual substances.
Epicurus (341-270 BC) was a materialist who argued that the universe consists only of matter and the spaces between matter.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) argued in The Essence of Christianity (1841) that God is a human projection: ‘The divine being is nothing else than the human being, or rather, human nature purified … made objective, that is, contemplated and revered as another, a distinct being.’
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) that religion ‘is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.’
James Froude (1818-94) offered a moral argument against a vengeful God: ‘I would sooner perish for ever than stoop down before a Being who may have power to crush me, but whom my heart forbids me to reverence.’
Baron D’Holbach (1723-89) argued that the gods of religion were barbaric and that human beings were morally superior to God: ‘The Jehovah of the Jews is a suspicious tyrant … The pure mind of the Christians resolved, in order to appease his fury, to crucify his own son.’
George Holyoake (1817-1906) was the last person in England to be criminally punished for atheism. He was jailed for six months in 1842.
David Hume (1711-76): although there is some debate about whether Hume was an atheist, he is normally taken for one, and he did criticise many aspects of theistic belief.
Lucretius (99-55 BC) argued that belief in gods is not necessary or likely to bring about happiness: ‘Fear holds dominion over mortality only because, seeing in land and sky so much the cause whereof no wise they know, men think divinities are working there.’
Justin Martyr (100-165), in his First Apology, agreed with the Roman accusation that Christians were atheists: ‘We do confess ourselves atheists before those whom you regard as gods, but not with respect to the Most True God.’
Philip Pullman (1946– ) argues that belief in God diminishes human moral dignity and leads to oppressive religions.
Socrates (470-399 BC), at his trial, was accused of not believing in any kind of god, and offered the defence that he believed in other gods.
Franigois-Marie Voltaire (1694-1778), like many of the Enlightenment philosophes, regarded belief in God as inherently dangerous: ‘Fanaticism is certainly a thousand times more deadly; for atheism inspires no bloody passion.’

Methodical atheism: the refusal by scientists to use God as a shortcut to provide explanations. Even believing scientists generally search first for natural explanations, as if there were no God.
Non-cognitivism: the view that religious and ethical beliefs are expressions of human feeling rather than statements about the objective truth.
Occam’s Razor: the principle, devised by William of Occam (1288-1348), that ‘entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’, which could be used to argue that God is an unnecessary idea.
Scepticism: the tendency to doubt.

Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale, 1987)
Robin Le Poidevin, Arguing for Atheism (Routledge, 1996)
Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Ricoeur, The Religious Significance of Atheism (Columbia, 1966)
Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday, 2004).


Atonement is the ‘at-one-ment’ or’reconciiiation’ of God with humanity achieved by Christ’s death upon the cross.

The classical doctrine of the atonement depends upon the doctrine of the fall, which says that humanity has become alienated from God through human sinfulness. The doctrine of the atonement says that Christ’s death somehow – the ‘somehow’ being a matter of much dispute – reconciled humanity with God.

The history of the doctrine of the atonement is instructive. All doctrines have an evolutionary history as ideas develop and culture changes. The earliest doctrines of the atonement – which were the orthodoxy of their time – have long since been superseded. Indeed, the doctrine of the atonement is still a matter of fierce debate.

The earliest doctrines of the atonement, prevalent among the Church Fathers and in the centuries up to the first millennium, were so-called ‘victory’ or ‘ransom’ theories. The world was believed to be under the control of the devil, who demanded Jesus’ death as the price for releasing humanity from its satanic captivity. These ideas of `ransom, ‘hostage’ and ‘captivity’ persist in our Easter hymns. But there is something unsatisfactory about the idea that God does deals with the devil. This was pointed out both by Peter Abelard and by St Anselm, who said that the ransom theory implied that the devil had rights or powers that God had to respect. And this was clearly not acceptable.

