Beginning the Conversation

[1] For many readers this will be a surprising book. Some will find surprising Helmer’s use of Barth and Schleiermacher as allies on the same side of an argument. Some will find surprising her use of Barth in criticizing elements of the so-called Yale School, or at least elements of it. No one familiar with the author will be surprised, though, by the historical erudition and the conceptual creativity of this book.

[2] Helmer’s title is both critique and proposal. In the first part of the book she tells a story about how some of contemporary theology has brought doctrine to an impasse, a terminus (sense #1 of “end”). She then proposes an alternative by reconceiving the purpose of doctrine (sense #2 of “end”).

[3] Helmer’s narrative tracing the trajectory leading to a contemporary impasse of doctrine begins with Albrecht Ritschl in 19th-century Germany and ends with Bruch Marshall, an important theologian of the Yale School, with Emil Brunner playing a starring role along the way. A central theme is “changes to conceptualization of word” in theology. In the earlier part of the story, Helmer sees an abstract and increasingly abstract opposition between spirit and nature developing from Ritschl to Brunner. Brunner radicalizes the abstract divide between spirit and nature as a split between transcendence and experience, placing the word of God on the side of spirit, while relegating Schleiermacher’s attention to the experience of God to an objectionable “mysticism.” In Helmer’s assessment, this “framing of word as a spiritual reality was undertaken by loosing it from the matrix of mysticism and metaphysics in which it had been conceptualized in Lutheran orthodoxy” (57).

[4] Helmer sees Brunner’s contemporary descendants in theologians who have made George Lindbeck’s “cultural-linguistic” approach in his classic The Nature of Doctrine foundational to their view of doctrine. She takes Bruce Marshall as her example of this approach. Her concern is that the cultural-linguistic approach, as practiced by theologians such as Marshall, undermines the capacity of doctrine to refer to a transcendent object beyond itself. Helmer sees a historical irony here, inasmuch as she regards this approach to doctrine as an heir to Brunner’s rejection–and more famously Barth’s rejection–of Schleiermacher. The treatment of word as spiritual and transcendent ends up undermining the capacity of word to have a viable reference to transcendent spiritual reality. Instead, doctrine itself “takes the place of the transcendent reality to which it is meant to refer” (150).

[5] As a Lutheran theologian steeped in Martin Luther’s own work–she is the author of one of the most important studies of the Trinity in Luther’s theology–Helmer is intent on elaborating a theology that does justice to both word and experience. She thinks that the cultural-linguistic conception of doctrine has appropriated Luther’s emphasis on the word at the expense of his emphasis on experience. One might say that Helmer wants to appropriate for her own position the title of Brunner’s anti-Schleiermacher book, Mysticism and the Word, while saying that Brunner should have entitled his own dichotomizing argument “Mysticism or the Word.”

[6] Along with Luther, Schleiermacher is the other giant of the tradition to which Helmer has given most careful and sustained attention in earlier publications. It is no surprise, then, that she returns to Schleiermacher in developing her positive proposal for the purpose doctrine should serve. Schleiermacher’s magnum opus Christian Faith is a relentless attack on any theology that would abstract from the lived experience of God. The too easily accepted criticism of Schleiermacher has been that he centers doctrine in human religious experience, thereby undermining divine transcendence. Helmer argues in the oppositive direction, insisting on a focus on the experience of “the living reality of God” (7), because that experience is not self-referential, but refers to the transcendent object being experienced.

[7] Although Helmer does not use these terms, one could put the matter this way. The phrase “experience of God” points in two directions. It points to the subject of experience, the one who is “experiencing.” It also points to the object of experience, who or what is being experienced. For example, when Luther said that experience makes the theologian, he was insisting on both aspects of the idea of experience. Theology depends upon the living agency of God shaping human experience. But what God shapes is indeed human experience.

[8] To return to Helmer’s own language, she insists that the “experience of Jesus Christ is the origin of doctrine” (131). Accordingly doctrine’s purpose is to orient us to ongoing experiences of “the living reality of God.” To achieve this purpose, doctrine must be ready to be called into question by the God who transcends doctrine. As Helmer says, she is “proposing that theology recover a sense of the God who speaks in spite of and sometimes in contradiction to doctrine” (106).

[9] Helmer shares with the cultural-linguistic approach to doctrine the recognition that theology always works within “the web of human words.” She insists, though, that the “fundamental paradox of the theologian” is “to be caught in the web of human words while grasping at God’s word” (65). The concluding phrase “grasping at God’s word” is not the best expression of her position, since this wording could suggest that God is a transcendent object that is always beyond human language, so that theology is essentially a gesturing toward God that cannot do justice to its object. Helmer does emphasize that God transcends doctrine, but she does not want to reduce God to a transcendent object. Her repeated emphasis upon God as living reality and her Lutheran objection to disjoining a theology of God’s word from a theology of religious experience both testify to her commitment to a God who speaks Godself in and into human experience. At the same time, it would be good to have a more precise elaboration from her on the relation of doctrine to God’s own speaking.

