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.


Tom Wright is a New Testament scholar who has taught in all sorts of places, but no university has ever held on to him, and he is now in Durham, employed as bishop. He writing a series of books, the last volumes of which have been called ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, and ‘The Resurrection and the Son of God’. He writes rapidly, with an extraordinary clarity, giving lots of critical apparatus so anyone can see where he is coming from, who he is in dialogue with, and can learn from him all about the history of New Testament studies. Wright insists that he is an historian, operating within the historical critical paradigm that Milbank dislikes. Wright breaks none of its rules, but he makes them work to show a convincing Jesus Christ.

Wright tells us that Jesus is Jewish. Jesus is claiming to be the rightful ruler of the people of Israel, the real king David. This kingdom of Israel has been set up by its God to show all nations how to live, and to do so in relationship with their Creator. Israel has to demonstrate the rule of God as the standard against which all human life can be compared, to make sure that no one is getting less than they should. The kings and gods of other nations do not look after their people and no longer under proper control. Only the God of Israel can bring these gods and rulers back under control, and either make them good rulers, or remove them from office. The gospel is the announcement of this new king who challenges the pagan kings and gods. So the proclamation that Jesus is messiah, Christ, is the announcement that God has sent his man to be the real ruler of the world. Pagan idolatry has been publicly defeated, in the cross of Jesus, and all peoples are summoned to give allegiance to the king of Israel, the umpire and arbiter of all other political authorities.

Now this represents a good fifty years of research that reunites Jesus with the people of Israel. Wright’s particular contribution is to reunite Jesus and the Old Testament, the agenda of the people of Israel, so Jesus really sets in motion what the patriarchs and prophets have been looking forward to. The revolution here is that this account of the Christian people does not cut out the people of Israel, but says their loyalty to God is a function of God’s loyalty to them, and the only way to get to God for us is through these people, the people named in the Scriptures, the people of Israel.

For a long while the Church tried to have Jesus without Israel, to have the king without his kingdom and all its subjects. But it also knew that this was to try to separate the New Testament from the Old Testament, and so to divide what God holds together. The agenda driving part of the critical scholarship of the last 200 years has been to show that the Church were wrong about Jesus. It wanted to show that he was either himself mistaken, or misrepresented by the Church, being a moral champion who achieved a merely moral victory against institutional religion. All this was a way to protest at the Church, particularly in its cosy alliance with the state, and a way to say that the state does not have the authority it assumes, and is wrong to deny us our part in the political process.

Let me draw some quick conclusions. He has put Jesus back with his people, as the one who establishes their identity as the people of God. Now to push this little further than Wright himself does, we can say that their king establishes their diversity and their unity. The Western philosophical tradition is always trying to simplify things by filtering out all the complexity, the crowds, the people. But you can’t have Jesus except with Mary, and Martha, and James and John, and equally with Abraham and Moses and David. Christ is their man, and remains their man. Only because this communion and plurality is permanently established can we know that there is a life for the whole people of God into which the Gentiles – that is the Christians – are now included.

We can also say therefore that Christian doctrine is not only arguing about texts and propositions, it is about arguing for a particular community and its form of life. The point of theology is life as well truth – life lived together. Because of its witness to this particular Christian form of life, Christianity has a distinct, irreplaceable contribution to make which all other public and political discourse can benefit from. In my answer to the future of theology, Wright stands for listening to Scripture.


My next theologian is Oliver O’Donovan, professor of pastoral theology in Oxford. His big book is ‘The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of Political Theology’. O’Donovan sets out to rediscover what it means to say that ‘God is king’. God does not leave us to the tender mercy of our leaders and politicians. He is their ruler. They are responsible to him. When they do not rule us well we can appeal over their heads to God – we can pray to him – and he will dismiss them. Theology that is obedient to God must be done in the face of those political authorities, and often against their resistance. Christians have to name those illegitimate entities, centres of authority and modes of personhood that exercise a hidden power over us.

