Future directions in systematic theology

Future directions in systematic theology – there’s a title that invites a big answer. I am going to start though by giving you a modest account of what is being done, and from that we can see what there is to look forward to. I am going to give my answer in terms of three theologians you may well have met for yourself, and then a fourth who is not so well known.

Let me say right away that the short answer is that the future of systematic theology is political, and that that means public. It is no more about religion as a way of talking about the emotional inner life of the individual. Now it can be publicly challenging and challengeable. The future of systematic theology is escape from Kant. Christian thought is systematically engaged in encounter with, and in confrontation of, other systems of ideas. If it is good to talk, it is also important to disagree, and do so honestly, and not to suggest that underneath our differences we are really trying to say the same thing. We do not all share the same essential beliefs, and to insist we do prevents public debate of public issues. Instead there can be a real encounter and contest of world-views, and that is what I mean by political.

To outline where systematic theology is going I want to say something about its current best practice. I am going to limit myself to three theologians who all work in the UK, all producing what we could call political theology. They are Tom Wright, Oliver O’Donovan and John Milbank. Tom Wright is a historian of the New Testament, O’Donovan a historian of the Christian tradition from the beginnings to the seventeenth century, while Milbank deals with the modern period.
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The Descent of the Son

God comes to us. The Son has set out to fetch us. We need two accounts of this coming. We need an account of the coming of the Son to us. And we need an account of the coming into being of the Son. The coming into being of the Son is the growing up of mankind. This is the account Irenaeus gives us. Then we need a subsidiary account of the resistance man puts up, an account of his idleness and reluctance, and thus of sin and fall. Augustine provide this account. We need our main plot from Irenaeus, in which the Son comes to us and we grow up to be members of the Son. And we need our sub-plot from Augustine to show the actual event of his taking on and dealing with our lost and vicious condition. Then we have to relate these two accounts. The first is the account of Adam who starts out as a child, but did not grow up with, or cling to his head and master. He is led and misled. He became a people without a leader, a body without a head, a group without definition or determination. He fell into torpor and delusion, and was for a long time lost. He failed properly to name and locate all creatures over which he was to exercise dominion. Instead he began to dislocate them, creating for himself all sorts of frightening, imaginary powers to whom he was increasingly in hock. The second account is of another version of Adam, the obedient son, who receives his discipline and as a result does grow up. This new Adam is that humanity headed and led by Christ, that receives its whole definition from Christ. This is the journey of the obedient Son, made the criterion of man, and constitutive of our humanity.

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The Holy Spirit and the other spirits

God is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the God of Israel who raised Jesus from the dead. There are other spirits. Spirits may be understood as natural forces, some moral authorities. Some of these authorities are institutions, so nations, their legal systems and governments, empires, their rulers and their figureheads. Where these authorities are not themselves under authority, we can refer to them as gods, the gods of nations other than Israel. When these step beyond the bounds set for them, we may also call them idolatrous, and even demonic. These spirits are not insubstantial and ethereal. Their impact on us is real. Only the gospel of Christ can either give them their proper role, or rid us of them.

The Holy Spirit makes a world for us. This world is composed of things which together represent the hospitality of God, and his invitation to pass that hospitality on, and exercise it for one another. So God, the Holy Spirit, makes things physical for us. The Spirit makes the body, and indeed many bodies, and he makes the letter, and he makes the law, the Scripture, and the many words of God, some invitations, some commands. As long as these are sourced from the Spirit, and return to him to be refreshed by him, they are good. When they are withheld from him, they decay and cease to be what he made them. The Holy Spirit supplies us also with order and instruction, guides and guidelines, rules and institutions, forms of public order and worship. The Spirit is not against the letter, or the institution, or tradition or ritual. He creates, sustains and renews them. He is not responsible only for the spontaneity, but also for the continuity and reliability of all that is. We can talk about the Spirit only by talking about the continuum of this world with heaven as the act, and the economy of the acts, of the hospitality of God. We talk about the Spirit by talking about the world as the act of his hospitality.
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