fbpx

Thomas, Barth and Modernity: Entering the Fray Over Matthew Rose’s Barth Article

A recent firestorm has arisen within the blogosphere concerning an alleged failure by Karl Barth. It was initiated by Matthew Rose over at First Things here, responded to by IVP editor David Congdon here, Darren Sumner here, David Guretzki here, and Kevin Davis at After Existentialism here, as well as Bobby Grow over at the Evangelical Calvinist here.

An accurate and helpful summary of Rose’s argument is given by Congdon above, so I won’t repeat it here. I agree with Congdon (and the others mentioned above) that Rose is seeking to promote, through criticism of Karl Barth, a Roman Catholic ontology and epistemology. As Congdon concludes:

modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, a theologian of the Reformation.

As I understand Congdon (and company), to be modern is to be Protestant, and since Barth is thoroughly modern and Protestant in his ontology (event over metaphysics, the incapability of fallen man to know God, etc), to call Barth’s program a failure is to call the Reformation a failure. In other words, Rose’s beef with Barth is over the fact that he is not a Thomistic Roman Catholic. In my opinion, Congdon, et al., have penetrated to the heart of Rose’s contention precisely. So, in light of this, I have several thoughts:

  1. While I agree with the Young, Restless, and Barthian guys’ tagging of Rose’s agenda, I cannot concede their contention that modernity is identified with Protestantism. That is simply anachronistic and inaccurate. It is inaccurate because first of all modernism has made its way into Roman Catholicism, evidenced I believe by Vatican II (and even before that evidenced by the Leo XIII’s and Pius X’s attempt to stave off modernism in the church by decrees establishing Thomism as the official doctrine of the church and binding priests with the anti-Modernism Oath, respectively. HT: Camden Bucey). Second, the rise of modernity occurred after the rise of Protestantism and was, in effect, a self-conscious move beyond the Reformation. That the Enlightenment occurred within and among Protestants does not mean it constitutes Protestantism. That is simply the historical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Remember, Kant’s influence was nearly 300 years after the rise of the Reformation. Therefore, it is incorrect to read modernism back into the Reformation.
  2. As for Rose, I agree with him that Barth was modern and not orthodox. Now, that being said, I believe that Rose is far from having proven that Barth’s modern commitments necessarily arise to a failure. Especially if the alternative is medieval rationalism. Proving the failure of Barth’s newly constructed modernism requires, I believe, a thoroughgoing transcendental critique. More on that anon.
  3. Modernism and Thomism have more in common than Rose and the young Barthians will admit. In fact, they are both so fundamentally and essentially (not in an ontological sense) of a cloth that it must be said the Reformation stands over and against both Thomism and Modernism. In other words, the dividing line is not between Thomas and Modernism, ultimately. The dividing line—with regard to the principium cognoscendi externum of theology—is really between Calvin and the Reformed confessions on the one side and Thomas and Modernism on the other. Both of the latter, over against the Reformation, deny the epistemic priority of God’s verbal, inscripturated revelation in matters of church doctrine and life. There is a word for this phenomenon: rationalism. And Thomas, Modernism, and Barth are all guilty of it.

In closing, this charge of rationalism, especially relative to Barth, needs a defense. While I can only be brief here, I offer the following two points to consider and would welcome pushback from Rose, Congdon, and Grow:

