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"Reforming Theology: Toward a Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics" by John Franke
WTJ 65 (2003): 1-26
Reviewed by Fred G. Zaspel



I. Areas of Agreement

Before offering criticisms of John Franke's article, it will be only fair to affirm, with Franke, that some of the issues he raises need to be raised. He calls for humility in regard to "certainty of knowledge," and if by that we can simply say "opinion," then the call is a good one. Conservative Reformed circles are often marked by entirely too much certitude of opinion, and it is a problem that should be faced honestly. Closely related to this, Franke has also given a warning against blind subscriptionism another common defect of many conservative Reformed Christian groups. Similarly, he has called us therefore to an awareness of the influence of tradition in our thinking and our theology in particular. Tradition can be a good thing, but it also can be enslaving and blinding. I think it was Copernicus who is credited as remarking that the God who gave us a brain did not intend for us to forego the use of it, and it is often our traditions that keeps us from thinking clearly. Custom without truth, after all, is simply error grown old. Franke has also exhorted us to an awareness of our culture in the articulation of our theology and our gospel message. These are all real issues that deserve addressing, particularly in conservative Reformed circles, and Franke is right to raise them.

However, the solutions Franke offers are much worse than the problems they are intended to correct. Some specific criticisms and then some general observations follow.


II. Specific Criticisms

A. His Foundationalist Anti-Foundationalism

First, one cannot help but see the irony in the foundationalist assumptions embedded in Franke's anti-foundationalist arguments. Franke insists, for example, that there can be no true certainty of knowledge, and it is striking how very certain he is about this. Similarly, he reminds us forcefully that universal knowledge is unattainable for finite humans, and he concludes from this that "no theological method can secure truth" (p. 10). But we might wonder, given his limited knowledge, how can he know this is true? On what grounds can he secure this truth that truth cannot be secured? Arguments like this are self-defeating, and it would seem that Franke just cannot get away from the foundationalist assumptions he so strenuously seeks to discredit. Similarly when he calls us to a "principled pluralism" (p. 11), we scratch our heads in wonder what these "principles" are that must keep our pluralism in check. Such "principles" appear very much like the foundationalist foundations which Franke's nonfoundationalist proposal disallows. So also when he argues against the sole authority of Scripture in favor of God's "polyphonic revelation" (Scripture, tradition, culture) and yet insists that Scripture must be given primary weight as "the norming norm," we can only wonder how he can be so sure. On what authoritative grounds can his position be sustained? It would seem that it is "rooted in [the] particular understandings of the role of Scripture in the theological enterprise" (p. 3) which he explicitly rejects as foundationalist and outdated. It seems that what Franke discards with the right hand he clings to with the left, and he seems completely unaware of it.


B. The Shift of the Locus of Authority

Second, and more seriously, essential to Franke's position is a shift of the locus of authority. Franke argues that it is not Scripture but God who is our authority. Besides the (on his grounds) unwarranted certitude reflected in this assertion, two problems are immediately evident. First, he creates a false disjunction between God and his Word. One might ask Franke why he thinks God gave his Word in the first place. Did God really intend for us to make this distinction and relegate his revealed Word to secondary status? To the contrary, the Lord tells us repeatedly in his Word that it is given as the supreme regulative standard of faith and practice. It is a critical shift that Franke makes at this point, but to sustain it he must abandon the Scripture's own testimony in this regard altogether. Perhaps this is the problem exactly; we can only wonder. But Franke creates a false dilemma it is not God or his Word that is our authority but God who speaks to us authoritatively through his Word.

Second, Franke shifts the locus of authority from Scripture to God, but then again he moves it back away from God to his polyphonic revelation (p. 11). Here we find what seems to be Franke's goal in this enterprise a significant lessening of Scripture's authority combined with a significant elevation of the "authority" and role of tradition and culture in the formulation of theology. At several points he expressly repudiates the traditional understanding of sola scriptura in doing theology and in the work of exegesis itself. To approach the Word of God with "a particular understanding" of its "role in the theological enterprise," Franke insists, "has become all too common in the more conservative circles of the Reformed theological community" (p. 3). This is crucial. He emphatically rejects the singular authority of Scripture and expressly counsels us not to approach the Scripture with such views in mind. Instead, we should be advised of "the authority" of our societal context, "the nature and function of culture for the task of theology" (p. 16), and so on. "The conversation between gospel and culture should be one of mutual enrichment" in which the gospel is "informed by" culture (p. 19). That is, our gospel is not informed by Scripture alone but by the world around us. The meaning of Scripture is "determined in large measure by its worldly context" (p. 20). The gospel is "not a given" or a "preexisting reality" which can enter the conversation "as is"; no, only after it is informed by its conversation with culture can we understand its meaning (p.19). Theology is therefore situational, informed and enriched by its worldly context. The meaning of the inspired text, Franke counsels over and again, is not found in the text alone but in the text as understood by and enlightened by the community. Its meaning is not found in the author's intent but lies ahead of the text in the readers' response. Scripture merely provides "a trajectory," sets a course of thinking, and it is yet to be discovered what that meaning will be in a given context.

