Friday, December 31, 2004

Comments Demanding Response

There's been some good stuff in the comment section of the last post. If you will allow me to temporarily leave the subject of the Trinity and venture into the land of theological method, I have questions for a couple of you:

Scott: What, exactly, is orthodoxy? In other words, how do you define or determine that in an age where truly ecumenical church councils are no longer realistic? I have previously proposed the "authority of interpretive communities," a la Stanley Fish. What do you propose (of course avoiding the hegemony of academic elites being the ones to determine orthodoxy)?

Jason: Do you really mean to say that there are non-negotiables in Christian theology? Do you really mean to defend dogma? Couldn't Lyotard's famous dictum be amended to state that the postmodern condition is one of "incredulity toward dogmas"? How does one enter into a truly open theological dialogue if your opening salvo is, "I will never not believe in X doctrine"?

What I'm trying to challenge here is the foundationalism inherent in both of these positions. I think there is an "open methodology" out there for emerging theology. In my mind, it's something like an open, hermeneutical process, not a totalzing scheme or a one-size-fits-all method.

Of course, anyone can chime in on these...


Blogger David Malouf -- said...

Forgive the over-simple, over-used idea: isn't "incredulity toward dogmas" the EXACT same things as saying, "I will never not believe in X doctrine"? Just because a dogma is about a process doesn't make it any less dogmatic nor severely (even tragically) limiting. Is it really all that different to say "We want a truly open theological dialogue, but only using this one (a.k.a. MY) method" vs. "..., but never loosing these (a.k.a. MY) dogmas"?

Seems to me opinion on doctrines and opinion on method are actually required. Isn't the point of "theological dialogue" to grow, change, move, dissect, drop, flesh-out, etc.? I say this for I fear that the fear of not having dogma and/or method will actually stifle conversation.
Or maybe I'm being dogmatic about a different method ... (I hate reading over my own thoughts).


7:27 AM  
Blogger New Life said...

Dear Tony,

Thanks for letting me join in this conversation. I agree, there have been some really good comments.

I like your question about "orthodoxy". How does one determine what is orthodoxy? That is a KEY question. As I recall, it wasn't as if everyone walked away from the councils happy and content with what the dominant voice suggested. It wasn't as if the Council "got it right" nor actually intended to get it right. I am not certain we'll ever "get it right".

This discussion about the Trinity though can help give us perspective on where we are today. "Faith seeking understanding" as our friend Anselm once suggested. I think X and some one else believes X. Who is right? So often we have attempted to separate theology from history or biblical scholarship from theology. I am not sure how possible it is to do.

Personally, even with my Masters the more "I know" the less I know that I know. In some ways it is very freeing for it allows me to be more open and receptive others.

Thanks again for a great discussion and topic.


PS. Someone mentioned Whitehead. Davis Griffin has done a great deal of work on process theology that one may find to be a bit more digestable.

9:17 AM  
Blogger cj said...


Great question. I think I would define orthodoxy rather generally, say, as the consensus doctrines of the Patristic Age embodied in the councils. Or as Calvin said on essential doctrines that constitute a true Church: "For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one, Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God's mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which still do not break the unity of faith." (Institutes IV.1.12)

It's hard to know what "and the like" means here. It certainly included the Resurrection and the Doctrine of the Trinity. And he discounted Rome for an improper understanding of divine mercy. (I would agree with his conclusions about Roman Catholic soteriology, but not about it as a disqualifier where orthodoxy is concerned). I'd want to follow along Calvinesque lines, and say that the ecumenical creeds give us some basic grammatical rules, which while not unchangeable, get the benefit of the doubt as reliable hermeneutical lenses. That is, they offer a summary of the best exegetical conclusions to date.

As to how we maintain orthodoxy in a nonfoundationalist way, I think you're on to something with authoritative interpretive communities. It's interesting to note that while the Church of the first several centuries knew a rich sense of ecclesial unity, they didn't have much of an institutional framework to support it. This might be Emergent's most significant contribution to the Church Catholic. Emergent may remind us that our authority and the ground of our unity is the Word of God, a person, not a principle, precept or proposition. Any attempt to domesticate the Word so that the Word may serve as a "foundation" is doomed.

Barth thought that Roman Catholics and liberal Protestansts were flip sides of the same coin. Both sought in a human point of contact what could only be brought by the Word. For the former it was the church's magisterial authority, for the latter religious experience. But both sought to posses the grounds for faith and obedience, which Barth thought were gifts from God, given objectively in Christ and subjectively in the Spirit; gifts that need to be given again and again, moment by moment.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Nathan Frampton said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Friar Tuck said...

