Bouillard - Karl Barth

“In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda.”

— Karl Barth


Henri Bouillard (1908-1981) was a French Catholic theologian and professor of theology at l’Institut Catholique de Paris. Alongside his fellow Jesuits, Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, and his colleague in Paris, Louis Bouyer, Henri Bouillard was a leading figure within the movement known as la nouvelle théologie or ressourcement. During the early years of suspicion surrounding this movement, Bouillard was dismissed from la Faculté de Théologie de Lyon – Fourvière in 1950. The fruit of his first doctoral dissertation, Conversion et grace chez S. Thomas D’Aquin, was published in 1944 and roused controversy from the then dominant neoscholastic theologians and influential prelates.

Bouillard, Henri, SJ


He moved to Paris, where he began work on a second doctorate, awarded by the Sorbonne. The result was the three volume Karl Barth, published in 1957 by Éditions Aubier-Montaigne in Paris. According to Grover Foley, this dissertation was “the first at the Sorbonne ever allowed to be written about a living author.” The oral defense was “the cultural and religious event of the year” according to the theology journal, Bijdragen, in a 1958 issue (see Foley, “The Catholic Critics of Karl Barth,” SJT, June 1961, 145).

Karl Barth was in attendance, having traveled with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr from Basel. Eberhard Busch recounts the event in his biography of Barth. The endnotes are in brackets:

In the middle of June 1956 Barth went with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Frau Adrienne Kaegi-von Speyr to Paris. There they were to take part in ‘the doctoral examination of a Jesuit’, Père Henri Bouillard, ‘who had written 1200 pages about me. He was cross-examined about me for five hours (at the Sorbonne), and then we celebrated in a Chinese restaurant’ [letter to Heinrich Vogel, 5 September 1956]. This viva-voce examination ‘was an extraordinary event, in that the “subject” of such a thesis should not really be still alive. That I was in fact very much alive and even there in person made the whole proceedings very tense, but also added a great deal of merriment’ [Charlotte von Kirschbaum to Karl Gerhard Steck, 5 July 1956]. Bouillard was another of those Catholics in whom Barth discovered a surprising affinity to his own thought…’In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda. Unlike Hans Urs von Balthasar, however, in this case it is not some holy little Thérèse or Elizabeth, but a transcendental ontologie de la foi, agreed criteria of a Kantian character. Still…there is much to suggest that I have another chance of becoming a kind of Catholic church father in partibus infidelium‘ [letter to his sons, 14 September 1953].

(Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 421)

I cannot imagine having Barth sitting in the audience while defending your thesis on Barth! Oscar Cullmann was one of the examiners.

Bouillard’s three volumes were never translated into English. However, you can find some translations of important sections. Parts from volume two and volume three were translated and published as an article for the spring issue of Cross Currents in 1968. The title of the article is “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology” by Henri Bouillard. This article combines the introduction for volume two and “Le problème de la théologie naturelle,” a section in chapter two of the third volume. Also, in 1967 Bouillard published portions of his Karl Barth in a single volume of less than 200 pages, Connaissance de Dieu, which was translated the following year and with the same title, The Knowledge of God. So, these are the two places where you can find some of Bouillard’s work on Barth in English.

Bouillard’s Critique of Barth

Barth refers to Bouillard’s transcendental “ontology of faith” and its “Kantian character.” Bouillard believes that the possibility of natural theology is necessary. As a possibility, this refers not to actual knowledge but, rather, to the “transcendental condition” necessary for any knowledge of God to happen at all. Without this transcendental condition, which corresponds to our being made in the image of God, our faith in God would be arbitrary. “It is not enough to appeal to a miracle of revelation or grace, which takes hold of our intellect and subdues it. Immediately the question rebounds: how can we know that our faith is the result of a miracle, that is to say of God’s action, and that it is not simply an arbitrary human act?” (“A Dialogue with Barth,” 218). Here is the final paragraph in the article:

As we have seen, if Vatican I judges it necessary to define the possibility of a natural knowledge of God, it is because this possibility constitutes the foundation of Christian faith. To be sure, the objective basis for the possibility of faith resides in divine revelation. But the subjective basis of this possibility resides necessarily in us; otherwise it would not be our certitude. The possibility of natural knowledge of God is the transcendental condition for the knowledge of faith. But, in strict terms, to identify a transcendental state is not to practice abstraction; rather it is to make a reflection. When Catholic teaching affirms the possibility of a natural knowledge of God as the beginning and end of all things, it does not really make an abstraction of God’s action, at the expense of His being in general and in abstracto. It separates, by an act of reflection, the radical condition that certain knowledge of this God is possible to us. It does not claim, as Barth seems to believe, that natural knowledge must necessarily temporally precede knowledge of faith; rather it maintains that natural knowledge of God is necessarily implied by virtue of man’s status as a rational being. By identifying this state and drawing our attention to it, Catholic doctrine is not creating an idol which it then identifies with the God of the Church; on the contrary, it makes explicit the internal condition by means of which one can find this “God” of the idols and acknowledge Him without lowering Him to the level of an idol.

