In recent years evangelicals seem to have become more self-reflective about the discipline of theology. Increasingly works on theological prolegomena have included more emphasis on theological method. The fact that John Feinberg, the editor of the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series, devoted an entire volume to this topic demonstrates his view of its importance.
Clark is professor of theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The title of this book emphasizes his thesis that an appropriate evangelical theology must integrate the head and the heart. The goal of theology is not simply to accumulate knowledge; it is also to love God and His creation (Matt. 22:37–40). When done well, theology results in a virtuous life. Since love is the greatest of Christian virtues (1 Cor. 13:13), knowledge of God and love for God should coexist.
Clark defines theology as a “bridge between Scripture and a particular culture” (p. xxx), and its task, he says, is to “articulate the content of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the context of a particular culture” (p. 33, italics his). This seems to imply that theology is essentially the task of translating Scripture (or its teaching) into a target context. Thus culture provides the context into which the interpretation of Scripture is to be communicated. The task of theology, then, is to interpret the Bible, translate that interpretation into the language of the culture, and thus produce virtue in the people of faith in that context. Such an approach, however, seems to undervalue the need for the interpreter to understand the cultural context of the biblical text. It also ignores the significance of the history of doctrine. Also missing is sufficient recognition of the radical discontinuity between the culture of the biblical text and that of the interpreter. Further, this approach seems not to appreciate adequately the degree to which the culture of the interpreter impacts the hermeneutical process for good or ill. The theological heritage of the interpreter, the community of faith in which he or she is nurtured in the faith, impacts the way the Bible is read.
Clark defends the goal of evangelical theology as “biblically controlled and contextually relevant knowledge that leads to spiritual wisdom” (p. 98), an important emphasis on theology as pursuit of virtue. Apart from a helpful criticism of “prinicipalizing,” the author does not adequately explain how the Scriptures function in evangelical theology. In a treatment of evangelical theological methodology more explicit explanation of the function of Scripture would have been helpful, particularly since there is such diversity in biblical interpretation among evangelicals.
Clark summarizes “discerning theological contextualization” as “address[ing] the concerns that arise in particular cultural contexts. It responds to these issues from Scripture. It demands obedience and spiritual sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s voice. It permits initial answers to emerge and take shape. It seeks dialogue with Christians in other contexts. And then it allows feedback loops to lead back to Scripture for fresh insight and wisdom” (p. 122). Certainly this is one way the dialogue between Scripture and culture takes place. But is this the only form of theological conversation? The approach sounds formulaic and sterile, not a living relationship between the interpreter and divine revelation.
The discussion of theology and culture leads to a helpful discussion of “perspectivism.” Clark argues convincingly that the fact that all interpretation is from the limited perspective of the reader does not mean that knowledge of truth is impossible.
Clark’s call for biblical exegetes, historians, expositors, philosophers, systematicians, missionaries, educators, counselors, and other practitioners of the theological task to speak to one another should be heeded. The resultant dialogue could indeed produce “a unified expression of Christian truth” (p. 165).
The heart of Clark’s emphasis on theologizing as a spiritual discipline is in the chapter called “The Spiritual Purposes of Theology.” He writes, “If a theology does not transform a Christian’s heart and her church, it fails calamitously. Theology misfires if it fills a believer’s head with Christian knowledge without affecting his character and demeanor. Mean-spirited but theologically correct Christians are a plague” (p. 232). To say it another way, mean-spirited theologians are certainly not behaving as Christians.
Excellent discussions of theology and science, theology and philosophy, world religions, truth, and religious language complete the book. Clark is widely read and his knowledge of these fields results in very helpful introductions to these important topics.
As an introduction to the discipline of theological methodology from an evangelical perspective this book is worth reading. As a description of the importance of integrating theology’s intellectual and spiritual goals this book is one of the best. As an explanation of one approach to theological methodology this book proves a helpful resource.
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