Escaping Flatland: The Philosophical Theology of David Brown by Robert MacSwain

Jonathan Rutledge
Tuesday 2 July 2019

Although David Brown’s first book was an essay in Anglican moral theology,[1] he established his primary reputation as a philosophical theologian with his second volume, The Divine Trinity.[2] Born in Scotland in 1948, Brown studied at Edinburgh, Oxford, and Cambridge before returning to Oxford in 1976 where he served as Fellow, Chaplain, and Tutor in Theology and Philosophy at Oriel College, as well as University Lecturer in Ethics and Philosophical Theology. During this time Brown was associated closely with two successive Nolloth Professors of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion who were also fellows of Oriel, Basil Mitchell (1917–2011) and Richard Swinburne (1934– ).[3] He was thus generally affiliated with the analytic movement in contemporary philosophy of religion, and his early work was in this mode primarily. Brown remained at Oriel until 1990, when he became Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham University and Canon of Durham Cathedral; and then in 2007 he returned to Scotland as Wardlaw Professor of Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture at St Mary’s College, the School of Divinity of the University of St Andrews.[4] A Fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Brown retired from teaching and supervision in September 2015.

When he published The Divine Trinity thirty years earlier in 1985, Brown sought to produce a creative fusion of historical-critical biblical scholarship, patristic studies, systematic theology, and analytic philosophy. Despite the continued growth and development of analytic philosophy of religion, this is not even now a common combination, as at least one of these four elements is usually missing.[5] This fusion is, however, representative of a certain type of Oxford Anglicanism, and Brown stands squarely—and indeed, somewhat defiantly—in a philosophical and theological tradition that includes not only Joseph Butler (1692–1752) and John Henry Newman (1801–80) but also, more recently, Austin Farrer (1904–68) and Basil Mitchell. The Divine Trinity divided readers along broadly disciplinary lines, with philosophers appreciating it and theologians more dubious—but much of the negative response often seemed as much impatience with Brown’s whole school of thought as with this book in particular.[6]

For lack of a better name, Brown’s tradition might be called ‘Critical Catholicism’: instead of seeking to go beyond (or around) ‘secular’ reason, it accepts native British empirical standards in both philosophy and history, does not object to metaphysics and natural theology in principle, sees special revelation as building upon general revelation, adopts a sympathetically-critical approach to Scripture, and rather than isolating Christian faith in a protected world of its own seeks to integrate it fully with what is known in other fields of human inquiry. At the same time, such ‘Critical Catholicism’ takes seriously the basic contours of Nicene Christianity and works as much as possible within those parameters, adjusting them only when it seems absolutely necessary in light of new knowledge.[7] I am not at all suggesting that ‘Critical Catholicism’ is a distinct movement, nor that it is uniquely associated with Oxford, only that it aptly describes the specific tradition of Anglican theology that Brown situates himself within.

A recent volume—God in a Single Vision: Integrating Philosophy and Theology—brings together some of Brown’s most significant essays in philosophical and systematic theology published in the three decades between the publication of The Divine Trinity in 1985 and his retirement in 2015, as well as some new material that reflects his current positions on certain topics.[8] Although remaining both ‘Catholic’ and ‘critical’, Brown’s thought has changed considerably over the last thirty years, and this volume thus bears witness to development as well as continuity. Doctrines and issues covered include creation, theodicy, biblical interpretation, religious experience, the Trinity, incarnation, atonement, saints, purgatory, and heaven. Brown introduces the essays in the volume’s section introductions, and so my goal here is simply to provide a broader context for readers unfamiliar with his work, which by comparison with much contemporary writing in philosophical and systematic theology is distinctive in several respects.[9]

First, Brown’s pursuit of the via media means not only that he positions himself intentionally between the disciplines of philosophy and theology—which is not uncommon—but that in philosophy he positions himself between analytic and Continental approaches, and in theology he positions himself between both liberal/conservative and Protestant/Catholic polarities, while also being informed by biblical and historical studies. He thus remains in conversation with as many perspectives as possible.[10]