(Henri Bouillard, “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology,” trans. Gerard Farley, Cross Currents, Spring 1968, 226)

That is where the article ends, unfortunately, just when you are excited to read more! If you look at volume three, from which this excerpt is taken, Bouillard continues for several more pages.

Based on these translated portions alone, it is not clear exactly what Bouillard considers to be, as he writes earlier in the article, “the judicatory principle which would permit us to establish in truth the recognition of divine revelation in history” (218). Grover Foley likens it to Bultmann and Schleiermacher (Foley, ibid., 146-147). Bouillard is striving to articulate the way in which we know it is indeed God who we know in faith. This means that there must be some correspondence between God and ourselves, in our capacity to know that this is God who is being known. Any precondition of this sort is rejected by Barth.

That should spark your interest in Henri Bouillard.

Hans Küng in Paris

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that Hans Küng was also in attendance at Bouillard’s defense. Küng recounts it in his memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom. Küng feels that he was slighted by Bouillard when they were both in Paris working on Barth’s theology and even claims that Bouillard was “jealous” of the younger student (p. 129). Henri de Lubac defended Bouillard against Küng’s criticisms (Dokumente 14 [1958], 448-454). Rudolf Voderholzer writes:

[Küng] had first accepted help from Bouillard while writing his 1957 doctoral thesis on Karl Barth, but one year later he severely and a bit condescendingly criticized his mentor’s interpretation of Barth. In his study of Barth, which took a very favorable view of the Protestant theologian, Küng had tried to prove, from just a few passages, that Barth was advocating a position, in regard to the doctrine of justification, that is acceptable to Catholics. Bouillard’s perspective was more differentiated and skeptical, and of course Küng accused it of hampering the ecumenical movement.

(Rudolf Voderholzer, Meet Henri de Lubac: His Life and Work, 81)

For what it’s worth, First Things had a scathing review of Küng’s memoirs: “At age seventy-five, Catholicism’s best-known theological dissenter has published a memoir that is an unmitigated embarrassment. The vulgarity of the author’s self-aggrandizement is breathtaking, the viciousness toward those who disagree with him deeply saddening.” I have no idea if Küng’s grievances toward Bouillard are legitimate, but he is not successful at hiding his self-regard in recounting the events.


Here are a couple more images (click to enlarge):

Bouillard - Karl Barth, title page

Bouillard - Karl Barth, dedication

On the left is the nihil obstat and imprimatur. On the right is the dedication to Fr. Henri de Lubac “in gratitude and affection.”


Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

I’ve had my review copy of Molnar’s latest book, graciously sent by IVP Academic, for most of the summer. Planning a vacation and other matters got in the way, but I finally finished. It is a dense, technical work of over 400 pages, entirely pertaining to a high-level, intramural debate within systematic theology today, namely among students of Karl Barth’s theology. In other words, this is not for beginners or for those generally curious about Barth and Torrance. It is an important debate, however, to which every student must give attention — with ramifications that extend beyond the fluid borders of Barth scholarship.

The dispute, as I know that many of my readers are familiar, is over Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth’s theology. For McCormack, the key to Barth’s doctrine of God is how — in McCormack’s reading — the divine election precedes ontology, the ontology for both God and man. God’s being is determined in the act of electing man in Jesus Christ. As a primordial act, this should not be understood as a temporal sequence (election and then ontology) but as a singular act where “being” and “act” are bound-up with one another. There is no other God than this God who elects himself to be this God. Here are a few quotes, among many others, that Molnar cites from McCormack:

The act in which God determines himself essentially is election. If then this act is primordial, then election is primordial. There is no triunity in God apart from election, for the two occur in one and the same event. (Trinitarian Theology After Karl Barth, eds. Habets and Tolliday, 114; Molnar, 190)

There is no longer any room left here for an abstract doctrine of the Trinity. There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace. (Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, ed. Michael Dempsey, 128; Molnar, 192-193)

God’s being is grounded in an Urentscheidung (i.e., a ‘primordial decision’) in which he gives to himself his own being as God. (Mapping Modern Theology, eds. Kapic and McCormack, 14; Molnar, 194)

God has elected to be God in the covenant of grace and to be God in no other way. This is not a decision for mere role-play; it is a decision with ontological significance. It is a free act in which God assigned to himself the being God would have for all eternity. (Orthodox and Modern, 216; Molnar, 290)

…God gives both to himself and to humanity his and their essential being and does so with respect to one and the same figure, Jesus of Nazareth. (Orthodox and Modern, 228; Molnar, 311).

