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Conversing in Christian style: toward a Baptist theological method for the postmodern context (1).

The closing two decades of the twentieth century have been marked by spirited theological engagement among theologians in North America who either speak unabashedly as Baptists or who, while writing for a wider audience, are nevertheless affiliated with Baptist congregations. One sign of this spirited engagement is the number of systematic theologies that have emerged from the pens of Baptist academic theologians hovering either side of retirement. Notable examples include Dale Moody, (2) Millard Erickson, (3) James William McClendon, (4) Gordon Lewis, (5) and James Leo Garrett, (6) all of whom set themselves to the task of producing crystallizations of the systematic theological reflections that occupied them during their teaching careers. To this list could be added Baptist theologians such as Carl Henry, Clark Pinnock, and Frank Tupper, who have not produced complete systematic-theological distillations of their thought but have nevertheless produced works during these two decades that set the theological agenda for others.

Equally significant, however, has been the number of next-generation Baptists, theologians in their forties, who during the past two decades took up the task of composing their own one-volume systematic theologies (7) or who have entered the theological conversation on less auspicious terms. These thinkers, who are too numerous to list, represent a broad theological spectrum within Baptist life. Despite the great diversity within the theological scene that these thinkers represent, one reoccurring theme seems to be emerging among nearly all of these voices. Baptist theologians, like their counterparts in other traditions, are increasingly concerned with the question as to what might mark an appropriate response to the contemporary context, which for want of a better term is generally characterized as postmodern. (8)

Postmodernism is a notoriously slippery word that defies definitive description, for it designates a highly complex phenomenon encompassing a variety of elements. (9) Whatever else it may mean, however, the situation is--as the designation itself suggests--"post-modern." The postmodern ethos is on the one hand modern; it retains the modern. Rather than calling for a return to some premodern situation, the postmodern outlook accepts the Enlightenment, especially its elevation of skeptical rationality. On the other hand, the postmodern ethos is post modern; it sees the dangers inherent in the very skeptical rationality it accepts. For this reason, it seeks to live in a realm of chastened rationality.

One dimension of this chastened rationality is the transition from a realist to a constructionist view of truth and the world. (10) Postmodern philosophers assert that rather than viewing the world as an objective given from an Archimedean vantage point, humans structure their world through the concepts they bring to it. All human languages, these thinkers add, are human social conventions that map the world in a variety of ways depending on the context of the speaker. As a result, no simple, one-to-one relationship exists between language and the world. Nor can any single description provide an accurate "map" of the world.

The chastened rationality that typifies postmodernism is evident as well by the "loss of the metanarrative" and the advent of "local" stories. Postmodern philosophers point out that not only have the grand narratives of scientific progress that legitimated modern society lost their credibility and power (11); the idea of a grand narrative is itself no longer credible. As Jean-Francois Lyotard stated tersely in his description of The Postmodern Condition, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives." (12) Nevertheless, narratives still function in the postmodern world. But these narratives are "local" rather than universal. That is, the narratives that postmoderns consider legitimate are the stories of particular peoples, that is, the myths that lie at the genesis of human communities and provide the transcendent legitimization to particular societies.

The goal of this essay is to suggest the contours of a theological method that I believe holds promise for engaging theologically--as Christians in general and as Baptists in particular--with the postmodern situation. To this end, I note first the shift to a postfoundationalist epistemology and its implications for theology. I then describe postmodern theology as a conversation involving the perichoretic dance of Scripture, tradition, and culture. Finally, the essay concludes with a sketch of the triad of motifs that I believe ought to form our theology in the postmodern context.

Postmodern Theology As a Postfoundationalist Theology

Connected to the demise of philosophical realism characteristic of the postmodern situation has been the undermining of the older foundationalist model of epistemology. This philosophical turn carries far-reaching implications for theology. Specifically, the loss of foundationalism in philosophy calls into question the reigning foundationalist theological method, suggesting that theologians must come to terms with--even appropriate--the nonfoundationalist or postfoundationalist (13) turn.

Beyond Philosophical Foundationalism

In the modern era, Protestant theology was deeply influenced by the Enlightenment problematic, as well as the solutions proposed by thinkers in the Age of Reason. At the heart of the Enlightenment outlook was a specific understanding of the nature of human knowledge known as "foundationalism." And central to the foundationalist agenda is the desire to find some means of grounding the entire edifice of human knowledge on invincible certainty. (14) According to foundationalists, the acquisition of knowledge ought to proceed in a manner somewhat similar to the construction of a building. Like a physical edifice, knowledge must be built upon a sure foundation. The preferred Enlightenment epistemological foundation consists of either a set of incontestable beliefs or of unassailable first principles on the basis of which the pursuit of knowledge can proceed. These basic beliefs or first principles are supposedly universal, context-free, and available, at least theoretically, to any rational person. With this concern to establish some type of sure foundation for the human knowing project the Enlightenment thinkers assumed a realist metaphysic and evidenced a strong preference for the correspondence theory of truth, i.e., the epistemological outlook that focuses on the truth value of individual propositions and declares an assertion to be "true" if and only if--or to the extent that--it corresponds with some supposed "fact" in the real, objective world. (15)

The concerns of Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers spilled over the boundaries of the philosophical guild. Soon theologians, swooning under the foundationalist spell, found themselves refashioning the theological edifice in accordance with the newly devised rationalist method. In the nineteenth century, the foundationalist impulse led to the division of theology in North America into the right-left dichotomy, as liberals constructed theology on the foundation of an unassailable religious experience and conservatives looked to an error-free Bible as the incontrovertible foundation for their theological edifice.

