Balthasar and Barth revisited

January 16, 2014

Saving Karl Barth

Among the new releases this year, I am most excited about D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Fortress Press), which is scheduled to be released in a few weeks. Long is a professor of systematic theology at Marquette.

To this day, Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth is among my favorite books and surely among the most influential books in my own theological development. There is no equivalent book on Barth which penetrates with such grace and clarity the depths of Barth’s dogmatic project. Balthasar asks the really important questions, from a Catholic framework that joyfully embraces the “yes” of God toward humanity, from the Incarnation and then outward embracing philosophy, literature, aesthetics, and ecclesiology. Barth is less comfortable with the second move. If Balthasar is correct, the only real option before us is either (1) Barth’s purified Protestantism or (2) the loving arms of Rome! I happen to agree. Yet, Balthasar is also drawing the former toward the latter, or perhaps the other way around.

As many of my readers are already aware, Balthasar’s thesis is that Barth makes a significant move toward (more catholic-friendly) analogy, once Barth sheds the last vestiges of his early existentialism. Once again, I agree — as did Barth. Bruce McCormack at Princeton Seminary, although highly appreciative of Balthasar, has challenged this reading in an important monograph, emphasizing the continuity of Barth’s early rejection of natural theology (especially the second edition of Romans) into his mature dogmatics, with its positive orientation in christology. This debate may be a matter of degree or emphasis. I have been more inclined, with Balthasar, to stress the importance of Barth’s turn toward “the humanity of God,” once he finally parts company with his dialectical colleagues and his own early formulations of a negative “capacity” within man (as found in Kierkegaard). Thus, I am rather content with Barth’s own reading of his development, even if his timetable is a bit off — on this point, see Keith Johnson’s insightful article, “A Reappraisal of Karl Barth’s Theological Development and his Dialogue with Catholicism,” in IJST 14:1 (January 2012).

There are nuances that I am not recounting, but hopefully that will intrigue new students of Barth to purchase Balthasar’s volume on Barth and then Long’s volume. I am open in my own appraisal of these issues, but I will be forever indebted to Balthasar for giving me the right questions.

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