Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

Book review

Paul Yeulett, Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church, Shropshire, UK

To Know and Love God: Method for Theology, David K. Clark, Crossway, 2003, 464 pp, $35.00.

This is part of a series entitled Foundations of Evangelical Theology, published by Crossway Books. Four books have been published so far and a further six are in the planning stages.

It needs to be stressed at the outset that Clark’s work, unlike the other titles in the series, is not a text book of theology per se; rather it is a book about how to do theology. For this reason it reads more like a work of philosophy than theology. Central to his thesis is the understanding that ‘theology’ is something more than ‘doctrine’. The series introduction itself acknowledges that ‘systematic theology is not divine revelation. Theologizing of any sort is a human conceptual enterprise’ (p.xv). So in this regard Clark draws a distinction between scientia, the science or knowledge of God and sapientia, the wisdom which results in ‘the formation of God’s life and character in human believers and communities’ (p.87). Throughout this book Clark urges the reader to move beyond the raw materials of scientia and pursue God-honouring sapientia.

By any account Clark’s book is a magnum opus. It is a book to be read on a long train journey, or perhaps during many uninterrupted evenings sitting by the fire, if such luxuries are available. Each chapter probably needs to be read through at least twice before its contents will become part of the reader’s mental furniture. It is no surprise to discover that this work was ‘the better part of a decade’ (p.xix) in the making.

When I was studying theology at an undergraduate level I took an elective course on the subject of hermeneutics and encountered many of the themes that Clark handles here. Having read the first few pages, I immediately began to wish that this had been one of the required textbooks for the course. The titles of his twelve chapters illustrate both the great breadth of Clark’s expertise and the vastness and diversity of the fields with which theology interacts. Perhaps the best advertisement for alluring prospective readers would simply be to list these chapter titles, because they are quite mouth-watering:

1. Concepts of Theology; 2. Scripture and the Principle of Authority; 3. Theology in Cultural Context; 4. Diverse Perspectives and Theological Knowledge; 5. Unity in the Theological Disciplines; 6. Theology in the Academic World; 7. The Spiritual Purpose of Theology; 8. Theology and the Sciences; 9. Theology and Philosophy; 10. Christian Theology and the World Religions; 11. Reality, Truth and Language; 12. Theological Language and Spiritual Life.

Each chapter ends with a brief conclusion, which also functions as a bridge into the next chapter, so that the reader’s interest is carried forward. However, it might have assisted the reader more if these conclusions consisted of more pithy summaries, perhaps in the form of bullet points. This way, the chief findings of each chapter might ‘stick’ in readers’ minds more readily.

To say that this book is written for a highly academic readership is not a criticism in and of itself, but it does mean that its usefulness may be somewhat restricted unless pastors who have mastered its contents can put some of its best principles – and there are several valuable principles – into concrete action. Clark is at his most lucid when he is employing anecdotes and illustrations. For the pastor, a greater number of such fleshed-out applications would be extremely welcome. It is quite apparent that Clark’s intended readership resides in the academy rather than the church. Although he states his belief that ‘the home of theology is the church’, Clark’s own theology seems to be away from home most of the time. His lament over ‘the isolation of Christian theology in general (and evangelical theology in particular) from the academy’ (p.198) is itself very eloquent, because throughout this book his central aim appears to be securing the intellectual acceptance – by the academy – of this ‘evangelical theology’.

We need to ask quite seriously whether that is ever an attainable or even a truly honourable objective. For example, Clark does not want to see science and theology at war with one another. Neither, I am sure, do most of us, but how can this warfare ever be satisfactorily ended? The ‘complementarity approach’ between theology and science (p.278) appears plausible to Christians who are scientists, but it cannot truly appeal to scientists who have rejected out of hand all spiritual explanations of reality. Clark admits that ‘defenders of scientism ridicule the idea that science could benefit from theology’ (p.287). What could cause these ‘defenders of scientism’ to change their minds other than a fundamental change of presuppositions – viz. an evangelical conversion? Clark seems rather anxious to demonstrate, above all else, that he is listening intently to the post-modern voices all around him. Typically he rejects all the ‘hard’ expressions of postmodernism – multiculturalism, perspectivalism and foundationalism – but is willing to accommodate himself to ‘soft’ versions of these philosophies. What are his motives – intellectual respectability or the desire to be faithful to the God of the Bible? Can these two coexist comfortably?

Clark is keen to emphasise that ‘the Bible itself (as best we can understand it) must finally judge any insight that arises from any cultural frame of reference’ (p.119). But does the Bible only have a role to play at the end of the process? Must not the Scriptures be formative of our philosophy as well as adjudicative? Clark’s entire thesis would have persuaded me far more if he had grounded his own reflections in his understanding of the Bible as his primary text. In certain respects the Thomist approach described in the final chapter: ‘He (Aquinas) did not look to Scripture and build a case that Scripture uses language in a particular way’ (p.389) is descriptive of Clark’s own method. The Scriptures are opened up for illustrative purposes rather more than they are to establish points of doctrine.

