Jesus is Not a Tradition: Relational Theology as Counter to the God of Theo-Logic Chopping

Jesus is not a tradition. This is important to understand for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that realizing this can help us in the way we end up doing theology; it can help the way we engage with and read Holy Scripture. This is an important thing to understand about my own approach to theological work; I’m in this ‘game’ for one reason: that is, to know Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and the Triune God He brings me into participation with. This is why I’m only ultimately interested in doing the sort of constructive theology that sees Jesus as the centrum of all theological endeavor. The rest of this post will be another autobiographical one wherein I explain a bit further what motivates me to do theology at all; I will also take a look at Scripture as an application and case study of how focusing on a relational God in Christ shapes my approach to Scripture differently than other approaches might offer its respective practitioners.

I’ve shared my life story more than once through my blogging, so I won’t redress that now. But I wanted to at least note that as someone who came to a lively relationship with Jesus Christ as just a wee child (when I was 3), that having a personal and intimate relationship with the voice that awakened me (literally from sleep at about 2am) so many years ago is still my aim today. The voice that spoke to my heart, and the relational God I encountered that early morning so long ago has never changed. So, I think, that the way I do theology ought to be framed most actively by this reality; by the reality that God is a relational God who awakens young children from their sleep to call them to Himself. I’ve had many other experiences since then where this voice has shown up very acutely; whether that be through years of heavy doubts, anxiety/depression, or whether that be during the time that I was diagnosed with an incurable and statistically terminal cancer. The voice, the encounter has always been the same reassuring voice of the Living God who I met when a young boy.

The point of sharing the above is that I find it very strange to attempt to do so called ‘school theology,’ or academic theology. When the LORD got a hold of me in a serious and heavy way, through years of doubt and anxiety, it was during this season that Bible reading became my mainstay (I’m about to finish my 40th read through, probably tonight). Bible reading has only reinforced that the voice I encountered in my bed when a child is the same voice that I encounter when I read Holy Scripture. As such, I become heavily suspicious of theologies that don’t start from the fact that Deus dixit, that God has spoken and continues to speak. Some people, when thinking about the history of theological development would probably place the sort of theology I am most prone towards into the category of ‘existential theology’; maybe of the sort that we get with Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth (and maybe most sinisterly with Rudolf Bultmann —although I reject most of Bultmann), Thomas Torrance, and maybe even Martin Luther. But I’m not so sure about that in particular ways. Whatever category I’m placed into, I know that the focus will always be Christ concentrated (in intensive ways), and the fact that God is a relational God by His very nature; that He speaks to His sheep in a way that His sheep are able to hear His voice and recognize it.

This is all very loaded commentary on my theological development and trajectory. I won’t have time to fully unpack it all, but my blog should help to attest to the way this sort of theologizing has taken shape in written form. But I did start out with the assertion that Jesus is not a tradition, and I want to unpack what I mean by that. In school theology, of its various assortments, it is quite popular to engage in analytical or scholastic locus theo-logic chopping wherein the theologizing itself does not come with the sort of relational character that I have been describing thus far. Instead, the God referred to under these conditions bares almost no resemblance to the personal God I’ve come to know through years of encounter with Him; be that through reading Scripture, Prayer, or Fellowshipping with the Saints. This is why I am off-put by so much of the classical theistic theologizing that is so dominant in and among the conservative Reformed types of Christians (at whatever level). In my view, if the God being referred to while ‘doing theology’ can’t just as easily be prayed to and worshipped in an intimate and relational way while doing the theology, then this God doesn’t have much correlation with the God I’ve come to know in the smiling face of Jesus Christ.

Some might push pack: ‘well that’s all fine and good, Bobby, there is a place for what you’re referring to (like in your devotional and quiet times), but it isn’t what school theology is about.’ ‘Us academic or analytical theologians are interested in working out the technical implications of the great classical theistic theologies of the Church in order to fortify our understanding of the God we are praying to and worshipping.’ They might want to press that ‘there is a place for both.’ But that disjunction makes absolutely no sense to me. If we are doing Christian theology then we are doing lively theology of the sort that is intimate and in dialogical (prayerful) relationship with the viva vox Dei (the living voice of God); there is no meaningful sense wherein academic theology can be done in one moment, and then relational theology in another moment. Either the living God is in our faces in real activity, personal parousia (presence) or He isn’t. And if He is it is with this God that the Christian theologian has to do. We have to do with a God first and foremost who speaks and confronts us, rather than one who sits there, statically like a philosophical monad, and allows us to pick Him apart.

Ultimately, I do not think theology is worth much time unless it is interacting with the lively and revealed voice of God in Jesus Christ. In my view theologies that attempt to elide this aren’t really engaged in theology at all, instead they are engaged in philosophical reflection wherein the ‘theologian’s’ fertile imagination is allowed to supply the chains of reasoning wherein God is ostensibly known. If we must posit God’s voice, and what it entails categorically, prior to moment by moment encounter with Him, then for my money we aren’t doing Christian theology. And so, when I say Jesus isn’t a tradition, I mean to say that Jesus isn’t a ‘principle’ who makes our theological ratiocinations work; instead He is a person who encounters and confronts and negates us moment by moment afresh and anew. If we think this about the theological reality this will impact the way we approach Scripture. We won’t ground it in the idea that the Church or the churches Tradition[s] have any sort of regulative value for how we understand what Scripture is or what it is actively saying. Instead we will understand that Holy Scripture is Holy precisely because it is the place where God actively speaks to us, in a living way, through His Son. It will dispossess Scripture from being enslaved to our ecclesial traditions, and instead understand it as the possession of the living God who instrumentally uses it to speak His unfading voice to us, His sheep.

I think it is important to understand that what I am saying here doesn’t mean that the theologizing of the ancient church doesn’t mean anything. Instead, I am describing a particular way to be as a Christian disciple or theologian. I am describing a posture or way to appropriate and engage with theologies that might even engage in the sort of theologizing that I ultimately cannot follow. I am suggesting that there is a disposition that is the most fitting for the theologian, one that is grounded in lively and loving relationship with God in Jesus Christ. But I am saying because of this disposition certain forms of theologizing become antithetical to knowing God who is Triune Love. But even in the stammerings of those theologies there are things communicated that can still have informative value for the lover of Christ; even if the philosophical husk of those theologies aren’t ultimately life-giving or corollary with the posture I am noting in my post.

More must and should be said, but this will suffice for now.


