The Theological Landscape Today
In the previous post, I claimed that the changes in church life and theology over the past few years offered, for the most part, good news. But if the news is good, what precisely is it about? To answer the question, let me step back in time. In the summer of 1967, a new magazine was launched, Mission. Its list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of great leaders of the past half-century. The impression one has in reading the early issues now is just how uncontroversial they seem. The academics and others who wrote it seemed to adhere to the basic theology of Churches of Christ fairly closely. (I leave to one side the infamous cartoon of Richard Nixon as a watch salesman on Fifth Avenue!) Page one of the first number describes the journal’s three purposes as “to explore thoroughly the scriptures and their meaning,” “to understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission,” and “to provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.” One might object to the hermeneutics of translation (kernel and husk) implied by the statements or note that the world was hardly as homogenous as the sentences imply, but, after all, journal prospectuses are not the usual venue for subtlety, and so we can overlook these faults, if such they are.
The curious and revolutionary part of the statement is its assumption that we do not yet know fully what the Bible teaches and that the world as we experience it requires serious interpretation. Both of these assumptions would seem to be givens today, but of course they have not always been. This is why, within two years of the launch of Mission, other Church of Christ leaders, also mostly academics, founded The Spiritual Sword. Page one of the first number of that journal set its course (by which it still sails, alas), by noting, “The church is faced with critical challenges,” and promising to “meet these challenges,” especially the “threat of Liberalism.” Their “defense of the faith” would “meet a specific and immediate challenge with a direct counter thrust of truth.” The language of “combat” (their word, not mine) pervades the earliest number of that journal, and in fact has until this day. So much for solidarity! And so much for reasoned discourse!
Now my goal here is not to stroll down memory lane, especially since it’s not even my own memory but a bit of history. I was just getting out of diapers when Mission was founded and was being taught in 1969 to avoid sharp objects, spiritual swords or not. My point is, rather, to note that Churches of Christ have for a long time had different approaches to theological education. One model sought to understand and engage the theological worlds of Scripture and whatever else we could manage, and the other believed itself to command Scripture and to be able to ignore all else, or perhaps better, to learn about it so as to convert it (rather as a general would know his enemy). It should be obvious with which approach my sympathies lie.
If we are to take the first tack stated so well by Mission and by my own teachers, we must ask where we are today. Only in this way can we “understand as fully as possible the world in which the church lives and has her mission,” and “provide a vehicle for communicating the meaning of God’s Word to our contemporary world.” This theological world differs very widely from that of the 1960s and 1970s, and the responses worked out then, I would argue, are almost completely irrelevant today. It seems to me that three significant movements inform Christianity around the world today, albeit in many variations. Taking account of them should shape our preparations for the many forms of ministry underway today.
The first is the healthy reclamation of tradition. The second is the reinvigoration of structures, especially the congregation. The third is renewed attention to spirituality. These strands cut across denominational and even religious lines, and they are in large measure responses to the moves of two generations ago as well as the profound corruptions deriving from secularization and the birth of a form of capitalism detached from its own social ends. The competing theological models that both mainline Protestants and evangelicals worked out in the 1960s are ill prepared to deal with these movements, in my view, though we can do better. Let me explain.
Movement #1: Reclaiming the Tradition. Some of the most exciting work going on in theology today centers on the reclamation of the Christian tradition. At some level, this is a reaction to the previous generation’s attempts at “modernization” and cultural accommodation to the secular city after the death of God. Whether we are speaking of a generous orthodoxy or critical realist reading strategies or canonical theism or the missional church, a major impetus to contemporary theology is the attempt to correct what is widely perceived as an excessive accommodation to one of several forms of modernity. The various post-critical reappropriations of the Bible are part of this move, as can be seen in many scholars’ work. But the task of reappropriation is much wider because it happens in the daily prayer lives of ministers, not just in faculty studies.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this move for the education of ministers and for their work in real-life churches. The curious thing about the history of Christianity is that the most ancient voices often speak most pertinently of the most contemporary issues. This is the great discovery of the past few decades.
It is also hard to know how a tradition like ours that began with an attempt to cut through tradition (talk about self-effacing strategy!) to find a pure Christianity in the words of the New Testament should respond.
To me, we should begin by acknowledging the utter failure of restorations as some of us have conceived of it. The belief of high modernism in its Protestant expression that one could peel away layers of accretions to find the pristine core simply has proven intellectually untenable and institutionally unsustainable. To be clearer, the focus on institutions and practices (a focus both conservative and liberal strands in the Stone-Campbell movement perpetuate) stripped of theological underpinnings has proven a serious error, not only because it ignores the interests of the Bible itself but because it seems to forget the role of the Bible as a trigger of the Christian imagination. In other words, the restorationism we inherited is based on a logical fallacy – the genetic fallacy – and it eliminates more than it preserves. It is an acid that dissolves too much.
At the same time, it is possible to construe restorationism in different ways, perhaps even in the language of Alexander Campbell himself, who wrote in the Christian System (p.110):
First. Nothing is essential to the conversion of the world, but the union and co-operation of Christians.
Second. Nothing is essential to the union of Christians, but the Apostles’ teaching or testimony.
