Vanhoozer Responds to Helm

Article by   July 2006

I've been reading just about everything Paul Helm writes with great enthusiasm since I first encountered his The Varieties of Belief (1973) during my days as an undergraduate. Moreover, I almost always find myself agreeing with him, even when he champions positions that are no longer popular (e.g., divine eternity, divine impassibility). So my first inclination after reading his deconstruction of my "distorted and partial account" of Charles Hodge's theological method was to fall upon my pen and never write another unjust word.

In search of justice

Authors are entitled to have their views fairly presented - no argument there (along these lines, I have some thoughts about the recent review of my Drama of Doctrine in Reformation21, but that's another story). I have spent no little part of my professional life arguing just this point in the lion's den of postmodern hermeneutics. I further believe that it is part of our Christian witness as scholars to display the intellectual virtues - not only justice, but humility and charity as well - in all our scholarly work. I work hard - though apparently not hard enough! - to do justice to each person's position, Christian or non-Christian, out of a conviction that we need to go the second academic mile to get it right, especially when we ultimately disagree with "it."

To be understood rightly is all too rare a blessing. Why? Because understanding others is often hard work, an intellectual and sometimes a spiritual struggle. I would be the first to acknowledge that I do not always live up to my own ideals. Finitude and fallibility (fallenness) are my twin nemeses, though the situation would be even worse if I did not acknowledge them. Rationality is in part a readiness to submit one's perspective and thought to criticism, precisely because it is not absolute. The final thing that needs to be said about distortion is that it is ultimately pointless: the truth will win out. There is neither long-term gain nor satisfaction in beating straw men.

For all these reasons, then, I am sickened at the thought that my account of Hodge could now become exhibit one of the various intellectual vices against which I struggle and speak. Distortion of others' position is a moral failing, a betrayal of trust that is perhaps the equivalent in academia to a tele-evangelist's absconding with his viewers' funds. Did I distort Hodge¹s position, either willfully or unwillfully?

A retraction

Let me openly admit to at least one obvious mistake. I was wrong to attribute Bolt's editorial synopsis to Bavinck and wrong to suggest that Bavinck had Hodge explicitly in mind. In this I was misled by a secondary source, whose author shall remain nameless for his own protection. So much for the principle of credulity... (Aside to my doctoral students: do as I say, not as I did here). Now, how to make reparations? If this public confession is not enough, I suppose I could always make a donation in Hodge's name to Princeton Theological Seminary (or not).

A conflict of interpretations?

As to the rest of Helm's charges, I'm not so sure. At what point is it right for exegete A, who disagrees with exegete B about the interpretation of a particular biblical verse, to label B's view a "distortion"? As we shall see below, I am far from being the only senior Reformed theologian to have raised certain misgivings about Hodge¹s depiction of inductive theological science. Be that as it may, I think it crucial for the project of understanding to put my comments on Hodge in their proper context.

For those who have not yet read my chapter, it is important to know that it was not primarily about Hodge. In fact, a bit of induction reveals that the controversial description in question takes up no more than four paragraphs out of one hundred and ninety-three, less than 3% of the whole. Of course, just because you happen to be "passing by" is no excuse for shooting someone. But it is relevant to point out that the main focus of my article lies elsewhere. So yes, my four paragraphs are partial in the sense of incomplete.

Are they partial in the sense of being unfair or unjust? Again, I am open to this possibility because deep inside I wonder if I have ever done full justice to any thinker, including Paul Ricoeur, whose collected works I have been reading and re-reading for years. Perfectionists like me procrastinate writing for as long as possible in order to read as much as possible beforehand precisely because we know full well how easy it is to be partial (and because we know there are specialists in historical theology and the like waiting with their microscopes to examine and pounce on our every generalization). Someone has to say something about large issues, however, such as how best to do theology today. Helm's comments therefore raise an important issue for all of us, namely, how to balance the demands of accurate historical description with the need for more programmatic theological statements. It's a bit like balancing work and family; one never wants to become too complacent about the weighting.

The context of my remarks

Back to Helm's charge and the context of my remarks on Hodge. Some preliminary points: first, I purposely submitted my manuscript for comment to a group of friends and colleagues in a number of different disciplines who serve, among other things, as bias-detectors. Second, I let Hodge speak for himself some ten times in these four paragraphs, and in the third paragraph I raise a question against my own description of his inductive approach by calling attention to "his well-known piety and his remarks concerning the role of the Holy Spirit" (137). Thus, while Hodge's main focus is the analogy with inductivist science, even in the space of a scant four paragraphs I make sure to inform the reader that this is not the whole story.

The third preliminary point is for me the most important. The function of my brief comments on Hodge was not to offer the definitive reading of his theology but to use him to pose a question to Reformed systematic theology: is this the best we can do when it comes to using the Bible to formulate doctrine? Moreover, the method I go on to commend is quite different from that of John Franke, Nancey Murphy, and Stanley Grenz, with whom Helm associates me at the beginning of his comments. Helm describes my four paragraphs as "the latest of such accusations." It is nothing of the sort. My motive for questioning the adequacy of Hodge's approach has nothing to do with their motives, which is to discredit foundationalism and enshrine some form of non-foundationalist approach to theology.
Helm notes that these theologians have accused Hodge of being a "foundationalist," "positivistic," "empiricist" and "individualistic." I employ none of these labels myself to describe Hodge's position, with the exception of empiricist. I wonder whether Hodge is urging a distinct type of "biblical" empiricism. But interestingly enough, if there is a target in my essay, it is Stanley Grenz, not Charles Hodge. Readers who had only Helm's comments to go by might find this surprising. Who is now distorting whom?