The Non-Speculative Theology of Schleiermacher: Discussion on Schleiermacher’s and Barth’s Respective Theologies of Revelation

I once wrote something on Barth’s view of philosophy (actually more than just once). Barth, in summary, saw value in philosophy, but only in a horizontal sense; and more negatively with its illustration of how impotent it actually is when attempting to think divine things. In a note on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith one of the editors (i.e. Tice, Kelsey, or Lawler) offers insight into
Schleiermacher’s view on philosophy; interestingly it sounds very similar to Barth’s. While Barth, as we know by now, was critical of Schleiermacher, and the tradition Barth perceived him to represent, he was also of a kind in certain sensibilities. Here I think both Barth and Schleiermacher were of a piece in the sense that they wanted to smash any notion that speculation about God could accomplish anything of ultimate value. The editors write of Schleiermacher in the Christian Faith:

In tightly outlined fashion, this entire subsection borrows from conceptual structures prominently contained I Schleiermacher’s philosophical work, including especially his philosophy of mind and action (psychology and ethics) and his dialectic (including epistemology, metaphysics, and logic). Every claim made, therefore, has been examined and scrupulously set forth there. The question thus arises as to how he can, at the same time, claim that philosophical content does not belong in a presentation of Christian doctrine and, nevertheless, do such borrowing from his philosophical work here. Although this subsection does not directly address this question, its content is, in part, self-answering. That is, just as the material presented in the Introduction openly borrows from philosophy but does not claim to be doctrine, so too, Part One contains conceptual structures that help to frame his discourse, but he claims no more for these presupposed conceptual structures than that the reader weigh whether, and to what extent, two tasks he sets forth matter. The first task is to weigh which of these presupposed conceptual structures are pertinent to an actual presentation of doctrine. The second task is to weigh which, or all, of them are to be “presupposed” in Christian religious self-consciousness in our own time and place—on “real,” not merely “notional,” grounds. This second task would be conditioned on what philosophy and science can be taken to provide thus far to help us examine what can occur within our own “real” world. Among these presuppositions are claims that pragmatic theories would assert today (e.g. the impossibility of absolutely certain knowledge and the ever-present admixture of error in comparatively valid truth claims, and future confirmation or disconfirmation of such claims as empirically grounded theoretical and practice-oriented work continues). Moreover, some scientific observations and theories, which he relied on or foresaw, he thought might well be consistent with particular scientific and philosophical examinations of “reality” up to now. For example, his sense that if God cannot be known in se, there is evidence in faith-based experience that God does, nevertheless, reveal something of God’s creative, sustaining, and redemptive work in this “real” world, and that this inspiration and revelation can sufficiently inhabit the feelings and perceptions, and the thinking and doing of human beings, to be found among members of Christian communities of faith.

Such presupposed conceptual structures, he believed, can help Christians in the process of coming to understand and improve upon their own “faith” experience (cf. Anselm’s Prosologian, from which this work takes its motto: “faith seeking understanding”). However, as beliefs, whether firmly or tentatively held, they are not identical with that faith. Like all scientific or philosophical claims in other domains of investigation, they are to be constantly subject to critical investigation and consequent change. Nevertheless, in his view, if they come to us wholly from outside Christian experience of God’s grace through faith, they must not be allowed to intrude upon doctrine that can validly claim “reality” for such Christian experience and explain why to persons of faith. This approach, taken in all his works, emphasizes a critical realist mode of proceeding. Schleiermacher deemed this approach to be most desirable for all “science,” including those more philosophical or more theological in character.

Finally, as Schleiermacher indicates and demonstrates in numerous of his writings, should there ever be a τέλος (final end, consummation), it would be one in which the findings of reason and those of faith and religious doctrine would cohere. Hence, even in his time he did not fear that faith or genuine faith-doctrine would necessarily be endangered by any progressive findings of science or philosophy. Meanwhile, some folks are bound to disagree.[1]

Philosophy, for Schleiermacher (as for Barth), is something that happens “out there,” and it offers relative value and insight to the human predicament in certain qualified ways. What philosophy can’t do, precisely because of its speculative and horizontal-bound nature, is provide a solid foundation for the Christian theologian to practice their craft towards knowing God. In their respective ways, Schleiermacher and Barth, maintain that the theologian’s ingression for accessing God can only be God. How they arrived at the basis upon which the theologian can work from a non-speculative posture was disparate, to an extent. But they both saw Christ central to the theologian’s grounding-point for arriving at any sort of accurate knowledge of God. For Schleiermacher this meant that Christ was the point of contact and pinnacle wherein the human-self-consciousness could elevate to the presence of God; whereas for Barth, while the point of contact was the vicarious humanity of Christ, just the same, his emphasis was on the Christ extra nos or outside of us upon whom the human agents are fully and only contingent from moment to moment. In Schleiermacher we might say that we have an interiorizing of this Christ reality, whereas for Barth it is an exterior Christ who comes to us afresh and anew un-predicated upon the human conscious. But these are matters for another post.

Suffice it to say: Both Schleiermacher and Barth were committed to a non-speculative, via positive, kataphatic approach to God. This is in contrast to the sort of speculative theology that Thomas Aquinas and the tradition after him his known for. As such, this Schleiermacherian and Barthian non-speculative approach to theology proper (and the rest of theological task following) offers an alternative mode for doing Christian theology that is seemingly on tap for the masses of Christians who are currently being subjected to the retrieval projects of the various evangelical and Reformed theologians among us. Take heart.


[1] Cf. Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith: Volume One, trans./ed. By Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L. Kelsey, and Edwin Lawler (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 359-60 n.18.

Speculative theology “belongs to the devil in hell”: A Way for Dialogical Theology

Rather than speculate God why not actually think God in encounter with God, as God Self-reveals afresh and anew in the ever-presenting of Godself in the Christus praesens; in the face of the risen Christ? This is the mode of theological action this evangelical calvinist operates from. But this operation seems too existentialist for some; particularly those committed to classical classical theism. Even so, it is a worthy approach, I think, and not one that was lost on someone as seminal as Martin Luther himself. The spirit of Luther’s Christocentrism lived on in other Germans, even modern ones; ones like Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Eberhard Jüngel et al. But these names, other than Luther’s, stumble people; at least many in the classical classical theistic grouping. Even so, this evangelical calvinist doesn’t stumble at these modern German names; insofar as these names might have something valuable to say, despite their respective theological genealogies, or the poisoned wells they’ve ostensibly drunk deeply from. This evangelical calvinist can find constructive warrant in these Germans (and the Swiss), with the focus, in particular on the so called “existentialist” emphasis they offer as alternative to what counts, currently, as the only orthodox way to do theology. They offer an alternative way to do theology insofar that they ground theological reality in the faith of Christ as that confronts the sinner in the midst of their sin in need of a Savior. Here, these Germans (and the Swiss) provide a relational way for doing theology that reposes upon the subjective activity of the objective givenness in God for the world. They offer an alternative to the theological stasis that “orthodoxy” gives us in its creedal propositionalism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for creedal Christianity; but not of the sort that the living Christ becomes the predicate of the creed, rather, I am for a creedal Christianity wherein the creeds are breathed new life, each day, as the risen Christ meets with His people in the tabernacles of their own fallen bodies.