Second, in pure philosophy of religion, Brown does not offer original theories dealing with metaphysics, epistemology, or language, but rather works within a broadly analytic framework to make critical interventions in current debates. He typically seeks to offer a more holistic or historical perspective on a given issue, drawing on a wider range of references and considerations than his interlocutors. He does, however, defend the truth of certain positions, such as the value of religious experience and the validity of metaphorical discourse.[11]

Third, in philosophical and systematic theology, Brown has made original and widely-discussed contributions in his non-punitive theory of purgatory, his defense of specific versions of social Trinitarianism and kenotic Christology, his theory of divine revelation as mediated fallibly through both tradition and imagination, and his proposals regarding a pervasive sacramentality discerned in nature and human culture alike. As with his work in philosophy of religion, here too Brown seeks to revitalise options and open pathways that are often neglected by more dominant approaches.[12]

To conclude, in an academic world of increasing hyper-specialization, Brown is a rare example of a scholar who remains in careful conversation with biblical studies, patristic studies, analytic philosophy, Continental philosophy, Protestant theology, Roman Catholic theology, and secular religious studies. Brown’s work in philosophical theology and philosophy of religion does not exhibit the type of formalist precision currently in fashion,[13] but his compensating virtues of disciplinary breadth and historical depth are augmented by an illuminating acuity of insight. Although he has never repudiated his early analytic training, Brown’s journey since 1985 might be titled ‘Escaping Flatland’—that is, avoiding a preoccupation with purely logical issues to the exclusion of the three-dimensional world in which we live.[14] It is a journey towards a single vision of integrating philosophy and theology that readers are invited to travel along while reading God in a Single Vision—and perhaps beyond.[15]



Robert MacSwain (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews) is Associate Professor of Theology at the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, USA. The author of Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism, and the Evidence of Faith (Leuven: Peeters, 2013) and a number of journal articles, book chapters, and reviews, he is also the editor or co-editor of seven additional volumes, including (with Jeffrey Stout) Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Aquinas and Wittgenstein (London: SCM, 2004), (with Michael Ward) The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), and Scripture, Metaphysics, and Poetry: Austin Farrer’s The Glass of Vision with Critical Commentary (London: Ashgate / Routledge, 2013).


[1] Choices: Ethics and the Christian (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983).

[2] (London: Duckworth / LaSalle: Open Court, 1985).

[3] Brown contributed essays to Festschriften for both Mitchell and Swinburne and wrote Mitchell’s biographical memoir for the British Academy. For details see David Brown, ‘“Necessary” and “Fitting” Reasons in Christian Theology’ in W. J. Abraham and S. W. Holtzer, eds, The Rationality of Religious Belief: Essays in Honour of Basil Mitchell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 211–30; ‘Did Revelation Cease?’ in Alan Padgett, ed., Reason and the Christian Religion: Essays in Honour of Richard Swinburne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 121–41; and ‘Basil George Mitchell’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, XII (2013), 303–21.

[4] For an engagement with this later period of Brown’s work, focusing on five volumes published by Oxford University Press, see Robert MacSwain and Taylor Worley, eds, Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[5] For various interpretations, critiques, and defences of analytic philosophy of religion, see William Wainwright, ed., God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture: A Discussion Between Scholars in the AAR and the APA (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996); Harriet A. Harris and Christopher J. Insole, eds, Faith and Philosophical Analysis: The Impact of Analytical Philosophy on the Philosophy of Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005); Oliver D. Crisp and Michael C. Rea, eds, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Andrew Davison, ed., Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition (London: SCM Press, 2011).

