N.T. Wright on the Theology of the Future

Image: Illustration by Sarah Gordon

Stop thinking like children.” Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians is even more urgent for us today. Though they should be like little children when it came to evil, he insisted they should be grown-ups when it came to thinking. To that end, Paul constantly tried to teach people not only what to think but how to think. This remains vital. The various disciplines grouped together as “theology” or “divinity” are uniquely positioned to continue this project.

People today often comment about the decline of civil, reasoned conversation in all walks of life. Theology has an opportunity to model a genuinely interdisciplinary conversation of the sort we urgently need, not least because in its very nature it ought to bridge the gap between the academy and the larger world.

The great theologians of the past—such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin—all tried to bring the Bible, philosophy, and theology into a shared conversation. As each of these fields advances, they need one another all the more.

The Challenge of Our Time

Despite what cynical critics think, the Christian faith is growing and expanding. The Pew Research Center estimates that there will be 3 billion Christians by 2050, most of these in countries with little opportunity for further or higher education and minimal seminary provision. But without rigorous theological study, in its widest senses, the global church will be vulnerable to distorted or lopsided teaching. In particular, it will not be equipped to address the big questions that the wider world is asking and that emerge in new forms with every generation and every cultural shift.

Those familiar with some of the more negative theological writing and biblical scholarship of earlier generations, often skeptical and destructive in tone, may wonder whether anything helpful can now emerge from such disciplines.

What’s more, ever-increasing academic specialization has meant that the different disciplines carry on in isolation. Biblical study, including biblical theology, often operates as though systematic, historical, and philosophical theology don’t exist. Theologians, in turn, ignore historical biblical studies, sometimes giving the excuse that they are studying Aquinas or Augustine (or whomever) and that since those great men read their Bibles intensively that is enough.

Thus, not surprisingly, when scholars from different fields sit in on one another’s seminars, we sometimes wonder what on earth is going on. This is a problem both for the disciplines themselves and for the kind of outward-facing theological study that might bring creative, constructive help both to churches and to ordinary Christians around the world. We must address these problems if we are to embrace the opportunities before us.

Forty years ago, most academic philosophers would have laughed at the suggestion that Christian theism might explain and address the big questions of life, the world, suffering, and so on. That laughter has turned to appreciation, as the earlier assumed atheism now appears more problematic.

A new movement, “analytic theology,” has emerged from the previously skeptical tradition of analytic philosophy. Still in its early stages, this movement uses the sharp tools of critical thought to articulate the faith rather than deconstruct it. It aims at transparency, accountability, clarity of expression, rigorous analysis, and logical argumentation.

Likewise, many theologians in the 1960s and 1970s assumed an “Enlightened” critique of traditional beliefs. Many today have turned that skeptical spotlight back onto the Enlightenment itself, proposing fresh ways of expressing old beliefs.

The same is at least partly true in biblical studies. Some earlier scholars tried to cut down the Bible to fit 18th-century presuppositions. Now those presuppositions themselves are under scrutiny—not so that we might go back to an unthinking fundamentalism but so that we can explore in a more open-minded way what the texts were saying in their own time.

These are all signs of hope. And yet, without some attempt at integration, they may end up singing their solo parts instead of joining together to make the rich harmony that could reshape the music of faith around the world. We give lip service to interdisciplinary work, but few academics have the time or the interest to look beyond their own fields.

Some programs, however, are working to integrate theology with other disciplines, including for instance those at Duke Divinity School, Fuller Seminary, and Wheaton College in the United States; Durham and Oxford Universities in Britain; and the University of Innsbruck in Austria. But few programs attempt what we badly need: the collaboration of scholars of the Bible, philosophy, and theology.

Signs of Hope

At my own institution, the University of St Andrews, the recently founded Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology is trying to foster this sort of collaboration. The institute offers a unique approach to theological study, bringing systematic theology, biblical study, and philosophy into conversation.

The aim is to address the big questions of faith in the wider world. What does the word God mean? Who or what might the word refer to? What does it mean to be human? What can and must we say about Jesus? About creation—about the origin of the world and about the world itself? What do traditional Christian claims about reconciliation actually mean in practice as well as theory? And with all of these: How do we know? Is there a special kind of in-house Christian knowledge, or can anyone join in?

Much recent systematic theology has come at these questions obliquely by studying the great minds of the past. That is vital. We cannot reinvent the wheels bequeathed to us by older writers, even if some of the axles may be damaged and some spokes missing.

Equally, biblical specialists sometimes imply that once we have discovered what Matthew, Hosea, or whoever was really saying, we have done our job. This may still leave the reader wondering what these ancient ideas might mean in today’s very different world.

Of course, those who believe in the authority of Scripture would affirm that the Bible is on a higher plane than subsequent theologians, however venerable. But to work out what that means requires many minds on the job. Fortunately, we are now seeing many leading scholars addressing this challenge. This is a further sign of hope.

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Source: Christianity Today