N.b. This piece is specifically about the potential purpose of practising philosophical theology as a Christian- I think former Orielenses Tara Burton has written about as good a piece as could be written about the purpose of theology from a secular point of view!
I enjoyed reading Edward Brook’s very well written post on the purpose of philosophical theology (even though it’s confusing to have more than one Ed). I think the general direction is probably good. There is one key point, however, which seems to me to be off the mark- one which then determines the understanding of the whole piece. That point is the understanding of what constitutes the ‘ethical’ aspect of knowledge of God, in the Biblical sense.
Edward writes that the goal of theology is the knowledge of Jesus Christ. He also writes (absolutely correctly, I think) that there is no reason to suppose that propositional knowledge does not have ‘ethical’ aspects, and so no reason to unconditionally denigrate what we try to say in relation to God’s revelation in the name of what we can supposedly know but not say. In virtue of this, the aim of theology is not just a sparse knowledge of Christ- it is ‘to know Jesus Christ and the fullness of eschatological life in him.’ This ethical aspect, this fullness of eschatological life, is described as ‘personal, participatory knowledge of God- friendship with God that results in moral transformation.’
Now: I do indeed believe that the aim of Christian theology is necessarily active- that is to say, that it must concern what we do, how we live, who we are (I would say existential, but I’m no fan of the word or its broader implications. I also don’t say ethical, because I’m pretty sure Christian doctrine can’t be used to ground specific logical-ethical principles). I also believe, however, that if this active end is described in terms of moral transformation then we have made a dangerous error; that if the active aspect of Christian knowledge is understood as the moral transformation of the knower, we have a) cast the human individual- not Jesus Christ- as the end of God’s grace, and b) given a false account of what it is to exist as an individual in Christian faith. I’m going to try and explicate this belief, and why it is troubling. I will then try to describe a view according to which the active aspect of theological doctrine is the clear articulation of confession, not (in any sense) the moral transformation of the subject. In virtue of this, I will claim that the final aim of Christian theology is not knowledge of Christ (whether propositional or experiential), but the clear communication of Christian faith through word and deed. I do not believe that this is incompatible with the bulk of Edward’s post- in fact, I hope that it is actually a more consistent rubric within which to understand the relationship of analytic methods to mystery.
Over the course of writing this post, it became apparent that to argue each of the points which must be argued would make it absurdly long. Given that I have problems with length at the best of times, I decided to structure this post as the skeleton of a proposal- describing the basic thoughts, but not properly arguing them (or, in many places, citing their origin). I’ll then try to write individual posts on each of the points which clearly require argument and elucidation, breaking up the whole to make it slightly more readable. I hope that this is ok- even though it leaves a whole lot of potential logical gaps open in this piece!
The Individual as the End of Revelation
The first objection to the idea that the active aspect of systematic Christian theology is constituted by the moral transformation of the human individual is that it identifies that individual as the end of God’s grace. Now, what could be problematic about this? After all, didn’t Christ come to save sinners? And aren’t sinners individuals? Shouldn’t knowledge of God effect a new birth, a new being in the believer? And shouldn’t this new being be a morally superior one? Should it not render faithful Christians dead to sin?
All of these things are true. The problem (as usual, I think) is not the truth of linguistic statements, however- it is the conditions according to which we suppose those statements to have the sense under which they are true. I believe that there are at least three conditions according to which we have to understand the sense of these statements which, taken together, render it impossible to understand their truth as entailing that the end of God’s revelation (and so the end of the interpretation and proclamation of that revelation) is the moral transformation of the individual. The first is the fact that Christ’s mission is stated in terms of the whole of creation, and that this creation cannot be understood as a collection of discrete and self-subsisting individuals. The second is that ‘newness of being’ is to be understood in terms of relation to the divine, not essence or character (and so not in terms of a substantial transformation)- that though the term ‘sinner’ is to be understood as a necessary predicate of human being, this is not due to intrinsic nature or essential qualities, but a relationship between God and creation which, though not absolute, it is not within human power to change. The third is that sin is not to be understood as a moral term (in terms of either character or conduct) and redemption is not to be understood as an alteration in moral standing- to such an extent that, running according to a particular strand of reformed thought, neither Christian knowledge nor the practise which follows from it are to be understood within moral categories.
