A Complex Vision

Book cover
Julian of Norwich, Theologianby By Denys TurnerYale Univ. Press. 288p $40

This boke is begonne by Goddes gifte and his grace, but it is not yet performed, as to my sight.” Thus Julian of Norwich closes the Long Text of her Revelation of Love, acknowledging the incompleteness of her efforts to probe the profound mystery of God’s love. Similarly, Denys Turner, the Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor of Historical Theology at Yale, writes his commentary Julian of Norwich, Theologian. The simplicity of the title says it all. Having read Julian for years, he confesses his need to write a book to figure out for himself her “complex, rich, and also coherent vision that falls into the shape of a genuinely ‘systematic’ theology.”

To read this book is essentially to encounter the nature and process of theology, which indeed is never complete in this world, since its only finality can be the beatific vision of God. Thus Turner does not attempt a complete survey of Julian’s theological system, but concentrates on several points puzzling to him and examines each in depth. This is a very personal work, as a result, and if answering certain questions raised by Julian’s text to his own satisfaction raises more questions for the reader, so be it, for that is the very nature of the theological enterprise.


That Julian is a theologian has been noted by many. Thomas Merton called her “one of the greatest English theologians,” who has produced “a coherent and indeed systematically constructed corpus of doctrine” (Mystics and Zen Masters). Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, in their critical edition of Showings (1978), situated Julian within the rubric of monastic theology in contrast to scholasticism. Since then, the historian and writer Bernard McGinn has defined a third type of medieval theology, called vernacular theology, found primarily in the writings of women visionaries. But Julian is resistant to all categories. In their recent critical edition of Julian, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins describe her text as having “no real precedent: a speculative vernacular theology, not modeled on earlier texts but structured as a prolonged investigation into the divine, whose prophetic goal is to birth a new understanding of human living in the world and the nature of God in his interactions with the world, not just for theologians but for everyone.” Not bad for the first known female writer in the English language!

In Chapter One, Turner asks in what sense Julian is a theologian, in the process giving a mini-treatise on the nature and method of theology. He concludes that she is certainly a systematic theologian, although not in the same way as either the scholastics or monastics; she is in some sense an anchoritic theologian; she is a vernacular or, better, “demotic” theologian, since she writes in English for the common folk, her “evenchristen.” This last can be misleading, for “her theology is unquestionably difficult, morally demanding, intellectually complex and resistant of simplistic solutions to dauntingly intractable theological problems.” Turner bemoans today’s “bowdlerization” of Julian’s text, fragmented into “pious pericopes” in spiritual anthologies. Contrary to much popular opinion about Julian, Turner does not find her work particularly “charming.”

Before entering into conversation with the substance of Julian’s theology, in Chapter Two Turner “clears a conceptual space” within which to consider it, particularly her notion that sin is “behovely,” an idea central to her explication of divine providence, sin and salvation. The Middle English word, translated as “befitting,” “expedient” or “appropriate,” has much in common with the Latin “conveniens,” neither absolutely necessary nor arbitrarily contingent, but “fitting” within the particular story of salvation as it has occurred in human history. Nor is it necessary for clarity that we know exactly how sin is behovely. Within the story of this world that is ours, sin holds a place that will not in the end prevent all from being well. I found this chapter to be very helpful, since without understanding this essential point, Julian’s whole theology could well devolve into incomprehensibility.

Equally brilliant and enlightening is Chapter Three, “Two Stories of Sin,” in which Turner draws a contrast between how God views sin and sin’s own story of itself. Drawing on insights from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Turner considers the “unreality” of sin as the illusory and self-destructive misperception of the way things are. The story of sin told by God’s love, which alone is “real,” is completely different, even though shrouded in mystery. It invites our participation in faith and hope.

In the remaining chapters, Turner delves into substantial points of Julian’s theology: the parable of the lord and the servant and the incompleteness of narrative, the relationship between prayer and divine providence, and Julian’s theological anthropology of substance and sensuality. In all three chapters, Turner keeps before our eyes the exquisite balance of Julian’s theology, which maintains the necessary tension between the eternal and the historical, the already and the not-yet of human fulfillment. He also answers convincingly persistent complaints as to Julian’s orthodoxy. A concluding chapter summarizes Julian’s soteriology.

This is a book for the intrepid reader, someone unafraid to tackle in meticulous detail the finer points of Julian’s theological system. Since it assumes substantial knowledge of Julian’s theology, I would advise gaining some familiarity with her writing as a prerequisite to reading it. The Paulist Press edition of Julian in modern English would be a good starting point (1978), as would the critical edition of either Colledge and Walsh (1978) or Watson and Jenkins (2006).

I found myself easily following Turner’s arguments because, admittedly, they conform to my own. Many of his conclusions were familiar and others deepened my previous knowledge. The author writes with erudition, theological precision and flashes of humor. This is an enlightening book that makes an important and impressive addition to Julian scholarship.

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