Barth, Wright and Election

Karl Barth and N.T. Wright do not typically make good bedfellows. There are a number of significant and (possibly) insurmountable differences between the two in terms of both methodology and theology. There are, however, at least a few interesting and perhaps not insignificant areas of concord between the two, and it is these that I’d like to explore here – I intend to open up space more than give answers and so my conclusions and ideas are more open-ended.

1.The first thing that comes to my mind is that both Barth and Wright are christocentric in their conception of election. They are christocentric in very different ways – but christocentric nonetheless. Both seek to focus election on Jesus. Barth’s (in)famous redrawing of election completely around Christ is rather well-known and fairly radical, Wright’s less radical. Whereas Barth sees God’s election of Christ in terms of God electing all humanity in Christ, Wright sees Jesus as elect in the sense of doing what Israel was originally elected to do but couldn’t do (there are some serious differences here that I’ll come back to). Jesus’ death and resurrection are his vindication as Israel’s elect messiah. What both accomplish is an object-ifying of election, in the following twofold sense: (1) it is focused on Christ and his person and work and (2) not focused on the individual’s question of how to be saved but on the objective grace of God in the election of Christ. For both Barth and Wright, there is an aspect of election that is true apart from whether or not we recognize it. For Barth, we are all reconciled by virtue of God’s election of all men in Christ. For Wright, the battle against sin, death and the powers has been fought and won and the Kingdom of God inaugurated, apart from what any person believes or thinks about it.

2. A second area where harmonization could happen is in the ecclesiological aspect of election. For both Barth and Wright, election is primarily corporate, and concerned more with the establishment of the Church than with the saving of individual souls. For Barth, the Church is in a sense eternal and hidden within Israel (he spends a good deal of time in CD 2.II on this issue). Further, he sees the role of Israel and the role of the Church as related dialectically – Israel as the witness of God’s judgement, the Church as the proclaimer of God’s mercy. Wright sees election as primarily corporate in the following sense: we are in Christ, in the Messiah, and so form the one body, the one family, the one people of God, the Church. To be one of the elect, then, is to fundamentally be part of a body.

3. A third area where concord can be found is the extent to which both Barth and Wright think covenentally and historically about election, especially in terms of the promise(s) to Israel. For Barth, ‘The Church lives by the promises to Israel,’ (CD 2.II, pp. 203). For Wright, the person and work of Christ is the final climax of the story of the promises made to Abraham. There is a significant difference between the two on this issue, which will again be circles back to.

4. The fourth and final area I see the hope of reconciliation is the identification of Jesus as the True Israel, and the role of Israel as the background or ‘prehistory’ of Jesus.  Barth identifies Jesus as the true Israel on page 214 of 2.II, as well as identifying the community as the environment of Jesus. Torrance would take this a bit further and argue that Israel formed a socio-historico matrix from which the Incarnation of Jesus was made intelligible. Barth also argues that Jesus was elected to assume Israel’s flesh and blood (p. 207). Wright, arguing for Jesus as the climax of the covenant, also identifies Jesus as the True Israel, because Jesus did what Israel was called to do, that is, undo the sin of Adam. Jesus was the Israelite fully faithful to God’s plan.

These are areas of potential harmony between Wright and Barth – they are also, as I said above, broad and perhaps wrong. I hope to fill in the details in the future to see just where this proposal might go, but now I move to areas of significant disagreement.

1. Barth’s concept of election is very much eternally-focused. From all eternity God elects. Wright is, essentially, the opposite, arguing that if Adam hadn’t fallen, God would not have sent Abraham to undo his son, and I suspect there is a methodological reason for this. Wright is thinking in terms of temporal history – a linear progression from Adam to Abraham to Jesus. The temporal sequence, and not eternal status, of God’s call and election of Israel/Jesus is what occupies Wright, perhaps for the reason that historically Wright has tended away from the more traditional grammar and subject-matter of dogmatics (it’s no secret he has a bit of the Hellenization thesis on his mind). By anchoring his theology in history, Wright hopes to avoid speculative theology about eternity, substance, persons, natures, essences, decrees, etc. This has the consequence, however, of making the Incarnation a very, very contingent event and of effectively marginalizing Jesus. On Wright’s account, not only was Jesus’ person and work contingent, it shouldn’t have even been necessary, since Israel, had it remained faithful to its calling, would have been able to undo the sin of Adam. If Barth is guilty of christo-monism, surely Wright is guilty of the opposite.

