System and Story: Narrative Critique and Construction in Theology

Mark Thiessen Nation

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 2 (Spring 2010)

Gale Heide. System and Story: Narrative Critique and Construction in Theology. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2009.

This is a book about the theological ethics of Stanley Hauerwas, and it is mostly affirming of his project. In broad strokes its basic affirmations are on target, and its central critique names a weakness within Hauerwas that deserves attention. But then the detailed execution – in terms of affirmations, critiques and substantive correction – leaves much to be desired. All this is to say that what is valuable here could have made a decent article, but when filled out in detail it unfortunately does not make for a good book.

Let me begin with a summary of the first half of Heide’s volume. Serious students of Hauerwas are aware that he critiques modernist tendencies in philosophy, ethics, and theology; that is, approaches to these disciplines that assume a rootedness in abstract rational claims that are intelligible to anyone. These critiques appear in his writings negatively through narrations of such modernist approaches; sometimes for shorthand Hauerwas uses labels such as “liberalism” or “foundationalism.” Sometimes the critiques are more specific, as in the case of some forms of systematic theology.

Hauerwas has many ways of countering such approaches to knowledge, claims regarding truth and ways to think about ethics. Among them are reclaiming a focus on narrative and tradition, and attempting to embed ethics within a rich theological account having Jesus at the center and made fully intelligible only within the context of the church. Heide is aware of these general contours of Hauerwas’s approach to theological ethics, and expresses his appreciation of it.

The overarching problem with Heide’s account is that too often there seems to be a less-than-clear use of key terms such as foundationalism, universalism, and systematic theology as these relate to Hauerwas’s project. Here I can focus only on what is intended to be most central to the book: a naming of Hauerwas’s theologically deficient ecclesiology. In fact, the author claims that Hauerwas’s ecclesiology is “mere anthropology.” Heide’s proffered solution is “ecclesiology as pneumatology,” that is, a communal and enfleshed pneumatology.

There are several ways in which this analysis of Hauerwas’s ecclesiology is deficient. First, I think Heide has really failed to enter empathetically into Hauerwas’s understanding of the sacraments. If one accepts the central role Hauerwas claims for the sacraments, and enters understandingly into the theologies and traditions that provide textured, detailed accounts of the ways these serve as vehicles for Christ’s redemptive presence, then the church is hardly reduced to a merely human reality.

Second, apart from the emphasis on the sacraments, there are many ways that Hauerwas attempts to signal that the community he is describing is unintelligible without God’s presence. One could argue he has not developed this fully enough. But it would seem to me to make more sense for someone sympathetic to Hauerwas to end chapters with discussions of, say, Joe R. Jones or James Wm. McClendon, Jr., suggesting how the systematic theologies of these friends of Hauerwas might be employed to fill out his suggestive comments (rather than the apparently arbitrary use of Wolfhart Pannenberg).

Third, it is inexplicable that John Howard Yoder is mostly absent from 100 The Conrad Grebel Review Heide’s book. Given how dependent Hauerwas is on Yoder theologically, it would have been instructive to provide a detailed account of Yoder’s ecclesiology, noting how it underlies much of what Hauerwas writes. (Then again, one might supplement Yoder with cues from Thomas, Barth, Jones or McClendon.)

I would affirm Heide’s sense that Hauerwas’s ecclesiology could be improved through a more adequate pneumatology, but I would suggest that his account is deficient. That his account of the Spirit is both communal and enfleshed comports with emphases in Hauerwas’s work. But the way in which these foci are elaborated is not carefully nuanced either in terms of New Testament theology or in connection with Hauerwas’s theological ethics.

I was also taken aback by the absence of considerable recent New Testament scholarship that might have been helpful. Here I think especially of those directly influenced by Yoder and Hauerwas such as Michael Gorman and Doug Harrink. But, as with a suggestive article, Heide has certainly named areas for future constructive research.

Mark Thiessen Nation, Professor of Theology, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA