Thoughts on theology today

John Roxborogh

May 2002


Theology like other parts of global culture is still working through a shift in emphasis from a value on unity to a value on plurality alongside a move from a belief that scientific canons of truth were the only route to reliable knowledge to a scepticism about universal truth claims in general, and from a belief that authority lies in the intention of a given text, to one where apart from legal texts and taxation law, it lies primarily in the response of the reader.


The church in the midst of social marginalisation and of these changes in its cultural and metaphysical environment is challenged to take into account how much its previous theological formulations were shaped by the needs of sets of philosophical assumptions which no longer apply, how to relate to the opportunities and challenges of a climate in which religious discourse is again becoming plausible, and how to talk about truth claims which transcend cultural shifts. While awareness of the shifting sands of epistemology is desirable for the church as a whole, it is of the nature of the case that in general we will continue to work with the issues and concerns closest to our own situations.


Reformed Theology


Reformed theology remains shaped by its deep conviction that at the end of the day the Word of God stands over the Church even at the same time as the People of God are the recipients and interpreters of that Word in the light of their different contexts. By contrast Lutheran traditions continue to wrestle with law and grace, Catholic with the givenness of the Church as human and divine, and Methodist with a vision deriving from Wesley’s belief in the possibility of sinless perfection.


Most traditions are challenged by plurality, whether decisions are the responsibility of designated leadership or of recognised majorities. Reformed theology was long shaped by a democratic intellect, which made brilliant theological formulations at the same time as it struggled to make space for a diversity of valid alternatives. The multiculturalism of global reformed churches[1] and of particular societies, including that of New Zealand, now forces us to find ways in which this is possible quite apart from the encouragement postmodernism may appear to give for better space to diversity, and the pressures to deal more adequately with our awareness of gender complexities that we will continue to face.


There are signs that the Reformed tradition is generating theological reflection which can more readily take the voices of context as seriously as its understanding of the voice of revelation, and which will seek ways in which the strengths of the tradition in wrestling with the Word of God for us and our time, can be rediscovered in other than top down impositions of theologies which however awesome philosophically, failed to connect with popular spirituality. This can be seen in the work of Walter Brueggemann on the Old Testament[2] where affirmation of diversity is coupled with the search for themes that give meaning across that diversity. The essays collected by David Willis and Michael Welker, Toward the Future of Reformed Theology, may also help us here.[3] The Institute of Reformed Theology website  has some interesting material and links. David Bosch’s classic, Transforming Mission,[4] was written out of the challenges of what might be called late modernity and represents an heroic attempt to reconcile evangelical, conciliar and Catholic missiology in the late twentieth century. What it also represents is an essay in the identification of commonalities across the diverse theologies of mission expressed by the church in different eras and different circumstances. Mission and worship present challenges to finding ways of dealing with diversity that we cannot escape.


The Trinity, Christology, the Holy Spirit


Discussion on the New Zealand Presbyterian email list over the last few years has indicated how much spirituality and the practicalities of weekly worship provide an unexpected glue in a church which has sometimes found its commonalities elusive. I suspect we are not alone. Discussion has also indicated that numbers of people take a lively interest in the Trinity and the importance of Trinitarian understanding not only for models of diversity and unity, but also for a sense of mission. In a modernist frame of reference the Trinity presents as much of a problem as traditional Christological formulas, yet today the frequent reference to the Trinity indicates that for some at least those intellectual difficulties now carry less weight.


It is interesting that the Trinity, the most troublesome of doctrines in relating to Islam and to the Western intellectual tradition, is nevertheless back in fashion. It is appropriate that a Christian church talks about who Jesus is and what it means to be a follower of the Christ. It will be interesting to see if there will be any new Presbyterian churches whose names reflect this!


Questions about Christology and the Trinity arise appropriately enough as issues in religious dialogue. Greater acceptance of the fact that other religions are the faiths of our neighbours, means that there can be serious discussion about whether to modify formulations to reduce offence, or retain them to maintain integrity. A key to this is appreciation of the cultural and historical form of some formulations, and a willingness to change metaphors pointing to the same underlying realities. There appears to be greater confidence about confessing our faith in the terms we hold it, yet doing so in a way which expresses respect for other views. Some work on the theology of the Holy Spirit is revisiting the place of the Spirit in mission and dialogue, and looking for ways of maintaining a respectful encounter of commitments.


Creation and Ecology


One would like to think that Creation is less and less associated with sterile debate within competing modernist world views. It also needs to be more than the basis of a world-affirming understanding of mission. There is greater appreciation for a theology of creation as a basis for public discussion about globalisation, ethics, and genetic modification. Given battles of a past that have not quite completely left us, the capacity of quite ordinary people, including ordinary doubters, to go back and back and back again to the Genesis narratives for our understanding of life and sin and hope, is astonishing.


Ecclesiology Worship and Mission


I doubt that mission on its own can continue to sustain the role it is given by the church and the sort of traffic that the concept is expected to bear. From the inside mission speaks of clarity of purpose and direction, from the outside it suggests an element of aggression. Ministry is in many contexts a better expression of what we would like to think others understand about our intentions. Mission should always be thought of as the purpose of something, not as an end in itself.


If mission is not to go out of fashion it needs to be rooted theologically in our understanding of the church and of God, and practically in the worship of the Christian community. The nature of the church certainly includes a missionary dimension, but surely worship is necessarily prior to mission. On this basis I disagree with the idea that that dimension is foundational. My concerns about the place of mission in ecclesiology are discussed in my paper ‘Is “Mission” our only Mission? Revisiting the Missionary Nature of the Church.’[5] John Flett has written a thoughtful response “Is the Church Missionary by its Very Nature?”[6] I understand John to be arguing, with the help of Karl Barth, that the intrinsic nature of the Trinity is dynamic and reaching out, and therefore the church should be the same. The relevance of this debate to theology today hinges theologically on whether such analysis of the Trinity establishes or describes theological truth, and whether the common assertions of contemporary missiology about the priority of mission can be sustained either theologically or pragmatically.