It is also somewhat ironic, though perhaps inevitable, that Clark’s method, as well as his style, feels resoundingly ‘modernist’ despite his sympathetic stance towards aspects of a post-modern approach. In Chapter 1 he makes the basic point that an inductive style of theology is inadequate for communication in today’s world. Here, as in several other works on this subject, Charles Hodge is held up as the chief exemplar of the inductive method. In this regard Hodge has been much maligned, and I believe that Clark’s statement that Hodge ‘assumed that the human mind is relatively passive’ (p.49) in the inductive process is not entirely fair to the latter. What is undoubtedly true is that Hodge was not exposed to the rich tapestry of multiculturalism, far less the postmodernism, which constitutes the contemporary milieu. But that should certainly not cause us to discard him.

The irony here is that it is hard to see how a book of this kind could ever be written without a method that makes so much of propositions. The main difference between Hodge and Clark is that the former seeks to obtain his propositions from Scripture alone. Clark would maintain that this is effectively impossible because we all bring our cultural baggage with us to the interpretive process. The question we must surely ask is this: does not the Scripture, in all its variety of genre, furnish us with propositions that are intelligible, authoritative and ultimately unanswerable? ‘Let God be true, and every man a liar’ (Rom. 3:4). Which propositions will win the day: Biblical ones or post-modern ones?

Clark’s twelve-point conclusion at the end of the book makes for interesting and provocative reflection, though I was disappointed by this statement: ‘I find myself compelled to believe that the way of historic faith in Jesus Christ is the most humane path to spiritual life’ (p.423). Here is undoubtedly a conciliatory step too far in the direction of unbelieving academic colleagues.

Nevertheless, the potential usefulness of this book is very considerable. What is needed now is for pastor-scholars to pick up some of its themes, subject them to careful critique, and run with them in a church context. There follow a few observations in this regard (and I write as a pastor).

In Chapter 7, The Spiritual Purposes of Theology, Clark deals with the fraught issue of how to ‘define evangelical self-identity and to specify our place on the theological spectrum’ (p.223). In this context he identifies two different modes of thinking, consideration of which is quite thought-provoking. One is ‘bounded set thinking’ in which, for example, a person belongs to a certain category or group because he holds certain beliefs or practises certain types of behaviour. The second is ‘centered (sic) set thinking’ in which, on the other hand, the key consideration is how a person is moving relative to some defined centre. Reflection on these two modes of thinking, and the tension between them, would be a useful exercise in a variety of pastoral contexts. Are we quite happy with our church members just as long as they tick certain ‘boxes’, submitting to the church constitution and behaving acceptably; or are we observing the trajectory that their lives are taking? In relation to the latter, Clark suggests that the most important question which we can ask professing Christians is simply this: ‘Whom do you truly love?’ (p.227); a good question for us all to ask ourselves, frequently.

Clark is undoubtedly right to highlight the issue of Unity in the Theological Disciplines (Chapter 5). He shows that the differing perspectives and presuppositions brought by the practitioners of different fields can lead to confusion and contradiction. Every pastor needs a certain level of competence across these fields, and some work needs to be done in establishing parameters within which these disciplines operate within an unashamedly evangelical context.

His demolition of the realist pluralism of John Hick (pp.332-7) and the nonrealist pluralism of Gordon Kaufman (pp.337-45) are devastating in their effect. Not only that, but the viewpoints which they represent are shown to be clearly out of kilter with the way the majority of ‘religious’ people think, especially outside the Western world. I can remember encountering a disciple of Don Cupitt in a university context several years ago and being astounded that ‘nonrealists’ actually exist! Clark will come to our aid powerfully on this subject.

As a philosopher of language Clark excels, and it is in the final two chapters that the most helpful applications of all emerge. Clark’s discussion on Speech Acts (pp.410-417) is one of the most compelling of all the sections in the book. Kevin Vanhoozer, among others, has done outstanding work in this field, but it would be good to see some of this theory being applied more specifically to the act of preaching. At the very least, the pastor who works his way through this book will certainly start to find that he is giving more careful attention to his choice of words when he preaches. Yet even here there needs to be a note of caution, because it is not our words alone that communicate life and power, but the Holy Spirit working through them.

Perhaps a book which was ten years in the making deserves to be ten years in the reading, digesting and disseminating! This book requires a considerable amount of distillation if it is to attain to its full potential. And one key consideration here is that busy pastors simply haven’t the time to wade through books of this density more than once, if they manage it at all. It could be that a more collegiate approach – for example seminars that address Clark’s themes – would be the best way to enable pastors to digest this weighty, but extremely valuable, content.