Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics: 5 Contemporary Insights
Since 2013 the Los Angeles Theology Conference (LATC) has sought to advance contemporary dogmatics by fostering serious, collegial engagement with Scripture and tradition, retrieving the best of the Christian past in order to forge theology for the future. One result of LATC has been a series five volumes of groundbreaking research into constructive dogmatics, now available as a box set.
The volumes in Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics address important areas in theology: Christology, the Trinity, atonement, the theological interpretation of Scripture, and theological method. World-class theologians lead the exploration, including Oliver D. Crisp, John Goldingay, Michael Horton, George Hunsinger, Karen Kilby, Peter J. Leithart, Fred Sanders, Katherine Sonderegger, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and more.
Below we’ve highlighted from each volume one contribution to the exploration of dogmatics, to showcase the scope of this groundbreaking series.
Christology: Ancient and Modern
Katherine Sonderegger offers us an important Christmas reminder: “the dogma of the Incarnation teaches us that it is a Person who becomes flesh, not simply God simpliciter, God in his Ineffable Being and Nature” (68)
She argues much of our theology “pays scant attention to the salience of the Divine Person, rather than Divine Nature per se, as Subject of the Incarnation” (68). This is a mistake, for we don't huddle around the manger exalting a nature, but a Person.
She follows the Reformed instinct, here: “the Person of Jesus Christ is the Subject and thus, Object, of our study and worship and contemplation; not the ‘natures,’ divine and human” (69). Therefore our affections should be directed not toward swaddled Incarnation, but the Christ Child.
Advancing Trinitarian Theology
What is Trinitarian theology for? First and foremost, Fred Sanders suggests the Trinity summarizes the whole biblical story line. More precisely the formula “The Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit” is a summary of the entire Bible:
To trace the story line of Scripture, and especially of the Old Testament, as the God of Israel promising to be with his people in a Son of David who is the Son of God, and to pour out his Holy Spirit on all flesh in a surprising fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, is the task for a comprehensive biblical theology. (25)
Such a reading is not only appropriate, it’s also pedagogically advantageous given how many Christians struggle to see the Trinity in Scripture. “It yields the doctrine of the Trinity, not in scattered verses here and there that tell us weird doctrine at the margins of the faith, but as the main point.” (28)
Bruce McCormack contends most Christians don’t know the “why” behind Jesus’ death, stemming from our aversion to God willing Jesus’ death. And yet, “The narrative structure of the Gospels is torn to shreds where it is not recognized that Jesus Christ came into the world to suffer and die.” (191) Here, he directs us to the insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
For von Balthasar, what takes place on the cross of Christ is “a turning-point between the old aeon and the new.” (Mysterium Paschale, 56)—a turning which occurs with the outpouring of divine wrath on the Son of God made flesh. (204)
Von Balthasar’s insights into the Son’s experience preclude our modern anxieties of the cross. Neither von Balthasar nor McCormack will let us escape this fact: “the suffering endured by Christ was not just any suffering: it was suffering the eschatological wrath of God.” (204)
The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture
Daniel Treier believes a dogmatic account of the church’s commitment to Scripture addresses contemporary pastoral and intellectual contexts. In developing his “pan-‘evangelical’ framework” (25), Treier outlines three major developments affecting Scripture’s doctrine:
- The Bible's self-presentation. Brevard Childs attended to the “canonical shape of biblical books for understanding biblical theology.” Richard Hays has highlighted “practices of inner-biblical interpretation.” (25)
- Hermeneutical and philosophical trends. Nicholas Wolterstorff has appealed to speech-act philosophy to draw attention to the writer’s communication, while Stephen Fowler has emphasized the active forces of the interpreter in exegesis.
- Dogmatically-oriented developments. The “canonical theism” of William Abraham compels theologians “to be robustly soteriological in their accounts of Scripture” (26–27). John Webster encouraged theologians to be robustly theological, focusing on divine action with a special emphasis on sanctification.
“These contemporary trends create a vital backdrop for engaging Scripture as God’s textual medium of self-communication.” (27)
The Task of Dogmatics
In the final volume, Henri Blocher argues for the “Permanent Validity and Contextual Relativity of Doctrinal Statements.” Taking his cues from French philosopher Paul Ricœur, he wonders how our theology should speak of truth if theology is also contextual:
It is impossible to ignore the strong cases one can make for both assertions—that propositions remain valid forever if ever valid and yet that they are relative to their contexts. They stand as two solid pillars, erected on rational and biblical grounds. (110)
In attempting to connect the two—permanent validity, contextual reality—Blocher finds translation as an attractive model, believing a heavy dose of epistemological realism and a strong emphasis on the referential dimension opens up a solution by translating truth into context.
This is just a brief collection of insights uncovered in Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics. Add the box set to your library today, and explore constructive dogmatics in the coming new year.
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