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How I See Barth

This comes in the context of a facebook discussion, where the issues of Barth being a modalist, his trinitarian theology and doctrine of election were brought up.

So the issue here basically gets into to very fundamental aspects of Barth’s theology, election and trinity. Barth locates his discussion of the trinity at the beginning of the Dogmatics, and he very quickly rejects the term ‘person’, because he doesn’t think its possible to define it in a way that doesn’t lead to tritheism. He opts for ‘modes of being’, instead, which is generally recognized as not being a very helpful definition since the first thing anyone thinks of is modalism. He uses this language because he sees it as a way to protect the one-ness of God while at the same time recognizing the other ‘modes of being’ – the Son and the Spirit.

Barth’s overall trinitarian theology follows his theology of revelation closely – there is the revealed, the revealer, and the revelation, which would map onto God, the Spirit, and Jesus. He thinks backwards from the given of God’s self-revealing – for this revealing to have taken place, what must be true of God? From there he arrives at the basic structure of his trintarian thought. Barth is also very big on perichoresis – the inter-relations of the Father, Son, and Spirit – as being constitutive of the being of the Trinity. This can be the source of confusion – since he rejects all the language of ‘persons’, it can look incoherent, as a lot of people seem to have thought.

Now, with regard to election. This is Barth’s most original contribution to modern theology (though there are anticipations of it in the early church) because he completely dissolves the classical problem of the ‘absolute decree’ and completely reverses the typical order of election. Instead of God electing some humans and sending Jesus to save them, God eternally elects Jesus. In Christ, we have the eternal will and grace of God. Jesus is election, predestination – and in him all humanity are elect. So, in a sense, the question of:

‘Does that not posit election of humanity as a necessary part for God to be Triune? ‘

…has a real grain of truth to it, but we have to quickly add this: God does elect humanity from all eternity in Christ. Christ is election, grace, and the will of God. There is no ‘God behind the back of Jesus’, no hidden decree, no secret will – there is Jesus. This election of grace, however, is *free* – a free movement of grace, which has its origin within God himself and is not conditioned, constrained, or obligated by anything outside Godself. It is not necessary but free in the deepest possible sense. There is room in Barth for more Hegelian interpretation – determining, becoming, event, etc – but I don’t personally buy into it, because it does lead to all sorts of things like creation being a necessary aspect of God’s becoming, which is quite problematic.

A Conversation on Theological Epistemology

My comments are bolded, and my friends are plain text.

I would say the “knowledge” that counts is more akin to intimacy, communion, or Polanyi’s personal knowledge and less akin to things like warrant, justification, etc. as Western theology has dwelt upon since early Scholasticism. Compare a great deal of the biblical usage of know is intimate knowledge e.g. Adam knew Eve and conceived. I have obviously been corrupted by Eastern Christian mysticism, lol.

I fully agree that the knowledge that counts is more intimacy and less warrant – and further that real repentance is required. Torrance once yelled at John Hick in a debate that ‘you will not understand unless you repent!’ I do think that Plantinga is basically right as far as warrant goes though, without of course reducing knowledge of God to warrant/justified true belief. Although I’m not too sure if it’s a good idea to put a wedge between reason/Knowledge/love – or heart/head knowledge, since it’s the *whole person* that knows, and I think that guys like Polyani and Merlau-Ponty are right when argue for tacit, bodily knowledge.

I see such a wedge between heart/head knowledge is actually between two sides of the same Western coin whose focus is on the epistemological approach of a subject. Love in the patristic sense is actually not a “way of knowing” but glory, participation (2 Pet 1:4), perichoresis, etc. If someone may “know” god via inductive cosmological argument it is surely nonsense to say no one knows God who does not love him? A whole knowing person is still half of a mystical Union -less than half actually. The epistemological prism is not the same as the incarnational prism, and the human/divine issues are just as easily imbalanced with regard to theosis as they are with revelation or Christology, I think. That we cannot know who do not love is from a broadly patristic and/or typically EO POV an issue of ontological union rather than epistemological approach. It is more a question of e.g. if God is love, how can there be union with God without the ontological characteristics of God’s energy transfiguring us (using the lang. of Gregory Palamas).. Love in this sense is not subjective (e.g. heart knowledge, moralism, etc.) -it is Christ’s ontological presence. “God is Love” -it is not our way of knowing or our way of acting etc. that is (that Kind of) love. Cf. the notion of Truth not being an epistomology but a person: “I am the Truth” as opposed to “it is the truth.” Truth as epistemological is a different approach, as is e.g. faith regarded as something like mental assent to a proposition or propositions.

