An intellectual biography
On becoming a theoretical Physicist
I was born in Hull, England and when I was four years old my family moved to the quiet village of Skirlaugh in the East Riding of Yorkshire. At school I became fascinated with Chemistry and one of my hobbies was playing with my Chemistry set in the kitchen at home. At 18 I decided to study for the BSc in Physics and Chemistry at University College London. I truly was one of those 'Godless students of Gower Street' (UCL was founded as a 'secular' College). I had little interest in Theology although I entertained the idea that there may exist some sort of 'creator god'.
At UCL my interests moved towards theoretical Physics and I developed a special interest in Quantum theory. After graduation I stayed on at UCL to work with the distinguished theoretical Physicist Michael Seaton FRS. As well as developing a Quantum theory for a process called 'Di-electronic Recombination' (published in Journal of Physics) I became interested in some of the philosophical problems of Quantum theory, especially questions of determinism and realism. This in turn led me to an interest in Theology and Science.
The decision to study Theology
I was not a Christian when I went to University but in my second year I had a sudden conversion. For over a year I had many long conversations about the Christian faith with friends from the Christian Union and Anglican Society. I also went to All Souls Church, Langham Place to listen to sermons. Then in the second term of my second year someone from the Christian Union gave me a booklet which explained the essentials of the Christian gospel; for the first time I understood and believed the gospel and from then on my enthusiasm for Theology was unstoppable. I became heavily involved in All Souls Church, working with teenage and student groups, and decided that I wanted to study Theology and to become a Minister in the Church of England. So on gaining my PhD in Physics I went to Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where I took the BA in Theology and the Certificate in Theology.
Church Ministry in Edgware
I was made deacon in 1983 and then ordained priest in 1984 in the diocese of London, serving as curate at Edgware Parish Church. Edgware is perhaps best known for being at the end of the Northern line; it is perhaps not so well known as being a place where Handel played the organ. In the 1980s roughly half the people living in Edgware were Jewish and there were as many synagogues as Churches. For various reasons relations between our Church and the Jewish community were not particularly good. But I made many Jewish friends and I had the privilege of attending the weekly Friday evening Hebrew bible study led by the Orthodox Rabbi.
I had always had a fascination for Paul's letter to the Romans since becoming a Christian but now the need to study what Paul had written about Israel and the gospel and to understand Paul's Jewish world seemed much more urgent. I began some part-time study on Romans 9-11 under the supervision of R.T. France (who was then at the London Bible College) and in Church I preached through the letter to the Romans. I realised that some of the best work done on Romans was in untranslated German. Roger Cowley, who had been working for the Church's Ministry among Jewish people, recommended that I study full time in Germany.
The Tübingen experience
I managed to get a scholarship from the Goethe Institute to study German in the charming town of Boppard am Rhein and then another scholarship from the German Church to study at the University of Tübingen under Peter Stuhlmacher. Stuhlmacher was an ideal supervisor and a fine Christian. He had been a student of Ernst Käsemann who in turn had been a student of Rudolf Bultmann. In each link in the 'apostolic succession' there had been a significant 'mutation' so although I could be proud of having Bultmann as my academic Great Grand Father, my theological approach was in many ways quite different. Part of the doctoral programme involved study in all areas of Theology and in my four years in Tübingen I had the privilege to study at the feet of some of the world's greatest theologians such as Martin Hengel, Otfried Hofius, Otto Betz, Hartmut Gese, Hans-Peter Rüger, Eberhard Jüngel and Jürgen Moltmann.
I submitted my dissertation in 1990 and was appointed to a lecturing post at the University of Nottingham. My rigorosum for the Tübingen Dr Theol did not take place until 1991 and as well as taking an oral examination in general New Testament I was examined in Systematic Theology and Church History. In Nottingham my major area of teaching and postgraduate supervision was New Testament and from 1995 I added to this the area of Science and Theology. My first major publication was a slightly revised version of my dissertation and it was published in 1994 under the title Provoked to Jealousy. Although some bookstores may place it in the 'love story' section, it concerns the jealousy of Jews for Gentile Christians in Romans 9-11.
Justification of the Ungodly
After my work on Romans 9-11 I turned to questions of justification. Whilst in Germany I developed an admiration for Luther as a great biblical exegete and systematic theologian. But back in England I became concerned that many Pauline scholars were effectively writing off Luther. I even heard a prominent evangelical theologian and missionary say that Christians had been 'brainwashed' by the Reformation. So I set out in my next book, No one seeks for God, to examine the argument of Romans 1.18-3.20 to see if the Lutheran tradition had in fact seriously misunderstood Paul. One of my conclusions was that the reformers had basically got it right. But in the course of doing this work I engaged in questions of natural theology and revelation.
