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Review of “Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom” By Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), xviii + 932 pp.

Pastoral work in the present needs more works from authors who belong to the theological wing of the theological disciplines. By this “theological wing,” I mean that the everyday work of pastors and lay leaders needs theology that is concerned as much with God as it is with the practical and the everyday. This appropriation of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s phrase—he claimed to be in the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”—points out that theology, as wide-ranging as it is, covering every topic under the sun, should at least speak and think of God.

Paul R. Hinlicky’s systematic theology offers what such “theological theology” at its best should present: a vision that touches on major concerns of the past and present that reorients how a person thinks and acts, renews a vision lost, and perhaps opens a door that never was visible before. But it does so through its consideration of God, keeping theology true to its subject matter.

This should entice readers to scale Hinlicky’s Beloved Community, which may be summarized in his thesis: “‘God’ is the self-surpassing Father who is determined to redeem creation and bring it to fulfillment in the Beloved Community by the missions in the world of His Son and Spirit” (49). Scaling is the right metaphor here because Hinlicky has written a lengthy dogmatics that has a varied topography, ranging from careful exegesis of John to standard discussions of patristic christology, from assessment of modern philosophies of the human subject to missiology.

In addition to this range, the book spurns many of the ordinary ways that theology books have been presented. First-person narratives mix with propositional argumentation. Assertion and argument follow each other. This varied terrain could intimidate a reader or obscure what the book offers, so in addition to reviewing the proposals Hinlicky makes, I offer some guidance to the reader to enter this work. Inevitably, I will have to skip or over-simplify some piece of his argument, owing to the size of this monograph.


Hinlicky has written an extensive and wide-ranging work of systematic theology that advances a deeply Augustinian, Lutheran, and ecumenical road for Christians to follow. His wide-ranging investigations drive continually toward the eschatological Beloved Community, an idiom Hinlicky has cultivated over several of his works. His use of the term “Beloved Community” refers to the divine community that is the eternal Trinity as well as to that community together with redeemed creation.

Hinlicky proposes that we interpret our experience and order our action and thought with and toward the Beloved Community by practicing what he calls “critical dogmatics.” This theological approach attempts what other theologians such as Oswald Bayer have held that there is no critique without the power of divine authority and no divine authority without critique. By this symmetrical phrase, Bayer intends what “critical dogmatics” can mean: that theology should countenance the challenges that Immanuel Kant and idealism have created for theology but that many of these challenges are answered not by accepting the Kantian or idealist position but by challenging them at their roots. For Hinlicky “critical dogmatics” also signals his rejection of modern reactionary theology just as much as those proponents who have endorsed it. Hinlicky frequently spurns modern positions in theology but he does not do so in order to flatly return to a pre-modern time; as his other book title suggests, Hinlicky pursues alternatives that have been muted or left aside in modern theology.

I suggest that readers begin at the end of the book. Starting with the last two chapters has the benefit of showing Hinlicky’s contribution of the context of theological work. Hinlicky begins his book with an account of theological subject, which provides us with a sketch of the agent, the actor of theology. He then continues on through to the theological object, concluding with the audience of such a subject. Hinlicky holds that God the Father is the audience of theology; this move shows a deep commitment to theology in the mode of addressing God, praising God, and indeed petitioning and struggling with God.

Writing theology for God or to God waned as the more economical genre of academic theology waxed in the high Middle Ages. This practical orientation and economical formulation for the sake of pedagogy has dominated theology ever since. To address God means to advocate again the kind of writing that suffuses Augustine’s Confessions, where addresses to God in the second person appears on every page. To address God also means to do the careful analytical work that Anselm undertook in his so-called ontological proof, a context that is often absent to us when it shorn of Anselm’s shaping of it as prayer when textbooks excerpt it. Much of The Beloved Community’s success depends on whether its readers accept this as a primary mode of theology.

God as the Auditor of Theology

Taking God as the primary audience of theological discourse means that we do not do theology for our own sake, though we gain knowledge of God that has practical and salvific import through the pursuit of theological inquiry, but because speech about God is undertaken within the Beloved Community. We do not formulate theological propositions for the sake of what “makes sense to a business manager in the middle of a day of work,” as Johannes Baptist Metz famously wrote. Theological propositions need to fit God, not the everyday delusions and dreams of domination of which we are victims and perpetrators in turn.

