Thursday, December 30, 2010

Volf on The Goal of Academic Theology

Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological ReflectionAs I understand it, the goal of academic theology, as distinct from religious studies, goes beyond striving to understand the world of the Christian faith.  Theology seeks first to provide orientation to religious communities through critical and constructive engagement with their convictions, rituals, and practices....  Second, theology's goal is to shape how life is lived in the broader society, indeed on the whole globe, in the light of God's purposes for the world.  Church and society are the two main "publics" of academic theology, those for whom it endeavors to interpret reality so as to offer guidance about what  it means to live well before God.

My thoughts:
  1. This statement appears to be carefully crafted and broadly generic ("orientation," "religious communities,"to live well before God").  This allows for a broad consensus among a diverse readership.
  2. The first and last sentences do narrow the scope to "the Christian faith" and the "church".  So, the type of academic theology in question is limited to the Christian church.  I can live with this.
  3. The task of theology is typically defined as "the knowledge of God," or "the study of God."  Volf's definition is not here dealing with the task but first the goal of theology.  For Volf, the goal of theology extends beyond the internalization of facts to include behavior as a response to the knowledge of God.  This is similar to C. F. H. Henry's extended definition of the task of theology:
    "The proper task of theology is to exposit and elucidate the content of Scripture in an orderly way, and by presenting its teaching as an orderly whole to commend and reinforce the worship and service of God" (quoted by Gregory Alan Thornbury in his "Prolegomena: Introduction to the Task of Theology," in A Theology for the Church, edited by Daniel L. Akin [Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007], 54).
  4. Herman Bavinck is also careful to see beyond the mere task of theology to its ultimate goal.  He writes:
    "The task of dogmatic theology, in the final analysis, is nothing other than a scientific exposition of religious truth grounded in sacred Scripture.  Apologetic defense of this truth and ethical applications to Christian conduct both are based in and proceed from divine revelation and faith; they do not ground or shape faith.  Dogmatics and ethics are a unity, though they may be treated as distinct disciplines.  Dogmatics describes God's deeds for and in us; ethics describes what renewed human beings now do on the basis of and in the strength of these deeds" (Reformed Dogmatics [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003], 26).
  5. Thinking back to my reading of Barth's Evangelical Theology earlier this year, Barth addresses the task and goal of theology in a very thoughtful way.  It is no secret that Barth resisted the notion of systematic theology.  Rather, Barth was concerned with dogmatics and ethics rooted in biblical exegesis and made available to the community of faith through proclamation.  Similar to the above definitions, Barth identifies the task of theology as follows: "Dogmatics and ethics must function properly by considering the Word of God and by holding fast to the order, formation, architectonics, and theology prescribed at given times by this Word itself" (181). Regarding practical theology, Barth writes, "Theological speech is taught its content by exegesis and dogmatics, and it is given its form through the experiences of whatever psychology, sociology, or linguistics may be most trustworthy at a given time" (183).  Regarding the goal of theology, Barth writes,
    "the service of God and the service of man are the meaning, horizon, and goal of theological work.... If theological work is not to become sterile in all its disciplines, regardless of how splendidly it may develop at one point or another, it must always keep sight of the fact that its object, the Word of God, demands more than simply being perceived, contemplated, and meditated in this or that particular aspect.  What is demanded of theological work is the service of this word and attendance upon it.  This may not always be its primary goal, and often it is the most remote one, but it remains its ultimate and real goal" (187).
  6. Having set our sights on the goal of doing theology, Volf has prepared us to consider the simple, yet essential task of engaging Scripture as the source of theology.  I'll comment on this later.