Less a theology than a blueprint

by
23 December 2011

John Saxbee considers ‘architecture’ that remains unfinished

iStock

The Architecture of Theology: Structure, system, and ratio
A. N. Williams
Oxford University Press £60
(978-0-19-923636-7)
Church Times Bookshop £54

IT IS usual to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with systematic theologies. These are the ones that lay down a series of a priori premises as the foundation for an integrated and comprehensive account of Christian faith and practice. The names of Aquinas, Calvin, and Barth are readily asso­ciated with this style of theological architecture.

We are easily attracted to this kind of enterprise, which reinforces Christianity as a pleasingly in­tegrated structure of ideas and conclusions. But, on the other hand, we remain suspicious of non-negotiable premisses that may not be able to provide the super-structure with the support required — and we resist being locked into systems that appear to foreclose on future insights and doctrinal development.

But what if it can be shown that theologians can write systematically without thereby having to produce a systematic theology — and usually do? The architectural task in that case will be more to do with provid­ing plans and blueprints than pro­ducing fully finished theological edifices, and this is the architecture of theology described by Anna Williams in this demanding but intriguing essay.

Her argument is as follows.

All knowledge is systematic in so far as everything relates to every­thing else. This is true for secular science and philosophy, but especially so for Christian theology, because the triune God is relational and rational (the Ratio of the sub-title), and is in relationship with the created order of beings, and espe­cially relational and rational beings made in the image of their Maker.

It is this horizontal relationality that establishes truth as the coher­ence of interdependent doctrines rather than truth as vertically configured on the substratum of foundational tenets that are deemed to be given and incontrovertible.

Advertisement

So relationality as the essence of systematicity provides coherence as a model of truth within which the various warrants for Christianity’s credal claims i.e. scripture, tradition, reason, and experience can be applied and evaluated. To these warrants as norms for coherent theological systematising Williams devotes a key chapter.

The evaluation of the four warrants is clear, concise, and fair, but with a built-in bias towards scripture as primary and served by the other three. This priority she justifies mainly on the grounds that no serious theologian has ever disputed the warranty of scripture, whereas the other three have each proved controversial.

But, while specific texts, proposi­tions, or theological tenets are unlikely to give immediate access to truth about God “and other things as they are related to God” (Aquinas), when viewed system­atically, i.e. in their relationship to each other, they can articulate a foundationalist view of scripture within a coherentist approach to theological truth, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Williams teaches divinity at Cambridge, and has already pub­lished books on patristic and medieval theology. But this book paints on a larger canvas. As an ambitious theological overview, it is taken forward with clarity of purpose, well-judged case-studies, and occasional touches of humour. It advances a reading of Christian theology which shows it to be generically systematic rather than restricting systematicity to a few systematic theologies.

Some of the theologians cited in support of her argument seem to be recruited to serve an agenda not their own. But the fact that theo­logians from virtually every era of Christian history can be seen as at least in some sense systematic theologians does point to theology as having an architecture predicated on structure and relationality rather than being characterised in terms of virtuoso insights and idiosyncrasy.

On balance, Williams’s approach is doctrinally conservative and somewhat triumphalist when it comes to the relationship between theology and contemporary move­ments in philosophy and the natural sciences. But at least she has the courage of her convictions. So, in the final chapter, she clearly asserts her commitment to contem­plation as an appropriate or, indeed, the only appropriate response that theologians can make to the exercise of their discipline. As rational creatures made in the image of God, who is the ultimate originator of Ratio, they are driven to their knees.

This effectively counters the caricature of theologians as neutral observers. But, more importantly, it also encourages those who pursue secular disciplines to see themselves as exercising human reason as mimetic of divine reason, and so be likewise led towards contemplation, prayer, and worship.

Advertisement

This is a welcome insight, drawn, as it is, from a growing recognition that theology is more like science and science is more like theology than is usually acknowledged. This claim can be used defensively by Christians to show that scientific truth-claims are no more certain than theological ones. But Williams uses this claim positively to promote a spiritual response on the part of scientists to their theories and findings. Here she tackles the New Atheists in their own backyard, and does so to good effect.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

WHAT do we mean when we talk about God? How is it possible to speak of the divine in human language? Roger White explores these questions in Talking about God: The concept of analogy and the problem of religious language. He makes particular reference to the work of Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Barth (Ashgate, £19.99 (£18); 978-1-4094-0042-4).

WHAT do we mean when we talk about God? How is it possible to speak of the divine in human language? Roger White explores these questions in Talking about God: The concept of analogy and the problem of religious language. He makes particular reference to the work of Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and Barth (Ashgate, £19.99 (£18); 978-1-4094-0042-4).

100 Best Christian Books

How many have you read?

Visit the 100 Best Christian Books website to see which books made our list, read the judges' notes and add your own comments.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read twelve articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)