Theology in a Missional Mode: Harvie Conn’s Contribution by Michael W. Goheen

September 15, 2023

Theology in Missional Mode: Harvie Conn’s Contribution

Michael W. Goheen

Michael W. Goheen is professor of missional theology at Covenant Theological Seminary and director of theological education for the Missional Training Center


Systematic Theology Under Attack

Today systematic theology is under attack in many circles. It has been knocked off its privileged perch for a variety of reasons. John Goldingay speaks for many that “if systematic theology did not exist, it might seem unwise to invent it.”[1] We are in a new postmodern climate that distrusts both reason and all totalizing systems structured by human rationality. There is suspicion that the systems of theology are less systems found in Scripture and more products of creative human construction. Moreover, there has been a recovery of the storied shape of the Scriptural canon accompanied by a deepened awareness of the diversity of literary genres. The Bible is not simply a data dump of theological propositions,[2] nor a storehouse of isolated theological facts waiting to be arranged coherently by the systematic mind, nor a book with theological pieces of a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be assembled.[3] The Bible is in its overall shape a story of redemption with many genres that equip us differently to live in that story. Kevin Vanhoozer criticizes the approach of “large swaths of the Western tradition” with their reductionist view of revelation which sees “the task of theology” as consisting “in mining propositional nuggets from the biblical deposit of truth.”[4] It is not so evident today that the Scriptures can be reduced to propositional nuggets of truth. Rather the overall storied form of the scriptural canon consisting of many literary genres is exactly what we need and what God wanted us to have. A final critique is that much systematic theology is abstract and therefore unhelpful and irrelevant to the pastoral and missional life of the church. As Vanhoozer suggests, “Laypersons in the church would perhaps have been within their rights to bring a class-action suit against systematic theologians for criminal pastoral and missiological negligence.”[5]

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[1] John Goldingay, “Biblical Narrative and Systematic Theology,” in Max Turner and Joel B. Green, eds., Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 138.

[2] Michael Williams, “Systematic Theology as a Biblical Discipline,” All for Jesus: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Covenant Theological Seminary, eds. R.A. Peterson and S.M. Lucas (Fearn, Ross Shire: Christian Focus, 2005), 203. He critiques this view.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 29. He affirms this view.

[4] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Lost in Interpretation? Truth, Scripture, and Hermeneutics,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 1 (March 2005): 94.

[5] Kevin Vanhoozer, “One Rule to Rule Them All? Theological Method in an Era of World Christianity,” Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 93.

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