Normative Pictures: The History of Christianity from a Theological Perspective
Henk van den Belt [+]
VU University, Amsterdam
For theologians, as Henk van den Belt explains in Chapter 4, it is not enough to experience and believe in divine transcendence without rationally thinking it through (the strand within modern philosophy discussed by Vanden Auweele according to which no rational concepts should be superimposed on religious experiences): theologians continue where other religious studies scholars leave off, by aiming to arrive at a more satisfactory approximation of the ultimate knowledge of existence that they believe rests with God. In his chapter, Van den Belt reflects on the nature of a theological perspective in religious studies by drawing on his own study of the woodcut illustrations in Martin Luther’s catechisms. He argues that although the research question concerning the meaning of the woodcuts as such is not necessarily theological, several specific characteristics of a theological approach can be identified in his research project. Van den Belt distinguishes three levels of analysis of the woodcuts in which specific theological issues play a role. The first concerns the object of research: theological expertise in the history of Christian doctrines and practices is important for understanding the message of the pictures. On a second, methodological level, Van den Belt observes a tension between the perspectives of theology and religious studies: a theological interpretation assesses the sources from the perspective of a shared belief. This means that the research question concerning the woodcuts is no longer confined to an analysis of the pictures, but is subsequently related to the theological presuppositions of Christianity, or in this case of (Lutheran) Protestantism. Finally, on an epistemological level, theologians are critically aware of and acknowledge the worldview in which they connect all knowledge to their basic convictions and beliefs regarding God’s relationship to the world. Van den Belt concludes his contribution by arguing that although this third epistemological and confessional level should not influence the results of the academic study, it should not be denied or excluded either. Assuming a position that resembles the argument concerning “positionality” above, Van den Belt instead holds that theologians and other researchers alike should reflect on and account for their own presuppositions.