Today, however, foundationalism no longer commands the broad, unquestioned acceptance it once enjoyed. In fact, among philosophers, it is in dramatic retreat. (16) Actually, foundationalism has been under attack for nearly a hundred years. At the turn of the twentieth century, two philosophical alternatives to the reigning foundationalist epistemology emerged almost simultaneously: coherentism and pragmatism.

At the heart of coherentism is the suggestion that the justification for a belief lies in its "fit" with other held beliefs; (17) hence, justification entails "inclusion within a coherent system," to cite the words of the early twentieth-century philosopher, Arthur Kenyon Rogers. (18) Coherentists reject the foundationalist assumption that a justified set of beliefs necessarily comes in the form of an edifice resting on a base. In their estimation, the base/superstructure distinction is erroneous, for no beliefs are intrinsically basic, and none is intrinsically superstructure. (19) Instead, beliefs are interdependent, each belief being supported by its connection to its neighbors and ultimately to the whole. (20) Despite this shift in emphasis, many modern coherentists remain committed to the quest for epistemological certainty, while acknowledging that rather than a present reality, absolute justification of beliefs belongs to the realm of the ideal. Thus, the coherentist move away from foundationalism entailed a shift not only from the part to the whole, but also from the actual to the ideal.

Turn-of-the-twentieth-century coherentists were joined in their critique of foundationalism by the pragmatists. William James, for example, explicitly advocated the connection between truth and the epistemological process that was implicit in Charles Peirce. For the pragmatist James, "The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events." (21)

If coherentism and pragmatism provided ways to leave behind the foundationalist preference for the correspondence theory of truth, the "turn to linguistics" offered the means to overcome metaphysical realism. Significant for the quest for a nonfoundationalist epistemology via a turn to linguistics was the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). In a sense, Wittgenstein completed the shift toward belief systems and the communal dimension of truth pioneered by the coherentists and the pragmatists. Like the move to coherence or pragmatism, adopting the image of "language games" entailed abandoning the correspondence theory of truth. But unlike that earlier move it also opened the door for the jettisoning of metaphysical realism.

Theology after Foundationalism

The Enlightenment quest for certitude served as a powerful molder of theology in the modern era. In recent years, however, several theologians have been looking to the insights of nonfoundationalist philosophers in an effort to recast theology after the demise of foundationalism.

Perhaps none has exemplified more clearly the application to theology of the noncorrespondence epistemological theories of the modern coherentists and pragmatists than Wolfhart Pannenberg. (22) At the heart of Pannenberg's theological agenda is the task of demonstrating the internal coherence of the doctrines and the external coherence of Christian doctrine with all human knowledge. For Pannenberg, the goal of theology is to demonstrate the unity of truth in God, that is, to bring all human knowledge together in our affirmation of God. Or stated in another way, theology seeks to show how the postulate of God illumines all human knowledge. (23)

Pannenberg draws from a coherentist approach in his attempt to carve out a theological method that is nonfoundational, yet committed to a type of realist metaphysic. What would theology look like if it not only rejected the primacy of the correspondence theory of truth, but sought to follow Wittgenstein and move beyond realism as well? The well-known program outlined by George Lindbeck provides a clue. For him, church doctrines are primarily rules for theological speech or "God-talk," rather than actual assertions about God. (24) Hence, they make "intrasystematic" truth- claims. (25) Doctrines are "true" primarily as "parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting." (26) His "third way" leads Lindbeck to call for an "intratextual theology" which "redescribes reality within the scriptural framework" and aims at "imaginatively incorporating all being into a Christ-centered world." (27) This theology draws from the text to explore what it means to articulate and live out the community's vision within a specific time and place. (28) Similar to Pannenberg, Lindbeck concludes that to this end, the theologian expounds the doctrinal core or framework of the Christian faith, determines that it coheres within itself, and indicates how doctrine illumines human existence.

Recently, several Christian philosophers have sought to advance the work of the coherentists and the pragmatists with the goal of reconstructing a new type of philosophical foundation within the postmodern context. These thinkers, sometimes labeled the "Reformed epistemologists" (especially Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff) reject classical foundationalism while not rejecting the basic foundationalist insight. Their alternative emerges as a response to the question as to what--if anything--might be deemed basic for Christian theology. More specifically, they ask, Do theological reflection and construction build on something that we must presuppose? For the answer, these philosophers, following the general nonfoundationalist approach, point to the believing community.

The communitarian turn evident in the Reformed epistemologists provides a helpful insight. It views Christian theology as an activity of the community that gathers around Jesus the Christ. And this, in turn, has far-reaching implications for Baptist theology. Whatever differences they may express, Baptists--like their cousins who together comprise the wider evangelical coalition--generally share a common vision as to what it means to be the Christ-focused community. To be Christians, we declare, entails being encountered savingly in Jesus Christ by the God of the Bible. This encounter is an identity-producing event. Through Christ, God constitutes us individually as believers and corporately as a community of faith. As a result, Baptists--like all evangelicals--are a story-telling people; we readily recite our "personal testimonies"--narratives that recount our historical and ongoing personal encounter with God. And these are cast in the categories drawn from the biblical narrative, as well as its explication in the didactic sections of Scripture. We have come to see the story of God's action in Christ as the paradigm for our stories, and as a result we share an identity-constituting narrative.

