Magazine article The Christian Century

Theology for Liberal Protestants: God the Creator

Magazine article The Christian Century

Theology for Liberal Protestants: God the Creator

Article excerpt

Theology for Liberal Protestants: God the Creator

By Doug|as F. Ottati

Eerdrnans, 377 PP., $38.00 paperback

Doug Ottati is widely known as a wry and disarming teacher of liberal Reformed Protestantism. Through his teaching at Davidson College and at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (now Union Presbyterian Seminary), and in volumes such as Jesus Christ and Christian Vision, Hopeful Realism and Reforming Protestantism, he has developed a rare gift for speaking clearly about God, the world and humanity in ways that illumine the connections between classical theological propositions and ordinary living.

Theology for Liberal Protestants: God the Creator is the long-awaited first volume of his systematic theology. He offers a lengthy introduction to his overall project and theological method, followed by a discussion of creation that includes the classic themes of providence, theological anthropology, and God as Creator and Provider. The planned second volume will discuss God the Redeemer, with attention to Christology, sin and judgment, reconciliation and renewal, the church, history and eschatology.

As in previous work, Ottati explains his embrace of the much-maligned term liberal, clarifying that this descriptor signals his commitments to critical argument, historical consciousness and "social criticism, engagement, and reform." Such a broad account of liberalism surely includes many who shy away from the term. It might spark a fresh reclamation of liberal identity among mainline Protestants. A term that is equally maligned and defended by Ottati is systematic with reference to theology. He acknowledges critiques of the theological systems of Karl Barth and Gordon Kaufman, yet argues that systematic attention to the interaction of various aspects of Christian piety and belief leads to clarity, coherence and depth of understanding that are otherwise unavailable.

Ottati draws deeply from his theological forebears in the Reformed subtradition and, like them, is willing to critique distortions in his own strand of Christianity. From Calvin, he draws a fundamental commitment to theology "within the limits of piety alone"; from Edwards, attention to the importance of the religious affections; from Schleiermacher, the energy to revise theology in light of recent findings of history and science; from H. Richard Niebuhr and James Gustafson, an unflinching theocentric perspective and vigilant attention to the ethical consequences of theological statements. These influences, among others, become clear in his definition of theology as "practical wisdom that articulates a vision of God, the world, and ourselves in the service of a piety, a settled disposition, and a way of living."

This is the genius of Ottati's work: he is ever illuminating ways that theology is a source for rather than an obstacle to piety and practical living. Those of us who teach theology in colleges and seminaries will rejoice at his winsome examples of how particular theological statements both express and shape concrete ethical life in the world. For instance, he reflects on the peculiar task of raising adolescent children. Recognizing that they challenge authority, sleep until noon and "lurch toward questionable decisions about their futures," he points out that when we view them also as gifts of God who do not belong to us, we may find our dispositions shaped by gratitude to God and respect for the integrity of our offspring. In such ordinary theological reflections, Ottati is a faithful follower of Calvin, who eschewed "idle speculation" that spends energy on abstract questions with no clear connection to faithful living.

At times Ottati is explicit about his distaste for idle speculation. In his discussion of doctrines of creation, for instance, he notes Jurgen Moltmann's proposal that "God makes room for creation by withdrawing his presence. …

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