Hans Frei's Typology of Christian Theology: A Comparative Look at the Islamic Tradition
Ibrahim, Yasir S., Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Types of Christian Theology by Hans W. Frei (1922-88) (1) investigates the various attitudes of Western theologians and philosophers toward modern Protestant theology. (2) Frei chose variables by which he categorized the writings of these thinkers into types. This essay first analyzes Frei's typology, locating some of these variables and demonstrating how they work within the Christian tradition. Types of Christian Theology. Then, it finds some parallels to Frei's types in the Islamic tradition, specifically in modern articulations of theology and interpretation of scripture. In this comparative study, it will become clear that some of the variables used by Frei apply to the Islamic case as well and that Frei's typology, despite its Christian-specific formulation, can be of great value in the study of the spectrum of positions in Islamic theology and textual interpretation, provided that its specific intra-Christian formulation is taken into account.
Objections against the Comparative Study of Christian and Islamic Theologies
The objection might be raised that a typology formulated within a specific religious tradition can hardly be transferred to another. Granted, the development of theology and of the interpretation of scriptures is different in the Christian and Islamic traditions. Despite the differences and particularity of each tradition, however, the Islamic and Christian traditions have striking similarities in the development of their modern theologies and scriptural interpretation. In both traditions certain texts were canonized and believed to be inspired by God, and these texts formed the basis for praxis within certain communities. Then, in a later period, dogmatic and theological formulations were debated and then fixed according to the dominant "orthodox" tradition. Some of these debates were related to the theory of interpretation and the levels or senses of scriptural meaning. In the Middle Ages, in both traditions, the multiplicity of senses became a major issue in scriptural interpretation. Some exegetical works such as those provided by Sufi interpreters of the Qur'an and those of the Bible stressed the multiplicity of levels of meaning and gave primary weight to the ones that were beyond the literal, such as the spiritual or the allegorical. Such figures as Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274 C.E.), (3) Muslim theologian and jurist Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328 C.E.), (4) and his Syrian student, Qur'an exegete Abri al-Fida' Ibn Kathir (1301-1373 C.E.), (5) played a major role in establishing the primacy of the literal sense of meaning over the others. (6)
Thus, in the premodern period, there was a consensus among the "orthodox" tradition in both cases on the dominance of the literal sense of meaning as a hermeneutic principle in the process of interpretation of scripture. Frei, in his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, mentioned that, after the Reformation, Protestant biblical interpretation stressed the primacy of the literal sense according to a realistic historical view, but later criticism shifted this literal understanding to refer to "what the original sense of a text was to its original audience," forging a new, realistic reading. (7) In the Islamic tradition, since the early formulations of the classical period, the literal sense was given primacy over the mystical (or spiritual) sense. The literal sense of meaning was fixed to refer to "what the word or a phrase refers to according to the Arabic usage in the early centuries of Islam." (8) Frei referred to a similar movement toward the primacy of literality in the Christian interpretive tradition as the direct reading of the "plain" text. (9) Using other senses of meaning in scriptural interpretation in both traditions became permissible only in special cases--for example, the case in which the context would make a literal understanding collide with a basic theological principle. (10) Furthermore, in both traditions there was (and still is) a challenge coming from modernity and the results of scientific explanation. Several theological and hermeneutical positions in the twentieth century were formulated as a response to this challenge. Some of them deviate from the traditional Christian or Islamic methodology of interpretation. (11) In sum, it is not a reductionist view to assert that the development of the interpretive traditions in both Christianity and Islam has similarities and points of convergence that encourage a comparative approach, on the condition that points of divergence and dissimilarity are taken into consideration.
Even assuming that similarities between Christian and Islamic traditions invite comparison, Frei's view of theology may seem to preclude its applicability to the Islamic tradition. Frei explained the two formulations of Christian theology, namely, the "philosophical" in which philosophy would be the cognate discipline to theology, and the community-based language of theology that is expressed in its liturgical activity and the direct reading of scripture. (12) The latter language of theology is, according to Frei, more closely linked to social anthropology than to philosophy. Frei's project was based on regarding this social-anthropological language of theology as the "internal" description of theology. The rejection of any "external" language of Christian theology means that any influence from an external discipline is not accepted--even if it is articulated from within the establishment, the church, as long as it does not represent the language of the community itself as a whole. (13) Frei, of course, acknowledged that this internal, community-based language of theology cannot escape using philosophy, (14) but philosophy in this context is not used as an external discipline with its specific inquiry for truth and knowledge that dominates the articulation of Christian theology. Frei held that Christian theology is a subset of Christianity, which, as a religion, comprises a community with a sacred text, beliefs, and practices. If religion, as Frei claimed, is a cultural phenomenon, then theology, a part of a religion, is also anthropological and culture-specific and is not dominated by any comparative or external theoretical system.