“There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace.” “There is no triunity in God apart from election.” These and similar expressions are the focus of contention. If it is true that God is only triune — that is, who God is in his very being — in the covenant of grace, then the covenant of grace is necessary for who God is, which is to say, necessary for God. McCormack sees this as Barth’s most significant contribution to theology and is the basis upon which theology today should move forward. For McCormack, this is the consistent and thoroughgoing application of Barth’s rejection of natural theology and classical metaphysics, and Barth only fully discovered the decisive move (election determines ontology) in his volume on election (CD II.2) and illustrated in the doctrine of reconciliation (IV.1), as with Barth’s treatment of the logos asarkos, most famously, even though McCormack does not see Barth as always consistently applying this revolutionary insight.

Molnar disputes all of this. There is no change in Barth’s doctrine of God in II.2. Rather, Barth’s pointed insistence in II.1 resonates throughout the subsequent volumes:

God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. (CD II.1, 260; Molnar, 308; also cited by Alan Torrance, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, 90, n.28)

God is not bound to his works. He is God without his works. And later in his dogmatics, Barth writes of God becoming man, “God did not owe it to man. He did not owe it even to the man Jesus. He did not owe it either in His eternal counsel or in its execution. He did not owe it even to himself to an inner dialectic of His Godhead” (IV.2, 41; Molnar, 306). “Its occurrence cannot, therefore, be perceived or understood or deduced from any ontology which embraces Himself and the world, Himself and man, or from any higher standpoint whatever [than his ‘gracious good-pleasure’]” (Ibid.). This is one example of where Molnar attends to Barth in disputation with McCormack. It is beyond the scope of a blog review to lay-out all the merits and demerits of McCormack’s work on Barth. Suffice it to say that I found Molnar to be persuasive on these critical matters.

The debate over Barth’s “actualistic ontology,” as some like to say, does not begin until the third chapter, and Molnar covers a great deal more than my quotations above would indicate. The first chapter covers the pneumatological basis of Barth’s epistemology. In this chapter, Molnar uses Karl Rahner extensively by way of contrast with Barth. Rahner, unlike Barth, “attempts to validate knowledge of faith from the experience of self-transcendence” (22). However, “Any attempt to know God that seeks some form of direct knowledge of God (a knowledge without the mediation of his incarnate Word), in Barth’s view, always would mean the inability to distinguish God from us; and that would mean our inability to speak objectively and truly about God at all” (23). Rather boldly, Rahner claims that “the hope that a person’s history of freedom will be conclusive in nature…already includes what we mean by the hope of ‘resurrection'” (Theological Investigations 17:16; Molnar, 54) and “knowledge of man’s resurrection given with his transcendentally necessary hope is a statement of philosophical anthropology even before any real revelation in the Word” (TI 9:41; Molnar, 55-56). As a result, man is innately disposed toward God, in Rahner’s theology, not opposed to God, as we find in Barth. Molnar then shifts to a consideration of Tillich and Bultmann’s non-conceptual knowledge of God, which bears similarities to Rahner.

In the second chapter, Molnar continues discussing how the Holy Spirit yields knowledge of God. Now, John Courtney Murray and Wolfhart Pannenberg are his interlocutors, making contrasts with Barth and Torrance. The remainder of the book, chapters three to eight, pertains directly to the debate with McCormack. The third chapter notably includes some interesting discussion of other theologians who have appropriated aspects of McCormack’s theology: Benjamin Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

The seventh chapter is significant because it marks the one area of disagreement with Barth’s trinitarian theology. Favoring T. F. Torrance’s account, Molnar criticizes Barth for subordinating the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity. For Barth, this is the basis for the subordination of the Son (for our salvation) in the economic Trinity. This chapter was previously published last year in the Scottish Journal of Theology, which is where I first read it. I am still undecided on precisely where I land in this debate about subordination in the Trinity, and you can read my previous posts on this topic here and here. I will need to postpone this particular discussion until another day.

In the final chapter, Molnar ties together the epistemological considerations in the first two chapters with the metaphysical considerations in the subsequent chapters. All together, this chapter serves as a nice summary presentation of Barth and Torrance’s theological program. It also serves as a nice testimony to the theological vision that inspires Professor Molnar.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it highly. This review is, obviously, not sufficient to demonstrate the depth of analysis involved. Let me quote from Ian Torrance’s blurb on the back cover: “The best studies of Karl Barth have moved well beyond mere exegesis of his text and now probe the fundamental assumptions on which exegetical perspectives have been based.” And D. Stephen Long, author of my favorite Barth book from last year, writes, “Few Protestant, let alone Catholic, interpreters of Karl Barth read him with as much skill and conviction as does Paul Molnar.”


Disclosure: I received this book from IVP Academic for purposes of review without any obligation to endorse the product.

Anthony Thiselton is one of those scholars that I have frequently come across but have never read. Hermeneutics is not my forte. (The bliss of naive realism!)

Thiselton is one of the premier evangelical Anglican scholars working today. With the recent release of his massive (800+ page) encyclopedic volume, The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology, it is time to introduce him. Here is an excellent video of Thiselton introducing himself:

This is a very interesting and informative overview of his life’s work.


