Do Not Be Anxious to Be PreModern in Theology

Derek Rishmawy just reposted a link (on FB) to a blog post he wrote back in 2017 Do Not Be Anxious to Be Modern in Theology. Since this issue is one I constantly contemplate and attempt to mediate in my own self-understanding as a young theologian; and since I’m often at logger-heads with the way I see many young evangelical theologians taking (in regard to their approach when it comes to the theological history they see as normative); Derek’s post piqued my interest enough to make a comment. In order for the following (which is just me sharing the comment I made in response to Derek’s post at his blog) to make sense, you will have to first go and read Derek’s post.

Okay, you’re back? Good! Now go ahead and read my reply to Derek, and it should make more sense. If not let me know in the comments. Here’s my reply:

Some of us, who enjoy modern theology, don’t follow the ‘logic’ you note (through Long et al). I do know some, personally, who I could quote (from personal messages they’ve sent me) that would indeed help to illustrate your depiction of the ‘millennial turn’. Nonetheless, the way I look at these things is not linearly, but ‘apocalyptically’; as if God’s living voice can, has, and does break in upon the church in various ways and expressions—but always through the Son (Heb 1.3). What I see happening among many in the evangelical world is actually the inverse; i.e. a privileging of the pre-modern as the prism by which the modern is retrieved (if it is). So this sort of longitudinal ‘cutting off’ can work in both directions. I say let the earth be ‘flat’ and God be allowed to round it as he will; irregardless of whatever period his voice may be speaking to us in. That said, and also, it is an exceedingly difficult task for the theologian to become fluent in the various dialects through which God speaks to his church. The dialect of the premodern may well be simply an issue of dialect that needs translation; as that occurs we might come to realize there is substantial convergence between the modern and premodern dialect on whatever loci being considered (which wouldn’t be in disagreement with some of what you’ve offered, Derek). But my concern, again, continues to be the ‘direction of retrieval.’ It seems as if many conservative evangelical theologians (so called) simply start with the premodern/critical developments as normative and use that as the scalpel by which good modern developments might be exculpated as helpful additions to the normative trad. But I see that mode as foreclosing on the ‘freshness of the Word’ that you refer to in your post; thus potentially quenching the viva vox Dei simply because it might expand the normative trad beyond its perceptual breaking point. I actually see these things as products of material theological production more than simply matters of prolegomena or pre-Dogmatic reflection. In other words, I see privileging the Western trad (or Eastern as the case may be) as necessarily elevating the form of theologizing one is a priori committed to doing prior to a pre-critical reflection upon what that might entail at a sourced level. In other words, what Long, Leithart et al seem to be doing (by way of smuggling) is presupposing upon an ecclesiocentric mode of theologizing (rather than radically christocentric) thus already disallowing the sort of ‘freshness’ that a robust theology of the Word has the capacity to bring semper reformanda. In other words, this whole meditation seems to presuppose upon a certain ‘natural’ (i.e. ecclesial) conception of the theological task without asking the prior question of whether or not such a task does not necessarily collapse the voice of the Christ into the voice of the Church. If this conflation of voices is allowed to exist I wonder, as a Protestant, if I were to sign onto this approach, how my theory of authority ultimately differs from the Roman Catholic theory vis-a-vis a theory of the church.

Anyway, I was going to write a blog post in response, but apparently I just made it a comment instead.

Okay, so there’s more to say, but what I offered in reply to Derek was off the top and represents some of the issues I have with his non-anxiety about being modern (or not). I will say though, it’s pretty hard to not at least be modern as a people who indwells the 21st century. I mean, yes, we certainly can pretend that the various theological developments of the modern period were corrosive and corrupt (mostly) to the ‘orthodox past’—and I don’t see Derek fully wanting to do that, at least I don’t think—but that notwithstanding, what doesn’t change is that we are still intellectual inheritors of our own located conditioning whether we like it or not. This is not to say that we cannot critically become aware of the voices and ideas that have conditioned us, but even so, even after we distanciate, we remain inhabitants of our times and places with all of the intellectual baggage or prizes in tow.