Biblical Critical Theory, A Review

By John Pawlik

For those who have read Augustine’s The City of God and have found yourself asking, “what sort of book is this?” Is it an apologetic? Is it biblical theology? Is it the amalgamation of long years studying the Bible? The answer is yes to all three, and more. Christopher Watkin attempts in his book, Biblical Critical Theory, to continue the prophetic legacy of Augustine’s City of God by engaging in cultural critique that is both bold and biblical. A critical theory is a tool for analyzing culture through a specific lens in order to make sense of it. Critical theories can even be used to try and parse out an idea or worldview in Scripture. Watkin shows in this book that critical theory is not just something we can do with the Bible and culture, it is something the Bible can do to us! Adopting the prophetic legacy of Augustine means using Scripture to critique the world and our various cultures, as well as those we minister among. Across the chapters, Watkin moves from Genesis to Revelation, showing how the Bible puts the world on display and conveying that its desires are misguided and that its dreams are too small. The Bible takes what each culture desires and fulfills that desire in a way that subversively accomplishes even more than what we could have hoped for. This makes the Bible a powerful tool for unity across cultures. When two groups clash, the gospel speaks to the sin and injustice of each while also bringing good news to the brokenness each one’s experience. As missionaries and ministers, we need to become better listeners to both the Bible and to our people; so that we can divide the Word rightly with them. Watkin’s book is a must-read for Biblical theology that is geared towards healthy contextualization.

Genesis is incredibly significant to Watkin’s project. The first ten of twenty-eight chapters deal with material in Genesis. Watkin moves from the Trinity and creation to sin and the fall all the way to Abraham and covenant in chapters that are theologically dense while also readily accessible to readers with a love for Scripture and cultural critique. In each chapter of the book, Watkin engages in a practice called “diagonalization,” where he takes two possibilities pursued by a culture and shows how Scripture cuts across them in a way that displays the insufficiency of each while also giving a better way forward that fulfills the desires of both. For example, in his chapter on “Sin, Anthropology, and Asymmetry,” Watkin observes two cultural aspirations. The first group of more traditional cultures aspire towards pessimism, traditionalism, and parochialism. The second group of globalizing cultures aspires towards sweeping universalism, technological progress, and utopianism. Rather than cutting “a middle way” between the two, Watkin shows how Scripture should make Christians more pessimistic than the pessimist and more utopian than the utopianist. The Christian is more pessimistic than the pessimist because they know that no education, medical discovery, or social reform will solve the human dilemma caused by sin. And yet, at the same time, the Christian is more utopian than the utopianist because they believe in the radical transformation of the human heart through the gospel, begun in this life and completed in the next, that will end in God restoring all things to himself. The gospel gives Christians a “sober optimism, realistic romanticism, and critical idealism”[1] that can engage with any culture the Christian ministers among. The chapters in Genesis culminate in God’s covenant to Abraham, where the relationship between the particularity of God’s will for the people of Israel is diagonalized with God’s universal love for the nations of the world. God can care about a particular people while also engaging globally in a way that is unique to the story of Scripture. No other religion combines the universal and the particular in the way Scripture does, as Watkin explores with unparalleled depth and accessibility.

Watkin moves in the second section to chapters covering Moses and Exodus, the prophets and God’s words to his people, and the theme of wisdom and God’s critique of human cultures. These chapters detail Scripture’s depiction of God as both just and compassionate, showing mercy while not clearing the guilty. Watkin shows how rich biblical theology must take each of the themes and threads of Scripture and hold them alongside one another in way that brings forward God’s plans and intentions for the world in a way that exceeds human expectations and magnifies God’s glory.

The chapters on the incarnation detail God’s breaking into the world in way that puts the human dilemma on display while showing God’s grace and mercy to step into history the way he had been promising all throughout the Old Testament. Jesus being fully human and fully God is displayed in the powerful phrase “the Word became flesh.” God acts outside of human categories in a way that subverts human understanding in order to glorify himself among the nations. The gospels are politically subversive, showing how Jesus does a ministry from below, living with the poor and powerless and shaming the religious teachers of his day. Yet at the same time many who are powerful understand the gospel message, such as the Roman Centurion from Mark. The gospel does not elevate poverty for its own sake but displays God’s glory in making him known among those aware of their need of him—whether rich or poor. We see a Jesus who is confident and humble, asserting his authority and then laying it down to die for the world. Watkin shows in each chapter how God is doing something bigger than what humans can imagine. The incarnation is the peak of this, God makes himself known most spectacularly and subversively at the cross, where his love and power meet in one powerful moment. This is also shown in the chapter on the resurrection, where cynicism and idealism meet again, this time at the cross. It is here where the entirety of human sin is displayed against the backdrop of God’s final word of justification.

The last two sections deal with “the last days” and then “eschatology.” The section on “last days” is distinct from eschatology in that by “last days” he means Christians living after the cross in the wake of Christ’s resurrection and promise of return. These chapters detail how Christians are to live in light of the gospel. Christians are to be neither individualistic nor purely global. Christians are to be neither married to the state nor totally removed from political realities. Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. We are to tell a better story than the world is telling in all sectors of life.

This mirrors the work of apologist and professor Joshua Chatraw, who details in his book, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Skeptical Age,[2] that Christians are to listen more carefully to both Scripture and the societies they live in. The result of this is that we will be able to offer counter-narratives that meet the desires of the culture while also identifying where it is living in a way that does not actually produce human flourishing but instead death. The implications of these chapters and Chatraw’s book for cross-cultural missions and evangelism are plentiful. What narratives are the people we minister among telling? Anyone who has experienced ministry across lines of division knows that something more than human sin stands between us and the minds of unbelievers. We often are telling the gospel stories in the way we heard them and in ways that spoke to our own sinful narratives. The people we are ministering to are often asking different questions than we were, and this can make evangelism difficult at first. The stumbling blocks to Christianity we encountered may not be the ones that they are currently facing.

By no means does this imply that we preach a different gospel, or a culturally relevant gospel. There is no power in this. But what does Paul say to the Corinthians? “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24, ESV). For us to “preach Christ crucified” implies that we must preach the same gospel. But that Christ crucified serves as stumbling block to two different peoples, Jews that seek signs and Greeks who seek wisdom, implies that the same gospel is not always confronting the same thing in the people we are preaching to. Watkin brings this out powerfully chapter after chapter. Better listening to our people and to our Scriptures will give us a greater depth of clarity in seeing how the gospel confronts and convicts the people we minister among.

The greater degree of difference between our cultures often means the greater degree of listening that will have to occur for faithful evangelism. The missionaries among us should be the best listeners among us. Biblical Critical Theoryis a volume that gives us better tools for listening with a critical eye and an open heart for ministering to our people. In addition to providing a rich biblical theology from Genesis to Revelation and an arsenal of apologetic material to engage with, it also teaches readers how to wield all of these tools towards the aim of preaching the gospel more faithful to those we are ministering among. Every Christian, and especially Christians ministering across lines of cultural difference, would benefit from this volume.


[1] Watkin, 164.

[2] Joshua Chatraw, Telling a Better Story: How to Talk About God in a Secular Age, Zondervan, 2020.

Published April 15, 2024

John Pawlik

John Pawlik is finishing his MDiv in at Beeson Divinity school at the end of April and is a pastoral resident at Iron City Church in Birmingham Alabama.