What is Biblical Critical Theory? A Review Article
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, New York City
Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (BCT) is a remarkable book that will bless the Church and the academy. Do not be intimidated by the length of the book. Watkin is a delightful writer who is always clear and often witty. Throughout 28 chapters, he expounds key moments and movements in redemptive history, moving from the biblical text to contemporary application in all facets of culture. Taking the book’s title as a guide, we will consider what is biblical, critical, and theoretical about BCT. This review will summarize some benefits of the project for the Church then move to consider some of its distinctive features.
The Benefits of Watkin’s Project for the Church
First, Watkin offers a sound exposition of crucial moments, movements, and structures from Genesis to Revelation in redemptive history. He is well-sourced theologically. His writing is devotional yet academic, sermonic yet technical at times, often witty, and always clear. Each chapter has study questions at the end. One can easily envision small groups working through this text together, with a Bible in hand for the relevant Scripture passages. The breadth and quality of the biblical survey would be worth the book’s price.
Second, Watkin moves from sound biblical exegesis to sound cultural exegesis (we will discuss his method later), drawing upon a stunning array of sources. His formal training is in French Studies (Cambridge University, M.Phil., Ph.D.). He has published widely in French studies, philosophy, and theology. (He has several volumes in the P&R Great Thinkers series on French Philosophers.) He is a Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Monash University in Australia, a renown global research institution. All this breadth is displayed in BCT, but never arrogantly or excessively. Watkin’s biblical and accessible response to various cultural issues would also warrant the book’s price.
Third, Watkin’s unique method (more below) provides a pathway for believers to move from Scripture to conversation with unbelievers about some of the most polarizing issues of our time. Critical theory is concerned with the marginalized’ experience and the majority’s ethics. Traditional apologetics in the Reformed tradition tends to engage epistemology first, asking interlocutors to set their experience aside. In today’s social climate, the conversation often fails to bloom. The Reformed apologist declares the unbeliever irrational, and the unbeliever declares the apologist ethically irresponsible and uncaring. Watkin’s use of biblical figures (below) to diagonalize (also below) false dichotomies in the culture opens the dialogue without compromising biblical conviction.
Fourth, BCT will benefit scholars. The work will generate many interdisciplinary insights that will be easy to expand upon because of careful sourcing. While written in a popular style, BCT has a scholarly precision. In addition to a general subject index, there are specific indices for biblical figures, proper names, and Scripture references.
Indeed, another remarkable feature of this work is that Watkin advances a novel thesis that scholars will have to consider while at the same time writing an accessible book for the Church. BCT crosses all the traditional boundaries—academic, pastoral, professional, and popular—and does so beautifully. Watkin models for other scholars how to cross these boundaries responsibly. The Church could use more literature like this from scholars that are accessible, designed for study, and sourced with scholarly precision for the academy. Given the target audience, Watkin’s arguments and assertions may leave scholars wanting more. They will not be left, however, feeling that he has been sloppy or careless.
Watkin locates his primary scholarly contribution in BCT in mapping his cultural and theological insights “onto the Bible’s storyline from Genesis to Revelation.” He hopes “this fresh arrangement is in itself significant.” He also sees himself advancing a new way to do cultural apologetics that others can build upon: “By exploring biblical and late modern figures in a framework of biblical theology, I have provided a crudely drawn map, the finer details of which others can complete in ways I never could.”
Having considered some of the benefits of BCT, we turn now to consider some of its distinctive features. This review focuses primarily on the text of BCT. Scholars will find it helpful to scan the footnotes of the chapters where his formative influences are transparent. Since BCT is written to be accessible, the skeptical reader might wonder whether Watkin’s lack of extensive argumentation for his method betrays a lack of knowledge. To be swiftly relieved of such a concern, one need only consult the many volumes and peer-reviewed journal articles he writes for his day job as a scholar in French studies.
Dr. Watkin is a rising star in the field of French studies. He recently published the first comprehensive account of the voluminous corpus of the French polymath philosopher Michel Serres, entitled Michael Serres: Figures of Thought. This book provides an additional theoretical background to Watkin’s understanding and use of figures in BCT. In January 2020, Watkin lectured on Michael Serres at Stanford University’s Division of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures. The lecture, “Michel Serres: Thinking in Figures,” is available on YouTube. Through these sources, one can learn more about the philosophical background to figures.
