Why theological method matters

Summary of Brian Harris, “Why method matters: Insights from the theological method of Stanley J. Grenz,” Crucible 2 (1), Nov 2009. Available here.

Harris claims that evangelical Christians often view theological method as “the death of spiritual passion, and at best, a dangerous enterprise.”[1]  Similarly, Grenz and Franke note that while

Theologians in mainline theological circles have been in need of a reminder that theology involves more than simply reflecting on method … Evangelical theologians have … given little attention to methodological concerns.[2]

Harris outlines how reflection on his personal situation as a young adult in South Africa led him to explore methodological issues and eventually led him to discover Grenz’s distinctive evangelical theological methodology.  He draws specifically on four of Grenz’s books,[3] and suggests that Grenz’s theological method has “the potential to genuinely revision evangelical theology.”  Most of Harris’s article summarises key elements of Grenz’s methodology, and suggests some minor “revisioning” to address perceived weaknesses.

As an alternative to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral model, Grenz proposes a model whereby Scripture, tradition and culture function as “sources” for theology, with the Trinity, community and eschatology serving as “focal motifs.”  These sources are used in the same way in which Scripture, tradition, reason and experience are used in the Wesleyan model to develop a cogent and coherent theology.  The focal motifs facilitate the application of this theology to the “postmodern situation.”[4]

Scripture as a source for theology

As a Baptist and an evangelical, Grenz’s first methodological commitment was to Scripture.[5]  He views Scripture as theology’s “norming norm,”[6] but modifies the conventional evangelical commitment to the Reformation catch-cry sola scriptura by transferring (hermeneutical) authority from the text of Scripture to the culture of the believing community.  Thus, for Grenz, theology should be conceived as “reflection on the faith commitment of the believing community,” since the community of faith is “the source for the symbols, stories, teachings and doctrines that form the cognitive framework for the worldview of the believing community.”[7]

Grenz defends this apparent diminution of supreme biblical authority by suggesting that the Bible’s status as the foundational text of the faith community guarantees its place of importance in the theological enterprise.[8]  Harris notes that this seems a short step from relegating Scripture to the place of a non-authoritative source; and suggests that it is not self-evident that Scripture possesses enduring significance as a source for theology merely because it is viewed as “the repository of the original kerygma of the faith community.”

An important aspect of Grenz’s revisioning of evangelical theology is his emphasis on the Holy Spirit as mediator of the meaning and impact of Scripture for the community of faith.  Grenz endorses the Pietist conviction that “talk about the truth claims of the Bible was less important than the fact that ‘truth claims’ – that the Scriptures lay hold of the life of the reader and call that life into divine service.”[9]  Thus “Grenz shifts the subject-object locus, calling evangelicals to pay as much attention to the doctrine of illumination as they do to inspiration.”[10]  Critics argue that such an approach undermines the authority of Scripture by placing the locus of authority within the community of faith; D.A. Carson questions whether Grenz’s approach to Scripture can be called evangelical.[11]

Tradition as a source for theology

Tradition (or what I call the historical resources of the church) is both valued and eschewed by evangelicals.  Grenz outlines four persuasive reasons for regarding tradition as a source for theology:

(a)   past doctrinal statements and theological methods are instructive for the present theological quest and help avoid the pitfalls of the past

(b)  traditions serve as a reference point

(c)   some doctrinal formulations have withstood the test of time

(d)  as a second order task, theology is undertaken by theologians who are themselves members of a faith community which spans the centuries.[12]

Grenz appears to leave unresolved the important problem of identifying valid criteria for testing the authoritative status of a theological tradition.

Culture as a source for theology

Harris suggests that Grenz uses the term “culture” in three ways – in calls for a “culture-sensitive theology”; as a “re-source” for theology; and as one of three conversation partners sourcing theology.[13]  For Grenz, “the Spirit and community mediated interaction between culture and scripture enriches the understanding of scripture and unearths aspects of biblical truth that would otherwise be overlooked.”[14]  He uses the three focal motifs mentioned above (the Trinity, community, and eschatology) to structure, integrate and orient his theology (derived from the three sources of Scripture, tradition, and culture) in relation to postmodern culture.  This is evident in his systematic theology, Theology for the Community of God (1994), and in some later works.

