Principles of Sacred Theology continues to fascinate me, despite the reality of heavy schoolwork weighing in.
In my last post I explained the amazing claim that Abraham Kuyper made about theology–that out of the chaos of theological knowledge, order could be found. A unified order. In fact, it is the responsibility of people to find this order, and to work out this framework to rest theological knowledge in.
The obvious objection to any claim that a study of theology would discover an objective system rising up is–well, if an objective system of theology is so obvious, why on earth do we have thousands of competing systems of theology? Hasn’t practically every church, and every era of history, come up with their own opinion on how it all ‘works’?
Now, I half-expected Kuyper to just skate over this difficulty. The system shows itself to anyone who just looks at the chaos of knowledge systematically enough, he might have said. But no. He faces it head on. He treats his study of theology with thoroughness. And as a reader, I follow him half-expecting to fall into gaping theoretical holes in his thought, and discover he has seen the holes before me and wants to build guardrails around them.
Having read too many popular theological works, the peace of mind of being guided by an experienced hand is too reassuring for me to be able to put it into words.
Kuyper grants that thousands of streams of theologies exist. He grants that subjectivity so underlies all of our ideas of what we’re actually studying that any communal One Theology is impossible.
But does this subjectivity completely remove any hope for discerning any objective truth? That is what he explores next.
Now, for any postmodern thinkers out there who believe the twentieth century was, in fact, the first one to take seriously the perils of subjectivity–well, Kuyper certainly knows what effect subjectivity has on his work:
“Every theologian, therefore, knows that neither he himself, nor the stream of history in which he moves, are able to make an all-sided and complete exhibition of the object of his investigation.”
Ah, so subjectivity does exist then? The context of the writer’s history may actually impact his work–impact any hope of finding a ‘neutral’ theology?
Kuyper then, astonishingly, goes on to describe his viewpoint. I say astonishingly because I’ve always assumed laying out one’s viewpoint was a recent development, stemming from postmodernism. To talk about one’s perspective is important because one takes for granted that one’s perspective does, in fact, affect one’s work. However, Kuyper also lays out his individual perspective right there for the reader to see, long before academics insisted it was a requirement to do so.*
What does this mean, then? Has Kuyper given up on objectivity in the study of theology altogether? No, rather, he lays it out because he wants to argue this background is exactly what leads him to discovering order in theology. What he really means is that he’s separating objectivity from neutrality.
He’s not going to try sum up every theological opinion under the sun, because to do so he would inevitably be bringing his own opinion to his summary. He’s not going to dig around in every theological system to find fundamental truths common to all of them, because whatever he came up with would not, in fact, be a common system but rather ANOTHER system (his own system), ready to continue to compete endlessly with the others. No. He believes an objective order exists, but it not to be found by remaining neutral.
So he lays out his viewpoint. And he’s not neutral about how it leads to truth.
He unapologetically believes his viewpoint–Reformed Theology–has, as one of its inherent strengths, the ability to frame theology in such a way that it can be studied systematically and ‘scientifically’:
“[Kuyper’s declaration of his viewpoint] intends to make it clearly known, that he himself cannot stand indifferently to his personal faith, and to his consequent confession concerning the object of Theology, and therefore does not hesitate to state it as his conviction that the Reformed Theology with respect to this has grasped the truth most firmly.”
Now, I know enough about Kuyper to know a little about what he’s getting at (and which I’ll need to read the rest of the book to understand more fully)–what Kuyper will argue for is the necessity of first starting from a starting point of faith when studying theology, and secondly, starting from the Scriptures as the fundamental principle for studying theology. In this quote, he is declaring that he is unapologetic about his Reformed viewpoint because he knows the Reformed viewpoint values learning about theology in faith from Scripture. And he is convinced that starting with faith and learning from scripture is the only way to find the order that must exist in the chaos of theological knowledge.
Now, there may be quibbles about these two points he makes. I still have to read more, so I’ll leave them lie there for now.
Anyway, Kuyper talks about his subjective background because he believes that this system is the one that possesses the values that will lead to objective order. Ah, maybe there’s something in that. Maybe if we believe in the existence of objective truth (out there somewhere–in our humanness incredibly difficult to find and articulate), we could also believe in the existence of an objective viewpoint. And while it might be right to say an objective viewpoint can never be achieved by a human, there may in fact be a sliding scale of ‘better’ viewpoints in contrast to ‘worse’ ones.
This sounds incredibly audacious–to line up viewpoints according to how objective they are. How would they be judged? But maybe this is an idea to wrestle with for a while.
Appendix: Kuyper himself on how he ended up with Reformed Theology as his viewpoint:
“The author does not hesitate to say frankly that in the writing of this work he occupies the Calvinistic view-point… He is no Calvinist by birth. Having received his training in a conservative-supernaturalistic spirit, he broke with faith in every form when a student at Leyden, and then cast himself into the arms of the barest radicalism. At a later period, perceiving the poverty of this radicalism, and shivering with the chilling atmosphere which it created in his heart, he felt attracted first to Determinism, and then to the warmth of the Vermittelungs-theologie. But if this warmed his heart, it provided no rest for his thought. In this Vermittelungs-theologie there is no stability of starting-point, no unity of principle, and no harmonious life-interpretation on which a world-view, based on coherent principles,
can be erected. In this state of mind and of heart he came in contact with those descendants of the ancient Calvinists, who in the Netherlands still honor the traditions of the fathers; and it astonished him to find among these simple people a stability of thought, a unity of comprehensive insight, in fact a world-view based on principles which needed but a scientific treatment and interpretation to give them a place of equal significance over against the dominant views of the age.”
*This assumption is based on my education–I don’t mind seeing evidence to the contrary if there’s any.