Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press, 2023
Overview: Hanna Reichel’s thought-provoking new book engages both systematic and constructive theology (represented by Karl Barth and Marcella Althaus-Reid) in an enlightening conversation about the role of theological method. Following Feyerabend’s critique of the “tyranny” of method, in conjunction with the framework of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:12, Reichel resists both method as theology’s savior and an anarchic, methodless theology. Their position is not to go “against” method but to consider the right use of method after realizing that method cannot “save” or “justify” theology as a discipline. Instead, in a fascinating appeal to justification by grace alone, without lapsing into antinomianism, the book is a profound meditation on doing theology well. Of noteworthy interest is their appeal to conceptual design as a framework for thinking about theology today.
Reichel’s book opens with a call for better theology—not perfect theology, but better theology. That includes an admission of never being good despite the striving toward better. Karl Barth’s famous statement on the im/possibility of theology lives in the background of the argument:
As theologians we ought to speak of God. But we are humans and as such cannot speak of God. We ought to do both, to know the “ought” and the “not able to,” and precisely in that way give God the glory. 1
Reichel critiques the misuse of methodology as a means by which theology might escape this dilemma and justify itself humanly rather than living within this “ought” and “not able to.” It has sometimes been implied that theology might save itself from irreverence and impossibility by obtaining methodological purity. The insecure position theology finds itself in today makes theologians susceptible to searching out other means of justification aside from those given by its subject, i.e., God. Thus, Reichel’s critique is against this misuse of methodology as soteriologically justifying—as a condition that makes theology possible despite its impossibility. However, their critique is not a call to forgo methodology entirely but rather a theological “intervention” on the misuse of methodology. As Reichel helpfully summarizes toward the end of the book:
“After Method” does not signal my intention to do away with standards altogether or to leave the search for truth up for grabs and without criteria for its communal and—yes!—rational negotiation. Indeed, it is because I do not think that methdological dogmatism, whether on the “left” (liberationist orthopraxis?) or the “right” (dogmatics orthodoxy?) can overcome these pressing dangers, that I argue… not “against science” and not even “against method” but against the tyranny of any method, against being controlled by it, and against the myth that getting method “right” might save us—in theological terms: I am arguing for the desoteriologized understanding of method, a mindful and threefold use of it as an instrument of grace rather than its condition. (p. 248)
“Method cannot save us” is a continual refrain. Methodology is not a means of justifying theology, a condition that makes theology humanly possible, but it is an “instrument of grace.” Theology’s position in the academy, its place in society and culture, and its relevance in the church cannot be “saved” by methodological purity. Rather, the situation is much like the relationship between good works and grace. Works do not save, but on the other side of salvation, grace is not grace if it does not produce good works. In Lutheran terms, this is sometimes called the “third use of the law.” The third use of the law is its application to those who have already been regenerated and functions as a rule for life, in contrast with the second use, which is when the law reveals our sin and incapability to save ourselves. Thus, Reichel’s argument functions similarly regarding methodology. First, it cannot save theology or justify it as a valid discipline for the academy, public, or Church. But, after this desoteriologization of method is complete (which is a large part of the book’s task), on the other side, we find method’s return as a guide and tool for theology in its task, not a condition for the possibility of theology as such.
And this is where conceptual design theory fascinatingly comes into play. I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the book (see part 3). Reichel conceives of theology as conceptual design, wherein there are still rules (i.e., methods), just as there are mathematical rules every architect must follow, but the ultimate question is not constructing the “perfect” house or whatever, but the central question is usefulness. Interestingly, they note how “Both Systematic and Constructive Theology are de facto already engaged in conceptual design” (216). Paraphrasing George Box, Reichel comments how “all theologies are wrong, but some are useful” (236). This framing of the task of theology is liberating. By shifting the focus from scientific purity to usefulness, from methodological tyranny to the freedom of the theologian (without antinomianism), this approach can, perhaps, solve many of the issues that plague academic theology today, such as the disconnect between pew and classroom, the issue of irrelevance that is facing theology at every turn, and the pragmatism that theology functions in the world. That final point is an interesting one. It relates to the conviction that a theologian is not someone who comes along and invents theology. Rather, theology was already present. A theologian is “the person who devotes time and training to explicit reflection on how to do theology well” (4). Yet sin remains at the heart of the theological enterprise because it is in the heart of the theologian. In other words, to return to conceptual design, design is all around us, but much is designed poorly. There is no perfect design for all purposes, but a good designer will reflect on how to design well. Methods follow after the need for better theology gives up the desire for methodologically justified theology.
There is much more that could be said about this fascinating book. The way Reichel combines both Barth and Marcella Althaus-Reid was creative and illuminating. I was initially skeptical that the book might entail disavowing methodology altogether, but that is not the case. Instead, it is against the self-justifying efforts (both on the left and right) to save theology as a discipline, yet on the other side, the continual need for a methodology that functions as a guide for life (for use) rather than being falsely salvific. I think that is a fair critique of academic theology today, as I understand it while standing (mostly) from the outside. Academic theology is losing relevance, not only in the academy but in the Church, too. The natural insecurity that emerges as a result can lead theologians to cling to the false hope that the method might “save” theology from irrelevance. But it cannot and will not. Yet, on the other side of that sobering realization, theology cannot disavow method altogether while also freely using methodologies in a non-tyrannical way, not to justify theology but to do it well. The book balances this tension well. That permits a less rigid approach to method while retaining the benefits of clarity that methodology affords while refocusing the goal of theology upon use rather than scientific purity. As Reichel writes, the book is an “intervention against method on theological grounds” (20). In that regard, it is an intervention that will undoubtedly be much discussed in years to come.
Reichel’s book will be of keen interest to anyone concerned with theology as a discipline, but moreover, it would benefit anyone looking for a thoughtful and interesting use of Karl Barth and Marcella Atlas-Reid, among many others from both systematic and constructive theology.
I want to thank Westminster John Knox Press for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here.
- The Word of God and Theology, trans. Amy Marga (T&T Clark: New York, 2011), p. 177. ↩