What Is Practical Theology? An Interdisciplinary Intermezzo

For some important background, first read

this

and

this

and, especially,

this.

If you take the time to read these, or at least the third, you’ll see that a lot of water has already passed under the bridge. And over some Chinese food last night, Steve tried to rehabilitate my understanding of Barth, with some success. (I have no trouble acknowledging the extreme importance of Barth, but I think we need to go beyond him, hence my affinity with Moltmann.)

There’s a lot at stake in this conversation; these are not simply the musings of a couple of doctoral students. Currently, there are only a few options available to Christians in a globalized/pluralistic/postmodern society: liberal accomodationism, conservative retreatism, Hauerwasian sectarianism, and the newcomer: Milbankian (Radical Orthodoxy) withdrawal into the liturgy.

I know, that’s a lot of “-isms,” but none of these options offers a Christian the ability to maintain a “robust doctrine of God” (Steve’s words) and a robust understanding of pluralism. In other words, is there a way to negotiate a healthy, dialectical relationship with culture and maintain an orthodox doctrine of God? Steve and I both think there must be, there has to be.

Among practical theologians, there have been a couple major avenues for navigating these waters. Among the University of Chicago theologians (Tillich, Tracy, Browning), there has been an evolving “correlational” model in which theology and culture stand in a dialectical relationship. Tillich said that culture asks the questions and theology provides the answers; Tracy and Browning amended this by saying that each asks questions and each provides answers — i.e., theology and culture stand in a mutually critical relationship.

Among the Barthians (Frei, D. Hunsinger, Loder), the response has been more of what Steve alludes to in his posts: theology has a unique ability to articulate issues of ultimacy, like God’s revelation, which comes from outside of the created order. Thus theology trumps all other disciplines when it comes to issues on which theology is uniquely articulate.

While I appreciate the former’s ability to take culture seriously, it tends to reduce theological reflection to the terms of culture (and can be a mask for natural theology, as Steve points out). The latter maintains theology’s integrity, but stands in a position of interdisciplinary domination, which I find unacceptable in a pluralistic environment (it’s tough to convince someone to have a conversation of mutual regard if you start out by stating that you will inevitably win the argument!).

That’s why I’m attracted to the model of transversal rationality. I’ll flesh that out in the next post…

  • Phillip Fayers

    The latter maintains theology’s integrity, but stands in a position of interdisciplinary domination,But surely that’s the point of the latter’s arguement, that theology is in a unique position of domination due to being true. Having been put into that unique position by God, who embodies truth.I understand the problem of Christianity seeming arrogant, claiming to be able to win the argument before it even starts, but if the theology really is correctly interpreting what God is telling us then it can provide the answers. In the end society doesn’t decide what is true.

  • Steve B.

    Tony I think we share the same concerns about the Barthian school of thought: Does Barth permit you to enter a conversation with a spirit of fallibilism (“I might be wrong”), even about our most cherished convictions. It is crucial to me that we enter inter-disciplinary and inter-contextual dialogues with a willingness to revise any of our beliefs, if we encounter good reasons to do so. So I would want theological judgments to have primacy in the sense of: As long as I am going to remain an orthodox Christian, I will not translate the ultimate categories of Christian belief (creation, alienation, resurrection, redemption, eschatology) without remainder into the idiom of some non-theological discipline. But if I receive good reason to do so, I will sacrifice those convictions and cease to self-identify as an orthodox Christian. Otherwise we are fundamentalists in the pejorative sense (or at very least, too much like them at this point.)I follow Augustine’s epistemological principle: “Since I had found nothing better than this sect into which I had more or less blundered, I resolved to be content with it for the time being, unless some preferable option presented itself.”So in my appropriation of Freian/Barthian privileging of theological convictions, the result is not that theological convictions will win the day come what may, but that I know what is at stake when I surrender (explicitly or implicitly) my theological convictions on ultimate matters to another discipline. Also, it means that I see the theologically liberal tendency to advocate a natural theology clothed in Christian symbols as an intellectual mistake. That’s what I do with Barth and Frei.

  • Anastasia

    are you sure those are the only options open to christians?And steve….how is that an epistemological principle?

  • Anonymous

    anastasia – No, these are not the only two options open and I don’t think tony or steve are say that they are. These are options recently framed within the protestant schools of thought. The Tillich-Niebuhr-Gilkey-Tracy Chicago crew and the older, more evangelical, Barthain school. This question how much one can seperate Christ from Culture is certainly a good one. There is a good blog,http://blogsdosuck.blogspot.com/that is addressing this issue now. The blogger asks this same question and notes that it is a question of inculturation. I would say the Chicago school has a much healthier view of this with their theology of the symbol (Tillich/Gilkey) and their serious attention to hermeneutics (Tracy/Ricoeur).As always, contextual understanding is a key that must be accounted for. Afterall, one cannot escape his/her context.

  • Anonymous

    Sigh. Christians used to look to the Bible to check the noetic effects of sin. Good luck! –Outis

  • Dan (aka Br Bozano)

    looking forward to hearing more about “transversal rationality.”

