Discerning the a priori assumptions that predetermine ultimate authorities.

The jargon of secular theologians includes a frequent use of the term “doing theology.” The term indicates basically an existential methodology. By definition it rejects at the outset the view that the Bible is the basic and primary source of theology. It is the method employed by most forms of secular theology, in which is rejected especially the legitimacy of all essentialist propositions; that is, of propositions having universal and permanently valid application.

Along with this denial is found a mongrelized form of Søren Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity.” Truth is regarded to be, not subjective in a privatistic sense, but “socially” subjective and relative to the conditions prevailing in the existing economic, sociological, or political systems. In methodologies guided by this and similar assumptions, the objectivity of truth presupposed by classical theological formulations is regarded to be positively harmful.

Most advocates of “doing” theology do not push this position to its outer limits, and thus espouse a totally relative view of truth. And it needs to be recognized that there is some degree of correlation between the general thought climate of an era, and the manner in which theologies are formulated.

The crucial issue at this point is the degree to which classical Christian theology is a mere reflection of issues vital to the time in which it has been written. Certainly current forms of classical theology can be enriched by the insights which, for example, black men and women bring to it from their experience of blackness.

The issue becomes more crucial in the case of those who proclaim the end of the Christian era. Such proclamations usually rest upon the assumption that new world phenomena, such as urbanization, render acceptance of historic Christian belief to be passé. There is extant today a deep aversion to “academic theology” and a corresponding affinity for forms of theology that are open-ended and unstructured.

The alleged existential quality of all forms of religious belief has called forth an articulation of its implications. In its popular form, such articulation asserts the substantial or complete one-to-one relationship between the temporal and cultural milieu, and the form and content of religious formulation. Earlier criticism saw, for example, the classical formulations of Nicea or Chalcedon to be mere reflections of the prevailing philosophical climate, and only remotely (if at all) reflective of early Christianity.

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The theological work of medieval and Reformation thinkers has been similarly interpreted—in terms of the respective socio-political conditions within which the writers found themselves. Thus, many in today’s theological world assume that theological formulation results chiefly or exclusively from the basic structure of analysis, contextually determined, and assumed by the theologians.

Another common feature of contemporary “doers of theology” is the rejection of all dualisms, and in particular those of nature vs. grace and natural vs. supernatural. From this rejection, it is but a short step to a full-blown secularization of theology. This assumption also opens the way to the assertion that salvation can—perhaps must—occur at a single level, since it is also assumed that there is no distinction between secular and sacred history.

Attempts are frequently made to distinguish sharply between the alleged presuppositionism of current European and American theologies, and the asserted openness of the work of newer and more avant garde theologians, particularly those of the Third World. It is alleged with reference to the former that they simply reflect the bourgeois origin of the theologians.

Whatever validity there may be in this allegation, it is clear that all theological formulations, including the “secular” and “revolutionary” types are informed and limited by time and circumstances. Thus it is probable that the assertions of “open-end” theologians will prove, a few decades hence, to be as antiquated as the most naïve conservative identifications of Christianity with capitalism.

One wonders, for example, how the Chinese revolution, proclaimed in 1949 and hailed by some as “God’s action in history” will be viewed in a few decades. Perhaps in the future some Solzhenitsyn from China will find it possible to write a Chinese Gulag, reporting the frightful cost in life and in human dignity exacted by the first years of the revolution and of the dismal Cultural Revolution.

It appears a bit naïve on the part of writers of the Latin American “theologies of liberation” to accuse the theologians of Europe and North America of presuppositionism, while at the same time they take what Guilo Girardi calls a “qualitative leap” of such dimensions. They appear to perceive no inconsistency in their acceptance, in place of a classical approach to social concern, of advocacy of political engagement based upon a frank application of a Marxist analysis of society. Such a “leap” can only be rendered intellectually justifiable upon an a priori acceptance of the correctness of that analysis as a socio-political model.

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If the so-called affluent world is to be faulted for relying for its theological inspiration upon abstract conceptions and objective sources, what can be said for systems which base their praxis upon historical circumstances which are always relative and contingent? It is evident that the relativistic model is at least as dependent upon a priori assumptions, however well concealed, as one which derives from objective and rational data.

The view that Christian theology is something “done” rather than something derived from biblical revelation carries with it implications of the gravest sort for historic Christianity. It represents, first of all, the relativizing and thus the humanization of theology. It also carries the implication that Christianity is only one of a number of “the world’s great religions.”

Deeper still, it represents the abandonment of reason, in favor of an irrational type of group privatism. Illustrative of this was the bizarre employment of Group Dynamics (skillfully engineered group mind-blowing) at the Bangkok Conference of 1973. The published statements of that gathering afford a radical sample of what can result from “doing theology” apart from biblical guidelines (see Peter Beyerhaus, Bangkok 76, pp. 60ff.).

Such methodology makes it easy for individuals or groups to lose sight of at least two things. The first loss is the awareness that sinfulness pervades all of our empirical institutions—that every social, political, and economic system bears a heavy demonic potential. The second is the vision of the biblical imperative called The Great Commission.

Harold B. Kuhn is professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.

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