Jüngel and the difference between ‘evangelical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology

[A] theology which is responsive to the crucified man Jesus as the true God, knows that it is fundamentally different from something like philosophical theology in this one thing: single-mindedly and unswervingly, based on its specific task, it attempts to think God from the encounter with God… (Eberhard Jüngel)

One division of theology that still has me asking questions about its approach to doctrine is the analytic philosophical kind.

I’m not saying I understand it as I should so the nature of this post is part exploratory and part an ice-breaker in the sense of initiating a discussion on the ways and means of doing theology this way. To this end, I introduce Eberhard Jüngel whose proposal for doing theology looks a little different.

While AP is a cluster concept and includes many methods and teachings, I suppose the one voice that I find speaks the loudest from the theological quarter is that of the conceptual and logical analysis that attends and undergirds the formalism of arguments. While certain doctrines are assumed as normative for Christian belief, they are still brought to the bar of a particular system of logic, albeit striped of their scriptural and doctrinal setting, for the sake of coherence and plausibility. Doctrines typically discussed in this mode include God’s existence, the presence of evil, the metaphysics of God’s omnipresence, Christ’s hypostatic union and the perichoretic relationship of the Trinity.

One of my concerns is shared by Ingolf Dalferth who can agree to a certain extent with the outcome of the solution-based process undertaken by the analytic-philosophical theologian, but as he explains, ‘the theoretical way the problem is posed leaves all the suggested solutions with a ring of practical insignificance’.

In God as the Mystery of the World, Eberhard Jüngel claims that the first decision we have to make when we try to learn and speak about God has to do with the difference between philosophical and evangelical theology (a description of each comes from his juxtaposing the one with the other, one which I believe warrants AP’s inclusion squarely in the former and in many respects precludes much of what passes for Anglo-American evangelical theology from the latter).

Jüngel explains, ‘a theology which is responsive to the gospel, meaning a theology which is responsive to the crucified man Jesus as the true God, knows that it is fundamentally different from something like philosophical theology in this one thing: single-mindedly and unswervingly, based on its specific task, it attempts to think God from the encounter with God…The possibility of thinking God is, for evangelical theology, not an arbitrary [or abstract] possibility, but rather a possibility already determined by the existence of the biblical texts and claimed already by faith in God. Theology must think God in the concrete context of a history which, beyond the momentary aspect of the ‘I think’, implies experiences of God which have happened and are promised’.

To accomplish this, Jüngel offers ‘Three basic hermeneutical decisions’ implied by the approach of evangelical theology as he conceives it:

  1. One cannot arrive at a concept of God by beginning with a new definition of thought and proceeding to such a concept as it emerges from the analytics of thought
  2. The task of thinking God as God is guided by a very definite possibility which is given with a special relationship of God to human thought which claims to have general validity.
  3. This possibility which guides thought in the task of thinking God as God is steered by the reality of the biblical texts.

Jüngel believes the key difference of how we conceive of God hinges upon the reality that the Word precedes thought and analytics. My concern is that the mode set forth by the analytic-philosophical kind, as precise and efficient as it appears, renders our ‘conceiving of God’ and the task of theology too remote from our encounter with God, it remains too scripture-doctrine-lite, and finally corresponds too much to an image that doesn’t present God as a personal agent in relation with us. One of the things we want to maintain is that God not only precedes and disrupts our best thinking, but also encounters us and moulds our thinking by causing us to worship him.



6 thoughts on “Jüngel and the difference between ‘evangelical’ and ‘philosophical’ theology

  1. Nothing profound: I like it! :-)
    I’m getting more into Jüngel having read his Justification recently for a class. I find his description of evangelical theology very similar to Barth’s theology of revelation in Jesus Christ. If we were to ask Jüngel where or how these encounters come, he would be very Christological about it I think.

  2. Mark –

    James directed me to your post and suggested that I comment. Here are a few thoughts.

    1. ‘AP’ is not a view, or doctrine, or theory. Consequently, it’s extremely hard to make any generalizations about those who would call themselves ‘analytic philosophers’ without there being obvious counterexamples. So, when you say that philosophical theologicans of this bent consider doctrines stripped of their biblical and doctrinal setting, you look to be saying something that’s demonstrably false. Tom, for example, is extremely concerned both to be as conceptually rigorous as possible while still respecting the various constraints imposed by Scripture and the Tradition. One might get the impression that he’s uncommon in this regard. But this is not true. Tom may be better at it than other philosophers who haven’t had theological training, but many of the people I read are at least *trying* to do what he does. Many philosophers are as committed to being doctrinally orthodox and tradition-sensitive as Tom is – although they do express that commitment quite differently than the average ETS member.

