Theology in the Mainline Protestant World

            John Shelton has just put together a handy chart of some of the major academic theologians from the last several decades. The chart traces a sort of academic genealogy, whether through doctoral supervision or more general influence. It is certainly limited. It focuses solely on theologians affiliated with Mainline Protestant institutions in the Anglo-American world. Moreover, its scope is limited largely to systematic and moral theologians. Nevertheless, it is quite helpful. Here it is:

            There are many interesting things about this. As Shelton notes, the influence of Karl Barth is very strong. Given the relatively recent discovery of Barth’s decades-long affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, we might be justified in asking whether there is some Southern blight at the root at this shrub. Some rot at the roots need not mean we cut down the whole tree, of course. But the landscape on which it sits is shifting. Brad East points out in his analysis that “the reputational prestige of liberal mainline theology and its institutions was always a corollary of the numerical quantity, sociopolitical influence, and sheer existence of liberal mainline churches.” Such churches are vanishing numerically at an extraordinarily rapid rate. In a real sense, this chart is representative of a grand cathedral with empty pews.

            Shelton also brings attention to the presence of Peter Leithart, Kevin Vanhoozer, and J. Todd Billings on this list. These three theologians were educated in the tradition pictured by this chart but are distinctively evangelical in their thought and affiliations. It’s interesting to me that the fruitfulness of their thought has been fostered by their time in Mainline institutions. But their ecclesial environment is vastly different. It would be interesting to compare some of the fundamental strains in their thought with others on this list.

            When reflecting on this chart, and specifically on the disappearance of Mainline Protestantism, my mind was turned to this wonderful clip of James Jordan. I suggest you go watch it (it’s only 2:42 long), but I shall summarize the highlights here.

            It is entitled “All Theology is Pastoral Theology,” a phrase Jordan himself says in the video before launching into a critique of the idolization of systematic theology which he witnessed in his seminary education. After facetiously imitating the structural pyramid of exegesis, biblical theology, and historical theology topped with the crowning jewel of systematic theology, Jordan shrugs and remarks, “God doesn’t care about our systematics; he cares about people.”

            I’m not sure what I love about this video most. Maybe it’s the strangeness of the whole affair (Jordan spends the first several seconds reacting to someone’s phone ringing before remarking ominously, “For whom the bell tolls”). Perhaps it’s his Southern accent and backwoods character of his attitude, or his suggestion that churches set off incense before services in imitation of the Levites. I can’t say. But what I do know is this: he’s right. All theology is pastoral theology. If it loses that focus, it’s worse than a clanging gong. Theology written for a vanishing ecclesia is no theology at all.

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