Response: Letchford’s Review of TT

Michael Letchford of the University of Bristol recently reviewed Theological Theodicy in the journal Theology [116.4 (July/August 2013): 283-284]. His review is of the kind that merits a response because it could leave a false impression of both my self-understanding and aims in this book.

After the summary section of the review, Letchford points to two flaws he sees in the work. One is that I am “overly dogmatic” in the book since mine is “not a broad overview of the subject in which rival outlooks are properly examined” but simply reflective of my own perspective. A sweeping remark following the noted flaw is that, “Irritatingly, he persistently generalizes all Christian belief as assenting to this viewpoint.” And two, “the book fails to signpost the nonspecialist reader.” In other words, the reader is left unaware of rival accounts. Both of these perceived flaws are related. Let me make two passing comments.

By the way Letchford introduces his review, I take it that he approached TT with an expectation that drives the “Cascade Companions” Series, one that serves to introduce readers to a field of inquiry, and in this regard, the expectation is understandable. Truth be told, that is what I originally intended with the volume, but as I began to work through it, I came to realize that I could not do justice to “theodicy” as a topic in under 30k words (the length typically asked of a Cascade Companion). So, I decided to approach the subject in two alternative ways: First, I would offer a survey of sorts but of one particular approach to theodicy. This is a practical, apophatic, and history of ideas approach, and it is embodied in the works of David Bentley Hart, John Swinton, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas, Ken Surin, and Terrence Tilley. In doing this, I aimed toward a second goal: to offer a dogmatic sketch of the subject, taking as my cue John Webster’s approach to such topics as Scripture and holiness. Therefore, the volume is precisely meant to be “dogmatic” in the technical sense of the word, i.e., in terms of Christian dogmatics or speech. I discussed this change of approach with Wipf and Stock, and they were willing to keep the volume in the CC series.

As for the passing remark that I irritatingly generalize all of Christian belief to my own viewpoint, I will simply point to several quotes to expose the uncharitable nature of such a claim. I set the tone on p. 19: “What follows is an account that is self-understood as a theological reconstruction and counterproposal to what is often considered to be a philosophical concern” (emphasis added). I also say on p. 40: “Several remarks are in order so as to set this exercise on a specific course” (emphasis added). And finally on p. 42, I state, “As an act of transparency, it should be noted that what follows are alternatives the author finds most compelling in light of theodical concerns . . . they constitute one set among many other possibilities”. Simply put, Theological Theodicy does not pretend to be otherwise than a single, constructive proposal in the field of Christian dogmatics. It is lamentable that Letchford could not take it for what it explicitly aimed to be.

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