John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp. 206.
What is "postmodernity"? The overuse of this word has rightly been criticized; yet despite it ubiquity (or perhaps because of it), it remains difficult to define. Among others things, the term "postmodernity" names the current period in which epistemological questions--that is, questions about the sources and forms of knowledge--have become prominent. John Franke's The Character of Theology serves as a "postconservative evangelical approach" for doing theology--or, put another way, a postmodern epistemology primer.
Franke "suggest[s] a basic, minimalist understanding of postmodernism as referring to the rejection of the central features of modernity, such as its quest for certain, objective, and universal knowledge" (p. 21). This foundationalist "quest" sought "to overcome the uncertainty generated by the tendency of fallible human beings to err and the inevitable disagreements and controversies that follow. Foundationalists are convinced that the only way to solve this problem is to find some universal and indubitable means of grounding the entire edifice of human knowledge" (p. 26). Franke agrees with postmodern thinkers in their negative assessment of this efforts, and adds theological reasons--human finitude and human fallenness--for doing so:
[T]he questions that are raised by postmodern thought concerning the possibility and the desirability of foundationalism are also questions that emerge from the material content of Christian theology. They both lead to similar conclusions. First, modern foundationalism, with its emphasis on the objectivity, universality, and certainty of knowledge, is an impossible dream for finite human beings, whose outlooks are always limited and shaped by the particular circumstances in which they emerge. Second, the modern foundationalist emphasis on the inherent goodness of knowledge is shattered by the fallen and sinful nature of human beings who desire to seize control of the epistemic process in order to empower themselves and further their own ends, often at the expense of others. [An echo of the postmodern critique of metanarratives as imperialistic is heard here.] The limitations of finitude and the flawed condition of human nature mean that epistemic foundationalism is neither possible nor desirable for created and sinful persons. (p. 28)In response (or reaction) to modern epistemology, postmoderns like Franke observe that all knowledge is context-specific and advocate epistemic humility. This move "does not signal the denial of foundations or truth"; however, it does mean (in the words of Merold Westphal): "The truth is that there is truth, but not for us, only for God" (p. 80). In sum, "Nonfoundationalist theology seeks...the promotion of a form of theology and a theological ethos that humbly acknowledges the human condition of finitude and fallenness" (p. 81). Thus, the nonfoundationalist will tend to draw his or her conclusions tentatively.
In practice, these insights lead to various affirmations, including: (1) all theology is "provisional" (p. 138) and "ongoing" ("no matter how persuasive, beautiful, or successful past theologies or confessions of faith may have been, the church is always faced with the task of confessing the faith in the context of the particular circumstances and challenges in which it is situated" [p. 116]); (2) a biblical text may have multiple meanings, and these meanings may not be equally applicable in all contexts ("[w]hile the Spirit appropriates the text in its internal meaning, the goal of this appropriation is to guide the church in the variegated circumstances of particular contemporary settings" [p. 133]); (3) our important missional work of cultural analysis will not be "neutral" ("exegesis of cultural phenomena will not be objective" [p. 139]); (4) our interpretations of Scripture will not be objective ("[i]t is simply not possible to step back from the influences of tradition and context in the act of interpretation or in the ascription of meaning" [p. 150]); (5) "all expressions of the faith are contextualized...[even] the content of the biblical documents themselves" (p. 156); (6) to be faithful to its missional calling, the church "around the world" needs to live the gospel "in a variety of ways that share a family resemblance" (p. 174); and (7) our seeking of truth is "an ongoing participatory process involving convictional communities rather than something to be accomplished objectively in a once-and-for-all fashion" (p. 195).
Franke's book, in fine postmodern fashion, raises many questions and does not answer all of them--his work is provisional! It will be of value to persons seeking to make sense of epistemological shifts. Franke navigates these shifts with beautiful--at times almost lyrical--theological prose.
to be continued