By Richard Burnett, Theology Matters.
Does theology still matter? It may seem like an odd question to ask in a journal that has asserted for more than two decades with the simple proposition of its title that it does. Yet asserting that theology matters does not make it so. And even if it once mattered does not mean it still matters.
Given all that has happened in the last two decades in the ecclesial context from which this journal was born, the Presbyterian Church (USA), it remains a question whether theology still matters. Has theology really mattered in the major debates of our times within the church let alone our society? Has it mattered in the longstanding debates over human sexuality or the sanctity of human life or in the less controversial issues of massive restructuring and polity revisions within the PCUSA and its Book of Order? Or have all these issues been decided more or less on the basis of prevailing political and ideological convictions or by current social convention or pragmatic considerations?
Indeed, one might wonder if theology matters less today than when this journal was founded shortly after the so-called “ReImagining God” conference of June 1993.
Theology, at least as many of us have understood it, has not seemed to matter much in the great church-dividing issues over ordination standards and the definition of marriage. That one PCUSA General Assembly after another in recent years has chosen to ignore the teachings of The Book of Confessions, but also to act contrary to them and, thereby, its own Constitution, suggests that many commissioners have not cared much about the PCUSA’s official theological statements.¹ Nor do many seem to care much about the overwhelming theological consensus of the global church with respect to these issues. On the contrary, advocates of recent changes in ordination standards and the definition of marriage have long dismissed the global church’s consensus on these issues.
With reference to African Christians, moderator of the 215th General Assembly, Susan Andrews, said in 2004: “They are kind of in their adolescence/young-adult stage of moving out into their own independence, yet still figuring out how to be in relationship with us as their parent church.”² Such attitudes reflect little regard for ecumenical unity or for being “connectional” in any sense other than being compliant with their views. Last month the 2016 General Assembly substituted overtures calling on all to “apologize” for past opposition to these changes, and passed another motion calling us to “deeply regret” how such opposition has made others “feel.”
This is not the first time a group from within the Christian tradition has decided to go against their Christian forebears. Nor, if they were right, would it be the first time Christian forebears had been wrong. But the shores of history are piled high with the whitewashed bones of groups of well-intended and often quite pious people who thought they knew so much better not only than their faithful Christian forebears but also the prophets and apostles of the Old and New Testaments about all sorts of things.
- James C. Goodloe IV, “John Calvin on the Unity and Truthfulness of the Church,” Theology Matters 22/1 (Spring 2016), 1–10.
- Cited in John Azumah, “Through African Eyes,” First Things (October 2015), 45. Eva Stimson, “Let’s Talk: An interview with the General Assembly moderator,” Presbyterians Today (May 2004) extended website interview.