Modern Theology’s Biblical Emphasis, Opposed to Speculative Theologies

For many classical theism=orthodoxy. But the question I have is whose classical theism? Patristic classical theism; medieval classical theism; post-Reformed classical theism; repristinated neo-classical theism? I think there are steadfast components within some expressions of classical theism (particularly of the Patristic sort i.e. what we find in the ecumenical council of Nicea-hegelConstantinople), that serve well to establish a pattern and grammar for orthodox Christian reflection upon who the Christian God is, but this is not to say that there aren’t ways to improve upon that and go beyond (but not without) some of the accretions that developed over the years relative to what came to be known as classical theism (i.e. of the Thomist sort). This is where modernity can be helpful; not necessarily in terms of providing the formal frame for thinking God, but in the sense that modernity can allow us to focus on a conception of God that is mediated to us through His own Self-revelation. What some forms of classical theism give us (like Thomas Aquinas’ for example) is a speculative conception of God; a conception of God that is contingent upon humanity’s ability to infer God from His causal powers on display in nature (i.e. so a natural theology).

This is why I have found Barth and Torrance so helpful. They have recognized some value in modern categories of thought, and yet at the same time have demonstrated how to appropriate some of that without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, they are able to think organically from the ecumenical councils, but do so as modern thinkers conditioned by their own time and locatedness. In flow with that, Bruce McCormack helpfully sketches for us the impact that someone like Hegel has had upon the trajectory of modern theology more than anyone else (even more than Schleiermacher). I can see Barth (and even some of Torrance) in the ways and means provided for by Hegel; someone who pushed thinkers into a “post-metaphysical” space, and beyond a speculative mode of theologizing. McCormack writes of Hegel and his impact:

Hegel’s attractiveness to Christian theologians to this day is due, above all, to three considerations. First, Hegel overcame the agnosticism of Kant. Hegel’s God could be known by human reason. Second, in positing the existence of an ultimate ground to natural and historical processes, Hegel had found a way to subordinate the natural sciences to philosophy. The apologetic value of this way of thinking was immense. Hegel’s philosophical theology has been called “speculative”—which refers to the fact that the knowledge of the ultimate ground of reality is to be found solely in itself, in its Self-giving. One cannot reason from the order one thinks herself to perceive in the world back to a First Cause; she must begin with God, thinking consistently “from above,” or she will not end with the God who is. But it would be a mistake to think that taking God as the starting point for thought requires an irrational leap. The reasonableness of this procedure is guaranteed by the explanatory value of the starting point adopted in this way—its power to explain all else that exists. That is why Hegel was so tempting to theologians with apologetic concerns. Those theologians would always tend to see the “independence of religion” purchased by Schleiermacher’s rooting of religion in “feeling” as a step toward irrationality. Third, Hegel’s “system” provided a basis for a robust theodicy. Hegel’s “sublation” (Aufhebung) of the finite in the Infinite reaches its goal in God’s act of taking the most extreme limit of finitude—death—up into his own being in order to conquer it there. The meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection is that God, not death, is our future. That this provides a powerful solution to the problem of evil is clear where it is realized that God does not merely empathize with us but takes the threat to our being and meaning in this world in hand and overcomes it in himself. God does not remain at a distance but enters fully into our situation, transforming it from within.

Hegel’s concept of God marked a large step beyond Schleiermacher in one crucial respect. Schleiermacher could still affirm with classical theism an utter simplicity (or “lack of composition”) in God as well as the impassibility (or “nonaffectivity”) of God. Not so with Hegel. After Hegel, modern theologians have typically bid farewell to classical theism. From that point on, even Schleiermacher was regarded as something of a transitional figure from whom one had much to learn, but who had been surpassed by Hegel. It was Hegel who, more than anyone else, defined what it meant to be “modern” in this area of doctrine.[1]

The only One who is sacrosanct is God. And it is my belief that this sacrosanct God still speaks to His church, and that He does so through many imperfect vessels (i.e. “us”). For the biblical Christian there is only one ‘norming norm’ (i.e. norma normans), and that is Holy Scripture. As Oliver Crisp has written: “Scripture is the norma normans, the principium theologiae. It is the final arbiter of matters theological for Christians as the particular place in which God reveals himself to his people. This is the first-order authority in all matters of Christian doctrine.”[2] If this is the case, we ‘test all things and hold fast to what is good’ as the Apostle Paul has written; and we are free in that sense, within the regulative frame of Scripture which finds its reality in Christ, to constructively hear from many voices (no matter what period of the church that voice is situated within).

