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September 23, 2008


Over at http://biblicalhorizons.wordpress.com/2008/02/29/on-renewing-theology/ one blogger summarizes Jeremy Jones' original talk favorably. He notes that Jones correctly complains about modern Presbyterian denominations functioning like police states where orthodoxy functions as a speed bump to new ideas. Sean addresses this point in part by asking where history functions in Jones' idea of constructive theology. Sean appears to be referring mainly to the history of Reformed theology.

But equally important historically is the recent past of the Western church. Liberalism happened and is still happening -- look at the state churches of Europe, parts of the Roman Catholic world, and any of the mainline denominations, not to mention the evangelical institutional guardians who commune in those denominations (many of Christianity Today's editors worship in the ECUSA; Fuller Seminary is in thick with the PCUSA). Why then would conservative Presbyterians act as if liberalism and the Social Gospel do not exist, as if we do not need to be wary of theological and ecclesial novelty? Sure, this kind of wariness can breed defensiveness. But on the other side, calls for overcoming defensiveness can breed naivete.

Amen! Thank you Dr. Lucas for such a clear and loving critique. I pray that your emphasis on the need for a more UNoriginal approach to theology is received well. You observation of the inevitability of theological "contextualization" is spot on. As you've said, our focus should instead be on the renewal of and concern for precision in our theological/doctrinal/confessional commitments. Without that, any change that takes place will be in a direction we don't want to go.

One question that I have is in regards to your recommendation of Kevin Vanhoozer's book. From what I've read, Kevin's NEW approach to Scripture is a de-emphasis of historic Christian doctrine. It's harshest critics say it's goal seems to be a radical redefinition of the Christian faith in the unbiblical terms of "drama" or "story". I've even encountered some young ministers who so highly praise his hermeneutical approach in The Drama of Doctrine, it's convinced them to abandon other time tested approaches such as Systematics. It seems to me that his emphasis is counterproductive to what you propose here. Could you help me better understand your suggestion?

I am not sure I understand the "original sin" of sectarianism. Pride I understand, and self-righteousness, and judging others, and, crucially, a lack of love. These I understand from the inside out, and am grateful for God's forgiveness.

But "sectarianism" seems to be the human fruit, not the spiritual root. The Biblical problem that is described refers to the "rivalries and disputes" (I Cor.1), and urges us all to have have the mind of Christ, the self-emptying that only the Spirit can work.(Phil. 2). It is possible to be outwardly associated with any named group and still enjoy the bond of peace, sweet fellowship, with all in whom Christ's spirit is present, who love the Father and the Son. A godly humility recognizes that others get some things more right than we do. In one sense, this seems to be what Jeremy Jones is talking about. But his focus seems to include what one believes, not only the state of one's heart. It seems we must not be so particular about what we believe.

How is my location within a formally- organized denomination any barrier to true, free-of-ego, Biblical unity of the Spirit (that which Jesus prayed for, "as I and my Father are one")? Where that unity is lacking, I need to repent of sinful heart-attitudes.

Of course, I believe that what I believe is Biblially true. Otherwise I wouldn't believe it. Does this make me guilty of "sectarianism"?

Thank you, Dr. Lucas for your interaction with Jeremy's presentation on "renewing theology." I appreciate your affirmations of agreement as well as your suggestions for further exploration. I think it is important to understand that in order to move forward as a denomination, we need to be more historically-minded rather than preoccupied with the present. The task of "renewing theology" is always a historical task fused with the present theological task of the community of God guided by the Spirit.

I appreciate the fact that you mentioned Vanhoozer's work as a conversation partner in the task of "renewing theology." In answer to your question, Nathan, Vanhoozer is attempting to provide a model for the theological task in which the canon is the ultimate rule for the development of doctrine, while giving appropriate hermeneutical space for the rule of faith and confessional traditions. Despite one's possible disagreement with the overarching metaphor of "drama," it is a beautiful and erudite treatment of this "problem," and both corresponds with and supplements the direction Jeremy's Jones' "renewing theology."

Vanhoozer's work, rather than de-emphasizing Christian doctrine, is a call for the church to re-emphasize Christian doctrine, indeed, to de-dramatize doctrine so that it once more becomes pivotal in the life of the church. If you have not read this book, I would recommend it and support Dr. Lucas's decision to include it as an important voice in the discussion of renewing theology.

Sean you said, "A final thought: if the renewal of theology depends on a contextualized theology, I wonder what exactly that means in light of Tim Keller’s observation that “there can never be a culture-free gospel.” I would take it to mean that all our theological reflection is inevitably contextualized from the get-go—we are never decontextualized, blank slates when we theologize. And so, it strikes me that the task before us is not to “contextualize” our theological witness (it already is, after all), but to become much more self-critical about our contextualization or enculturation (or “cultural captivity”). And the only way we can do so is, ironically perhaps, by becoming much more historically-minded."

Every theology (and theologian for that matter) is enculturated but not every theology is contextualized toward the audience that receives it. As a pastor of both youth and of adults the truth of that can be painfully clear at times.

So saying that someone is enculturatd is not the same as saying that they are being theologically contextual to the communities and cultures they live within. You well pointed out our need to be self-critical of our enculturation (as well as doxological because God is not absent from the process of our enculturation) but we also need to be self-critical of our contextualization's that fit another century or situation better than our present one. Historical naivety as well as contemporary irrelevance are both characteristics of an un-renewed theology are they not?

