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Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context
~Stanley J. Grenz , John R. Franke
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Product Information

Media: Paperback
ISBN/ASIN : 0664257690
Manufacturer : Westminster John Knox Press
Release data : October, 2000

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    1 star1 star1 star1 starNo star    Some Good Insights, but Vague and not too Original

    In this book, Grenz and Franke attempt to articulate a sound theological method that addresses the postmodern context. There are certainly some great strides made in that direction in this book, but there are also some significant shortcomings. In what follows, I will try to outline both the strides and the shortcomings of "Beyond Foundationalism" in some sort of fair and even-handed way.

    First, the strides taken in this book toward developing a sound theological method to address the postmodern context.

    1) Grenz and Franke are, I think very much on the right track when they honestly take stock of the empistemic shortcomings of foundationalism and external (naïve) realism that have for the most part dominated evangelical theologizing since the 19th century. The insights of social constructionists, communitarians and deconstructionists are (or should be) very important for theologians to consider and engage in constructing a theological method. Grenz and Franke do just that. This is a much more refreshing and helpful approach than the militant, overblown and often blatantly uninformed responses to postmodernism by evangelicals like Millard Erickson and Douglas Groothius.

    2) Grenz and Franke also hit on some very important theological foci for determining the nature of a theological method. Their reflections on Scripture, Tradition and Culture are a welcome change from typically blind and dogmatic evangelical biblicism.

    3) Also, Grenz and Franke's use of Trinitarian theology for informing the structure and content of theological refelction is very laudable and necessary. For far too long evangelical theology has been committed primarily to the doctrine of the "one god" unitarianly conceived, rather than the triune God of the biblical narrative. While, Grenz and Franke's use of the Trinity in theology is hardly cutting edge (European theologians have been doing Trinitarian theology since Barth), it is helpful to the evangelical audience.

    4) In addition, the motif of community, while somewhat overdone, is an important corrective to the rampant individualism that still characterizes evangelical theology. Moreover, the authors are careful to ground theology in specifically Christian understandings of community rather than generic forms of community as such.

    5) Finally, the desire for theology to maintain an eschatological orientation and focus, is very laudable and helps to reverse the abysmal and often simply silly and stupid overemphasis on false conceptions of eschatology that characterize much of popular evangelicalism (i.e. the "Left Behind" series).

    However, there are a number of shortcomings in Grenz and Franke's work as well.

    1) While the authors dance on the grave of foundationalism (rightly so), I'm not sure the alternative that they offer is clearly defined and argued. While they point to the insights of social constructionists and communitiarians, combined with coherence and pragmatic insights, often using Quine's metaphor of the "web of belief", they do not clearly define their understanding of a properly theological epistemology. Their notion of an "eschatological realism" (derived from Pannenberg) is very promising and helpful, but it is not explored in depth. The authors greatly need to clarify their epistemic proposals in light of their critique of foundationalism.

    2) There is a significant lack of engagement with sophisticated contemporary thinkers that would likely oppose Grenz and Franke's proposal. In particular, the substantial work of Alvin Plantinga is neglected. Commensurate with this, their description and appropriation of Reformed Epistemology, is I think a far cry from how Reformed Epistemologists would characterize their position. Also, there is a surprising lack of engagement with postmodern continental philosophy. Derrida and Heidegger are scarcely mentioned in the book, let alone engaged. It seems that the authors are simply engaging Anglo-American postmodernity, rather than the full spectrum of major postmodern movements.

    3) In their constructive work on Scripture, Grenz and Franke's argument that the Spirit simply appropriates the biblical text, thus making it authoritative is not at all convincing. Moreover, their use of Speech-Act theory to argue for this approach simply makes some substantial mistakes. They argue that the Spirit "speaking through Scripture" is the illocutionary act, leading to the perlocutionary effect of the Spirit "creating world." However, they forget the speaking is not an illocutionary act, rather an illocutionary act is what is done in speaking. Thus, they never make clear what the relationship is between the words of the text itself (and the communicative intent of the author, which they simply dismiss without argument) and the work of the Spirit. The work of Kevin Vanhoozer is far superior and better argued in regard to the question of Scripture, the Spirit and authority.

    4) Also, the author's focus on community, while helpful in many ways, ends up eclipsing the Kingdom of God as the integrative motif of theology. They claim that the kingdom of God is contentless and as such cannot be theology's integrative motif. However, this is only true if one ignores the massive material in Scripture on the nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom does indeed have content (including community!), but that content must be gleaned from interpreting the biblical narrative. Grenz and Franke simply subsume the Kingdom into community, rather than following what I take to be the biblical picture in which the reverse is the case.

