Wednesday 22 August 2007

Gerhard Sauter: Protestant Theology at the Crossroads

Gerhard Sauter, Protestant Theology at the Crossroads: How to Face the Crucial Tasks for Theology in the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), xxiv + 188 pp. (review copy courtesy of Eerdmans)

Back in the 1960s, Gerhard Sauter emerged as one of Germany’s leading proponents of the “theology of hope,” and he has been a major figure in German dogmatics throughout the ensuing decades. In this book – an expanded version of the author’s Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary – Sauter reflects on the challenges facing contemporary Protestant theology. Although the arrangement of the book is anecdotal and impressionistic, the diverse chapters are held together by a central theme: if theology is to remain authentically Christian, it must be informed by robust dogmatic thinking.

Eschatological concerns have always been at the core of Sauter’s work, and in some of these chapters he clarifies his basic eschatological convictions. He observes that God’s promises cannot be interpreted as straightforward predictions of the future – rather, “fulfilment often shatters expectation based on God’s promises”; the sheer newness of the fulfilment reshapes the promise itself (p. 12). Indeed, the entire New Testament could be read “as a document of dramatic endeavours to articulate the newness of God’s acting” (p. 14). Further, God’s promises are never simply “fulfilled” in such a way that they can then recede into the past; on the contrary, these promises continue to open the future and to create expectation that the crucified Christ is also the Coming One. For Sauter, there is thus a dialectical unity between promise and fulfilment. The two moments are related theologically, not historically (p. 53).

The purpose of dogmatics itself, then, is to serve God’s promises. Dogmatics helps us to remain watchful and expectant, “open to surprises, amazed” – its purpose is to “protect us against spiritual stiffness and a pious know-all manner,” and it does this by helping us to discover the right questions (p. 64). In this way, dogmatics does not close off Christian discourse, but rather opens it to God’s surprising newness.

Such dogmatic thinking, Sauter argues, is crucial for Bible reading, and thus for the church itself. There is no one-way relationship between dogmatics and scripture – biblical texts cannot prove the statements of dogmatics, nor can dogmatic statements anticipate in advance what is to be perceived by reading the Bible. Instead, there is a “dialectical interrelation” between dogmatics and Bible reading, “a merry-go-round of questions and answers” (p. 62). In all this, our aim is simply to remain open to God’s own speaking. And if we read the Bible in this way, we discover that we ourselves are being read in the story: “The text reads the reader” (p. 39).

Sauter’s understanding of the dogmatic task also informs his critique of contemporary contextual theologies. He argues that such theologies fail to attend to the individual’s theological context as someone who has been baptised into the divine economy. For Sauter, it is participation in this context which remains decisive for theological reflection – self-reflection on the circumstances of one’s life and culture can never yield genuinely theological insights. Indeed, in a provocative passage (pp. 98-99), Sauter compares our contemporary contextual theologies with the cultural theology of the German Christians in the 1930s – and he argues that the Barmen Declaration embodies a properly “contextual” theology, i.e., a theology whose fundamental “context” is God’s living self-address in Jesus Christ. Sauter’s argument, then, is that not that theology should be unaffected by its political and cultural circumstances, but rather that, “lacking dogmatics, theology runs the risk of becoming a mere reflection of its context” (p. 114).

So although Sauter believes that theology must “interfere in public discourse” (p. 149), he insists that we can do this only to the extent that we listen to the external voice of God’s promise. Indeed, a democratic society needs the voice of church – the clear voice of a church which is committed to being the church, not just “one interest group among others” (p. 152). Thus Sauter also criticises contemporary work in “public theology” (e.g. Thiemann), and he suggests that John Howard Yoder’s work represents a much more theological form of public theology. Instead of being preoccupied with the publicity of religious values or with the particular role of Mennonites in American society, Yoder advances the public character of the church precisely by indicating the way in which the church can simply be the people of God (p. 160). Here, again, Sauter’s central point is clear: the church’s engagement with society requires dogmatic thinking – otherwise, the church will find itself with nothing distinctive to say.

Although this is not Sauter’s best book – certainly not as important as Gateways to Dogmatics – it is nevertheless interesting to follow Sauter here as he reflects on some of his own defining “experiences in thinking.” Whether or not one agrees with each of his specific interventions in contemporary theology, I think his articulation of the critical function of dogmatics is of great importance.

Sauter’s best and most memorable statement is that “theology is always a preparation for emergency” (p. 59). And it precisely the task of dogmatics to help equip the church for such emergency – or, perhaps, to tell the church that it is already in a state of emergency, that the crucified Christ is already coming “like a thief in the night.”

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