Theological Negotiations

Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology

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Douglas Farrow
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , November
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The problem of nature and grace, a problem as old or older than Thomas Aquinas, has generated some of the deepest and most controversial work in the Catholic tradition in recent history. In this dynamic and active context, Douglas Farrow writes of these “proposals” for soteriology and anthropology—the animating force of the whole being that of the question of nature and grace—in Theological Negotiations. The result is a dense work that manages to speak of that fundamental question, yet address the many dogmatic loci that it impacts, and so succeed in its goal.

The first chapter addresses the relationship between philosophy and theology, arguing for Aquinas’ position against the opposite extremes in Immanuel Kant and Karl Barth. The second chapter deals with the central question, that of nature and grace, placing in opposition to Henri de Lubac and Stephen Long. Farrow makes a somewhat daring move here, pointing not only to the deficiencies of de Lubac and Long—the former elides the distinction created and an elevating grace, the latter conceives of nature as if it could have meaning apart from grace—while also noting the deficiency of Aquinas himself. It is a Christological deficiency, a failure to conceive of human nature as finding its basis in the humanity of Christ, where it cannot be abstracted from the gift of grace present in the incarnation. 

The third and fourth chapters deal with issues of soteriology. Farrow first discusses Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian (1520). Farrow is fair-minded, pointing to areas of agreement and where he believes that Luther was correct; yet his concern is that Luther seems not to consider justification and sanctification as being intimately related—or simultaneous—and that Luther does not recognize the primacy of love. The following chapter addresses the atonement, and Farrow sides with Anselm’s satisfaction theory over the problem of punishment as present in Aquinas’ conception. For Farrow, the larger problem to be avoided is the conflation of satisfaction and punishment, and the limits of punishment appropriate to describe the atonement. 

The remaining chapters deal with issues of ecclesiology and sacramentology. Chapter 5 deals with what is offered in worship, by humans, through Christ-the-mediator—such that one avoids what Farrow terms throughout the text as “doxological Pelagianism.” Chapter 6 is fascinating and deals with the doctrine of transubstantiation, stating that the substance/accidents conception is inadequate. He suggests an eschatological conception that respects the appearance of bread and wine, while affirming their conversion in eschatological to the “body and blood of Christ.” Heaven does not come to the earthly object, but rather the earthly object is raised to heaven. The seventh chapter gives a helpful, if standard by now, account of the effect of nominalism on nature and grace, focusing on the problematic results of this through the developments of the West, from Roscelin to the present, and with special attention to will and autonomy. Chapter 8 presents a nuanced and respectful discussion of the relationship of Jew and Gentile, of Judaism and Christianity, making the case for the soft super-sessionist view of the covenant as being one but transformed, in Christ, with interesting proposals for the inclusion of old covenant practices with new covenant practices. Theological Negotitations concludes with a meditation on the book of Hebrews in line with the flow of this set of chapters, which is a lovely conclusion to the rigorous work of this book.

Throughout Farrow is concise while displaying a great depth of knowledge of the Western tradition; thus, the success of this book merits deep critical engagement. Farrow’s new conception of nature and grace is worthy of ponderous consideration, and it is a step forward in that problem of theology whose importance cannot be understated. His attention to Reformed and Lutheran thinkers is significant, opening the door to engagement across confessional lines. The chapters on worship and the eucharist provide fruitful ways of considering what humans offer in worship to God, and what is the nature of communion—reframing it through the mediation of Christ and the eschatological frame for the bread and the wine—recognizing the merits of both Aquinas and John Calvin.

I must point to some disagreements. One is that Farrow’s view of Luther would have benefited from engagement with the “Finnish School” which emphasizes the unity of faith and love in Luther; beginning here may have answered some of his critiques. Farrow’s discussion of punishment and satisfaction leaves off without fully resolving the question of how punishment could be conceived in a satisfaction theory of the sort towards which he motions. 

Larger debates pertain to worship and communion, to which I can only give a brief address. I agree with Farrow’s contention that we join in the offering of Christ to the Father in worship; however, as one in the Reformed tradition, I question what it is that is offered, as we cannot offer Christ, but rather, in union with Christ, we offer ourselves in him as living sacrifices to the Father—the end for which our nature is created. Also, the needed eschatological reorientation that Farrow defines would seem to necessitate more emphasis on the event by which, in the partaking of a sign, we are also spiritually fed by the heavenly reality. Likewise, the unity of the sign and thing signified does not elide the distinction between them; conversion of the substance and the remaining of the species, which Farrow retains, does not do adequate justice to the distinction of heavenly and earthly reality, and too-closely ties Christ’s substance to that of the earthly object before us—maintaining a close continuity, or shorter analogy, between earthly partaking and the heavenly communion. Farrow says that to partake of communion is “to partake of him here and now in the same mystical communion of body and soul by which we will be animated in the kingdom of God” (164); however, Farrow’s construction, like that of a more traditional doctrine of transubstantiation, seems to collapse the distinction of heavenly and earthly reality that is still a part of considering how the eschatological reality of the Kingdom retrojects itself into our present. The both-and of the “already-not yet” does not eliminate the “not yet.” Having said that, Farrow’s warning against “sacramental nominalism” is worthy of attention from Protestants that take such distinction to mean disunity; the “not yet” does not eliminate the “already” of the reality of the real presence. Theology would do well to develop further the impact of eschatology on the doctrine of the eucharist that Farrow helpfully advances here.

None of this takes away from Farrow’s achievement in Theological Negotiations; rather, it is a sign of its success that it merits such detailed and precise attention, even when raising dense, centuries-old debates. This book deserves a wide readership among Catholics and Protestants alike. I wholly commend it to such an audience as worthy of the critical engagement befitting the depth this work of highest quality.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark P. Hertenstein is Assistant Pastor at New Ctiy Fellowship in Fredricksburg, VA.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Christian Thought at McGill University in Montréal, Quebec.


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