Augustine or Barth? You Choose

Is Karl Barth the rescuer of the modern Protestant church; is that how he is being appealed to by some Protestants, as Thomas barthcalvaryAquinas was for Tridentine (Roman Catholic) theology? What about Augustine? Was and is Augustine underneath most, if not all Western theology (Roman Catholic and Protestant alike)? If he is, and I would contend that in general, he is, then what makes Augustine’s theological categories more sacrosanct than those of Barth or even Aquinas? Has Augustine become so wedded, so conflated with Reformed Protestant theology (even Lutheran), not to mention Roman Catholic, that it is hard for us to critically make this distinction? Maybe we just don’t want to.

Phillip Cary just recently wrote a post somewhat critiquing Barth and the role that he has been given by Protestants as a kind of rescuer of failing Protestant theology (at least as that is perceived among some sectors). Cary writes:

That is the kind of modernity we don’t need. It is an unhealthy situation when a brilliant mind is put in the position of rescuing the Church and rebuilding its theology. This is not just a Protestant problem. Thomists in modernity have seen in Aquinas “an ark of salvation”—as the blurb on my copy of the Summa Theologica attests. It was a great service to the Roman Catholic Church when scholars of ressourcement such as Henri de Lubac and Jean Marie Daniélou retrieved the writings of the Church Fathers and thus restored Thomas to his position as one great theologian among many, not the sole standard of sound doctrine. (source)

I guess this kind of assessment still leaves me wondering; why Augustine, but not Barth? I can’t help but think about the kind of  impact Augustine has had upon Western theology; like I already intimated it is so ubiquitous, I think, that Augustine’s presence is almost absent, even when it his voice that is the most prominent in so much of theological discourse.

So why is it okay for the theologoumena (theological opinion) of Augustine to be so critically determinative for so much of the theological enterprise and not someone else of the same kind of stature (i.e. Barth, Aquinas, et al)?

I’m not sure Cary would say that it is okay for Augustine to serve in the kind of role that he has for the church, but then he turns around and chides Barth for (at least the role Barth ostensibly has been placed in by some) functioning in the same type of role that Augustine has in the determinative type of capacity he has for the Western church? It seems as if Cary is advocating for ressourcement, but I couldn’t help noticing that he forgot to mention Augustine. Maybe Augustine is so present for Cary that he does indeed keep Augustine in a separate category of his own; I don’t know.

But if we are choosing traditions, I choose Barth’s.


This entry was posted in Augustine, Barth, Karl Barth. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Augustine or Barth? You Choose

  1. Yes. Of course Protestant ‘revisionist Barthians’ use modern philosophical tools, but when they are doing so to bracket Augustinian categories and to retrieve Cappadocian ones (eg reading St Gregory of Nyssa with an actualist metaphysics to articulate a doctrine of the Holy Spirit better balanced than those of St Augustine and Karl Barth) they too are being patristic traditionalists placing orthodoxy prior to modernity. Generally, they seem to want to ground the Reformation position on justification by grace in a more catholic doctrine of God, whatever their intentions toward ‘Protestantism’ as a social or ecclesial movement. Just like Hunsinger.

    Given all that, I too found Cary’s concluding comments odd. My most charitable reading of them is that he prefers pastor-theologians to professor-theologians and, missing or discounting the pastoral agenda of the ‘revisionist Barthians’, cast McCormack with St Thomas and Karl Barth in the role of the ivory tower speculator. Cary knows St Augustine too well to pit that corpus against all rivals on all questions, but he may not only doubt that non-Augustinian positions have pastoral relevance in the Western Church, but also have confidence that her pastor-theologians will muddle through just fine if they are not unduly distracted by what happens in Princeton. I’m wondering what our friend Cal makes of all this.


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    I’m not actually sure what you’re talking about, Bowman? I means whatever you are getting at in your first paragraph; can you elaborate a little further?


  3. Elaboration #1 of 3– Two different matters can be unhelpfully confused: (a) what the historical Karl Barth meant to write in the CD, (b) where and why the arguments that readers have actually found in the CD succeed and fail in the churchly task of theology now. If in future retrospect, Barth should turn out to have been perfectly comprehensive and clear and some of his readers in theology exegetically accurate, that might be a lovely thing, perhaps an occasion for a wine and cheese reception, a banquet, a fireworks display, or even a eucharist. In the meantime, however, it is not at all important to the Church. ‘Revisionist Barthians’ have been pellucidly clear that they write, not intellectual biography of Barth– of whose words they are freely critical– but theology of the triune God also known by many doctors (eg the tradition from the Cappadocians to Palamas) from scripture. Reasonable objections to their work (eg from David Bently Hart) will likewise be, not biographical nagging from experts on the Great Man, but real theological arguments reliant on that “cloud of witnesses”. In his needlessly polemical review, Cary– following Hunsinger?– seems to have wandered into the wrong meeting and given a speech..


