Douglas F. Ottati
A Theology for the Twenty-First Century
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.
Available from Eerdmans
Reviewed by Scott Harrower
Readers may know Douglas F. Ottati is the author of Theology for Liberal Presbyterians and Other Endangered Species (2006), and more recently Theology for Liberal Protestants: God the Creator (2013). In A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Ottati fleshes out these two previous volumes, with an ecological and ethical accent. The result is a substantial work of 749 pages plus notes.
The work has a novel structure compared to most standard volumes of systematic theology. The work opens with a list of 67 propositions. These are grouped into the chapters that argue for each one. So, for example, chapter 1 “A Conception of Christian Theology,” contains 18 propositions, with #1 being: “Christian theology is a practical wisdom that articulates vision of God, the world, and ourselves in the service of a piety, a settled disposition, and a way of living” (XIII).”
The work has twelve chapters, the most weighty in terms of the number of propositions are the first two “A Conception of Christian Theology,” and “The Formation and Arrangement of Theological Statements” respectively, as well as chapter 10 “Human Life: Sin and Regeneration.”
In the work’s opening section the author states he will work from an Augustinian, Protestant, liberal and humanist perspective. However, in practice, the liberal-humanist perspectives override the bulk of classic Augustinian-Protestant sensibilities about the nature of God, human beings, salvation, healing, and eternal destinies.
Noteworthy features of the work have to do with the dogmatic location of the doctrine of God and with the doctrine of the Trinity more specifically. In terms of the doctrine of God, Ottati displaces the bulk of his doctrine of God from the starting point for theology; instead by a cosmic-ecological existentialist in the context of generalized theism are the starting point for the volume. Driven by cosmic-ecological and humanist concerns, this work reads much less than a work of theology and more life a work of ethics.
With respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, it is only treated in an epilogue of a meagre 8 pages. In this epilogue, Ottati acknowledges that his position is “at odds” with mainline Protestant theology in terms of believing that there are three eternal hypostases who are identified with the divine nature: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (742). He writes: “the New Testament may be read to affirm that Father, Son and Spirit are working in the same direction to bring about … life but [I] would add that one may read it this way without assuming what … is not articulated so clearly in the New Testament, namely, that God, Christ, and the Spirit are ‘of the same divine rank’” (743). Instead of classic conciliar trinitarianism and christology, Ottati argues for “trinitarian reflections,” which are tantamount to a form of Unitarianism in the spirit of Friedrich Schleiermacher. He states these basic of these reflections in the form of his own creed:
“We believe in God the Father, the all-ruling creator who bestows gifts of existence, life, and sustenance in this good cosmos of interdependent creatures and things. We believe in Jesus Christ, the ec-centric person for others, who marks off a manner in life that accords with God’s reign, and we trust in the Spirit, who renews ec-centirc existence” (747).
Though Ottati consciously seeks to avoid a trinitarian theological interpretation of Scripture, the metaphysical complexities found in other recent liberal-critical volumes such as Wilfried Härle’s Outline of Christian Doctrine: An Evangelical Dogmatics (2015), and confidence in the historical processes involved in ecumenical conciliarism, this comes at a significant price form the perspective of Christian theology. Clearly, the depth of both the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation are largely lost. In addition, the kinds of conversations that Ottati can legitimately have with creedal Christians is very limited, and this seems to largely diminish the value of this book –it is a marginal work that cannot be brought into robust discussions with ecumenical Christians. Surely mainline Protestant Christianity deserves a more fruitful theological volume than this one. Indeed, the success of Fleming Routledge’s The Crucifixion indicates that there is an appetite for mainline Protestant theology in its best form, which suggests that there is room in the theological landscape for a Routledge-esque mainline Theology for the Twenty-First Century.
Scott D. Harrower is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia