Doctrine for Mission: why we need a new systematic theology

Reading Adam Tooze’s book Crashed: How a decade of financial crises changed the world on the economic crisis 2008 – 2018 (see my review here), I was struck by his question, near the end of the book, on the status of economics as the ‘queen of the sciences’, a title traditionally reserved for theology. The same question had come into my mind when I read Yanis Varoufakis’ book Talking to my daughter about the economy (see my review here).

Post-modernism would have us believe that there is no shared world view, no common narrative for understanding the world. It is interesting that both of the books mentioned are recent, post-modernism certainly seems to have reached and passed its peak. There has, of course, never been a single world-view held by even a majority of humanity. Different religions and philosophies have helped sway in different times and places. The encounter of these world views is in fact part of what created post-modernism.

It is important to remember that we all have a world view, a set of lenses through which we view the way things are. It may certainly be the case that economics is now close to being a single world view held by human beings of all cultures. The collapse of marxism and socialism generally has allowed Neo-liberal economic practice to appear triumphant everywhere.

This presents a fundamental problem to all religions. Within this neo-liberal hegemony there is no room for anything other than consumerism and an array of products from which to choose. Christianity doesn’t just sit alongside other religions as one product among many but also sits alongside every other possible leisure activity, one more way of spending time that is not spent at work.

Christian history does not present one single world-view, way of seeing the world, that has been held at all time. At different points in human history different ways of thinking, different philosophies have provided the deep structure of christian theology. Part of the God-given beauty of Scripture is its variety which has allowed Christians from the start to use other philosophies as a way of constructing a systematic, total, way of understanding the world. ‘Scripture alone’ has always been a myth because Scripture is varied and because we need a fundamental way of understanding the way things are in order to create our world view.

I wrote recently about the importance of the Creeds in our Christian lives, but the creeds are simply shorthand for the bigger picture. In that post I mentioned the importance of having simple, much repeated phrases in schools to create the culture change needed to turn a school around. However, I have seen many turn around attempts fail because the phrases chosen were nothing more than simple advertising jingles with no underlying thought to substantiate them.

As Head of Trinity, Lewisham, I was well known for the phrases we used to re-create the culture of the school. I liked to make these as short a possible, ideally short enough to fit on a badge. Some colleagues had collections of all the badges we made over the eight years. But these catch phrases were never meaningless. They were based on a relatively small number, not of entire world views, but of systems of thought: Restorative Justice, Mindfulness and Transactional Analysis, all linked to the central concept that ‘child-centred’ ideas of education needed to be replaced by a God-centred view of the universe.

Most significant of all, these underlying concepts were never just in my head or that of my senior team. We explained them constantly to new staff as part of their induction, to Governors, to parents, and to pupils. They were re-inforced in almost every assembly.

I have come to believe that one of the fundamental problems with evangelism in our time is our failure to articulate a systematic theology, an underlying structure to explain the creed. Children, young people will not be convinced to do things unless we explain why we want to do them. They are like all human beings.

The data on church attendance is fascinating (this is not intended to be an analysis of data which I am not qualified to do), what is clear is that there is a good deal of movement between churches. ‘Sheep stealing’ as it is somewhat unattractively referred to. There are also a good number of people who come to faith temporarily but do not sustain membership of particular churches. All of this partly accounts for the failure to stem overall decline and yet the apparent growth in some places.

Much of this failure, it seems to me, has its roots in emotional, experiential moments gaining primacy over intellectual understanding. Not that I am suggesting one should have primacy over the other. We need both. That’s what the Orthodox prayer teaching on the mind descending into the heart means. Thinking and feeling integrated at the heart, the centre of our being.

The search to construct a fundamental theology has been the meat of my own academic reading and work over the last three years. It began in exploring the Cloud of Unknowing and its teaching on prayer. In the Cloud I found a practical outworking of Augustine’s understanding of Time and Memory. The prayer method of the Cloud is not just a technique, it is a technique based on an understanding of the way the world is. Led by this to Augustine himself I have been overwhelmed by the majestic vision of his The City of God. This is a ‘total world’, a systematic understanding of the way things are. Brilliant as it is, it cannot do for us now without further work.

To digress for a moment, my own theological understanding has been much influenced by systematic theology as I sought to do what is theology’s basic task: to make sense of things. Much of my own academic understanding is derivative, based on the mediation of those around me. I am not a professional or academic theologian. In my late teens, in the age of the Second Vatican Council, and much influenced by the Benedictine monks who were my parish priests, I was deeply affected by Karl Rahner. I am not sure I could claim to have read every word in his Theological Investigations, but they were a constant source of wonder to me. Alongside reading Rahner, Teilhard de Chardin was an important source of reflection, although I was very far from being able to articulate any deep integration of these strands.

