Chapter 2: Critical Realism as Methodology (presented as a term paper for a recent class)


William Placher reflected on a quote from John Webster in this way: “I must be willing to ‘mortify myself’ to repudiate ‘the desire to assemble all realities, including texts, including even the revelation of God, around the steady center of my will.’ If I assume that these stories serve purposes I had… I will not be open to understanding them.”[1] This should be an admonition to all theologians, but especially it will be a point I must come back to throughout my study. Indeed, it was this sentiment which drew me to Critical Realism as an exegetical approach after my initial encounter with it in N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God.

This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower(hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality.[2]
Wright takes this stance over against the two opposing views of the positivist, who accepts a “naïve realism” in which we observe reality and make real statements simply based on empirical observation, and that of the phenomenalist, who leans close to solipsism in acknowledging that the only evidence we can truly examine is that we are encountering sense data without making any statement on the external world, if such a thing exists other than as some grand delusion. Critical Realism accepts the criticism that we only know what we sense, but allows the reality we perceive to truly exist in and of itself. This gives us the ability to say something meaningful about reality, but only while remaining critical of the meaning we find, the reality we observe, and the process whereby we arrive at both an interpreted meaning and the observation of reality.

Wright mentions that after he finished the first draft of the section on Critical Realism in his book, Meyer’s Critical Realism and the New Testament came out, “in which a good deal of what I was trying to say is spelled out, argued for, and given (to my mind) solid foundations.”[3] Of course, such a resounding praise required me to procure and examine for myself Meyer’s excellent work, a wonderful example of applying Critical Realism (for which Meyer heavily relies on the work of Bernard Lonergan) to the hermeneutics of the New Testament. Both Wright and Meyer (and Lonergan, though I have found the former two more helpful) make use of the concept of the personal story bound within one’s horizons to explain how we can truly know anything about the world around us and, perhaps more importantly, how we come by that knowledge. Before I can delve into that, I must first define two important terms: Meaning and Reality.


Meaning and Reality

The two prevailing theories in theoretical physics through most of the 20th century were Quantum Mechanics and Relativity. Quantum Mechanics deals largely with the very, very small: protons, electrons, quarks, neutrinos and the like. Relativity deals in the very, very big: planets, stars, galaxies, indeed the very fabric of space and time. Incidentally, since the universe began as a singularity (probably) and has grown to such an astoundingly large size, the two theories are most useful at the opposite ends of the history of the universe. Quantum Mechanics helps to explain what was happening when the universe was young and infinitesimal; Relativity helps to explain what is happening and will happen in the universe at large.

An interesting conundrum in modern physics arises from the quest for a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) of physics, a theory which could explain everything observable in the physical universe. When observing the universe at a quantum level, relativity falls to pieces; when observing the universe at a relativistic level, quantum mechanics becomes utter nonsense. It should come as no surprise that both theories are nearly incomprehensible when observing the universe at a human level, somewhere in between the quantum and relativistic levels. Some physicists have tried to combine the two theories into a GUT, but I don’t have much hope for that project.

Does the vast and mutual exclusivity nullify the validity of both theories? As the Holy Grail of the quest for a GUT, yes; but as a way to understand the universe (i.e. find meaning in the data of reality), from a critically-realistic perspective, they are both valid critiques of their respective levels of observation. From their perspectives, Quantum Mechanics and Relativity provide a true understanding of the observable universe, but neither can answer the questions raised by the other’s worldview any more than they can explain my attraction to my wife, my ability to read and write, or why it always seems to rain the hardest on days I forgot to bring an umbrella to work. All of these ask different types of questions which require different methods of examination to answer, none of which will work on the others because they all come from a different perspective and tell a different story.

While the two exclusive perspectives cannot conceive of the other directly, they are not entirely non-communicative. Through the critical acceptance of the validity of the other’s conceptualizations with the “intent on the transposition of meaning,” a task which “centers both on first-level ‘meaning,’ which makes sense of things, and on the second-level ‘meaning’ which makes sense of the way [the other] made sense of things,”[4] both perspectives could find (and may currently be finding) otherwise untapped wells of meaning resourceful to their own questions.

