Saturday, October 31, 2009

Christian Theology: Words about words about words?

How doth it appear that there is a God? The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.

- The Larger Catechism, Question 1.

I think you will agree, then, that no form of natural theology has ever spoken properly of the God who is there. None of the great Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, and none of the great modern philosophers, like Descartes, Kant, Hegel or Kierkegaard and others, have ever spoken of the God who is there.

- Cornelius Van Til to Francis Schaeffer, March 1969

Here’s an important question that you don’t often find discussed even in conservative and confessional Reformed circles. Namely, how can we be confident and assured that the discipline of theology, and the religion that lies behind it, has a subject-matter? How may we be confident that there is a God and Lord that our words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ refer to? This question is never discussed, or very rarely. To use Van Til’s language, how do we know that the God who is there, is there? It is assumed that the words do have success in referring beyond themselves. This is not the question of what is true in theology, but a more basic question, How can we be sure that there is truth or falsity in theology? There are allied questions to this which are often discussed, the question of personal assurance, and the cognitive status of Scripture, for example. But not this question.

A number of factors may jointly contribute to the production of this deafening silence. I suggest three, which I place (lest you wonder) in no particular order.

Anyone who has any experience of the theological discussion that prevails in academic departments of religion and theology will be familiar with the phenomenon of theological autonomy, the sociological phenomenon, I mean. The business of theology is conducted exclusively between theologians with rules that exclude or forbid raising questions of truth and falsity. It is a game, as its practitioners will often concede. Basil Mitchell has an amusing essay ‘How to Play Theological Ping-Pong’. It is this fact that develops in the minds of non-theologians the further thought that theology is ‘not a subject’, and which is slowly but surely contributing to the demise of university departments of theology. Why should tax-payers money be spent on word games? Academia has been at the centre of the flourishing of ‘trinitarian studies’ in the last few decades? Whose model of the trinity works? Eastern or Western? One that tends to tritheism or the opposite which tends to modalism? Is the trinity a model for human community, even for politics? All of these are good questions. But they are only good questions if there is first a satisfactory answer to the question, Have we reason to think that there is a God who is triune?

Secondly, since the Second World War, an influential strand of conservative theology has been in thrall to ‘presuppositionalism’, the view that only by positing or presupposing the existence of God, or the Scriptures and their account of God, is it possible to uphold the rationality of Christian belief and to show the weakness of all positions which do not make that presupposition. Maybe that is so. But in Reformed theology ‘presuppositionalism’ is a striking novelty. Historically speaking, Reformed theology has been somewhat relaxed on the question of offering the arguments of natural theology to prove the existence of God. But presuppositionalism as an apologetic outlook is a complete novelty in the history of Reformed theology. It is strange, then, that the need to hold this outlook has come to be, for some, a test of orthodoxy, even in circles which uphold the Westminster Confession which perhaps is silent on the question but if anything appears to deny it. The project of natural theology is relegated to the theological museum, and (somewhat paradoxically) presuppositionalism shares its rejection of natural theology with Karl Barth. Extremes meet.

But in the zeitgeist that now prevails, such presuppositionalism simply becomes another form of insulation, another word game, this time a Bible word game, one practiced in the Bible-believing community. Paradoxically, presuppositionalism fits snugly into the relativistic post-modern mindset in which sociology triumphs over theology. More formally, it relies on a coherence theory of truth, not surprisingly given the Roycian background of its most notorious practitioner, Cornelius Van Til.

Suppose that those who propound presuppositionalism had paid less attention to the requirement of rationality, and more attention to the questions of the reality of Christian theology as a discipline, questions of the reality and objectivity of the faith. My guess is that the guarantees afforded by what is presupposed would look a lot less copper-bottomed than they appeared to those who were interested exclusively in rationality.

Those seeking an answer to the question; do words such as ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ actually succeed in referring to anything? will find no relief from the more recent proposals of the Vanhoozers and the Frankes. For they more or less meekly follow the academic temper of the times, being almost exclusively concerned with the in-house language of the church. In Vanhoozer’s case this shows itself in linguistic terms, the langue of speech acts and language games and theodrama, the fine tuning of the language of faith. You will look in vain for any discussion of natural theology or natural religion. In Franke’s case the terms of the debate-are sociological, the local church and its language, first-order language, with the theologians’ job being to fine turn that language giving considerable attention in doing so to the ‘context’ in which church and theologians are each situated. Christians talk to each other, confessing their faith, participating in the drama. But is there really a drama? Is anyone out there? Is there a God who occupies reality beyond the limits of the Christian village, beyond the moat and the drawbridge, and all similar enclosures?

All these outlooks are certainly different, but they have in common what I shall call ‘theological autonomy’, the idea that (for whatever reason) theology is a distinct discipline which does not depend upon any others. That is, supposedly, its strength. It has insulated itself from intellectual attack. But may theology not be the Emperor who has no clothes rather than the Queen of the sciences?

Thankfully, there are straws in the wind that suggest that things are slowly but surely moving away from such theological autonomy, even among those with a historic confessional stance. Two publications have recently come my way which indicate this. David Vandrunen, who teaches at Westminster Seminary West, Escondido, California, has recently published Bioethics and the Christian (Crossway, 2009). Writing of the ‘common task’ of bioethics, he pleasds for recognition of the relation between Christian and secular ethics in terms of what Christian ethics has in common with the world, and of how God is revealed in his law in nature as well as in Scripture. This is in fact the latest of a series of more technical publications by Vandrunen on natural law in Reformed theology. He is also the author of A Biblical Case for Natural Law, (Grand Rapids, Mich. Acton Institute.)

The other publication is an essay ‘Natural Theology and the Westminster Confession of Faith’, by John. V. Fesko and Guy M. Richard, which may be found in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, III ed. Ligon Duncan, (Mentor, 2009. I have borrowed part of the letter of Van Til’s from this article.) This is an informative review of the place of natural theology and natural religion in some of the Reformers and some prominent Puritans, culminating in a study of the outlook of representative Westminster divines and of the Confession itself.

How are we to form the conviction that we may successfully refer to God, the God who is there? My general answer to this question, the age-old answer, is that grace builds on nature, it does not destroy it. I hope to follow this up in a number of Analyses that are to follow.