Modern and Contemporary Theology

Steven G. Smith
Christian Center 11 — office hours posted
Home phone 601-354‑2290

Religious Studies 3120
Spring 2009

How dare human beings talk about God?  Isn’t it terribly dangerous to do this?  What makes it seem possible or necessary?

Perhaps it is safe to say that wherever there is a sustained attempt to live religiously, someone will be trying to articulate the vision that makes sense of it and the principles that best guide it.  We call this sort of discourse “theology” when it systematically refers to God and means to be about God as a (presumptuous?) study of God.

Theology has been a mainstream intellectual occupation in Christianity more than in any other tradition.  (Why?)  As a result, leading Christian theologians typically have a lot to say about theological method and the history and horizon of this kind of thinking.  (Is this a good thing?  For our purposes, yes!)

Theology changes over time, sometimes quite dramatically, because people’s understanding of what it means to talk about God is affected by historical and cultural developments.  “Modern” theology is theology that tries to meet the challenges of the modern era, which are always at least partly defined or implied by the European Enlightenment.  Recent theology has often defined itself as “postmodern,” positing that some basic principles of the Enlightenment are no longer in force.  It is debated whether our “postmodern” life still belongs to the modern era.  (I think it does.)  In any case, we will certainly ask:  How is theology challenged, and how may it respond, now?

More broadly, the purpose of the course is to improve our understanding of theo­logical thinking through the careful appraisal of significant texts and the reasoning out of our own judgments on matters of theological concern, with due attention to social, political, and cultural contexts.  This exercise should strengthen our capacity for any kind of disciplined thinking, particularly that relating to analysis and negotiation of our valuational commitments.

Readings will be assigned in these books available from the bookstore, as well as in handouts:

Friedrich Schleier­macher, On Religion (1st ed.)

Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (2nd ed.)

Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

Sallie McFague, Models of God

Grading will be based on class participation and homework (20%), a Theological Notebook (30%), a 3,000‑word research paper (30%), and a final exam (20%).  Writing guidelines will be furnished.


1-12  Introduction to class.  What is “enlightenment” and what does it mean for theology?

1-14  Discussion of enlightenment, cont.  Kant’s formulation.

1-16  Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason.

The Question of Religion


1-21  Theology founded on “religion”:  Schleiermacher’s On Religion, First Speech.

1-23  On Religion, Second Speech.

1-26  On Religion, Fourth Speech.  Theological Notebook entry [TN] due.

1-28  On Religion, Fifth Speech.

1-30  Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith.

2-2  Barth’s attack on theological anthropocentrism.

2-4  The Epistle to the Romans, on the Seventh Chapter.

2-6  The Epistle to the Romans, on the Seventh Chapter, cont.

2-9  The Epistle to the Romans, on the Eighth Chapter.  TN due.

2-10  Luke Timothy Johnson, “How the Bible is True”  11:30 Recital Hall, followed by lunch response session 12:45-2:00 [required attendance]


2-11 The Epistle to the Romans, on the Twelfth Chapter—424‑450 and 475‑492.

2-13  The dialectical theology movement and the Nazi crisis.

2-16  Return to the concept of religion:  Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, Chaps.1‑2.

2-18 Dynamics of Faith, Chaps. 3-4.

2-20 Dynamics of Faith, Chaps. 5-6.

2-23 Tillich on Christianity among the world religions.  TN due.

2-25  Rahner on “anonymous Christianity.”


The Question of Politics

2-27  Marx and Engels’ critique of religion.

3-2  Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel.

3-4  Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

3-5  Mike Hogue, “Critical Theological Pragmatism:  A Theology for a Post-Secular Theological Age”  11:30, Leggett [required attendance]


3-6  The rise of liberation theologies:  Cone.

3-9  Liberation theology in the Latin American Catholic context:  Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation, Chaps. 1-5.

3-11  A Theology of Liberation, Chaps. 6-8.

3-13  A Theology of Liberation, Chaps. 9-11.  TN due.


3-23  A Theology of Liberation, Chaps. 12-13, Conclusion.

3-25  The rise of feminist theology.


The Question of Nature

3-27  MacFague, Models of God, Chaps. 1-2


4-1   Models of God, Chap. 3

4-3   Models of God, Chap. 4.

4-6   Models of God, Chaps. 5-6.  TN due.

4-8   Process theology.

4-10  Process theology, cont.


Whither Theology?

4-13, 15, 17  Debates in contemporary “evangelical” and “orthodox” theology.

4-20, 22, 24  TBA


Final exam due Friday, May 1.



For your course notebook, a loose‑leaf binder is recommended.  This will make it easier to hand in and take back your entries, and also to keep handouts together.

On one occasion for each of our featured types of theology (noted in the syllabus), you will be asked to bring to class a new entry in your Theological Notebook—about 2 pp., if typed double-space (500-600 words)—in which you discuss how our most recent work (including class discussion, as appropriate, in addition to the latest reading) fits into your study of theology.  In each entry you should briefly analyze something that makes sense in a more positive way (e.g., a theological argument that seems strong, or that helps explain something you’d wondered about) and something else that is hard to make sense of (e.g. a theological argument that seems wrong, or an idea that sticks out at an odd angle from your own assumptions—what’s up with that?).

The Theological Notebook is an important learning tool that will enable you to keep track of what we come up with in a cumulative way.

Individual Notebook entries and responses will be graded unsatisfactory (-), satisfactory (\/), or very good (+) depending on the attentiveness and thoughtfulness they show.  The Notebook as a whole will get a letter grade.



At least once in the semester you will provide guidance to class discussion by preparing a 1-page handout for us in which you address such questions as these:  What basically is going on in the assigned reading?  What do you think is a particularly important passage?  How does the reading seem to fit into our picture of the development of theology so far?  How, if at all, does it speak to your own theological concerns?



For your 10-12 pp. term paper (typed, double-spaced), you will tackle an issue in modern or contemporary theology.  This issue will have to do with religious teaching, e.g. what Christianity has to say in a modern or contemporary context about God, creation, divine providence, revelation, faith, human moral capacity, the ideal community, etc.  The issue will have attracted the attention of leading Christian thinkers, and you will either feature one such thinker’s position (e.g. Gutierrez on Christianity and politics) with some consideration of how other Christian positions differed from it, or two or three thinkers’ positions (e.g. Christian realism vs. liberation theology on Christianity and politics), setting up a debate.  You will choose key primary-source texts for the purpose of explaining and evaluating the theological positions.  You will also touch base with current scholarship, discussing at least one other substantial discussion of your thinker(s) on your issue (e.g. a recent article analyzing MacFague in relation to other feminist theologians).

By Week 6 you will have consulted with me on your topic and on how to find appropriate resources.

Work hard; have fun.  You will have an opportunity to rewrite the essay to improve it.



  1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late.  Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, the assignment of sharing in the class’s work that day will be counted as only half done.  (The math of this:  a course point is lost for every absence after the second.)
  1. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date.  No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations.  Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  1. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  1. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.