>On the Very Idea of a Theological System – A Review
Date : October 21, 2010 By
“…Doctrine directs the church faithfully to embody the way, the truth and the life defined by the history of Jesus Christ in fresh, contextually appropriate ways – in a word, to triangulate.”
In any theology, understanding and critiquing the hermeneutic in use is essential. The place of scripture, the Holy Spirit, the church community, the history of Jesus Christ, the tradition, and the current culture can all take varying degrees of import and therefore influence. In the past, various criticisms have been made of systematic theology, usually as a result of the priorities assigned to the above elements. In his essay, Vanhoozer seeks to unpack, analyse and critique these priorities, and in the process demonstrate that the best way to view systematics is “theodramatic triangulation”. In this essay I will summarise the content of Vanhoozer’s essay, and then offer some insight of my own.
In his chapter “On the Very Idea of a Theological System”, Vanhoozer offers a lengthy but thorough examination of the bread and butter of systematics – conceptual schemes – whilst paying special attention to which elements in any scheme hold epistemic primacy, who is the subject, and what is the object. Vanhoozer’s chapter is triadic in structure, which covers, firstly, three criticisms leveled against systematics, secondly, three contemporary theologians (and the historic theologian who most influenced them), and thirdly, the explanation and analysis of Vanhoozer’s creative proposal and central thesis: “Theodramatic triangulation”.
So what is Theodramatic triangulation? The answer is twofold. According to Davidson, subject-object dichotomies prevent a transcendence of the conceptual scheme to ascertain it’s truth or correspondence to reality. Thus Davidson argues that it is only via triangulation that such transcendence of the scheme can be achieved. Vanhoozer agrees, although posits that within systematics the question of epistemic primacy needs to be answered, because not all corners of the triangle are equal in this regard. Thus he invokes his earlier survey of the three contemporary theologians to illustrate this point. Each placed a different item on the points of the triangle, and each weighted each point differently.
But what are we to triangulate? According to Vanhoozer, Theodrama. Vanhoozer defines Theodrama as “God’s words and actions on the world stage, with us and for us”, as opposed to a philosophy, or a system of morality. More specifically, we are to triangulate the authoritative script (God’s Word), the belief practices of the church, and the world made new in Jesus Christ.
Vanhoozer argues that the three most common critiques of systematics (systematics is modern and hence reductionistic; systematics is western, and hence imperialist; systematics is wissenschaftlich, and hence impractical), are answered by the thesis of Theodramatic triangulation. Firstly, modern reductionist tendencies are countered by the notion that “The norming norm of theodramatic systematics is Scripture, the Spirit’s polyphonic and multi-personal speaking, a rich and imaginative resource for cultivating canonic sense”. According to Vanhoozer, this philosophy prevents scripture being reduced to a set of inert propositions, and a trove to be mined. Secondly, western biases are tempered by the fact that “Theodramatic systematics is enriched by the polyphonic and multi-perspectival scripted-yet-spirited performances that comprise church tradition, a rich resource for cultivating catholic sensibility”. Vanhoozer points out that one of the positive aspects of the postmodern movement is the understanding that location plays an influencing factor in any science, interpretation, or method. Thus systematics can benefit from the diversity of voices that are found within catholicum, both east and west. Thirdly, the practicality of systematics can be found in the fact that “Theodramatic systematics is sapiential, a form of practical wisdom that seeks to embody the mind of Christ in new situations”,1 thus redefining theology as ‘faith seeking theodramatic understanding’, where the theologian is constantly required to find ways to participate in God’s ongoing drama, in new cultural situations. Thus Vanhoozer posits that the end of theology ‘is not mere knowledge but understanding’, and a ‘sense of where one fits in the Theodrama’.
In any debate, discussion, or disagreement, the question of hermeneutics and epistemic primacy must be settled upon for there to be any further discussion! Thus a discussion on these fundamentals is of significant import.
Ultimately I agree with Vanhoozer’s hermeneutic, and think that this brings a refreshing air to a field where modernity has run unabated and unquestioned for too long. Not every impulse of the postmodern movement is praise worthy, but (as Vanhoozer has quite rightly pointed out), the awareness of the observer in the equation is a welcome breeze. Furthermore, the acceptance (and thus celebration) of the observer in the equation brings a greater diversity (as Vanhoozer puts it – polyphony) to the understanding, and thus makes the drama much bigger than ourselves, or even our immediate context.
However, the point about Vanhoozer’s proposed hermeneutic that excites me most is the idea of Theodrama – God’s words and actions, throughout history, culture, context, and culture. I am excited by this view as it places the emphasis in the correct place. It is God who is doing the action, it is Christ who is working in the world (via the Spirit), and we are to participate in that action, not conjure it up out of ourselves. Furthermore, it is God who is revealing himself to us in this drama! In addition, this alleviates the notion that scripture is a set of propositions that can be mined, with or without the Spirit’s illuminating presence. Theodrama captures the idea that this is a great epic, a story that has gone on for thousands of centuries before us, and if we are to play our part, then we must “become apprentices to the script”. Thus to be excellent at theology is to be able to indwell the script, the drama, the action so fully that we understand the storyline, the characters, their roles, their goals, and the plot and logic of the masterpiece, no matter what context we find ourselves in. And thus as we interpret the drama in our local contexts, through the power of the Spirit (‘through his internal witness in one’s conscience and through his corporate witness in the tradition of the church’). And this can only be achieved, not by an empiricism, nor by a subject-object dualism, but by a triangulation.
Theodramatic Triangulation therefore represents an extremely helpful methodology for systematics. One that is in keeping with contemporary thought, but one that also places the emphasis in the correct places. As Vanhoozer has demonstrated in his essay, a model like theodramatic triangulation helps avoid the pitfalls that have snared systematics in its history, whilst still providing a meaningful, valid, and important place in catholicum for systematics.
Bloesch, Donald, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration & Interpretation, Downers Grove, IVP, 2006, 48.
Davidson, Donald, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, 2nd Edition, Oxford, Clarendon, 2001, 183.
Kruger, C.Baxter, Founder and President of Perichoresis, Inc. ‘You’re Included’, a Series by Grace Communion International. Interview by J.M.Feazell (available from http://www.gci.org/yi/kruger5).
Purves, Andrew, Professor of Reformed Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. ‘You’re Included’, a Series by Grace Communion International. Interview by J.M.Feazell (available from http://www.gci.org/yi/purves100).
Torrance, Alan J., Professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews. ‘You’re Included’, a Series by Grace Communion International. Interview by J.M.Feazell (available from http://www.gci.org/yi/torrance75);
Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ‘On The Very Idea of a Theological System: An Essay in aid of Triangulating Scripture, Church and World.’ In Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology. Edited by A.T.B McGowan. Downers Grove, IVP, 2006, 125-182.