I find Hinlicky’s articulation of the audience of theology valuable because it neither pretends theology can be a discourse independent of the world nor does it make theology bow before the canons of what is plausible to contemporary North American culture. Indeed, Hinlicky’s formulation of the context of theology shows that our culture indeed has a role in how we speak but it is not the final or most embracing context for our theological work. Our pluriform culture itself is enclosed by God and has God the Father as its own context. In addressing our selves or our contemporaries, we are also speaking to God.

I think having this audience in place allows us to clear up some confusion that can emerge about Hinlicky’s methodological reflections on the subject of theology and his claims about pragmatic method that appear in the introduction and first chapters. Without this approach that takes God as the audience of theology, Hinlicky could seem to write as if theology were the provision only of those who have faith, thus seemingly embracing a kind of post-liberalism that holds theology to be subject only to the church, whichever church that might be, as well as a kind of liberalism that gives the theological right-of-way to personal experience. Without this context he seems to be recording his work in both the liberal and the post-liberal account-books. With this audience, something else is possible in Hinlicky’s work.

Hinlicky’s critical dogmatics proposes a way beyond the impasse between the post-liberal and the liberal. The liberal theology that dominates North American history privileges individual experience or propositional claims by demanding clear and certain grounds for knowledge. The post-liberal reaction to liberal theology eschews the idea of a common human knowledge or the availability of any way of grounding theology outside of the local community or culture. Hinlicky risks skewing post-liberal in this book by his embrace of a deflationary view of reason; he wishes to take reason as relative and local. At this point I think he gives too much credit to non-foundationalist theories of knowledge. The foundations of knowledge may no longer be held to be clear, certain, and immediately evident to all who posses reason. But that does not mean that there are not piers from which to set sail or judgments whose warrants are shared with or at least intelligible to natural scientists, non-religious people, or members of religious communities not Christian. By accepting a pragmatist theory of knowledge, Hinlicky advocates a point beyond these rationalist and post-modern impasses. Both foundationalism and non-foundationalism make too strong a claim on knowledge! Draping himself with the pragmatist flag, Hinlicky should advocate a moderate form of justification that does not go for the incommensurability of domains of reason that he articulates.

His avowed pragmatism can aid other dilemmas as well. The most important one of these impasses resolved is the context of theology: by articulating God the Father as the audience of theology, Hinlicky has liberated himself and those who follow him from the fetters of a specific school of theology and church tradition. If theology is tied to a particular tradition, it risks sectarianism and seclusion. If theology is too closely tied to the individual idiom of its author, it may speak truthfully to that person’s lived experience but it cannot hold for others so far as they do not share that person’s standpoint. If theology to quickly stamps out particular church traditions and confessions for the sake of a kind of lowest common denominator, the multiplicity of the Christian tradition diminishes. Hinlicky’s proposal for God as audience of theology offers a way to permit wide-ranging theological eclecticism and scholastic fidelity alike. Also, theology can operate on behalf of the church and the divided churches at the same time if done before God as audience.


Turning from the subject to the object of theology, the architecture of Hinlicky’s book deserves careful attention. These themes, prominent throughout, are: promise, pragmatism, and possibility. There are many more things to take up but I think these are crucial paths throughout the work. In each of these highways Hinlicky travels a good distance, demonstrating the value of his critical dogmatics for liturgical practice, for mission, and for dialogue with non-theological disciplines. In each of these spots of promise, pragmatism, and divine possibility, however, Hinlicky seems at a crossroad between several important alternatives.

The gift is the most important. As Hinlicky frequently declares, esse Deus dare, “to be God is to give.” “Gift” could be another name for God since it is crucial for the book. Several of Hinlicky’s summaries of Trinitarian doctrine rest on the metaphor and activity of giving. God the giver unites the long history of theology inflected by Platonism as much as the contemporary anthropological retrieval of the gift. God is the giver and as giver, God gives God to the world and the world gives back to God in the basic Platonic pattern of gift and its return. The task of thinking of God with respect to the discourse of being depends upon this gift: God has being and gives it to others in creating. At the same time, Hinlicky holds that God’s act of creation is a promise, and he takes faith to be a crucial dimension of the human relation to God because it rests in the particular promise that is born of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But a giving God is not a promising God. An important but often neglected cleft exists between the majority of theological traditions that privilege God as a giver and those comparably few that prefer to think of God’s graciousness as promise. Much hangs on this division because the activities of giving and promising differ in how the giver or promissor is construed to the point of implicating divergent accounts of divinity or Trinity.

