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Toward a Generous Orthodoxy: Prospects for Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology

Jason A. Springs
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010

How does the work of Yale philosophic theologian Hans Frei contribute to questions within the vocation of the Christian scholar? Does Frei furnish original insights to the discourse maintained by Christian Scholar’s Review? How might Frei’s eccentric writing style, as well as his more philosophical tendencies within his theology, provide hope and remedies for Christian scholars today? In his Toward a Generous Orthodoxy: Prospects for Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology, Jason Springs addresses these questions head-on with promising and prudent judgments on the “prospects” of Frei’s work for Christian scholars in the modern theological academy today. He achieves this through systematic analyses of Frei’s published works: The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, The Identity of Jesus Christ, and Frei’s two posthumously published books entitled Theology and Narrative and Types of Christian Theology.

In this review, for the purpose of displaying the practical “prospects” of Frei’s work, I begin at the end of Springs’ book and work backward. The final paragraph of Springs’ book reads:

[Hans] Frei thought that [his] account of Scripture and tradition would move in the direction of a “gen-erous orthodoxy.” Such a stance entailed elements of both liberalism and evangelicalism. And yet, it could in no way be reduced to a simple sum of their best insights. … It pushes any … theologian beyond any easy dichotomies between church and academy or between church and world. At the same time, it refuses to compromise its confessional commitments. The interdisciplinary posture and conversational form – modeled best by Frei’s own temperament and generous sensibility – holds out possibilities for the future of theology in an age in which its role continues to be contested. (184-185)

When reading Frei’s work, certain questions emerge:(1) What does Frei mean by “the hermeneutical bases of dogmatic theology,” as the sub-title for his book The Identity of Jesus Christ? (2) How does the literary category of “narrative realism,” or Frei’s description of the Gospel as “history-like narratives” and “realistic narratives,” actually function hermeneutically? (3) Why is Frei so concerned about “ostensive reference” within interpretations of the Bible? And (4) what does Frei mean by the literal sense either stretching or breaking within the Christian tradition, which reflects the title of one of his most important essays? Unsurprisingly, most scholarship on Frei tends to hone in on only one or two of these questions at the expense of others. Springs’ book is exemplary, because it addresses all of these questions. Furthermore, Springs also considers how Frei’s work helps other academics and theologians become better at their scholarly craft.

According to Springs, Frei’s essay “The ‘Literal’ Reading of Scripture: Does it Stretch or Will it Break?” often gets interpreted as either (a) the literal sense remains an essential property of the biblical text or (b) the literal sense takes on its meaning as “a function of what the Christian community takes the text to mean” (157). Springs finds that both of these interpretations fail to provide a full picture of Frei’s reflections on the literal sense. He proposes recognizing “the sensus literalis as a propriety of the practices oriented by this [biblical] text, a propriety that uniquely situates the life of Christian communities and followers” (176). Therefore, in relation to question 4 above, the literal sense “bends” or “stretches” within the Christian tradition by accommodating “an array of emphases and immediate implications depending upon the context in which these stories grasp those who read or hear them” (182). Frei’s focus on the literal sense of Scripture thus contributes to his conception of a “generous orthodoxy” because even if the literal sense takes a primary role within theological investigations, as it should for Frei, then that does not necessarily narrow what constitutes orthodox theology. Rather, it makes theology accountable to the biblical stories through their multiple interpretations and various uses.

When Springs claims, in the last paragraph of his book, that Frei does not reduce theology to the “best insights” of evangelicalism and liberalism, he thinks that Frei’s resistance to this reduction is based upon Frei’s concerns with “ostensive reference.” In my judgment, Frei’s principle contribution to modern theology is his recognition that both “conservative” and “liberal” Christianity make the same move pertaining to how reference works within biblical narratives: the biblical narratives refer to something outside of the narratives. For Frei, conservative or evangelical Christians make the truth of the Bible depend mostly on how the Bible “gets the facts right,” which suggests that the meaning and value of the biblical narratives are found mostly – if not exclusively – in verifying the actual historical events through historical or scientific testing. More liberal wings of Christianity make the meaning of biblical narratives into moral concepts or political insights that anyone can and should know. In this way, reference becomes correspondence with or reductions to allegedly universal principles: for instance, “the meaning” of the Gospel narratives is love and the biblical narrative is one important place for coming to know that we all should love everyone equally. Of course, this is a caricature of both positions. The over-exaggeration is helpful, though, as a heuristic device that displays how ostensive reference dominates and prevails among Christian approaches to the biblical narratives. In his chapter entitled “But Did It Really Happen?” Springs presents Frei’s concerns with ostensive reference in terms of his debate with the Evangelical theologian Carl Henry as well as Frei’s employment of “analogy” and “dialectic” within Karl Barth’s theology. Springs emphasizes how, for Frei, “the Word of God comes not as a ‘biblically positivist’ single act of analogy but indirectly, again and again” (103). How does this work? While remaining textual, God’s revelation breaks into the world “again and again” through its readers and their interpretations and uses.

