Against “thematic theologies”


John Leith (1919-2002) was Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary for three decades. His Introduction to the Reformed Tradition is a competent survey of a tradition that is catholic, evangelical, and orthodox. He loves Calvin the most, followed closely by Barth.

It’s not the most thrilling read, but there are some enjoyable moments. In the following excerpt, he explains the indispensability of tradition and even its potential for revolution, while also taking some necessary jabs at “thematic theologies,” as he calls them:

Human beings are distinguished from animals by a cultural memory, by a capacity for tradition. Animals have no traditions and no cultures. By tradition people are saved from the tyranny of the moment, and by it they gain some transcendence over time. A traditionless person is tossed about by every wind that blows at a particular moment and is bereft of perspective by which to judge the future. Tradition properly enables one to live out of the resources of the past with an openness to the future. In fact, appeal to tradition has been historically one way of opening up the future to change, even to revolution.

[Leith then cautions against traditions that “have turned in on themselves, and have become prematurely fixed.”]

The discarding of traditions, however, is no adequate answer to the problem of dead and aborted traditions or of traditions that are turned in upon themselves. This is abundantly clear in much contemporary church life. Since 1955, theology and churchmanship have been plagued by lust for novelty and narcissistic delight in being original. The result has been faddism. In a single decade it has been possible for one person to have passed through the civil rights movement, the theology of the secular, the theology of hope, black theology, political theology, the women’s liberation movement, and the theology of play. In addition, there has been the Jesus movement. Some have gone from one movement to movement with no place to call home. All of these movements have their positive contributions to make to the life of the church and have their rightful claim to the attention of all. Yet these movements and thematic theologies became nonproductive of constructive achievement when they monopolized the attention and energies of their adherents and thus lost perspective and the capacity for critical self-criticism. Two basic criticisms that can be made of most of the theological and social enthusiasms of the 1960’s are lack of gratitude for what is given by the past and lack of capacity for critical self-judgment.

The future is not automatically an open door to inevitable progress. The wisdom of the past has not been outdated because it is the integrity that has been wrested out of actual human experience.

[John Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, WJK Press, 1981, pp. 29-30]

So, to be fair, he is not “against” thematic theologies full stop, and he recognizes their contributions; but this struck me as spot on: they “became nonproductive of constructive achievement when they monopolized the attention and energies of their adherents.”



  1. I remember one of my professors at seminary speaking about the value of history, and compared the lack of historical knowledge to someone who has amnesia. Although a convenient device on TV or the movies, a person who truly has amnesia is in a terrible situation. The true amnesiac has little sense of purpose or direction. As with amnesia and history, so it would be with tradition as well.

    In the denomination I grew up in, there was a conscious rejection of most of church history and most of theology. But the sad result was a fellowship with no sense of perspective on what were central issues and what were peripheral. Central issues that had been settled long ago by most everybody in Christendom had to be refought, sadly by people with very limited education in theology. A destructive legalism was often the result.

    Pastors and teachers (at least) have a responsibility to have a broader perspective on theology and the teachings of the church through the centuries.

    • Yeah, that sounds right. Legalism invariably arises when everything is contingent upon your (or your kind’s) experience. Moreover, this is not how epistemology works in general. John Henry Newman understood this remarkably well (especially considering that he was writing in the 19th century). To use his example, “Great Britain is an island” does not need to be proven in every generation, and you do not personally need to circumnavigate Great Britain to know this is true.

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