I do wonder if such epistemologies of love tend to become charmed circles – ie, ‘just come inside and it will all make sense’ – immune to criticism from without. I think a lot of theology has gone that way, especially after Wittgenstein. William Alston tends in that direction, for example.

DH: The epistemological question of how do I know what I know viz. God is never asked in scripture. Certainly scripture never presents an argument as to how one knows God exists in the manner of the Five Ways and so on. The wise and intelligent may be blinded, whereas the blind and the mentally deranged may draw near. I think fideism, or the sort of heart knowledge approach stereotypical of charismatic as vs. a head knowledge approach does appear as you suggest, as immune to (epistemological) criticism, but both are epistemological categories as opposed to e.g. perichoresis. From the outside the latter too might appear as a charmed circle immune to criticism; if it is viewed from the epistemological prism “being convinced about perichoresis” might seem a sort of charmed circle of confirmation bias as well -but so would be the assumption that epistemology is all it is from top to bottom.

Fideism is, I think, rightly rejected theologically by RC, and the very notion of faith as a blind leap in the dark is more Kierkegaardian than patristic. However the Scholastic approach to knowledge of God RC has as its dogmatic alternative -also post-patristic- is empirically speaking as likely to lead to atheism as God via reason alone -hence many philosophers reject inductive cosmological arguments for God as question-begging etc.. “Heart knowledge epistemological approach” and “head knowledge epistemological approach” to God are in a sense two sides of the same Western Christian coin. If the reality of knowledge of God is ontologically based in the manner of the patristic view of theosis or deification, viewing knowledge of God from a subject oriented epistemological approach, whether it ranges from fideism to verificationalism, five or fifty ways, etc. is a lesser path to god.

But I think that even in scholasticism there is an emphasis on Gods ‘initiative’, since the only reason we can in fact reason to God is because our concepts preexist in the divine intellect, from which they derive their meaning. Obviously there are deep issues with Scholasticism/Aquinas, but those views are more subtle than often given credit for.

DH: I do agree that we can only reason because of God; discursive rationality as we experience it is not univocal and perhaps better closer to equivocal analogy than univocal analogy if analogical categories are employed -of course Aquinas would not disagree. The ability to reason to God philosophically is something Aquinas held, and RC holds as a dogma; this, of course, was denied by Barth and is something most Eastern Orthodox deny (myself included) albeit (1) I do hold there are rational “pointers toward” God, and (2) there is no bar as such to someone being Orthodox who holds the contrary position, e.g. theist philosopher Richard Swinbourne is Eastern Orthodox. Further I think it would be wrong to discount such avenues as legitimate modalities that may factor into anyone’s journey

‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma’ – Initial Thoughts

Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, by Kevin Diller, is a fantastic book. That’s the first thing that should be said about it.The second thing that should be said is that it is, given the subject-matter, remarkably clear. The third thing that should be said about it is that it is a genuinely interesting book.

The overall goal is to synthesize Barth and Plantinga into one unified epistemic response to modern epistemic challenges, eg warrant, justification, basically the things Plantinga is famous for. The dilemma here is reconciling a ‘high view’ of theological knowledge – we can know things about God, know God exists – with a low view of human capacity for such knowledge – taking into account the ‘noetic effects of sin’ and drawing the conclusion that warrant does not come from us, from below, but from above, from God. Basically, it’s theo-foundationalism – God is the foundation for theological knowledge, as per both Barth and Plantinga. God makes Himself known, we do not arrive at God via reason.

Overall, this book is just a fantastic work of scholarship. Close attention is payed to primary texts (both in Plantinga and Barth) and the ideas of both men are discussed in a very clear way – I’d actually say this is about as accessible as you could make the thought of Barth and Plantinga without dumbing it down any. Warrant, revelation, justification, natural theology – all stuff you read Barth and Plantinga for, basically – is layed out, discussed and synthesized.

I’ll have lots more to say on this work and the arguments within it later – but for now, I’d definitely say this is a must-read for anyone interested in Barth, Plantinga, philosophy of religion, epistemology, and philosophy in general from a Christian perspective.