It is rare these days for a theologian to write a full systematic theology—a complete inventory of their theological understanding of all major areas of Christian doctrine and how they relate to one another. Rarer still is someone who incorporates disciplines outside theology into their thinking. Even rarer yet is an individual who can complete such an ambitious project relatively quickly.
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, has done just that, completing the final volume of his systematic theology in 2017, just five years after finishing the first volume. Unique to his five-volume work is its interdisciplinary focus and its intentional engagement with the pluralistic world of the 21st century. Christianity Today recently asked Kärkkäinen about his life, his ambitious systematic theology, and the future of evangelical theology.
You are currently professor of systematic theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and docent of ecumenics in the faculty of theology at the University of Helsinki in Finland. What led you here?
I was hugely influenced by my mother’s devoted Christian life in my early teenage years. She always has been a very pious person. By birth she was a Lutheran, but she found her primary spiritual home in Pentecostalism but without leaving behind Lutheranism. I think this is why I still consider myself a “hybrid Christian” or a “Lutherocostal.” Very early in my life, it seemed to me that my contribution to world missions would be in teaching and later in research. I taught theology in Thailand as a full-time college professor (I am fluent in Thai). I still consider this kind of missionary work as very important, although we usually think of missionaries as grassroots work.
At one point in your life, you decided to move to the US and teach theology there. What were the dynamics behind this move?
I would call it a blessed accident. I was called back from Thailand to Finland in the early 1990s to help to re-establish a theological college. After that, we were planning to go back to Thailand, but at that time some of my friends from Fuller, where I did my MDiv, alerted me that there was an opening. I even sent in my application after the deadline, but totally unexpectedly (at least for me) I was hired to teach systematic theology here. I never planned my life like this. I would be happy to teach in Thailand.
You describe yourself as “hybrid Christian” or a Lutherocostal.” Can you elaborate on these terms?
Although I started my “professional” Christian life as a Pentecostal, I never understood it as renouncing my Lutheranism. I even had dual membership until our children were born. So, when six or seven years ago the current bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America contacted me to help in churches in California and Texas, it was so natural for me to accept the invitation. And now, that I have been ordained in the Lutheran church, I do not renounce my Pentecostalism. For me to be a “hybrid Christian” means that I have both Pentecostal and Lutheran identity. I currently serve Lutheran churches both in California and Texas.
Why do you think that systematic theology is still important?
I often say that the task of systematic theology, at its widest, is to provide a comprehensive Christian vision of the world and of God. And as part of the vision, you need to formulate, at least tentatively, major doctrines. But systematic theology is not only about the doctrine. It is also helping contemporary Christians to construct a worldview and a vision of the world. In this I follow Thomas Aquinas, who said that the object of theology is God and everything in relation to God.
Since God is the creator of everything, systematic theology has to deal with everything. Therefore, I consider interdisciplinary and interreligious work as a deeply theological work. I know that most of my colleagues don’t agree, but I believe that this is the way theology will be done when I am gone. Simply because this is the right way to do theology. My ultimate aim is to construct and defend a viable Christian vision for the sake of the contemporary religiously pluralistic and secular world. Hence, rightly understood, good systematic theology is also apologetic by its very nature as it seeks to show the viability of the Christian view of the world in relation to God.
What do you think about the future of Christianity?
We know that the two major poles of Christianity will be Roman Catholicism and Pentecostal-Charismatic and independent churches. Eastern Orthodoxy also continues to be important in some parts of the world. I think that the role of classical Protestantism will continue to diminish. My own Lutheran Church of America is a good example. It is becoming part of the mainstream liberalist establishment. Member-wise, it is getting smaller and smaller, but because we have money and education our voice is still loud, and we still set the agenda, but not for long. Meanwhile, the world biggest Lutheran churches now are in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Indonesia.
I also would like to point out that Christianity has been masterful in adjusting to new contexts. I agree with Wolfhart Pannenberg, who said that Christianity is a synchronistic religion. Not in the sense that it doesn’t have its own identity but that it is able to cope with great challenges. I appreciate the desire of conservative theologians to hold onto the past, but they are going to miss the train if they don’t open up to new ways of doing theology.
What do you think about the future of seminaries?
