Theology of the Future

Bible scholars, theologians, and philosophers used to work together. N.T. Wright believes they need to do so again.
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.

For instance, the Logos Institute has been able to involve in its teaching and discussions theologians like Oliver Crisp, Sarah Coakley, Tom McCall, Alan Torrance, and Andrew Torrance; philosophical theologians such as C. Stephen Evans, Eleonore Stump, Peter van Inwagen, Linda Zagzebski, and Mike Rea; and exegetes such as David Moffitt, Amy Peeler, and Richard Bauckham.

The conversation being generated among these scholars is inspiring a new generation of young theologians. Among them is a significant contingent of women—remembering that women, throughout most of church history, have not been encouraged to participate in theological teaching and research. Under the leadership of Christa McKirland, we’ve established Logia, a sister organization within the Logos Institute, encouraging younger female scholars by modeling top-flight theological engagement.

Our task, then, is to understand in the clearest, most rigorous and profound ways we can—from the Bible and within Christian theology—what exactly the Christian faith teaches. For this, we need the best thinking from various disciplines, within a diverse community. The results of such study need to be interpreted in relation to all other aspects of life and disseminated appropriately into our often confusing world, which regularly throws up new questions while also circling back to the old ones.

The Three Disciplines

When exegetes, theologians, and philosophers address the big questions of God and the world through all these lenses together, what happens?

First, the Bible

Christian theologians and philosophers regularly claim that their thinking is grounded in Scripture. But they seldom pay the text the kind of close attention expected in contemporary biblical studies. This may owe something to the less than helpful teaching about the Bible that some have received, but it is still regrettable. Theologians’ engagement with Scripture often lapses into proof-texting, with little regard for the authors’ thought-worlds and original intentions.

This can allow Christian theology and philosophy to escape into mere speculation, grounded on nothing more than the researcher’s intuitions and some parts of post-biblical tradition. The inadequacies of this method are obvious: It is like trying to water a garden having first detached the hosepipe from the main tap. There may be some water left in the hose, but it won’t go far.

Contemporary biblical scholarship has, in fact, produced many exciting new insights that theologians and philosophers could pick up and develop. My own work, especially on Jesus and Paul, focuses on many issues that dovetail directly with larger theological questions. Few theologians will become experts in biblical scholarship, but biblical expertise must take its seat at the theological table. As in ground-breaking scientific research, collaborative teamwork is the name of the game.

Theology

The same is true in reverse: Biblical scholars need to engage with theologians. The demands of specialist study make this difficult. Biblical specialists are often nervous about what they see as ahistorical generalizations. But the biblical writers themselves never intended to provide a mere diary of their own musings. They wrote in faith and obedience, to edify and direct God’s people. Good historical scholarship should take full account of this.

History, after all, involves peering into the minds of people who think differently to ourselves, and that effort always involves sympathetic imagination. From this constant spiral of delight and knowledge there regularly arise both the sense of the text as other than ourselves and the sense of the text as nevertheless addressing us and, through us, our world. As with all such mental and spiritual events, this is a rich combination of art and science.

At this point the biblical scholar cannot ignore the fact that the theologians have wrestled with these wider meanings before us, hammering out larger frameworks of ideas and fine-tuning particular points. Theology, itself fed by biblical scholarship, feeds back again into biblical scholarship: raising questions, questioning assumptions, trying to interpret the full implications of original meanings, and seeking to bring all this into dialogue with the major issues of our own day.

Philosophy

Constructive, missional Christian thinking needs to communicate beyond the church, within the wider secular world. Here philosophers—and more broadly cultural critics—can render invaluable service in assessing the critical questions raised by Christian claims. A good example is the way in which Christian philosophers have helped believers to address the objections raised by the “four horsemen” of modern atheism (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris).

There are also the familiar modern challenges: What can we say about other faiths, for example, and how do we address the ongoing problem of evil? Then there are questions of knowledge itself: When someone quotes “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” what sort of knowledge is this, and can it be justified? Christian philosophers have done spectacular work in establishing the unparalleled explanatory power of Christian theism and in opening fresh vistas for theologians to explore.

In short, each of these three disciplines has a vital role to play in the vocation of Christian thought. If we are to engage faithfully and responsibly with the truth claims at the heart of Christian faith, it is crucial that more women and men pursue the interdisciplinary conversation between fields. Sharply focused study remains vital, but contemporary theological discussion is seriously hindered when specialization turns into isolation. For the sake of the church, it is my hope that this can change.

N. T. Wright is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest book is Paul: A Biography (HarperOne, 2018).

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