Some of the best minds in theological education gathered for an academic conference at Candler School of Theology March 18-20 to consider pressing issues facing theology in the coming century. Part of Candler’s yearlong Centennial Celebration, “Prophetic Voices: Confronting Theological Challenges of the Next Century,” sponsored by the McDonald Agape Foundation, featured a dozen renowned theologians from Candler and beyond.

The three-day event consisted of academic presentations by Candler faculty members, with responses from distinguished guest panelists and questions from the audience. Each of the presentations centered on a theme deliberately crafted and selected by Candler’s Centennial Committee, chaired by Luke Timothy Johnson, R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins. Johnson introduced the four themes in his opening keynote titled “Meeting the Theological Challenges of the New Century”: theological imagination and secularization, the image of God in the contemporary world, God’s creation and the care of the earth, and the kingdom of God and global pluralism.

“These were identified as issues that are distinctive to our age in a way that they weren’t when Candler was founded a century ago,” Johnson said. He noted that each topic involves convictions close to the core of Christian identity, contains a wealth of research from earlier theological traditions, involves developments of history and culture, and is under serious threat in the contemporary world.

He emphasized that ‘prophecy’ in this context should not be translated as predicting the future, but as discerning God’s Word in everyday life and speaking that Word to the world. This means that instead of choosing isolation, a prophet must live fully engaged within the world.

 “The purpose of this conference is to start a conversation that can help shape the next one hundred years of this school, and be a prophetic voice for the church and the world.”

Theological Imagination and Secularization

Associate Professor of Preaching and Ethics Ted A. Smith opened Prophetic Voices’ first full day with “Great Birds of the Kingdom.” In it, Smith considered two forms of sermon narratives: the typological narrative, popular among the Puritans in the 17th century, and the illustrative narrative, which rose to prominence in the 18th century and is still the most common sermon narrative in use today. Smith suggested that the decline of typological sermons and the rise of the illustrative signaled a shift toward secularism—but this is not necessarily a reason for concern.

Smith’s example of an illustrative sermon came from Bishop Warren Akin Candler, the school’s co-founder. In a sermon, Bishop Candler described the anxiety and despair that must have overcome the sailors who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his 1492 expedition, after weeks of floating in open water. When land birds began to appear in the skies above the ship, the crew joyfully shouted, “Land ahead!” Candler used this story to illustrate how humans sail, despondent, on “uncharted waters” until “the great birds of the kingdom come singing in the sails,” and we know there is land ahead.

“Candler used the story of the land birds to illustrate his point that God sends signs of hope when we need them,” Smith said. “Because all the theological significance resided in that point, and because the story connected to the point only as Candler made the connection, Candler preached as if the events of the story had no theological significance in themselves.”

In the earlier typological narratives of the Puritans, preachers paired a thing, person or event—a “type”—with an “antitype” that represented its fulfillment. “Such stories worked through connections that were found, not made, by the preacher,” Smith said. Puritans held that those connections existed to be found because God had established them out of God’s gracious desire to be known. Smith recounted Puritan pastor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon to his congregation aboard a ship heading for New England, where Winthrop declared that God’s deliverance of the Puritans to the New World had created a covenant between them, making the Puritans an antitype to the Israelites, God’s original covenant people. In Winthrop’s sermon, the relationship between the two communities was no mere persuasive invention of the preacher’s imagination; it was seen as real, Smith said.

The rise of modern science, religious pluralism, and increasing social and geographic mobility in the late 18th and 19th centuries catalyzed the shift from the typological sermon narrative to the illustrative. “The shift happened because deep changes in background beliefs made typology less plausible than illustration,” Smith explained.

Acknowledging that some may view this shift as a narrative of decline in theological imagination, Smith argued against that perspective. First, a narrative of decline does not take into account the fact that humans are finite beings that develop over time. “We cannot undo the deep shifts of many centuries simply by changing the way we tell sermon stories.” Secondly, a narrative of decline fails to see that the shift from elect-conscious typological sermons to more democratic illustrative sermons fit with the cultural reforms “in the name of equality for all.” Finally, a narrative of decline does not recognize the richness that comes from the role that humans play in making meaning.