    5) Finally, and this a recurring frustration I have with Grenz's work, all throughout, there is an annoying vagueness in their descriptions and proposals that sometimes becomes careless. The vagueness in their proposals, makes this book a much better critique of inferior positions than a work in constructive theological reflection. This is compounded with a tendency to be extremely repetitive. Some of the sections in this book are simply cut and pasted from Grenz's earlier work, and in a couple of cases from within the book itself! I can't help but find this tendency in Grenz's scholarship to be a disappointment.

    This is certainly an important work and should be read, but it is hardly the final word, or even a definitive word on the nature of theological method in the postmodern conext. While, it contains much in the way of helpful and thought stirring reflections on contemporary culture and theology, it is also a bit unoriginal an vague.

    In addition to this book, I recommend: James K.A. Smith, "The Fall of Interpretation", Kevin Vanhoozer, "Is There a Meaning in this Text?", "First Theology", and Colin Gunton, "The Promise of Trinitarian Theology."

    1 star1 starNo starNo starNo star    Not a compelling proposal for evangelical theology

    Stanley Grenz and John Franke have suggested a provocative proposal for construing theological method in the postmodern context. The impetus for their proposal comes from the widely perceived collapse of the modernist worldview and the resultant and contemporary postmodern cultural setting. The authors suggest that the traditional theological categories of "liberal" and "conservative" no longer function as adequate typologies because of the fragmentation occurring within both camps. The authors also argue that these typologies fail to take into account those theologians in both camps who reject traditional modernist assumptions and who desire to take the postmodern cultural milieu seriously. In light of these factors, the authors have proposed a new theological method which construes the theological task as a conversation among three participants (Scripture, tradition, and culture), which form the sources for theology in their proposal. Additionally, the authors argue that there are three focal motifs (a Trinitarian content, a communitarian focus, and an eschatological orientation) that provide coherence to their scheme and which make theology distinctively Christian.

    Grenz and Franke conceive of theology as the product which emerges from a dialogue among three participants: Scripture, tradition, and culture. Although they construe theology as a dialogue among these participants, they nevertheless argue for the priority of one of the conversational partners (Scripture), by presenting it as the normative and final authority for the church. It is important to note though that the authors make a significant qualification with regard to the nature of the Bible's authority. They argue that the normative authority of the Bible does not come from the text of Scripture in and of itself, but rather derives from the voice of the Spirit who speaks to us through the text today. The authors posit that the Spirit appropriates the text and declares His message to the church (thus performing an illocutionary act), and by doing this the Spirit creates the new community of renewed people (thus performing a perlocutionary act). By receiving the message of the Spirit speaking through the text, "the contemporary church becomes the contemporary embodiment of the paradigmatic biblical narrative." Additionally, as the church receives the message of the Spirit in reference to the future new creation God intends to bring about, the new community receives a distinctively Christian interpretive framework that forms it's perceptions of reality and life. Therefore, in this proposal, the Spirit speaking through text serves an essential identity forming function for the church.

    The authors acknowledge that their proposal of tightly linking the authority of the Bible to the concept of illumination might appear to open the door to subjectivism, but they believe that are able to avoid this conclusion by appealing to the priority of the community over the individual. One must ask, however, if this explanation really does remove the threat of subjectivism (which may in fact be an innate characteristic of adopting any form of a non-foundationalist epistemology). Although the authors argue that Scripture's status as divine revelation does not depend on an individual recognition of the Spirit's voice as speaking through it, it does depend on a communal reception as the community of the church testifies that God speaks through the Bible. And yet, this explanation seems to suffer from two difficulties. First, in light of the diversity of Christian communities (particularly with regard to how different communities understand the extent of the canon), one must ask to which community would an individual look for the answer to the question of what books the Spirit is speaking through (i.e., is the Spirit speaking through Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, The Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch)? Second (and perhaps this is the formal cause of the first difficulty), it seems that merely widening the sphere of receptivity from the individual to the community doesn't solve the dilemma of subjectivity. Certainly it can be admitted that widening the sphere from the individual to the community lends to an appearance of decreasing subjectivity, but what is one to make of the differing conclusions with regard to the Spirit's message from the widely divergent communities themselves? Has the problem of subjectivity really been minimized in this schema? This reviewer cannot help but think that it has not. Therefore, while this reviewer appreciates the emphasis on the priority accorded to Scripture in their proposal, it's tight and inextricable linkage between the authority of the Bible and the concept of illumination seems unable to surmount the challenge of subjectivity that is inherent in their proposal.