This is the second and final installment of a brief, two-part series on Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” See the first part for introductory material and the main analysis. Below, I offer some concluding thoughts.


Edwards repeatedly appeals to the “heart.” It is in the heart that prejudices are harbored, as sin darkens our vision of “seeing” the truth of the Gospel. But, whenever a person discovers for himself, as Edwards writes, “the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.”  Reason is sanctified – set apart for God – once the heart of stone is changed into a heart of flesh, to cite Ezekiel 36:26. This experience of the heart involves one’s affections, as we have seen in Edwards’ fondness for language of “sweetness.” This is given extensive treatment in Edwards’ much-acclaimed A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). As in our present sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards continues in his later writings to account for the nature of and conditions for our affections toward God. In a basic sense, no Reformed theologian has ever discounted the affections. On the contrary, Reformed theology has emphasized that true faith is only ever present when the heart has been converted and turned toward God, all of which is part and parcel of God’s beneficence toward us in Jesus Christ.[1] As Calvin said, faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”[2] God’s goodness is sealed upon our hearts. In order to highlight the theme of comfort, we could turn to the famous first Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism. For the theme of joy or delight, we could turn to the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These are rightly beloved statements in the Reformed tradition and often noted for their “warmth” of expression.

While there is significant continuity between Edwards and his Reformed forbearers, there is still something new with Edwards. It arises from his revivalist impulse, however cautious he was to subordinate the affections to truth. The new thing is the extent to which the affections are a criterion for ascertaining the presence of saving faith. This is especially evident, as Edwards attempted to do, when evaluating the status of a person’s soul according to the expressiveness or otherwise of his affections. It is no wonder that Edwards was ejected from his pulpit in Northampton! We can commend his concern for the souls of his congregants, but the heart of another is not ours to evaluate. We have to be satisfied with the candidate’s statement of faith and let God judge.

Secondly and more importantly, we have to be cautious about emphasizing the affections within ourselves as a measure of God’s love for us. Edwards does not do this precisely, but his revivalist heirs did and perhaps he opened the door. The problem is when the emotions subside, when the elevated feelings are no more – or during times of spiritual “dark nights,” when God’s “absence” weighs heavily on our soul. It is during these times when we need to rely the most on God’s sufficient and perfect work in Jesus Christ, not preoccupied with our malaise and questioning whether God loves us. Otherwise, in vain, we will attempt to stir ourselves and recover the initial sweetness of our conversion, when in fact God is calling us to a deeper maturity and more profound trust in him. As Edwards would agree, we do not have faith in our affections but in Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest.


[1] In other words, faith is not the efficacious cause of our salvation; it is the instrumental cause – receiving, not bringing about. The grace of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is the efficacious cause.

[2] John Calvin, ed. John T. McNeill, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press, 1960), 3.2.7.

Faith Without Apologetics

August 26, 2014


The defense of the faith (apologetics) along evidentiary or rational lines is not entirely without merit. It can serve a certain negative role, as in the way historical Jesus research can rule-out patently false postulates. To use Sarah Coakley’s examples,

Thus, for instance, if a self-proclaimed Christian believer avers that Jesus was not a Jew (a denial on which so much hung in the twentieth century), or if she insists that Jesus tells her that being obedient to him should rightly result in worldly influence and financial success (a supposition not absent from certain forms of twenty-first-century spirituality), we may appropriately object, not only on intra-Christian biblical ground, but also on historical grounds that this cannot be the same Jesus who lived and taught and walked about and was crucified in Palestine at a known period in the first century C.E.” (Seeking the Identity of Jesus, eds. Gaventa and Hays, p. 312)

Coakley is speaking to the broader usage and legitimacy of historical argumentation, not apologetics directly, but I believe the principle applies there as well. The purpose of her essay, which is brilliant, is to move past the exegetical impasse represented by the Bultmann/Käsemann debates of the 1950’s. But that is not the purpose of this post.

As with any basically competent student of Barth, I have spent considerable time negotiating the value of apologetics and the legitimacy of historical “foundations,” to the extent that is even allowed. Not happy with the metaphysical collapse into existentialism, the presumed last safeguard for Christian faith within much of twentieth-century theology (culminating at the popular level with the “death of God” controversy of the 1960’s — watch this documentary — and continuing today among self-styled radical/apocalyptic types), I am nonetheless convinced that theology is much better without apologetics on the front end. This pertains to the whole “freedom” and “joy” of theology, which are sure watchwords for an approaching Barthian!

Apologetics frequently belies an anxiety at the subjective level and a profound diminishment of God at the objective level. I have touched upon these matters in the past, in a piecemeal fashion, but I won’t argue the point at present, for the simple reason that I do not have the time. Let me just offer these reflections from Henry Sloane Coffin:

To us likewise the prophet [Isaiah] would say that a burdensome religion is a false religion; that a god whom we conceive in doctrines which we force ourselves to believe and which we struggle to safeguard, with whom we have fellowship in forms we must spur themselves to keep up, and whom we serve in duties our consciences strap on their reluctant backs, is a man-made idol, not the living and true Lord, of heaven and earth. Religion that is a load is not comradeship with the Most High God. Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you. The test by which one may discover whether he is dealing with an idol or with the living God is this: Do you feel yourself carrying your religion, or is it carrying you? Is it a weight or wings?