What is Biblical in Biblical Critical Theory?
Christopher Watkin is convinced that the Bible is the word of God. He grew up in a practicing Christian family with warm piety. As his intellectual interests matured, Watkin found himself in French studies and consequently immersed in the world of 20th century critical thought. On more than one occasion, Watkin remarked that before BCT was a book that he wanted to write, it was a book that he wished he had available to read. He came to theology to resolve intellectual tensions in his own Christian experience. Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, John Frame, Esther Meek, and Tim Keller are influential Reformed voices for Watkin. BCT is Biblical in its commitment to the Bible and Reformed theology.
The biblical emphasis of the project is also obvious in the book’s structure. Watkin takes inspiration from Augustine’s City of God, the first half of which was a critique of the Roman world, the second half a fulsome presentation of the City of God. Watkin proceeds in the reverse order. He patiently moves through the whole canon of Scripture, expositing key moments and movements in redemptive history and applying them to a wide range of modern, post-modern, and contemporary issues. As noted, Watkin understands this structure as one of the primary contributions of BCT to Christian social theory.
What is “Critical” in Biblical Critical Theory?
To what extent is this volume critical in the technical sense of the term as it is used in the academy today? There are wide varieties of critical theorists in the academy. Watkin is concerned with offering an account from Scripture that encompasses the totality of the concerns represented in critical thought. He describes what he means by critical theory in the introduction:
As I began to sketch in the preface, these social theories have a number of features in common: they address themselves to everything, seeking to explain everything in their own terms; they bring some objects, events, and values into focus, making them the figure of our attention, and relegate other objects, events, and values to the ground of our peripheral vision, tracing constellations and connected dots in our manifold perceptions; they bring with them a particular set of questions and concerns, in terms of which they seek to understand, explain, and transform society; they are not just theoretical or philosophical, but they span both high and low culture and often fuel activism and lobbying for social change.
As critical theorists endeavor to make “certain things visible and certain things valuable,” Watkin seeks to do the same through a fresh reading of redemptive history. He registers his particular critical interest in four ways.
First, from the field of Gestalt psychology, Watkin embraces the figure-ground distinction. Perception is divided into figure and ground: the figure is what you see, and the ground is the background. The figure is perceived as it is because it is given license to shape what is there. No one can pay full attention to everything in the same depth or detail. Watkin wants to broaden the figure-ground distinction used in theories of perception into a theory of knowledge and ethics. This is an innovative move for Watkin, an aspect of his method that warrants further elucidation and critique.
The “so-what” is always made plain in BCT. Watkin can be called a biblical critical theorist because he wants to give due attention to what remains unseen or undervalued—what remains in the background—reassesses which figures should be orienting us to this background, and bring new figures into view that cause us to see afresh that which was unseen before. As with secular critical theories, once the Bible makes visible that which was unseen before, this new vision will have ethical implications. This is another feature in which Watkin is a critical scholar—he is not a dispassionate describer of redemptive history or contemporary cultural issues. He elucidates for action, and often with verve. Preachers will appreciate and benefit from this aspect of the book.
Second, Watkin is concerned with the so-called “as-structure” of experience. The “as-structure” of experience is from the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, which studies the structure of experience. “As-structure” refers to the difference between reality and our experience of reality. This is evident in the way in which two people can experience the same reality as meaning something radically different. One person sees in a political march a sign of democracy, another a sign of potentially violent revolution. Referencing Terry Eagleton’s Ideology, Watkin summarizes:
What we are presented with is exactly the same; what we experience it as is radically different. A great deal is at stake in the differences between these experiences, and so the terrain of competing theories today—or what is sometimes called the culture wars, a term that is itself a prime example of seeing-as—is in large part “the struggle of antagonistic social interests at the level of the sign,” at the level of the meaning we attach to things.”
Watkin’s concern about accounting for how different people experience the same realities is a classic concern for critical theorists in the academy. This area of emphasis can have pastoral value as well. If Watkin’s exposition and cultural analysis can help foster greater understanding and unity among Christians from different ethnic, social, or national backgrounds, then we are better for it.
