28 May 2007

Review of The Character of Theology by John Franke

In The Character of Theology, Dr. Franke examines the nature, task, and purpose of theology as a postconservative evangelical. His approach follows the reformed tradition taking into account that theology needs both an understanding of God and an understanding of humans. Further, these understandings are not static but historically “have been developed and formulated in the context of numerous social, historical, and cultural settings and have in turn been shaped by these settings” (p. 14). Franke holds that theology itself is second order: only Scripture has a first order position of primacy. “Theology is a metadiscourse on the first order language of the Christian story narrated and expounded in Scripture. The content of this theological metadiscourse should always be viewed as second order, interpretive venture subject to further clarification, insight and correction” (p. 104). Theology is developed from the canon of Scripture, the tradition of the church, and cultural contexts in which theology is developed. Its purpose is to assist the church in its mission of participating with God in restoring good to His creation. While being responsible to the global and universal church, theology has flexibility because while Scripture does not change, culture does in local situations. Franke calls this nonfoundationalist theology.
In his discussion, Franke dissects the postmodern culture, which he clarifies is a descriptor of the “social and intellectual context in which we function,” not something we affirm or deny (p. sixteen: the number six is not working on my computer today for some reason). He takes a look at historic understandings of theological subjects, subjects that are not addressed overtly in Scripture but have been developed and assist the church in its mission. I could go on and on about what he says, but I’ll finish this summary with the specifics I appreciate about his approach:

  1. His thinking regarding epistemology. He understands that we all work with the influence of culture on theology. In other words, we all have filters. This is not to say that Scripture itself changes, but our theology does and should.
    Because of the above, his weighing of both the local culture and the universal and global tradition in understanding theology.
  2. His focus on the mission of the church. “The purpose of theology is to participate in the work of the Spirit by assisting the community of Christ’s followers in its missional vocation to live as the people of God, namely, as a Christ centered [pardon me, my hyphen key is not working today either] missional community, in the particular social historical context in which it is situated. Theology provides this assistance and service through ongoing critical and constructive reflection on the beliefs and practices of the church and the articulation of the biblically normed, culturally relevant, and historically informed models of missional Christian faith centered on Jesus Christ in order to promote the establishments of missional Christian communities” (p. 188).
  3. His commitment to community. This includes an understanding that “the church is more than the aggregate of its members. It is a particular people shaped by a particular constitutive narrative of Scripture, which spans the ages stretching from creation to consummation” (p. 179). Further, he stresses the need for unity among the different denominations as a vital part of the church’s mission to make Christ known (taken from John 17, which just happens to be one of my favorite chapters, even though we shouldn’t have favorites). He finds a place for the diversity within orthodoxy as different parts of the Body of Christ, and says that “the unity of the church is not to be found in full agreement concerning all the teachings and practices of the church but rather in the living presence of Christ in the church. What marks a particular community as a Christian community is its Christ centered focus, which shapes the missional character of its life together. By the gift of the Spirit, Christ not only serves as the example of Christian life and witness but is also a living presence in the midst of the church” (p. 192).
  4. His expansive understanding of the means and aim of theology: “Theology is a wider activity than just scholarship…works of art, hymns, stories, dramas, comic books, cinema—all these media can become valid forms for theology in particular cultures” (p. 188). As a musician and writer as well as a scholar, I love this opening for several reasons. It recognizes that whether we like it or not, theology is taught on screen and at concerts and through the music worship part of the service, perhaps more so than from the sermon (my thesis talks about this). It encourages those who practice these arts to take seriously their role in theological understanding. And it encourages scholars and pastors to recognize other influences and encourage them. Secondly within this expansion is a recognition that the confidence of a Christian comes not from indubitable knowledge but through living a life that follows the call of Christ.

Franke concludes,

“the purpose of theology is to assist the church in the establishment of Christ centered missional communities that promote the unity of the church and the pursuit of truth in order to foster this confidence for the sake of the gospel and the hope that it offers to a broken world. In this way, theology bears faithful witness to its subject and participates in the divine mission of reconciliation and redemption through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (pp. 197 thru [darn key] 98).

One more word: I love, love, love this book. I think it is a key book. That being said, for those of you who may be interested, it is difficult to work through, especially without some knowledge of theological terms and history.


John R. said...

Your review would be more valuable if you could also highlight some of the less clear or less helpful insights Franke offers. I want to know, with what did you disagree? Did you read this book at all critically?

Heather said...

to be honest, john, this book sat well with me. while reading it, one thing in particular jarred me, the idea of nonfoundationalist theology (does that mean anything's up for grabs), but Franke explained it well by emphasizing his belief in the primacy of Scripture and honestly dealing the criticisms of relativism. This brings in the tension between the local setting of theology and the global understandings in order to balance single human perspectives. "A nonfoundationalist conception envisions theology as an ongoing conversation between Scripture, tradition, and culture through which the Spirit speaks in order to create a distinctively Christian 'world' centered on Jesus Christ in a variety of local settings" (79). I read this book over a period of time, so I chewed on the ideas for a while.
Occasionally, (as in once that I remember), he sounds a bit Hegelian in that we are always improving in our reforming, but the more I read, the more I realized that we are changing as our culture changes, realizing areas that were wrong before but also falling into other pits. Franke would not agree with Hegel, I feel.
This book is not an "emergent" book in that it talks about the church in general, not in one application that has come to be emergent (or should I say, a bunch of applications that have been grouped together as emergent: what is emergent anyway?). So while many emergents would like it (and many wouldn't), the same has the possibility of being true in different denominations and practices.
Reading critically does not necessarily mean you have to dislike something about it. And disliking something about a book does not necessarily mean you are reading critically.

Heather said...

Oh, and (thoughts still collecting): one thing that did confuse me. He talks about main components or features of nonfoundationalist theology. Couldn't these be considered foundations?

Heather said...

By the way, I was out of line when I said that Franke would or would not disagree with Hegel. I have not read enough of him to know, nor have I read his direct opinion of the theologian. Sorry. Perhaps you could help me with this.