How the light gets in: A book review

Graham Ward. How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I. Oxford University Press, 2016. xv + 354 pages.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—December 2016

How the Light Gets In is the first of a projected four-volume systematic theology by Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. Ward is pulling together his wide range of research and writing interests into an integrated whole that will emphasize the ethical dimension of Christian theology.

This first volume serves as a kind of prolegomena. It addresses a wide variety of themes in order to establish the grounding for what Ward calls “engaged systematic theology.” Volume II (which will be called, Another Kind of Normal: Ethical Life II) will focus on christology, and in light of christology take up themes such as revelation, anthropology, and creation. Volume III (The Vision of God: Ethical Life III) will deal with ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the doctrine of God. The series will conclude with a fourth volume (Communio Santorum: A Theology of Religions) that will consider both world Christianities and non-Christian religions in light of the systematic account Ward will provide in volumes II and III.

This series promises to be a distinctive take on these crucial themes given Ward’s emphasis on Christianity’s engagement with culture, his “radical orthodox” sensibility, and his practical concerns.

In volume one, Ward begins with a historical survey that traces the evolution of Christian systematic theology from the creedal formulations through the emergence of the Summa and culminating in the creation of Protestant dogmatics. He chooses somewhat surprising exemplars to illumine these three approaches: Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386), Hugh of St. Victor (died 1141), and Philip Melanchthon (died 1560).

He then explains what he means by “engaged systematics.” He sees his approach as a “corrective” to the “disembedded” and adversarial character of most Christian systematic theology ever since it emerged. He hopes for a theology that will empower “a life of embodied practices all of which can be summed up as prayer” (p. 117).

In the second half of the book, Ward illumines how engaged systematics works with discussion of various themes such as truth, revelation, judgment, discernment, proclamation, faith seeking understanding, and believing.

Part of what makes these accounts engaging is how Ward continues to bring into the conversation unexpected sources such as British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and the film The Blair Witch Project.

It is good to read an in-depth treatment of doctrinal theology that ranges so widely. Ward challenges the reader to think far beyond the standard mainstream Christian sources and to imagine how Christian theology can encompass the wideness of contemporary culture.

At the same time, the book lacks clarity. As well, though the subtitle promises a focus on ethics and the claims for “engaged systematics” speak to a practical emphasis where theology might actually speak to concrete human life, the actual content of the book remains quite abstract, dealing with the world of ideas, not the world of on-the-ground social engagement and political transformation. Part of the reason for this problem is that Ward more or less ignores the content of the Bible except for occasional citations of isolated verses. By making his systematics post-biblical, Ward marginalizes the main resource from the Christian tradition that could actually help his writing engage practical life.

[This review will be published in Reading Religion]

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