Against the Metaphysical Machine: Being Biblical and Avoiding ‘Systems’

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Myk Habets and I have written in our Evangelical Calvinism book for our thesis number 9, this:

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.”[1]

We elaborate further on this thesis, but this opening paragraph to it should suffice for the general point I want to underscore throughout the rest of this post.

This form of ‘dialectical theology’ that we follow, to one degree or another, comes, at least for me, in line with the way that George Hunsinger describes Karl Barth’s ‘anti-systemtization’ approach when it comes to his ‘method’ for doing theology. Let me quote a bit from Hunsinger on Barth, and how and why he repudiates systemitization in favor of a ‘biblical’ or ‘dialectical’ approach. Here is what Hunsinger writes of Barth:

… The idea of a divine determinism or monism posits a kind of “mechanism” and “fatalism” that Barth finds to be characteristic of “metaphysical dogmas” (IV/2, 494). Metaphysical dogmas attempt to “systematize” divine and human actions. They attempt to conceive these actions within a rationally comprehensible explanatory scheme. Within the scheme they attempt to explain how these actions are related. They appeal to a supposedly higher principle or a supposedly higher order which stands above the actions and normalizes them. Above all, they assume that God is accessible to ordinary schemes of explanation. The ontological difference in order between divine and human actions (which for Barth is ineradicable) is conceived as one that can be resolved and removed. Metaphysical dogmas, in other words, derive explanatory schemes from general observations which are then applied to the case of divine and human actions–as if the case of their relatedeness were the instance of a class. These dogmas represent the opposite of everything signified by particularism.

In Barth’s theology mechanism and monism are denied, because the possibility of explanatory systematization is denied, and the possibility of this systematization is denied, because it can achieve only a formal or technical coherence at the expense of a truly material coherence. No system can contain all the affirmations found within the cluster of basic doctrinal beliefs. At some point adherence to the system will require a material or doctrinal sacrifice. The charge of determinism or monism accurately perceives that a merely formal concept of the unconditional sovereignty of divine grace would necessarily result in the loss of human freedom. But just what conception of human freedom does the charge suppose is being lost? Is there a neutral or context-independent conception that can simply be taken for granted? Does the charge presupposes that one systematization is to be rejected (determinism or monism), because a better systematization can be found to replace it? Are Pelagianizing tendencies, for example, to be rejected with equal vigor?

The rejection of systematization has already been explored in detail. Particularism, as found in Barth’s theology, excludes systematization on principle….[2]

Hunsinger writes later of Barth on this same point:

… “God” dwindles into a “a supreme being”–“a product of our own thinking, a concept and principle and therefore an instrument with the help of which we can master and solve any problem,” including the “problem” of how divine and human actions are related (IV/2, 215)….[3]

And so for Barth, as for us Evangelical Calvinists, the unique reality, the novum or new reality that explodes into our mundane reality must be allowed to be the reality through which we attempt to think God and his relation with us (which is ‘theology’). As Thomas Torrance has written:

Our task in Christology is to yield to the obedience of our mind to what is given, which is God’s self revelation in its objective reality, Jesus Christ. A primary and basic fact which we discover here is this: that the object of our knowledge gives itself to us to be apprehended. It does that within our mundane existence, within our worldly history and all its contingency, but it does that also beyond the limits of previous experience and ordinary thought, beyond the range of what is regarded by human standards as empirically possible. Thus when we encounter God in Jesus Christ, the truth comes to us in its own authority and self-sufficiency. It comes into our experience and into the midst of our knowledge as a novum, a new reality which we cannot incorporate into the series of other objects, or simply assimilate to what we already know.[4]

It is to think God after God revealed in Jesus Christ. If we do we will be ‘dialectical’ or more simply ‘biblical’ thinkers. We will allow the ‘analogy of revelation’ to ‘rule the faith’ once for all delivered to the saints by understanding that the mystery of God in the flesh is the way that God has chosen to exegete himself for us (John 1.18) in Christ. And so we think ‘a posteriori’ from who we have before us, instead of ‘a priori’ who we have conceived of by way of our profane reflection (like through philosophy). We think scientifically and allow the subject/object in God in Christ who we have before us dictate how we are to conceive and know God through union with him by the personal work of the Holy Spirit.


[1] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 439.

[2] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 197-99.

[3] Ibid., 200.

[4] Torrance, Incarnation, 1.

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2 comments

  1. Bill Ford · ·

    At the request of a 5-point Calvinist friend, I read R. C. Sproul’s, “The Holiness of God” (he agreed to read one of my choice: “The Mediation of Christ”!). I was astonished to read this sentence on page 6: “I knew who Jesus was, but God the Father was shrouded in mystery. He was hidden, an enigma to my mind and a stranger to my soul. A dark veil covered His face.” Never mind Jesus’ words to Thomas and Phillip in John 14 – if you knew me, you would know my Father – so, never mind the filial bond, thus, never mind revelation.

    Sproul goes on to make an “a priori” case for the Calvinists’ favorite attribute of God: his holiness (be afraid, be very afraid!), looking everywhere, but Jesus. He even leaves poor terrified Peter on his knees in the fishing boat, trembling before Jesus, whose reassuring words to Peter – do not be afraid – are not found in Sproul’s account of the event in Luke 5. I wonder what Sproul would think of Karl Barth’s statement, understood “a posteriori,” that God is “gracious as he is holy and holy as he is gracious” (CD II/1, 367)? This we know, Barth says, because Jesus tells us so.

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  2. Hi Bill,

    Yeah, I’ve watched him do his lecture series on Holiness along time ago. He is just a classic Calvinist, teaching it to others. It is sad to see it, really!

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