A Response to First Things’ Matthew Rose’s Barth’s Failure

David Congdon just responsed to Matthew Rose’s First Things article entitled: Karl Barth’s Failure. What Rose meant by failure is this:

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.[1]

Congdon putatively demonstrates in his response that the real issue underlying Rose’s critique of Barth as a ‘modern theologian’ (which really is an unremarkable insight), is not that Barth was a modern in his theologizing, but that he was a Protestant (Rose is a certain style of Roman Catholic). Congdon concluded his insightful piece this way:

Put plainly: modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, a theologian of the Reformation.[2]

With the fact that Barth was a modern theologian duly noted, and the reality that as Congdon has promoted, that for Rose what really is meant by ‘modern’ is ‘Protestant’ and his kind of scholastic Roman Catholic animus towards it (towards Protestant theology and epistemology in general). Let me focus on a particular strand of argument that Rose made to critique Barth’s modern approach toward appropriating knowledge of God. Rose writes of Barth:

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…. 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.[3]

Rose’s real concern with Barth is that Barth rejected what Thomas Aquinas became famous for, for his synthesis of Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology therein, with Christian theology; this synthesis became known as classical theism. Within this synthesis of faith and reason, for Aquinas what was determinative was his idea of a hierarchy of ‘being’ (which we see Rose appealing to in the aforementioned quote), and how an interlocking relation obtains between being-positing-lower being, creating the possibility for lower being (human being) to reason its way back to highest being (God) through analogical inference (i.e. reasoning that through communicable aspects of God’s being in human being negated, that God’s inner being can be categorized and known through reflection upon human being and God’s works in general embedded in creation). Thomas Aquinas has written:

. . . the proposition that “God exists” is self evident in itself, for, as we shall see later, its subject and predicate are identical, since God is his own existence. But, because what it is to be God is not evident to us, the proposition is not self-evident to us, and needs to be made evident. This is done by means of things which, though less evident in themselves, are nevertheless more evident to us, by means, namely of God’s effects.[4]

It is this, it is the role that faith by grace (sola gratia), etc. that along with Congdon, I would suggest that Rose is bothered by (since Rose is committed to the kind of movement towards knowledge of God that Thomas Aquinas offers). But this is not a particularly modern V pre-modern (or critical) issue; again, it (as Congdon insightfully has pointed out) is really a rehashing of the counter-Reformation and the council of Trent’s salvo against the Reformed conception and formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, sola Scriptura. Barth, as a Reformed theologian, took his cues from these Reformed solas and principles; and in his modern mode he developed his particular theology of the Word from within these principles which are radically Christ-concentrated principles (V radically Church-concentrated pace Rose)—i.e. grace, faith, Scripture, etc.

One of Karl Barth’s greatest (if not the greatest!) English speaking students, Thomas Torrance (who Barth believed captured his own thought better than anyone else in his day) wrote this of Barth’s approach to theology, knowledge of God, and the role that the faith of Christ played in the revelational theology of Karl Barth:

… Barth insisted that revelation is rational event, for in revelation God communicates to us his Word, and conveys to us his truth, requiring of us a rational response in accordance with the rational nature of his Word, and also a self-critical relation to his truth as it calls us in question. Not only is revelation God’s act and his being in that act, but Logos, the source and fountain of all rationality. It follows that knowledge of God in his revelation is rational in its own right, rational in the ground of the supreme and self-sufficient rationality of its divine object, God-in-his-Word. Indeed, in revelation theology is concerned with a depth in objective rationality that transcends that of any other kind of knowledge and of every other science. Barth will have nothing to do, therefore, with some kind of faith-knowledge that is basically romantic and non-conceptual and which needs rationalizing through borrowed forms of ethics and philosophy. Knowledge of revelation is ab initio rational, for it is engagement in a divinely rational communication.[5]

What Torrance helps to substantiate is that Barth’s ‘revelational’ theology is not primarily developed through Kantian or modern categories (even though these are categories that Barth is indeed responding to and working with, in his own reified way), but that Barth’s trajectory is set through his engagement with Protestant principles, in particular with his development of a theology of the Word that rejects the Thomist (i.e. Rose) analogy of being (analogia entis) in favor of a Protestant analogy of faith.[6]

For Barth it is not a turn to ‘our subject’ (which would be the modern move that Barth is responding to), but a turn to God’s subject revealed to humanity through His eternal Word, Jesus Christ. Barth, as Torrance notes elsewhere, is essentially turning modern theology on its head by using classically Protestant themes, grounding faith & reason not in our subjects, but in God’s subject as the object and knowledge that breaks humanity free from the ‘bondage of our wills.’

