Gordon Kaufman and theological “orthodoxy”

Ted Grimsrud—September 18, 2011

Gordon Kaufman’s death has provided occasion for me to reflect on how his constructive theology has shaped my own. I was a pastor when I first started reading Kaufman seriously. I found his thought helpful for me in that setting. He challenged me to recognize the need to present my own theology in my sermons, Bible studies, classes, and conversations as something fallible and finite. Since all theology is human work, it is all to be held lightly. Kaufman helped strengthen my already present anti-authoritarian tendencies. [See my two earlier posts that discuss Kaufman: “Gordon Kaufman, R.I.P.” and “Mennonite Theology and War: Kaufman and Yoder”.]

I had the sense from when I first seriously read Kaufman that what was most important for my purposes was his understanding of theological method. To recognize that every bit of our theology is a human construction would not be to reject out of hand traditional theological “orthodoxy”—rather, it would be to demand that the received beliefs be subject to the same scrutiny as all other human statements. The received beliefs, in light of Kaufman’s theological method, did not have a privileged status that rendered them impervious to criticism, impervious to rational evaluation in light of evidence, or impervious to experiential confirmation (or dis-confirmation). But if they could stand up to scrutiny, they could still be affirmed as true. According to his method, at least, Kaufman had no basis simply to reject a belief because he didn’t like it. His approach called for a quest for genuine objectivity (recognizing that this is never fully achievable) wherein one’s theological conclusions would be based on what is discerned to be true—not based on either an uncritically accepted “orthodoxy” or a knee-jerk anti-orthodoxy. Continue reading “Gordon Kaufman and theological “orthodoxy””