Franke appears very sensitive to the charge of relativism, but with all this it is a charge he will surely have to live with. Having shifted the locus of authority away from Scripture and off to culture and having removed meaning from the text and given it to the community, he has lost all ground to repel the criticism. Authority is not purely divine, in his view; it is societal as well. We have a say in what truth is. Meaning is not fixed, in his view; it is yet to be determined. Theology is determined by its cultural context. Authorial intent and careful exegesis of the inspired text are expressly impugned, and we are left with sheer relativism. To be sure, he will tell us that God's polyphonic revelation will not lead us against the inspired text of Scripture (p. 20), but how does he know? For that matter, does not this very assertion acknowledge that there is, after all, meaning in the text?

Old ideas are ever new, and Franke's argument has an old ring to it. A hundred years ago the spokesmen for theological liberalism argued in a way (ironically) that was surprisingly similar to Franke's suggestion that the meaning of the text lies not in it or behind it but ahead of it. In the case of old liberalism, they wanted very much to escape the offense of the cross. And so they spoke of Christianity as a constant development which found its significance not in its germ but in its full growth. In their case, the "germ" was the old gospel of the cross and redemption by blood, and the "full growth" was the new liberal Christianity which had no need for such things. The true essence of Christianity, they argued, lay not in what it was but in what it has become which, in their case, was the rationalistic "Liberal" religion of the day. The answer then, and the answer now, is that, No, Christianity is an historical religion. Christianity did not just grow up; it was founded, and it was given its shape "once for all" indeed, its shape was imposed upon it by its Founder. It therefore does not take its shape from its environment; rather, it shapes its environment. Its meaning is not found in our current ideals or in the whims of society but in the definitions given it by its Founder, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is exactly this "once-for-all-ness" of the Christian faith that Franke's model will not allow.

Let's put this all on real turf. Franke attaches his sympathies to the Reformed tradition. On what ground could he argue, say, as a missionary in a Roman Catholic country say, Italy for the universal validity of the Reformed and Biblical tenet of justification by faith alone? Given the authority he lends to the "community," what is his task as a nonfoundationalist Reformed missionary in a Catholic community? Can the Catholics to whom he ministers be justified by other means than by faith alone? Are they lost, or might their works of penance be of saving value after all? Franke seems willing to go this far; after all, he does speak of the validity of all of confessional Christendom. And he argues also that truths are "universal" only to the community that embraces them (p. 12).

"Postmodern Reformed Dogmatics" evidently means whatever a given "context" determines it to mean, and of course a word or phrase that can mean anything means nothing. This leaves Franke vulnerable indeed to the charge of relativism which he seems so desperate to escape. And it further points up the stark contrast between Franke's model and that of Scripture. Scripture claims very certainly and very dogmatically that this gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone is the only gospel there is. All the world will be judged by this gospel, and all who teach otherwise will be accursed. Scripture is stubbornly insistent in its refusal to surrender its claims to its singular, universal authority.


C. A Subtle Redefinition of the Reforming Principle

Third, Franke subtly redefines the Reforming principle. Semper Reformanda has always been understood in terms of the church's responsibility to be "always reforming" as it seeks to bring itself into closer conformity to the Word of God. Franke, on the other hand, speaks of "the Reformed concern for the ongoing reformation of the faith and practice of the church according to the Word of God in the context of ever-changing circumstances and situations" (p. 1). He speaks of the principle's "emphasis on contextuality" (p. 8). There is nothing to say about this except that he has significantly changed the rules. The reforming principle was not intended to lend authority to the shifting whims of society, but this is where Franke would have it lead us. One wonders what Franke holds, as a Reformed Protestant, in regard to the sufficiency of Scripture. It is an important maneuver for him if he is to sustain his postmodernist thesis while remaining in a Reformed context. But it is a maneuver that is less than true to its professed heritage.