  • DLW

    I don’t see why one can’t strive to do both biblical and practical theology. I also think there is a lot hung up with with what would be a “good reason” for changing one’s beliefs. My understanding of fundamentalism is that it takes something that is open to multiple interpretations and insists that one particular interpretation is the only one and true interpretation and that all others are wrong. In doing so, fundamentalist Christians tend to read their “traditions/dispensations” into scripture and then errantly proclaim them inerrant. Doing Theology is a secondary process concerned with discernment of right Xtn conduct in our extant situations and conflicts. dlw

  • Anonymous

    Dear Tony:In James K.A.Smith’s ‘Introducing Radical Orthodoxy’ (p.34) he mentions five (not four) theological options and he identifies them by geography– Tubingen, New Haven, Durham,NC, Cambridge, and Amsterdam. The first four sites correspond to the four options you mention, but why do you leave out Amsterdam? The Amsterdam school of theology was critiquing the Enlightenment project before anyone else was. And today it’s produced ‘Reformed Epistemology’ which is rather formidable. And Smith’s whole book is about how Amsterdam can show us the way to a post-modern, post-secular theology. Why leave out Dutch Neo-Calvinism?Tim Keller

  • Steve B.

    Tim, My first question would be about the “post-secular” term. Why would you want a post-secular theology, and what do you mean by ‘secular’? What are the implications for pluralism? Wolterstorff’s version of Reformed Epistemology is a perfect fit with the Barthian position. Probably Plantinga’s as well, but I think Wolterstorff’s complete break from foundationalism is a better bet. Wolterstorff’s idea of, I think he calls them “control beliefs” in Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, is closely related to the present discussion. We would wind up having a parallel debate to the “theological dominance” discussion about Barth and Frei that I mention in my earlier comment on this post. The manner in which Christian beliefs trump non-beliefs in RWBR makes me nervous, but I’m sure Wolterstorff would admit that these beliefs are fallible.If we leave epistemology and turn to political theology and christ and culture issues, the issue is complicated. I guess one question would be: what does Kuyper and co. get you that Barth doesn’t? I think Barth’s brand of Reformed theology has a broader appeal than the neo-Calvinists. But there are some problems with Kuyper that need attention. If you hold the state directly accountable to God, you tend to want some sort of explicit recognition of that (i.e., Kuyper’s blasting of the French Revolution for being atheistic.”) How does that fair for church/state issues and pluralism? Further, the emphasis on the sovereignty of god over state and society, in combination with an emphasis of common grace at work in state and society mitigating the effects of sin can cause real problems. The believer, in evaluating state and society, employs a standard of common grace to which she holds others, even non-Christians who do not acknowledge such standard, accountable. And so one inevitably associates this standard of common grace with some sort of standard that can mask one’s own particular christian commitments in the guise of universal non-christian standards. In culture, this leads to a politics of decency that I find problematic, because of the will-to-power that often hides under the mask of “decency.” Charles Colson and his “cultural mandate” is a prime example of this, and he is strongly influenced by Dutch Calvinism. Francis Schaeffer also. Their views on culture, politics, and philosophy all display a natural result of an application of god’s sovereignty and common grace to intellectual disciplines. I find Schaeffer and Colson extremely hostile to the fostering a pluralistic society, and I think this is related to the Dutch Calvinism they both draw from, even if they’re extreme examples.

  • Steve B.

    typo in Wolterstorff paragraph above: “non-beliefs” should be “non-Christian beliefs,” or better, “beliefs that are not explicitly Christian.”

  • DLW

    on a related note, I may have managed to get a debate going at Bethel Seminary on the idea of going from having three required systematic theology classes and one required social ethics class to two required systematic theology classes and two required social ethics classes. I think this would be a small step forward for practical theology and be a step in the right direction for the seminary in general…dlw

  • Anonymous

    Dear Steve B:’What does Kuyper and co. get you that Barth doesn’t?’ Both neo-Calvinists (e.g.Dooyeweerd) and Millbank have pointed out that Barth maintains the dualism between reason and revelation. He pits them against one another, retaining a ‘wall’ of sorts between them. Thus Barth can’t really critique the premises of secular reason as can the Kuyperians and Radical Orthodoxy. I’m glad you like Wolterstorff’s epistemology. I do too. And he would consider his ‘control beliefs’ to be fallible, so he is not a foundationalist and represents a revision of older neo-Calvinism. But he also argues for a correspondence theory of truth. So he rejects both Barthian dualism and also Hauerwasian historiciam. He really doesn’t fit well into any of the options you and Tony seem to be considering. (At least, that’s my impression.) That’s why I wondered why not do more looking into Amsterdam’s contributions?Tim Keller

  • Anastasia

    well. “there are only a few options open” followed by a colon led me to believe we had a kind of exhaustive list on our hands here. But whatever.

  • Scott Collins-Jones

    “The latter maintains theology’s integrity, but stands in a position of interdisciplinary domination,”Tony could you provide some passages from Barth that would substantiate this interpretation of his work? Or some of the more objectionable quotations from Frei? You speak of Barth’s “Chalcedonian” model? Where does Barth employ this? Tim, I’m not convinced of the harsh reason/revelation distinction that folks like Francis Schaeffer posit is there. Schaeffer never read Barth. I think he is much more compatible with Wolterstorf, as Steve points out.(P.S. if you are the Tim Keller from Redeemer, I’ve been getting your tapes for years, great stuff!)

  • Scott Collins-Jones

    “The latter maintains theology’s integrity, but stands in a position of interdisciplinary domination,”Tony could you provide some passages from Barth that would substantiate this interpretation of his work? Or some of the more objectionable quotations from Frei? You speak of Barth’s “Chalcedonian” model? Where does Barth employ this? Tim, I’m not convinced of the harsh reason/revelation distinction that folks like Francis Schaeffer posit is there. Schaeffer never read Barth. I think he is much more compatible with Wolterstorf, as Steve points out.(P.S. if you are the Tim Keller from Redeemer, I’ve been getting your tapes for years, great stuff!)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X