Theology of Correlation and Analogy of Being: An Evangelical Calvinist Repudiate

Christian theology is as prismatic as the rainbow; there are a variety of ways in based upon multitudinous theories of best methodologies. As an Evangelical Calvinist I have adopted a certain mode for theological endeavor and reflection; a mode that claims to be based, in principal, upon Revelation rather than philosophical discovery and correlation. Bruce McCormack in his book Orthodox and Modern surveys Hans Frei’s five typologies for what he considers to be encompassing of the ways a person can potentially do theology. In the following I want to quote, at length, the way McCormack sketches Frei’s type on theology of correlation. As you will find out, as I follow with my own commentary, I see this type of theologizing as problematic since its basis, in principle, is not to start with Revelation, but instead with some sort of transcendent universally available sense of the Divine (so philosophy in a classical sense).

In the following McCormack, as you will see, engages with Frei as Frei engages with David Tracy’s theology of correlation.

Before turning to the remaining three types, it is worth pointing out the extent to which extremes meet in this typology. However true it may be that type 1 holds optimistically to the existence of theoretical foundations for all knowledge claims while type 5 adamantly denies such a possibility on principle, both wind up with a nonreferential, wholly performative understanding of the meaningfulness of theological language. And thus Frei’s spectrum becomes, as he himself suspected, “like a snake curled in on itself.” To clarify why this should be so, I would suggest that it has everything to do with an insistence on the nonreferential character of theological language. It is only where theological language is understood to be referential, where (in other words) the “reality” described by Christian theologians and philosophers is thought to overlap, that the problem of the relation of external description to internal description can arise at all. As we shall see, it is the latter question and the range of answers given to it which will differentiate types 2, 3, and 4.

The early David Tracy of Blessed Rage for Order is the figure who gives definition to Frei’s second type. For Tracy, like Kaufman, there are “stable, general, and fields-encompassing criteria for meaning (internal conceptual coherence), meaningfulness (language that discloses actual experience), and truth (transcendental or metaphysical explication of the condition of possibility of common human experience).” So type 2 is like type 1 to the extent that both are strictly foundationalist. But a difference arises—on the formal level, at any rate—at the point at which Tracy wants to take Christianity seriously as a concrete religion. Theology does not involve simply the adjustment of theological language to general criteria; Tracy believes that it also entails an “explication of the Christian religion or the Christian ‘fact,’ which has a real specificity of its own and in its integrity has to be correlated to common human experience, the other source of theological reflection, for their mutual compatibility.”

In practice, however, the desire to honor the integrity of the historical givenness of Christian faith (and its object, Jesus of Nazareth) is undermined by Tracy’s procedure. His goal is to “correlate” (i.e., to show the thorough compatibility of) the religious symbols which arise from two sources: “common human experience,” on the one hand, and classical Christian texts (Scripture and tradition), on the other. The first group of symbols he seeks to articulate (or “thematize”) through a phenomenological analysis of an allegedly religious dimension of secular experience. The focus here is, above all, the “basic confidence” which Tracy believes to be an ineradicable feature of all human existence (the confidence that life is worth living). For Tracy, the survival of basic confidence in the midst of certain “limit situations” (i.e., the wholly negative experiences of guilt, anxiety, etc.) demonstrates its ineradicability and raises the question of its ground. He concludes that “basic confidence” has implied within it the cognitive claim that “God” is the ground of that confidence; that is, the only adequate symbolization of that ground is theistic. Tracy then turns to his second source and finds there a “limit language” which is disclosive not only of the very situation which was just thematized through phenomenological analysis but also of a Referent which holds forth the promise that life is indeed meaningful when lived in total commitment to the gracious God of Jesus the Christ.

Though Frei himself does not put it this way, I think it would be fair to say that his principal problem with Tracy’s “theology of correlation” is that no true correlation can ever arise on the foundations laid by him. Christian self-description (the language of Scripture and tradition) has been thoroughly subsumed into the religious symbols attained through phenomenological analysis of “religious dimensions” of human being and existence. And this can happen only because the results of the philosophical analysis are made to be the interpretive key for unlocking the meaning of the New Testament. So Frei is not in the least surprised that Tracy has found in the New Testament precisely what he was looking for; his procedure has guaranteed the outcome in advance. External description and Christian self-description turn out to be one and the same, identical in content. A correlation of tow overlapping but distinguishable descriptions is rendered unnecessary. What is most decisive in defining Frei’s type 2 is the fact that the subsumption of Christian self-description into external description has been made possible by a universally valid integrative theory (which in Tracy’s case is ultimately grounded in a general philosophical anthropology).[1]

What McCormack is describing, in important ways, has a different context from the one I will apply it to; but the principle is present. My application of this recognition of a ‘theology of correlation,’ rather than to someone like Tracy, will be more fitting to my own theological context as an evangelical, Reformed Christian in North America.

The context I often am enmeshed in is indeed the evangelical Reformed context; as such, my theological interlocutors (even if they don’t realize they’re mine) operate in and from a ‘pre-critical’ or premodern ‘theology of correlation’; at least that’s my premise. My interlocutors primarily are drawing off the reappropriation of Thomas’s theology, as that has been mediated in the various Thomisms that are available; particularly as that has been given formation in the 16th and 17th century developments of Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. This mode of theologizing operates with an inchoate form of ‘theology of correlation.’ They might not think of it that way, they might project what Tracy, for example, has developed from a philosophical anthropology onto the ‘mind of the church’. Nevertheless, the point remains that whether in premodern or modern forms, whether called an analogia entis (analogy of being) or ‘theology of correlation,’ the premises are overlapping and convergent. In other words, both modes of theological endeavor work off the prius that there are catholic or universally available latents or logois of knowledge of God that can be penetrated by appeal to a natural [law] human experience of the divine left in the vestiges and corners of transcendental human apperception.

I don’t see evangelical theologians, particularly of the Reformed type, wrestling very much with these questions. Instead I seem them rushing headlong into the Trad of the church as if this just is the mind of God for the elect. The Evangelical Calvinist repudiates these types of correlations.


[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox And Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 119-20 [emphasis mine].