D. The Rejection of Certitude

We cannot help but think, after his explanation of it, that the very idea of "Postmodern Dogmatics" is self-contradictory. It is with convinced certitude that Franke rejects of the certitude of knowledge, and here again we find him susceptible to the charge of relativism. He claims that certainty of knowledge is both impossible and undesirable (p.10) and that all theological convictions are open to rejection (p. 10). "The situatedness of all human thought" demands "a principled pluralism," he argues (p. 11). Truths are "universal" only to the community which embraces them (p. 12). He attacks foundationalism but insists that "foundations" do remain. But then he says that though these foundations remain, they are not given to human beings (p. 11). We may wonder, then, how he knows they remain at all and what value they could possible be to us. What Franke gives with the right hand he steals with the left. We may be excused for thinking Franke's approach is or will at least lead to sheer relativism.

Franke seems to think that since we cannot know everything, then we can know nothing. There is no question, obviously, that we have only partial knowledge, but this in no way precludes accurate knowledge. Indeed, our knowledge about any given subject may be both imperfect and yet accurate. If this were not the case it would spell the end of all attempts at learning and communication. If perfect knowledge is required before accurate knowledge, and if we shall never achieve omniscience, then Franke should leave off teaching for teaching becomes a useless endeavor and we must all throw up our hands in despair of knowing anything at all.

More to the point, although we do not have perfect knowledge, Scripture comes to us from the Lord of truth who does know all things perfectly and completely. There is every warrant, therefore, to hold with full certainty that every line of the Word of God is infallibly true and authoritative. We may we must acknowledge our fallible understanding of that Word, but this is a far cry from being left adrift in a sea of postmodernist uncertainty. Scripture nowhere impugns knowledge as Franke does. Scripture warns us that knowledge can make us proud, but it never discredits its value or pursuit; in fact Scripture holds us responsible for knowledge. We have only to read the book of Proverbs to see the encouragement God gives us in our pursuit of knowledge. There is a finality, an "all truth absoluteness" to Scripture that Franke's model just cannot allow. A certain faith grounded in "thus says the Lord" is strikingly absent.


Concluding Remarks

Franke's article has the marks of a revolt. He wants to change the status quo, and as noted at the outset there is something about his diagnosis that is correct. But the proposed solution offers a cure that is worse than the disease. What drives Franke in this revolt we can only guess. Perhaps it is a desire for universal ecumenicity. It can strike the reader as a young theologian trying to make his mark. Perhaps there are other reasons.

Franke seems to assume that since philosophers now largely reject foundationalism, we must therefore establish a theology that is acceptable to postmodernist philosophy. But he does not do a good job of discrediting foundationalism, and he gives barely an attempt to establish the credibility of his postmodernist alternative. Further, the invalidity of foundationalism does not, ipso facto, demand postmodernism. Franke has not made his case. He has only illustrated for us the dangers of postmodernism.

The position Franke gives to Scripture in formulating theology is, at best, significantly less than Scripture claims for itself, and, at worst, it leaves us with sheer relativism. To be sure, the role Franke allows Scripture in forming theology is evident in the construction of his own thesis. He gives lip service to Scripture as a norming norm, but his entire thesis is constructed without any appeal to or grounding in an authoritative text; indeed, such an approach is maligned. Rather, his thesis is constructed merely by appeal to his own philosophical presuppositions presuppositions, which very often can be sustained only on foundationalist grounds, and which, according to his own theory, may or may not be embraced by other communities.

Franke's attempt is to cast Reformed theology in to a postmodernist mold. I am reminded of a critical review by B. B. Warfield in 1913 of a book entitled, Foundations: A Statement of Christian Belief in Terms of Modern Thought. This is Franke's attempt exactly to state Christian belief in terms of modern thought and Warfield's caution then applies still:

"No one will doubt that Christian's of to-day must state their Christian belief in terms of modern thought. Every age has a language of its own and can speak no other. Mischief comes only when, instead of stating Christian belief in terms of modern thought, an effort is made, rather, to state modern thought in terms of Christian belief." (Works 10, p. 322.)