The nonfoundationalist communitarian-narrative perspective suggests that the specifically Christian experience-facilitating interpretative framework, arising as it does out of the biblical narrative, is in a sense "basic" for Baptist (and evangelical) theology. This, in turn, provides a helpful vantage point from which to understand the nature and task of theology. Theology becomes an intellectual enterprise by and for the Christian community, in which the community of those whom the God of the Bible has encountered in Jesus Christ seeks to understand, clarify, and determine the community's interpretive framework as informed by the narrative of the action of this God on behalf of all creation as revealed in the Bible. Theology, however, does not delineate this interpretive framework with the assumption that it resides as a given within the community as a particular visible, institutional reality. The task of theology is not purely descriptive (as is perhaps the case in Schleiermacher's view), but prescriptive. The theologian seeks to articulate what ought to be the interpretive framework of the Christian community.

Viewed from a postfoundationalist perspective, Christian doctrine comprises a "web of belief" or a "mosaic." Theology, in turn, is the articulation of the cognitive "mosaic" of the Christian faith (in which, of course, some pieces are more central to the "picture" and others are more peripheral). This mosaic consists of the interlocking beliefs that together comprise the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This world view is truly theological and specifically Christian, because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible and the biblical narrative of God at work bringing creation to its divinely destined goal. Not only does the theological task entail explicating this mosaic, but as Wolfhart Pannenberg has argued, it also includes demonstrating the explicative power of the Christian faith by indicating the interconnectedness of the set of beliefs and the value of the Christian world view for illuminating human experience as well as our human understanding of our world. In short, viewed from a postfoundationalist perspective, theology is a second-order conversation which seeks to serve the mission of church understood as a people who proclaim and live out the biblical narrative of God's saving action in Christ through the Spirit.

Postmodern Theology As a Conversation

A theology that seeks to be responsive to, and to take seriously, postmodern sensitivities after the demise of foundationalism views itself as a conversation. This theological construction may be characterized as an ongoing conversation we share as participants in the faith community as to the meaning of the cultural symbols-including sacred texts, language, rituals and practices--through which we express our understanding of the world we inhabit. This constructive theological conversation requires the interplay, or perichoretic dance, of three sources of insight.

The "Norming Norm" of the Theological Conversation

At the heart of Baptist theology is the Bible; we are indeed a "people of the book." In the modern era, however, a misreading of sola scriptura has led some theologians--against Luther's own intentions--to trade the ongoing reading of the text for their own systematic delineation of the doctrinal deposit that was supposedly encoded in its pages centuries ago. In this manner, the Bible is all-too-readily transformed from a living text into the object of our exegetical and systemizing prowess.

Here, we as Baptists can learn from the Reformation that cradled our movement. More particularly we could do no better than to take our cue from the insightful statement of the Protestant principle of authority found in the Westminster Confession: "The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of counsels, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other than the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." (29) By bringing Scripture and Spirit together, this statement suggests the sense in which the Bible is the norming norm in theology.

As the Westminster statement indicates, Scripture carries this lofty position in that it is the instrumentality of the Spirit. Borrowing insights from contemporary speech-act theory leads to the conclusion that the Bible is the instrumentality of the Spirit in that the Spirit appropriates the biblical text so as to speak to us today. Through Scripture the Spirit performs the illocutionary act of addressing us. This address can take several forms, in keeping with the manifold diversity of writings that constitute the Bible. (30) The Pauline statement to Timothy suggests that through Scripture, the Spirit teaches, reproves, corrects and instructs (2 Tim. 3:16). Also, through the text the Spirit offers divine promises and calls us to respond to the grace available through Christ. The Spirit even informs us as to how we might voice our thoughts, feelings, and emotions to God, as for example in certain of the Psalms.

As important as these dimensions are, however, they are only parts of a larger whole, namely, the goal of the Spirit's speaking. By appropriating the text, the Spirit seeks to perform a particular perlocutionary act. And the specific perlocutionary act the Spirit performs is the creation of "world." As the Life-giver, the divine power at work fashioning the universe, the Spirit creates through the Word a new world, a "centered" world, an eschatological world, a world that finds its cohesion in the Word who is Jesus the Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). And this world consists of a new community comprised of renewed persons.

Through the Bible, the Spirit orients our present on the basis of the past and in accordance with a vision of the future. The Spirit leads the contemporary hearers to view themselves and their situation in the light of God's past and future, and to open themselves and their present to the power of that future, which is already at work in the world. Thereby they are drawn to participate in God's eschatological world. Viewed from this perspective, the task of theology, in turn, is to assist the people of God in hearing the Spirit's voice speaking through the text, so that we can live as God's people as inhabitants of God's eschatological world--in the present world.

The Hermeneutical Trajectory of the Theological Conversation

The Spirit's goal in appropriating the biblical text is to fashion a community that lives the paradigmatic biblical narrative in the contemporary context. The goal of our reading the text, therefore, is to hear the Spirit's voice and to be formed into that community. Consequently, reading the text is a community event.

This idea is not foreign to Baptists. As a people, we elevate the reading and proclamation of Scripture in the local congregational setting. We come to Scripture aware that we are participants in a concrete, visible fellowship of disciples in covenant with each other. In the end, our goal is to hear what the Spirit is saying to this particular congregation and to these particular believers who share together the mandate of being a fellowship of disciples in this specific setting. Hence, we readily agree with the words of the Mennonite theologian Walter Klaassen, "[t]he text can be properly understood only when disciples are gathered together to discover what the Word has to say to their needs and concerns." (31)

Reading within community also means, however, that we approach the text conscious that we are participants in the one faith community that spans the ages. This consciousness involves recognizing the theological heritage--the tradition--within which we stand as contemporary readers of the text.

