Academic And Ecclesiastical Theology

The underlying approach adopted here is essentially historical, rather than that of the systematic theologian.1 A systematic theologian usually feels

Because of my own limitations it is also confined to works translated into English, which is a significant disadvantage. There is an invaluable book edited by J. C. England and others, Asian Christian Theologies: A Research Guide to Authors, Movements, Sources: vol. 1: Asia Region, South Asia, Austral Asia (New York, 2002). Much use has been made of anthologies such as that drawn to presenting a picture which is universally true; indeed it is rather difficult within the discipline of systematic theology to find a way of acknowledging that the relative importance of different aspects of the truth may vary from time to time or place to place. By contrast a historian is accustomed to making relative statements. The very variety of different points of view, even when based on the same evidence, forces historians to acknowledge that their discipline is concerned with relative truths. This has not, of course, prevented some historians from time to time affirming that their view is the right one, or indeed the only right one; but generally speaking a historian is more at home in the world of relativities. Thus the variety of interpretations which has to be acknowledged in relation to different periods can very easily be extended to different places in the same period. It does not necessarily mean abandoning hope of reaching absolute truth in relation to certain matters; but it is a fact of life in the history of ideas that some things seem more important in some times and places than others, and the significance of this has to be acknowledged.

Such changes in relative importance may be illustrated by the difference between academic and ecclesiastical (or ecclesial) theology. There was a time when there was no difference. The medieval European universities had Faculties of Theology in which the teachers were approved by the Church; and what they taught was essentially what the Church taught. The change which came was a result first of the Reformation and then of the Enlightenment. In Protestant countries the direct control of the Church over the universities was weakened, and particularly in eighteenth-century Germany, where professors were employed by the state rather than the Church, a difference between academic and ecclesiastical theology gradually opened up.2 This difference became most apparent as a result of the development of biblical criticism; and in the nineteenth century books were written by some scholars which horrified many churchmen. The classic example was David Strauss's Life of Jesus, written in 1835-6. Strauss lost his job at Tubingen because of this; having secured a position in Zurich in January 1839, he lost it almost immediately as a result of a cantonal referendum, but was able to establish that he was produced by the Programme for Theologies and Cultures in Asia: J. C. England and A. C. C. Lee (eds.), Doing Theology with Asian Resources (Auckland, 1993). There is a good short introduction to the situation in India and East Asia in chapters 3 and 4 of J. Parratt (ed.), An Introduction to Third World Theologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

See T. A. Howard, Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); W. Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), chap. 7.

entitled to his salary for life; so he never taught again!3 But although Strauss is the most obvious example, there were other theologians whose work caused great anxiety to many in the churches, such as F. C. Baur or J. Wellhausen. This happened more rarely in England because many university professors hoped for and secured promotion to bishoprics. This had two consequences: their university careers were shorter than those of their German colleagues, and they were often more anxious to ensure that they retained a reputation for theological orthodoxy. J. B. Lightfoot and B. F. Westcott stand out as scholar bishops in that tradition, though each spent much longer in the university than some of their predecessors. In the twentieth century it became less common for scholars to become bishops, and university posts in theology were opened to scholars from all churches, though this happened more recently at Oxford and Cambridge than in other universities.

What is more important, however, is that the agenda of academic theology is now significantly different from that of the Churches. The doctrines of the Church, the sacraments, salvation and justification are much less important for academic theologians than they are for the Churches. By contrast academic theologians are more interested in the way in which the Bible should be understood, the way in which biblical insights relate to theology more generally, and the way in which theology relates to contemporary science and philosophy. When that extends to economics and social questions, there may be a new intersection between academics and church leaders; but this depends very much on the view that is taken, as issues relating to contraception, abortion and economic justice demonstrate. That difference, however, is still very much characteristic of the west - Europe and North America. Indeed in North America, because of the separation of church and state, theology is usually taught in divinity schools, which are separate from universities, rather than in faculties of divinity as in Europe; university departments in North America tend to be departments of religious studies. However, in other respects the difference of agenda between academic and ecclesiastical theology remains true in North America. very often when people refer to a western-dominated theological agenda, they are referring to the agenda of western universities, and it helps to understand that relationship in any discussion of the responsibility of the churches. Furthermore the sense that others, whoever the others may be, are determining the agenda is not

3 D. F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (London: SCM, 1973), p. xxxvi; H. Harris, David

Friedrich Strauss and his Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 58—65, 123—33.

unique to Asia, Africa or Latin America; sometimes in Britain it is felt that the theological agenda is determined by Germany, France or the USA.

