"The term method refers to a way or means of disclosing truth…it follows a three-step movement from the compactness of primary understanding through analytical exposition toward theological construction… we begin at the level of symbolic understanding…we engage in exposition or analysis…this leads to constructive theology” (35).
How does the theologian know? Peters would have us begin the task of knowing with biblical symbols, which one might define as gospel interpreted through scripture, reason, tradition, and experience – though for Peters the gospel itself interprets scripture, suggesting a certain essential back-and-forth that Peters does not always seem to recognize.
Yet to begin the process of theology with the symbols that are to be explicated puts something of the methodological cart before the motivational horse; in clearly elucidating how we might (or must, if we take Peters at his word) go about systematic theology, Peters here proposes a model for thinking about God which contains no awareness of why we might do such theology in the first place.
I propose that a model of systematic theology which begins with its own origins would be more powerfully explicatory and no less systematic than the project which Peters proposes, as both trees of knowledge would yield the same theological fruit.
So that where Peters says that symbols are reality detectors (36), I say that reality is a symbol detector. In other words, theology is less the church thinking about its belief and more belief thinking about why it might go to church. Theology is the body of Christ pondering the inclinations of its heart, answering Augustine’s question of ‘what do I love, when I love my God?’ I would hope that this would be the origin of any theology, however systematic.
I would hope that explaining the significance of the gospel (82) would in fact begin with some sort of relation to, some sort of experience of, the relational God the gospel is about. By omitting persons from either end of the theological process, Peters has created for the church a method of theology which most any atheist might engage in.
Which is not to say that the method is wrong, but is to say that it strikes one as incomplete. If we begin our theological system not with the originary symbols of Christianity but with the experiences that make us Christian (including symbols). We can indeed have no experience apart from symbols, and one might well interpret the same religious experience differently depending one one’s available symbolic system, but Peters would seem to locate the meaning of that event in relation to its symbols.
Most would not do this; the true test of a hypothetical is not whether or not it corresponds to any particular symbol, be it Christian or no, but in whether or not it describes the reality of a particular experience. Symbols, even the gospel, are only meaningful insofar as they illumine the spectrum of reality evidenced by Peters’ prism.
To elucidate a broader method for systematic theology would escape the bounds of this paper, but were one to say “The term method refers to a way or means of explicating truth. It follows a four-step movement from existential intuition through symbolic illumination and analytical exposition toward theological re-construction. We begin with experiential incomprehension,” then one would at least be beginning the method with the reason for the method.
While Peters does incorporate experience in his model, he offers it little value; by restoring its more obvious pride of place, the God our theological system addresses becomes not only the historic Christ alluded to by symbols, but the lived reality of God still present and active in the world.