McClendon's three-volume theology, representing a large scale revisioning of systematics, is now complete - Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994) and Witness (2001) - exemplifying an approach that gives priority to the ecclesial community rather than the academy: not theology 'made popular' but rather self-consciously rooted in the practices of the Christian community. The most conspicuous evidence of this is the way that McClendon chose to begin his systematic theology: with ethics! ... rather than 'prolegomena', followed by 'doctrine', then 'ethics'. 'Prolegomena' usually discusses questions of method and typically in terms of philosophical justification for the subsequent theological project. Doctrine provides systematic presentation of Christian teaching often in quasi-scientific format and categories. Ethics, however, as Ron Sider says, is "often left until last and then left out" (42)!
McClendon does not challenge the threefold description of the theological task but sees them representing three levels of entry (kinds of "probing") into theology. He recognises
"that we begin by finding the shape of the common life in the body of Christ, which is for Christians partly a matter of self discovery, as Gregory learned from Origen. That is ethics. We continue with the investigation of the common and public teaching that sanctions and supports that common life by displaying its doctrinal height and breadth and depth. That is doctrine. And we end by discovering those apologetic and speculative positions that such life and such teaching call forth. That is philosophical theology or apologetics." (45)
McClendon finds himself in the company of 'postmoderns', and so not concerned with 'first principles' or to 'start from scratch' but rather exemplifying John Yoder's alternatives to "methodologism"; namely "walk and word", ie to begin "where we are" in the midst of the story of God in Israel, Jesus and the Christian community as witnessed in Scripture. But it is almost to 'damn with faint praise' to label McClendon 'postmodern' since his earlier 'philosophical' work, _Understanding Religious Convictions_ (co-author James Smith), was in many respects ahead of its time. As he and Smith comment in their updated edition (_Convictions_), "we believe, not that we are catching up with the times, but that the times have at long last caught up with us." McClendon draws upon this earlier work, understanding theology as a "science of convictions" involving the "discovery, understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is." (23) This 'generic' definition admits not only forms of monotheism and polytheism but also 'atheistic' theologies and the "theoretics" of 'communities' such as Marxists. It also opens up the possibility of a new form of conversation with 'secular' interlocutors, and avoids both subjectivist and objectivist problems by locating itself within the lived experience of actual communities.
McClendon describes Christian theology as "pluralistic" - embodied in different human contexts, facing various situations, framing itself in various ways in practice. It is also "historical" or narrative-based - (this being 'eclipsed', as Frei put it, in the modern era). Not only is the story of Scripture at theology's heart but the testimony of Christians and their communities. This narrative dimension rescues the 'experiential' from subjectivism and draws attention to dimensions in ethics such as character. Contra anti-intellectual strains of Christianity, McClendon affirms theology as "rational" - not having its own 'special' rationality disconnected from that outside but concerned with its connections to various 'disciplines' (social theory, philosophy, etc). It is also concerned with its 'internal' relations and creative transformation of inherited tradition. Theology is thereby eminently "self-involving" - as in McClendon's adherence to the "baptist vision": Not the denominational affilliation of Baptist but a specific family of ways of being Christian (eg some Baptists, but also Quakers, Churches of Christ, Mennonites, other descendants of the 'radical Reformation'), largely under-represented in theological conversation .
"By such a vision, I do not mean some end result of theoretical reflection, remote from the daily life of a rather plain people. Nor do I mean a detachable baptist Ideal - what baptists ought to be (but of course are not). Instead, by a vision I mean the guiding stimulus by which a ... combination of peoples... shape their life and thought...; ...the continually emerging theme and tonic structure of their common life. The vision is thus already present, waiting to be recognized and employed; it must not seem a stranger to those who share in baptist life or to their sympathetic observers. Yet once acknowledged for what it is, it should serve as the touchstone by which authentic baptist life is discovered and described, and also as the organizing principle around which a genuine baptist theology can take shape." (27-28)
McClendon also seeks to move away from any single theme as 'essence' for the 'baptist' vision such as biblicism or liberty or discipleship. Yet he does believe that the vision can be expressed in a hermeneutical motto that encompasses the other suggested themes: "the present Christian community as the primitive community and the eschatological community." (31) Scripture is the fundamental link between them.
The self-involving nature of theology is also shown by the addition of biographical chapters at the end of each of three sections to illustrate the themes treated or, better, to show the concrete situation from which the reflection arises. Chapters on Sarah and Jonathan Edwards, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dorothy Day illustrate the three "strands" of Christian ethics respectively:
* 1. Sphere of the organic - body ethics
* 2. Sphere of the communal - social ethics
* 3. Sphere of the anastatic - resurrection ethics
Following the Wittgensteinian analogy, McClendon insists each of these strands must not be separated from the others - that it is only together that they form a rope. Only with all three does Christian ethics retain its integrity.
In the company of Yoder and Hauerwas, McClendon affirms the anabaptist rejection of the Constantinian arrangement, describing a politics of forgiveness and reconciliation centred in the disciple community and its "powerful practices" (eg Baptism; Lord's Supper).
A landmark book in theological ethics. Brilliant!