Perhaps foundationalism is passe and does not acurately express reality, but even a web has boundaries. So should theology. A theology without convictions (which is what Tony seems to advocate) is not only irresponsible but dishonest.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Jimmy said...

I don't believe Tony has ever said anything about not having convictions. With respect, that's fairly absurd. It might be that you don't like or do not agree with his convictions, but they are nevertheless printed right on the screen.

As to this whole discussion of dogma/doctrine, etc, I think James McClendon is a serious example of one who is doing theology in a postmodern context, without the use of foundations to justify his 'web.' I think Emergent leaders ought to read him seriously, if for nothing else, as an example of a serious theologian-pastor who put postmodern theological method to practice. In fact, he refers to doctrine as "the practice of doctrine."

If you know nothing of him, please pick up "Witness (vol 3 of 3) and/or "Doctrine (vol 2 of 3)" as serious reading on this subject.

Furthermore, see what I think is perhaps the best work on epistimology through his work "Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism" with James Smith.

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Tony:

I just happened on your weblog so forgive me if this question is too obvious. You are rather strongly against foundationalism, but have you worked through the (what seem to me) very strong arguments against coherentism by Plantinga? (I was thinking of his first Warrant volume and his summary in his second Warrant volume, p.177ff.) Plantinga is always invoked for his critique of classical or strong foundationalism, but he is still a foundationalist because (I think) we all are, unavoidably. Plantinga is a pretty formidable person to ignore. He and Wolterstorff are definitely not post-modernists.

Tim Keller

6:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

Tim: no, I have not yet delved into Plantinga. I know that I'll have to at some point, but right now I'm frantically getting ready for my comprehensive exams.

I do think that it's possible to be a post-foundationalist, even a non-foundationalist. The most promising work in that direction, I think, is the hermeneutical phenomenology of Gadamer and the transversal rationality of Calvin Schrag. Now...if I could just figure out how to put the two of those together...and figure out string theory...

Scott: Do you want to be an historical theologian or a constructive theologian? I want to be the latter.

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My God! My God! All these crazy german theolgian names, doug pagitt abandoning the doctrine of the Trinity, losing our foundation leads to quicksand and mirky swamp. maybe many of you should go to Erwin McManus's Origin Conference this year. He is a radical thinker and we will look back in church history and I bet Erwin won't be abandoning the Trinity. Go Erwin Go!

9:39 PM  
Blogger Jonathon said...

I like what Stanley Hauerwas says about doctrine. He says that doctrine gives a particular community a lens in which to look through in order to understand and know the narrative they are living out of.

What a wonderful and somewhat fluid way to see doctrine.

Cheers and happy new year all,
St Phransus

10:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tony, I think it a little disengenous to label my postion 'foundationalist'...I am not being that at all.

In the previous post I gave a definition for orthodox and dogma. Everyone is dogmatic about something.

I am dogmatic that Jesus is the basis for christianity, would you want to be non dogmatic about that?

So yes there are non negotiables, I would be amaqzed if you said everythintg was negotiable including the above.

Many confuse dogma for doctrine, and I like the Tom Oden process outlined in the early post.

So please don't label me as 'totalisiong' because I want to assert some confessional/creedal beliefs :-)

Whilst lyotard expresses incredulity to met-a narratives he left room for mega narratives. His dispute was not that there were no narratives, but that what we saw as the big piture was not that at all, and there is the possiblility of mega narratives, bigger than the puny stories we come up with.

Within that I want to assert dogmatically that Jesus is the son of God, that is Dogma. Do you think we should abandon even statements/confessions such as those Tony?


12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Plantinga is a foundationalist of sorts, but in my understanding of him, Wolterstorff is not. Jeff Stout argues in Flight From Authority that once you water foundationalism down far enough, the foundationalist vs. non-foundationalist label collapses.

You can say "we shouldn't hold any belief as dogma" without being dogmatic about that statement. To hold a belief as dogma means you are unwilling to consider the possibility that you might be mistaken about that belief. I can say, "I believe I might be mistaken about any one of my beliefs," and as long as I would apply that same judgment to my belief that I might be mistaken ("I might be mistaken that I might be mistaken") then you're being consistently non-dogmatic.
I argue for that here:

The orthodoxy/heresy distinction is a political judgement as much as an intellectual one, and it always has been. In other words, a heretic is anyone who doesn't ascribe to the beliefs in my own version of Christianity that I think are most important. Placing someone outside my own version of Christianity usually involves social power relations as much (or more) than intellectual purity. It would be a lot more productive to drop the orthodox/heresy label altogether and just talk about various versions of Christianity and their respective merits and demerits.