Or does he [Campbell’s imagined interlocutor] choose to express the plan of the Self-Existent in other words? Then he may change the order, and say,
First. The testimony of the Apostles, is the only and all-sufficient means of uniting all Christians.
Second. The union of Christians with the Apostles’ testimony, is all sufficient, and alone sufficient, to the conversion of the world.
Neither truth alone, nor union alone, is sufficient to subdue the unbelieving nations; but truth and union combined, are omnipotent. They are omnipotent, for God is in them and with them, and has consecrated and blessed them for this very purpose.
We can still quibble with Campbell’s view of the Bible, but his goals deserve commendation. He and others like him sought to be part of a harmonious church focused on God’s leading so that they could bear witness to others of God’s great mercy and compassion for humankind. That vision still compels many Christians, regardless of their denominational affiliation. As many of us have found, in fact, Christians outside Churches of Christ often have greater interest in returning to the dynamic world of Scripture than some within it. All that is required to make a viable notion of restoration is the awareness that we have not yet arrived at the apostolic destination.
Movement #2: Reinvigorating Structures. The reclamation of values and ideas will inevitably lead to the rethinking of structures, and here some of our DNA is useful. One of the most important insights of the Stone-Campbell movement was its confidence in the local congregation and its belief that denominational structures, however light, should be tested by their ability to serve the local church in its most fundamental work. Perhaps we can take this congregationalism too far, but the basic orientation to the local community seems well-placed.
At the same time, we cannot merely be content with considering how to maintain basically well-functioning congregations. Rather, ours is a time of refurbishing the beautiful but decayed mansion we inherited. The need for renewal and the reexamination of cherished beliefs and practices that renewal presupposes should point us to the shape and content of our theological curriculum, both in the congregation and in the school of theology serving the church. Shrinking congregations that are often mono-racial and increasingly out of touch with their neighborhoods and the spiritual needs of younger people (who often have no stake in the congregation’s success or failure) pose a serious threat to the survival of our fellowship and its mission to the rest of the church and the world. We need to be honest about that. Projects of renewal that draw on the best of our past and deepen our vision of our future require vigorous leadership, the training of which is surely the task of our schools of theology.
Even more difficult will be the reclamation of a pan-congregational consciousness. The radical congregationalism that we inherited, which sees no legitimate structure between the all too real local gathering of the saints and the ethereal Church Universal, provides us few resources for renewal except those intimately linked to sectarianism. Can we imagine a collective identity that is not simply tribal or nostalgic, that does not depend on fear, family ties, or inertia, but seeks a worthy goal? This is a question for all of us, and how we answer it (indeed, how we ask it) will profoundly shape theological education for the next generation or more.
The seminary has the possibility of being a laboratory for real-world experimentation in church life. Rather than fostering in prospective ministers a mindset of fear of failure, good theological education can encourage and model behaviors, attitudes, and habits of mind and heart that promote vigorous church life in diverse and ever-changing environments. Congregations tend to value the status quo above all else, simply by their nature as communities of like-minded people sustaining relationships over time. Yet good theological education should aim at forming men and women who can help lead constructive change that organically grows out of the better instincts of the church.
Movement #3: Reclaiming Spirituality. Yet institutions quickly lose their sense of purpose unless they constantly renew their ties to the deeper values that created them in the first place. The widespread, cross-denominational turn toward prayer, fasting, acts of service in community, and the ordinances of baptism and communion mark a significant change in the contemporary church and a much needed correction of the disembodied Christianity of much of the evangelical world, including some parts of Churches of Christ. Younger people seek to live as authentic servants of Jesus Christ, and those who enter ministry seek environments in which they can lead others to be disciples, not in which they will be caretakers of institutions they did not build. Too many of us seem increasingly to believe that the congregation is a place in which they must silently avoid controversy so as not to upset the sleeping generations of Christians present there. It’s time to wake up.
In some sense, this wider spiritual turn reflects a deeper awareness of the emphases of Scripture itself and thus should be welcomed by a movement that sets such store by the words of the Bible. On the other hand, the turn also offers a major challenge to our churches, because the practices of Christian spirituality are often highly attenuated in most of them.
I see this complex mix of desires and ideas often with my students. They long to pray, and they long to serve. They desire to think deeply. They often have not learned to do so in their congregations or families. The school of theology must pick up much of that slack. Doing so requires deep reflection on curriculum, the formation of faculty, the relationships between congregations and the school, and other issues. Much of this reflection will require sustained work over long periods of time. But some of this work can begin today, now. All that is required is that we think about means and ends and how they relate. That relationship is the subject of the final post in this series, soon to come.
After ministering in churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Mark Hamilton completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University and moved to ACU in 2000. There he teaches courses in Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament. He has been a visiting professor at universities in the United States, South Korea, New Zealand, Croatia, Russia, and Ghana, and during 2014 was the Seymour Gitin Visiting Professor at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem. He preaches regularly in churches and writes curricula for adult Christian education programs. He also serves as an elder of the University Church of Christ in Abilene. Mark is author of more than 150 articles, chapters in books, and reviews. He is also the author or editor of five books, with two more in progress.