Chris Watkin is a leading scholar of French philosophy, which has had an immeasurable influence on contemporary Western culture. Thus, he is well-positioned to identify the broad themes shaping this culture. In Thinking through Creation, Watkin engages in “cultural critique,” identifying significant themes in contemporary culture and showing how the Biblical creation account addresses and critiques these themes. The book is intended to equip the reader for a similar style of cultural engagement, employing big patterns of Scripture, such as motifs and themes, in engagement with the big patterns of our culture. Watkin is convinced that a contemporary articulation of Christianity “must not only explain the Bible to our culture, but also explain our culture through the Bible. It must seek to discern what our culture looks like when viewed through the story, categories, assumptions, and ways of thinking that we encounter from Genesis to Revelation.”
This presuppositional approach to cultural engagement comes near to “what we might (somewhat inelegantly) call a biblical theory.” In the book, Watkin begins “to show how [a biblical theory] can talk incisively, authentically, and productively with other theories currently prominent in our culture” (pg. 8). With the term “theory,” Watkin connects this approach to the various “theories” that dominate the contemporary intellectual landscape, such as Marxist or feminist theory (or psychoanalysis, or deconstruction, etc.); “The idea of a theory here is that it “takes a critical view of society and adopts an ideological focus, typically associated with an emphasis on the analytical importance of sociohistorical context, and emancipatory agenda, and reflexivity.” The connection between a “biblical theory” and these other theories is that
they are telling us not merely what to think about or act on in the world, but how to act and think in relation to everything. They are not merely something to think about, but something through which to think about everything, in the sense of providing us with interpretive grids to make sense of the whole life, to know what is important and why, to know and feel what is praiseworthy and blameworthy, and what sort of action is appropriate to promote the former and resist the latter. (pg. 8)
Watkin sets out in this way, writing for ‘thinking Christians who want to see biblical truth shape all areas for their thought and life, and who want to understand, serve, and change our culture” (1). The book is built on the central conviction that “to explain the Bible to culture in which we live is not enough; we must also explain the culture in which we live in terms of the Bible” (1).
Chapter 2, the first body chapter, begins with the Trinity. Here Watkin introduces his recurring approach to cultural critique, showing how the Bible “diagonalizes” the false dichotomies of our culture. In this chapter, Watkin shows that the Trinity is not an embarrassment to Christians but a great strength. The Trinity diagonalizes the dichotomy contemporary philosophy draws between impersonal structures and unstructured persons, the choice between norms and will or necessity and contingency. Instead, “it is God’s character to be good, and that character gives normative structure to the universe.” Watkin argues that the Bible similarly addresses modern dichotomies such as the fact-value distinction, the one and the many, the identification of language with reality or the separation of the two, etc. The following two body chapters look at the creation of the universe and humanity. Watkin’s understanding of the intellectual trends of our culture is rich, and his application of Biblical themes in the creation narrative is spot on (for the most part).
In many ways, those familiar with Reformed thought in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially Reformed presuppositionalism, will find much that is familiar in Thinking through Creation. But, as observed by John Frame in the foreword, “Watkin carries this discussion further than have his predecessors.” Watkin gets contemporary intellectual culture, so he can identify and critique it better than most in this tradition. Some of his exegesis fails to compel, but this does not weaken the overall patterns he is working with. An assumption throughout is the enduring commission to be “paracreators,” as he puts it; that is, to fulfil the so-called “cultural mandate” from the creation narrative. The book is thus couched in the language of cultural transformation. I would argue that the Bible transforms the so-called “cultural mandate” across the canon and defines it from the beginning in a uniquely redemptive-historical way that doesn’t easily fit within the transformationalist paradigm. Rejecting this paradigm requires us to rethink what is the value of such cultural critique if it is not to reform and redeem the intellectual modes of our culture.
Nevertheless, Thinking Through Creation will be of immense value to students and others currently in the academy, who are confronted with these ideas and themes frequently. Watkins has questions throughout the book, especially at the end, intended to help such an audience identify patterns in culture and the Bible to continue such a critique. Watkin’s examples of cultural critique are at a level beyond what will be helpful in the average ministry context. Still, the model of identifying patterns of interpretation in the world and the Bible and critiquing the former by the latter is a helpful way for approaching many issues in church ministry and everyday Christian life. There is much in this book for many readers, so I commend it heartily!