Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book of the Year

Perhaps inspired by the Oscars the other night, I would like to present what I feel was the best book I read in 2006. THankfully, I read Finally Feminist this year or else this would have been a tough decision. I am almost certain I will have to go back and reread this book when classes die down in the summer.

It is Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context by Stanley Grenz and John Franke. The more I think about it the more important I think this relatively new book will be for the future of theology, at least in our current world context. The more I read of him the more I realize how much we lost when Grenz (pictured here) passed away a couple years ago. So here is the book review I wrote for class. Note that another book is reviewed alongside it. I would have edited that out except that I think it offers a nice balance and makes sense of the issue. It may take a few minutes to ingest this whole thing (it was a five pager), but if you do hopefully you'll see why I think this was an amazing and important book.


Although there is much that Thomas F. Torrance and the writing team of Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke would agree on, their books Reality and Evangelical Theology and Beyond Foundationalism work from different theological orientations. While Grenz and Franke orient the task of theology forward toward God’s eschatological horizon for creation, Torrance orients it back to the horizon of God’s self-articulation in Jesus Christ. If Torrance’s theological approach focuses on the already of God’s self-revelation, then Grenz and Franke’s focuses on the not yet. There is certainly to be no polarization drawn between these authors, but their differences are worth understanding as theologians set out upon the theological task. The evidence and the ramifications of their diverse orientations are seen most clearly in their theological approach to truth, the Word of God, community and culture.

In summarizing Torrance we must be careful not to oversimplify his view as oriented solely in some static past. Looking to Christ for theology may be an activity grounded in past, namely in His incarnation and His articulation of God in the Scriptures, but for Torrance the Word is a vitally present and living reality. Since Christ is alive He is rightly sought in theology, but is properly known in and through vital worship (Torrance, 120). However, for all intents and purposes this is still an orientation back toward something set out for us in the past and results in a theological task that is more concerned with properly articulating and understanding something we already have. As he puts it, "whatever we may believe about it, the Bible certainly claims to speak of a living God who interacts with what he has made, and whose self-revelation to man in history has reached its decisive point in the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ" (Torrance, 97, emphasis mine).

According to Torrance, a right theology comes from having a right posture, focusing on Jesus Christ. It is seeking "the Mind [sic] of Christ" (Torrance, 107). Therefore we must "beware of corrupting what we apprehend" (Torrance, 73) and seek a humble and faithful theology that is continually refining itself in the face of the language obstacles, unveiled presupposition, and challenges from science. In language that fits quite nicely with the non-foundational approach of Grenz and Franke, Torrance insists that our systematic statements about Christ "cannot be true in the same sense as Jesus Christ is true, for they do not have their truth in themselves but in their reference to him away from themselves, and they are true insofar as that reference is truthful and appropriate" (Torrance, 124). For all the similarity with Grenz/Franke, however, Torrance differs greatly with their eschatological orientation and grounds theology in the already accessible reality of God’s intelligible self-articulation in Christ.

While Grenz and Franke structure theology around the Trinity (with an appropriate emphasis on Christ’s centrality in redemption), they differ from Torrance by seeking to orient theology toward the eschatological future which Christ presents and makes possible rather than toward the life that He has lived or currently lived. It is not that they deny the intelligibility of God’s self-revelation in the Word (written and incarnate), but due to the fragility of human knowing they place the ideal for theology in the future God has for us rather than in the past and present which we see through a glass darkly. To be sure, we do not see the future clearly either, but we will not arrive at let alone understand that future if we insist upon building it upon the foundations of human knowledge, however accurate God’s articulation of Himself to humanity. In other words, while theology spends the bulk of its time studying God through the incarnate Christ and the written Word, it is always with an orientation to the telos, or the goal, toward which God is driving His people. Since in theology we are dealing with ideals, we should properly focus ourselves according to the ideal that God has set before us. For all intents and purposes the task of the theologian is to help God’s people grasp (both intellectually and practically) what we do not yet have but are promised in Christ.

This is not to say that we cannot in some way have the mind of Christ in the present, but is to say that "theology moves from the future to the present", as God’s people "find not only their fulfillment but also their very meaning in the story of God bringing history to its consummation" (Grenz and Franke, 265). This places our understanding of truth in a different light. As Grenz and Franke put it:
Because what God wills is not a present but a future reality (e.g., Isa. 65:17-19; Rev. 21:5), the "objectivity of the world" about which we can truly speak is an objectivity of the future, eschatological world. And because this future reality is God’s determined will for creation, as that which cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:26-28) it is far more real–more objectively real–than the present world, which is even now passing away (1 Cor 7:31) (Grenz and Franke, 53).
Although it would seem that Grenz and Franke have uprooted theology from anything commonly accessible to humanity, they actually are very careful to set forth Scripture, tradition, and culture as indispensable to the task of theology. God constructs the world of his choosing through the Spirit who speaks to the church through the Word.

The diversity between these theological orientations may be most clearly seen in the ramifications in how each approaches culture. For Torrance, since we can expect God’s general revelation to correlate in truth with His special revelation, theology should interact confidently yet humbly with other sciences. However, as Torrance says: "Far from schematizing Christian theology into the patterns of the prevailing culture, this should have the opposite effect of transforming the very foundations of culture" (Torrance, 47). Grenz and Franke insist that Christians acknowledge culture as our "embedding context" (Grenz and Franke, 130) and recognize the appropriate ways that culture shapes our theological questions and ideas. Since "all truth is God’s truth", and since the common longings and questions of the human experience can be informative in their own right, Christians must strive to hear the Spirit’s voice within culture for theology, and not just vice versa (Grenz and Franke, 160). This is not to reduce theology to a mere reiteration of sociological trends, but is to elevate the importance of interaction with God’s world in the theological task.

In the final analysis, I agree with both of these books that theology must continually "seek to engage the church in repentant rethinking of all its interpretation" (Torrance, 47). I also recognize a great need to balance the already with the not yet in our understanding of the theological task. However, I feel that in these times of so much doubt in our own knowledge and in past theological formulations, Grenz and Franke’s approach is a clearer way to do theology in our postmodern context and plots a surer way forward. It keeps central the Trinity and the story of redemption in Christ by His Spirit central, does justice to the formative effects of tradition and culture on our theology, and dialogues effectively with the longings for community and global progress so commonly shared in our world today. If theologians are on the cutting edge of this dialogue they will be properly serving the church and the world and will be giving Jesus Christ the best opportunity to emerge as Lord.

1 comment:

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