If we ask what the task of theology is within the life of the church and in service to the world, several answers are possible and legitimate. Theology can be thought of alternatively as catechesis, criticism, or doxology, depending on whether we see its goal as the handing on of tradition, the assessment of thought and practice, or the praise of God. For a school of theology like Candler, theological education can correspondingly be thought of as equipping students to faithfully transmit the teaching of the church, or as distancing students from an unthinking acceptance of traditional ways, or as preparing them for a richer experience of worship. All these modes are actively present in our pedagogy.

But another way of construing theology is as a form of prophecy. By prophecy I do not mean the ability to predict the future. I speak of prophecy in biblical terms, as discerning in the complex circumstances of everyday life a Word from God, and speaking that Word to a world that most desperately needs to hear it.

Theology understood as prophecy is a risky proposition. Risky because prophecy seeks to discover the ways of the living God, and as Hebrews reminds us, it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Risky because God’s work in the world, here and now, is disclosed only partially, indirectly, and often, darkly.

It is risky above all, though, because 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. The theologian is therefore required to discern and declare God’s Word both with boldness and with humility—boldness because the Word must be spoken: without a vision the people perish; humility because the theologian holds no position greater than that of servant, wields no power other than that of the Word itself.

For a school of theology like Candler, construing theology as prophecy means committing faculty and students alike to the dangerous and exhilarating challenge of moving beyond the exegeting of ancient texts to the exegeting of the complex and ever-changing texts of worldly life. We seek to learn how to hear and to speak the Word that is God’s own amid the constant noise and distraction of human babble. We must together embrace the risk of engaging God’s world directly and without safety goggles.

Theology as Prophecy

This conference on the occasion of Candler’s centennial represents just such an effort to do theology in a prophetic mode. We have gathered together to speak simply and candidly, to listen carefully and respectfully, and to discuss responsibly some of the great theological challenges that face us as we move into the school’s second century. We do not pretend to be prophets in the predictive sense: We have no special ability to foretell the future. We take on only the daunting task of discerning what God might be up to in the world now, and to what response God might be calling us as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

To expect those who founded Candler a hundred years ago to be prophetic in any sense of the term would have been fatuous, much like expecting the pilgrims in 1620 to step off the Mayflower and immediately declare America’s foreign policy. In 1914, Atlanta was quite literally making the turn from horse and carriage to automobile; how could anyone then living predict the technological revolutions that would transform every aspect of life: the air conditioning that would change the old to the new South, the antibiotics that would conquer infections and extend life, the cybernetics that would change communication, the planes that would span the globe and the rockets that would leap to space?

Who in 1914 Atlanta could have predicted that the great European empires would dissolve, that colonialism would disappear, that new world powers would emerge from the Far East, that Africa would be the arena for great adventures in suppression and liberation, that the combination of mineral resources and religious upheaval would give Islamic lands an importance greater than at any time in history? How could anyone imagine that the Great War begun in 1914 would initiate a century of warfare in which advanced technology would be employed for the slaughter of untold millions? Who could have dreamed that humans would be capable of ideologically inspired genocide on the scale of the Shoah in Nazi Germany or the Gulag Archipelago of Stalin or the killing fields of Pol Pot?    

In 1914, the great theological centers of Europe showed themselves unaware of the cataclysmic events that the 20th century would bring and ill-equipped to respond to them when they occurred. Theological responses to war, genocide, and social oppression tended to be weak and late. No surprise, then, that the founders of Candler, with a tiny faculty, few students, and truly meager resources, would have kept their eyes fixed mainly on the catechetical and doxological dimensions of theology as they sought to form ministers for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Mainly, but not entirely. In the great battle between fundamentalism and modernism that has dominated American theology from the time of Candler’s founding, this school aligned itself quickly and consistently with modernism. The reputation of being “liberal”—that is, of encouraging and supporting free inquiry into Scripture and tradition—has been Candler’s throughout its history, with not always positive consequences for the perception of the school in a predominantly conservative region and church. In similar fashion, although Candler as an institution was agonizingly slow to advance the cause of racial equality, its first professor of New Testament, Andrew Sledd, wrote passionately against racist practices, and Candler’s alumni were among the most prominent figures in raising regional consciousness on the issue.

