The purpose of this review is to critique the work of William Charlton on Theological Atomism. The review will examine the idea of atomism from the perspective of the author and compare it with the mainstream evangelical biblical theology. In his article, William Charlton makes several claims regarding the need of the atomistic theology and the presence of atomism in the Christian faith since the inception of Christianity. He bases some of the fundamental practices of Catholicism on the very idea of atomism, and pursues the reader to consider salvation solely from the perspective of a theological atomist. Therefore, this review will look at the weaknesses and the strengths of his idea of atomistic theology in light of the scriptures.
The article insists that the idea of atomism is “applicable in various fields, that explanation proceeds from small to large and part to whole” and it should be used by theologians to explain “the salvation of mankind as the sum of the salvation of individuals and try to understand the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension as successive episodes each making its own separate contribution.” The author argues that the way modern theology deals with God is not the correct way. For this reason, he presents Trinity as an example. He opposes the modern approach to the Trinity, which states that the triune God lives in unity and that the three persons: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, coexisted eternally as a community. The article claims, “the Trinity is sometimes represented as a society united by love, but developing this idea atomistically leads to tritheism,” thus he objects the mainstream theological understanding and presents atomism as the best way of understanding all doctrines of Christian faith.
From the beginning of the article, one can sense the presence of hastiness in disapproving of the most commonly used theological methods of understanding Christian doctrines. Also, the goal of the author seems very clear to persuade the reader to buy into the author’s preferred theological method that he calls atomism. He approaches every subject in the Bible from a perspective of small to large, and individualistic to societal. His theological understanding is based on the idea of the society, which is made up of people, and therefore if one claims to understand society, then he or she is claiming to understand the individuals within that society. The authors goes back and forth between two points of the individual and the society. He borrows other disciplines to build his case, for example logic, science, sociology and anthropology, where one unit represent the other units. If a small portion is studied and understood, then the nature of the large entity of the same matter can be studied.
His philosophical arguments make sense, however though his theological arguments also make some sense; they do not seem in line with scriptural truth. For example, the author insists that in order to communicate with human beings, God must deal with society. This is not necessarily true. In the Bible in many cases, God dealt with individuals and in other cases with He dealt with societies.
The author also proposes two ways to deal with theology. First, “the behaviour of men in society is determined by the laws of individual human nature, and that God’s relationship with mankind is the sum of his relationships with individual men.” Second, “regard history, including the history of salvation, as an aggregate of logically independent episodes.” This means that “the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost are successive episodes, each making its own contribution to salvation, and salvation as the sum, of these contributions.” Philosophically, it will make sense to see each episode as mentioned above as complete and independent, yet successive of the previous episode since the latter will not take place unless the earlier has taken place first. Theologically, salvation can be the sum of the episodes mentioned above, but it would not have any effect on a person unless the person is willing to receive the gift of salvation.
The author made some very interesting points both philosophically as well as theologically to develop his case regarding atomistic theology. Even though understanding the small can help one to understand the larger, this does not mean that the individual represents society. If the president of the United States takes an action based on his personal convictions, even though it might be perceived as the voice of all of American society since the majority of the American elected him, in reality he does not represent the opinion of each and every American. “We the People,” as the constitution of the U.S says, represents American people. Christian faith, its doctrines, and the Triune God cannot be understood by simply breaking them into small portions so that one can understand the Christian faith and its doctrine, including Salvation and the Trinity fully and accurately.
William, Charlton. “Theological Atomism.” Journal Article New Blackfriars 95, no. 1057 (May 2014): 308-323. Accessed October 30, 2014. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nbfr.12021/abstract