A Dialectical Approach to the Bible
The word “dialectic” originates in Ancient Greece and was made popular by Plato in his Socratic dialogues. The dialectic method is based on a dialogue between two or more people who may hold differing views, yet wish to pursue truth by seeking agreement with one another (as opposed to debate where either side is trying to prove the other wrong.) The aim of the dialectical method is resolution of the disagreement through rational discussion and ultimately the search for truth.
There are three basic stages to the dialectical model, commonly referred to as the Hegelian Dialectic:
- Thesis (a proposition that gives rise to reaction)
- Antithesis (counter-propositions that contradict or negate the thesis)
- Synthesis (the tension is resolved by means of a synthesis or combination of the opposing ideas, or at least a qualitative transformation in the direction of the dialogue.)
An example of the Dialectical Model:
- Thesis: turtles are good.
- Antithesis: turtles are bad.
- Synthesis: turtles are neither good nor bad, it is one’s experience of turtles that we label as good or bad.
This method assumes that our understanding of reality at any given time is always provisional, finite and transient. ‘Progress’ is made through this continuous process of exposing the weaknesses inherent in our finite assertions about reality and finding the next breakthrough in “knowing” by means of a new or third perspective that resolves the tension between opposing viewpoints.
The dialectical process is cyclical (as opposed to circular) meaning it is ongoing and repetitive but progressive at the same time (not just a matter of history repeating itself).
So…the synthesis, or third view, in this model becomes the new thesis which gives rise to a new antithesis and so on. Here is a diagram.
Hegel, Fichte and other philosophers propose this is how all of human history unfolds. Many theologians believe this is how the Biblical story unfolds. I certainly have come to see this dialectical progression throughout the Bible. I see the image of God developing and evolving throughout Scripture over time as well as the concepts of evil and Satan, the meaning of life, love, ethics, etc. (See Robert Wright’s “Evolution of God” or Karen Armstrong’s “A History of God”)
The dialectical approach explains why we see the Bible blatantly arguing with itself sometimes. For example the Hebrew prophets disagreeing with some Mosaic and priestly traditions and in the NT Jesus saying things like “You have heard the law [the Bible] say ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” Matthew 5:38-39
Let me offer a paraphrased caricature of an example of dialectical progression in the Bible.
Thesis: God loves the righteous. God punishes the wicked. So…we ought to love the righteous (meaning those in our tribe who follow the rules of the tribe) and judge and destroy the wicked (meaning other tribes.) Note: This logic would be behind the disturbing accounts of “God sanctioned” genocide in the Bible.
Antithesis: God loves everyone. God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. God’s love endures forever. So…we too must love everyone. We must have mercy on the wicked.
Synthesis/New Thesis: God loves everyone. God is merciful. But God is just. God will not be mocked. There are lines we can cross and become enemies of God. God’s law rules over all. So…we too are called to love and justice, we offer some mercy but breaking God’s law must be punished.
Antithesis: Everyone is a sinner and deserves the wrath of God. Even the “righteous”. We don’t cross a line to become sinners or enemies of God, we are born sinners and enemies of God. We all deserve judgment and punishment. So…we need ritual cleansing, animal sacrifice, someone or something must pay for our sin. Whoever is not ritually cleansed will suffer God’s wrath (and probably ours!)
Synthesis / New Thesis Option 1: Everyone sins, even the righteous, but ritual, worship and animal sacrifice are empty and meaningless. It is the submission of our hearts and wills to God that matter. So…Love God, walk humbly and do good to others – this makes us friends of God not rituals, worship and animal sacrifice.
Synthesis / New Thesis Option 2: Everyone sins and sin must be judged and punished. Rituals, worship and animal sacrifice aren’t enough to pay for sins. So….we must pay for our sins. In fact our children and our children’s children will pay for our sins. God will bring our enemies to kill, rape and enslave us because of our sins…
And so on and so on…
This dialectical progression of thought continues through the Hebrew Scriptures on into the New Testament, the early church, the middle ages, the Reformation, modernity and continues today.
One of the most interesting implications of this dialectical approach to Scripture is that divine revelation is not revealed in the propositions of specific Biblical passages but in the ongoing conversation, in the “arguments”, in the unresolved tension, in the dialectical process.
Take an issue like salvation for example. Many conservative Christians will quote a proposition from a particular passage such as “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” Acts 16:31 and back it up with other similar propositions found in other Bible passages, proclaiming this is THE truth proposition of the Gospel (often paraphrased as “accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour to receive forgiveness for your sins and eternal life in heaven”) without acknowledging all the counter-propositions to this thesis we also find in the Bible. Here are a few:
“Stop judging, and you will never be judged. Stop condemning, and you will never be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37
But if you do not forgive others, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your transgressions.” Matthew 6:15
“And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.” Matthew 18:35
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Luke 6:20
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:7-10
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20
“…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?…The man answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:27-28
“For this is good and pleasing to God our Saviour, who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” I Timothy 2:3-4
“But women will be saved through childbearing–if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” I Timothy 2:15
“Faith without works is dead.” James 2:17, 20, 26
And there are many more.
When we approach the Bible with a dialectic lens we begin to see that THE truth or divine revelation is not found in any individual or group of particular propositions of Scripture but in the dialogue, in the tension, in the dialectical process.
I believe that this dialectical progression of understanding God, salvation, ethics, etc. is not only developed in the Bible but continues in our theologizing today. We are a part of this conversation. It is ongoing. The process of divine revelation and spiritual understanding is not something that was completed 2000 years ago and all that remains for us is to correctly understand and adhere to it today. We are part of this revelatory unfolding. The Spirit continues to teach, guide and lead us into truth just as Jesus promised. But always in community – with friends and like-minded sojourners, as well as people of faith who hold radically different and opposing propositions, as well as the Biblical authors, etc.
There is much more to say about this dialectical approach to Scripture but I will conclude with a few quotes from Brian Mclaren’s latest book called “A New Kind of Christianity”. Check it out if you are interested in reading more about this approach to the Bible. His chapter on the book of Job is very convincing in my opinion.
“Revelation occurs not in the words and statements of individuals in the Bible but in the conversation among individuals and God. Revelation thus happens through the course of the conversation, in the tension of the argument, through the interplay of statement and counterstatement.”
“The Bible reveals God not in lessons, morals, doctrines or beliefs that God dictates – it is rather an event, a turning point, a breaking open, a discovery, a transforming and humbling encounter that occurs to readers when they engage with the text in faith – with all its tensions and unresolved issues intact.”
“If the Bible was intended by God to be the final word answering questions and ending controversies then it has failed miserably. If it was intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a remarkable way!”
“This approach to the Bible does not put us under it like conservatives tend to do, or above the text as liberals often do but rather put us IN the text, in the conversation, in the story, in the Spirit, in the community of people who keep bumping into the living God in the midst of their experiences of loving God, betraying God, losing God and being found again by God.”
For common ground and the greater good. Peace.