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 religion, theology has in many cases failed to move forward.
We often find ourselves in the position of the elders who witnessed the rebuilding of the temple after the exile (Ezra 3:10-13; Hag 2:3): what is for many a cause of celebration in theology is for us a cause of lament. One need not buy into a “golden age” theory of historical progress or decline to observe: theology has seen more glorious days.
The path toward theological renewal, we suggest, lies in moving from “a less profound to a more profound tradition; a discovery of the most profound resources.” We do not wish to impose parochial narrowness upon theologians, but we do believe that if engagement with wider cultural and methodological conversations is to be Christianly principled and profitable, it must follow rigorous catechesis in the theological reasoning of the classical Christian tradition and draw upon the deep roots of the biblical writings, as well as the literature of the patristic, medieval, and reformational eras.
In our judgment, the time seems ripe for ressourcement and retrieval, for reacquainting ourselves with the questions and approaches of earlier Christians who sought to read their Bibles and to let it shape their moral and spiritual imaginations. If we hope to have genuine and fruitful conversation between Christian theology and various eclectic inquiries, then we need to develop a spiritual-intellectual backbone formed by biblical reasoning and doctrinal discipline.
The title of this regular column, Common Places, intends to elicit at least three senses related to the kind of systematic theology that we hope to practice and promote herein. First, Christian theologians around the globe and through the centuries have noted that careful study of various portions or “places” of Holy Scripture must be paired with attentive consideration of the grand themes of the Bible taken as a whole. These “common places” (loci communes) were the headings under which dogmatic or doctrinal theology proceeded forth from biblical commentary. Accordingly, we intend to follow the examples of those patristic, medieval, reformational, and post-reformation era theologians who not only developed doctrinal topics out of sedes doctrinae (“seats of doctrine” or pertinent portions of God’s Word relating to any given issue) but also sought to regulate their understandings of those topics by considering the influence of the wider span of the biblical canon.
Second, the common places of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. Indeed, when the Protestant theologian William Perkins dubbed himself a “reformed catholic,” he was indicating that he did not wish to wipe the theological table clean of the church’s traditional common places but to revisit and reform them in light of what he deemed to be more faithful biblical exegesis. This column, then, will focus upon the classical topics or loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology.
Third, this column will feature the work of a number of theologians: with contributions from present-day authors representing a wide spectrum of the catholic Christian tradition and studies of influential figures from the Christian past. In that sense, it is a common place as well, a lived demonstration of the corporate sphere of theological work in the communion of the saints. The gospel not only brings illumination, but is also delivers community; more often than not, a healthy pursuit of the one involves that of the other.
What to Expect from Common Places
We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. Future posts will seek to introduce and survey key figures, texts, and concepts from the classical tradition, to engage with significant works of contemporary theology regarding perennial questions, to assess the present state of the discipline in light of its historic roots, and to reflect upon the significance of Christian doctrine for the life of the church, its members, and its society.
Our first series will seek to think deeply about ways in which doctrinal theology has in fact flourished in the last quarter century by focusing on a number of areas in which, for various reasons, Christian dogmatics seems to be experiencing growth and development in ways about which we wish to be informed and for which we want to be thankful.
Michael Allen is D. James Kennedy Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is author of Justification and the Gospel (Baker Academic, 2013); Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (T&T Clark, 2012), Reformed Theology (T&T Clark, 2010), and The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark, 2009). His articles have been published in the International Journal of Systematic Theology, Journal of Theological Interpretation, Scottish Journal of Theology, Horizons in Biblical Theology, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Westminster Theological Journal, and Themelios. He serves as general editor (with Scott Swain) for T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary and Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series and as book review editor for the International Journal of Systematic Theology.
Scott Swain is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is author of The God of the Gospel: The Trinitarian Theology of Robert Jenson (IVP Academic, 2013), Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and its Interpretation (T&T Clark, 2011), and (with Andreas Köstenberger) Father, Son, and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (InterVarsity, 2008). He has published articles in the International Journal of Systematic Theology and the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and contributed to The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity. He serves as general editor (with Michael Allen) for T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary and Zondervan’s New Studies in Dogmatics series. He is a regular blogger at Reformation21.
2: Yves Congar, Vraie et fausse réforme dans l’Église, Unam Sanctum, 20 (Paris: Cerf, 1950), 601-2, cited in Gabriel Flynn, “Introduction: The Twentieth-Century Renaissance in Catholic Theology,” in Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, ed., Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 4.