Saturday, 26 April 2008

Always Reforming

Last year at Moore I wrote (as did everyone) a review of Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology. I thoroughly enjoyed it - the book is an excellent read and while difficult in parts, as a whole provides a very good framework from which to consider our task. Anyway, I thought it might be of use, so here it is.

Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology. Edited by A.T.B. McGowan. Leicester: IVP, 2006.

A Review and Critique
Dave Clancey

In this essay we will summarily define the theological task, and then identify the key issues that Always Reforming[1] implicitly and explicitly provides as being central in the task of theology: the overarching framework, then the grounds, agent and outcomes of theology. We will then turn to consider two chapters where the task of theology is done, and will assess to what extent these authors have undertaken the theological task in keeping with the method provided elsewhere in the text. In this, we will also identify whether there are aspects of their theological method which haven’t been explicitly identified in the book.

Theology, by its etymology, is knowledge about God. While in Always Reforming a number of authors provide definitional statements, often to establish a particular approach along which their chapter will proceed,[2] the overall activity of theology is well summarised by Frame: ‘…the application of the Word of God by persons to all areas of life’.[3] This definition contains three important aspects which are held in common by the majority of definitions or explanations proffered in the various articles – theology is grounded in scripture, undertaken by an agent, and has an outcome in view.[4] After some framework-setting remarks, we will turn to each of these areas in turn.

There are a number of features of the theological task which appear to sit over the grounds-agent-outcome structure. Of most significance is that an active transformation of the theologian occurs in the activity of theology.[5] For example, Gamble states that ‘… “theology”, by its very nature transforms the student.’[6] To stray beyond the text, Torrance picks up this idea when he speaks of a ‘seismic reconstruction’ of the knower through the revelation of God in the Gospel.[7] Theology cannot be done until the theologian has been changed by the very object of their theology – true theology is a purely Christian activity.

Second, and implicit within Vanhoozer’s idea of triangulation, there is throughout the book the idea of theology as a web.[8] That is, any one ‘move’[9] will affect other doctrines. Therefore there seems to be a moving-from-the-parts-to-the-whole-and-back-to-the-parts concept in theology which transcends the normal exegesis-theology-exegesis recursion. The last feature which sits over the whole theological project is that of Coram Deo. Williams identifies this in his treatment of both Simeon and Berkouwer – that both the content and manner of theology is done before God.[10] What and how we think, say/speak, and write must be done before God himself. By way of critique, we note that not many of the writers give this idea prominence.[11] Williams moves in that direction,[12] but he doesn’t appear to dwell on the fact that as Christians we must do theology Christianly, i.e., graciously,[13] with Ryle’s ‘charitable supposition’ always in mind,[14] seeking the good of the other and indeed to restore them where they have erred (2 Tim 2:25-26; Jude 22-23). Note that this is clearly not symptomatic of Reformed theology per se.[15]

We turn now to consider the three major aspects of theology: grounds, agent, and outcome. Clearly in any reformed or evangelical theology – indeed in any Christian theology – the ultimate object of theology will be God himself, or to be more specific, the knowledge of God that he has made known to us.[16] In this, the Scriptures are the grounds for theology and take pride of place in any theological method.[17] We do note with interest that given the importance of the Scriptures, (and therefore the related doctrines of revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, etc.) this specific issue was not afforded space as a chapter in the book. While we take McGowan’s comments about the constraints of the book,[18] we also observe that many topics were included because they ‘…have been at the heart of recent theological debates in evangelical theology.’[19] This omission could be explained by reference to the assumption that once theology moves from the scriptures it has ceased to be evangelical, but comments by Reymond regarding ‘alleged […] evangelical[s]’[20] and their view of Scripture suggest that such an assumption might be somewhat short-sighted.