Steve Bush

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the point at which the distinction between foundationalism and non-foundationalism collapses, we should begin speaking of Quinean webs, in which some of our beliefs are more central and thus more protected from revision than others, but every belief, even that 2+2=4, could in theory be denied if drastic enough changes are made throughout the web. That is what Doug was talking about earlier when he said any given belief can be subjected to criticism, but not all our beliefs at the same time.

So perhaps Jesus is resurrected from the dead would be a central belief in one version of Christianity. (Certainly that belief should be more central than any statement about the trinity for most of us). But that doesn't mean that it, or a belief about the trinity, is protected dogmatically. We should always be willing to consider the possibility that our belief in the resurrection or the trinity is mistaken. But considering that possibility doesn't mean rejecting the belief.

Steve Bush

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We also need to clarify terms here a bit. We're not talking about belief so much as understanding. It's more accurate to say that a person's understanding of the Trinity or whatever ought to be open to change. People get nervous when we say "Your belief in the Trinity (or the resurrection or whatever) is not as sure as you think it is." That's when we fall back on foundationalism in an effort to believe something--anything. But it seems to me that what this discussion and the previous discussion on the Trinity are really about is our understanding of theological precepts. Understanding is not really about foundations but about context (ie the web). And we would likely all admit that we don't understand the Trinity or the resurrection or God for that matter, despite our belief in these things. These kinds of conversations are really about reforming our understanding, not eliminating belief.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, if anyone is in the Princeton area (Jan 16-18) and interested in historical explorations of the social and political function of constructing heresies and orthodoxies, this conference should be really good:

Description: This colloquium will explore the ways in which late antique groups and communities defined their own socio-political borders and created secure in-group identities by means of discourses about “heresy” and “heretics.”

Steve Bush

11:41 AM  
Blogger Mitch said...

I want to confirm that the purpose of God's visit to earth in the form of Jesus was to teach us about having loving relationships. Would you agree that this is a good summary?

and ... my goodness but you guys can talk!

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think God "visited earth" to teach anybody anything.

God was incarnate as the man Jesus to address the reality of sin and corruption at a cosmic level. He meant to redeem the whole creation. That means this is about more than human beings and their loving relationships.

Then again, I'm getting that from Athanasius and what did he know? :)

1:16 PM  
Blogger Mitch said...

Word choice; I hope you'll excuse the use of "visit earth" instead of incarnate.

"address the reality of sin and corruption at a cosmic level" ... "redeem the whole creation"

[blink] [blink]

How would the deer react if it knew that there is a soft fleshy human behind those headlights?

8:34 AM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

Jesus' "visit" was not about teaching us to love each other... from the beginning he made it clear that his purpose was to die in order to save us. If one wishes to reduce Jesus' salvific act to merely his teachings then one must also climb up on that cross, the greatest lesson plan ever made... but in essence Jesus took that blow because none of us can or would. I'm assuming, of course, that the Bible is still an acceptable book to bring up in emergent circles. ;)

As for Tony's search for an "open methodology" I cannot quite see how this isn't just another form of deconstructionist philosophy, and, if so, how do you see this breaking the cycle of past deconstruction to arrive at something truly beautiful and great? Is that the goal here or is it not?

The things that are being "taken apart" in post-modernism (itself a child of the deconstructionists) are beautiful things arrived at with no little cost paid, including life itself. What I keep on seeing in the po-mo movement is that individuals have decided that they don't think that "thing" was as beautiful as someone else thinks it is, and, rather than the humble act of conforming oneself to it, decided to break it apart. The violence (I use the term in regards to the turbulence of the assault) being wrought upon the Church by the postmodern movement is as bad or worse than any perceived slights individuals have suffered at the hands of the church... unless the Spanish Inquisition is back in full force. And I will remind you all that I see this as a Western movement by those accustomed to playing with religion and not truly depending on it for life as in cultures where it is illegal to believe in Christ. Substitute your own words for "thing" or "it".

What I keep seeing, hearing, and reading is a revolution of many individuals each with a different axe to grind... how that movement will end up with a coherent (beautiful and great) end result is truly stultyfing to me. What is the goal here? A new orthodoxy? A new dogma? Another heresy? (Haven't they all been tried?)

I like to make the joke about my own decidedly modern denomination (ELCA) that we have this great jewel of a theology... a beautiful boat if you will... that we have built... but we can never quite get it in the water and see it truly work. I think that pomo's aren't even going to get the boat built... or it will be some monstrosity of a thing with a rudder in one place, a wing in another place, a wheel sticking out of the hood, the roof where the floor should be... a whole lot of work on something that just don't float.

