Skip to main content

Excerpts from Rollin Grams' Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry, Chapter 5 (Part 1)

This is the first post presenting material from my (Rollin Grams') Chapter Five: Rival Versions of Enquiry into the Pragmatic Task of Theology' in Rival Versions of Theological Enquiry (Prague: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005).  Subsequent posts will continue material from this chapter.


I. Introduction

I will begin this section (1) by asking whether contextual application is really the last rather than the first task of theology.  This will include a relevant discussion of American pragmatic philosophy and of a current challenge by Charles Pinches to Enlightenment moral theory.  Then (2) I will offer some examples of theology that begins with this task, such that 'theology' becomes a 'reflective' activity--a reflection on practice.  I will (3) devote further attention to one of the pragmatic fields of study, contextual missiology, in order to illustrate how the three rival versions of enquiry proceed for this task overall.  (4) This will lead me to suggest, with others, that the image of 'craftsmanship' for theological enquiry will help us see the connection between theory and practice in a positive way, rather than as a conflict to be overcome.  (5) I will also attend to some of the discussion of interdisciplinary study: how should we understand the integration of non-theological fields of study with theology, such as economics, social sciences, psychology, and so forth? 

This fourth task opens up enquiry within a theological community and tradition to enquiry in the world at large.  The temptation here is to affirm a theological enquiry according to one's tradition and other inquiries (as, for example, anthropology and sociology for mission practice) according to a non-tradition version of enquiry, such as the social sciences.  The result, it seems to me, is a kind of schizophrenia which we wish to avoid, but how?


II. Is The Pragmatic Task the First Task of Theology?

The pragmatic task has often taken second place to the 'purer', systematic theologians and Biblical scholars among us.  Are those teaching the pragmatic tasks of theology even called 'theologians'?  Their fields (mission studies, homiletics, Christian psychology, pastoral theology, Christian education) often overlap with the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, public speaking, psychology, education), and this brings a theological starting point under suspicion just as it brings their disciplines under suspicion for Biblical scholars and theologians.

The 'Encyclopaedic' approach to theological education will automatically place reason before practice and see the latter as application.  I have attempted to avoid prejudicing the issue by not referring to this task as only 'application' even if the word is at times appropriate.  The opposite word, 'reflective,' is also here avoided (although discussed).  Both words have been given to types of theology--applied theology and reflective theology.  Postmodern winds have shifted the order of 'text to application' for many both because 'rationality' seems too reductionistic for human life and because the movement from rational theories to application seems fraught with the abuse of power.  This raises the question of whose focus reigns in the tasks of theology.

Liberation theologians, for example, have insisted that one must begin with praxis and that theology is to be understood as 'reflection' (on the Bible, on activity, on Christian historical theology, etc.).[1]  This places context and doing at the start, and theology becomes a second order activity.  The fourth task, on this reckoning, is not application: it becomes the first task, and the others become 'reflection', not interpretation.

Alternatively, one might more easily argue today that it does not much matter which task of theology is taken up first.[2] There is, of course, a simple, pragmatic point to be made here: interpretation entails a spiral of movement between text and reader and back again, progressing towards deeper understanding.[3]  Somewhere between this observation of how interpretation progresses and the radical claim that theology is a second order reflection upon first order praxis lies the appeal for theological exegesis and the importance of one's context even in the task of historical-grammatical enquiry.

James McClendon is noteworthy for beginning his three volume systematic theology with ethics.[4]  This possibility arises when one conceives of theology as 'the discovery, understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is.'[5]  Thus theology is not abstract thought (although it is concerned with objectivity--'whatever else there is') existing in some realm of universals apart from a 'convictional community'.  The definition suggests that theology is pluralistic, narrative and historical (located in communities), rational, and self-involving (praxis-related).[6]  The community emphasis in McClendon's understanding of theology means that theology must not be abstracted from ethics.  He approves of Origen's and Clement of Alexandria's understanding of theological education as training in virtue, and of Menno Simons' Foundations of Christian Doctrine (1539): both intertwined doctrine and ethics to such an extent that one cannot separate them.[7]  For McClendon, ethics, doctrine, and 'foundations' (prolegomena) all 'have the same subject--the convictions of the community in relation to all else; and all have the same object or goal--to provide a faithful yet transformative account of those convictions that cohere in a living community….  So all three have a common task--they properly constitute one system, one theology.'  And so McClendon's order to systematic theology begins with 'the shape of the common life in the body of Christ' (ethics), continues with 'the common and public teaching that sanctions and supports that common life by displaying its doctrinal height and breadth and depth' (doctrine), and concludes with the 'apologetic and speculative positions that such life and such teaching call forth' (apologetics, but what he chooses to call 'witness' when writing the third volume).[8]