  1. Barth was right to rise up against against both the analogia entis and his neo-Protestant professors to critique the theological structures which enabled them to support the Kaiser in his attempt at European dominance. However, Barth did not go far enough. He allowed modernism’s commitment to ontological dualism to stand, and with that its denial of God’s verbal, inscripturated revelation to man. In other words, Barth never exited the park which contained the playground of the theologians, even as he dropped a bomb on it. If Barth is correct to say that the event of revelation is not directly given to us in “our time,” then there is no direct revelation of God to us here and now. Scripture and preaching are only witnesses to revelation, but they are not revelation itself. This means that two problems in Barth’s system arise at once. Relative to epistemology, no direct revelation entails the dual and simultaneous problems of rationalism and nominalism/skepticism. On the one hand it entails nominalism because we here-and-now cannot know God, having no access to his direct revelation. We only have witnesses to revelation. But how is the theologian to know if those witnesses are reliable if he has no final arbiter to compare them to? Who is to say St. John’s witness is not more reliable than St. Paul’s? Or, who is to say that Polycarp’s witness is less dependable than St. Luke’s, or St. Peter’s compared to Thomas Aquinas? If there is no direct revelation, then all are equally valid witnesses. Even a dead dog is able to witness to revelation.
  2. On the other hand, it also entails rationalism. We are the ones who do the naming. We are speculating about who God is. Barth speaks piously about Jesus Christ, yet the Christ he talks about is a Christ he has constructed as his fundamental starting point from the words of merely fallible humans. In other words, Barth’s Christomonistic prolegomena is built upon the resources of man’s own “natural theology” no less than medieval Scholasticism. His system is nothing other than a modern reconstruction of the very natural theology he so passionately dismissed as the invention of the anti-Christ. And it is at this point, the point of Barth never having escape the very thing Rose is seeking to promote, which constitutes Barth’s fatal failure. It is the failure of all would-be autonomous man-made theologies. It is the failure of not just another equally valid expression of Christianity, but of another religion altogether.

Leave a comment


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Bobby Grow

6 years ago

Jim,

Where to start?! I am mostly puzzled at how you have revisionally annexed the Reformed faith away from its Thomist heritage and lumped it in with modernity. Not that I don’t agree that Thomism constitutes a definite type of rationalism–especially anthropologically (see Norman Fiering)–but that against the work and thesis, appatently, of Richard Muller, you seem to be arguing that Calvin is against the Calvinists since many if not most of them work with and through Thomas’ categories and synthesis. So it is the Calvinists who are closer to Rose’ s Thomism, and Barth who instead critically undercuts the Thomist and modern theses even as he is working in the modern period. But just because Barth works in the modern period does not necessarily make him a moder thinker, simpliciter, anymore than you or I having to be post-modern thinkers simply because we inhabit the so called post-modern period.

Barth is more complex than these simplistic labels reduce him to be. Bruce McCormack offers one trajectory for reading Barth ( which I know you approve of Jim because you think it makes your case easier), but of course there are others within Barth scholarship who contest McCormack’s thesis of Barth as a full on Kantian Hegelian Schleiermacherian modern (Hunsinger, Molnar, Webster, Gorringe, Long, et al). If this is the case, this makes your case and thesis and critique less stable, if in fact McCormack is wrong–or at least not completely right about Barth’s turn to the subject (modernity).

Anyway, I’m typing this on my Nook. I will respond more later when I have access to my computer.

Bobby Grow

6 years ago

Jim,

1. Yes, I have affirmed the Muller thesis, in some respects (not all!) for quite some time now. If you had read our edited book you would know that. 🙂 I am concerned with being a critical reader … I am not all or nothing with any scholar (Torrance or otherwise).

2. I don’t believe Reformed theology, in the post Reformed era is opposed to Thomism at all! I believe a certain species of Reformed theology is opposed to Thomism, but the Westminster trad as I understand it is largely in bed with Thomas.

3. I am not changing my tune, only inflecting it in a certain way. As Kevin has ably demonstrated Barth’s turn is to the Incarnation; as Muller and Gibson have highlighted, Barth’s approach is a intensive principial Christocentrism; and this is why his work is so corollary with someone like Athanasius in mode. Barth is a rationalist in this way:

Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptura exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity. — George Hunsinger

Within the locus (to get Ramist) of Barth’s Incarnational theology and prolegomena. He is rational[ist] because he follows the intelligibility of God’s Self revelation (particularism), through his exegesis of Holy Scripture.

Anyway, Jim, I think my friend Kevin, has more than ably demonstrated there is breadth in this discussion, and that even Barth commentators take fundamentally different views on Barth’s work. But what is clear, and even McCormack admits this, is that McCormack’s Barth is a constructive and theological Barth who has gone where McCormack thinks Barth should’ve gone, but Barth himself never did. pax.

Bobby Grow

6 years ago

Just as one parting shot (cause I am out of time for today): I think in many ways, Jim, that you are arguing more with After Barth, and after Barth in a particular even idiosyncratic direction, than with Barth himself. I will have to wait and see if this is true after I have a chance to read your dissertation someday.