I found that although Romans 1.19ff does speak of God's revelation of himself in the natural world, any knowledge of God is lost because the senseless minds of human beings were darkened (Rom. 1.21b). However, rather surprisingly I discovered that even in our fallen state we can know something of 'natural law'. But I argued that this cannot contribute to knowledge of God. And neither can knowing God's attributes contribute to knowledge of God since knowledge of God is personal. For more detailed argument read the book!
Theology and Science
As well as having a passion for the Theology of Paul I have over the years worked in the area of Science and Theology. In fact the first 'theological book' I ever read was C.A. Coulson's Science and Christian Belief. Over the years I have become rather sceptical of what is called 'natural theology'. Many who work in the area of Science and Theology have a much more positive approach but I have become increasingly suspicious of it, partly as a result of my work on Romans 1.18ff. As you can see from my publications list I have written articles for the series Studies in Science and Theology. In the future I hope to publish a two volume work on Theology and Science. Volume one will consider predestination, providence and free will in Biblical and Systematic Theology. Volume two will look at determinism and free will in theological and scientific perspectives. I have been teaching undergraduate modules on these issues since 1995.
Paul and Israel
In 2005 my book The Irrevocable Call of God was published by Mohr Siebeck. In this work I considered Paul's theological understanding of Israel, looking at difficult texts such as 1 Thessalonians 2.14-16; Galatians 3-4; 2 Corinthians 3 as well as key texts from Romans. Towards the end of the book I addressed a number of contemporary issues concerning Israel in the light of Paul's theology (e.g. should the Church engage in a mission to the Jewish people? is the promise of the land to Israel still valid? can we make any theological sense of the holocaust?)
Demoting the Devil
In 2007 my book, Deliver us from Evil was published, again by Mohr Siebeck. One of the main issues I addressed is how to interpret the defeat of Satan in the context of New Testament theology. I think the most demanding section was the interpretation of the exorcisms. It struck me that many are happy to assert 'Jesus was a successful exorcist' without actually explaining what exactly happens in an 'exorcism' or discussing the ontological status of the devil. One of the main conclusions of my work was that although many may find 'talk of the devil' embarrassing, ignoring the redemption of the human being from the devil inevitably leads to an impoverishment of New Testament theology. I argued that the devil can be said to 'exist' as a mythological figure and that he should be demoted from the realm of 'supernature' to the 'world'; but he relates to a level of the world which we do not usually 'access'. Using a Kantian-Schopenhauerian framework I argued that myth is a means of accessing such a deeper level of reality.
A love for things German
My favourite theologians are German speaking. Although I have some serious questions about Bultmann's Theology I cannot help admiring him. I also have a respect for Barth, often maligned as a biblical exegete; although this respect has diminished somewhat in recent years, I still think he has many fundamental insights that we reject at our peril. And I have a passion for the music which has come to us from German speaking countries.
I first studied classical music in my teens. The village in which I lived from four to eighteen years old was small and quiet and unless one wanted to join the 'Young Farmers Association' there was little to do in the evenings. But boredom can have its educational advantages and I filled my evenings with listening to and studying music. Every week I went to the Hull City Library and borrowed musical scores and what are now the old 'Gramophone Records'. I worked my way through most of the orchestral works of composers such as Mozart and Beethoven; and then I discovered the magic of Wagner's music. We had played a few orchestral pieces in the East Riding of Yorkshire Youth Orchestra (I played the flute) but when I worked my way through Tristan und Isolde with the records and score, a completely new world opened up.
Doing Theology with Richard Wagner
Many years later I discovered that Wagner not only composed wonderful music and was of the greatest dramatists of all time but that he was also in his own way a psychologist, neurophysiologist, philosopher and theologian. From 2010-14 I ran a module 'Doing Theology with Richard Wagner' where we studied Wagner's final stage work Parsifal. This grew out of a paper I delivered to the Oxford Seminar group 'The Bible in Art, Music and Literature' in 2009. Wagner's Parsifal, his crowning achievement, deals with many key themes of Christian theology such as the atoning death of Christ, participation in Christ, predestination and sacraments. Some of this teaching then fed into my latest book, Wagner's Parsifal: An Appreciation in the Light of His Theological Journey.
Wagner's The Valkyrie: Doing Theology and Ethics through Music Drama
In 2015 I taught a new module on Wagner's The Valkyrie. This opera, the second in the Ring cycle, concerns the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, daughter of the gods Wotan and Erda. In Act II she comes to a new understanding of love and turns against her father for the first time in her life. As a punishment she is abandoned by her father and deprived of her divinity (the end of Act III which depicts this is one of the most moving scenes in all opera). Her 'incarnation' sets in place a series of events which leads to her atoning death at the end of the cycle (Twilight of the gods). As well as being (what I consider) a Christian allegory this art-work, with its portrayal of passionate and sacrificial love, not only questions many of our 'bourgeois' values but also addresses a whole series of theological and ethical issues relevant to Christian theology.