O’Donovan thinks that until, let us say, four hundred years ago, it was well enough understood that God is a ruler. Now it seems less obvious, with the result that modern people don’t know how to give or take authority. They don’t know how to tell one another what to do, or how to be told what to do. Moderns are driven by resentment – though it is difficult for them to say who they resent, who can be blamed for the way things are. They don’t know what to do with other people, because they define themselves in opposition to other people. They tend to assume that being free, means being free from other people, not having anyone to tell you what to do.

Imagine it like this. Modern political thinkers are a group of college students. They go on strike against college authorities and stage a sit-in. To their consternation the college authorities join in, with the result that there are no authorities, no one to meet their demands. Nonetheless everyone declares that rules are an imposition, that no one can teach them anything, that we don’t need exams because it is unfair to say that one student is better than another. Who wouldn’t enjoy a strike, all that spontaneity, at least on the first day? But we know that in any protest movement, after the initial spontaneity, there comes one crisis after another – who is going to get the coffee, who is going to clean up, and using what for money? No one is responsible for anyone else. We follow whoever shouts loudest – but we do not manage to stick with what we agreed, but regularly reverse our collective resolutions. This is the environment O’Donovan believes is represented by modernity. I rob you, but if you take me to court I protest that the court has no right to try me or punish me. By what right do you intend to make me suffer any punishment against my consent? So then, it is a matter of my interpretation of my rights against your interpretation of your rights. When I play too rough, who is going to protect you from me?

O’Donovan says it is a good thing to resist authority and a good thing to suffer it. He shows that for hundreds of years Christians have shown how to suffer authority, and how to oppose illegitimate authority. They have something to measure authority against, and they know how to accept and suffer authority, good and bad. They show virtues and courage – they learned it, from previous generations of Christians, and from Christ. Without such virtue and patience and suffering you can never become one of the grown ups, you cannot be free of your own unfocussed resentments.

O’Donovan shown us how the modern distinction between the religious and the secular and political came into being. He has found two things. The first is that there is no necessary distinction between the two – theology is politics, because Christians confess that God is lord, he has real political authority over us. The second is that this distinction was itself the creation of Christian theology – the distinction between Church and state, or religious and secular, was intended to give the church its prophetic freedom to keep the leaders to the task of the formation of their people. So O’Donovan says that there is no such thing as secularisation. He provides a history of the West which is not a history of increasing secularisation. Modern political thought is the continuation of a pagan politics and a theory about nature that claims that man is master of himself, who feels no obligation to acknowledge the authority of any other, and who has therefore the greatest problem coming to terms with any others. The otherness of other people – that is the perennial problem, the one that systematic theology must cope with, in the future, as in the past. This political theology, willing to read back deep into the medieval tradition, has produced some much more political theology than the liberation theology that was the exciting thing thirty years ago.

In my answer to the future of theology, O’Donovan stands for learning from the rich resources of Christian doctrine.


John Milbank used to be at Lancaster and Cambridge, then in Virginia, now he’s back in the UK at Nottingham. Milbank takes the last four centuries as his territory. His big hit was ‘Theology and Social Theory’. His title is important – for ‘Theology and Social Theory’ means something like ‘Christian theology and Pagan theology’. Social theory is pagan theology. Milbank believes we should see a straight confrontation between ‘The Christians’ and the sinister new social engineers.

Milbank says that the West tradition is not one tradition. It is has always been two contesting traditions, Christian, and something else that usually remains nameless, but which he just calls paganism. Paganism has always been around, right through the high days of Christendom. It is a constant temptation, and the secular or modern world is its latest revival. So the modern secular world is not non-religious. It just relates to an alternative religion, not the Christian one, but a pagan one.

You may say that secular modernity does not look particularly religious, but that is because secularity doesn’t need to make its belief system explicit. But it is the job of Christian theologians to make explicit what that system is. Modernity is the classical religion of pagan Greece and Rome back again, not back explicitly, as religion, but back as a mode of social engineering, and the atomising logic it produces. Social theory and the social sciences therefore decide that we are individuals, and that other people are by nature a problem, a problem that always solves itself one way or another, by exercise of power, that is, by some individuals robbing others of their individuality.

