Friday, April 03, 2020

Dialectical Theology and the Mystery of God

"The best theological grammar available to describe [the divine reality] is dialectical and full of reversals."

Thus George Hunsinger, in his essay on Karl Barth's conception of eternity, to be found in the excellent Disruptive Grace, p 193.

But what does dialectical mean here?

Hunsinger is attempting to describe a central theological method deployed by Karl Barth to think about God.  We could perhaps describe it as 'back and forth theology'.  Back and forth theology looks one way, and then looks the other.  It may therefore appear to be full of contradictions; it might seem to continually double back on itself.  Take a quote out of context - take a 'back' without a 'forth' - and it may well seem outright heresy.  Sounds risky - so why pursue it?

For Barth, dialectical theology has to be pursued because there is no other way to give a reasonable account of the revelation of God which we see witnessed in Holy Scripture.  A cracking example is his treatment of the Christology of the canonical gospels (which he broadly equates with the so-called Alexandrian and Antiochene schools; possibly unhelpfully from the perspective of historical theology).  He looks from the synoptic perspective (that this man is the Son of God) to the Johannine perspective (that the Son of God is this man) and continually switches between them.  Neither perspective is possible to reconcile to the other fully in thought or concept, but both are necessary to do justice to the descriptive account of God's action in Christ which we see in the gospels.  So we have to be continually back and forth, back and forth; not balancing one against the other, nor trying to achieve a synthesis, but always mentally moving.  This is not because there is any actual division in Christ; it is simply because our conceptual systems cannot adequately capture the mystery.

The same is true in the doctrine of the Trinity.  Barth moves from the One to the Three and back.  "Since the reality of God's oneness and threeness cannot be reconciled in thought, a 'trinitarian dialectic' must be devised in which statements to the one side are continually 'counterbalanced' by statements to the other." (Hunsinger, 192, referencing CD I/1, 269).  The same method is at play in Barth's account of God's simplicity and his multiple perfections.  Taking both seriously as they are presented in Holy Scripture prevents us from attempting to close the conceptual system and describe God using only one term and not the other.

A word of caution: "Note that Barth does not think God's being is dialectical or antithetical in itself, only that our minds are incapable of grasping its unity through a single principle or system." (Hunsinger, 193).  Our essentially dialectical systems of thought do find their resolution, but it is not in a higher concept or a deeper system of thought; it is in the being of God himself.

I think this is important.  In much of the theological retrieval going on today - the attempt to recover the classical doctrine of God - I think genuine advantages of modern theology are being lost.  In classical theism, God is considered to be ineffable; but I think there is a danger that he is in fact very well understood in that system.  He is simply(!) the concept of ineffability.  That is to say, at some point in the essentially complete conceptual system, there is a need for a border, a conceptual ground which essentially belongs to the system - and to such a concept, everyone gives the name God.  Barth's dialectic points, I think, to the living God who is genuinely know-able, but not susceptible to conceptualisation, not a being we can capture in our ideas even if we can genuinely describe him as we follow his own self-description.

Barth thinks his method is essential because Scripture directs us that way.  I think he's right.  One of the difficulties I have with classical theism is the way in which it resolves the apparent tensions in the biblical witness by enforcing a conceptual one-sidedness - for example, we explain away all the biblical references to God's emotions by simply declaring them to be unreal; for they must be so, if we are to achieve a conceptual consistency with the idea of God's impassibility.  For Barth, we rather press on down both roads, taking seriously God's self-revelation in both ways - leaving, admittedly, a system of concepts which is open-ended in a way which is frustrating to us, but leaving the mystery of God's own being intact.  And note that whereas the classical system, by making much of God's self-revelation unreal, leaves us with mystery without true knowledge, Barth follows Scripture in claiming (on the grounds of revelation) real knowledge of God without transgressing the mystery.  What the Bible says about God is true, even if I cannot think it out into a whole system.

Back and forth theology is, to my mind, simply theology that is constrained by God's self-revelation in Christ, as witnessed in the Old and New Testaments.  That should be okay in anybody's book, right?

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