Traditional Theology, Apologetics, and the Gospel: Or “Should we be traditional theologians?”

In an interesting article by the philosopher Scott Shalkowski, he asks, “How much stock should we invest in traditional theology?”[1] I think the answer to this question has interesting implications related to apologetics, the gospel, and the nature of theology. What is ‘traditional theology’? According to Shalkowski traditional theology is the “philosophical statements of doctrines and explanations of these doctrines that come to us from the early Church Fathers and the Medieval doctors.”[2] The resultant theology emphasizes God’s absolute perfection, infinite power and knowledge, and complete unchangeableness.

There is much to like in the above list, delivered to us from ‘traditional theology.’ But, is the list unassailable? Is ascription to the above list required for Christian orthodoxy? Finally, is the above conception of God to be defended at all costs in apologetic discussions with critics?

Shalkowski offers reasons to think the traditional conception of God is not unassailable.

First, in theology, as in intellectual matters generally, there is “no simple, straightforward, algorithm for constructing an adequate [theology].”[3] A good theory seeks to achieve an optimal balance of a number of theoretical virtues, including accuracy, scope, simplicity, and fruitfulness. But, it is possible that there be different realizations of this optimal balance of theoretical virtues because two (or more) theories might reach the same balance in different ways.

Second, traditional theology is negotiable given the possibility of theoretical progress. Undoubtedly, theoreticians, be they physicists or theologians, think that they are making progress when the engage in original research—and some involves improving on what has gone before. “On the modest assumption that traditional theology is not perfect, the possibility and hope of making theological progress by replacement justifies a less-than-complete commitment to traditional theology.”[4]

Third, “the philosophical background of traditional theology also undermines wholesale devotion to traditional theology.”[5] For example, it is well known that Augustine was heavily influenced by the Platonic tradition in general, and Plotinus specifically. And Aquinas’ theological project was that of reconciling the Bible with the (then dominant) Aristotelian corpus. In light of the gap between some Biblical affirmations about the character of God and the Medieval doctrines of the divine attributes, it is wise to consider carefully the extent to which the Augustinian views on God are a function of neo-Platonism or (alternatively) the Thomistic views on God are a function of Aristotle’s doctrine’s on perfection, actuality, and changelessness rather than prior Christian teaching and practice.

So, I suggest faithful Christianity need not follow ‘traditional theology’ wholesale, or at least there is good reason to view the delivered theology as negotiable. It does not follow, however, that Christian doctrine is completely flexible and “up for grabs.” There is a “hard core” to Christianity, what C.S. Lewis has nicely labeled “Mere Christianity,” and it is this hard core that ought to be rigorously defended against the critic. If the Biblical text doesn’t require God to be (for example) changeless, or simple, or even omnipotent or omniscient (the Biblical text alone warrants God as unsurpassed in power and knowledge, but it is a further philosophical claim (one I happily embrace given perfect being considerations) that God is unsurpassable in power and knowledge), then we would be wise, in our defense of Christianity to hold such doctrines more loosely. As Shalkowski notes, we can even (for purposes of engaging the critic) “give up” on some of our doctrinal beliefs (for purposes of argument) without “giving in.”[6] For more on how I think we should employ the Biblical text, Church history, and philosophical reflection in developing our mature theory of God, see my posts here and here.

Another way to get at the topic I am trying to press is the distinction between essential and peripheral doctrines of the faith. Some doctrines—(say) the deity of Christ, the fallenness of man, salvation through faith alone, the Bible as the world of God—are essential to Christian orthodoxy. But many are non-essential, many are more fine-grained expressions of the Christian faith in which Christians disagree (views on predestination and human freedom, baptism, forms of church government, the end-times, creation and its relationship to evolution, among others, are examples).

In apologetics, I suggest that we focus on so-called “Mere Christianity.” We need not defend the theological tradition in every jot and title, and it may turn out that Christianity does not require it anyhow. What we must do, however, is point others to Jesus—man’s highest good and only hope in death and life. In doing so, we will develop intellectual modesty and maturity—willing to set aside our cherished mature theologies to defend and uphold that which brings life to all: the gospel of Jesus.

So, should we be traditional theologians? I think the answer is no. We may be traditional theologians, but it doesn’t follow that we ought to be.

[1] Scott Shalkowski, “Theoretical Virtues and Theological Construction,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 41 (1997), 71.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 73.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6]Ibid., 80.

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