In Baptist circles, saying the word tradition immediately raises eyebrows. Our heritage as radical Reformers makes us gun-shy of anything that smacks of the medieval Roman Catholic idea of a twofold source of truth. We side wholeheartedly with Luther's elevation of sola scriptura against the position that solidified at the Council of Trent. And we rightly rail against the imposition of any binding authority beyond Scripture on the basis of the great Baptist dictum, "No creed but the Bible." At the same time, Baptists have rarely been adverse to stating their identity in the form of what we like to call "confessions of faith." While neither incumbent on the Christian conscience nor standing on par with the Bible, such statements have repeatedly served as reminders that Baptists stand at the center of Christian orthodoxy. More importantly, they bear witness to the fact that Christians in every generation--Baptists included--read the text through the lenses provided by a particular hermeneutical context.

Understood properly, then, tradition, or better stated traditions, play an important (albeit secondary) role in theology. Like all Christians everywhere, we read the biblical text today conscious that we are part of an ongoing listening community and therefore that we are participants in a hermeneutical trajectory. We are not the first generation since the early church to seek to be formed into the community of Christ in the world. On the contrary, we are the contemporary embodiment of a historical people, the people of God throughout the ages.

Hence, the theological heritage provides a reference point for us today. This heritage offers examples of previous attempts to fulfill the theological mandate from which we can learn. Looking at the past alerts us to some of the pitfalls we should avoid, some of the land mines that could trip us up, and some of the cul-de-sacs or blind alleys that are not worth our exploration. In addition to warning us of possible dangers, past theological statements can point us in directions that hold promise as we engage in the theological calling.

Theological heritage serves as a reference point in another way as well. Today, we engage in theology conscious that we are members of a community of faith that spans the centuries. Because we come to the text as those who seek to understand the whole of Scripture as the instrumentality of the Spirit's speaking to us, we do well to keep in view what the church through the ages has considered this biblical "whole" to be. Further, consciousness of our participation in the one church of Jesus Christ also involves acknowledging that like others before us, we desire to read the Bible "christianly." This process is advanced as we take seriously the attempts of our forebears to engage in the hermeneutical task that now occupies us. Because we participate in the one church of Jesus Christ, we desire to be in hermeneutical fellowship with all the people of God. One aspect of this true "ecumenism" is our attempt to retain continuity of outlook with the church throughout the ages. In short, we desire to participate in a truly "catholic" reading of the text, even in those instances when that reading leads us to differ with past luminaries on certain theological issues

The Embedding Context of the Theological Conversation

The ultimate authority in the church is the Spirit speaking through Scripture. The Spirit's speaking through Scripture, however, is always a contextual speaking; it always comes to its hearers within a specific historical-cultural context. This has been the case throughout church history, for the Spirit's ongoing provision of guidance has always come, and now continues to come, to the community of Christ as a specific people in a specific setting hears the Spirit's voice speaking in the particularity of its historical-cultural context. But the same principle was operative even during the biblical era. In fact, the canon itself was the product of the faith communities hearing the Spirit speaking within their changing contexts. This speaking often came through literary materials that they had gathered and preserved, and it led in turn to the composition of additional texts.

The specificity of the Spirit's speaking means that the conversation with culture and cultural context is crucial to the hermeneutical task. We seek to listen to the voice of the Spirit through Scripture, who speaks to us in the particularity of the historical-cultural context in which we live. This hermeneutical process occurs in art as contemporary "knowledge"--the discoveries and insights of the various disciplines of human learning--inform our theological construction. For example, theories about addictions and addictive behavior can provide insight into the biblical teaching about sin. Likewise, current discoveries about the process of human identity formation assist us in becoming aware of the many dimensions entailed in the new identity the Spirit seeks to create in us through our union with Christ. Our theological reflections can draw from the so-called "secular" sciences, because ultimately no discipline is in fact purely secular. Above all, because God is the ground of truth, as Pannenberg so consistently argues, all truth ultimately comes together in God. Theology therefore draws from all human knowledge, for in so doing it demonstrates the unity of truth in God. (32)

These considerations, however, have not yet brought us to the heart of the pneumatological basis for hearing the Spirit's voice in culture. Much of Western theology has focused on the church as the sole repository of all truth and the only location in which the Holy Spirit is operative. The biblical writers, however, display a much wider understanding of the Spirit's presence, a presence connected to the Spirit's role as the life-giver (Gen. 1:2; 2:7) and life-sustainer (Ps. 104:29-30; Isa. 32:15; cf. Job 27:3; 34:14-15). Because the life-giving Spirit is present wherever life flourishes, the Spirit's voice can conceivably resound through many media, including the media of human culture. Because Spirit-induced human flourishing evokes cultural expression, we can anticipate in such expressions traces of the Creator Spirit's presence. Consequently, we should listen intently for the voice of the Spirit, who is present in all life and therefore precedes us into the world, bubbling to the surface through the artifacts and symbols humans construct.