Taking Scripture as the ground of the theological task a significant issue is the method of exegesis and biblical theology; specifically the place of cultural influence on the hermeneutical task.[21] Gamble offers a convincing argument for placing the biblical structure for theology over the loci method,[22] but appears to dedicate insufficient time to a consideration of the outcome of theology, that is, engaging with particular issues to which theology needs to respond – a task to which systematic theology seems better suited. The helpful corrective, though, is that the Scriptures need to be read in a number of contexts (biblical, historical, etc.),[23] whilst at the same time recognising the presuppositions of the agent or reader.

As Vanhoozer notes in his critique of Hodge and McGrath, scripture is not a ‘storehouse of facts’[24] that we can objectively come to and arrange through a simple subject-object system. He helpfully points us to the fact that Scripture itself has been ‘triangulated’,[25] and therefore acts with epistemic primacy[26] in the ‘theodrama’,[27] but can’t be separated from it, for Scripture has both been formed by,[28] and continues to form,[29] the theodrama. It is this epistemic primacy which is key for understanding the role of Scripture in the theological task – as God’s inspired word it will always direct the method and result of theology, provide the narrative of God’s work in his world in creation and redemption, set the direction of form (biblical theology), and actually epistemically changing the agent. It is to this agent that we now turn.

As we have already observed, there is an epistemic transformation of the agent by the very nature of undertaking theology. The agent sits within the theological task and is both effected by it, and will themselves affect it. This has a number of implications. First, as Gamble notes, ‘…the first and most important duty of every theologian is to let the image of God’s self-revelation in the Scriptures reflect itself fully and as clearly as possible in his or her own mind and life’.[30] As Höhne has noted, ‘theology is a contact sport’,[31] and this is surely seen first and foremost in handling the word of God which ‘judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Heb 4:12b).

Second, the agent will bring with him or her certain cultural and epistemological presuppositions which will influence the task of theology. This is illustrated clearly in Vanhoozer’s critique of Hodge,[32] and needs to be recognised in all theology, a fact which is (ironically) presupposed in many chapters.[33] Third, the individual theological agent must recognise that they undertake theology within a community. [34] This community is both the present church[35] and the Christian community throughout time, that is, our own and other traditions.[36] For the agent performing the theological task, this means that we do theology in recognition of where we have come from, but also recognising that our theology contributes to the church, and therefore will, in some small way, become history, and therefore will have effects in the future. Finally, the agent must realise that theology is done in and for the church – the comments that Williams makes regarding Paul, Augustine, and Calvin as pastor are vital.[37] This leads us to our final point, the outcome of theology.

Given what we have already noted about the manner of theology, it is of no surprise that a number of authors pick up on the fact that theology must affect both how and what we think, and how we live.[38] Because of whom God is and who we are as his creatures and his children, the fact of theology – growing in knowledge of Him – necessarily implies change in us. This in turn will impact our lives and on our future theology – it is necessarily recursive.[39] However, theology also has a wider purview: that is, we consider that the theological task will be both doxological and missiological. This latter aspect seems to be somewhat minimised in the much of the book. Gamble identifies the key issue when he notes that ‘…our responsibility as theologians must be to present the truths of the Bible in a way that is both understandable to contemporary Christians, while also being able to withstand the scrutiny of present-day society.’[40] We would go further, however, and say that theology speaks both into the church and the wider world, for theology is but speaking of the God who has made and sustains all things and calls all people to submit to him (Acts 17:30).

We turn now to briefly consider two of the ‘topical’ chapters in the book – those of Reymond (Christology) and McGowan (Atonement). By way of preface, we note that these chapters are not written as examples of how to do theology but rather identify issues which future theology will need to address.[41] On this basis we consider that a number of the features we have identified above are assumed rather than explicitly expressed.

