This post will dovetail nicely with my last two posts (here1 & here2) on Scripture, and Biblical interpretation, respectively. In this post (short article) I will focus on Karl Barth’s (please don’t let that scare some of you away!) dialectical hermeneutic, and his view on what stands as the unity of the ‘Testaments’, Old and New. Barth’s view, as reported and developed by George Hunsinger, is corollary with Myk Habets’ and my view, and our own approach which we have labeled as a dialectical mode of engaging the text of Scripture at an interpretive level (we have developed this in chapter 15 of our edited book, in our co-written ‘Theses’ chapter). In fact, let me open up this article with a quote from what Myk and I have written on this, and then we will jump into Barth’s ‘faith’ approach to understanding the unity and diversity in Scripture. [Before pressing on, let me provide an editor’s note: this short article has become longer than I had initially planned for, so I will break it up into two posts; the first post will be sharing what Myk and I have written on this topic, and then the second installment will be touching on Barth’s similar understanding, with a flare that only he can provide.] Here is what Myk and I have written (and this will be at length):
Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.
The systematic theology of Evangelical Calvinism is dialectical in character rather than strictly philosophical or analytical. It is not content to formulate a system of theology whereby Christianity is reduced to timeless, logical truths about God. The God of biblical revelation presents us with logical problems, seeming paradoxes, surprising features which cannot simply be resolved by discursive reason. “Thus, dialectical theology is a protest against rationalistic religion in whatever form it occurs, whether the natural theology of Thomism, a theological liberalism shaped by idealist philosophy or a conservative orthodoxy that reduces theology to logically systematized propositions.”39
Padgett and Wilkins also point out that dialectical theology has two additional tendencies, “a rejection of any philosophical system as normative for theology and a substructure, either implied or explicit, informed by existentialism.”40
Those working within an Evangelical Calvinism find no compulsion to allow strictly logico-deductive reasoning to determine the final outcomes of their systematic theology, preferring instead to use the conceptual apparatus of philosophy as a servant of the Word so that a truly theo-logic dominates. Charles Partee provides an important and correct insight on John Calvin in this regard, which resonates with Evangelical Calvinism’s approach:
Calvin’s theology is properly concerned for right answers, but his right answers should be understood not as a logically unassailable system of ideas but in terms of their adequacy as a heartfelt confession of faith attempting to protect the mystery of God’s revelation. This confessional nature of theology takes precedence over all its rational truth, not even a system rationally explicating revealed truth. Calvin’s theology is a systematic offering of faithful witness to the truth revealed by God in Jesus Christ.41
Evangelical Calvinists (attempt to) resist the urge to fill in the gaps, and remain satisfied with the dialectical situation that often occurs as a result of studying the living triune God and his Word written.
The canon of Scripture knows of no deterministic logical reasoning; this, we argue, is the product of Aristotelian, Augustinian, Newtonian, and much later, Scholastic “causal connections.” The alternative is of course a created connection in which God reveals himself (personally and propositionally) in an analogous way by means of his Word and Spirit. When philosophical causal connections are adopted as the totality of ones hermeneutic then all manner of topics in Scripture lapse into absurdity (or at the least, are reduced to rational categories and not historical ones). Here one thinks of such dialectical issues as Divine sovereignty and human free will; or salvation and damnation; or the prohibition against “seeing” God and living and the testimony of Scripture of those people who do “see” God and do live. This is not to deny that free rational agency and compulsion by objective reality go together: they do—but they do so within the created categories given to us by the God who alone is free and who, in his freedom, creates humanity in his image but with a contingent freedom and thus with a contingent confession.42
An illustration may prove useful at this point; the example of human free-will. We have to assert, in light of Scripture and the life of the Incarnate Son, that our freedom is limited, because it is contingent, but in this limitation we find it is truly free when assessed, not by causal connections we may make within creation (a closed system of reference), but free in relation to God who alone is free. We are thus free for something—to do the will of God, and not free in any sense of abstract causality. Thus free-will is defined by the Apostle Paul, in light of the Christ event, as a will enslaved to the will of God: “Paul a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1 NASB). Jesus himself defined human free-will in the same way when he taught us to pray to the Father that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt 6:9-10). Jesus further modeled such free human will when he stated, repeatedly, that he came to do the will of the one who sent him and not his own will: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Thus we affirm that free-will is God’s will made our own and not our self-will: “For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). Self-will is, to the contrary, slavery to sin. Thus causal connections—the hermeneutics of Classical Theism and Classical Calvinism—are logical but not theo-logical. Thus Evangelical Calvinism operates with a theo-logical hermeneutic and not simply a philosophical logic that results in determinist and dualist ways of thinking and systems of theology.43 [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 440-41.]
As you read this you will notice that we are apparently arguing against another and disparate approach to understanding Scripture and its diversity; we are arguing against any approach that we try to systematize Scripture in a way that reduces it to a series of proof-texts, proof-texts that in the end gloss over Scripture’s primary point, Jesus, in favor of whatever ‘system’ is being appealed to as that which gives Scripture its unity. So to keep this less abstract, by way of illustration, what I am referring to is something like classic Calvinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, Historicism[s], etc. superimpose on Scripture with the goal of trying to make it make sense for whatever audience this system is trying to appease. This, as Myk and I have already stated, can only flow from a posture towards Scripture (even good intentioned) that is philosophical, and thus not truly ‘Biblical’ in the sense that Scripture itself presupposes; i.e. that Jesus is the true center (cf. Jn. 5:39), and He is the true center ‘all the way down’, methodologically and principally. If a system starts somewhere else other than with Jesus, methodologically, and instead it starts with ‘Salvation’ as its starting point, for example, then the result will be a study in anthropology (the study of humans) superimposed onto the text of Scripture—and all of its attendant philosophical substructures.
The goal for the Christian reader and interpreter of Holy Scripture ought to be where it goes; it ought to twist and turn in its cavernous and sloping ways such that the only way that it is able to hold all of its disclosure about God together has to be a person, has to be Jesus Christ instead of a philosophical superstructure that (with good intention) seeks to smooth Scripture out. Smooth it out in a way that Scripture becomes our possession, it becomes man’s and woman’s possession; insofar that their conceiving, their philosophizing holds Scripture together.
We will pick up the rest of this story in the next installment of this two post series on the unity and diversity of Scripture as Christ. Hopefully this has whetted your appetite for more.