On extending our critical vocabulary

On directions in which to extend one’s critical vocabulary

1. Raimond Gaita

There is a permanent tension between academic practice and the example of Socrates, which is why philosophers cannot simply appeal to their authority as people who have mastered a subject to justify their entry into a discussion that requires some depth and wisdom. If they do enter it then they must not only expect, but also accept as proper, the extension of the critical vocabulary in which their remarks are to be assessed – that, for example, they are shallow, naive, callow, fatuous, or even corrupt.

from Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2004), 322.

2. John Webster

Much can be discerned about a theological proposal … by observing the sequence in which … topics are addressed and the proportions allotted to each, as well as by probing the material claims made about them. [89]

Sometimes [dubious proposals] may be warranted by appeal to elements of the Christian faith, often rather randomly chosen, abstractly conceived, and without much sense of their systematic linkages. [202]

from The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2014), emphases added

See also: Lash and Tanner

Against pre-theological prolegomena

On complicating the relationship between objects and methods of reflection

1. Ludwig Wittgenstein

318. […] there is no sharp boundary between methodological propositions and propositions within a method.

from On Certainty

2. John Webster

Determining the possibility, nature, and responsibilities of theology requires appeal to material theological doctrine. Indeed, prolegomena to systematic theology is an extension and application of the content of Christian dogmatics (Trinity, creation, fall, reconciliation, regeneration and the rest), not a ‘pre-dogmatic’ inquiry into its possibility. “Dogmatics does not wait for an introduction” [Hoeksema].

from The Domain of the Word (Bloomsbury, 2014), 133.

Against Method: Kosuke Koyama and Hans Frei

Against Method: Kosuke Koyama and Hans Frei

1. Kosuke Koyama

How do they know where they are going before they start walking? How can they describe the changing scenery before they see it? … With so much preoccupation on methodology, does not theology become a scheduled journey instead of a journey full of surprises?

from Water Buffalo Theology, 25th Anniversary Ed. (Orbis, 1999), x-xi.

2. Hans Frei

Someone rightly said, “A person either has character or he invents a method.” I believe that and have been trying for years to trade method for character.

from Types of Christian Theology, Eds. Hunsinger and Placher, (YUP, 1994), 19.

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.