Reymond is, in our opinion, the most biblical of all the chapters. He clearly marshals his biblical data for the deity of Christ,[42] before turning to challenges facing the content and method of Christological study.[43] He grounds himself within his tradition, both stating what he believes and what he doesn’t.[44] This latter point is refreshing in contemporary theology; when Reymond employs the ‘problem / solution’ structure he answers problems in the first person and makes clear and direct statements of belief and practice.[45] He acts as an epistemologically humble agent in the theological task,[46] clearly states his position on various issues,[47] and integrates Christology with other doctrines.[48]

McGowan’s chapter, whilst thoroughly biblical, affords little time to the exposition of Scripture. Rather, he deals with the atonement by addressing historical formulations[49] before stating his position.[50] McGowan is particularly strong in noting the effect other doctrines, primarily anthropology, have on the atonement.[51] He identifies and responds to contemporary attacks on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) through Packer,[52] only turning in the last there pages to his opinions on the matter.[53] McGowan’s summary of the history of the doctrine is a strength of the chapter, as is his critical use of PSA as a ‘system’ within which to understand the atonement.

Both authors employ, to greater or lesser extent, the features of theology noted above. They are grounded in the Scriptures and are aware of the state of play of their doctrines both contemporaneously and historically. They have recognised the links and effects other doctrines have on their topic (and vice versa), and offer future direction. One issue which does arise from both their chapters is the place of polemic in the theological task. Whilst Williams alerts us to the dangers of polemics and unnecessary division,[54] both these chapters, and indeed nearly all the chapters in the book, start with stating a challenge to the theological issue under consideration. This polemic edge to theology is something which doesn’t seem to be majored upon in the more methodological chapters of the book,[55] and yet seems to be integral to much of theology. For it is when the truth is challenged that it must be stated or restated in such a way to meet those challenges. The ‘5 points’ of Calvinism, the doctrine of homoousion, the inerrancy debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to name just a few, have all arisen out of direct challenges to those or underlying doctrines. In our opinion, a greater emphasis on the volume on the place of polemic theology would have been appropriate, and would have led to a greater emphasis on the manner of doing theology - coram Deo.

That said, Williams’ call to focus on rules and not moves[56] is apposite, and possibly symptomatic of a larger issue. Many of the contributors within this volume disagree with each other,[57] even though, on the broader spectrum of theology, they are closely clustered.[58] Has the place of theology within the academy resulted in an overly academic mindset, where disagreement is necessary in order to be distinct and different, in order to make one’s mark as a scholar? This is in no way to suggest that theologians should not disagree or be constantly seeking to refine doctrine to be faithful to Scripture; nor is it to downplay the contribution that theology as an academic discipline has made to the church, but we wonder if it is time to seek ways to gather the practice of theology back into the doxological and missiological community of the church?[59]

To do theology is to know and to speak about God. It is to speak about him in light of his revelation to us, to speak about him as people who have been transformed by him; to speak about him in conversation with others who have been transformed by him; and to speak about him into the world so that he might be glorified and be all in all (1 Cor 15:28).

[1] Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006).

[2] Systematic Theology, Stephen Williams, ‘Observations on the Future of System’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 54; Biblical Theology, Robert L. Reymond, ‘Classical Christology’s Future in Systematic Theology’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 100.

[3] John Frame, ‘Preface’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 10.

[4] Williams, ‘Observations’, 51 (n); Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘On the Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in Aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 134, 174; Richard C. Gamble, ‘The Relationship between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 213 – although we note that Gamble omits the outcome or application of theology from his definition.

[5] Williams, ‘Observations’, 52; Vanhoozer, ‘Very Idea’, 157, and the idea of participation in the theodrama, 165. Bray also moves in this direction, although not as far as he could, when he speaks of the importance of spiritual formation in Trinitarian theology. Bray, ‘Trinity’, 35-6.

[6] Gamble, ‘Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, 223.

[7] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 20.

[8] Frame, ‘Preface’, 11.

[9] Following Williams, ‘Observations’, 59.

[10] Williams, ‘Observations’, 46-9, 64-6.

[11] We do note that McGowan in his introduction helpfully names ‘the manner of semper reformanda’ as the fourth parameter within which the theological task should take place. A. T. B. McGowan, ‘Introduction’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 17

[12] Ibid., 62.

[13] We do note in Gaffin the repeated use of ‘If I understand correctly…’ and similar phrases. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., ‘Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reflections’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 286.