Third, Watkin wants an apologetic method that can enter various worlds of discourse. He embraces Foucault and Latour’s contentions that different eras (Foucault) and different institutions (Latour) tend to produce their own canons of acceptable discourse, which, if they don’t always delimit what can be received as truth, certainly determine what has the most profound resonance for participants, adherents, and interlocutors. Put simply, there are times and places where certain ways of saying things “ring true” and other ways do not. Watkin believes the Bible can be bought into contact with alternate worlds of discourse with subversive, reshaping power. His primary tool for this contact will be figures, which “help us get a handle on the fact that each cultural moment has certain broad commitments and assumptions that shape what people can meaningfully think, say, and do.”
Fourth, Watkin is concerned with setting forth an all-encompassing theory that can explain everything on its own terms. In this way, a BCT aims to out-narrate contemporary theories just as Augustine’s City of God out-narrated the Roman world in his day. Watkin would likely say that Augustine was the first comprehensive critical theorist in the best sense of the term for Christians. In City of God, Augustine sought to make the right things visible and valuable under the light of the Holy Scripture. Watkin’s commitment to letting Scripture define terms and God’s revealed speech define reality will resonate with presuppositional apologists.
What is “theoretical” in Biblical Critical Theory?
In Michael Serres: Figures of Thought, we learn that the concept of the figure became intuitive to Watkin in his reading philosophy as a graduate student:
What does it mean to ‘understand’ a philosopher? As a beleaguered PhD student finding my way in the forest of modern and contemporary French thought I remember what it felt like finally to come to terms with a particular thinker. This sensation almost invariably came at the moment when I began to discern the characteristic ‘moves’ of the philosopher in question, to see the ways in which, time and again, they approached disparate subjects in distinct and recognisable ways, such that I came to be able to predict in a general sense the likely contours of their response to any given question. Not that they became predictable, not that they ceased to surprise me, but nevertheless I was able to fit what I was reading into an emerging understanding of the pattern of their thought. Once I began to understand how a philosopher thought in general, it became easier to understand what he or she thought about any theme in particular.
Watkin believes that a close, attentive reading of Scripture reveals the significance of creation and redemption similarly. While God can never be domesticated or mastered, we have in Scripture access to as much revealed divine truth as we can handle this side of glory. God is showing us in Scripture patterns in creation and redemption. Figures arise out of careful contemplation of Holy Scripture. Figures are at the center of Watkin’s theory. When all the types of figures combine, they form the world of meaning for an individual (more below).
What is a figure? The first sense of figure has to do with figures of speech, e.g., metaphor, simile, alliteration, etc. “Each figure is a repeatable structure or pattern of language that can be filled with almost any content whatsoever.” The key is that the structure or pattern is found repeatedly in the Bible.
Serres understood figures as algorithmic operators, “complex functions for producing an infinite variety of outputs from infinite possibilities of inputs.” These structures and patterns are also generative. Different senses of meaning arise when one puts different words in a relationship using these structures and patterns. When repeatable patterns in space and repeatable rhythms in time are deployed beyond literature and language to include creation, ideas, systems, and behavior, they become helpful in analyzing culture. Watkin says this work mirrors God’s work in creation, where he organizes space and creates rhythms.
How many types of figures are there? Watkin says that there are six categories of figures. The six figures are time/space; language/ideas/stories; objects; behavior; relationships; and structure of reality. Taken together, these six categories form the “figuration totale of a given cultural moment.” It is important not to place on figure in the controlling position over all the others. Examples of biblical figures include:
the biblical concept of covenant, or repeated narratives embodying the “first shall be last” motif (language, ideas, stories); the rhythm of promise and fulfilment (time); the biblical idea of God as the ruler over all space, not like one of the localized gods of the ancient world (space); the biblical distinction between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God (structure of reality); the first Christians meeting together on the Lord’s day to sing, break bread, pray, and hear teaching (behavior); the unity of all believers in Christ, and God as the lawgiver (relationships); and, the location and architecture of the tabernacle, or available modes of transport for Paul’s missionary journeys (objects).
In discussing Watkin’s critical concerns, we already noted the figure-ground distinction. The Biblical figures that arise from Scripture have the effect of shaping the way we perceive our experience. Figures provide us with our world of meaning. “A world is not only that which is perceived by human consciousness. It also includes networks of machines or ecosystems that rhythm and pattern reality just as effectively or extensively as any human actor.” Crucially, given the concrete nature of Watkin’s critical concerns, world is a more concrete and comprehensive concept than worldview. It includes rational and physical elements.