David Congdon gives us some really good things to chew on as we think about the sort of dialogical theology I have been highlighting in the above comments. Here Congdon is giving us Jüngel’s version of Bultmann’s confessional theology; a lively confession that is based in the ever-coming Christ. Here we have a theology that elides the static God of natural theological provenance, and instead gives us a notion of God that emphasizes God as one known in encounter in the parousia of Christ; as Christ meets the sinner in the midst of their sin, and breathes resurrection into their lives with the result that genuine knowledge of God obtains in a lively and refreshing way. This way of theological endeavor presupposes only what the kerygma does, that is that Christ is risen indeed; and as a result, He is able to meet us as lively and real presence. Congdon writes in extension:

On the basis of this starting point Jüngel turns to what he calls the “practical orientation of theology” (Praxisbezug der Theologie) in Bultmann’s theology. Since it is the case that theology “does not wish to accomplish its pursuit  of cognition [Erkenntnis] through a knowledge [Wissen] that is separable from faith,” it follows that “theology for Butlmann therefore has an essentially practical character.” In this way his theology “stands in the tradition of reformational theology,” given Luther’s claim that “true theology is practical” (vera theologia est practica) while speculative theology “belongs to the devil in hell.” Jüngel notes how Bultmann’s theology obliquely references Luther’s famous claim. For instance, in speaking of revelation as a word that encounters us in a particular situation Bultmann goes on to state that “a speculative theory, a general truth, cannot be this word,” because it does not address us in the moment, and in his 1933 essay on natural theology he declares that all talk of God “outside of faith speaks not of God but of the devil.” Bultmann consistently rejects all associations of Christian theology with speculation or scholasticism, even associating the “ancient ideal of θεωρία” with the metaphysical notion of God as “an existing thing, an object of cognition.” Bultmann associates a theoretical conception of theology with those modes of God-talk that understand the object of theology to be something statically available—e.g., the historical object of liberalism, the propositional statements of Protestant orthodoxy, or the sacramental institution of Roman Catholicism—rather than an event of truth in which faith participates. A theoretical science of God thus aims at the construction of a Weltanschauung valid for all times and places.

The fact that Bultmann, like Luther, rejects a theoretical or speculative form of theology in favor of theology as a practical science must be stated with care. Jüngel rightly points out that we would misunderstand both if we took them to be picking a side in Aristotle’s differentiation between theoretical and practical knowledge, in which “the τέλος of theoretical science is truth” while “the τέλος of practical science is work.” Nor can we locate them according to the modern Kantian differentiation between theoretical and practical reason. The reformational claim that faithful God-talk is a theologia practica does not subscribe to either distinction. Neither Luther nor Bultmann thinks theology is confined to morality or ethics; neither reduces the object of theology to human action. This is clear enough from Bultmann’s repeated refusal to specify ethical commands in advance, since that would be to confuse gospel and law, thus forgetting that the command of God only becomes evident in a particular moment. Jüngel additionally points to Bultmann’s 1933 essay on the reform of theological study where the latter says, in implicit agreement with Barth, that theology is “the theory of praxis.” Theology’s practicality, however, does not consist in its ability to offer guidance for how to act “in all possible situations” but rather “arises from a living [lebensmässige] relation to its object”—or, in Jüngel’s terminology, the “orientation to praxis” (Praxisbezug) consists in an “orientation to the object” (Gegenstandsbezug). Because the object is an active event within history, the relation to this object is necessarily an active, practical relation. God “cannot be grasped in any now as one who remains [der Bleibende], but . . . always stands before me as one who is coming [der Komende],” and therefore praxis (that is, our own ongoing refusal to remain still) is the only proper mode of relating to God. But precisely because God is an event—because revelation is a divine praxis—it follows that in faith’s practical mode of existence one truly knows God. A practical science of God indeed has truth as its telos, and not merely work, and that is because the truth does not subsist in either theoretical statements or practical actions but rather in the divine object of this science, to which one can only relate in a concrete practical way that does not exclude but includes theoretical ideas. Jüngel can thus point to passages in Luther where the Reformer affirms the notion that theology is a scientia speculativa, but only because “the truly speculative [science of the theologians] . . . is all the more practical.”[1]

Even someone as “existentialist” as Bultmann was, even given his defunct understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he still has some rich insights to offer in regard to what we like to call the dialogical theology; particularly as mediated through Congdon’s, Jüngel. People often want to simply relegate this sort of thinking into the dust-bin of the modern theologik, but we shouldn’t move so quickly; particularly as the focus on God’s ability to continuously make Himself known is the emphasis. I want to constructively appropriate some of this from Bultmann’s emphasis, even while rejecting much of his framework. Some would say this is unadvisable since, they might intone, this Bultmannian emphasis on the ‘practical’ is of a piece with the rest of his kerygmatic existentialist approach. But I don’t think we must take all just to get a piece. I think we can get a piece here and there and retext it into a broader theological framework wherein there is fruit even among the pits.

I think this Luther[an] emphasis on the faith of Christ as the source-bed for proper theological modus is the proper focus; particularly as that is placed over and even against the plentiful forms of speculative theology. I’d rather default to the categories of revelation themselves, as those are given in the writ of Holy Scripture’s reality, rather than in the categories of the philosophers. And yet, what it means to do evangelical theology is just this: it is to engage the speculative entailments of the philosophers, as the means by which revelation is ostensibly “unpacked” for the Church. But why should Protestant theologians defer to the “Church’s categories,” when the Church needs her Lord’s categories in order to live the sort of healthy and flourishing life that He has elevated her to live? Why opt for theoretical knowledge when we have concrete knowledge of God given to and for us, on a daily basis, in the presence of Christ as that is mediated by the presence of the Holy Spirit?

