On theological judgment

On theological judgment

A. Wayne Booth

“It is true that ‘gut reactions’ can be very bad reasons for action. But so can logical proofs. The real art lies in the proper weighing—and what is proper is a matter finally of shared norms, discovered and applied in the experience of individuals whose very individuality is forged from other selves.”

from Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), 164.

B. Kathryn Tanner

“Everyday theological investigation … is not often directed by the entertainment of general principles. Making a decision about proper action or belief seems less a matter of application of explicit precept and more a matter of tact and good timing – knowing when and where a certain affirmation or deed is called for, knowing what affirmation or action to add to a situation so that its various elements form some sort of agreeable balance or harmony. […]

“The basic operations that theologians perform have a twofold character. First, theologians show an artisanlike inventiveness in the way they work on a variety of materials that do not dictate of themselves what theologians should do with them. Second, theologians exhibit a tactical cleverness with respect to other interpretations and organizations of such materials that are already on the ground. […]

“Judgments between competing theological proposals are rarely cinched by outright evidence of fallacious inferences, inconsistency, or unclarity on some party’s part. Instead, the issue of whose theological position is most compelling is decided by judgments of an aesthetic sort, ones like those used to determine, say, the best interpretation of a poem. […]

“When engaging theologies already on the ground – and, as we have suggested, this is almost all the time – theologians use a kind of tact requiring numerous ad hoc and situation-specific adjustments. In contrast to what the values of clarity, consistency, and systematicity might suggest of themselves, even academic theologians do not simply follow logical deductions where they lead or the dictates of abstract principles when arriving at their conclusions.”

from Theories of Culture, (Fortress Press, 1997), 81, 87, 91, 92.

C. John Webster

“The most illuminating systematic theologies are often characterized by (1) conceptual ingenuity, resourcefulness, and suppleness, which enable a projection of Christian claims suitable to draw attention to their richness and complexity; (2) conceptual transparency, which enables a more penetrating understanding of the primary modes of Christian articulation of the gospel; and (3) broad knowledge and sensitive and creative deployment of concepts inherited from the Christian theological tradition. By contrast, systematic theologies are less successful if they are conceptually monotonous or stiff, if concepts threaten to overwhelm or replace that which they are intended to represent, or if the concepts do not have a discernible relation to well-seated theological usage. […]

‘System’ ought not to be confused with ‘deductive system,’ fully elaborated more geometrico. The criteria for appropriate systematic construction might then be as follows: (1) the systematic character of the schema should not be imposed by analytical reason but should emerge from attention to the subject matter’s self-unfolding; (2) systems must retain provisionality and openness to revision from sources which cannot be given exhaustive description within the system; (3) systems must be indicative of, not a replacement for, the persons, events, and acts which form the substance of Christian teaching; (4) formal, systematic coordination must serve material scope and coherence.”

from “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” from The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, Eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, (OUP, 2007), 10, 14.


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