Hunsinger responds to Rose

September 23, 2014

In the “letters to the editor” portion of the latest issue of First Things (October 2014), George Hunsinger responds to Matthew 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 highlight similar points, namely Rose’s unacknowledged indebtedness to a particular reading of Barth, which was itself not very well presented.

After Hunsinger’s letter, there is also a brief response from David Congdon, unfortunately not available online without a subscription. Congdon rightly challenges the claim that Barth depended upon “Kantian epistemological concepts” that are grounded in “secular axioms regarding human reason,” ignoring the Scriptural warrant that was Barth’s only justification for proceeding forth with his project.

Rose responds to Hunsinger and, very briefly, to Congdon. His response is also not available online without a subscription. In response to Hunsinger, Rose basically says that the ambiguity in Barth’s doctrine of God is the problem. But this is not the thrust of Rose’s essay, where he is quite confident that Barth was a disastrous anti-metaphysical plague in the bloodstream of modern theology. In regard to Congdon, he has the odd reply, “David Congdon insists that Barth finds his epistemology in Scripture. Here we have another version of the same problem. I don’t think Barth was unsuccessful in doing this. I think it cannot be done” (p. 11).

Huh? If it cannot be done, then Barth was unsuccessful in doing it.

Trinity Window, St. Mark's Lutheran, Asheville, NC

With a snappy title like, “God’s Eternal Self-Consciousness,” you know this post is going to be good! An alternative title could have been, “The Aseity of a Personal God,” which is just as catchy!

If you have ever struggled to explain how the Trinity is necessary for a personal God, then this is what you say:

The idea of the Trinity of essence is one with the idea of the Divine personality; and, therefore, to have an ontological conception of the essential Trinity is to have a conception of the form which is fundamental and necessary to the personal life of God; is to have a conception of those momenta of the essence of God, without which personality and self-consciousness are inconceivable. It is true, both ancient and modern Arianism is of opinion that God may be a personal God without being a Trinity, and that the personality of God is sufficiently secured if we represent to ourselves a “God the Father,” to whom we attribute self-consciousness and will . But we ask, — is it possible for us not merely to imagine to ourselves, but to think, that God could have been from eternity conscious of Himself as a Father, if He had not from eternity distinguished Himself from Himself as the Son, and if He had not been as eternally one with the Son in the unity of the Spirit? Or, in other words, Is it possible to conceive of God as eternal self-consciousness without conceiving of Him as eternally making Himself his own object? When, therefore, following in the footsteps of the Church, we teach that not merely the Father, but also the Son and the Holy Spirit eternally pre-existed and are independent of creation, we say that God could not be the self-revealed, self-loving God, unless He had eternally distinguished Himself into I and Thou (into Father and Son), and unless He had eternally comprehended Himself as the Spirit of Love, who proceeds forth from that relation of antithesis in the Divine essence.

[Hans Martensen, Christian Dogmatics, p. 107]

This is applicable to how God can be personal while preserving his aseity and freedom vis-à-vis creation. In a Unitarian reckoning, you can have a personal “Father” God in relation to the creation, but then creation would be necessary for this personal dimension of God. By contrast, if God is self-constituted in his essence as an I and Thou, then he can exist in free relation to his creation as the One who has life and fellowship in himself (using Barth’s language).

However, Martensen turns to the love of God as the basis for establishing a certain necessity between God and the world for God’s perfection (see below). So, whereas Martensen does not use the personal relations of God per se to make such a connection, he turns to the attribute of love, established by these personal relations, in order to do so.

Martensen has an intriguing account of the Holy Spirit as the free, ethical relation of God to himself, which would not be the case if his love terminated in the Son alone. And it is this free “procession” within the Triune God that is the basis for creation ad extra (see p. 110). It is at this point where Martensen ventures into questionable statements about the necessity of creation for a loving God, which he has avoided heretofore. For example, he states that “perfect love is not merely the love of God to Himself, to His own perfection, but must also be conceived as love to what is imperfect; in other words, it must be conceived as the will to create a world, one of whose essential features is the need of God…” (111). The divine blessedness becomes perfect only when the grace and love of God are fulfilled in the “glorious liberty” of his children:

[The divine blessedness] then for the first time becomes perfect, in so far as it is the will of God not merely to rest in His eternal majesty — for in this the Triune God was able to rest independently of the world, before the foundations of the world were laid; but to rest and be blessed in the completed work of grace and love, in the glorious liberty of the children of God, — a goal which will not be reached until, in the words of the Apostle Paul, God shall be all in all. [112-113]

So, God is able to rest eternally in his “majesty,” but that would be less than the “blessedness” of revealing and consummating his love to a dependent creation. As such, an attribute (or perfection) of God requires the existence of a creation ad extra. For some of us, usually Reformed sorts, that would undermine the freedom of grace, toward creation, by turning it into a necessity for God’s perfection. Not surprisingly, he faults Calvin for not recognizing this mutually constituting relation between God and his free creatures (p. 115).

