Some Themes in Protestant Theology Today

by Gabriel Fackre

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

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 23, 1987, pp.790-792. 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 John R. Bushell.


Can Protestant theology be catholic?

Twenty-five years ago Union Theological Seminary professor Roger Shinn described a change in theological direction with a vivid image. Alluding to his own institution in New York City, he said: "For many of our students the time has come to break the prolonged mood of introspection ... the fashionable reveling in anxiety. [They have] learned instead to march and sing.... The American ear ... heard the clear strains of 'We shall overcome someday... (Union Seminary Tower [Fall 1963], p. 3). Shinn's observation signaled not only the church's involvement in the civil rights movement but also the coming of the theologies of renewal, humanization, secularity and hope.

For today another image seems more apt: not a singing march but a sober walk. The setting is not theological academia but a local congregation. The mood is one not of celebration but of determination. It is the Sunday of the Boston March for Hunger. The place is "First Church" in suburban Newton, a stop for the weary walkers, an oasis with 20 chemical toilets and lots of refreshments. After the Sunday service most of the congregation will join the walk. The pastor preaches on the lection from the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul's memorable discourse on justification. But the homily is not on the salvation of sinners by grace through faith. The sermon, titled "Suffering and Hope," focuses on the text, "We know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character and character hope. " The pastor reflects on both the hunger walk and the upcoming via crucis on Good Friday in which hundreds of churchpeople, including a small contingent from First Church, will carry crosses memorializing the Nicaraguan dead in the annual Quaker peace vigil on the Boston Common. Citing South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu's book Hope and Suffering, the pastor speaks of the endurance needed to participate in the marathon walk for justice and peace, a walk possible only through a mobilizing yet sober hope that anticipates a Good Friday on the way to Easter.

Of the recurring quandaries in Christian theology -- suffering, sin, ignorance and death -- suffering, historical suffering, appears to have become the chief concern of Protestant theology in the latter 20th century, replacing the 'Classical Protestant accent on sin and God's answering word of forgiveness. Some years ago Horst Symanowski made this same point (against a more secular and more hopeful background) when he declared that people do not lie awake anymore worrying about Luther's question, How can I find a gracious God? People's anguish is not over the alienation between the soul and God but rather over the estrangement between black and white, rich and poor, male and female, East and West. The question is, How can I find a gracious neighbor,?

Protestant theology in the United States has continued in the direction that Shinn and Symanowski identified: historical suffering is its focus and "hope in action" its response. Hence the rise of liberation (black, feminist, Third World), political, ecological, public, process, peace and holocaust theologies. Hence, too, the attention paid by leading theologians to particular ethical issues -- economic, sexual, medical and biomedical, nuclear -- as well as the higher visibility of theologically informed ethicists. The same currents are to be found in selfidentified evangelical theologies; from the political fundamentalism of the Christian right, through the personal and social ethical concerns of the evangelical center, to the more radical stance of "justice and peace evangelicals. "Where these movements differ from the ones identified by Shinn and Symanowski is in their sobriety about the future, their acknowledgment of radical opposition, their limited immediate expectations, and even their sense of historical horror. They move toward the future, yes, but at a slower pace-a walk, even a stumbling one.

This vein of theological thinking is the "suspicionist" hermeneutics, the more dire forecasts of the liberation and political theologies, the nightmare scenarios of the peace and holocaust theologies and the modest metaphors of process and public theologies. Joining this mood at the right end of the spectrum is the neofundamentalism that oddly couples the expectation of an imminent tribulation-filled end-time with an activist political agenda.

Sometimes the walk almost comes to a standstill. Suffering seems so overwhelming that hoping becomes essentially a way of coping. This is the situation addressed by some of the Protestant theodicies of our time, those that stress the suffering of God in and with human misery. The renewed interest in spirituality, in forms that range from the psychological to the liturgical, is also a response to what is perceived to be intractable suffering. Are developments in the "theology of religions" also bound up with the cultural quandary of suffering? The modern experience of being shocked by the pluralism of the global village is the usual explanation for interest in world religions, and the search for a place for them in Christian interpretation. However, the attraction of specific non-Christian traditions (Hindu and Buddhist especially) may be due as much to their treatment of the question of suffering. Yet in all these cases Protestant theology tends to be restless with quietistic solutions, and tries to harness coping and hoping to cultural action.

