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


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)



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.


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


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.


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

Fra Angelico - Beato Angelico Annunciazione, San Marco Museum, Florence

The Annunciation – Fra Angelico

The church is “the description of an event,” according to Barth, the gathering of a people by “the living Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit” (IV.1, 650). The church is thereby always a miracle. She does not exist or thrive by the ingenuity of man, even though she is susceptible to all of the standard historical tools of cultural analysis at our disposal. The Christian knows what the anthropologist could never discern – that the church is always freely given by grace. The sola gratia of the Reformation applies to the church just as much as it does to our justification and sanctification. Indeed, the true splendor of the church is “the glory of the Lord justifying man and of man justified by the Lord” (657). All other collectives or societies, political or otherwise, seek to maintain and promote some human good. This “society,” the church, is where God seeks and maintains our human good. It is not our achievement, and this society publicly confesses her incapacity to discern this good, much less to maintain it amidst our pride and rebellion.

The purpose of Christ’s work of reconciliation is that a people may be sanctified and brought into a familial relationship with the Father. Thus, our salvation is not individual but communal: “the collective is the purpose” (688). There is no salvation without this entry into a community of “saints,” as Paul addressed his churches. There is no salvation that may bypass our entry into the church. The real presence of Christ is found in the church, and Barth even goes as far to say that the church is “the earthly-historical form of the existence of Jesus Christ Himself” (661). The Christian discovers Christ in his “body,” the church, and she is thereby constituted in this body for the sake of witnessing to Christ in this world. It is in this sense that the church is “essential.” But the “body” remains his body. The church does not guarantee this essence from its own authority, as if Christ “handed over” this responsibility to the church. We can trust that the church shall always prevail against the darkness at her borders (Mt 16.18), but this is not the church’s own doing – indeed, it is very much in spite of the church’s own doing! It is God’s good pleasure that alone ensures the continuing existence of the church. Christ sustains his bride, the church, from his heavenly throne, so that the freedom of his grace may be established on earth as it is in heaven.


The church as the bride of Christ and the body of Christ are fascinating images, seemingly in contrast. As bride, the church is distinct from Christ; as body, the church is identified with Christ (indeed, “as” Christ in some sense, though Protestants are rightly wary at this point). Yet, if we follow the nuptial union (à la Ephesians 5) then the bride and the bridegroom are united in “one flesh,” and this allows us to bring both the “bride” and “body” images together. The church is the body of Christ because she has been joined with Christ as his bride, forming “one flesh” out of two.


Image: “Beato Angelico Annunciazione” by Fra Angelico (1395-1455), San Marco Museum, Florence

Why we have gods

April 2, 2014

Fra Angelico - The Mocking of Christ

The false gods are not capable of becoming something less than their exalted and powerful selves – of becoming unworthy of the honor that is their due. They cannot become lowly, for who would cast his lots with a lowly god? Who would worship a lowly god? Therefore, these gods must not and cannot enter “into the far country” – our world of sin and shame and death. The false gods must remain apart and must never become “neighbor to man” (CD IV.1, p. 159). These gods are worshiped and adored precisely because they are not mundane and weak and pathetic as us. Moreover, these gods must not humble themselves to something lower than themselves, an obvious betrayal of their strength and glory. They are what we most desire of ourselves – self-sufficient and healthy and in control, subject to no one.

Man must become divine (through spiritual exercises that sublimate finitude), but the divine must never become man. The “divinity” that is proper to their majesty is incapable of becoming meek and burdened with the load of another. Natural man does not want to carry such burdens, much less would the gods they honor. “In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it” (Ibid.). Barth identifies these gods as a “reflection” of the worshipper, because the gods are a projection of their own desires. They worship themselves through their religious practices. By contrast, the God who made covenant with man is one who condescended to be a neighbor to man, to come alongside him in his hostility to Himself. This is the God who defines his own majesty as one of humility. God does not change from one into the other – for from eternity God is the humble One who became flesh: “for God it is just as natural to be lowly as it is to be high” (192).

This humility contrasts with the elemental sin of human pride. The false gods of our own construction have all of the features that we most admire within ourselves, if only we were not limited and bound to forces out of our control. This sin of pride is overcome in the humility of the Son, wherein the Lord becomes servant to man. Man’s pride rejects this God, so man rejected the Son and put him on the Cross. This is God’s judgment on man, a judgment borne in his flesh and destroyed in the same flesh. His death was the death of this sin — the sin of all.


Image: “The Mocking of Christ” by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)


This is from the frequently fascinating and humorous Karl Barth’s Table Talk, recorded and edited by John D. Godsey:

Student: Because of your desire to avoid any dualism between God and His adversaries (Satan and his angels, principalities and powers), it seems to me that you have left no room in your Doctrine of Reconciliation for what appears to be a genuine biblical element in the work of Christ, namely, His triumph over these adversaries as Christus Victor. Is this criticism valid?

Barth: I do not think it is a valid criticism. This sort of question can only be asked by those who cannot see the wood for the trees. If you consider the whole of the Church Dogmatics, including all that is said regarding sin and Satan, how could I give a stronger statement regarding Christus Victor? I am often criticized about this. Berkouwer, in his survey of my theology in his book, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, complains of too much triumph in the Church Dogmatics because I treat demons, sin, the Nothingness, and so forth, too lightly. Now you say there is not enough room for the triumph — just the opposite! How can we make clear the victory of Christ? In this way: when speaking of sin, demons, darkness, by not speaking of them in too tragic a manner — like the German theologians, all so serious! The further north you go in Germany, the more they are concerned with the realm of darkness. And if you move to the Scandinavian countries, all is darkness: God against Satan, and vice versa! Gustaf Wingren is proud to be a ‘serious’ theologian, because he takes Satan seriously. I understand. But because there must be room for the victory of Christ, you cannot be so anxious and pitiful and sad. Go on, explain the Work and Word of Christ, and you are above! We cannot deny the reality of evil and the Nothingness, but in and with Christ we are above these mysteries. It is not wise to be too serious. We must be serious, of course; life is hard. But we are not to take Satan as a reality in the same sense that Jesus is real.

[pp. 16-17]

Barth organized a regular series of seminars for English-speaking students in Basel during the 1950’s. The questions are rather wide-ranging, from basic questions about the “architecture” (not his favorite term) of his dogmatics to doctrinal particulars and even social-political questions.


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