From Metaphysical Possibility to Miraculous History: or, how Karl Barth Turned from Analogy to Christology and Back Again

‘Metaphysics’ – The Antichrist

Barth and analogy were not friends. Not just any kind of analogy provoked Barth’s wrath, however, but a very specific kind of analogy: the analogy of being (or so the story goes). This well-known theological campfire tale has undergone significant criticisms since its origin in the early 20th century, and the reader may be forgiven for feeling a bit exasperated at yet another blog post on this well-worn topic. As deep as the ruts in this field may be, though, there yet remains much to be gleaned. Let’s start off with the nub of this issue: talking about God. There’s two topics within this nub which merit close attention: what I’ll call ‘the given’, which is the fact that we can, actually, talk about God, and what I’ll call the ‘transcendental’, which is the question of the conditions of the possibility for talking about God. Given ‘the given’, what makes it possible and intelligible?  There are, broadly (probably too broadly), two answers to this transcendental question. The first says that the answer to the question of the possibility of talking about God lies in metaphysical possibility. That is, within the created order, within nature, there is a kind of similarity to God.  The second says that the possibility lies not in creation but in God. (Here we must make a metaphysical and christological digression before we return to the problem of talking about God.)

This is Balthasar’s position (more or less). Balthasar himself, though, wasn’t as concerned with the possibility of talking about God so much as the intelligibility of the Incarnation. For the Incarnation to ‘make sense’ , as it were, there had to be a kind of ‘potency’ in human nature or in creation – Balthasar actually goes further than mere intelligibility and argues that for the Incarnation to even be possible this potency had to exist. The hairs on the back of any Barthians neck have already begun to prickle at this point, because here, according to the Barthian, Balthasar has laid down abstract, metaphysical, a priori conditions for the possibility of the Incarnation.

Barth would counter this metaphysical machinery with his actualism (a term he himself never used). No, says Barth: the Incarnation does not need to be explicable on prior metaphysical grounds, because this kind of explication is a category mistake. The Incarnation is a miracle, an event of pure grace. It’s not a piece – even the most important piece – of a metaphysical puzzle that has a perfect fit. It is intelligible only as a mystery and as a miracle. God and creation have no metaphysical similarity – the distinction between God and creation is infinite and qualitative. Now at just this point the hairs on the back of the Balthasarians neck are prickling. If, says the Balthasarian, there is no similarity of any kind, if the ontological chasm can’t be bridged, then the Incarnation isn’t just rendered unintelligble but impossible. Here, the Barthian says, ah, wait a moment! It is this very chasm that has, in fact, been bridged – by the Incarnation.

The point of friction here between these two views is this: for the Balthasarian, in accordance with the Fourth Lateran Council, there is a similarity or likeness between the creature and the creator, but this similarity can’t be seen unless it is also seen that there is an even greater unlikeness between them. This similarity is what is rejected by the Barthian, because even though the likeness is only had if there is a greater unlikness, there is still a ‘common scale’ of being on which the creature and creator are both placed. Careful attention must be paid here. The Barthian, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t reject the idea that the ontological chasm can be overcome. What the Barthian rejects is the idea that the ontological chasm is overcome by virtue of the creature qua creature. The chasm, as was noted above, is bridged by the Incarnation, which tells us that the chasm is bridged from above, as it were, by the operations of God’s grace. The likeness – such as it is – isn’t a fixed part of the metaphysical puzzle but given in grace.

So much, then, for metaphysics and christology. What does this have to do with talking about God? The initial question was this: given that we can, if fact, talk about God, what accounts for the possibility of its intelligibility? Two answers were considered. The first contender – metaphysical possibility – was fleshed out above in terms of christology, and the second – call it theological possibility – was fleshed out as an answer to the first. It’s clear, then, that what animates this issue isn’t whether or not our language for God is analogical: it’s a given that it is. The question is what exactly grounds this analogy – or, more precisely, where is the similarity that makes analogy intelligible? For Barth, the similarity occurs in the event of revelation. The ontological chasm which separates God and creation, as we saw above, is bridged by the Incarnation, and it is just this bridge which enables our analogical talk about God to be, in fact, analogical. Boulliard notes that

When Barth substitutes analogia fidei for analogia entis he is not opposing, as one might think, two formal concepts of analogy. He wishes to affirm that there is a resemblance between man and God only through Jesus Christ, and that correspondence between human discourse and the divine reality is only assured by the grace of revelation. (The Knowledge of God, p. 115)

There are a number of things going on in this brief quote. Boulliard is quite right to note that this is not a contest between two formal concepts of analogy: it’s likely that there is no one, single concept of analogy for Barth to oppose (certainly not in Aquinas, at any rate). What Barth is after is a proper ground for analogy, and Boulliard picks up on this. The ground of analogy is revelation (Jesus Christ), and therefore the ground of analogy is ultimately grace. Within this thesis there is an implicit historicism. For Barth, revelation is historical and contingent: not something metaphysically ‘given’ but something veiled and unveiled moment by moment by God, and therefore similarity and analogy are not ‘given’ either:

Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition – not originally and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s grace. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. (George Hunsinger, Evangelical, Catholic and Reformed, p. 71)

 An advantage this has over metaphysical concepts of analogy is that while at first seeming to make analogy fragile and contingent, this grace grounded continuity allows for real knowledge of God, something that, for example, Aquinas was hesitant to affirm:

According to Aquinas, we do not know what God is…it is a sobering thought that, when we talk about God, we do not know what we are talking about…it is sufficient to point out that we do not know what the subject, deus is; but it is also true that we do not know what est as predicated of God, is either. (Victor White, Prelude to the Five Ways)

Now, this is somewhat different than the question of the analogia entis – as has been well-documented, there is likely nothing resembling the analogia entis in any formal sense that Barth attacked in Aquinas. The moves from creation to the creator are, however, made possible by means of perceiving through reason and sense the effects of God in creation. We can grant, with Ralph McInerny and David Burrell, that there is no analogia entis of the kind attacked by Barth in Aquinas and that there is in fact significant overlap between Barth and Aquinas on this point. However, the move from creation to God is still made on the basis of metaphysics and therefore on the basis of something ‘given’. We have seen that Barth’s answer to the question of how talking about God is is grounded in similarity that is given in grace by God, not found as a ‘given’ in creation. The nature of this similarity is such that it can support no movement by reason from creation to creator, because any such movement presupposes the kind of metaphysical stability in creation that Barth denies. This isn’t to say that reason plays no role in knowing and talking about God for Barth (and there is plenty to say here on the role of reason as well as the role of the subject from Barth’s perspective in the knowledge of God) – but the over-arching point is that what makes this knowing and talking about God possible is God’s activity and not a likeness given in creation. It is Jesus Christ that makes analogy possible, or, as Keith Johnson put it, ‘the human Jesus of Nazareth is the condition for the possibility of knowledge’, (Karl Barth and the analogia entisp. 202). From this, it follows that the similarity between God and creation is itself a miracle of grace.


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