What is Dialectical Theology in Evangelical Calvinism and Why is it Important?

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Image courtesy of David Hayward

One of the distinguishing marks of Evangelical Calvinism as articulated by Myk Habets and Bobby Grow in Vol. 1 of the same title is that its theological approach can be described as ‘dialectical’ and ‘dialogical’ rather than primarily ‘philosophical’ or ‘analytical.’ For anyone interested in learning about or engaging with Evangelical Calvinism, it is absolutely crucial to understand its dialectical/dialogical aspects lest, as often happens, it is dismissed as incoherent or objections are raised that simply do not follow from its premises. From my own (somewhat limited) experience interacting with people about EC, it seems to me that apart from a biblical hermeneutic and theological methodology that is principially christocentric (i.e. EC attempts to think out everything in strict accordance with how God has revealed himself in Christ), the dialectical/dialogical way of thinking constitutes one of, if not the, primary stumbling block that causes people, especially those schooled in theologies or traditions that favor logically-precise systems, to come to the conclusion that EC is unsatisfactory or incomprehensible.

What I want to do in this post, therefore, is explain, by way of T.F. Torrance and Bruce McCormack, why Evangelical Calvinists follow (not uncritically) the dialectical approach of Karl Barth. It is not because we appreciate Barth (though we do) or because we think a dialectical approach is pragmatically useful (which in many situations it isn’t). Primarily, EC adopts a dialectical/dialogical approach to theology because it is that which seems to be pressed upon us by the nature of the truth into which we are inquiring. T.F. Torrance helpfully explains what this means:

Dialectical thinking indicates the basic reversal that takes place in our thinking as we are confronted by God: we know God or rather are known by God. It is God who speaks, man who hears, and therefore man may only speak of God in obedience to what he hears from God…In Revelation God gives himself to us as the object of our faith and knowledge, but because he remains God and Lord, he does not give himself into our hands, as it were; he does not resign himself to our mastery or our control as if he were a dead object. He remains the living Lord, unqualified in his freedom, whom we can only know in accordance with his acts upon us, by following his movement of grace, and by renouncing on our part any attempt to master him by adapting him to our own schemes of thought or structures of existence; that is, whom we can know only by knowing him out of himself as an objective reality…standing over against us, as the divine Partner and Lord of our knowing of him…

Theological thinking, then, is inescapably dialectical because it must be a thinking by man not from a centre in himself but from a centre in God, and yet never seeks to usurp God’s own standpoint. It is dialogical thinking in which man remains man but in which he meets God, listens to him, answers him, and speaks of him in such a way that at every point he gives God the glory. Because it is dialogical it can only be fragmented on his side, for it does not carry its co-ordinating principle in itself, but derives it from beyond itself in God’s Word…

Dialectical theology stands for the fact that toward the Truth itself all our statements must remain essentially open, in humble acknowledgement of the fact that it is not in our competence to capture the Truth or to enclose it in our formulations, in frank admission that our thinking and speaking of God have their finite boundaries over which they cannot transgress.

In this sense, dialectical thinking is a correlate of justification by grace alone, in its epistemological reference. That is to say, it is a form of thinking which acknowledges that the only legitimate justification or demonstration of Christian truth is that which is in accordance with its nature, as truth and grace of God, and that to seek justification of it on any other ground is to falsify knowing at its very basis. Dialectical thinking is therefore thinking which combines statement and inquiry, for it makes statements not from a vantage point above the truth where it is the master but from a point below it where it never leaves its position of humble inquiry. Hence in dialectical thinking we let our knowledge, our statements, or our theological formulations be called into question by the very God toward whom they point or are directed in inquiry, for he alone is the Truth. Hence theological doctrines or formulations essentially contingent; they do not claim to have the truth in themselves for by their very nature they point beyond themselves to the Truth in God. Dialectical thinking, therefore, as Barth employed it, is to be considered as a form of combining statement and inquiry with the intention of letting the Truth declare itself to us, and therefore it indulges in a deliberate abstention from final judgments lest by breaking off or foreclosing the inquiry we should block our vision of the truth or be tempted to image that we have caught it in the net of our formulations.[1]

