The end of the year brings lists galore recounting the best books and top news stories. But I’ve never seen anyone else attempt to count down the top theology stories from the last calendar year. After doing this several years now, I know why. It’s subjective, presumptuous, and guaranteed to infuriate almost all of you. So why do I continue this dubious tradition?
Before we flip the calendar to the new year, it’s sometimes encouraging and always instructive to take stock of the last 12 months. We can see God at work. We can see our sins on full display. And when we look back in the archives of human history (see my lists from 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011), we’re sobered to realize that our priorities and concerns often diverge from God’s. The internet tempts us to live in the moment, but “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
So consider my list an admittedly foolhardy attempt—written from the vantage point of an American who subscribes to The Gospel Coalition’s confessional statement—to discern the most important theology stories 0f 2012. Consider it a challenge to generate your own list and pray that God might bless his church with the faith and vision to see the world as he does. Credit goes to fellow TGC editors John Starke and Joe Carter for their help in debating this list. Of course, all anger should be directed solely at me.
10. Christian athlete superstars rise and fall.
Linsanity peaked in February when New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin stepped into a void created by injury and vastly exceeded all expectations. He attracted long-due attention to the growing number and influence of Asian American evangelicals. Early in January, Tebowmania peaked with an improbable, game-winning playoff touchdown pass from the most famous Christian in America, Tim Tebow. We’ve never seen anything in sports like these outspoken role models disproving their critics and winning millions of fervent fans, not all of them Christians.
So what makes this a theology story? Unfortunately, 2012 didn’t end with the same excitement. Tebow wasted away on the New York Jets bench behind an inept starter after the Broncos traded him and prospered under the precision passing of Peyton Manning. Lin also left his team when the Knicks declined to mach an offer from the Houston Rockets, where’s he’s played reasonably well. Why would God not want these men to succeed and spread the gospel through a growing platform in the nation’s largest city? How can they testify to Christ in failure and disappointment? Too few have explored these questions with the same fervency that greeted their ascendance to international celebrity.
9. Is Mormonism a cult or not?
This might have been the Mormon Moment. Unfamiliar Christians studied Mormon beliefs with new urgency and worried about broadened appeal. But Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney fell well short (much to the surprise of many enthusiastic evangelical supporters) in his bid to unseat President Barack Obama. Still, the hard-fought campaign exposed divisions over whether the term of “cult” can be accurately applied to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association answered “no” with a curiously timed change to their website.
Theologically speaking, you can’t deny that Mormons have departed from orthodox Christianity. But others have raised questions about whether associating Mormons with cults does any good in the cause of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with these neighbors.
8. Christians in the Middle East weigh democracy and security.
American evangelicals take it on faith that democracy is good for religion. So when we hear of popular revolts against brutal dictators in places like Syria and Egypt, we instinctively support the push for freedom. The reality on the ground for Christians isn’t so black and white. Several Middle Eastern dictators have offered some protection to traditional Christian communities threatened by the common enemy of militant Islam. And popular revolution doesn’t always lead to rule by the people, as we saw more than 30 years ago in Iran and fear we’re seeing again today in Egypt.
Democracy cannot thrive without the first freedom of religion. So should Christians support uncertain revolution or the familiar dictator? Our brothers and sisters caught in the middle of civil war make their theological judgments under siege.
7. Can American Christianity reverse its declining influence?
Seeking explanations of trends, we tend to prefer simple narratives that confirm our biases. So as surveys reveal the sharp rise of the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, and national elections favor candidates touting liberal credentials on social issues, culture watchers already wary of the Religious Right read the eulogy for Christianity in America. Even evangelicals worry over our lost influence. Has the country left us behind? Or, as Ross Douthat has written, has Christianity rotted from within?
Maybe both. The truth, I suspect, is more complicated. Theologically liberal mainline Protestantism has hemorrhaged members to the “nones” category. So has cultural Catholicism and even nominal evangelicalism, especially the Baptist variety in the South. But the question remains: can smaller but thriving Protestant reform movements, from charismatic to Calvinist, stave off the decline and reinvigorate the church with passion to save the nones?
6. We dare defend our rights.
The sudden surge of the movements for gay and women’s rights (more to come) has put conservative Christians on the defensive. We can no longer avoid a clash of rights. If they’re free to marry, we may not be free to hire and fire. If they demand free access to abortion-inducing contraceptives, we may not be free to provide health services according to our conscience.
