A Reply to Steve Bush

Article by   November 2005

In a recent comment Steve Bush takes issue with the accuracy of some of my review of John Franke's The Character of Theology, which appears in Reformation21. I take up - I hope in the spirit of generous orthodoxy - his three points in turn.

Knowledge and context. It is said that the only conception of knowledge that Franke rejects is cartesian foundationalism. (Is that correct? He seems dead set against all forms of foundationalism as far as I can see.) Anyhow, against such foundationalism Franke affirms that context affects our conceptions of rationality and belief. (192) Indeed they do. But the question is, for a Christian ought they? As I said in the review, Franke confuses the descriptive and the prescriptive throughout his book: he asks the "Do we?" question innumerable times, but never asks the "Ought we?" question. He never faces the question, Why ought we not to do what we can to remove distortion and prejudice - subjectivism in all its aspects - from our epistemic capacities?

This morning, in my context and situation, I affirm the proposition "I have two hands." Others in their contexts and situations may have reason to deny this of me. If they deny it they have a false belief, whatever their context and situation, whatever their grounds. Does Franke affirm this sort of objective knowledge? Surely he cannot deny it? If a postmodernist/a Buddhist/an Epicurean/ a sceptic critiques Paul's claim that he knows in whom he has believed and that he is persuaded.....does Franke say that this critique must fail? Is there not a truth of the matter? Did Paul know or merely "know?" Does Franke affirm the objectivity of Christian knowledge claims in this sense? I'd be delighted. But nothing in his book suggests that he does, and much tends in the opposite direction, the direction of what one might call "community relativism," together with a general uneasiness about "propositional knowledge."

Franke's critique of culture in the light of theological commitments. It's true; Franke enunciates the words "critical engagement with culture" and the like. But what is this engagement for? "To gain a window into what people think, sense and believe about themselves and the world they inhabit as well as to determine what cultural meanings are exercising a molding influence on people today" (139) Good. And then what? Becoming aware that such interaction with the culture "enhances our theological constructions" (140), helping us to see that though Scripture functions as theology's norming norm because it is the instrument of the Spirit, yet the voice of the Spirit also speaks through culture. (141) Franke "critically" engages with the culture only to discover that in that culture the voice of the Spirit is heard! I know what someone might mean by this - that the restraining influences of the Spirit can be discerned in society - but I'm pretty sure Franke means something rather different.

Of course Scripture was given in different sets of circumstances than our present set. (A truism which does not deserve endless repetition.) But Scripture, the product of the Spirit of God in those sets of circumstances, gives us precedents for how the gospel is to interact with the culture. For example, Peter on the Day of Pentecost, Paul at Lystra, at Athens. Entering Athens, Paul informs himself of the culture, appraising it in a theologically informed way. At once he believes that what he sees and hears in Athens is not the voice of the Sprit, but an idolatrous siren-song, and as a consequence he heralds the resurrection of Christ, the coming judgement, (true for the Athenians as well as for himself) and thus the need for universal repentance. Are these actions and words of Paul's not "given, established realities?" Are they not paradigms for the Church for how she is to interact with a pagan culture? Does not incanting that Scripture is a product of a context emasculate the call of the gospel? (But perhaps not. Perhaps our present context makes it difficult to know what Paul, in his context, actually meant, to know what the call of the gospel is, and therefore impossible to affirm that what he says is true. But then where are we?)

Franke may have an ongoing commitment to truth, (words that suggest a quest for truth rather than the possession of it), but he denies the objective, culturally indifferent, or culturally transcendent character of any knowledge. And it is far from clear what he wishes to put in its place. In this denial he departs from the historic understanding of Scripture, which (the Church confesses) gives us certain, objective, universal knowledge of the way of salvation. (Not universally known, of course, but universally knowable: remember the Great Commission? Not understood all at once, of course, but understandable: remember Paul's injunction to grow in knowledge?) Acquaintance with the history of the Church quickly reveals that such knowledge has led to abuses, (another truism), just as we quickly learn that the message of the Cross is routinely misunderstood. Sed abusus non tollit usum. It is up to the Church, by the help of God, not to let such knowledge lead to abuse, or to misunderstanding, but at the same time not to deny what she knows.

Towards the end of his book (p.194 f.), Franke offers us a brief account of epistemic justification "that takes seriously the situated nature of human knowledge, the socially constructed nature of reality, the limitations of language, the epistemic primacy of God, and Christian convictions concerning revelation." I confess that I find his language pretty incomprehensible as a contribution to epistemology. We are offered the contextual business once again. McClendon and Smith (on whom Franke relies at this point) are said to advocate moving away from a referential theory of language to a speech act theory. But referring is presumably a speech act. There are "ultimate criteria" in such an epistemology, criteria which look suspiciously like foundations. He also refers approvingly to Bruce Marshall's Trinitarian epistemology. In this epistemology the Trinity has "epistemic primacy," "unrestricted primacy." Is the Trinity foundational then? Perhaps non-foundationally foundational? Do we know that God is triune? Or is the Trinity a "socially constructed reality?" Do we merely confer "epistemic primacy" on the Trinity? On what basis do we do this? If we know that God is triune, how do we know this? And so on. Was there no space in this wordy, repetitious book to consider such basic questions? I'm afraid that the absence of such discussion undermines confidence in the claim that Franke has a "robust commitment to truth."

It is important to understand the details, but more important to see the big picture. What Franke is currently advocating, (and not only he of course), is a deliberate, self-conscious shift away from the objective, transcultural truth claims of the Christian gospel to making those claims culturally relative. The puzzle is why: the "arguments" for this shift are so flimsy while the cost of making it is crippling. Does Franke not see this?

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