Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pericope of the Week: A Letter to the Editor of The Economist

Sir --

"Theological" does not mean irrational or fanatical ("A deficit of common sense," October 27th). Theologians are committed in principle to applying reason to subjects of central human importance, in the same way that climate-change scientists, politicians and economists should be.

Judith Gardom
Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Brief Note on Alister E. McGrath

Dr. Alister E. McGrath

I was quite pleased to learn this week that Dr. Alister McGrath, one of the leading evangelical scholars today, gave a key address at the International Conference on Confessional Leadership, hosted in Peachtree, Georgia, by leaders and theologians in the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. From media reports about his address, it sounds like it was well-received by the 120 participants who were invited to attend. If his talk was anything like the one he gave at a recent American Academy of Religion conference, one can understand why his words went over well.

I would have liked to have heard him in Georgia, too, but I wasn't invited.

Still, I am encouraged by reports about his address, as they suggest that perhaps these leaders in the LCMS and its partner churches are more open than I had thought toward hearing from a theologian who seeks to engage the contemporary world with the evangelical promise of Christ. The fact that Dr. McGrath does so  with great understanding of the modern sciences and with growing sensitivity toward some modern cultural developments (e.g., egalitarianism) is especially welcome.

As an LCMS pastor and university professor for more than twenty years, I have tried to follow his example of doing critical, contemporary evangelical theology. For me, this has meant pursuing truth wherever it might be found, most immediately within the context of modern universities (such as the ones in which you and I teach and conduct research), and then relating those truths to the truth of the gospel promise.

These intellectual paths have led me to be critical of a few of my church body's official doctrinal stances,  since they conflict with basic facts in the natural sciences (the LCMS has officially rejected all understandings of so-called "macro-evolution") and are unnecessary obstacles in the mission of reaching out to scientifically-informed people in our western, egalitarian societies (the LCMS has also rejected the practice of ordaining women as pastors and does not normally allow women to teach theology in its universities and seminaries).

I suspect that Dr. McGrath did not draw attention to his published criticisms of positions similar to the ones the LCMS has officially taken, since that likely would have been awkward for him and his hosts, but anyone who reads his writings will know that he indeed calls for evangelical churches (like the evangelical-Lutheran LCMS and its partner church bodies) to be open to the valid insights and knowledge from the natural sciences and to engage in respectful dialogue and conversation with feminist theologians.

So I was pleasantly surprised to read that Dr. McGrath was given a positive hearing at this LCMS conference.

We can be thankful for his efforts to reconcile Christian faith with knowledge from the modern natural sciences. We can be grateful for his positive appraisals of those many Christian thinkers who have sought to bring modern evolutionary theory into a positive relation with contemporary articulations of Christian faith. (See, for example, what he has written about "evolutionary theism" on pp. 193-3 of his book, Science and Religion: An Introduction.) Throughout his work he has encouraged evangelical Christians to use modern tools for biblical exegesis and to follow contemporary hermeneutical principles that take into account modern forms of scientific knowledge. He also encourages evangelicals to engage feminist theology positively, as he does in the most recent edition of his introduction to Christian theology. (My positive review of the first edition appeared in the Concordia Journal, back when I was not the persona non grata that I have become in the LCMS for writing and speaking publicly about these same issues.)

Apparently the LCMS and its partner churches are now becoming more open to hearing from evangelical theologians who support theistic evolution and a positive engagement with feminist theology--at least as long as they are not members of the LCMS or one of its partner churches!

One wonders if Dr. McGrath was able to converse with the leaders in Georgia on the above issues. Was he able to share with them his criticisms of the kind of Protestant-fundamentalist theology that is so different from authentic evangelical-Lutheran theology (Dr. Luther's understanding of "evangelisch") and that has led to severe restrictions and even repercussions against theologians who seek to explore these important issues in many evangelical churches, including the LCMS.

His approach in part led me to write the essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind" (based also in part on a chapter in the book by Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), since his approach could be helpful toward getting the LCMS and similar evangelical churches out of the dead-end position they have put themselves in by publicly attacking every understanding of "evolution" and by constantly attacking those who also seek to engage and learn from biblical theologians who are sensitive to feminist issues.

We should also appreciate his critical work over against the neo-atheists. This is a concern that I share, too, and thus I've tried to engage the same anti-theologians in my new book, The Promise of Theology. So thank you, Dr. McGrath, for your work, which is to say, thank you for your intelligent witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.