Leithart on Systems and Sub-Systems

Leithart continues to post on the FV debates:

A few days ago, I suggested that the Federal Vision controversy in the Reformed churches is a “Presbyterian identity crisis.” But I don’t want to minimize the theological dimension of this debate. The issue is how to express the real theological differences, as opposed to the host of imaginary differences that are often discussed.

Here’s the problem: Those associated with the Federal Vision and their opponents both claim to hold to the doctrinal standards of the PCA and OPC (or the other Reformed denominations). The differences between the two sides often seem miniscule, and that makes the debate seem trivial and often petty. The “identity crisis” dimension provides part of the explanation. But only part. It’s not only theological. But it is theological.

Only it’s not theological in the way that is often suggested.

It’s not theological in the sense that one side teaches salvation by works and another salvation by grace through faith; both teach salvation by grace through faith. It’s not theological in the sense that one side teaches election and reprobation and another denies it. Both sides are high Calvinists. We could tick off any number of doctrines where there would be very close agreement. There are, I admit, some doctrinal differences, but the key differences do not appear at the level of “doctrine.” At that level, the differences are indeed small.

But that doesn’t mean the differences are nothing, or that it’s a debate about nothing. The debate is a debate at a sub-doctrinal or meta-doctrinal level. It’s not a debate about the system, but about the sub-system. Both sides can agree with what confession says, but they do it with a different intonation. Both are running the same doctrinal and Confessional programs, but they have different operating systems that affect the way the doctrinal programs work.

Read the whole post here.

Once again I think that Leithart is on target. It is always reassuring to observe that I am not the only one who sees some of these things. Leithart’s point about time is a particularly important one. In fact, I think that his point can be pushed even further. I believe that the increased sensitivity to the importance of time on the part of the FV leads, not just to an appreciation of the way that various doctrines need to be rethought in a manner that recognizes the importance of the temporal character of creaturely existence, but to a change in the way that we approach the task of theologizing in general.

As FV thinking matures I would be very surprised if we find it sticking with the model of theologizing presented by traditional Reformed systematic theology. I think that we will see a strong movement away from such a form of theologizing and I believe that we are already seeing such a movement taking place. The problem with traditional Reformed systematic theology is that the very way that it does theology downplays the importance of time.

Traditional Reformed theology has generally operated in terms of the spatializing metaphor of the ‘system’. Doctrines have to be put together, like pieces in a puzzle. However, it seems to me that FV theologians increasingly theologize in terms of a quite different metaphor, that of the ‘narrative’. When one theologizes in terms of the metaphor of ‘narrative’, one will notice that doctrines simply do not take the central stage as they do in the ‘system’. Doctrines within a ‘narrative’ approach to theologizing are very different creatures to doctrines encountered within a ‘system’ approach to theologizing. Theologizing about justification in terms of narrative involves a certain way of telling a story, grasping its direction and living it out. Theologizing about justification in terms of a system generally has little time for such story-telling, but approaches the ‘doctrine’ of justification more as something to be abstracted from the story and analyzed as a timeless truth about the numinous thing called salvation works.

The tension that many recognize as existing between biblical and systematic theology in some Reformed quarters is related to the tension between these two different ways of approaching theology. The very metaphor that systematic theology operates in terms of makes it difficult for it to process properly a number of the insights of biblical theology. For example, to what extent could a Reformed systematic theologian really do justice to the importance of maturation in Scripture, without changing the very way that he approaches the task of theology? For the systematician to really take on board the insights of the biblical theologian, he will increasingly have to relax into a more narrative form of theologizing. As long as the systematician persists in trying to construct a panoptic and spatialized system, he will find it impossible to truly appropriate the insights of the biblical theologians.

This is not to deny that there is a distinction between the task of the dogmatician and the biblical theologian, although they are far closer than often presumed. Many of the key influences on the FV movement, people like Peter Leithart, James Jordan and N.T. Wright, are practitioners of a more narrative approach to theology. All of these theologians engage in a sort of theology that unsettles traditional boundaries between systematic and biblical theology. They address many of the same questions that systematic theologians traditionally address, but they tend to theologize about such questions from quite a different angle.

The fact that many of the opponents of the FV find it hard to understand them is not surprising. Such writers are not merely tweaking some of the rules of a game familiar to both parties; they are playing a different sort of game altogether. Narrative theology, for example, is not totalizing like system theology. It is far more open-ended in character. Part of the reason for this is that the narrative theologian, unlike the system theologian, finds himself within the object of his study. The story that we are telling is the story that we find ourselves in. The objectivity and detachment of the system theologian simply does not exist for the consistent narrative theologian.

Leithart lists a number of other sub-systemic issues. It seems clear to me that many of these sub-systemic issues again flow quite naturally from the ‘system’ approach to theologizing. For example, a narrative approach to theologizing is far less likely to favour a ‘substance’ view of human nature and will be far more open to a high view of ritual. The understanding of the relationship between Old and New Covenant will also tend to be quite different in a narrative approach. System approaches, since they tend to abstract from time, cannot really do justice to the reality of maturation. They also tend to sharply distinguish periods from each other, placing them in antithetical relationship, or collapse them into each other, stressing an underlying identity and treating the historical differences as more ‘accidental’ in character. The root problem in this case is that the system approach treats periods of history as if they were objects without any time dimension, to be taken in by the eye in a single glance (vision is the dominant faculty in the system approach; hearing and speaking are more primary in the narrative approach). Within a narrative approach to theologizing relating periods of history is nowhere near as difficult, simply because periods of history can only be properly understood within a narrative.

If the current debate is going to make any progress we will have to begin to talk seriously about the way that we believe that the task of theology should be approached.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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3 Responses to Leithart on Systems and Sub-Systems

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  2. joel hunter says:

    Such writers are not merely tweaking some of the rules of a game familiar to both parties; they are playing a different sort of game altogether.

    And the philosophers have been trying to point this out and its significance for both mutual understanding and ecclesial culture. Alas, to little avail. Sigh.

    the narrative theologian, unlike the system theologian, finds himself within the object of his study. The story that we are telling is the story that we find ourselves in.

    As a wee grad student I cut my teeth on Ricoeur and his opus Time and Narrative. The important point you make here hinges on that word ‘find’. The pivot on which all theologizing turns is the task of one’s narrative identity. It’s not that the systematic theologian isn’t in the same story; it’s that his thinking eclipses what is so obvious. The effects of this can be diagnosed, but reintroducing this factor into one’s thinking entails that one must account for a systematic theology as a cultural product as well. Origen’s On First Principles is not written within the framework of autonomous thought, a framework very well expressed by your metaphor of the panoptic. One could analyze the history of systematic theologies and easily see such discontinuities that referring to both Origen and Hodges or Tillich or Grudem or Jenson as ‘systematic’ would only have the loosest sense (e.g., “organized”). This holds irrespective of orthodoxy.

    Invariably “what we know” and “what everyone needs to know” involves ethics. It’s not like there’s nothing going on in a panopticon. The main thing that goes on is discipline. And there are other disciplinary forces besides ideological ones. I think your closing point is exactly right precisely because the primary issue in the controversy is an ethical one.

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