Each semester I and many of my colleagues at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, teach a course entitled "The Christian Theological Tradition". For thirteen weeks we attempt to introduce incoming students to the content and methods of reading the Bible as well as the major movements of thought and practice in the twenty centuries Christians have walked the earth. (Some of us ruefully refer to the course as "giving the unwanted to the unwilling".) While most of us consider the course remedial rather than genuinely theological, we have committed ourselves to teaching it since we have found incoming students generally innocent of biblical and Christian historical knowledge. We have even produced a textbook whose individual chapters have been written by members of the department working in their own specialty and edited by a larger group of the theology faculty for readability and pedagogical effectiveness.
It is with that background that I approached Edmond Dunn's What is Theology? My interest lay in discovering how Dunn, chair of the Theology Department at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, IA, would write for a group of incoming college students as he attempted to introduce them to the world of theological reflection. I found the work a solid contribution to an entry-level college course in theology. Dunn clearly understands his target audience and writes in a clear and illustration-filled manner. (If his prose is any indication, he must be a fine classroom lecturer.) Dunn also understands professors and has made his textbook user-friendly by providing provocative questions for reflection and discussion as well as suggestions for further reading for each chapter. But best of all, Dunn understands his field and is able to synthesize vast amounts of material into coherent overviews. He shows himself a master of the difficult art of writing for an intelligent but uninitiated audience without "writing down" to them or improperly resolving the very real tensions and discussions in the field.
The work is divided into two sections. Part One, dedicated to Foundational Theology, comprises five chapters. The first chapter defines theology as "our attempt to express in clear and concise language what we presume to be the self-disclosure of God in persons, nature, history, everyday experience and, for Christians, in an ultimate way in Jesus of Nazareth", but it takes the entire chapter to reach this definition, after forays into etymology, the "problem" in theology (God), the characteristics and communication of religious experience, the relation of having faith to doing theology, and contrasting biblicist, doctrinalist, and correlative methods of doing theology - all covered in 28 pages!
Employing his correlative method, in Chapter Two Dunn defines revelation as "God's gracious self-disclosure reaching out to humans as an invitation (as well as promise) to participate in God's own life of unfathomable love mediated to us through persons, nature, history, everyday experience, and ultimately in and through God's very Word, Jesus Christ" and, after exposing the dangers of rationalistic and fideistic approaches to faith, defines it as "our freely given, graced response to God's invitation to a loving relationship that begins in preconceptual form but takes its cognitive form in creeds, preaching, prayers, doctrines, and dogmas of the faith community and calls us to a discipleship of worship, personal transformation, and action on behalf of justice."
Chapter Three treats scripture and tradition, though with less nuance and panache than was evident in the first two chapters. While Dunn does a masterful job tracing the process by which the New Testament was generated, leading to a definition of the New Testament ("the early Christian community's attempt to express in words what they believed to be the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus"), his treatments of the process by which the Old Testament came into being and of what he understands Tradition to be ("the lived experience of the faith community down through the ages") seem terribly cursory. He never addresses how Christians could appropriate Jewish religious texts as their own nor does he suggest mechanisms by which the Church might adjudicate the authenticity of the "lived experience of the faith community".
Chapter Four explores the church, understood as "the community called in the Spirit that professes Jesus as Lord, that ratifies that faith through Baptism, celebrates it in the Lord's Supper, and joins in a common mission to preach, to witness, and to serve." With courage and cleverness, the author retrieves the four "marks" of the Church as "criteria by which we can evaluate the truthfulness and faithfulness of our own church or denomination" (even though the undergraduates I teach might find these criteria a bit slippery). Dunn provides a useful description of three models of church polity (episcopal, presbyterian, charismatic/sectarian) to analyze divisions in the Christian church, but this section again cries out for more nuance. That nuance is happily provided in Chapter Five, on "the quest for church unity", even though it gives disproportionate treatment to reconceptualizing the Petrine office.
Part Two, treating Moral Theology, comprises six chapters and a conclusion. Chapter Six offers a definition of moral theology as "our attempt to know and understand how we are to live and what we are to do (or not do), to be (or not be) from a faith perspective and as Christians we would add as disciples of Jesus Christ", while Chapter Seven assesses the strengths and weaknesses of three basic ways of approaching moral decision-making: goal-oriented (teleological), rule-oriented (deontological), and relational/responsible. Amazingly, Dunn chooses issues in human sexuality and behavior to illustrate these approaches; one would have thought less emotionally-charged topics could illustrate the methods, but perhaps the author assumes that his undergraduate readers will find these topics most immediately pressing.
Chapter Eight traces the primary interest in moral theology from analysis of acts through that of agents to that of subjects, concluding that horizontal (i.e., choice among things) and vertical (i.e., choice of what kind of person to become) exercises of freedom shape us as moral beings. Under the rubric of freedom, Dunn then presents a sketch of fundamental option theory and relates it to classic questions of sin and grace.
Chapter Nine yokes a traditional notion of impediments to free human action modifying the moral status of act and agent with an outline of Kohlberg's theory of stages of moral thinking (including Gilligan's critique) as an entrée to analyzing the moral subject. Chapter Ten, on values and norms in the development of the moral life, is the most disappointing; while clearly distinguishing premoral and moral values as well as material and formal norms, Dunn's concentration on the virtue of prudence in moral decision-making (quickly leading to a concise exploration of "proportionalism") needs supplementing with a deeper virtue theory. Similarly disappointing is Chapter Eleven on conscience, which defines it as "the moral dimension of the human person that is sensitive and responsive to values found within relationships". Even when conceptualizing conscience as a characteristic of genuine humanity, a process by which a person judges the right course of action, and an event by which the decision is made and we act on it, this definition will not clarify the notion for skeptical, relativist undergraduates, and its exemplification in relation to the claims of religious and civil authority hardly emphasizes enough one's responsibility to develop an informed conscience. The conclusion deftly summarizes the major moves of the entire work and leaves the reader with the figure of Jesus as exemplar and mandatory of agape.
The influence of Karl Rahner permeates the work. Dunn consistently theologizes "from below"; notice how often in the definitions quoted above the emphasis is placed on human activity (e.g., "our attempt to express…what we presume to be"). One longs for a greater emphasis on the sapiential appropriation of the divine self-disclosure: where revelation meets the questing intellect only to shatter its presumed limits, where grace not only forgives sinners and reconciles humans to God but divinizes them, where the beauty of the Crucified One transforms our imaginations and reveals God at work in suffering love. But what Dunn has done he has done well: the book simply needs to be supplemented by a historical survey of the Church's life and reflection and primary documents from important theological writers.