Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 48

G K Chesterton, Theologian

Author: Aidan Nichols
Published By: Darton, Longman and Todd (London)
Pages: 204
Price: £12.95
ISBN: 978 0 232 52776 6

Reviewed by Philip Joy.

Not a biography, this book - originally given as a series of lectures - is rather a study of the Christian side of the well-loved author. This goes well beyond Chesterton’s apologetics, for which he is widely known. Chesterton as a Catholic convert and a Christian thinker was apparently the C S Lewis of Catholics. His writing was, at a profound level, that of a theologian. As I shall explain, this study offers Evangelicals a glimpse into the state of contemporary Catholicism.

After a brief overview of Chesterton’s life, work and conversion to Catholicism, Nichols turns first to the Edwardian milieu within which Chesterton wrote and thought. He shows how many of the fashionable literary opinions of the day were challenged by Chesterton, such as his expose of “minimalist agnosticism” in Heretics. Knowing little of Chesterton’s context I found this interesting in itself. To read about an ethic which classed particulars as ‘wrong’, but rejected the notion of a universal ‘right’, seemed quite contemporary, whilst Chesterton’s insights came across as both brilliant and relevant. In the next chapter, Nichols, whose lectureship is the first Catholic lectureship created in Oxford since the Reformation, analyses Chesterton’s deliberately commonsense notions of reality and human knowing as presented in Orthodoxy. There follows an examination of the role of paradox in Chesterton’s thought, and further chapters on his anthropology, Christology and ethics. Be warned, however: a good deal of this theological exegesis is quite scholarly and heavily footnoted!

Fascinating as much of this is, therefore, I am left wondering how many readers would have the equipment to close the theological circle and bring out the contemporary relevance of Chesterton’s thought. Nichols seems quite happy leaving us to do the application ourselves. The persistence of this fault in an intelligent writer, however, seems to suggest that the point of the book lies elsewhere. It is not the particulars of Chesterton’s theology which is of interest, but the fact that he - a layman - was a theologian in the first place. That is a message in itself to contemporary Catholics. This may seem odd to us as children of the Reformation, who have nearly five hundred years of free theological thinking behind us. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have a thousand years and more of monolithic faith; today’s theologians and Papacy are not entirely in accord - and being an independently thinking Christian is a daring thing for a Catholic to be.

This book therefore is really a call for lay Catholics to think for themselves. Merely to describe Chesterton doing theology is to present that call. Chesterton the convert is the model free thinker - drawn to the authority of MotherChurch, outside its authority structures, yet speaking authoritatively. He is a theological breath of fresh air, with the genius to hold and express orthodox thought in new, exciting and evangelistic ways.

Reading this book thus offers us a valuable means of understanding contemporary Catholicism. It is a window opening onto the largely unexplored frontier of Roman Christianity. With High Anglicans moving to Rome, Rome is inevitably moving closer to Protestants. The day may come soon when ecumenism is not a choice, but a necessity. For us therefore, this book is ultimately not simply a book for Chestertonians, nor just a book for theologians, but essentially a book for ecumenists. Read as that, I believe it could be a most useful addition to our libraries.

Philip Joy

Specialist in Old Testament narrative and typology

Ministry Today

You are reading Issue 48 of Ministry Today, published in March 2010.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2024