Sunday, February 22, 2009
Vanhoozer on Theological Method
My advice to systematic theology students in the Evangelical Tradition is to read Vanhoozer as much as they can. He shows that doing theology needs to take into account hermeneutics, speech-act theory, postmodern objections to foundatonalist epistemology, the canon, and critical engagement with Barth. In his essay "The Apostolic Discourse and its Developments" (note the echo of C.H. Dodd) in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible Vanhoozer narrates his experience in theological method.
"Once upon a time, if asked what in the New Testament was authoritative, I would have replied, 'Revelation.' (On this point, thomists, evangelicals, and Barthians all agree, though they parse 'revelation' differently.) Theology's task, I thought was the extraction of propositional revelation or truth from Scripture and its consequent organization into a consistent conceptual system. Two pictures - one of Scripture as revelation and one of theology as a two-stage process, from descriptive exegesis ('what it meant') to a normative dogmatics ('what it means'') - held me captive. Scripture is not simply a propositional shaft to be exegetically mined and theologically refined like so much textual dross to be purified into systems of philosophy or morality On the contrary, both the form and content of the New Testament are elemetns in the divine drama of revelation and redemption".
I concur here. Some systematicians who have drunk at the well of rationalism proceed in the theological task as if God (by either folly or due to human weakness) gave revelation most unfortunatley in different genres: Law-code, narrative, prophecy, Proverbs, Gospels, Epistles, and Apocalypse. We can navigate our way around this unfortunate circumstance by translating this genred revelation into proposition statements of truths to be believed. For example, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, wrote: "In demonstration, in council, and all rigorous search of truth, sometimes does all; except sometimes the understanding have need to be opened by some apt similitude, and then there is so much use of fancy. But for metaphors, they are in this case utterly excluded. For seeing they openly profess deceit, to admit them into council, or reasoning, were manifest folly." In other words, metaphors are a stupid means of conveying truth (and that probably goes for playwrites as much for God). Yet, our theology should take into account not only the propositional cohere of what God says in Scripture, but also the how of God's self-communication. In other words, form and genre are equally important in our analysis of the divine discourse. Indeed perhaps our theology (and even our preaching) should convey not only what God says, but also how he says it. I tell my students, if you're preaching narrative material then preach narratively; if you're preaching topical material, preach inductively/proverbially; if you're preaching didactic material, then preach deductively/didactically. The same holds for theology does it not? Yet I would add that Alister McGrath has shown the viability of a cognitivist-propositional approach to theology and thus we need not yield to the oldYale crowd with their narrative theology?
On the Two-step mechanism - what it meat to what it means - I admit that this is problematic given the nature of pre-understanding, however, I'm not sure if Vanhoozer's "dance" is necessarily the best option or even the intuition we have in doing theology. Vanhoozer cites Gilbertson's book on exegesis and theology on the Book of Revelation as an example of this, and this is a good book I have reviewed elsewhere and comment on the subject.