Reading Visual Art as Theological Text

What would it mean to read visual art as theological text?

I have been increasingly interested in the intersection between aesthetic and conceptual The Beauty of the Crosstheology, and given that interest I was supremely delighted with Richard Viladesau’s two volumes The Beauty of the Cross and The Triumph of the Cross (many thanks to Oxford University Press for review copies).

The books are, on Viladesau’s own confession, a project in systematic theology that explore the ‘historical themes, ideas and images that are the necessary background to a contemporary theology of the cross’ (viii). Beginning with earliest Christian visual representations of the cross in the catacombs up through the hymns and art of the Counter Reformation, Viladesau correlates different theological paradigms of interpretation of the cross with artistic styles that illustrate or parallel theological attitudes.triumph_of_cross

Throughout the two volumes Viladesau’s analysis moves smoothly both ways: looking for how the theological attitudes and convictions of a given period influenced the artistic representations of the cross and how the affective and communicative images of a time impacted explicit systematic thought.

An example with several images might be helpful (one I use to introduce students to the importance of considering visual representations of the cross).

Where is the Victorious Christ?

In one of the earliest depictions of the crucified Christ, a 5th century ivory casket panel now in the British museum (at right), Jesus is depicted both carrying and cross and crucified. Continue reading

What Makes an Evangelical? Reconsidering Bebbington’s Rule


David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Routledge, 1989) was a compelling account of the history of the evangelical movement in the modern era. In it he traces the development of evangelical Christianity and marks out what has been for some time a widely accepted version of its distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.

Yet, Bebbington’s quadrilateral rule has not been without its detractors, and his contention that evangelical Christianity arose in the eighteenth century era of Whitefield and Wesley has been questioned by a growing number of historians – that it was not so novel as Bebbington asserts.  In this book, The Advent of Evangelicalism, Bebbington’s definition receives close analysis and critical engagement from various church historians and theologians such as Timothy George, Paul Helm, and Timothy Larson (to name only a few, this is a thick collection. Many thanks to B&H for the review Copy).

Underlying all the essays here – including Bebbington’s own response to them – is a fundamental (and I think relevant) question: “to what extent does evangelicalism of modern/postmodern times represent continuity and discontinuity with the preceding Christian story” (p. 14). Continue reading

Divine Teaching: Part 3

McIntosh moves into the second part of his volume by grounding his theological endeavor in salvation. He maps the options by posing either the order of knowing or the order of being. He then offers his rationale for beginning with salvation:

Christians believe that the place where our way of knowing and God’s way of being most intimately encounter one another, so that our knowing is transformed, is in Jesus by the Holy Spirit. This is so, first, in the sense that our human way of knowing is, in Christ, taken up into a particular divine way of being, and second, in the sense that as people encounter Jesus in various ways, their forms of knowing are transformed” (59).

Moving in this fashion allows McIntosh to dive into Christology through some low-flying biblical exegesis and discussion, noting that, “the act of salvation becomes the lens by which everything else is perceived and understood” (65). Something I’ve meant to say earlier, which just occurs to me as I’m reading through this section, is how excellent a volume this really is. McIntosh is truly gifted with conceptual clarity, the ability to use graphs, charts and diagrams, not to mention analogies and metaphors, to actually clarify, instead of using them as I do, where I merely muddy the water of even the clearest of issues! Continue reading

Jonathan Edwards and the Philosophy of History: Part 2

Picking up where we left off, I start the major section of the work, entitled simply “Time.” Zakai places Edwards in a day divided by biblical-centric evangelicals focusing their intellectual capacities on religious experience, while the world increased in scientific and philosophical imagination. Zakai offers some explanation:

One of the main reasons for the growing privatization of religious life and experience was that during the eighteenth century the Christian theological and teleological explanation of the nature of reality had steadily declined in persuasiveness because of the attraction of scientific thought in interpreting the nature of the material world and the influence of the British school of moral sense, which developed the rationalistic idea of disinterested benevolence as the criterion for moral judgment” (135).

This age saw a major conflict between reason and revelation, the former taking precedent and the latter being dethroned from its former glory. As a helpful summary, Zakai states, “The disenchantment of the world led therefore to the reenchantment of the soul, or the heart, as the main locus of religious life and experience” (136). It is here where Zakai slowly turns his attention to the Holy Grail of Edwards studies – Continue reading

Divine Teaching: Part Two

McIntosh continues on by addressing Christian belief. He states, “By now it should be abundantly clear, Mark_McIntosh_PhDas I tried to warn you at the beginning of this book, how weak and hapless a thing theology really is in and of itself – apart, that is, from its divine source. And here will come the first critical test for a would-be theologian. For the pressure of wanting to have something under our control, something that we can really say for ourselves – and feel as though we know what we’re talking about – this pressure is going to entice would-be theologians into taking matters into their own hands” (33).

This is something we’ve mused on a lot here at Theology Forum, and I personally find it really refreshing in an intro textbook. McIntosh warns that this impulse or temptation can become a way of holding God at bay, of controlling this wholly free being by our use of language and concepts. Wisdom seems to be McIntosh’s preferred register to navigate these theological temptations. McIntosh notes, “In saying that theology is a kind of wisdom, I am saying that it is possible for God to befriend the human mind well enough for human thinking, so to speak, to lean on the divine mind” (35).

McIntosh, continuing to impress, pushes ahead by putting Origin, Aquinas and Barth in parallel (with large brush strokes), helping the reader to grasp the dogmatic flow (and content) of their respective approaches to theology. Continue reading

Jonathan Edwards’ Philosophy of History

After reviewing Ben Quash’s volume addressing von Balthasar’s theology of history, I thought I would wade back over Zakaito my personal area of interest and take a look at Jonathan Edwards’ philosophy of history. Avihu Zakai’s volume, put out by Princeton Press (and mostly written at the Center of Theology Inquiry) is entitled: Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. I will skip over the initial chapter covering biographical material and move right into his argumentation.

The Soul

In the second chapter, entitled: “Young Man Edwards: Religious Conversion,” Zakai focuses in on Edwards’ conversion experience, asserting, “This spiritual experience informed Edwards’s theology of nature and led directly to his quest to reconstruct the whole material world after the model of his newly acquired religious vision” (54). He then builds on his already provocative thesis, asserting baldly, Continue reading

Divine Teaching

In my quest for good introductory material, my attention turns to McIntoshMark McIntosh’s Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology. For this post, I am particularly interested in his first chapter, “How God Makes Theologians.” To add some further fodder to his provocative title, McIntosh states:

Most of us contemporary theologians, soberly trained in the best scholarly methods, try our hardest to analyze the divine realities by dutifully herding them into the approved pens of dialectical arguments and critical studies. Yet when we open our mouths to discourse of deity, out come skirling parables, hopelessly impossible histories, and such reckless extravagances as the idea of a God who refuses to stay exclusively divine, and a savior who’s such a miserable failure he cannot even save himself” (3).

What immediately impresses me with this text is where he begins. Instead of jumping head first into distinctions concerning the various disciplines dubbed “divinity,” he moves right into the reality of studying a subject who is wholly free, other and beyond. Continue reading