Day: September 17, 2009

a matter of theological taste? (part 3)

In order to illustrate the somewhat abstract suggestions about theological method in part 1 and part 2, I’d like to take up an admittedly controversial example: the question of whether the atonement is limited or unlimited in scope.

(from German wikipedia)

Things sometimes get out of hand when the rubber hits the road...

A few initial observations:

  • Both sides boast incredibly well-thought-through and articulate contemporary champions;
  • Both claim historic precedent — each has had a go at enlisting Calvin, for example;
  • Both cite plenty of biblical texts; and, on the flip side, both can cite texts that seem to stick in the other’s craw;
  • Both urge that the view of God entailed by their system accords best with His self-revelation in Jesus.

Consequently, things seem to have stalled. Although, to its partisans that’s no excuse to give up. This is no childish tussle over the all-time superior flavour of ice-cream after all. We’re talking about the heart of the Christian faith. Few things matter more!

Rather than tackling this dispute head on, though, I want to come at it sideways and ask, Why does it matter so much to us here and now at this time and in this place?

I want to ask this question because my hunch is that the answer it receives will point the way towards the fruitful application of my proposed guidelines for honing our faculties of theological judgement.

To begin with, it may help us locate analogous debates in the history of theology to illuminate our present dispute — both giving us models of excellent theology operating under similar conditions and answering to similar demands and sharpening any comparisons we might make.

In addition, it may also sensitise us to the dynamics of the systems we’re considering, helping us discover: how and why each one works the way it does, where they overlap, where they diverge, and what ‘extrinsic’ — contextual and especially pastoral — factors play a role in shaping each of them.

Without undertaking this kind of labour I doubt we’ll ever restart the engine on this debate. So what we need are people willing to give themselves to the discipline of careful, honest, irenic and contextually-sensitive genealogical analysis (see the entry under ‘Philosophy Dictionary’ at for what I mean — it’s the kind of thing Ashley Null does with post-reformation Anglicanism). Anyone up for it?