I hope that one day I will have as able an advocate for my position as Hodge has in Helm. Helm helpfully puts the best possible face on Hodge's inductive approach when he (rightly, in my opinion) explains that it is ultimately a way that seeks to give Scripture theological priority. I wholly endorse this ideal, but I think there are better ways of realizing it than that suggested by Hodge's analogy with the natural sciences. Still, I resonate with Hodge's desire to preserve and protect the a posteriori character of theology. That is why I started reading Hodge and Warfield in my undergraduate years, and why I still owe them a debt of gratitude. If I do have a tendency to be harder on Hodge than on some non-Reformed thinker like Ricoeur (though this in itself is debatable), it is only because I want to clean most thoroughly in the household of faith (doubtless Helm could appeal to the same housecleaning urge!).

Other voices

I don't think I say anything about Hodge that isn't already in, say, David Clark's To Know and Love God: I say that the direction of Hodge's theological reasoning is "bottom-up: from biblical foundations to doctrinal formulation" (136). Clark says: "He assumed that the human mind is relatively passive. The theologian allows theological interpretations to bubble up from biblical facts" (49). Helm defends Hodge by saying that he is "prescribing a set of ideals, not describing what actually goes on" but that is part of the problem. Can even Spirit-filled interpreters agree on how to exhibit the biblical facts in their proper relation, and on what they imply when they are so arranged? Again, Clark writes that "The clean, acultural, factual inductivism of Bacon in science (and Hodge in theology) is as much a mythical ideal as Descartes' desire for a single geometric method" (262).

I am far from being the only highly-regarded theologian in the Reformed family to question the adequacy of Hodge's approach. My erstwhile teacher, John Frame, describes Hodge as an "objectivist" (77) whose analogy of theology and the natural sciences raises a number of problems (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, pp. 77-8). It was from Frame that I first learned that the Bible is not merely a body of factual statements but is full of other kinds of language as well that call for more robust types of interpretation than can be covered under the rubric of "induction". Frame therefore regrets Hodge's choice to present theology in terms of theory-construction: "'Objectivism' continues to be a danger in orthodox Christian circles." A similar concern lies behind my original essay "On the very idea of a theological system." So: why me? why now? why here?

Specific issues

Briefly: Helm says that Hodge does indeed take account of the situation of the interpreter, contra my statement that "The location or situation of the interpreter is irrelevant". If by "situation" one includes the orientation of one¹s heart, then I agree: it makes a difference to one's handling of the biblical facts whether one enjoins union with Christ through the Spirit or not. What I really was thinking about, however, were things like one's cultural and historical and ideological situatedness. The glory of the scientific method is that experiments can be performed in Chicago to verify results obtained by laboratories in South Korea (and vice versa). And there have been biblical interpreters who think that their "scientific" approach to the text may counteract all subjective biases, yet sincere, Spirit-filled Christians can employ the same grammatical-historical method and still find themselves unable to reach agreement with other sincere Spirit-filled Christian readers.

On the subject-object dichotomy (and theory-laden data): I need not rehearse the familiar objections against the former notion (particularly as formulated by Descartes) made by thinkers as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Polanyi, and Lesslie Newbigin. I picked on this notion because I agree with Frame that Hodge has objectivist leanings. In response, let me simply repeat the (now famous!) words of John Bolt that serve as his summary of Bavinck's position: "Scripture does not give us data to interpret; it is itself the interpretation of reality, the shaper of a distinctive worldview."

Along these lines, I must say that I was most intrigued by Helm's point that Hodge sees the higher principles as inhering "in the facts themselves." I think this is probably right (Hodge is not the enemy!), but I think that we need to say more about how to locate and access these principles in the higher levels of biblical discourse (e.g., the diverse literary forms and unified canon). My worry is that some have used and continue to use Hodge's inductivist method to endorse word studies, proof-texting, and the like - though to be sure it would be unfair to hold Hodge directly responsible for every poor application of his method.


In conclusion, my essay is not primarily about Hodge nor is it intended to be the definitive judgment on his theology taken as a whole. All I am really saying is that we can do better with regard to how we construe and use the Bible for the purposes of doctrinal theology than what Hodge's analogy with inductive science suggests ("a picture held us captive").

Just as Helm thinks that it is wrong to use a distorted and partial account of Hodge to advance my own cause, so I hope that readers will not use Helm's account of my only-slightly-more-than-parenthetical description of Hodge as an excuse not to engage the substance of my own constructive proposals. Nevertheless, I take Helm's words as a mid-career wake-up call whose still painful sting will no doubt keep me from falling asleep at the wheel again for some time. And for this, I am grateful.

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