For the foreseeable future, these debates will be adjudicated everywhere from the court of popular opinion to the Supreme Court. Christians will need to weigh the theological merits of counter-protests like we saw in Chick-fil-A Day even as we hone legal strategies to defend traditional marriage in the Supreme Court. The potential consequences of federally mandated same-sex marriage can already be seen in the spate of Christian schools suing the federal government for the right to act according to their theological convictions in health-care coverage.
5. War on Women suffers major defeat.
Pick the news story in 2012, and it’s likely that gender played a key role. So-called women’s issues took center stage in the 2012 presidential campaign. As the economy dragged down his support, President Obama effectively turned the tables on his conservative opponents by accusing them of launching a War on Women. He touted long-standing support for abortion rights by featuring leaders of the cause at his convention and promised to compel employers to provide contraception at no cost. He and fellow Democrats benefited from evangelical politicians who struggled to explain their opposition to abortion in cases of conception by rape.
Bestselling author Eric Metaxas provided a rare bright spot for the pro-life case with a witty, impassioned speech before President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast. Within the church, advocates for domestic and ecclesial male leadership were on the defensive in 2012, especially after the Church of England unexpectedly failed to approve women bishops despite majority support.
4. Trinitarian theology responds to recent challenges.
Critique can be healthy for church leaders if it helps them see weaknesses in their teaching that need greater attention. Such weaknesses in evangelical teaching on the Trinity became apparent in the controversy over the Elephant Room and T. D. Jakes, long associated with Pentecostal leaders who reject the orthodox view. Likewise, debate over how to respond to Muslim rejection of the Trinity has recently sharpened our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. We rejoice in such widely appreciated books that meet contemporary challenges and renew our delight in seminal Christian doctrine.
3. Can we be safe?
Mass murder in public places doesn’t always arrest our attention. But when 20 young children die in a suburban New England elementary school, we question everything: why would God allow such a thing? Is there anywhere any of us can feel safe?
The suffering of children has long tested our deepest theological convictions. In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, Ross Douthat invoked the famous speech of Ivan Karamazov, who upbraids his believing brother and rejects God over such suffering recounted in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 19th-century classic The Brothers Karamazov. Like Dostoevsky, few Christians responded to the latest tragedy by offering an air-tight defense of God’s purposes. Rather, they stuck to what we know: a God who watched his Son suffer on the Cross for our sin cannot be indifferent to our grief. Going forward, we’ll need help answering another question: why, in a world when so many trends suggest greater safety and security, do we feel more vulnerable?
2. Christianity: relationship or religion?
In terms of sheer reader interest, nothing on The Gospel Coalition website in 2012 compared to the discussion surrounding Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” We saw two theological trends collide. Coming from one direction, pastors pushed to shore up the local church, long weakened by the forces of individualism and allegations of irrelevance and hypocrisy. Coming from the other direction, evangelicals sought to preserve the integrity of Jesus’ gospel from institutions that have manipulated the good news with ill motives.
But this story has as much to do with the medium as the message. Bethke’s video illustrated once more how social media drives popular theological discourse in our day. Many of our most trusted theologians haven’t even turned 30 and don’t need a seminary or publisher to spread their message. The much-celebrated popularity of Christian hip-hop has given many church leaders hope for teaching sound doctrine to the rising generation.
1. President Obama rides the rising tide of gay marriage.
Less than a decade ago, defenders of traditional marriage were credited with re-electing President Bush as they secured amendments barring gay marriage in several states. This year, President Obama’s evolution ended with his full support of gay rights, bolstered in November by the first states to ever approve gay marriage at the ballot box. Presidential backing exposed deep theological divisions in predominantly African American churches long united in the pursuit of civil rights. And you won’t get far in any conversation today about the claims of Christ before you must deal with what the Bible teaches about homosexuality.
Winning the public on homosexuality might seem like a long shot, but that’s mainly because we have collectively forsaken the spiritual virtue of self-denial for the vain pursuit of self-fulfillment. The cost of discipleship was perilously cheap in 2012. Yet in 2013 the steadfast love of the Lord will never cease; his mercies will never come to an end. They are new every year, even every morning. Great is God’s faithfulness! (Lamentations 3:22-23)