Global and Local : Validity in Diversity


Robert Schreiter has written of a “new catholicity”[7] reaching across the boundaries of global diversity, and informed by global ecological concerns and widely articulated liberationist and feminist theologies, as well as theologies local to cultures. The shift in theology from a study of the past to a reading of the present presents challenges. As in Stephen Bevans, Models of Contextual Theologies,[8] there is a concern to find ways in which it is possible to evaluate theological formulations and not get stuck in a situation of not being able to engage with concepts of truth however relativised by the particularities of history and context.


Community and Religion


Situations where violence is both justified and understood in narrowly religious terms help fuel the temptation to view the world simplistically in terms of a clash of civilisations.[9] This has proved irresistible for many, particularly since the events of September 11, 2001. It is a temptation theology must resist as it seeks ways of doing justice to issues of mission, neighbourliness, respect for others, fear of violence, and the realities of dealing with those who invoke God’s name in the pursuit of political ends.


Concern for the uniqueness of Christ has proved inadequate as a defence of the integrity of Christian faith, as have typologies such as “inclusive, exclusive, and pluralistic” despite the sincere attempts they represent for understanding the similarities and differences between social and cultural phenomena identified as religious. These are issues here which can be explored out of mission experience globally, and from inside other faith traditions, as well as the more recent experience of Western countries coming to terms with active religious minorities.


Dialogue in areas of common social and ethical values, quite apart from clarification of real differences, can enrich our understanding of other faiths and their practitioners. If we accept the diversity of the biblical material we may discover that there is much more subtle material to inform Christian understanding than the story of the prophets of Baal and the condemnations of idolatry. We have responsibility for understanding others at their best, and for doing justice to aspirations, beliefs, and ethics, which make conversation across the differences possible. We can relate out conviction not its absence, out of respect, not fear, out of a desire to understand as well as out of a desire to share.


The aim of theology


A traditional aim of theology was to seek and express the truth about God. Yet rather much of the theology industry has seemed to assume that philosophical analysis was of the necessary essence of the profession. The value of philosophy to society and to Christianity is considerable, but some of the obscurity and irrelevance associated with theology is more due to philosophy than the necessary quality of words about God. What is also an issue is how much thinking about God derives from the philosophy itself, rather than from philosophy as a critical tool of linguistic and cultural analysis. Of course this is no more the case with the Western intellectual traditions than any other contextual forms of theological understanding.


The mysteries of God do not justify or excuse us here. Theology should enable us to express our understanding of God in terms of what is implicit in our daily lives, what is heard, learnt and expressed in worship, lived out in mission, and reflected to us in Scripture. Perhaps the first major task of theology today should be to restore words about God to everyday life, and the second to provide tools for our understanding of God to be tested informed and corrected.


Good theology can also be about restoring to our cultures ways of talking about faith which enable us to reflect on what is personal in ways that are not offensive, arrogant, or manipulative. The renewal of language about God in everyday life is not about restoring theology to the role of justification for battles arising out of economic, cultural, social and political, or even religious, differences. Nor is it about making people nervously feel they have to mention God at every point if God’s presence in their life is to be affirmed. Theology is about conversations about God that enable us to correct our faith, grow it, share it, risk it, and learn what God would have us be. It is about restoring God to the discourse of cultures that until recently had all but forgotten how to do it.


God has something to teach Christian theology through Maori and other indigenous spiritualities and through our Muslim and other neighbours, including those of no explicit faith. Thinking about God requires conversation. It is the task of theology today to make that conversation possible, just and productive, as well as truth seeking.


Bauswein, Jean-Jacques, and Lukas Vischer, eds. The Reformed Family Worldwide : A Survey of Reformed Churches, Theological Schools, and International Organizations. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.

Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology, Faith and Cultures Series. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992.

Bosch, David Jacobus. Transforming Mission : Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series ; No. 16. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament : Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press c1997, 1997.

Flett, John. "Is the Church Missionary by Its Very Nature?" New Slant, no. 27 (2002): 9-13.

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Roxborogh, John. "Is "Mission" Our Only Mission? Revisiting the Missionary Nature of the Church." Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Mission Studies Inaugural Conference Bible College of New Zealand, 27-28 November 2000 (2001).

Schreiter, Robert J. The New Catholicity. Theology between the Global and the Local. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999.

Willis, David, Michael Welker, and Matthias Gockel. Toward the Future of Reformed Theology : Tasks, Topics, Traditions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999.


[1] Jean-Jacques Bauswein and Lukas Vischer, eds., The Reformed Family Worldwide : A Survey of Reformed Churches, Theological Schools, and International Organizations (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament : Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press c1997, 1997).

[3] David Willis, Michael Welker, and Matthias Gockel, Toward the Future of Reformed Theology : Tasks, Topics, Traditions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999). See review by Paul Capetz in link from

[4] David Jacobus Bosch, Transforming Mission : Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series ; No. 16 (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991).

[5] John Roxborogh, "Is "Mission" Our Only Mission? Revisiting the Missionary Nature of the Church," Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Mission Studies Inaugural Conference Bible College of New Zealand, 27-28 November 2000 (2001).Available online at

[6] John Flett, "Is the Church Missionary by Its Very Nature?," New Slant, no. 27 (2002).

[7] Robert J. Schreiter, The New Catholicity. Theology between the Global and the Local. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999).

[8] Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology, Faith and Cultures Series (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992).

[9] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996).