The future of emerging theology fascinates me. I’ve said this before, but let me say it again. In the 80s and 90s, historical Jesus studies and studies about the new perspective on Paul dominated academic discussions. It was fun to watch and be there and see it all take place. New voices arose and made enduring contributions. Nothing, and let me emphasize that — nothing whatsoever — is now capturing the biblical academic discussion like historical Jesus studies and the new perspective on Paul. Studies in those fields are now good and solid, but there is nothing hopping and popping.
But, theology is hopping and popping, and it is fun to watch. Just look at Eerdmans’ books and you will see a shift in the last five years from biblical studies to theological studies. Look at Baker Academic and Brazos — tell me which titles fascinate. Look at WJKP — in fact, look at most of them. The good titles are theological ones. And Brazos or Baker, one of them, now has a series of commentaries written by theologians — ah, it is about time. And the reason it is time is because biblical scholars have grown stale in method and mind and are now turning in on themselves with adventurous explorations into minor issues so small they can’t capture the imagination. I hear this interesting voice: “Move over, Bible guys, because we theologians are now ready to take your stuff to the next level.”
I could go on, but here’s the point:
Emerging theological voices are running with some of the fast horses in theology and it is lots of fun to watch and listen. Keep your eyes open because shifts are occurring and in ten years theology won’t be what it is today — and it’s a good thing.
Perhaps one of the more notable features of the emerging movement is its use of divergent and even discordant voices to shape its praxis and its theology. I have no truck with the usefulness of standard textbooks that are used in theological education; they have, in fact, sustained the evangelical movement for a century. But new voices are being heard when one listens to the concerns of the emerging movement. Who are they?
Many of the leaders and thinkers of the emerging movement were nurtured theologically on books like those of Donald Bloesch, Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, or even older lights like Berkhof. Emerging leaders know this stuff — and often have moved beyond it or have rejected it.
Here’s a good question: When you went to seminary (if you did), whom did you read? There’s a place for textbooks; and there is also a place for reading seminal thinkers. Did you get both?
Take, for instance, LeRon Shults. An emerging thinker, a young theologian, and one who has drunk deeply from seminal thinkers. What I find central to the major discussions of theology in the emerging movement is its turn to seminal thinkers and broad, sweeping trends. Shults deals in his book, Reforming Theolgocial Anthropology, with the turn to relationality and sketches the discussion through Aristotle, Kant, Hegel and Levinas. We have Barth and Pannenberg, and we have Leontius of Byzantium. And we have the impact of this turn toward a relational understanding on how we understand human nature, how we understand sin, and how we understand the imago Dei.
Others could be mentioned — John Franke, Stanley Grenz, Miroslav Volf, Kevin Vanhoozer.
What you won’t find in these new discussions is the return to dog-eared discussions like whether or not human nature is tripartite or something else. The issues are bigger, the questions are deeper, and the scope of the discussion wider. When they ask about eschatology, they don’t ask about the rapture, they inquire into what history is, how God relates to history, what the goal of history is. When they ask about Scripture, they don’t begin with inerrancy and inspiration but (like Vanhoozer) how the drama of doctrine is meant to be played out using the script of God as its text.
Which also means the answers will be bigger and deeper and wider. Perhaps I’ve misstated: this kind of theology might not be pursuing the “answer” but probing the question — theologizing, exploring, pondering, and wondering. Go ahead, check out Shults some time: you’ll see he is biblically alert, philosophically rigorous, and theologically expansive and all the while responsible.
In LeRon Shults’ book with Steven Sandage, The Faces of Forgiveness, LeRon proposes that we not look for an “ordo salutis” but for a salutary order. Clever, and at the same time revealing.
The major impact, as I’m seeing it, will be that bigger questions will be asked, newer approaches will be seen, and over time some dog-eared discussions will find their appropriate corner with questions no longer asked. Theology has always been the attempt to bring biblical theology into a new day, and that is exactly what we find in (to use Westerns) in Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, Barth, and the like. To stick to the categories and discussions of the 16th Century may be a learning experience, but theology always asks for new expressions in new times. I find the theology of the emerging movement trying to do just that.