British Theology: Movements and Churches

By Ford, David F. | The Christian Century, April 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

British Theology: Movements and Churches


Ford, David F., The Christian Century


HAVING SURVEYED in previous articles the variety of theological conversations in Britain--ranging across patristics, history, philosophy, biblical interpretation, literature and the arts, the natural and social sciences, ethics and politics, and other religions--it probably occurred to some readers to ask: But what about the classic topics of Christian theology? What about the doctrines of God, creation, human being, providence, sin, Jesus Christ, salvation, Christian living, church, Holy Spirit and eschatology?

Traditionally, the tendency was for such doctrines to be dealt with in a systematic way mainly in Scottish centers--one thinks especially of Edinburgh during the long professorship of Thomas F. Torrance--while the English and Welsh shied away from Germanic systematics and concentrated more on approaching theology through biblical, historical and philosophical discussion. But in the last quarter of a century a considerable convergence took place, partly due to members of the Society for the Study of Theology, which covers the whole island and which set out in its annual conference to create a forum for wide-ranging discussion of major doctrines and allied themes. Another factor was the increasing participation of Roman Catholics in university theology departments.

Professors in universities outside Scotland began to study modern systematic theologians, especially from the German-speaking world, and to reach beyond historical theology into critical and constructive engagement with contemporary theological questions. Many new translations from German appeared, and theology from other countries too became available--especially from the U.S. and Latin America, but also some from Asia and Africa. The new confidence in doing theology that I described in the previous article was partly due to this sense of being part of a worldwide community with many vibrant centers. Still, British theology was not usually "systematic" in the sense of seeing a coherent treatment of all the main doctrines as the ideal. Instead, it was often a blend of types--biblical, doctrinal, apologetic, philosophical, practical, aesthetic--focused through one or more topics.

The nearest thing to a systematic integrator was a remarkable consensus that developed on the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity (which is still widely agreed upon across many other divides). In the same period, the systematic theology tradition in Scotland suffered something of a decline, and when it began to revive in the 1990s it was with the help of several English theologians, so that there has been considerable convergence with England and Wales.

As in other cases, Rowan Williams is characteristic: his theology is deeply informed by Luther, Schleiermacher, Barth, Rahner, von Balthasar, Bonhoeffer and other continental Europeans, besides theologies from other parts of the world, and his recent book On Christian Theology covers theological method, biblical hermeneutics, creation, sin, Jesus Christ, incarnation, church, sacraments, ethics and eschatology, with the Trinity as the integrator. But he is a world away from the sort of systematic coverage given by such Germans as Moltmann and Pannenberg. Even those who have come nearest to imitating that German tradition have tended to do so in collaborative modes, such as in the Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, edited by Colin Gunton.

Given the conversational nature of British theology and its tendency not to have "stars" and "schools of thought," it is not surprising that it is better described through mapping the conversations than through looking for one leading center. My main interest here is not in the quantity or quality of published output but in locating where the liveliest conversations are happening.

The place to start is not with any particular university but with the networks that sustain the conversations. Nearly every department of theology has participants in one or more of those ongoing discussions (increasingly sustained through e-mail). …

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