Karl Barth’s Failure

Read about it here: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/06/karl-barths-failure

‘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. In denying what Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan called the “native infinity” of human understanding, Barth capitulated where he most needed to take a stand. He seemingly did not understand that restricting reason was modern philosophy’s great act of presumption, not humility. Nor did he understand that rejecting the secularity of reason was Christian philosophy’s great act of piety, not hubris. 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. This argument comes in several permutations, most of which are sketched by Thomas Aquinas, but its success in demonstrating God’s existence was arguably a secondary concern. 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. He wanted to sharpen his dispute with classical theism so as to make it entirely about the revealed nature of God. But this could not succeed, if only because what one holds about God is informed by a host of philosophical commitments. For its part, classical theism maintained that Christian belief both presupposes and propels philosophical inquiry. It acknowledged, even celebrated, that Christian belief is committed to philosophical positions concerning the intelligibility of the natural world, the power of the human intellect to understand that world, and our capacity to communicate truth. (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.)’


9 thoughts on “Karl Barth’s Failure

  1. Kevin Davis May 14, 2014 / 5:12 pm

    Oh, please! Has this guy ever read II.1? Kantian captivity?! Barth hardly jettisons metaphysical categories, much less does he “reduce” them to God’s actions in history (regardless of what McCormack may say). Barth is at pains to do the opposite, through his repeated insistence that the plenitude of God’s perfections would remain without creation.

    There are no examples from Rose — no engagement with anything of substance in Barth’s work. How about we take just one of the perfections from II.1 and see how Barth treats it. Or, we could just lazily regurgitate McCormack’s narrative of post-metaphysical historicism. I guess the latter is easier to do and common enough nowadays. If Barth is working under the conditions of modernity, he could hardly affirm God’s aseity in terms of simplicity and (modified) impassibility — and “aseity” itself would be wholly meaningless. Barth is borrowing philosophical categories and modifying them in the light of revelation, which is a very patristic thing to do, as Torrance understood…as did Balthasar and others with a highly sophisticated grasp of how philosophy actually relates to Nicene dogmatics.


  2. whitefrozen May 14, 2014 / 5:32 pm

    One of the things that caught my eye was the repeated use of ‘rejected classical metaphyiscs’ talk. It makes little sense to say that he out and out rejected X, when he spends the whole of the CD (and a lot of his other works) working through and with the classical tradition – and, IMO, Barth is in line with the classical tradition way more than a lot of people giver him credit for. As you noted, he doesn’t simply reject X – he, characteristically enough, modifies the X in light revelation, rejecting it when he thinks he has to only after he’s spent a long time engaging with it.

    I don’t think a lot of people seem to realize the extent to which the CD is a sustained engagement and critique of the classical tradition – instead, it’s just viewed as a rejection outright.


    • Kevin Davis May 14, 2014 / 6:29 pm

      They read Barth as if he only wrote the Romans commentary.

      Barth goes through each of the classical attributes (perfections, as he prefers to call them) with painstaking detail in II.1. Because he no longer begins with dialectical contradiction, but rather with the Incarnation (in Chalcedonian terms no less), he is able to affirm much of “classical theism.” In fact, you could say that he is revitalizing the corpse of classical theism in the wake of Kant and Hegel and Feuerbach. Barth understood that he was not able to do this during the 1920’s, because he was indeed still working under the conditions of modernity. Barth challenges aspects of classical theism through his exegesis, not because Kant or Hegel requires us to historicize the being of God.

      As I have advocated on my blog, Stephen Long’s recent book on Barth is fantastic and long overdue in North America, where McCormack and his students have dominated the discourse — “actualist ontology” and so forth. I don’t say this flippantly: Long’s book is devastating for McCormack’s reading of Barth, allowing us again to read Barth in the way that Barth himself told us (moving away from the dialectical limits that reduced everything to experience, event, history, and so forth).


  3. whitefrozen May 14, 2014 / 7:13 pm

    You’re first paragraph is spot on. AO, however, seems to be a pretty good interpretation of his though.


    • Kevin Davis May 14, 2014 / 10:13 pm

      AO has superficial merits. Barth is obviously beginning his knowledge of God with God’s acts, but he does not suppose that the acts of God ad extra constitute the being of God. Even Kevin Hector, who follows McCormack’s actualist ontology for his own “post-metaphysical” theology, admitted that Barth did not teach it and, furthermore, that McCormack should distinguish his own constructive theology from Barth’s (“Immutability, Necessity and Triunity: Towards a Resolution of the Trinity and Election Controversy” in SJT 65:1, Feb 2012).


      • whitefrozen May 15, 2014 / 6:17 pm

        I’m not so sure I agree. There seem to be a good many spots where Barth argues that God’s being is his act.


        • Kevin Davis May 15, 2014 / 6:34 pm

          The “is” is where Barth scholars disagree. Webster, Molnar, Hunsinger, and others, basically agree with the Balthasar/Torrance view, whereas McCormack and students agree with the a certain number of German scholars (obviously Jungel). I’m not just trying to “name drop,” but to encourage people to read widely and understand where everybody is coming from.


          • whitefrozen May 15, 2014 / 6:44 pm

            Fair enough – I’ve not really read any secondary sources on Barth or Barth scholarship (aside from Torrance), so I’m a little out of my league here.


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