Last week, Prof. Webster led the systematic theology students in a discussion of the key terms and concepts of Systematic Theology. Dr. Webster had previously given us a copy of his essay, “Introduction to Systematic Theology” from the Oxford Handbook to Systematic Theology, in order that we might use it as the launching pad for discussion in our seminar. Throughout our time together, we developed more than a few questions concerning the task and method of the systematic theologian, but it was the issue of correlation that perked my interest.
Any systematic treatment of a given theology will undoubtedly lean toward either an internal or external orientation. One will either attempt to answer questions set forth by something or someone outside of the church, or one will attempt to positively profess what the church believes concerning God and the world. No one would doubt that Pannenberg’s Systematics are categorically different from Barth’s Dogmatics. It is my opinion that two principles concerning this division must be explained and concretized in order to fully expose the relationship between these two modes of Systematic Theology: 1) The division is helpful because both orientations are necessary, and 2) the division is gray, for the assumed separation of church and world that is presupposed underneath the dichotomy is fundamentally structured by a certain theological assumption.
First, I will address the positive aspect of the division between correlational and non-correlational theologies. In one sense, the split is obvious. Tillich clearly saw the difference between his own theological endeavors and those of Barth. It is fairly obvious that the rejection of liberal Protestantism by Barth and other post-liberals is precisely a rejection of (at least a specific kind of) correlationism. It is impossible to make sense of this historical movement without such a division. In this way, it is helpful to demarcate between two opposing sides of theology when each has a very different theological telos in view.
In addition, it is also noteworthy that not all correlational theologies fall under the Barthian critique (or the Feuerbachian critique, to be more precise). I do not think it is fair to judge every engagement with systematic theology based upon a self-same principle. It is, in fact, possible for different theologies to have distinctive traits that are geared for a unique purpose. For instance, to argue that Jenson’s Systematics are fundamentally lacking in utility for the church because of their speculative and creative character is to neglect the illocutionary challenge to the church’s lukewarm, de-radicalized view of God that is part of Jenson’s work. Likewise, to dismiss Pannenberg as a “correlationist”, or a “modernist”, similarly neglects its own telos: namely, to bring every area of human thought under the discipline of Christ. A churchly dogmatics (like Prof. Webster’s own) should be judged on the merits of how well it informs and leads the church theologically; a speculative theology should be judged on the merits of how well it challenges the blind spots of the church with the radicality of the gospel; and an apologetical theology should be judged on the merits of how well it engages with the world’s discourse without compromising the content of the gospel. To disregard this charge is to miss the church’s (and theology’s) holistic mission.
In contrast to the utility of Tillich’s dichotomy, I tend to think that the bifurcation between correlational and non-correlational theologies breaks down upon closer scrutiny. It is my opinion that no theology is truly “non-correlational”, no matter how much it wishes to be so. It is simply a MacIntyrean question of “whose correlation?” A critical reading of any theological text will expose the philosophical underpinnings of its claims.
For example, Karl Barth is generally considered the wellspring of non-correlationist leanings in theology, yet his earlier dialectical theology is firmly placed within the logic of “crisis” prevalent in the existentialism of the then-contemporary philosophy of the Continent, and his more mature work was heavily influenced by what Barth himself called “a little bit of Hegeling”. Likewise, John Milbank’s strong-willed rejection of correlationism within liberal (and conservative) Protestantism’s alliance with “secular” social science is firmly, and admittedly, rooted in a Christianized Neo-Platonic ontology of methexis. Even the “plain sense reading of Scripture” that characterizes American evangelical hermeneutics is fundamentally built upon the common-sense philosophy of Thomas Reid and the other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. Ultimately, there is no way to escape some kind of correlation within theology. Theologians will always be using the terms set by the world’s discourse. Even some of the New Testament writers themselves were fond of utilizing the conceptuality of the Hellenistic period of 1st century Judaism for their own purposes (as D.B. Hart is fond of pointing out). Nevertheless, this does not lead to a kind of theological fatalism. The key is not whether or not to correlate, but in what way.
In the example of the use of the term ousia in the early ecumenical councils, we have a definite instance of correlational theology. However, it is the fact that the doctors of the church used the terms given by the milieu for their own purposes that fashioned their unique character. When the Nicene fathers chose the term ousia, they were taking an already existing term and metaphorizing it, that is, placing it in a new context (where it wasn’t thought to belong) in order to give it new meaning. This is what I think good correlational theology does. As long as our use of already existing terminology is guided theologically, then we will be able to correlate effectively.