Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Analogy of Tradition: Method and Theological Judgment

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Analogy of Tradition: Method and Theological Judgment

Article excerpt

THE DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE is an assumption of modern theology. Theologians typically understand their work as the practice of doctrinal development, and so as the practice of the assumption that doctrine develops. One would think that the basic practices that enact a field's assumptions would merit the closest scrutiny, since they take shape as disciplinary performance itself. To the contrary, the assumed, by its very nature, tends to pass unexamined before the critical eye. This often occurs because scholars think that basic practices obviously discharge the assumptions to which they are beholden. The disciplinary practice is taken to be so simple a rendition of the assumptions that a critical account of how the practice does what it does is deemed unnecessary. The practice is undertaken as though it transcends method, sometimes even when the practice ostensibly enacts a method. Yet, on closer examination, the connection between practice and assumptions proves to be tenuous at best. A good example of such latitude in the field of theology can be found in how theologians practice the assumption of doctrinal development.

Theologians engage in this interpretive practice all the time. But how, exactly, does this practice happen, and how, exactly, does one know when it is accomplished well or poorly? These are difficult questions to answer. One might begin by objecting that the questions are not posed very well, since any answer would never be a matter of "exactly." As Schleiermacher observed long ago, the practice of interpretation is not a science but an art. (1) This art is a matter of judgment that requires the theologian to bridge the distance, conceptually and expressively, between ancient meaning and its contemporary appropriation. It would not be difficult, however, to say exactly how interpretive practice fails. The extremes of the interpretive spectrum--mindless repetition and "anything goes" speculation--would fail for lack of judiciousness, by relinquishing the task of interpretation itself. It may be the case that saying how interpretive judgment takes place, exactly, between these extremes is neither possible nor even desirable, as long as method provides some general guidelines for the hermeneutical task to proceed meaningfully.

But even if "exactly" happily eludes us, the goal of this article is to say more nearly how the assumption of doctrinal development is practiced in theological reflection. I argue for a more detailed account of the interpretive practice at the heart of theological reflection, at the very point that theological judgment claims success. This more detailed account could be understood as a theological method, one that I will call the "analogy of tradition." I make no claims for the novelty of this method. I think that contemporary theologians actually do practice this method, though perhaps without being conscious of doing so. Before I sketch this method and argue for its advantages, I will first define the theological problem that it addresses.

CONGRUENCE IN TRADITION AND IN THEOLOGICAL JUDGMENT

Any theological judgment attempts to reconcile the relevance of contemporary concerns with faithfulness to the past. Such a judgment posits a congruent relationship between past and present that may be weighted more on the authority of the past or more on the pressing needs of the moment, resulting in theological positions that are, respectively, more conservative or more liberal. By "congruent" I mean an interpretive relationship characterized by meaningful continuity between the authoritative past and the contemporary theological claim, a continuity that believers understand as the unity of tradition and the basis of Christian faithfulness through the ages. But how is this congruence in tradition achieved? And, more specifically, how does this congruence come to be formulated in a theological judgment? The first question has not troubled modern theology. As I have already noted, the development of doctrine is an assumption of modern theology, and one that takes the congruence of developing tradition for granted as one of its authentic traits. …

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