Professor Morwenna Ludlow

Research interests

My research has taken me in several thematic directions, but has mostly been focussed on the theology of the fourth century CE and especially on the Cappadocian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa.

In particular, I am interested in the relevance of Gregory's ideas to modern theology. My first book, Universal Salvation (Oxford, 2000) compared Gregory’s thinking on eschatology (the theology of death, heaven and hell) with that of Karl Rahner, a twentieth-century Jesuit working in the German theological tradition.    In later work I have continued to trace the development of the idea of universal salvation in Christian history.  My reflections on hell and its history as a Christian idea were featured as part of a Radio 4 programme, "Beyond Belief".

In my second book, Gregory of Nyssa – Ancient and (Post-)Modern (Oxford, 2007) I undertook a detailed analysis of a wide variety of readings of Gregory from many different theological, philosophical and historical perspectives. The book is structured around several key theological themes: the Trinity, Christology, soteriology, anthropology, and hermeneutics. In my conclusions I suggest that modern readings of Gregory are coloured by deeply-ingrained assumptions about the history of Christianity – assumptions which are usually implicit or unexamined. This is one reason for the wide variety of interpretations of Gregory. Secondly, however, I suggest that Gregory’s theological method and literary style in themselves generate these many differing readings. Drawing from biblical and platonic literary traditions, Gregory was intending to construct texts which could be read by different readers in many different ways.

More generally, I am interested in the modern reception of the church fathers and how recent theologians interpret the history of the early church. In some of my writing I have explored ways in which the Church fathers’ writings on topics such as biblical exegesis and Christology raise issues which are still of relevance to contemporary theology. I am interested in the idea of the development of doctrine and the tasks and responsibilities of the theologian regarding the past.  These themes are studied in a recently-published book which I have co-edited with Scot Douglass:- Reading the Church Fathers (Continuum, 2011)

My current research project, Art, Craft and Theology, draws more widely on the writings of 4th century theologians in the east and west of the Roman Empire, but like a lot of my work seeks to connect them with more recent theology and philosophy.  Drawing on the conclusions of my second book, my starting-point is an examination of the connection of theological method, literary style, rhetoric and poetics in early Christian writing, setting them in their geographical and literary context and asking to what extent their literary methods are adapted to the various theological tasks they were engaged in.

Much of this work relates to previous scholarship on the fathers and their use of 'rhetoric', however I will be offering a thorough-going challenge to the way in which 'rhetoric' has usually been applied to the fathers. I will argue that the church fathers' literary style has tended to be reduced to the concept of 'rhetoric' thereby giving literary style a merely functional purpose.  Some scholars see 'rhetoric' in very narrow terms, assuming that it provided the Cappadocians with, for example, a series of techniques for argument or an attractive gloss to appeal to the audience, drawing them in by means of the emotions. Such a view of rhetoric has tended to associate Christian texts with the rhetoric of the Second Sophistic and later Empire and has often viewed that rhetoric as being in decline (a view of the Second Sophistic now very much disputed by classicists).  Alternatively, rhetoric as a broader cultural practice has been conceived by scholars as a means (perhaps even the means) by which theologians integrated themselves into their society, with all its cultural and social expectations of what it is to be 'Greek' or 'Roman'.  This concept of rhetoric is much more sophisticated, but has still tends to view literary style in narrowly functional terms: as a practice clearly aimed at producing a certain outcome or effect.  Christian literary method and style, therefore, as construed as 'rhetoric' tends to be viewed as a technique or a craft, a mere vehicle for the communication of a crucial underlying message.

The advantage of such an approach is that it has allowed later generations of Christians to think that it is possible to 'peel off' the layer of rhetorical form to reveal the theological content underneath.  (It has also, allowed some scholars of literature in Late Antiquity to study the literary qualities of Christian writing, whilst disassociating them from the theological propositions made in such writing).  The problem with the approach is that, from the point-of-view of literary theory, many scholars would challenge the assumption that it is possible to disassociate form from content in this way, i.e., in this case, to disconnect theology from literary style.  In my research I have begun to investigate ways in which one might be able to re-establish a connection in a way which is both an adequate reading of the Cappadocians and productive for thinking about theological writing more general.

I have approached this task from two directions, aiming to create a conversation between modern aesthetic and rhetorical theory and the 4th century Greek and Latin Christian texts. Firstly, I have examined the ways in which the Cappadocians actually write and the ways in which they write about their writing and their literary models.  Through this I have come to the conclusion that they are highly self-conscious writers, who are well aware of all kinds of ancient literary debate about the values or dangers of writing (or other forms of verbal communication) and about art.  It seems to me that they construct a vision of theological writing which subverts the common modern Western categories of 'art' and 'craft': their theology is (intended to be) both beautiful and useful; its beauty lies in its use and its usefulness derives in part from its beauty.  Furthermore, the way in which they connect the form and content of their theology seems in various ways to be connected to their notion of the incarnation - a theology based on a love of the divine 'Word' in its material human form.  Secondly, I have turned to more recent literature which defends the notion of 'craft' against interpretations which have seen it as a vastly inferior human practice compared to 'art'.  Whilst some of this literature reinstates the 'art'-'craft'. dichotomy, other literature seeks to destabilise it, arguing for the artistic qualities of craft and the way in which craft impinges on art.  Some of this literature seeks to reinstate craft as an essential human activity, some of it even going so far as to call on the notion of sacrament to do so.  In the conclusions of my project I hope to connect up the theological notions of incarnation and sacrament with the more literary-aesthetic concepts of form, content, art, craft, function and beauty in a way which will be productive for the practice of theological writing.

Research collaborations

International collaboration

Morwenna is a member of the Oxford-Bonn international research project 'The Plausibility of Christology' (with members from Bonn, Oxford, Exeter, Glasgow, Bonn, Dortmund and Paderborn).

She has worked with this group for nearly fifteen years and has contributed to the following volumes previously published by the group:

 

Morwenna is part of an international community of scholars working on Gregory of Nyssa. She contributes to and is on the scientific committee of a series of international conferences on his work and a series of accompanying volumes, published by Brill, which will provide a scholarly assessment of his thought and its after-life. Morwenna has contributed to the following volumes:

Scot Douglass and Morwenna Ludlow ran an international research project which led to the publication of

 

South West Late Antiquity Network

Richard Flower and Morwenna Ludlow have raised funds through the University of Exeter Humanities and Social Sciences Strategy (HASS) to fund a conference on Rhetoric and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity, under the HASS Identities and Beliefs theme.