Theological Issues Facing Us Today

We seek in this conference to stand within that Candler tradition of free inquiry and passion for social justice. We attempt to do theology in a prophetic mode by considering four issues, which in our judgment demand our best attention now, and will, in all likelihood, continue to demand the attention of theologians through the coming century: theological imagination and secularization; the image of God in contemporary society; creation and the care of the earth; and the kingdom of God and global pluralism.

The four topics have several characteristics in common that recommend them to our attention. They are all grounded in Scripture and the Creed, and involve convictions close to the core of Christian identity. They have all been the subject of examination in the earlier theological tradition. They all involve developments in history and culture, making them especially attractive to this school’s habit of practicing theology contextually. And they all are under serious threat in the contemporary world.

Theological Imagination and Secularization    

The first issue is that of the Word of God. No need to defend the centrality of this topic within Christian faith. Scripture declares that God creates the world through speech and communicates with creatures through speech. The medium of God’s revelation to humans is the word, expressed first through creation itself, then through God’s self-disclosure in law, prophecy, and wisdom. God’s Word, we confess, is most fully revealed through the incarnation of God’s Son Jesus Christ, in his embodied presence among humans, in his scandalous death, and in his glorious exaltation as Lord. Through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, we also affirm, God’s Word continues to be spoken in and through the experiences of men and women. The gift and task of the church, therefore, is to be the place in the world where the Word of God is truly embodied and powerfully expressed, so that the power and presence of God that is only implicitly present within human experience might be brought to full articulation within the community gathered by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus.

The theological tradition has naturally devoted sustained attention to the revelatory word, debating the ways by which God’s Word in Scripture is best interpreted, inquiring into the adequacy of human speech to express divine mysteries, distinguishing between the orders of natural and supernatural revelation, identifying the ways that God’s Word calls humans to the obedience of faith. Until relatively recently, however, preachers could assume that if the word was proclaimed clearly and passionately, it would find a hearing in human hearts. A few stones may need to be cleared; the birds and the weeds need to be controlled, but there is always good soil for the seed to take root and grow.

There were always problems posed to effective preaching by cultural diversity, to be sure; thus, the persistent concern to translate the Scriptures into language intelligible to people in diverse settings—if people could only hear of God’s wonders in words of their own, they would recognize God’s Word and respond to it in faith. But the optimism of Christian preaching was always based on the premise that humans, no matter how alienated their existence or how depraved their behavior, still had a longing for the truth that enabled them both to hear and obey God’s call.

According to this premise, humans have a natural tropism toward God: People have a longing for something more than the everyday world offers them. Christian preaching historically found success among those who were in one way or another already religious. The Gospel provided a distinctive and convincing version of a truth that their hearts already sought without knowing. But was that religious instinct solely a matter of the heart’s natural longing, or was it also a consequence of cultural formation?

We know that there have always been thoroughly secular people, who defined themselves explicitly by what they saw and touched, and who lived their lives in disregard of the divine. But such folk were historically a tiny minority, and their secular stance was actively discouraged by societies that supported and rewarded religious adherence. Take for example the Greco-Roman culture within which Christianity found its first and most lasting success. The structure of that society supported a piety embracing both politics and religion in a single vision, and the form of education reinforced this vision, so that Greeks and Romans thought naturally in terms of a “city of gods and men.”

Today, that historical premise for proclamation is no longer obvious. The challenge facing theology today with respect to God’s Word is not disordered religiosity but the apparent absence of religious sensibility in the contemporary First World, an absence carved out of human consciousness by the Enlightenment, by the astounding successes of science and technology, and by powerful ideological forces making the argument that the beginning of human liberation is the banishment of religious piety. Secularity—defining reality solely in terms of matter, seeing the world not as mystery but as a set of interlocking problems and answers—is now no longer the quirk of idiosyncratic individuals or of odd groups. It is the defining element of First World culture, supported and reinforced by politics, commerce, and education.

The theological challenge facing us today is therefore more radical than for the founders of Candler, who could assume in their students and in their congregants both a language and a perception of the world shaped by religious convictions and commitments, who knew that when they spoke of sacrifice for others, of seeking God’s will, or of values transcending self-interest, such ideas were already familiar to those culturally shaped by late Christendom. No such assumption can be made today. Today, theology must come to grips with a radical and pervasive secularity that makes speaking of God at all increasingly strange, even quaint, and must come to grips with the fact that the effects of secularism affect in profoundly corrupting ways even those who profess religious belief. The challenge of how we might speak God’s Word today is real, serious, and not for the weak of heart.