If the typology of Christian theology is designed to function, as Frei reckoned, as an exclusively Christian formulation of theological attitudes, is it possible, then, to apply it to a different religious tradition? Despite Frei's emphasis on the particularity of a religious belief or practice, he left the door open for possible parallelism and similarity among traditions by stating that "theology is religion-specific, and whether or not other religions besides Christianity have theologies or something like them would have to be adduced case by specific case." (15) In other words, any comparative approach, according to Frei, should not be based on a general philosophical theory, such as that of phenomenology, which dominates the understanding and interpretation of the traditions compared, but, rather, on specific cases of theological formulation and religious ideas that are similar in two traditions. The present study follows this line of thought by uncovering parallels in the Islamic tradition to the types formulated by Frei, without indulging in any attempt to apply a comparative theory that is external to both traditions.
Frei's Cultural-Anthropological Approach to "Religion" and "Theology"
The sense in which Frei used the terms "religion" and "theology" requires clarification. He adopted the cultural-linguistic analysis of religion presented by Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) (16) and others, for whom these terms carried a specific meaning. Jonathan Z. Smith (17) in his article, "Religion, Religions, Religious," has asserted that the term "religion" as used in some academic circles today is not a native category but is imposed from the outside on some aspect of native culture. The term "religion" was used first to refer to an anthropological, not theological, category. "It describes human thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior." (18) Thus, "religion" was first used in an anthropological sense, after which there was a "shift to belief as the defining characteristic of religion." (19) Theology for Smith is the academic discipline subsumed under the study of philosophy. Frei not only used the category "religion" as a cultural phenomenon, but he also presented another language of theology that is not philosophically based but, rather, embedded in the semiotic-cultural system of a specific community. Christian theology is first-order statements of the community through its beliefs and practices and second-order appraisal by the community of its beliefs and practices according to norms internal to the community. (20)
The social-anthropological definition of theology by Frei could be applied perfectly in a static situation--that is, at a certain moment of time in the life of the community. Taking the dynamic nature of such internal language into consideration complicates the matter. Frei left some room for change in the content of the internal theological language when he spoke of the community's appraisal of its beliefs and practices. This appraisal and correction is responsible for the change and reformulation of the community's own language of theology. Bur, who is responsible for this change and how it happens, and why are some corrections considered valid while others are deemed "heretical" and are expelled, along with their founders, from the community?
The cultural-linguistic model of religion and theology must address the dynamics of power relations within any cultural system. A community's dominant language or theological position in any cultural system is determined, to a large extent, by the power relations between members of the community. The choice of the community to decide its language of theology is affected by the dominant powers in that community, not necessarily by a free choice made by the community members. Even though Frei did not discuss directly the role of power relations in shaping the Christian community's language of theology, one can conclude that the crux of the matter for him was the end result of any power struggle within the community; that is, the final adoption of the community is regarded as its language of theology. The Reformation, for example, was a movement that began as a power struggle within the Catholic community, and it ended with the creation of new Protestant communities with their specific language of theology.
The important variable in Frei's typology of modern Christian theology, as stated above, is the differentiation between the internal and external languages of theology. The internal language is a cultural-linguistic one formulated by a direct or "plain" reading of the Bible, based on Frei's assertion that "the Bible explains itself" and is the source for Christian truth and intelligibility. The external language is a general theory of explanation with claims to truth and intelligibility, and, in Frei's typology, he takes philosophy as the external discipline for such a nonbiblical language of theology. (21)
Frei's Five Types of Christian Theology
Frei named five types of Protestant Christian attitudes toward Christian theology, based on the correlation between the internal and external languages of theology. The representatives of the first type use only the external language, namely, a general theory without any acknowledgment of or correlation with the internal language, for example, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). (22) The representatives of the fifth type, on the contrary, use only the biblical internal …
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Publication information: Article title: Hans Frei's Typology of Christian Theology: A Comparative Look at the Islamic Tradition. Contributors: Ibrahim, Yasir S. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Volume: 44. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2009. Page number: 642+. © 1998 Journal of Ecumenical Studies. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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