It was St Anselm, writing a thousand years after the birth of Christianity, who proposed a revised understanding of the atonement, offering a new theory based upon God’s need to punish someone for the sins of humanity. Anselm’s argument is that human sinfulness requires some kind of divine punishment. But God’s mercy prevents him from punishing us, so Jesus offers himself as our substitute, taking the blame on our behalf. Thus God squares the circle by remaining both fully just and fully merciful.

There is, as Peter Abelard first pointed out in the twelfth century, something repellent about the punishment theory of the atonement:

How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain – still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!

Abelard proposed an alternative ‘exemplar theory’ of the atonement, arguing that Jesus’ death on the cross provided us with a life-changing example of stoical love in the face of injustice, cruelty, violence and death. Christ’s death showed us the way out of sin and the path back to reconciliation with God. Abelard’s version of the atonement has recently been championed by Rene Girard, who rejects penal substitution, seeing it as a form of scapegoating. Girard argues that Jesus made a self-sacrifice of his life to show precisely that there is a non-violent alternative to scapegoating. Since we are, Girard says, creatures who learn by imitating others, Jesus’ death is a virtuous example that can bring about social transformation.

The problem with exemplar theories – most ‘solutions’ also create new problems – is that they do not clearly explain how Christ’s heroic and exemplary death achieves the objective of cancelling the historic sins of humanity. A more radical solution is to re-think the atonement altogether and detach it from the event of the crucifixion. It is possible to argue (see Michael Winter, The Atonement, 1995) that the atonement comes about through the Last Supper and the Eucharist, as Jesus gives himself to us as a spiritual resource. Winter argues that Jesus did not ‘die for our sins’ but endured a martyr’s death, refusing to capitulate in the face of earthly power and violence.

Anselm’s doctrine is increasingly an embarrassment to Christian theology. As Girard comments, penal substitution ‘has done more than anything else to discredit Christianity in the eyes of the modern world’ (Things hidden since the foundation of the world, 1987). A theological logic of crime and punishment, that worked for a previous epoch, now looks barbaric and paints God as a monster. One of the features of Christian theology in the twenty-first century will be the gradual abandonment of the penal view of the atonement in favour of non-violent alternatives. Perhaps some of these alternatives have still to be thought up.

Some traditionalists are concerned already about what they call the ‘downgrading’ of Anselm’s doctrine of atonement. But the fact that Anselm’s ‘penal substitution’ theory of the atonement, or versions of it, only became orthodoxy after a thousand years of Christianity, shows that the Christian idea of truth is subject to radical change. Today’s orthodoxy may well be tomorrow’s heresy, and vice versa.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) argued that Christ’s death merely showed us the way to the atonement.
St Anselm (c. 1033-1109) developed the classic view that God has to demand satisfaction for the dishonour brought upon him by human sin. Christ’s death satisfies God’s honour because it is the sacrifice of a perfect human being.
Gustav Aulén (1879-1977) tried to rehabilitate the view of the Early Fathers that the atonement must be understood as part of a theological drama in which Jesus ‘defeats’ the powers of evil (Christus Victor, 1931).
Rene Girard (1923– ) rejects any idea of a violent father punishing his son on the cross. Girard sees the death of Jesus as an exemplary, non-violent act of turning the other cheek.
St Paul (3-65) argued that Jesus’ death reconciled us to God ‘once and for all’ by destroying the power of sin.
Karl Rahner (1904-84) argued that Jesus’ death is ‘an efficacious sign of the redeeming love that communicates God himself, because the cross establishes God’s love in the world in a definitive and historically irreversible way’ (Theological Investigations, chapter 21).
Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89), a liberal theologian, argued that the atonement is moral and spiritual and concerns an inner change in the believer.
Thomas Szasz (1920– ), a psychologist, argued that ‘in the rejection, or transcending, of the scapegoat principle lies the greatest moral challenge for modern man. On its resolution may hinge the fate of our species’ (The Manufacture of Madness).

