§2. Letters To My Friend: Just Say No To Five Point Calvinism, A Trinitarian Way To Think Hermeneutically

This is the second of my posts to my friend in response to an email he sent me, and the exegetical questions he is facing in regards to the Calvinist concept of Limited Atonement. You can read my introductory post here. I am going to change my approach to answering the question from my friend, and actually jump into prolegomena issues; and highlight how an exegete’s theological methodology, a priori, will impact and shape his/her exegetical decisions and conclusions. In that vein, I am going to talk about why it is so important, if we are going to do Christian exegesis, to start with the Christian God’s own specification; which is triune. In my recent reading (of just a few minutes ago), I just came across some helpful words from Eberhard Jüngel, as he interprets the way that Karl Barth approached this very issue. That is, how does God as triune impinge upon how we think from him; both, then, theologically (in its truest sense), and exegetically. I just want to lay this out a bit in order to clear ground for later, when I actually try to answer my friend’s questions in specifics, in regards to the passages of Scripture that he has provided in support of a classic Calvinist understanding of a Limited Atonement. Here is what Jüngel has to say about Barth and the significance of God as triune should have on theological and exegetical work:

[B]ecause revelation concerns the being of God, since it is God who reveals himself there, the doctrine of the Trinity is ‘a constituent part, the decisive part, of the doctrine of God’. This part is decisive because the doctrine of the Trinity makes a fundamental distinction between ‘the Christian doctrine of God as Christian’ and ‘the Christian concept of revelation as Christian, in contrast to all other possible doctrines of God or concepts of revelation’. Because for Barth the ‘problem of the doctrine of the Trinity’ necessarily arises from our encounter with the Bible, then we ask after the being of God with ‘the question put to the Bible about revelation’, the solution of this problem is also decisive for the Christian concept of revelation and thereby for the understanding of the being of God. Hence Barth places the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of his Dogmatics in order that ‘its content be decisive and controlling for the whole of dogmatics’.

This location, which lets the doctrine of the Trinity stand at the entrance of the Church Dogmatics as a whole, is a hermeneutical decision of the greatest relevance. This is already seen formally in the fact that the doctrine of the Trinity is to be found in the prolegomena, that is, at exactly the place where the treatment of hermeneutical problems is expected. For Barth also hermeneutical problems are — despite other misleading statements — in no way merely more or less unpleasant preliminary questions. It is more that Barth’s insight that, without ‘anticipating material dogmas’, neither a doctrine of Scripture nor, even less, a doctrine of the Word of God can be formulated, may provide evidence that, at the point where he decides hermeneutically about the path of the Dogmatics (both formally and materially), he sees himself compelled to decide about the hermeneutic by which he is deciding. The placing of the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of the Church Dogmatics is therefore a hermeneutical decision of the greatest relevance because, on the one hand, the whole Church Dogmatics finds its hermeneutical foundation here, and, on the other hand, with this decision hermeneutics itself finds its own starting-point. . . . [Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming, trans. by John Webster, 16-17]

It is this principle that becomes hermeneutically important. That is, if we are going to follow God, and his lead into the ‘Far Country’ (as Jüngel says), we must start with his lead! If his chosen lead is his self-Revelation, his so called ‘self-interpreting-Word’ (cf. Jn. 1.18); then as Christians we need to honor that in our theological method, and hermeneutical prowess. Meaning, as Jüngel says above, that, in principle (de jure) Jesus as the Son of the Father in communion by the Spirit, needs to shape the questions that serve to explicate what he wants to reveal about himself. So in a sense, everything I am trying to say is: that we need to jump back quite a bit and consider our hermeneutical moorings (theologically), before we dive head first into passages of Scripture which ‘seem’ to correlate with particular ‘theological’ assessments that purport to come from the ‘Text’ itself.

So then, these are the questions we are faced with:

  1. What does the ‘Text’ of Scripture presuppose, theologically?
  2. Does the Arminian and Calvinist (classic) grammar present the only viable theological paradigm through which to interpret Scripture?
  3. Is the TULIP theology itself actually Christian Theology? Does it take shape by following God’s lead, or does it follow another leader (like ‘nature’)?
  4. Doesn’t it seem that Theological concerns precede and impinge upon hermeneutical concerns, so that what hermeneutics purport to explain actually correspond back to and signify its inner-theological ground?
  5. Should we follow a more ‘Theological Exegetical’ approach or a Literal, Grammatical, Historical approach to biblical interpretation?

There are definitely more questions to be broached, but I wanted to stop with 5 😉 . I don’t really plan on developing or answering all of the above questions in detail, but at least I intend to broach them at some level. How we understand Divine speech, acts, and works will directly shape our hermeneutical approach, and exegetical conclusions. And so, this is why I think it is important to move forward in this way. I am sure I have only really created more questions than answers. Isn’t that the joy of knowing God; isn’t this the source of worship and thus the form of Theology!


6 thoughts on “§2. Letters To My Friend: Just Say No To Five Point Calvinism, A Trinitarian Way To Think Hermeneutically

  1. Bobby,

    This is good stuff. What you are saying is very important. We need to think more deeply about our presupposed hermeneutical framework, and we need to take that to the text as well, to see if our starting point is the same as God’s. I am very interested in your third question. Personally, I definitely believe that TULIP theology follows nature; and an outdated, as well as (I think), a false understanding, of nature, at that. I also believe (in agreement with you) that a proper starting place for understanding Christian theology is in God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ. I am not exactly trying to get off on a rabbit trail here (its probably inevitable though), but even though I agree with you on these important points, I am not sure that any of us (even those of us who agree with what you are communicating here) can actually escape the fact that we have a hermeneutical bias which is helplessly effected by nature.

