At the Dawn of ‘Practice’ or Re-thinking the Nature and Role of Theology and Doctrine in the Church

in Journal of Reformed Theology
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‭Are theology and doctrine the names of the church’s life of worship and proclamation, or are they their foundations? Is it acceptable theologically to develop an understanding of theology and doctrine that would completely subordinate beliefs to practices to the point of completely functionalizing beliefs and turn theology and doctrine to mere way of life? In this paper, I address these important questions by displaying two attempts at understanding the nature and role of theology and doctrine. The first approach is exemplified in Kevin Vanhoozer’s proposal in The Drama of Doctrine, and Anthony Thiselton’s proposal in The Hermeneutics of Doctrine, while, the second approach is exemplified in Reinhard Hütter’s proposal in his valuable book Suffering Divine Things. By critiquing Vanhoozer’s and Thiselton’s approaches and siding with Hütter’s, I hope to stress that the accuracy of our understanding of the nature and role of theology and doctrine depends to a great and substantial extent on 1) how one understands theology’s relation to its primary subject matter, God, and 2) on the extent of the theologian’s belief that God, not just human talk about God, is the proper object of theology.‬

At the Dawn of ‘Practice’ or Re-thinking the Nature and Role of Theology and Doctrine in the Church

in Journal of Reformed Theology




‭Miroslav Volf‘Theology for a Way of Life,’ in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian LifeMiroslav Volf & Dorothy C. Bass (eds.) (Grand Rapids USA/Cambridge UK: Eerdmans 2002) pp. 245–263 p. 258.‬


‭Miroslav Volf‘Theology for a Way of Life’. p. 258. Volf refers here to Pierre Hadot’s attempt at showing that philosophy is to be re-understood as mere way of living and as an attitude toward life-settings: Pierre Hadot Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault Arnold I. Davidson (ed.) Michael Chase (trans) (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1995). The threatening reductionist approach to philosophy that Hadot offers applies as Volf correctly notices to a similar tendency that is threatening theological scholarship those days as I will show in the following pages.‬


‭Volf‘Theology for a Way of Life’ p. 260.


‭Reinhard Hütter‘The Christian Life,’ in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic TheologyJohn Webster Kathryn Tanner and Iain Torrance (eds.) (Oxford: University Press 2007) pp. 285–305 p. 297. According to Hütter the manifold reasons behind this turn to practices are the following: ‘a recovery of Aristotelian practical philosophy mainly through the works of Alasdair McIntyre (1984); a re-emergence of the never completely extinguished interest in the practical aspect of the Christian faith in the Wesleyan Holiness and Pentecostal strands of American theology (Langford 1983; Wacker 2001); and an overall renewal of interest in various forms of pragmatism after the alleged demise of metaphysical thinking’ (p. 296).‬


‭Kathryn Tanner‘Theological Reflection and Christian Practices’ in Practicing Theologypp. 228–242 p. 228. Mark Taylor calls these traditional ways of doing theology ‘diachronistic strategies’ and accuses them of being crudely hegemonic in their total emphasis on ‘the historical process enduring legacy and appropriation of past traditions.’ By this Taylor argues theology is forced to ignore the more appropriate ‘synchronic strategies’ that pay attention to the present cultural and socio-political practices in the world: Mark K. Taylor ‘Celebrating Difference Resisting Domination: The Need for Synchronic Strategies in Theological Education’ in Shifting Boundaries pp. 259–293 pp. 260–268.‬


‭Hütter‘Christian Life’ p. 297.


‭Tanner‘Theological Reflection and Christian Practices’ p. 230.


‭Craig Dykstra‘Reconceiving Practice’ in Shifting Boundariespp. 35–66 p. 35.‬


‭Dykstra‘Reconceiving Practice’ p. 37. Also on the basicality of social sciences and the socio-cultural context’s role in the intelligibility and meaningfulness of any practice see Alasdair MacIntyre After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1981) Ch. 15.‬


‭Dykstra‘Reconceiving Practice’ p. 37. Italics are mine.‬


‭Dykstra‘Reconceiving Practice’ p. 58.


‭Duncan B. Forrester‘Divinity in Use and Practice,’ in Theology and PracticeD.B. Forrester (ed.) (London: Epworth Press 1990) pp. 3–9 p. 6. Forrester’s focus on the incarnational connotations of practice however seems to be taking him away from the task of transcending the duality into what may signify an over-emphasis on practice. Forrester contends that “if theology is compelled to choose between regarding itself as a ‘pure’ theoretical science in the Greek sense or a practical science … it cannot but opt for the latter for theology … consists in use and practice” (p. 7). Assuming such a choice-making framework begs dualistic thinking rather than transcends it. One can however understand this concern about practice from a theologian specialized in Ethics and practical theology. The problem starts when we reduce theology as a discipline or a church activity into mere practice or performance analysis.‬


‭Thus Sue PattersonRealist Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age (Cambridge: University Press1999) p. 35.‬


‭George A. LindbeckThe Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Post-liberal Age (London: SPCK1984) p. 31.‬


‭LindbeckThe Nature of Doctrine p. 16.


