The way of God to man

May 20, 2008

St. Peter's Basilica_Photo by Kevin Davis

Here is an interesting quote from Louis Bouyer in effect summing-up the thesis of his book, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism. Unfortunately, we have to say he gets Barth wrong (at least, the Barth of the Church Dogmatics, if not prior), which means he ultimately gets Protestantism wrong since he argues that Barth is the proper fulfillment of Reformation principles. In short, Protestantism errs because it is founded upon nominalist (late medieval, Occamist) philosophy, while Catholicism succeeds because it is founded upon realist (high medieval, Thomist) philosophy. The former negates the world and the human even under the reign of Christ who remains wholly extrinsic and alone in value; i.e., the creature is left to suffer condemnation of all his or her values and attainments until this life and world pass away. Of course, this is not Barth’s understanding, unless you only consider one half of his dialectical “No” and “Yes” in Christ’s judgment on humanity. So, yes, humanity qua humanity is dead though it lives, but humanity qua Christ is alive though it is dead. If that makes no sense to you, you’ll just have to read some Barth (or read John Webster’s Barth for a quality introduction). Here’s a typical quote from Barth: “We can meet God only within the limits of humanity determined by Him. But in these limits we may meet Him. He does not reject the human! Quite the contrary! We must hold fast to this” (The Humanity of God, p. 54). Here’s Bouyer’s understanding, which does have great value as a criticism of much Protestant soteriology:

“It was apparently impossible for Protestant theology to agree that God could put something in man that became in fact his own, and that at the same time the gift remained the possession of the giver. Or else, what comes to the same thing, that even after the intervention of grace man could ever belong to God; it would seem as if man could only belong to him in ceasing to have a distinct existence, in being annihilated. That amounts to saying there can be no real relation between God and man. Barth repeats that according to the Gospel there is no way that leads from man to God. The Catholic theologian, contrary to expectation, finds it easy to agree with him in this. His objection to Barth, and to the whole of Protestantism as represented by him, is that he in fact disallows that God can himself come to man. It may be granted that there is no way from man to God that is not illusory. But the Gospel is the way of God to man; and the charge against Protestantism, as a system directed against Catholicism, is that, whatever its intention, it does in fact bar this way. If the grace of God is such, only on condition that it gives nothing real; if man who believes, by saving faith, is in no way changed from what he was before believing; if justification by faith has to empty of all supernatural reality the Church, her sacraments, her dogmas; if God can only be affirmed by silencing his creature, if he acts only in annihilating it, if his very Word is doomed to be never really heard — what is condemned is not man’s presumptuous way to God, but God’s way of mercy to man.”
The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (London: Harvill Press, 1956), pp. 151-152.

Biographical note: Louis Bouyer (1913-2004) was a French Lutheran convert to the Catholic Church. He was a theological advisor at the Second Vatican Council and a co-founder (with Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, et al.) of the theological journal, Communio.