That Time When Hunsinger Commended Dutch Neocalvinism

Twenty-one years ago, theologian George Hunsinger wrote an essay titled "What Can Evangelicals and Postliberals Learn from Each Other? The Carl Henry/Hans Frei Exchange Reconsidered."
Leiden's east gate, by Erick Zachte (wikipedia)
Back in the mid '80s, Carl F.H. Henry, the Christianity Today editor and major architect of the post-war neoevangelical movement gave a series of lectures at Yale Divinity School that offered a respectful but highly critical assessment of the burgeoning postliberal theology movement. Hans Frei responded, defending a his narrative-theological biblical hermeneutics and theology.

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.
Abraham Kuyper
According to Hunsinger, what gives the postliberals and the Dutch Calvinists common cause -- over against a thinker like Henry -- is that it affirms the unity and integrity of scripture without attempted to demonstrate it on a modernist, rationalist, foundationalist basis. Rather, an a priori faith in God's revelation in Christ is the condition for the possibility of for affirming scripture's unity and (for Herman and Bavinck, if not for postliberals) its inerrancy. Such a broader analogical hermeneutic, for example, makes space for typological readings of scripture.

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.



Matthew Frost said…
The more conservative postliberal strand (by which I mean conservative of earlier postliberalism, vs those of us who take the useful bits, discard the problems, and roll them into something else) really does have a lot in common with the Kuyperian theopolitical strand in its basic approach to the world. Neither are literalists, both are about a correspondence theory of truth, both when pushed will fall back on conservative confessionalisms that their more ecumenical liberality regarding social relationships between groups otherwise finesses. In both cases there is a more flexible approach to the truth of the times that is nonetheless capable of totalizing redescription in theopolitical terms. There is no need to fight outsiders on their truths when the possibility exists of converting their relative truth claims into compatibly functional systems that contain no necessary contradictions. It's missionary liberality as an interface to Modernity and its inherent pluralisms.
Thanks, Matt. The bit about the "correspondence theory of truth" may apply to Kuyper et al. I'm not really qualified to judge that at this point, though that would seem to cohere with my reading of the first volume of Bavinck's Dogmatics. I'm not sure if you're pinning that paradigm on Frei as well, but the claim becomes a little problematic if that's the case.

Apropos the theopolitical piece: A certain bent toward totalizing claims notwithstanding (perhaps), it would seem to me possible to push this paradigm in a more open, liberating direction -- as for example in Hunsinger's own contributions to theopolitics earlier in the same volume. It is possible, it seems to me, to uncouple certain kinds of more traditional theological commitments from conservative political stances and reconnect them with more liberationist leaning commitments. This is part of what I read Kathryn Tanner as doing, in a more postmodern key than the earlier postliberals, especially in her earlier work. How well all this hangs together is something I'm still trying to puzzle out for myself. But thanks for your imput.
Matthew Frost said…
I enjoy Frei's work, but it was Lindbeck's work that made me a postliberal some years ago, after having been trained in that direction by ecumenical Lutherans for years prior. And while I'll admit it's harder to see in Frei—for mostly topical reasons, as an exegetical rather than theological hermeneut—I'm going to stand by the claim to correspondence as the underlying truth theory.

The reason it looks iffy to you, I'm going to guess, is that the postliberal correspondence theory grounds an edifice of liberal relativism in the discussion of systems that are not principally about matters of fact. There's a looser coupling at work, because of the acknowledgement that narratives and doctrinal claims point at a functional truth for the claimants rather than an objective fact of the world. And this distance between the objective facts that unite a set of differing claims and the subjective differences among them is ignored as long as we're within the realm of compatible systems—including systems that are not in conflict (incommensurable) because they reference different matters of objective fact. But if you scratch a postliberal deeply enough you'll get reactionary condemnation of systems that may function but have nothing to do with reality.
Matthew Frost said…
Which is basically as much as to say, postliberals still have a stake in their own sets of particular grounding claims. Lindbeck will never not be a Lutheran, and you can watch him develop a wider liberality around that, but early Lindbeck is closer to his reactionary commitments on that level.

And yeah, apropos of the theopolitical piece, it is possible for postliberals to radicalize themselves away from known reactionary tendencies. Hunsinger is by no means liberationist, and his liberality always stops short of where I would prefer he go, embracing reactionary ideas as a spur to competition even when he tries to overcome their limitations—see his views on supersessionism, for example. It's very like Lindbeck, though I vastly prefer Lindbeck's later dialogue with Judaism. Tanner is definitely on this continuum, using slightly different resources, as is Serene Jones. (As, for that matter, am I, even though I separate that from my Barth work!) But the thing that makes that possible is the play between correspondence truth values and systems that don't capture them. This is how a deep confessionalism meshes with a self-consciously liberal-critical approach to one's own systems, and a more open functionalist approach to those of others. There is no leftward bound for postliberal strategies, as long as practitioners keep re-examining the things that limit them from the right.
Matthew Frost said…
There's also no rightward bound, once a postliberal theologian has decided upon what is in fact the case. But that should be seen as a defect, a failure of critical work. Nothing prevents a postliberal theologian from developing consistent systems. But when we become defensive of those systems, the risk of recursion into self demonstrates that we're really on a slow rightward conveyor belt the entire time. If you stop walking critically left, you will find yourself a conservative, and eventually a reactionary.

As far as I'm concerned, the logical end of that rightward slide is something like so-called "radical orthodoxy," with halfway houses like CCET standing a ways to its left. Plenty of options for ecumenical community among formerly-critical theologians who have decided that it's time to take a stand for enduring religious truths.
Thanks, that helped me understand where your coming from. My query above is a bit modest: I'm simply suggestion, when it comes to issues like truth claims, correspondence theories and the's complicated. Borrowings, say, from Wittgenstein's language game theory and contemporary perspectives in the social sciences render problematic, at least, your summary judgment that a correspondence theory is the hidden foundation(!) in some of these projects. Have I read you correctly here? I'm here mainly to engage -- not bury or praise.

Are there limitations to a postliberal trajectory -- or any "school" of method, for that matter -- of course. Is there some potential breathing room too? Perhaps. I would hope so. It also strikes me that your stance of taking the bits of postliberalism that you find useful and recombining them with other commitments within new frameworks is congruent with what the more left-leaning representatives of this trajectory might be intending.

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