When someone has reservations about the value and legitimacy of systematic theology, it’s not uncommon to hear them say that it seems to entail ‘putting God in a box’ or imposing too stringent a framework on the faith and thought of God’s people. At this point, it can frankly be tempting to wonder whether these sentiments might betray intellectual sloth, myopic disinterest in the church’s theological heritage, or a misunderstanding of the nature and responsibilities of systematic theology.
Although he wrote before the more developed fourfold theological curriculum emerged to prominence with its clearer distinction between biblical and systematic theology, Peter van Mastricht makes a helpful point about the importance of gathering up biblical teaching under the various heads of dogmatic reflection and providing an organized account of it. He insists that those who undertake this task are not succumbing to unnecessary rigidity; instead
[s]e filios Dei probant, quippe ejus imitatores, qui ordinis est Deus, non confusionis (Theoretico-Practica Theologia, I, 8). (“They prove themselves sons of God, indeed imitators of him, who is a God of order, not of confusion.”)
Certainly, growth in the spiritual life and in theological understanding occurs often along a winding and convoluted road. At the same time, Mastricht’s point is an important one and full of significance for, among other things, catechesis, which requires an orderly presentation of theology for the sake of apprehension and memory.
Any thoughts here?
I gave a paper this morning at the Midwest Regional Meeting of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. My presentation focused on the category of mystery in the theology of Rowan Williams. Specifically, I explored how his reading of the resurrection narratives generates a doctrinal rationale for the mysterious in Christian theology. Here is an excerpt.
Christian theology is Easter speech; it stands on the brink of its own impossibility because of the unsettling character of Christ’s resurrection, then and now. It stands on this side of that brink because with the risen Christ from the tomb comes God’s work of re-creation. The world, and consequently language, is simply not the same; so those who do in fact say anything at all stand “paralyzed as if in dreams, waiting for his spring” (“Resurrection,” in Headwaters).
What does all this have to do with the category of “mystery?” For Williams, as I hope is becoming clear, the resurrection of Christ establishes an orientation and cadence for Christian theology that mirrors the encounters of those who met the risen Christ. In that pattern, Williams argues, “Christian speech is for ever entering into and re-emerging from inarticularity. There is not one moment of dumbness or loss followed by fluency, but an unending back and forth between speech and silence” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospels, 66). [...]
Theology’s Easter-orientation means that “mystery” —that which supersedes our understanding—is fundamental to its starting point and to its ongoing viability. At any point that theology attempts a “final word”, a total explanation or formula, then it transgresses the pattern of silence and speech which characterizes the Easter encounter.
I just received the newest issue of JETS and was glad to see that they’ve published the plenary papers from the 2010 meeting (Schreiner, Thielman, and Wright on justification). As he works through some preliminary points in his paper, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” Wright touches briefly on method in Protestant theology in response to some of his critics:
Now I discover that some from what I had thought were Protestant quarters are accusing me of something called “biblicism.” I’m not sure what that is, exactly. What I am sure of is what I learned forty years ago from Luther and Calvin that the primary task of a teacher of the church is to search Scripture ever more deeply and to critique all human traditions in the light of that, not to assemble a magisterium on a platform and tell the worried faithful what the tradition says and hence how they are to understand Scripture. To find people in avowedly Protestant colleges taking what is basically a Catholic position would be funny if it was not so serious. To find them then accusing me of crypto-Catholicism is worse. To find them using against me the rhetoric that the official church in the 1520s used against Luther – “How dare you say something different from what we’ve always believed all these centuries” – again suggests that they have not only no sense of irony, but no sense of history. I want to reply, how dare you propose a different theological method from that of Luther and Calvin, a method of using human tradition to tell you what Scripture said? On this underlying question, I am standing firm with the great Reformers against those who, however Baptist in their official theology, are in fact neo-Catholics (p. 51).
I am starting a new blog series based on Kent’s increasingly read post on choosing a theology text. This series will look at various volumes for classroom use, sometimes offering one-off reviews and, such as in this case, more in-depth reviews. Here, I am going to be doing a series of posts looking at Donald Fairbairn’s volume Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. This volume seems like a good place to start, because Fairbairn wrote the text to be used in classrooms as a secondarily theological text (to be used in parallel with primarily doctrinal texts).
Fairbairn starts, in my opinion, exactly where he should – on the bifurcation of theology and the Christian life. In his explication, he makes an important point:
Theologians have unintentionally given the impression that the doctrines, the ideas about God, are the subject of our study [rather than God himself]. As a result, students and others unwittingly substitute truths about God for God” (5).
To remedy the division between God himself and doctrine, Fairbairn suggests a return to theosis as the thread which ties theological grammar to God himself – as language centered around the relationship of Father to Son shared in by believers in the consummation of all things, and known through a glass darkly in our pilgrim existence. Continue reading
Another short excerpt from my paper in New Orleans (at Earl’s request):
[S]ome theologies of retrieval offer fresh genealogies of modernity in order to reinvigorate the possibility that postmodern (or late modern) theology might find continuity with the classical Christian tradition. Radical Orthodoxy is one such path. While highly diverse, it shares a common refusal of the language of secularity and autonomy which finds its genesis, on its reading, in modernity.
As a form of ressourcement, the argument is not for a nostalgic return to the theology and politics of the middle ages, instead, it argues (according to Simon Oliver) that “the riches of the orthodox Christian tradition of faith and reason, theology and philosophy, can be deployed not only as a possible solution to the problems of late modernity, but as the only solution.” Theirs is clearly retrieval, but not of practices or even wisdom, but the recovery of relationships and priorities, one that can only be accomplished by a radical retrieval of premodern modes of Christian thinking that refuses marginalization by metaphysics.
Here is a brief excerpt from the paper I gave with David Buschart last week in New Orleans, “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Retrieval as Theological Method.” (I also heard some great jazz at The Preservation Hall)
Our interest in the paper was to suggest that “retrieval” is a particular mode of theological reasoning in which its practitioners believe the future of the church hangs in some sense not on our ability to innovate but in our capacity to retrieve something from her past.
Those who pursue retrieval recognize and embrace the fact that the history of Christianity, of the church, and of theology consists of both change and continuity. This may seem obvious, not in need of stating, but recognition of this “both-and” is fundamental to retrieval.
Change is a universal and patently obvious characteristic of historical existence. Thus, the modern era and our own time – whether one regards it as modern, post-modern or hyper-modern – is not alone in seeing an inextricable connection between “history” and “change.” It is one of the necessary parts of this “both-and” – both continuity and change. The modern era can, however, be challenged for its almost myopic preoccupation with change and newness – indeed, dis-continuity? – to the virtual exclusion of continuity. Continue reading