The Theology of Father Brown

It sounds rather pretentious: ‘The Theology of Father Brown’. Like ‘The Theology of John Calvin‘ or ‘The Theology of Karl Barth‘, to mention just two random titles.  It sounds rather peculiar too. The theology of a fictional character, what is that supposed to be? But think of Dante and his Divina Commedia. Think of Milton and his Paradise Lost. Think of C.S. Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia. Gilbert Keith Chesterton and FrancesTheology clothed, or should we say disguised, in fiction. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are of a different league of course. Does it make sense to question these detective stories about their theology? Well, it seems so, at least according to the great Dutch phenomenologist and theologian Gerardus van der Leeuw. In 1944 he wrote an article ‘Het detective-verhaal als spiegel van dezen tijd’ (‘The detective-story as a mirror of the times we live in’). Van der Leeuw rooted in the so called Dutch  ‘Ethical Theology’. Many of the ‘Ethical theologians’ (like J.H. Gunning jr., Is. van Dijk, and many others) wrote about literature (Dante, Shakespeare, Ibsen, etc.). It is a very interesting tradition of engaging theologically with literature. So, let’s have a look into the theology of Father Brown…

Let me first mention a few facts about the author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936). He definitely was a flamboyant man and a brilliant writer. He wrote columns, stories, poems, books, and so forth. In his youth he felt himself attracted to occultism, but, thanks to his wife Frances Blogg, he was lead back to the (Anglican) Church. He often referred to himself as an ‘orthodox Christian’. In 1922 he became a member of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the final step in a long process, which was reflected in his many writings. Besides his polemic and apologetic writings, like for instance Orthodoxy (1908), he became also famous by his 51 fictional Father Brown detective stories. Chesterton based the character of detective-priest Father Brown on a parish priest in Bradford, John O’Connor, he knew well and who was intimately connected to Chesterton’s gradual turning to Roman Catholicism. Chesterton endowed the character of Father Brown with a charming combination of clumsiness and wit. Let me give, with this in mind, a sketchy outline of the theology implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the (early) Father Brown stories.

1. Chesterton presents Father Brown repeatedly as a man of reason. Take for example ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’ (from: The Incredulity of Father Brown). In the story everyone is convinced that a miracle has happened. Only Father Brown refuses to believe in a miracle.

By the way,’ went on Father Brown, ‘don’t think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason’s very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything.  There are thousands balanced on it today; but it’s a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won’t rest till you believe something; that’s why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes Scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That’s where you all split; it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. But though it wanted only a touch to tip you into preternaturalism about these things, these things really were only natural things. They were not only natural, they were almost unnaturally simple. I suppose there never was quite so simple a story as this.’

Father Brown is, time and time again, presented as a reasonable thinker, not in spite of his belief in God, but because of his belief in God. Chesterton seems in his books especially fond of mocking French defenders of reason and logic. Invariably, they turn out to The Innocence of Father Brownaccept all kinds of irrational beliefs and opinions. To be sure, in the theology Father Brown mystery is not passed by. Miracles do exist, but only the real miracles. In ‘The Wrong Shape’ (from: The Innocence of Father Brown) “The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvellous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle”.

2. An interesting question would be whether for Chesterton the domain of reason is limited to the realm of natural things, in contrast with the supernatural as the domain of faith. In that case, he would embrace the  dualistic theology  of the Counter-Reformation, as pointed out by Henri de Lubac and others. It seems to me however, that Chesterton doesn’t fit into such a dualistic scheme. Take for example this saying, already quoted above, from ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’: “… it’s natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things”. As far as I can see, this is a basic Augustinian position: it’s natural for man to long for God. Finding God is ultimately like coming home, not arriving in a strange country.
Chesterton stuffs his stories with lots of hints in this direction. For example: “The Christian is more modest,” muttered Father Brown; “he wants something” (in ‘The Wrong Shape’).

