A Theology for the Twenty-First Century
- ISBN: 9780802878113
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: October 2020
Douglas F. Ottati’s A Theology for the Twenty-First Century is a textbook that introduces a theology shaped under the weight of 21st-century challenges, such as the environmental crisis. Instead of presenting a Christian theology that attempts to mitigate these uncomfortable challenges, Ottati aims for this textbook to serve as a guide for Christians seeking to live faithfully to the reality that underlies their core convictions, namely God (xxi).
Christian theology is a practical wisdom (1). It is an intellectual task developed through interactions with other religious and philosophical traditions, new ideas, and sources of understanding. Theology also makes use of multiple resources primarily drawn from the Bible and Christian traditions. In so doing, theology aims to “formulate a vision of God, the world, and ourselves that helps people take up and explore a specific manner of living” (ibid.). Moreover, Ottati describes his theology as Christian in the sense that it understands Jesus Christ to be definitive for understanding God, humankind, and humankind’s responsive relationship with God. Christian theology also engages with current contexts and situations so that theology may aid in sustaining Christians in their specific manner of living.
Ottati conceives Christian theology from a viewpoint characterized by four terms: “Augustinian,” “Protestant,” “liberal,” and “humanist.” Augustinian refers to the theological tradition inspired by the influential the 4th-century bishop and philosopher-theologian Augustine of Hippo, who strongly emphasizes that God is the Creator, Judge, and Redeemer of a good but “fallen” creation. Protestant denotes both the tradition initiated by the Protestant Reformation and more specifically Ottati’s particular branch, the Reformed tradition. It also denotes a theological system that intensifies the Augustinian emphasis on sin and grace. Liberal refers to “a piety and theological stance characterized by (1) appeals to critical arguments and scientific inquiries; (2) a historical consciousness that recognizes that ideas, traditions, practices, institutions, and even species change and develop; and (3) a commitment to social criticism, engagement, and reform” (8). Finally, humanist signifies a sensibility that values human worth and, simultaneously, decenters or displaces humankind from the center of God’s creation.
Ottati separates the book into three parts. In part 1, titled “Method,” Ottati dedicates the first two chapters to explaining his theological method, which includes his conception of Christian theology and the formation and arrangement of theological statements. In the first chapter, Ottati argues that Christian theology expresses a vision of the God-world-human relationship in the service of a settled disposition or piety (25). Additionally, theology is “discourse and reflection in the service of the teachings of particular religious communities” (26). Moreover, Christian theology has a pastoral function, namely, to teach and form people in faithful devotion to God.
In chapter 2, Ottati reflects on the formation and arrangement of Christian theology. Alongside this, Ottati argues that Christian theologians should make clear the particularity of their respective “subtraditions” within Christianity in order to signal to others, both Christian and non-Christians alike, their specific piety and theological preferences (108). In this case, Ottati writes from the liberal wing of the North American Reformed tradition, which also emphasizes “social Christianity.” Furthermore, Ottati names his theology as a systematic theology, which pursues clarity, depth, and coherence “by focusing on the interrelationships and interconnections in a way that supports an integral piety” (138). Finally, Ottati arranges his theological system around “an organizational scheme that pictures the world and ourselves in relationship to the Creator-Judge-Redeemer” (153). In so doing, Ottati aims to distribute his doctrine of God throughout the book.
In part 2, titled “Creation,” Ottati introduces his doctrines of creation (chapter 3), providence or continuance (chapter 4), humanity or theological anthropology (chapter 5), and God the Creator (chapter 6). In part 3, titled “Redemption,” Ottati presents his Christology or understanding of Jesus Christ and his reconciling work (chapters 7 and 8, respectively). Thereafter, Ottati develops his doctrine of the work of Spirit and the church (chapter 9), his conception of sin and grace in a human life renewed by God’s reconciling event in Christ (chapter 10), and his understanding of the roles of the civil government and the church in a fractured world plagued by the continuing challenges of human corruption and fragile ecological sustainability (chapter 11). Finally, in chapter 12, Ottati offers an overview of his doctrine of God.
Ottati ends his book with an epilogue on the doctrine of the Trinity. Ottati contends that his theology is Trinitarian “because it indicates how God, Christ and Spirit (2 Cor. 13:13) are interconnected in the experience and life of the Christian community” (741). However, Ottati finds the metaphysical accounts of the so-called “immanent Trinity” to be excessively speculative. In Ottati’s judgment, classical metaphysical speculations on the inner relations of the triune God lack sound biblical warrant. Nevertheless, Ottati argues that Trinitarian reflections make sense when they emerge from a “biblically initiated exploration” (743). The New Testament specifically intimates a “threefold pattern”: God as the almighty Father, Jesus as the Christ, both joined by the renewing Spirit. “These three aspects of piety’s experience cannot be simply equated or collapsed,” Ottati argues (748). So, Trinitarian reflections are warranted because they are integral to the dynamic trajectory of God’s relationship with the world and vice versa. In sum, Ottati argues that one can rightly affirm this threefold pattern while remaining agnostic about possible distinctions or internal relations within the Godhead (749).
Ottati’s textbook is a remarkable achievement. In the wake of profound distrust of systematic theology, Ottati aims to present a theological system that aids Christians in living truthfully and faithfully in a complex world, and in this he succeeds. Granted, Ottati’s reticence to discuss the metaphysical assumptions regarding the doctrine of the immanent Trinity will leave some readers deeply dissatisfied. Nevertheless, this book is ideal for an upper-level undergraduate courses in religion and theology. It is also an ideal textbook for seminarians and seminary professors seeking to find a more “practical” approach to Christian theological reflection.
Jason Oliver Evans is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia.Jason EvansDate Of Review:March 8, 2023