Updated: Jan 15
I have been challenged just recently by several Christians asking why the church in the U.K. is relatively silent on social justice. Personally, I sense that global Christian leaders - notably the Pope and, increasingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury - are more vocal and that their challenges are being heard. However, I have been thinking about the many reasons that could explain why the western church is, I think, relatively silent as social injustice grows.
I have come to the conclusion that one quite fundamental reason is likely to relate to the ways in which we handle the primary texts of Christian faith. One foundation for this conclusion rests, not on personal impressions, but in reflecting on research that, perhaps unexpectedly put “big data” analytics to work on biblical text. It was back in 2017 that Faithlife, the organisation behind Logos Bible Software, examined more than 830,000 verses across more than 300 works to produce a list of the 100 Bible verses cited most frequently in books of systematic theology. (See: https://www.logos.com/grow/writing-a-systematic-theology-you-must-discuss-these-references/). Logos produced this top 100 list by using research techniques employed in “big data” analytics and this involved combing the systematic theology resources within its databases for all the Bible references, and then ranking the verses by frequency.
What they found is both instructive and disturbing as we consider social justice.
Unsurprisingly, in these 300 works of systematic theology, the New Testament gets used a lot more than the Old Testament, with references to Paul’s letters making especially frequent appearances. The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Book of Hebrews are also frequently cited.
By contrast, only 9 of the top 100 most-cited Bible passages in systematic theology come from the Old Testament—with Genesis accounting for 8 of them. (Isaiah is the ninth).
Logos also classified each reference by type of doctrine or topic it was associated with, determined the top five references for a variety of theological categories, including Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, eschatology, and theology proper. After theology proper, Christology enjoys the most biblical references in its top five list, with the top verse (John 1:14) referenced 449 times.
Perhaps the most disturbing result of this research is the dearth of Old Testament references among the 100 most-cited verses. It certainly raises questions about whether the Old Testament is necessary for Christian theology, and whether it should be included in systematic theology more often.
Commenting on the findings, Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote: "I was surprised that Exodus 34:6–7, with its marvellous identification of the character of God, didn’t make it into the top 100, particularly in view of the fact that it’s the passage cited most often in the Bible itself."
Craig Keener, professor of New Testament, Asbury Theological Seminary, commented: "That just one Old Testament verse outside of Genesis appears in the top 100 is far more shocking, since the Old Testament comprises three-quarters of the Christian Bible." The research seems to Keener to indicate that the traditional categories of systematic theology have so driven the use of the Biblical text that themes such as relationships (like friendship or family), economic justice and mission are relatively overlooked.
Craig Keener makes the profoundly important point that: "Much of Scripture is missing in part because much of Scripture’s message is missing when theology starts with merely tradition’s categories.” (Italics added).
To the point concerning systematic theology and its traditional categorisation I believe it is important to appreciate that the collection of data massively under-represents the Majority-World church and other minority groups, where poverty and the absence of social justice is most marked. Their voices are mostly ignored or under represented, as William Dyrness, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary pointed out in his commentary on the analysis. If theologians arrive at the text with certain presuppositions and are writing within congregations of readers that exclude significant voices it is entirely natural that western orthodox and often abstract fascinations prevail over regard being paid to Biblical events and narrative.
As John G. Stackhouse, chair of Religious Studies at Crandall University says: “Given the range of systematic theologies offered and the audiences to whom such theologians tend to write, one would expect three major subjects to be under-represented: the Holy Spirit, the Church (and its sacraments), and the cultural mandate—including the pursuit of justice as a crucial dimension of shalom-making. And this is what one finds." (Italics added).
As the Majority-World church multiplies, the cultural mandate and the pursuit of justice will hopefully upset the traditional categories and take its rightful place in both theoretical and practical theology.
Have you read "Christian Social Action: making a difference where you are?" The Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, who is the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society says: "As hopeful as it is sobering, John Evans’ infectious vision, set out in his guide to outreach in the context of Christian fellowship, provides a stirring call to action. Here is a practical approach, post-pandemic, to help churches tackle the injustice around them. It draws on inspiration from history, but is clear-sighted about the emerging realities of poverty in Britain today, and the barriers faith groups face in addressing them. And it lays out clear steps for trustees and leaders to establish their vision, agree on a plan and convince others of the value of their work.”
You can obtain your copy here.