The Image of God in Contemporary Society

The second issue is the image of God in contemporary society. The conviction that humans are created in the image of God is one that derives entirely from Scripture rather than the observation of human behavior. It is a perfect example of the way Scripture does not so much describe the world as imagine a world, and invite us, by imagining the world in the same way, to make it real. We should never have come to such a perception on our own, but we are schooled by Scripture to regard ourselves and every other human as bearing the impress of the divine. As Saint Paul insists, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:49).

Christian theological anthropology is thus inherently complex and tension-filled. On one side, Scripture proposes a truth about ourselves that we could never imagine on our own; on the other side, Scripture also instructs us to pay the closest attention to our actual mortal bodies, for through them we find God’s Spirit disclosed in the world. Not only changes in human consciousness, then, but also changes in human bodies are significant for thinking about the image of God. Today, the digital revolution is changing our culture with unparalleled speed, and promises to alter even the structures of human consciousness. Medical technology has increased longevity and enabled an astonishing range of physical alterations: organ transplants, prostheses, plastic surgery, transgendering, cloning—all these transmogrifications press on us serious reflection on what human identity might mean in the face of such malleability. What might it mean to be created in the image of God when we or our neighbors are cyborgs?

Speaking of the neighbor, our convictions concerning God’s impress on humans demands that we think in moral as well as ontological terms. Scripture’s language, in fact, tends to focus on the imperative to treat humans differently because they are stamped with God’s image. The third statement of it in Genesis 9:6 declares, “Whoever sheds the blood of a human by a human shall that person’s blood be shed, for in his own image God made humankind,” and the last in James 3:9 decries the evil use of the tongue: “with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” Paul similarly links bearing the image of Christ and the way we treat others: “When you sin against the brothers, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Cor. 8:12). The dignity, even the sacrality, of human life, and the basis for all claims to religious and other rights, is located in the special character of the human person as created in God’s image. How we treat our neighbor is the measure of our response to God.

The historical record from Cain and Abel to the killing fields of Rwanda, however, does not suggest that this doctrine has had much of a positive influence on human relations; the tale of human savagery and violence is both long and dismal. People have been conquering each other in war, raping and pillaging, taking others into captivity, and degrading other people apparently as long as they have been aware of each other. But it can legitimately be asked whether over the hundred years since Candler was founded, the pitch and pace of human savagery has not made both a quantitative and qualitative leap. It may be, in fact, that this past century has seen an unprecedented convergence of human cruelty, technological capacity, and ideological justification, leading to forms of genocide, enslavement, discrimination, and degradation that former ages could scarcely have imagined, and which makes any effort to think creatively about the human person a perilous proposition. Recovering some sense of this most fragile and precious of theological convictions is difficult, not least because of the overwhelming amount of experience that seems to contradict it. As Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented concerning God’s grandeur, “generations have trod, have trod, have trod; and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” It is difficult, but it is also necessary directly in proportion to its difficulty.

Creation and Care of the Earth

That frightening quotation from Hopkins serves as a transition to our third topic, creation and the care of the earth. The crisis of the present moment can be seen as shaped by the collision of two realities. The first is the recognition that Christians have participated in practices deriving from a distorted vision of the human place in God’s creation. The second is the sudden and shocking realization that such practices threaten to damage or even destroy the work of God in creation. Candler’s founders had no sense of the issue: Though coined in 1873, the term “ecology” was not used in reference to human interactions with the environment until the 1960s. Now, it forms a major dimension of our awareness of the world.

The distorted Christian vision of humanity’s place in the cosmos has taken two main forms. The first derives from the powerful dualistic view of the world that we associate in its mild form with Christian Platonism and in its severe form with Gnosticism: Matter is at best a shell for the spirit and at worst a prison; the point of human existence is to liberate the soul from the body. In this construction, the notion of “caring for the earth” is a form of entanglement with that deceptive materiality from which the soul ought to flee. A more contemporary form of such dualism is the fervent expectation of the rescue of the elect from the earth where they have been trapped, with their being swept up to heaven, leaving the planet to conflagration and destruction.