3. There is another feature of Father Brown’s theology that strikes me as Augustinian. It is his emphasis on the sinfullness of human nature. The best illustration of this feature in the Father Brown stories is offered in the following passage from ‘The Hammer of God’. “How do you know all this?” he cried. “Are you a devil?” “I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.” So, the knowledge of his own evil heart enables him to trace the evil thoughts and deeds of others. It’s no coïncidence then in Chesterton’s book that precisely a priest turns out to be a clever detective.
In fact, the emphasis on man’s sinful nature is no sad or negative message. Take for example his passage from ‘The Three Tools of Death’, where a daughter caused, unknowingly, the death of her father:

“Don’t you see it was because she mustn’t know?” “Mustn’t know what?” asked Merton. “Why, that she killed her father, you fool!” roared the other. “He’d have been alive now but for her. It might craze her to know that.” “No, I don’t think it would,” remarked Father Brown, as he picked up his hat. “I rather think I should tell her. Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins; anyhow, I think you may both be the happier now.”

Sin is not the real problem, the denial of sin is! Or, to put it differently, the real sin is the denial of your own sinfullness, the evil in your own heart. “The foulest crime the fiends ever prompted feels lighter after confession; and I implore you to confess” (from ‘The Eye of Apollo’). The reverse side of this is that without repentance things will deteriorate. As Father Brown puts it in ‘The Flying Star’: “Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.”

4. A last distinctive feature of Father Brown’s theology is the emphasis on humility. We heard Father Brown already saying that the Christian is ‘more modest’. Let me give another example, from one of the earliest stories: ‘The Queer Feet’ (in The Incredulity of Father Brown). “Odd, isn’t it,” he said, “that a thief and a vagabond should repent, when so many who are rich and secure remain hard and frivolous, and without fruit for God or man?” Passages like this, emphasizing the contrast between high and low, pride and humility, are nearly omnipresent in these stories. In  ‘The Hammer of God’ Chesterton writes:

“Look at that blacksmith, for instance,” went on Father Brown calmly; “a good man, but not a Christian — hard, imperious, unforgiving. Well, his Scotch religion was made up by men who prayed on hills and high crags, and learnt to look down on the world more than to look up at heaven. Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”

In the same story, Father Brown says about the murderer: “He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.” In short: kneeling before God is essential to retain our humility. And, I’d like to add, our humanity.

BBC Father BrownThere is, of course, much more to be said about the theology of Father Brown. His aversion to puritans, and especially Scottish puritans, for example. Or we could ask how Christ is brought to the fore in these stories. And we could compare our findings with other books of Chesterton, like Orthodoxy  or Everlasting man. But that would lead to another topic: the Theology of G.K. Chesterton.
Anyway, I hope you will agree with me, on the basis of what here has been said, that the Father Brown stories remain worth reading (and watching!), not only because of their plot and humor, but also because of their theology!


Wolterstorff’s Kantzer Lectures

Wolterstorff-Kanzter LecturesThose who follow the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff will have been looking forward to his Kantzer Lectures (October, 1-7). I was one of those, listening and watching at distance (thanks to the superb video-connection, still to be found here). In my opinion, it was a great series with references and excursions to theologians as Alexander Schmemann, Jean-Jaques von Allmen, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. And those familiar with Wolterstorff’s own writings recognized hints from his earlier work (such as Divine Discourse (1995), derived from his Wilde Lectures in Oxford, 1993).The outline of his Kantzer Lectures looks like this:

Lecture 1: The Project: Liturgical Theology Lecture 2. God as Worthy of Worship Lecture 3. God as One Who Listens and Speaks Lecture 4. God as Listener Lecture 5. What Are We Saying When We Say that God Listens? Lecture 6. God as One Who Hears Favorably Lecture 7. God as One Who Speaks Lecture 8. The Understanding of God Implicit in the Eucharist

Those who have visited this blog before, won’t be surprised to hear that his last lecture aroused my interest most of all. I have to admit however that my expectations were somewhat ambiguous. Wolterstorff’s earlier writings on the subject emphasized that the Lord’s Supper is best understood in terms of action, rather than presence. And he offered a thorough analysis of ‘remembrance’ as practised in the liturgy. His take on these liturgical questions seemed to me indeed calvinistic, but, so I wondered, didn’t it have a zwinglian overtone? Could an analysis of the Lord’s Supper that is true to Calvin’s intentions be put merely in terms of action and remembrance? I didn’t and still don’t think so.

