The Christian integralism of Dorothy Sayers: Precursor to radical orthodoxy?

It occurs to me as I look over the previous post of notes from Lee W. Gibbs, The Middle Way: Voices of Anglicanism (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement Publications, 1991) that Sayers sounds like a precursor of today’s “radical orthodoxy” movement. This is so both in her insistence that theology be resurrected as “queen of the sciences” and in her ressourcement from the Middle Ages. Here’s the bit that triggered the thought:

“Sayers is not so much anti-science or anti-technology as she is a Christian integralist who perceives that science and technology have become over-emphasized and predominant in the modern world, too often at the expense of theology and philosophy as equally valid and necessary paths to truth and knowledge. What she calls [109] for is a return to the more proper balance achieved during the Christian Middle Ages, where philosophy was seen to be a subdivision of theology, and science a subdivision of philosophy.” (108 – 9)

And here’s the wikipedia bit on radical orthodoxy. Note especially the “Main Ideas” and “Influences” listed here:

Radical Orthodoxy is Christian theological/philosophical school of thought that employs postmodern philosophy to reject the paradigm of modernity. It was founded by John Milbank and others and takes its name from the title of a collection of essays published by Routledge in 1999: Radical Orthodoxy, A New Theology, edited by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward. Radical Orthodoxy includes theologians from a number of church traditions.


Radical Orthodoxy’s beginnings are found in a series of books edited by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward. Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (1990), while not part of this series, is considered the first significant text of the movement. The name ‘radical orthodoxy’ was chosen initially since it was a more snappy title for the book series – initially Milbank considered the movement to be ‘postmodern critical Augustinianism’, emphasising the use of a reading of St Augustine coloured by the insights of postmodernism in the work of the group. The name ‘radical orthodoxy’ was chosen in opposition to certain strands of so-called radical theology, for example those of Bishop John Shelby Spong. Such forms of radical theology asserted a highly liberal version of Christian faith where certain doctrines, for example, the incarnation of God in Christ and the Trinity were denied in an attempt to respond to modernity. In contrast to this, radical orthodoxy attempted to show how, in fact, the orthodox interpretation of Christian faith (as given primarily in the ecumenical creeds) was in fact the more radical response to contemporary issues, both rigorous and intellectually sustainable.

Main ideas

Radical Orthodoxy is a critique of modern secularism, and Kantian accounts of metaphysics. The name “Radical Orthodoxy” emphasises the movement’s attempt to return to or revive traditional doctrine. “Radical” (lat. radix, “root”), “Orthodoxy” (gr. oρθός orthós “correct”, and δόξα dóxa “teaching”, [God-]”honoring”, therefore, “correct faith”). The movement reclaims the original early church idea that Theology is ‘queen of the sciences.’ This means that if the world is to be interpreted correctly, it must be viewed through the lens of Theology. Early on, the Radical Orthodox refused to have ‘dialogues’ with secular sciences because their worldview was atheistic and nihilistic. What this all means is that science, ethics, politics, economics and all other branches of study are interpreted and informed through Theology. Its ontology has some similarities to the Neoplatonist account of participation.


Henri de Lubac’s theological work on the distinction of nature and grace has been influential in the movement’s articulation of ontology. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics and literary criticism are also influential. The strong critique of liberalism found in much of Radical Orthodoxy has its origin in the work of Karl Barth. The Oxford Movement and the Cambridge Platonists are also key influences of Radical Orthodoxy.

A form of Neoplatonism plays a significant role in Radical Orthodoxy. Syrian Iamblichus of Chalcis (c. 245–325) and the Byzantine Proclus (412–485) are occasionally sourced, while the theology of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa and Meister Eckhart is often drawn upon.

[For more on radical orthodoxy, check out my colleague Kyle Roberts’s slideshow on the topic. And feel free to comment on this post asking Kyle questions. Don’t ask me–I know very little about this movement! Plus, theological discourse makes my head hurt.]

5 responses to “The Christian integralism of Dorothy Sayers: Precursor to radical orthodoxy?

  1. After reading your post on RO and a basic definition of what it is, I am seeing another piece of the confusing puzzle named “emergent church.” I have to say that even though I’m in that generation, I don’t have a clue what my friends and colleagues are talking about when they say they are “emergent Christians.” I do know that it seems to have something strongly pushing against modernity and critiquing Kant.

  2. RO feels a bit like Barth (but way more so): the writings sound stirring and bold and fresh, but once you get to the sense of what they are saying you have to disagree on some points (Milbank at least). John Webster makes some good points against RO in this essay in Confessing God called “Evangelical Ecclesiology”:

    What do you think Sayers would do with the way RO handles “participation” over against the Creator/creature distinction?

    • Don’t know! Maybe someone more qualified will answer. By the way, you might want to fix or re-post the Google Books url you provide in your comment–it doesn’t go to the chapter you want it to.

  3. Ya. I just edited to add at the end of the post a link to Kyle’s Powerpoint on radical orthodoxy.

  4. Very interesting stuff here.

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