The Gospel Coalition

 

A. N. Williams. The Architecture of Theology: Structure, System, and Ratio. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. xi + 239 pp. £60.00/$110.00.



Systematic theology presumes the inherent systematicity of doctrine, but rarely does it attend to the nature and reality of this interconnection. In this volume, Williams focuses her attention on the epistemological questions inherent in any discussion of theology. To do so, she starts with a qualification about the systematic nature of systematic theology, distinguishing systematic theological works (e.g., Francis Turretin's three-volume elenctic theology, Barth's Church Dogmatics, etc.), and the systematic nature of all doctrine. The latter is the focus of this book. In other words, rather than focusing on theological systems as whole units, Williams attends to how doctrines function systematically. Within any discussion of doctrine, there is an implicit or explicit notion of interconnection with related doctrinal decisions. Williams attempts to exposit the nature of this interconnection, focusing both on abstract epistemological discussion as well as concrete examples within the history of theology.

To advance her analysis, Williams starts with a broad overview of contemporary discussions of epistemology among analytic philosophers. Her focus is on the structure of knowledge and justification and models of truth. After outlining the key players and positions in the debates, she turns her attention to the nature of systems. Building upon this development, Williams looks at warrants and norms, providing more detailed discussion (though still brief) of the four key warrants in the Christian tradition: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. This analysis moves into questions concerning weight of warrants, authority, and language. It is at this point in the volume where Williams's breadth comes to bear in her analysis. Up to this point, the book has the feel of a thought experiment-a thinking-out-loud about various issues often ignored in theology. Now Williams' understanding of theology comes to light through a broad overview of the tradition. She starts with a brief conclusion from her previous exposition: "Theology . . . can be described as discourse which proceeds deductively and inferentially, moving between propositions, some of which have a privileged status within the system" (p. 128). From here she suggests that theology is a discourse of mimesis. Theology, therefore, "can be viewed as discourse that attempts to embody in itself what it attests of its subjects" (p. 131). To illustrate this mimesis in Christian theology, Williams gives brief overviews of: Gregory Nazianzen, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Newman, Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Tillich, and Boff. Unveiling a deep connection within all these diverse thinkers, Williams concludes, "Theology is a re-presentation of humanity's own (though imperfect) mimesis of the divine, which in turn fosters the knowledge and adoration that make possible a yet nearer mimesis" (p. 185).

Addressing the systematic nature of theology and mimesis leads naturally to a discussion of beauty. These issues raise questions of order and harmony, and therefore push theology into the realm of aesthetics. Again, showing her desire to speak across the Christian tradition, Williams moves rapidly through the thought of Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Aquinas, to Calvin and Edwards, resting on Edwards, before moving on to von Balthasar and Patrick Sherry. This development, with the previous, concludes in a chapter titled "Theology and Transfiguration" where Williams ruminates on the nature and task of theology. The systematic nature of theology is always matched with a contemplative posture. In her words, theology is also necessarily "contemplative, inasmuch as it draws its writers and readers more deeply into the divine reality which the discourse, for all its frailty, mirrors" (p. 227). Theology is intimately connected to prayer and worship, and as the tradition shows, always was. This raises important vocational questions for the theologian, questions not addressed by Williams but hinted at throughout the book.

Of the many parties who would be interested in Williams' work, I think that those interested in the new "Analytical Theology" would find this volume interesting. The first half of the book is done with reference to analytic theology with particular focus on epistemology. Addressing these epistemological questions is unusual enough for a theologian, and doing so with reference to the analytic tradition is virtually unheard of. In this sense, this is an important volume for bridging the gap between analytic philosophers and theologians (even if they prove to disagree with her conclusions). In terms of readability, Williams could have pushed a lot of extraneous material to footnotes. At times throughout the volume she raises an issue without addressing it, and doing so muddies the analysis. It would have been more helpful for the flow of the book if she would have expanded her footnotes with these issues rather than having them in the text. Overall, the argument of this book is, at times, very subtle and implicit, with her development taking the form of a mosaic. This could be, in light of her point, very purposeful, but it proves difficult at points. In general, the volume impressively displays depth and is an important discussion of issues often assumed and neglected in Christian theology. While it may raise more questions than it answers, it is clear that Williams is less concerned with that reality than with reorienting the theological discussion around the proper call of the theologian to relate deeply with God. For this point alone the book is well worth the read.


Kyle Strobel
Grand Canyon University
Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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