I can understand why people opt for natural theology, and the ostensible stability they find in that. I can understand why people want to elevate the Church to lordly levels; I mean the Church and the various churches have addresses and doctors. I can understand why we are afraid of falling prey to heresy, and falling under the spell of existentialist whims driven by turning to the subject of our navels. But I don’t see that in the focus that even someone like Bultmann, in critical appropriation, is giving us. Just because something is labelled “existentialist theology,” doesn’t negate its possibility for offering critical and objective modes for knowing God. Indeed, if we understand who the proper subject of theology is, if we understand that the subject is God, and that in His subject we find objective ground as He is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in His inner life, then maybe this sort of “existentialist theology” is what the Church needs. The sort that finds its existence in the esse of God’s life for us in Christ. This is ‘practical’ and not speculative because it is the wisdom of God to meet the sinner where they are, in their sin simul peccator, and understand that God meets us in the scuz of our bewildered lives rather than in some sort of ethereal theoria of speculative and mind-numbing reality of our own positing—as if we can posit the Holy Ground upon which God meets us; we can’t: He meets us as Holy Fire in things like dusty tumbleweed and in His assumed humanity.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission Of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 473-75.

Reading the Bible in Participatio Christi, In Participation with Christ as the Form of Dialogical Theology: With Reference to John Webster

When we read Scripture as Christians it isn’t a matter of simply finding all of the neat little literary nuances, or distilling all of its inner-logical reality for all its worth; in other words, for the Christian reading Scripture is not an intellectual exercise alone. To read Scripture for the Christian, first and foremost it is a participatory event wherein we are encountering the viva vox Dei (living voice of God); an event from moment to moment that is transforming us from ‘glory to glory’. John Webster says it this way,

the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible.[1]

All too often, I think, reading Scripture becomes a casualty of academia. Indeed, even as Webster notes, the academic intellective has its place, and done from the right motives can be fruitful; but the terminus of reading Scripture for the Christian, I would contend, should be to know God and Him crucified. Reading Scripture, because it brings us into direct contact with God in Christ by the Spirit, ought to have the impact of making us look more like its author and less like the words that shape the profane world we inhabit in this time in-between.

This understanding fits well with what Thomas Torrance calls Dialogical Theology, or with what Barth calls Dialectical Theology. The emphasis is upon the notion that God continues to speak to His sheep, and His sheep know His voice; they know it by the Holy Spirit’s ministry of magnifying Christ, and understanding that Scripture’s voice only finds one when it breaks off in its reality in Christ as the mediator between ‘God and man.’ This might seem too ethereal to really accept as “critical theology,” but in fact it is the sort of theology we see Jesus living out Himself throughout the Synoptics and the Gospel of John; we see Jesus in a constant mode of prayer to the Father. If the Christian wants to be a growing disciple and theologian of Jesus Christ, then they cannot do anymore or less than their Master did; they need to be in a constant and lively dialogue with their Father through prayerfulness in their daily lives.

This sort of dialogical theological life might seem like a legalistic burden, but it only becomes that if we think wrongly about the ground of our lives. If Jesus is the ground and condition of our very being as human, then we seek our reliance and con-versational life from His life for us. It is here, in the resurrection power, that the Apostle Paul writes of, that we have resource, strength, and motivation to live in this life of pariticipatio Christi; a life enthralled with the majesty of the tremendous of God’s Triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

[1] John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336.


A Response to Peter Leithart and Steve Duby: ‘In Defense [or Critique] of Christian Philosophy’

God and philosophy, and age old discussion; i.e. ‘what hath Jerusalem to do with Athens?’ I want to broach this topic in this post, and with particular reference to an exchange that has taken place between Peter Leithart and Steve Duby; in regard to Leithart’s interaction with Steve’s book Divine Simplicity: A Dogmatic Account. I will not recount everything they have written, but let me attempt to summarize.

Leithart offers, as I recall, eight critiques of Duby’s thinking on the relationship between God and philosophy; or the wisdom of attempting to speak God from philosophical categories rather than ‘biblical’ ones. Here is a helpful nutshell of Leithart’s larger critique[s]: “3) Philosophy bewitches by her rhetoric. She makes us think that speaking in her dialect is more precise or profound than speaking in the poetic dialect of Scripture. I contend, on the contrary, that the Scriptural talk of God is the most precise and adequate language we can have. It’s God’s own talk about Himself.”[1] And Duby’s basic response to this is as follows (also part of his larger rejoinder), at length:

Accordingly, Leithart’s third statement takes us to the heart of the problem with his post: when a theologian tries to claim the high ground by asserting that he or she is simply drawing from Scripture while his or her opponents are indulging in “philosophy,” the theologian is either being naïve or deceptive. Neither Leithart nor anyone else is simply repeating verbatim statements from Scripture. Leithart, along with everyone else, has to engage and draw upon knowledge developed by the use of the natural (and God-given) intellect. When someone is bent on trying to claim the aforementioned high ground, they are misleading their readers. Until someone like Leithart concedes that he is making use of extrabiblical knowledge to articulate his theological position, little can be gained from engaging in a debate about the doctrine of God and other particular topics. The first challenge is to dispel the naivete and establish some initial common ground.[2]


However, philosophy is fundamentally a knowledge or study of things discoverable by natural reason without necessarily being informed by supernatural revelation. It is a setting forth of things typically known implicitly by ordinary human beings (like the difference between an efficient cause and a final cause or the law of non-contradiction). What contemporary Christian theology needs, I would suggest, is a renewal of the traditional Protestant commitment to Scripture as the cognitive principle of theology and to reason or philosophy as a subordinate instrument for expounding what Scripture teaches.[3]

Now, you’re going to have to go and read exactly what Leithart actually wrote (in full) in response to his reading of Duby’s book. As you read Duby’s rejoinder, in full, as I have, he sort of misrepresents what Leithart actually is saying; albeit, the quote I shared from Leithart leaves him open for this sort of misreading. I don’t think, as I read Leithart, that he is actually taking the naïve route, or the sort of fundamentalist nuda scriptura that Duby attributes to him. It seems to me that Leithart is merely pushing back on the idea that biblical language itself isn’t sufficient to explicate and communicate who God is. What I see Leithart, potentially doing, is overreacting to the tradition that Duby represents; i.e. the Thomist/Aristotelian tradition that shapes much of the tradition being retrieved in the 16th and 17th century theological developments found in what has come to be called Post Reformed Orthodoxy. In this sense, Leithart’s critique is not far removed, not at all!, from my sustained critiques of the same tradition.

