Thursday, May 31, 2012

Wherefore Art Thou Theological Giants?

In his book, Christian Theology, Dr. Millard Erickson raises the issue that the age of theological giants seems to have faded. Erickson is not the only one to notice that trend. In an article by Dr. Roger Olson titled Where have all the (theological) giants gone? tries to answer the reason why. Here is the conclusion of that article:

Some years ago I was offered a chair of theology at a leading Baptist seminary.  I passed it up to come to my present seminary and I’ve never been sorry.  But a few years ago I asked our then dean about the possibility of ever having an endowed chair here.  His response was enlightening: “Probably not.  Baptists don’t care about theology.”  He could just as well have said “Christians don’t care about theology.”

Go to any Christian (or secular) bookstore and look for the section marked “theology.”  It probably doesn’t exist.  I’ve been alive long enough to remember when EVERY Christian bookstore had a fairly large section labeled either “theology” or “doctrine.”  An editor at a well-known Christian publisher told me “Few people read religious non-fiction.”  If you want to get a theological message out to the Christian (or non-Christian) public you’d better package it as fiction–The Shack, Left Behind, etc.

So, what I’m saying is that perhaps the fault for the lack of theological giants isn’t just the radical theologians.  Perhaps it’s also part of an overall “dumbing down” of society and especially the churches. 

So why does it matter?  Well, I think it was a good thing that Christian theologians (even some heretics) were public intellectuals and that theological debate was part of the larger cultural landscape.  It helped hold folk religion at bay.  Without that public theological discourse, American Christianity has by-and-large fallen into the hands of folk religion and folk theology–an anti-intellectual mix of cliches and religious urban legends and individual “spiritual” feelings. . . .

Finally, where are the influential “deep thinkers” among evangelical Christians?  Where are our giants?  We once had Carl F. H. Henry, Bernard Ramm, Donald G. Bloesch, Millard Erickson and, yes, even Stanley Grenz.  These were people all evangelical students of theology once read and talked about whether they agreed with them or not.  They transcended the petty divides and wrestled creatively with theology’s big issues and questions from an evangelical perspective.  Who does that now?  A few names come to mind, but I’m not sure they are nearly as widely read or influential as those earlier evangelical giants were: Kevin Vanhoozer, Alister McGrath….?  What’s amazing is how short the list is!  (I’m sure I left someone out, but the point is–who is replacing the giants of the past?  It’s difficult to come up with names!) . . .

Some excellent points raised here. I do believe the dumbing down of Christianity has contributed to the lack of theological giants. But it really goes both ways, as Olson makes clear. The lack of theological giants has led to the dumbing down of theology.

But there is more here than just this. Culturally, postmodernism has made theology less interesting. In the Reformation, theology was a matter of heaven and hell.  Now, young postmoderns roll their eyes and sigh when confronted with the hypostatic union. Culturally, we are becoming more secular and the Church has responded by becoming more secular itself. Pragmatism has replaced a fined tuned theology. Instead of celebrating our distinctives, we are emphasizing theological tolerance that encourages heresy in the name of openness and "conversation."

The giants are gone and both the culture and the church are their murderers. This does not mean that theology is dead, but that theology does not enjoy the audience it once did. Are theologians just talking to themselves or having the deep cultural impact that they used to? Theology is still the answer to the questions we are asking, but many in the culture and the church don't want to hear what we have to say.

Dr. Roger Olson - Where have all the (theological) giants gone? 

Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 1 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 2 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 3
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 4   
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Prolegomena 5

For more:
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Reviews - The Top 5 Essential Works of Theology of the Past 25 Years
Reviews - "Doctrine"
Reviews - "The Good News We Almost Forgot
Reviews - "Dug Down Deep" by Josh Harris
Reviews - "Heresy"
Reviews - "Christianity's Dangerous Idea" by Alister McGrath
Reviews - "The Theology of the Reformers"
Blogizomai - Repost | Schreiner on the Practice of Inaugurated Eschatology
logizomai - We Are All Theologians:  The Root of Everything We Are and Do
Blogizomai - Lewis on Practical Theology
Blogizomai - The Meaning & Implications of the Resurrection
Blogizomai - Lewis on Practical Theology
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