Thursday, September 13, 2007

Does the Structure Matter in Theology?

I just took a qualifying exam in systematic theology yesterday. You can click here to read the whole thing posted at The Writing of John Drury. In my first essay, I try to show why structure matters in theology by drawing on the work of Schleiermacher and Barth. I've been thinking about some objections one my raise to caring about structure. I hear these sorts of objections regularly. I thought it would be worth replying to a few of them here at drulogion, since I often bring up issues concerning the order of presentation in theology.

One could argue that consideration of structure is merely aesthetic. Now there is nothing wrong with aesthetics, but if structure is merely aesthetic then it would not matter materially. This sort of criticism could be especially leveled against Schleiermacher, for he makes explicit reference to aesthetic concerns in his Letters to Dr. Lucke on the Glaubenslehre. However, the impression that any ordering would result in the same material exposition is a false one. As we have seen in the case of Schleiermacher, the differences in the doctrine of God between Part I and Part II indicate that structure has material consequences. Since structural decisions set certain limits on what can and cannot be said, then such conditions are more than merely aesthetic; they are materially significant.

One could also argue that structural decisions are ultimately arbitrary. What really matters is one's material exposition of doctrine, and not how such expositions are organized. If organization still manages to condition the material, perhaps structure could be viewed as pernicious and systematic presentations of doctrine should be abandoned. Barth raised this very issue with reference to the motto methodus est arbitraria. What he means by this statement is not that one is free to organize one's thoughts according one's fancy, but rather that material doctrinal decisions are ultimately more important than the formal shape of dogmatics. This qualification, however, does not undermine the claim that structure matters. Rather, the primacy of one's material commitments should guide one's formal structure so that other material commitments are made possible by it rather than obstructed or obscured.

Finally, one could argue that a focus on structure ignores context. All this talk of systematic structure betrays an "ivory tower" approach to theology that is detached from the ecclesial and sociopolitical realities of one's time and place. Now it is certainly true that a sole consideration of structure might lead one to ignore context. However, such a disconnect between context and structural concerns is not necessary. First of all, one could attend to contextual factors without incorporating them structurally. This may be particularly advisable if one's work is spread over many years in which context inevitably changes. Secondly, one could find structural ways of incorporating context. Tillich's method of correlation would be one obvious instance of such an incorporation. Finally, there may in fact be contextual factors that give rise to structural decisions. Schleiermacher's architectonic draws heavily on his understanding of religious experience under the conditions of modernity. So, the theological significance of context does not undermine the fact that structure matters.

Any thoughts?
Does structure matter?
Are these adequate replies to the objections raised?
What other objections could be raised against the concern for structure?
_

14 comments:

WTM said...

Congratz on being done with the comp!

"Rather, the primacy of one's material commitments should guide one's formal structure so that other material commitments are made possible by it rather than obstructed or obscured."

Right on.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

John, it becomes obvious to me, in reading your systematic exam, that since the Reformation, each individual "makes his commitment" based upon his own understanding of "theology"...That task of "doing theology" is done with the individual's contextual understanding ( personal history, i.e. nationality, family upbringing, memories, etc.) for that is what "meaning-making is"...

The Church in modernity and in postmodernity, then, ceases to have "power" to determine over another person what "truth claims" can be...unless the Church "structure" is deemed "powerful" by the individual...and that is "personal conviction and commitment". Then, the Church is in the "place" to educate the individual with "tradition"...Faith ceases to determine "truth" for it is determined in the "coucils of the authoritarian structure of the Church"...back to Roman Catholicism...and "obedience to an "outward authority"...

The challenge becomes the "power of power" in the Church...does the Church determine for the individual everything? Or is the individual "free" to discourse, struggle, or differ and take responsibility for himself?

I do not believe the Church should be in the business of making "choices" for the individual, but helping to guide the individual....How is the Church to determine if it is becoming cultish....is there "accountability" where she is concerned?

JohnLDrury said...

Angie,

The relationship between individual and community is an important one. Click here and here for some discussion of the matter. However, I'd like to focus our discussion here on the topic of this post: the formal organization of theological writing. So, let me reiterate my questions:

Does structure matter?
Are these adequate replies to the objections raised?
What other objections could be raised against the concern for structure?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I'm sorry, I thought of the "practical implications of the structural question...

Barth began his task of theology as a conservative would, with doctrine (of the Trinity) in mind. That formulates into the structural outworkings of the Church (the structure of Roman Catholicism in hierarchal views of leadership) because Barth's understanding (if I remember correctly) was on transcendence, which is an ontological view of Trinity ....Whereas, ending with doctrine (the Trinity), would be formation of the individual within the context of structure (which is the "economic" understanding of the Trinity within "time"). Wouldn't this "fit" a more Eastern understanding of Trinity?...And within the confines of Church structure, the individual would be trained according to Scriptural "instructions" (?) to be equipped for works of service....which is mission...

In Fowler's understanding of faith development...the symbol is not the "real"...it is faith that is real and that faith is in God in a "religious context", but formulated differently, depending on what we ultimately place our faith in...that is the frame of our "faith"....reason, experience, Scripture, tradition....

