Congdon defends Barth…and modernity

I am glad to see that David Congdon has offered his own evaluation and criticism of Matthew Rose’s FT article, “Karl Barth’s Failure.”

“In Defense of Modernity: A Response to Matthew Rose”

Congdon and I both agree that Barth rejects natural theology “on his own theological terms.” We also both read Barth as a “modern” in important respects, and there is actually a fair amount of consensus in the divided world of Barth studies on this point. (Even the most “conservative” among us have long assumed the importance of Schleiermacher’s christocentrism and Hegel’s historicism for Barth, even as we disagree on what this means materially in Barth’s dogmatics.) So, the difference is that Congdon reads Barth as more of a modern theologian than I am willing to concede, precisely on those questions of “historical consciousness” and the conditions in which theology operates. Nonetheless, Congdon’s piece is an excellent and spirited defense of Barth from a different framework, well worth your time to read. I would like to see more from other “Barth bloggers,” but Congdon has probably already said what many others would have offered.



  1. That’s actually most of the reason why I didn’t offer up any critique of the FT article. I knew it would be only a matter of time before some legit Barth guys tore it apart. Great article by Congdon.

    • Congdon is a fine spokesman for McCormack’s reading of Barth, though not to imply slavish discipleship of his professor. He has done the hard work with Bultmann, etc., for which I can respect him and honestly disagree.

  2. I came late to this party today, and am deciding if I have anything to say on the article that hasn’t already been said (and said much better). David’s response is quite good.

    What I found so astonishing in reading Matthew Rose’s account of modernism, what Barth rejected in it, and what he took from it, was that I agreed with much of the telling but none of the subsequent judgments. Barth grounds the knowledge of God solely in revelation? And that revelation is in Jesus Christ? Just what is it that we ought to be objecting to here?

    As you say in your other post today, Kevin, Rose finally seems to conclude that classical theism has all the answers … therefore Barth didn’t go far enough in rejecting modernism along with liberalism. This is a legitimate position that one could take against Barth — but it is only a shouted conclusion, with nothing offered to back it up.

    • This is a legitimate position that one could take against Barth — but it is only a shouted conclusion, with nothing offered to back it up.

      Yes, exactly. I realize that FT is not strictly an “academic” journal, but this is substandard for them. The motivations for Rose seem to follow closely with the recent Thomist Ressourcement that Stephen Long brilliantly discusses in his recent book on Barth, for which I have been singing the praises on this blog.

      My own position, as distinct from Congdon, is to position Barth as more “classical” in a rather patristic-style handling of categories and exegesis, while recognizing the place for event, act, person, history, etc., as legitimate “modernist” categories for the constructive dogmatician today. I am much more hesitant, to say the least, about baptizing modernity with “Protestant principles” of extrinsic righteousness, faith alone, etc., and then conditioning one’s theology with modernist historicism in the name of the Reformation.

      • I certainly do not expect a rigorous and footnoted argument in the pages of First Things. It is what it is. But it’s just not very well argued — particularly with the presumption that modernism is inherently bad and something to be opposed by the church.

        In his new book Covering Up Luther Rustin Brian makes the interesting point that within Catholic theology modernism took a very different form; Catholic modernism looks very different than Protestant modernism (or some theoretically religionless “philosophical modernism”). That’s a helpful distinction to make, I think … though I disagree with Brian that the Catholic form of modernism is ultimately more fruitful.

        Rose, for his part, doesn’t recognize that he cannot escape modernism (by means of a retreat to something called “classical theism”) any more than Barth could. It is simply the water in which we all swim. And so he doesn’t recognize that the modernism of Catholic thought is simply one of a different stripe.

      • Thanks for pointing out the Rustin Brian book. I will be sure to check it out.

        And, yes, I agree about modernity. We are responsible to faithfully utilize, not uncritically, the modern categories I mentioned. Anything less — like a retreat to the 13th century or 17th century — is irresponsible. I have been encouraged recently to read Schaff argue likewise in ‘The Principle of Protestantism’.

      • Joel,

        That’s a good question. I see postmodernism as, on the whole, a particular interpretation and utilization of modernist categories, an interpretation and utilization that I am inclined to find more unhelpful than helpful. Nonetheless, the central pomo category — power — is surely a good example of something that needs to be adopted and adapted within contemporary theology, but, once again, not uncritically. Foucault is not without merit for the theologian, even if his “archaeology” of norms needs to be rejected at a fundamental level.

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