‭LindbeckThe Nature of Doctrine p. 69. Sue Patterson comments on Lindbeck’s above mentioned claim bay saying that the latter actually “fails to suggest how this accommodation and combination may be achieved”: Patterson Realist Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age p. 41. David Ford in his turn utters earlier than Patterson a similar critique of Lindbeck’s proposal: David Ford ‘System Story Performance’ in Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology S. Hauerwas and L.G. Jones (eds.) (Grand Rapids Mich: W.B. Erdmans Publishing company 1989) pp. 191ff.‬


‭William C. Placher‘Paul Ricoeur and Posliberal Theology’ in Modern Theology4 (1987) pp. 33ff. p. 46 and Sue Patterson Realist Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age p. 39 and Lindbeck The Nature of Doctrine p. 106 (pp. 66–67).‬


‭Anthony C. ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich/ Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans2007) p. 34.‬


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 38.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 37.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 63.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 63.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 65.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 77.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 162 (pp. 156–162).‬


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine pp. 451–487.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 455.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 461.


‭ThiseltonThe Hermeneutics of Doctrine p. 463.


‭Kevin VanhoozerThe Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, Ken: Westminster John Knox Press2005) p. 77.‬


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 78.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 79.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 81.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 81.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 83.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 85 what Vanhoozer speaks about as an ‘Epic’ nature of doctrine (pp. 84–91).‬


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 91 which expresses treating doctrine as ‘Lyric’ (pp. 91–93).‬


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 100.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 101.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 102.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 103.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 103.


‭Vanhoozer The Drama of Doctrine p. 103.


‭Webster‘The Self-organizing Power of the Gospel of Christ: Episcopacy and Community Formation’ p. 71.


‭VanhoozerThe Drama of Doctrine p. 105.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 23.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 24.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 28.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 39.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 41 (pp. 10ff.).‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 41.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 42 (pp. 42–44). This according to Hütter indicates evidently that ‘a concrete theological and ecumenically urgent substantive problem rather than a change of fashion in philosophy and theology prompted Lindbeck to formulate his own cultural-linguistic proposal’ (p. 42).‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 45; citing from Lindbeck The Nature of Doctrine p. 33.‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 45.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 56.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things pp. 46–47. Hütter detects this in what he considers to be Lindbeck’s failure to present an explicit and sufficiently examined hermeneutics on how the specific configurations of language and socially-shaped activity—which are regulative of human religiosity—can make the person an active participant in the churchly activities that are conducted by the religious Christian community for reflecting God’s redemptive actions.‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 216 nt. 45.‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 63. Why cannot theology according to Lindbeck’s model be free from such a tension? Hütter answers this question in the following way: ‘A consistently intra-textual theology implies that its ‘thick description’ is so encompassed and shaped by its object that it cannot examine itself thematically without at the same time examining thematically its pathic nature that is without understanding itself from the perspective of its object. Hence a consistently intra-textual theology cannot really abstract at all from the ‘simple talk’ of God without falling into self-contradiction. Even in its methodological self-explication intra-textual theology must remain theological that is explicitly oriented toward God’s activity It cannot avoid the question of its pathos.’ Earlier to Hütter Sue Patterson pointed at this extra/meta-theological nature of Lindbeck’s proposal in Sue Patterson Realist Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age p. 33 (pp. 33–52).‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 64.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 65.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 45.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 46.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 47.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 88.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 94.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 144.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 147.


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things pp. 153–158 where Hütter relies on John Zizioulas’ trinitarian analysis of truth by the help of the Greek patristic trinitarian ontology in Zizioulas Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1993). For an evaluation of Zizioulas’ trinitarian ontology and his interpretation of the Cappadocian trinitarian theology see Najeeb G. Awad ‘Between Subordination and Koinonia: toward a New Reading of the Cappadocian Theology’ in Modern Theology 2(23) 2007 pp. 181–204.‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 173; that is as an actualization of God’s promissio by means of a corresponsive vita passiva relationship with the triune God.‬


‭HütterSuffering Divine Things p. 175.


‭Hütter‘Hospitality and Truth: The Disclosure of Practice in Worship and Doctrine’ in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian LifeMiroslav Volf & Dorothy C. Bass (eds.) (Grand Rapids USA/Cambridge UK: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2002) pp. 206–227.‬


‭Hütter‘Hospitality and Truth’ p. 214.


‭Hütter‘Hospitality and Truth’ p. 223.


‭Hütter‘Hospitality and Truth’ p. 224.


‭Hütter‘Hospitality and Truth’ p. 224.


‭Volf‘Theology for a Way of Life’ p. 260.


‭Tanner‘Theological Reflection and Christian Practices’ p. 234.


‭Hütter‘The Knowledge of the Triune God: Practices, Doctrine, Theology’ in Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practice of the ChurchJames J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (eds.) (Grand rapids USA/Cambridge UK: Eerdmans 2001) pp. 23–48 p. 32.‬


‭Hütter‘The Knowledge of the Triune God’ p. 39. As a central claim Hütter suggests that “as the work of the Spirit the church participates in the Spirit’s sanctifying mission. In this sense the church is precisely the Spirit’s public.”‬


‭Hütter‘The Knowledge of the Triune God: Practices Doctrine Theology’ p. 23.


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