    Grenz and Franke argue that tradition also serves as a source of theology (as a conversational partner together with Scripture and culture). This follows from the previous assertion that the Spirit speaks to the contemporary church through the Word to create world. As history unfolds, Christians today recognize that God has spoken to the church of the past. Therefore, Christians today form only a part of the Spirit's ongoing dialogue with the believing community throughout history. In this scheme, Christian tradition serves as a contemporary referent, helping the present-day church maintain continuity with the Christian community of the past and also helping to avoid the dangers they encountered. Additionally, the trajectory of the past not only looks backward, but also serves as a forward-looking referent, suggesting new ways of articulating the Christian belief-mosaic in a contemporary setting. Additionally, Grenz and Franke present a broader understanding of the concept of inspiration, construing the concept as inclusive of the community bringing the canon together as the book of the Christian community.

    Although Grenz and Franke make a helpful contribution by reminding the church of the essential place of tradition in contemporary expressions of theology, their proposal concerning the role and nature of tradition appears to have a number of difficulties. First, they appear to offer a discordant portrait concerning the authority of tradition. In one instance they argue for the fundamental inseparability of Scripture and tradition by stating: "the authority of both scripture and tradition is an authority derived from the work of the Spirit. Each is part of an organic unity, so that even though scripture and tradition are distinguishable, they are fundamentally inseparable."

    In a later instance, they appear to separate and subjugate tradition to Scripture when they argue: "Despite their great stature [i.e., the past creeds, past confessions, and theological formulations], such resources do not take the place of canonical scripture as the community's constitutive authority."

    The difference in perspective appears to arise as a result of the authors' understanding of what constitutes tradition. They take a negative view of tradition when it is understood from the perspective of fixed past confessional stances of the church, referring to such an understanding of tradition as "static." They take a positive view of tradition when it is understood from the perspective of "the ongoing deposit of `wisdom' emerging from this dynamic movement of the community under the Spirit's guidance." In these two different conceptions of tradition, the first (the "static" view) is definable and concrete (as it is encapsulated in the past creeds and confessions of the church), while the second (the "dynamic" view) appears to be nebulous and abstract.

    A second difficulty arises from the wide diversity of Christian traditions, which raises the question of which tradition forms the trajectory for an individual confused by the varying competing Christian traditions. If the authors respond that traditions are merely local and function for particular communities (thus together forming the complex "mosaic of faith" throughout history), the question is still relevant for observers from outside the Christian community who are not part of a traditional trajectory. Which traditional trajectory would or should an outside observer consider as they seek to investigate or engage the Christian worldview? Would such a decision be merely arbitrary? The apparently arbitrary and subjective nature of emphasizing the local over the universal seems to result in a relativistic trap.

    The final conversational partner in theological formulation in the Grenz-Franke proposal is culture, which serves as the particular context of the Spirit speaking to the church through Scripture. Additionally, Grenz and Franke argue that the voice of the Spirit can be discerned through the media of culture, especially in light of Pannenberg's insight that "all truth ultimately comes together in God." The implication of this is quite significant for the practice of theological reflection as "theology draws from all human knowledge, for in doing so it demonstrates the unity of truth in God." Therefore, theology will become interdisciplinary as it draws from the insights of various contemporary disciplines. Additionally, an awareness of our own contextual placement ought to encourage us to reconsider our own understanding of the Christian faith.

    This area of the proposal is the one that this reviewer had the most difficulty with. Grenz and Franke's work serves to remind us of the contextual nature of our own situation (and the contextual nature in which Scripture was written and which tradition developed), which is helpful. A neglect of these basic truths may lead to theological presumption as a reader privileges a particular reading of Scripture without justifiable warrant (usually via a bald claim that the reading represents the "natural" reading of the text).

    On the other hand, the assertion that the Spirit's voice can (and should) be discerned through the media of culture seems to be a claim without justifiable warrant. Additionally, the Bible seems at times to present the insights from contemporary culture in contrast and in opposition to the truth of God (cf. 1 Cor 3:19-20), which raises the difficulty of distinguishing between genuine expressions of God's voice in culture versus competing voices that do not represent the truth of God.

    This reviewer also has difficulty with the concept of culture as a "source" of theology, particularly since the claim that God speaks through culture in ways that we can authoritatively appeal to seems to rest on such a questionable foundation. This reviewer prefers to understand the role of culture in theology as providing contemporary categories and forms of thought (because we are situated in a particular cultural context) which serve to communicate God's truth from Scripture (which was given in a different cultural context).

    The authors conclude their proposal by outlining the three focal points of theology that provide coherence to their paradigm and which, they argue, constitute a particular theology as distinctively Christian. The authors argue that the Trinity forms the structural motif for theology, and that any theology that claims to be Christian must be Trinitarian in content since it "reflects the biblical narrative, dominates the Christian tradition, and resonates with the cultural moment." The authors argue that the Trinity not only provides the content of theology, but also serves in a structural capacity so that the Trinity stands at the very center of the theological enterprise and is in essential dialogue with every theological loci.