David Bosch insisted that the interpretive tasks of theology (our first three tasks) always include the pragmatic task: they cannot be conducted on their own terms in isolation from the pragmatic task.  He wished to explore how a postmodern paradigm in the pragmatic task would make a difference for the other tasks of theological interpretation.  Attention to 'context' is, he avers, the key difference:

Paul Ricoeur and other recent literary critics have, in a great variety of ways, advanced the view that every text is an interpreted text and that, in a sense, the reader 'creates' the text when she or he reads it.  The text is not only 'out there', waiting to be interpreted; the text 'becomes' as we engage with it.  And yet, even this new hermeneutic approach is not going far enough.  Interpreting a text is not only a literary exercise; it is also a social, economic, and political exercise.  Our entire context comes into play when we interpret a biblical text.  One therefore has to concede that all theology (or sociology, political theory, etc.) is, by its very nature, contextual.[9]

The relevance of the pragmatic task to the other tasks of theological interpretation is a challenge posed by mission theology, as J. Andrew Kirk insists: 'there can be no theology without mission….  This is partly a matter of observation in that theology is, by its nature, about fundamental concerns which affect life at all levels.'[10]  Yet it is painfully true that theology can and often enough has not affected life at any level. A postmodern shift in theology, however, has raised new possibilities.  As Richard Lints observes,

[t]he fundamental methodological shift in the modern era [read 'contemporary,' i.e., 'postmodern' era] has been a movement away from a detached, disinterested, scientific and critical theology toward a subjective, reader-response, literary and critical theology.[11]

Postmodern theologies (black theology, feminist theology, liberation theology (after Vatican II), possibly the charismatic movement, and narrative theology) that illustrate this shift, Lints continues, exhibit some similarities:

1.       Theological Argument: While postmoderns affirm modern, Liberal theology's conviction that theology must be built up from experience rather than revelation, they are suspicious of technology and science because these tend to serve the interests of the dominant culture.[12]
2.       Ecclesial Authority: Scripture's authority derives not from its content but its ability to occasion new occurrences of revelation (ever new and diverse ones).  This is not modernity's 'desire to find a common religious experience on which a universal theological framework might be constructed.'[13]
3.       Theological Realism: meaning and purpose for human communities are without a transcendent source.[14]
4.       Epistemic Pragmatism: Over against the idea that beliefs can be founded upon objectively discernable knowledge, postmodernity pictures understanding as a web of beliefs (e.g., Richard Rorty's The Web of Belief).[15]
5.       Theology as Hermeneutic: postmoderns insist that the path between text and doctrine is not from text to doctrine: it is bi-directional.  Contemporary experience reforms tradition; tradition may expose today's fundamental assumptions.[16]  Theology should be less a lecture and more a conversation.  The theologian observes this conversation between community and tradition and sees where the tradition needs reformation.[17]

This description identifies the movement in what we are calling a postmodern deconstructionism in theological enquiry as from the pragmatic task to the theological task.

The question of 'with which task to begin' is answered differently, then, by the three rival versions of enquiry.  The 'thought to application' progression of modernity is under challenge.  Over against a theoretical foundation might be placed a 'convictional community'.  This community emphasis can easily entail a sinking into relativism, a self-legitimating, reader-response criticism or liberated, grassroots 'exegesis', indeed,  the impossibility of heretical communities.  Yet groups coming closest to this approach in theology typically have strong convictions; their interpretation is ideological.[18]  Liberation Theology, I have noted, insists on 'orthopraxis' if not orthodoxy, such that there is heretical practise and, consequently, heretical doctrine: that which does not begin with the poor and powerless.  It represents a limited version of reader-response criticism, albeit one that primarily functions to deconstruct hegemonies of power.

But tradition as a mode of enquiry has long held that the key to enquiry is not theory and knowledge over practice, not practice over against doctrine, not community over against the individual (for both can be in error), but the tradition with its theory, knowledge, doctrine, practice, community, and individuals.  Tradition is, moreover, neither scientific foundationalism nor subjectivism.  It entails detailed attention to interpretation, whether interpretation of the Fathers (Orthodoxy), of the Councils and Church doctrine (Catholicism), of Torah (Rabbinic Judaism), or of the Scripture (Protestantism).  Neither reason nor the community sit over the authoritative 'texts' that require constant study and interpretation in any of these traditions.

