Reorientation and Retrieval in Systematic Theology

by Gabriel Fackre

Dr. Fackre in 1987 was the Abbot professor of Christian theology at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

This article is based on his presidential address to the American Theological Society. This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 26-July 3, 1991, pp.653-656 . Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Gabriel Fackre gives an overview of the current theological landscape from numerous theological seminary professors’ viewpoints, and concludes that there is a richly diverse field of complementary as well as contending positions. The emphasis in seminary teaching seems to focus on retrieval of traditions interpreted in a contemporary light, and leaving room for hope of a more ecumenical understanding of Christian faith.

Are seminary professors churchless agnostics? Purveyors of the culture's latest fads and fancies? More evidence of the decadence of mainline churches? Some recent media reports on the molders of student minds have painted this picture. But 115 syllabi of basic courses in theology from schools around the country tell a different story. They are part of information I gathered from colleagues in systematics who shared what they are doing in required and often year-long courses, and where they believe we are going in theology. I wrote to all the systematics teachers I could find in North America (219) using memberships of theological societies and catalog listings, I received 140 replies, representing 92 institutions. Respondents were a cross-section of systematic theologians, mostly from denominational seminaries (Protestant and Roman Catholic), university divinity schools and evangelical seminaries.

What colleagues do or think is not the same as what should be so, of course. The present mood could be quite wrong. As Bonhoeffer put it, we should not be "servile before fact." However, knowing the actual lay of the land does challenge caricatures of the church and its institutions. What follows is a glimpse of life in our classrooms, with a comment here and there from this teacher.

Sweeping generalizations about what doctrinal positions are in or out make little sense. Many theologies are among us. This diversity is different from other epochs-for example, the time when a Princeton scholasticism dominated the 19th-century Protestant landscape, or even the recent period when neo-orthodoxy was at the least the common reference point for theological debate.

Diversity itself comes in a variety of shapes and sizes: First, contextual perspectives are highly visible. The dramatic emergence of African-American, feminist, womanist, North American Hispanic, Third World and Two-Thirds World, laity, Native American, Asian and Asian-American points of view is a fact of life in much of the field of systematics, minimal but growing among systematics teachers, significantly present in required readings and supplemental bibliography, and proffered by guest lecturers. The large number of second-career seminarians, including those who bring histories of personal and vocational crises, together with a growing multi cultural constituency, brings its own kind of contextuality. Students themselves engage in theological reality-testing from the workplace, family life, cultural ferment and contexts of oppression.

Second, schools of thought are providing overarching frameworks. Some respondents said these schools break down into two basic categories: the "postliberal" and the "revisionist" positions, or the "Yale" and "Chicago" schools, or the Lindbeckians and the Tracyites. A few concluded: What else is new? It's Barth and Tillich all over again, the old kerygmatic and apologetic options.

This division, however, is obviously oversimplified once one considers evangelical theology. Even within this major alternative, a case could be made for at least six subsets: old evangelicals, new evangelicals, justice and peace evangelicals, charismatic evangelicals, fundamentalists, and ecumenical evangelicals. Add to that a variety of liberation theologies plus transcendental Thomists, neoCalvinists, confessional Lutherans, Anglo-Catholics, process and pluralist theologians, the unrepentant neo-orthodox and neo-liberal, the Eastern Orthodox, three kinds of narrative theology and more. We may need a moratorium on typologizing.

A case can be made for an easily overlooked third kind of diversity, that of movements. These are points of view and perspectives that have a significant institutional base and momentum. Evangelicalism, with as many students in the 15 schools represented as all the rest put together, along with para-church networks and mass-media outlets, is a major new player on the theological scene. And there are other points of view with similar social dynamics. African-American theologies have a black church and seminary base, and North American Hispanic theologies may be developing on parallel lines, along with feminist theologies and their support structures. Two other movements with lower profiles are the longstanding ecumenical movement with special momentum these days in bilateral dialogues and interfaith settings, and the charismatic-Pentecostal movement now producing its own systematic works and nurturing large constituencies in its schools and churches.

