You can find a copy of this short article in the latest Baptist Minister's Journal (July 2017). Permission kindly given to reprint here.
SCM Press recently hosted an event asking the question ‘Does the church really need Academic Theology?’ I wonder what a survey of our churches and Union might reveal.[i] I’m not sure the answer would be a positive one. There is probably still a suspicion of academic theology or sometimes what appears to be an indifference to it. Baptists are generally a pragmatic bunch, we don’t go much in for theological debate.
Back in 1981 a small group of then younger Baptist theologians wrote A Call to Mind.[ii] They believed that with all the excitement then about church growth theory and the charismatic movement, there was also a need to think, to engage in the task of theology, not in the abstract, but for the church: for its faithfulness in a changing world, for its confidence in the gospel it proclaimed, and for its wisdom before the questions of the day. It seems to me that 35 years on, more than ever, we need a theological renewal within our Baptist life and mission.
The last ten years have seen numerous calls to prayer and to mission, but no one has ever thought to call to us to deeper theological reflection.
This is why it’s exciting to see the emergence of events like TINY (Theology in Yorkshire), the Bloomsbury Theological Reflection Days (which I’ve been involved in setting up in London, still in its infancy) and the BMS led Catalyst Live days. Simon Woodman and myself are also hosting a day we’re calling Theology Live in December, which will see a number of Baptist scholars and theologians come and share their research. This is why its exciting to see those in local pastorate engaged in on going research, like Tim Carter, who has recently published a new book on The Forgiveness of Sins.[iii] As we continue to grapple with the current presenting issues of pension deficits, disagreement over same sex marriage, and what it is to be a Union of churches in these days, (and this is to say nothing of the current political, ethical, economic quandaries we inhabit,) I suggest we need a new turn to theological reflection, a new engagement of the mind, that goes beyond sharing a Bible verse.
Take for example same sex marriage. Our conversations thus far have centred around a fairly simple reading of the Biblical texts and I’m not convinced with enough attention to the hermeneutical questions involved. But beyond what we think the Bible says, is the mountain of theological and pastoral work around these questions from both those who affirm and non-affirm. A real theological engagement would take seriously the work of Rowan Williams, Eugene Rogers, Robert Song, Christopher Roberts, Wesley Hill, Oliver O’Donovan, Megan DeFranza and Sarah Coakley, and these names are just a small selection of the serious theological work being done across the spectrum of views. This kind of reading and thinking might make our different positions clearer, but at the very least, it would help us understand how and why others think and believe different from ourselves. This might help with ‘our tone and culture’ (to borrow two words that were used recently within the Church of England), both within our conversations and those who might overhear them.
We need Pastor Theologians (Kevin Vanhoozer gives a whopping 55 Theses on why). We need to do all we can to encourage theological development, not just amongst ministers, but within the whole body of the church. I still remember a minister in the year above me at college who at the end of his training, ended up giving away a load of his books – saying in all but word: who needs any more of this theology stuff! It reminds me of the Stanley Hauerwas anecdote about how no student training to become a doctor gets a choice about having to do anatomy, but too many ministerial students can opt for counselling over Christology![v] Christian ministry is more than a caring profession. Another Hauerwas andecote is his response to a sermon preached to those completing their ministerial training. The preacher said, ‘They do not care what you know. They want to know you care.’ To which Hauerwas writes, ‘Though I am a pacifist I wanted to kill her on the spot.’[vi] We need to encourage Associations to appoint Pastor-Theologians as Regional Ministers,[vii] those who can model, encourage, and help form not just missional communities, but theological ones. We need to create a culture of publication and making research more widely available. Our colleges are full of essays and dissertations gathering dust – the best of these we should encourage to be made more widely available for the good of the church. We need to value more highly Baptist publications like the Baptist Quarterly (£26 a year), the Baptist Minister’s Journal (£20 a year), Regent’s Reviews (free to download). We need to invest more in our Colleges and their research Centres – the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage and the Centre for Christianity and Culture (both at Regent’s Park College, Oxford), the Centre for Anabaptist Studies, the Centre for Family and Childhood Studies, the Centre for Urban Life (all at Bristol Baptist College), the Centre for Spirituality (at Spurgeon’s College, London) and the new Centre for Theology and Justice (at Northern Baptist College).
What might be the implications of a new call to mind? At the local level it might be churches setting up reading groups or ministers tackling theologically the contemporary issues of the day.[viii] At an association level it might be fostering theological reflection groups like TINY. We have people in our Associations overseeing mission resources, mission strategy, finance, children, etc, perhaps we could appoint someone to encourage theology? At a Union level, we might recover the value again of something like the Doctrine and Worship Committee, which brought together some of our best theologians to do some work on our behalf. We might, like the Church of England, explore appointing a ‘Mission Theologian’ in partnership with BMS. This would reflect a new appreciation for those with theological gifts, as well as, ensuring that we were taking the work of theology seriously in all the difficult questions and issues we are confronting today.[ix]
The ‘Introduction’ to A Call To Mind ends with these words:
‘What we plead for is a far greater openness to theological exploration and discussion in our denomination. We repeat, it is no answer to say we need less theology and more commitment or more activity. The implicit theology in much of what we do needs to be examined and aired in the light of the greater and more exciting horizons that await us.’[x]
To which I say Yes and Amen.
[i] I think it is also right to ask ‘does academic theology need the church?’ to which I would say absolutely. Steve Holmes remarks how Colin Gunton, Professor of Systematic Theology at King’s College, would say ‘You can always tell when a theologian has stopped preaching; their work loses something vital.’
[ii] That group of younger Baptist theologians were Paul Fiddes, Brian Haymes, Richard Kidd, Keith Clements and Roger Hayden.
[iii] Other examples are ministers who are scholars in pastorate are Edward Pillar, Simon Woodman, Ruth Gouldbourne, Robert Parkinson, Rosa Hunt, Ian Stackhouse and Paul Goodliff.
[v] Hauerwas gives this anecdote in several places in his work.
[vi] Hauerwas, The Work of Theology (Eerdmans, 2013), 105.
[vii] This was the argument of the 1996 Baptist Union report Transforming Superintendency.
[viii] For one example of what this might look like see Sam Wells, How Then Shall We Live? Christian Engagement with Contemporary Issues (Canterbury, 2016).
[ix] I don’t suggest that such a person or any new Doctrine committee would me an abdication for the rest of us from the task of theological reflection, but that such a person or group might act like those on a ship who act as lookouts, asking do you see what I/we see.
[x] A Call to Mind: Baptist Essays Towards a Theology of Commitment (Baptist Union, 1981), p.8.