Further, I am not fully persuaded that Duby has read Leithart all that accurately; and as such, if this is the case, it makes Duby’s rejoinder almost unnecessary (at least in the form it was given). I don’t actually think Leithart is either naïve or attempting to intentionally mislead his readers (as Duby suggestively claims) when he commends people to use the ‘poetic’ language of the Bible rather than the metaphysical language of the philosophers, in order to speak God. I don’t actually think Leithart repudiates the catholic faith represented in the ecumenical councils such as we find in Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. If anything, what I see Leithart doing is attempting to push church people back to the Bible, but not in a Socinian attempt to undercut the basic theo-logic given grammar by the ecumenical councils; but instead, to redress that grammar with the biblical language and emphases us Protestants are so presumably accustomed to (sola scriptura).

So that is my précis on the exchange, as it stands now, between Leithart and Duby. But what do I think about God and Philosophy? This will represent a summary perspective, and will further engage with Duby’s rejoinder to Leithart.

Let me respond to this part of Duby’s response to Leithart; this large quote from Duby will have to serve, for our purposes, as the sort of distillation of his broader pushback to Leithart, and his larger push back at anyone who challenges an overly analytic or Thomist frame for doing Christian theology. And this is what always piques my interest; i.e. the discussion revolving around how the Christian ought to think and speak God. This quote from Duby gives his general belief about what he thinks represents the best ‘philosophy’ for articulating God, and it does so as he is engaging with some material points about the Arisotelian/Thomist categories of substance/accidents vis-à-vis God and his explication—we will not get into the nitty gritty of those details, but instead focus on the general point about the relationship of God and Philosophy, and what ‘philosophy[s]’ are best suited for the Christian’s explication of God for the church in the 21st century. Duby writes:

However, the fact that the use of the metaphysical language is not absolutely necessary does not mean that the metaphysical resources in question are detached from reality. It does not mean that what they offer us is just a set of coherent rules for saying things – rules that we might either take or leave. On the contrary, the classical metaphysical tradition developed by Christian thinkers like John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas or the early Reformed theologians and philosophers involves a knowledge of how things are. Indeed, it is fundamentally an exposition of things human beings know to be true prior to engaging in any formal academic work. For example, things do have natures by virtue of which they are similar to other things. There really are substances in which accidents inhere. It is true that a whole is greater than any of its individual parts. The ad hoc nature of the decision to incorporate Aristotelian philosophical resources concerns the fact that explicit use of these concepts is not absolutely necessary for articulating doctrine. It does not concern the truthfulness or explanatory fecundity of the basic natural insights into the created order that are unpacked in the Aristotelian tradition. The notion that a whole is greater than its parts, for example, is true and is implicit in a statement like the one found in Colossians 2:9. As we seek ways to express what God is like according to scriptural teaching, we should look to this philosophical tradition, not Kant or Hegel, because it sheds light on reality. Of course, we will have to clarify how certain things that are true in the case of creatures are not true in God’s case, but that is precisely one of the ways in which someone like Aquinas puts this tradition to good use in saying, for example, that God’s attributes are not accidents but really are just God himself.[4]

As a prius, Duby is committed to the idea that there just is a natural or profane knowledge of how things are vis-à-vis the creation and the Creator, as such he premises from there that this natural knowledge (metaphysically) just is the way we have for rationally (not rationalistically) thinking God. This is what we see him getting at with his appeal to the Aristotelian tradition; the intellectual tradition Duby believes is the best suited for the Christian reality and theological ambition. This becomes his basic or major premise in response to Leithart, and any like detractors.

In further interaction with Steve (on FaceBook), he informed me that his response has nothing to do with whether or not Thomism etc. is the best frame for doing theology, but instead, according to him, his response simply has to do with the idea that we all operate with extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus when it comes to working out the inner-logic of Scripture. Yet, as I read Duby’s rejoinder, particularly what I just shared from him, this doesn’t really seem to be the case; and it never really does seem to be. When folks like Duby (who by the way, I actually like and appreciate) make the sorts of arguments they do about God and Philosophy, and when they think the Tradition of the church, they have a certain strand of that tradition in mind; again, in Steve’s case it is the Thomist/Aristotelian strand. But at the end of the day I am unaware of an ecumenical church council that has asserted that the Tradition just is what we see climaxing in Thomas (other than say the Catholic Church). I think this is an important piece, and it is one that I would suggest that Leithart himself is pushing; that is, that the tradition itself is very expansive, made up of both East and West, and in-between. In the expanse of the tradition, even in the post reformed orthodox aspect, Thomas and Aristotle are not the crème de la crème that they are for many, like Duby, who are attempting to retrieve the catholic tradition for the evangelical churches. Again, I recognize that Duby is attempting to do more than one thing in his response to Leithart; i.e. 1) To simply argue that all responsible theologians use extrabiblical language and conceptual apparatus to speak and think God for the church, but 2) to also argue that Thomas, and the Aristotelian/analytic frame represents the most responsible way for explicating a Protestant and biblically theological orthodoxy. And I think that these two, rather than being exclusive for Duby, are in fact mutually conditioning, in regard to what he thinks the tradition at its best looks like.


I have already gone too long. I will have to make this at least a two part posting. In closing let me assert that: I don’t disagree with Duby, in toto; but of course I do disagree with him when he claims that only the Aristotelian tradition represents the best (and presumably orthodox) way for doing Christian theology. Along with Barth et al. I maintain that the Evangel does indeed contain its own emphases and categories that come not from an abstract human form of reasoning (which is Duby’s major premise about how we get to extrabiblical language and metaphysics), but instead from the Gospel reality itself Revealed in Jesus Christ. This is where I depart with Duby et al., I reject the idea that the analytical frame (the frame Duby is committed to) is the best suited for providing the Christian with a theological methodology and biblical hermeneutic in that process. Instead, as an Evangelical Calvinist, along with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, I am committed to what Barth (in his Göttingen Dogmatics) calls ‘dialectical’ theology, and what Torrance calls dialogical theology. The ground for this approach to theology is in Reconciliation as God’s Revelation, as such it necessarily repudiates any notion that we can do theology from a natural ‘sight’, as Duby’s theological methodology premises, and instead requires that we theologize from ‘the faith of Christ,’ as that is mediated to us by His vicarious humanity and the new creation that He is for us in the Resurrection. It is in this frame that ‘extrabiblical’ language can properly be reified under the pressures provided by Godself, and the center we have to think Him from in His triune life for us in Jesus Christ. This is the fault-line in Duby’s thinking, I contend. And I think, in Leithart’s own way, it is this that he is calling out.