    It should be noted that the authors distinguish their categories of thought concerning the Trinity from the traditional categories describing the metaphysical substance of the Godhead. They prefer to use the categories of relationality, and reference contemporary theologians as criticizing the traditional emphasis on the property of the Divine essence.

    Since the Bible reveals God as Trinity, and since the church has confessed this truth throughout history, it is appropriate to acknowledge this key doctrine as a distinguishing characteristic of authentic Christianity. This reviewer has some difficulty with some aspects of their proposal however. First, the authors criticize the traditional categories of substance when defining the Trinity in preference for relational categories. Although it may indeed be helpful to describe the Trinity in relational terms, to do so independent of the discussion of substance (such as distinguishing between the plurality of Persons and the one Divine essence or substance) runs the risk of sacrificing a monotheistic commitment (i.e., relationality implies plurality, but says nothing about the inseparable unity of the Godhead). Second, while the Trinity certainly can and should function as a distinguishing criterion for authentic Christianity, is it alone a sufficient distinctive able to separate Christian theology from non-Christian theology? What is the warrant for limiting the criterion for what is authentic Christianity to an affirmation of God as Trinity? Should key questions with regard to soteriology, for example, be brought to bear in answer to the question of what constitutes authentic Christianity? Further, the authors admit that revising the exact content of the doctrine of the Trinity can and should be an important part of the Christian agenda. The danger of such an open posture, however, seems to be the lack of any objective criteria by which one may determine at what point such revisions render a particular stance as ceasing to be Trinitarian in any meaningful sense of the word.

    In addition to presenting Trinitarianism as the structuring motif of their theological enterprise, Grenze and Franke argue that community serves as the central organizing motif of theology. The authors argue that the overarching focus of the biblical narrative is the person-in-relationship or the individual-in-community, which drives the assertion that community must be the integrating motif in theology. Thus, the community plays a crucial role in identity formation in this scheme, and becomes the "community of reference" for the individual. This theme brings the various strands of theological articulation together into a single web or mosaic.

    This part of their proposal also seems to have difficulties. First, although Grenz and Franke argue that the ultimate goal of the biblical God is the establishment of community, there are other theological communities that understand the ultimate goal of the Triune God differently (such as communities who argue for a redemptive or doxological goal as ultimate). Further, the biblical evidence offered in support of the contention that the establishment of community is the ultimate goal of God appears quite capable of being understood in a different way than the authors propose.

    Second, the authors argue that theology as "the study of God" is never generic, but always set forth from a particular community. Therefore, they argue, Christian theology speaks about the God known in the Christian community. This assertion raises the particularly troubling dilemma of answering the question the authors themselves pose early in the book: "Why give primacy to the world-constructing language of the Christian community?" Their answer is that the Christian model provides a helpful vision of the kind of community that all religious belief systems (in their own way and their own understanding ) seek to foster. Apart from the difficulty of substantiating the claim that all religious belief systems seek to foster a particular kind of community (i.e., a "life-in-relationship" community presented as the "human ideal"), the question must be asked: is the authors' answer in any sense compelling? More relevant perhaps, the Bible itself answers the question about the primacy of the biblical God in a dramatically different fashion (cf. especially Isaiah 46:9).

    In addition to presenting Trinitarianism as the structuring motif of their theological enterprise, and community as the integrating motif, Grenze and

    1 star1 starNo starNo starNo star    Not What I Hoped

    This was a tough read-- very theoretical and philosophical and sometimes convoluted. I found the lines of reasoning confusing and sometimes contradictory. Although many sections of the discussion are very well done, conclusions often do not seem to follow from the arguments.

    Authors are attempting to arrive at a set of principles for doing theology in the present "postmodern" era, but stop at articulating the principles without really offering concrete examples of how those principles would be properly applied. That is, they give no examples of the final theological ideas that would emerge from applying these principles. Thus, although I sensed they are laying the groundwork for a further agenda, it is not clear to me what it is. The devil is in the details-- the specifics-- and this book is short on specific applications of the principles it offers. I found myself agreeing on many of their broadly stated summary points, but suspicious at many other points that they are simply preparing to repackage conservative, evangelical, "Bible-believing" dogma in some new lingo-wrapping the old in a lot of smoke-and-mirrors talk about the new.

    I found value in the surveys of recent and current theological perspectives and conceptual development presented with each topic.

    Rather than moving "beyond foundationalism"-- a proposition I find somewhat dubious-- the authors might actually just be offering a new set of foundations that are not all that different from some of the old ones. In particular, they seem to accord the Bible ultimate authority. While I think they make some good points, I don't think they have identified the principles that can move Christian thought toward more integrity and relevance. Too much head and not enough heart and soul.

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