Theology of Wagner's Ring Cycle: Leverhulme Fellowship
My current project is a two-volume work on the Theology of the whole Ring Cycle. I published an article on Siegfried Act III Scene 1 in The Wagner Journal (July 2016) and an article on Wagner's debt to Hegel appeared in the same journal in March 2017. At present I am engaged in a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (until August 31 2020) during which I will complete the two volume work on the Ring cycle.
A Theology of Mind/Mystery of the Human Person
One of the issues which remains to be tackled from both my book on the devil and the work on Wagner was the Christian understanding of the 'mind' and the human person. Over the years I have worked on what I have called a 'theology of mind' which considers the mind in the Old Testament, in Ancient Greek and Jewish thought and in the Gospels and Paul. Using a Kantian-Schopenhauerian framework again I have considered the mind in relation to space, time and causation, paying special attention to Relativity and Quantum theory. Some of this work related to mind has been published but in due course a book will appear: it will probably be entitled The Mystery of the Human Person.
My expertise falls into three areas. The first is the Theology of the New Testament, especially the Theology of Paul. The second is the relationship between theology and the natural sciences (especially modern Physics). The third is the theology of Richard Wagner, not only the theology as expressed in his stage works but also in his various writings. Although these interests may appear diverse they are brought together in my current project on the 'Theology of Mind'.
Please note that I have taken up a Major Research Fellowship with the Leverhulme Trust (1 September 2017 - 31 August 2020). During this time I will not be engaging in Undergraduate teaching.
My teaching is ultimately aimed at getting students to think. In the recent past I have taught the following modules:
Introduction to the Study of the New Testament (year 1)
This is taught every year to introduce the methods which can be employed in the study of the New Testament. It is popular and attracts students from across the University.
Theology of Paul (years 2 and 3)
This module, as the title suggest, focuses on Paul's thought rather than his life. Themes such as sin, judgement, sacrifice of Christ, justification by faith, Israel, and theological anthropology are covered. Much of my own research feeds into this module.
Determinism and Free Will in Theological and Scientific Perspectives (year 3)
This module relates to my research in science and theology. The philosophical heart of the modules lies in the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer. This heart of the module is preceded by a study of classical Physics and the mind body-problem and is followed by a study of Quantum theory and Relativity.
Wagner's The Valkyrie: Doing Theology and Ethics through Music Drama (years 2 and 3 and MA)
In 2015 I will teach a new module on Wagner's The Valkyrie. This opera, the second in the Ring cycle, concerns the Valkyrie Bruennhilde, daughter of the gods Wotan and Erda. In Act II she comes to a new understanding of love and turns against her father for the first time in her life. As a punishment she is abandoned by her father and deprived of her divinity (the end of Act III which depicts this is one of the most moving scenes in all opera). Her 'incarnation' sets in place a series of events which leads to her atoning death at the end of the cycle (Twilight of the gods). As well as being (what I consider) a Christian allegory this art-work, with its portrayal of passionate and sacrificial love, not only questions many of our 'bourgeois' values but also addresses a whole series of theological and ethical issues relevant to Christian theology.
Doing Theology with Richard Wagner (years 2 and 3 and MA)
This is a module I taught in 2010-14 where we studied Wagner's last stage work, Parsifal, considering how we can do theology by studying the drama of this sublime work and the intricate interaction of words and music.
Central Issues in New Testament Theology (MA)
Each time this module runs a different aspect of New Testament Theology is studied. In the past we have themes such as considered exorcism in the synoptic gospel, Paul's Theology of Mind, and anthropology according to Romans 7.
A Theology of Mind
One of the issues which remained to be tackled from the last project was the Christian understanding of the 'mind'. After working on Kant and Schopenhauer in my work on the 'devil' I feel I am now in a better position to address the 'theology of mind'. The book which I intend to write will begin with the biblical views of mind paying special attention to Paul's 'theology of mind'. I will then relate this to some current issues regarding space, time and causation taking particular account of the various interpretations of Quantum Theory and Relativity (see 'Theology and Science' above).
Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung
My second project concerns theological reflections on Wagner's Ring cycle. Although the background to this cycle of four operas is Germanic and Norse mythology I argue that by means of allegory a profound Christian message is disclosed. Material from my module on The Valkyrie will form part of this two volume work.
2017. Teleology, Providence and the 'Death of God': a New Perspective on the Ring Cycle's Debt to G.W.F. Hegel The Wagner Journal. 11(1), 2
BELL, R.H., 2016. Individual Eschatology. In: God and the Faithfulness of Paul: A Critical Examination of the Pauline Theology of N.T. Wright Mohr Siebeck. 533-54
2016. Wagner's Siegfried Act III Scene 1: A Study in 'Renunciation of the Will' and the 'Sublime' The Wagner Journal. 10(2), 18-35