Barth’s failure?

May 14, 2014

KarlBarthMuensterplattformWithPipe

So, Matthew Rose has taken upon himself the task of explaining to us why Barth failed, in the latest issue of First Things: “Karl Barth’s Failure.”

After a lengthy recounting of Barth’s training and turn against liberalism, we finally come to the argument at about half-way through the article:

Barth’s appeals to revelation earned him a reputation as an opponent of modern thought. It was entirely undeserved. He made a tactical alliance with the Enlightenment on a key point: We are incapax Dei, lacking in speculative powers capable of reaching divine heights. Barth used this pact, however, to secure his claim that knowledge of God can come only from God himself.

Really? Barth was concerned about our “speculative powers”? That was the last thing Barth cared about. Barth was concerned about our sin. Barth rejected natural theology because Paul told him, not Kant. Barth was concerned about idolatry and the wrath of God against human pretensions, not the limits of theology under the conditions of modernity. Barth cared about exegesis. Disagree if you will, but disagree with his exegesis.

The rest of the article follows the standard McCormack narrative about Barth’s supposed historicizing of God’s being and (inconsistent) rejection of metaphysics, though without citing McCormack. This is not to say that McCormack or his students would put it precisely the way that Rose does. Like this:

Barth agreed with the Enlightenment insistence on the historical and empirical conditions of our knowledge, only to observe that God himself became historical and empirical.

Or this:

Barth used the Enlightenment critique of reason to secure the absolute priority of revelation.

But this is surely straight McCormack:

Barth asserted that the reason that God can be present with humanity in time is that humanity is present in God’s eternity. This arresting belief that God is in some way human from all eternity—that humanity is eternally enclosed in the second person of the Godhead—is the core of Barth’s entire theology. …He sometimes suggested that God actually constitutes his divine identity in his act of self-disclosure. That would mean that God’s revelation is not simply a trustworthy expression of his nature but is integral to it. …

Well, the “in some way” (in which “humanity” is present in God’s eternity) is rather important and does not require that God “constitutes” himself in creation. Of course, Rose doesn’t demonstrate this — or much of anything in this article. But if we believe this formulation, you can conclude as Rose does: “Far from liberating theology from modern captivity, he leaves it trapped within the immanent confines of secular reason.” So on this, Rose and I can agree, but only if Barth was indeed operating with an “actualist ontology,” as McCormack argues. I don’t think Barth was doing any of this. I don’t think that Barth needed to revise II.1 (the perfections of God), and Barth didn’t think that he needed to revise II.1 — in the light of a supposedly more consistent “ontology” of election. If he did need to do so, it would be a major overhaul, not just a few tweaks here and there. Rose does not address these details, but they are in the background.

Finally Rose gets to the solution to all of Barth’s problems and modernity’s problems: classical theism. This is the most disappointing part of the article. Thus far, we have not had any substantial engagement with Barth’s work, just a bunch of generalizations and a handful of standard quotes, readily available in secondary resources on Barth — even though Rose has written a monograph on Barth’s ethics and is presumably capable of doing more. (This may be the limits of writing for First Things, which does not allow footnotes, oddly enough.) Surely, I am thinking, we will now get something more substantial from Rose — perhaps a treatment of Barth’s account of omnipotence? Omniscience? Eternity? Simplicity? Or the perfections of love? Mercy? Wrath? Just one thing, please! Instead, Rose returns to his claim that Barth “rejected the speculative power of the intellect.”

Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it. …He seemingly did not understand that restricting reason was modern philosophy’s great act of presumption, not humility.

This is everything for Rose. Yet, once again, where is his treatment of Barth’s doctrine of the divine perfections? Rose is lauding classical theism, but he ignores the place where Barth is painstakingly working his way through the categories of classical theism, including simplicity, and affirming far more than Rose’s Barth would allow. Is it really true that Barth “could not properly and consistently distinguish God’s nature from his actions in the history of salvation”? God does not have to actualize his perfections in human history (for an example, I briefly noted this in his treatment of eternity here). But what sort of distinguishing does Rose want? Is Rose even clear on his own alternative?:

[Barth] did not appreciate that classical natural theology aimed at clarifying the proper reach and function of natural reason: that we can know with certainty that God exists but cannot understand his divine essence in itself. This teaches us both the nobility of reason (knowing that God is) and its radical insufficiency (not knowing what God is).

So, this is the “nobility” of our reason — that we know God’s existence, but not any predicates of this existence except, of course, existence? So, God is, but natural reason has no further conceptual predicates? You might as well say “x” is. How do we know this “is” is God? And yet this capacity to know “x” is the nobility of our reason? Frankly, that’s pathetic. But in fact, classical theism knows a good bit about God’s attributes based upon mere knowledge of his existence. At least it thinks so: the standard apophatic categories of what a necessary “perfect being” (not finite like us) must be.

Yet Barth, in fact, takes these categories of classical theism and affirms them, as the perfections of God’s freedom, while also modifying them in accordance with the perfections of his love. I gave an example of this in II.1: “True infinity is also finite,” which is not just Barth playing with words, posing contradictions for the sake of reveling in our inept ratiocination. He is saying that the perfections are “not at our disposal.” They do not predefine God. They have to be measured and articulated through God’s own revelation of himself. This doesn’t mean that revelation defines God, but God does define revelation.

That would not satisfy classical theists like Rose. But, at the very least, it is not an adequate reckoning with Barth to simply say that he rejects classical theism or metaphysics. He doesn’t. However, Barth does challenge the extent to which these “perfect being” categories are rather dead categories in themselves — as the lifeless projections of an infinite power, instead of the lively freedom of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On a final note, this article is a helpful demonstration of why Stephen Long’s recent book on Barth is so important.

_______________

Image: Karl Barth on the platform behind the Basler Münster (source)

8 Responses to “Barth’s failure?”

  1. […] no shortage of objections from the younger Barth scholars online.  (See the very fine posts by Kevin Davis, David Congdon, Bobby Grow, and David […]

  2. Bobby Grow said

    Good one, Kevin! All I can say is amen.

  3. […] of push back (including from me) by the theo-Bartho-blogosphere (see: David Congdon, Darren Sumner, Kevin Davis, Kevin Davis, David Guretski). But in an attempt to be as edifying as possible towards Rose, I […]

  4. […] Congdon here, Darren Sumner here, David Guretzki here, and Kevin David at After Existentialism here, as well as Bobby Grow over at the Evangelical Calvinist […]

  5. […] First Things on Karl Barth and modernity. Responses from David Congdon (The Fire and the Rose), Kevin Davis (After Existentialism, Light), Darren Sumner (Theology Out of Bounds), and alias White Frozen (here […]

  6. […] Which then sparked several responses. Kevin Davis: […]

  7. […] Rose’s attempted take-down of Karl Barth in the June issue. Among others, I wrote a response, “Barth’s failure?” Within Barth studies, I am close to Hunsinger’s interpretation of Barth, so we both […]

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