Francesca Aran Murphy challenges theologies informed by the trends of Story Barthianism and Grammatical Thomism. Contrary to thinkers like Lindbeck, Frei Jenson, McCabe, Burrell, etc., we are asked to consider that narrative might not be the most appropriate category to imagine God or God’s dealings with the world. We might be better served, Murphy contends, by returning theology to its roots of Chalcedonian logic and philosophical realism. Unlike the fleetingness of story-theologies, “things are,” stresses Murphy, “over and against our conceptions of them” (45).

Narrative theologies have become too comfortable within the realm of story, so much so that God has been collapsed into our stories. “Storied rationality,” according to Murphy, “doesn’t go anywhere or do anything, and doesn’t permit the existence of anything outside itself” (112). In effect, narrative theology becomes a-historical: “the idea of truth keeps twisting back on itself, generating a fideistic foundationalism” (80). Stories need an author who stands outside the text. “Unless a story is stimulated and moved by the dynamic agencies, that is, unless the story is less than the sum of its characters, then it does not point beyond itself” (112), writes Murphy. John Milbank makes a similar critique in Theology and Social Theory. We do well when we turn away from the temptations of modern foundationalism, yet we need not abandon questions of ontology, which alone give rise to practice (382-388).

Furthermore, we need not be scandalized by medieval theology’s fascination with categories like the primum movens. Theological knee-jerk reactions to such concepts stem less, it seems, from our current allergy toward systems attempting to ‘prove’ God’s existence, than from an occlusion of genuine Chalcedonin logic, and how this informs our theological language. Language is not “mere stipulation” about God, “but ordered toward the Person who orders creation” (131). Murphy claims that “the existence of moves, designs, causes, and perfections, is the material from which we can make statements about God” (131). No where is this aversion to metaphysical language more apparent than when theologians attempt to explain away the perceived naivety of Thomas’ five proofs for God. What looks like a pre-scientific approach to causation is rather Thomas’ take on the “Chalcedonian formula, which made the person of Christ the mover of his two ‘natures’” (112). According to Murphy, we need what Thomas had: “good reason to telescope our search to a transcendent, divine, free agent” (122). Murphy is arguing that we can trust our language and our capacity of reason because we can believe that reason mirrors the divine perfection, however dimly.

Overall, Murphy’s argument looks deceptively simple. She’s not only asking us to reconsider theological appropriations of Wittgenstein (“the world is everything that is the case”), but is asking us to consider again what we mean when we say that God became a person. Because to say that God became incarnate is to say that humans have therefore also been inducted in the interior life of God, and that somehow our language is a part of this.

More provocatively still, Murphy argues that narrative theology does not do what it intends; it actually ends up creating a more rigid foundationalism than before: “it thinks of Christ as an identity rather than as an existent. Sidetracked by its anti-apologetic focus on the unique identity of Christ (as opposed to his historical and ontological particularity), narrative theology backtracks into the epistemic act of identifying its sources” (63).

What does all this mean? In a commonsensical, but no less profound way, Murphy reminds us that “Mary Magdalene did not meet up with a text, but with a person, who forbade her to touch him” (63).

Now, I’m off to read her section on Herbert McCabe…