A cautionary note is in order here, however. Because the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit is closely connected with the Word, who is Christ, and by extension with the written word which speaks about Christ. This Reformation connection between Word and Spirit means that whatever speaking that occurs through other media does not come as a speaking against the text. To pit the Spirit's voice in culture against the Spirit speaking through Scripture would be to fall prey to the foundationalist trap. It would require that we elevate some dimension of contemporary thought or experience as a human universal that forms the criterion for determining what in the Bible is or is not acceptable. (33) Hence, while being ready to acknowledge the Spirit's voice wherever it may be found, we still uphold the primacy of the text. Even though we cannot hear the Spirit speaking through the text except by listening within a particular historical-cultural context, hearing the Spirit in the text provides the only sure canon for hearing the Spirit in culture, because the Spirit's speaking everywhere and anywhere is always in concert with this primary speaking through the text. In fact, culture and text (to which could be added tradition as well) do not comprise different moments of communication; rather, they are but one speaking, for the Spirit's speaking is indeed one speaking. Consequently we do not engage in two (or three) different "listenings," but one. We listen for the voice of the Spirit who speaks the Word through the word within the particularity of the hearers' context, and who thereby can speak in all things, albeit always according to the Word who is Christ.

Postmodern Theology As Christian Theology

The demise of foundationalism indicative of the postmodern situation opens the way for a postfoundationalist theological method that views constructive theology as an ongoing conversation involving the interplay of Scripture, tradition and culture. The overarching goal of this conversation is to hear the Spirit's voice speaking to the faith community today, one important dimension of which is the task of determining, delineating, articulating and reflecting upon the Christian belief-mosaic.

This perspective, in turn, leads to the conclusion that ultimately all theology is--as the "postmodern condition" suggests--"local" or "specific." That is, it is the conversation involving, and the resultant articulation authored by, a particular group in a particular moment of their ongoing existence in the world. Despite the specificity of all theology, these various local theologies share in common "a similar pattern, shape or `style'" (34) that comprises them as Christian theology. A postmodern local theology shares in the designation Christian, then, insofar as it reflects the uniquely Christian "style." And this style entails being trinitarian in content, communitarian in focus, and eschatological in orientation.

The Structural Motif of the Christian Theological Style

Early in the twentieth century, Emil Brunner noted, "The ecclesiastical doctrine of the Trinity, established by the dogma of the ancient Church, is not a Biblical kerygma, therefore it is not the kerygma of the Church, but it is a theological doctrine which defends the central faith of the Bible and of the Church." (35) Brunner's point is well taken. The doctrine of the Trinity as we know it came about as the result of a lengthy theological process during the patristic era. Once formulated, however, the understanding of God as triune became a non-negotiable dimension of church teaching. Indeed, the concept of tri-unity lies at the heart of the unique biblical understanding of God, and therefore Christians through the years have seen it as crucial for maintaining the central message of the Bible.

While the confession of God as triune has become a standard component of the Christian faith, the question of its proper role in theology is the subject of considerable debate. Many theologians give little place to the doctrine of the Trinity. Although this tendency has been represented in the Christian tradition in every age, it was exacerbated in the Enlightenment as thinkers under the banner of "reason" called into question not only its centrality for theology but also its veracity. Then, in the wake of Kant, skepticism about the very possibility of providing an ontology of God served to diminish, if not altogether eclipse, the doctrine of the Trinity in theology. As a result, the doctrine has become marginalized both by theologians who see it as little more than an abstract and indefensible example of the excesses of speculative theology and by Christians who view the doctrine as little more than an inherited dogma that is of no relevance to the modern world or to daily life. (36)

Yet, by its very definition, theology--the teaching about God--has as its central interest the divine reality as well as God's actions in creation. Rather than being mere speculation, therefore, unpacking the eternal trinitarian relations is endemic to the theological task. The trailblazer in the twentieth-century revival of trinitarianism was clearly Karl Barth. His realization that in the economy of salvation we have to engage with God as God is within the eternal divine reality "radically focused thought in a new way on the being and act of God as triune," to cite John Thompson's helpful description. (37) Since Barth's pioneering work, a host of theologians have taken up the task, (38) some even going so far as to suggest that the explication of this doctrine is a crucial safeguard against theological error. (39)

The chief inquiry for any theology, Christian or otherwise, is the question of the identity of God. The Christian answer to the question, "Who is God?" ultimately surrounds the doctrine of the Trinity. The one God, Christians assert, is triune. God is--to cite the traditional theological designations--Father, Son, and Spirit. The confession of the triune God is the sine qua non of the Christian faith. In keeping with this confession, both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed--these two ancient and ecumenical symbols of the church--are ordered and divided into three articles that correspond to the three persons of the triune God: the Father and creation; the Son and reconciliation; and the Spirit, redemption and consummation. For much of the history of the church, this creedal pattern gave rise to the classical trinitarian structure in theological construction.

The confessions of the church suggest that any truly Christian theology must be trinitarian theology. That is, because Christian theology is committed to finding its basis in the being and action of the triune God, it should be ordered and structured in a manner that reflects the primacy of this fundamental Christian confession. At its core, the content of Christian theology consists of a witness to, as well as participation in, the narrative of the being and act of the triune God. As such, theology's structuring motif is rooted in the Christian confession of God as triune, and hence, must be trinitarian.

This suggests that the centrality of God's triunity goes beyond the doctrine of God (or theology proper). It gives structure to other aspects of the Christian belief-mosaic as well. The link from theology proper to the other systematic-theological loci runs through the biblical teaching of humans as the imago dei. Ultimately, the "image of God" is connected with God's design for humankind, including our divinely-given role as those who mirror for the sake of creation the nature of the Creator. The doctrine of the Trinity indicates why the image of God can only be expressed in human relationships. The God we know is the triune one, the three trinitarian persons united together in perfect love. Because God is "community"--the fellowship of the three persons--the creation of humankind in the divine image must be related to humans in relationship as well. God's own character can only be mirrored by humans who love after the manner of the perfect love lying at the heart of the triune God. Only as we live in fellowship can we show forth what God is like. And as we reflect God's character--love--we also live in accordance with our own true nature and find our true identity. But to understand what this means, we must look to the triune God whose character is revealed in the biblical narrative. In short, then, as biblical Christians we must be thorough-going trinitarians, looking to the divine life as the model for human life, so that might reflect the very character of the God who is eternally love.