It did turn out in his Kantzer Lectures, that Wolterstorff doesn’t think so either. I had underestimated him as a careful interpreter of Calvin. In fact, he picked up the concept of ‘participation’ from Calvin’s writings about the Lord’s Supper in order to make it pivotal in his own analysis. By doing that he offered a ‘high’ interpretation of what is happening in the Lord’s Supper. With the conceptual tool of a theory of double action he interprets the distribution of bread and wine as counting as the offering of Christ’s body and blood. And he interprets our eating of the bread and drinking of the wine as counting as the receiving of his offering. Wolterstorff insisted – rightly so, I think – that for Calvin the sacrament is not to be regarded in terms of proclamation, be it as a kind of proclamation or as confirmation of proclamation. The eucharist is to be understood in terms of Christ’s offering of himself to us. There is much more to say about this lecture, but you really should listen yourself!

In the discussion afterwards, three questions striked me as remarkable:

  1. The first question asked whether Wolterstorff’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper in terms of a double action theory is fully adequate. Isn’t Calvin’s opinion different, in the sense that for him the eating and drinking doesn’t count as receiving Christ’s offering his flesh and blood, but as the occasion for God, by the Spirit, to do his work in us. Wolterstorff answered to this by pointing out that there are two double actions are going on in the Lord’s Supper, one action performed by God, the other performed by us. The question reminded me to his discussion of Calvin’s alleged occasionalism in his article ‘Sacrament as Action, not Presence’ (in: David Brown & Ann Loades, Christ: the Sacramental Word (1996)). In this article Wolterstorff is very emphatic in denying that Calvin was an occasionalist (p.107-108).
  2. A second question asked what exactly the difference was between instrumentalism, the view that is often ascribed to Calvin (f.ex. B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude (1993), p.167), and Wolterstorff’s own view. It appeared to be not easy to put this difference into words. Calvin does not say, according to Wolterstorff, that the bread and the wine effect the participation in Christ. Nor does he want to say that the presider’s offering bread and wine effects participation. Wolterstorff came forward with the term ‘relentlessly performative’, in order to specify that the bread and the wine are by no means arbitrary, but that they in the context of the liturgy enable the celebrants to partake in Christ.
  3. The second last question referred to Wolterstorff’s second lecture, where he spoke of the church actualizing itself in the enactment of the liturgy. In so far as the Eucharist is the climax of that liturgical enactment, how could this actualization be ‘fleshed out’ (think of De Lubac’s maxim). Characteristically, Wolterstorff admitted he hadn’t worked out his thoughts in this direction. But, he said, why don’t you flesh it out? And then he made a note for himself. I liked that answer for two reasons. First, Wolterstorff doesn’t hesitate to admit he hasn’t thought out all implications. That is, he is not pretending he’s got all the answers. And secondly, he challenges students and other scholars to take up the job of engaging with the project of the philosophical analysis of what is going on in the liturgy.

There is much more to say about this particular lecture and about the complete series. What to think for example of the closing section of this last lecture, in which he posed a couple of intriguing questions. What does it mean to think of God as the One Who not only acts ands speaks, but listens as well? Doesn’t that thought affect our understanding of God’s immutability and of his aseitas, for example? I have my doubts whether Wolterstorff interprets the theological tradition here correctly. But these questions have to wait for another day. Maybe the day that his book appears. I’m very much looking forward to it!

Boersma’s sacramental suggestion

Last holiday I read Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation – the weaving of a sacramental tapestry (Eerdmans 2011). I had read some favorable reviews (here and here) of theHeavenlyParticipation book. I’d been looking forward to the reading of the book, not in the least because Boersma appeals to the ‘nouvelle théologie’ of De Lubac and others. Himself being an evangelical theologian, that is quite remarkable. The Dutch systematic theologian Hendrikus Berkhof remarked once about most reformed or evangelical theologians (at least in Holland): ‘catholici non leguntur’ (‘catholics are not read [amongst us]’). Berkhof himself was an exception to that rule, and so is Hans Boersma (who has Dutch roots as well). That makes his book quite remarkable. Heavenly Participation can in this sense even be called a brave book. Boersma shows to be acquainted not only with De Lubac, but also with other representatives of ‘nouvelle théologie’ like Jean Daniélou, Yves Congar and Marie-Dominique Chenu.

