Book Reviews

The Character of Theology

An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose

John R. Franke Grand Rapids 2005-07-01

Franke chairs the faculty and serves as an associate professor of theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. This book follows his collaborative work with Stanley Grenz, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001). While the latter seeks to articulate a method for doing theology, The Character of Theology treats theology’s nature, task, and purpose.

Franke argues that one cannot discuss adequately the character of theology until theology’s context is clarified. His definition of “theology” encapsulates this thesis: “Christian theology is an ongoing, second-order, contextual discipline that engages in the task of critical and constructive reflection on the beliefs and practices of the Christian church for the purpose of assisting the community of Christ’s followers in their missional vocation to live as the people of God in the particular social-historical context in which they are situated” (p. 44). Elsewhere he summarizes theology as “the orderly study and investigation of the truths of the Christian faith” (p. 40), which emphasizes his commitment to truth and transcendent reality. Truth, not history or culture, is the final authority. Further, his explanation of the role of the Scriptures in systematic theology is helpful; they contribute, he says, in a normative, authoritative way. “The purpose of theological construction is to bring us back to the text, acknowledging that the final authority in the church is not the theology based on the text but the Spirit speaking through it” (p. 137).

In this work Franke offers evangelicalism a great service. He avers that all Christian teaching occurs in a context. And today’s context of postmodernism needs to be understood accurately (pp. 17, 19). While postmodernism is a challenge to certain aspects of Christian theology, Franke argues that some helpful themes emerge from within it. Especially pertinent are two presuppositions of postmodern hermeneutics, finitude (as creatures, the knowledge of humans is limited), and suspicion (as fallen creatures, the knowledge of humans is skewed; pp. 27–28). Although evangelicals must reject the radical forms of such hermeneutics of suspicion, they should acknowledge that only the Creator possesses perfect and complete knowledge of Himself and His world.

In light of his encouragement to engage in cultural analysis Franke anticipates the question, “How do we take account of the situatedness of theology without succumbing to the danger of cultural accommodation?” (p. 85). No theologian engages in theology disconnected from culture and uninformed by the world in which he or she lives. Thus attempting to find an “objective, transcultural vantage point” eludes theologians (p. 90). The fact that theology is expressed in a variety of human languages and is lived out in a wide range of cultures supports Franke’s claim. Further, since the Scriptures were written in cultures different from those found in today’s world, interpreters must understand those cultural contexts in order to avoid applying the Bible inappropriately.

What about the nature of truth? How should believers evaluate theology’s truth claims? Are they all culturally determined? And how should interpreters evaluate competing cultural norms and values? Franke’s answers to these questions are inadequate. He asserts that believers ought to pursue “the voice of the Spirit speaking afresh through Scripture and yet in continuity with the Spirit-guided trajectory of the tradition and confessional heritage of the church” within and without their communities (p. 112). But which tradition? Which community? Which church? And what about times when cultural understandings are in conflict? Readers are left without sufficient answers to these questions.

As an introduction to the nature, task, and purpose of theology, this book is helpful. Franke has made an important and valuable contribution to the growing body of literature addressing theological method from an evangelical perspective. Even those who believe he has left too many questions unanswered can still profit from a careful reading of this work.

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