Later, in my early twenties I came under the spell of the writings and sermons of Austin Farrer, perhaps the greatest Anglican Thomist. This stream of thought has stayed with me for much of my adult life. It held my understanding of the sacraments including priesthood and ministry. It was so dominant that for some years I would tell people that I could accept the whole of the Catechism of the Catholic Church apart from the organisational features of the institutional church (notably the ‘imperial papacy’).

At some point (in my thirties?) I read von Balthasar. His strongly mystical account of theology fed my own experiential understanding gained from intense experiences in prayer. Although I suspect von Balthasar is not usually thought of as a systematic theologian his Theo-drama is certainly all-encompassing.

All these elements have contributed to my thinking but alongside them my first degree in world religions and encounter particularly with Judaism, Islam and Buddhism have been significant, but not integrated. Mindfulness practice has integrated some of the experiential material of Buddhism, as it has for many westerners and non-buddhists. But I am acutely aware that I cannot accept Buddhist metaphysics, and they are, in fact, anti-thetical to Christianity. Neither Rahner nor von Balthasar – let alone Augustine – helps much with the encounter with other religions.

I have been delighted, therefore, to discover two contemporary systematic theologians in the last year. Katherine Sonderegger is an Episcopalian priest in the United States. She has, so far, published just one volume of her multi-volume theology. I was able to hear her speak and meet her briefly on a visit to Trinity, Bristol (see my brief account of that here). I have now read Sonderegger’s The Doctrine of God twice. Francis Ward has written an excellent and helpful review here. Sonderegger writes beautifully. I could quote almost any page. She is deeply reliant on Augustine and interprets him in our own language:

“That is what we mean when we affirm with Augustine that God is more intimate to us than ourselves.  Not our forgetfulness or darkness, the riddle that we become to ourselves, but rather Light, this matchless eternal Light – that is the interior castle of our inwardness.” (427)

This is why our experiential faith can never be separated from our intellectual faith. As Augustine knew so well we are hard wired to be like God, the better we know ourselves the better we know God. Although our potential for self-delusion is a significant part of our fallen-ness, but despite this our knowing and curbing are inseparably connected, as Sonderegger puts it in her final sentence:

“Our mode of knowing is our mode of being: that too is the gift of the unsurpassed Lord” (528)

I would have liked more from Sonderegger on desire, and particularly on Augustine’s understanding of our desire for happiness and its place in our yearning for God. But there is much more to come from her yet. Her uniting of being and knowing seems to me absolutely critical and to confirm my thirty years of practising and teaching mindfulness.  In our very depths we, every human being, discovers kindness, compassion, dare I say it, love. Here is Sonderegger on Love in a brilliant passage that Ward quotes in her review (above):

“Love is the very ‘matter’, the objective Reality of God. Just this we intend when we speak of the Love of God as holy Fire. We strain language when we speak thus; but we must say that God’s own being burns with an unchecked Flame, red hot, incendiary. God does not have Love any more than he has Knowledge or Power. He just is these things.”

As are we.

I reproduce the whole passage below because it is so stunning.


The second systematic theologian that I have come to appreciate is the Finnish Lutheran Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. Having befriended the Anglican New Testament scholar Ian Paul online he suggested I attended the New Testament section of the Tyndale Conferences in Cambridge which I have now does for three years. In 2018 the doctrine conference which occurs simultaneously had Kärkkäinen as one of its speakers, I crossed streams to hear him and wasn’t disappointed. He has completed his five volume systematic theology which he titles “A Constructive Christian Theology for a Pluralistic World”. It is quite a read which I have now completed just once. He is not as smooth a writer as Sonderegger and frequent qualifies his statements to such an extent that frequent re-reads are needed  to work out which position he holds. This also makes him hard to quote briefly.

It is particularly significant that Kärkkäinen engages world religions as conversation partners in his theology. I am convinced that this is the only way forward. Everyone knows that there are different metaphysical descriptions of the universe, competing meta-narratives. To not have any explanation for this is unconvincing and reduces each to one more commodity to choose from on the basis of preference or taste. If we can’t say anything other than that they are wrong we will be reduced to a Hindu like claim to be one among many roads that lead up the same mountain.

Drawing from this basic stance Kärkkäinen recognises that Christian theology cannot simply be self-referencing, it must take account of internal and external voices, science and religion.

Kärkkäinen’s fundamental attitude is hospitality. It is this basic stance that allows him to welcome all voices and engage with them. His work is magisterial in its comprehensiveness. That makes it difficult to assimilate. And certainly difficult for me to present much digested reflection on his work at this stage of my reading of it. I am beginning a second, even slower, reading and hope to reflect more on this on this blog in the future. It is not necessary to read the volumes in order. Volume 3 “Creation and Humanity” is in many ways the most accessible. Kärkkäinen gives a good theological account of evolution and of the being of God as not entirely separate to creation, a sort of contemporary panentheism, God distinct to but in creation.

