Contemporary Systematic Theology: An Embarrassment of Riches

Mark Gorman

In The Architecture of Theology (Oxford University Press, 2011), a must-read for any serious student of systematic theology, A. N. Williams observes that while Christian theology is inherently systematic the number of comprehensive “systematic theologies” is comparatively small. In other words, for all the volumes of, e.g., Christology that also take into consideration, at least implicitly, the doctrine of God, ecclesiology, liturgics, pneumatology, and so on, there are far fewer projects like Karl Barth’s multivolume Church Dogmatics or even Geoffrey Wainwright’s single volume Doxology.

So it is remarkable, if not astonishing, that in the decade since Williams published The Architecture of Theology, three theologians, all from the Anglican tradition, have begun multivolume essays in systematic theology. So far, two of the three have yet to publish more than the first volume of their essays, yet all three forays invite serious consideration from theologians of all stripes.

The first to publish in that decade was Sarah Coakley, with her God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Coakley introduced her book as “the initial segment in the larger systematic project, to be entitled overall, On Desiring God” (xv), but though she has yet to deliver a second, this first “segment” generated sufficient attention on its own. (It was included in a Catalyst recommended reading list for summer 2014, accessible here, by two different John Wesley Fellows, and you can read a longer review by one of them, Beth Felker Jones, here.) Coakley labels her approach théologie totale: contemplation, prayer, art, and human embodiment are all considered essential to the work of theology. This approach will resonate with many Wesleyan theologians, for whom the phrase “systematic theology” all too often conjures intellectualist projects with little or no relation to the preferred “practical divinity” of our namesake.

About two years after God, Sexuality, and the Self, Katherine Sonderegger released Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God (Fortress, 2015). Enthusiastically endorsed by Wesley Fellow D. Stephen Long at its publication, Sonderegger’s book reexamines the traditional attributes of God (omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience) in a treatise on the One God that conjures up descriptions such as bracing, daring, exhilarating, and idiosyncratic. Hers is a scholasticism in the best sense of the word: fresh, alert, and bold. Wesleyan theologians will admire the relentlessly scriptural character of her Systematic Theology, such as her grounding of divine omnipotence in a reading of the book of Numbers. There is also something significant in her preference for speaking of God, in the language of the Book of Common Prayer, as “Almighty God.” Moreover, Sonderegger has already completed a second volume; her Systematic Theology, vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Fortress, 2020), was just released in late fall. Among its enticements is an entire section, roughly 130 pages, on Leviticus and Trinitarian holiness.

Third, then, is Graham Ward’s How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I (Oxford University Press, 2016). Readers may find the subtitle misleading, since there is very little discussion of what usually passes for “ethics.” Instead, this is a classic example of prolegomenon, an extended preface that introduces the “what” and “why” of later volumes. The “what” Ward labels as “engaged systematics,” echoing Coakley’s théologie totale, and the “why” is Ward’s emphasis on a participatory account of Christian theology that understands all life happens coram Deo, in the presence of God. Wesleyans will appreciate Ward’s acknowledgement, appropriation, and modification of Methodist Geoffrey Wainwright’s work on lex orandi, lex credenda (the law of prayer is the law of belief, and vice versa). Ward’s easy fluency with popular culture as well as continental philosophy (Avatar and Merleau-Ponty) is also impressive, though it does sometimes ask a lot of readers. (In a review in Modern Theology, Stanley Hauerwas mentions that references to The Blair Witch Project passed over his head; for us mere mortals, the continental philosophers are more likely to provoke consternation, or at least careful re-readings.) Like Coakley, Ward also has not yet released subsequent volumes.

I hope that does not sound like a critique. Presenting a thorough portrait of the Christian faith is a daunting task, and in these systematic theologies we have an embarrassment of riches. If all we ever have from Coakley, Sonderegger, and Ward are these already-published volumes, we should be grateful for them. And we must also consider that these were completed while the Anglican Communion has been in the throes of global acrimony and division. Rather than throwing in the towel on their tradition, Coakley, Sonderegger, and Ward do their best both to present it winsomely and to breathe new theological life into it. Along with the substance of their systematics, this effort itself should be instructive for us in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition who face similar challenges—and, it appears, opportunities.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

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