Limited atonement: the belief that God is only reconciled to those who have been predestined for salvation.
Penal substitution: the idea that Jesus accepts a death penalty that is rightly ours because of our sin.
Propitiation: the idea that God must be appeased because of the wrong done to him by human beings.
Ransom theory: this theory of the atonement states that Christ’s life was a ransom paid to the devil in order to save humanity.
The Suffering Servant: a figure in the book of Isaiah (chapter 53), often taken to be a reference to Christ, who is ‘wounded for our transgressions’.
Sacrifice: the idea that Jesus sacrifices his life for the ‘higher’ cause of saving humanity.
Socinianism: the Socinians (followers of Faustus Socinius in the sixteenth century) argued that Christ did not die for our sins. God is perfectly benevolent and could never sanction the crucifixion. So Christ’s death was merely an example to us of perfect forgiveness.

Colin Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1989)
Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989)



The application of various textual and historical methods to the books of the Bible.

The critical examination of Scripture is a product of the modern period and has its roots in the development of a new historical consciousness in the late eighteenth century. Thinkers started to become more aware that religions have a history, and that even religious texts are produced within distinct cultural settings. And so biblical scholars (almost all of them German) started to ask about the history of the production of the biblical texts: who wrote them, why they were written, and who were they written for.

The impulse of the first modern biblical critics was not essentially religious but historical. Their goal was to elicit the historical truth of Scripture rather than any divine meaning or message. David Strauss (one of the first modern biblical critics) suggested that the miraculous parts of the Gospels might just be myths. Before this time ‘rationalist’ critics had tied themselves in knots trying to devise ordinary explanations for the miracles. Strauss reached the more audacious conclusion that many parts of Jesus’ life were simply made up by the early Church.

Strauss used biblical criticism to deconstruct the historical truth of Jesus. But most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars used the tools of criticism to construct a ‘true’ factual story of Jesus: the so-called ‘historical Jesus’. The historical life of Jesus became a cultural obsession: between 1800 and 1900 no less than 60,000 ‘lives of Jesus’ were published in Europe. Inevitably, each generation tended to produce a Jesus in its own image. The eighteenth-century rationalists produced a rational Jesus who came to enlighten his people. The nineteenth-century liberal Protestants produced an ethical Jesus who came to show us how to live.

The magisterial figure in biblical criticism – even to this day – is Albert Schweitzer. In The Quest for the Historical Jesus he crowned and surpassed his predecessors by offering a convincing portrait of Jesus as a Jewish eschatological prophet from an age quite unlike our own. Schweitzer’s book begged the question of the relevance of an eschatological Jesus to the modern world, and Schweitzer concluded that the historical Jesus is ‘a stranger to our time’ but that his spiritual message is as relevant now as it was to the first disciples.

In exposing the strangeness of Jesus, Schweitzer set the tone for twentieth-century biblical scholarship, which focused upon Jesus’ Jewish identity and painted a picture of him that was often starkly at odds with the Church’s view. Critics questioned whether Jesus ever believed himself to be the Messiah, the truth of the miracles and even the historical existence of Jesus.

Rudolf Bultmann
(1884-1976) argued that ‘we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus since the Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.’ The significant fact about Jesus, argued Bultmann, is his existentialist teaching (or kerygma), not the story of his life, which is a mere legend.
Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827), a German biblical scholar, wrote introductions to both the Old and the New Testaments questioning the authenticity of particular biblical texts and developing theory about the sources of the Gospels.
Hermann Reimarus (1694-1758), a Deist, published the first modern historical study of Jesus’ life, The Aim of Jesus and His Disciples (1778).
Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), which was both the culmination of nineteenth-century historical criticism and the beginning of new historical–critical study in the twentieth century.
D. F. Strauss (1808-74) published The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835). Strauss argued that ‘it was time to substitute a new mode of considering the life of Jesus, in the place of the antiquated systems of supranaturalism and naturalism … every part of [the history of Jesus] is to be subjected to a critical examination, to ascertain whether it have not some admixture of the mythical.’ One reviewer called The Life `the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell’. The book was translated into English by the novelist George Eliot.

