Friday, May 16, 2014

Where Karl Barth failed

Matthew Rose, "Karl Barth's Failure: Karl Barth Failed to Liberate Theology from Modernity's Captivity" (First Things, June 2014). Just a few excerpts from this insightful and substantial article (emphasis ours):
Karl Barth was the greatest theologian since the Reformation, and his work is today a dead letter. This is an extraordinary irony. Barth aspired to free Christian theology from restrictive modern habits of mind but in the end preserved the most damaging assumptions of the ideas he sought to overcome. This does not mean he no longer deserves serious attention. Barth now demands exceptionally close attention, precisely because his failures can teach us how profound the challenges of modernity are for theology—and show us the limits of a distinctly modern solution to them.


A movement that had drawn some of Europe’s most gifted scholars over the previous two centuries, theological liberalism set its talents to securing articles of peace between an advancing modern worldview and a religious tradition in confused retreat. It adopted different strategies, but on the main question that disturbed my student slumbers—how my deepest convictions could be legitimately affirmed as true—the giants of liberalism agreed. They argued that if Christians would accept the limits on human reason imposed by the Enlightenment, believers not only would reap spiritual benefits but would encounter a purer form of Christian faith. Under the agreement negotiated by liberalism, Christian theology would cease defending truth claims about the order of nature and address instead the private faith of individuals or the moral good of secular society.

Two of Barth’s teachers provide examples. In the winter of 1906, Barth enrolled at the University of Berlin to study under Adolf von Harnack, arguably the preeminent academic in Wilhelmine Germany. Author of a major liberal historiography, History of Dogma (1894–98), Harnack was convinced that the teachings of Jesus had been distorted by Greek philosophy and could be recovered only through historical inquiry. Harnack invested scholars with tremendous authority, regarding the historical-critical method as part of the Reformation’s mission to return Christianity to its primitive essentials. He assured believers that modern thinking was an unambiguous blessing, as it could liberate them from a metaphysical mindset that was foreign to the original spirit of their faith. And that spirit was animated by a simple creed about the universal Fatherhood of God and his presence in every human soul.

Barth learned a similar lesson from Wilhelm Herrmann.... Herrmann seized on Kant’s idea that religion was principally about morality and made truth claims fundamentally different from those of science....

By uncoupling Christian theology from an outdated worldview, Harnack and Herrmann hoped that theology could better express the teachings transmitted by the biblical writers, a message allegedly free from a cosmology to which no intelligent person could assent. As Gary Dorrien writes in his excellent book The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology (2000), Barth’s teachers thought Christian anxiety about modernity was misguided: “Harnack had assured [Barth] that liberal theology recovered the simple and beautiful religion of Jesus; Herrmann convinced him that liberal theology retained the essential gospel faith through its insistence that the living Christ could be known personally.”

Theological liberalism offered itself as a respectable way to preserve the culture, language, and ethics of Christianity without abandoning modern philosophy....

In Barth I met a thinker who told me that liberalism was on a fool’s errand, offering a fraudulent solution to a misunderstood problem. Liberalism could not inoculate my faith against the challenges of modernity, because it misjudged the import of modernity for Christianity.

Barth wrote from a commanding position. He not only had lived through the rise and fall of European liberal theology but had directly influenced its changing fortunes. The defining events of Barth’s career occurred as a result of the First World War. After witnessing Christian support for German militarism and struggling as a pastor in a working-class congregation, Barth became convinced that the foundations of establishment liberalism, which had for a century supported the intellectual scaffolding of German culture, were irremediably corrupt. His ideas came together in an incendiary commentary, Epistle to the Romans, whose second edition, published in 1922, was famously said to be “like a bomb on the theologians’ playground.”

Barth’s genius was to have noticed that modern theology had effectively ceased speaking about God....

Barth subjected to pitiless critique the idea that Christian theology could be developed around an interpretation of religious experience, famously saying, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” In the seventeenth chapter of the Church Dogmatics, “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion,” he presented his most searing criticisms.... “Religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in His revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture.”

In equating liberalism with idolatry, Barth borrowed from an unlikely source. Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, treasured as much by Barth as by Karl Marx, advanced an ingenious argument in defense of atheism. ... Feuerbach turned liberal theology inside out, concluding that God was the projection of man’s highest ideals. God is man writ large. Barth admired Feuerbach’s subversion so much that he often assigned him to students. He wanted them to appreciate that Feuerbach simply took liberal theology “completely seriously,” which could only mean “turning lovers of God into lovers of men.”

Here we reach Barth’s pivotal argument. God is not known through spiritual striving, moral reason, or historical experiences. God is known solely through God himself. For Barth it was therefore misguided to reflect on God from a standpoint outside faith in divine revelation....

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. Barth was no reactionary. His arguments were almost always careful attempts to repurpose modern ideas for Christian ends. Modern people had demanded freedom for human self-expression, and Barth only asked that the same courtesy be extended to God.

