Friday, 4 February 2011

Daniel J. Treier on Theology as Wisdom

[A version of the following review was first published in August 2007 on the UK Christian Bookshops Directory website, which contains lots of other reviews, and is my first port of call for looking up the location of Christian bookshops when I visit towns and cities around the country – much to the chagrin of other members of my family... Thanks to Phil Groom for giving me the opportunity to review the book.]

Daniel J. Treier, Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), xvi + 278pp., ISBN 9780802830746.

Those who take courses in theology sometimes find themselves wrestling with particular tensions thrown up during the programme of study, or even by the nature of the subject itself. Should theology be done by the church or by the college? How does ‘theory’ relate to ‘practice’? What is the connection between what I study over here (in biblical studies) and what I study over there (in systematic theology)? Ostensibly a work in theological education, Daniel J. Treier, associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, Illinois, seeks to address some of these questions. In particular, the book is an extended discussion of two ongoing conversations: (1) the nature of theology understood in terms of ‘wisdom’, and (2) the theological interpretation of Scripture, where again wisdom has become a key concern in thinking about the role of virtue in understanding the Bible.

The volume contains seven chapters in three parts. The first part focuses on the nature of theology as wisdom. During the period of the Enlightenment, theology was treated as a kind of ‘science’, which excluded questions of virtue on principle, which was carried out in the university rather than the church, and which introduced the sorts of chasms we still live with today, between clergy and laity, for instance, or theory and practice. But for most of Christian history, theology was an enterprise which was done in and for the church, and was viewed in terms of wisdom rather than science – the kind of knowledge which is directed towards knowing and loving God, the kind of knowledge which forms the lives of Christians and churches. Exploring what the Bible itself says about wisdom, Treier argues that theology understood in terms of ‘wisdom’ embraces not just a select few, but everyone who is addressed by God and who is enabled to seek wisdom through the help of the Spirit.

A main way God forms the church is through Scripture, which means how Christians read the Bible is extremely important. In the second part of the book, Treier shows how Scripture is an authoritative word from God which stands over the church, which is illumined by the Spirit, who leads the church to develop virtues in reading it. The third part of the book then argues that Christians are able to speak of God publicly in the face of the world, not just privately in the context of the church. Reading Scripture wisely and being formed by it in the process involves reading it in the midst of present-day challenges.

This brief summary can’t begin to do justice to the ins and outs of Treier’s discussion, to the interweaving of historical, biblical, hermeneutical, and doctrinal reflection. In fact, although ultimately rewarding, following the involved argument is difficult, very difficult at times, and requires more than a nodding acquaintance with debates in contemporary theology and hermeneutics. In this sense, the book’s origin as a PhD dissertation (conducted under the supervision of Kevin Vanhoozer) is apparent. The demanding discussion is compounded by the fact that the publishers have put notes (46 pages of them) at the end of the book rather than at the foot of each page, which means keeping a finger in the back of the book and flicking back and forth whilst trying to keep the threads of the argument in mind.

If Treier himself is unable to do so, I hope that others will be inspired to make the fruit of the research digestible to a broader audience, that the theological wisdom of which the book speaks will indeed become an ‘every member’ reality for churches who seek to listen and respond to God’s voice in Scripture.

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