Boersma’s overall thesis is that there has been a loss of the Platonist-Christian synthesis of the church fathers. And we are in need of a recovery of that synthesis of the ‘Great Tradition’, as Boersma likes to call it. The book is divided into two parts. The first part, called ‘Exitus: the Fraying Tapestry’, offers an analysis where and how the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry, as it was common among the fathers in the Early Church, took place. The second part, ‘Reditus: Reconnecting the Threads’, attempts to point out how the sacramental world view of the fathers can be restored in its former glory. Now, it’s clear that the success of the last part depends on the degree of success of the first part. If the diagnosis fails, the therapy will be wanting as well. So the question is: How convincing is Boersma’s analysis?

In chapter 3 Boersma lists five factors that, according to Boermsa, the nouvelle theologians believed were responsible for the modern unraverling of the sacramental tapestry:

  1. Juridicizing of the Church (Congar). The Gregorian Reform, which resulted in an enormous increase of the authority of the pope and of the power of the church as institution. This resulted in a distinction between divine and human actions, which led to a gradual disappearing of the sacramental, divine character of authority.
  2. Discovery of Nature I (De Lubac). The debates concerning the nature of the Eucharist between Berengar of Tours and his opponents in the 11th century, also led to a loss of sacramental sense. Although the Church rejected Berengar’s views, his underlying assumptions were adopted, especially the separation between sacrament and the unity of the church.
  3. Discovery of Nature II (Chenu). The rediscovery of Aristotle lead to a discovery of nature in the 12th and 13th centuries, claims Boersma, pointing to Chenu. The dualism between matter and spirit of the Platonic worldview was challenged now. But that meant a desacramentalizing of nature, an abandonment of the Platonist-Christian synthesis.
  4. Scripture, Church, and Tradition (Congar). The 14th and 15th centuries witness an ever-increasing separation between the authority of Scripture and that of the church. Congar locates the source of this trouble with Henry of Ghent, with Duns Scotus and Ockham in his trail. From their questions it was only a small step to dissenters like Wycliffe, Hus and the reformers. Once again we observe, according to Boersma, a moment of loss of the sacramental ontology of the Great Tradition, in which Scripture and church were kept together.
  5. Nature and the Supernatural (De Lubac). De Lubac’s Surnaturel offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between nature and the supernatural. He criticizes in particular those Renaissance theologians (like Cajetan, Bellarmine) who spoke about ‘pure nature’ (pura natura), thereby highlighting the autonomous character of the natural. This also led to a loss of the sacramental synthesis, because nature was no longer in need of the supernatural.

In the next chapter Boersma adds two other factors which, in his opinion, contributed to the unraveling of the tapestry. In fact, he calls them the ‘Scissors of Modernity’. These factors are: Duns Scotus’ concept of the Univocity of Being and the rise of nominalism through the pilosophy of William of Ockham. Together they ‘cut the sacramental tapestry in two and thus caused the decline and ultimately the near-collapse of the Platonist-Christian synthesis in the modern Western world. That, in short, is Boersma’s analysis. But, as an analysis, or diagnosis, it raises a lot of questions. Let me list a few of them:

  1. Boersma offers us a list of seven possible contributing factors to the unraveling of the sacramental tapestry. But nowhere does he pose the question whether all these factors were equally important. Or to put it differently, nowhere does he make an attempt of connecting these factors with each other. In fact, Boersma suggests a lot, but he omits to ask the really important questions.
  2. Another question would be whether all these cited authors, from past to present, meant the same thing when they spoke about ‘sacramental’. Boersma uses the term ‘sacramental’ without explaining what he precisely means by that. The same could be said of another key term: ‘participation’. What happens then, is that these terms become a kind of mantra, obscuring all possible conceptual differences and problems.
  3. A next question is how it is possible that in Boersma’s analysis not only the introduction of Aristotle’s philosophical thoughts in the 12th and 13th century counts as contribution to the loss of the sacramental tapestry (discovery of nature), but also the philosophies of the fervent opponents of this development (Franciscans like Duns Scotus and Ockham). And yes, there has been a discovery of nature in the line of this latter philosopical trail. But that was a very different discovery and a very different way of speaking about nature.
  4. In his critique on Scotus’ concept of univocity of being Boersma claims: ‘For Scotus, God is simply one of many beings – all understood in the same, univocal sense of “being” (…) The new understanding (…) turns God into one of many categories’ [75-76]. Therefore, Boersma opts for the concept of the analogy of being. This leaves room for just one conclusion: Boersma doesn’t understand the concept of univocity of being in Scotus. In fact, the concept of analogy of being presupposes a kind of univocity. So his criticism seems out of tune. More generally, Boersma seems not be aware of the developments in the study of medieval philosophy in the last decades.

