In What is Theology?, McClendon begins by emphasizing the agonistic character of the theological enterprise. For McClendon, theology is always a struggle, both inward and out. Specifically, this tension can be found in McClendon’s own theological forbears, the radical reformers. The main task of theology, then, is to carefully look back at what made the Anabaptists so radical despite their ever-enduring pacifism. In this way, we might compare their situation with ours, creating for ourselves a new future based upon the past that is theirs.
The first characteristic of theology is conviction. Convictions, for McClendon, are beliefs committed to by either an individual or community, and the critical reflection on the rest of reality on the basis of these convictions. Therefore, theology is both descriptive (laying out convictions) and normative (critical reflection). Unfortunately, according to McClendon, the Baptist heritage has generally betrayed this normative task, whether by force of circumstance or by brute choice. Accordingly, it is the task of the contemporary Baptist theologian to fill in this gap in three movements: 1) finding and focusing upon a theological center, that vision which gives light and life to all else; 2) engaging with the resources of the narrative of one’s tradition; and 3) setting of this task through the avenue of ethics.
For the Baptist, these communal convictions include strong commitment toward Biblicism, mission, liberty, discipleship, and community. However, there is not one of these that can singularly encompass the whole set, for that distinction belongs to the nature of this church as simultaneous with both the church of the New Testament as well as the eschatological church. The ‘this is that’ motto, according to McClendon, is a distinctly biblical gesture akin to Peter’s likening of Pentecost to the prophecy of Joel. This is no ontology, however, as only a poetic or mystical description will do: this very church simply is the church of the Scriptures, and so she must understand and situate herself accordingly.
With this ultimate horizon intact, the theologian must then engage in the normative task, and this vocation has distinctions: pluralism (all theology is situational and contextual), narrativity (the context of the present church must be hermeneutically linked to the narrative of the Scriptures), rationality (the dealings of the theologian with the received tradition, reforming it so as to create new possibilities for the present), and self-involvement (the self-inflicting consequences of these theological tasks).
Of course, all of this begs the question of the methodology of the theological enterprise. Much of Christian history has seen ‘foundations-doctrine-ethics’ as the proper ordering of systematics, but McClendon offers a different view (although Protestants such as Schleiermacher and Barth understood it as well): all three of these are distinct nodal points, all of which presuppose each other equally. Logically, there is no proper order. However, chronologically, it is the Christian task to engage first in ethics – the transformation of a life that then further transforms the intellect of both the community and the individual.
Personally, I don’t really get the whole “the desire to speak first of God and then of ethics is an Enlightenment ideal” argument. McClendon even accuses Barth of failing to make the proper post-liberal move (i.e., for McClendon, rejecting foundationalism) by still holding on to an unshakeable foundation (revelation). I think there’s something to be said of this critique (at least through Bonheoffer’s accusation of the positivism of much of CD I), but surely it is naïve to equate classical liberalism with an epistemological theory like classical foundationalism! To me, McClendon’s use of ordinary language philosophy (Austin et al) combined with the relativism he gets from Quine transforms his theology into a very specifically American theology. Not that contextualism is a vice (as Jenson would say, is there any other kind of theology?), but it seems kind of anachronistic to accuse the theological tradition of failing to engage in a speech-act analysis of their theological claims.