Modern Theology versus PreModern Theology: A Genuine Impasse?

There is a battle in theology; it’s a battle I’d rather work through constructively, but I’m coming to the conclusion that the sides are real rather than facile. We could identify the battle this way: there is pre-modern theology and modern theology; some choose to work from the categories provided for by modern theology and others want to work from those offered by pre-modern theology. So called pre-modern theology seeks to retrieve by repristinating the earlier categories of theological development; the benefit of this approach is that there is an in-built catholicity vis-à-vis church tradition. So called modern theology seeks to do theology by deploying newer categories mostly based upon enlightenment categories; the negative of this is that there is a potential loss of catholicity (if that is adjudicated by its relationship to church tradition). David Congdon offers a good summary of this, and how modern theology has moved beyond the categories provided for by pre-modern theological developments. Here Congdon opines on the ostensible reality of a modern theology in the context of his developing of Bultmann’s theology. You will notice Congdon referring to some of these modern theologians, but for our purposes I want you to see the type of distinction I’ve already highlighted above; the distinction between the means of a pre-modern theology vis-à-vis modern theology.

By referring to historical consciousness Cahill draws on themes developed extensively by Bultmann’s contemporaries and students, especially Friedrich Gogarten and Gerhard Ebeling. According to Gogarten, the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world and our existence in it, which understood the world to be the unfolding of an overarching divine plan, was replaced by a historical interpretation:

Just as the contents of a play are established beforehand in the major and minor roles which appear in it, so too the occurrences in this history are predetermined in the “spiritual substances of all hierarchies,” which “are united in the church into a mystical body, which extends from the trinity and the angels that are nearest to the trinity down to the beggar at the church door and to the serf kneeling humbly in the furthest corner of the church to receive the sacrifice of the Mass.” But since history is understood in this way as a kingdom of metaphysical essences or substances, moved teleologically in itself and encompassing the entire world in this teleology, we lose precisely what we understand as the actual occurrence, namely, the living personal experiences of particular individuals in their distinctiveness and responsibility, their historical significance. Their historicity is taken away when history anticipates them by occurring within the framework of metaphysical essences. And it is only because this metaphysical framework contains the life of human beings with all that has happened that they have a part in the history which takes place there.

Modernity is the age in which this metaphysical understanding of history was called radically and irrevocably into question, as indicated paradigmatically by the rise of the historical-critical method. “Only with the collapse of traditional western metaphysics, i.e., with the loss of its self-evident character, did the historicity of existence fully enter into consciousness,” out of which arose “the freedom, but also the absolute necessity, to regard the historical [Historische] in its pure historicalness [Historizität].” No longer was the hierarchical and essentialist “chain of being” taken for granted. No longer was the ecclesiastical tale of our given place in God’s order accepted on faith. It was no longer assumed that the old stories could narrate each person’s identity. For those institutions and ideologies that pend on this authority, new strategies were devised to shore up faith: most notably, Roman Catholics put forward the doctrine of papal infallibility in the early 1870s, while Reformed Protestants formulated the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the early 1880s. Both sides were able to claim that such views were held long before they were codified in their modern form, and yet it is significant that these doctrines were codified when they were.[1]

There is a clear distinction, as far as the universes that periods of theology are formed within and their categorical apparatuses, that is at play for us. Pre-modern typically is what ‘conservatives’ traffic in and modern is typically what ‘liberals’ operate in. There is a genuine impasse here, I think. Someone like my teacher Thomas F. Torrance sought to work in-between these poles and offer a constructive way forward. But in some ways I am having a hard time with the idea that there actually is a constructive way forward for these apparently disparate modes of theological endeavor. Take Barth for example, he reformulates, under his actualism etc., all of the traditional categories in a highly Christ concentrated form; under the pressures noted by Congdon, in regard to the development of historical-critical ways of thought.

In some ways I find myself in a dilemma. I don’t always see a clear cut way to navigate through these choppy theological waters. A contemporary theologian (who just recently went to be with Jesus), John Webster, offers an interesting case study here. He started with Barth and ended with Aquinas; he still constructively engaged with Barth, but his mode turned from the ‘modern’ to the ‘pre-modern.’ Interesting developments.

 

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), xvii-xxii.

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