Allegory: allegories are stories in which the events and characters have a higher symbolic significance.
Demythologisation: an approach pioneered by Rudolf Bultmann which attempted to show (1) that most of the New Testament and its thought-world is mythical; and (2) that the biblical myths must be reinterpreted if we are to apply them to our modern existence.
Double dissimilarity: the idea, put forward by Bultmann, that if any given saying of Jesus bore similarity to any other Jewish or Christian sources, it should be disregarded as inauthentic. Only those sayings dissimilar both to Jewish and early Christian culture should be regarded as Jesus’ own words.
Eisegesis: the interpretation of a text by ‘reading in’ or imposing a particular meaning.
Exegesis: the interpretation of a text by drawing out its inherent meaning.
Form Criticism: a misleading translation of the original German term Formgeschichte, which means ‘history of form’. Form Criticism is the analysis of the history of the literary ‘forms’ out of which the Bible is structured. Form Criticism identifies the ‘type’ or ‘form’ (Gattung) of a biblical passage, and tries to determine the social and historical circumstances (Sitz lin Leben) which gave rise to that `type’ or `form.
Genre Criticism: analyses the literary genres of the biblical texts, and what influence the genre of a specific text should have upon its interpretation.
Hexapla: the name given to Origen’s edition of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek – the first work of Christian textual criticism (second century AD).
Higher Criticism: the term coined by Eichhorn for the examination of the themes, structures and meanings of Scripture.
The Jesus Seminar: convened in 1985 to determine, verse by verse through the Gospels, which words of Jesus were historical.
Lower Criticism: another term for Textual Criticism.
The Principle of Accommodation: devised by Matthew Arnold, this argued that an infinite and supreme being must ‘accommodate’ his message, putting it into anthropological terms, in order for it to be understood by puny human beings. Arnold said (in ‘On the Right Interpretation of the Scriptures’) that terms such as the ‘hands, ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ of God are surely ‘accommodations’.
Q (or Quelle): a hypothetical book of sayings of Jesus that may have been used by Matthew and Luke in the writing of their Gospels.
Redaction Criticism: analyses the work and beliefs of the editors of Scripture, trying to discern their purposes, attitudes and concerns. Modern New Testament Redaction Criticism has focused upon the Gospel writers as editors of received sources and traditions.
Source Criticism: the attempt to discern the sources of information, stories and sayings which have been used in the writing of the biblical texts. The classic Source-Critical study of the Old Testament is the spectacular Graf-Wellhausen ‘document’ theory of the Pentateuch. This theory detected four distinct sources which contributed to the Pentateuch as we have it.
The Synoptic Problem: the question of the historical and literary relationship between the first three Gospels – the order and circumstances under which each was written. The dominant theory is the ‘two-source hypothesis, which argues that the majority of the synoptic material derives from Mark’s Gospel and a document called `Q’.
Textual Criticism: this undertakes a word-by-word analysis of the various historical versions of the biblical texts. This involves a detailed knowledge of biblical languages such as Hebrew, Greek and Syriac.
The Intentional Fallacy: the supposedly fallacious belief that the meaning of a text is primarily that which the author intended.
Typology: this sees the persons, places and events of the Old Testament as ‘types’ re-occur in the New Testament. St Paul uses a typological approach when he sees Adam as prefiguring Christ (Rom. 5:15-21) and when he refers to the Red Sea and baptism (1 Cor. 10:1-6).

John Barton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation (CUP, 1998)
Steve Moyise, Introduction to Biblical Studies (Continuum, 1998)


the study of Jesus’ identity as Christ, the Messiah.

Christians believe that Jesus was not only human, but a divine Messiah or Christ (literally, ‘the anointed one’) with the power to save humanity. The study of Christ is called ‘Christology’.

