Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Theology in the Present Tense

Written by: on October 25, 2013

In explaining to the student on “How to Use This Book,” Alister McGrath asserts, “Christian theology is one of the most fascinating subjects it is possible to study.”[1]  After three weeks of reading about theology from different entry points each presenting compelling perspectives, I agree.  The last of the three[2], Christian Theology: An Introduction is comprehensive, yet structured in such a way that I was invited into the information presented.  Rather than tell the reader what to think, it informs the reader on what has been thought.[3]  A theology book with more than four hundred pages is usually something that is digested over time; days become weeks, weeks become months. Peripheral vision can be dulled.  This week we had no such opportunity and that was a gift.   The concentration of time provided the opportunity to observe how theology responded to, engaged with, and critiqued culture from the Patristic period into the 21st century.  Theology is not only a study of God, but a walk with humanity through history.  After several days of being immersed in this text I recognize in greater measure that theology is far from a static study in which one is learning essential facts that have been established and need to be re-established.  I wonder if theology may be likened to an amoba that changes and adapts its shape yet is comprised of the same central features.

Our human journey has indeed presented challenges to our understanding of God in the past and I wonder if it is not doing so again today.  At one time it was universally accepted that the earth was the center of the universe. Yet over time with new advances, additional observations and documentation this perspective was challenged by Niciolas Copernicus followed by Galileo Galilei.  The heliocentric model developed by Copernicus, identifying that the sun is at the center of the universe with the planets (including earth) in orbit around the sun revolutionized more than just science.  What then was to be done with Joshua 10:12 where the sun stood still or Isaiah 38 where the sun’s shadow on the dial moved back ten steps (vs 8)?  This challenged the way and the manner in which Scripture was understood and interpreted.  Eventually Galileo received papal condemnation because at the time the emphasis and priority in interpretation leaned most heavily on a literal interpretation based upon the common understanding and interpretation of the pope (current and prior) and church fathers.[4]

A study of theology reminds us that change in theology and change in the Church (body) of Christ does not often come swiftly nor is it swiftly implemented.  We wrestle with adaptation.  Vantage points change, as does perspective.  If Copernicus’s heliocentric theory was indeed correct what happens to the authority and reliability of the Bible?  Geesh!  You can see how this got complicated very fast and was not going to be easily rectified.  So it might be surprising to everyone who thinks of John Calvin as the “sola scriptura” guy that he actually made a vital contribution some years later.  He encouraged the scientific study of nature and commended the study of astronomy and medicine.[5]  In doing so he stressed “the orderliness of creation: both the physical world and the human body testify to the wisdom and character of God.”[6]  Calvin’s insight expanded our understanding of how we might recognize God within the works of God through the creation.  He also developed and illustrated the theory of accommodation.  Calvin asserted that God accommodates to the capacities of the human mind and heart.”[7]  For Calvin those that study theology must decide on the “nature and extent of that accommodation.”[8]

This is fascinating to me, not because I understand it fully, because I do not. Copernicus & Galileo threatened the manner and structure of interpretation of Scripture. Yet knowing the Church could be so fixated on what it had always known as truth, that it rejected a new way of understanding and seeing challenges me to not hastily reject seeming contradictions to what we know now as established dogma or doctrine.

Reading this book within a short time-frame highlighted for me prior Church missteps and brought into focus two areas that are simmering for the Church: women in ministry (as equals in ministry with men) and homosexuality (and within many areas same-sex marriage).  Theologically speaking people seem to end up in opposing camps, firing at one another from time to time and at other times coming out to sit around a cozy campfire. These are not the only issues of concern but they do speak to the way and manner in which we interpret and accommodate scripture.  Both relate to our understanding of the Trinity, personhood, and the image of God.  We must engage and respond to science as new knowledge is brought forth that requires our engagement, perspective, and response.  In some ways this is forcing the church to respond to culture (even to acknowledge that we may have adapted biblical interpretation through a lens of culture and perceived family and economic stability).

I acknowledge thus far I have only skimmed the surface; there is more work to do.  I do not desire to minimize people’s perspectives, opinions or beliefs, but I desire to invest in the process of theology so that we might consider our sources (Scripture, tradition, reason and experience), how theology has emerged (historical), how the various aspects of Christian dogma are in relationship and connected together, and application (prayer, fellowship, worship).[9]  “Christian theology is not just a set of ideas: it is about making possible a new way of seeing ourselves, others and the world, with implications for the way we behave.”[10]  I hope my peripheral vision has improved.  I know I am challenged.


[1]  Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed., (West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell,  2011), xxii.

[2]  The previous two books were Who Needs Theology by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson and Theology: A Very Short Introduction by David Ford.

[3]  McGrath, xxv.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5]  Ibid., p. 193.

[6]  Ibid., p. 193.

[7] Ibid., p. 192.

[8] Ibid., p. 193.

[9] Ibid., p. 101-102.

[10] Ibid., p. 102.

About the Author

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

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