Watkin’s goal in BCT is to bring the world of the Bible into conversation with our world. The process by which this happens is disruptive and subversive. There are no neutral encounters. Borrowing from Ricoeur, Watkin wants the Bible to “refigure” our worlds:
Encountering another world can be a disruptive, subversive experience, and this is the mode in which I want to engage the Scriptures in these pages. I want to explore how the world of the Bible refigures our contemporary world with all its priorities, values, assumptions, and desires.”
First, there is prefiguration—what we bring to the encounter with another world. Second, there is configuration—what happens when the new figures we encounter affirm, challenge, or subvert the figures constituting our world. Finally, there is reconfiguration—what happens when we emerge from the encounter with a new world constituted by new figures. These processes are happening continually across all six figures domains in three contiguous movements.
One aspect of the process is called diagonalization. As the world of biblical figures encounters conflicting positions within culture, the biblical figures will often cut across these positions in a way that reveals them both to be lacking. A Biblical alternative emerges, which is more fulsome than anything that contemporary culture has to offer. Watkin stresses that diagonalization is not a fancy name for compromise or a repristinating of the Aristotelian mean: “let us not make the mistake of thinking of it as a cardigan-and-slippers-wearing, middle-of-the-road compromise between two bold options” (19).
This process of reconfiguration aims to “out-narrate” the story that the contemporary culture is offering. Augustine did this by first critiquing the Roman world of his day, then putting forward the Biblical world in its fullness. Watkin does the reverse: he sets forth the biblical world and then shows how it out narrates the contemporary alternatives. This “out-narration” is the project’s payoff, wherein the Bible’s critical theory is shown to be more effective at making the things unseen visible and valuable.
There is something new at work in BCT besides its presentation. In Biblical Critical Theory, Christopher Watkin sets forward a comprehensive model for integrating Biblical theology and cultural apologetics. He has provided a new tool—figures—which does a different kind of work in the apologetic task—diagonalization. Critically, the work of Watkin and Serres on figures has significant implications for natural theology, epistemology, the relationship between nature and grace, and apologetics that lie beyond the scope of this review. While more familiar territory for Reformed scholars, some will likely also be inclined to review Watkins’ transposition of aspects of Ricoeur’s narrative theory to Reformed theology, ethics, and apologetics.
Positively, there will be those who take up Watkin’s invitation to walk in this new way of figural apologetics:
If it does its job well, the present volume will provide a warm-up act before the main event, a pump-priming exercise making it just a little easier for others to come after me and do the real labor of deploying a range of biblical figures as they carefully and painstakingly work through complex social questions. Some of these interventions will deploy only a handful or even only one of the biblical figures I have identified; some will no doubt find others I have missed.
Will we one day speak of Christian Figural Apologetics? Time will tell. As critical evaluation of this method unfolds concurrently with the positive application of figures in various fields of endeavor, the durability of Watkin’s method may well be demonstrated.
Whether Watkin has developed a new Reformed school of apologetics or is simply applying presuppositional apologetics, BCT is a helpful project for our cultural moment. There are moments in the history of the Church that call for a comprehensive response. Augustine responded to the Romans with City of God. Aquinas responded to medieval Islam with Summa contra Gentiles. Bavinck responded comprehensively to Hegel, Darwin, Feuerbach, and Marx (whose shadows still loom large over contemporary social theory) with Christian Worldview. Machen responded to early 20th century liberalism with Christianity and Liberalism. In our cultural moment, Watkin is responding to critical theory with Biblical Critical Theory. If we find his work lacking, he welcomes our contribution:
I am painfully aware of the gaps in the present volume. Do I not understand the richness of the sacrificial system? Have I not even heard of the Holy Spirit? Do I simply not care about all the harm Christians have caused in history? Would someone please give me some Aquinas or some African theology to read! In my defense I can only say: if you see something missing, add it; if you see something broken, fix it.
 Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022).
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 603.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 604.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 604.
 Christopher Watkin, Michel Serres: Figures of Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 603.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 28.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 5.
 Smith, David Woodruff, “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/phenomenology/>
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 6.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 6.
 Watkin, Michel Serres.
 Christopher Watkin, Thinking through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2017). This short book has an extended treatment on the need to study Scripture and culture with a posture of attentiveness.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 4.
 Watkin, Michel Serres. Kindle, Loc 743.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 9–10.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 11–12.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 13–14.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 13.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 605.
 Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 604.