The debate about Jesus’ christological identity starts in the Gospels. The Jews of Jesus’ time expected the arrival of a Messiah. We see evidence of this expectation when both John the Baptist and Jesus are asked whether they are the Christ. But Jesus spoke evasively about himself as the Christ and discouraged his disciples from talking too openly about it. Jesus most commonly refers to himself as ‘the Son of Man’, an ambiguous title which may refer back to a messianic phrase in the book of Daniel, but is not obviously christological. The disciples appear to have treated Jesus as the Christ, referring to him not only as ‘Lord’ (kyrios) but as ‘the Lord’.

For St Paul and the earliest Church, Jesus’ christological status appears to have been neither controversial nor theologically problematic. But the paradox of the man who was God soon started to puzzle theologians. The problem was how one person could be both a creature and the creator, the divine source of everything and a carpenter in first-century Palestine.

The simplest solution to the problem was to argue, as the Docetists did, that Jesus only appeared to be human, that he was a God who wore his humanity like a garment – as it says in the famous carol, ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’. Alternatively, one could argue, as Arius did, that Jesus was just a very special being, with a unique relationship with God. These, and other reductionist solutions, were eventually rejected by the churches at the Council of Chaldecon (451), which affirmed that Christ was fully human and fully divine.

Before the modern period, theologians made no real distinction between Jesus the human being and Christ the Messiah: Jesus was Christ, Christ was Jesus. But from the eighteenth century onwards there was a growing awareness both of human history and of the geological history of the planet. As a result, biblical scholars started to study Jesus as a historical figure like any other. This involved stripping him of his christological trappings in order to reveal Jesus the ‘real’ human being.

This produced various liberal christologies that saw Jesus as a more human figure – an ethical teacher rather than a cosmic, divine Messiah. These theologies argued the ‘kenotic’ view that Christ emptied himself’ of his divinity in order to live just like us. The idea that Jesus swapped his divinity for humanity was a tidy, if not altogether satisfactory, solution to the age-old christological conundrum.

A number of twentieth-century theologians – D. M. Baillie and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example – argued that the paradox of christology is not a problem but is the structure of an alternative divine rationality which cannot be prised open by our human logic. If this is correct, then there will be no end to christological debate, because no christology will ever be adequate to ‘solve’ the puzzle of Christ’s two natures.

In the 1970s and 1980s radical theologians started to voice explicitly a thought that had been lingering in theological circles for some time: that Jesus might really just have thought of himself as a human being with a remarkable character and message. John Hick, for example, edited a volume called The Myth of God Incarnate that claimed that ‘the historical Jesus did not present Himself as God incarnate’ and that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented by Church theologians.

The very open-endedness of Christ’s identity is perhaps significant, meaning that he can never be reduced to our doctrines about him. The issue of Christ’s identity invites theological curiosity as much now as it did for the first disciples.

St Anselm
(1033-1109) argued that Christ’s identity was centred upon his atoning work on the cross. (See ‘Atonement’)
D. M. Baillie (1887-1954) argued that Christ’s nature is inherently paradoxical and that ‘this paradox in its fragmentary form in our Christian lives is a reflection of that perfect union of God and man in the Incarnation on which the Christian life depends, and may therefore be our best clue to the understanding of it’ (God was in Christ).
Marcus Borg (1942–) argues for a modern form of Arianism, saying that Jesus was a person with a very special sensitivity to God.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) saw Christ as a cosmic figure guiding the fragments and processes of the universe towards unification in a time of fulfilment and atonement that he called ‘the omega point’.
Paul Tillich (1886-1965) argued that Jesus is an existential Christ who enables us to come to terms with our existential estrangement.

