How Do We Know God? The Analogy of Being Strained Through David Bentley Hart and Karl Barth

We have discussed often, here at The Evangelical Calvinist, the analogia entis (‘analogy of being’); indeed I have even written a whole chapter in critique of it for our first volume edited book, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church—my chapter was entitled: Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature. I jesusmanofsorrowscontinue to see this as a touchstone issue, but it remains one that most either just take for granted, or simply don’t care about and see it as an abstraction. But I think that is mistaken, this is a fundamental hermeneutical issue that impacts just about everything in regard to biblical interpretation, theological method, anthropology, and everything else. For those who do care, and for those who do understand its significance, what this becomes is a dividing line between those who ostensibly do classical church traditional theology or those who follow Karl Barth’s critique that analogia entis is antichrist. I have of course been inspired by Karl Barth’s and Thomas Torrance’s critique of the analogy of being.

In order to reiterate what indeed the ‘analogy of being’ entails we will refer to Kurt Anders Richardson’s description of it. In Richardson’s description, through some parting words, he offers critique of the analogy of being. After we work through Richardson’s description (and partial critique, which he develops more in his book), we will take his words of critique and use those to analyze a quote from David Bentley Hart’s affirmation of the analogia entis; particularly in its Erich Przywaraian form, which Hart advocates for. And then we will offer an alternative to the classical analogia entis through Karl Barth’s thinking on what would become known as his analogia fidei (analogy of faith). We will see, hopefully, without being too triumphalist, that Hart’s position does not withstand the criticism that Richardson alerts us to. Here is Richardson:

Barth’s rejection of natural theology is a subtheme running throughout the CD. He was a discerner of its many forms, reasons, contexts, and representatives. At the center of his critique was his alertness to the anthropological character of all natural theology. In every case, intentionally or not, something self-justifying about the human subject is being claimed, something to be humanly achieved at the highest level of awareness and motivation, by which to credit the self before God. This problem with the natural theology was rooted, however, in the statements of Scripture attesting to what is called the natural knowledge of God and the exegetical and theological traditions that took up these statements in positive ways. That Genesis 1:26–27 had presented the human being as created according to the image of God suggested to many early theologians that a deposit of divine being was to be found in the former. Theologians had long contended that however corrupted human nature had become, this implanted deposit could be revived through the rebirth of faith and intellectual renovation by the Spirit of God. The natural knowledge of God could be taught to the world not only as part of the expositions of Christian truth but also as part of that which is essential to human nature. The fact of existence could be said to be true of creatures as well as God, when thought of in binary terms, in contrast to nonexistence; yet matter was a created continuity of divine existence between God and the human on account of the imago Dei. Human beings owed their nature to being created by God in his image, according to his likeness; hence, an absence of the image, so the classic theologians reasoned, would be the cessation of human existence. This type of reflection stood behind the Catholic theology of analogia entis (analogy of being), which held the concept of a knowable correspondence between human beings and the divine Being that is part of the necessary movement toward faith in God, which God accepts and counts worthy of himself. Indeed, much of the appeal to that which persists in the goodness of God’s human creature is part of the apologetic that derives itself from the analogia entis, reflection on the imago Dei. Indeed, one could assert that the best argument for the unique value of the human being flows from this very type of reflection. The problem with this reasoning with respect to Christian theology, in its dogmatic expression of what it is to be taught, is that it misses two basic truths: the judgment and the grace of God.[1]

With Richardson’s description in mind, let’s read David Bentley Hart’s opening salvos in favor of the analogy of being; he writes:

I: The Analogy as a Principle of Christian Thought

In that small, poorly lit, palely complected world where the cold abstractions of theological ontology constitute objects of passionate debate, Erich Przywara’s proposal regarding the analogia entis is unique in its nearly magical power to generate inane antagonisms. The never quite receding thunder of Karl Barth’s cry of “antichrist!” hovers perpetually over the field of battle; tiny but tireless battalions of resolute Catholics and Protestants clash as though the very pith and pulp of Christian conviction were as stake; and, even inside the separate encampments, local skirmishes constantly erupt among the tents. And yet it seems to be the case that, as a rule, the topic excites conspicuous zeal—especially among its detractors—in directly inverse proportion to the clarity with which it is understood; for, in itself, there could scarcely be a more perfectly biblical, thoroughly unthreatening, and rather drably obvious Christian principle than Przywara’s analogia entis.

