Professor Morwenna Ludlow
I teach and conduct research in historical theology. That is, I am a scholar of the history of Christian thought (with a particular focus on the early church: 100-500 CE) but I also write about the reception of early theology by modern thinkers and I am very interested in the implications of early theology for the world today.
In particular, I have written extensively on the fourth-century Cappadocian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa. My last monograph, Gregory of Nyssa, Ancient and Post-Modern focussed on the reception, use and abuse of Gregory by modern writers. I help coordinate international research meetings on Gregory of Nyssa and am involved in peer-reviewing papers for the series of studies on Gregory published by Brill.
However, my interest in the reception and interpretation of the early church fathers stretches beyond Gregory of Nyssa. For example, I co-led an international research project on the interpretation of early Christian writers in the modern and post-modern context, which resulted in the publication of Scot Douglass and Morwenna Ludlow (edd.) Reading the Church Fathers. I have also published on the recent reception of Augustine's Confessions and the City of God.
An important theme in my research has been Christian eschatology, especially the idea of universal salvation. My first monograph, Universal Salvation, studied this concept in Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner. I have also published papers on this idea as it appears in the Reformation, the seventeenth century and other periods. My reflections on hell and its history as a Christian idea were featured as part of a Radio 4 programme, "Beyond Belief".
My current project Art, Craft and Rhetoric proposes that more attention needs to be paid to theological writing as an act of making. Specifically, I argue that discourse about 'art' and 'craft' reveals a fluidity and commonality between activities that are commonly separated under those two different headings. I ask whether systematic or dogmatic theology has been regarded as superior to applied theology for much the same reasons as fine art has been regarded as superior to applied art. I use debates about craft from Ruskin and Morris to the present day in order to investigate challenges to the art/craft distinction, using both craft-practitioners (David Jones, Bernard Leach, Edmund De Waal and Grayson Perry) and scholars who write about craft (e.g. Adamson, Frayling, Sennett). Because I argue that the rhetoric about craft functions in very similar ways in Late Antiquity and the current day, I use debates in both periods to illuminate each other and investigate the implications for both ancient and modern theological writing.
I welcome enquiries from students wishing to conduct research in any of the above areas and on theology of the early Church more generally.
I teach an introductory module on the development of early Christianity and specialised modules on the history and theology of heaven and hell; on reading Augustine's Confessions, and on Eve and Mary in different religious traditions.
I manage the Theology and Religion in Exeter research blog.
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.
I am currently supervising four research students who have projects relating to the Church Fathers: some focus on deepening a contextual understanding of certain beliefs and practices (e.g. prayer in the writings of the Cappadocians; John Chrysostom and non-Christian Greek authors); others focus on the reception and contemporary significance of the theology and traditions of the early church (the doctrines of creation and the Trinity in Augustine and modern theology; the diaspora Coptic church in the USA).
I welcome enquiries about research in any area relating to the early Christian church or literature in Late Antiquity, especially projects involving reception-history or the relation of the Fathers to modern theology/philosophy.
Past reseach students:
Donna Cooper Was Tertullian a misogynist? A re-examination of this charge based on a rhetorical analysis of Tertullian's work 2012 Thesis (Ph.D.) - Exeter University, College of Humanities. See: http://hdl.handle.net/10871/10124
Sean Willis: In what sense is Mary a type of the Church? An examination of the development of Mario-ecclesiology 2013 Thesis (Ph.D.) - Exeter University, College of Humanities. See: http://hdl.handle.net/10871/14431.
Current research students:
Jane Ellingwood: Creation and God as One, Creator, and Trinity in Early Christian Theology through Augustine
Graham Field:The Development of the Divine Office in 4th Century Cappadocia
Paschalis Gkortsilas: John Chrysostom and the Greeks: Hellenism and Greek philosophy in the rhetoric of John Chrysostom
Charlotte Neill: The Coptic Orthodox Church in America: Expanding Horizons
Karen O'Donnell: The Flesh of Mary and The Body of Christ
Giovanni Hermanin de Reichenfeld: The role of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John within Origen’s and Augustine’s Commentaries.
External impact and engagement
- Morwenna is enthusiastic about communicating the riches and complexities of the early Christian tradition to as wide an audience as possible. Her book, The Early Church has been well-received and is being used as a text-book in a variety of different contexts. Her Higher Education Academy funded project "The use of audio recordings of key texts in the teaching of early Christian history and theology" made audio recordings of key texts by the Church Fathers. These recordings are available for educational use on the HEA website and can be accessed at the Audio Recordings of the Fathers website.
Work with churches
- Morwenna is a Church of England representative in ecumenical dialogue with the Church of Scotland.
- Several students have developed their skills through working with Morwenna on a volunteering/employability project in Countess Wear, Exeter, run through cooperation between the Department of Theology and Religion and Community Action.
Contribution to discipline
Member, Board of Directors of the XVII. International Conference on Patristic Studies Oxford 10 August - 14 August 2015
Convened 4th British Patristics Conference, Exeter, 2012.
Convened Symposium Reading the Church Fathers with Scot Douglas (Boulder). Held at and funded by the University of Boulder, CO, USA, 2009.
Co-convenor of seminars on modern readings of the church fathers at the Annual Meeting of the North American Patristics Society, 2008 and 2009, and at the 15th Oxford International Conference on Patristics, 2007.
Academic society positions
- Member of the scientific committee of the International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa
- Committee member of the Society for the Study of Theology, 2007-2009
- Member of the Southwest Network for the Study of Late Antiquity
- Conversations in Religion and Theology (Associate editor)
- Irish Theological Quarterly (Advisory board member)
- Princeton Theological Seminary, USA, Feb-Aug 2009
- Guest on BBC Radio 4 Beyond Belief to discuss the Christian understanding of Hell and universal salvation, 11 July 2011; available as a podcast.
- Guest on Night Waves, discussing ‘the gospel of Jesus’ wife’: BBC Radio 3, 10:00PM Thursday, 11 October 2012 (live) See: http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/theology/news/title_234542_en.html
- THE1061 - The Faith of the Fathers: God, Christ and Salvation in the Early Church
- THE2142 - Heaven & Hell Throughout the Ages
- THE2180 - Reading Augustine through the Confessions
- THE3142 - Heaven & Hell Throughout the Ages
- THE3180 - Reading Augustine through the Confessions
- THE3182 - Reading Early Jewish and Christian Texts