Category Archives: Post-Modernity

The Drama of Doctrine: A Book Summary

The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Westminster John Knox: Louisville, 2005. 493pp. $39.95.

According to the author, “The present book sets forth a postconservative, canonical-linguistic theology and a directive theory of doctrine that roots theology more firmly in Scripture while preserving Lindbeck’s emphasis on practice”  (xiii).  On the whole, this work is a fascinating piece that helps theologian and layperson grasp the energetic nature of Scripture. Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic approach de-emphasized the autonomy of the exegete while heightening that of his enveloping culture – “the experience and the reasoning of the individual human subject is always already shaped by a tradition of language use” (10). By replacing “cultural” with “canonical,” Vanhoozer is able to say the same of Scripture – namely, it is the shaping subject for humanity. In this way, Vanhoozer reorients theology from theory to wisdom (13).

The author aptly shows how drama is a correcting foil for the theological endeavor. God is both the script(ure) writer and player in the drama. Humans are actors following a script. Theologians are the dramaturge for humanity.  Regarding the script, Vanhoozer makes it clear that this is a not a wooden mimic of the script. Rather, it is likened to a dinner theater, where the audience plays a part in the action and shaping as well. The actors are given roles, and they are so intended to enter into the ethic of the role that their actions and words will reflect the kind of person the playwright intended. Further, the Church acts out her parts in front of the surrounding culture and draws them into the drama that God intended them to live. Poignantly put, “Neither the pastor nor the magisterium should be allowed to become the sole voice or actor in the church. On the contrary, the whole people of God is responsible for participating in and continuing the action. Only an active rather than passive audience can turn deadly theater into ‘ a rehearsal of revolution.’ At its best, the church, as the theater of the gospel, is revolutionary, overturning idols and ideologies alike as it displays the first fruits of eschatological reality” (404; original emphasis).

Vanhoozer’s work should be read by all those who seek to bring doctrine and practice together. While this is not the only model by which we can organize Scripture’s teaching, the author has powerfully argued for it as a major contender. Unlike Michael Horton’s work regarding Divine Drama, Vanhoozer helpfully incorporates the surrounding culture in his model of theology. That is, rather than just saying that he will organize his theology around an analogy that follows the Bible’s own intrasystematic categories (when drama itself is not a category given in Scripture), Vanhoozer helps further theology’s enterprise of incorporating culture and Scripture together.

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Reclaiming the Center: A Book Summary

Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times

Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor, eds.

In an effort to respond to post-conservative evangelicals that have challenged the presuppositions and foundations of popular evangelicalism, the conglomerate of authors have written to correct Grenz, et al. As Taylor writes in his introductory essay, the editors of the post-conservative movement are Roger Olson and Robert Webber, the pastor is Brian MacLaren, and the professor is Stanley Grenz. These men have emphasized narrative theology, while poo-pooing propositional doctrine. MacLaren describes what he seeks to do as the pastor as an emerging postmodernism that seeks middle-ground between Derridian Deconstructionism and Cartesian certainty.

What is telling in the essays is the desire to draw clear boundaries in methodology and application of doctrine so that there are contours of evangelical theology. In his review of Grenz’s Renewing the Center, Carson summarizes the movement’s greatest weakness that he is “utterly unable to detect any weakness in postmodern epistemology, and therefore all of his prescriptions for the future assume the essential rightness of postmodernism” (45). Carson highlights a strong disparity within the post-conservative vision by pointing out that if our problem in speaking of universals is due to our finitude, there is no hope for a universal redemption of body and mind since we will continue to be finite.

The post-conservative problems persist in their inability to articulate/define truth. As Wellum says, “their project leaves Christian theology apologetically defenseless, a self-contained linguistic system that is not able to demonstrate before a watching world why it is indeed true” (188). Brand’s essay helpfully moves in the direction of defining what the sometimes nebulous term “evangelical” means. It is particularly helpful to see that evangelicalism grew out of the revivalist tradition. Thus attributing to the diverse theological persuasions – Pentecostal, Methodist, etc. However, it would have been helpful to see how more Reformed strands began to be seen as evangelical if this is one of the criteria. Lastly, Millard Erickson’s essay on post-postmodernism has a helpful summary on what the post-conservative movement seeks to accomplish. He says, “Civility and irenicism are not identified with a particular position; they involve acting with respect and using language that is not perjorative or inflammatory” (348). Much of the rhetoric used by post-conservatives seems to draw a false dichotomy between foundationalism’s certainty (and arrogance) and post-conservative’s humility. Humility should be a characteristic of anyone who is called “Christian.”

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Beyond Foundationalism: A Book Summary

I was recently encouraged to post some book summaries I am writing for my Theological Methods seminar this semester. These are not summaries that would be up to the stellar quality found in a published magazine, but, I hope, are helpful nonetheless. Here is the first installment.