Danielou and De LubacIn short, this book of Boersma didn’t convince me, how much I sympathize with his sacramental suggestion and his conversation with the nouvelle theologie. That certainly is important for evangelical theologians. There is much to learn from De Lubac, Daniélou and others. And with Boersma, I’m longing for a better and deeper understanding of the sacraments in our church. But in order to achieve that, we need to take a better look to the (indeed: great) tradition of the church than is offered in his book.

Rowan Williams on Vaticanum II and Henri de Lubac

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, adressed to the Synod of Bishops in Rome yesterday. He spoke about the connection between contemplation and evangelisation. His whole lecture can be read here. In the introduction of his adress Williams touches upon the importance of Vaticanum II. The council was a rediscovery of ‘evangelistic concern and passion’. Then, he continues by saying:

But one of the most important aspects of the theology of the second Vaticanum was a renewal of Christian anthropology.  In place of an often strained and artificial neo-scholastic account of how grace and nature were related in the constitution of human beings, the Council built on the greatest insights of a theology that had returned to earlier and richer sources – the theology of spiritual geniuses like Henri de Lubac, who reminded us of what it meant for early and mediaeval Christianity to speak of humanity as made in God’s image and of grace as perfecting and transfiguring that image so long overlaid by our habitual ‘inhumanity’.

It’s a remarkable passage in the Archbishop’s adress, for a few reasons. First of all, it’s in a certain sense brave. De Lubac’s specific view on the history of doctrinal development is by no means generally accepted in today’s Roman Catholic church. No wonder, as his words surely imply an incisive critique on the (neo-)scholastic tradition from Cajetan until the 20th century.

Secondly, the words of Rowan Williams imply a qualified view on the rupture between Catholics and Protestants. This rupture is, at least partly, ascribed to the doctrinal developments in the Catholic church of the late 15th and 16th century. Actually, the Reformation is in this view a re-action, instead of the initial action. Of course, opinions may vary about the nature of this reaction. De Lubac, for instance, was of the opinian that both the Reformation and Jansenism were deviations of the true Catholic doctrine, an ‘over-reaction’. J.H. Walgrave however, a Dutch Catholic theologian and philosopher, claimed the opposite, maintaining that both the Reformation and Jansenism were, in a certain sense at least, the legitimate continuation of (augustinian) Medieval theology.

Finally, the words of Rowan Williams evoque an augustinian anthropology of longing to God and the only possible fulfillment, by embracing his grace. As De Lubac in a number of writings underlined, there is not such a thing as ‘natura pura’, meaning a conception of human nature that is capable of reaching its natural potency. According to this doctrine, the supernatural longing for God does not properly belong to human nature. It’s an ‘extra’, an addition to human nature. The Archbishop certainly is right about the implications about our anthropology for evangelisation. But I suppose it has implications in the direction of sacramental theology as well. The sacramental debate in the Reformation period might be read in this light. In the theology of the Counter-Reformation we might detect a tendency to ‘supranaturalize’ the sacramtents, especially the eucharist, by emphasizing its mystery and incomprehensibility. The Reformation, on the contrary, seems to downplay the importance of the sacraments, may be not so much in theory, as well in practice. In the Swiss Reformation the habit of celebrating the Lord’s supper only four times a year became the standard practice, suggesting that it is an ‘extra’. For me, it’s an open research-question whether this tendency is also inherent in Calvin’s sacramental theology or not. Further study must show.