A Christian’s beliefs are not ideas which he compels his intellect to accept; they are convictions — ideas which grip and hold him. They seem to come with hands and arms and to grasp his reason; he is aware of being lifted and carried along by them. The Truth takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting on it, rather than on ground of his own choosing.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 8-9]

Beautiful. “Religion which you must take care of is not the faith you need, but religion which takes care of you.”


Image: “Feeling Cheeky” by Olivia Bell. I wanted an image to capture the joy of theology, so I went with this! Do check-out her other work. It’s great.

Hans Martensen with Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years as bishop of the diocese of Zealand


De omnibus dubitandum est.

Everything must be doubted.

Hans Martensen popularized this Latin expression in his lectures on philosophy, and it carried over into the debates of the day within Hegelian circles. According to Jon Stewart, Martensen developed a genealogy of modern philosophy that began with Descartes’ radical doubt (see p. 238ff.). De omnibus dubitandum est. This inauguration of modern philosophy received its final maturation and systematization in Hegel’s philosophy. So, Hegel agreed in substance with this principle of skepticism as the foundation for modern knowing. But…

That doesn’t strike me as really what Hegel was doing, however indebted he was to Descartes’ subjectivism, leading toward the internalizing of metaphysical realities. (Thus, for Hegel, dogmas are symbols, not realities.) Anyway, back to Stewart’s fascinating study. Stewart disagrees with Martensen’s reading of Hegel on this point, and he is probably right. But it is Martensen’s interpretation of Hegel that has been the dominant reading of Kierkegaard’s work, Johannes Climacus Or, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. Yet, if Stewart is right, then that reading of this text, now published with Philosophical Fragments, is wrong.

Kierkegaard’s character, Johannes Climacus, is an eager young man, attending university lectures on philosophy, hearing about the modern principle of De omnibus dubitandum est. He then applies it throughout his life — doubting everything. The work is a satire. Climacus’ project of radical doubt is reduced to absurdity. Most interpreters have assumed that Kierkegaard is satirizing Hegel, but Stewart makes a strong case that it is Martensen in fact that Kierkegaard is satirizing. Kierkegaard was attacking the Hegelianism of Martensen and not Hegel himself, which is demonstrated by the striking similarities between Martensen’s lectures and Kierkegaard’s satire.

But, and here is the really interesting bit, Martensen rejects the principle of De omnibus dubitandum est, in the clearest of terms, in his systematic theology, Christian Dogmatics. I will provide the excerpt below. Martensen is arguing that the Christian principle of Credo ut intelligam is fundamentally at odds with De omnibus dubitandum est. He is developing some of his earlier thoughts in the volume, which I have previously provided: “Theology begins with certainty.” And for those who have read T. F. Torrance, you will detect some close similarities.

Earlier in his study, Stewart discusses how Martensen was “never a full-fledged devotee of Hegelianism” and that he repudiates ever being a Hegelian in his autobiography (Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, p. 63). Stewart then provides a brief analysis of how Martensen departed from Hegel, such as belief in a personal God. Yet, in Stewart’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, Martensen is portrayed as a rather thorough Hegelian, in agreement with Hegel’s skeptical starting point, albeit not a wholly accurate representation of Hegel. So, that is where I am left confused. If Martensen’s lectures are so Hegelian, then why is his Christian Dogmatics so critical of Hegel at key points, which (once again) Stewart himself recognizes earlier in his study.

The solution may simply be that Martensen changed his evaluation of Hegel throughout his career. Indeed, Stewart states that “the issue of how Hegelian he was after the entire course of his intellectual development remains open” (ibid.). It does seem clear that Martensen admired Hegel for his repudiation of Schleiermacher’s attack on speculative reason, and this criticism of Schleiermacher remains in Martensen’s dogmatics. Yet, even while Martensen is anxious to maintain the objectivity and integrity of the Christian faith, he repeatedly repudiates the pantheism he detects in Hegel and the wider trends in the theology of his day.

In opposition to this pantheism and metaphysical anti-realism, Martensen proposes a speculative personalism, which I can only characterize as a combination of Hegel and Emil Brunner! Seriously. To my mind, that is awesome! And that is why I am enjoying Martensen so much, even when I hesitate on certain details.

The excerpt from Martensen is below, where he distinguishes between doubt as a metaphysical a priori and doubt as a dialectical tool. He repudiates the former and affirms the latter, which is (as stated above) similar to Torrance, who basically got it from Barth.


