Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Adventures in Ecumenism (II) - Inter-Church vs. Inter-Religious Dialogue

One of the most engaging panels at the recent ecumenical gathering at Oberlin dealt with religious pluralism. During the Q&A session, it became clear that there was some confusion and concern over the place of inter-religious dialogue within the church's ecumenical task. During and after this discussion, a number of alternatives presented themselves concerning the relation between inter-church dialogue and inter-religious dialogue.

(1) Inter-Church Dialogue, Good; Inter-Religious Dialogue, Bad. Some expressed concern that we would even speak of inter-religious dialogue at all. The purpose of ecumenism is to unite the churches for common witness and mission. This witness and mission is directed to the world, which includes other religions. Dialogue undermines this witness, and so should be avoided.

(2) From Narrower to Wider Ecumenism. Others indicated that the call to embrace the whole household (oikomene) of God cannot stop with other Christians but must press on to all people. And so inter-religious dialogue is the logical extention of inter-church dialogue. The difference between the two dialogues is primarily quantitative: more are included in the later.

(3) Distinct Tasks Differentiated by Distinct Goals. One participant suggested that both forms of dialogue are appropriate and share certain formal similarities, but at bottom the two can be differentiated by their goals. The goal of inter-church dialogue is full communion, whereas the goal of inter-religious dialogue is mutual understanding and cooperation. Perhaps the goals of each task could be construed differently than this, but you get the idea of how the two could be differentiated with rejecting one or conflating both.

Any thoughts?
Are there some fundamental options I have neglected to mention?
Are you inclined toward any of these ways of thinking? Why?
Do you have any additional thoughts about the relation of these dialogues?

Adventures in Ecumenism (I) - Revealing Questions

This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in an ecumenical conference held at Oberlin College in Ohio to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Faith and Order in the United States. The papers and discussions are worthy of extended reflection, and so I am going to share some stories and thoughts over the next few weeks in a series entitled "Adventures in Ecumenism."

One particular afternoon during a discussion group, a young Lutheran minister asked for clarification on the notion of "apostolic power," a term which had been mentioned a few times earlier that day. A few of us from Holiness and Pentecostal traditions explained how we speak of the power of the apostles being given to believers today. After hearing this explanation, the young collared Lutheran asked a Texan Pentecostal, "And how is it conferred?"

Now it took us a while to even answer this question, because the question itself presupposed forms of institutional mediation foreign to the traditions that speak of apostolic power. Because of this, the question itself turned out to be more interesting than the answer. It is an example of a revealing question: one which tells us more about a person's commitments and concerns than a summary of belief could ever do. The take-away for the practice of dialogue is that we not only learn about others through asking good questions, but we also learn about others through listening to their questions.

Any thoughts?
Can you think of examples of revealing questions in the context of ecumenical encounter?
What revealing questions do you find yourself asking regularly? What do they reveal?
How can we unveil the deeper meaning behind someone's question in a gracious way that does not merely reject their question?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How should we organize doctrines?

The discussion following last week's post (concerning when to bring up the trinity) revealed that some might object to the premise of the question. The question seemed to presuppose that one should bring up doctrinal topics one-by-one. However, this is not the only way to think, write and teach theologically. So, let me step back and raise the prior question: how should organize doctrines?

Note that I am restricting this question to doctrinal theology, recognizing that there are many other aspects to the theological task (exegetical, historical, practical, etc.). However, I am narrowing our attention to the question of doctrinal organization not only for the sake of time and space but also because doctrinal theology is especially interested in the question of the organization of topics. This is one reason why doctrinal theology is also called "systematic" theology. This concern arises from the fact that organizational decisions can have material consequences. So this is not only an aesthetic or pedagogical question (though it includes these concerns).

A few organizational options come immediately to mind. Note that these may be overlapping, and so it is no surprise that some of the greatest minds in Christian history transcend the boundaries of these categories. But thinking about the basic alternatives is a good exercise.

