In the last several theological texts I’ve read, I’ve been most arrested by the preface to the article or book. It is often here that the author considers the scope of her or his project; it is here that sticky issues of preconceptions and methodology are worked out. When one (or perhaps a reading group) is strapped for time, a preface can provide material for a meaty discussion of key issues and ways of thinking prior to delving into an entire text.
Also, prefaces to non-fiction texts can often be a good place to practice close, sentence-by-sentence reading in a group. Instead of asking a broad, thematic question, read together slowly. After each sentence, ask:
1.What does this mean? Can we express the author’s meaning in other ways?
2. What are the ideas in this sentence? What preconceptions does the author take for granted?
3. Do we understand the implications of this sentence? What would have to change about the ways we live our lives if it’s true?
4. Do we agree with the author? If not, why?
Below, I’ve included a couple paragraphs from the last preface/opening chapter I read, a piece by John Stackhouse, a professor at Regent College in Vancouver. To be clear, this isn’t a text that I’m recommending for mere consumption (I can’t think of a text which would get that recommendation from me!), but I do think that it raises thoughtful questions and clearly states ideas in a manner that lends itself to a good discussion. Although it is at the beginning of a larger theological discussion of gender, this opening piece is concerned with methodology: how ought we to consider theological questions and how are we to best live given our finite understandings of God and the world.
Have a go!
I came to a principle of general theological method out of this wrestling with a particular issue, that of gender: We should not wait to come to a theological conclusion until the happy day in which we have perfectly arranged all the relevant texts. Instead, we should look at all the texts as open-mindedly as possible and see if among the various competing interpretations there is one that makes the most sense of the most texts and especially the most important ones. We should look, in basic epistemological terms, for the preponderance of warrants of grounds to believe p instead of q. If no such preponderance is evident, then we should suspend making a decision. But if we conclude that a preponderance is discernible, then we should acknowledge it--indeed, be grateful for it--and proceed to act on that basis. For what else can we do in theology?
Jaroslav Pelikan, among many other historians of doctrine, has shown how the New Testament provides texts about the nature of the incarnation that can fairly be read as supporting various heresies (such as adoptionism, Arianism, modalism, and Nestorianism), while the church has concluded that the best reading of the most texts, including the most important texts, leads to the conclusions of the Chalcedonian definition of 451. Predestination and free will, faith and works, so-called charismatic phenomena, the nature of the end times--who can seriously suggest that there is one and only one theological position on such controversies that provides the best interpretation of every single relevant text and packages them together in an effortlessly coherent whole? (Christians have done exactly that for centuries, of course. I just think that they have been wrong to do so.)
So, I concluded, the theological task is not to be understood as “figuring it all out” so that one day a person or a church can finally say, “There, now! That’s the answer!” with precision and certainty. The task instead is to dwell on the Bible, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the church; to make the best decision one can make about what Scripture means; and then to respond to it in faith, obedience, and gratitude. Indeed, such a posture of interpretational humility entails remaining continuously open to refinement of one’s interpretations and even to the acceptance of quite different positions as the Holy Spirit gives more light.
John Stackhouse. “Toward a New Paradigm,” Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender. Baker Academic: 2005. Pages 23-24.