What Torrance says here is extremely important. Rather than imposing a framework (logical, philosophical, analytical) on Scripture and forcing it to conform its witness to the Truth which is God himself accordingly, a dialectical/dialogical approach endeavors not only to question the text to exegete its meaning but, first and foremost, to allow the text to question the approach itself and prescribe its own inner logic and coherency. It never views theological statements or systems as complete, as though we could every capture the fullness of who God is in human language, but rather constantly seeks to repentantly submit itself to change and development under the scrutiny of the Word. For this reason, it seeks to offer a faithful response to the Word, not by conforming the Word to its own patterns of thought, but by adapting its patterns of thought to the authority and majesty of the Word. Dialectical theology, in other words, is the approach we must take when we realize that God is God and we are not.

Addressing the age-old debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, Bruce McCormack provides a helpful example of what this looks like in practice:

There is a tension, I want to suggest, that runs through the very heart of the New Testament witness, between those passages that bear witness to the saving intentions of God in setting forth a Mediator and the passages that bear witness to the Final Judgment at the end of time. The first are characterized by a universalism of divine intent; Christ died for all. The second are often (though not exclusively) characterized by particularism, a separation in the Final Judgment of the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Faced with this tension, evangelical exegetes have typically sought to remove it through one of two strategies. “Calvinist” exegesis has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point for thought and treated the atonement passages as obscure and requiring careful explanation if they are to be harmonized with the eschatological passages. “Arminian” exegesis, too, has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point but regarded the universality of God’s saving intentions as witnessed to in the atonement passages as equally so. So their strategy for harmonizing rests in the introduction of a third factor between God’s intentions and the final outcome – viz. a human will, which God allows to trump His will to save. God wants to save all but cannot because He places too high a priority on human freedom to be willing to impose faith irresistibly. Though these strategies differ, they share two things in common: (1) both presuppose that faith in Jesus Christ is an absolutely necessary condition which must be met if any individual is to be numbered among the eschatologically saved and (2) both presuppose that elimination of the tension is necessary if the New Testament is to retain its authoritative status in Christian theology.

In relation to these two presuppositions of traditional evangelical exegesis, I would like to say that I agree with the first but disagree with the second. I think there are good and sufficient reasons not to eliminate the tension but to allow it to stand…And because I think that to be the case, I also think that both traditional Calvinist and traditional Arminian exegesis misfire – and misfire fire at precisely the same point. Both treat the propositions found in Scripture as standing in a strictly logical relationship to one another, so that any tension that might exist among them must finally be regarded as a contradiction – which would obviously threaten biblical authority. My own view is that the tension I have identified is not rightly understood as a contradiction. Rather, it is a function of the tension between history and eschatology, between time and eternity, between certitudes and mysteries, between what may be said with great definiteness and what must finally be left open-ended and unresolved.[2]

McCormack helps us to see how a dialectical approach to biblical interpretation and theology may just open new vistas in our understanding. Rather than presuppose, as McCormack observes vis-à-vis Calvinist and Arminian exegesis, that the authority of Scripture rests finally on our ability to eliminate any tensions we find, a dialectical approach acknowledges that Scripture speaks as it does for a divinely determined reason, and thus it is to our peril if we try to fit its teaching into a particular logic or system by sanding down its rough edges. It just may be, however, that we could break through some longstanding theological stalemates were we to allow the Word to reveal its own inner rationality, centred on God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit, and thereby permit it, and not us, to determine the logical forms to which our thinking about its teaching should adhere.

This is how we as Evangelical Calvinists are attempting, however imperfectly, to speak about all the ways and works of God as attested in Scripture. If there is difficulty in understanding us, I would suggest that part of the problem (apart from our own shortcomings!) may stem from a failure to understand the dialectical and dialogical way in which we operate. Until this is clearly grasped, we will likely just end up talking past each other.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1962. Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1920-1931. London: SCM Press, pp.80, 82-83, 87-88.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.229-230.

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5 thoughts on “What is Dialectical Theology in Evangelical Calvinism and Why is it Important?

    • Jonathan Kleis 23 September 2016 / 18:12

      Yes, absolutely David. I apologize that I did not give you proper credit as I was unaware of the image’s source. It’s great work!

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