Douglas Farrow, Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies at McGill University, is a prominent Catholic theologian perhaps most known for two monographs on Christ’s ascension. With this volume, he offers provocative explorations in theology, which explains the apt if somewhat understated title of the book.
He notes at the outset that at “the heart of the book lies an interest in the dialectic of nature and grace” (p. vii). Chapter 1 bears this out with a discussion of the relationship between theology and philosophy. Here, he brings Immanuel Kant, Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas into discussion. He argues that Barth is analogous with Kant because they both present a totalizing approach to the philosophy/theology relation, albeit in their distinct and contrary ways. Thomas, he argues, is to be preferred on balance. Whereas Thomas sees the two as conciliatory (“the pax Thomistica,” p. 31), Barth sees their connection in more militant terms. Yet, Farrow argues, Barth is closer to Thomas and even Vatican I than most realize, closer even than Barth himself discerns. This back and forth between various thinkers, drawing out sometimes unexpected conclusions, is characteristic of the volume throughout.
Chapter 2 on theological anthropology is concerned with Thomas’s understanding of nature and grace in conversation with competing interpreters of Thomas (De Lubac, Stephen Long). Farrow concludes that Thomas’s anthropology suffers from a “christological deficit” (p. 62).
Chapters 3 through 6 have, arguably, the most polemical edge. Chapter 3 places Martin Luther into conversation with the Council of Trent. Chapter 4, in conversation with Aquinas and Anselm, discusses the relationship between satisfaction and punishment. Chapters 5–6 address the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation from different vantage points.
Chapters 7–9 stand somewhat at odds with the rest of the volume. Chapter 7 is a thoughtful diatribe against the notion of autonomy. Chapter 8, perhaps one of the most helpful overall, offers a penetrating look at the relationship between the Jewish people and the modern church. Chapter 9, based on Hebrews, continues the conversation of chapter 7 and admonishes the reader toward godly fear.
A few critical remarks are in order. In the third chapter, as one would suspect, Farrow takes a Catholic perspective on the relationship between justification and sanctification contra Luther. He writes, “to ground sanctification in justification … is right. Only it is not possible if justification is by faith alone” (p. 80) for “good works … increase the justification that is ours in Christ” (p. 81). To bolster his case, Farrow turns to penance and purgatory and the grace that flows from these to show how we are finally sanctified and in turn justified. While this does admit of a certain theological coherence, the conclusion decisively overthrows the Protestant account of justification and sanctification. Notably missing is any significant treatment of the letters to the Romans or the Galatians, which serve as a backbone for the Protestant understanding. Moreover, no effort is put forth to demonstrate the biblical origins of such concepts as penance and purgatory. In fact, with the latter, he admits that it “is derived from sources … that … are quite cryptic” (p. 89). In sum, though a fascinating look at this topic from a Catholic perspective, it fails to address the strongest arguments of the Protestant view (for an invaluable defense of the Protestant view in conversation with Catholic sources, see G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, trans. John Vriend [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952], chs. 1–2).
More briefly, in chapter 4 Farrow argues, in conversation with Anselm and Aquinas, that Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement is more cogent than Aquinas’s view, which approaches something like the penal substitutionary view. Yet Farrow does not seem to be aware of the points of contact his own account has with a penal substitution view, reflecting an overreliance on Barth (cf. p. 114) to the neglect of other Protestant voices; nor does he adequately interact with such biblical texts, such as Galatians 3:13 and Matthew 26:36–46.
Some strengths ought also to be highlighted. Whether one agrees with Farrow or not, it is clear that even though he is staunchly Catholic, he is not afraid to sympathetically engage with Protestant thinkers and even at times admit the validity of some of their insights or even their concerns regarding Catholic teaching. Moreover, he does not shy from taking a critical look at one of the most revered theologians of the Catholic tradition: Thomas Aquinas. Coupled with this critical glance is his willingness to correct mistakes he finds in his own tradition, such as the contention that purgatory is gracious. He also reconstructs transubstantiation in a manner which moves away from Thomism and toward an “eschatological perspective” (p. 168). This kind of theological courage and forthrightness is something to be appreciated in any theologian, and Farrow models it well.
In conclusion, Farrow is a high caliber Catholic theologian who has offered us various theological proposals written lucidly and argued well. He demonstrates a deep awareness of his own tradition, the Protestant tradition as expressed in the Reformers and Barth, and is additionally conversant with philosophical schools such as those of Kant and Descartes. For those interested in reading a seasoned Catholic theologian who does not avoid critical engagement with his own tradition as well as sympathetic interaction with those with whom he disagrees, this work is highly recommended.