The “last essential difference” between Catholicism and Protestantism

April 28, 2014

Saving Karl Barth

I have been reading D. Stephen Long’s new release, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation. It is such a joy to read this book. So far — in the first two chapters — Long has given us a careful narrative overview of Balthasar’s journey into reading and presenting Barth, his struggles with suspicious fellow Catholics (and suspicious Protestants), and the precise distinctions involved in his analysis and appropriation of Barth, while remaining faithful to Vatican I’s duplex ordo: “Balthasar’s preoccupation, interpretation, and presentation of Barth’s work is much too broad, dynamic, and changing to be encapsulated in any single formula such as ‘from dialectic to analogy'” (37). The first half of the second chapter is a fascinating look at Balthasar’s early work on Barth, works not yet translated into English, leading up to his 1951 monograph on Barth. In the third chapter, he will look at the collapse of Balthasar’s interpretation of Barth among many Catholic and Protestant interpreters today, which includes Long’s evaluation and rejection of Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth. The remaining chapters engage Balthasar and Barth through three dogmatic loci: the doctrine of God (ch. 4), ethics (ch. 5), and the church (ch. 6).

In this post, I will provide just one excerpt that should be of interest to those curious about the book (which should be everybody). Long is analyzing Balthasar’s 1944 essay, “Analogie und Dialektik”:

[Balthasar] did not dismiss dialectic but distinguished dialectic as method from dialectic as ontological contradiction. The latter was particularly found in Romans 2, which was a “demonic attempt to think contradiction through all the way to the end.” Once Barth thought it through, without “short-circuiting” or “evasion,” then it inevitably led to the “horizon of analogy” because dialectic as ontological contradiction is a dead end — literally. All it can do is deny and destroy creation; it is one more instance of German apocalypse. For this reason, dialectic alone cannot express well the basic form of Christianity, the incarnation. What Balthasar and Barth shared in common, a commitment to the incarnation as the form of theology, is also what caused their deepest disagreements. For Balthasar, Barth was never merely a dialectical thinker because he was always a Christocentric theologian. Even in the early period, analogy was tacitly necessary. The issue between Catholicism and Barth, and thus between Catholicism and Protestantism, did not really take the form of analogy versus dialectic. That was misleading. Both agreed, given the incarnation, “analogy” is the necessary form Christian theology must take. The real difference was whether the analogy is of being (entis) or of faith (fidei). This difference mattered. Balthasar named it “the last essential difference” between Catholicism and Protestantism. It had a “deadly seriousness” and was something much more than “idle theological bickering.”

Balthasar may have always heard analogy in Barth’s dialectic, but he also heard “identity” even in the “contradiction” of Romans 2, albeit “horribly distorted.” In other words, these stages were not progressive advances. They were failed attempts to express adequately the Christian form. As he had argued in the 1939 essay “Karl Barth and Catholicism,” so he argues here: Barth’s early work collapsed creaturely being into guilty and sinful being. Thus he lacked an adequate concept of nature. His anthropology did not take the form of the fall of a nature, but the nature of falleness. This left nothing for creatures to do but be negated. This was how dialectic as contradiction collapsed back into identity. If creation can only be negated, then it contributed nothing in the soteriological drama. God will be the lone actor. Balthasar acknowledged this is not what Barth sought to affirm, but it was the logical consequence of dialectic as contradiction if it were consistently carried through.

[Saving Karl Barth, pp. 53-54. Long is translating and quoting from “Analogie und Dialektik,” Divus Thomas 22 (1944), pp. 171-174.]

Long continues to explain precisely what this means, focusing on Balthasar’s distinction between “analogy of being” and “pure nature” (the latter is the real error, a late medieval and Baroque perversion of the former, according to Balthasar). As you can see, Long is able to distill and communicate clearly this rather complex material, which should make the volume accessible even for those students who are fairly new to these debates.

3 Responses to “The “last essential difference” between Catholicism and Protestantism”

  1. Robbie said

    Wonderful post, thanks for sharing. You might interested in a book panel conversation we’re hosting on Long’s book: http://syndicatetheology.com/saving-karl-barth/

    I’m guessing that Long’s argument RE VonB, that he “did not dismiss dialectic but distinguished dialectic as method from dialectic as ontological contradiction,” should spur quite an interesting conversation.

    • Thanks, Robbie, that looks great. I will be excited to hear what the panelists have to say. And, yes, the nature of dialectic should cause some good discussion. I just finished chapter 3, which was very helpful in further clarifying what Long means, over-against McCormack et al.. Very solid work on Long’s part.

  2. […] with the previous post on the book, I will provide a relatively self-contained excerpt, though it should be […]

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