What then is theology? By Willem J. Ouweneel 2014, 242 pages
In this book Ouweneel offers us, according to the subtitle, “an introduction to Christian theology”. However it is not an introduction in the usual sense of an overview of the main themes and content of theology. It is rather an introduction to the activity of theology, or as Ouweneel puts it in his foreword “It is more like a chemist taking you into his laboratory, and showing you what he is doing. That is, the purpose of this book is to analyze the phenomenon of theology itself” (xiii). This means that the book is not really an example of theology, it is a book about theology, and as such is more philosophical in character. This is an important point for Ouweneel who is also a philosopher as well as a theologian, and he makes numerous references to his earlier book Wisdom for Thinkers which introduces Christian philosophy.
For convenience we can divide the book into two sections. The first five chapters deal with how theology is related to matters that should be distinguished from theology itself. The last five chapters deal more with the internal workings of theology, in the language of the foreword, the theologian’s laboratory.
So Ouweneel begins by distinguishing the practical character of Christian life and belief from theology as a science, a theoretical enterprise (chapter one). He explains the role and influence of philosophy in relation to theology (chapter two), how the Bible is both not the only object of theology and is more than what theological study is about (chapter three), how theology relates to the other sciences (chapter four), and to the church and its confessions (chapter five). Helpful about this part of the book is the way he insists that Christian life is richer and more important than theological study valuable as it is. The difference between ordinary “Bible study” and theological study is very great, he argues, “It is a bit like the difference between the eater and the chemist in the case of bread” (5). He develops the quite radical position that theology is neither a higher more sacred science than other sciences (scholastic view), nor a dogmatic pseudo-science (modern rationalism). It is one science among the others, properly scientific and not to be controlled by the church, but as all sciences, developed out of a faith stance. All sciences are ‘secular’ in that they investigate empirical reality, and all sciences are ‘sacred’ in that they investigate God’s creation and must recognize or willfully ignore the creator. Further Ouweneel insists that without a Christian philosophy there can be no Christian theology.
The second half, as I have divided it, starts with a discussion of abstraction and the use of concepts and ideas in theology (chapter six), next he discusses criteria for the conceptualization that is part of the task of theology (chapter seven). The next two chapters deal with paradigms, first in science in general then in theology in particular, he ends with a discussion of (theoretical) truth against the background of the fullness of truth found in Jesus Christ.
Ouweneel has set himself a very difficult task. The issues he raises have not always received the attention they deserve and at the same time he is writing an introduction. As such some parts of the book are more successful than others. Since I am sympathetic to his project and much of what he is arguing for I will just mention briefly a few weak points. His focus is on systematic theology and it is a shame that he does not consider the important developments in biblical theology. His distinctions between rational, irrational, non-rational and supra-rational start to become rather confusing when set alongside other distinctions he makes (eg practical-theoretical, faith, worldview, ground-motive etc.). It is not always clear how these all distinctions line up. He can be commended for keeping the book short, however I wonder if some sections could have been cut back more to make room for a case study chapter where the relevance of the issues raised in earlier chapters can be applied to a live theological topic.