  4. Cal says:

    As a starter: Dr. Cary annoys me slightly. He has this, stereotypically Anglo-catholic, attitude that he is not under the banner of Protestant, sorta. He is brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But his attitude of detachment, as if he belongs to a time already past, makes what he says hard to digest or process. But that’s just from quick brushes with papers he’s written.


    Bowman, I did appreciate one point of his concluding comment about being wary of Barth. Unlike Aquinas or Calvin, he does not have a strict heritage behind his name. He wasn’t really beholden to any ecclessial body in his time. He always comes as an outsider. That’s fine, but perhaps we need to be more cautious.

    It also doesn’t help that, pastorally, Barth’s record is dubious. As Carl Trueman put it, any preacher adopting Barth self-consciously has emptied his church. I doubt it’s so stark, but apart of a time-worn slow appreciation and appropriation of Barth. Hunsinger, which I take Cary to find more sympathy with, is trying to introduce Barth in such a spirit. Oh well..

    Bobby, you’re right on the place of Augustine. Cary may have sublimated him into some net called Tradition. But that’s not fair to the pastor-theologian! Despite Augustine’s furious writing, creeping semi-Pelagianism took the day for Medieval christendom. Despite Augustine’s caution and pessimism in CoG, the man’s name is toted as being the architect of Christendom. However, these have been ‘interpretations’.

    Cary needs to turn the guns on himself (in regards to Augustine and Luther).. Let us continue to dialog with the cloud of witnesses and continue to pursue Christ the King.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Correction to the last sentence: It also suggests in passing that there is little danger that actualist Barthians have been either pastorally disengaged or waiting for an interpretation of Barth to rescue Protestant theology.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bobby Grow says:

    Yeah, I reject the idea of revisionist Barthians; constructive yes, revisionist, no. Thanks for the clarification of what you were getting at.


  7. Bobby Grow says:

    I see Barth as an evangelical theologian; that’s his ecclesial identity as far as I am concerned.

    It could be argued that a semi-Augustianism took the day after the second council of orange. But either way, a similar trajectory was adopted whether we emphasize semi-Pelagianism or semi-Auggie. Anyway, yeah, Cary is not self critical in his review, methinks.

    Glad we all seem to agree on that!


  8. Cal, it’s good to hear from you.

    Since Barth has brought so many into conversation with the fathers and reformers of the great tradition, I personally do not worry much about his own murky roots in German liberalism. “By their fruits shall ye know them…” That said, he left a lot of work to those after him, and they have not yet the gelled into the tradition we need. Yes, caution…

    So obviously, Trueman’s church-emptying Barthians should have been more conscientious about their barthianism. If they had been, they would have been preaching Evangelical Calvinism and filling their churches to the rafters.

    And yes, St Augustine is infallible, except when he’s wrong. Moreover, as you say, the pervasive influence of his writings in the West did not stop theological ideas he would likely have opposed. Barth’s multi-volume ‘seminar’ is still the most balanced introduction to historical theology we have.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bobby, alongside all the work that you have done to explain your own views, my own bits of ‘elaboration’ still seem paltry. Thank you for a superb blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Elaboration #3 of 3– Barthian work on divine identity (eg Jenson, McCormack) has shown an affinity between the Reformation and Orthodoxy not suspected before the CD: where scripture required it, some reformers and Greek fathers reworked classical metaphysics into an idiom better able to express biblical faith without distortion. Although their third way between anti-metaphysical positivism and accommodative scholasticism does not recognize an epistemic warrant for knowledge of God outside of relation to God, it is not not hyper-Protestantism. When Cary’s criticizes McCormack’s reflection on divine identity for being in “Protestant territory” (ie for not providing for a secular, natural, pagan knowledge of God), he seems to be defending what many have recognized as a traditional weakness of Latin theology.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Finally, yes Bobby, Barth is an evangelical theologian, and would be even if his pneumatology were more robust. Such a pneumatology would replace the West’s pendulum from Spanish Inquisition to American individualism and back again with a saner Canlis-Billings polarity in which assembly and believer are both inSpirited in Christ to the glory of the Father. On the ground, this might look like the ecclesial sections of Mike Bird’s systematic theology.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.