A Critical Theory for Christians

22 January 2024 by Wes Bredenhof

Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, Christopher Watkin.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2022.  Hardcover, 648 pages.

There’s a creative new movement afoot in apologetics.  It’s seen with recent books by the likes of John Dickson (Bullies and Saints) and Glen Scrivener (The Air We Breathe) and going back a few years, Vishal Mangalwadi (The Book that Made Your World).  I don’t know if this movement has a name yet, but it involves applying biblical analysis and critique to Western culture, demonstrating how the values Westerners hold dear are, at root, biblical values.  Christopher Watkin’s massive brick of a book belongs with this movement.

Watkin is associate professor in French studies at Monash University in Melbourne.  His range of academic interests, however, extend far beyond French Studies.  He has written extensively on philosophical and theological topics, especially on French post-structuralist philosophy.

Biblical Critical Theory isn’t a light read, but it’s also not impenetrably technical or academic.  Of recent books I’ve read, it’s on a similar level to Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.  Watkin explains many of his key terms in the Introduction and if a reader had paid attention there, the rest should fall into place.

What does this book set out to do?  According to Watkin, it could have been called “Know What Follows From What You Believe” (p.2).  To that end, he introduces us to the idea of diagonalization.  This is the key tool in his biblical critical theory.  Unbelieving culture often presents us with competing views.  Watkin mentions the example found in 1 Corinthians 1.  Greeks love wisdom, but Jews desire powerful signs.  But the cross cuts across both of these with its “foolishness” and “weakness.”  The cross diagonalizes the Greeks’ wisdom and the Jews’ signs.  Diagonalization “presents a biblical picture in which the best aspirations of both options are fulfilled, but not in a way that the proponents of these options would see coming” (p.17).  Watkin notes that this critical tool isn’t his invention, although the term is.  Diagonalization, in its essence, can be found in other Christian thinkers, including Martin Luther, Cornelius VanTil, Herman Bavinck, Augustine, and C.S. Lewis.

What’s particularly new here is the scope with which Watkin applies this critical tool.  He travels through the whole narrative of the Bible and illustrates how various biblical teachings diagonalize cultural polarities.  As an example, chapter 11 is on Moses, The Exodus, and the Torah.  He has a section in this chapter on “God’s Name and Criminal Justice.”  He observes,

The political right is customarily characterized as holding a view that focuses on justice: locking offenders up and, in the case of serious crimes, throwing away the key.  The left is usually framed as favouring compassion, considering the social and structural causes of crime and seeking rehabilitation and reform rather than punishment.  Exodus 3 and 33, by contrast, present a God who is neither left nor right or, rather, who takes the compassion that adherents to the left value in their position and the justice that partisans of the right prize in theirs and marries them perfectly, thereby revealing both political approaches to criminal justice as reductive and partial simplifications of a more complex biblical position (pp.261-262).

In other words, God as “merciful and gracious…who will by no means clear the guilty” diagonalizes the right and the left on criminal justice.  This is just one example of dozens in the book.  In fact, after the Table of Contents, there is a table of the many (114) figures in the book, many of which are illustrating diagonalization.

The majority of these diagonalizations are credible.  However, there were a couple where I felt my eyes beginning to roll upwards.  One example is the mention of Brexit on page 363.  On the one hand, you have the Brexiteers with their emphasis on local identity, and on the other hand, the Remainers with their attachment to the universal.   The incarnation diagonalizes these two opposites, according to Watkin (following Graham Tomlin).  The incarnation apparently means that these opposites are actually united.  But that still leaves the existential question:  stay or leave?  The other example was in his discussion of wisdom literature where he asserts an “irreducible tension” between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  However, when the irony of Ecclesiastes is appreciated, how it describes life “under the sun” (i.e. apart from God), I fail to see how one could conclude that there is any such tension between them.  But Watkin does and then he uses Job to diagonalize this tension.  He believes that Job brings the two radically different perspectives together.  Yet what if they were never apart in the first place? 

I found Biblical Critical Theory to be a highly stimulating and enjoyable read.  Watkin’s writing reflects the best of a Reformed approach to life and culture.  At the end of every year, I pick out my top reads and publish them on my blog.  I have a feeling that Biblical Critical Theory is going to be my top pick for 2023.  Certainly I haven’t read anything better yet this year.

Originally published in Clarion 72.16 (Year-End 2023)