Concerning dialectic theology

The Trinitarian theology of Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance and others is sometimes referred to as "dialectic" or "dialectical" theology, meaning that it seeks to integrate the tensions, paradoxes and ambiguities that are inherent in Christian theology.

Though Barth objected to using this term (it has a wide array of meanings), it might be helpful for Surprising God readers to understand the concept, since incarnational Trinitarian theology does teach that inherent in the revelation of Jesus Christ are viewpoints that, to our limited human understanding, do seem irreconcilable. This is particularly so with respect to the "dialectic tension" between the objective (universal) and subjective (personal) aspects of the union that God has forged with all humanity in and through the God-man, Jesus Christ.

From an objective/universal viewpoint, Scripture declares that God has reconciled (past tense) all humanity to himself through one one God-man Jesus Christ (2Cor 5:18). He did this while we humans were his "enemies" (Romans 5:10)--in fact while we were "dead" (Ephesians 2:4-5). In other words, God did this for all humanity apart from any action (works) or merit of our own. However, from a subjective/personal viewpoint, Scripture declares that not all people are reconciled to God (2Cor 5:20). So which is it? All already reconciled, or not? Some systems of theology seek to resolve this dialectic tension by ignoring or at least minimizing either the objective or the subjective aspect of reconciliation. But Karl Barth (and Torrance after him), was unwilling to lay aside either, for Scripture clearly testifies to both despite the apparent contradiction.

What incarnational Trinitarian theology sees is that the truth of such apparently irreconcilable matters is found not in only one word, but in a least two. The truth is not an "either-or" but a "both-and" reality. Indeed, there is both an objective/universal aspect to reconciliation and at the same time a subjective/personal aspect. We must not lay aside one merely because we find it uncomfortable to hold both together in our minds and hearts, Moreover, we must not seek a comfortable "middle ground" between the two in order to force a resolution. Instead, by faith, not sight, we look to Jesus where we find the fullness of the truth, including the truth about God's work of salvation in both its universal and its personal aspects. Note this relevant quote from Sons of Thunder:
Many theologies engage in analytical debate against one another with the aim of “winning” when scriptures seem to present contradictions. Trinitarianism is more mystical – perhaps postmodern in that sense. Rather than debate, it lives in the dialectical tension of mystery. It is okay with embracing paradox. 
Certainly Trinitarianism is not postmodern in that it proclaims and embraces ultimate truth. That truth is not a mere proposition, but a living person--the God-man Jesus Christ, who is the Truth as well as the Way and Life. In Jesus Christ we are given the complete and final revelation of both God and redeemed humanity (John 14:6). Because this Truth concerning the nature of God and of humankind in Christ is "the mystery of our faith" (1Tim 3:16, NLT), we must be willing to accept that full resolution of any apparent paradoxes arising from this mystery lies beyond our human, earth-bound reasoning, which, at best, is tainted by the Fall.

Another place where a dialectic tension arises in Scripture has to do with references to hell (meaning personal separation from God) as well as the universal reconciliation/union of humanity with God in Christ. How are these two seemingly irreconcilable concepts reconciled? Do we do so by cutting out one set of verses in favor or the other? No, we must never take scissors to Holy Scripture. Rather than throwing away either set of verses, Trinitarian theology holds both in the tension of paradox in which they are given, thus accounting for both to arrive at a complete answer. In doing so, it realizes that mere human logic (even our best theo-logic) falls short.

In the final analysis, there is only one place to look to find resolution to these dialectic tensions - and that is to Jesus Christ himself, for in him any such tensions finds ultimate resolution. And we are given this truth about Jesus only through revelation, not through mere human reasoning. Jesus must reveal to us who he is (and thus who God is and who we are). If we look elsewhere for resolution, we will reach false conclusions that fall way short of the truth.


Anonymous said…
Ted: Thanks for discussing this subject. It is helpful because we've been taught to try to resolve apparent contradictions in scripture and come up with the one right answer. We don't like tension and feel we must somehow resolve it.
Jeff McSwain shared a couple of things at the conference that I thought were helpful. He mentioned a Karl Barth quote where Barth said, "I was and am the old man. I am and will be the new man." In that same context he counseled us not to make sanctification into a zero sum game by saying something like, "I'm now 60% righteous and only 40% evil. He encouraged us to realize that we are 100% righteous and 100% evil all in the same person. We prefer to think in terms of the former, that we have attained a certain percentage of righteousness, which is growing and the evil side of us is slowly shrinking. But the latter expresses our real situation. We are living with this tension of being totally old and totally new all at the same time.
Thank you for you blog. I find it very helpful.
Warren D. Wilson
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks Warren for this helpful comment. And thanks, too, for suggesting that I address this topic here. With regard to Jeff's helpful comment about sanctification, I thought about this a bit watching this week's episode of the TV show (on AMC), Breaking Bad. It vividly illustrates the "dialectic tension" found within each human heart--both good (that reflects Christ, the New Adam) and evil (that reflects the first Adam). Thankfully for us all, the New Adam is the ultimate reality, and our calling is to walk in step with the Spirit as we are led to live into that new and ultimate reality. Of course, our walk is always "one step forward; two back; three forward" etc.--but Christ will see us all the way to glory (where we will experience full maturity in Christ) as we continue to trust in and follow our Lord.
Ted Johnston said…
For a post from Trinitarian theologian Paul Metzger that addresses the issue of sanctification, see