[10] Helmer enlists Karl Barth along with Schleiermacher as a witness for a conception of doctrine that remembers doctrine’s own humble relativity in the face of doctrine’s transcendent object. Given the centrality of the Church Dogmatics’ insistence on the sovereignty of God’s revelation in relation to any human formulations of or responses to that revelation, Helmer’s argument is persuasive. (As a side point, this reviewer hopes that Helmer and other theologians arguing from the Church Dogmatics will begin making a habit of including Barth’s collaborator Charlotte von Kirschbaum in references to that great work, particularly as historical recompense for Barth’s own far too meager acknowledgements of her contributions.) At the same time, there is something not quite right about her conclusion that in the Church Dogmatics, the “doctrine of the Trinity thus remains a question for theology, not an answer” (83). The position of Barth and von Kirschbaum is that the doctrine of the Trinity is an interpretation, an interpretation that responds to the question concerning the possibility of the biblically attested self-revelation of God. For the purposes of Helmer’s larger argument, it would be sufficient to say that the doctrine of the Trinity is not the definitive answer for which there could be no more questions. It is an answer, but it is an answer that is an interpretation and that is open to further questions.

[11] Helmer criticizes an approach to doctrine like Marshall’s for giving to doctrine a timeless normativity that is at odds with potentially being called into question by God. Her own positive proposal for the normativity of doctrine insists, as we have seen, that doctrine is only normative to the extent that it remembers that it itself is not normative, but is normed by the living reality of God that can always call doctrine into question. For those who might be worried that she is emphasizing the critical relativization of doctrine at the expense of its positive content, Helmer uses the model of Schleiermacher’s exposition of doctrine as always a product of the influence of Jesus Christ in and upon his community, the church. Normative doctrine must conjoin faithfulness and novelty (132), since the object of faithfulness and the source of novelty are identical: the living reality of the God experienced in Jesus Christ. To accomplish this she highlights the need for “speculation” in theology. By “speculation” she does not mean abstract imaginings, but a form of conceptual freedom that enables theology “to transcend established categorizations–and thus be able to see new experiences of God in Christ” (143).

[12] A conception of doctrine as constitutionally open to being criticized and relativized by doctrine’s object, the “living reality of God,” offers a helpful perspective from which to address one of Christian theology’s specific contemporary challenges: namely, to admit “plural predications into the tradition’s present reality on a global scale” (136). In particular, Christian theology–specifically Helmer’s own Protestant tradition–needs to move beyond domination “by a German intellectual élite” (136). This is a frequently echoed call in much contemporary theology, but what makes Helmer’s point especially interesting is her insistence on accepting the contingent reality of past German and Western domination, while explicitly warning against assuming that such contingent factuality implies superiority.

[13]In seeking to move beyond past German and Western domination, Helmer alludes to liberation theology. Unfortunately she identifies it only with its Latin American form, thereby neglecting James Cone and Black theology of liberation. Her attempt to articulate a theology of experience that honors the “experience of Jesus Christ as the origin of doctrine” would find a particularly stimulating conversation partner in Cone’s formulation in his classic God of the Oppressed that scripture and Black experience are the two sources of Black theology, but that neither of them can be simply identified with the Truth, which is Jesus Christ himself.

[14] Helmer’s refusal to accept an abstract dichotomy between human religious experience and divine transcendence also enables her to call for an end to a sterile disconnect between theology and religious studies–or in some cases unfruitful antipathy. Religious studies can help theology to do better justice to the rich complexity of human religious experience, while theology can aid religious studies in doing justice to the claim of much religious experience to be experience of a transcendent object.

[15] I can only hope that this excellent work by Helmer gathers many readers and thoughtful respondents, which will in turn spur her to even further development of her lively and salutary vision for contemporary theology. Since one of her many Schleiermacherian traits is a high estimation of the potential of fruitful dialogue, I will suggest one more conversation partner for her ongoing work. In this book she criticizes the conception of doctrine advanced by Marshall and others, which is built upon Lindbeck’s conception of doctrine as the grammar of faith. I wonder what Helmer makes of the approach of the German theologian Ingolf Dalferth, who also insists on a grammatical understanding of doctrine, but who argues for such an approach precisely so that theology might fulfill the task of orienting people in and to the presence of God’s love, a presence irreducible to any conceptual representation.

John F. Hoffmeyer

John F. Hoffmeyer is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia