Regular readers of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics will recall that the July/August edition is the book review edition featuring reviews of a number of different works. This year we have the welcome opportunity to take a different tack and focus on one book, the latest and much discussed publication of Lutheran theologian and scholar, […]
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.
In her book, Theology and the End of Doctrine, Christine Helmer diagnoses the current subject-matter crisis of academic theology. Does theology belong in the contemporary secularized academy? After evoking a couple of sharp dismissals of the idea that theology still deserves a place on university campuses (including one critic’s rather bloodthirsty suggestion that theologians are now “fair game” to religious theorists), Helmer insightfully points out that it is precisely theologians’ historic focus on doctrine that makes their less charitable colleagues want to hunt theologians down in the enlightened woods of the post-Enlightenment academy.
Is doctrine of interest anymore to theologians and ethicists? If the answer to this is no, if doctrine ceases to incite curiosity and inspire questions, then the work of Christian theology and ethics too, will end. If the answer is no, then theologians will no longer inquire into the nature of doctrine, study doctrinal formulations from the past, and figure out how to best construct doctrine. Ethicists will no longer ask how human behavior relates to God; they will not prescribe action in community that is predicated on the doctrine of redemption. The end of doctrine would be the end of both theology and ethics.
Since readers have the benefit of two fine reviews that trace the argument of her book plus her own responses, I will refrain from repeating that exercise with its interesting appropriation of Barth and Schleiermacher and its important concern for reconnecting theology and religious studies in the academy. Perhaps what follows may have some implications in that latter case and perhaps suggest another conversation. From the vantage point of my somewhat limited endeavor, however, it will be most helpful to focus on several statements which seem to express her vision of theology’s vocation for the purpose of doctrine.