“Stories about this world have meaning not because we tell them in a particular way, but because the world itself is part of a much larger story,” he said. “Points of stories, even if we make them, declare our hope for something more. They declare our trust in a story with a better ending.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson and Janet Soskice of Cambridge University served as guest panelists at the session. Robinson suggested that perhaps the lack of faith in our society comes down not to secularization, but to a lack of reverence for humankind. “I find myself having to explain that yes, I am a Christian, but I’m not angry. I don’t hate anybody.” Soskice described prophetic Christians as those who act when called upon, even when there are grave consequences. “Jesus calls us ‘friends,’ not servants,” she said. “The servant does what he is told, which doesn’t require initiative. Friends take initiative. A friend sees his friend’s need and says ‘I can help with this. Here I am, Lord. Send me.’”

The Image of God in the Contemporary World

Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation Ellen Ott Marshall presented “Affirmation and Accountability: Ethical Dimensions of ‘That Blessed Image.’” The “blessed image” she referred to is the concept of imago Dei, the idea that all humans are made in the image of God. Affirming this idea, Marshall said, is “one of the great prophetic challenges for the 21st century.…If we take the imago Dei seriously, we cannot dismiss anyone as unworthy of care or beyond redemption.

The imago Dei has its basis in Scripture but comes to a fuller depiction in life as we live it, Marshall said. “The imago Dei is informed by our experiences in the world. We understand more fully [its] profound meaning…by truly attending to bodies, in their destruction, brokenness, healing, restoration, and transformation. For Marshall, the ‘image of God in contemporary society’ is not so much an exercise in doctrinal definition as an engagement with an expansive and dynamic project of faith comprising three elements: universality, relationality, and process.

In terms of universality, Marshall argued that the imago Dei is both a Christian criterion for justice and a theological statement. All inequities, whether they are based on economics, race, gender or other elements of difference, are violations of the imago Dei. And yet, the agents of those inequities are not left out of that blessed image. “We must, surely, stumble a bit when we recall that all persons are created in God’s image,” Marshall said. “Not only the oppressed, but also the oppressor; not only the victim, but also the perpetrator…Each and every one of them is also created in the image of God.”

That realization, Marshall continued, goes deeper when connected to the relationality that informs the imago Dei. “It is even more arresting to realize that the perpetrators of violence are not only made in the image of God like I am; but that they are made in the image of God with me,” she said. “The imago Dei is not only a declaration of personhood; it is a declaration of relationship. We share a common root system. With this argument, imago Dei emerges as a theological foundation for restorative justice and processes of reconciliation.”

Process applies to both desecration and healing. “An act of violence is never an isolated or encapsulated event,” Marshall argued. “It is always part of a larger story.” The same applies to violation of the imago Dei. But that sense of a broader story means that the impact of violence and violation blurs the lines between perpetrator and victim. “As we explore the details of a life, we see the formation and transformation of personhood over time. We see the ways in which the imago Dei gets buried beneath acts of abuse,” Marshall said. “And, most powerfully, we see that this burial occurs in the life of those inflicting violence as well as those receiving it.” As an example, she cited the concept of moral injury, studied in-depth over recent decades of war, when veterans “feel as if they lost their souls in combat and are no longer who they once were.”

Healing from such inner wounds, as victim or perpetrator, is also a process; it takes what Marshall calls “a journey of grace.” She noted the healing work and process of affirmation taken on just this year by Candler students in the “Black Lives Matter” movement and in advocacy for Kelly Gissendaner, a death row inmate. “The students here not only affirm the image of God that narratives of violence have diminished and disregarded, but they also bear that image into this world of great need and pain.”

Marshall concluded that though we all face the daily challenge of affirming and reflecting the image of God in the world, there is a more particular challenge for theological education: maintaining imago Dei’s dynamism, vibrancy, and coherence, while avoiding its fragmentation, instrumentalism, and idolatry. This “sits at the feet of theological education, particularly theological education that seeks to be prophetic.”