[14] John Charles Ryle, ‘Prayer Book Statements about Regeneration in Knots Untied (10th ed. Moscow, Idaho: Charles Nolan, 2000 [1874]), 141.

[15] Compare Roger Nicole, ‘Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us’, in Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2002), passim.

[16] Gamble, ‘Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, 213, implicitly drawing on the distinction between archetypal and ectypal knowledge.

[17] See, for example, McGowan, ‘Introduction’, 16; Bray, ‘Trinity’, 37; Vanhoozer, ‘Very Idea’, 125; Derek W. H. Thomas, ‘The Doctrine of the Church in the Twenty-First Century’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 346; et al.

[18] McGowan, ‘Introduction’, 18.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Reymond, ‘Classical Christology’, 68.

[21] Gamble, ‘Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, 214, 231 etc.

[22] Ibid., 234.

[23] We note that Blocher offers a ‘biblical’ system which appears to be omitted from Gamble’s article. Henri Blocher, ‘Old Covenant, New Covenant’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006).

[24] Vanhoozer, ‘Very Idea’, 136.

[25] Ibid., 168, 171. For a description (cf. definition!) of triangulation see Vanhoozer, ‘Very Idea’, 164, note 167 ‘triangulation involves communicative interaction: not simply a subject and an object but at least two subjects in interaction over something in the world.’

[26] Ibid, 172.

[27] Ibid., passim.

[28] Ibid., 165.

[29] Ibid., 172.

[30] Gamble, ‘Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, 223.

[31] David Höhne, Verbal comment in Modern Trinitarian Thought Lecture, Thursday 5th April, 2007.

[32] Vanhoozer, ‘Very Idea’, 136-8.

[33] Many of the more ‘topical’ chapters provide little or no information about the presuppositions or epistemological grounding of the agent.

[34] See, for example, McGowan, ‘Introduction’, 16; Vanhoozer, ‘Very Idea’, 167.

[35] Williams, ‘Observations’, 53.

[36] See Cornelis P. Venema, ‘Justification: The Ecumenical, Biblical and Theological Dimensions of Current Debates’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 323; Thomas, ‘The Doctrine of the Church’, 348.

[37] Williams, ‘Observations’, 53.

[38] Bray, ‘Trinity’, 35, 39; Williams, ‘Observations’, 49, 52; Vanhoozer, ‘Very Idea’, 125, 165, 173, 181-2; ‘Gamble, ‘Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, 223.

[39] This is picked up by Vanhoozer in his use of theodrama.

[40] Gamble, ‘Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’, 237, emphasis added.

[41] McGowan, ‘Introduction’, 17-18.

[42] Reymond, ‘Classical Christology’, 71-91.

[43] Ibid., 92-124.

[44] Ibid., e.g., 69, 114

[45] See, for example, his ‘Enough!’ and similar direct and exhortatory comments. Reymond, ‘Classical Christology’, 92, 95.

[46] Reymond, ‘Classical Christology, 99.

[47] Ibid., 103.

[48] Specifically the Trinity, Ibid., 103, 112-124.

[49] A. T. B. McGowan, ‘The Atonement as Penal Substitution’, in Always Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 185-9.

[50] Through interaction with J. I Packer. McGowan, ‘Atonement’, 189-193.

[51] McGowan, ‘Atonement’, 183-5.

[52] Ibid., 204-206.

[53] Ibid., 208-210. Although he does provide critical comment on Packer through his interaction with him.

[54] Williams, ‘Observations’, 60-61.

[55] Williams, Vanhoozer, Gamble.

[56] Williams, ‘Observations’, 60-61.

[57] Frame, Preface’, 10, note 1; Gamble, ‘Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology’ 229, note 56.

[58] At the right hand end of the spectrum!

[59] One very minor note is that despite the emphasis on doing theology within the church the contributors are all described in terms of their academic affiliations, and no recourse is made to their roles in local churches; Always Reforming. (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester; IVP, 2006), 7-8. Maybe a reconsideration of Calvin’s Geneva and the place of doctors in the church is timely.

(C) Dave Clancey, 2008.

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