Although the previous paragraphs have used two perspectives from theoretical physics (for, the plainest sense of the scientific term “theory” comes down to a perspective on the world), the last two paragraphs could easily have summarized a critically-realist perspective on any two worldviews of almost any range of dissidence. Was the American Revolution a patriotic push for independence or the petulant rebellion of a pubescent against her parents? Why not both? For that matter, when my daughter reaches the age when she feels ready to forge her own way in the world, will a defiant “No!” be a healthy show of growth or a negative behavior I should punish? Again, why can both not be true understandings from different perspectives? And when a 21st century American biblical theologian turns to the recorded stories of a 1st century Palestinian Jew and reads a kerygmatic tale of the Gospel of Jesus eliciting a frenzy of Pneumatic activity  as a lived and livable story of which he has become a part, has the theologian ignored and belittled the “first-level meaning” in the text and brazenly created a fallacious “second-level meaning,” or has he found within the first-level meaning of the text an incarnate story with ample, purposeful, second-level meaning which can help to define the reality in which he finds himself, no matter how much the world may have changed over 2000 years?

In answer to the question of what I mean by ‘meaning’ and ‘reality,’ ‘reality’ is what first-level meaning observes, the ‘picture’ formed by the senses, what Lonergan called ‘the world of immediacy’; ‘meaning,’ especially second-level meaning, is the ‘story’ one tells to define the reality which is observed, what Lonergan called ‘the world mediated by meaning’. To put it another way, ‘reality’ is the world our senses perceive (keeping the critique that our only access to reality is through our senses, of course); ‘meaning’ is the interpretation we form of that reality (or rather of the perception our senses have made of reality).


A Critical-Realist Perspective on Early Trinitarianism

Though Modalism is certainly heretical and must be avoided, one can appreciate at least that modalists do not fall to an obvious fallacy. A cursory examination of the biblical narrative could lend itself to a modalistic reading. Throughout the Tanakh, YHWH interacts with his people in theophanies of a physical nature,[5] in visions wherein the prophet ‘sees’ the invisible God,[6] and in the indwelling, gift-giving spirit.[7] In the New Testament, the confusion increases as the church encounters first the man Jesus, then after his ascension, the Holy Spirit. Each of these theophanies never occured at the same time, or to use classical Trinitarian language, no more than one hypostasis ever appeared to humanity at the same time.[8]

The New Testament authors began life under certain horizons, religious, social, and moral(?). As they encountered Christ and grew in their knowledge of him, they converted to new horizons. The New Testament is full of evidence of this conversion process, and as will be the focus of my exegesis, this is especially true in the conversion from the pure monotheist horizon of Roman-era Palestinian Judaism to the trinitarian horizon of Christianity. This transition did not occur as a synthetic structure, but as an experience of the Triune God revealed through Jesus. My exegesis will focus on drawing out the “spontaneously self-assembling structure of human intentionality”[9] where it can be found in the texts.

The church’s view of God did not simply become trinitarian; it grew out of “the sequence of wonder, inquiry, insight, judgment, decision” experienced by the no-doubt terrifying realization that their former horizon of Judaic monotheism, in which “YHWH is One” was “the limit of what one knows and cares about,” would no longer explain or contain their experience with the divine-man Jesus. They had to have a revolutionary transition to a horizon in which “YHWH is One” could fit with “Jesus is Lord, who took on the form of man, submitted to death on a cross, and was raised” as well as “The Spirit of the Lord dwells within you.”

These first-century Jews must have found this personal encounter with the triune nature of God incomprehensible. The question arises, “Why did the early Church in fact not become tritheistic?” Theology introductions and broad-brush trinitarian histories accept the necessity of monotheism for the first Christians even as they speak of the challenge created for monotheism by the Incarnation and the Indwelling. But the New Testament documents do not struggle with this because the earliest Christians had to work out the divinity of Christ before anyone could wonder about things like levels of divinity, hypostases of God, or eternal begottenness. One could speculate that the first Christians, upon discovering Jesus’ divinity, simply assumed this was another theophanic revelation similar to the burning bush or the Prophets’ visions, the difference being the Emmanuel, that is ‘God with/among us,’ being personified in Christ as opposed to the basic idea that God dwells among the people of God (e.g. the Latrine Law of Deuteronomy 23).

Of course the early church had little to disseminate on their doctrine of the Spirit of God: they were Jews and already knew that God’s Spirit dwelt among God’s people with no detriment to the omnipresence of God (as the Jews understood God’s omnipresence). The immediate question for the first Christians dealt with the Son, Jesus. The realization that the Spirit, whom they had experienced or read of in the experiences of their people, is also fully God in the way that both the Father and Jesus are could only come about after they had grappled with the relation between Father and Jesus. It may be presumed that by that point in the history of theological development, the realization about the Spirit would have been a perfectly natural transition since the Old Testament is full of references to the ruach Elohim coming upon God’s people, though this hypothesis deserves a more thorough scrutinization than this basic study will allow.