If the Gnostic version saw only the soul worth saving and regarded all other creatures with at best benign neglect, a second theological position—one based squarely on a certain understanding of humans being created in the image of God—adopted a far more aggressive stance toward creatures regarded as lower links on the great chain of being. The scriptural warrant for such a sense of superiority is clear enough. Having created male and female in God’s image, “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’” (Gen 1:28). This majestic imperative has historically overshadowed the humbler but now suddenly more persuasive scene where “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it,” and placed strict boundaries to the human exploitation of the garden’s fruits (Gen 2:15-17).

Ecological blindness is not entirely the fault of the Bible or Christian theology. Christians lived for centuries with these views in remarkable harmony with other creatures. Indeed, material exploitation and despoliation are far more the result of attitudes and practices that have developed in direct opposition to classical Christian tenets. It is the spirit of the Enlightenment, after all, that seeks to demystify everything, reduce mystery to problem, magic to statistics. Cartesian dualism did more than Christian mysticism to cultivate the perception of the body as a machine and the world as the mind’s laboratory. Above all, it has been the spirit of capitalism—in tension with the Christian ideal of sharing possessions—that has fostered competitive acquisition as the measure of human success, and has reduced all things material and spiritual to marketplace commodities.

More than anything else, the effects of technological revolution—and the human population explosion such technology supports—have fundamentally altered the relation between humans and the rest of creation. The impact of our insatiable growth and consumption on the survivability of the human species as well as every other species is something we are still struggling to comprehend. The impact could not have been understood a hundred years ago, when the consequences of the human drive for power, possessions, and pleasure—abetted by mind-boggling technological prowess and multiplied by swarming populations—could not yet even be imagined. Nature still seemed to be infinitely vast, infinitely rich and varied in life and resource, even infinitely frightening when compared to human strength and cunning. We could not leap into space, look down on our beloved planet, and see it as a stunningly beautiful yet suddenly fragile blue marble. But now we have so seen it, and that makes all the difference.

Putting aside the question of blame, there are three reasons why Christians now bear a distinctive responsibility for responding to the ecological crisis. First, there are more Christians in the world than adherents of any other religion; what Christians think and do matters. Second, of all the world’s religions, Christianity has been uniquely corrupted by the spirit of modernity, that combination of Enlightenment reason, technology, individualism, commodification, and consumerism; conversion is called for. Third, Christianity is the dominant religion in the parts of the world most responsible for the despoliation of the earth’s resources; because of their privileged position, the conversion of Christians is the most important and can have the greatest impact.

Conversion is not a matter of each of us doing our bit by recycling. The change required is massive. It requires a change of mind as well as of the heart. And this is precisely the theological challenge: to think of God’s creation and of the relation of humans to other creatures in ways that restore the sense of wonder and reverence at God’s work, that leads to a sense of appreciation for the equality and necessary reciprocity among all beings, that yields dispositions and practices that are more profoundly in accord with God’s vision for the world. It is a challenge we might not have chosen, but it is one we must engage, for the stakes could not be higher.

The Kingdom of God and Global Pluralism

The final issue again demands the reassessment of traditional teaching in light of contemporary circumstances. In this case it is the conviction, rooted in the preaching of Jesus himself, that God is king of the universe and, as Jesus expressed in his prayer, that God desires his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, a corollary of Jesus’ exaltation to God’s right hand is that Christ rules over all cosmic powers until he gives over final sovereignty to God, so that God will be “all things in all things.” The Nicene Creed declares as the hope of the Christian people the expectation of a kingdom that shall never end.

But convictions concerning the kingdom of God have never been easy to correlate with conditions on the ground. Christians from the beginning experienced a tension between the already and the not yet of God’s dominion, with believers locating themselves either optimistically in terms of God’s presence now, or, more pessimistically, in terms of God’s triumph in the future. There was also the question of the relationship of God’s rule to human kingdoms. With Constantine’s establishment of Christianity as the religion of the empire, the church began a misalliance with human political power that lasted until very recently, and that made it seem fitting to wed evangelism to colonialism. Only with the hammer blows to religion’s establishment struck by political revolution in the United States, France, and Russia has the church found itself largely unsupported by civil government and able at last to embrace the diaspora awareness that was natural to it in the first four centuries of its existence.   