However, Martensen tries to avoid the Reformed criticism, as I see it, by designating this “lack in God” as a “superfluity”:

In a certain sense one may say that God created the world in order to satisfy a want in Himself; but the idea of God’s love requires us to understand this want as quite as truly a superfluity. For this lack in God is not, as in the God of pantheism, a blind hunger and thirst after existence, but is identical with the inexhaustible riches of that liberty which cannot but will to reveal itself. From this point of view, it will be clear, in what sense we reject the proposition, and in what sense we accept it, “without the world God is not God.” [114]

Whether this notion of a “superfluous” necessity is convincing, the reader will have to decide. I have my doubts. Nonetheless, the doctrine of the Trinity in Martensen’s dogmatics is highly stimulating and beautifully expressed. I recommend it to one and all!

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Image: Trinity Window at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Asheville, North Carolina

Faith Without Apologetics

August 26, 2014

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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.”

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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.

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.

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.

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

HUvBalthasar

Balthasar

I am still thoroughly enjoying D. Stephen Long’s book, Saving Karl Barth. He is illuminating the central questions with which I have been wrestling for the roughly ten years that I have been studying theology. And he manages to do this with admirable clarity.

As with the previous post on the book, I will provide a relatively self-contained excerpt, though it should be remembered that this is part of a much larger discussion. This is from the chapter on the doctrine of God (ch. 4), where Long again revisits both “Thomist Ressourcement” of recent years and another extensive critique of McCormack’s post-metaphysics, following from the third chapter. I was very tempted to provide something from Long’s engagement with McCormack’s work, but it would require too many extensive quotations to do it justice. But on a related front, here is Long’s summary explication of Balthasar’s “Chalcedonian analogy of being”:

Balthasar never rejected the duplex ordo of Vatican I, nor did he argue that metaphysics conditions revelation in Garrigou-Lagrange’s strong sense. He defended metaphysics and natural theology on Barthian grounds. For Balthasar, Vatican I’s twofold order of knowledge takes Christ’s two natures as its starting point. Metaphysics does not condition theology, as if human nature could condition God. In fact, if human nature conditions God, the neoscholastic position does not significantly differ from a radical Barthianism where Jesus Christ elects God. Both positions differ from the logic found at Chalcedon, in which the two natures come together into a unity without God ceasing to be God or creature ceasing to be creature, but in such a way that God conditions creatures without creatures conditioning God. The doctrine of the an- and enhypostaton affirms the nonreciprocity between God and creatures. The man Jesus has a human nature without a human hypostasis; his hypostasis is in the Second Person of the Trinity, which is why for Aquinas and Barth any analogy between God and creatures cannot be reversed. The analogia entis tells us how creaturely being depends upon God without in any sense affirming God’s being depends on creatures.

Chalcedon presupposes intelligibility to both human and divine natures. They remain unconfused even when in Christ a single subject acts in both natures, but this single acting subject, who acts in two natures, requires that “nature” is understood as a theological concept, as Balthasar taught. Philosophy offered nothing like a single acting subject in two natures with one hypostasis; revelation required it. It is a theological concept, however, that then marks out a space for metaphysics. It also shows a “limit” to nature, which Balthasar also taught. We know nature by abstracting from what we do know about God and reminding ourselves that God is not a creature. Balthasar stated, “The theological concept of nature, which can be obtained only by the way of abstraction, is primarily a negative, limiting conception.” This does not make it a “vacuole.” There is a limit that distinguishes nature from grace; neither is collapsed into each other. The decisive question is how firmly this limit can be drawn, as if we can say everything on this side is nature and everything on the other is grace. Balthasar simply refuses to draw such a line.

