Saturday, October 22, 2011

Responding to Grenz, Barth, & Macquarrie

Now that I have outlined and compared the theologies of Barth, Grenz, and Macquarrie, I find myself most impressed with aspects of the neo-orthodox and especially the liberal theological traditions. I begin with a brief outline of my disagreements with Grenz, whose evangelical theology is representative of my own background in evangelicalism. After entering college a decade ago and having the opportunity to study other religions, philosophies, the historical-critical study of the bible, and science, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the major emphases of evangelical theologies. In the light of religious pluralism, Grenz’s distinctive view of faith as conversion does not resonate with me as it once did. Although I believe that a personal decision to follow Christ is an important aspect of faith, I would also want to nuance what Grenz means by ‘conversion’, which is more exclusivist than I think is warranted. His corresponding evangelical understandings of substitutionary atonement, hell, and divine omnipotence are equally problematic in my view. Lastly, I reject Grenz’s evangelical approach to the Bible in his affirmation of inerrancy. Inerrancy makes theology easier in a sense, but I would argue that we must wrestle with a much more ambiguous text than Grenz wants to admit, making historical-critical work and philosophical hermeneutics more important.

Over the last few years, I have been more engaged with both liberal and post-Barthian theologians like John Cobb, Paul Knitter, J├╝rgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. As such, it was not surprising for me to find myself more in agreement with Macquarrie and Barth. Even though I am particularly impressed by the consistency of their methodologies (as different as they certainly are), I have mixed feelings when it comes to the actual details and theological conclusions of their work. I will first reflect on Barth and then conclude with Macquarrie.

To a great extent, I appreciate Barth’s Christocentrism and his emphasis on revelation as being God’s initiative. Furthermore, his soteriological universalism is a great improvement on Grenz’s understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment for unbelievers. However, Barth’s Christocentrism “on steroids” and his foundationalist approach to revelation (which attempts to carve out a ‘safe’ place to do Christian theology) both go too far in my view. I am more open to a view of Christ somewhat like Karl Rahner or Jacques Dupuis articulate, who affirm the wider significance of Christ in a much less exclusivist way.

Finally, while I believe that an a priori faith commitment to God’s self-revelation in Christ is important for doing Christian theology, I would make this claim from a post-foundationalist rather than Barth’s foundationalist position that posits the Word as a self-authenticating epistemic foundation. Such a post-foundational approach recognizes the contextual nature of faith claims, the importance of individual human experience, the nature of theological language as being mediated (though not determined) by community, while also requiring an ongoing dialectical interaction with other sources of knowledge beyond the Christian context. Providing ‘proofs’ for Christian theology is less important in such a method than arguing for plausibility, but this is not done under the illusion that there are any firm foundations to stand on, or acontextual universal norms to refer to. It recognizes a plurality of contexts and necessitates an ongoing interaction between them. It affirms the fallibility of Christian faith claims, thus avoiding fideism, and views human reason and objectivity as ideals. Yet it rejects both relativism and objectivism.

In many ways, this position puts me closer to Macquarrie than either Grenz or Barth, although I would want to emphasize a more Christocentric definition of faith than he does. Macquarrie argues that Christian theologians must seriously engage other sources of knowledge, such as science and historical-critical scholarship. In a similar way to post-foundationalist theologians, he argues that we need to “explore the borders between theology and other disciplines…in the hope of gaining reciprocal illumination." I agree with his more modest affirmation of the divine initiative in revelation, and also his commitment to the basic ‘symbols’ of the tradition and their reinterpretation as needed. On the other hand, at times I think Macquarrie might fall into a foundationalist trap (though one very different in kind from Barth’s) that results in a bit more skepticism about traditional theological assertions than seem to be necessary.

Furthermore, even though I agree with Macquarrie that Christian theology needs to be grounded in philosophical thinking that persons outside the tradition can interact with, I would also be willing to engage in more ‘speculative metaphysics’ with process theologians, which he explicitly rejects. Although I readily admit that I have much to learn from the existential theological tradition and am open to moving more in that direction in the future, at this point I still prefer the process approach that can legitimate a more clearly personal and accessible doctrine of God. God as ‘Being itself’ still seems strange to me, and it raises some questions in regards to the meaning of prayer and divine action in the light of such an existentialist doctrine of God. I find the process tradition’s approach to be more helpful, as it views the existentialist’s ‘Being’ as an impersonal principle of ‘Creativity’, as distinguished from the triune God who is not-less-than personal, responsive to prayer, and genuinely active in the world in a more definite fashion than just ‘letting be.’ Despite these differences about the doctrine of God, I share Macquarrie’s affirmation of panentheism as well as his questioning of omnipotence.

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