Method in Theology: Simple, Complex, Contested

The following is a continuation of the first draft of my dissertation Unsettling Theology. It probably needs more footnotes and a lot of rewriting.

peanuts-theology

Contemporary theological method is relatively straight forward. Determine the topic or problem to be discussed. See what others have said about it. Determine the most important voices, and describe their positions, arguments, and evidence. Critique those positions, arguments, and evidence from a variety of well chosen perspectives, using well established criteria for evaluation. Summarise, describing the significance of what has been discussed. Suggest further avenues of study and discussion.

Canadian Catholic theologian Paul Allen describes contemporary theology in another way:

If I were to sum up in a single sentence what theological method is, I would say that it is a set of comparisons, contrasts and correlations – involving plenty of analogous language at certain stages of judgment – regarding four sources of theological content. Those sources of content are: scripture, reason, tradition and experience.[1]

That said, theological method is varied, and contested ground.

Throughout history theologians have used various genres to put forth their thoughts. Justin Martyr (2nd century) adopted the form of Platonic dialogues. Origen used commentaries on scripture to put forth his speculations, and this carried down to Martin Luther and Karl Barth, who both wrote theologies in the form of commentaries on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Augustine wrote commentaries, an autobiography, polemical treatises, letters, and sermons. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa adopted the disputational model then used in universities in which a topic is named in the form of a question, arguments against a position are named, the position is argued for (starting with a quotation from scripture) in a series of brief arguments, and then the objections are answered. Aquinas also wrote hymns, which are another way of doing theology. Perhaps the most detailed modern exposition on method in theology is that of Method in Theology by Bernard Lonergan.[2]

One might think that the discipline of theology, which arguably has been around for at least two-thousand years (and as much as three thousand if one if one starts with Judaism), would have a clear methodology. It does not. Like philosophy, because it is concerned with basic human principles and “the meaning of life” it is constantly going back to first things. Dogma, doctrines, and schools of thought get established, only to be critiqued in the next generation; those bringing the critique are then likewise challenged by those holding to the older modes of thought. These schools reinvent themselves, and argue amongst themselves. Ancient texts are read anew, and old readings are found to be less than satisfactory. Every consensus is provisional, and scholars and theologians regularly transgress doctrinal norms, sometimes to ecclesiastical punishment, but as often as not with significant regard.

Unlike philosophy theology is not a “pure” discipline. Arguably it is divided into several interacting disciplines that overlap and influence each other. In the Divinity School in which I first studied there were four broad areas: Biblical Studies, History, Theology, and Pastoral Theology. These all bleed over into each other. A study of a New Testament text is necessarily an historical study of First Century Christian authors and communities interacting with Jewish and Gentiles. That same text has an explicit and implicit theology which a theologian may use as a central part of a systematic approach, as Luther made use of Romans. New Testament scholars write theology, as Rudolf Bultmann did. Liturgical studies are both historical and practical (if not experimental), and they have explicit and implicit theologies around the reading of scripture in the church, preaching, the meaning and purpose of prayer, the significance of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and expectations around what happens to the people of God when they are dismissed. Theology becomes anthropology becomes ecclesiology becomes historiography becomes tactics and strategy in the community.

Furthermore, theology draws on other disciplines. It is deeply influenced by philosophy, and for almost every major philosophical movement there is a corresponding theological trend. In the Middle Ages theology was philosophy, and vice versa. Plato and Plotinus was read through the lens of the Cappadocians, Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and Aristotle through Aquinas and the Scholastics (and later on they were read through the filter of Neo-Scholasticism). Platonism, Aristotelian categories, Neo-Platonism, Aristotelian metaphysics, skepticism, Kantian morality and religion, Hegelianism, Marxism, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Feminism, Post-Modernism and a plethora of other systems have all had their effect.

But it is more than just philosophy. As is apparent to any sociologist, American fundamentalism took science as the model for doing theology, and then took a literal interpretation of the Bible as the primary evidence. As much as Marxists predicting the inexorable progress of humanity to harmonious anarchy, some Fundamentalists worked out a theory of dispensations that structured history and predicted events such as the Rapture and the Tribulation. This in turn has affected politics (especially in the United States) and politics has reciprocated by co-opting previously marginalized evangelicals into becoming advocates for low taxes, less government, opposition to climate change, and a strong military. In some ways this parallels earlier exchanges between politics and theology, such as the encounters of Christian thought with liberalism and socialism.