(1) Topical. A long-standing way of organizing doctrines for teaching and writing is to move one-by-one through the main topics of doctrinal theology. This is also known as the Loci method (most likely traceable to Philip Melanchthon's Loci Communes). The strength of this approach is its clarity of presentation and balanced focus on numerous theological questions. The risk is that one may disconnect the various topics from one another and thereby fall short of a robustly systematic theology.

(2) Foundational. Another approach is to take either a specific doctrine or a particular perspective (philosophical, contextual, etc.) as one's starting point. This starting point might be located at the beginning of a theological text or course, and/or may be reiterated throughout. The point is that every doctrine is at least controlled by if not derived from this starting point. The strength of this approach is the consistency that tends to flow from it. The danger is that one may choose the starting point point poorly. In fact, even a good starting point can spoil doctrines by exercising tyrannical control over one's thought.

(3) Architectonic. One more way to organize doctrines is to interrelate them to one another in a larger superstructure. This could be done by means of broad categories which include doctrines, perhaps placing doctrinal topics in parallel sequences. Such an architectonic organization could perhaps be drawn by a diagram with major categories and sub-categories within each category. The advantage here is all the doctrines would be interrelated without one doctrine or perspective controlling every detail. The disadvantage is that some important topics might slip through the cracks because they do not fit neatly into the architecture. Furthermore, one might become intoxicated by the aesthetic appeal of certain organizational decisions to the point of distraction from the main task of expositing Christian doctrine.

Any thoughts?
Does organization matter? Why or why not?
Are there any options I have neglected?
What are some additional strengths and weaknesses of each approach?
Which approach appeals to you? Why?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

When should we bring up the Trinity?

I have been asking myself when we should bring up the doctrine of the trinity. I am asking this question for a number of overlapping contexts: christian education, theology courses, textbooks, systematic theologies, etc. When should it come up? When does it make sense to come up? Where does it best fit? Where does it do its best work?

Here are some options that come to mind:

(1) At the end of the Doctrine of God. This is probably the most "traditional" place for the doctrine of the trinity. After introducing the subject of theology and discussing God's existence, nature and attributes, one turns to the persons in God to round out the doctrine of God. The advantage here is that one has the trinity up an running early without having to deal with it too early. The disadvantage is that it might give the impression that all the stuff before the trinity is just about "god-in-general" and not the specifically Christian God.

(2) Piecemeal. Another option is to address the doctrine of the trinity in pieces: first the Father under the doctrine of God at the beginning, then the Son under the doctrine of salvation in the middle, and finally the Spirit in conjunction with ecclesiology and eschatology. The advantage here is one is that the complex and cumulative character of trinity doctrine is respected and utilized. The disadvantage is that God's triunity may be split up into parts in the process. Plus, the terminology and concepts needed for trinitarian reflection are deeply intertwined and so may need to stay together to make sense.

(3) First. One way to deal with the problems in both of the above approaches is to front-load the doctrine of the trinity so that it controls all our theological language. The advantage here is that the specificity of the Christian God is emphasized and the triune shape of all theological language can be thereafter perceived. The disadvantage is that, if one is not careful, the trinity doctrine appears to just fall out of the sky without reference to the full history of salvation. Additionally, trinitarian ideas are some of the most demanding and do not make for good "introductory" material.

(4) Last. Another way to deal with the problems above is to do the opposite: put the doctrine of the trinity at the end as a triumphant conclusion of sorts. The advantage here is that the complex and cumulative character of trinity doctrine is respected and utilized yet without splitting the doctrine into pieces. Plus, one will be more ready for the demands of trinity doctrine at the end of theological inquiry rather than the beginning. The serious disadvantage is that the trinity could become a forgotten appendix and the trinitarian shape of all theological language would be at best implicit.

Any thoughts?
Are there any other good options I have overlooked?
Which of these options appeal to you? Why?
Should any of these options be ruled out? Why?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Theological Photo Album: The Seven Ecumenical Councils

During my recent visit to Turkey, we managed to visit the sites of the seven ecumenical councils. Check out these pictures.

1. Nicaea (325)

2. Constantinople (381)

3. Ephesus (431)

4. Chalcedon (451)

5. Constantinople (553)

6. Constantinople (680-1)

7. Nicaea (787)

Any thoughts?