Reforming Calvinism, pt. 2: Methodology

TULIP-and-Reformed-Theology_620

This is the second in a series of posts on reforming the five points of Calvinism in a more evangelical way (hence Evangelical Calvinism). If you have not done so already, I would highly recommend reading the first post in the series before proceeding.

In this post, I would like to lay bare the theological methodology that will undergird much of the rest of this series. Although discussing methodology may seem a bit dry and academic, it will be critical to understand it before moving forward. Whether we realize it or not, we always operate with a methodology in our interpretation of Scripture and theologizing, so it is important to be clear about what our presuppositions are concerning the nature and method of what we are doing. To begin I would like to quote a section from Myk Habets’ essay entitled “How ‘Creation is Proleptically Conditioned by Redemption'”(pp.19-21) in which he discusses the ‘scientific’ approach of Barth and Torrance in knowing the object of theology’s inquiry (God as self-revealed in Christ). I will then follow up with a couple clarifying comments on how this will impinge on the rest of this series. Here is Habets:

Like Barth, Torrance holds that the distinctive nature of theology is determined by its object, which is defined as God revealed in Jesus Christ. Like every other true science, theology is under an intrinsic obligation to give an account of reality according to its distinct nature, that is, kata physic.[56] The fundamental axiom that Torrance proposes in this connection is that “We know things in accordance with their natures, or what they are in themselves; and so we let the nature of what we know determine for us the content and form of our knowledge.”[57] This principle is expounded in the following way: “In each field of inquiry, then, we must be faithful to the reality we seek to know and must act and think always in a relation of relentless fidelity to that reality.”[58] In this way Torrance has expressed a fundamental and unifying method for all scientific investigation, not the least of which is scientific theology…

God has given himself in Jesus Christ and so our theology necessarily is an a posteriori mannerer. In and through Jesus Christ, God has made himself to be known and has enabled humanity to respond in a certain way. We are thus under an obligation to respond in faith in accordance with God’s self-revelation….The essential formulation of this was expressed in the great ecumenical creeds of Christendom at Nicaea and Constantinople, formalised in what Torrance describes as the “linchpin of this theology,” the homoousion, the confession that Jesus Christ the incarnate Son is of one being or of one substance with God the Father.[61] This is crucial to a truly scientific Christian theology because it provides a realist basis for knowledge of God. Nicene theology thus gave basic shape to the doctrine of the Trinity that was found to belong to the essential structure of faith in God and to the intrinsic grammar of Christian thought.

Let me highlight a couple of points from what Habets articulates. First, it is important not to stumble on the idea of a ‘scientific’ theology. Sometimes when we hear the term ‘scientific’, we assume that it designates what is more accurately called philosophical naturalism or materialism, that is the a priori set of presuppositions that undergird much modern scientific inquiry. Science often proceeds on the assumption that no God or gods exist, and that all reality is purely material and the product of naturalistic mechanisms explainable without reference to any supernatural being or intelligence.

This is decidedly not what Habets’ description of Torrance’s scientific theology entails. Rather, a scientific theology is that which operates according to the fundamental principle that regulates all true scientific knowledge: the knower is bound to know the object of knowledge according to the nature of that object and not by first imposing an artificial schema onto it. As Torrance says, “we let the nature of what we know determine for us the content and form of our knowledge”. In the case of the knowledge of God, this means that we cannot a priori assume a particular methodology (much like the medieval scholastics did) or view of God drawn from Greek metaphysics (classical theism), attempting to discover the answers to the questions that we ourselves have generated, but we must let God through his own mode of confronting us in his self-revelation in Christ structure and determine both the form and content of our inquiry. It is supremely Jesus Christ himself who in his incarnation gives himself to be known by us within the structures of our human understanding, providing the basic grammar and theo-logic that should govern our every attempt to know God.

Second, Habets points us to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and in particular the word homoousion (of the same substance/being), as supplying us with that basic grammar and theo-logic. By using the homoousion to explicate the eternal relations between Jesus Christ and the Father, and then by later applying that concept to Christ’s incarnate relation to humanity (via the Chalcedonian pattern and the anhypostasis/enhypostasis couplet), the early church gifted to all subsequent generations a clear and coherent way of comprehending the inner nature and dynamic activity of the person and work of Jesus Christ, God’s definitive self-revelation to the world.

We do not, of course, accord to these concepts the same authority as Scripture itself, but insofar as they faithfully explicate the nature of the One to whom all Scripture bears witness (John 5:39), they provide indispensable tools for rightly understanding that witness. As the history of the church attests, those who in some way ignored, forgot, or repudiated the basic logic inhering in the homoousion and its corollary concepts invariably fell into heterodoxy if not full-blown heresy. The student of church history knows that Scripture has almost always been cited to give credence to the greatest heresies. It is not enough to be biblical if we are not Christocentric in a principial way at every point, for the goal of all Scripture is to witness to Christ.

The bottom line: moving forward in this series, my goal will be to recast the five points of Calvinism according to the logic and grammar provided ultimately by God’s self-revelation in Christ and expressed by the homoousion and its derivative concepts. This is what must be done if we, in the Calvinist tradition, are to speak both truthfully and faithfully.

Footnotes:

[56] T.F.Torrance, Theological Science (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 10. Thekataphysic nature of Torrance’s theology is derived from Karl Barth in theology (who in turn derived this from his own reading of Anselm, albeit with a rigorous christological orientation), and his reading of Einstein in science. Torrance’s reading of Barth on ratio (rationality and method) is most clearly developed in T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931 (1962; repr., Edinburgh: Τ & Τ Clark, 2000), 180-98. For a concise summary of how Torrance views scientific method see T.F. Torrance, Preaching Christ Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 45-49. Torrance attributes John Philoponos with being one of the first to work with a consistent kataphysic method in science. See T.F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2002

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[57] T.F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1980), 8. Torrance develops this with especial force in his Theological Science.

[58] Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology, 10. Torrance attributes this insight to Karl Barth in T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth: Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: Τ & Τ Clark, 1990), 67-68.

[61] Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology, 39.

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5 thoughts on “Reforming Calvinism, pt. 2: Methodology

  1. Steve 9 July 2016 / 05:10

    Since this is a new blog – a suggestion – please explain Latin/Greek terms or establish a glossary like Torrance does in both Atonement and Incarnation. Nice start, this is a good post as the others have been.

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    • The Reformissionary 9 July 2016 / 12:13

      Hi Steve, thanks for stopping by. Thanks also for a great suggestion! As you observed, this is a fairly new blog and I hope to add new things all the time that will be helpful for readers, so I will definitely try to do something like what you suggest when I am able! I appreciate your feedback.

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