How to Gain an Ear for Accents in Theology (1)

Juxtaposing Comic and Tragic Theological Accents

There are few theologians I admire as much as Nicholas Lash. In fact he’s the subject of a thesis I’m currently writing. That fact in itself, however, is nothing remarkable. What I do find puzzling, though, is the fact that I would also consider John Webster to be one of the few other theologians whose work is comparably masterly. So here’s my rub: in more than a few respects they seem to operate more or less on the bases of antithetical premises. Whereas Lash’s sensibilities tend toward the critical, interrogative, and multidisciplinary, Webster, on the other hand, prefers a constructive, declarative, and monodisciplinary posture. Though I’ve tried to register what light the juxtaposition of these two theologians may bring to view before (e.g., here), I thought I’d like to do so again. If nothing else, I hope this post may at least serve as a modest reminder of the fact that you’re actually still allowed to like (and learn from) those you disagree with.

  1. John Webster

In order to speak about conflict (including the conflict of theological controversy) theology must first speak about peace, because peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states. In order to speak about the peace of creatures, furthermore, theology must first speak about the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility. … Apart from the gospel of peace, conflict and peace are not transparent, self-evident realities, and our knowledge of them is at best half-knowledge. Conflict threatens knowledge of God and of ourselves, and hinders the tranquil operation of reason. Though in conflict we commonly pretend to a sharpened sense of our situation, this is an illusion born of the drastic simplification of the world which comes upon us in the grip of strong passion.

from “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” in The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2012), 150.

  1. Nicholas Lash

There is no trace, in the Scriptures, of the banality, the cliché-strewn abstractness, which disfigures so much of our talk of life, and love, and justice. Our mistake, perhaps, is to suppose the brightness of the world to be imaginable without reference to the dark in which it dawns — unlike the psalmist, who writes so well about creation’s flourishing because he feels the garden-world’s fragility: its vulnerability to drought and desert storm.

Without in any way compromising the announcement of God’s sovereign faithfulness, and hence the primacy of life to death, of peacefulness to conflict, daylight over dark, the Scripture interweaves the strands into a single, sometimes quite disturbing tapestry.

from Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 148.

John Webster 2009 Hayward Lectures

And here’s another lectures series I’d like to share. Back in 2009 John Webster delivered the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada. It was entitled Creator, Creation, and Creature: God and His World.

Its three lectures ran as follows:

  1. God as Creator (posted below)
  2. God and Creation
  3. God and His Creatures

Though these lectures aren’t available in printed form, Webster is at work on a multi-volume systematic theology, which can’t be released soon enough as far as I’m concerned.

Book Notice: Darren C. Marks

It’s been said that it’s “when we begin to discern the entire shape of a person’s life, [that] we also begin to understand why a particular belief might or might not be important to that person.”* I at least have found this a suggestive insight. That’s probably why I was pleased to happen across the following title from Darren Marks. Back in 2002 Marks published Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology (Ashgate). I wish I’d known about it earlier. The modest volume is a collection of short autobiographical essays that offers an array of noted theologians the opportunity to reflect on the circumstances and deliberations that forged their theological sensibilities. Marks’s choice of contributors leaves the reader with a fair impression of the varied methodological options operative in theology today. We end up hearing from voices as diverse as those of James Cone, Colin Gunton, Alister McGrath, Wayne Meeks, John Milbank, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Gerald O’Collins, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and more. For me, though, the standout contributions had to be those from Kathryn Tanner and John Webster. What I especially appreciated was how the juxtaposition of their respective theological orientations in such close proximity to one another brought to the fore a dilemma I’ve previously tried to register (here). But before we rehash that old ground, let’s hear from Tanner first:

With the onset of a postmodern humility about pretensions to such things as universality and disinterestedness, … the theoretical deficiencies of which theology has been accused are now so spread around [the academy] that they appear to be the defining fault of no one field in particular. … The legitimacy of theology … is no longer a matter of whether theology can meet some scholarly minimum in its procedures. Theology’s warrant now centers on the question of whether theologians have anything important to say about the world and our place in it. …

Answers to these questions require new methods. Theology’s closest analogue is no longer a perennial philosophy, addressing the most general questions of human moment purportedly common to every time and place, but a political theory (broadly construed) of cultural meanings that is quite situation-specific in its focus. In other words, the theologian — like a Weberian social scientist or a Gramscian political theorist – now asks about the way Christian beliefs and symbols function in the particulars of people’s lives so as to direct and justify the shape of social organization and the course of social action. As a historian of Christian thought and practice, the theologian needs a thorough knowledge of the various permutations of the Christian symbol in all its complicated alignments with social forces for good or ill. With this knowledge in hand, the constructive theologian is better positioned to intervene in the current situation adroitly, effectively and responsibly, with suggestions for both rethinking Christian claims and refiguring human life for the sake of the greater good. (116)

Bearing Tanner’s thought in mind, let’s turn to Webster:

[Systematic theology as Webster was taught it] tended to lack a robust sense of its own integrity and coherence as a field of intellectual inquiry, and so [expended] a great deal of energy in forming alliances with other disciplines (principally philosophy and history, but sometimes social theory or philosophy of natural science) as a means of reassurance. […]

A number of things came together to extract me from the inhibitions of my theological formation. One very prominent factor was a half-conscious but remarkably emancipating decision to teach confessionally, in two senses. First, I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favor or responses to its critical denials. I discovered, in other words, that description is a great deal more interesting and persuasive than apology. Second, I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression in the classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and to explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work in this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems. (130-131)

The questions that Tanner and Webster leave me with are ones I’ve asked before.