    2. I have a hard time understanding what you mean when you talk about holding doctrines to the bar of some particular system of logic, as if you’re aware of *other* systems of logic in which it’s legitimate to say many of the contradictory or ridiculously vague things that come out of the mouths of some theologians. Anyone who would seriously advance such a view owes us both the logic and some reasons to accept it.

    3. You worry that philosophical discussions formulate doctrines in ways that render them practically insignificant. There are two things to say here. First, practical significance doesn’t work that way. I can say something in a way that obscures its practical import; I do not thereby render it practically insignificant. Instead, what I do is pass the buck to some silver-tongued preacher whose job it is to communicate what I’ve said to the masses. Or, perhaps, I do not pass the buck – some knowledge is not for general consumption, and this not because it has no practical value, but because it only has practical value for those who have studied enough to appreciate its significance. Quarks and muons and gluons have practical significance to particle physicists; they have none for me. But that’s no criticism of the discussions had by particle physicists.

    Second, suppose that one tries to state some aspect of the doctrine of the Incarnation without falling into logical quicksand. This statement may be all but inaccessible to the masses. Moreover, its correct formulation may make only the smallest differences to my lived-Christianity. So what? This doesn’t make the project illegitimate – it just shows that we can know some thing about God that we don’t know what to *do* with. But surely there are many facts about God that have this character (e.g., that he is not identical to any prime number), and they are no less factual facts for this reason. A sufficiently rich account of vocation will leave room for God’s people to extend their knowledge in various directions. For some, that will involve delving into the details of Hebrew in ways that are hard to connect to the daily grind of faith. For others, that will involve worrying about what we mean when we talk about three persons in one substance – and this in ways that are obscure to most. But again, so what?

    4. Third, a potshot at your concluding paragraph. You say that philosophical theology “renders our ‘conceiving of God’ and the task of theology too remote from our encounter with God, it remains too scripture-doctrine-lite, and finally corresponds too much to an image that doesn’t present God as a personal agent in relation with us.” Of these three claims, I’ve dealt with the second already. The first and third are, I expect, a single claim. You want to say something like this: By ‘our encounter with God’, I take it that you mean the Scriptural narrative about God, plus some hand-waving toward the Tradition, broadly construed. So, in one sense, what I said before applies here, too. You can talk truthfully about God without saying ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’.

    But there’s something to add: I think that there’s an important place for theorizing that takes general revelation as its starting place and special revelation as a check point. If you are a good Barthian, you may balk at this. But you shouldn’t balk at the more conservative claim that we can take special revelation as the starting point and general revelation as a check point. The idea that we can do any theology at all without appealing to general revelation is an illusion. Most of the fields of knowledge on which evangelicals draw to do good theology (linguistics, history, some psychology and sociology, philosophy, mathematics, biology, etc.) were not specially revealed. So if someone like Tom wants to lean more heavily on one of these disciplines to do his work, what wrong with that?

    4. Finally, it’s just false that the fruits of philosophical theology are “an image that doesn’t present God as a personal agent in relation with us.” That the language is foreign and / or technical does not entail that the language depersonalizes God. Indeed, I can’t understand God as in relationship with me or anyone else apart from some of the theories that have been developed by philosophical theologians.

    In any case, with all that said, thanks for raising these issues. I haven’t thought about them for a while, so it’s nice to return to them.


  3. Thanks for stopping by Chris; I think you’re dead right, Jungel definitely locates this encounter in Christ’s self-disclosure to us which makes this encounter more than simply a noetic affair; a charge he and Barth both faced.

  4. Hey Bob, thanks for stopping by.

    It’s hardly likely that I will persuade you to my side and even more unlikely that you will persuade me to your side, but I’ll go ahead and try to address some of the points you have raised, nonetheless.

    By way of introduction, I understand and appreciate your concern that I not enter in to generalisations which is why I tipped my hat with the adjective ‘cluster’ though I should have demonstrated a little more restraint with ‘concept’. I’ve recently read and really appreciated Hans-Johann Glock’s recent work ‘What is analytic philosophy’ and he has likewise expressed his own concern that AP as a ‘family’ of thought is still amorphous and too diverse to expect a monolithic description; but with that said he’s also done a good job at tracing the historical contexts from which it has emerged, its developments and has manages to offer a distinction vis-à-vis continental philosophy.

