Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society

Written by Philip Clayton Reviewed By Ronald T. Michener

Many books and discussions these days advocate the transformation or transforming of church, missions, spirituality, leadership, and just about any aspect of theology one can imagine. Philip Clayton, a noted philosophical process theologian at Claremont School of Theology, echoes themes we have seen in a recent preponderance of literature within the “Emergent” conversation that express dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of status quo evangelicalism and mainline denominationalism. Indeed, the book’s foreword is by Tony Jones, former National Coordinator for Emergent Village, with back cover endorsements by Brian McLaren and Phyllis Tickle, who are both sympathetic to such visions of transformation.

Clayton urges us to put theology back into “the churches and to ordinary people” and “stop delegating theology to specialists” (p. 2). After all, he submits, “Doing theology is just thinking about your faith” (p. 2). One can readily appreciate Clayton’s call to make theology relevant for the church by transforming it to the needs of today. He urges people to follow Jesus rather than remain immersed in the polemics of academic theology.

In part one, Clayton notes that church and the landscape of culture and thought has radically changed, so our approach to theology must also change. With the advent of postmodernity, and its impact on the media through the Internet, Facebook, and YouTube, change will be constant. We must embrace and adapt to these changes if the church is to responsibly incarnate the Spirit of Christ today (pp. 59–60). In order to implement this, for Clayton, we must reflect on our “world-and-life views” (abbreviated as “WLVs”; pp. 20–22). Clayton contends that a WLV is simply the shape of one’s theology when belief in God is present. Our WLVs must be applied to our local community context and humanitarian challenges while drawing upon the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason, among other theological sources that include contemporary culture, other religions, and prayer.

Following Clayton’s plea for a transformation of the way we think about and do theology, he returns again to changes in intellectual history, and the transition from modernity to postmodernity (pp. 27–33). The uncertainties ushered in with postmodernity require that we honestly acknowledge our doubts and uncertainties about our faith, and join with others who are also struggling “on the Way” (pp. 40–41). In concluding part one, Clayton emphasizes once more the changes that have occurred in churches and denominations while pleading that we manage this change through honest discussions with denominational leaders by developing progressive ministry forms for the future and by rediscovering a “big tent” Christianity, emphasizing a shared “gospel of hope” instead of “historical differences” that divide us (p. 53).

Although Clayton’s unifying vision is to be commended, his verbiage at this juncture seems simplistic and vague. Certainly, we must seek unity of our essential convictions with brothers and sisters in Christ across cultures, denominations, and theological backgrounds. But does the answer lie in neglecting our historical differences? Clayton appeals to the postmodern, but he seems to focus his attention on the need for relevancy. His agenda for social relevancy combined with his unified vision of a “big tent” Christianity betrays a larger indebtedness to modernity than it does to postmodernity. The postmodern critique intentionally looks toward the value of the particular, without ignoring the local community, and communally shaped themes of understanding. Variety and difference are important qualities for a truly postmodern ecclesiology. If this is right, then it would seem that we would want to demonstrate wholehearted commitment to our particular faith traditions while building bridges with those outside our traditions, learning from their faith practices while emphasizing common core Christian commitments. Later he rectifies this a bit, but at this juncture in the book, he leaves the reader wondering.

Clayton dedicates part two to transformative theologies based on the need for radical change. He aptly stresses that Christianity must be expressed in and through the church. In spite of his proposals for sweeping change, he maintains a robust view of the church as the visible manifestation of the body of Christ: “The church is the incarnation of the Spirit of Christ in any given age, the body of Christ when Jesus no longer walks the earth. For better or worse, in its various communal manifestations it becomes his representative on earth” (pp. 59–60).

Again, Clayton implores us to get beyond a “two camp” approach of conservative and liberal (pp. 63–64, 118–24) and return to “big tent” Christianity manifesting an openness for both “seekers” and believers to “wrestle” with questions of faith (p. 68). First, for Clayton, we must identify our own theological convictions. This is done by looking to what he identifies as the “Seven Core Christian Questions”:

  1. Who is God?
  2. Who is Jesus?
  3. Who is the Spirit?
  4. What is humanity?
  5. What is sin and salvation?
  6. What is the nature and function of the church?
  7. What is the future about?

Each of these areas is easily placed within classic theological categories such as theology proper, soteriology, ecclesiology, etc. We must offer a clear statement in our churches and Christian communities on these basic issues so that our activities reflect our theology.

To facilitate building the bridge from theology to practice, Clayton submits that our theology must be embodied within our personal narratives (pp. 79–84), committed to conciliatory efforts across various expressions of Christianity. If we work as allies instead of enemies across our denominational and theological divisions, it will help our Christian voice be expressed the “strongest and clearest” (p. 93). Here Clayton provides an excellent admonition and more carefully nuanced contribution to his call to a “big tent” Christianity. He also challenges us to practice a theology of “self-emptying,” just as Christ emptied himself for us. We must be selfless in our practices, reaching out to those who suffer injustices and oppression, forsaking our own comforts of the familiar for the unfamiliar. The mindset of Jesus in Phil 2 is the mindset to which we are also called. Again, Clayton should be applauded for his call toward humility as a necessary character quality of the church seeking a transformational theological outreach to the broader community of Christ and society.

In part three, Clayton calls for vibrant Christian theologies that move outward from the church to the transformation of society. He titles chapter sixteen “From Church Ministries to Missional Churches.” He draws upon the work of Tom Sine, Brian McLaren, Eddie Gibbs, and Ryan Bolger to exhort the reader to discover “fresh ways to communicate” to the postmodern generation (p. 131).

Part four concludes the book by suggesting conversational questions to help “foster transformational dialogue” in our diverse faith communities with the goal of moving toward a “big tent” Christianity that stimulates change in individuals and society.

Although his calls for transformation and renewal are appreciated, this reader struggled to find a great deal that is new and fresh in what Clayton is saying. As mentioned before, the book seems to promote similar values in accord with the plethora of literature of a similar genre in the past decade or so with respect to postmodern ministry and/or the “emergent conversation” in Christian ecclesiology. His emphasis on cultural and ecclesiological change seems at times repetitive and overstated. Clayton clearly communicates and effectively substantiates his claims about change, but he reemphasizes this to such great extent it becomes fatiguing. Nevertheless, the book certainly deserves a place in the ongoing conversation about the relevancy of the church faced with the postmodern critique. Clayton’s clear insights along with his enthusiastic, yet no less irenic spirit, are to be commended throughout the book.

Ronald T. Michener

Ronald T. Michener
Evangelische Theologische Faculteit
Leuven, Flemish Brabant, Belgium

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