Review: Thinking Through Creation

With Thinking Through Creation, Chris Watkin succeeds brilliantly in providing a short, clear and accessible volume that sets the reader on a path towards his stated goal of developing a biblical “interpretive grid” to understand culture (p. 3).

The stated “animating vision” behind this book is “for an increasing presence in academia and [other] modes of culture of . . . a biblical theory” (p.142), which he defines as “a particular set of convictions, concerns, values, questions, and ideals” for addressing all aspects of contemporary culture (p.6). In the same way that feminist theory or eco-theory give us critical lenses to view culture, he hopes that the development of a biblical theory will give us better developed biblical lenses through which Christians can critique and engage with culture. Whilst the idea of a biblical theory is not without controversy, and indeed, there is a question as to whether a biblical theory is even possible (see my comments below), Thinking Through Creation provides a good worked example of Watkin’s vision of how such a theory could operate, thereby inviting readers from all disciplines to consider how they might engage in a similar exercise.

In chapters 2, 3 and 4, Watkin engages with the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and Image of God, respectively. Each chapter lays out a clear explanation of each doctrine, and then demonstrates how each doctrine can solve particular cultural dichotomies, using his model of “diagonalization.” Diagonalization is the idea that a biblical understanding of a doctrine, (say, God), resolves certain false dichotomies that secular western philosophy struggles with (e.g. the one and the many) by putting their poles in proper relationship to one another. Watkin illustrates this diagrammatically by placing each biblical resolution diagonally across the two extremes, thus making it a very accessible concept that gives readers a way to indeed start thinking through how we see and understand creation through the lenses of Christian doctrine.

In Chapter 2 Watkin provides a wonderfully clear explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. He wisely avoids trying to explain the logic of, or to defend the Trinity. Rather, this chapter is a lovely example of a presuppositional apologetic, in which he simply “lets the Trinity out” (p.15), clearly proclaiming the doctrine and then exploring its implications. His thesis is that if the most basic building block of reality is personal and relational, rather than say, physical or mechanical, then this has significant implications for our understanding of the true nature of the universe (pp.19-20). Then, using his model of “diagonalization”, he demonstrates how if God is triune, then this doctrine of God cuts across and answers the false dichotomies between impersonal structure and unstructured person, and the one and the many.

In Chapter 3, Watkin does careful exegesis of Genesis 1 and 2, engaging with alternative Ancient Near Eastern creation accounts and Augustine and Van Til to draw out the theological implications of these passages, helping the reader see how they’re not in combat with modern scientific theories of origin. He then engages with issues of language, aesthetics, and science, again using diagonalization to demonstrate how a biblical doctrine can resolve false dichotomies. He is at his most compelling in his engagement with his own field of philosophy, particularly the philosophy of language. His treatment of science is more basic, but it is rightly included in the chapter, and it is useful to have this issue addressed at this point as a springboard for discussion.

Finally, Chapter 4 lays out the doctrine of Image of God, and engages with issues of personhood, identity, marriage, and vocation. Whilst this chapter was, like all the others, clearly and accessibly written, it felt more scattered a chapter than the others. Perhaps this is due to the magnitude of the subjects covered. This chapter could easily fill an entire book in its own right, and each topic begged questions that were not dealt with. For example, short sections on marriage, egalitarianism, and the mandate to fill and subdue the earth all raised tantalizing questions about sexuality, women in leadership, and environmentalism that simply weren’t mentioned. It was also apparent though, that to go down these paths would lead to a word count blow out! Perhaps what is not included could function to provoke fruitful, on-going discussion, as much as what is.

Chapter 4 brings the feminist reader some welcome relief in its consideration of the treatment of women in history, and its referencing Kirsten Birkett and Dorothy L. Sayers as sources. Up until this point, every source is male, and quotes using all male pronouns are not softened by comments. Perhaps this is reflective of the complementarian leanings of the Reformed tradition out of which Watkin is clearly writing. I raise this, however, primarily from the perspective of the audience he is hoping to reach. As more Christian women engage in graduate study and the professions, we’re looking for empathetic Christian voices, and I’m aware that for some readers, this is an issue that would first have be explained away before they can engage with this excellent work. Thus, some engagement with women theologians in establishing his doctrinal foundations would be helpful. For example, given that he draws so heavily upon the idea of the relational Trinity, it would have been interesting to see him engage with the albeit somewhat controversial Catherine Mowry LaCugna, or reference the wonderful Sarah Coakley, given her body of work engaging with the natural and social sciences.

His treatment of aesthetics in Chapter 4 (pp. 65–68) also drew my attention to either a limit of this project of developing a biblical theory, or more optimistically, ways in which it could be nuanced and expanded. The book is clearly western, engaging with the history and foundations of western thought and contemporary western frameworks. In engaging with questions of functionality and beauty, and regularity and variation in art and music, I was left wondering how someone from a different culture would answer these questions, even from a strongly biblical perspective. Reading this book, one could come away with the impression that doctrine and reading biblically are univocal things. It would be exciting to bring Christians from different cultures to work through this book together to see what emerges. Perhaps we would end up with a plurality of biblical theories, fit for engaging different worldviews.

Overall, this book is a wonderful resource for provoking thoughtful discussion. It provides clear and accessible summaries of the doctrines of the Trinity, creation and image of God, and the useful diagrammatic tool of diagonalization to help readers of various academic levels think about how Christian doctrine might engage with western culture. Watkin also provides useful discussion questions and bibliographies at the end of each chapter, and a glossary at the end of the book. He concludes with an inviting challenge to readers to pause and process these ideas more deeply. From the perspective of a university campus pastor who works with Christian graduate students, it’s an ideal group discussion book that I look forward to introducing to my students.

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Wendy Quay

Wendy Quay Honeycutt is InterVarsity GFM staff, working with graduate students at Stanford University. A former lawyer, she has degrees in theology, and is passionate about helping graduate students and faculty thoughtfully find and articulate the connections between our Christian faith and all of life, especially our work in academia. She is married to Jared, who is a PhD candidate in Immunology at Stanford.

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