For Balthasar, “everyday reason” thinks it can draw the limit precisely, but the more it tries, the “more difficult” the task. What constitutes something “natural” over and against the “supernatural” often eludes us because God’s creation is “always already graced.” But a limit is acknowledged. Grace is not nature, nor is nature grace. Liberal Protestantism collapsed grace into nature where affirming nature (or culture) was affirming grace. Barth saw the consequences of this collapse in all its horror in Germany in the 1930’s. Balthasar feared another version of it occurred after Vatican II among Catholics (without the horrifying consequences of the German Christians but also without the capacity to be critical of culture or nature rather than always blessing it). At its worst, Barth’s early reaction to liberal Protestantism reversed the polarities, evacuating nature and turning it into grace. The only agent was God’s electing grace. Take for instance Keith Johnson’s interpretation of Barth’s opposition to the analogie entis. He writes, “For Barth, there simply is no natural capacity for faith, nor is there any inherent capability to hear and understand God’s revelation.” The only agent is God. Here is a strong rejection of any language in which metaphysics conditions revelation. Instead, for this postmetaphysical interpretation, any such natural capacity “is given to the human anew and afresh in each moment in the event of God’s self-revelation.” Balthasar thought otherwise. Citing Barth, he wrote, “faith awakens ‘man to an action that is proper to him. This action not only lies within the scope of created nature, it actuallly corresponds to the highest natural determination of his creatureliness’ (understood once more in the concrete Augustinian sense.) The model for how the act of faith relates to human nature is the Incarnation.” That faith is not an “inherent capacity” for faith is not true of these traditions. If there is no natural capacity, then the only acting subject is God, and the unity of divinity and humanity in Christ cannot be communicated. Human creatures are redeemed by evacuation of their creatureliness and not by a creaturely participation in divinity.

[Saving Karl Barth, pp. 159-161. Long is quoting from Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth, sometimes translating from the German edition. The Keith Johnson quote is from Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis, p. 168.]

It should be noted that Long is careful to distinguish where Balthasar goes further than Barth and challenges Barth, which will presumably become more pronounced in the following chapters on ethics and the church.

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.

Barth reading - retouched

For those who have read widely in the Church Dogmatics, you know that Barth will occasionally refer to his earlier work, prior to the CD, in order to partially chastise his former self. One such occasion is during his discussion of God’s eternity, located near the end of II.1. I will first set-up the discussion. In God, there is “a readiness of eternity for time” because God is the “prototype and foreordination of time” in his very being (611-612, 618). This “readiness of eternity for time” is Barth’s way of expressing that: creaturely time is wholly contingent upon eternity for its being as time, but God’s time-in-eternity is not dependent on creation for its reality in God’s own life. This readiness “does not compel Him to actualize it” (618).

The “concrete form” of this readiness is then expressed through the categories of pre-temporality, supra-temporality, and post-temporality. In relation to creation, God “precedes its beginning, He accompanies its duration, and He exists after its end” (619). In an excursus, Barth deals with the way in which different periods of Protestant history have prioritized one or an other of these three. The Reformers were too one-sided in their emphasis on pre-temporality, therefore making human life “a kind of appendix” (632). In reaction to this, the modernists made the “far more dangerous” move of emphasizing supra-temporality (God’s present accompaniment), which was duly followed by the late 19th / early 20th century reaction through emphasizing post-temporality (apocalyptic readings of Jesus and Paul).

It is in this last group that Barth recognizes his early work, as a reaction to liberal optimism. As he explains, “In the attempt to free ourselves both from these early forms of one-sidedness, especially from that of pietistic and Liberal Neo-Protestantism, and also from the unsatisfactory corrections with which our predecessors had tried to overcome them, we took the surest possible way to make ourselves guilty of a new one-sidedness and therefore to evoke a relatively justifiable but, in view of the total truth, equally misleading reaction…” (634). Barth then continues with an example, which I love because it perfectly captures what I disliked about his Romans commentary:

Expounding Rom. 8:24, I even dared to say at that time: “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God. A Christianity that is not wholly and utterly and irreducibly eschatology has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. A spirit that is not at every moment in time new life from the dead is in any case not the Holy Spirit. ‘For that which is seen is temporal’ (2 Cor. 4:18). What is not hope is a log, a block, a chain, heavy and angular, like the word ‘reality.’ It imprisons rather than sets free. It is not grace, but judgment and destruction. It is fate, not divine fulfilment. It is not God, but a reflection of man unredeemed. It is this even if it is an ever so stately edifice of social progress or an ever so respectable bubble of Christian redeemedness. Redemption is that which cannot be seen, the inaccessible, the impossible, which confronts us as hope. Can we wish to be anything other and better than men of hope, or anything additional?” Well roared, lion! There is nothing absolutely false in these bold words. I still think that I was right ten times over against those who then passed judgment on them and resisted them. Those who can still hear what was said then by both the religious and worldlings, and especially by religious worldlings, and especially the most up-to-date among them, cannot but admit that it was necessary to speak in this way. The sentences I then uttered were not hazardous (in the sense of precarious) on account of their content. They were hazardous because to be legitimate exposition of the Bible they needed others no less sharp and direct to compensate and therefore genuinely to substantiate their total claim. But these were lacking. If we claim to have too perfect an understanding of the Gospel, we at once lose our understanding. In our exposition we cannot claim to be wholly right over against others, or we are at once in the wrong. At that time we had not sufficiently considered the pre-temporality of the Reformers or the supra-temporality of God which Neo-Protestants of all shades had put in such a distorted way at the centre. Hence we had not seen the biblical conception of eternity in its fulness. [634-635]

