Theological Signs of the Times: Catholic – Evangelical Convergence?

789488I was privileged to receive my PhD this past Saturday at St Basil’s Church on the campus of St. Michael’s College here in Toronto.   After six years of hard work, and numerous hurdles to clear, it was nice to have that final piece of the puzzle and say that I am truly finished.

Honourary doctorates were given to two fine Catholic scholars, Father James K. McConica, CSB, and Father Robert M. Doran, SJ.   Doran, currently at Marquette and a former member of the faculty at Regis College, gave the address.  He focused on what he called “theological signs of the times” for Catholic theology in the 21st Century.   As he spoke I was struck at how two of the three major tasks he identified for Catholic theology could just as easily be said to be major tasks for evangelical theology at the present time.

The first point he raised was more specifically Catholic, and focused on the integration of major theological insights from the second half of the 20th century.  He focused on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“How does our discipline integrate Balthasar’s restoration of beauty as a transcendental and as the way in which the truth and goodness of God are disclosed to us, with Lonergan’s openness to modern science, modern critical-historical scholarship, modern philosophy, and the post-modern welcome of the religious “other”? That in itself is a tall order. But then there is the further and larger task of implementing that integrated intellectual vision in the service of the Church’s preferential option for the poor.”

While “integration” is an ongoing concern in evangelical theology (integrating theology and practice), clearly the kind of integration he is talking about here is more specific to Catholics, and involves a concern to bring integrate these important insights into the magisterial teaching of the chruch.

His second point, however, is one that remains a major issue in Western theology in general: the theology of the Holy Spirit:

“The need for a developed pneumatology is present already in the insistence of Vatican II and of Pope John Paul II that the gift of the Holy Spirit is present and active beyond the explicit boundaries of Christian belief. Those affirmations of the Council and of the Pope are doctrinal statements. Theology has yet to explain how this can be and to unravel the implications of these statements for the whole of Christian comportment in the contemporary world…”

St._Basil's_Church via wikimediaEvangelicals have likewise neglected the theology of the Spirit, and yet the increasing importance of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions in global Christianity is forcing all of us to give more attention to pneumatology.  Doran’s particular concern seems to be bringing pneumatology to bear on Catholicism’s inclusive understanding of the way in which the Spirit is at work in those who are not Christians.   As a Wesleyan, I immediately thought of the category of prevenient grace as my own tradition’s approach to this issue.  In Wesleyan thinking, God’s grace is basically understood as the loving presence of the Spirit.  Prevenient grace is our term for the grace of God which “goes before” and precedes personal faith.  Prevenient grace, we believe, is at work in all people, drawing them to Christ.  Wesleyans, therefore, certainly have a category for thinking along these lines.  However, much work remains to be done, especially in making the connections between prevenient grace and the  presence of the Holy Spirit more explicit.

Doran’s final point is one which has become almost a fixation for many evangelical theologians today:

“There is need…for our theology to become a theology of mission, and especially a theology of missio Dei, of divine mission as grounding all ecclesial mission. The mission of the Church participates in and carries forward the missions of the Holy Spirit and the Son. Every theological topic – God, Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation, grace, revelation, creation, anthropology, original sin, personal and social sin, redemption, sacraments, church, social grace, praxis, resurrection, eternal life – has to be integrated into a theology of divine mission and of ecclesial mission as a participant in the missions of the Holy Spirit and of the Son.”

07_063161At Tyndale Seminary we have quite explicitly been attempting to do this very thing: to place the entire project of theological education in a missional framework.  We still have a long way to go – at least I know I do!  But Doran’s statement above could be taken up by our theology department with very little alteration as a statement of our current agenda.

Of course all of this needs a lot of unpacking, but I mention these broad themes because I was quite encouraged by Doran’s talk.  I strongly identified with his concerns and the challenges he believes Catholic theology is facing, and sense that many evangelicals are attempting to face the same issues, in our own way.  If these are indeed “signs of the times,” then they may be signs of what God is doing across the Evangelical-Catholic divide.

You can read Doran’s address here.