How does the literary category of “narrative realism” actually function hermeneutically? Springs answers this question by turning toward Frei’s The Identity of Jesus Christ. Springs observes: “Identity presented Frei’s own sketch of the prospects for the kind of realistic reading of the Gospels that would be possible if one took seriously the critical-historiography account that he … set forth in Eclipse” (26). This turn is significant because Springs refuses the natural tendency to stay with Frei’s more conceptual developments of the history and narrative within Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and turns instead to Frei’s actual performance of reading the Gospels in a history-like and realistic fashion. One way that Frei pulls this off in Identity, according to Springs, is found in his re-ordering – suggested in the title of the book – of “identity” and “presence” concerning the character of Jesus Christ within the Gospel narratives. Springs claims that Frei works “to show that Christ’s real presence to believers presupposes the manifestation of Christ’s identity by the scriptural narratives” (28). This aspect of Frei’s thinking illustrates Frei’s “realistic” reading of the Gospels because if “Christ is present to believers as the Word of God in Scripture, then one cannot properly have Christ’s presence in abstraction from Scripture’s witness to his identity” (28). In this way, the Gospels mean what they say about Jesus’ character and intentions. There is no “ghost in the machine” in Jesus’ intentions that hides a more true reality. The Gospels are not reporting on “the facts,” holding deeper realities at bay. The Gospel narratives are “realistic” precisely because they identify Jesus in his divine and earthly ways-of-being. His identity marks his presence, and not the other way around. Who is Jesus for us today? Frei’s answer is Jesus is who the Gospels say he is! Teasing out this answer remains sufficient for guiding and setting parameters when teaching Christology because it makes scholars and students attentive to the details of the Gospels and prevents us from making our conceptions primary within Christological investigations, which tempts us toward theological rationalism. Starting with our experiences tempts us toward idolizing ourselves as well as our perceptions of the world. Hence I think that Frei’s literary trope of “narrative realism” contains much promise for contemporary theology, and I find Springs’ explanation of it quite helpful.

Staying with Frei’s The Identity of Jesus Christ, what does he mean by “the hermeneutical bases of dogmatic theology”? How does this contribute to Christian scholarship within the theological academy? According to Springs, Frei thinks that dogmatic theology involves “divine Wissenschaft – spinning out, testing, ordering, redescribing, and correcting the inferences and implications of the rationality intrinsic to faith” (8). By hermeneutics, Frei means “the rules and principles governing exegesis”—which ought to “appeal to just enough theory to describe the rules and principles used in actual exegesis, and no more, even if it means we have only fragments of one or several theories rather than an all-inclusive theory of interpretation” (quoted in Springs, 36). Combining these together, as well as relating them to Frei’s reflections on the literal sense and narrative realism, contributes to a concrete understanding of the phrase “the hermeneutical bases of dogmatic theology.” To base dogmatic theology on hermeneutics entails “spinning out, testing, ordering, re-describing, and correcting inferences and implications” within dogmatic or philosophic theology by way of the literal sense of the biblical text. It involves theologians displaying disciplined readings of the Bible where the history-like and realistic features of the narratives become primary for making judgments pertaining to the meaning and truth of those narratives. It requires a willingness on the part of Christian scholars to have the implications and inferences drawn and explained judged by the structure and words of the Bible. It opens up the possibility of a “generous orthodoxy” amongst academics that mediates between an overly rationalized exclusivism as well as an “anything goes” inclusivism. What Frei teaches us, and Springs points toward, is that the credibility and respectability of Christian theology within the modern academy lives or dies based on the willingness of Christian scholars to put theological reasoning to the test. This testing might require more work on the part of the Christian scholar, but Frei sees no other way for displaying faithfulness to the Christian tradition as well as the skills necessary for scholarly teaching and writing in the modern theological academy.

Jacob Goodson

Southwestern College
Dr. Jacob Goodson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Southwestern College.