Review of Frances Young, God’s Presence: A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
The final book on the Michael Ramsey Prize shortlist for 2016 is a work of systematic theology. Frances Young is a very distinguished theologian. Her writing on the New Testament and early Christian theology is well known and is part of a corpus of writing that dates back to the 1970s. This book is an integration of all the different concerns of her theological life, as an academic, a theologian of both the New Testament and the early church, a Methodist, a preacher and the mother of a profoundly disabled child, Arthur. All of these different aspects to Young’s work and writing inform and shape this book.
That theme of integration is also the way in which Young approaches the topics of her theology in this book. In each chapter she offers a prelude of snapshots, showing the way the subject is rooted in the life of individuals and communities. There is an account of the way in which the early Christian theologians used the Bible, and the way in which the themes they drew out relate to our understandings today. There is an account of preaching using the theme and discussions, and a final postlude of poetry. At some stage in each chapter, the significance of experience, and specifically Young’s own experience as the mother of Arthur, is explored. This is a very Methodist theological approach, and a very rich one.
This insights that Young draws out from the fairly traditional topics of a systematic theology are deep and often profound. There is a humility about her approach, not least because she is properly insistent upon the creatureliness of herself, other human beings and theology. I was struck profoundly by insights into ecumenism, and the necessity of the body of Christ to be broken; the need for Mary to be taken more seriously by Protestant theology; the need for Christian theology to re-shape intellect; and the need for accounts of atonement to embrace metaphor deeply. But above all, the whole book is pervaded by a deep humility, an understanding of the brokenness of human lives through which God is seen, and a rootedness in praise of the creator.
This is a very British systematic theology. It is not a programmatic work beginning a theological career. Rather it is a reflective work, drawing together the threads and the wisdom hard won through life and theological work. It is a privilege to read this book, and I can’t help feeling I have only scratched its surface. I will return to this book again and again. It is a very worthy entry on a very high calibre shortlist.