There is a way to redress/reify the “philosophical,” but I contend that that can only happen through an analogy of faith and relation with God in Christ, such that a ‘natural reasoning’ process does not become the basis for our theology; which is Duby’s premise. I ultimately believe that this is Leithart’s push-back to Duby. I think Leithart is challenging Duby’s idea about ‘our capacity’ to think God based on a metaphysic that is formed otherwise from God’s Self-Revelation. I might differ from Leithart in regard to his theory of revelation, but in principle I think we have convergence (but who am I?).

There may or may not be a part two to this post. I already have a million part twos that I’ve written over the years. Pax Christi


[1]Peter Leithart,  Source.

[2]Steve Duby, Source

[3]Ibid. The emboldened part from Steve is the common refrain of those who are committed (as Duby is) to a medievally and post reformed orthodoxy mode of theologizing.


Theology of the Cross Retrieved and Reformed by a Radical and Dialectical Understanding of Correlation and Faith

Sola fide. Faith alone is the material principle of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation, and it is principial for the Reformed basis of knowledge of God and self. But because of classical metaphysics this principle didn’t blossom into the full flowered reality it had inherent to it in inchoate ways. In other words, because of an undeveloped grammar, because of the constraints presented by classical substance metaphysics, the idea of faith grounded in the kerygmatic reality (Evangelical reality) was moribund (I’ll have to leave at the level of assertion) in the sense that its full potential was not realizable until later developments.

Whether or not you agree with my assessment, and the sort of ‘retrieval’ I’m thinking of methodologically, David Congdon describes how faith alone as a material reality vis-à-vis the Gospel has resource to function in ‘critically’ ‘realistic’ ways in how we understood God and his relation to us through the Gospel (kerygma); how we understand the undertaking of theological discourse as that is objectively determined by the reality of God, and subjectively inhabited in human agents as they are in vicarious union with God’s subject for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ (that is some of my own interpolation, in regard to constructive thought based upon my reading of Congdon). Here Congdon has just finished some technical philosophical discussion in regard to developing what ‘correlation’ entails, particularly among French continental philosophy, and how grasping that helps us better locate the sort of dialectical theologies that both Barth and Bultmann operate from. For our purposes we will not engage with the technical philosophical discussion and instead engage with some of the conclusions of that as Congdon details its implications for us in the theologies of Barth/Bultmann (and dialectical theology in general).

What, then, is distinctively theological about the kind of strong correlationism that characterizes dialectical theology? Simply this: that the correlation is established and grounded in God. The action of God in the saving event of revelation is what creates the correlation between God and the human person. This correlation is faith, understood as a gift of divine grace. Unlike other objects, the object of faith is the divine subject, who is the active agent in the relation to humanity. The divine fides quae establishes the human fides qua. The human person does not have this correlation at her disposal but can only receive it ever anew. It is thus a kerygmatic correlation in that God constitutes the relation in and through the event of the divine word. A strong correlationism thus accomplishes what critical realism seeks to maintain—a real divine subject only accessible in and through this subject’s self-giving in faith—without the unnecessary and misleading baggage associated with the words “critical” and “realism.”[1]

This is important because God is understood as the personal object and subject of theology, and the gift of himself that he gives us in Christ comes with a corollary reality for us in that faith becomes the most fitting locus by which knowledge of this God can be ascertained by. In other words, there is no prior intuition that a person can come by in regard to knowledge of the Christian God; there is no naked knowledge of God in this understanding of correlation, as if human beings possess some sort of latent capacity (created grace) for an abstract knowledge of God. No, in this frame there is a ‘correlative’ component between our theology (nostra theologia) and God, but it isn’t idealistically determined by a free-floating or presumed upon human agency in the world of nature. Instead, knowledge of God, regulated by the Gospel (kerygmatic) is only accessible through the mediating faith of Christ. As we are in union with Christ’s knowledge of God for us, as he is in the center of God’s life as Godself, the faith we think from in regard to God is itself a reality generated by the ground that this faith breaks into. In short: dialectical theology and the Reformed faith it offers, a kerygmatic correlationist type, is one that is particularly shaped not by the human agent, but by the God who has spoken (Deus dixit).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 422.

Christian Theology Grounded in Faith Rather than Worldview or Apologetics

Worldviews are important to understand, to a point. But when worldview is confused with Christian faith and theology problems of idolatrous heights begin to develop; at least according to Rudolf Bultmann. I want to share further, by referencing David Congdon’s work, on how Bultmann not only distinguished between faith and worldview, but also between talk of God versus talk about God; and how these distinctions implicate the theological enterprise for the Christian. I will follow with my own perspective on these things.

The differentiation of faith from a Weltanschauung [worldview] is stated clearly in a set of guiding principles or headnotes (Leitsätze) written in 1925 in connection with the Düsseldorf lecture. . . . The Leitsätze on faith state:

1) Faith is not a worldview [Weltanschauung], in which the concept of God serves as a principle for the explanation of the world [Welterklärung], and in which the meaning of human existence develops from a general understanding of the world [Weltverständnis]. On the contrary, faith is the posture of the human being placed before God; its content is therefore primarily a proposition regarding the existence of the human being.

2) Faith is not a general trust in God, but rather it is strictly related to the revelation of God in God’s word, and its content is the forgiveness of sins.

3) Faith is not a mystical relation of the soul to God, but rather the posture of the human being who sees him– or herself placed before the claim of God in the concrete situation of the here and now.

