The Quest for a Normative Theology

Normative Theology: “theology from sources which the group considers authoritative.”

ARCS Project

In a network that is publicly shy of stating a theological position it is very helpful to consider which theological voices and church practitioners have most influence on those in leadership. It turns out these influences have broadened considerably over time, but tend to share something in common…

As might be expected from the first blogs in this series John Stott (All Souls Langham Place) and John Wimber (Vineyard) were the two biggest original influences on the older leaders/planters in the network and some of the younger ones too. But as the interviews progressed it was clear that there were an eclectic set of influences on the network.

Nicky Gumbel himself referred to a wide variety of influences, many which could be seen on the bookshelves behind him. Fitting to the thesis that two of HTB’s key origins were Anglican Evangelicalism and the various waves of Renewal/Charismatic movement he first commented on Stott, Wimber and David Watson (who was in many ways a bridge between Stott and Wimber, introducing the later to the former’s teachings). Gumbel also highlighted Anglican missiologist Lesslie Newbigin. From the Roman Catholic world it was clear that Fr (now Cardinal) Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household was a personal favourite and friend. As a charismatic Roman Catholic Cantalamessa has clearly had a profound personal impact in Gumbel’s ecumenical journey.[1] Gumbel had read Come Holy Spirit four times since meeting ‘Raniero’ in 1991, appreciating his ‘anointing, scholarship, unbelievable humility, piety and ecumenism.’ He also noted the influence of his two predecessors: ‘Sandy personally for me has been a huge influence and John Collins before him.’

Other respondents similarly noted the central people at HTB as key influences: Collins, Millar, and Gumbel were almost universally credited, as were Archie Coates and Ric Thorpe by those who had planted since more recently. Pragmatic mega-church leaders Bill Hybels and Rick Warren got several mentions. Tom Wright was the most mentioned professional theologian (twice), although Andrew Walker was also referenced. Bill Johnson from Bethel Church, Larry Crabb, Peter Scazaro, and Tim Keller were among the other American influences. Some pointed to ‘leadership gurus’ such as PJ Smyth the leader of the Advance network of churches, and more generally to the ARK network of church planters. Christian novellest Francine Rivers was described as an inspiration. One mentioned the desert fathers and St Francis, another mentioned Angus Ritchie (a prominent London clergyman from a Catholic tradition doing community mapping and church planting). Conversely one of them mentioned the ‘Proc Trust’ (‘proclamation trust’ – a conservative evangelical grouping). Perhaps most surprisingly, two respondents mentioned that at HTB they had been trying to learn from the style(?) of prosperity preacher Joel Osteen.

Most of the influences listed were activist or pragmatic influences. There was a clear activist tendency to look to those who had provided models that could in some way be copied. However, several had clearly been on a spiritual quest sometimes due to life crises that took them deep into church history or into personal spiritual exercises commonly associated with the Catholic tradition. The charismatic tradition’s openness to spiritual influences beyond evangelicalism and the ecumenical outworking and aspirations of Alpha helped facilitate this mix, while the Anglican formation that each minister undertook meant an increasingly broad ‘generous orthodoxy’ diet as St Mellitus became the dominant influence on emerging ministers.

However the desire for ‘mission-focused and Spirit-inspired’ activism apparent in the responses and the eclectic set of influences suggest that there is quite possibly an increasing void for the network and that clarity about normative theology would help. 

[1] See Chapter Three for those Gumbel names as key influences on BIOY.