Milbank is, rightly, critical of much contemporary theology. It is gullible enough to believe that what it thinks of new issues, ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’, really are new. Modern theology has not had the confidence in the Christian tradition to search it for answers to the questions. It has got into the habit of sourcing its ideas from outside. Milbank believes that theology has a diagnostic job to do on the modern world. It must grapple with the deep grammar – let us call it metaphysics – that shapes how we act, and how we see the possibilities for action. The theologian is like the osteopath who watches the social body of Western man, to look out for all those little ways in which we carry ourselves badly, and which cause pain. The result of our bad posture is that we repeat the tics and habits, that damage relationships, and reproduce those same bad relationships that we criticise earlier generations for. Having identified these things, like a practitioner of the Alexander technique, the theologian can suggest how we may re-imagine our movements, to create slight changes to our posture and the way we move. So theology is therapy. Milbank understands ‘metaphysics’ to be another word for this theological therapy, and this is why he is part of my answer to the future of theology.

To sum up, these three all say that theology is political, and that means public. O’Donovan and Milbank believe that the future of theology is largely about learning its past better, and I agree. The West is made of two traditions, the Christian and the non-Christian, and that all religions cannot therefore fit the one mould. They believe the future of theology is non-Kantian. It is no more private religion, an inoffensive metaphorical talk, about our own inner spiritual or emotional states, that has no impact on the world. Religion is not about the further development of my individuality, that is, about my attempt to establish my own rules and identify myself in opposition to everyone else. These three link Christian doctrines to create a debate with our modern world view, and they hint that Christian thought is not about ideas only, but about life, practice and action. It is therapeutic. It is about the establishment of the plurality inaugurated by the Christian community, created for us by God. This is a complete conceptual revolution. They show no embarrassment about the particular claims uttered by the particular community of the Church. Community and particularity are in.

The snag with the three that I have chosen is that that are not systematic theologians. But of course they invite systematic theology to come and take advantage of the work they have done – and clean up. Of course there some great systematics people, the German Pannenberg, the American Jenson and the British Gunton are my favourites. But there is no one that I can think of at least in the UK doing systematic theology that has really cottoned on to the great movements underway. So it is with a little embarrassment that I have to point you to a little known Greek, John Zizioulas.

John Zizioulas

John Zizioulas taught in Glasgow, and has lectured all over in Europe, but is now back in Greece, though he still pops over to England from time to time. His big book is ‘Being in Communion’.

Zizioulas gives us a new account of human relations. He shows that we owe one another all the being we have, and that God supplies to us the being that we are to supply one another with. Our failure to provide this to one another means that we deny others the goods and recognition that God considers due to them, so they suffer a deficiency, for which the theological term is ‘sin’. We make other people sinful, and God will hold their deficiencies against us. Zizioulas’ big thought is that persons are what they are entirely in relation to other persons. They are not first natural and then relational entities, or first individuals and then members of society. He says that Christianity claims that we are made freely, not by nature, but by the willing, unforced generosity of God. The result of this is that we do not have to spend our lives trying to differentiate ourselves from the crowd. All pagan life is about trying either to escape the crowd or to dominate it. But we are made both relational and distinct from one another by God. God does not rely on you, so he is not in a needy relationship with you, and so he can be with you willingly and freely. God is free, so is therefore able to make you free.

Zizioulas’ starting point is that God is in himself communion, and conversation. The divine liturgy that you can hear in Church every Sunday morning is that divine liturgy, that conversation that God is, making itself heard gently here for us. The Church, actually established communion on earth, is the first visible and tangible sign of the life of God lived with humankind. God speaks, and this community results. This is a breakthrough. This is the future direction to take.

So I have named four theologians representing four different starting points – Scripture, the tradition, philosophy, and then this fourth, Zizioulas, who starts from the speech of God creating a liturgy – a public speech – that creates a public community. He says that the future of systematic theology is to serve the Church, and let the Church serve the world. When it passes on what it is given by God, the Church speaks to the world boldly and with compassion, and this is of course what gives theology a future.

Theology is political. It is a public claim that contests other claims. The purpose and context of teaching and doctrine is to point to the action of God in holding the world open, so it is also a challenge to us to act. Only Christianity can consistently point to a future. Now that gives us plenty to do. I don’t see how you couldn’t want to get involved in this future systematic theology.