The established denominations in the US are combining and closing seminaries as we speak. However, I think this is good for theological education. The future of theological education in the world would be something like what Fuller is but in mini scale. Christendom-driven, European, public university theological education is going to disappear. They will give way to the American type of church-founded, church-sponsored, fairly small theological seminaries. Plus, this is the only way you can do seminary education in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Some large universities, like Harvard, Princeton, perhaps Cambridge in the UK, might keep higher theological education alive but only for cultural reasons. These places will become more and more religious studies departments. The place of my other appointment in the faculty of theology at the University of Helsinki is a good example. It currently functions as a faculty of religious studies but in a totally secular setting. In addition, the only way to keep theological education financially and academically sustainable is to make it totally ecumenical. In the context of a wider ecumenical setting, you may still focus on, for example, Methodist, or Presbyterian education. Here, again, Fuller is a good example.
Is your work for scholars only or also for laypeople?
The five-volume work is for scholars and theology students. Hopefully, its impact will be conveyed to the lay folks in the church through preaching and teaching. As a follow-up, I have just finished two textbooks, which make the massive, almost 3,000-page materials available to colleagues, students, ministers, and interested lay leaders. The first one is titled Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World: A Global Introduction (Eerdmans, 2019). This is a 600-page textbook. It provides a much shorter and less technical summary, made accessible to readers.
The other one, Christian Theology as Comparative Theology: A Primer for the Pluralistic World (Eerdmans, 2019) is a 280-page textbook that introduces the ways Christian theology can be compared with teachings of other religions. It takes ten core Christian doctrines from revelation and the Trinity to all the way to ecclesiology and eschatology and provides an accessible comparative dialogue with corresponding teachings of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. As a side-product, it also includes a primer on the main teachings of these four living faiths.
Why do you think your work matters?
My five-volume work is the first time in the history of theology to attempt to set forth a full-scale Christian doctrine in light of not only all Christian materials but also other living faiths, as well as relevant natural and behavioral sciences. Anyone interested in the ways Christian vision speaks to theological issues—both traditional, for example the Trinity and Christology, or more recent ones like sexism, violence, environment, and peace—would do well to study my writings.
My work not only challenges the limitations of all other theological projects so far but also provides a viable, constructive alternative. Unfortunately, I have a hard time finding fellowships or funding for my projects (including the big five-volume work) because my approach is so different from others. Routinely I heard over the years that what I was attempting cannot be done, and if it could be, it would take too long a time. The five-volume project was written in five years, although prepared, of course, for many more years.
You recently have been criticized on the grounds that your theological work is weak in its use of Scripture. How would you respond to this charge?
I believe that every Christian systematic theology has to be based on careful and critical consultation with biblical teaching. But, unlike too much of traditional and even contemporary evangelical theology, my work is not to be equated with simply collecting and ordering biblical passages to formulate a doctrine; that would be simply a form of biblical theology.
In my view, systematic theology also has to incorporate into its argumentation historical and contemporary theological views, as well as cultural, interdisciplinary, and interreligious views. Hence, rightly understood, systematic theology also has to go beyond—but never against—questions and teachings available in the Bible. Let me illustrate this. A contemporary doctrine of creation has to raise the questions of, for example, evolutionary sciences, physics, and cosmology, which are totally unknown to the biblical data. Or a contemporary theological anthropology also deals with neurosciences and evolutionary biology, as well as some behavioral sciences.
To put it in another way, we are asking many questions that the Bible doesn’t, and I think it’s biblical to do so. I resist limiting the scope of systematic theology. When it comes to my five-volume systematic theology, it also depends on the topic. When I am talking about the image of God or Christology or atonement and Holy Spirit, I do a very careful biblical investigation, but always in the service of systematic argumentation.
I also would like to add that no mainstream Protestant, Anglican, or Catholic would ever critique me for weak biblical bases. On the contrary, I often receive words from the liberal and Catholic side that I am widely and deeply steeped not only in Christian tradition but also in scriptural tradition. They consider my work something similar to [Jürgen] Moltmann’s in the sense that it is widely biblically based. Even though I believe in the authority of Scripture and Moltmann doesn’t.
What’s next for you? What do you think the future of theology is?
I am planning in the near future to write even less technical and more popular, shorter books for a wider audience on selected themes discussed in detail in the big project. With humility, I believe that something like what I have attempted might be the future of Christian systematic theology. I am concerned that much of evangelical theology is still done by aging white men, or at least, following their agenda and directions. The voice of the global church is not heard in the theological academia, often not even the voice of women.
Most theology is done for a world that does not exist anymore and deals only with the questions of the past. It is an enormous challenge for theologians to learn the basics of other religions and sciences to be able to attempt a constructive theology for the sake of the third millennium’s highly complex world. Roman Catholics and “liberal” Protestants are doing much better in this regard. Personally, I will be continuing the kind of constructive Christian theology with interdisciplinary and interreligious orientation represented by my five-volume project. Right now I am starting a new big project in the intersection of theological anthropology and eschatology.