I remember the moment vividly. While in seminary, I was talking to my hermeneutics professor about my future plans to study theology at the doctoral level. When the conversation turned to the actual content that I would write about, he said something that stunned me. “Theology always needs to be written,” he said. I was shocked when he said this because I was under the impression that it was possible to write the “once and for all” systematic theology that would address age-old dilemmas in a compelling way. After that was done, scholars of theology could focus on other matters. I soon learned that my view was naïve, since it assumed that in every place, at all times, the theological questions remained the same. That somehow, redeemed humans could understand everything about God perfectly once someone had put the correct “formula” on paper. Two millennia of theological discourse should have been enough, but it took several months after that conversation with my professor to bring home the ongoing nature of the task to me.
So, the work continues. What are some of the major concerns that we need to address, if the church is to increase its vitality and if Christians are to become more vigorous engagers of culture?
Let’s start with the beginning: the doctrine of creation. Neocalvinists feature creation as central to their theology of public engagement. But I am not convinced that a theology of creation stewardship in response to the cultural mandate has made significant head-way in the evangelical circles of which neocalvinism is a part. In fact, I would argue that the doctrine of creation has been hijacked by a fixation on “origins,” since the time of Darwin. While origins are important, we must go beyond the nature of beginnings and ask what our responsibility is in the creation that God has made.
One of the first items on the theological agenda must be further development of what it means to live as God’s people in God’s world. There is no excuse for complaining about the direction of society if we ignore our central role in it. If we adopt an attitude of “this world is not my home, I’m only passing through,” then we should repent of such a stance. While we are citizens of another kingdom, it does not entail neglect of our responsibility in creation. One way to reflect theologically on the matter is to consider developing the idea of the cultural mandate as the first great commission. Though Genesis 3 follows Genesis 1, fallenness does not obliterate the commission given as an aspect central to our human identity and practice. It’s just a lot harder because of depravity and the resulting imperfection of our socially formative efforts. Along with articulating our commission, we must continue to refine our explanations of common grace, particularly regarding outstanding questions about its ultimate purpose related to particular grace.
A second item on the theological agenda is the doctrine of the church. While I am not the first to lament the influence of consumerism on the nature and practice of church, I join others in expressing concern that the church exists as merely one more option on the cafeteria line (or mall display) of lifestyle choices. It’s tempting to make our understanding of the church analogous to social clubs, businesses, or entertainment centers. But giving in to that temptation would radically alter our understanding of the church as a place and community that births and nurtures disciples of Christ.
When church father Cyprian responded to the Novatianist controversy, “You cannot have God for your father if you do not have the church as your mother,” he had in mind a church that was unified and which functioned as the centre of identity formation. For especially non-sacramental traditions, there’s an acute challenge to conceive of church with anything near the grandeur of Cyprian’s vision. How can we further a healthy catholicity and spiritual formation? For the most part, it seems that people are discipled more easily by the market than by the church. Theologians must ask how we can best nurture and form the people of God so that the label “Christian” actually has meaning.
A third item is the place of the Spirit. While many scholars make the case that Pentecostalist and “charismatic” forms of the faith are the fastest-growing worldwide, there is still a pneumatological deficiency—a deficiency of attention given to the ministry of the Spirit. Though Pentecostalist and charismatic traditions emphasize an experience of the Spirit, the work of the Third Person of the Trinity is confined to the application of salvation. If we examine many systematic theological texts, from introductory to advanced, we find emphasis on the Holy Spirit lacking. There has been a number of thoughtful books written about the Spirit in the last two decades, but in evangelical quarters my sense is that the work of the Spirit is most often limited to the doctrine of sanctification, regardless of religious denomination.
As I wrote in my previous article, “The Spirit and institution-building” (Comment, August 2005), the Spirit has more to do with our faith beyond internal transformation. Our agenda in theology must include reflection on how we can be fully Trinitarian as opposed to functionally “binitarian.” More than a shy member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is central and vital to our understanding and practice of the faith, from creation to the eschaton. Even if one does not desire to emphasize the Spirit’s cosmic work, and limits the discussion to regeneration and sanctification, much work remains when we think in detail about how divine action and human action are related.
Fourth is the construction of theology that rectifies the deficiencies related to race and ethnicity. A friend once told me, “I don’t think evangelical theology is sufficient” to address the challenges of racism and poverty. I was hesitant to believe him, but now I am convinced that he is correct. I admit that I still find myself perplexed when I read the comments on race from Kuyper and from evangelical stalwarts like E. J. Carnell. In both cases they were unable to surmount the cultural undertow of racism in spite of expressing theological statements which affirmed the humanity of every person. Remaining perplexed is not sufficient, so I and other theologians must do more than lament the imperfections of our predecessors as we appropriate their legacy. How might we move forward? First, we can regard “liberation” as an acceptable theological category. It need not be confined to the works of Cone, Ruether, Gutierrez, et al. Instead, we must find ways to articulate the intersection between the realities of everyday life and God’s action in the world, without either collapsing the work of God into the exclusive interests of oppressed groups or limiting God’s action to a generic application to the details of our existence.
One key methodological task is arriving at the awareness of ways in which western post-Enlightenment culture has permitted the myth that “normal” equates with “whiteness.” This mythology influenced Kuyper, Carnell, and countless others, and led them to articulate theology that is quite good, but with blind spots that affect the doctrines of creation, anthropology, election, and many others. Raising the awareness that our context helps us to see some things well, and blinds us to others, is important lest we fail to see our own contextual imperfections and limitations as we engage in the theological task. To put this more positively, we need to focus on and employ the theological resources that are present in the great tradition of the church so that these blind spots are addressed.
If we fail at this task, many ethnic minorities have no recourse except to the more typical forms of liberation theology, or to be happy with an evangelical theology that validates the status quo. As a person who regards the Kuyperian tradition as indispensable, I know that I continually have to do a lot of work to demonstrate, for example, that Kuyper’s thought is not racist at its core. I can only do this by exposing the failures of the tradition and by providing a remedy that makes the best of Kuyper’s legacy as one that unquestioningly includes all people (without using election as an excuse for why some people are beneath us). It is hardly neocalvinism alone that must do this. As noted above, evangelical theology is also deficient, perhaps more so.
It is impossible to talk about everything that must be done in theology in this limited space, but I hasten to note at least two other directions that are absolutely vital. First, work must continue toward a theology of the arts that affirms not only artists, but musicians, actors, and others whose vocations express the complexity of creation and human experience. A great gulf between artists and the church is still open. I am encouraged by bridge builders such as Calvin Seerveld, William Dyrness, Makoto Fujimura, and Jeremy Begbie, but the divide is large and we need many to continue the great construction project. The second area is the world of business. How do entrepreneurs, CEOs, and managers think about their task in such a way that faith truly permeates their vocation? How does Christianity speak to the realities ranging from the boardroom to the mailroom? A pious veneer (“I pray before the day begins”) is insufficient. The Work Research Foundation is in the middle of this vital area which needs ongoing reflection, and David Miller’s Faith at Work project at Yale is also on the leading edge.
There is even more to be done, but I have set forth areas that I believe require considerable attention on the theological agenda. I hope theologians, whether lay or professional, will resonate with what I’ve said and set themselves to the great work that lies ahead.