Constructing Constructive Theology

An Introductory Sketch

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Jason A. Wyman, Jr.
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , July
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“What is constructive theology exactly?” Even many constructive theologians are hard-pressed to answer this question clearly or succinctly. A field that intentionally resists systemization and instead insists upon multiplicity, openness, and dynamism, it can seem to defy definition. It is often easier to point to examples of constructive theologies or constructive theologians than to articulate a precise definition—a sort of disciplinary “well, you know it when you see it.” In the words of the author himself, as much as anything it is a mood of doing theology. In this respect, Jason A. Wyman’s “introductory sketch” is a real gift, not least to constructive theologians themselves. 

Constructive theology derives its name from the awareness that all theological articulations are constructions. Wyman notes that although certain theologians might work in both systematic and constructive veins, there are key distinctions between the two fields. Systematic theology seeks to comprehensively describe an essential reality, whereas constructive theology neither seeks to be comprehensive nor assumes it has the capacity to discern, much less describe, an essential reality. It is for this very reason, Wyman suggests, that constructive theology—contra critiques from more orthodox circles—in fact takes an epistemologically humble approach to its subject matter. 

Wyman grounds the volume in a careful history of the field’s emergence and evolution, locating its earliest strains at the turn of the 20th century in two different locations. Tracing this proto-constructive theology allows Wyman to show that an effort to negotiate the impasse between orthodoxy and liberalism begins earlier than usually assumed. He also traces the development of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology, which since the 1970s has served as a trans-institutional home and incubator for the field. Drawing on personal interviews with the Workgroup’s various conveners and examining the edited volumes written by the Workgroup, Wyman shows how the commitments, membership, and self-understanding of that scholarly body has evolved over time.

Two central chapters unfold the primary characteristics of constructive theology. The first is its unapologetic, occasionally exuberant interdisciplinarity. While historically theologians have been skeptical of, even allergic to, strong appeals to knowledge beyond the biblical witness or doctrinal orthodoxies, constructive theologians are not so constricted. If all knowledge is constructed, then why not draw—boldly and humbly—from other fields? It is for this reason that constructive theologians are sometimes accused of a disciplinary promiscuity that lacks standards. Such a critique does not tend to hold, however, since there is always an ethical concern or quandary underlying their interdisciplinary forays. 

Indeed, activist commitments, ever present in earlier constructive theologies, have come to be an even more central element of constructive theologies in recent decades. While taking seriously a rich theological tradition and while hoping to speak to the church, constructive theologians tend to begin, not with doctrine, but with a concrete concern to which they hope theology might speak. The aim is not to defend a Christian worldview or even to ensure the perpetuation of the church. Rather, the driving intent is to use theological tools to address pressing needs—to promote a more just world. There is a sense in which all constructive theology is a type of “public” theology.

It is through the careful tracing of the field’s historical and thematic threads that Wyman is able to discern and ultimately to sketch, constructively, a constructive theological method. It is not a definition that will easily roll off the tongue when, say, an interested student or curious church-goer asks, but it does faithfully articulate the hows, whys, and with-whoms of the discipline.

Wyman surmises that the future of theology will be primarily in the constructive vein, whether particular theologians or works bear the name or not. By attending to concrete needs—for example, immigration and refugee crises, a distorted criminal justice system, or the ravaging effects of climate change, to name only a few—constructive theologies speak to a generation of young people who demand that religious and spiritual worldviews be not only socio-culturally relevant but generative rather than destructive. As Wyman also notes, the interdisciplinarity and activism that characterize constructive theology make it a vital alternative to the strong strains of fundamentalist Christianity currently being placed in the service of death-dealing forces such as nativism, xenophobia, and environmental destruction.

This is an important volume for understanding a movement that is distinctive and increasingly influential. While the primary audience for the book will be constructive theologians themselves, along with their students, this should not suggest a narrower reach than is the case. The better constructive theologians can articulate that the field does not exist for itself alone, or even for a narrow ecclesial community, the more clergy and scholars across a range of disciplines can appreciate its distinctive contributions, and in turn the greater its concrete impact can and will be. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Krista E. Hughes is Director of the Muller Center and Associate Professor of Religion at Newberry College.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jason A. Wyman Jr. is visiting professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and is a member of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology.



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