For human knowledge, all independence is conditioned by dependence; all self-activity, all intellectus activus, is conditioned on susceptibility, on intellectus passivus. The false gnosis which will not believe in order to know, denies not only the creatureship of man, but also his sinfulness and need of redemption. For it is only through regeneration that the human mind, darkened by sin, can be lifted up to that stage of life and existence, at which it can have a correct view of divine and human things. But regeneration expresses itself in faith. The assertion of Christians, that faith is the mother of knowledge, is substantially confirmed by the analogy of all other spheres of human knowledge; for all human knowledge has its root in an immediate perception of the object. And, as it is useless for one who lacks hearing to talk about music; as it is useless for one who has no sense for colours to develop a theory of colour, the same holds true respecting the cognition of sacred things. “The Strasburg minster,” says Steftens, “and the Cologne cathedral, tower up high into the air, and yet, like Herculaneum and Pompeii, they have been to whole generations buried, and men have not seen them, because they lacked the faculty.” And so, we may add, there are whole generations who have not seen, and do not see, the Christian Church in history, although it is like a city on a hill. They have no eye for it because they have no faith.


By its “credo ut intelligam” Christian dogmatics is distinguished from that form of knowledge which starts with the proposition, “de omnibus dubitantum est,” so far, namely, as this proposition means that thought must cut itself loose from all presuppositions and start oft’ on a voyage of discovery, in order to find truth, be the truth what it may. In Christian knowledge the motive power is not doubt, but faith. Yet we may allow the existence of a sceptical element in Christian theology, if we use the expression to denote the critical and dialectic impulse contained in faith. Since faith finds itself in a world of sinfulness, of falsehood, and error; and since the church has the world not only out of itself, but in itself, faith must have a tendency to criticise, to try the spirits whether they are of God, to test whether the church and Christianity coincide, to test itself in order to assure itself of its own genuineness. And, since faith is also a cognition (§ 8), it must have a dialectical impulse to make clear to itself the antitheses involved in its own trains of thought. Christian faith is very different from artless credulity; and what has been said in recommendation of childlike and simple faith must be understood cum grano salis; for true simplicity of faith requires one to try the spirits and to try one’s self. Accordingly, Luther had doubts respecting ecclesiastical traditions and respecting the genuineness of his own monastic Christianity; and the different periods of the history of the church show that church teachers who were distinguished alike for the simplicity and the heroic strength of their faith, felt an impulse to make their faith clear to themselves by means of the sharpest dialectics. From the earliest ages of the Church this critical tendency has manifested itself in the sharp line of separation drawn between the proper doctrines of Christianity and heretical elements. This procedure necessarily, in every case, gave occasion to a dialectic examination of the particular points in question; for to draw a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy must surely be impossible, unless we test each individual doctrine by our view of the essence of Christianity; and test our view of the essence of Christianity by its harmonious conformity with the entire chain of Christian conceptions. In this sense, taking it as critical and dialectic, we may concede the presence of an element of scepticism in dogmatic theology; to a certain extent we must doubt, not merely in order to know aright, but also to believe aright. But if we break loose from the foundation of faith, if we become regardless of the vital interest we have in Christianity, if we cast aside its fundamental idea instead of seeking to correct our view of it, and to understand it more completely, and set up our scepticism as an independent source of truth, we shall fall, as the history of Protestantism plainly illustrates, into Rationalism with its all-dissolving criticism and empty dialectics.

Observations. — It frequently occurs that thorough-going doubt relative to the foundations of Christianity becomes the means of leading the soul to a living conviction of its truth; important, however, as may be the influence of such doubt, not only in a religious and moral, but even in a scientific respect, it has nothing whatever to do with dogmatic theology as such. One who entertains doubt as to the very basis of Christianity cannot feel an interest in dogmatic theology; for his sole enquiry is δος μοι που στω [give me the place to stand]; a demand which must be substantially satisfied ere strictly dogmatic investigations can begin.

§ 32.