These three theses summarize Butlmann’s opposition to the confusion of faith and metaphysics—whether a metaphysics of the object or fides quae (indicated especially by the three Welt– concepts) or a metaphysics of the subject or fides qua (mysticism). Either mode of Christian self-understanding leads to an objectification of God, that is to say, the exchange of God’s reality for a general God-concept. The active God confronts us in God’s word, and this word is a particular concrete occurrence within history that proclaims the justification of the sinner. For this reason the relation between God and the human person cannot be understood in general terms; it cannot become the basis for an explanation or understanding of the world as a whole. The event of revelation thus does not permit the erection of any Weltanschauung.[1]

This is a direct challenge to the traditional approach to Christian theology through the centuries. It gets more intense in that direction as Congdon writes further:

The task of theology is to free our thinking and speaking of God from every entanglement in a Weltanschauung and so to free ourselves “to be addressed by the grace that encounters me in the word of Jesus Christ.” Toward that end Bultmann marshals yet a third contrast corresponding to the previous ones between ontic and the ontological, the fides quae and the fides qua. He does so in the March 1925 lecture that differentiates between Weltbild and Weltanschauung, and this time it is a contrast between a speaking of God (Reden von Gott) and a speaking about God (Reden über Gott). The opening paragraph of the essay differentiates between these two modes of God-talk in a way that programmatically sets forth the task of a theology that truly acknowledges its proper theme (the ontic) and object (the fides quae):

If one understands speaking “of God” to mean speaking “about God,” then such speaking has absolutely no meaning, for in the moment it occurs it has lost its object [Gegenstand], God. Wherever the idea of “God” is thought of it implies that God is the almighty, i.e., the reality determining all things. But this idea is not at all thought of when I speak about God, i.e., when I consider God to be an object [Objekt] of thought, over which I can orient myself if I take a standpoint where I can be neutral regarding the question of God and make considerations about God’s reality and essence that I can reject or, if they are reasonable, accept. Those who are convinced by reasons to believe the reality of God can be certain that they have not grasped the reality of God; and those who think they can give evidence about God’s reality with proofs of God are arguing over a phantom. For every “speaking about” presupposes a standpoint outside of what is being spoken about. But there can be no standpoint outside of God, and therefore it is not possible to speak of God in general statements, in universal truths that are true apart from a relation to the concrete existential situation of the speaker.

The distinction articulated here is between a God-talk that truly speaks of its object and a God-talk that loses its object. The former engages in meaningful God-talk because it speaks of a fides quae that only gives itself in and through the fides qua, and thus cannot be spoken of from a position external to faith. The latter engages in meaningless God-talk, because it attempts to speak about a “God” that is available as a given entity about which we can make general statements that have universal validity. Such statements form a Weltanschauung. And since to attempt “a neutrality with respect to God” is “to flee from before God,” the erection of a Weltanschauung through Reden über Gott is not merely meaningless and erroneous but is in fact sin.[2]

This challenges much; particularly traditional classical theology. Where I stand: personally I am not too far removed (if at all!) from what David is describing in regard to Bultmann’s “existentially” styled theology. But I am not naïve to the radical reality full commitment to Bultmann’s project might require. It might require that we look at all of classical theology and count it as meaningless; particularly the style of theology done after Thomas Aquinas and his Prima pars in his Summa Theologica. I think it is possible to constructively conclude that the way someone like Aquinas, Maximus the Confessor, Augustine, Athanasius et al spoke “about” God was more in line with speaking “of” God. In other words, I think much of classical theology (especially as we think about premodern) is in fact couched in doxological and dialogical exchange between the believer and God. It is just that the means they had to do that then, categorically, sounded more like speaking about God than might have been healthy; and the means they had to speak of God did in fact come from an orientation wherein God is spoken about more than of. So this requires the theologian, if they think Bultmann has a point, to engage with the classical theologians with constructive care.

One of the theses Myk and I offered in our first Evangelical Calvinism book noted that we are dialogical/dialectical theologians. I think the way Congdon writes on Bultmann, particularly with reference to worldview and speech about versus of God fits well with the mode we are going for in Evangelical Calvinism. The interesting thing for me is the way Congdon himself has developed. As I am reading his big book on Bultmann what we find in Bultmann is actually more orthodox (and historical in that sense) than the way Congdon himself has gone. I am afraid people will look at Congdon’s positions, and equate those absolutely with Bultmann’s. As I am reading Congdon’s treatment of Bultmann what I am finding is an orthodox theological approach, albeit one that is couched in an existential frame.


[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 393-94.

[2] Ibid., 394-95.

Making a Distinction; an Existential Theologian vis-à-vis Sapiential Theologian: Finding the Dialectical in the Singular Person, Jesus Christ

David Congdon offers an insightful quote on the distinction between being an existential theologian versus a sapiential one; for his purposes he is using this distinction to help draw some lines between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. Whoever the characters are, whether Luther/Aquinas (which is the original pairing), Barth/Bultmann et al. I think the distinction is an instructive one, and so I thought I would share it.

Existential theology is the way of doing theology from within the self-actuation of our existence in faith, as we submit to God in the obedience of faith. Its affirmations are so formulated that the actual faith and confession of the speaker are not merely necessary presuppositions but are reflexly thematized. Sapiential theology is the way of doing theology from outside one’s self-actuation in the existence of faith, in the sense that in its doctrinal statements the faith and confession of the speaker is the enduring presupposition, but is not thematic within this theology. This theology strives to mirror and recapitulate God’s own thoughts about the world, men, and history, insofar as God has disclosed them.[1]

The relative distinction is something akin to doing theology from below or from above; the existential (below) would be more soteriologically/theoanthropologically oriented while the sapiential (above) would be more theology proper oriented;  while the dialectical, we might constructively surmise, might be located in the Christological frame (where the below and above intersect and implicate in the singular person of Jesus Christ as the Theanthropos).


[1] Otto Hermann Pesch, “Existential and Sapiential Theology—The Theological Confrontation Between Luther and Thomas Aquinas,” in Catholic Scholars Dialogue with Luther, ed. Jared Wicks (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970), 61-81, at 76-77 cited by David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 71-2.

Germans, Decrees, and “A God Behind the Back of Jesus”

This was the topic of my only offering to Christianity Today (2013); the issue of God’s so called transcendence and immanence, relative to the creaturely order. My article was a contribution to their Global Gospel Project, and in it I attempt to popularly introduce a rather technical conception, that in the history is known as God’s ‘power’ theology—i.e. potentia absoluta/potentia ordinata (his absolute and ordained power). This theology is often attributed to nominalist thinking, or even to William of Ockham, but no matter, what it does, whatever its historical antecedents, at a conceptual level is drive a wedge between who God is in eternity in his ‘inner-life’ (in se), and who he has revealed himself to be economically in salvation history (ad extra). Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance have pithily glossed this as their being ‘a God behind the back of Jesus’; they are quite right to do so.