As you well pointed out theology can not truly be renewed if its dehistorized, but I would just add that creative construction in the present doesn't have to be painted as unfaithfull originality just as 'any' use of the past can't be regarded as being faithfully unoriginal. More needs to be developed in the role and use of tradition in our theological constructions as well as the nature of contextualization in this regard...

Sean you said, "And this means that perhaps the way forward for the renewal of theology might actually through a renewed appreciation for and embrace of the confessional commitment and traditions of the church catholic and especially of our own particular branch of the church, Presbyterianism." I heartily agree, definitely a NECESSARY 'part' of the way forward.

(Thanks for taking the time to interact with Jones and for reading this comment chain)

For Tony Stiff: Hi, Tony; I see where you are going, but I'm going to disagree just a smidge. Even if we do not theologize in a contextually appropriate manner, that doesn't mean that our theology is context-less or decontextulized. For example, I used to worship with churches that loved the Puritans to such a degree that we tended to preach with Puritan structures and even phrasology (this was a long time ago). We were "contextualized"; that is to say, our ministry was informed by a particular context. Unfortunately, we never grew because our ministry was not appropriately contextualized to reach folks in the particular place where we were.

If you buy this nuance, then what I was trying to do was raise questions about contextualization in order to help us become much more self-critical about the context in which we are working and the context to which we are ministering. To act as though theology needs to be contextualized misses the point, IMO; rather, we need to be self-critical about how our theology is already contextualized and self-conscious about the way our cultural system affects our articulation and witness of theology. Hope that helps, sml

Thanks all for a helpful discussion.

If I might add a comment in the form of a question: What faithful theological thinking is not unoriginal, including creative theological thinking? It seems to me that'unoriginal'and 'creative'are not mutually exclusive but—given certain rules for theological discourse—are put forward for different reasons on account of the circumstances giving rise to that particular expression and what the speaker felt they needed to emphasise as a result (see Kathryn Tanner on how theological discourse functions). What then were the situations which gave rise to Irenaeus and Tertullian stressing their unoriginality. Could it be that a defense of originality already assumes that they were being creative? If, indeed, 'the task of theology is to witness to the apostolic tradition for the present cultural moment' then faithful theology can never be less than 'unoriginal' and 'creative'. The two are non-competitive.

Darryl wrote:

"Sure, this kind of wariness can breed defensiveness. But on the other side, calls for overcoming defensiveness can breed naivete."

Very true-- but how do we get past that? Especially since the foe you identify-- liberalism-- wasn't at issue when our confessional documents were drafted.

It seems that rigorous confessionalism acts as a sort of chemotherapy for the soul, protecting the church from encroaching liberalism. But of course chemotherapy isn't conducive to growth-- it's about survival.

So now the question is: can Reformed churches grow while keeping cancer at bay? Or should we consign ourselves to a lifetime of growth-stunting treatments?

As to Sean's response itself-- he argues that we should place priority on contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, to the extent that there is tension with creative/constructive theology.

There's merit to that, but I wonder whether our current confessional situation helps or hinders that goal. The PCA's confessional predicament is holding to a document that both restricts too much and restricts too little. The WCF restricts too much-- we allow officers to take exception to the WCF. Yet it restricts too little-- it is insufficient to deal with feminism or the Federal Vision (hence the need for study committee reports).

This shows our need for a document that attends to current struggles. Developing that would be a task of constructive and creative theology, which then may conflict with Sean's call to focus on the faith once delivered.

Yet there is overlap between the idea of creative theology as application and Sean's discussion of contextualization. It's true that there's no a-contextual gospel we can work from to contextualize for our own day. Instead, there's an ongoing process of de- and re-contextualization, taking the gospel as delivered to me, in books and in my life, and re-contextualizing it to my family and beyond.

To Kyle Wells: Hi, Kyle: yes, I think you are right to a degree. Creative and unoriginal are not necessarily opposed; to apply "Apostles' Creed" Christianity to an unbeliever with whom I am in conversation requires that I be unoriginal and creative at the same time.

But in the context (there's that word again) of my task, it was to respond to Jeremy's talk. And what I was responding to what seemed to be Jeremy's hope that creative (as in new, constructive, different) theological work would meet our postmodern and increasingly secular context. My invocation of Irenaeus and Tertullian was not only for their words and position, but also for their context, one that is strikingly similar to ours (something I point up in Ancient and Medieval Church History). All to say, that it might be that the right response to our current context would not be "new" work, but creative application of "old" work--faithful witness to the apostolic tradition in our current cultural moment. FWIW--sml

Sean - Thank you for your essay. Your comments on contending for the faith once delivered is right on target as usual. I agree that renewal probably best starts by a re-appreciation of the Standards that have served so well for 350 years and still serve well today. I very much enjoyed your book On Being Presbyterian. I half expected to see some of the excellent preface here. :-)

Al - May I offer that our current constitution (Westminsters + BCO) handled everything thrown at it so far? To address your specific examples,the Standards handled Federal Vision nicely. Yes, it took a study committee to ferret out the details, but there's nothing wrong with a careful effort. Feminism in the church context is nicely covered in the BCO backed up by Scripture.

There's no human document (or set of them) that can anticipate every next controversy. By the time you write one, that moment has passed. What we have are consistent documents dealing primarily with timeless theological issues universally applicable across geography, societies, and time with the system of doctrine contained in Holy Scripture. Those, plus the ultimate standard of Scripture. With a little elbow grease, these will be enough. They have been for 350 years.

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