Events also influence the various disciplines of theology. The Holocaust challenged Christians to reassess how they read their scriptures, how they did their theology, how they worshipped, and how they did evangelism. In the post-war era the various denominations, largely anti-Jewish, became supportive of Judaism and suspended efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. The granting of full electoral and legal equality to women in many countries has led to their economic emancipation and a corresponding growth of women in leadership in many denominations; this has also been paralleled by a growth of LGBTQ2 explicitly present in various churches and their leadership. Not surprisingly, this means that two current hot areas of theological study are Queer Theology and Feminist Theology. The departure of colonial powers from colonies around the world has led to the rise of post-colonial theology, and in nations in Latin America where economic policies historically meant the impoverishment of the majority Liberation Theology has emerged. Black Theology and Womanist Theology grew in the United States out of the experience of African-American men and women, respectively. All of this new theology emerges out of lived experience of oppression and marginalization, and challenges the male dominated Divinity Schools in Europe and North America which project a supposedly objective approach to the various theological disciplines, and which resist politicization.

A particularly challenging issue is that theology no longer seems to be the respected discipline it used to be. Many academic institutions do not have faculties or departments of theology. In older universities where faculties or schools of divinity exist there is a push to suspend theology as a faith-based activity and to transform the places into centres for the study of religion (for example, the University of Chicago Divinity School, but also Harvard Divinity School, and the old McGill Faculty of Divinity which is now the School of Religious Studies). Some mainline divinity schools are closing or merging into more financially stable bodies: Andover Newton is moving from Massachusetts to the Yale campus, Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge MA has suspended operations, and Heythrop College in London is likewise ending its teaching.

Was in reaction to this marginalization of theology that John Milbank developed his Radical Orthodoxy? Radical Orthodoxy calls into question the relevance of Kantian metaphysical critiques and secularism to theology. Rather than being subject to various social theories, Milbank argued that theology, envisioned by him as “a postmodern critical Augustinianism”, was self-sufficient and needed to purge itself of these influences and rightfully and righteously critique those same systems of thought. In an era when governments are cutting back on funding the liberal arts and promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), it is exactly the kind of fighting back one might expect from a brilliant up-and-coming theologian in a provincial university.

In my experience the best theology is always aware of its context in history and its manifold influences and manifestations. Rather than start in the abstract it is better to start in the concrete, and then work towards abstraction, and then work back to the concrete. In this sense it is a complex maneuver, a hermeneutical circle that takes up the whole life of the one doing theology. It is very much an exercise of the incarnation, in that theology can never be divorced from the theologian who lives and dies. Theology is inherently subjective and objective, in that the subject is always present in the statement about God, but the theology is also an object for others to consider, critique, and make their own. Theology is inherently talk by humans about God, and the human quality is inescapable.

If good theology is then incarnated in historical individuals, then it also seems to be the case that good theology is created by concrete crises. Paradigmatically, the Council of Jerusalem was convened by dissension caused by Paul’s evangelism to the Gentiles. The orthodox canon of scripture was a reaction to Marcion’s limited one. Monasticism was a reaction to the lowering of expectations of Christians in 3rd century Egypt. The increasing significance of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the divergences about the nature of Christ within the church led to the calling of the oecumenical councils. Augustine wrote The City of God in defense of Christianity after the sack of Rome and the pagans blaming Christians for it. Aquinas sought to assist in the propagation of the gospel to newly conquered Moors in Spain by writing the Summa Contra Gentiles. Luther posted his 95 theses in reaction to corruption in the church, and developed his hermeneutics of sola fide and sola scriptura to found Christian authority in scripture, and not the institution of the church. Anglicanism emerged out of a conflict around royal succession. Liberal Christianity emerged in the 19th century as a reflection on the application of historico-critical methods to scripture. Bernard Lonergan wrote Method in Theology to orient theologians to the multiple forms of historical sciences that were challenging traditional Catholic theology in the 20th century.

Theology, then, is complex. It resists abstraction because of its carnal nature. It is a discussion, but after two-thousand years there are too many discussion partners. The intertexts are beyond the comprehension of any one individual. It takes decades to have read enough to say something that is well grounded. Rabbit holes that lead to Wonderland are everywhere.

In the next chapter I will state what I understand to be the method being used in this dissertation, as well as the biases underlying the method.

[1] Taede A. Smedes , “Does Theology Have a Method? An Interview with Paul Allen” at https://tasmedes.nl/does-theology-have-a-method-an-interview-with-paul-allen/ accessed June 3, 2017. Paul Allen, a theologian at Corcordia University, Montreal QC Canada, is the author of Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark International/Continuum Books, 2012).

[2] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: The Seabury Press, 1972).

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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