February 23, 2009
A Mountain of Theology
What is the task of theology? That’s a question I have returned to repeatedly. I like to think metaphorically, and I’ve found some help in likening the task of theology to viewing a great mountain from several angles. This works for a theological hermeneutic of Scripture too. In theology, to focus on a particular biblical text (or aspect of God) and to make it determinative of the whole is like viewing a great mountain from only one aspect, one viewpoint, and concluding that it captures Mount Rainier or Denali or Long’s Peak or the Matterhorn. Those who know mountains know how mistaken this can be in most cases.
A good example is Oregon’s Mt. Hood, which from east, south, west and north reveals dramatically different aspects. Its classic pose, as viewed from Portland, is quite different from the North face as viewed from Hood River, let alone the gently sloping south flank as viewed from near Timberline Lodge. So I was gratified to find Karl Barth—and a Swiss theologian should know!—preceding me in this analogy:
Within all these [biblical] writings the pilgrimage leads from one level of tradition to another, taking into account every stage of tradition that may be present or surmised. In this respect the work of theology might be compared to the task of circling a high mountain which, although it is one and the same mountain, exists and manifests itself in very different shapes. The eternally rich God is the content of the knowledge of evangelical theology. His unique mystery is known only in the overflowing fullness of his counsels, ways, and judgments. (Barth, Evangelical Theology, 28-29)
Notice the way Barth is tuned in to the nuances of biblical scholarship (e.g., stages of tradition, present or surmised). Just preceding this he has referred to the variety of literature and levels of tradition in Scripture (see text). The text is by no means flat, nor is it monolithic. Needless to say, and as reading Barth discloses, a proof-texting approach to theology is disallowed. But it is much more difficult to describe briefly a good theological hermeneutic.