|Leiden's east gate, by Erick Zachte (wikipedia)|
Hunsinger's essay was printed in The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (IVP, 1996) -- an important book, though it has been quite a while since I read it. It was later reprinted in Hunsinger's own book
Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Eerdmanns, 2002) What? Didn't you go out and buy this book when McMaken recommended you do so? If that's the case, go out and remedy the situation now. It's a feast.
The essay, which closes a volume of essays on Barth, actually doesn't discuss Barth at all: It offers, rather, a "thought experiment" meant to advance an ecumenical dialogue among partners who all take the Bible seriously but, otherwise, seem to have a hard time getting along. Hunsinger begins with a lengthy quote from the Roman Catholic thinker Hans Küng and goes on to engage not only Henry and Frei, but also the Dutchmen Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and the Englishmen John Stott and Alistar McGrath. Hunsinger gives a shout out to conservative evangelicals as stalwart defenders of a soteriology of substitutionary atonement -- an affirmation I heartily endorse. But what intrigues me especially is Hunsinger's engagement with Kuyper and Bavinck, two of the most important architects of Dutch neocalvinism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who are brought into the conversation as potential catalysts for unraveling the impasse between evangelicals and postliberals on questions of revelation, truth and biblical authority.
I won't unpack here all the nuances in Hunsinger's intensive close reading of the Henry-Frei debate. But just to hit some of the high spots: Henry, a student of Gordon Clark, rigorously affirmed biblical inerrancy and situated the the veracity of the biblical text in the propositional statements found in the text itself or derived from its narrative and symbolic passages. Henry lauds Frei for taking the unity of the biblical canon seriously but chides the Yale thinker for (as he sees it) a certain worrying fuzziness about the nature of biblical truth -- in particular, about the veracity of historical accounts in the Bible. Frei is not deterred by this critique and counters that Henry and other conservative propositionalists have insinuated a major category mistake into biblical hermeneutics: Biblical truth is much broader, richer and mysterious than a narrowly cognitivist approach would have it. Henry and others, Frei claims, have succumbed to a modernist project of vindicating religious truth on rationalist epistemological foundations. For Frei, human creaturely knowledge is much more tenuous and ambiguous, but in God's grace the scriptures are sufficient to render God's true character, whether all the events recounted in the narratives actually happened or not. (He does believe a minimal belief in the existence of Jesus, his proclamation of the kingdom, his death and resurrection remains essential, but faith cannot rest on the effort to prove such matters through modern historical critical investigation). The gospel narratives, in particular, are meant to faithfully render an impressionistic portrait of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. Faith accepts this as foundation enough.
Thus, Hunsinger locates the main difference between Henry and Frei in the realm of predication -- particularly, how statements in scripture are seen to refer to God. For the "experiential expressivist" (to use George Lindbeck's categories) scriptural and theological language is equivocal: That is to say, there is no intrinsic relationship between the textual statement and the referent, but the veracity of Christian truth relies in subjective religious experience or in its transcendental horizons.
Henry, by contrast, construes the predicative effect of biblical and god talk as being univocal: That is, there is a direct correspondence between the statement and the reality to which it refers (so the argument goes). One reason Frei can live with the ambiguities and apparent incongruities of a narrative hermeneutics, Hunsinger argues, is because the Yale theologian upholds an analogical view of Christian truth. Such an approach highlights the tenuous, creaturely and fragile character of human language to refer to an infinite and all Holy God; nonetheless, in God's gracious accommodation to human frailty, the scriptural texts are enabled to render real knowledge of God's character, if only through the clay jars of analogy.
None of these moves is too surprising, perhaps, but what is striking is the next move in Hunsinger's argument: He turns attention from the dispute between conservative evangelicals and postliberals over the Bible to a key divide within conservative Protestantism itself in these matters. Frei and his followers (including of course, many Barthians as well) would reject the cognitivist and propositionalist view of truth as univocal. But what if there is a way, via a venerable tradition within Protestant orthodoxy itself, to affirm the high view of scriptural authority typically seen as central to evangelical identity without submitting to univocal propositionalism?
Hunsinger suggests a richer and more organic analogical mode of interpretation and theologizing is a key feature of the work of Kuyper and Bavinck, modern representatives and interpreters of the orthodox Protestant heritage.
The potential payoff of this investigation, Hunsinger suggests, would be a point of contact for fruitful discussion between conservative evangelicals and postliberals (or, one might add, Barthians more generally). These two major options within contemporary Protestant theology could then be seen as possibly vantage points along one line of tradition stretching back to Calvin.
Hunsinger admits he is not deeply versed in the work of these two Dutch thinkers (nor am I); in interpreting them, he relies on Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) scholar Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. His main goal is to suggest possibly lines of fruitful dialogue that might facilitate a more meaningful dialogue between evangelicals and postliberals. I wonder how relevant this thought experiment might be today, as the movement (if that's what it is) spawned by the work of Yale thinkers Frei, Lindbeck, Brevard Childs and others has spun off in so many directions.
For my part, the heritage of Reformed orthodoxy as a whole is very much the other to my background, inclinations and training. Though I grew up within conservative evangelicalism, our brand was more within the pietist and Arminian heritage. Calvinist doctrine became a dominant tradition within Southern Baptist life only gradually, and mostly after I was basically already grown up. My modern theology exam reading list in grad school focused mostly on the post-Cartesian and post- Enlightenment trajectories of modern theology; we didn't really read the Protestant scholastics, so I find myself always playing catch-up in this arena. And as most of you know, gentle readers, Barth wasn't exactly kissing cousins with the 20th century Dutch Calvinists (the sympathetic and penetrating reading of Barth by C.K. Berkhouwer being a major exception), and even uttering the name "van Til" in Barthian circles elicits a similar reaction to blurting out Voldemort at Hogwarts. But could it be that Protestant orthodoxy, especially this strand of it, has important insights to yield to the patient Barth-leaning theologian? Perhaps we shall see.
By the way, if you're interested, Barth and Bavinck did have a convo -- if only a hypothetical one -- on this very website, in these posts by Andrew Esqueda and Joel Esala.