Both ancient and modern theologians have had difficulty articulating the God who promises. In pre-modern schemes, many theologians in the past have claimed that God cannot promise; that God’s gifts only appear to us as promise because we perceive God’s eternal gift distended and chopped up in time. Or, from God’s eternity what is pledged at one time and then given in another is simply the same event. The simplicity of God’s being bars any idea of the activity of promising as anthropomorphism or the introduction of time into eternity. In its modern articulation, the giving God entails various nominalist or otherwise sovereign subjects as givers. This occurs when the arbitrary God who exceeds the created order to do whatever God wishes seems necessary if God is the sort of God who can keep promises. This kind of reasoning goes as follows: if God is trustworthy, God must have the capability to deliver on God’s promise and so one must conclude by virtue of this transcendental reasoning that God is more powerful than any event in the world that might emerge to prevent the promise from reaching its fulfillment.

On the other hand, a promise could entail a different kind of divine power and freedom. The risk and pain that making and keeping a promise requires of God removes the need for many of the metaphysical commitments that have long been attributed to God such as untrammeled power, simplicity of being, or immunity from time. Likewise, from the side of the human community, gifts do not require faith but only acceptance and then the task of passing them on to other creatures or returning them to God. It seems that this Triune God in The Beloved Community does not promise but only gives.

Trinity and Pragmatism

Reflection on the gift or promise is a way to return to basic questions about God’s being, to return to the Trinitarian matters that Hinlicky constantly urges. He rightly advocates attention to God’s being and holds that possibility holds an important place in thinking of God’s being because this reversal challenges conceptions of God alien to the God of the gospel. This can be seen in the way that Hinlicky makes claims about God, reasoning after God’s revelation in Jesus, as he puts it.

Hinlicky writes that statements about the eternal Trinity are “hope projected backwards.” Referring to another work of his, Hinlicky calls this a kind of reasoning about the eternal Trinity on the basis of the economic Trinity “induction.” The reasons for which Hinlicky invokes the eternal and immanent Trinity matters for this question because it seems that the freedom of God demands that there be a distinction of God from the event of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit upon the world, Israel, and the body of Christ. He, following much modern theology, requires that God would be the same God revealed in Jesus if there were no creation, no sin, no course of history that involves the election of Israel, and so on. The failure to uphold this, according to Hinlicky, is that God would not be free and therefore not God at all.

This reason, divine freedom, that Hinlicky advances, is no induction but might be closely associated with a form of argument called a transcendental deduction. He calls it “nachdenken,” thinking after, a suitable name for this sort of argument. God must be Triune in Godself because of the ontological requirements Hinlicky places on God if God is truly the God among us. That is, a conclusion of what is needed for God to be effective—the triumph over death requires God to be free over all things.

I take his way of making judgments about God to be somewhat transcendental instead of this inductive approach. If we approached knowledge of God inductively, we would consider claims about God in se as Trinity to be the retrospective conclusion of hope. Such inductive thinking about God could only be provisional. Provisional and defeasible claims about God would seem to fit the pragmatic approach to knowledge that Hinlicky claims to advance. Such a theory need not embrace an unbridled skepticism about knowing God as God is in eternity but it also does not need to endorse the immanent Trinity in the unqualified way as done by Hinlicky.

This stress on divine freedom seems to require Hinlicky to embrace a concept of God akin to that of modern individual subjectivity. He resists this embrace as he frequently lays the chief modern theological sin of “modern subject” at the feet of either Rene Descartes or Immanuel Kant. Likewise, his frequent opponent is modalism; not just the monarchic modalism of the pre-Nicene church, but modalism writ large and in many shapes. Versions of divine freedom seem to keep any name, even the name of Jesus, from sticking to God in eternity, since God can always undo any revelation. He proposes to remedy this sin by embracing God in God’s self-determination and the immanent Trinity. In both of these judgments Hinlicky repeats Karl Barth’s idioms nearly exactly. Privileging divine self-determination indeed elevates possibility over necessity, as Hinlicky wishes to do. Putting possibility before than actuality can occur in several ways. One idealist option, which Hinlicky especially rejects, finds possibility as a necessary outgrowth of an initial actuality. God must create, says Hinlicky’s idealist, since God needs another in order to become God. This means that God must become Jesus, in its crudest form, leaving no other being for the second person of the Trinity than the man Jesus of Nazareth.

