Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth on Divine Simplicity and Analogy in Comparison §2

In the last post we were introduced to a dilemma of sorts, a dilemma that has arisen because of an affirmation of so called Divine Simplicity (the idea that God in His inner being is non-composite and sui generis, unlike anything creaturely conceivable), and our ability to speak about this ‘other’ God in meaningful and full ways. The dilemma arises because if God genuinely is apophatically barthglassesdistant from us we have no recourse from within our own human conniving to even speak of God, but only maybe in equivocal ways. But as we saw, further, in the last post the Fourth Lateran Council posited the possibility for there to be a degree of similarity of kind between the Creator and the creature such that it could be potentially possible for human beings to speak of God analogically as humans find a point of contact in their own beings vis-à-vis God.

This is the context within which Thomas Aquinas operated, from within the context that the Fourth Lateran Council provided; for a degree of likeness between God and humanity. As such Thomas famously developed his analogia entis (analogy of being) wherein he worked his way from nature back to nature’s cause in God; as a result His conception of God took a bottom-up approach as he worked through what he thought of as an interconnected chain of being between God and humanity.

George Hunsinger, with the help of Rocca, describes what this really looks like within the theology of Thomas Aquinas:

Rocca advances three points of particular interest. First, for Aquinas analogy was “more a matter of judgment than of concept in the traditional sense”…. In other words, analogy was more about modes of reflection (meaning) than about modes of being (truth), though of course the two cannot be separated. Second, analogical discourse in theology presupposed truths about God to which Aquinas had already assented on the basis of faith, and those truths took primacy over truths of reason…. Finally, an important condition for the possibility of analogical discourse was “the creatures ontological imitation of the divine nature and properties”….

Despite the creature’s radical unlikeness to God, the creature nevertheless corresponded to God by nature so as to make analogical discourse possible. A real metaphysical similarity was in force between the human creature and God…. The statement from the Fourth Lateran Council regarding creaturely likeness in the midst of greater unlikeness, to which Aquinas subscribed, meant that “a real though deficient likeness to God” was inherent in the creature by God’s design…. An inherent likeness in the midst of unlikeness helped make analogical discourse possible.[1]

Contrariwise, Karl Barth, while using analogy in order to talk Christianly about God, worked from what can be construed as a top-down approach wherein there was a radical and qualitative difference between God and humanity. Such a difference in fact that lest God reach down to us in gracious accommodation our ability to know this ‘simple’ God would be impossible (so Barth has a thick apophatism underlying his theology). But this seems strange, doesn’t it? If Barth worked from a top-down approach, if he had a heavy apophatism underwriting his theology, if he saw a qualitative difference (contrary to the Fourth Lateran Council) between God and humanity then in what way could Barth have analogy operating in his theology; how could he avoid speaking equivocally about God out of his own machinations? Hunsinger answers those questions, and more, this way:

… Barth solved the problem of analogical discourse by appealing not so much to nature as to grace. Although human language was inherently incapable of referring to God, it was nevertheless made capable of doing so. Human language, as sanctified by grace, was at once affirmed, annulled, and elevated — affirmed in its creatureliness and annulled in its incapacity, in order to be elevated beyond itself. This gracious process of affirming, nullifying, and elevating, of capacitating the incapacitated, was associated with being raised from the dead (II/1, 231). It was therefore miraculous and beyond comprehension. Barth’s controlling metaphor was not creation but resurrection.

Grace made possible, and continued to make possible, what was otherwise impossible. Analogical discourse was grounded not in some metaphysical similarity between God and the creature, but solely in the sovereign freedom of divine grace. Human language, without ceasing to be essentially inadequate, was extended to be made fully appropriate. To be made appropriate despite being inadequate meant becoming absolutely dependent on grace. It was a miraculous dependence that occurred perfectly and perpetually: not statically but dynamically, not merely once and for all, but continually again and again.

Yet in elevating human language beyond its natural capacities, God “does not perform a violent miracle” (II/1, 229). The Creator enjoys an original and proper claim on human language, even though it has no such claim on him. Neither human sin nor creaturely finitude could undo this primordial divine claim. Human language belongs to the good creation in and through which God knows himself as God. When the Lord God graciously elevates human words, concepts, and images to participate in the truth of his own self-knowledge, language is not alienated from its original purpose, “but, on the contrary, restored to it” (II/1, 229).

