Toward a Theological Theology of Trauma

Across various theological loci, modern theology has consistently prioritized function over ontology. Such a move is misguided as ontology properly precedes function. This misplaced emphasis may be found in studies examining the intersection of trauma and theology. The effect of this methodological error is the theological impoverishment of much of the literature on the interface of trauma and theology. The purpose of this paper aims to offer a corrective by calling for a properly “theological theology” (per John Webster) of trauma, which begins with an ontology drawn from the metaphysics of Scripture, i.e., the nature of trauma and human beings, specifically how trauma impacts human beings as embodied image-bearers of God. Put in the form of a question, the concern of this paper may be stated thus: how does trauma impact the imago Dei? Posed differently, what are the metaphysical foundations for trauma and the imago Dei? I view trauma as an inflection of evil in fallen creation and the imago Dei as a biblical concept that articulates the essence of human nature. Without a proper metaphysics of trauma drawn principally from Scripture, one fails to properly construct a theological theology of trauma. The result of such a failure inevitably leads to inadequate strategies and responses aimed at the healing and recovery from trauma.
This paper proceeds as follows: First, I provide a theological definition of trauma, something unaddressed in the clinical literature. Second, I outline three basic methodological approaches to studying trauma: functional, existential, and ontological approaches. I examine both functional and existential approaches in detail, providing examples of each. Before outlining the features of an ontological approach, I critically evaluate functional and existential approaches by highlighting their chief methodological error, namely, an “extratextual” approach that gives priority to frameworks alien to Scripture. Third, I outline an ontological approach as most conducive to developing a properly theological theology of trauma drawn from the metaphysics of Scripture. I also suggest that an emphasis on the metaphysics of image-bearing might complement and enrich other extant ontological approaches to trauma and theology (e.g., Scott Harrower’s God of All Comfort). The paper concludes by imploring evangelical theologians engaged in trauma studies to be or remain committed to theological theology.

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