    1. With that said, your main concern as expressed in your first point still doesn’t convince; while you point out that Tom (and I’m assuming you’re talking about the good doctor McCall) is not the exception to the rule, I have concerns that what you’ve expressed simply isn’t the case. While I didn’t mention names, Swinburne, Kenny, Gale and even most of the folk from the ‘Trinity Symposium’ fall into the category that seem to take ‘remaining orthodox’ as a bonus rather than a guiding, though secondary, norm. You seem to be saying ‘let us do our own thing and if it lines up with the tradition (an equally amorphous descriptor) then sweet’. What I am trying to press gives doctrinal decisions of the past a little more primacy because they tend to be shaped as the outcome of a theological crisis: reason arrested by the Triune God and this is what I was highlighting with Jungel.

    2. Yeah, my phrase ‘particular bar of logic’ probably wasn’t the best, but I still think there is an assumption that logic can trump the interruption of Christ’s self-disclosure. If the project of philosophical theologians (a few of whom I have mentioned above) has been to construct a meta category that spits out reasons for the rational intelligibility of the world and of human beings in the world according to a particular account of God, then it seems to me that the said group places too much emphasis on the conception of God they have deduced rather than simply beginning with a scriptural account and allowing it to open up threads to follow.

    3. On the matter of practical insignificance, I’m not sure the division of labour you have in mind (the philosophers do the heavy lifting while the preachers sit back and claim the fruits) really squares with the nature of the theological task I have in mind. Believe it or not Bob, faith isn’t a class for the remedial. Theologians strive for conceptual clarity and implement a mode of analysis themselves, however, the rule of theology held to by most decent theologians has been: the order of knowing depends upon the object/subject pursued (thinking follows reality). When it comes to thinking about God, there’s not one order of knowing for philosophers and one for theologians – well, maybe there is and that’s why we’re talking past each other but it is on this point that I find what Jungel says to be so refreshing.

    4. Your potshot at my concluding paragraph deserves a potshot of its own: I don’t think you can do theology external to saying/claiming ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ and perhaps this is the main difference between our approaches, particularly in the way you continue to explain your own approach. Your last objection on your second # 4 is a case in point and, to be honest, its one I just don’t have time to engage. All I would say to this is that when theology leaves its scriptural mooring to the side and casts around for other resources, what it comes back with, more times than not, is no longer compatible with scripture.

    5. Finally, I have to disagree with your last point. When someone like Anthony Kenny, in a discussion about God’s attributes says ‘Other attributes [aside from omnipresence and omnipotence], such as justice, mercy and love have a more obvious significance for the religious believer; but they are also less immediately amenable to philosophical investigation and analysis’, this tells me that what’s interesting to this particular theologian/philosopher and what’s not, is the stuff that can be broken down into parts, made sense of and then reassembled into a coherent and understandable form. One axiom held by some theologians is that God is not a god in general with the implication being that when we so arrange and develop theology along the lines that appear to be more congruent with those resources you have claimed evangelicalism has appealed to, then the god we are speaking about starts looking different from the one described in scripture. The more remote the sources appealed to for our theological accounts, the less clear that account becomes.

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.



  5. Mark –

    I take it that, as would-be scholars, we want to understand how the things that we study fit with, or are related to, all the other things that we know. So, if I am a biologist, I do well to ask chemists to weigh in on the phenomena that I study. Perhaps they cannot *replace* me and my work; perhaps we grant that they have their proper field of inquiry, and I have mine. Nevertheless, biochemistry is important because it illuminates issues in one domain with the tools of another. And, I submit, most issues are such that interdisciplinary work on them is better than the alternative. We understand a thing better when we come at it from as many angles as we can.