This led him to ground his theology entirely within Christ, God’s self-expression in history. He claimed, perhaps uniquely, that “revelation does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ. . . . To say revelation is to say, ‘The Word became flesh.’” Through this seemingly brilliant maneuver, Barth recognized and at the same time bypassed the Enlightenment suspicion of speculative knowledge. 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. The Incarnation therefore moved past the critical arguments of Descartes, Hume, and Kant. For in Christ, God becomes present to us from within, from below, in flesh.


Barth was often hailed as a biblical theologian, but the truth is that he authored one of the great metaphysical treatises in modernity, treating the person of Christ as the ultimate cause and explanation of all things. Christology provided him exclusive access to the questions traditionally seen as falling within the domain of philosophy but now deemed to be speculatively off limits.

Barth used the Enlightenment critique of reason to secure the absolute priority of revelation. But his concession came with a price, a cost he would increasingly pay in his mature work. Having rooted theology completely within Christology, he was required to claim that God and his revelation were somehow identical.... In defense of this claim, 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.... Where liberal theologians had rooted all understanding in human subjectivity, Barth rooted all reality in divine subjectivity....

While it is difficult to ignore the ambition of Barth’s theology, it is also difficult to overlook its flirtation with novelty. Barth never fully owned up to the radical implications of his identification of God with revelation.... [God] is a God who is not only made known through his words and deeds; he is a God who lives through what he says and does.


At first glance, Barth orchestrates a stunning reversal. He allows modern philosophy to close off traditional paths to transcendence, but then exploits the vulnerability of philosophy to a God arriving in Jewish flesh. Yet Barth’s argument does not succeed, and its failure has the widest possible implications. Far from liberating theology from modern captivity, he leaves it trapped within the immanent confines of secular reason.

The mere suggestion defies both received wisdom and the canonical story of twentieth-century theology. Barth is widely acknowledged to be a defender of orthodoxy and is both praised and criticized for flouting the settled habits of secular thought. According to British theologian John Webster, Barth is “a central figure in the break up of the modern tradition,” a theologian whose “vigorous critique” of modernity exposed “its fatal weaknesses.” Barth achieved no such thing.


Modern philosophy assumes the falsity of classical theism. It begins by discarding, not disproving, the family of arguments that provide the metaphysical grammar of Christian orthodoxy. Barth followed suit—and the results were fatal.

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. ... And his bargain with Kant—turning the limits of reason into an opening for revelation—could only corrode the foundations of Christian faith.

By rejecting the speculative power of the intellect, Barth was drawn into making two mistakes. First, he turned his back on the metaphysics of classical theology, rendering almost unintelligible the conceptual idiom of the doctors and creeds of the Church. Barth did not hide this, and he worked hard to square his dogmatics with Christian tradition, replacing appeals to nature and causality with appeals to history and narrative, but the result was that he could not properly and consistently distinguish God’s nature from his actions in the history of salvation.

Barth’s second and deeper mistake was to sever the mind’s speculative relation to God. He dissolved the classical synthesis of faith and reason, collapsing all theological understanding into an exercise of faith. Unable to appeal to truth besides Jesus Christ, Barth was powerless to explain how truth could be known and communicated without supernatural assistance. He was even pressed to invoke divine revelation as proof of the existence of the external world, a sign something had gone very wrong.

His basic error is evident in his rejection of natural theology, which holds that careful observation of contingent beings can disclose the necessary being of God. ... The primary purpose of traditional natural theology was to show the indissoluble connection between the human intellect and a transcendent God who is Being itself.

Barth’s charge that some natural theologies compromised divine transcendence was true enough, but his indictment was indiscriminate. He 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).

He simply could not allow that a genuinely philosophical understanding of God is demanded by the intellect’s desire to know.... For its part, classical theism maintained that Christian belief both presupposes and propels philosophical inquiry.... (Hence the First Vatican Council’s condemnation of those who denied that God can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason.)

Why did Barth fail to see the theological necessity of metaphysical inquiry? His idée fixe—that God is wholly identical with his self-enactment in history—stood in the way. There can be no natural knowledge of God, after all, if God lives in and through his self-revelation. In passages wincingly difficult to read, he sometimes took to mocking natural theology and classical theism, suggesting that they bore witness to a demonic power rather than a God who lives in covenant relationship with humanity.

There is much of lasting importance in Barth. One can find contributions to Christology and trinitarian theology that surpass almost everything written in the twentieth century, as well as a meticulous cataloguing of the history of Protestant scholasticism. He never spawned vulgar popularizers, and to this day Barth scholarship has a well-deserved reputation for its exceptional quality and academic sobriety....

But we are living through the unraveling of the Christian metaphysic, which began with a rejection of classical theism, proceeded to abolish purpose from the material world, and is now eliminating the rational and moral nature of man. In order to recognize this metaphysical demolition for what it is—one can scarcely repair what one misunderstands—Christians are no more helped by Barth than by theological liberalism. Both collude with secular reason in denying our capacity to attain knowledge of the highest things. We will be immeasurably better served by recognizing, as John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, that our “crisis of meaning” stems from failing to defend the ability of reason to know “the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.”
[Hat tip to JM]

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