Communio Sanctorum: Confronting Radical Analytical Theology with Radical Participationist-Dialogical Theology

I have been around theologians, theologians I would call analytical theologians who have questioned the merits of basing theological projects on and in dialogue with dead (or even living) theologians from the past. In other words, the concern these analytics seemingly have is that we end up relying too heavily upon the idiosyncrasy of this or that theologian’s turn, and thus lose the rigor of independent and critical thought. The supposition is that the analytic theologian has access to a body of ideational tools that allows a valence of objectivity unencumbered by the individual thought processes of others. In other words, these sorts of theologians seem to think philosophy has its own ontological force such that it can (and ought to) supply the theologian with the sorts of tools that would allow them to arrive at theological conclusions based upon ‘ideas’ themselves; as if ideas have some sort of ‘cut-off’ value to them that allows them to have reality apart from their location in the hearts and minds of embodied human agents. In other words, when I hear these types of theologians make these statements (about building on the ideas of other theologians from the past) it makes me think that they think that they have a super-powered ability to access the ‘pure-world’ of ideas (eternal forms) unencumbered by the messiness of what happens to ideas when we see those in the dynamic of the relationality inherent to what it means to be creaturely in relation to other creatures. When I hear these types of theologians think out-loud like this it makes me think they would make their father, Plato, very proud. Ironically, what I am describing is simply the best of what the modern turn to the subject offers up; i.e. the idea that individual (monadic) subjects have the capaciousness to objectively opine about meta-realities without being in dialogue with the grammars and ideational superstructures that others have developed in the history of theological ideas.

Maybe if you’re into analytical theology you’re not recognizing what I’m describing; you’re not picking up what I’m laying down. But I have been around certain philosophers of religion, who count themselves as theologians, who have pressed what I have described above to a T. In other words this is not something I have fabricated whole cloth. But this is exactly what I as an Evangelical Calvinist am opposed to; along with the great Tradition of the church. Christian theology, at its best, has always recognized that God has seen fit to supply his Church with teachers; in sundry times and places. Herein we have had one long Pentecostal dialogue taking place within the strictures of the Church, such that a body of ortho-dox teaching has been produced. It is within these confines, recognizing their eschatological (thus ectypal) nature, that further and faithful dialogue can transpire towards a ‘growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.’ This is why Evangelical Calvinists, along with Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth, are so adamant about ‘dialogical theology.’ We insist that the ground of the theological endeavor, or Church Dogmatics, takes place as we, the Church, are in constant dialogue (prayerful) with the living God in the risen Christ. Theology in this mode is first reliant upon the Christian’s fellowship and participation with Jesus Christ (participatio Christi); and then in this koinonial (fellowshipping) bond, as the Church, we have the capacity to grow in our knowledge of God as we fellowship one with another as we are graciously grounded in the center of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. Evangelical Calvinists believe that the communio sanctorum (communion of the saints), as that is understood from our groundedness together in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ (where we are all seated in the heavenlies with him), is the location that proper theological developments find their greatest and most fiduciary (relative to the Evangel) gravitas. In order to press this point home, let me close with a nice development of this theme offered by Julie Canlis (who by the way is a contributor to our first EC book). Here Canlis is referring to her own work with Irenaeus and Calvin vis-à-vis their respective doctrines of participation.

I will conclude my “backward” look by bringing both theologians forward into the contemporary realm, looking at the implications of their doctrine of participation for the present day. . . . What makes a comparison of Calvin and this Gallic predecessor so interesting for today is the way in which they used participation to fight opposite battles. In Calvin’s time, the transcendence of God was threatened by the humanist exaltation of humanity. Irenaeus’s situation could not have been more contrary, with the Gnostics compromising the goodness of humanity and creation through twisted beliefs about divine transcendence. Yet both answered their opponents with a startling vision of human participation in Christ, all the while building these anthropologies from opposite ends of the spectrum. My intent is that Irenaeus’s vision would draw attention to the originality and continuity of Calvin’s own concept of participation, while also providing gentle correctives as needed.

It should be quite clear that I am neither attempting to repristinate a specific era of the past nor am I constructing a pedigree of Calvin’s supposed sources. For although Irenaeus is Calvin’s seventh most frequently cited church father, Calvin was primarily “reacting to the uses that Irenaeus was put to by his adversaries.” Rather, I am attempting to do theology on the model of the sanctorum communio — the belief that we are neither isolated Christians nor objective scientists but rather within a church and stream of tradition. Barth says,

The Church does not stand in a vacuum. Beginning from the beginning, however necessary, cannot be a matter of beginning off one’s own bat. We have to remember the communion of saints, bearing and being borne by each other, asking and being asked, having to take mutual responsibility for and among the sinners gathered tougher in Christ.

To be only a spectator of those who entered into this task of theology is to violate the nature of what they have undertaken, for theology is by nature personal — marked by the one who first reveals himself to us. Or to put it bluntly, there is a difference between Calvin as subject matter and Calvin’s subject matter. To give Calvin a voice is to respect not only the particularity of his time (and the particularity of revelation) with rigorous historical research, it is also to value the themes that he shares with us. It is to refuse, with Philip Butin, the false alternatives of either “confessional” or “historical” theology and engage both Calvin and Irenaeus as dialogue partners for a deepened understanding of participation. As Holmes quips, “The doctors are not dead and gone, but living and active.” If there is an attempt to “use” Calvin for this vital issue in contemporary theology, then so be it. I believe he just might have something to say.[1]

As Canlis details her own rational for her methodology what emerges is the importance that dialogical theology has in the theological process. What we see is how participation, itself a theological locus, serves as the basis for thinking with our brothers and sisters in the theological endeavor. The analytical theologian often falls prey to thinking about the way thinkers of the past thought (as a descriptive exercise); the analytical theologian often believes he or she has elevated to a point of intellectual development wherein, they believe, the critical task of being a theologian is to offer ‘original’ thought that out-paces what happened in the past (so there is a sort of chronological snobbery attending this as well). But the dialogical theologian, in contrast, recognizes the basis for theological talk; it is only after God has spoken, and only after he continues to speak that the theologian can indeed do theology. It is only after the would-be theologian is confronted with and contradicted by the voice of the living God, within a relational nexus of filial communion, wherein genuine theology obtains.

None of what I am pressing negates the importance of thinking critically and even ‘modally analytically,’ but what I am attempting to reinforce is the idea that the ground of theological practice must always already be founded upon and in the giver of life itself. And if the giver of life itself is the Triune God—who is necessarily relational and personal—then the character and method of theology, following, will first and foremost have a dialogical/participationist rather than an analytical frame (especially of the radical sort I have been using as my example in this post).



[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), Loc. 273, 278, 283, 288 kindle.

3 thoughts on “Communio Sanctorum: Confronting Radical Analytical Theology with Radical Participationist-Dialogical Theology

  1. I’m mixed on this. I certainly understand the frustration when analytic theologians stop doing theology and begin talking about truth tables for the next 30 pages.

    On the flip side, reading guys like Oliver Crisp really helped sharpen my own mental abilities.


  2. I don’t think Oliver engages in what I’m referring to. I have other lesser known folks in mind. Oliver et al have as of late put analytical theology on the map, but it’s been around longer than its current iteration; not necessarily in its burgeoning form. But yeah, in Oliver’s edited book on Analytical theology (w/ Rea) there are definite examples of what I’m referring to in that book.


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