Theologians are turning to the God who meets us where we are.
It is increasingly apparent that a shift in theological focus has again occurred in the West. In the 1950s the predominant interest was in Christology. Influenced both by the biblical theology movement and by Karl Barth, Christian theologians centered their thinking on the second person of the Trinity. This was the case for us evangelicals as well.
In the 1960s, Christian reflection tended to turn on the one hand to the person of God the Father, and on the other to the nature of the church. In its most radical form, liberal theology considered the death of God. Altizer, Van Buren, and John A. T. Robinson of Honest to God fame were widely read. But even in its more conservative manifestations, there was widespread interest in the transcendence of God. Perhaps as a means of providing some balance, theologians also increasingly commented on the role of the church. George Webber’s God’s Colony in Man’s World (1960) and Mark Gibbs and T.R. Morton’s God’s Frozen People (1964) were widely influential.
This in turn led in the 1970s to a focus on the nature and ministry of the Holy Spirit. The charismatic renewal movements came into full power. Pentecostals began to take theological reflection more seriously. Book after book concerning the Holy Spirit was published. The shift was so pronounced that Thomas Smail, editor of Britain’s Theological Renewal, felt compelled to write at the end of the decade a book entitled The Forgotten Father.
Now, as we move into the 1980s, a change has again taken place. It is not that God the Son, God the Father, or God the Holy Spirit is any less central to Christian theology. We remain committed to a triune God. Similarly, God continues to speak through his church. Nevertheless, the cutting edge of theological reflection has moved from the divine to the human. The God-intended shape of human life has become the overarching concern of evangelicals and ecumenicals alike.
Evidence for this fact is as diverse as (1) the sociologically oriented biblical studies of Norman Gottwald and Wayne Meeks, (2) Wolfhart Pannenberg’s “theology from below,” (3) Ron Sider’s ethical reflections on nuclear holocaust, (4) Henri Nouwen’s books on the psychology of the Christian life, (5) Robert Roberts’s Spirituality and Human Emotion (1983), (6) Lewis Smedes’s book on the second tablet of the Decalogue (the part concerned with human relationships), (7) Richard Foster’s Freedom of Simplicity (1981), and (8) the countless books on the family that continue to be written by James Dobson, Kevin Leman, Norman Wright, and Gary Collins.
Evangelicals have traditionally been suspicious of a theological concentration upon the human. To begin with “creature” rather than “Creator” has been considered dangerous, a form of natural theology. However, evangelicals are recognizing that this need not be the case. One recalls Jesus’ comment, for example, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
The importance of human issues in current theological discussion was highlighted for me by three Christian gatherings I attended last summer. The first event was an informal meeting of evangelical church leaders. Coming together for personal reflection and sharing, with no larger agenda in mind, three dozen leaders from a cross section of evangelical Christian colleges, seminaries, and parachurch organizations, together with a sprinkling of pastors, brainstormed concerning the future of the church. Time and again throughout the three days of interaction I was struck by the importance attached to the topic of humanity. Ethical responsibility, the role of women, peace, self-esteem, abortion, the nature of the family, the threat of technology to the human spirit, the importance of nurturing the soul—such concerns made the shape of human life the spontaneous theological focus of the conference.
Late in the summer I attended the World Council of Churches meeting in Vancouver as an accredited visitor. The theme for the conference was “Jesus Christ, the Life of the World.” Traditionally the WCC has chosen its organizing themes with one eye tilted toward the historic faith and the other toward the contemporary scene. In Nairobi in the 1970s, for example, the topic was “Jesus Christ Divides and Unites.” This was during the era when confrontation between First and Third World Christians was pronounced. This year, however, discussion centered on the meaning of life in our modern age—“life in Christ” to be sure, but nevertheless life.
My third summer conference was the annual meeting of the Evangelical Covenant Church. As the keynote speaker for the gathering, Robert Schuller gave a theological rationale for his own ministry. Schuller challenged the leaders of the Covenant church to take seriously the implications of the Incarnation for our day: the theocentric must become anthropocentric. There is nothing wrong with Christian humanism, he argued. “If we are to succeed in missions, we must be willing to be secular. When the sacred becomes secular, then God can work. The danger in such a strategy, of course, is that the church will become a country club and theology will become pop psychology. But the church that fails to identify with people’s concerns will die. It will be so heavenly that it is of little earthly good.”
Without becoming sidetracked in a discussion of the relative merits of the WCC or Bob Schuller, we can draw several conclusions from this theological shift to the God-intended shape of human life. First, if the emphasis in our Christian reflection is increasingly on the human spirit rather than on the Holy Spirit, we will need to rethink our apologetics. We might need to start more from the world than from the Word. Our argument may well move more from “man” to God than vice versa, and from Jesus the true human to Jesus as divine. This has been, for example, the approach of Karl Rahner, whose discussion of the human capacity for transcendence precedes his analysis of grace.
I am not suggesting a “natural” theology. A turn to the human subject need not imply a denial or downplaying of the divine Subject. Surely God in Christ is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. But our knowledge of him need not always be our starting point. The old distinction between the ordo essendi (the order of being) and the ordo cognoscendi (the order of knowing) is relevant here.
A second implication centers on the nature of church life. To use Robert Schuller as an illustration, a recent IRS ruling wrongly denied his church tax-exempt status because it was involved in activities deemed too worldly by the IRS—that is, the church was involved in sponsoring profit-making concerts, aerobics classes, and similar activities. But such will be an important ingredient of Christian community and witness in the 1980s. Who, for example, is better than the church to create a healthy context for single adults (widowed, divorced, never married) to meet each other and develop friendships? Churches will need to take seriously the importance of recreation and community involvement. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is leading the way with its specialized degree in church recreation.
A third area of increased concern will be in the field of social ethics. If God created men and women in his image and saw that it was good, must the church not become involved “politically,” whether in lobbying for the family or in arguing for peace in the world? From the Moral Majority to the World Council of Churches, Christians are entering the struggle for a more just world. As the WCC’s sixth assembly concluded: “Since Jesus Christ healed and challenged the whole of life, so we are called to serve the life of all.” Certainly the church’s social agenda will differ radically depending on whether one listens to Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell or WCC’s Philip Potter, but the fact of Christian political involvement seems an undebatable issue in the 1980s.
Theology’s turn toward the human has its consequences even with regard to biblical studies. Although I have been convinced for some years that Old Testament Wisdom literature is the best biblical window for post-Christian Americans to hear the good news of the gospel, few others have agreed with me—until recently. Now Wisdom literature is experiencing a renaissance of interest. The Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are rooted in God the Creator and are centered in observations concerning the contours of successful life. As Roland Murphy has suggested, the “kerygma” of the Book of Proverbs is life.
In these ways and others, Christian theology is helping the church restructure its life and witness. Basing its understanding of the human in the doctrines of Creation and Incarnation, the theology of the 1980s is focusing on the shape of human life: first the human, then the divine; first the secular, then the sacred. We evangelicals would have rejected such an approach in the 1950s as heretical. It might be discarded in the 1990s as inappropriate to the times. But for the moment, it is an ongoing witness to Christianity’s incarnational perspective. God continues to stop to meet us where we are.
Dr. Johnston is dean of North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, and author of The Christian at Play (Eerdmans, 1983).
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