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Professor Simon Oliver

Van Mildert Professor of Divinity

Van Mildert Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology and Religion+44 (0) 191 33 43942


I first studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford. After a year working at a mission school in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and a further year working in the property sector in Leeds, I moved to the University of Cambridge to study Theology. I was ordained to the diaconate in 1998 and to the priesthood in 1999. In 2000-2001 I was acting Dean of Jesus College, Cambridge and Director of Studies in Theology. From 2001 to 2004 I was Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford. During this time in Oxford, I was also honorary Chaplain to Helen House and Douglas House, hospices for children and young adults with life-limiting illness. This led to a particular interest in theological anthropology and the theology of disability, topics which I now include in undergraduate modules. I was Senior Lecturer at the University of Wales, Lampeter from 2004 and moved to the University of Nottingham in 2009, becoming Head of Department in 2013. I came to Durham as Van Mildert Professor of Divinity in September 2015. I am a native of Nottingham and a lover of cricket, rugby, food, film, books, and France.


My work is focussed on Christian theology and metaphysics, particularly the doctrine of creation. My first book, Philosophy, God and Motion (Routledge, 2005 & 2013), is an examination of the concept of motion in natural philosophy and theology. For ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato (c. 429-347 BC) and medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), motion is a category that refers to any kind of change - a body moving, a tree growing, or a child learning. The universe is saturated in motion and contemplating its orderly movements is central to the task of cosmology, for example in Plato's Timaeus. So how is a universe saturated in motion related to God whom the orthodox Christian tradition understands as eternal and beyond change? Does motion represent a boundary between God and creation that must be overcome, or the means of creation's perfection and participation in the divine life? For Aristotle, of course, God is the 'first unmoved mover'. The Neoplatonic philosophers and Thomas Aquinas further developed the analogical relation between the motions of the cosmos and divine actuality.

The concerns of this project, particularly the pre-Newtonian view that motion is not simply a state but is always towards a purpose or goal, led me to examine more closely the crucial concept of final causation in philosophy and theology. This is the view that goals, ends, or purposes are causal. For example, the heart beats in order to pump blood around the body or the whale migrates in order to breed. The study of final causes or purposiveness in nature is known as teleology, from the Greek ‘telos’ meaning ‘goal’ or ‘end’. The view that nature is ordered to certain purposes is central to much ancient Greek natural philosophy, particularly the work of Plato and Aristotle. It is also crucial in patristic and medieval Christian theology. For Aquinas, for example, every agent acts for an end. Identifying the purpose of an action, whether it be a stone falling, a dolphin hunting, or a philosopher contemplating, is a basic requirement for explanation. It answers the question 'why?' In modern philosophy and science it is often thought that final causes or purposiveness might be ascribed to human actions because we are intentional and deliberative - we can decide between different goals and find our way towards those goals when we act. But there is much greater scepticism and controversy concerning teleology in wider nature. For some thinkers, the idea that there is purposive order in the universe requires an ordering intelligence such as a divine designer. This is the basis of the so-called design argument for God's existence, including its latest controversial version known as intelligent design. For others, for example the philosopher Thomas Nagel, it is possible to conceive of a purely natural teleology that makes no reference to God. Despite our basic intuition that things happen in nature for a purpose, a good number of philosophers and scientists regard teleology as, at best, inadequate or unnecessary in the proper explanation of nature. They have a completely different account of causal explanation that makes no reference to purposes or God, but only to the flow of apparently causal events. If we are to accept, however, that teleology is restricted to human conscious intention, this leaves us with a niggling question: how does such teleology arise from a fundamentally non-teleological nature?

From the point of view of the history of ideas, I am struck by the transition from a deeply teleological view of the cosmos and the associated doctrine of God up to the fourteenth century, to early modern natural philosophy and the alleged rejection of final causes. Associaed with this shift is a change in the doctrine of God, so a number of thinkers identify a theological development at the source of the transition to modern natural philosophy and theology . The transition was very complex and involved a more thorough re-configuration of the metaphysics of causal explanation as well as significant changes in traditional concepts such as matter and form. Final causes were not abandoned wholesale but imagined very differently along the lines of the human design of artefacts and the imposition of purposes onto passive material. In turn, this had further dramatic (some would say devastating) theological consequences for our understanding of divine providence and the notion that creation finds its ultimate end in God. It turns God into the designer of a cosmic machine.

Whilst teleology remains deeply controversial, scientific description (if not explanation) frequently utilises purposive concepts, particularly in the life sciences. For example, it is hard to describe the workings of the immune or digestive systems without referring to purposes and goals. Are these merely heuristic and metaphorical, or do they perform a properly explanatory role? Is there a scientific mode of explanation which does not refer to teleology which nevertheless is metaphysically incomplete and leaves open the possibility of other modes of understanding that are teleological? Meanwhile, the idea that creation finds its purpose in God and its way in Christ is central to the Christian theology of creation and many forms of ethics centred on virtue and natural law. So my long term project, entitled Creation's Ends: Teleology, Ethics and the Natural, addresses the question of teleology in relation to its place in the history of ideas, the nature of metaphysical and scientific explanation, and its theological presuppositions and implications in the doctrine of creation. An initial aim will be to shed the association of teleology with design and, utilising metaphysics and theology from the Platonic, Aristotelian and Thomist traditions, to formulate a different kind of teleogical view of creation in whcih final causes are intrinsic to the natural order yet also point to a transcendent source. I sketched the beginnigs of this project in the Stanton Lectures in Philosophy of Religion at the University of Cambridge in February and March 2017. In 2017 I delivered the Areopagus Lecture in Charlottesville, Virginia. This gives an accessible overview of my current work.

In the general field of the doctrine of creation, I have written a book entitled Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) which I hope will be of interest to a wide readership. I am also editing The Oxford Handbook of Creation, due for publication in 2020.

As well as my research in the doctrine of creation, I have published on the relation between theology and philosophy, Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the wider thought of Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), the fifteenth century German Cardinal and philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), and the twentieth century Catholic theologians Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988). In 2009 I co-edited The Radical Orthodoxy Reader with John Milbank and you can listen to me give a brief introduction ot Radical Orthodoxy here.

Aside from my work in the Department of Theology and Religion, I am an Anglican priest and residentiary Canon of Durham Cathedral. This joint role of University Professor and Cathedral Canon, which has its origins in the foundation of the University by the Bishop of Durham and the Cathedral Chapter in 1832, connects the work of academic theology with the daily life of the Church. From 2009 to 2020, I sat on the Anglican Communion's faith and order commission (the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order) and currently serve on the Academic Board of the Lambeth Research Degrees in Theology, and the Research Degrees Panel of the Church of England's Ministry Division.

Prospective Research Students

I currently have a full cohort of doctoral students, but I am keen to hear from prospective students who are considering research in the area of Christian doctrine and philosophy, particualrly the doctrine of creation, theological anthropology, the thought of Thomas Aquinas, the historical relationship between theology and science, and modern systematic theology.


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