As I look back on my student years at Westminster Theological Seminary (1985-89), especially as the years pass, I am beginning to count it more and more of a privilege to have been at Westminster and under Harvie Conn’s influence. Truth be told, I left Westminster for Harvard more or less focused on learning as much as I could about the Hebrew Bible, the ANE, and Second Temple Judaism. I didn’t really think too much about Conn.
But, during my teaching years at Westminster, I began turning more and more to Harvie’s writings, for various reasons. Mainly, I wanted to make sure that current students would be exposed to one of the most creative and eclectic theological minds WTS has ever produced.
As I began rereading his works, especially Eternal Word & Changing Worlds, I began to realize something else, namely the extent to which Harvie’s mature reflections on the nature of Reformed theology and theological education overlapped with my own developing thoughts.
I would like to believe that my thinking reflected Harvie’s direct influence, and that may be the case, although if so, it would have been more through osmosis. More likely, my own spiritual/academic track forced me to do some synthetic thinking of my own. Harvie’s development as a thinker grew in no small measure out of his 20 years as a missionary in Korea and his work with prostitutes.
My own “trial by fire” at Harvard—which parallels that of many, many other evangelicals over the last few generations—was far less memorable, but no less personal and meaningful. What I share with Harvie is an experience of being forced to do synthetic, creative thinking by watching my own theological formulations leave a rather insulated world and interact with humanity. To put it more positively, EWCW is an example, too few and far between, in my opinion, of the WTS tradition moving beyond its defensive boarders and bringing its perspective to much-needed arenas—not to “correct” others but to engage them and so be more Reformed and Christian in thought as a result.
There are numerous literary high-water marks in the WTS tradition, and EWCW is one of them. In my opinion it is the single most penetrating and insightful theological work the WTS tradition has ever produced. One of the things that distinguishes this book from any other written by a WTS professor is the book’s missional (or as Harvie called it in the lingo of the day, “missiological”) focus, and how missional concerns should and in fact invariably do affect our theological constructs and how, as a result, we need to rethink the task of theological education.
The general point of EWCW is expressed in the subtitle: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue. Harvie’s goal was to produce a piece of synthetic, cross-disciplinary theology. His method is to look at the dialogue between cultural anthropology and theology in the past (18th-19th centuries), how present challenges affect the nature of that dialogue, and, Harvie’s vision for the future of theology and theological education. One of things I so appreciate about this synthesis is Harvie’s recognition that theology is not an isolated discipline, but should, and in fact invariably is, affected by general developments and progress in human thought. Harvie’s work was focused on the social science, but the same tenor of dialogue and mutual interaction is also relevant for theology and the physical sciences. (For example, see my review of The Bible, Rocks, and Time)
The book is divided into three parts, each part containing three chapters. Parts one and two, which Harvie entitles “Shaped by the Past” and “Challenged by the Present,” form the context within which his programmatic statements in part three (“Reaching for the Future”) are to be understood.
Parts three is where the money is. Parts one and two form the theoretical basis. My quotes will come from part three, and I will leave it to you who are interested to see how he supports his observations from parts one and two.
From time to time, I will post some quotes from EWCW. I won’t comment on them; I don’t need to. I hope it will encourage students of theology especially to familiarize themselves with Conn’s work and to be challenged in their own thinking about the task of theology.