The proposition — credo ut intelligam — to which we have just given prominence in opposition to every form of autonomic Rationalism, is not to be taken either in the scholastic sense or in that of the theology now commonly designated the “Theology of Feeling.” The scholastic divines fell very soon into a mechanical view thereof; for they drew the substance of their faith without any sort of critical examination from the creeds prevailing in the church, and started with preliminary principles which totally lacked an inner reality answering to their outward form. The mystics, and more recently Schleiermacher, struck into a path directly opposite to that pursued by the scholastics :—they viewed faith as an inner vital principle, and constituted religious feeling the guide and pioneer of religious knowledge. In consequence, however, of the mystics misapprehending the nature of revelation, and Schleiermacher’s defining dogmatic theology as a description of religious states and experiences, both of them fell into a new error, relatively to the “credo ut intelligam.” Dogmatic theology became in their hands a mere doctrine concerning the nature of a religious man, or of piety, instead of being a doctrine of the nature of God and His revelation; it treated rather of man’s need of Christianity and his experience of its workings in his soul, than of Christianity itself, in its eternal truth and its claim to be accepted as such by men. Thus defined, it relates simply to the subjective ordo salutis; whilst the facts of revelation, the pillars and foundations of the truth, are left to be accepted and moulded, agreeably to the particular ideas and needs of individual believers. If the full significance of faith as an inner vital principle is to be recognized, it must be considered not merely as the experience of the practical workings of Christianity, but also as the intellectual organ, or the contemplative eye, for the domain of revelation. This latter aspect is recognized by speculative mystics and theosophists (like Joseph Böhme), who teach that faith itself involves a vision. And although they, in their turn, fell into an error, the error of attaching too slight importance to the historical, attention was called in a profound manner to the objective religious relation of faith. Taking for granted therefore the relation to an objective historical revelation, we define dogmatic theology, not primarily as the science of ” the believer” (the proper and only place for treating fully of the ” Christian Believer,” his character, life, and the roots thereof, is Christian Ethics); but as the science or doctrine of faith (fides quce creditur), not primarily as a system of pious emotions, but as the science of the truths of the Christian Faith; not primarily as a description of the states of pious souls, but as a development of the believing view of revelation. We are aware, indeed,—and many illustrations of the fact might be adduced from the history of speculation, both in former and modem times,—that the demand for such an objective mode of consideration has frequently led to revelation being treated in a purely theoretical spirit by men totally destitute of religious experience; has given rise to an intellectualism which paid no regard to the practical aspects of Christianity: but this is by no means necessarily involved in the idea of a knowledge which, besides being the knowledge of religion, is itself religious. Whilst we cannot regard feeling as a principle of knowledge :—for the proper and only principle of knowledge is the idea, the thought of the divine wisdom ;—we must maintain it to be a condition. The idea, which is the true principle of knowledge in matters of faith, can never arise save in a man that is actually religious; and our intellectual eye grows dim the moment it ceases to draw nourishment from the heart; it becomes like the lamp of the foolish virgins which went out for lack of oil. On this ground the profoundest thinkers of the middle ages justly demanded that Scholasticism should be united with mysticism, that the intellectus should not be without affectus.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 59-62]


Image: Hans Martensen with the Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years of service as bishop of the diocese of Zealand, Denmark.

Barth’s failure?

May 14, 2014


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)


D. G. Hart

Since I often enjoy Darryl Hart’s writings, even if not always in full agreement, it is about time that I post something from him. Here are some thoughts worth pondering, related to my own criticisms of “worldview” on this blog:

…Christian “conservatives” insist that philosophy precedes religion, which of course is remarkably ironic since these believers (both Reformed and Roman Catholic) are arguing for the ultimacy of faith. But to do so they use philosophical arguments about incoherence, epistemological foundations, and moral consistency that wind up making human reason, not faith or Scripture or tradition or Christ, the answer to life’s most difficult questions. Mind you, the question, “how am I right with God?” is hardly the same level of difficulty as “how do I know?” or “how do I become virtuous?” …

[There is a] great affinity that neo-Calvinism and pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism have in privileging philosophy. Both of those traditions grew up spooked by the French Revolution and carved up the universe between theism and atheism, both fought the Enlightenment with Christian philosophy or w-w, and both left a legacy of antithesis — intellectual, cultural, political. If a gateway drug for Protestant converts to Rome (the anti-revolutionary anti-modern one) exists, it could be neo-Calvinism with its bending the knee to philosophy.

[“Religious Tests for Having an Opinion”]

Hart has done a significant amount of work demonstrating that worldview-ism is what happens when pietism supplants Reformed theology proper. Where I disagree with Hart, and his kith at Westminster California, is their too uncritical identification with scholastic Protestantism. The subjective ills which they identify in pietism can also be detected in scholastic moves to “secure” theological foundations.

Emil Brunner revisited

January 27, 2014


In a previous post, we looked at D. Stephen Long’s new study of Balthasar. Now, I am also excited to announce Alister McGrath’s latest, Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal. I assume that McGrath’s interest in Brunner is an extension of his recent work in natural theology. This includes The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, as well as his 2009 Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen (published here) and his 2009-10 Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge (published here).

Emil Brunner was one of the most creative theologians working within the expansive movement of “mediating theology,” though with a decisively Kantian orientation that stressed the Creator’s transcendence (not “becoming” through creation). Barth saw that he was basically a mediating theologian, regardless of Brunner’s severe criticisms of Schleiermacher and the whole prior century of theology. They were both Swiss Reformed pastors in the 1910’s, professors of dogmatic theology by the 1920’s, and collaborators in the fledgling movement of Reformation retrieval in the service of dialectical criticism of the liberal hegemony in church and academy. As Barth’s rejection of natural theology became more comprehensive and clear, he broke ranks with Brunner, receiving notorious attention with the publication of No!, in response to Brunner’s Nature and GraceThis is not Barth at his conciliatory best, and he would later express some regret for his treatment of Brunner. For an insider’s account of their relationship, see this interview with I. John Hesselink.