The typical supposition in hermeneutics today is that our reading of the text is subjective, thus challenging the tradition version of enquiry.  The text is seen as passive in this exercise, overwhelmed by the living heirs who do with it as they please.  But a tradition approach to enquiry sees the text not only as part of and subject to the tradition but also as an external authority ever reforming the tradition.  A tradition approach to contextual theology, therefore, will not see context as leading to legitimate, alternative readings of the text but the text (whether that of the Law, the Fathers, the Church's doctrine, or the Scriptures) speaking critically to the tradition and through the tradition to address, challenge and transform thought and behaviour in various contexts.  Thus I disagree over the definition of theology with McClendon, with whom I often agree.  While I see him as a good representative of a tradition approach to theology in many ways, his definition of theology, given above, fails to emphasise that theology is, first and foremost, interpretation of texts.  For this reason, I would advocate that there is a priority in tradition interpretation to the tasks of exegesis and Biblical theology, even if there is now a greater appreciation for and understanding of the necessity of us all engaging all tasks of theology, including the pragmatic task, as part of any effort at interpretation.




[1] In his study pack published by Christian Aid (1988), Derek Winter describes Liberation theology as ‘theological reflection that arises at sundown, after the heat of the day when Christians have dirtied their hands and their reputations in the struggle of the poor for justice, for land, for bread, for very survival' (as cited by Christopher Rowland and Mark Corner, Liberating Exegesis, pp. 40-46). Carlos Mesters insists that ‘the emphasis is not placed on the text’s meaning in itself but rather on the meaning the text has for the people reading it’ (Mesters, ‘Use of the Bible’, in N. Gottwald (ed.), The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984), p. 122).  Hence the preference for a 'grassroots exegesis' (Carlos Mesters, ‘Como se faz Teologia hoje no Brasil?’, Estudos Biblicos 1 (1985), pp. 1ff): ‘The principle objective of reading the Bible is not to interpret the Bible but to interpret life with the help of the Bible’ (Mesters, p. 10; cited in Rowland and Corner, Liberating Exegesis, p. 39).  This means reading from a situation of injustice and seeking to transform it.  The threefold way of reading Scripture that Mesters advocates is:
a.      See: begin from one’s experience, which mostly means from one’s poverty in Latin America.
b.      Judge: ‘understand the reasons for that kind of [poor] existence and relating them to the story of the deliverance from oppression in the Bible’ (Rowland and Corner, p. 38).
c.      Act.
Similarly, the South African theologian, Gerald West, sees three challenges to a traditional understanding of the Biblical exegete providing works for others to use in building a theology or applying the text to their context ('Reading the Bible Differently: Giving Shape to the Discourse of the Dominated,’ Semeia 73 (1996): 21-41):
1.      Liberation Theology: Liberation hermeneutics required commitment to the experience of the poor and marginalised.
2.      Postmodernism: There is a turn from finding the elusive ‘right’ reading to the ‘useful’ reading, a shift from ‘epistemology to ethics, truth to practices, foundations to consequences’ (p. 27, quoting Cornel West, Prophetic Fragments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988): 270-1).
3.      Reader-Response: The reader ‘creates’ meaning, not merely ‘receives’ it (27).
[2] This was, James McClendon points out, the position of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose choice to begin with doctrine in reality meant that he never completed his work on ethics--his students posthumously publishing his lecture notes (James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 42; cf. F. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, H. R. MacKintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1835/1928), § 26).
[3] Cf. Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991).  Cf. p. 6.
[4] James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics.  Cf. pp. 41-45.
[5] James McClendon, Jr., Ethics, p. 23.
[6] James McClendon, Jr., Ethics, pp. 24, 35-41.
[7] James McClendon, Jr., Ethics, p. 44.
[8] James McClendon, Jr., Ethics, p. 45.
[9] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), p. 423.
[10] J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission?  Theological Explorations (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1999), 11.
[11] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1993), p. 197. 
[12] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 211.
[13] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 215.
[14] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 217.
[15] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 220.
[16] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 224.
[17] Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 225.
[18] Cf. George V. Pixley, ‘A Latin American Perspective: The Option for the Poor in the Old
Testament,’ in Voices From the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World, ed. Sugirtharajah, R. S. (London: SPCK, 1991).  Pixley notes that God's love, while universal, or in order to be universal, must be particular.  Yahweh identifies with Israel, the slaves He delivers from Egypt. The Old Testament narrative presents God as taking sides with Israel—he is on the side of the oppressed.  ‘Curiously, but nevertheless logically, not making exception of persons means making a preferential option for the oppressed in a situation of oppression’ (p. 232).  Similarly, James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990; originally pub. 1970), for whom the metaphor of 'Israel' becomes 'black' for the oppressed with whom God identifies.  Such liberationist reading becomes reading against the text of Scripture for feminist theologians, who find in Scripture not only a theme of liberation but also complicity with a patriarchal, anti-woman bias.