    I guess what I am saying is that the 21st century understanding of nature is vastly different from the very deterministic understanding of the Enlightenment and Puritan periods, and perhaps, these advancements in our understanding of nature have opened our eyes to the ways in which our former false understandings of nature had effected (for the worse) our theological judgments and hermeneutical biases, and have also, opened up the possibility for more accurate and faithful approaches to the scripture. That said, if this is so, our theological understanding would really be no less effected by nature than those who affirm TULIP or FACTS, it would just not be effected by the outdated and harmful understanding of nature upon which the theological judgments and hermeneutical approaches of both the TULIP and FACTS have been constructed. So then, might it be that it is not so much nature that is the problem, but more accurately, the view of nature presupposed by TULIP theologians?

    Sorry, I just thought this was an interesting topic; I do not intend to detract from the main point of the post (I actual hope that this enhances the conversation!), or from the fact that what you are saying is extremely important.


  2. Brian,

    Very perceptive. Jüngel’s preceding discussion, leading into what I have quoted, deals with the very issue you are concerned with; and that is how do we actually talk about God from God as creatures and through creaturely media? This all gets into the issues of analogia entis (analogy of being) vs. an analogia fidei (in fact this is what my chapter is about for our book). I would get into detail here, but the contention is is that God’s free election to be who he is is not w/o us (creation); that creation is the theater of God’s life as its creator. I could quote a few things to try and make this more clear, but I don’t have the time at the moment. Anywho, it is in God’s accommodation to nature, through Christ’s incarnation, that creation itself is commandeered to serve God’s life and in fact corresponds to who he is as a result of his electing work. It is in this way, oversimplified, that creation serves as the outer reality of God’s covenant of grace with it; of which His life is the inner ground. So in other words there is a univocal (real, one-to-one) correspondence between God’s inner life (in se), and outer life (ad extra, in the economy); and he has chosen to give himself his life through his election to not be God w/o us (meaning w/o creation). Does that help at all? Or does that only muddy the water even more? Are you still reading Barth’s CD?


  3. I actually have not been reading Barth; I got sidetracked by some more pressing matters, and reading CD appears to be a daunting and difficult task! I do hope to return to it at some point in the not-too-distant-future. Apparently, I will have to read your book to get some more info…when it is released. I understand if you do not have much time now, and I do think that this helps, but only if I am understanding you correctly. 😉 I really do not understand the language of “analogy of faith vs. analogy of being”, so I’m trying to get the context of what you are saying. If I am not mistaken, what you have said does not sound all that different from what I was getting at, its just worded a little differently. That said, I do not reject natural theology, if only because I recognize the interplay between things like history, tradition, and experience, with our understanding of Christ and the scriptures; and from what I understand, Barth (to some extent at least) recognized these things as well. So, while he claimed to reject natural theology, I am not sure that he accomplished this goal in practice, and actually, I am not even sure that it is possible at all. In this context, his rejection of natural theology comes off rather strange. It would appear (to my untrained eye) that his rejection of natural theology was not a rejection of natural theology as much as it was a rejection of Enlightenment theology; probably viewing these terms as having been synonymous. I say this because it almost seems like Barth’s positioning natural theology against his Christocentric hermeneutic is an argument akin to claiming that “my view is based strictly on the bible, while yours is influenced by the world”; when actually, both systems are influenced by nature, its just that Barth saw the effects of the modernist views of nature upon Christian theology and ethics (in experience) and as a result, sought to frame his theology in such a way that it was able to out flank certain views of morality that he believed to be inconsistent with the person and work of Christ. I guess what I am getting at is that I find Barth’s rejection of natural theology to be a poor attempt at claiming the higher, more biblical, ground; even though I do believe that his hermeneutic gives us tremendous insight, and that it is far superior to that of the Enlightenment era. I am probably missing a lot, but I am interested in what you think…if you have time, of course.


  4. Great stuff. I am looking forward to how this progresses. I agree with the points. What will be great will be to see how the actual textual analysis benefits from this hermeneutic.


  5. @Brian,

    I think there is more to Barth’s rejection of “natural theology;” more to it than that: “I am simply believing the truth from Christ, and you’re not!” Instead I think Barth is attempting to provide methodological ground that simply has God’s inner-life match his outer-life; i.e. avoid the usual dualisms that have always attended all kinds of theologies (precritical, critical, and post-critical). While Barth is certainly situated in a particular modernist context, I actually think he does a good job at providing a methodological mode of theologizing that provides a way forward w/o any kind of dualistic natural theologies in the mix. There is a book out that I need to read by Keith Johnson who looks at this very thing in, Barth. I need to read that soon! But, I think all of this involves a principled methodolgical issue; and that it outstrips its own situadedness per your enlightenment point. IN other words, dualisms have been around for centuries, ever since, at least, the Fall 😉 . I’ll have to try and get into this more later. My chapter won’t satisfy your curiosity much further; my chapter is a prolegomena chapter, and simply asserts, for the most part, our approach; i.e. a non-natural theology approach. I think it is possible to not engage the analogy of being, in principle.


    I’ll look forward to that too 😉 … if I ever get around to doing that!


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