Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 1: Introduction

Series Index

Principles of Christian Theology, Second Edition

I imagine many English-reading philosophy students know John Macquarrie as the translator of Heidegger’s Being and Time.  I first came to know his work as Michial Farmer and I read through Heidegger together in the spring of 2009, the semester before we began The Christian Humanist Podcast.  For this read-through, Michial and I are going to dig into Macquarrie’s original work, and the book that we promised podcast listeners is Principles of Christian Theology.

As is usually the case, I’m going to limit my comments to the contents of the book at hand.  Michial might see fit to bring Macquarrie’s biography and other work to bear on the project (he’s much better at that than I am), and I hope that the variety in approach will serve you well.

I won’t promise perfect attention, but we will attempt to address questions from readers as we go along, so feel free to comment on individual posts as we work through this text.  Even if I forget, Michial might well remind me to look and to reply.

What Is Theology?

Macquarrie begins the book with a discussion of what theology is and is not.  His method, following Heidegger and resonating with Wittgenstein, is description, not definition.  (Such will be the case with much of the book, which explains its appeal for me.)  The character of theological writing and speech is distinct from but also continuous with Christian faith (1).  Theology is a kind of discourse that maintains a strong sense of its particularity; this is not the kind of speech and writing that people uninvolved with the particular community called Church necessarily need to maintain (2–the fact that there are theologians who never go to church might become a question for later entries, but I’ve not read that far yet).  Whether or not Macquarrie would, along the lines of Thomas Kuhn, say that physicists are also a particular community with their own insider language has not yet come up.

On the other hand, particularity does not make theology exempt from standards of intellectual excellence; a theology worth its last two syllables will aim at intelligibility and coherence (3) not only for the sake of apologetics and witness-bearing  but also because receiving revelation as a gift (7) entails at the least some serious discipline when one thinks about the content of that revelation.  Macquarrie announces early that the Bible will not be the sole source of his theology (9) but will stand as a bulwark against the individualism and abandonment of Christianity’s traditioned character that Macquarrie sometimes sees in liberal and radical theologies (12).  So as early as the introduction Macquarrie positions himself relative both to the fundamentalism that would cut off inquiries that are not obviously derivative from the text of the Bible and to liberal trends that would minimize the historical particularity of the tradition.

Flavors of Reason

Reason in this theology will not merely play one role but will serve to do architectonic (16), elucidatory, corrective, and speculative work (17). So Reason is not a monochromatic “source” of theology that (if you’re a fundamentalist) remains subordinate to customary readings of the New Testament or (if you’re a liberal) stands to supplant customary readings of the New Testament but instead as a human power which might advance new ideas, arrange received ideas, call into question the customary readings of Biblical text and received tradition, or call into question latter-day traditions of thought, and do all sorts of complex and helpful work.

When Macquarrie does differ from received traditions, he will attempt to demonstrate that the change is not arbitrary but motivated by content already internal to the tradition (20).  Early on he articulates a concern that, in the age of the modern university, knowledge has become fragmented (21), and the radically different discourses that one encounters in academic history, philosophy, physics, biology, and psychology threaten to strand theology on an island, talking to itself but unheard when the guilds gather to converse.  Among the friends that theology can claim, philosophical logic, existentialist/phenomenological examination (23), and historical situation–minus the Hegelian/Marxian pretensions to metaphysics (25)– strike Macquarrie as promising for bringing theology back into conversation with a broad array of academic “languages.”

The social sciences in particular strike Macquarrie as helpful, so long as they remain within methodological limits.  Anthropology helps its students remember that any tradition’s theological claims stand in a long narrative of cultural and religious evolution (28), and psychology deflates our pretensions to be entirely rational in our approaches to God and neighbor (29).  Sociology helps us to see that the Church, whatever else we say of Church, remains an intelligibly social phenomenon.  Macquarrie acknowledges the possibility that social sciences might overreach their methodological bounds (something that he seems to hold in common with John Milbank’s project, a few decades later, in Theology and Social Theory), but overall he sees the human sciences as better friends than enemies.

Macquarrie’s Theological Program

Macquarrie, in this long book’s introduction, suggests that theology, in this moment of fragmented knowledge, does well to remain descriptive (34) and dialectical (38).  The discipline of phenomenology stands to help the first, keeping theology’s attention on the structures of human experience and therefore allowing that range of experiences to include both miracles and disbelief without deciding, a priori, that either the unbeliever or the miracle-witness must be defective.

Macquarrie writes at the end of his introduction that his theology is going to be architectonic (39).  He assures those who are suspicious of the category “systematic theology” that his will not attempt to render all questions closed but also will not shy away from answering questions of how the elements of revelation connect to each other and comprise an intelligibly unified system of claims and experiences and expectations.

As is often the case when I dig into books that are supposed to be the enemy (Hauerwas’s influence on me, among other things, makes me wary of systematic theology), I read Macquarrie’s introduction and realize that, in order to become the monstrous overreach that some folks think systematic theology must be, Macquarrie is going to have to violate some of the central tenets of his own project.  I don’t doubt that I’m going to find points with which I’ll quibble along the way, but I look forward to a project that provides me some good, new questions to ask, and that’s the sort of thing I can anticipate with some joy for a summer.

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