Dr. John Franke is the Lester and Kay Clemens Professor of Missional Theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of having lunch with him just to talk about theology, faith, and the emerging church. He was a gracious host. In addition, he challenged me with a question regarding the Trinity that changed my whole perspective of ministry and of God. He asked me, “What does it mean to hold to a Trinitarian theology?” In other words, what are the practical implications of a trinitarian theology? That set me on a journey that ended in me looking at all of ministry through the lens of the character, nature and function of the Trinity. I have called that concept the MIROR.
Dr. Franke has written a new book called Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth (Living Theology). The title is quite provocative and alone causes concern for many. However, if people will take the time to read the book, they will find a treasure chest full of wisdom, theology, and insight that can help them understand God, Truth, and knowledge. It will also cause them to consider the gospel and how it operates in culture.
Franke’s thesis is this: “the expression of biblical and orthodox Christian faith is inherently and irreducibly pluralist. The diversity of the Christian faith is not, as some approaches to church and theology might seem to suggest, a problem that needs to be overcome. Instead, this diversity is part of the divine design and intention for the church as the image of God and the body of Christ in the world.”
His thesis is an attempt to deal with this issue: “if the Bible is the Word of God, given so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work, and if God gives wisdom liberally to those who ask, and if the Holy Spirit is at work guiding the church into all truth, how are we to account for and make sense of the plurality of the church? Why is it that Christians from across time and around the world, seeing guidance and understanding concerning the mysteries of life, and the hope of the gospel, have come away from their study carrels and their prayer meetings with such different conclusions on nearly every aspect of the one faith?”
The word that gets everyone’s attention is the word plurality. Franke asserts that all human knowledge involves interpretation – that is is shaped by the conditions and situations from which it emerges. However, Franke also asserts that just because human knowledge and perceptions of truth are always formed in the midst of particular situations, this does not mean that ultimate truth does not exist. God has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and thus the reality of ultimate or transcendent truth is to be affirmed despite the acknowledgment of the interpretive character of human knowledge. In this, Franke follows the line of contemporary brain research on how we understand ourselves and our world as well as frameworks in epistemology, though these disciplines in general ignore the metaphysical.
In the book, Franke develops this theme in the areas of church history, church tradition, and church mission. He also indicates that his view of plurality can be expressed even in the orthodox view of God. God is both plural and singular. He is plural as in the three persons of the Trinity and yet singular in the Godhead. Therefore, truth and knowledge hold in tension plurality-in-unity and unity-in-plurality. Diversity of belief is thus an expression of the Trinity.
The implications of this plurality are found in the various denominations that have developed throughout church history. It also finds itself in the very different expressions of theology within the church. Franke’s idea is that if there is plurality, the full expression of understanding about God can be found in learning and appreciating various theological constructs. This is because theology is not a universal language. It is situated within the the reflections, goals and culture of a particular people and community. White, Western, reformed people view theology from that cutlure. White, Western, arminian people view theology differently. Theology formation is born out of the experiences and stories of the people doing theology. A black man or women may have a different understanding of theology based on whether they grew up in the ghettos of New York or in the suburbia of the Midwest or the in the homes of those who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in South. And we can learn from their perspective. That doesn’t necessarily require agreement; yet at the same time, it may open us up to a different understanding of the heart of God.
It also finds its expression in the gospel. The gospel is an enculturated story. Franke agrees with Leslie Newbiggin who says, “Every interpretation of the gospel is embedding in some cultural form”. (118) The challenge for faithful Christian witness is not to arrive at some form of unenculturated gospel or theology but to be able to discern between legitimate and illegitimate enculturations of the gospel and theology.
The church engages in the task of theological reflection through the development and articulation of models of Christian faith. The sources of construction for these models “are the Bible, the thought-forms of the contemporary setting, and the traditions that make up the tradition of the church. The intent of this constructive process is to envision all of life in relationship to the living God, revealed in Jesus Christ by means of biblically normed, historically informed, and contextually relevant models and articulations of Christian faith that communicate the Christian story and its invitation to participate in the reconciling and liberating mission of God.” (120)
I do have a couple of criticisms of the book. First, I would have appreciated Franke giving us some examples of legitimate and illegitimate enculturations of the the gospel and theology. I understand that this was not primarily a practical theology book, but some practical expressions of this thought would have been helpful. I appreciate that he may want us to do the hard work of figuring those out for ourselves, but an example or two would have been nice.
Secondly, Franke notes the following:
The Spirit engages in the ongoing work of speaking to the church in its varied setting through the appropriation of the text. This does not eliminate the importance of exegesis in an effort to engage the voice of the author, but it does point to the idea that the speaking of the Spirit is not bound solely to the original intention of the biblical authors. Literary theorists note that one an author writes a text, it takes on a life of its own as it is read and interpreted in new and constantly changing situations. The speaking of the Spirit through the texts of Scripture means that while the intention of the author is an important concern, it is not the only concern. It does not represent the fullness of the speaking of the Spirit, since this always involves the response of the reader. (77)
I find this statement discomforting. In part because I have been taught that it can’t mean today what it didn’t mean when it was written. That was the mantra of my New Testament professor. I would have appreciated Franke unpacking this further, providing some practical expression of this that would enable me to get a more complete picture of what he was trying to communicate.
Overall, I think this book has great value.
Note to the FTC: I bought this book myself!