Another tack on possibility lies with the embrace of divine infinity by a minority of theologians. Formerly infinity was a truncated and apophatic term that theologians such as Aquinas used to show that God was not anything finite, which would mean that infinity is just an empty and negative term. These writers held that by calling God infinite we say nothing about God at all. In response to this, John Duns Scotus, Nicholas of Cusa, and others developed infinity as a way to show the capaciousness of God for change, the world, and the new. For myself, I think this the better path and one that avoids the problems of a necessary action of God in order to become God and nominalistic voluntarism as this is another legacy of idealism worth developing. Hinlicky otherwise finds immense value in the reconstructive metaphysics of Eberhard Jüngel and of Robert W. Jenson, but he shies away from their treatment of God as an event. Both of these authors have brought event and infinity together in fruitful ways. The infinity of this particular event, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus from the dead, should satisfy and point beyond Hinlicky’s strictures.

Aside from this minority report, the voluntarist option is by and large the most prominent way of privileging possibility by making possibility rest on the freedom of God’s will. To preserve the freedom of divinity from the world’s strictures, from any kind of idealist necessity, or any other supra-divine reality into which God must fit, Hinlicky repairs to divine self-determination. God makes this decision. This privileging of the will has wrecked much havoc in theological history. It either detracts from the eternal Trinity for some, to others, including myself, it erases the actions of Jesus and their significance for who and what God is. Hinlicky seems to follow Schleiermacher, Barth, and Jüngel in placing love or wisdom as that which lies behind the will or decision of God, Jüngel especially finding love as event more basic to God than God’s will. This move makes love (or wisdom) that most fundamental reality about God.

Since Hinlicky frequently understands the Beloved Community as the promised consummation of the world, the life of the redeemed with God, I was surprised not to see this moderation of divine freedom or divine self-determination by love or wisdom in the book. This commitment of Hinlicky’s should weaken his commitment to God’s self-determination. As a promised community, Hinlicky could fulfill his pragmatist notions, underscore the importance of God as possibility, and, perhaps most importantly, realize that esse Deus promittere, to be God is to promise instead of to merely give. For promise and faith are correlates, as asserted by Luther and Melanchthon alike. Embracing promise, as Hinlicky seems to want to do, would mean a kind of apophaticism appropriate to that promise. Taking up the promising God would also fit Hinlicky’s avowed pragmatism and underscore the defeasibility of theological claims. That would further allow Hinlicky to free the concepts of God that he advances from the grip of the modern subject, a grip exhibited again and again in his description of God as self-determining.

The point this pragmatism, possibility, and promise serves is nothing other than that happy exchange, the kind of divine economy that Luther recovered from his predecessors and reformulated: Christ’s solidarity with us. Only the crucified God will do to bear our weight and much is at stake when there is another God on offer than the hanged man of Golgotha. The happy exchange and its sorrowful correlates energizes the Beloved Community in Hinlicky’s work but do not develop this strange and wondrous strife in God because the events of Jesus’ life and resurrection are mediated and distant from God in his construal; they stand in need of the Spirit’s uniting force, according to Hinlicky. In this case, the man Jesus’ relation to the God of Israel is not directly the relation of the Son to the Father. Rather, it is more complicated than that with Hinlicky, perhaps needlessly so.

Further, it might seem that the giving God articulated by Hinlicky would eliminate the danger that the one who is self-determining is also self-possessing. God, we learn from Hinlicky, is self-surpassing and giving. But the gift, again, needs more attention here. Giving away, in any gift-economy is always to create obligations, is always giving-to-keep or giving-to-return. If God were to be giving gifts without strings attached, God wouldn’t be giving, God would be making a promise. And instead of being self-determining, by making a promise, God would be opening Godself up to the burden of the other and the event of Jesus’ solidarity and death.

I see all of my comments as arguments I share within the traditions Hinlicky navigates. None of them detract from his accomplishment, for which I am very grateful. I recommend the book on the basis of its unrelenting theological concerns, that Hinlicky theologizes theologically, and that he so persistently wishes to be done with many false alternatives that plague contemporary North American theology that I simply hope for more books as strident and searching from Hinlicky as he further advances his critical dogmatics.

Gregory Walter is Associate Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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