M. Shawn Copeland of Boston College and Steven J. Kraftchick of Candler were the panelists. Copeland emphasized the concept of the Word made flesh, as stated at the beginning of John’s Gospel. She also cited Irenaeus of Lyon, who believed that imago Dei was situated in the body. “Christ, Irenaeus tells us, is the visible image of the invisible God. Further, Christ is the perfect human being…the comingling and union of the soul receiving the spirit of God and joined to the flesh, which was molded after the image of God.” Kraftchick dealt with the concept of transhumanism, the process of human brains and bodies becoming “enmeshed” with technology, from communication and business to medicine and implanted devices that prolong life. “The physical and psychological boundaries between the person and the tool are increasingly blurred to the point of vanishing.” What is the imago Dei when the organic and the inorganic aspects of humanity are so closely intertwined?

God’s Creation and the Care of the Earth

Charles Howard Candler Professor of Old Testament Carol A. Newsom’s presentation, “Understanding and Hope in a Time of Climate Change: A Conversation with the Bible,” began in the context of Candler’s first 100 years.  When the school was founded in 1914, no one could foresee the rate at which human progress would move, and the severe damage that so-called progress would cause the earth’s environment. Today, she said, there is near certainty that humanity’s actions have impacted the earth so negatively that it would require thousands of years to repair. “The world that comes after this century will be very different from the one that existed before, much poorer in biodiversity, much less hospitable to many species,” Newsom said. “At the same time, I do not see the future in dystopian terms.”

In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree of knowledge gives them access to what Newsom calls a “divine capacity” that humans are “not equipped to handle wisely”: the capacity for reflective self-consciousness. “We are both splendid, and very, very dangerous,” Newsom said. When God discovers the couple’s transgression, God declares, “Cursed be the earth on account of you.”

There is a deep irony, Newsom noted, in that human-held divine capacity: “Such ability to distinguish between what’s good and what’s bad can only be wielded wisely by divine beings who can look upon the whole vast nexus of causes and their effects. Humans see too narrowly and so make devastatingly bad decisions that look good at the time. This is a tragic structure in our very being.”

At the center of her talk were two interpretations of time: Deuteronomistic time and apocalyptic time. Deuteronomistic time stems from the narrative story told in Genesis through 2 Kings; Newsom described it as humanity’s perception of time, when “the actions of the parents have consequences for the lives of their children.” In particular, humans’ time of response to the crisis of climate change falls under the category of Deuteronomistic time. “It is a time in which we realize that we have been enchanted by the idols of our own making,” Newsom said. “And we are being called to account by prophetic voices who demand that we look at the consequences of our idolatry.”

Apocalyptic time, on the other hand, takes a wider view, as illustrated in Revelation 21:1: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” Newsom admitted that when she first began studying it, she found apocalyptic time irredeemably anti-environmental, seemingly envisioning “a disposable world.”

With further analysis, though, Newsom found apocalyptic time to be an indispensible element of the relationship between people of faith and environmental activism. Apocalyptic time does not mean that humans evade their responsibility to the planet, she argued; it simply places Deuteronomistic, “real world,” time in a broader context, “the story of creation from its very beginnings until its ultimate end. This is not time on a human scale, but time on a divine scale— deep, cosmic time.”

Newsom pointed out that in biblical books such as Revelation, the image of Eden is combined with the image of the city, a purposeful pairing she views with hope. “We often think of the city as the symbol of all that is wrong with human ways of being. But as we envision a transformed future for our planet, a healing future, it will not help to think in terms of romanticized nostalgia, a return to some pure hunter-gatherer past. The city is no longer the sign of our fallenness but because it is the place where God dwells, it becomes the source of the healing of the land.”

Still, Newsom emphasized that thinking in terms of apocalyptic time does not take away humanity’s responsibility to the world or grief over the environmental scars humans create. This wider context should instead serve as a call to action. “The theological resources of our tradition offer us ways of living with understanding of who we are, with seriousness of purpose, and yet with the humility that our actions —whether successful or not—are enfolded in a process that will incorporate them into the larger story of divine faithfulness to creation.”

Panelist Sally G. Bingham of Interfaith Power and Light and The Regeneration Project was the first respondent. Calling herself an environmental activist, not a theologian, she emphasized that the ongoing damage humans are inflicting on the world, affects more than the environment. “Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but a social justice issue. People of faith should be leading the movement toward a clean economy.” Norman Wirzba of Duke University, the second respondent, focused on what he called two “troubling” elements of theological education today: first, that it is too anthropocentric, assuming that nothing else matters but human flourishing. “How can God be affirmed when creation is not?” Secondly, he noted that far too often, theological education is treated only as a passing on of information, resulting in a loss of contexts that require theological reflection.

