Franke’s Character of Theology

Franke’s Character of Theology September 20, 2005

John Franke’s new book, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose, promises to be a study of theology that will enable (what I have elsewhere called) a purple theology. In other words, it is postconservative and postliberal.
In this post I will look briefly at the first chapter, “Doing Theology Today.” This chapter is an exceptionally lucid place to begin for a theological student or a philosophical student. It surveys “where we are” and, in particular, where Franke himself is in the larger scheme of theological studies today.

A Brief on the First Chapter:
Franke situates what it means to do theology today in several contexts. The postmodern context leads to a chastened claim for what we can know and for the need to be constantly reforming our theological claims. The theological debate finds two opposing views: liberal thinking and evangelical (conservative) thinking. Franke situates himself in both of these contexts: he is both postmodernist and he is post-conservative. Theology for Franke is an ongoing reflection by the Church and for the life of the Church.
More Detailed Analysis
For my take, his book is a briefer but similar attempt that one finds in George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine and Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine. Lindbeck grounds theology in the Church’s description of itself, while Vanhoozer grounds it in the canonical script. It will be interesting to see where Franke comes out on these issues, and see how he compares to Lindbeck and Vanhoozer.
Franke begins by rehearsing the proposals he made with Stan Grenz on the postmodernist enterprise, and he offers some summary statements that put lots of thinking together. He knows the conservative worry about the postmodern supposed threat to truth and the charge of atheism, but he is conversant here with Merold Westphal and finds both good and bad in postmodernity — and some of it quite conducive to the Christian faith.

What Franke does to help everyone is to say that he sees postmodernity primarily as a rejection of the central features of modernity, such as its quest for certain, objective, and universal knowledge. This anti-stance is central to postmodernity — and it made me think immediately of the charge so many are hearing that the emerging movement is essentially an anti-movement (usually anti-evangelical, or church as it is currently done). There is something to this, and no one should deny it.
Franke moves into the linguistic turn, which I think is so central to postmodernity and to the emergent vision for theology, but which many of its critics fail to think about enough. In essence it is this: theology is a linguistic enterprise that partakes in the fallenness of humans and their minds and the articulations. I’ve said this several times, and won’t repeat myself: but our theological articulations are not infallible.
He also deals with the nonfoundationalist turn. Humans are, Franke says, situated and contextual in their rational work. Thus, epistemic foundationalism is neither possible nor desirable for fallen humans. (I happen to think this is the healthy and inevitable understanding of what Scriptures teach about human knowledge.)

Then Franke maps the current theological landscape into liberal revisionists and liberal postliberals, and then into evangelical traditionalists and evangelical reformists. Liberal postliberals and evangelical reformists have much in common.
Finally, Franke defines theology and breaks it into three categories: its nature as an ongoing, second-order, contextual discipline), its task (critical and constructive reflection on the beliefs and practices of the Church) and its purpose (assisting the community of faith in its missional vocation in its given location).
At this point, I have some questions (and I haven’t peeked ahead):
Where will he begin his theological construction? Will it be with Jesus or Paul?
How trinitarian will it be?
Will he operate with a flat Bible or a contoured Bible?
Will praxis shape some of his theology or will praxis follow, in the traditional model, from theology?
What will his telos be for governing the flow of a theology? Where is it headed?
Will his understanding of gospel be sufficiently relational?
Well, these are unfair since I don’t know what he will be doing. Further, these very questions may prove I don’t even know what he will be doing. This a weblog, not a review for a professional journal.
But, at the end I’ll come back to these to see what I think.

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