When the fundamental Christian view of God as triune permeates the entire explication of the community's belief-mosaic, it gives structure to the theological presentation in its entirety. In this manner, theology becomes truly trinitarian.

The Integrative Motif of the Christian Theological Style

Understood from the perspective of a theological ecclesiology that takes its cue from the triune God, the church is a community. Indeed, community lies at the heart of the Christian concept of the church. But more importantly, all Christian theology is communitarian.

The Reformed epistemologists I cited earlier maintain against Enlightenment foundationalism that there is no universal human reason (40) but that reason is "person specific" and "situation specific." (41) Nevertheless, Plantinga and Wolterstorff assert that certain beliefs are basic, (42) and to determine what might be deemed basic for Christian theology, these philosophers point to the believing community. Plantinga and Wolterstorff assert that to be human means to be situated in a particular community, so that our respective communities (or traditions) play an indispensable role in shaping our conceptions of rationality, as well as the religious beliefs we deem basic and thus by appeal to which we test new claims.

Because following the lead of the Reformed epistemologists in declaring that the church is "basic" in theology can lead to a new "foundationalism of the church," we must articulate a nuanced understanding of this insight. Viewed from one perspective, what is "basic" for theology is not the church itself, but the specifically Christian experience-facilitating interpretative framework, which in turn is connected to the biblical narrative and the determination of which likewise emerges as theology's task.

At the same time, there is a sense in which the church is basic for theology. In fact, only by viewing the church as basic can we avoid the foundationalism of modern theology, in both its liberal and conservative forms. The church is basic in that our participation in the faith community calls forth theological reflection. Theology is faith seeking understanding. Therefore, the very existence of the faith community--the community in which faith is present--leads naturally to the reflection on faith that we call theology. For this reason, theological construction needs no elaborate, foundation-setting, certainty-gaining prolegomenon. Instead, it arises out of the life of the discipleship community who are joined together by the Spirit and who join together in living out the mandate they share. Therefore, it is our presence within the Christian community that leads us to engage in the theological task. And the existence of this community provides the only "foundation" necessary for launching into the process of delineating the belief-mosaic or explicating the interpretive framework\Christians share.

The focus on the communal nature of theology as an activity of the faith community opens the way for introducing community as theology's integrative motif. That is, community is the central, organizing concept of theological construction, the theme around which a systematic theology is structured. Community provides the integrative thematic perspective in light of which the various theological foci can be understood and the significant theological issues ought to be explored. (43)

Christian theology must be communitarian, because it is linked to a particular community, namely, the community of the disciples of Jesus. As I noted above, theology has classically been understood as faith seeking understanding. At the heart of faith is personal response to the good news. Yet this does not mean that theology is solely the faith of the individual believer seeking understanding. Rather, as the Reformed philosophers remind us, our beliefs--and hence our faith--is dependent on the community in which we are situated. More specifically, being a Christian entails membership in the fellowship of those who have come to know the God of the Bible through Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Theology, in turn, is the community seeking to understand the faith they share. Thus, McClendon declares, "theology is always theology of the community, not just of the individual Christian." (44) As the shared faith of the community seeking understanding, Christian theology is necessarily communitarian.

This same conclusion emerges as well from a parallel consideration. A central task of theology is to express communal beliefs and values as well as the meaning of the symbols of the faith community. Theological construction has as its goal that of prescribing and setting forth an understanding of the mosaic of beliefs that lies at the heart of a particular community. More specifically, the task of Christian theology includes the determination and articulation of the belief-mosaic of the Christian faith, the interlocking doctrines that together comprise the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. As a result, Christian theology is by its very nature "church dogmatics," to cite Karl Barth's description. As church dogmatics, as the faith of the community seeking understanding, theology is inherently communitarian.

Further, theology is communitarian because it is the explication of the Christian conception of God. In addition to being faith seeking understanding, theology is by its very definition the study of God. This study, however, is never generic. It is always specific; it is always the explication of the understanding set forth within a particular community. Hence, Christian theology speaks about the God known in the Christian community. And the God to whom the Christian community bears witness is the triune God. The only true God, Christians declare, is social or communal. Christian theology is inherently communitarian, therefore, because it is the explication of the Christian understanding of the God who is the triune one.

This leads to a final reason why theology is inherently communitarian. Christian theology is the study of the narrative of this God fulfilling the divine purposes as disclosed in the Bible. The biblical narrative presents as the ultimate goal of the biblical God the establishment of community. From the narratives of the primordial garden, with which the biblical drama begins, to the vision of white-robed multitudes inhabiting the new earth that forms the drama's climax, the plot of Scripture is community. Taken as a whole, the Bible asserts that God's program is directed to the establishment of community in the highest sense of the word--a redeemed people, living within a redeemed creation, enjoying the presence of the triune God. (45) Theology, in turn, is the explication of this divine goal.

To summarize: Josiah Royce declared, the "real world" means simply the "true interpretation" of our situation; (46) but "an interpretation is real only if the appropriate community is real, and is true only if that community reaches its goal." (47) Christian theology is the explication of the interpretation of God and the world around which the Christian community finds its identity. Theology engages in this task for the purpose of facilitating the fellowship of Christ's disciples in fulfilling their calling to be the image of God and thereby to be the biblical community God destines us to become. For this reason, theology is by its very nature theology communitarian.

