Some years ago when I encountered theologian George Lindbeck of Yale Divinity School, he asked me about the Gifford Lectures which had been written by my doctoral supervisor, Donald MacKinnon. At the time, Lindbeck was planning a course on MacKinnon. Within a year or so theologian David Tracy of Chicago gave a paper in which MacKinnon was one of the featured theologians. When asked what current theology he found most interesting, Tracy replied, “British.”
If there was one intellectual development in living memory that separates the “grandparent” from the “parent” generation of British theology, it was the rise of logical positivism and analytical philosophy. A fairly homogeneous educated class, largely shaped through a few major universities, received a massive assault from within those universities not just on its philosophy but on its beliefs, ethics and worldview. “But how can you prove . . . ?” “But what do you really mean by. . .” were the reigning questions, and the conclusion of the inquiry was usually that your meaning had no empirical basis and did not make sense. The assault was made by a confident army of elite intellectuals, who appropriated the prestige of modern science and offered a rational rigor that might provide a place (however confined) to stand amidst world wars and huge changes in every area of life. The story is far more complicated than that, yet it is vital to understand how, in the middle two quarters of the 20th century, a drastically reductionist way of thinking became the bottom line against which everything was measured.
Having surveyed in previous articles the variety of theological conversations in Britain — ranging across patristics, history, philosophy, biblical interpretation, literature and the arts, the natural and social sciences, ethics and politics, and other religions — it probably occurred to some readers to ask: But what about the classic topics of Christian theology? What about the doctrines of God, creation, human being, providence, sin, Jesus Christ, salvation, Christian living, church, Holy Spirit and eschatology?