Is Propositional Theology Passé?
by Josué Pérez
In this issue
- Ancient-Future Community
- Is Propositional Theology Passé?
- Dean's Column
- Alumni Focus
- Campus News
- Faculty Activities
Recent work in theological methodology among some evangelicals has tended to minimize propositional theology (PT). These theologians question the validity and importance of this approach to the theological task, and express a certain level of suspicion towards systematic theology as traditionally conceived. This attitude is not completely new. Charles Hodge, for example, writes of a viewpoint of his day which maintained that “Christianity consists not in propositions–it is life in the soul.”1 Similarly, B. B. Warfield refers to the tendency to exaggerate the “principle of the heart” and minimize “rational thinking” in theology.2 But what is different about the current situation is a concern over the role of propositions in doing theology.
Let me offer some representative examples. Stanley Grenz states that evangelicals need to rethink the function of theological propositions.3 He argues that concern with the organization of “facts” and “biblical summarization” is a result of the influence of early modernity on evangelical theologians.4 Nancey Murphy is suspicious of the “propositional theory of religious language” because it is the outcome of the modernist referential theory of language which she takes to be inadequate.5 Furthermore, she maintains that this emphasis on propositions reflects the modernist tendency towards reductionism.6 Likewise, Joel Green states that if evangelicals are to do theological exegesis in a “post-critical world” they need to embrace the “promise” of narrative theology. He defines narrative theology as “a constellation of approaches to the theological task typically joined by their antipathy towards forms of theology concerned with the systematic organization of propositions grounded in ahistorical principles, and their attempt to discern an overall aim and ongoing plot in the ways of God as these are revealed in Scripture.”7
What shall we think about the project of PT in light of these concerns? My aim is to offer a brief defense of PT. I will mount my defense in two ways. First, I will consider three common arguments that have been presented in the literature against the project of PT and show that the arguments are not persuasive. Second, I will offer some positive reasons as to why I think PT needs to be retained as an essential task of systematic theology. However, in saying that PT is an essential task of systematic theology I am not thereby saying that it is the only task at which systematic theology aims. But before I turn to the criticisms that have been presented against propositional theology, I need to first explain what I mean by propositional theology.
Propositional theology is related to another term that theologians use, namely, propositional revelation. Kevin Vanhoozer explains that the general thrust of propositional revelation is that “revelation discloses truth in a cognitive manner.”8 Such revelation is not reducible to a personal encounter nor is it a mere witness to some revelatory experience. It is important to note though that the advocate of propositional revelation is not saying that written revelation must take a specific literary form.9 Propositional revelation is consistent with the viewpoint that emphasizes the importance of taking into account the diversity of literary genres in Scripture for theological formulation.
Closely related but conceptually distinct is the term “propositional theology.” The latter maintains that the revelation that God has given can be formulated in propositions, however imperfectly. Carl F. H. Henry emphasizes this point. He states that despite the diversity of literary genres the content of Scripture can be “propositionally formulated.”10 To be committed to the project of propositional theology, as Douglas Groothuis points out, is to affirm that one of the main tasks of systematic theology is to “identify and articulate the revealed truths of Scripture in a logical, coherent and compelling manner.”11
This presupposes that Scripture is propositional. However, it is worth re-emphasizing that in affirming the propositional nature of Scripture, I am not saying that Scripture is solely or exclusively propositional. One can affirm the legitimacy of PT while recognizing the diversity, value and importance of different literary genres in the Scriptures.
So why are some critical of propositional theology? In what follows I will consider three common criticisms. My aim is not to be exhaustive but to describe and evaluate representative arguments in the literature. I will maintain that none of the arguments are persuasive and do not entail giving up the notion of propositional theology.
Against propositional theology
The first argument against PT is the claim that it leads to a lack of spiritual vitality or to a theology that tends to be impersonal. Vanhoozer points out that some theologians worry that propositional theology “depersonalizes revelation by rendering it abstract and lifeless.”12 The argument surfaces in a number of places. Alister McGrath, for example, states that the evangelical preoccupation with “propositional correctness of Christian doctrine” tends to destroy the vitality of the Christian faith. The reason is that such an emphasis views faith as “little more than intellectual assent to propositions, losing the vital and dynamic connection with the person of Jesus Christ, who, for Christians, alone is the truth.”13 In his survey of the rise of evangelicalism, Grenz claims that the “new evangelical theology,” which was formed in the fundamentalist battle with liberalism, “oriented itself to questions of propositional truth, in contrast to the issue of one’s relationship with God characteristic of classical evangelicalism.”14
The problem with this argument, though, is that it is characterized by reductionism and so presents a false dichotomy. Even if some theologians of the past could be charged with an overemphasis on the propositions of Scripture, it does not follow that a commitment to PT necessarily leads to a de-emphasis on the personal dimensions of the faith.15 Many authors could be cited which keep both emphases in balance but I will make reference to only one. John W. Montgomery writes about the scientific, artistic and sacral aspects of theologizing. The “scientific” aspect consists in “forming and testing theories concerning the Divine.” That is, the scientific aspect is what one would normally refer to as propositional theology. Yet this aspect, though important, does not exhaust the theological task. There is also the “artistic element” which has to do with the “personal, inner involvement of the theologian with Holy Scripture.”16 The latter is just as important to the theological task as the former.