Bobby Grow

6 years ago

And to be clear: not even McCormack argues that Barth is a full on modern in the way you seem to be suggesting Jim. Although McCormack’ s postmetaphysical Barth is definitely more Kantian than others think Barth is. I see Barth more as a modern Patristic than a modern Modern.

Jim Cassidy

6 years ago

Hi Bobby,

Thanks for your response. A couple points of clarification which should help.

1. I find it interesting that you are now invoking Muller when you seem to so easily dismiss him when he differs from Torrance. Since when do you disagree with the Torrancean Calvin against the Calvinists thesis?

2. But more to the point, it is important for you to note the qualifier I added concerning the opposition of the Reformation and Thomism. I am speaking relative to the matter of principium. I am very happy for the recent scholarship which worked so hard to not pit Thomas and scholasticism against the Reformed tradition. The continuity is clear. However, we must not lose sight of the discontinuities for the continuity. And one of the discontinuities is with regard to theological principium. It is appropriate to pit the Reformed against Thomism relative to prolegomenon, justification, and the Eucharist, just to name a few. Don’t you believe Reformed theology is contrary to Thomism as your post and the others have made clear?

3. That Barth works in the modern period is not why I argue he is a modern modern. All the blog posts, including your own, acknowledged the basic modern commitment of Barth. Why change your tune now? McCormack is, of course, absolutely right (except where he tries to make Barth orthodox AND modern – what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?). Barth is a rationalist because he, like Thomas, denies the absolute epistemological priority of direct special revelation. Barth is a modern because he holds to an ontological dualism, whereas Thomas holds to ontological monism (this too, of course, is being contested more recently). Reformed theology, however, holds to a creator/creature distinction, not a creator/creature opposition. The creator is distinct from the creature according to Reformed ontology, whereas for Barth the creator is opposed to the creature with no hope of actual direct contact or knowledge.

Kevin Davis

6 years ago

The nominalism charge has been aptly handled and, dare I say, destroyed by D. Stephen Long’s latest book, Saving Karl Barth, which is by far the most extensive rebuttal to McCormack and the recent Thomist Resourcement (Thomas Joseph White, OP, et al.). My blog has some fairly extensive excerpts, in some recent posts, for those who are interested. The concerns about “ontological dualism” and revelation “in our time” would make sense if we read Barth from the Romans commentary forward. In Romans, Barth begins with contradiction and the negation of creation (the “wholly Other” motif, which he later repudiates). In the CD, he begins with the Incarnation, finally marking his move away from existentialism (and its attendant nominalism) and, therefore, marking his departure from his dialectical colleagues. This is most apparent in II.1, III.1, III.4, and IV.1. This doesn’t make Barth a pre-modern, nor an anti-modern. He still freely uses modernist categories (event, act, history, person, etc.), just as he freely uses classical categories (being, analogy, etc.).

If I had time, I would get into the nitty gritty of Barth’s dogmatics, but alas I do not have the time. I can only point to my blog, where I have been dealing with these matters for quite some time. I do appreciate, Jim, that you are actually trying to offer an argument, with probing questions, which is much more than I can say for Rose’s bluster.

Jim Cassidy

6 years ago

Hi Kevin,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

I would only disagree with what you say concerning the supposed development in Barth’s thought from dualism to incarnation. I believe his doctrine of the incarnation absolutely fits into his Romans theology. Barth does not surrender that previous commitment to dualism, but rather develops a way to place the incarnation within that structure. The incarnation then is not an event in our time, for Barth, but a transcendent event in which God and man are united. In this way, Barth does appropriate analogy, but does so in a rarified sphere of time, which is prior to and independent of our time here and now. And so the dualistic structure remain constant.

Kevin Davis

6 years ago

That is the opposite of how Barth understood his own development. His rejection of natural theology was not predicated upon a prior commitment to philosophical dualism, Kantian or otherwise, certainly not in the CD. Barth recognized that this was not clear in his Romans period and throughout the 1920’s. In his early theology, creation was evacuated of all meaning, which he recognized was not faithful to any starting point that began with the Incarnation. He entirely rewrote I.1 precisely because he needed to fundamentally reorient his theology away from this “dualism” that predetermined what his theology was capable of affirming. By the time of II.1, his theology is firmly oriented to christology and the legitimate analogical entailments this requires. His epistemological “restriction” to christology does not transfer into a dualist metaphysics or, least of all, a post-metaphysics. Molnar has rightly targeted this conflating of epistemology and metaphysics in McCormack’s interpretation of Barth. In a much more comprehensive manner, Stephen Long’s recent book validates Balthasar’s reading of Barth’s turn toward analogy, which Barth himself affirmed as correct.