Fourth and often missed in theological map-making is the presence of ecclesial traditions. Being Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Reformed, Baptist or Eastern Orthodox figures increasingly not only in theological pluralism but in systematics curricula. It emerges in the required reading and in the stress on church roots, according to both school and faculty survey comments.

What do we do with all these differences? If one believes in a Corinthian catholicity (I Cor. 12, 13)--the potential for mutual enrichment through diversity, as Paul contended in the face of the partisanships in the church at Corinth--then this is a moment of special opportunity. It requires, however, that we acknowledge our limitations, recognize the partiality of our perspective and remain open to learning from others. If we do not seize upon the promise of this moment through what we might call "the mutual conversation, consolation and correction of the brothers and sisters" (to rephrase Luther), we could be in for a period of theological Balkanization or Beirutization-armed camps firing away at each other from their places of epistemological privilege.

Diversity, yes. But all across the spectrum, some commonalities are discernible. The first and most visible is the motif of retrieval. The period of cafeteria theology, "adhocracy," preoccupation with prolegomena, or unremitting contemporaneity seems to be over. Know the tradition!

The reasons for retrieval vary. Many assert the heritage because they believe it to be true as is and hold that it has been lost in recent theological adventurism. This view is found in a pronounced way in evangelical seminaries and to a significant extent in mainline schools as well. Its espousal is not an outright rejection of advocacy perspectives nor a denial of the importance of contextual and cultural encounter, for these things are regularly linked to retrieval. But the stress is much more on recovery than on "relevance."

Others who also believe in retrieving the heritage are more concerned with keeping contextuality in tandem with it. However, they too worry about the erosion of theological identity and want to bring "the message" to parity (and more) with "the situation." While tradition must always be reread in terms of the context, that can only be done if the past formulations are at least known, they assert. Teachers who want to recontextualize are often stunned by how unfamiliar their students and the churches are with that heritage. So bringing the tradition to higher visibility is a priority, even as contextuality and contemporaneity are also stressed.

A few give attention to the tradition because they want a foil for the radical reformulation they believe is demanded by qualitatively different times. They believe the inherited theology has either been hostage to an oppressor class, race or sex, or employs a dying paradigm that is being replaced by new sensitivities to world religions, cosmic consciousness, historicist realities or postmodern ambiguities. But these innovators contend that we also need to know what has been in order to sharpen awareness of our new age and to appreciate the power of new proposals.

How the tradition is recovered varies in all three versions of retrieval. And while most basic courses in systematics cover the traditional loci by using one or more texts that touch on each major doctrine, the diversity of texts is very interesting. Current texts that cover all the doctrines predominate. In mainline seminaries often more than one such text is required, reflecting to some extent the desire to give students an alternate reading of basic Christian convictions. In many seminaries one or more texts are supplemented with selections from other points of view on specific doctrines, along with assigned readings in collections of historical excerpts.

In the past ten to 12 years over 30 new projects in full-scale systematic theology or "introductions" have been launched, ranging in length from one to seven volumes. Additional major projects are under way. New texts on systematic theologies, along with new dictionaries, encyclopedias and biblical commentaries, are significant signs of efforts at retrieving the faith and "getting it all together." Another kind of resource for covering the traditional loci is the use of the giants and near-giants of the 20th century. Karl Barth stands out above others, Rahner and Tillich appear, and the old standby John Macquarrie, who was writing systematics when virtually no one else was, is still used in a few places.

Some teachers settle only for classical texts--Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, Schleiermacher, Wesley and a scattering of the early Fathers and medieval Mothers. Excerpts from these authors are also assigned, along with dictionary entries and confessional, catechetical and creedal texts. Again, "Know who you are"--know your tradition. A few schools avoid all use of formal systematics works and rely instead on a variety of authors, often with different perspectives on given topics.

Whatever else the variegated pattern of retrieval means, a few modest generalizations seem apt: First, the charge that seminary teachers are "post-Christian" is a gross misrepresentation. At the very least, recovering the tradition Puts Students in touch with the assumptions that function in the hymnbooks and prayerbooks of their prospective parishioners, the lections from which they will preach and the ordination papers they must write. Second, retrieval is not, as such, repristination. The character of most of the readings and virtually all of the respondents' comments indicates a desire to interpret the tradition in a contemporary light.

