Thesis 9. Evangelical Calvinism is a form of dialectical theology.

*The following is taken from chapter 15 from our Evangelical Calvinism book. Myk Habets and I cowrote this chapter which offers 15 theological theses that represent Myk Habets’ and my understanding of what Evangelical Calvinism entails at least by way of contours of thought.

Thesis 9. 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]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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 NAS B). 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.[4]

[1] Padgett and Steve Wilkins, Christianity and Western Thought, 132. Evangelical Calvinism utilizes existentialism as a method only and not a metaphysical system. This is most clearly evident in its doctrine of the Word of God as illustrated in Partee, chapter 2, and Nigh, chapter 3, and in our knowledge of God by his self-revelation, see Grow, chapter 4, and Murphy, Chapter 6.

[2] Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 31.

[3] We are indebted to Charles Partee for this phrase

[4] See further in Partee, chapter 2, Nigh, chapter 3, and Grow, chapter 4.

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4 comments

  1. Bobby, EC does seem more elegant than at least one baroque alternative, but is it really dialectical or it is simply more open to Word-driven critique of philosophical categories in the service of the gospel? In some ears, ‘dialectical’ suggests a strong predictive claim that reliable truth about God can never be ‘rational,’ as distinct from a more modest claim that a fully ‘rational’ presentation has not yet been constructed, but could be achieved through deeper reception of the Word that constitutes reason. If existentialism is only a method for EC and not a metaphysic, then it sounds closer to the latter.

    Put another way, Jacques Maritain found existentialism even in St Thomas, who did indeed critique received philosophical categories in the interests of the gospel (see David Burrell’s little classic on Ibn Sina, Maimonides, St Thomas, and the idea of creation, Knowing the Unknowable God). Are you ‘existentializing’ more than St Thomas did? If so, how so?

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/maritain/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_existentialism

    In this connection, an EC thought on the archetypal/ ectypal distinction would be most welcome.

    https://deovivendiperchristum.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/richard-a-muller-on-archetypal-and-ectypal-theology/

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  2. You too, Bowman. Sorry my comment above was so terse, I am extremely short on time nowadays (regrettably so). I would like to try and explain why I think we are more dialectical than not (maybe a post later).

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