In a recent post (from April 26), I quoted a highly relevant excursus in II.1, where Barth recognizes what I have just said above:

“Expounding Rom. 8:24, I even dared to say at that time: ‘Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God. A Christianity that is not wholly and utterly and irreducibly eschatology has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. A spirit that is not at every moment in time new life from the dead is in any case not the Holy Spirit. ‘For that which is seen is temporal’ (2 Cor. 4:18). What is not hope is a log, a block, a chain, heavy and angular, like the word ‘reality.’ It imprisons rather than sets free. It is not grace, but judgment and destruction. It is fate, not divine fulfilment. It is not God, but a reflection of man unredeemed. It is this even if it is an ever so stately edifice of social progress or an ever so respectable bubble of Christian redeemedness. Redemption is that which cannot be seen, the inaccessible, the impossible, which confronts us as hope. Can we wish to be anything other and better than men of hope, or anything additional?’ Well roared, lion!” [you can read the rest on my blog]

Moreover, the context of this quote is Barth’s discussion of God’s relation to our temporality, and he consciously and explicitly affirms an “in our time” relationship, which he could not do in the 1920’s. Barth’s ontology of creation is still firmly against locating “possibilities” for divine revelation within creation as such, but this is not true for creation as capacited by God. It is not “creatureliness” (or finitude) that is the problem — as it was with both Idealism and existentialism — but sin, which is a wholly theological category for Barth.

Jim Cassidy

6 years ago

Kevin,

Thank you again for your comment. I believe we are at an impasse on how we interpret Barth. Which is no surprise. Due to the purposeful use of equivocal language employed by Barth to accentuate the dialectical nature of his theology, he can be read one way in a narrow section of the CD – especially in the small print sections – and say something completely different elsewhere – often within the same sub-section. I am afraid that Barth scholarship will never come to a consensus on much until we can come to terms on basic principles of Barth-meneutics.

What I seek to show in my dissertation is that Barth’s commitment to the indirect nature of God’s grace – in revelation, election, creation, and redemption – remains constant. It has to, given the way he – right through to the end of CD IV – makes God-in-Christ a transcendently temporal act quite independent from our own time here and now. What does happen in the CD, however, as you rightly point out, is room is made for the incarnation (and yes, for analogy as well, but of a radically different kind than that found in Thomas. I call it an analogia veri temporis). But the incarnation, redemption, revelation, creation, etc does not occur here, in our time. Rather, our time is taken up (hebt) into God’s time for us, which is the time-sphere of God’s existence and being-in-act. You are trying to smooth over the radical nature of Barth’s proposal (as vBalth and and Molnar have done themselves). By the way, as an aside, I believe Molnar surrenders the debate completely to McCormack in his recent SJT article. It looks like checkmate there to me. But that is simply one man’s opinion.

Kevin Davis

6 years ago

I personally spoke with Molnar, in person, just a few months ago, and he is far from conceding the debate to McCormack. Very far from it, and our conversation over dinner was highly enlightening. Once again, that was three months ago! I will surely read the SJT article. He is planning an article for Modern Theology on historicized christology.

Moreover, Kevin Hector’s SJT article from 2012 defends Molnar, even though Hector himself follows McCormack’s “post-metaphysics.” Hector argues that McCormack needs to distinguish his own constructive theology from Barth’s. So, this debate is hardly closed, much less “check mate” on any side.

Yes, we are at an impasse. I must say, however, that my interpretation covers the whole sweep of the CD, whereas McCormack is taking a particular line of thought from II.2 and IV.1, radicalizes it, and then claims that the rest of the CD, especially II.1, needs to be revised in the light of his (McCormack’s) historicism. Barth believed no such thing, and neither did his interpreters in the past and (most of them) in the present. And, secondly, “smoothing over” is hardly what anyone is doing, though I suppose a blog combox could give that impression. Balthasar’s reading, and Long’s recent brilliant defense of it, is incredibly nuanced, challenging Barth in certain respects. And I like to think that my blog also demonstrates these nuances.

