The Character of Theology

Paul Helm Articles

John Franke, who teaches theology at Biblical Theological Seminary, has written this introduction to Christian theology. Its chapters are on "Doing Theology Today", "The Subject of Theology," "The Nature of Theology", "The Task of Theology", and "The Purpose of Theology". Professor Franke tells us that one of the forces that has shaped his thinking is the Reformed tradition. Appropriately enough, therefore, he begins the book with a discussion of the opening words of Book One of the Institutes. But he misses the point, and how he misses the point is a straw in the wind. Calvin's words are "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." Professor Franke notes how for Calvin these two sources of knowledge are bound together. Then he says, "Calvin's observation continues to provide a helpful model for reflecting on the character of theology and suggests that we must always be attentive not only to the knowledge of God but also to the knowledge of ourselves as human beings if we hope to practice an approach to theology that leads to wisdom...This suggests that in the discipline of theology we must take account of the particular social and intellectual settings in which we engage in theological reflection and exploration."(p.14) Then follows what is by now an all-too-familiar apologia for the need for us to be postmodernists in theology, jettisoning claims to knowledge in the process.

But this is not at all what Calvin has in mind, that theology should study God and people. (By the way, Calvin does not have much use for the word 'theology' except as a term of opprobrium; for him there was no "discipline of theology": rather, the word was a synonym for indiscipline.) What he means (and says) is that the knowledge of God and of ourselves are so immediately interlinked; that one cannot know God without knowing oneself, and onself without knowing God. Rather different.

Professor Franke thinks that it is the job of theology to have special regard to the human context in which the Bible, and the church are placed. I lost count of the times that he states this - dozens, possibly hundreds. Contexts breed like flies. Professor Franke talks about contexts. And his talk about contexts produces another context. And my talk about his talk about contexts is yet another context. Is this emphasis on contexts a new insight? Apparently it is, bequeathed to us by the postmodern turn. But was John Calvin, do you suppose, quite unaware of the context in which he was (not doing theology but) setting out the nature of the Christian religion as he understood it? Did he not have some acquaintance with the Renaissance? Did he not know what life was like in France, in Basel, in Rome, in Geneva? Did he know what made the Roman Catholics and the Anabaptists tick?

Yet there is a not insubstantial difference between what we know of Calvin's attitude to his context, and of the need to do theology in context, and what Professor Franke proposes. Here's how he opens his chapter "The Task of Theology."

"As concluded in the previous chapter, the unending task of theology is to find ways of expressing and communicating the biblical story in terms that make use of the intellectual and conceptual tools of a particular culture without being controlled by them. This suggests the need for both critical and constructive reflection on the beliefs and practices of the church in order to scrutinize continuously the life of the church by the standard of the biblical witness and to envision all of life in relationship to God and the mission of God in the world." (p.119)

A couple of things to note here. To be sure, there is the warning about not allowing the intellectual and conceptual tools of a particular culture to control theology, though no suggestions as to how this might be achieved. Apart from this, not a word about critiquing the culture. Rather, it is the beliefs and practices of the church that are to be critiqued (by the culture: what else?) in order that the church may live in relationship to God and be the mission of God in the world. So there is a basic, ghastly flaw here: Professor Franke fails to distinguish between describing and understanding the context in which the church lives, and prescribing that context as a part of what ought to form the character of its witness. Are there not hellish contexts? Contexts in which Christ is blasphemed? Contexts of self-righteousness and hypocrisy? Contexts of worldliness supremely indifferent to the cause of Christ and the destiny of the soul? Contexts in which people think that religion is a joke? Calvin challenged his context. In the name of Christ he sought its reform and renewal. Is there not something vital missing in Professor Franke's prescription?

If this were not enough, Franke has also bidden farewell to objectivity and truth. This deep scepticism invites self-refutation. If there is no truth, then why should we take what he has written as being other than fiction? And in giving up gaining objectivity and truth he has also (apparently) given up on the worthwhileness of striving after objectivity and truth. At least, he does not draw the distinction. But the two are distinct. It is true that we can never be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. Or possess perfect wisdom, or objectivity, or act with perfect justice, or live in perfect love. But does it follow from any of these facts that we ought not to strive for these things?

Alongside this capitulation to the spirit of the age are set Christian, evangelical sentiments. So in the chapter on the task of theology the author writes approvingly of the authority of Scripture and of the Reformation emphasis upon Word and Spirit. On the same page he apparently approves of the idea that the interpretation of Scripture is always interested and subjective and yet can say "We read (the Bible) knowing that the Spirit speaks through Scripture....." (136) Knowing? Isn't that something that modernists thought that they could do, but that postmodernists know (?) that they can't? On other pages Professor Franke says that claims to knowledge are claims to power. Perhaps some are. But are all? Did not Paul claim to know in whom he had believed? Yet, "I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.....we preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake." And did not Paul follow his Saviour? Were Jesus's claims to knowledge bids for power? "I am among you as he that serves." Does Professor Franke believe any of this? So two sentiments are here in extreme tension - approval of the constructivism, relativism and scepticism of much popular culture, and a desire to be committed to the epistemic and moral claims of the Christian faith - but it is not at all obvious that Professor Franke sees tension, or has any idea about how to handle it.

The fear is that Profesor Franke, in common with other "Postconservative Evangelicals," has allowed himself to be manoevred into a position where critique of the culture, and the calling of men and women to forsake their idols and to come to Christ, has become impossible. In surrendering objectivity, and propositions, and truth, he surrenders the gospel. In dismissing foundationalism he seems (I put the point gently) to be the advocate of relativism, if not of scepticism. How can a world in love with cultural relativism, with letting everyone do as he or she pleases, and in the name of toleration and of pluralism to think whatever they like, be challenged by a relativistic presentation of the Christian gospel? If we are all imprisoned in cocoons of language, how can we speak the gospel of God's grace to the needy? Is there no human nature? Do we have no words in common, truths in common? Then how do we manage to shop, to build planes, to get paid, to make love, to make war?

All this would be quite hilarious if it were not so serious. The bitter truth is that in the utter inadequacy of what Professor Franke has written lies an urgent challenge to all who aspire to teach theology today.

John Franke - Baker Academic Publishing (July 2005) 
Review by Paul Helm