The churches in the west have been largely content to accept the academic agenda, whilst reserving the right to discuss more specifically ecclesiastical concerns in their own way. The most significant exception to this are the Orthodox Churches, although Orthodox scholars with academic posts in western universities will usually work within the framework of the academic agenda. Moreover, the contribution of Orthodox theology and tradition has generally been welcomed as an important contribution to a broader understanding of theology, even though the methods of the interpretation of scripture in the Orthodox tradition perhaps raise more questions than have yet been answered. One important aspect of the western theological tradition that deserves a little more comment is precisely the issue of the way in which scripture is used. Within the Roman Catholic Church the teaching authority of the Church has generally remained decisive for Roman Catholic theologians.4 Protestants, however, rejected that form of teaching authority for the Church, and instead turned to scripture. Although in the sixteenth-century context there was never any intention that scripture would be anything other than a corporate authority, in practice it proved extremely difficult to prevent more individual interpretations appearing, not least because of the right of private judgement that was affirmed in several churches of the Reformation. The consequence was that over time it became possible for individuals to appeal to scripture to support their particular theological viewpoints, regardless of the extent to which these were shared by the Church as a whole. When this tendency was reinforced by the suggestion in the nineteenth century that the text of the prophetic books of the Old Testament was generally older than that of the books of the Law or history, the idea that a prophetic appeal to the Word of the Lord was likely to count for more than anything that the Church might say proved almost irresistible. The significance of this development for particular styles of Protestant theology in the twentieth century can scarcely be under-estimated.

This point may be illustrated with a Latin American example. Gustavo Guttierez, a Peruvian Roman Catholic priest working with the poor in Lima, achieved fame as a theologian by his development of 'liberation theology'. His book A Theology of Liberation (1971) was based on a paper

4 Thus the valuable report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission is entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993); cf. the constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council, 1965.

originally given in Chimbote, Peru, in July 1968, entitled 'Notes on a Theology of Liberation', and given in a revised form to the Consultation on Theology and Development organized by the joint committee on Society, Development and Peace in Cartigny, Switzerland, in November 1969. The original paper was a few months before the epoch-making Latin American Bishops' Conference at Medellin, which described the new epoch in the continent as 'a time of zeal for full emancipation, of liberation from every form of servitude, of personal maturity and of collective integration'.5 Guttierez was reacting against the predominant view that economic development was the way forward for the poorer countries of the world by pointing out that there were fundamental injustices in the societies, which could not just be developed away. Instead a more dramatic break with the past was needed, and Guttierez used the idea of liberation from slavery in the Old Testament as a dominating theme, or leitmotiv, in scripture, over against more traditional understandings of theology within the Church. In this way he sought to identify the Church with the situation in which many of the Latin American poor found themselves, and to offer a tangible demonstration of what it might mean to speak of God's preferential option for the poor. The Latin American bishops' conference was persuaded to follow this line, and initially the Vatican did not condemn it because it picked up on a sermon of Pope John XXIII.6 Subsequently liberation theology attracted many followers in Asia and Africa as well as the West. Moreover, this became as much part of the Church's theological agenda as that of academic theologians. As such it may stand as an early example of the twentieth-century wish to read theology in the light of a particular perspective - the action-reflection model, rather than the deductive model. The 'base communities', which had already been initiated in Latin America, were attempts to create meeting places within larger parishes, where Christians would talk together about the implications of their theology, instead of simply listening to sermons.

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