Thursday, October 23, 2008

Battle of the Neutestamentlers: Tom Wright v. Bart Ehrman on Evil

We've stumbled across an audio file, rather low fidelity but apparently understandable, of a recent debate on evil and the existence of God between SWNIDish hero N. T. Wright and SWNIDish villain Bart Ehrman.

We haven't listened yet, but the thing can't help but be worth listening to, and so we commend it to gentle readers/listeners.

On the side, does it say something about the present state of theological scholarship that the two figures deemed appropriate to talk about the problem of evil from a theological perspective are primarily scholars of the New Testament and not systematic theologians?


Bryan D said...

It says that the rest of the world is beginning to realize what systematic theologians never will, namely that systematic theology, were it possible, would be undesirable among beings who hope for a deity with a better clue of what's going on down here than we mortals. It says that true theology has always been about narrative and not system or theory. People who are good at theology are people who are good at hermeneutics. There's two pence from a member of rebel theology department which has been described as "a succession of notable heresies".

Micah said...

Does it say something? Yes. Yes it does.

There's a reason I changed my major.

Mike said...

The change away from systematic theology may not be purely positive. It could also come from a deteriorating understanding of inspiration. As someone who plans to teach both theology and hermeneutics I would posit that systematic theology can and should be hermeneutically sound. It also allows us to consider all of God’s counsel on a given subject (since the same God who inspired the NT also inspired the Old). How much better is our understanding of certain teachings (God’s holiness, for instance) when we look at multiple Biblical authors from both testaments?

In the debate over the problem of evil, it is interesting that the Bible’s account of the Fall is in the OT. If they address particular evils, the book of Job might be relevant. My point is that there are passages from both testaments that could be helpful in such a debate. If we want to get a full picture of what God’s word says on the matter, we’ll have to use various passages, and try to put them together, which is systematic theology.
Most topical debates lend themselves to systematic theology.

Bryan D said...

Yes, but neither the texts of Scripture, nor liturgy, nor common praxis, nor the way people relate to God and the questions that they pose towards the divine are actually 'topical', so why should theology be? No one is arguing for a non-holistic hermeneutic, but to 'combine' narratives into a 'system' is not hermeneutical at all, not even within the pretext of formalism. Systematics are inherently non-hermeneutical, for no one who gives even a moderately attentive reading of biblical texts would then reach the conclusion that 'God' could be in any way categorized and even less systematized. Furthermore, the notion of finality and completion necessary to support the rhetorical weight of the category of system is incongruent with the God of the text who continues to baffle and awe every human he comes in contact with. The God of Christian scriptures is one of paradox, not system, and it seems that only someone trained in the literary complexities of biblical interpretation is able to really provoke this realisation. Shoot, this is not my soap box—I'm done now.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

So is it systematic theology that's bad or are there simply bad versions of systematic theology, absent of humility and hermeneutics? We think you've really only criticized bad or excessive systematic theology, not the enterprise as such.

In our experience, the term "systematic" in the phrase has largely become a mere holdover from the legacy of Aquinas and Calvin. Even the most ambitious of theologians understands that their products are as exploratory and provocative at least as much as definitive.

At the same time, systematicians (rightly) are committed to understanding and articulating the entire theological legacy of the church, which means careful and critical analysis of what previous generations have set forth as their grasp of the gospel. That's something that our own "purely exegetical" discipline has not so warmly embraced, often to its peril.

When we were young, we tacitly sneered at fellow postgraduates who pursued systematic theology because they wanted to understand a broader canvas of Christian thought. We now have a warmer view of their objectives, even if we still think that too many were besotted with Karl Barth at the time. We suppose that we were besotted with our research interests too, and perhaps with the fractious arrogance that infects Christian thinking now and again.

Bryan D said...

"understanding and articulating the entire theological legacy of the church"

I'd say that's historical theology, not systematic systematic theology.

I think the rhetorical weight of "system" in view of the divine is unsustainable—it's like a bad loaf of bread that can't hold itself up once out of the oven. But there will be many people who call themselves systematic theology who do good and interesting work, it's just that I've never seen that work actually turn out to be systematic theology.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Well, then, it is what one means by the term that matters. We simply insist, based on three decades of personal observation, that in predominant academic usage the phrase has a sense different from the sense to which you refer and object.

We aren't alarmed or critical, though: it took months of being told by systematics folk what they meant by the term for us to get it.

Yes, "historical theology" is another useful descriptor. But that to which the s-word refers is not just historically descriptive or analytical but attempts to contribute to the present. "Constructive theology" is the neologism, but even that phrase is subject to misunderstanding as more innovative than it attempts to be if done with due respect for history.

Graybeard said...

Somebody should try reading the gospels when answering abstract questions like whether systematic theology is relevant or whether it is inferior to new testament studies.

How did Jesus approach the issues of his day with an ancient text? People ask questions topically. People make pronouncements topically. Jesus answered questions topically.

You can't balance or reconcile seeming contradictions without balancing or reconciling seeming contradictions. You have to explain why one situation is different from another. This requires good reasoning / philosophy. It requires systematic theology.

While biblical theology is closer to exegesis than systematic theology, we still need systematic theolgoy to answer the deep questions they everybody carries, and have always carried.

Jesus did not deny the legitimacy of the questions asked him, even when the motives were evil (Pharisees). Think about the woman at the well, the rich young ruler, etc. Think about the "you've heard it said..."s. These were questions that could only be answered by systematic theology, by people living in a very different context from the people who initially received scripture.

Rabbis and Pharisees and Sadducees were saying, "Here's what we think this narrative says and that narrative says. And here's how we reconcile the whole of scripture and here's how we apply it to today." The tail end is systematic theology. Jesus did the same thing. Paul did too (read Romans for the best example).

One can feel superior doing exegesis or bibilical theolgoy (summarizing themes, e.g. Ladd). Just don't try to do any ministry, God forbid. People have questions that deserve to be answered. It's not wrong or inferior to answer them.

Bryan D said...

Well, again, what you're talking about is practical theology and the theology of ethics, respectively. If there's one thing that the study of systematic theology can teach well it's the importance of making distinctions and properly defining words. And no, people don't come up to ministers with an abstract question to do with Heidegger or transubstantiation. People have questions that relate to their lives, not ones which come out of nowhere, which is why narrative is so vitally important. The care about Heidegger because they are worried about the epistemological foundations of their own experience, or transubstantiation because they work with someone who is Catholic and are trying to understand the difference, etc. The bigger question is almost always why the person is asking the question.

But since I am doing ministry and do not practice systematic theology what does that make me? A paradox, perhaps, which is just one more thing a system is unprepared to deal with.

Oh yes, that is by the way how one does 'balance' contradictions without resorting to systematic theology, they call it what it is—a paradox. For, from a literary perspective paradox isn't the end of the world but indeed rather useful. I would contend that what the church needs is not more ministers and theologians who 'have all the answers', but more of them who have started asking the right questions.