Beyond Foundationalism – Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke

It is evident from the title of the first chapter that the author’s want to take the Scripture and apply it to our contemporary context (“Beyond Fragmentation: Theology and the Contemporary Setting”) in a way that explains the diversity found in the varied schools of thought. The other danger they seek to avoid is foundationalism that was berthed from modernity. It is clear (and true) that there are many shades of postmodernism (eight according to Vanhoozer as cited on p.22) so that aspects of it can be affirmed by Christians, while several presuppositions must be denied. However, Grenz and Franke believe that the movement should be embraced more than modern evangelicalism want to.

Particularly, what the authors want to espouse is that all language and talk about God is conditioned and bound by culture. So that they say, “A nonfoundationalist theological method leads to the conclusion that ultimately all theology – as the ‘postmodern codition’ suggests – ‘local’ or ‘specific’” (25). The question is raised, then, do even orthodox beliefs (as enumerated in the Nicene Creed) become bound so that they cannot communicate true things about God? In other words, do statements that affirm the Trinity or Jesus’ divinity or the Spirit’s personhood have no reference in trans-cultural situations.

It is questionable what Grenz and Franke actually believe to be foundationalism – in the pejorative sense. Modern (not “modernist”) theologians are hardly classic foundationalists. If they were, it would appear that much of the authors’ criticisms would be well-founded. However, they indict Grudem for having a foundationalist definition of systematic theology when he says that it is “the attempt to determine what the whole Bible teaches about any given topic” (37). How can this be foundationalism in the technical sense (cf. 51)? Of all the talk regarding language games and enculturation, what kind of definition of systematic theology might the authors put forth? They, unfortunately, opt for a coherentist approach to theology, which leaves the very problem unanswered that systematic theology seeks to answer – the relevance for the surrounding culture!

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Engaging Contemporary Culture

Series of four lectures by Jerram Barrs:

1)Friday Night Session I: Cooperating with God’s Testimony in the Lives of Unbelievers

2) Echoes of Eden in Literature, Legend and Myth

3) The Evangelism of Jesus: Parables for a Mixed Gathering

4) Acts 17: Paul and the Athenians

[HT: Living in Skin]

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The Lure of Opposition

One of the traps I have seen set for me while studying – not that it has not been set before and not that I have not tripped it – is the desire to be a contrarian. You read all these books and you want really bad to make a name for yourself or show that you know the intricacies of an argument so you’ll say something like this: “I liked the book, I think I would have explained things a little differently.” Or, “I can’t stand so-and-so, he doesn’t articulate x as well as he should.” 

This betrays two things (as I see it): 1) my lack of charity; and 2) my laziness.

1) Lack of Charity: If my first inclination is to pick apart someone’s writing and view, then I have not truly listened. Therefore, I am in no position to respond. This is an issue in epistemology where our presuppositions can keep us from gaining knowledge. The wider culture calls it being close-minded. And while most people ruffle at the idea, it is, more often than not, true. Although I may believe what I know to be true, I should bite my tongue and repeat the cpnversant’s argument in my head to make sure I have really listened. My first response should be a question rather than a statement. “Did I hear you right?” “Do you mean this?”

2) Laziness: The times I have quickly responded to someone I have read or listened to with a rebuttal as noted above, I have drifted off into imprecision and laziness myself. That is, I hear so many people say, “Yeah, I heard the speaker but he was a little soft on this.” I have been challenged several times in my short tenure as a theologian by someone when they ask the question: “How would you have said it differently?” So my question to you is: What precisely do you disagree with?

I think many times I have heard someone I respect give such a response to an opponent, but I forget that they backed up the assertion with a list of reasons. My ears keyed in on the “I disagree,” but not on the “why.” So many of us, I fear, want to appear like we know what we are talking about – that we are privy to knowledge unbeknownst to our hearers, when, in fact, we are blowing fluff. May God help us to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

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Filed under Apologetics, Christian Living, Counseling, Evangelism, Family | Parenting, Interpretation, Pastoral, Post-Modernity, Sanctification, Theology

Art & God (3)

This is a brief response to Matt’s previous post. I hope it provides some historical/cultural background to the issue of art in the church.

I think there are several reasons why the Christian culture seems to have an inordinate amount of guilt with regards to art and cultural engagement. Matt, you mentioned fundamentalism’s decampment from the arts, which in my estimation is no small part of the problem. In fact, I think you have the crux of the issue right there. Although there are many variables in the issue, in the end you are dealing with the broader aspects of truth and beauty, essential commonalities that resonate with every fallen human being. If the Church withdraws from those grounds, how can we show them a Savior who is perfect in beauty and truth?

