In February 2008, Jeremy Jones gave the second talk, "Renewing Theology," at the Denominational Renewal (DR) conference. The transcript is not available due to a publishing contract, but you may listen to the audio of Jeremy's talk by clicking (here).
This is the second week of a five week forum scrutinizing the five talks given at DR. For more on the structure of the five week forum at CGO on this conference, click (here).
During the week of September 22-25 we will host essays from John
Frame, Sean Michael Lucas, Howard Brown, and Michael Walker in response
to Jeremy Jones' talk. On Friday, September 26, Jeremy will respond to
We welcome discussion that is both robust and gracious. I [Glenn] will moderate all comments and those comments that exemplify graciousness and love for one's brothers and sisters will be approved. First and last name, and one's current, valid email address are required for comments. Also, please focus on Jeremy's talk and/or the response essay.
Sean Michael Lucas is the Chief Academic Officer and Associate Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is the author of On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories and Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to respond to Jeremy Jones’ talk on “renewing theology.” Perhaps it might be helpful to start with areas of agreement and then move to some constructive response.
One major area of agreement could be summed up this way: the
task of theology is to witness to the apostolic tradition for the present
cultural moment. In order to witness, not only must theology seek to understand
the apostolic tradition (biblical exegesis/Scripture), it must recognize its
relationship to previous witnesses (historical theology/confessional tradition)
as well as its current cultural moment. This way of putting it relates
Scripture and confession in a hermeneutical spiral that both limits and offers
opportunity for theological preservation and creativity. It also relieves us
from trying to re-establish some sort of golden age; each age’s witness has
something to offer us as we determine how God is calling us to witness to our
This leads to another major area of agreement—namely, that sectarian theology ultimately undermines the church’s commitment to “one body, son Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6). Our Reformed and Presbyterian forefathers understood this—whether John Owen, whom historian Carl Trueman characterized as a “reformed catholic”; Samuel Davies preaching on the “sacred import of the Christian name”; or James Henley Thornwell who vowed to “embrace all other denominations in the arms of Christian fellowship and love.” There is a fundamental catholicity that must characterize theological reflection in order to be truly Christian.
Not only must there be a commitment to catholicity, but theology must also demonstrate a commitment to fundamental Gospel doctrines. This is simply another way of saying that theological reflection must be evangelical; it must distinguish between “more central and less central doctrines,” reserve the category “heresy” for truly heretical beliefs (which 1 John centered on the nature and person of Jesus and his relationship to deity), and especially demonstrate Gospel orthopraxy as well as orthodoxy.
Thus far, Jeremy and I are agreed, I think (and there is much more besides). Perhaps where I might prod him and others to more thought on renewing theology would center on three thoughts: first, it strikes me that his proposal for renewing theology holds out great hope for “creative theological thinking.” And yet, if we pay attention to those witnesses of the past, like Irenaeus and Tertullian, they stressed not their creativity, but their unoriginality. For example, when Irenaeus sought true missional impact, he stressed “this kerygma and this faith the Church, although scattered over the whole world, diligently observes, as if it occupied but one house, and believes as if it had but one mind, and preaches and teaches as if it had but one mouth.” Perhaps the agenda for renewing theology should not be to look for “creatively faithful, constructive theology,” but for a continuing witness to “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Second, and related, while a great deal of energy recently has focused on the relationship between biblical and systematic theology, the unspoken tension in Jeremy’s paper is actually between “theology” and “history.” That is to ask, how does this rich confessional tradition (or, to maintain the stream of thought, collection of witnesses) called “the Reformed tradition” speak to contemporary theological reflection? Should “the Reformed tradition” be a privileged witness among other witnesses for those who subscription to a Reformed confessional standard? If so, how does such privileging work?
A final thought: if the renewal of theology depends on a contextualized theology, I wonder what exactly that means in light of Tim Keller’s observation that “there can never be a culture-free gospel.” I would take it to mean that all our theological reflection is inevitably contextualized from the get-go—we are never decontextualized, blank slates when we theologize. And so, it strikes me that the task before us is not to “contextualize” our theological witness (it already is, after all), but to become much more self-critical about our contextualization or enculturation (or “cultural captivity”). And the only way we can do so is, ironically perhaps, by becoming much more historically-minded.
And this means that perhaps the way forward for the renewal
of theology might actually through a renewed appreciation for and embrace of
the confessional commitment and traditions of the church catholic and
especially of our own particular branch of the church, Presbyterianism.
For further reading, Sean Michael Lucas recommends:
Sean Michael Lucas, On Being Presbyterian: Our Beliefs, Practices, and Stories (Phillipsburgh: P&R, 2006).
Richard Muller, The Study of Theology: From Biblical Interpretation to Contemporary Formulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991).
Carl Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (London: Ashgate, 2007).
Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: WJKP, 2005)