James K.A. Smith, who stayed in our house in the Hague with his family a few years back, wrote last week about the state of contemporary theology, complaining in particular about the “balkanization” of professional theology today. He attributes this—in part, at least—to a shift in the way theologians identify themselves. Traditionally theological identity was determined by denominational allegiance: Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran. Now theologians appear to have developed a taste for more abstract and theory-laden labelling: “ecclesiocentric”, “apocalyptic”, “radically orthodox”.
Jamie attributes this development to an “ecumenical” theological education, exacerbated, naturally, by the blogosphere, and he is not happy about it. It’s unhealthy.
I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call “churchmen” in any strong sense (“churchwomen” included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.
So he argues, instead, for an old-fashioned, broad or “thick” confessionalism. It doesn’t have to be true, necessarily, but it has to be “good”, or at least “good enough”. He regards his own Christian Reformed identity not as a “recipe for sectarianism” but as something that frees him up to “engage selectively, critically, and generously”. I can see what he’s getting at, but I’m not entirely convinced by the argument for the following reasons:
- I can see how an “ecumenical” theological education may undermine traditional commitments, but how is the new “balkanization” any worse than the old “balkanization” driven by denominational commitments? Arguably, it’s a lot better.
- The denominational categories keep us firmly within the Christendom paradigm. They reflect the patterns, preoccupations and prejudices of historically determined debates. If theological activity has to be partitioned (I guess it’s unavoidable and probably not a bad thing) I think that it is well worth testing new ways of mapping the landscape—ideally ways that follow the contours of scripture better.
- It ought to be much easier to let go of theoretical identities than denominational identities. If the new partitions are the product of a more ecumenical education, then we might hope that they will preserve something of this spirit of ecumenism. The institutional and cultural containers of our theologizing are much too rigid.
- The sort of abstract theoretical commitments that Jamie is wary of cut across denominational boundaries and must to some extent mitigate the controlling force of denominational allegiances and politics.
But what prompted me, in the first place, to write this piece was Jamie’s dismissal of freelance theologizing, which I take rather personally. Freelance theologizing is what I do. I have an M.Phil and a PhD in theology. I have a loose but invaluable relationship with a non-denominational theological college in the UK and with a cautiously progressive US-based church-planting organization. I have always been strongly committed to diverse evangelical churches wherever we have lived, from Chinese Baptist to francophone African, from Anglican to Reformed Church of America, from restrained seeker-sensitive to romping charismatic. But I would not know what “thick” confessional location to plant myself in. I think of myself currently as a sort of post-Christendom, post-modern evangelical, but what does that mean?
While I understand the appeal of a centred approach to theological study, my view is that there is a real need for decentred theologians to challenge the massive consensuses that still set the agenda for western English-language theology. The blogosphere is an anarchic and promiscuous place, but it provides an important counter-medium for an exploratory, conversational, non-conformist mode of theological thought that may prove critical for the future of the people of God.
That said, Jamie is right to be concerned about a loss of collective responsibility in the shift from denominational to theoretical classification of theological positions. A “radical orthodox” or “apocalyptic” or “New Perspective” theologian has no clear constituency to support or be supported by; there is no underpinning ecclesiology; the danger of narcissism is apparent; and the connection between theology and what is traditionally called “discipleship” is greatly weakened.
But the answer, in my view is not to revert to traditional denominational categories but to seek to forge new collective identities, a new ecclesiology, a new sense of what it means to be in continuity with the biblical narrative in the aftermath of the collapse of the Christendom model. No matter how far outside the traditional boxes we find ourselves in our search for a way forward, we still have to confess. We are still part of the story. We still have to affirm the vocation of a people called originally in Abraham to be new creation. We still have to have do theology for the sake of the future of the people of God.