Jim Cassidy

6 years ago

Kevin, thank you for the cordial and engaging discussion!

Steve

6 years ago

Hi,

It’s a minor point but it could be that Rose is Lutheran and not Roman Catholic. If you click on Rose’s other article on First Things you will see that it is entitled: “Unremarkably Lutheran”. In it he states that: “Such a quip shouldn’t be anywhere near surprising, let alone offensive, to most of us Lutherans”.

Of course, being Lutheran or having had been one , does not preclude someone from pushing a Roman Catholic ontology. Also, I wouldn’t key on the word “Protestant” as a sign he’s Catholic as many Lutherans do not consider themselves “Protestant”. I’ve heard more than one LCMS member draw the distinction between “Protestant and Lutheran.

Just a thought

Jim Cassidy

6 years ago

Steve,

Good point, I did not intend to claim Rose’s church affiliation, just that what he was advocating was in keeping with Thomistic ontology characteristic of so much of Roman Catholicism.

Kevin Davis

6 years ago

Jim,

I just read the SJT article from Molnar on the Son’s obedience in Barth and Torrance. It is a fascinating article, and I’m glad you pointed it out to me. Molnar is identifying the “one line of thought,” which I had mentioned above, in Barth’s theology, which McCormack radicalizes (as does Pannenberg). Yet, Molnar is careful to establish that Barth’s theology precludes this radicalization. The substantial difference between McCormack and Molnar is whether the Incarnation constitutes the Trinity or the Trinity constitutes the Incarnation. McCormack says yes to the former ordering; Molnar says yes to the latter ordering. Early in the article, Molnar is clear to affirm that Barth “could not mean that God was always incarnate” (p. 52) and quotes from II.1, IV.1, and IV.2 to affirm this point: e.g., Barth wrote, “the divine essence does not, of course, need any actualisation…Even as the divine essence of the Son it did not need His incarnation…to become actual” (IV.2, p. 113). This covers the past debates with McCormack. Molnar is hardly conceding anything here. Likewise, the logos asarkos is affirmed in Barth’s theology (p. 57 and the footnote on p. 69).

Molnar is, however, identifying a “lack of clarity,” “confusion,” “fuzziness” in Barth’s reading of subordination in the immanent Trinity. This move from the economic to the immanent can be taken to mean that “Jesus Christ humanly existed before he actually came into existence,” yet, Molnar claims, “It is clear from the context that Barth meant to distinguish what in reality is God’s predestination of himself to be born of the Virgin for us and for our salvation and what occurs in the fullness of time. But unfortunately he has been read here as collapsing the inner trinitarian relations once more into the missions” (p. 62). The footnote cites Pannenberg and McCormack. Molnar continues, “He has not of course. He simply wanted to say, against those whose thinking pushed Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word to the side when they thought of predestination as a pact between the Father and the Son, that God is one as Father, Son, and Spirit and, as the one God, decided to be for us in Jesus Christ who himself was ‘the beginning of all the ways of God’ (CD, IV/1, p. 66).” The rest of the article argues why Barth can support this without introducing hierarchy into the immanent Trinity. So, Molnar sees Torrance as doing a better job, but both Barth and Torrance are intending to affirm the very same thing.

This, by the way, has nothing to do with dialectics in Barth. And on the larger debate between us — about whether Barth began with philosophical “dualism” — Molnar is not even remotely conceding anything of the sort. He is noting a tension, a confusion in Barth’s theology. That is hardly new. Balthasar did the same. As did Torrance. As does Webster. As I have on my blog. This is par for the course for grateful students of Barth and those who align with Barth’s theology on the whole. Barth himself joked about some inconsistencies in his CD in his very humorous Table Talks.

reformed-forum-logo-white400

Contact

Reformed Forum
115 Commerce Dr., Suite E
Grayslake, IL 60030

+1 847.986.6140
mail@reformedforum.org

Copyright © 2020 Reformed Forum