3. While both Barth and Wright think covenentally, I find Wright more satisfying overall because of what was just a weakness: his focus on history. For Wright, the covenant and corresponding Torah are something like national charters, constitutions and even marriage certificates for Israel. Their very being is tied to these covenental concepts, and Wright spends significant amounts of time tracing just exactly what this means in terms of theology for the Christian. Wright’s seeing the covenant and Law/Torah as historical, contingent things is here a strength. Barth, by contrast, tends away from paying close historical attention to things like Torah and the covenants. Thus Katherine Sondregger:

‘The Church Dogmatics as a whole says remarkably little about Law itself. Even in Barth’s account of the earthly Jesus, the Royal Man, there is little about Christ’s teaching and observing and ratifying of Israel’s Law…There is much about ‘Divine command,’ much about Divine instruction and direction, much about Jesus’ obedience to God’s will and much about the famous, living voice of God, the Deus dixit. And all these of course are in the neighborhood of Israel’s Torah; but they are self-consciously event-oriented, dynamic versions of what Israel and Jews of all ages call the ordinances, statutes and precepts of the Divine covenant with his people.’ (‘Barth’s Christology and the Law of Israel’)

Past these helpful but broad categories, Barth is not really able to make much theological use of the historical aspects of the covenant and the corresponding Torah.

I here will state briefly a joint critique of both Wright and Barth: they are seemingly unable to allow for any role other than failure to Israel. For Wright, Israel failed in their national calling, and for Barth, Israel is not obedient to its election. Thus Michael Wyschogrod:

‘…reading Barth one would gain the impression that there is nothing but faithfulness on God’s part and unfaithfulness on Israel’s. This is not so…Along with the unfaithfulness, there is also Israel’s faithfulness, its obedience and trust in God, its clinging to its election, identity and mission against all the odds. True, all of Israel’s obedience is tinged with its disobedience but all of its disobedience is also tinged with its obedience. It is true that Israel does not deserve its election but it is also true that its election is not in vain, that this people, with its sin, has never ceased to love its God and that it has responded to God’s wrath…by shouldering its mission again, again searing circumcision into its flesh and, while hoping for the best, prepared for what it knows can happen again.’ (‘Abrahams Promise’, p. 223-224)

To bring this overly long post to a close: there are areas of legitimate concord between Karl Barth and N.T. Wright. These areas are neither obvious nor easy and would require both to learn from each other. There are also areas of perhaps-insurmountable disagreement. There are also areas where both Wright and Barth jointly fail. But, with any luck, this bloated blog post can serve in some way towards moving two of the most important Christian thinkers in theology together in a fruitful way.

(The quoted paragraphs comes from this perceptive essay)

Karl Barth on the Covenant

‘What, then, we gather from the Noahic covenant, and everything that belongs to this strand, is that according to the Old Testament conception itself the special divine covenant made with Israel does not exclude the human race as a whole from the gracious will of God towards it. What we find in Isaiah’s view of the status of Israel as a representational and messenger to the nations is that the covenant made with Israel has a meaning and purpose which reaches out beyond the existence of Israel. And now, from the prophecy in Jeremiah of a new covenant of forgiveness and of the Spirit and of free obedience on the part of man, we learn that the Old Testament looks beyond the past and present to a form of the relationship between God and Israel in which the covenant broken by Israel will be set up, that the Israelite, for whom ultimately God has nothing but forgiveness, but does have it actually and effectively, must now take his place directly alongside his Gentile fellows, and that if at all he can hope for the grace and salvation of God on this presupposition. In the light of this passage from Jeremiah 31 we are indeed enabled and summoned to give to the concept of the covenant the universal meaning which it acquired in the form which it manifestly assumed in Jesus Christ.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics IV.1 p. 34)

George Hunsinger on the Eternal Word

‘As a composite divine-human reality, Jesus Christ enjoys an unprecedented eternal-historical location. He necessarily belongs to history, but not only to history. He also belongs essentially to eternity as the eternal divine Word (Logos asarkos) who elects to become one with a particular human being (Logos ensarkos), namely, with the historical man Jesus. As the eternal divine Word who elected to become flesh for the sake of the world, Jesus Christ belongs to the complex dynamics of eternity without any detriment to his full and genuine historicity. He is the eternal God in the form of time and a historical human being with the content of eternity. He stands in the midst of history in connection with all other histories as eternity’s presence and self-attestation. He is therefore historical but not merely historical, because he is also and primarily eternal. He transcends time even as he partakes of it, and he partakes of time even while eternally transcending out. This is the mystery of Jesus Christ, the eternal word made flesh, as confessed by faith.’ (George Hunsinger, ‘Reading Barth with Charity: a Hermenutical Proposal’, p. 48)