[6] American analytic philosophers of religion such as William P. Alston and Eleonore Stump responded positively to The Divine Trinity, whereas British theologians such as Colin Gunton, Nicholas Lash, and Kenneth Surin were largely negative, with British figures such as Sarah Coakley and Rowan Williams being somewhere in the middle. The Scottish Dominican Fergus Kerr’s later assessment is more irenic: see ‘Trinitarian Theology in the Light of Analytic Philosophy’ in Gilles Emery OP and Matthew Levering, eds, The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 339–47, discussion on 340–42.

[7] The term ‘Critical Catholicism’ is obviously inspired by Edward Gordon Selwyn, ed., Essays Catholic and Critical: By Members of the Anglican Communion (London: SPCK, 1926), and is meant to conjure both comparison and contrast in relation to the ‘Liberal Catholicism’ of Charles Gore and Lux Mundi (1889), the ‘Affirming Catholicism’ movement in the Church of England, the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ of John Milbank and his associates, and the ‘post-liberal’ theology that emerged from Yale Divinity School in the 1970s and 80s. I see it as a species of what William J. Abraham calls ‘canonical theism’: see his Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[8] David Brown, God in a Single Vision: Integrating Philosophy and Theology, ed. Christopher R. Brewer and Robert MacSwain (London: Routledge, 2016). A companion volume collecting some of Brown’s essays in theology and the arts was published as David Brown, Divine Generosity and Human Creativity: Theology Through Symbol, Painting and Architecture, ed. Christopher R. Brewer and Robert MacSwain (London: Routledge, 2017).

[9] For a comparison of Brown with two other significant Anglican theologians writing today, see Benjamin J. King, Robert MacSwain, and Jason A. Fout, ‘Contemporary Anglican Systematic Theology: Three Examples in David Brown, Sarah Coakley, and David F. Ford’, Anglican Theological Review 94 (2012), 319–34.

[10] See, for example, his volume Continental Philosophy and Modern Theology: An Engagement (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987). In the introduction Brown writes, ‘Despite the fact that my own background is in analytic philosophy, I have sought to resist the temptation common among English-speaking philosophers of regarding continental philosophy as “shallow” simply because it is in general more accessible and less technically argued. For the issues it raises are clearly important ones’ (xii).

[11] Brown’s emphasis on metaphor is another way of saying that he belongs more to the School of St. Basil (Mitchell) than the School of St. Alvin (Plantinga): see William J. Abraham, ‘Turning Philosophical Water into Theological Wine’ in Journal of Analytic Theology (Volume 1, Number 1, May 2013), 1–16:

[12] For Brown’s most substantial contribution to kenotic Christology, see Divine Humanity: Kenosis and the Construction of a Christian Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), an excerpt of which is included in God in a Single Vision (‘Incarnational Models Revisited’, 92–106). For a recent volume engaging with Brown’s work on biblical interpretation, see Garrick V. Allen, Christopher R. Brewer, and Dennis F. Kinlaw III, eds, The Moving Text: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on David Brown and the Bible (London: SCM Press, 2018). And for a recent Festschrift that touches on many of Brown’s characteristic themes and interests, see Christopher R. Brewer, ed., Christian Theology and the Transformation of Natural Religion: From Incarnation to Sacramentality––Essays in Honour of David Brown (Leuven: Peeters, 2018). Readers of this blog may be particularly interested in C. Stephen Evans’s chapter, ‘A Philosophical Response to David Brown’s Divine Humanity’ (71–79).

13] See, for example, his brief review of the volume Analytic Theology (cited in note 5 above), published in The Expository Times (Volume 121, Issue 5, February 2010), 254–55, titled, ‘Is Clarity Always a Virtue?’

[14] Edwin A. Abbott’s satirical parable Flatland was published in 1884: see the critical edition with notes and commentary by William F. Lindgren and Thomas F. Banchoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). The ‘three-dimensionality’ of Brown’s work is even stronger in his writings on sacramentality and the arts, but my focus here is on his contributions to philosophical and systematic theology: see notes 4 and 8 above for this other aspect of Brown’s work.

[15] This essay is adapted from my editor’s introduction to God in a Single Vision, vii–x.


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