Knowing God: Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance. Theologia Crucis against Analogia Entis

Knowing God, it is what we as Christians all desire; we want to not only know Him, but know that we have a more sure way of knowing God. In the history of the church and ideas there have been multiple ways to try and tackle this. There have been mystical (Platonic) types of attempts at this; there have been chain-of-being attempts at this (Thomism) wherein humans are able to work martinluthermiddleagethemselves back to their final source of causation (God) and know God through the analogy and point of contact between Him as Infinite cause over against us as finite causes (indeed effects of His cause) [think analogia entis]; and another way was simply by understanding that words as symbols within a Covenant relation between God and humanity become the source for knowing God in an authoritative way (Nominalism).

It was this latter convention for knowing God that drove the thinking of the spitfire, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. He repudiated the chain-of-being way, and yet was much more circumspect and concrete than the mystical way would allow for (although influences from this approach are present within the makeup of Luther’s overall attitude and approach to thinking God). As a result, Luther focused on what he called theologia crucis (theology of the cross) not analogia entis (analogy of being)—analogia entis was what gave the Roman Catholic church its authority in a hierarchical scheme for knowing God and mediating knowledge of God (as representative of Christ on earth [i.e. the Papal office] the medieval Roman Catholic church of Luther’s day was a step above [in the chain of being between God and humanity] the laity and regular people, as such they held the keys to knowledge of God). Luther’s appropriation of nominalism (theologically, not philosophically) is what allowed him to forward his idea on a theology of the cross over against the analogy of being (or also what Luther referred to as the theologia gloriae ‘theology of glory’); it cut the link between an analogy to be found in human beings vis-à-vis God. For Luther’s theology of the cross the only way for us to know God was to be found in God’s Self-revelation, which meant the words of Holy Scripture, and more radically the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross (where Deus absconditus becomes Deus revelatus ‘the hiddeness of God becomes the revealedness of God’).

Richard Muller has written this of Luther:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ….[1]

Theology of the cross could later correlate to what some have called a theology of crisis (what we find in someone like Jurgen Möltmann, and even in the early Karl Barth). God is known as we meet Him at the cross over and again; as we are depleted of our resources and thrown on the mercy of His resources revealed to us as He freely and graciously met and meets with us through the cross of His dearly beloved Son. The cross is where God’s power and reality is revealed as: God humbled and humanity exalted in the unio personalis (the singular person), Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul was one of the foremost and earliest theologians of the cross, this typifies the attitude that a theologian of the cross thinks and lives from:

Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people.[2]

Closing Remarks

It is interesting, because when we think of the nominalist/Scotist types of dispositions that Luther had it would seem at odds with the realist/Thomist ones that we find in the theologies of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. I think what brings them together constructively is their (i.e. Luther’s, Barth’s, Torrance’s) focuses on a theology of the Word. Barth and Torrance, it can be said, have an a posteriori approach to thinking God; i.e. from God’s Self-revelation in Christ back up to the ontological God (so a chain-of-being way of thinking, but instead of a this chain taking link from a general conception of human being back up to God’s being, it takes link from God’s being given and revealed in Jesus Christ as a center of God’s life). I think if Luther was around when Barth and Torrance came on the scene he would approve of this kind of christologically conditioned chain-of-being thinking, because it takes the christological focus of Luther’s theology of the cross and of the Word and understands that the Covenant between God and humanity that provides genuine knowledge of God is found nowhere else but in theanthropos, the Godman, Jesus Christ. Barth and Torrance actually take the insights that Martin Luther’s via positiva ‘positive way’ (kataphatic) of doing theology emphasizes while at the same time plundering the Thomist way of knowing God non-metaphysically (as it were) from God’s reality given in Jesus Christ. What Barth and Torrance don’t take over, and now in alignment with Luther, is the Thomist chain-of-being separation of cause and effect when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ. This might be where Luther, Barth, and Torrance are most closely aligned; for Luther, when we see Jesus, we see God / for Barth and Torrance when we see Jesus, we see God.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 223-24.

[2] II Corinthians 1:8-11, Common English Bible.



  1. What would you say to a restrained use of analogia entis? What I mean is how Barth praised Anselm’s employment for his apologetic and method? Is this how you redeploy it outside of a starting point and only after Revelation? Sort of like a Jacob’s Ladder?


  2. Really, the analogy I am referring to would be what Barth called an analogy of relation. We know God through a relation to Him provided for by Christ for us in His vicarious humanity. This is all framed by the analogia fidei or analogy of faith, the faith of Christ for us, the relation that provides an ability to think God from a center in Himself in Jesus Christ. So this really wouldn’t look anything like an analogy of being.


  3. Cal,

    Here is an essay on Analogy of Being by David Bently Hart that you might be interested in:


  4. I very much like DB Hart (and his brother), I’ll check it out. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

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  5. For sure, Cal.


  6. Having read this, I really enjoyed this and thought Hart understood Przywara, von Balthsar, and (perhaps) even the mature Barth’s utilization of this kind of analogia entis. What are your thoughts? I think its use is a working out of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, mostly because the Incarnation proves the infinite of God’s simplicity (i.e. it is no conflict for God to incarnate, it is no synthesis or blasphemy).

    In my advocacy of analogia entis, Hart has complexified (for the good! I enjoy his rhetoric) what I have been trying to say. Of course a doctrine like this, or like many others (e.g. creation from nothing, metaphysical realism, triality of man) is revealed in Christ, defined by Christ, and undergirded by Christ.


  7. Cal, I found what he wrote compelling and could see how it could be coordinate more with the conception of Logos theology in the Patristics and less having to do with something like a Thomist analogia entis. I could see how what he is saying fits into a robust theology of nature rather than natural theology.


  8. Then maybe we’re on the same page(ish)! I think Hart gets it right, as you put it, having a theology of nature rather than a natural theology. It’s why I think Thomas is worth returning to. There’s a lecture by Peter Kreeft called Thomistic Personalism: A Match Made in Heaven? that I intend to watch at some point. I really dislike the Neo-Thomists and the Aristotelian Thomas conveyed by people like Ed Feser. I think that sort of theology hits all the criticisms you address.


  9. Cal,

    The reality remains though, Thomas Aquinas offered a distinctly natural theology w/o dispute. Thomas Torrance and many of the Patristics offer a theology of nature (like St Ephrem Ultimately I can’t accept Thomas Aquinas’ natural theology or analogia entis. It isn’t just that, Cal, it is the substance metaphysics how that impacts grace etc. that remains deeply problematic in re to Aquinas’ offering.


  10. As all of this is hypothetical and reflected knowledge about Thomas, I won’t push anymore. I really did enjoy the bit about St. Ephrem. At the end of the day, I think substance metaphysics and the analogia entis, when properly “evangelized”, are useful for the Church. I’ll keep working through this. Thank you so much for the quote!

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