In virtue of the first condition, the redemption of the individual in creation cannot be understood apart from the redemption of the context within which that individual exists and which determines the individual’s existence- meaning that the redemption of individual persons is not the final goal of God’s revelation. In virtue of the second, the form of this redemption cannot be understood as an essential transformation, on either a moral or a substantive level. In virtue of the third, whatever difference is effected by knowledge cannot be understood as a difference in moral nature (whether this be the moral value of actions or persons). Taking all together, the end and effect of God’s revelation cannot be the moral transformation of the human individual, and so this cannot be a determining aspect of the purpose of theology.
If we ignore these conditions, meanwhile, it seems to me that we move the focus of theology away from Jesus Christ to the moral character of individual human beings. This can first ground (and does ground) an overly individualistic picture of the point of Christian living, one which is focussed on the supposed purity of human conduct. The practical effects of this view are made evident in the German Pietism of the 1920s, in the inconsequential niceness and religious wooliness of much of 20th Century Anglicanism, and the neo-Puritanism of stereotypical American fundamentalism. It can then lead (and does lead) to a reading back of human moral categories onto Jesus Christ himself, categories which especially distort the content of God’s revelation through Him so as to resemble the prevailing sensibilities of the day. Though some such reading back is ultimately unavoidable (there is no ‘pure’ reading of Scripture), there is no reason to therefore give up on attempting to limit it.
The Truth of Christian Existence
The second objection is simpler, and largely follows from the above- it is that to say the effect of personal knowledge of God is the moral transformation of the individual gives a false account of the reality of Christian existence. The argument is that there is no reason to suppose- and every reason to reject- the idea that Christians are better people for their knowledge of God, in any sense (even and especially what we might call ‘good’ Christians). The argument to be given here is both theoretical and empirical. On the theoretical side, it is derived from how Scripture describes the encounter of peoples with God’s revelation. On the empirical side, it is derived from an analysis of the character of Christians and Churches over time- not, moreover, those who can be pointed to as examples of ‘bad’ Christianity, but those we might want to point towards as exemplars. The argument is that even a saint is not made more moral, or in any way less by their relationship with God. Presenting moral transformation as following from Christian faith, meanwhile, provides a good ground for a pejorative disillusionment, accusations of hypocrisy, and pride (either in the form of self-approbation, when we think we are better for our faith, or self-despair, when we fears that we have no faith because we are not better).
Confession and Proclamation
Instead of moral transformation, I would argue that the active aspect of Christian theology can be better understood in terms of confession. Confession here is understood as the active acknowledgement of the truth of a given belief. Christian confession is an acknowledgement of the truth of God’s revelation- that Jesus Christ became incarnate, died, and rose again. Acknowledgement of a truth is understood as a process with practical and intellectual aspects, and in a specifically Christian content, acknowledgement is a matter of faith (both human and divine). It thus has serious implications for how to live one’s life, but these implications are not grounded in a supposed personal transformation.
Under this view, the active goal of Christian theology is thus (to paraphrase Anselm and a whole lot of other people) to try and understand God’s revelation so as to better understand these practical and intellectual aspects- not the attainment of new knowledge, then, but the clearer understanding of a belief held in faith (and so treated as grounding knowledge). This understanding is not an end in itself, however: understanding is not the final goal of theology, but a means to a broader end- the active, clear, and integral proclamation of the object of this faith over the course of human life (in both word and deed, if that needs to be added).
Finally, all this self-evidently involves the formulation of propositions. It also involves a critical analysis of those propositions, in order to try and ensure that we communicate as clearly and accurately as possible what we are hoping to communicate. A significant part of this, however, is recognising that the propositions formulated are not themselves the God’s revelation- rather, they are our confessed human responses to that revelation. Of course, we try to ensure that those responses are true to the revelation itself, and of course we try to ensure that they point to the revelation, but they are not themselves that revelation. The point here- and one which I think shows how an understanding of the end of theology impacts an understanding of the purpose of analytic methods in the theological sphere- is that we do not protect and clarify the meaning of the revelation itself: we try to clarify our understanding and our responses to that revelation, through which we then attempt to confess its truth. This of course entails trying to understand what God is saying through Jesus Christ- but at the end of the day, we are analysing human words and deeds, not divine ones. We cannot analyse the divine Word: we can simply hope that our analysis of the human words and deeds through which we try to articulate that Word to others might be directed towards the love of God and neighbour.
(P.s. The idea above, of confession, is not in the least bit incompatible with the idea that personal knowledge of God can effect personal transformation. That is not rejected because confession might be a better model. I also don’t think that much of the last section contradicts much of what Edward wrote- at least, I hope not, as I broadly agree with him.)