The Kingdom of God and Global Pluralism

D.W. and Ruth Brooks Professor of World Christianity Jehu J. Hanciles offered “Fish of Every Kind: The Kingdom of God and Global Pluralism,” the final presentation of the conference.

As the futurists of the 1960s envisioned the impending new millennium, two striking omissions hindered their accuracy, said Hanciles: the lack of a global perspective and no mention of religion.

The prognosticators’ homogenized thinking in pure Western world terms was not a surprise. As Hanciles reminded the audience, “The tendency to view the immeasurable diversity that characterizes human existence as an unhelpful predicament has a long history, and remains prevalent among Christians of various stripes.” He recounted the biblical story of the tower of Babel, one that is typically interpreted from the angle of “pride and punishment.” But from a different angle, Hanciles argued, the people’s desire to build a city simply shows their desire for a stable life in the midst of constant movement. “The builders’ action, in other words, was prompted not by sinful rebellion, but rather a natural human resistance to migration and the forces of dispersion,” he said. And when the text is examined in this way, Hanciles continued, “the divine plan for humanity is not one language but a plurality of languages, not one location but global dispersion, not a single name or cultural identity but a multiplicity of cultures.”

Hanciles discussed the growing reach of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and the massive impact of globalization and immigration on the spread of these religions, in particular what Hanciles called “the re-emergence of Christianity as a non-Western religion.” On the other side, the dramatic rise of immigrant communities means that Western societies as a whole are increasingly pluralistic, with huge implications for religious encounter and change. The most dynamic and fastest growing churches in the U.S. today are either linked to immigrant communities or incorporate a wide range of racial and cultural groups in their structures.

Acknowledging this increase in global pluralism, Hanciles called on the kingdom of God concept, which “evokes God’s presence and saving power in the world and expresses the good news of salvation for the poor and oppressed,” and which found its fullest manifestation in the life and ministry of Jesus. Matthew 13:47 encapsulates what Hanciles called the “pluralist intent” of Jesus’ message: “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind.” In this worldview, Hanciles said, “Our common commitment to the ‘kingdom of God’ daily calls us to a new understanding and fresh perspectives.”

This includes fresh perspectives regarding Western theological education. Hanciles proposed that a “fundamental reorientation” is required if theological programs in the West are to integrate global perspectives in order to offer the best education for the next generation. “Leading theological institutions like Candler,” he said, “need to address this need as a matter of priority and academic integrity.”

“Navigating the new and exciting frontiers of the world Christian movement calls for multiple lenses and critical embrace of a multiplicity of voices and experiences. Our commitment to the kingdom of God requires unwavering determination to affirm and cultivate ‘fish of every kind.’”  

Candler’s Arun Jones read the paper of respondent Daniel Jeyaraj of Liverpool Hope University, who was unable to attend. Jeyaraj contended that only together are we complete in Christ. He called on Christians to look beyond local contexts, noting that immigrant or ethnic churches often ask different questions than do local established congregations. Jones himself then offered a response, saying that economic, cultural and political homogenization work symbiotically and conflictually within global pluralism. Final panelist Dana Robert of Boston University argued that in the 21st century, it is not the kingdom of God “versus” pluralism, but instead the kingdom of God stretches to include the other. In conclusion, Robert cited the Road to Emmaus story, which, she said, reminds us that we are a post-Resurrection community on a pilgrimage in the company of strangers, where Christ is revealed to us in the breaking of the bread.

Within a Broad Arc

In his keynote address, Luke Timothy Johnson said, “The theologian as prophet does not stand above or apart from the context of ordinary life, but stands solidly within life as shared by all.” Though each topic and presentation throughout the Prophetic Voices conference acknowledged different challenges, one defining thread was clear: all humans, all people of faith, all Christians are part of a larger context and a wider story, something that has only become clearer in the 100 years since Candler’s founding. By considering, discussing, listening, and welcoming that broad arc—by standing “solidly within life as shared by all”—may the life-giving Word of God resonate even more profoundly in this second century.