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Last Friday, Dr. John Webster led our seminar in a discussion of theological method, or, more precisely, why there is no such thing as a theological method (at least, not a theological method that is not properly already theological). In a word, so-called theological method is genealogically theory-laden. A good critical investigation into any supposed prolegomena to systematic theology will be innately beholden to a certain philosophy or theology. It is the Christian theologian’s task to be sure that his foundations are proper to the basic assumptions of the gospel. To this I couldn’t agree more. In fact, it reminds me of the introduction in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, where the prolegomena is a polemic against the assumed need for polegomenas! At any rate, let us be on to the rest of the discussion.

Dr. Webster began our class by pointing out that the classic split of theological discourse into four sub-disciplines (systematic, historical, practical, and biblical) was mainly the product of modernity. This often leads to the unhelpful notion that three of these disciplines are basically theoretical (systematic, historical, biblical) and that the fourth is the solely practical discipline, divesting the former three of any interest for the church community, and placing them into the ivory-tower of pure rational discourse.

From here, we entered into the discussion of the day’s text, Hutter’s The Directedness of Reasoning and the Metaphysics of Creation. One of the first topics we broached was that of the use of Wittgensteinian grammatical analysis in regards to theology. Dr. Webster concluded that, while such an analytic discourse was helpful in critically explicating Christian discourse, it seemed to be wanting in its foundation. It is as though the post-liberal theologians doing theology in Wittgensteinian fashion are able to speak at length about the church and its practice without the person of God being invoked as foundational. I have found this to be a pointed critical reflection on many of the Yale school theologians, and I also find such a symptom to be of detriment to any robust theology, as it seems to end in Feuerbach’s charge of anthropomorphism. However, I find in the work of Rowan Williams a theologian who is able to combine a Barthian emphasis on the foundationality of the Triune God in Christian discourse as well as a stress on the grammaticality of Christian practice and speech. I think it can be said that the person and work of God are absolutely necessary for the Christian community’s grammar to take shape, and that, therefore, it is not compulsive of the post-liberal method of theology to be reductively anthropocentric.

The rest of our discussion seemed to center on the state of theology within the academy today. Dr. Webster seemed to perceive a strict dissimilarity between the way the academy thinks of theology, and the way theology thinks of itself (or, at least, how it should). Secular hermeneutical tools are understood to be primary, and theological tools are solely for the use of its own project (i.e. they cannot be translated into other discourses). The instrumentality of reason is understood to be ultimately foundational, while God is, at best, penultimate for both theology as well as the other disciplines. At the end of the day, in the academy only public acts (low level human activities) are permitted, while spiritual acts are understood to be private, and not an academic matter. This is a wholly unnecessary bifurcation between natural and theological ways of speaking and naming. This assumes a belief that reason only operates toward the finite (which ends in the eternal return, and nihilism), and never towards the infinite and transcendent. While I understand the critique leveled both by Dr. Webster and Hutter here, I hesitate to give the argument its full weight for two reasons: one theoretical and the other experimental.

First, it seems as though this critique is quite similar to the model set forth by the Radical Orthodoxy school. In this manner of thinking, there is a first-order theology that sets the tone for all other academic inquiry (a meta-discipline), and a second order theology that is on equal terms with the other academic disciplines. This places the crown back onto the head of theology, the renewed queen of the sciences. The reason I find the idea of a theological meta-discipline problematic is because this method seems (at least historically) to privilege metaphysical talk over against the historical in regards to God and Christ. While I know that such a grouping together of diverse theologies in this manner is hasty, it seems to me that this symptom is somewhat unavoidable. While it is unquestionable that theology must find its basic theoretical assumptions within its own language, I do not think it is helpful to force this upon the other academic disciplines.

In addition, I find this notion of the theologically-based academy to often-times be a horror in real life. My undergraduate institution practiced exactly this methodology. Theology set the table, and science, mathematics, history, and business all sat down to eat. All of the second order disciplines were quickly and routinely bastardized of all of their individual content, turning classes into Sunday school lessons in how to do things evangelically. While I understand this to be principally symptomatic of American evangelicalism, I have found that it takes an unworldly amount of self-critical reflection to hold to a first-order theology within the academy and remain a worthwhile academic. Perhaps I need to see better examples of this ideal academy fleshed out, or perhaps the problem is, in fact, systemic. This is something I need to think about more, and something I believe the theological academic must come to grips with alongside the church community.