Up until fairly recently Christian theology was taught at mainline seminaries in the following order:
1. Prolegomena, also called Fundamental (“First”) Theology, Foundations for Theology, or Philosophical Foundations for Theology.
I was taught theology at The General Theological Seminary, NYC, by Mark Richardson (The Very Rev. Dr. W. Mark Richardson, recently appointed the Dean and President of Church Divinity School of the Pacific) and Tom Breidenthal (The Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas E. Breidenthal, the present Bishop of Southern Ohio, Episcopal Church). Both of these professors were in turn taught at one time by Jim McClendon (James William McClendon Jr. (1924-2000)), who was a Christian theologian in the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists are Christians of the Radical Reformation. The descendants of the original Anabaptists include the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites. Both Catholics and Protestants persecuted Anabaptists!
McClendon’s greatest work is a systematic presentation of Christian theology in three volumes (Abingdon Press):
Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1, 1986
Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume 2, 1994
Witness: Systematic Theology, Volume 3, 2000
I had the great honor of being taught Ethics by Breidenthal, and Doctrine by Richardson. Both professors used McClendon’s texts. The experience was transformative.
You can see right away that McClendon’s order is different from other systematics. He said Christians from the Radical Reformation haven’t written much theology because they were
1. too busy being persecuted and
2. too busy practicing their faith, and making a living.
It takes a long time to write theology, and one needs an income and some leisure to do it – so it isn’t surprising there is so little Anabaptist theology.
For McClendon the first task of being a Christian is discipleship, which involves living a particular kind of life in a community of shared practices. This is “first order” Christianity, or living the Christian Ethic.
“Second order” Christianity is reflecting on, and sharing the faith (Doctrine and Witness). This would include theology and philosophy (especially that branch of philosophy which attempts to understand other convictional communities – often labeled, “Philosophy of Religion.”)
McClendon offers an interesting critique of theology done since the Enlightenment:
1. A Christian doesn’t have to submit first to universal philosophical categories before discipleship.
2. A Christian doesn’t need theology or philosophy to practice Christianity, but needs to use theology and philosophy in order to enter into dialogue with people from other traditions.
The primary issue here is whether theology should be subject to non-Christian standards for the verification of truth. In fact, in many quarters, (especially academia) theology has submitted to so-called universal philosophical categories. As a result, Christian faith and practice have been relegated to a private sphere of value, opinion and sentiment.
For those, like myself, who think that the living practice of Christian self-understanding and identification determines its “applicability [for] a general criteria of meaning,” the effort should be rather to “correlate theology as a procedure subject to formal, universal, and transcendental criteria for valid thinking.” * The difference here is between agreed forms of rationality as opposed to universal rational standards for establishing what is true.
Fortunately, there has been a degree of convergence in method (“criteria for valid thinking”) between various fields of study. One of the major developments in science, philosophy and theology in recent years has been a growing appreciation for the social aspect inherent in the practice of each of these disciplines. This movement, which some have labeled post-modernism, places an emphasis on the importance of language, narrative, and culture in the formation of systems of thought, communities of discourse and shared moral practices.
* Quotation from Hans W. Frei in Types of Christian Theology (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), edited by George Hunsinger and William C. Placher, p. 3.