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, would you be willing to say that there is something beautiful in the act of building the boat? That it's possible to find beauty in the process as well as the end result? It's a deeply erroneous claim to say that the po-mo movement is all about deconstruction. While there are certainly those who practice post-modern theology in such a way, they are no more representative of what it means to consider life from a postmodern perspective than your ELCA church is of all Lutherans everywhere. The point of talking about these things is talking about them. There is something good and inherently godly about taking faith seriously enough that it matters how we talk about it. The beautiful theologies you speak of came about because someone dared to explore the language of previous theologies and create something deeper and more meaningful. Why is it a problem for people in this age to do the same? Maybe some of it will stick, maybe none of it will, but it seems like our calling as God's thoughtful, creative people is to always be open to re-considering what has come before and wrestling with where it takes us from here. Carla

5:17 PM  
Blogger Deer said...

(it's me, Mitch)

I'm still staring at something incomprehensible, not that you don't make sense, but that I'm not making sense out of you; which could mean that you don't make sense, which I'm inclined to believe on the one hand, while on the other hand I know just how slow I can be.


In any case, this is how a deer reacts when he sees that humans possess the source of light by which he is entranced.

You are not saying that Jesus didn't teach anything. But you did just say that His purpose was not to teach. I read the same from Anastasia. But it is not even this that I would object. I object to the use of language that is so cryptic that even I can't understand it. The light I'm staring at is your use of language.

The light that comes from God, in this context, is the Word of God which is truth. The language we use to express God's truth is our own.

It seems to me that Jesus has become a magic wand by which salvation is produced. We've turned Jesus into a magic wand! God does not need to wave a wand to make things happen and Jesus is not a wand. God only needs to make you a witness to His reality, and if he has to offer up his perfect Son to death in order for you to wake up to reality then that is what He is willing to do.

Even in death Jesus was teaching. At the very least you learned the truth of Jesus' words: that He is the path to salvation. His purpose was to teach of His Father's saving grace.

Does this not make more sense to you then the following phrases?

"address the reality of sin and corruption at a cosmic level"
"redeem the whole creation"
"his purpose was to die in order to save us."

4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

two things:
1) regarding negotiables and non-negotiables in the Christian faith: certaintly one must find the place of Christ within the Christian tradition. this is ultimaely a Christological question. One must establish a christology, albeit negotiable, before entering into dialogue.

2) Tony - you say that one must be willing to negotiate anything and everything before entering dialogue and you ernestly question Jason on this. Yes, you and Jason are both right. One must be vulnerable in genuine dialogue, yet at the same time, one must stand somewhere and be confident in where he or she stands. For what is inter-relgious dialogue, or any dialogue for that matter, if the Christian ceases to be Christian, or the Buddhist ceases to be buddhist?

my two points here are somewhat blended: 1) this whole issue hinges on Christology (i.e. it is a Christological question) and 2) that Christology determines where one stands and how far he or she will be willing to negotiate that Christology.

This issue has been dealt with extensively within the ongoing conversation on religious pluralism and the uniqeness of Christ. Check out thinkers such as Ernst Troeltsch, Karl Rahner, John Hick, P.F. Knitter, Shubert Ogden, Lagdon Gilkey, Schillebeeckx, W.C. Smith, John Cobb, Gavin D'Costa, etc....although it may not be directly related to this issue, it really is in that it addresses the problematic of engaging in genuine dialogue in a "postmodern" pluralist world. enjoy.....

9:31 PM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

Yes, I'm sure there is something beautiful in the act of building the boat but that just brings me back to my original point months and months ago... is the point just that people in my generation can't stand the thought of actually receiving transferred theology and understanding from those who came before us? In that case it's kind of like saying, "No thanks folks, we'll do it ourselves... OHHH look, our boat looks just like grandma's over there."

What's the point? And is talking to each other going to spread the good news?

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

chris, you said it. emergent is not new. it may be new to the north american evangelical tradition from which it is growing out of. But you are right, the emergent folks will eventually end up with a boat that looks more Catholic than protestant. and this, my friends, is not a bad thing. The Catholics will look at the emerging "boat" and say, "good morning, welcome back."

10:10 PM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

Oooh, now THAT'S provacative

4:40 PM  
Blogger Chris Enstad said...

Your search for an open methodology, does this happen to also be connected to the "open theology" debates in evangelical circles? In other words, in the drive to be open to new alternatives for the future is the assumption that God, too, is open to new alternatives in the future?

4:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home