“Well roared, lion!” You gotta love that. He then recognizes that these early writings were why Bultmann and Tillich could once think of him as a comrade. Of course, Barth is not entirely disowning these early apocalyptic and existential notes, just their capacity to distort the truth of God’s prior and present relationship to creation.

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Image: This is my own retouching of a photo of Barth reading. I removed a significant amount of “noise” in the image (dust and cracks) and slightly brightened it.

On reading Balthasar

April 24, 2014

Balthasar_Herrlichkeit

I have begun to re-read the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit, translated into English as The Glory of the Lord. Herrlichkeit means “glory” or “splendor.” It is the quality of “form” that radiates from being or existence. Balthasar chooses to begin his theological trilogy with this aesthetic quality (7 volumes), proceeded by goodness (5 volumes) and truth (3 volumes) — thereby reversing Kant’s ordering of his Critique series. I am excited to revisit Balthasar, who was a significant influence in my life during the mid-00’s when I first began to read theology, not counting my coursework in Religion/Philosophy as an undergraduate — a program with scarcely any theology at all. At that time, I was just beginning to read Barth on my own, beginning with Romans (which I rather disliked, exciting thought it was) and then Church Dogmatics I.1 (which “saved” Barth in my estimation, from his obvious beholdenness to existential obsessions with finitude). In the years since, I have read the majority of Barth’s CD, hopefully acquiring a pretty good facility with the material. I am certainly the most comfortable with expounding Barth than any other theologian.

Balthasar’s prose is magnificent but often a struggle, much more so than Barth. Newcomers will likely be astonished by me saying this, but I find that Barth is one of the clearest writers in the field. His mastery over prose is unparalleled, even if excessively prolix at times. I always get the sense that Barth says exactly what he wants to say, exactly how he wants to say it — with the greatest of ease. By contrast, I often get the sense that Balthasar is having a monologue with himself! He has so immersed himself within the whole breadth of Western metaphysics, alongside his mystical temperament, that he sometimes forgets he’s writing for an audience. But if you work your way through, the payoff is immeasurable. The awe with which Balthasar envisions reality will slowly but powerfully find its way into your own imagination.

It just so happens that I recently read Bultmann’s small volume, Jesus Christ and Mythology, marking the second work from Bultmann that I’ve read (the other being his NT theology). God willing, I will never read Bultmann again. I thoroughly dislike the man. I am afraid that if I were to express my thoughts, I would far exceed the boundaries of Christian charity. The contrast with Balthasar is like night and day — a rather apt image. At Bultmann’s best, he can attain a certain sublimity, but even that is rare. Beauty is wholly foreign to his theology. If that is the price of faithful authenticity, then I’ll pass.

In order to get a taste of Balthasar, here is one of my favorite passages toward the beginning of the volume:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray soon will no longer be able to love. The nineteenth century still held on with passionate frenzy to the fleeing garments of beauty, which are the contours of the ancient world as it dissolves: ‘Helena embraces Faust, her body vanishes, and only her robe and veil remain in his arms….Helena’s garments dissolve into clouds, enveloping Faust. He is raised on high and floats away with the cloud’ (Faust, II, Act 3). The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream — the Roman vision — and soon thereafter nothing but music. But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.

In a world without beauty — even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it — in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out.

[The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, T&T Clark / Ignatius Press: 1982, pp. 18-19]

Wow! You could spend an hour discussing the richness, the penetration, the magnificence of these sentences.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth

It would be helpful to read a prior post: “Subordination in God, modal not personal.” That was a brief distillation of why I disagree with Kevin Giles, in his commendable work against subordinationism within “social trinitarianism” of a conservative persuasion. In sum, I argue that subordination is constitutive of God’s essense, but this cannot be ascribed to any “person” of the Trinity if we define person as a distinct, self-subsisting subject of operation. As such, God’s essence would be divided, and the Son’s subordination would entail a different ontology from the Father — hence, “subordinationism,” Giles’ worry. Yet, if we define “person” as a mode of the single divine subject, per Barth, then subordination can be formulated in God’s essence, necessarily both a se and ad extra.

