On Pendulum-Swinging

I ran across an interesting comment in Bavinck about moving between theological extremes and seeking middle ground (Bavinck is quoting James Buchanan):

But it is common to all those who take the ‘middle way’ to show a greater preference ‘for that extreme they go halfway to than for that from which they go halfway’ (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:532).

Any thoughts on this?  Where do you see overcompensatory pendulum-swinging taking place in contemporary Christian and theological circles and what are some resources for decelerating the pendulum?

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6 thoughts on “On Pendulum-Swinging

  1. I’m not sure i buy Bavinck’s conclusions. I think the problem might be more in the way we communicate our openness to that ‘extreme’ which we are trying to move ‘toward’, and how those communications are received.

    For example, I’ve had many conversations with traditional evangelicals about charismatic manifestations and the place they might have in the local church. Because we are coming from a traditional evangelical intellectual faith background, the emphasis of my concern was to advocate for charismatic openness. But at least initially, this would at times cause of reaction in the other person. They would tend to read into what i was saying more than i meant. Now maybe i was asking for too much and was ‘unbalanced’, but i think more of the challenge is how to correct imbalances without giving extra attention to the other extreme. In this sense, yes i show a greater preference in that which seems to be under-represented in order to correct the imbalance. Is there any communicative moment which does not do this?

    • Thanks for this thought, Geordie. I would agree that different points need to be made in different settings and that this might misleadingly give the appearance that the emphasis of the hour lies at the heart of our thinking on a given issue. Nevertheless, I would say that overcompensation does happen sometimes and that it’s worthwhile to ask where we might see this happening in contemporary theological discussions (even if it’s a particularly difficult thing discern).

  2. Normally I try to adopt a consistently balanced style and POV. Except in direct response to a one-sided argument; in which case I exaggerate the other side. To counterbalance one overstatement, agains another. This rather appeals to my “eye for an eye” OT theology at the moment as well.

    In the case of religion? The rhetoric is almost always, overwhelmingly one-sided; crippled by massive Pride and Vanity, it claims to speak perfectly for God himself, no less.

    In that case, a very, very great amount of counter-balance is needed. To really reach a sane, humble point of view.

  3. I wonder why would one think that moderation is virtue, Christianly understood? At the heart of the gospel, do there not lie what are essentially one-sideded and deeply unbalanced realities and corresponding claims about those realities, realities like the free salvation of the ungodly, divine self-giving unto death, love of one’s enemies, etc. It would difficult to consider the Sermon on the Mount to be in close alignment with Aristotles’ recommendation of the golden mean. for instance. One could multiply examples of such holy imbalance no doubt. The notion of a ‘pendulum swing’ in theology however, has the logic of ‘both/and’ ingregient within it. But perhaps the logic of the gospel is more dialectical, more oppositional, being fundamentally shaped by the sheer and uncorrectable one-sidedness of divine graciousness….

    • Hi Phil,

      Thanks for commenting here. I would agree that there is a sense in which Christian teaching at a number of points just is ‘one-sided’ and need not (indeed, should not) apologize for this (your example of the Sermon on the Mount is apropos). However, I still think it’s fair to say that when exploring a doctrine and weighing some of the theological positions on offer, one sometimes has to catch up the sundry emphases of biblical teaching by charting a middle course through erring formulations on either side. For example, in the chapter quoted above, Bavinck is trying to steer away from both antinomianism and nomism by maintaining that the acquisition of salvation by Christ and the application of salvation by the Spirit are distinct (contra antinomianism) but not separate (contra nomism).

      One could object that ‘middle’ is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m inclined to think that it is possible (even if it’s difficult) to discern that a given position may be leaning too far in a given direction. It seems to me that the analogy of faith is important in staying on the right track here, along with an awareness of the history of the doctrine being examined.

  4. Phil:

    The Bible itself is far, far more ambiguous and equivocal than you think. On the one hand, miracles, promises of “bread,” for example, are presented as very literal: Jesus makes real, actual, literal bread appear in empty baskets, by physical miracles. But then, on the other hand? Such promises seem turned into metaphors: Jesus and others issue statements that seem to imply that Jesus’ own self-sacifice, and/or his ideas or spirit, are “bread indeed.”

    Another example, among hundreds? While at times the God of the Old Testament insists that his laws are “eternal,” on the other hand, the New Testament begins to suggest that a “new covenant” might change things.

    Another? Proverbs tell us “not” to answer a fool according to this own “folly” – and then says exactly the opposite, in the very next sentence.

    So in fact the Bible itself, is far, far more equivocal and polysemic than most people think. And therefore, any theological discourse that is really true to the Bible itself, should reflect that ambiguity.

    For this reason, in fact, though I elsewhere for a moment questioned a “quasi-Existential” theology, that deifies indecision, contradiction, I still vastly prefer that indecision, to … the popular ministerial theology of televangelists. That falls into one-sided, unequivocal dogmatism.

    Is even God’s Grace really unconditional, for example? What about the Ten Commandments? And all those other conditions, even in the New Testament?

    Life, God, are extremely complex; and so should theology be as well.

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