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.


Rationalist Bible Study: A Mini-Critique

I thought this represented a particularly pertinent critique of theologians who go beyond Scripture in their constructive theologizing; ironically, the quote is in discussion of Hegel’s critique of rationalist theology and biblical exegesis. Hegel had certain folk in mind, in his critique; but I think, in general is still calls us to take some pause in our own theologizing. If we are going to be truly ‘Reformed’ Christian theologians and biblical exegetes, we will need to take our ‘material’ from that disclosed and given shape by Scripture itself; of course, the next question is how do we avoid collapsing our theologies into Scriptural exegesis (eisogesis) V. reading them out of it (exegesis)? This is something that Hegel is not naive to; note Hodgson’s recounting of Hegel,

Hegel attends in the 1824 lectures to both the exegesis and dogmatics of theological rationalism, as represented by J. F. Röhr, J. A. L. Wegscheider, and especially H. E. G. Paulus. Rational exegesis professes only to promote an understanding of the Word of God contained in scripture (1:122-3). But Hegel points out that where interpretation goes beyond a mere explanation of words to a discussion of the contents and an elucidation of the sense, it introduces its own thoughts and prejudices and is more than mere exegesis. Thus ‘the most sharply opposed views are exegetically demonstrated by theologians on the basis of scripture, and in this way so-called holy scripture has been made into a wax nose’, twisted into one shape or another (1:123). Theologians naively believe they are exposing scripture when in fact they are merely displaying their own presuppositions and interests. [Peter C. Hodgson, Hegel & Christian Theology: A Reading of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 60.]

Is there a genuinely Christian way then to read Scripture? Or are we doomed to always and only reading our a priori (prior) theological commitments into Scripture? I would suggest that we follow what the Patristic Theologians (Church Fathers) called the Regula Fidei (the Rule of Faith). The ‘rule of faith’ should be what Jesus identified in his own understanding of Scripture, as found in John 5.39:

39 You studythe Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, …

This comes back to the points I have been making about canon & Scripture in some previous posts; viz. that Jesus understood himself as the reality of Scripture (both Old Testament and the Apostolic giving of the New Testament). This is how we can avoid the problem that Hegel rightly was wary of in his own day. The reason I said this was pertinent, is because I would suggest that most American Evangelical exegesis today (if it is done at all!) suffers from the same kind of rationalism that Hegel was facing in his own heyday of rationalism. Evangelicals, in general, have inherited this mantle of interpreting scripture through, ironically, the Fundamentalist rejection of so called ‘Liberal’ rationalist exegesis. Fundamentalists tried to counter rational exegesis by way of out-rationalizing their ‘Liberal’ counterparts; this is part of the American Evangelical inheritance from its founding fathers in American Fundamentalism.

Is Barth the Orthodox Hegel?

Warning, academic alert!! I am reading, amongst other things, on Hegel’s thought, and Hegel directly; I thought I ought to do this if I am going to be a student again. Here is what one commenter writes on the difficulty of reading and attaining any kind of mastery (or even understanding of Hegel):

Yet Hegel is awesome as well as difficult to read. The Phenomenology,especially, is an intoxicating mixture of passionate intensity and convoluted obscurity. As Kroner writes: ’The work claims to be rational, but it shows every evidence of having been written under inspiration.’ The source of ’Hegel’s secret’ may remain a matter of faith. But there can be little doubt that the fusion of passion and profound complexity pervading his writings accounts to some extent for the widely diverging reactions to his philosophy. J. N. Findlay’s comment that in reading Hegel one is ’at times only sure that he is saying something immeasurably profound and important, but not exactly what it is,’1’ seems fair and should hearten anyone trying to make sense of Hegel. To quote one of his own aphorisms: ’The condemnation which a great man lays upon the world, is to force it to explain him.’12 This has certainly, in his own case, turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. [Martin Henry, G. W. F. Hegel: A Secularized Theologian?, Irish Theological Quarterly 2005; 70; 195 DOI: 10.1177/002114000507000301, p. 196-97]

I am actually reading Peter C. Hodgson’s account of Hegel’s theology-philosophy entitled: Hegel & Christian Theology: A Reading of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. In his accounting, it is altogether stunning how similar the virtuoso, Barth, sounds like the virtuoso, Hegel. Hodgson describes Hegel’s idea of God, and God’s movement from absolute substance to particular (or other than substance) subject and back through Spirit (geist)—as I read this I couldn’t get Barth’s self-replicating God of modes of being out of my head; Hodgson writes:

By descending from its eternal simplicity, the absolute being (the ‘Father’) attains for the first time its ‘highest being’—which is not the remote and inaccessible deity of rationalism, but a divesting, absolving, relational being that comes down into history and makes itself manifest (the ‘Son’). Essential being (Wesen) becomes existent, determinate being (Sein, Dasein)—and this is to say that it becomes spirit (Geist), ‘the being that is the process of retaining identity with itself in its otherness’. Spirit in the immediacy of self-consciousness is the particular individual Jesus of Nazareth, as contrasted with the universal self-consciousness of the religious community. But this individual human being, ‘as whom absolute being is manifest’, is subject to the conditions of time, space, and mortality: his being passes into having been and his sensible presence into spiritual presence. This is the passage from the Son to the Spirit.

These temporal and spatial categories, endemic to the representational form of religion, are not adequate to the truth of absolute spirit. Consequently, Hegel moves on to provide a speculative redescription of the central Christian theologoumenon, the Trinity, which contains the true content but in less that adequate form. The three constitutive moments, conceptually expressed, are pure thought, representation, and self-consciousness. Pure thought designates the immanent or intradivine Trinity, which is not an empty essence but already the implicit fullness of absolute spirit. Representation (Vorstellung) designates the second moment, that of creation, fall, incarnation, life and death, symbolically encapsulated in the figure of the Son. Representation is not merely an epistemological category but an ontological one. It designates a divine doing, not merely a human knowing. God sets godself forth (vor-stellen) in and as world; this is an essential element in the process of God’s becoming spirit. The referent of representation is real history, not fanciful myth, although what happens in history is often recounted in mythical form.

The third moment is that of self-consciousness or infinite intersubjectivity, which is associated by Christian faith with the Holy Spirit, resurrection, reconciliation, and the community of faith. Hegel observes that ‘absolute being’ would be an empty name if in truth there were an absolute other to it or an irreparable fall from it. ‘Absolute’ must mean then that there is nothing with which God cannot be related. Within the divine whole there is genuine otherness and recalcitrant difference, but it is only when essential being is reflected back into itself that it is spirit. Hegel launches at this point into a complex discussion of the ontological status of good and evil. Evil seems to take two forms: on the one hand, it is a withdrawal into self, a becoming self-centred, in other words a failure to make the move from the first moment to the second; but on the other hand, it is a matter of getting stuck in the second moment, revelling in separation and estrangement, failing to come back into self. In both cases, it is a stopping short of spirit, a failure in spiritualization. [Peter C. Hodgson, Hegel & Christian Theology: A Reading of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religon, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 38-9.]

I couldn’t help consider, as I just was transcribing this from Hodgson, that Thomas Torrance was the theologian who personalized pre-modern classical theism and metaphysics (through his onto-relationalism); while Karl Barth was the theologian who personalized the modern post-metaphysics (through his actualism). Or, Torrance personalized the Hellenization of Christianity; while Barth personalized the Hegelization of Christianity. What do you think, my Barthian brethren (and other brethren too)?