Dorothee Solle orthodox liberal and radical

The German theologian Dorothee Solle proposes that contemporary theology can broadly be classified according to three main paradigms: orthodox, liberal and radical (Solle 1990). Orthodox, or 'right-believing', theology starts with the Bible and the dogmatic tradition as conveying revealed truth. It is essentially conservative both theologically and politically, being blind to its own cultural provisos. True, under the influence of Karl Barth Protestant orthodoxy, or neo-orthodoxy, enabled the German Confessing Church with the Barmen Declaration of 1934 to take a prophetic stand against the Nazification of Christianity. But aside from this particular historical context, orthodoxy-whether in its Protestant or Catholic, ancient or more recent forms—tends towards conservatism and indeed, at the present time, to fundamentalism. The paradigm of orthodoxy was fundamentally shaken by the Enlightenment, and ever since has been in intellectual and cultural retreat.

Liberal theology, by contrast, accepted much of the understanding of the world opened by the Enlightenment, especially in the fields of natural science and historical study, and saw the need for belief to be expressed in ways which did not contradict such knowledge. Closely allied to its belief in the historicity of all religions, and its recognition that no one religion can claim absolute status of truth and authority, is the central value it places on tolerance, and, moreover, the separation of Church and state. Its weakness is that it has tended to accept too readily an identification of Christianity with a certain culture, and to leave politics to the politicians—with disastrous results when those politicians are dictators, as in Nazi Germany or certain countries of Latin America. Like orthodoxy, liberal theology is essentially a theology of and for the bourgeoisie, as seen in its individualism.

In contrast to both orthodox and liberal theologies, the theology of liberation begins in the experience of the poor, oppressed and marginalized people, especially in the Third World. 'For liberation theology, the one Word of God is the messianic praxis of Jesus and his followers' (Sölle 1990:19), a praxis discovered through committed action by the poor themselves as they take steps for their own liberation from oppression. God is with and for the poor in his 'preferential option' for them.

Sölle's threefold analysis of the contemporary theological scene certainly corresponds to some broad perceptions at the popular level. There is indeed dispute between 'conservatives' and 'liberals' in Western Christian theological circles, and certainly a challenge is being felt from the perspective of doing 'theology from below', especially in Third World contexts. But the use of just three paradigms is somewhat too simplistic and does not do justice to the connections, interplay and dynamics in the contemporary theological scene. It implies, for instance, that all three approaches are mutually exclusive and self-sufficient, whereas, for example, there are many liberation theologians who are grateful for the historico-critical methods of liberal theology and equally for the interpretation of Scripture and tradition provided by 'orthodox' theology. Karl Barth has been read and utilized by radicals in South Africa as well as by conservative ecclesiastical restorationists in Europe. Where, on this analysis, would one place a theologian such as Jürgen Moltmann who has dealt deeply with the doctrinal, trinitarian tradition yet has also chosen the political and social context as the frame of reference for its interpretation, so creating a fruitful link between the two (as for example in the social model of the Trinity as counteractive to a hierarchical view both of God and of human society)? Or Wolfhart Pannenberg, who likewise stays firmly within the orthodox trinitarian tradition yet also sets his theology within a universal context of anthropology and history? Are such theologians conservatives, liberals or something else?

Moreover, an analysis of this kind itself reflects very much a Western, Protestant approach with its implication that to be conservative, liberal or radical are options which one can select from a detached vantage point. But for some, to be attached to the tradition of doctrine is not so much an option as a fundamental feature of one's basic identity in faith within the confessional family. It is in effect the house one inhabits. The question then becomes that of one's relation to this tradition, whether it is to be one of unexamined acceptance, or of continual, critical reflection and interpretation. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the theological endeavour of Karl Rahner (1904-84) was 'to retrace, rethink and restate the truths Christians are called to believe' (Kelly 1992:31) by rigorous study of 'the intricate nature of credal statements and his church's dogmatic pronouncements in their historical-critical setting and in their philosophical, anthropological and spiritual foundations', 'an articulation of what must be affirmed as perennial truth under the ever-changing garments of history, culture and language' (Kelly 1992:32). To classify this theological vision as 'orthodox' because of its attachment to tradition would be insulting, if it means placing Rahner alongside fundamentalists. And to call him a liberal simply because of his affirmation of the necessity for free enquiry would be no less misleading. Similarly, space must be found in any scheme of classification for such a creative thinker from the Orthodox Church as John Zizioulas who identifies the crucial question lying between the Bible and Greek-based thought, from the patristic times to our own, as: 'How can a Christian hold to the idea that truth operates in history and creation when the ultimate character of truth, and its uniqueness, seem irreconcilable with the change and decay to which history and creation are subject?' (Zizioulas 1985:70). To state the question in this way is to recognize, no less than the liberals do, the force of historicity. Yet, for Zizioulas, light on the question can be shed from Greek patristic thought itself. Rahner and Zizioulas both represent ways of looking at theology which defy conventional classification simply because they insist on keeping an open dialogue between the tradition and contemporary culture. A more revealing analysis would therefore attempt to analyse how various theologies in fact understand and work out this relationship between themselves and the wider intellectual, religious, cultural and social context.

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