[Common Places] Announcing Our Next Series: New Voices for Theology
Ours is a day of noise, not silence.
The great difficulty in navigating theological study in the English-speaking world is not owing to the absence of resources, but to the profusion of so many significant resources (and, well, maybe a few not so significant ones offering cover). Targeted marketing may guide you to products for your likely demographic, but there’s little guarantee that you’ll find that thought-provoking volume that haunts you for years to come and no surety that the most worthy studies of our times will find the audience that they deserve. Indeed, some of the more substantive theological works have found their audiences years, if not lifetimes, later.
New Voices for Theology seeks to introduce reader-theologians to new publications worthy of their attention. This connection is no small matter, especially for those interested in doing systematic or dogmatic…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Eschatology
Surveys of Christian doctrine regularly note that the themes of eschatology have attained a certain prestige in the late nineteenth and then twentieth centuries that exceeds their fate in previous times. What do we make of this new emphasis? What benefits have been gained? And what dangers might we need to be alert to? I want to focus briefly upon one new emphasis, its potential and frequent cost, and a way in which theological retrieval helps us move toward a more biblical eschatology for the contemporary church.
Heaven Is a Place on Earth
Surely the most marked shift in twentieth century eschatology was its earthiness. Perhaps no tradition has so emphasized the created and material character of our blessed hope as that of the Dutch Reformed theologians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. Abraham…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Roman Catholic Thought that Shape Contemporary Dogmatic Theology
Broadly speaking, Catholic theology in the past twenty years has been characterized by three distinctive tendencies. The first is the decline of influence of the Rahnerianism of the post-Vatican II period. The second is the rise of influence of theologians associated with the Communio movement. The third is the return of interest in classical theological sources, marked particularly by the renaissance of Thomistic studies. I will consider each of these points briefly in turn.
The Decline of Rahnerianism
The theology of the twentieth-century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner was marked by an insistence of the use of modern philosophical anthropology to interpret the contemporary relevance of the gospel for modern human beings. Rahner sought to find profound points of contact between the thought of Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant, while also welcoming insights from contemporary phenomenology. He…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Dogmatics
When I was a graduate student in Cambridge in the late 1970s, dogmatics was a minority discipline, and the word itself almost never mentioned unless with reference to Barth’s magnum opus. It still enjoyed prestige in the German faculties, but was rarely a component of theological curricula in England (in Scotland the picture was, and remains, somewhat different). Interest in the inner content and overall structure of Christian teaching was edged out by other preoccupations: theological method, the dialogue of the religions, critical doctrinal history, analytical philosophy, the social science of religion. Exceptions to the prevailing lack of interest in systematic theological work, such as John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology, were just that: exceptions.
Moving to North America in the mid-80s, I found myself in a theological setting where dogmatics counted for more and attracted able practitioners. In part…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Analytic Theology
Analytic theology has its roots in the development of the analytic philosophy of religion in the second half of the twentieth century. In the early 1980s, a number of those working in the philosophy of religion began to turn their attention to topics in philosophical theology. If questions in the philosophy of religion are about generic philosophical issues raised by religious belief (e.g. the problem of evil, the justification of religious belief, and so on), philosophical theology concerns concrete matters pertaining to the theology of a particular religious tradition.
The literature in philosophical theology gradually became more theologically informed, more sophisticated, and diversified to include a range of theological topics including central matters like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, sin, eschatology, the nature of faith, and the like. It developed largely independently of contemporary systematic theology,…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in the Divine Attributes
What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? For several decades in the twentieth century, the answer seemed to be overwhelmingly: “Too much!” The influence of Greek philosophy upon Christian faith and practice was viewed as excessive and uncritical. A century ago Adolf von Harnack proposed the “Hellenization thesis,” the argument that the early church swallowed a bunch of Hellenistic fat that makes their theological approach difficult to digest today.  Harnack proposed a radical revision to the faith whereby we seek to cut the fat out and get back to the message of Jesus himself, a proclamation unencumbered by the metaphysics of Greece and the dogmas of the later fathers. The influence of this model of history has been and continues to be remarkably widespread, accepted not only in more revisionist circles (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann) but also by those…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Protestant Scholasticism
Many people who think that they despise the theology of John Calvin change their mind once they actually take time to read his writings. I’ve seen it again and again in the classroom—both as a student, and as a teacher.
When this has happened, however, I’ve often heard a warning: Calvin may be biblical, dynamic, and Christ-centered, but steer clear of those seventeenth century “Calvinists.” Rather than going straight to the Bible, they got distracted by the medieval scholastics; rather than being pastoral and Christ-centered, the Reformed Scholastics were rationalists whose writings don’t edify the church.
Twenty years after hearing these warnings in college, I can say that they reveal more about those giving the warnings than the Protestant Scholastics themselves.
There has been a sea change in scholarship on Protestant Scholasticism, and its…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Theological Exegesis
Many of the most interesting developments that have taken place in the fields of biblical studies and systematic theology in the last twenty years can be charted under the heading of “theological interpretation of Scripture.” Even more specifically, narrowing the focus a bit more, it seems that many of these developments may be described with the word retrieval. Biblical scholars and dogmatic theologians are reaching back to eras of the Christian past before the rise of modern ways of reading in order to rediscover and reimagine older habits of biblical interpretation.
Giants of eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century biblical scholarship, such as J. P. Gabler and William Wrede, had argued that study of the biblical texts should be a purely historical discipline. Our goal as readers should not be to itemize the abstract “doctrines” that the “canonical apostles” believed. Instead,…
[Common Places] The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in Trinitarian Theology
About twenty years ago when I applied from seminary to graduate school, I sent along as my writing sample a seminar paper on current trends in trinitarian theology. Specifically, I submitted a paper critiquing Augustine’s De Trinitate in light of these more recent insights, and I have to tell you candidly that I was pretty rough on old Augustine. In my judgment, he was insufficiently trinitarian: fixated on divine oneness, captive to platonizing presuppositions, inattentive to the real distinctions among the three persons, unable to do straightforward exegesis, artfully dodging the implications of the economy of salvation, and incapable of showing how the doctrine of God’s triunity had any bearing on Christian life and experience, except by indulging in that disastrous quest for analogies that was his chief legacy.
Reader, I harried him.
I’m glad the paper was never published,…
Common Places: A New Forum for Old Conversations
Alexander Solzhenitsyn characterized modern literary and artistic culture as exhibiting “a stubborn tendency to grow not higher but to the side.” The same judgment might be made about much modern theology. There is growth, to be sure, and developments in all manner of technical facets and interdisciplinary conversations. One would have to be a curmudgeon of a particular order not to appreciate the many blessings of life this side of the modern phase of Christian theology.
Has Theology Seen Better Days?
And yet, in many ways, this growth exhibits a sideways drift, not an upward progression. In its attempts to move beyond traditional modes of reflection upon God and the works of God and beyond traditional patterns of biblical commentary and interpretation in order to engage new methods, disciplines, and philosophical approaches to the study of the Bible and…