Yet, Barth consistently affirms a genuine relationality in God, such that the divine unity and oneness are not conceptually opposed to fellowship and togetherness. This puts Barth in a unique position vis-à-vis the current controversies. He can say that God “does not exist in solitude but fellowship.” This is the living God — the God who has life and movement in himself and from himself. He is “alive in His unique being with and for and in another” (II.1, 275). God’s unity is not “for oneself” but “for another,” from eternity as the ground in God for his fellowship with creation and our fellowship with one another. This is the God who “includes in Himself the differentiation and relationship of I and Thou,” which is the basis for the imago Dei as man and woman (III.1, 191-192). In God, there is a One and also Another, a first and a second, an above and a below. This does not mean, for Barth, that there is a “society of persons,” which would introduce an all-too-human conception of divine fellowship, but Barth is clearly treading rather close to that view. The difference, of course, is that Barth is rigorously thinking from God’s side, so to speak, and not beginning with our conception of ideal relationship and fellowship, as if to validate the former.

Thus, it is not entirely wrong to align Barth, in some obvious respects, with social trinitarianism, controversial as that claim is today among Barthians — and even if Barth once said, “Modernism has no Doctrine of the Trinity. The notion of a ‘Social Trinity’ is fantastic” (Table Talk, 50)! He means fanciful and wild. Yet, this is the same Barth who later continues this discussion by saying:

In the one essence of God there is togetherness; so there can be love. There are other things in God, such as authority and humility. Our minds cannot unite these, but these are in the one God. I admit a social threeness. The distinction between ‘individual’ and ‘society’ are our distinctions. Why not something different in God: not a division, although a distinction? Yes, the Son prays to the Father, and the Father hears. But this is the divine life. [Table Talk, 58]

It is helpful to look at CD IV.1, §59 (“The Obedience of the Son”). Barth here refers to “two unfortunate and very arbitrary ways of thinking” from which we must free ourselves (IV.1, 202). In the context, Barth is discussing the astonishing claim — the “offensive fact that there is in God Himself an above and a below, a prius and a posterius, a superiority and a subordination. And our present concern is with what is apparently the most offensive fact of all, that there is a below, a posterius, a subordination, that it belongs to the inner life of God that there should take place within it obedience” (IV.1, 200-201). What are the unfortunate and arbitrary ways of thinking that militate against recognizing this astonishing claim?

The first consists quite naturally in the idea that unity is necessarily equivalent with being in and for oneself, with being enclosed and imprisoned in one’s own being, with singleness and solitariness. But the unity of God is not like this. It is, of course, exclusively His unity. No other being, no created being, is one with itself as God is. But what distinguishes His peculiar unity with Himself from all other unities or from what we think we know of such unities is the fact that — in a particularity which is exemplary and instructive for an understanding of these others — it is a unity which is open and free and active in itself — a unity in more than one mode of being, a unity of the One with Another, of a first with a second, an above with a below, an origin and its consequences. It is a dynamic and living unity, not a dead and static. Once we have seen this, we will be careful not to regard that mean and unprofitable concept of unity as the last word of wisdom and the measure of all things. And its application to God will be ruled out once and for all.

The second idea we have to abandon is that-even supposing we have corrected that unsatisfactory conception of unity — there is necessarily something unworthy of God and incompatible with His being as God in supposing that there is in God a first and a second, an above and a below, since this includes a gradation, a degradation and an inferiority in God, which if conceded excludes the homoousia of the different modes of divine being. That all sounds very illuminating. But is it not an all too human — and therefore not a genuinely human — way of thinking? For what is the measure by which it measures and judges? Has there really to be something mean in God for Him to be the second, below? Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack? Why not rather a particular being in the glory of the one equal Godhead, in whose inner order there is also, in fact, this dimension, the direction downwards, which has its own dignity? Why should not our way of finding a lesser dignity and significance in what takes the second and subordinate place (the wife to her husband) need to be corrected in the light of the homoousia of the modes of divine being? [IV.1, 202]

There is much to discuss in this passage, and I would especially direct students to Barth’s work in II.1, §28 (“The Being of God as the One Who Loves in Freedom”), for further technical analysis of how Barth negotiates with classical theism. For my interests here and elsewhere, I would highlight Barth’s question, “Does subordination in God necessarily involve an inferiority, and therefore a deprivation, a lack?” That is the general assumption, and Barth is not exactly beloved today for his unfolding of this in CD III.4, §54.1 (“Man and Woman”), even though it follows from his doctrine of God in II.1, the imago Dei in III.1, and the christology in IV.1.

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Image: Karl Barth, probably circa 1910’s or 1920’s, provided by the Universität Freiburg.

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