A Kind of Response to Phillip Cary’s ‘Barth Wars’

Phillip Cary just recently wrote a post for First Things entitled: Barth Wars: A Review of Reading Barth with Charity. In his post Cary youngbarthsketches out the ongoing ‘battle’ that has been occurring between two prominent Barth scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary: George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack, respectively. I have been following this ‘battle’ for many years now, and it is old news to me; in fact I struggle with the material differences between the two representative poles in this purported battle – like I move back and forth between the “sides” (constructively understood this whole ‘war’ doesn’t need to be understood as such. It is possible to agree with Hunsinger’s insights about where Barth left off, and then agree with McCormack that if Barth would have been consistent with the theo-logic of his own offering he would have ended up looking something like McCormack’s Barth. In a way, Hunsinger and McCormack are doing different things with Barth; Hunsinger working from within the tensions Barth left us with within his theology, and McCormack moving into the fertile ground that he believes Barth left us with).

But in this post I want to engage with the last three paragraphs that Cary ends his post with. His last three paragraphs are evaluations of how Cary thinks Barth should or should not be appreciated among Protestant Christians. His assessments have provoked a few things in me. So I will take each paragraph in turn: I will post said paragraph, and then supply my response to it. Full disclosure: I am more disposed to the unique value that Barth indeed offers the Protestant church than is Cary.

What Barth cannot do is save Protestantism. He shouldn’t have to, of course, but one has the suspicion that some of the unedifying energy of the Barth wars stems from the hope that he could. Protestant theology is in a bad way nowadays, and it is tempting for those of us who love that part of the tradition to look for an intellectual hero to rescue it. When that happens, Barth becomes more than just one great theologian among the many given to us by the Holy Spirit in the great tradition. He becomes instead the great mind whose vision we have to understand in order to get things right. Sola scriptura, among other things, goes out the window.

I think this is overstated. The so called (by Cary) ‘Barth Wars’ actually have to do with material theological conclusions about the ‘being’ (ousia) of God within a thought frame regarding a doctrine of God. If this is as inconsequential and unedifying as Cary makes it sound then I would submit maybe he hasn’t grasped the gravity of the proposals at hand. Isn’t this what makes someone of service to the church, as one of her “Doctors,” that said doctor offers something of such seminal and material theological import that what they are communicating could radically transform the way we conceive of God? Think of the impact of Augustine. Barth could be placed within the same stratosphere as an Augustine or Aquinas; Cary says as much in a following paragraph. So I am unsure how, if what Barth has offered the church, is as theologically rich as many believe that it is, how we can simply reduce the material offering to an ‘unedifying energy’ as Cary does in regard to the battle over understanding what indeed Barth offered. There have been just as many ‘wars’ over the theologies of other big name and small name theologians from church history; I don’t see how such battles make it unedifying. In fact, isn’t this the process of growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ; wrestling with ideas about God that Jesus Christ communicates provisionally through the teachers he has given the church? I think Cary has overstated in regard to Barth’s value or non-value or elevation within the Protestant church among some of us. It isn’t Barth, per se, it is the material ideas about God that Barth has introduced to the church, working from within the orthodox tradition not outwith it that are under scrutiny (in the ‘Barth wars’).

Is Barth the sole rescuer of Protestant theology? Of course not! If we sit under Barth as a teacher does this mean we have to abandon sola scriptura by replacing Scripture with Barth’s ideas? Absurd! Barth has created an interpretive tradition, of the sort that we can even talk about as doing theology After Barth. But again, this is no different than doing theology After Augustine, After Aquinas, After Luther, After Calvin, After Anselm, et. al. Just as with doing theology after any theologian, if we are going to be consistent with the categories that said theologian lays out we will have to commit to a certain level of affirmation in regard to what they have articulated. Is committing in this way, then, necessarily supplanting our ultimate commitment (as Protestant Christians) to the authority of Scripture (and the sola Scriptura tradition, which itself, as a Protestant principle was articulated by Reformation theologians)? Ridiculous! I find Cary’s suggestions unhelpful then. Even though, as you will see in Cary’s second and third paragraphs that I will get to, he attempts to balance things out a bit by commending Barth to people, in a critical receptive way; his first paragraph here and its sentiment, in an end around kind of way, makes his commendation of Barth later somewhat empty, I think.

I will get to Cary’s second and third paragraphs later, through other posts.

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