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Theology and …

One of the great questions of Christian theology is how to relate to knowledge outside of itself. The early Christian leaders had to decide how to relate to the great pagan thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and to a lesser degree the tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides), with many deciding that it was permissible "to plunder the Egyptians." In the Middle Ages, the rediscovery of Aristotle spawned new theological developments for Aquinas and Duns Scotus, as they sought to make theological sense of this new knowledge and perspective. The Renaissance was a great recovery of the classics, which spurned cultural and theological innovations, and with modernity Christian theology has struggled to relate to modern natural science and Darwin – something that continues to this day. Analytic theology borrows from analytic philosophy of religion to understand itself.

This problem can be found in the Bible itself, with the problem of how the Jews should relate to the Gentiles. Abraham's calling was, in part, to be a blessing to the world (the Gentile nations). The question of what to do regarding the Others, the Gentiles living in their midst and surrounding places, pervades the Old Testament. The Jews are to remember that they themselves were once aliens, strangers in a strange land. Their foreign slaves are to enjoy the benefits of Sabbath, although after the Exile the foreign wives and children are expelled from the newly constituted Israel. The pagan Persian king Cyrus is God's Messiah, his anointed, and the prophets speak of Zion as a place where even the Gentiles shall come to worship the God of Israel. In the New Testament, there is this same ambiguity, with pagan Magi, Greeks, and a centurion seeking out and believing in Jesus, and Jesus' first sermon speaks of God's blessing of the Gentiles (the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian). The question of what sort of religion Christianity will be, and how it will incorporate the Gentiles, is a huge issue for the writings of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. For the New Testament, Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise that the Jews would bless all the peoples of the world, and it is a great irony for the book of Acts and Paul that the Gentiles receive the Messiah more readily than his own people.

The twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich famously tried to correlate Christian theology with secular culture, so that theology could answer the culture's questions, as well as shape those questions and answers, according to God's revelation. As Jonathan Z. Smith notes, Tillich formulated this vision upon which many religious studies and departments of religion based themselves on; this correlation of theology and culture also inspired the subfield of theology and literature (doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfq087). He most explicitly created a formal relationship of theology to culture. In truth, this is an ancient question, as I briefly note above, but Tillich formulated it in a powerful and useful way.

This question has not left us: how do we relate divine revelation to other sources of truth? Special revelation to general revelation? How do we connect the dots between the modern novel and systematic theology, theology and science, salvation by Jesus alone and God's desire to save everyone? What does theology have to say in relationship to the insights of tragic literature? Various answers have been posited, from Tertullian rejecting philosophical thought as having no relationship to theology, to a universalism where all are saved regardless of their own personal faith and practice. Whether Tillich's solution is correct or not (and it has, in most part, been discarded as a theoretical approach, although clearly it has had a great practical influence in the academic study of religion), Christianity continues to try and define its relationship to sources outside of itself.

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