Basically, my response here is a riff off of what David Congdon already cleared for us with his response to Matthew Rose. Karl Barth is as modern as Matthew Rose is a post-modern theologian. But this does not relativize Barth’s material and theological insights and critique, primarily, of classical theism’s failure to recognize that the only genuinely basic ground for knowing God cannot come from an a priori (a prior) ground latent within human being, but only through an a posteriori given that God graciously provides of himself in his Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The access itself comes from a Godward direction, and the ‘faith’ or ‘knowledge of God’ (pace Calvin) that humanity comes to know God through is in that relation of faith (i.e. trust) inherent in the already relation of the Father and Son; so in other words, Barth offers up a robust and radical Christ-centered theology of the Word—theology that any self-respecting high-churchin Roman Catholic would find reprehensible.[7]



[1] Matthew Rose, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/06/karl-barths-failure, accessed 5-15-14.

[2] David Congdon, http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-defense-of-modernity-response-to.html, accessed 5-15-14.

[3] Rose.

[4] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 7.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 45.

[6] I have written on this distinction further in my personal chapter in my edited book (with Myk Habets), see: Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis? Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications An Imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2012), 94-113.

[7] There are Roman Catholics, though, of a different stripe from Matthew Rose; just to be clear.

This entry was posted in Analogia Entis, Analogia Fidei, Analogy of Being, Analogy of Faith, Barth, Karl Barth, Reformed Theology, T. F. Torrance, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas F. Torrance, Thomism, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to A Response to First Things’ Matthew Rose’s Barth’s Failure

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    Do you know that Rose is a Roman Catholic? Those were my suspicions, for obvious reasons, but I was not sure. So I’m just curious. In fact, he strikes me as an overly enthusiastic Catholic convert, but I don’t know.

    I’ve read the article twice now, and — frankly — it’s just lazy. Only FT would publish something like this, and I usually have a great deal of respect for FT. It is inconceivable that this article could have been published in the SJT, IJST, Modern Theology, etc., for the simple reason that Rose demonstrates nothing of his thesis. Nothing. It’s just a hit-piece, trading off of the current popularity/resurgence of classical theism, which purports to be our great savior against the tide of cultural agnosticism and hostility.

    One quibble: it is not Barth’s engagement with “Protestant principles” but his engagement with Scripture that shapes his position vis-a-vis classical theism / natural theology. Rightly understood, the former includes the latter, but Congdon failed to emphasize the importance of exegesis for Barth within the fundamental orientation of his theology to Christ. Barth himself would surely be amused that “Protestant principles” were driving his theology! Congdon is following McCormack very closely here. Of course, they would agree that exegesis is included within this “principle,” but they are fond of emphasizing how super-Protestant Barth is.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Hey Kevin,

    First of all, I’ve received your emails, and just haven’t responded to them yet. Sorry, I plan on responding soon! 🙂

    My basic premise driving my whole point though wasn’t the Protestant principles but Barth’s development of a Reformed theology of the Word (which actually does trade upon being committed to what Muller calls one of the two principium of the Protestant Reformation). I was really thinking of Barth’s Theology of the Reformed Confessions and his point on the ‘scripture principle’ vis-a-vis reformation theology as I was working this through (quickly!). So my main point was not “Protestant principles,” but in fact that the Protestant principles flowed more naturally from Barth’s theory of revelation which is contradistinct from a Roman Catholic one (and yes, Rose is Roman Catholic). And I do realize how important it is, esp. to McCormack to affirm that Barth was simply and strictly following the teaching of Scripture; and I’m sure David picks up on this, no doubt.


  3. Kevin Davis says:

    Yes, I figured you meant as much — I just wanted to be a little nitpicky! My deeper question is how (and why) Congdon frames modernity in terms of Protestant principles. That would get to the substance of why I disagree with Congdon’s approach, though agree as we do on many of the particulars.

    Good to know that Rose is RC. Stephen Long has a fascinating discussion in Saving Karl Barth on this Thomist Ressourcement, and Rose fits the narrative perfectly.


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  5. Bobby Grow says:

    I would like to understand that further as well, Kevin. There almost seems to be a linear kind of progression (evolutionary) blossoming of Protestant theology in the modern era such that what went before it gets somewhat abrogated as if the before (pre-modern) is less enlightened. I don’t think we need to go this far; I don’t think we have to think through certain thinkers (Kant, Hegel, et al) in order to do Christian theology etc. But the point I was agreeing with, in re to David’s thesis, is that I see Rose’s response, in general, as a critique of Protestant theology in general. And as I see Barth, Barth given his work in his Gottigen Dogmatics and the development of Deus Dixit etc is largely a classical Protestant point of departure that relativizes claims that modernity and Protestantism are univocal in the theology of Barth. But anyway, I found David’s general critique pointed and a good one.

    I look forward to reading Long’s book!


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