    So suppose that, based on her extensive study of everything that you believe that she ought study, Thelma Theologian tells me half a dozen constraints on an orthdox doctrine of the Incarnation. Then I, the analytic philosophical theologian, go to work and come up with an account that fits those constraints. In so doing, I think that I’ve given Thelma a better grip on the Incarnation. The crucial questions is, In what way have I given her a better grip on this doctrine? Well, that answer is bound to be long, complicated, and contentious. But one thing I can say is this: When we do epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, psychology, sociology, physics, economics, and theology (although not necessarily in that order), it would be nice if our theories did not contradict one another. One great way to prevent this unfortunate state of affairs is for people working in each of these areas to find out what folks in other areas are saying, and to get some advice from them. Sometimes, folks in one area will need to say to folks in another, “Your theory can’t be right, for these reasons.” In those cases, we’ve got to decide who wins, and it’s never given who that will be. That’s why, for example, we don’t accept every uncritical perspective on Scripture – we think that some of them are naive and false due to information that we have from, say, historical research, or (dare I say it) philosophical speculation. So, with the above in mind, one way that I think that I’ve given Thelma a better grip on the Incarnation is that I’ve told her some things that she ought not to say, at least if she cares about the various commitments on which my fomulation is based. Of course, she’s free to reject those commitments, just as anyone else is. But then she is, as anyone else would be, committed to replacing those commitments with some others. Perhaps she can, and perhaps she can’t. If she can’t, then she lives with that intellectual tension, and perhaps it’s an intellectual tension with which it’s worth living. But at least everyone now knows where everyone else stands.

    What I’ve just said seems remarkably sensible to me, and in no way controversial. But surely it is controversial, since I take it that you disagree with some of what I’ve offered here. For one, you are probably worried that I do theology a disservice by lumping it in with biology and chemistry and metaphysics. But I don’t know why you’re worried about this. Surely it’s the case that if God can ‘arrest’ reason when it’s doing theology, he can arrest it when it’s doing anything else. Moreover, if one takes the view (which I commend) that all of Creation testifies to who God is, we should expect there to be a little theology in every discipline that is not theology proper; this expectation should, indeed, be part and parcel of seeking knowledge in a world created by God.

    On one reading of your argument, your resistance to philosophical theology is based on worries about philosophical theologians. Perhaps we are all arrogant and stiff-necked; I’m not going to deny that many of us are more inclined to balk at (some, arguably non-essential formulations of) doctrines than at philosophical arguments directed against them. But this isn’t a problem with the method – if it’s anything, it’s a problem with the hearts of certain philosophers.

    On another reading, you want something much radical. On this reading, you want to say that I can’t help Thelma understand the Incarnation because, in virtue of not using appropriately theological language, I’m *unable* to help her – the view that I present to her is unrecognizable as the view that she sent me to construct. But this is just false. Qua philosopher, when I’m trying to come up with a formulation of the doctrine, I’m trying to relate my belief in God Incarnate to other beliefs that I have about metaphysics and physics and so on. And this is an important task, albeit one that doesn’t go over too well from the pulpit. But so what? My formulation, if useful at all, is useful in different ways for different purposes – it’s not designed to be the content of an altar call. However, it may be perfectly appropriate to invoke when some poor teen comes up to me and starts asking hard questions about stuff that Mr. Magoo said in physics class today about the conservation of energy and the causal closure of the universe. You and I serve the same community in different ways. Unless you simply refuse to acknowledge systematic understanding as a legitimate goal, I can’t see how you can condemn what I do. And if you *do* condemn systematic understanding as a legitimate goal, I think that you thereby gut theology of much of its significance. What good is knowledge of God if it’s got nothing to do with everything else?


  6. Hi Mark,

    I’m sure you are aware but Plantinga and others have been carving out a much more confessional and orthodox way of doing analytic Christian philosophy – without losing one bit of the rigor that is implied by the term ‘analytic’.

    For Plantinga it is perfectly acceptable to start with Christian belief and then do philosophy from there. It’s perfectly acceptable for a Christian philosopher to start from revelation and then reflect of what the right and proper view of causality, meta-ethics, political philsophy or whatever is from a Christian perspective. This type of analysis is a good bit of what analytic philosophy is all about (though usually working out the right and proper view of a subject from a naturalist perspective).

    In this, broadly, Augustinian way of doing Christian philosophy orthodoxy is not held at arms length or accepted provisionally – only accepted post analytic analysis. It is accepted and used in the context of the task of doing philosophy. This philosophy for the Body is, in my view, a significant work for the Church.

    I think that more rationalist type philosophers such as Swinburne would also admint, however, that their faith is not reducible to their philosophical anlaysis. But in the context of philosophy there is a strong emphasis on being able to show what you know. Now I don’t think this is really possible in any certain way with respect to Christian belief or anything else – but its still a useful clarifying, confirming, and evangelical excercise.

    A good recent collection of essays in this general area is For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christan Theology – Edited by James K. Beilby .

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