The Prolepsis of the Son and the Eternity of the Hypostatic Union

I originally wanted to write this post on the idea of functional subordination in Barth, but two things steered me in a slightly different direction: (1) that becomes a huge topic very quickly, and (2) while reading George Hunsinger’s new book ‘Reading Barth with Charity‘, a slightly different but very related topic jumped out at me: prolepsis within the context of the Son’s obedience to the Father. For a good overview of the issue of subordination in the Trinity, head to Kevin Davis’ two helpfulposts, ‘Subordination in God, modal not personal‘, and ‘In God, subordination is not deprivation‘. Prolepsis is, briefly, a kind of anticipation of something as if it already exists. I kind-of blogged on this here though I don’t use the term there explicitly. Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book ‘Divine Discourse’ noted that Barth was the most relentlessly Chalcedonian of theologians, and by fleshing out Barth’s use of prolepsis I think we will see just how true that statement is.

Barth, in a nutshell, holds that the eternal Son elects Jesus of Nazareth, and that logically prior to this the eternal Son elects himself. So in electing himself, the eternal Son also elects Jesus of Nazareth. Thus Hunsinger:

‘The election of Jesus of Nazareth in and with the self-election of the eternal Son is what makes the whole God-Man Jesus Christ present as such (proleptically) at the eternal beginning of all things.’ (‘Reading Barth with Charity’, p. 62)

This is an interesting and important point and should be understood rightly. Barth isn’t simply saying that the eternal Son’s Incarnation was foreknown or foreordained – he’s saying that Jesus of Nazareth is eternally present to the Son and to the Father. Hunsinger again:

‘Through the coinherence of simultaneity and sequence in eternity, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, is present at the beginning of all things. He is conceived as present by virtue of God’s eternal foreknowledge, in which something is true and real because it is divinely foreknown (not the reverse).’ (p 62)

Because Barth effectively puts the hypostatic union into eternity, he is thus able to argue that the divine Son’s obedience to the father is a human obedience – the two natures and two wills of Christ reach into eternity. Darren O. Sumner, in his fantastic contribution to ‘Advancing Trinitarian Theology‘ (the published papers of the Los Angelos Theology Conference) entitled ‘Obedience and Subordination in Trinitarian Theology’, (and seriously, it’s a brilliant essay – my favourite of those I’ve read so far) draws out the implications for putting the hypostatic union into eternity on Barth’s scheme:

‘…while there are two natures and two wills in Jesus Christ, Barth insists that each of these is determined (or “commonly actualized”) according to their personal union. The human essence is drawn into obedient conformity to the divine, while the divine essence is given a new determination that, without the Incarnation and the unio hypostatica, it would not otherwise have had. What Jesus does in his divine essence he does not only in conjunction with his humanity but in the “strictest relationship” with it. If the divine essence is determined by its union with humanity, then Barth is able to say further that God’s willing in his second way of being is not necessarily identical with his God’s willing in his first way of being. While there is one divine will, in God’s second way of being that will is in relation to a particular human will as well – a relation of openness and receptivity to the humanity of Christ.’ (p. 141-142)

How does this enable Barth to say that the obedience of the Son to the will God is a genuinely human obedience? Since, by virtue of the prolepsis above, the Son has never not had his humanity – the hypostatic union is eternal in this sense – and since the two natures and wills are mutually determining, the divine obedience to the will of God by the eternal Son is a genuinely human obedience, and the human obedience to the will of God by Jesus of Nazareth is a genuinely divine obedience.

Notes on Revelation, Election, and Apophatic Theology

– With Torrance, I say that in Jesus, divine election and predestination has moved from the eternal into time, and thus it follows that election has a temporal aspect to it.

– Election, becoming temporal without ceasing to be eternal, then confronts us (Torrance again) in the person of Jesus.

– While it is temporal, election is not thereby historicized or bound up with us.

– In the act of revelation, God’s being declares God’s reality (see Barth’s ‘Dogmatics’, II/I p. 262)

– Following Barth, I say that as God’s being declares reality, so God determines our capacity to receive Him.

