‘…the witness of Jesus Christ to himself is none other than that which the Scriptures deliver to us and which comes to us by no other way than by the Word of the Scriptures. We are first concerned with a book which we find in the secular sphere. It must be read and interpreted. It will be read with all the help possible from historical and philosophical criticism. Even the believer has to do this with care and scholarship. Occasionally we have to deal with a problematic situation; perhaps we have to preach about a text, which we know from scholarly criticism was never spoken by Jesus. In the exegesis of Scripture we find ourselves on thin ice. One can never stand firm at one point, but must move about the whole of the Bible. As we move from one place to another we are like a man crossing a river covered in ice floes, who does not remain standing on one particular piece of ice, but jumps from one to another…’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center’, p. 73)
I was always intrigued by this passage. It takes seriously historical criticism, one of the four-letter words of theology – but the interesting bit for me is the bolded part. I really wondered what he meant by that. Typically theology involves a methodology which takes various biblical passages as axioms from which to build on and establish various propositions – it makes sense to build a theology that way. Solid foundations, and all that. The bolded passage seems to go against a pretty good method of theology – I can easily imagine people balking at such notions.
Then, however, I read this:
‘Here again we find a way of open inquiry that refuses to operate logico-deductively from fixed principia or traditional authorities, whether they are ecclesiastical or biblical, but insists on keeping close to the actual ground of faith and experience. In recognition of the fact that faith itself does not rest on biblical, far less on ecclesiastical, authority as such but on the truth mediated through the Bible and the Church, Anselm proposed a way of inquiry which methodologically sets aside even biblical statements regarded as formal premises, or which passes through them to the solid truth (solida veritas) on which they rest, in order that the mind may be brought directly under the compulsion of the truth and the impress of its rationality. Even in Christology itself Anselm declined to treat Christ as a formal premiss or a propositional basis for logical operation, but setting him aside in that role, and with constant prayer for divine illumination, he found a way of probing into the heart of Christological knowledge and elucidating its inner logic so that faith in Christ and knowledge of God through him could be shown to rest directly on the rationality of the truth incarnate in Christ.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 88-89)
There’s a lot more in the following passages, but that’s the critical point for the present (I’ll likely continue to go through the following passages in the near future). Torrance nails exactly what Bonhoeffer was cryptically saying – later on Torrance goes on to talk about fluid axioms in the Christological thought of Kierkegaard, and I have to say that such a concept fits perfectly with what Bonhoeffer was driving at. I’ll be so bold as to say that the above quoted passages are exactly the kind of method that should be used exclusively in theology, for the following reasons.
In Christ, Truth has entered history and become incarnate – which means that we can’t know it in a detached, impersonal way (which is what solid-axiomatic theological methods do, even if it’s unintentional or unbeknownst to the theologian doing so). Truth, having become historical and incarnate must, has therefore become personal, and as such, must be known personally. It cannot be known via detached, impersonal inquiry. Torrance later goes on to set mysticism at the fore of the theologians’ inquiry – personal, intimate, mystical communion with God.
This is a method I’ve picked up in a lot in becoming acquainted with theology – Pascal, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard (as well as a host of theologians from the Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic traditions) all operated in this way and all achieved brilliant, creative results. It’s a method that needs to be picked up more in theology.