"Contemporaneity" is a broad term for making connections with time and place. No galvanizing center of contemporary concern is discernible in North American systematicians, as may be the case, for example, in the seminary world of Germany, South Africa or Latin America. Nevertheless, very high on the North American agenda is the plight of the marginalized. We have already spoken of this under the rubric of diversity: the victims and the voiceless demand a hearing. Here we note the much wider concern to confront the oppression of women; the rights of African-Americans and Hispanics; the agony of the homeless and the hungry, battered women and abused children; the tragedy of AIDS, the Holocaust history of Jews and the decimation of Native Americans. The hermeneutics of suspicion seems to have hit home in the sense of a growing awareness that we can't recover the fullness of the tradition itself without expanding our vision beyond our captivities to one or another wielder of social power.

Contemporaneity also includes a range of other cultural concerns. Sometimes scholars sum them up under the rubric "globalization"-- North American systematicians becoming aware of pandemic hunger, disease, war and perceptions of reality found around the world, religious and otherwise. Developments in science, especially the implications of the new physics and uncharted medical and biomedical questions, are also studied, although only here and there. Theologies of creation reflect both the environmental crisis and new cosmic horizons. In Roman Catholic seminaries, philosophy--contemporary and classical--is given much more attention than in other places, usually in "fundamental theology" courses conjoined to systematics ones. An increased awareness of contemporary religious pluralism is everywhere, and responses to it reflect the full range of diversity indicated earlier.

Respondents made it clear that the church is the environment in which theology is and ought to be done--evidence that collides with some journalistic and even academic generalizations. Consider the refrain expressed variously by these testimonies, all from mainline seminary faculty:

Whatever else dogmatic/systematic theology ... might be for, it has to be for proclamation. Theology has to be done so as literally to drive its practitioners from the lectern to the pulpit.

I am interested in how the believing, worshiping, praying community of Jesus Christ appropriates and then lives the Bible and its tradition. . . . Systematic theology must begin in prayer (communal and individual), be sustained by it, and even end there because God is always the ever-great Mystery.

I am committed unashamedly to teaching Christian doctrine and draw a clear distinction between that which is taught in a secular environment ... and what is confessionally committed.

Theology finds it primary task in assisting the community (of faith) to listen, worship, preach and serve.

My lectures tend to emphasize a lex orandi standpoint-- doctrines informed by and grounded in the church at worship and prayer.

And from a syllabus:

On most weeks, one hour of the Thursday class will be devoted to dealing with theological issues involved in pastoral situations.... For each pastoral situation, the student... is expected to 1) isolate the theological issue or issues involved; 2) explain where s/he would go/have gone for resources to deal with that issue.

And from an exam:

Set forth the doctrine of the Person of Christ implicit or explicit in the Christmas hymn by Charles Wesley, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and evaluate it from your perspective.

And more of the same in many places. Those who bewail the abstractions of theology teachers will be surprised to know of these churchly concerns in systematics classes, as will the Atlantic readers who were recently led to believe that "the hands that shape the souls" of the next generation of pastors do not hold hymnals.

For me, the accents on retrieval, contemporaneity and church commitment are signs of hope. So too for a hundred or so pastors who responded to a parallel inquiry I made on the state of theology to check how those on the front line of teaching felt about the same issues. They spoke much about the "disarray," "confusion" and "decline" of theology in congregations and urged seminary teachers to attend to the "foundations" and to link them with current issues and the mission of the church.

What happens in theology may, humanly speaking, finally hinge on what we do with the phenomenon of diversity. If we resist the temptation of tribalism the claim that our restricted angle of vision has a God's eye view of the truth--then we make possible a mutually enriching conversation that could lead to a more ecumenical understanding of Christian faith–an "evangelical catholicity," as the old Mercersburg theologians called it. Or, to edit a bit the phrases of 19th-century German theologian Rupert Meldinius:

In perspectives, diversity

In essentials, catholicity

In all things, charity.