-Bruce McCormack, in his LATC lecture on the atonement, interacted with apophatic theology briefly – his position can be sketched as follows:

Apophatic theology draws on epistemic considerations in order to establish the limit of human knowing and so locate God right on the other side of that line. The problem with this, as McCormack sees it, is that in so establishing this limit we control the epistemic relation. His answer to apophaticism is that the limits of human knowledge are no limits for God. God comes completely into this world – if the God who reveals Himself in Christ is not complete, whole and entire, then it is not God who reveals Himself.

An interesting claim, but it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. McCormack rightly recognizes that apophatic theology does recognize a limit to human knowledge of God, but this limit isn’t simply posited but is rather shown by the affirmation of the uncreated being of God. If God is uncreated, and all our knowledge is of created things, then it follows that we cannot know God in the same sense as we know every other thing we experience. The limit is then given by God and not human epistemology. Apophatic theology does, however, agree with McCormack that there is no limit to human knowledge of God – but this is because that God so utterly transcendent and so infinitely more than us that we could never comprehend or know him fully. As Augustine said, if you can comprehend it, it is not God.

‘St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that even in heaven perfection is growth. In a fine paradox he says that the essence of perfection consists precisely in never becoming perfect, but always reaching forward to some higher perfection that lies beyond. Because God is infinite, this constant ‘reaching forward’ or epektasis, as the Greek Fathers termed it, proves limitless. The soul possesses God, and yet still seeks him; her joy is full, and yet grows always more intense. God grows ever nearer to us, yet he still remains the Other; we behold him face to face, yet we still continue to advance further and further into the divine mystery. Although strangers no longer, we do not cease to be pilgrims. We go forward ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18), and then to a glory that is greater still. Never in all eternity, shall we reach a point where we have accomplished all that there is to do, or discovered all that there is to know. ‘Not only in this present age, but also in the Age to come,’ says St. Irenaeus, ‘God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God’” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, pp 135-138).

Furthermore, apophatic theology is fundamentally based on the Incarnation, the full revelation of God in the union of God and man, or created and uncreated. While Jesus is truly God, fully God, and truly man, fully man, this serves to highlight the truth that while God is present among us in the person of Christ, God is still uncreated and in His innermost essence and being fully beyond our knowledge. As Balthasar says,

‘The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.’

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.

‘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.

Notes on the Analogy of Being, Barth and Torrance

– T.F. Torrance bases most of his theology on the fact that the Word can’t be divorced from God’s act or being. Torrance also very forcefully rejects any system of theology or philosophy that purports to arrive at God based on study of nature. Torrance rejects it on the grounds that such a system would be independent of any actual knowledge of God as revealed in the Incarnation. However, if the Word became flesh, and it was through the Word that the world came into being, and the intelligibility of creation comes through the Word, couldn’t it be argued that a study of nature is, in a way, a study of God through the Word? Maybe. Maybe not.

– Torrance and Barth both tend to see the goal of natural theology as arriving at God – once you accept the arguments, or the arguments convince you, that’s it – you’re there. But a study of the history of natural theology reveals two things: that God, whether in Scholasticism, Patristic thought, Reformed thought, etc, is never something that can be simply arrived at but something we are continually striving to. Second, natural theology is less about reaching God than it is about exploring the reality of God. Perhaps this is an oversimplification but I see this as an accurate diagnosis of the pathos behind these views.

– A mistake that I see Torrance and Barth making is taking apophatic theology to be a positive statement of what can be ascribed to God (‘nothing’) when apophatic theology is in fact a limitation of what can be positively ascribed to God. It also recognizes humility in theology – the limitations of the human mind. However, as Pelikan notes, this same limitation is also a freedom – it frees the mind to explore the reality of God within the boundaries of apophatic theology. The analogy of being, as well, serves as a boundary:

‘And to this extent, it bears an analogy to the kind of natural theology that Barth rejected. Again, however, anticipating our response to Barth in the final section, the ultimate point of the analogia entis is precisely to humble all natural (and even all supernatural) knowledge of God, to deconstruct every closed system (whether philosophical or theological), in short, to break to pieces every conceptual idol, and to insist that all our knowledge of God, no matter how exalted by grace, is ‘patchwork’ (cf. 1Cor 13:12)—a knowledge in ‘images and likenesses’ that break and fail and thereby point to a God who is beyond comparison, indeed, ‘beyond all analogy’.