I am currently reading David Congdon’s big Bultmann book (not because he and I are friends anymore, but because I should just probably read it), and in it, as he is developing the distinctions between Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, he offers a sketch (via footnote) of how Eberhard Jüngel critiques a doctoral student of Barth’s, Helmut Gollwitzer, and how Gollwitzer (as news to me) operates with the kind of dualism between God’s revealed will, and antecedent being that we see in the potentia theology we just noted. Let’s see how Congdon recounts Jüngel’s treatment of Gollwitzer, and then reflect upon what this kind of thinking might do for those of us who want to think, along with Jesus Christ, that ‘when we see him [Jesus] we see the Father.’ Congdon offers:

The fundamental criticism Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-God-self” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way: “Gollwitzer stresses . . . that the mode of being [Seinsart] of revelation has its ground ‘not in the essence of God but in the will of God,’ so that it is ‘not possible per analogiam to infer back’ from the understanding of God’s being-as-revelation in the mode of being [Seinsweise] of an innerhistorical subject ‘to the essence of God in the sense of God’s constitutive nature [Beschaffenheit], but only to the essence of God’s will, i.e., from God’s will as made known in history to God’s eternal will as the will of God’s free love’” (ibid., 6). Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—leaving “a metaphysical background in the being of God that is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (ibid.). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.[1]

I wrote the following in my Christianity Today article:

If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[2]

Gollwitzer presents the same dilemma that so many prior to him had. It is a similar dilemma that we get from classical Reformed and Arminian theology; one that has God mediating himself through a mechanism of absolute decrees, and through primary and secondary causation. In this scheme you can never quite be sure if you are dealing with the God revealed through his decrees, or the actual decreeing God (unless of course we want to collapse God into his decrees, but I surely don’t want to do that); similar to Gollwitzer, in this way, there is a God behind the back of Jesus for such presentations.


[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 15 n19. [emphasis mine]

[2] Bobby Grow, “God Behind the Veil: His ways are hidden from ordinary eyes, but not from the eyes of faith,” Christianity Today (May 2013): 42.

Theology is Really Dialogue with God. What Does It Mean to be Dialectical in Our Thought?

I was going to write a post after I got some shut eye quoting the exact quote I quote in full from Barth in this already written post (sometimes I even surprise myself at my prolificacy in blog posts). Anyway, this really only serves as an introduction to what being dialectical meant, theologically, for Barth. What I provide in this post requires further explanation and elaboration; it requires to be broken down in even more accessible ways—so I intend to write another post doing that at some point. But until then read this. 

Instead of thinking about theology as an analytical science such as jesuspraysphilosophical inquiry represents I think it would be much better if we started with the confessional reality that ‘God has spoken’ (Deus dixit). If we approach theology this way our categories will be different (from the typical ways that theology is usually construed, and then even the usual ways will take on a different hue), and our capacities to think more freely and imaginatively about how we can speak to and about God will be expanded in fruitful ways; I would suggest.

I am inspired to think like this from no one less than Swiss theologian Karl Barth (I bet you’re totally surprised!). And so let’s hear further from him on this, and engage with what he calls dialectic by which what he really means is dialogue; and we could really call ‘prayer’ theologizing. He writes (at length):

What does dialectic mean? To put it innocuously and in a way that should awaken confidence, dialektein means to converse with others, to deal with them, to discuss with them. Dialectic means, then, thinking in such a way that there is a dialogue. Two are needed for this. There must be two incomparable but inseparable partners in my thinking: a word and a counter-word, for example, faith and obedience, authority and freedom, God and man, grace and sin, inside and outside, etc. How does the counter-word, and therefore the dialogue, come to have a place in my thinking? First I think pious words before God that are non-dialectically neutral, as ought to happen in the thinking of faith and obedience. I even try to think about God himself with these words of mine. But I cannot succeed. For every time, on the one side, when I believe that I have thought about God, I must remember that God is subject, not object. I have to turn around, then, and think radically, on the other side, whence I came in order to be able to do this. When this situation is seen again at any point there arises the dialectical relation of two concepts. Dialogue takes place in this relation, and to that extent, like all dogmatic thinking, it is a dialectical dialogue. Thinking nondialectically would mean in principle not thinking before God. Before God human thoughts become dialectical.

Everything depends, then, on the dialogue being conducted honestly and bravely. It must not be like maneuvers or party gatherings (mere tensions of unreal opposites, victory assured), or, as Schleiermacher, a matter of feeling. Only the object is transcendent. For the sake of this object we do not want to be transcendent. We take every antithesis seriously even at the danger of contradiction. In the movement of our thinking we point to the object. We break off the dialogue and speak a nondialectical last word [?] only when new problems come to light.

In the passage of Israel through the Red Sea [Exod. 14:19-30] the Red Sea reminds us of words without knowledge that are not God’s Word. The staff of Moses is dogmatic thinking, the thinking of faith and obedience. The waves on the right hand and the left are words and counterwords which inexplicably become still. The people of Israel suggests the knowledge of God, the Word of God which is spoken. Pharaoh is the kind of thinking that tries to achieve the same result without this object.

No one can think completely nondialectically, not Luther, Schleiermacher, or even Althaus. The only question is whether we have more or less dialectical courage, whether we are more or less ready for the true dialectic that is demanded here. The ultimate issue is very simple. To think dialectically is to acknowledge that we are in contradiction, that we are sinful and fallen, that we are people who, not on our own inquisitive initiative, but because of the Word of God that is spoken to us, cannot escape giving God glory and confessing that we are only human with our questions, but also — and here already is the dialectic — confessing God and God alone with his answer even as we confess ourselves. The dialogue with which this twofold confession begins in our thinking; the unheard-of movement, not between two poles — God is not the one pole and we the other — but between us in our totality and God in his; the dynamic which grips every word because in this dialectic it is either the divine norm or the human relation to this norm; the world of doubtful but promising, of promising but doubtful relativities that open up here, encircled both above and below by the sole of deity of God — this is dogmatic dialectic. It will no longer be needed in heaven. With the angels and the blessed we will have at least a share in God’s central view of things. But we need it on earth, and we will be thankful that we have it like any good gift of God. Let us see to it that we use it to God’s glory, not as a game, but as the serious work of the catharsis of our pious words. How are these words to be purified for the purpose that they should serve if we do not think them together with the Word of God that is to be proclaimed through them, if we do not think dialectically?[1]

To think nondialectically according to Barth is to think thoughts about God that are not first before God; thoughts that could be thought about God that have never been in con-versation with God, and brought before the bar of his Holy Word. Contrariwise to do theology ‘dialectically’ (or in dialogue, or dialogically) trades on the reality and belief that God has indeed spoken, and in a way that invites us to speak back to him in light of what he has spoken and speaks. So we are to pray; that is to theologize.

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 311-12.