Furthermore, Scripture itself refuses to recognize a separation between the propositional and the personal, or between the doctrinal and the practical. Paul, for example, speaks of “doctrine conforming to godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3b). He instructs Timothy that the goal of his instruction is “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). In some cases an entire epistle, such as Ephesians, may be structured so as to emphasize the doctrinal component in one part and the practical in the other, but without divorcing doctrine from practice. There is no reason then for claiming PT must be characterized by disjunctive thinking.
A second argument used by critics of PT is that it aims at a theology that is timeless and culture-free. The argument maintains that the theologian committed to PT has lost sight of the historical nature of theologizing. McGrath, for example, accuses Wayne Grudem of taking this approach in his Systematic Theology. He maintains that Grudem treats Scripture passages as “timeless and culture-free statements that can be assembled to yield a timeless and culture-free theology that stands over and above the shifting sands of our postmodern culture.”17 Similarly, Stanley Grenz and John Franke complain that because conservative theologians view the Bible as a “storehouse of theological facts” the goal becomes that of compiling the “timeless body of right doctrines.”18
But notice that such concerns are not really a criticism of PT per say. They are rather a criticism of an inadequate view of PT. There is nothing about the claim that the truths of Scripture can be propositionally formulated that entails the conclusion that such a formulation leads to an exhaustive account of biblical truth. There are many examples of theologians committed to PT who recognize the fallible nature of theological systems. For example, Carl Henry, a strong proponent of PT, argues that there is a distinction between the “canonical content of revelation” and the “systems derived from it.” Furthermore, he maintains that we do not possess a “theology of glory” and that evangelical theology should be characterized by the virtue of humility.19 At its best, then, this argument reminds theologians of the fallible nature of theological construction, but it does not entail a rejection of PT properly construed.
A third criticism of propositional theology is one of the most popular. The argument maintains that PT is a by-product of the rationalism of the Enlightenment or of modernity. The concern for coherence and summarization allegedly reflects the imposition of a structure on the theologian’s task which is foreign to biblical thought. While the argument comes in different guises, Grenz is typical. He refers to the project of PT as a preoccupation with “biblical summarization” and he views this approach as a consequence of the influence of early modernity on evangelical theologians.20 He also argues that during the Enlightenment there was a strong emphasis on the natural sciences and this in turn influenced theological methodology. The theologian’s role was viewed in a fashion analogous to that of the scientist and this led to an overemphasis on theological propositions.21
Now, this third criticism makes some interesting observations that to some extent, at least, are not entirely off base. Frame, for example, points out that Hodge made too much of the parallel between theology and the natural sciences.22 But despite these legitimate insights, the argument as stated is not very convincing, for the simple reason that it confuses the truthfulness or legitimacy of a particular approach with its historical origin. One could agree, for the sake of argument, that the project of PT arose during the modern period and still maintain that it is an important part of the task of systematic theology because of its emphasis on the organization and systematization of truth claims found in Scripture.
In summary, I have looked at three common arguments against PT and have maintained that none of them entail giving up this approach to theology. In some cases legitimate concerns have been raised, but these can be accommodated within a propositional approach. But responding to criticism is not enough; can anything be said in favor of PT?
In Support of Propositional Theology
I want to suggest three points that highlight the importance of the propositional approach to theology. First, PT is sustained by the conviction that God’s revelation includes the communication of cognitive truths. Again, I am not saying that cognitive truth is the only thing that the Scriptures communicate, but at the very least, as Ronald Nash states, “some revelation conveys cognitive information.”23 Because the Christian revelation does include the communication of truths, it follows that such truths can be propositionally formulated, even if somewhat imperfectly.
