I love multiview books. I find them generally enlightening, filling in details about views I don’t hold (and sometimes didn’t even know existed) while also showing how my own view (or one like it) stacks up against others. Evangelical Theological Method: Five Views presents a multiview book on doing theology as an evangelical.* I found it to be highly informative, though I was somewhat perplexed by some aspects of the book.
The views presented here as different theological methods for evangelicals are “Bible Doctrines/Conservative Theology” presented by Sung Wook Chung, “Missional Theology” presented by John R. Franke, “Interdisciplinary Theology” presented by Telford C. Work, “Contextual Theology” presented by Victor Ifeanyi Ezigbo, and “Trinitarian Dogmatic Theology” presented by Paul Louis Metzger.
The Bible Doctrines view is essentially grounded in the notion that we use the Bible as a source to draw information from and then outline what the Bible teaches. The Bible is the data, theology is presenting and systematizing that data. Chung appeals to the historical grammatical view in support of this, arguing that while history and textual criticism may provide some correctives, the core is to ask “what does the Bible teach” and end the discussion there. The missional view does theology with a focus on the church lived/living its mission to make disciples of all nations. Thus, it is an inherently practical theology, looking to apply what the Bible teaches to the mission of Christ’s church. Interdisciplinary theology is an approach that utilizes any field of study, making theology the “queen of the sciences” while integrating insight from biology, psychology, literary studies, and more. Interestingly, Work does a case study based on homosexuality and Christianity, arguing that the question is not “Is homosexuality wrong” but rather what kind of people we ought to try to be to conform to the image of Christ. Contextual theology seeks to make the Gospel of Christ understandable and appealing to all people not by applying a one-size-fits all doctrinal mold or practice but rather by utilizing insights from cultures that exist to show the truth of Christ. The Trinitarian Dogmatic Theology chapter was the most difficult in the book, utilizing themes from Barth (along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer an Colin Gunton) to draw out a dogmatic theology for Christianity.
There is some clear overlap between a few of these views, particularly the missional/contextual view and the “Bible Doctrines”/Trinitarian views. The responses at the end of the book didn’t allow individual authors to respond back to the responses, something I did miss. It would have been nice to see, for example, I’d be curious to see how Ezigbo might respond to Chung on the challenge he offered to contextual theology and the possibility of syncretism or the authority of Scripture.
Ezigbo’s essay struck me as particularly insightful, and his responses were perhaps the best in the book. His challenge to Metzger, for example, is on point: “Clearly Metzger exhibits the characteristics of theologians whose theological reflections focus primarily on peer-driven questions… One could only wonder what Metzger’s study of Barth would like like if his aim were to discern Barth’s relevance to the contemporary christological questions that Christians with no formal theological education are asking today” (181-182). Ezigbo notes that he isn’t saying that peer-driven questions are irrelevant, “but if theologians expect their theological reflections to benefit all Christians… they should seek to develop skills and the patience required to exegete the… contexts that shape the life of Christians and their communities” (182). I found this a clear challenge for myself as well, as one who is very interested in the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. How do we ensure as people doing and discussing theology that our discussions actually have relevance? Of course, one could argue more abstractly that if Barth’s dogmatics are true, then in the broadest sense they are relevant for all people, no matter how obscure, in that truth impacts reality. But that seems cold comfort when the challenge is much more personal: why should Barth’s insights matter to me? It’s food for thought, I think.
One thing that was only addressed in passing by a few of the authors was the strangeness of seeing theological method as an either/or. As a good Lutheran, I love me some ‘both-and.’ It seems to me, as a reader, that these methods could each benefit from one another, and that trying to practice one exclusively would be detrimental. Dogmatics need context. Interdisciplinary studies need some mission. The Bible Doctrines approach could probably stand to acknowledge some of the inherent concerns there (eg. a tendency to assume that one’s own presuppositions of the text or “plain sense” reading is, in fact, correct, despite possible evidence to the contrary).
I found Evangelical Theological Method: Five Views to be a very interesting book, and one which raises many avenues for further research. Those interested in systematic theology, especially, ought to pick it up to read through it. The authors provide some challenges for each of the approaches in the book, and it is important that we do not become too simplistic in our working out of theology.
*I am a Lutheran (specifically of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and although my denomination has “evangelical” in the name, Lutherans are generally different from what is considered broadly evangelical views, particularly in regard to the sacraments. Though, to be fair, Lutherans were the first to identify “evangelical” as a term to call themselves. I give this caveat to show my own outlook on the book.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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