What I am Most Certainly Not About

Returns to the ‘simple gospel’ seldom land at their intended destination; they land instead at whatever interpretation of reality is currently most hallowed by familiarity, however it may be related to the gospel. So at least it went with Augustine’s rejection of Cappadocian subtleties, and so it would surely go with any trinitarian primitivism of ours.[10]

Robert Jenson here points out a common misconception in many modern evangelical churches: the belief in and quest for a “New Testament church” in the modern world. Among the various intrinsic problems with this concept, including but not limited to a broad-if-viable definition of the term “New Testament church,” the issue pertinent in Jenson’s work is the attempt at adopting ignorance of previous advancements of Christian thought for the sake of an idolatrous “purity” in doctrine. I do not use the term idolatrous lightly, so I must explain my usage here.

The concept that the primitive church was somehow closer to the true Gospel implies two false conclusions: first, later generations of the church acted completely without the guidance provided to the early church, i.e. the work of God the indwelling Holy Spirit; and second, the early church understood to a greater degree the works of God occurring in their time. In most Christian Creeds, there is a declaration of the belief in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” normally signifying the unity of the faithful in the tradition handed down by the Apostles. This is perfectly fine until the focus shifts away from the handing down of that tradition to either, for the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, a political requirement that the transpersonal tradition be personified in the correct person, or, for Protestantism and others, a dogmatic requirement that the trans-historical tradition be only recognizable in the corpus of apostolically-authored Scripture. Either replaces the tradition which is bigger than any of us and which will outlive each of us with an idolized, controllable certitude, a foundation we can comprehend and so fool ourselves into trusting.

The second fallacy should prove more useful to the topic of this essay. For any event, there is no privileged perspective; neither proximity nor distance grants perfect vision. The belief in a “modern New Testament church” or a “pure, simple Gospel” assumes the closer one is to the subject, the better equipped one is to make a value judgment; but, the opposite fallacy is present in many scholarly circle, that we have a privileged perspective because we are removed from the situation, we have the historical record on which we can base our judgments, and have matured in our thinking. Both of these ideas have an appeal, but both are missing a vital point of the human experience, that we are all in this together. The best chance to gain an accurate view of any historical event is to either be God (an option unavailable to us) or to combine the evidence left by those who experienced the event first hand with the perspectives good historiography can provide within a logical framework based on the shared human experience. At this point, we must apply the critique of what we can know cannot have been the case and the realism to accept that the world we encounter is predictable and measurable.



As we seem to be approaching the end of the transitional philosophical epoch known as Postmodernism (or at least, so it seems to us as we live it), many scholars find dissatisfaction with either the naïve realism of modernity or the despondent phenomenalism of postmodernity. Critical Realism may be the path forward as an attempt to glean the best of both post-Enlightenment outcomes into a new synthesis. But Critical Realism is more than just a hopeful stab at a way forward; it covers the holes left by its predecessors: from positivism, it recognizes that the senses can be fooled or mistaken, that the only picture we have of the world around us comes to us through the sense data which we then interpret into a worldview; from phenomenalism, it recognizes that the origin of our sense data need not devalue it as an accurate portrayal of the world around us, but in fact the only options we have are solipsism or accepting the picture our sense data brings us. Critical Realism demands that I critically think and rethink about everything I know and assume without leaving me curled into a fetal position in some dark corner of my mind, convinced that everything outside of me is an illusion.







Jenson, Robert. The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press,        1982.

Lonergan, Bernard J. F. Method in Theology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

Meyer, Ben F. Critical Realism and the New Testament. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 1989.

Placher, William. The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology. Louisville, KY: Westminster John   Knox Press, 2007.

Wright, N. T. Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 1: The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.


[1] William Placher, The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 94.

[2] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsberg Fortress Press, 1992), 35; Wright adds an important distinction in a footnote “that the adjective ‘critical’ in the phrase ‘critical realism’ has a different function to the same adjective in the phrase ‘critical reason’. In the latter (as e.g. in Kant) it is active: ‘reason that provides a critique’. In the former it is passive: ‘realism subject to critique’.

[3] Wright, 32.

[4] Ben F. Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1989), 208.

[5]          Exodus 3:2-6; 13:17-22.

[6]          Isaiah 6:1-6; Ezekiel 11:1; Amos 9:1 (possibly).

[7]          Exodus 31:3; Numbers 24:1-3; 1 Samuel 10:10; 19:20-24.

[8]           The one exception that proves the rule is, of course, the baptism of Jesus by John.

[9] Meyer, 68.

[10]  Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 161.