The Orientating Motif of the Christian Theological Style

Royce's comment leads directly to the third in this triad of theological motifs, eschatology. The basis for this aspect of the Christian theological "style" flows almost as a matter of course from what has been said already about theology's connection to the biblical narrative. Simply stated, Christian theology is inherently eschatological, because it is the teaching about the promising God, who is bringing creation to an eternal telos. Theology finds its orientation in eschatology, therefore, not so much as the compilation of what God has told us in Scripture "about the major events yet to come in the history of the universe," (48) but because of its connection to the narrative of God at work in creation as disclosed in Scripture. Taken as a whole, the biblical story is directed toward a telos. It speaks of the God who is bringing creation to its divinely-intended goal.

The development of a telos-directed narrative is among the most significant theological contributions of the biblical communities. In contrast to other ancient Near Eastern peoples, (49) Israel came to understand time as a linear span (50) and developed a historical consciousness that arose out of their sense- that Yahweh journeyed with them (51) and acts in time. (52) As a result, time (as history) became a narrative, the story of God at work. This story entailed as well a future consciousness, (53) the anticipation that the only true God would do a new thing that would include all peoples (Hab. 2:14; see also Ps. 102:15; Isa. 66:18-19) and even the entire creation. (54) This biblical narrative with its telic orientation, in turn, is formative for Christian theology. It provides the perspective from which theology proceeds.

The eschatological motif leads to a theology that is theocentric, rather than anthropocentric. In contrast to "totalizing" (55) modernist metanarratives against which postmodernism rightly rebels, an eschatological theology views the God of the Bible and not humankind as the acting subject who unites the diverse moments of time into a single story. It rejects the modernist idea that history is our story (i.e., the story of Man or the tale of the progress of humankind), and it denies that the goal of history is a humanly-devised utopia. Instead, Christian theology declares that history's goal is nothing less than the realization of God's purposes for creation, which arrives only because the God who stands at the end of the human story is already in grace ordering the cosmic story toward its intended goal.

The eschatological motif leads likewise to a theology that takes its orientation from the perspective of our human telos together with the telos of creation as a whole. It engages all theological questions from the perspective of the future consummation. It looks to the completion of God's creative work--that is, to the biblical narrative in its eschatological culmination--for the revelation not only of who God is, but also of who we are and of what creation is, as well as the revelation of God's purposes for all creation including humankind. In this manner, an eschatological theology anticipates the future within the present. It finds our human identity, as well as the identity of all creation, in the God who promises to make everything new (Rev. 21:5). And it speaks about the in-breaking of this new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) into our lives in the here-and-now.

The focus on the new creation indicative of an eschatological Christian theology brings this discussion full circle back to the postmodern rejection of realism with which the essay began. I noted earlier that social constructionists assert that the world we inhabit is not simply given, but that ours is a world of our own construal, (56) a "socially constituted reality," to cite Peter Berger's phrase. (57) How can Christian theology continue to talk about an actual world, even if it is only future, in the face of the demise of realism and the advent of social constructionism? (58)

Similar to the so-called "critical realists," (59) Christian theology maintains a certain undeniable givenness to the universe. But this givenness is not that of a static actuality existing outside of, and cotemporally with, our socially and linguistically constructed reality. It is not the objectivity of what some might call "the world as it is." Rather, the objectivity set forth in the biblical narrative is the objectivity of the world as God wills it, as is reflected in the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10, NIV).

The universe as God wills it, however, is not a present reality. (60) It lies in the eschatological future (e.g., Isa. 65:17-19; Rev. 21:5), and the eschatological universe is nothing short of a new creation. Because this future reality is God's determined will for creation as that which cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:26-28), it is far more real--and hence far more objective, far more actual--than the present world, which is even now passing away (1 Cor. 7:31). Therefore, the ultimately valid "objectivity of the world" is that of a future, eschatological world, and the most "actual" universe is the universe as it one day will be.

Rather than being antithetical to the constructionist insight, this "eschatological realism" indicative of the Christian theological style actually takes it a crucial step forward. As the community of Christ, we have a divinely-given mandate, namely, to be participants in God's work of constructing a world that reflects God's own will for creation, a world in which everything finds its connectedness in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:17) who is the logos--the Word--the ordering principle of the cosmos as God intends it to be. Because of the role of language in the world-constructing task, this mandate has a strongly linguistic dimension. We participate with God as through the constructive power of language we inhabit a present linguistic world that sees all reality from the perspective of the future, real world that God is bringing to pass. In short, in contrast to the driving vision of much of modern science, the Christian faith refuses to posit a universe without recourse to the biblical God who is "the Creator of the heavens and the earth." And the only ultimate perspective from which that universe can be viewed is from the vantage point of the eschatological completion of God's creative activity.

Theology assists in this task. It delineates and explores the world-constructing, knowledge-producing, identity-forming "language" of the Christian community. The goal of this enterprise is to show how the Christian mosaic of beliefs offers a transcendent vision of the glorious eschatological community God wills for creation and how this vision provides a coherent foundation for life-in-relationship in this penultimate age as we anticipate the glorious fullness of the eschatological new creation. In short, the ultimate, highest and final purpose of theology is to articulate the Christian belief-mosaic in accordance with the actual (i.e., future) world God is fashioning, and to do so for the sake of the church's mission as the sign in the present, anticipatory era of the glorious age to come.


