All Theology is Provisional

                Back when I took my theology courses in seminary with Colin Brown, we didn’t have a specific textbook. That’s because no single book could truly represent the breadth of Christian theology. So, he taught theology historically and encouraged us to develop our own theological perspectives. Being a historical theologian myself, that makes sense now and it made sense then. Along the way, I’ve engaged with a variety of theological traditions from Barth to Elizabeth Johnson. I will admit that I have found Karl Barth to be instructive and helpful in my journey. I’ve dabbled in the works of Paul Tillich, but have found him less influential. Recently, I completed reading Ruben Rosario Rodriguez’s Dogmatics after Babel, which is subtitled Beyond the Theology of Word and Culture. In other words, he invites us to consider the theological perspectives of Barth (Word) and Tillich (Culture), and then move beyond them to a more localized and provisional theology. I offer a quote from the book, which I think highlights his point. Then I’ll offer my own thoughts.
This book’s comparative analysis of the revelational (Barth) and anthropological (Tillich) approaches to constructive theology, by intentionally embracing a postfoundationalist theological epistemology, argues that consensus on the issue of Scripture’s authority, and its application to the contemporary situation, is not an attainable, or even desirable, goal of theological work. Rather, by recognizing the localized and contextual quality of all theological narratives—from the texts of Scripture to the most elaborate systematic theologies—this work honors the simple fact that “each moment, era, and epoch raises different questions about the nature, authority, and interpretation of Scripture, and how Scripture relates to tradition, reason, and experience.”[ Justin S. Holcomb, “Introduction: Mapping Theologies of Scripture,” in Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, ed. Justin S. Holcomb (New York: New York University Press, 2006), p. 3]. The resulting conception of systematic theology is one that views the history of Christianity as a series of local theologies grounded in and inspired by the historical “Christ event,” each engaged in critical discourse with one another, that when taken together form an intricate mosaic that provides a shared vision of the Christian faith, while acknowledging that no single tradition is the privileged interpreter of this event. Accordingly, as the human quest for knowledge of God, theology cannot have the “last word” on God but must propose answers to the questions of faith that are always provisional, with the understanding that dogmatic claims must continually undergo self-criticism in light of the Word of God. [Rodriguez, Ruben Rosario. Dogmatics after Babel. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition, loc. 1448-1459].
The key point here, in my estimation is the statement regarding systematic theology being a “series of local theologies grounded in and inspired by the historical ‘Christ event.’” These local theologies, Rodriguez suggests, when taken together, form a mosaic. Again this appeals to my rather eclectic view of theology. I think we benefit as Christians when we engage this mosaic.

                Back when I was in seminary, I discovered Karl Barth but I also discovered Liberation Theology. I read Jon Sobrino and Jose  Miguez Bonino, among others. Then I took a class on women and men in ministry and read Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. This was only the beginning of a journey of discovery that has taken me into a wide variety of theological traditions, including ancient ones---like Gregory of Nyssa and others). So, here I am a Barthian/Open and Relational Theologian, who finds Liberation Theology an important contributor, and is open to creeds, serving in a non-creedal denomination! Does that make sense?

             This is why I appreciate Rodriguez’s reminder that in the human quest for knowledge of God, “theology cannot have the ‘last word’ on God but must propose answers to the questions of that are always provisional.” That doesn’t mean that everything is relative, it’s just that it is provisional and that it must always engage in self-criticism in light of the Word of God. That word, as Barth reminds us includes Scripture, but it’s not Scripture alone. It is good to remember the opening lines of the Gospel of John, which declares that Christ is the Word. For us Christians, Christ provides the light by which we discern a path forward.

                As we sometimes said of Colin Brown, he might not be a Process Theologian, but he was a theologian in process. I would say, in light of Rodriguez’s words, that this would be a good place for us all to be in. We can learn from the mosaic of theologies, listening to them, to discern (always provisionally) an understanding of who God is. 


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