Concepts of truth and beauty have changed drastically over the past couple of generations. In cultural chronology going back only a little more than a century ago, you have the movement of Modernism, which in a great sense rebelled against “traditional” forms of art and literature. In general, Modernism rejected the reality of the supernatural and the authority of the church or religion. Modernists asserted truth can be discovered and beauty can be seen, but only through objective power of the individual mind or scientific methodology. Modernism affirmed the reexamination of previously accepted forms of art and truth and beauty, and did so while maintaining that these were things with external anchors and standards outside of one’s self. While perceptions of art and beauty changed, truth was still considered discoverable, knowable.

As Modernism begot Postmodernity, truth joined beauty as being “in the eye of the beholder.” Ambiguity and contradiction no longer matter (or are even seen as desirable) since any notion of truth is relative to the sovereign eye of the individual. Comic books and computer screens can be just as good and beautiful as classic literature or the Sistine Chapel – it all depends on your point of view.

As postmodern plurality and relativity emerged in the early 20th century, the Church’s general reaction was not to engage or redeem – but to withdraw from all things “secular.” Modernism gave us the ol’ stinkeye, so we sulked off and sat in a corner while postmodernity took root around us. Faith in the Church became a buffer zone between the secular and the sacred. Parachurch ministries virtually exploded because the Church disengaged. Now, decades later, we have finally decided that it may actually be beneficial to engage people culturally for the sake of the Gospel… but we approach it like the annoying little sister who is just trying to tag along with big brother.

Think about it – for centuries, the Church drove art and music and cultural trends. Now, we simply try to imitate those things. While society in general and Western culture in particular rejoices in the value of the creative individual (see also, YouTube, Myspace, the blogosphere, etc.), the best the church seems to be able to do is make flimsy imitations (see also, GodTube, MyChurch, the blogosphere, etc.) We are not exactly a consistent hotbed of innovation in the areas of visual art, music, film and literature. I think we sense we should be doing more, but are really too lazy to put forth the effort of being truly innovative. So we feel guilty.

Why is it assumed that to reach the culture, we must be artistically engaged? I think the answer is because culture is artistically engaged. That is where unregenerate people are. The Church in many senses has become passive and lazy. We want the people to come to us because going to them takes effort, and – God forbid – maybe pain. Artistic engagement on whatever front or medium can be a powerful means of missional engagement. They are confused about truth, but are drawn to beauty. We have truth, but have lost a clear vision of the beauty therein. Truth and beauty are essential commonalities within us and are worthy ground upon which to advance the Gospel.

This, of course, begs the question – what is the relationship between beauty and truth? Comments are open.

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Proclivity

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I was chatting with a friend of mine this morning and he was relaying a story of a friend of his who has been across the board theologically speaking. I had another similar conversation with a friend a couple years ago. It seems like there are people who have a proclivity for poor doctrine. I have a few proposals as to why this happens as I have heard the Sirens singing and have almost crashed.

1. Typically folks that have such a tendency for moving like ooze through various theological systems begin with an attitude of skepticism. That is, they have not first got hold of a sound understanding of authority in their lives. They hear something from the pulpit and their first inclination is to question what has been said. This can be nourished into a good habit when hearing sermons, but I am speaking of the inability to be shape by the sermon – to desire to come under the faithful preaching of the Word. These men question whether the Church has done anything right since the last Apostle died. We haven’t worshipped aright. We haven’t practiced social justice. We haven’t lived in the power of the Spirit. Etc. This tendency runs deep, of course, to pride. But that doesn’t fully answer the question. We must first learn how to submit ourselves under the authority God has graciously placed in our lives – parents, elders, managers, etc.

2. The desire to be fresh and cool does not escape even the Christ-follower. I remember when I was in high school I used to claim that I heard about a band or a song on the radio before it was popular. That is, I was trying to let others know that I was on the in and they were Johnnies-come-lately. Thus I preserved a sense of elitism by the prevenient knowledge I possessed. Is there not a bit of this in the movements of the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives and Theonomy?

3. A final reason (at least in this brief meditation) is the lack of tethering that folks have to the biblical worldview. Now this is not a trump card – “You’re just not biblical.” Rather, I have felt my tendency to lay hold on the latest hipster theology because I did not hae a solid system in which to grade and adopt teachings. Although I am sure this proclivity has been around before Marcion, I believe with the anchoring provided by catechisms and such helped people imbibe a biblical wordlview. They may not have been able to articulate the doctrine of the hypostatic union of Jesus, but they could sniff out some bad Nestorianism or Socinianism when it introduced itself at a Bible study. I was not so fortunate. Had I been provided with some kind of coherent worldview prior to my college days I would have saved myself a lot of time and heresy-ache.

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