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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.

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