– What Barth and Torrance both acutely realize is the effect of mans fallen condition in knowing God – the heart is turned inwards upon itself (as well as the mind) and so any natural revelation can be darkened in a flash, and turned into an idol. This is all too often what happens.

Against the Suffering God

Barth’s formulation of the classical doctrine of impassibility is largely correct in his insistence that while God does indeed have a heart and is moved to compassion, it is a free movement from within Himself, and not a movement that occurs as a result of an outside force. Barth moves the idea of impassibility/passibility away from suffering and towards compassion, love and freedom and in doing so retains a personal, loving God who acts from within His own freedom and His own fullness of love to aid those who are suffering.

Why can’t God suffer, though? Three reasons that I find particularly convincing:

(1) For God to suffer would mean that God is a part of the created order. For God to suffer would mean that an aspect of the created order (not to say that evil, which causes suffering, is a created thing – it simply ‘exists’ in the created order of nature) could affect the uncreated order. Thus God’s wholly other-ness and transcendence is violated, making Him part of the same created order within which evil works. God then becomes little more than a being-among-other-beings.

(2) If God can suffer, then suffering, caused by evil, would cause God to experience the deprivation that causes suffering. For God to experience suffering means that He is deprived of some kind of good or goodness – and thus is no longer wholly good or goodness itself.

(3) This is a point made by David Bentley Hart in ‘The Doors of the Sea’:

‘…if God’s love were in any sense shaped by sin, suffering and death, then sin, suffering and death would always be in some sense features of who he is. This not only means evil is a distinct reality over against God, and God’s love something inherently deficient and reactive; it also means that evil would somehow be a part of God, and that goodness would require evil to be good. Such a God could not be love, even if in some sense he should prove to be “loving”. Nor would he be the good as such. He, like us, would be a synthesis of death and life.’ (p. 78)

Against the common rejoinder that the doctrine of impassibility is an import of Greek metaphysics which makes God into a static, lifeless and emotionless rock, I answer that:

(1) Far from the doctrine of God making God static, it affirms the dynamic nature of the fullness of Trinitarian love which God has by positing, as apophatic boundaries, that God does not have or undergo the fickle passions that humans (and the Greek gods) are subject to. Thomas Weinandy makes this point well:

‘Contemporary theologians wrongly hold that the attribute of impassibility is ascribing something positive of God, that is, that He is static, lifeless and inert, and so completely devoid of passion. This the Fathers never countenanced. The Fathers were merely denying of God those passions that would imperil or impair those biblical attributes that were constitutive of His divine being. They wished to preserve the wholly otherness of God, as found in Scripture, and equally, also in accordance with Scripture, to profess and enrich, in keeping with His complete otherness, an understanding of His passionate love and perfect goodness.’

(2) The early church reacted against the Aristotelian idea of God as only a Prime Mover by positing, on the basis of biblical revelation, His uncreated-ness and wholly other-ness. Again, as Thomas Weinandy argues in the same essay:

‘In keeping with biblical revelation, as opposed to pagan mythologies, they were concerned with upholding the complete otherness of the one God in relationship to the created order. They accentuated and clarified, against Platonism and Aristotelianism, that God did not merely order or set in motion preexistent matter but that, by His almighty power, He created all out of nothing”creatio ex nihilo . God was then no longer merely at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being, but His transcendence, as Creator, radically placed Him within a distinct ontological order of His own. As such He was the perfectly good and loving personal God who eternally existed in and of Himself.’

Impassibility, far from being a static, lifeless conception of God, is an affirmation of His free love, compassion and fullness of being.

Karl Barth and Apologetics

I’ve been reading CD 2.1 lately, and thinking about how, if at all, Barth’s ideas can be translated into a kind of apologetic. I’ve had this little project of mine going for a bit now – it started with me trying to translate some of T.F. Torrances ideas about fluid axioms into a more systematic metaphysical scheme, which naturally led backwards to Barth.

I should clarify what I mean by ‘apologetics’, first off. I don’t mean simple proofs for God or ‘cumulative case’ evidences a la Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell. By apologetics I mean, roughly, the project of getting theology to be able to talk, as it were, to those outside the faith. What does Christian theology have to say to those who don’t share the Christian faith?