Arianism: the heresy named after its leader, Arius, who said Jesus was a higher being, but not God.
‘Benefits’ christology: the argument that we know Christ through the ‘benefit’ of the salvation that he won for us on the cross. It was summed up by Philip Melanchthon: ‘to know Christ is to know his benefits.’
The Black Christ: the assertion that Christ was black and not the fair-haired white man of Western Christian tradition. Albert Cleage, for example, argued that Jesus should be seen as a Black Messiah with a particular relevance for black people.
Christa: the image of a female Christ used by some feminist theologians (for example, Carter Heyward).
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 settled the question of Jesus’ divinity and humanity in the following formula (the so-called `Chalcedonian definition’): Christ is ‘truly God and truly man … one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, unique: acknowledged in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’. Critics have argued that this definition merely re-stated the problem, rather than explaining how the two natures of Christ are possible.
Docetism: the belief that Jesus was God disguised as a human.
Incarnation: a term derived from the Latin for `to enflesh’ The incarnation is the doctrine that God ‘took flesh’ to become a human being in Jesus Christ.
Monophysitism: the view that Christ has only one nature – either human or divine.
Kenosis: the idea, derived from the letter to the Philippians (2:6-8), that Jesus ’emptied himself’ of his divine nature in order to be human: ‘though [Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death.’
The messianic secret: the intriguing phenomenon in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus appears to keep his christological identity a secret (see for example, Mark 7:36).
The Myth of God Incarnate: the title of a collection of essays, published in 1977, that drew considerable attention, and criticism, for suggesting that Jesus was not God.
The speculative Christ: Hegel’s idea that the truth of Christ lies in his eternal spiritual significance rather than in his historical identity. Hegel’s use of the term ‘speculative’ is distinctive, meaning the spiritual dimension that transcends the particularity of time.

Kelly Brown Douglass, The Black Christ (Orbis Books, 1994)
Gerald O’Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical and Systematic Study of Jesus Christ (Oxford University Press, 1995)
John McQuarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (SCM, 1990)



The view of the world as having been made by God.

The very existence of the world provokes an obvious question: ‘Where did all this stuff come from?’ Or, put in its existentialist form: `Why is there something rather than nothing?’ The Christian answer to this question is that the world has a benevolent creator who created an orderly world for us to inhabit. This view has been under threat for some time from an atheistic–scientific view that the universe came into existence by itself, unaided by any supernatural being.

The Church Fathers, who set out the framework of creation theology, insisted on two key points: (1) Arguing against some classical assumptions about the eternity of the universe, Irenaeus and others made the case that the universe had a datable beginning in God’s act of creation and that God created the world out of nothing (ex nihilo); (2) Arguing against the Gnostic view that there are two types of creation (good and bad) and two types of creator (benevolent and evil), Irenaeus and Augustine made the case that there is only one benevolent creator and that everything he created is good.

When we think about it, there is something audacious about the idea that everything has been created good. The world is manifestly imperfect – full of suffering, violence and injustice. But the Church Fathers were insistent that God can only create good things, and that there is only one God. This left the problem of how to explain evil. The solution adopted by Augustine, and later defended by Aquinas, was to offer another audacious argument: that evil does not exist. What we call ‘evil’ is merely the absence of goodness.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the literal understanding of the Genesis account of creation has been steadily discredited by scientific theories about the origin of the cosmos and Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the origin of species. By all except Christian fundamentalists, the biblical story of creation is now treated as poetry and myth.

Since the late eighteenth century theologians have tried to reconcile the growing body of scientific theory about the beginnings of the cosmos with a Christian understanding of God’s role in creation. The Deists, for example, argued that God was a craftsman who assembled the universe as a giant mechanism that would operate according to scientific laws. This would mean that science is merely uncovering the mind and purposes of God. Process theologians have argued that God is caught up in the evolutionary processes of creation. Others, such as Arthur Peacock, argue that science and religion offer different but complementary accounts of the same reality. In this way modern science and a theology of creation can both be right, even when they appear to be saying different things.

In the twentieth century, under the influence of phenomenology, some theologians have talked about the world – and indeed, God himself – as having the qualities of a ‘gift’. But the givenness of the world does not point in some naive way to a giver; rather, thinking of God and his creation as ‘gift’ helps us to think about what our response to this givenness should be. Interesting as this is, the theology of `gift’ dodges the scientific question of how exactly the world is ‘given’ to us.

