When Dialectics is Disobedience

I’m currently reading von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth. Highly interesting, to say the least. I’ve read the last part of the book before — his constructive, Catholic response — but not the actual study of Barth. The bulk of the critique so far is similar to that found in Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism and is bringing to the fore of my mind a lot of what Bouyer was criticizing in Protestant thought but I didn’t quite comprehend the significance of before. Bouyer was using a realist-vs-nominalist critique that was not quite as compelling (to me) as von B’s realist-vs-existentialist (or analogy-vs-dialectic) critique. Barth’s Der Römerbrief, according to von B, starts and ends with an existential negation which serves as the paradigm for critiquing the human (incl. scripture, church, theology, spirituality, philosophy, etc.) instead of beginning with the Incarnation and making Christ the paradigm for critiquing the human (with the possibility of divine affirmation of human projects). Once the latter shift is made in Barth’s thinking, we have room for a minimal but real correspondence between finite and divine categories. Here is the core of von B’s criticism of Barth before his Christological concentration:

The experiment of the second edition of The Epistle to the Romans was to try to push dialectics to absurd limits, until dialectics rendered itself void for dialectical reasons. But this only resulted in the great irony that dialectics — which took itself to be the proven method — was not only not better than dogmatics and criticism but decidedly inferior to them. In its radical infallibility (as radical fallibility!), it actually betrayed its own self-imposed mission: to speak only of God and not to call attention to itself. It’s loud avowal, “I cannot,” is actually disobedience. As if it were making its relativity an absolute, as if it really were not relative!

The Epistle to the Romans is the very thing against which it itself raged and thundered: a pinnacle of human religiosity. Its insistent cry of “Not I! Rather God!” actually directs all eyes on itself instead of on God. Its cry for distance gives no room for distance. Perhaps, shuddering at the dreadful pain of its flagellations, we could admit that it is right — a hundred times right! But the very blow tells us of its guilt. The real scandal is the mystery of God, which cannot be evaluated in language, even indirectly. There is no suitable method for describing the “infinite qualitative difference between God and man,” even if only negatively. Dialectics cannot replace theology. It must be content to serve merely as a corrective. As the moment of indirection, it can itself be only indirect.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Theology of Karl Barth (Ignatius Press 1992), p. 84.

The “disobedience” line is particularly striking. It’s the same attack von B uses against Luther and Kierkegaard in The Christian and Anxiety, and, in a way, is a sum of the Catholic critique of the Protestant use of simul iustus et peccator.



  1. I would add: a common notion of dialogue is that one evaluates one’s interlocutor from a neutral position, but Balthasar here does something else: he retains his position while examining that of Barth’s. His project was not intended to make Barth palatable to Catholics (even less Catholics care about Barth than they do about Balthasar: we’re few and far between, even in the blogosphere), and it wasn’t to attack Barth either. Instead, it was to learn from Barth and to attempt insofar as possible bring what is best and truest in Barth’s thought into tension with the whole (catholic meaning ‘to the whole’). The result then is a work of Catholic theology, certainly, but also a work of dialogue and authentic ecumenism. At any rate, your comments here make me want to read it myself (although I hesitate to read Balthasar when he’s writing about the works of someone I haven’t read. I did attempt to read Romans, but that’s another story…).

  2. Thanks for the reflection. I agree. The preface by Edward T. Oakes mentions that this work is well worth reading just for its ability to do ecumenical engagement in a meaningful way. Both von B and Barth were critics of the mainstream ecumenical movement.

    If you read just about 100 pages or so of Romans, then you’ve got a good idea of what von B is attacking. Plus, von B does provide fairly extensive quotes. Nonetheless, I would still read more Barth first. As for his later period, von B mentions Credo among Barth’s shorter works as a good example of his turn away from the Romans commentary. The Humanity of God is also commonly mentioned in this regard.

    By the way, I should note that Bruce McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology (1997) is the most substantial engagement with von B’s thesis, with McCormack arguing that dialectics continued to play a more central role throughout Barth’s corpus than von B recognizes. Most people consider the McCormack thesis to be fairly definitive on this issue, but it should be remembered that Barth himself agreed with von B’s account (which is also based on explicit statements by Barth himself in regard to his turn to analogy).

  3. Thanks, Kevin, for your charitable response! And thanks for the resources and the further context of the dialogue between Barth & Balthasar.

  4. I made it to about 300 pages but couldn’t bear to read the remaining 200 pages. I kept on saying, “yep, got the point — got it in the first 50 pages.” It is an amazing text nonetheless.

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