I once wrote about some theological works that tries to approach the bible from its own perspective, whether by sense of reverence or revilement, has somewhat produced many kinds of interpretation that leads to a more fruitful approach on the development of theology. After reading the work of a few more theologians, I think I have discovered something that would help me to understand more of this “art” of doing theology in Christianity.
I become more convinced that Christian theology should never refrain from facing the hardest and toughest questions that a human being may ask. If it is true that theology is application of the bible(as Frame had stated), then the questions that the non-evangelical inquirers—that lacks sense of reverence as the evangelicals usually have—proposed to the bible, when answered, is actually an application of the bible. Thus, after all, learning, what conservative calls non-evangelical questions and proposals is quite a fruitful way of doing theology.
But why from the non-evangelical? It is because sometimes we are so accustomed to our methodology that we often overlooked many blind spots that can’t be seen from our own perspective. The result is a narrow form of theology. In short, we can’t look into our eyes with our own eyes, and that leads to bad theology. It happens a lot of time in the non-evangelical circle, though this is not exclusively alleged only to the non-evangelicals, but conservative evangelical theologians also. The main point is both of us could surely, possibly, rightly, be wrong. So, even though Wayne Grudem in his popular Introduction to Systematic Theology says that we could learn very less from the non-evangelicals, because of the rich diversity among evangelical theologians alone, I find it quite unconvincing. Non-evangelicals’s questions and proposals are often more honest.
One of my arguments for this is the common use of secular philosophy, psychology, sociology, and many other subjects alike, in the writings of evangelical Christian theology. Why, I think, that we should think so positively, that we could learn from the most hard-headed atheists, but think more negatively to the non-evangelical theologians?—who, I think, proposed honest questions or proposals to answer the questions that evangelical often not interested about.
I am surprised to see that some renowned conservative theologians actually agree with me on this subject! I read Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral and Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in which I get the very kind of impression that I have proposed before at my short article. Not only that, it seems Vern Sheridan Poythress (a Westminster professor) in his Symphonic Theology,David K. Clark in his To Know and Love God, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer in the book Globalizing Theology and his own book First Theology, is endorsing my view here. They are assuredly evangelical and conservative. The primary idea that I could see from them is theology might rightly be wrong, even though our bible cannot be wrong (though this is too, an evangelical assumption). And that primary idea is the basis for our humility to learn from the non-evangelicals.
I am not saying that we need not learn the basic view of evangelicalism; what I am saying is that we should not stop at the basics of one alternative view only. There are many alternatives out there that are often disregarded, alluding Martin Luther King Jr., not by the character of their arguments, but by the color of their label. If a view is judged “non-evangelical” then it usually follows that that view does not need any considerations at all. It is of course a reasonable assumption. Since, we understand that there are other people that has read the alternatives and concluded that it is not something to be bothered with. And, we know also that we can’t read all the books in the world, what more to know all of them perfectly! But, though reasonable, it is not something to be held too certain. It is always better to read the primary source. When we never read the primary source, I think we may use the information that we got from secondary sources (again, since we sometimes cannot read all the sources needed), yet with caution, that perhaps, someone will correct our wrong understanding of the thought.
But if we are trying to seriously have a dialogue with those outside the evangelical circle (which by the way has a very vague boundaries), it is of necessity to consult the primary sources. It is not enough just reading them; we need to read them very carefully. If we misquoted or misunderstood a thinker, and apparently made his name infamous, then I think we have committed a false and serious allegation. Not only reading the primary source is a practice of academic credibility, but I think, also an act of humility to learn from others and understanding their thoughts. Whether in the end we resulted in disagreement or not, at least we had done our responsibility.
Disagreement would eventually occur when we began reading the non-evangelical’s works. Perhaps the disagreement is classic, perhaps there are new way to look at things! As Clark observes, the conflicting theological claims usually are not a product of apparent contradiction, but of ambiguous language and misunderstandings.
So far, this is the stance that I would take in learning and doing theology. More discussions would be warmly welcomed!
Vincent Tanzil, 16 December 2011
This writing was edited and edited throughout this semester, and it could finally see light in my musing in my mother’s office.