I began my academic career at Harvard University, where I received an A.B. degree in History and Literature with a focus on Modern Germany. While writing my undergraduate dissertation on German theology during the First World War, I decided to pursue a career in academic theology. I then moved to the UK in 2004 for a postgraduate diploma and then a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge (Peterhouse), which I completed under the supervision of David Ford and Ben Quash. It was there that I encountered a theme that continues to animate much of my work: the theological challenges generated by claims to experiences of the Holy Spirit, especially in the history of Protestantism from the Reformation to the rise of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements.
After completing my doctorate, I held a post-doc at the University of Cambridge from 2008-11. In Cambridge, I lectured and supervised for a wide range of courses in systematic and historical theology, assisted Regius Professor of Divinity David Ford in his academic work, and continued my research into the theology of the Holy Spirit.
In 2011, I moved to the University of Oxford as Junior Research Fellow in Theology at St John's College. While at Oxford I gave core lectures in modern systematic theology, taught the course on Martin Luther, supervised masters work in a variety of areas in modern doctrine, and developed, with a biblical studies colleague, a new course on Theological Interpretation of the New Testament. In recognition of this teaching, I was recipient of a Teaching Excellence Award from the University of Oxford Humanities Division in 2015. During this period I also co-directed a British Academy-funded project at Oxford on the Holy Spirit in Protestant theology and history from 1500-1900, and spent a semester in Hong Kong as Visiting Professor of Theology at the China Graduate School of Theology.
I arrived at the University of Nottingham in 2016, where I now serve as Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and am Course Director for the Distance Learning M.A. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology.
My primary areas of academic research are (i) modern Christian theology and (ii) Protestant theology from the Reformation to the present. Within these broad areas, I have published on a wide variety of topics, including: theologies of the Holy Spirit; religious experience, emotion, and affectivity; soteriology and theologies of grace; the theologies of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon; the nature and purpose of doctrine; theological interpretation of Scripture; Pentecostal theology and its historical background; the role of the nineteenth century in shaping modern Christian thought; and contemporary systematic and constructive theology. I welcome enquiries for postgraduate study in any of these areas.
Distance Learning M.A. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology
Much of my teaching is focused on the Distance Learning M.A. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology, where I teach the following modules:
- Aquinas and Thomisms
- Faith and Reason
- La Nouvelle Theologie
- Research Methods and Resources
- Systematic and Philosophical Theology for Newcomers
I am also currently developing two new modules for the Distance Learning M.A., which will become available over the next 12-18 months:
- Reformation Theology
- Theology of the Holy Spirit
The undergraduate modules to which I will contribute in 2016-17 are:
- Christ and Culture
- Theology and Ethics in the Modern World
I am likely to be on research leave between August 2019 and January 2020.
My current academic research focuses on the themes of the Holy Spirit, religious experience, and the nature of doctrine in contemporary theology, with significant cross-disciplinary and historical dimensions.
My major project at the moment is a monograph for Oxford University Press entitled The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience. In my view, one of the most urgent issues in contemporary theology is how to articulate a sophisticated account of the Holy Spirit that can navigate between the experientially powerful but often uncritical approach of Pentecostal and charismatic theologies, on the one hand, and the extreme wariness about 'experience' in much traditional Protestant theology, for example in Martin Luther and Karl Barth, on the other. My book takes up this challenge by articulating a constructive account of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit through the lens of 'experience' of the Spirit, asking how far and in what ways we can describe the work of the Spirit in areas like salvation, sanctification, and the empowerment of the mission of the church as 'experiences' of the Holy Spirit.
A preliminary account of my approach can be found in a recent article, 'On the affective salience of doctrines'. This article builds on insights from postliberal theology to draw attention to the way that theological arguments, both historically and today, are illuminated through paying explicit attention to the affective or emotional impact of particular theological positions in the lives of Christians and the practices of the church. This approach has significant implications for a number of contemporary theological issues, such as the debate between forensic and participatory theologies of salvation, as well as broader themes like theology's relationship to spirituality, theology and cognitive science, and the plausibility of traditional Christian claims in the context of modernity.
ZAHL, SIMEON, 2016. The Bondage of the Affections: Willing, Feeling, and Desiring in Luther's Theology, 1513-1525. In: COULTER, DALE and YONG, AMOS, eds., The Spirit, the Affections, and the Christian Tradition University of Notre Dame Press. 252-52
ZAHL, SIMEON, 2015. On the Affective Salience of Doctrines Modern Theology. 31(3), 428-44
ZAHL, SIMEON, 2013. Atonement. In: ADAMS, NICHOLAS, PATTISON, GEORGE and WARD, GRAHAM, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought Oxford University Press. 611-32
Animated by contemporary Protestant theology's difficulties in articulating a compelling and experientially-integrated account of the Holy Spirit, I began my career by focusing on two particular historical moments, one from late nineteenth century Pietism and one from early sixteenth century Lutheranism. My first monograph (Pneumatology and Theology of the Cross in the Preaching of Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt) is a study of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the thought of Lutheran Pietist theologian and 'faith healer' Christoph F. Blumhardt (1842-1919), whose theology and ministry represented a powerful modern attempt to bridge the divide between classical Protestant approaches to the Spirit and Pietist and charismatic ones. Blumhardt grappled creatively over several decades with the traditional Lutheran concern about self-deception in claims to experience of the Spirit, even as he continued to urge Christians to turn from doctrine back to 'experience' as the engine of true religion. In the book, I argue that Blumhardt's approach to these issues can help resource contemporary reflection on the Holy Spirit, and explain how his pneumatology informed his prophetic political theology and his trenchant critique of the church of his day.
Following questions that arose during the Blumhardt work, my research then pursued these themes in Protestant theology right back to their sixteenth century origins, to Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon's debates about affective spirituality and inner encounter with the Holy Spirit. While in Oxford I researched the complex and historically significant ambivalence in Luther and Melanchthon about the role of the affections and 'the heart' in Christian life in light of their new approach to the doctrine of justification, especially as their respective views changed through encounter with early Protestant 'enthusiasts' in the 1520s. Most saliently, I identified particular theological tensions in the doctrine of justification by faith itself that created a challenge for first generation Lutherans, as well as later Protestants, in articulating an integrated understanding of the place of emotion and the agency of the Holy Spirit in Christian life and practice. This work has borne fruit so far in a book chapter ('The Bondage of the Affections: Willing, Feeling, and Desiring in Luther's Theology, 1513-1525') and a substantial essay in preparation on the fate of Luther's early experiential theology in later confessional Lutheranism.
In addition to this, in recent years I have written two Oxford Handbook articles, one on the doctrine of the atonement in modern European thought and one on 'experience' in nineteenth century Christian theology, as well as two further book chapters on theological interpretation of Scripture. I also have an ongoing interest in the Abrahamic inter-faith practice of Scriptural Reasoning, for which I serve as the Program Unit Chair at the American Academy of Religion.
Following the completion of The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience, my research will move in two directions, one more historical and one more systematic. The historical project is a monograph on the theology of the affections in Luther and Melanchthon, which will help illuminate the long-standing ambivalence about emotion and experience that characterizes much Protestant theology to this day. The systematic project will be an examination of the theology of sin in light of major challenges to the plausibility of traditional doctrines of sin in the contemporary world, as well as related issues like the theology of grace.