Second, I would argue that the reflective activities associated with PT, such as summarization and coherence, follow from the Scriptures themselves. For example, Anthony Thiselton points out that 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 reflects a tradition or an early creed “which declares the absolute fundamentals of Christian faith and on which Christian identity…is built.” He points out that such passages make a truth claim concerning the gospel, but also emphasize the dimension of “confession or self-involvement.”24 There is no dichotomy between personal faith and propositional truth. Another example of a summary type statement is 1 Timothy 1:15, one of the “faithful” or “trustworthy” sayings. These summary type statements indicate that the propositionalizing and summarizing activity associated with PT is consistent with the emphasis found in the Scriptures themselves.
Third, and last, it could be argued that the tendency towards abstraction and systematization, which is characteristic of PT, is a result of systematic theology being a normative rather than just a descriptive type of discourse. Descriptive discourse concerns itself with elucidating the practices and beliefs (including the propositional contents) of a given community. Normative discourse, however, tends to be more abstract and systematic because it is concerned with judgments and truth, and has a universal scope. The move towards the more abstract, normative kind of discourse is a phenomenon not just found in Western cultures but is characteristic of many cultures, including the East. Such a move plays a “vital part” when communities seek to establish “non-community specific truths.”25
In conclusion, I have offered reasons why the project of PT is a very important task of systematic theology, and responded to representative criticisms of it. The project of PT maintains that God has spoken, that He has spoken truthfully and in a unified way and that we, as his image bearers, can apprehend and communicate that truth adequately. Consequently, those contemporary movements and theologians (many associated with the “Emerging Church” movement) who are skeptical about or reject PT are, consciously or not, departing from the mainstream of both biblical and evangelical thought, and their pronouncements that PT is passé should themselves be received with a good dose of healthy skepticism.
1 Charles Hodge, “The theology of the intellect and that of the feelings,” Essays and Reviews ((New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857), http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/chfeelings.htm
2 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Authority, Intellect, Heart,” The Presbyterian Messenger, January 30, 1896, http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/bbwaih.htm
3 Stanley J. Grenz, “Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” in The Challenge of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement, 2d ed, ed. David S. Dockery (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 85.
4 Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 65.
5 Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1996), 42, 111.
6 Nancey Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 18.
7 Joel B. Green, “Practicing the Gospel in a Post-Critical World: The Promise of Theological Exegesis,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 3 (September 2004), 393 (emphasis mine).
8 Kevin Vanhoozer, “The Semantics of Biblical Literature: Truth and Scripture’s Diverse Literary Forms” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, eds. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1986), 59.
9 Nash, Word of God, 50. For an analysis of the importance of recognizing the diversity of literary genres in Scripture, see Vanhoozer, “The Semantics of Biblical Literature,” 49-104.
10 Carl F. H, Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 3, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 453; 113-114. It is not important for my purposes here to defend a particular philosophical theory of propositions.
11Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 112. Groothuis may have overstated his point here, for he says that such is “the task” of systematic theology. But he does not maintain that such a cognitive enterprise is all one does in theology; later, he writes that the “purpose of divine revelation is not merely the enunciation of a set of true propositions” (120).
12 Kevin Vanhoozer, “Semantics of Biblical Literature,” 64.
13 Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth, 178.
14 Stanley J. Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 84.
15 Not everyone accused of such overemphasis is necessarily guilty of the charge. Rodney J. Decker, for instance, points out that Carl F. H. Henry, despite some criticisms to the contrary, recognized the importance of both. See his “May Evangelicals Dispense with Propositional Revelation? Challenges to a Traditional Evangelical Doctrine.” In a similar vein, Paul K. Helseth defends Charles Hodge against the charge that he was too intellectualist and rationalist in his view of the believer’s knowledge of God. See “Are Postconservative Evangelicals Fundamentalists? Postconservative Evangelicalism, Old Princeton, and the Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism” in Reclaiming the Center: A Response to Post-Conservative Theology, ed. Millard Erickson, Paul Helseth and Justin Taylor (Crossway, 2004), 232-235.
16 John W. Montgomery, Suicide of Christian Theology, 268; 291. The “sacral” element has to do with the “realm of the holy.” It involves the recognition of the sinfulness of man and the holiness of God and a profound reliance on the Holy Spirit in theologizing.
17 John G. Stackhouse, ed., Evangelical Futures: A Conversation on Theological Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 30.
18 Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 62.
19 Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 240; 212.
20 Stanley J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology, 65-66.
21 Grenz, Renewing the Center, 225.
22 Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 77-78.
23 Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God, 45.
24 Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 1186-8 (italics his). There are many other commentators that concur on this point. See Thiselton for references.
25 Paul Griffiths, “Denaturalizing Discourse: Abhidharmikas, Propositionalists, and the Comparative Philosophy of Religion,” in Myth and Philosophy, Frank E. Reynolds and David Tracy, eds. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 61. The specific example that Griffiths uses to illustrate this move comes from the development of Buddhism.