The doctrine of creation remains one of the most hotly contested in Christian theology, not only because of the issue of science and religion, but also because many other theological arguments and ethical views depend upon how we think about God’s creative action. In the heated Anglican discussions about sexuality, for example, those against homosexuality have argued that God created a world in which sex should take place only within the heterosexual pattern of Adam and Eve. Other theologians have argued that since God made everything ‘good’, this must include lesbians and gay men. The creation story is also at the centre of debates about the ethics of marriage and divorce.

St Augustine (354-430) argued strongly, against Gnostics such as the Manichaeans, that God was the sole creator and that he had made a good creation.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) followed Augustine in arguing that God created nothing evil, and that evil is the ‘privation of good’. (See entry on Evil.)
Jean-Luc Marion (1946– ) puts the concept of ‘givenness’ at the centre of his theology. When we analyse our existence down to its most basic (primordial) foundation, all we can say is that we live in a state of ‘having been given’ This ‘given’ state is, Marion argues, not simple but a complex mixture of both presence and absence.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) argued that the Genesis story is a metaphor for God’s creative action, rather than a literal account. He saw creation as a process unfolding towards an ‘Omega Point), when the universe would have reached its final state.

Creation ordinances: the term used to refer to basic regulations which (according to the book of Genesis) were set down by God at the time of creation, such as keeping the Sabbath and the institution of marriage.
Creatio ex nihilo: the idea that God created the universe out of nothing.
Creatio continua: the idea that creation is a continual process.
Creationism: The fundamentalist belief that God literally created the world in six days.
Demiurge: a figure in some religions who is responsible for the creation of the physical universe.
Dominionism/dominion theology: a right-wing theology in the United States that supports ideas of Christian theocracy and the Christian entitlement to ‘subdue’ and ‘dominate’ the world.
Imago Dei: the doctrine that humans are created in the image of God.

Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Augsburg Fortress, 1993)
Arthur Peacock, Creation and the World of Science: The Re-Shaping of Belief (OUP, 2004).


The idea that God has disappeared both practically and theoretically from human life.

In one sense, the idea of the death of God is intensely biblical and orthodox. In the passion narratives we hear how God, in the form of Jesus, died on the cross. The body laid in the tomb is God’s corpse. Orthodox theology has always insisted upon the indivisibility of God, which makes it difficult to argue that only Jesus died on the cross. The death of Jesus is the death of God – although, of course, the story continues to tell of God’s resurrection.

The death of God on the cross is one of the most extraordinary and radical features of Christian theology. In the crucifixion, God apparently sacrifices his own life. But if God is eternal, how can he die? If God is unchanging, how can he change from ‘living’ to ‘dead’? And if God is omniscient, would he not know about his resurrection in advance, thereby making his ‘death’ a charade? Here we see trinitarian doctrine collapsing, as it often does, into a tangle of paradoxes. As the hymn puts it:

‘Tis mystery all!
The Immortal dies – 
Who can explore his strange design?

The idea of ‘the death of God’ started to gain a new relevance when the nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel put the concept at the centre of his theology. He argued that the death of God was ‘the negation of negation’: a necessary and decisive step in the history of the world. Hegel believed that God had to die as an historical figure in order to become real as an eternal idea of perfect human society. The death of God as a human being opens up the age of God as Spirit. In other words, God’s death permits him to become more universal: incarnate in the whole of human society and not merely in one individual.

The death of God reaches its best-known expression in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra and The Gay Science). He tells the parable of the madman who proclaims in the town square that God is dead and that all our reference points have vanished. The townspeople say he is crazy and the madman departs, saying he has come before his time.