The use of these three motifs presents a methodological problem: how does one prevent one of the three “conversation partners” from speaking too loudly?  Harris cites fellow theologian Thomas Oden who described the relative weight appropriate to sources in terms of a pyramid with Scripture at the base (occupying the largest – and, one might say, foundational – significance), followed by the patristics and others in chronological order, with modern theologians forming the apex (and therefore the smallest relative significance).[15]  Harris also suggests that a more nuanced approach to that of Grenz “would acknowledge that while three sources are conversing, they have significantly different amounts of influence.”[16]  Grenz does not appear to have discussed this problem.

Theological method and control beliefs

Harris observes that Grenz’s tradition and culture, as sources for theology, serve as what John Macquarrie called “formative factors.”  He also notes Nicholas Wolterstorff’s concept of “control beliefs” and views Grenz’s notion of Scripture as theology’s “norming norm” as such a belief.[17]  Thus, for Grenz, Scripture functions as both a source for theology and a control belief adjudicating between the truth claims of the various sources.  Harris argues that a more helpful way forward would be to adopt a control belief which acts “as a lens through which the contribution of all sources of theological construction is filtered.”[18]  His solution, for evangelical theologians, is to adopt as a control belief the evangel (the “good news” that comes through Jesus Christ and to which Scripture witnesses), which Grenz interprets as participation in what frees, and which Harris synthesizes with the phrase, “the gospel liberates.”[19]

Harris notes that this solution may be viewed as merely another way of privileging foundationalism, but he argues that employing “the gospel liberates” as a control belief in this context should be seen as “a statement encapsulating an ethos and projecting a vision.”[20]  Further, as Harris points out in his conclusion:

Evangelicalism’s track record in the social arena is reflective of an under developed theological method.  Whilst evangelicals usually cite biblical references to justify doctrinal and ethical stances, the lens that drives the selection of the supporting biblical material is rarely acknowledged or examined.  Acknowledging and privileging the control belief “the gospel liberates” as the lens through which all assertions are filtered would result in a transparent and consistent method.  A critiquing lens calls for accountability for the morality that inevitably flows from all theological construction.  While the control belief ultimately critiques what is proposed, the lens adopted shapes construction at all stages.[21]

Harris adds that “[p]rivileging a hermeneutic of liberation allows shifting volumes for each conversation partner, depending on the issue at stake … for example, in ethical reflection on homosexuality, … [a]lerted to the subtle innuendos unpacked by culture, the conversation is able to deepen as broader biblical themes interact with the insights of the social sciences.”[22]  I would argue that this already occurs in the contexts of Grenz’s model and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral model.

For my part, as someone who highly values Grenz’s approach to theology and methodological creativity, I view the methodological problem identified by Harris as significant, but his solution is ultimately unconvincing.  I would ask: Liberation from what?  To what end?  For whom?  Who decides, and who is excluded from deliberation and decision?  The term “liberation” is deeply politicized and arguably divides rather than unites.  Its use as a control belief is too easily controlled by sectional interests in pursuit of specific theological, political or cultural agendas – some of which, either consciously or unconsciously, deconstruct or subvert the evangel, which does indeed deliver liberation of various kinds.

Harris is on the right track, but a more nuanced and fruitful way of stating the solution is needed.  Perhaps James W. McClendon’s strong and defining emphasis on ethics in his systematic theology (an emphasis borne out of methodological reflection, and partially reflected in the structure of Grenz’s systematic theology) indicates a productive way forward.[23]

[1] Brian Harris, “Why method matters: Insights from the theological method of Stanley J. Grenz,” Crucible 2 (1), Nov 2009, available at http://www.ea.org.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Crucible/Harris%20-%20Why%20Method%20Matters%20-%20Crucible%202-1%20November%202009.pdf

[2] Stanley J. Grenz & John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 13.

[3] Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the Twenty First Century (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993); Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994); Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000); and Stanley J. Grenz & John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

[4] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 9.

[5] Grenz died suddenly in his sleep on 12 March 2005.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Grenz

[6] Grenz & Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, pp. 57ff.

[7] Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, pp. 87-88.

[8] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 5.

[9] Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, p. 112.

[10] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 6.

[11] D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 481.

[12] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 8, summarizing Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, pp. 95-97.

[13] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 9.

[14] Ibid., p. 9.

[15] Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992), pp. xv-xx.

[16] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 10.

[17] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).

[18] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 12.

[19] Stanley J. Grenz, “Participating in what frees: The concept of truth in the postmodern context,” Review & Expositor 100 (4), Fall 2003, p.

[20] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 12.

[21] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 13.

[22] Harris, “Why method matters,” p. 14.

[23] James W. McClendon, Jr, Ethics: Systematic Theology (vol. 1 of 3; revised edn; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).

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