To Webster I’d want to ask the following:

  • Is every multi-disciplinary approach to theology, e.g. Tanner’s, indicative of a lack of confidence in the adequacy of theology’s explanatory power? Is insecurity the only motive that would lead one to reach for a multi-disciplinary mode of inqury?
  • Is it not possible to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach that would not distort theology’s aims and procedures, or press it into a model of inquiry that obscures its subject matter?

And to Tanner:

  • What tools of description and assessment can theology’s cognate disciplines provide that theology’s own categories don’t already equip it with? Can theology account for the blind spots being attributed to it?

I don’t have satisfying answers to all of these questions yet, but I do intend to return to them. Though we may be in a season that’s witnessing a shift in attention away from methodological issues to more substantive concerns, a trend both Tanner and Webster applaud, I still can’t help but find questions like these fascinating.

*This nugget comes from David S. Cunningham, Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film, (Brazos, 2002).

John Webster on theological interpretation

John Webster on the theological interpretation of scripture

The task of biblical interpretation is a function of the nature of scripture; the nature of Scripture is a function of its appointment as herald of the self-communicative presence of the risen one. […]

Proposals about “theological interpretation” of the Bible commonly lack an ontology of scripture. Theological interpretation is often described as a distinct hermeneutical strategy or interest — a matter of reading for certain theological themes (rather than proceeding no further than historical or literary content), or, perhaps, a matter of reading under the tutelage of the church’s traditions of interpretation, or of reading virtuously. Much can be said in favor of these claims, but they will only prove fruitful if grounded in a theological account of what Scripture is. Questions about interpretive methods can only be settled “metaphysically,” that is, by working out what the text is, who we are as its interpreters and what ends we are to pursue as we read it. The core of such an account is, of course, the doctrine of the triune God, who alone is the ratio essendi et cognoscenti [the logos of being and knowing] of all creatures.

from The Domain of the Word, (T&T Clark, 2012), 32-3.

Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

The following are two antithetical(?) proposals. My problem is that I find myself attracted to both of them. Each, I’m persuaded, lays claim to a measure of wisdom; neither can be ignored altogether. But what is the alternative perspective that “sees round them both”? That’s a question that has occupied my attention for quite some time now. I hope to treat it at greater length at some point. For now it will have to do simply to register the dilemma.

A. Nicholas Lash

Theologians would do well to keep in touch with practitioners in other disciplines, whose methodological problems significantly overlap with their own.

from Change in Focus, (Sheed&Ward, 1973), 180.

B. John Webster

… it [is] increasingly difficult for practitioners […] of theology to state with any clarity what is specifically theological about their enquiries. […] they have been pressed to give an account of themselves in terms drawn largely from fields of enquiry other than theology, fields which, according to prevailing criteria of academic propriety more nearly approximate to ideals of rational activity. And so the content and operations of the constituent parts of the theological curriculum are no longer determined by specifically theological considerations, but by neighboring disciplines — disciplines which can exercise that controlling function because their lack of determination by theological conviction accords them much greater prestige in the academy. This process of assimilation means that, for example, the study of scripture, or doctrine, or the history of the church draw their modes of enquiry from Semitics, or the history of religions, or social anthropology, from philosophy, or from general historical studies.

from “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God, (T&T Clark, 2005), 22.

On scripture’s role as theological authority

On scripture’s role as theological authority

A. Robert Jenson

There is no mandate to reproduce all apostolic theologoumena. Indeed, they are not guaranteed to be especially felicitous; we turn to the apostolic church not for the certainly best thought-out instances of gospel-speaking but for unchallengeable instances. … apostolic reflective activity — however profoundly or superficially done — must have been the right sort of thing to be doing.

from Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 The Triune God, (OUP, 1997), 32.

B. David Kelsey

As its “authority,” scripture is “normative” for a proposal’s Christian aptness, not for its origin.

from Proving Doctrine, (Bloomsbury, 1999), 193.

C. John Webster

Scripture is not so much a source or norm of theology as its idiom.

from “Authority of Scripture,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Baker, 2005), 724.

D. Rowan Williams

Revelation is addressed not so much to a will called upon to submit as to an imagination called upon to ‘open itself.’

from “Trinity and Revelation,” Modern Theology vol 2, no 3, (1986): 209.

The New Testament is less a set of theological conclusions than a set of generative models for how to do Christian thinking.

from On Christian Theology, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, 22.

John Webster on the theological location of scripture

John Webster on scripture’s systematic horizons

A ‘doctrine’ of Scripture cannot be extracted from the web of theological convictions of which it is part. Doctrines of Scripture are never freestanding—even in those modern neorationalist theological schemes in which bibliology undertakes the role of epistemological foundation for everything that follows. Rather, doctrines of Scripture are bound up with (sometimes driven by pressure from) theological teaching about the nature of God and God’s communicative or revelatory acts, about Christ, Spirit, church, salvation, faith, and much else. Moreover, it is not only doctrinal convictions that exercise this kind of pressure on how the nature of Scripture is construed, but also other basic (and often subterranean) attitudes that form the particular dogmatic ‘dialectic’ with which a theologian speaks — views about distinction between God and the world, about the human historical condition, about knowledge and its media, about the operations of language.

from Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, (Baker, 2008), 106-7