(1.) For the structure of the methodological proposal reflected in this essay, I am indebted in part to John Franke, my coauthor in the writing of a book-length treatment of theological method: Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), forthcoming.

(2.) Dale Moody, The Word of Truth: A Summary of Christian Doctrine Based on Biblical Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981).

(3.) Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983-85); rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

(4.) James William McClendon Jr., Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1986-).

(5.) Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, 3 vol. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987-94).

(6.) James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990-95).

(7.) Examples include A. J. Conyers, A Basic Christian Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995); Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); as well as my own Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994); and Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Practice, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998)

(8.) For an example of the current discussion of this theme compiled by a Baptist, see David S. Dockery, ed., The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor/BridgePoint, 1994).

(9.) For the author's fuller treatment of these topics, see Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).

(10.) See, for example, Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), x-xi, 8; Hilary Lawson, "Introduction" to "Stories about Truth" in Dismantling Truth: Reality in the Post-Modern World, ed. Hilary Lawson and Lisa Appignanesi (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), 4.

(11.) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 37.

(12.) Ibid., xxiii-xxiv.

(13.) This is van Huyssteen's preferred term. See J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, "Tradition and the Task of Theology," Theology Today 55, no. 2 (July, 1998): 213.

(14.) W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998), 84.

(15.) Bede Rundle, "Correspondence Theory of Truth," in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (New York: Oxford, 1995), 166.

(16.) For this judgment, see John E. Thiel, Nonfoundationalism (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 37.

(17.) Wood, Epistemology, 114.

(18.) Arthur Kenyon Rogers, What Is Truth? (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1923), 12.

(19.) Jonathan Dancy, "Epistemology, Problems Of," in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (New York: Oxford, 1995), 246.

(20.) Nancey C. Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996), 94.

(21.) William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (reprint, New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1928), 200, 201.

(22.) For my own lengthier treatment of Pannenberg's theological method, see Stanley J. Grenz, Reason for Hope: The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (New York: Oxford, 1990), 11-43.

(23.) Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 1:59-60.

(24.) George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984), 69.

(25.) Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine, 80.

(26.) Ibid., 64.

(27.) Ibid., 118.

(28.) Ibid., 113.

(29.) The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.10, in The Creeds of the Churches, ed. John H. Leith, 3rd ed. (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 196.

(30.) For a helpful delineation of the Bible as comprising four basic types of materials, see John Goldingay, Models for Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

(31.) Walter Klaassen, "Anabaptist Hermeneutics: Presuppositions, Principles and Practice," in Willard M. Swartley ed., Essays on Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspective (Elkhart, Ind.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 10. For this idea, Klaassen cites John Howard Yoder, Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (October 1967): 301.

(32.) Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 1:59-60.

(33.) Darrell Jodock, "The Reciprocity Between Scripture and Theology: The Role of Scripture in Contemporary Theological Reflection," Interpretation 44, no. 4 (October 1990): 377.

(34.) According to Kroeber, culture provides "a far more natural and fit medium" for "style" to grow in than does "life." Alfred L. Kroeber, Style and Civilizations (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1957), 76.

(35.) Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950), 206.

(36.) Gunton offers the following terse description of this position: "Overall, there is a suspicion that the whole thing is a bore, a matter of mathematical conundrums and illogical attempts to square the circle." Colin Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 2-3.

(37.) John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 3.

(38.) See the comment to this effect in David S. Cunningham, These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 19.

(39.) See, for example, Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, trans., Margaret Kohl (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981), 17, 64.

(40.) Wood, Epistemology, 170.

(41.) Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Can Belief in God Be Rational if It Has No Foundations?" in Faith and Rationality: Faith and Belief in God, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 155.

(42.) Merold Westphal, "A Reader's Guide to `Reformed Epistemology,'" Perspectives 7, no. 9 (November 1992): 11; Alvin Plantinga, "Reason and Belief in God," in Faith and Rationality, 73-78.

(43.) For a discussion of the idea of the integrative motif in theology, see Gerhard Sauter and Alex Stock, Arbeitswesen Systematischer Theologie: Eine Anleitung (Munich: Kaiser, 1976), 18-19.

(44.) McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, 1:36.

(45.) See, for example, Paul D. Hanson, The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 510.

(46.) Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1913), 2:264.

(47.) Ibid., 269.

(48.) Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1091.

(49.) Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. G. Stalker (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 2:110.

(50.) Karl Loewith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), 19.

(51.) Werner H. Schmidt, The Faith of the Old Testament: A History, trans. John Sturdy (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 52.

(52.) Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2:106.

(53.) Schmidt, Faith of the Old Testament, 22.

(54.) Ibid., 177.

(55.) Terry Eagleton, "Awakening from Modernity," Times Literary Supplement (February 20, 1987), 194.

(56.) See for example, Norwood Russell Hanson, Patterns of Discovery: An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), 23-24.

(57.) Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, "Sociology of Religion and Sociology of Knowledge," Sociology and Social Research 47 (1963): 423.

(58.) See, for example, J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, "Postfoundationalism in Theology and Science: Beyond Conflict and Consonance," in Rethinking Theology and Science: Six Models for the Current Dialogue, ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen and J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 39.

(59.) See, for example, David Elton Trueblood, General Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 38-45. See also Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age: Being and Becoming--Natural, Divine, and Human, enlarged ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 21.

(60.) For the author's delineation of the nature of prayer as viewed from an eschatological perspective, see Stanley J. Grenz, Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988).

Stanley J. Grenz is Pioneer McDonald Professor of Baptist Heritage, Theology, and Ethics, Carey Theological College, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
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