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The Theological Task Before Us

By Oliver D. Crisp, Professor of Analytic Theology, St. Mary’s College

 Theology is a way of life. That sounds like a platitude, or a cliché. Perhaps it is. Nevertheless, it is true. Theology is sometimes characterized as an intellectual discipline, with its own standards, canon, sensibilities, and way of working, and that is right in its own way. There are many different accounts of what theology is, and many of them maintain that this is how we should think of theology. However, it seems to me that if we reduce theology to this we are left with something that is lifeless, an empty shell. Theology is not merely an academic discipline. Theologians are not merely those who spend their time reading, thinking, and writing about God. They are also members of a community of scholars dedicated to such work. The communities of which we are a part are as vital to theology as the outputs we produce.

I was formed in important respects by theology in Scotland. I was educated in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen, one of the four ancient universities of Scotland. I was fortunate (though at the time I didn’t fully appreciate it) in that I had teachers who made a significant mark in their respective disciplines. Scholars like David Fergusson, Iain Torrance, Trevor Hart, W. Peter Stephens, I. Howard Marshall, and Brian Rosner made an impact upon me as an undergraduate. My doctoral work was done at King’s College, London, during the halcyon days when the Research Institute for Systematic Theology (RIST) was in full swing under the leadership of Colin Gunton. To me, he was a great English theologian—there are not too many of those! He did real theology—systematic theology in a constructive vein, and in serious conversation with the tradition, and with related disciplines as well. Curiously, one of the things that I took away from my time at King’s, which in many ways was as important as the terminal degree I sought there, was something that no one taught me. It was an idea: the importance of theological community. Colin Gunton lived theology as a way of life. His whole life (aside from his gardening) was given over to theology. He was ordained, and preached regularly in the United Reformed Church that he attended. And he was passionate about theology. It was an infectious passion. He brought it with him to academic life in the College, and it inspired RIST which Gunton co-founded with St Andrews’ very own Christoph Schwöbel (who had left for the University of Kiel by the time I got to London). But more importantly, perhaps, Gunton brought it into the research seminars in RIST.

I was not a student in Systematic Theology at King’s. I was a student in Philosophy of Religion. My mentor was Paul Helm—and a great model of clarity and precision he was. But my heart was in theology. Colin Gunton invited me to come along to the research seminars in RIST, and I did. I even presented work in progress at his invitation. There I found a theological community, one where Gunton encouraged students to participate and treated them as equals not as inferiors. That simple act of intellectual generosity made a huge impact upon me. It has informed the way I try to treat my own graduate students. (Later, I discovered other exemplars of this pattern of behavior in people like Alvin Plantinga, Gavin D’Costa, and Eleonore Stump. But Colin Gunton was the one in whom I first saw this sensibility.)

Theological community makes theology vital, in the sense of living, real, concrete. Since my days at King’s I have lived among other theological communities, and have learnt a great deal from those with whom I have come into contact. The community at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame (from where I write these words), the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton where I lived in 2008-2009, the University of Bristol where I worked from 2006-2011, and most recently, Fuller Theological Seminary where I have been a professor for the past eight years (2011-2019). Each has its own intellectual “flavor.” Each has its own contribution to make. I am the beneficiary of these communities, and they have marked me as all communities mark those who have lived in them.

I have said that theology is taught. Of course that is right. But theological community, and theology as a way of life—that cannot be taught. It is “caught.” As my family and I prepare to come to St Mary’s, I am struck by the importance of this insight for the task of theology. I am moving from one theological community, that of Fuller Seminary in California, to another, in Scotland. I am coming to what Judith Wolfe has called a “theological community by the sea.” (An evocative turn of phrase if ever there was one!) I hope that as I come I may be a productive and positive member of that community. I hope to make my own modest contribution, of course. But more importantly, I hope I may learn and grow and develop through interaction with others as we live theology together.

There is much speculation about the future of theology in seminaries and in universities  today (perhaps it was ever the case). Will there still be professional schools dedicated to imparting theological knowledge in a generation? Will Divinity be chased out of the “secular” research university? I do not share such pessimism. Theology is a vital subject, more vital today than ever in this world of religious, social, and political upheavals. Far from dissipating with the inevitable advance of scientific progress, religious questions have persisted, becoming even more pressing as we face increasing uncertainty in other areas of public life. The future of theology is in theological community—in lived theology. That is why St Mary’s is such an important place for the study of theology in all its many varieties. It is a community of scholars and students—of those learning together. It has been like that ever since I have known it when I began my career teaching in St Andrews back in 2002. I hope that as I come to live in this community of theology by the sea for a second time that I may be shaped by scholars and friends as I have been formed by the other places I have lived and worked, so that together—as professors, scholars, and students—we may provide an example of how theology can be a way of life.