THEOLOGY FOR A TROUBLED BELIEVER: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. By Diogenes Allen. Louisville: WJK Press, 2010. xvi + 223 pp.
In the Second Century of the Common Era a group of theologians emerged who sought to defend and define the Christian faith in the context of their Greco-Roman context. We call them, the Apologists. They didn’t apologize for the faith, they gave a spirited defense. Down through history other theologians and philosophers have done the same thing. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers is one of the best examples of such a genre. Diogenes Allen’s Theology for a Troubled Believer stands in this tradition, though his audience isn’t the cultured despiser, but rather the “troubled believer,” the person struggling to make sense of their faith.
We tend to think from and write from the basis of our own training and background. As a historian, I tend to do theology from a historical perspective. Diogenes Allen, on the other hand, is a philosopher of religion, and in writing his theology he leans heavily on his specialization. Allen is Stuart Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton Seminary. He is, of Greek background, but is a member of the Episcopal Church (and that affiliation shows throughout the book). He is not a traditional conservative, but he’s not a liberal either. He accepts, for instance, the legitimacy of evolution and affirms the importance of reason in understanding the Christian faith. But, he still comes at the questions of faith from a rather traditional perspective, putting little trust in modern explanations of reality. He rarely engages contemporary theologians – Barth is mentioned once – and the few references to process theology are negative – to the point of equating it with Greco-Roman pagan ideologies.
Bringing together a mix of traditional understandings, a philosophical starting point, and a desire to understand the biblical narrative, Allen sets out to write a theology that would try to provide answers to questions of meaning and purpose. That is, after all, one of the reasons the people turn to Christianity. He offers six reasons why people turn to Christianity – they have unworkable lives and need answers; they appreciate the beauty of Christianity’s ideals, such as love and service; a sense of failure and guilt, accompanied by a search for relief; a hunger for God, as evidenced by Augustine’s famous saying about restless hearts; spiritual experiences; and finally they are seeking meaning in life. It is this final quest that drives the book.
Allen engages in a dialogue between philosophy and the Bible. As noted earlier, there is little interaction with contemporary theologians. He is more comfortable with Scripture, philosophers, novelists, and early Christian thinkers such as Athanasius, though he likes Pascal and Simone Weil. As a theologian, he starts from the premise that the foundation of theology is Scripture. It is the primary source, but that being said, theology would not exist had the Greeks not entered into the conversation, asking of the text the question “why.” Theology, therefore, in Allen’s view, involves the “examination of various themes in biblical history, such as creation and the incarnation, where possible asking and answering questions about what they mean and imply, and in that exploration often seeking to relate these themes to what other fields of investigation are uncovering, such as history, archaeology, cosmology, psychology, or biology” (p. xix).
With Scripture as the primary source, Allen begins his theological journey, in conversation with other fields of investigation, focusing on five primary areas – The nature of God, suffering, the Divine sacrifices, new life in God, and response to God. Coming at the end of the book, Allen gives the briefest of discussions to such theological questions as the Holy Spirit, the church, the sacraments, sin, evil, and hope. His primary concern is trying to understand the nature and purpose of God and the way in which this relates to the question of suffering. Indeed, he expends three chapters on suffering and four on divine sacrifices. In his quest to understand the nature of God, he begins not with creation, as one would expect, but with the revelation of God in the Sinai to Moses. He does this because the message of the Bible is focused on Yahweh making Israel a people and being for them a personal God. Only after this is established is the reflection on creation important. He writes:
Taking things in this order will enable us to understand how the very notion of creation is transformed by the Jewish claim that Yahweh made the heavens and earth. What Yahweh is affects what creation is understood to mean (p. 3).
Although philosophy is an important part of his presentation, he is clear that the questions begin and end in Scripture. With that primacy established, he is content to move on to reflections on creation and the challenges of science.
Allen is concerned not just with offering an argument for the existence of God. Indeed, he finds the traditional arguments for God’s existence ultimately unsatisfactory, including that of Aquinas. Nature can provide a witness, but it is limited, and thus we must ultimately rely on the witness of Scripture. What he is most concerned about is affirming the holiness of God, by which he means the goodness of God. He seeks to do this in the face of intellectual questions, but also in answer to the questions of theodicy, which is why he focuses so heavily on suffering. While he finds process theology less than compelling – comparing it to Greco-Roman paganism – he goes part of the way with process. He notes that the idea of divine omnipotence is not biblical. We make a mistake, he suggests, if we treat the biblical word “almighty” as being equivalent to “omnipotent,” because while “omnipotence,” suggests that God “can do all things,” the word “almighty” suggests that God has authority over all things. One word speaks of ability to do something, the other speaks of rule. While the idea of omnipotence is foreign to scripture, it is also philosophically indefensible. Ultimately assertions of this nature have to be qualified to such an extent that the meaning is not that God can do all things, but simply that God has great power. Otherwise, the question remains – if God can do all things, then why does God not prevent evil and suffering?
As for Christology, he accepts the traditional definition of the two natures of Christ, which he pictures as the intersection of two planes of existence. Everything he does and says is done and said simultaneously as both divine and human. On the question of atonement, he doesn’t find any of the traditional answers complete, and so he contents himself with staying with the biblical story and not going beyond it to traditional theories. There is suffering, affliction, separation, but ultimately it is the combination of both God’s love and God’s power that makes the cross holy and salvific. He writes: “Of itself, the crucifixion is but a judicial murder. Only God’s power and love make it a holy and saving sacrifice. We are asked to see and confess that Jesus’ crucifixion is the wisdom of God” (p. 126). As for atonement, a concept he seeks to reclaim, it is “the restoration of the human capacity to know, love, and obey God – the restoration of the image that God bestowed in the first creation” (p. 127). Resurrection is ultimately God’s vindication of Jesus.
This is one of those books that one has mixed feelings about. There is much that I enjoyed and yet I also found some parts less than helpful. He is wrestling with important issues, but in many ways his discussions seem dated. That may be one reason why I wish he had interacted more with contemporary theology. Another issue has to do with audience. The sub-title suggests that this is an introduction, but the writing style is rather dense and likely not appropriate for most general readers. One needs at least some philosophical and biblical background for it to be understandable and useful. Ultimately, however, the point is well taken – we must wrestle with the difficult questions of faith – and that requires that we bring to bear reason on questions of faith. His perspective might be best summed up in a few sentences found early in the book.
Belief in God is not something below the level of reason, and so irrational. Rather, it is something that is above reason, suprarational. By God’s very nature, God is unbounded, without limits, or infinite, and God’s fullness is incomprehensible to anything less than the mind of God itself. But God through God’s loving actions on us enables the mind and heart to rise above their normal ability , and to respond with faith in God, who reveals Godself to various people known to us in the Bible and above all in Jesus. (p. 53).
Whether this is sufficient to calm the troubled heart of a questioning believer is uncertain. What is true here is that Allen wants to present an intellectually credible witness to the biblical God, which in the mind of this reviewer is a worthy goal.