John Franke at the Emergent Conference

John Franke, theology professor at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA, co-authored Beyond Foundationalism with Stan Grenz. He is a Reformed theologian who seeks to “do theology” as a postfoundationalist in a postmodern context. Biblical Theological Seminary is consciously seeking to be a theological institution for the emergent church in a Reformed tradition. All of their faculty were at the Emergent Conference in Nashville. While confessionally I would not go with Reformed theology in its Westminster variety (I am much closer to a classic Arminian in terms of historical categories), I am appreciative of Franke’s work.

One of the dimensions that I particularly enjoy about Grenz and Franke is their theological method. The task of theology is not merely to repeat the Bible, but to say what we must say based on the Bible. Theology is an interpretative, reflective discipline which engages in “world construction” based on the “constituting narrative” of Scripture as it interacts with tradition and culture.

What do Christians construct in their theologial thinking? It is not merely the reduplication of biblical practices. Rather, I think Franke is correct to say that the church is called to co-create with God a socially constructed reality that anticipates the eschaton which fulfills the intent of God in creation which is participation in the divine life. Theology serves the church by critically reflecting on the engagement of Scripture, culture and tradition toward that constructive goal. But it is a goal that must be embodied. The communally (church) constructed reality is not theoretical but practical and lived out. The present community envisions, through Scripture, the eschatological reality. We want to live out in the present the reality of the future (eschaton). So, theologically, we seek to envision what the future would look like in the present.

For example, and this is an easy one, the eschatological reality is diverse cultures, languages, tongues gathered around the throne of God in worship. Should not the present community of faith embody the future eschatological reality now?

As we engage this project of theological reflection, we must recognize that we are limited in at least two significant ways. Franke draws on the Fordham philosopher Westphal for this particular approach (see his Overcoming Onto-Theology. First, we are limited by the “hermeneutics of finitude.” We are all situated, limited. We are creatures, not the Creator. Our creatureliness means that we have inherent limitations that are inherent in creation itself. This is where I appreciate James Smith’s book The Fall of Interpretation where he argues that our finitude is part of the goodness of creation, and it is part of be-ing as humans. This finitude results in a natural plurality and diversity that is good. Indeed, it was the tower of Babel which saw how “unity” reflects human idolatry and becomes the basis for the exercise of dominating power and control. I would argue that this finitude continues into the eschaton and that the journey of eternity is ever new because God is new every morning to us as well journey into the life of God. Metaphorically, we fall into the bottomless well of God as we enter his infinite life. The journey never ends and thus it is exciting, joyous, fruitful.

Second, we are limited by “hermeneutics of suspicion.” This is part of our fallenness. Fallen humanity uses “knowledge” for power. The claim to “know” in an absolute way and to know absolutely becomes the basis for the exercise of power and control over against groups that don’t “know.” When we reflect on our fallenness, we should be suspicious of claims to “know.” Yet, we are not left in utter skepticism or relativism because the Spirit of God is at work through Scripture (as well as tradition and culture).

The work of God in the midst of these limitations is to speak. The Spirit speaks through Scripture, through culture, and through tradition. Though fallen, the Spirit can speak through culture because culture can mediate the good creation as well as the fallen creation. There is always the danger that we will accomodate to fallen culture (e.g., theologians under Hitler), but there is also the possibility that God will work through culture as the image of God emergest within culture by the work of the Spirit. The same is true of tradition–which can be fallen or good.

Scripture has the unique position as a “norming norm.” It takes a central role in the discernment of the work of God and constructing the social (communal) reality of faith. Scripture, as Spirit-speaking through the instrument of this document, guides this “world-constructing” act of the church. The Spirit appropriates the text in order to speak to the church. And it speaks to the church in its social and contextual location. The church, then, “peforms” the drama (story) of Scripture as it emerges in new contexts, and it uses tradition and culture as part of the interpretative matrix of knowing what it means to “peform” the story of God in the present.

That we “perform” the story (from the script of Scripture) in new contexts means, given the hermeneutics of finitude and suspicion, means we will have a plurality of performances. This plurality is legitimate and valued as long as it remains consistent with the trajectory of the story as given in Scripture and guided by tradition. To this extent, as in creation itself, plurality is expected, and indeed intended. As situated finite humans, no one person nor any one community can fully embody and fully bear witness to God. A pluraity of witnesses are needed.

Given the plurality and the limitations of our human condition, how do we assess “consistency” in relation to our performances? Here Franke follows Newbigin. Monocultural performance is dangerous since it locks us into one way of thinking about the story. We critique ourselves (our own specific community, and we know it better than any other because we are participants within it) when we listen to others tell the story in their context. In other words, cross-cultural interaction is one way of “checking” our performance. We need a global community of faith rather than simply a monocultural community. In cross-cultural dialogue we see ourselves more clearly. The plurality cross-checks each other and holds us accountable to performing the story.

If you have read Beyond Foundationalism most of this should sound familiar. And there is much more to bring into play here in order to fully illuminate the points made above (creation, humanity, missional church, etc.). If you want to pursue this more thoroughly in terms of theological method, you might want to read Franke’s new book The Character of Theology published by Baker (due out shortly).

4 Responses to “John Franke at the Emergent Conference”

  1.   Fajita Says:

    I am having conference envy. I really like what you’ve shared. The piece about the dangers of monocultural performance is telling. Also, the church co-creating with God is something that deserves a little more attention. It is too easy to fall to “God’s so sovereign it does not matter what I do” or to fall to, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

    As Croc Dundee might say, “Me and God, we be mates.”

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I think the notion of “co-creator” is significant in many ways. It is part of our function as representatives of God (imago Dei)–God has shared his task with us. The most obvious example, of course, is creating children, but I would remind us that it is a co-creating–we don’t do it without God.

    But there are other dimensions that are important as well. We co-create the future with God. In this sense the future is open and we are meaningful participants in it. What we do has meaning, significance–it makes a difference.

    Ecclesiologically, that becomes focused in the kind of community we co-create with God.

    At the same time, I think the divine action needs equal emphasis, and has both teleological (goal/end/finality) and cosmological (ground of being) priority. I tend to think along the lines of divine concurrent action–God acts alongside us, grounds us, and directs (teleology) our actions towards goals/ends which we cannot even see or know due to our finitude. It is a kind of overarching soveereignty without determinism.

    Sorry…could not resist commenting on the notion of co-creation. And I do like the Dundee quote. 🙂

  3.   Ken Haynes Says:

    Thanks for taking time to post this. It makes me want to go back and re-read beyond Foundationalism. Think I will wait and read the new Franke first. By the way, One of the things I appreciate about your writing is that you have the ability and heart to to write some things for the “educated layman”. Think that was one of Grenz’s best legacies also.

  4.   john alan turner Says:

    What are you saying, John Mark? I thought we were supposed to just speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent. No creed but Christ and all that nonsense, right?

    Thanks for being such a thoughtful and through-provoking theologian. That’s what I want to be when I grow up.

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