As I look at my bookshelves, I own thirteen volumes of Brunner’s translated works. My own focus and stimulus has been provided more by Barth, who Brunner recognized as obviously the most important theologian of their day, but Brunner is stimulating and challenging in his own way. He was, after all, one of the first theologians to accurately gauge the significance of Barth’s project, including the radical reversal of nature-grace and law-gospel (to grace-nature and gospel-law), which Brunner thought was a rather presumptuous thing to do! John W. Hart has a fascinating account of the Barth-Brunner correspondence in For the Sake of the World.

A good place to begin with Brunner is his important work in christology, The Mediator (1927), which is available free online. His books are still published by Lutterworth Press in the UK, but you can easily find used copies for a reasonable price. His other works include Reason and Revelation (prolegomena), Man in Revolt (anthropology), The Divine Imperative (ethics), and his Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews in 1948, Christianity and Civilization, in 2 volumes. There are also a few collections of sermons and a three-volume Dogmatics.

David Gilland (Leuphana Universität Lüneburg) has recently published a fine study, Law and Gospel in Emil Brunner’s Earlier Dialectical Theology. He has also translated the Barth-Brunner letters, which should be published in the near future.

For a certain type of evangelical who is hyper-sensitive to “biblical authority” issues, you will not like Brunner. I have my own criticisms. But please, it is time to expand your horizons and start reading outside of the Crossway orbit. In fact, Brunner is actually the finest exponent of Free Church ecclesiology that I have ever read, as expressed in the third volume of his Dogmatics and elsewhere. He was a pietist at heart. See “Billy Graham among the theologians.”


In a previous post, I looked at how the inerrancy debate within evangelicalism has resulted in a number of options for positioning oneself vis–à–vis the historicity of the biblical texts (total inerrancy, limited inerrancy, total falliblity). None of these options are satisfactory, not for the dogmatic theologian at least, and surely not for anyone who has serious misgivings with the apologetic and rationalist orientation of post-fundamentalist evangelicalism that emerged after WW2. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in particular, has held some significant influence within the movement, even referenced by ETS for prospective members.

The Chicago Statement has a number of praiseworthy qualifications, related to genre analysis for example, but it is hopelessly inadequate as a guide for theological engagement with Scripture. As should be obvious, the apostolic use of the Old Testament would fail miserably if tested by the Chicago strictures. Moreover, the patristic reading of Scripture, from Irenaeus to Origen to Augustine and adopted throughout the Middles Ages, is not exactly compliant with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic of contemporary evangelicalism. Yet, this dogmatic, typological, and often allegorical hermeneutic among the early fathers is what underwrote the development of trinitarian and christological orthodoxy. (If this were not a blog and if I had more time on my hands, I might try to demonstrate this, but I’m running with it for now!)

The ressourcement movement in Roman Catholic scholarship of the 20th century is one place where evangelical Protestants might take some cues, without buying the “sacramental tapestry” wholesale. Henri de Lubac’s multi-volume study of medieval exegesis, for example, is a rigorous and thorough apologetic for the patristic-medieval hermeneutic. Kyle Anderson, in his review on Amazon, says it well:

Lubac’s work is satisfying on three fronts: 1) for those convinced of the benefits of allegory–it provides a historical basis for such practice, 2) for those opposed–it provides a background for understanding your perceived opponent. And “perceived” is significant. Nowhere does Lubac discount the historical. In fact, he argues that the historical provides the foundation for the allegorical. This emerges directly out of Lubac’s sacramental ontology of the materialist world, and 3) for those seeking an intellectually honest alternative to the historical-critical methodology of the 20th century. Lubac offers a possible reading of Scripture that is historically honest and grounded but seeks to read Scripture in a broader context that is made alive through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

So, yes, historicity is vital, and Chicago/ETS is rightly concerned about reducing canonical authority to the subjective criteria that dominated liberal Protestantism (and a fair amount of neo-orthodoxy as well). Yet, historicity is made impossible when founded upon the “authorial intention” of the human author, not the least because such intentions are frequently elusive and imprecise. In a dogmatic framing for exegesis, by contrast, the “authorial intent” is primarily that of the divine author — the God who superintended over the entire canonical process. As such, historicity should be articulated as a dogmatic determinant, with theological ratiocination — an internal “theo-logic” if you will, which guides us in discerning the parameters of Eden’s historicity.

There is my positive statement, which I will surely work and re-work over the years to come. As I look on the evangelical horizon, there are some signs of hope among those wanting to push the boundaries of “inerrancy” — Kevin Vanhoozer most notably, for which he has been criticized by guardians of Chicago (Norman Geisler, for example, in his most recent book, Defending Inerrancy). One of Vanhoozer’s doctoral students, Timothy Ward, has written an excellent and very accessible defense of a more theological approach to biblical inspiration: Words of Life. Also, John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is a refreshing and heartening introduction to the dogmatic framework in which the Bible exists for the church.


Image: “Saint Augustine” by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) [wikipedia commons]