So What’s Left for Theology to Do? Some Musings about Theology’s Future

My previous post was about my perception that there is nothing new in theology; every idea has been proposed and explored. (Of course, I’m not counting totally crackpot ideas, but even those seem to be recycled.)

Theology has always had four main tasks. The first two are critical. First, theology examines teachings labeled “Christian” to discern whether they are or aren’t. Second, theology categorizes teachings/doctrines into levels of importance: essential, non-essential, opinion only.

The second two tasks are constructive. First (or third), theology attempts to create faithful doctrines that express in a unified way the truths of revelation which often are expressed (in revelation) in diverse ways. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is theology’s unification of biblical monotheism and testimony to three persons as God. The doctrine of the Trinity is not revealed; it is constructed out of revelation. Once it was constructed it became impossible to regard God any other way without doing violence to revelation. Second (or fourth),theology attempts to articulate those faithful and true doctrines in relevant ways to contemporary cultures–to make them intelligible to contemporary people.

If my previous post was correct, it would seem that the first constructive task is finished. Think of any “new” doctrine and I will tell you why it’s not new at all. (Okay, well, it might not be quite as simple or easy as that, but in most cases I or another historical theologian can show you that it has precursors.)

So what’s left for theology to do–beyond criticize and articulate? Where’s the creativity in contemporary theology–beyond simply re-stating old ideas in new, more relevant ways?

First, let me say that I remain open to the possibility of completely “new light” breaking forth from God’s Word. I’m just pessimistic about it ever being really new unless it involves a new revelation which is not what I’m talking about here (or in my previous post).

Second, I think some old ideas can be and are articulated in ways that make them more acceptable. Here I’m not just talking about “dressing.” I’m talking about alteration of how the old ideas are constructed. Let me give a couple examples.

When Gottfried Thomasius (d. 1875) proposed what came to be called “kenotic Christology” it was fraught with problems and widely rejected as seriously harming the doctrine of God if not the deity of Christ. However, English kenotic theologians such as Peter Taylor Forsyth (d. 1921) fixed those problems (e.g., in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ).

When so-called “open theism” first appeared among evangelicals in the late 20th century it had some serious defects. What was called open theism had been proposed before and those defects had hindered its acceptance by many sympathetic people. Greg Boyd, however, re-articulated open theism in a way that made it more acceptable because, as he articulates it, it isn’t about any limitation of God but about the future.

In my current opinion (open to change as these are just my musings), it is highly unlikely that any totally new ideas will emerge in Christian theology. (Notice I said “IN Christian theology” by which I exclude new ideas emerging from non-Christian cults, prophets, gurus, etc.) Everything has been proposed somewhere, sometime by someone. However, new life can be breathed into some older ideas by people like Forsyth and Boyd. I take it that is what Tom Wright is doing. So far I haven’t seen anything totally new in his writings and I don’t think he intends to propose anything totally new. What’s new is the brilliant and scholarly ways he “fixes” some of the problems of previously proposed ideas and the ways in which he supports them with biblical scholarship.

So what does the future of Christian theology look like? It will continue to perform its critical tasks. It will continue to explore traditional ideas/doctrines/models of God and attempt to make fruitful ones more intelligible and acceptable to faithful people of God. And it will attempt to find new ways to express traditional ideas/doctrines/models of God such as the Trinity so that they are understandable by contemporary people in many different culture.


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