Insofar as theology does address the other perennial perplexities, it tends to relate them to historical suffering and the hope for a historical resolution. Thus sin appears in a Reinhold Niebuhr boomlet as the note of Christian realism needed in social ethics; ignorance receives attention through "the epistemological privilege of the poor" or an action hermeneutics; death is addressed in the issue of nuclear winter. Not to be forgotten here are the movements that protest all talk of suffering/sin/death and wish for us self-esteem, "new age" pieties and creation-oriented spiritualities as medicine for our morbidities.

Yet there is something else afoot in Protestant theology: a counter question to the one of historical suffering. Returning to the scene at First Church, Newton, we might note that the homily on suffering and hope is based on the lectionary and set in the flow of a classical liturgy with attendant paraments and garb, all departures from the informalities of First Church's free-church tradition. Furthermore, Bible-study groups have been springing up in the congregation, and there is a move to introduce a back-to-the-basics Christian educational curriculum. The pastor and some of the members are active in a theological renewal movement in their denomination (a denomination dubbed by a national newsmagazine as "the social action church"). They want to clarify the church's doctrinal identity, recover its theological heritage and ground its actions in biblical faith. These concerns suggest the counter question and its ecclesial overtones in Protestant theology today: Have we so allowed the world, with its question of suffering and its plea for hope, to set the church's agenda that the very identity of Christian faith and validity of the church are imperiled? Is it not time to question the culture's questions instead of rushing to answer them, and often answering them on the culture's own terms? Is not the recovery of the unique Christian identity bound up with the struggle for the church's integrity?

The assertion of Christian identity and ecclesial integrity is found in various counter developments in Protestant theology. Prominent among these is the so-called "Yale theology" (granting its diversity), which interprets doctrine as rules for the discourse and action of the Christian community, emphasizes the canonical reading of Scripture, and views worship, pastoral care and ethics as the celebration and articulation of the community's story. The quest for a convergent Christian identity and ecclesial integrity appears also in theological developments within official church structures. The influential ecumenical documents of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry and the Consultation on Church Union are cases in point. Another example is the theological soul searching going on within various Protestant denominations and local congregations. Similar (though different in appearance) is the search within evangelical theology, where internal debate has to do with just this issue of identity/integrity-the authority and interpretation of the Bible. We might also put in the category of counterquestions the small Barth revival and the interest in the Barmen Declaration, which may be due as much to a desire to resist cultural accommodation as to the recent anniversaries of the figures they involve.

The drama of cultural question and ecclesial counter question is also being played out in an interesting way in narrative theology. On one hand, "life story" versions of theology point to the narrative character of human experience and thereby connect theology to the drama of suffering and hope. But on the other hand, narrative is also used to tell the Christian community's singular story in juxtaposition to these cultural and experientialist preoccupations. Another theological development showing the point-counterpoint in Protestant thought is the appearance of a small but steady stream of systematic theologies. Some of these are offered as answers to the cultural agenda, but others stress the clarification of historic identity. Yet more evidence of the counter questioning spirit is the recent proposal in the pages of this journal for a postmodern theology of identity (William H. Willimon, "Answering Pilate: Truth and the Postliberal Church" [January 28, 1987]; see also Readers' Response, "A Challenge to Willimon's Postliberalism" [April 1, 1987]).

"One feature of this theological scene is the predominance of what Hugh T. Kerr, Jr., editor of Theology Today, calls "single-issue theology." His observation is worth pondering: What is the locus of single issues within the grand theological orbit of the Bible as a whole, of Christian tradition past and present, and of the universal church everywhere? The kind of symmetry that theology was once supposed to imply may not be a viable option among theologians in our day, but it still must be true that any portion of the Gospel belongs within an implicative network of the whole of God's plan and purpose. Advocates of single issues tend to avoid such wider theological ramifications. Why?" ["Trademarks of Theology," Theology Today (January 1987), p. 469].

Kerr's concern somewhat resembles Paul's query to the Corinthian congregation: "Can the eye say to the hand, I have no need of you? If all were a single organ, where would the body be?" (I Cor. 12:19). Is a conversation possible amid our pluralism and partisanship? Could it be, for example, that a kairos for suffering and hope does not preclude theological attention to other clarnant issues, not only as they bear upon this one, but also in their own right-sin as how we all stand accountable before God, death as our common mortality, error as our common lot-and what the Good News says about all these things, i.e., forgiveness, resurrection, revelation? Can a culture answering theology learn nothing from a culture-questioning theology? And vice versa? Are the concerns of each mutually exclusive? Can Protestant theology be catholic?

Perhaps the grass-root Afro-American, Hispanic and Asian-American theologies and congregations have something to teach the rest of us about the partnership of identity and vitality. It appears that for First Church, Newton, and its theological counterparts, forging that partnership is the major task set before them in the closing years of the second millennium.