‘The death of God’ is Nietzsche’s shorthand for the disappearance of all foundational ideas: truth, goodness, reality, beauty, progress, facts, and so on. Nietzsche’s hero is the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who argued that the world has no stable truths, but is in endless change. Nietzsche blames Plato and Christianity for covering up Heraclitus’ wisdom with the illusion that the world is founded on theological realities. Slowly, since Plato, humanity has begun to glimpse that we create our own ideas of truth and that God is just another human invention. Nietzsche believed that a few people (called ‘over-people’) had the strength to face this truth, but that most of us would follow the herd and cling to our illusions.

Depending on who you speak to, Nietzsche is either a brilliant prophet who could foresee the anti- foundationalism which would be characteristic of modernity, or a philosopher who failed to acknowledge that all his own thinking depended upon ‘a hidden theology’ of foundational concepts. In recent years, for example, the Radical Orthodoxy school of theology has argued that the death of God is a humanist ‘myth’ that depends upon concealed metaphysical presuppositions – in particular, the existence of the self. Either way, for good or ill, Nietzsche is probably the most influential philosopher of modern times.

In the 1960s, some radical Christians argued that it is possible to have a version of Christianity that holds the death of God as a Christian truth. Drawing on Blake and Hegel, Thomas Altizer’s The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1967) argued that God ‘annihilated’ himself on the cross in order to empty himself fully into the world. Few would go as far as Altizer, but most theologians now accept the death of God as a cultural phenomenon that theology must address.

Thomas Altizer (1927– ) was the leading thinker in ‘death of God theology’ He argued that theology cannot find its future ‘unless it passes through and freely wills its own death and dissolution. Theology is now impelled to employ the very language that proclaims the “death of God”‘ (Radical Theology and The Death of God, p. 16).
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) said that Christians ‘recognize in the cross of Christ the death of God, by which he has conquered the devil and the world’.
Matthew Arnold (1822-88) spoke in his poem ‘Dover Beach’ (1867) of the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ as the `Sea of Faith’ recedes.
Albert Camus (1913-60), the existentialist atheist, commented in The Myth of Sisyphus: `To kill God is to become god oneself; it is to realize already on this earth the eternal life of which the Gospel speaks.’
Don Cupitt (1935– ) argued in a ground-breaking book, Taking Leave of God (1980), that we need God as a guiding ‘ideal’ or `the sum of our values, but that the idea of a ‘real’ God is redundant.
Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) argued that God is simply a projection of human concerns.
Eberhard Jüngel (1934– ) argued in God as the Mystery of the World (1983) that the concept of the ‘death of God’ should be understood only to refer to Christ’s death, and that this death is necessary.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) famously said in a chorale that Gott selbst ist tot (‘God himself is dead’) – a line that later influenced Hegel. It is amusing to think that Nietzsche probably sang this chorale as a child, and that Martin Luther may have inadvertently given Nietzsche the idea that God is dead.
Karl Marx (1818-83) argued that the concept of God was a tool of oppression, and that belief in God would disappear naturally as oppression was lifted.
Blaise Pascal (1623-62) proclaimed that ‘the great God Pan is dead’ – a reference to the loss of a sense of divinity in the world.
Praxeas (second century AD) was a modalist who argued that God the Father died on the cross with Christ. Gabriel Vahanian (1927– ) argued in God is Dead: The culture of our post-Christian era (1957) that, for modern people, atheism is a way of life.
Max Weber (1864-1920) coined the phrase ‘the disenchantment of the world’ to describe the way in which secular thinking has dissolved the mystery of the cosmos.

Patripassianism: the belief that God the Father died on the cross with Christ.
Anti-Foundationalism: the belief that our thoughts and perceptions are not grounded in facts, truths and realities.
Kenosis: the idea that God ’emptied himself’ in order to become human.

Thomas Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Westminster Press, 1966)
Jackson L. Ice and John J. Carey (eds.), The Death of God Debate (Westminster Press, 1967)
Thomas W. Ogiltree, The Death of God Controversy (Abingdon Press, 1966).

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