Kärkkäinen is surely right when he describes his mode of working as one that will be necessary for all Christian theologians of the future:

“I believe that something like what is attempted in this project will be the ‘normal’ mode of systematic/constructive Christian theology in the near future. That is inter confessional, interdisciplinary, and inter religious.” ( Vol 5, p xvii)

For this catholic Anglican his writing on the Eucharist is specially powerful.

“Before anything else, the Lord’s Supper is a profound embodiment of divine hospitality, a gift of God to the Church par excellence.” (vol 5 p. 390)



This post is really nothing more than a taster.

If our mission is to be deep, to draw new people to Jesus, we have to be credible witnesses. I have long thought that personal holiness, sanctification is a pre-requisite for mission. That is why morality and ethics are so important. And why scandals in the church are so destructive of mission. But holiness must give an account of itself. Faith needs a comprehensive account that is convincing to the world in which we live, the times in which we are placed. Experience wears thin unless it is fed with understanding. Theology must always be queen of the sciences, it must always give an account of everything because otherwise it is an empty echo chamber. In particular we must address the hegemony of economics as it seeks to seize the ground from under us.

I would very much appreciate feedback on this piece, suggestions for further reading and reflections on the relationship to mission.


Katherine Sonderegger, The Doctrine of God:

“Love is the very “matter,” the objective Reality of God. Just this we intend when we speak of the Love of God as holy Fire. We strain language when we speak thus; but we must say that God’s own Being burns with an unchecked Flame, red hot, incendiary. God does not have Love any more than He has Knowledge or Power: He just is these things. Now this raging Light is One with its Goodness: not a menace nor a dark force nor a brute, insatiable desire, but rather Benevolence, Kindness, Love. Holy Scripture invites us to “substantialize” Love—God is Love—because the Manifestation to Moses, in the fiery bush and in the Decalogue, declares to us a God beyond all limit, form, and kind. The Being of God is His very own, utterly concrete, singular, a Reality and Substance all His own. “He needs nothing” is not in truth strong enough. He just is that immeasurable Truth, that incommunicable One, whose only Nature is simply real. Nothing that is God can be other than substantial, objective, permanent: God is Rock, adamantine Reality. And Love is just such Presence, Truth, Being. We are broken on God in just this way. His Hiddenness and Invisibility are the eternal Definitiveness of His Being. His Love is irresistible in just this sense: we cannot break or impede or dilute this Flame; it burns through every night, even ours. Just this we catch sight of in the unbreakable Love that is God in covenant with His people. This hesed, covenant Faithfulness, should not be seen first as a Victory over rebellion or indifference, though to be sure it is that, but rather as an unquenchable Fire that simply Lives, Abides, Burns, in the midst of Israel, scorched and purified and ashen before it. The Dynamism, the Energy, that is God radiates Love and Light: nothing is spared from its burning Heat. When we say that Divine Love is “nonrelational,” absolute and objectless, we do not begin to speak properly of the incandescent Power of this substantial Love. So pale and abstract, these terms! So cold, all this talk of substance and relation! Something of our praise should touch the hem of this garment—a fabric of Magma, a consuming, molten Lake. This is what is “simply there,” “there anyway.” It cauterizes every tie, burns in a column of fire, overcomes all who draw near. God is Love.

But God is also Person, the Living One. He is objective, yes. But always and entirely as Subject. God is Personal Substance, wholly, perfectly alive, wise, good. Almighty God, the Lord, is the I AM, the Person. We cannot speak properly or truthfully of this One God should we speak only of the natural and substantial. No, our God who is Love is the One who Loves. He in all His fiery Life is Person, active, sovereign in all His Ways. He is passionate. Love, we must say also, is a Passion, His own Passion and Fire. He is alive in It. And even as Divine Love is dispositional, mutatis mutandis, we are right, too, to speak of Divine Love as emotional, a Divine Fire that quickens and burns and illumines infinite Being. Love is the name of Divine Presence, hidden and reserved in the world, standing aflame, without notice, without tribute or heed. All this we intend when we say, quite properly, that God loves without waiting upon a response, without counting the cost, without measure and to the end. God, we say in praise and thanksgiving, is Love without borderlands, perfect Gift, and most generous Giver, without envy, without stint, without limit or pale; Love stronger than all refusal and rebellion, stronger than all death. Love that is God is gloriously objectless; gloriously free; gloriously singular, unique, everlasting. In saying all, we touch on our second large theme: Divine Love and Passibility.”


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