For Barth, because God and the creature are incommensurable, any ontological continuity between them — not only regarding predicates like goodness, reason, and wisdom, but also regarding “non-agential” predicates like being, beauty, and light — must be seen as miraculously given, again and again, from above. Ontological continuity with the reality of God does not belong to the creature qua creature. It does not belong to the creature as a given endowment or a fixed condition — not originally, and not even subsequently. The continuity does not exist except as it is continually given, and it is not given except miraculously through God’s gracious operation. As continually though miraculously given, the continuity is not merely “occasional” (a common misunderstanding of Barth). It is rather a function of the perpetual operation of God’s grace as grounded and centered in Christ from before the foundation of the world. As such the continuity is always at once real and yet also incomprehensible. Therefore the ontological difference between God and the creature is not seen as “infinitely greater” but as absolute. Any similarities between the creature and God — real though incomprehensible, incomprehensible though real — are not grounded in the creatureliness of the creature, but strictly and entirely (not just partially) in divine grace as a perpetual and miraculous operation from above.[2]

For Barth, as Hunsinger underscores well, there is nothing in creation itself, no ‘pure nature’ built into the fabric of what it means to be human wherein a point of contact can be made between the creature and the Creator (like we see in Aquinas). For Barth creation has always been ready for recreation, as such it has always been anticipating something beyond itself in order to truly have purpose and order within God’s good creation. In other words, in Barth’s theology, creation itself does not precede God’s grace, but instead is preceded by it in the election of God’s grace in Christ. As such human language as a part of God’s good creation is open and ready to be commandeered by God’s grace through which human language is given capacity to analogically speak of the God who opens language up in this way. So for Barth the analogy (of faith) happens as language is appropriated by God for us, taken from its inadequate setting, put to ‘death’ as it were, and resurrected and recreated in Christ in such a way that we are able to think and speak God from a center within Himself as he allows human language to find gracious correspondence to who He is as explained and revealed by Jesus Christ.

The important takeaway in regard to understanding what Barth is getting at is this: we are completely at God’s behest. If we are going to know and speak God it will only happen if God desires for it to happen. And God has graciously desired for that to happen, and He has limited that happening, so to speak, in and through His grace given to us and for us in His Son Jesus Christ. The consequence, contrary to the Thomist approach, is that we cannot posit a conception of God based upon a corollary of being (however dissimilar in grade that that might be) between ourselves and God from a built-into-creation point of contact. Things (in the Barthian account) are much more tenuous and vulnerable than that; within a Barth account we walk by faith, and not a faith generated from ourselves, but by the faith of Christ for us generated by His grace, His life with us. As we are related to Him by the Spirit, as He freely and willingly related to us in Incarnation (by the Spirit), it is in this gracious relation wherein who God is can be known and spoken.

I hope this has been a helpful comparison and contrast between Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth on analogy. The way I have left it makes it appear that Barth and Aquinas are worlds apart. George Hunsinger, as he continues to write, actually attempts to bring them closer together; it is an imaginative attempt that you will have to read for yourself to see what you think.

[1] George Hunsinger, Evangelical Catholic And Reformed: Doctrinal Essays on Barth and Related Themes (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 70-1 kindle.

[2] Ibid.

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4 comments

  1. I wonder if what you do (and Hunsinger hasn’t) is containing Thomas to the particular reification of his thought to a scholarly interpretation (i.e. scholastic Thomism). Having read von Balthasar’s account of Gregory of Nyssa’s thought (Thought & Presence), I’ve had my eyes open to the possibility that straightforward readings, without getting caught in a more complex system of thought, can be misleading (for both proponents and opponents).

    Thus, Thomas, as a good Augustinian, posits the gracedness of all Creation, that Nature is never self-referential nor closed, would that change how he is read in light of bottom-up, ‘nature’, analogy etc. I don’t know, but it’s worth considering before creating false polarities (considering, most of all, the man wrote more than any person could ever read!)

    cal

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  2. Cal,

    It is too quick on the other hand to suggest that the way Aquinas has been read (by many!) creates a false polarity. The burden would be to demonstrate that the way TA has been read (as the scholastic par excellence) is erroneous. Hunsinger gives TA a more charitable read relative to Barth, but is still critical of TA in certain ways as well (ie the bottom up approach).

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  3. I guess I’m thinking on the conflict between the neo-Thomists and the Nouvelle Theologie over the legacy of Thomas. I only write any of this because I was quick to collapse (and condemn) Thomas to any one of his outgrowths and think I understand someone I’ve never directly read.

    Like I said, I think there are more nuanced approaches to be fair. Unless you are being typological, but then it doesn’t really matter what he particularly wrote or argued for.

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  4. I’ve only ever really engaged with Thomas directly or Thomists not the neo-Thomists so much.

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