Six Motifs To Help Matthew Rose’s Barth Succeed Instead of Fail

Roman Catholic Barth scholar, Matthew Rose’s critique of Karl Barth, and what Rose identifies as “Barth’s failure” (i.e. Rose’s contention that in Barth’s critique of modernity, Barth was actually a victim of it–i.e. modernity–barthand thus Barth failed, as Rose would contend, to offer up a return to orthodox Christian theology, but instead produced a still-born Christian theology that in reality is just liberal existentialism) in his recent First Things article has already receive quite a bit of push back (including from me) by the theo-Bartho-blogosphere (see: David Congdon, Darren Sumner, Kevin Davis, Kevin Davis, David Guretski, and me). But in an attempt to be as edifying as possible towards Rose, I thought I would provide an index for him, something that has been a helpful guide for me (and I am sure many other would be Barth thinkers) as I read Barth in his various venues. If Rose had read these helpful guidelines for reading Barth before he ventured into writing his article against Barth, I think Rose’s article would have turned out much differently than it did (or maybe not!) [full disclosure: I have no doubt that Rose has read Hunsinger, and so I am being provocative]. So for the benefit of Rose, myself, and others, let me offer a few motifs articulated by Barth scholar, George Hunsinger, on how to actually read Karl Barth. Again, I think if Rose had availed himself of these he would not have made claims like this (or maybe he would have, but at least if he had represented Barth with more of Barth’s own theological integrity and method intact his claims would have appeared more critical and thus fruitful):

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.[1]

Here are the guidelines or motifs that Rose should have followed in his reading of Barth, and these are motifs that I believe all Barth readers would do well to keep in mind as we engage with his oeuvre.

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that say, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.

“Objectivism” is a motif pertaining to Barth’s understanding of revelation and salvation. It describes not only the means by which they respectively occur, but also the status of their occurrence. Revelation and salvation are both thought to occur through the mediation of ordinary creaturely objects, so that the divine self-enactment in our midst lies hidden within them. The status of this self-enactment is also thought in some strong sense to be objective–that is, real, valid, and effective–whether it is acknowledged and received by the creature or not. Revelation and salvation are events objectively mediated by the creaturely sphere and grounded in the sovereignty of God.

“Personalism” is a motif governing the goal of the divine self-manifestation. God’s objective self-manifestation in revelation and salvation comes to the creature in the form of personal address. The creature is encountered by this address in such a way that it is affirmed, condemned, and made capable of fellowship with God. Fellowship is the most intimate of engagements and occurs in I–Thou terms.[2] The creature is liberated for a relationship of love and freedom with God and therefore also with its fellow creatures.

“Realism,” as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to Barth’s conception of theological language. Theological language is conceived as the vehicle of analogical reference. In itself it is radically unlike the extralinguistic object to which it refers (God), but by grace it is made to transcend itself. Through transcending itself by grace, theological language attains sufficient likeness or adequacy to its object for reference truly and actually to occur. Besides the mode of reference, realism also pertains to the modes of address, certainty, and narration found in scripture as well as in language of the church based upon it.

“Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptura exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity.[3]

I am hopeful that this will go a long way in curtailing Rose’s reading of Barth’s project as a failure. If these motifs as laid out by Hunsinger are kept in mind while reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics in particular and the rest of his writings in general, then I think we will, in the end, recognize that Barth’s purported failure was an outright success for the forwarding of Christian reality enclosed by its reality in God’s Self-revelation and interpretation in Jesus Christ (see Jn. 1.18; 5.39; etc.).[4]

 

[1] Matthew Rose

[2] I once wrote an exegetical paper on Ezekiel 36:24ff, and noted a strong and unilateral movement of I–Thou encounter taking place between God and his people. So please do not suggest that just because someone like Jewish existentialist philosopher Martin Buber invented the I–Thou relationship, that it is necessarily un-biblical in trajectory. And further do not tell me that because Barth takes advantage of this construct that this relegates Barth to existentialist philosophy in a way that subverts Barth’s material critique of existential modern philosophy through his fruitful Reformed Christian theological loci.

[3] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

[4] Some people might wonder why I care about this so much; I mean shouldn’t I just care about Jesus, loving on others, and becoming a self-fulfilled Christian person? Absolutely (well, kind’ve)! But that’s the point of this; it is because I care so deeply that I feel a bit defensive of Karl Barth’s theology. Not because I affirm every jot and title of Barth’s theology (although I am close, in the right ways), but because more than anyone else (even more than T. F. Torrance, only because I believe that Barth is so important to the identity and formation of Torrance’s theology in fundamental types of ways) Barth has offered a way forward, categorically, that is genuinely Christian. Christian in the sense that he attempted to think everything from God revealed in Jesus Christ; and so Barth, along with the greats of the Patristic past attempted in his modern context to think theologically and Christianly,  Trinitarianly. Barth attempted to do theology from the reality that is Deus dixit (God has spoken), and our response is one of prayerful submission to his Lordly voice (for Barth). Barth represents a theologian who takes the Bible seriously, through his exegesis, his exhaustive reference to it in his theologizing, and his application of it in ethics etc. in a Christ-concentrated frame. I have never ever been exposed to another theologian more concerned with focusing on Jesus as the focal point by which theology ought to be done. And I can think of nothing more commendable and refreshing than this, but to be in agreement with Jesus that the work of the Holy Spirit is to do nothing else but to magnify Jesus (see Jn. 14–16). Barth attempted to think, in methodological ways, from God spoken in the Word of Jesus Christ; and so I am apologetic at this point.

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3 comments

  1. Thanks Aaron. I read a review of Rose’s book by Paul Nimmo that made it sound like Rose is Roman Catholic. Maybe he converted since he wrote this piece you link to.

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