Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Theological Legacy of Maurice Wiles

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Theological Legacy of Maurice Wiles

Article excerpt

The Theological Legacy of Maurice Wiles

The death of Maurice Wiles on June 3, 2005, deprived British and indeed international theology of one of the ablest and best-known Christian teachers and thinkers of our time. This article is primarily written to expound and examine his theology rather than to give a biographical summary of his career, but since all theology is to some extent shaped by its context in the ideas and events of the period to which it belongs, I begin with a few paragraphs briefly summarizing the course of his life and the background against which his thinking took place.

Maurice Frank Wiles was born on October 17, 1923, the son of Sir Harold and Lady Wiles. His father was a senior civil servant who had the responsibility of arranging for the rehabilitation and employment of soldiers wounded in World War I, a responsibility later extended to disabled people in general. It may well be that growing up in these circumstances was an influence in directing the young Maurice toward offering himself for pastoral service as exercised in Christian ministry. There was a clerical strain in the family history, since both his grandfathers had been ministers, one a moderately liberal priest of the Church of England, the other a strict Baptist preacher. In the last book which he published, Scholarship and Faith (Cambridge: Biograph, 2003), Wiles used this contrast to illustrate the conflict in his own mind between traditional Christian beliefs and the modern post-Enlightenment mentality, a conflict known to very many people at the present time. If the Christian faith is to be a live option for people living in the twenty-first century, it needs radical restatement and reinterpretation. This need is understood by theologians of all or most of the main Christian traditions. The work of Wiles in England had its parallels (though they differed in method and in the extent to which they were carried out) in the thinking of many other British theologians; among the Roman Catholic theologians of the Second Vatican Council; and among German Protestant thinkers, notably Rudolf Bultmann. The latter stated bluntly that "it is impossible to use electric light and the radio and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and wonders."1 Perhaps it would not be impossible for an individual or a body of people (those who are called "fundamentalists") to shut out the modern world and withdraw into a prescientific mentality of myth and miracle. But it would be impossible for the great majority of people; and so it would be impossible to commend to them the Christian faith as expressed in the language and thought-forms of a bygone age. To borrow the word popularized by Pope John XXIII when he summoned Vatican II, the church stands in need of an aggiornamento or updating if it is to reverse the slide into indifferentism and materialism that threatens contemporary society.

Just how Wiles came to devote himself to this urgent task of reinterpreting Christian faith to a scientific age is not quite clear. He had won a scholarship which took him to Tonbridge School, a prestigious institution where his superior intellectual powers soon showed themselves. It may have been at one of the summer camps for schoolboys that he embraced an extreme evangelical type of Christianity, which he himself described as having Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey for its mentors.2 I have said above that it was not altogether surprising that Wiles's upbringing was such as to dispose him toward Christian ministry, but it is surprising that the sophisticated theologian of later years had begun his Christian pilgrimage in a fundamentalist or near-fundamentalist group. The transition was, it seems, quite gradual, and probably also painful.

Wiles was still at school when World War II broke out, and his career, like that of many other youngsters, was interrupted. …

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