The Unstoppable Progress of Theology

The God who died for us upon the cross is the same God who reveals himself to us in the work of Christian theology. God’s revelation is an ever-occurring experience for humanity. Revelation occurs in different forms, sometimes in general terms (e.g. through creation) and in special terms (e.g. scripture or the prophetic). Normally in the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit is understood to impart revelation either specifically to an individual or through the interpretation of scriptures. I will argue in this paper that theological progress necessarily occurs because the church is constantly experiencing revelation from God.

Progress will be identified by the following criteria: it must be rooted in scripture (thus in keeping with revelation), have made use of the tradition, and be edifying for the church. Under this criterion, progress means positive developments that are constructive for the church and can be taken as ‘truth’. This allows us to claim that not all theological work is ‘progress’. Nevertheless, some work must be done to show why such a broad criterion for assessing progress should be used. My contention is that theology is the only academic subject where progress is intertwined with revelation from God, because it is founded upon and sustained through the experience of revelation. Theological progress then, is that which slowly continues to push the boundaries of knowledge building on what is revealed to us today and that which was revealed to those before us. Theological progress is intimately connected to both special and general revelation and it is this that gives theology a unique place in academia.

Such an approach raises two major questions to be addressed in this paper: first, how do we determine which parts of theological work counts as progress? This is an important question because not all work by theologians can automatically be counted as a ‘progression’.

Second, given that there is a great deal of disagreement in theology, how does this fit with how I have defined progress? If revelation occurs constantly, thereby influencing theological progress, one must then contend with the reality that theologians reach competing conclusions. I will attempt to expand my account of what theological progress (and/or regression) is, suggest that it is possible to have competing theological theories, within this definition of progress and, that competing conclusions do not mean progress has ceased nor is a competing theological a form of theological regression or stagnation. Given that this paper begins with the concept of continual revelation, I believe that competing theological ideas can be indicative of theological progress rather than revealing the absence of progress.

In answering questions one and two, I aim to show that because revelation is continually occurring, then progress in theology will continue to occur. Though not all theological work is progress, and even that which is progress will never be a form of perfected knowledge, at least until theological knowledge is fully realised in the eschaton.

Jack Johnson is a PhD Candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of St. Andrews