This is why being able to ‘take’ from Hegel can be done in a critical and constructive way. Personally I do not believe that Hegel should be listened to too much, but his “historizing” of revelation can be a helpful thing if we understand (as Barth did) that history is not something historians construct, but instead history is God’s history which He includes us in, in Christ.

There seems to be a retreat back to the “old paths” among many evangelical and Reformed theologians today, but this retreat seems to be driven by fear of the modern developments that have happened within Christian theology (like using some of Hegel’s stuff). This retreat seems to want to demonize all things modern, which is highly ironic since Protestantism itself could be said to be modern (at least in seminal form as we think about the shift in a theory of authority that happened as a result of the Protestant Reformation, and where that subsequently led to in the history of ideas and development of Protestant Dogmatic theology). Protestantism itself has a sense of freedom associated with it because of its commitment to sola Scriptura and the so called ‘Scripture principle’ of Protestant Reformed pedigree. Which fits well with the Reformed idea of ‘always reforming,’ but the move back away from this ‘always reforming’ mood seems to be pushing evangelical and Reformed theology back deeper into ecclesiocentric modes of thinking rather than modes of thinking that are christocentrically oriented from the primacy of Jesus Christ. The biblical faith necessarily reposes upon Jesus Christ as its authority; the “traditioned” faith necessarily reposes upon the church as the mediator between God and humanity (this is oversimplified, I know).

Just some thoughts.

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, On Modernity as a Theological Concept in Kelly M. Kapic and Bruce L. McCormack, eds., Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (MI: Baker Publishing Company, 2012), 26 scribd.

[2] Oliver Crisp, god incarnate, (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009), 17.


16 thoughts on “Modern Theology’s Biblical Emphasis, Opposed to Speculative Theologies

  1. I agree. There’s clearly no nuances in Hegel, or the possibility of appropriating distinct themes in his philosophy. Plus, he inspired Marx. He’s a dirty pinko-commie Statist. I bet he likes Muslims too.


  2. I thought the sarcasm was obvious 😦

    I thought Joshua’s comment was rather dense. Hegel also believed Prussia was the pinnacle of history. The point is not a particular set of beliefs, but broader themes in a work that can provide new forms, paradigms, modes of thought. All of these are helpful.


  3. I mean, it’s argued that Kierkegaard proffered some of his philosophy in regards to Hegel, but ultimately despised Hegel’s systematic rationalism and thought it was anti-Christ (c.f. his relentless feud with Martensen). So, we ought to appreciate genius where genius lay.


  4. Cal, yeah I’m not saying I’m a fan of Hegel . But I am saying that even in Hegel there are some emphases that can be helpful; and I think McCormack at a maximum has drawn those out in what I quoted from him.


  5. I won’t contest what constitutes a genius, but I’ll tell you what: he reintroduces history into philosophy. Contra to the currents of Augustinian thinking, which made time into a problem, Hegel understands history as the breath of creation. Now of course, I don’t agree with Hegel’s theology and the many schools that shot out from him. Nor do I appreciate the binding of history under necessity and the horizon of totality (vis. DB Hart) But this is a brilliant insight, that sadly it took a Hermeticist to uncover. The Incarnation is the fulcrum on which good theology turns the soul.

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  6. I think though that yes the a posteriori nature of Hegel’s “correction” in regard to the inbreaking of God in history in the incarnation is what’s helpful in the trajectory of Hegel’s thought. That’s about all that’s helpful for me.


  7. Well, he introduced historicism to philosophy (and even that’s debatable, but for the sake of argument), at any rate. Which is, obviously different – and generally opposed to – history.


  8. It is still possible to take from Hegel, and emphasize the aspect of the importance of history simplicter as God’s history. To provide a “physical” turn toward’s God’s revelation in Christ. I don’t think this necessarily does away with metaphysics, but it does imbibe the scandal of particularity; the type of turn that corrects overly metaphyscalized accounts of God. Barth is someone who “took” from Hegel (and Kant), and corrected their excesses in the process (his conception of saga comes to mind and actualism of course).


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