In the moral development of Lawrence Kohlberg, where an understanding of social contract is of higher development than the conventional "religious" stage, an individual understands faith commitments to be an undertaking of responsibility for the development of morality based upon an ethical system...which is individualy determined based upon value commitments..and the priotizes of those values...which are usually culturally determined...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

or contextually driven....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't want to monopolize your blog, but this is an important issue..
Didn't Rahner's Rule say that the economic and immanent Trinity "models" were interchangable...which maintains the distinctiveness of Christianity from Judiasm...at least in the understanding of the God-head as revealed in the Trinity....versus Jewish ethical humanism...

In Neo-Scholasticism the Trinity was irrelevant to faith...and faith is open-ended in postmodernity...and faith is the "issue" or foundation of postmodern faith...so it becomes, faith in faith...and not in God...

Jesus, as the "Son of God", was a "moral model", who brought a unity of Jewish ethical humanism to "religion" proper...which was "revelation" to the Jews (which they rejected) and the Gentiles (who "heralded him as "God")....

David Drury said...

John... sorry for my long absence from Drulogion this summer during my transition... I've missed it whether you've missed my comments or not. :-)

As to your question on "whether structure matters"...

As yourself I grew up Wesleyan and had/have a great appreciation for John Wesley. However, once I began to seriously read John Calvin in Seminary I was drawn in to his highly structured approach (at least in comparison to Wesley's, well--unstructured approach, you might say.)

I'm not sure that lend creedance to the idea of structure having an effect on the material at hand--or if it simply says that structure is better than no structure. The latter may be the case, because in the end I stayed a Wesleyan and never read the Institutes anymore (although Calvin's commentaries I still check in with).

-DD

melissa said...

I've been spending some time with this question and I think that structure matters insomuch as it shows us something of the mind of the theologian. Calvin had a highly organized theology and, I am led to believe, a highly organized mind. John Wesley--not so much--which can be seen in his history, i.e. running off to America, running back to England, his horrid marriage, etc. That does not negate in any way the content of the theology--it just shows us what to expect when we read it. This becomes very important for a student, since a student reads for understanding. (by student, I don't just mean someone enrolled in school, but anyone who would study that particular work).

Those are my rather non-intellectual thoughts on the matter.

JohnLDrury said...

I'm not sure I buy this business about Calvin being organized and Wesley not. I think they are both systematic in their thinking and occasionalist, pragmatic, and biblical in their writing.

On the one hand, despite their overall structure, Calvin's Institutes are full of sub-treatises that are occasioned by particular controversies more than a necessary step in his logic (e.g., the Osiander stuff in the Justification materail, Bk III). Furthermore, his main passion were his biblical commentaries.

On the other hand, despite his lack of a single systematic work paralleling the Institutes, Wesley's published standard Sermons were numbered not chronologically, but logically. This ordering reveals his priorities and the structure of his thought. E.g., he begins with selection on the new birth and justification, then turns to the Christian life and the law of Christ, then, interestingly, speaks of God's attributes and triunity (significantly NOT his starting point), then addresses some challenges of the mature Christian, and concludes with some eschatological and cosmic sermons.

This deconstruction of our usual perceptions of the difference between Wesley and Calvin is not meant to counter the fact that there is a certain "practical" orientation to Wesley, but that his practicality is not achieved at the expense of systemic thinking but is in fact expressed through it!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

John, isn't this "paradigm" one of Scripture (as "the "WORD" of God) and experience?....Where is REASON AND TRADITION? Since Scripture is reduced to Tradition in postmodernity, is that the "problem" you are trying to address?

David Drury said...

I see your reasoning, John, when it comes to lessoning the "organized perception" out there regarding Calvin, and the "disorganized perception" regarding Wesley.

I can be persuaded of that today... but as a 22 year old Seminarian I wouldn't have bought that at half off. Just a taste of systematics felt like finally understanding Chess after years of tiddly-winks.

Of course, every kid in the world should play tiddly-winks... but many of those that play Chess in the end go clinically insane.

-David

P.S.: And just so there is clarity, my argument here is entirely from the Experience monolateral.

JohnLDrury said...

Dave,

I totally agree that it would be hard to have any other first impression of Wesley. My only concern is that a second glance is so seldom taken simply because those who teach Wesley often celebrate his occasionalism. I share your experience of tasing overt systematics for the first time via the another tradition (first Lutheran, then Reformed). It wasn't until two years ago that I first heard someone identify the logical structure of Wesley's standard sermons. Until then, I used to hide behind the "Wesley is not systematic" wall too. The problem with playing that card is that it is too often an excuse to avoid rigor or comparison. Certainly Wesleyans do theology differently than other traditions. But we are not so unsystematic that no dialogue is even possible. I at least hope not.

D.W. Congdon said...

Congrats on finishing your comp, John! I thoroughly enjoyed reading through it.

Michael R. Cline said...

Your essay has a lot to say to the debate of "contextualized theology" being the "mother of theology."

If we're being current, we'd say "missional theology" is the "mother of all theology."

I recently took a course on contextualizing and globalizing the gospel. The prof was very keen on the idea that systematic theology is the "ivory tower," an idea foreign to the early church who "did" theology as problems arose.

My main point of contention with the prof. was that in the "missional" approach, there is no undergirding, no structure. The boundaries are non-existent. Systematic theology is not an end in itself, but neither is missional theology. They need each other.

All of this comes to a question: what role do you see "narrative theology" playing in this discussion? Could it possibly bridge the gap? And to what degree do you think Wesley dabbled in early narrative theologizing? (anachronistic I know)