Despite such uncertainties, Christian theologians have always been confident about declaring who was to be included and who excluded from God’s rule, or to put it more precisely, who would experience that rule positively as salvation and who as damnation. Outside the church, the slogan said, there was no salvation. A great deal of Christian self-definition over the centuries—involving an astonishing amount of intellectual passion and energy—has consequently been devoted to deciding issues of inclusion and exclusion, always to the advantage, to be sure, of those doing the deciding. From the start, authentic belief was defined in terms of an absolute either/or, and located in contrast to rival seekers after God: among the Gentiles, there could be only darkness, no light; among the Jews, there could be only blindness, not sight. The practice of Gentile religion was demonic; the practice of Judaism was stubborn disobedience.

Defining by exclusion continues in the long tradition of heresiology: Getting anything wrong means getting everything wrong and falling outside the realm of God’s rule. In a time of relatively robust ecumenism among families of Christians today, it is helpful to remember that at the time of Candler’s founding, scurrilous attacks between Catholics and Protestants were standard fare, missions to Africa were regarded in terms of an urgent rescue of pagan babies from the clutch of demons, and theological Jew-baiting was common in Christian sermons.

All of this theological map-making was carried out with supreme indifference to what might actually be happening—still less what God might be up to—among Jews and the countless Gentiles who had never heard of Jesus or perhaps had never heard of him apart from the sinister implications of Western imperialism.

Christian theologians were like pre-Copernican astronomers who could draw exquisite charts of the stars and planets visible to those resting comfortably on the planet they complacently assumed was the center of the universe. The past hundred years have rudely jerked us from that state of complacency to a lonelier and more isolated place in a Copernican universe. The tragedy of the Holocaust has revealed the rot that lay at the center of Christian supersessionism. The collapse of colonialism has revealed how corrupt the alliance between Christian mission and Western political ambition truly was. Islam has awakened from its centuries-long slumber to become the fastest growing religion on the planet, making claims concerning God’s rule and its connection to the state that are eerily reminiscent of Christianity’s Constantinian dalliance. The Gentile religions of the present—above all those of India and China—are in our schools and playgrounds. The secularization of the so-called First World has revealed the powerful ideological forces that not only diminish the role of Christianity in society but challenge the default premise favoring religion. In short, Christians and Christian theology must today come to grips with a pluralism that is both global and radical.

On this topic, we truly are at the starting point. With regard to the question of the church and the world, we need to start over. The task is massive and demanding. We are not sure how to reread Scripture and the tradition with sufficiently fresh eyes. But at stake is the authenticity and integrity of Christian preaching within a world that truly is under God’s rule rather than ours.


These, then, are the theological issues that we seek to address in this conference. Let me conclude by anticipating three objections to the agenda we have set.

First, our selection of topics omits issues of arguably even greater urgency and visibility. Why not speak prophetically to the issue of ecumenism and church unity, the historical Jesus, the prosperity Gospel, or the persistent conflict among Christians between fundamentalist and modernist? While not denying the importance of taking a stance on each of these issues, they are not of such fundamental importance, for the world as well as for the church, as the themes we have chosen.

Second, it may be objected that the topics are insufficiently theological, in the sense that they do not derive directly from the church’s confession or lead directly to prayer and piety. They tilt rather to cultural analysis and ethics, are perhaps too much critical and not enough doxological. Our answer to this is simply that this is the way we do theology here at Candler. Over the several decades that we have tried to learn and to teach how to think theologically within social and pastoral contexts, we have now become unable to think of theology as a subject that ever lacks cultural dimensions and ethical entailments. And we are convinced that this is just the sort of theology our world most needs.

Finally, each of these themes taken by itself could command the attention of many such conferences. We are well aware that taking them on all together in such a short span of time can make our treatment appear introductory and superficial. It is our hope, though, that our conversation will bring to light other dimensions of each topic, and that by putting all these topics into play at one time, we can appreciate the interconnections among them. We do not pretend to know ahead of time how our theological conversation will turn out. But we do not intend to close a conversation. We want to start a conversation that can help shape the next hundred years of this school and be a prophetic voice for the church and world. So, let’s get started.  


You can view a video of this address online at vimeo.com/candler.

CREDITS: From top: Mosaic, Palatine Chapel: Alfredo Dagli Orti, Art Resource, NY; Johnson: Kay Hinton/EPV; Chagall Stained Glass Window: americanspirit/123RF.com; Carina Nebula: NASA/ESA; Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo: Erich Lessing, Art Resource, NY.