I think this is a fairly important point – if Christianity doesn’t have anything coherent to say to those outside the faith but only to those inside the faith, then it really seems to have lost its edge, so to speak. Paul, in Acts, doesn’t simply invite the Greeks into the circle of his faith but proclaims how, in some sense, his God *is* their unknown God. While not being ‘relevant’ in the modern sense, Paul’s message actually has something to say to those who don’t have his faith.

Karl Barth, however, is basically the middle finger to apologetics – at least of most of his career. He basically defines talk about God (theology, dogmatics, whatever you like to call it) as something that can only be done within the Church, where things like God, Jesus, revelation etc are accepted (as a side note, there might be some relation here between Alston’s ‘epistemic practices’ and Barth’s ideas about where theology can be done). Barth’s ideas are brilliant, and probably some of the most intense theology done this century – but the bulk of it has roughly nothing to say to any other religion, philosophy. culutre, etc, except to say that it’s wrong. It’s a bit of a conversation stopper.

At times, I do feel that Barth basically ends up making his theology something that isn’t applicable in any sense to the world outside the circle of faith – I have a good bit of sympathy for Wright when he says:

“Otherwise–and this is my perceived problem with Karl Barth, or at least with those who have followed through some aspects of his thought–it really does appear to me that the gospel is presented as a closed, charmed circle, where we don’t allow any natural theology, which protects itself against the ravages of negative historical scholarship at the massive cost of shutting itself off against any possibility of genuine inquiry form the outside. There is no way out and no way in. It is all very well to say, ‘Come inside this circles, and you’ll see it all makes sense,’ but that is no real argument to someone who says, ‘From outside I can see that you are living in your own deluded little world.’ And that isn’t simply a matter of apologetics; it applies to politics and similar spheres as well. What good is it if I say to the government, ‘You ought to remit Third World debt,’ or ‘You ought to treat asylum seekers as vulnerable human beings, not as criminals,’ if they can retort, ‘That’s all very well from within your charmed faith-based circle, but we live in the real world and you have nothing to say to us.’ No wonder Paul’s speech of the Areopagus has had bad press in neo-orthodox circles. Paul shouldn’t have tried to build, they have said, on the signals of God in their culture. Isn’t it bound to end up a compromise? But the whole point of Israel’s tradition–of Abraham’s vocation!–was that Israel should be the people through whom God would go out and address the world, in order to rescue the world. When Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world,’ he expressly warned against putting a bucket over that light. He presupposes that the world can and will see the light when it’s shining and will be attracted to it.”

I feel, in a sense, that Barth is cheating himself (it’s also fair to note that Barth’s point in a lot of his work was basically to be as big of a middle finger to apologetics/natural theology as possible). As Kevin Davis noted in this great comment, for Barth (as well as thousands of others in the Christian tradition), God is the deepest reality of our existence. His dogmatics aren’t so much books of theology as explorations of reality in all its depth and richness – which is effectively sealed off from those who don’t profess the Christian faith. Someone who I think is doing almost the same thing in a very different way is David Bentley Hart, and part of my small project is to harmonize the insights of Barth, Torrance, Hart and others. Between Barth and Torrance, Torrance is the easiest because of his familiarity and command of the methods and traditions of the natural sciences and his willingness to engage a bit more directly other metaphysical traditions (see his incredible ‘Transformation and Convergance in the Frame of Knowledge‘).

So, to bring this rambling to a close: can Barth be more of a conversation partner to out-of-faith people? Can the insights taken from his dogmatic study be in any way relevant to philsophical, metaphysical; or religious questions? I think the answer is yes – the problem will be getting there.

As a small post-script, I think that this book, which I preordered like 3 months ago, will go a long way towards making Barth more of a conversation partner:

‘The problem of faith and reason is as old as Christianity itself. Today’s philosophical, scientific and historical challenges make the epistemic problem inescapable for believers. Can faith justify its claims? Does faith give us confidence in the truth? Is believing with certainty a virtue or a vice? In Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma, Kevin Diller addresses this problem by drawing on two of the most significant responses in recent Christian thought: Karl Barth’s theology of revelation and Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology of Christian belief. This will strike many as unlikely, given the common stereotypes of both thinkers. Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, Diller offers a reading of both as complementary to each other: Barth provides what Plantinga lacks in theological depth, while Plantinga provides what Barth lacks in philosophical clarity. Diller presents a unified Barth/Plantinga proposal for theological epistemology capable of responding without anxiety to the questions that face believers today.’

I can’t wait to get it.