What, after all, are the traditional objections to the analogy? What dark anxieties does it stir in fretful breasts? That somehow an ontological analogy between God and creatures grants creaturely criteria of truth priority over the sovereign event of God’s self disclosure in time, or grants the conditions of our existence priority over the transcendent being of God, or grants some human structure of thought priority over the sheer novum of revelation, or (simply enough) grants nature priority over grace. Seen thus, the analogia entis is nothing more than a metaphysical system (which we may vaguely denominate “Neoplatonist”) that impudently imagines there to be some ground of identity between God and the creature susceptible of human comprehension, and that therefore presumes to lay hold of God in his unutterable transcendence. But such objections are—to be perfectly frank—total nonsense. One need not even bother to complain about the somewhat contestable dualities upon which they rest; it is enough to note that such concerns betray not simply a misunderstanding, but a perfect ignorance, of Przywara’s reasoning. For it is precisely the “disjunctive” meaning of the analogy that animates Przywara’s argument from beginning to end; for him, it is the irreducible and, in fact, infinite interval of difference within the analogy that constitutes its surprising, revolutionary, and metaphysically shattering power. Far from constituting some purely natural conceptual scheme to which revelation must prove itself obedient, the analogia entis, as Przywara conceives of it, is nothing more than the largely apophatic, almost antimetaphysical ontology—or even meta-ontology—with which we have been left now that revelation has obliged us to take leave of any naïve metaphysics that would attempt to grasp God through a conceptual knowledge of essences or genera. A more plausible objection to the analogy might be the one that Eberhard Jüngel attributed (unpersuasively) to Barth, and that even Hans Urs von Balthasar found somewhat convincing: that so austere and so vast is the distinction between the divine and human in Przywara’s thought that it seems to leave little room for God’s nearness to humanity in Christ. This is no less mistaken than other, more conventional views of the matter, but at least it demonstrates some awareness of the absolute abyss of divine transcendence that the analogy marks.[2]

At least with Hart we know right where he stands right off the bat! But he falls prey to the parting critique of Richardson, in my view. Not too long ago I wrote another blog post that was titled Barth’s Orthodoxy and the Resurrection of Jesus as the History of the World. In that post I quoted and wrote some stuff that gets at Richardson’s critique of the analogia entis with his reference to God’s judgment and grace, and how that is absent in the classical understanding of the analogy of being. Here’s something that I think helps develop that a little further, with particular reference to Barth’s theology by Robert Dale Dawson:

The resurrection of Jesus Christ for Barth in his The Resurrection of the Dead has to do with the transition, the crossing of the infinite gulf, from God’s eternity to human history – but a transition which involves not merely an entrance into the stream of history (as might be said of the virgin birth) but also a decisive transformation of the whole of historical reality. Whereas the incarnation embraces the particular history of Jesus Christ from Bethlehem to Golgotha, the resurrection is the reality of Jesus Christ which includes and affects all history and every historical moment. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the event of existential import for every other human being. Apart from this transition there is no sure and reliable revelation of God to humankind. Religion and even the Christian witness is pitilessly nothing more than the dream of human wishes, and the whole of the theological enterprise falls to the Feuerbachian critique as being nothing more than a pretence – anthropology in guise.[3]

In Barth’s (and Torrance’s) theology there is no nature or imago Dei, no image of God separate from Jesus Christ as God’s imago (cf. Col. 1.15). This is basic to understanding Barth’s critique of the analogy of being. As Richardson alerts us to, what is absent in the classical construal of the analogy of being is that even though humanity is created in the image of God it does not emphasize the fact that that image has been utterly de-humanized, or “de-imagized” in the Genesis fall. The analogy of being, classically understood, operates under a premise that makes an abstract conception of the image of God regulative and normative for theological ontology, and human capacity for knowledge of God. The classical analogy of being gives nature a primacy and primalcy relative to human engagement with God, that Barth believes only God’s grace gives space for; particularly as that grace is given lovingly in the eternal Logos, Jesus Christ. This is why Barth, as Dawson develops, was so intent on pressing the idea that God’s grace is the total ground that is required for human beings to have a right standing before God; attendant with that standing in grace comes with it the capacity to actually and genuinely know and speak of God. In other words, it is God’s grace that fallen humanity is judged in the Judge Jesus Christ and created anew in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is where capacity for knowing God from all time is made possible in the theology of Barth; it is all grace.

Furthermore, in Barth’s theology,  the utter transcendence between God and humanity, which Hart rightly notes, is breached by God’s gracious election to become human, enter into all that entails, and from the inside/out re-create, through resurrection, all that was lost (and more) in the lapse of humanity in the Garden. In other words, in Barth’s thinking, there was no human ‘being’ present, not even in the original creation, that wasn’t first funded and formed by the grace of God. There wasn’t, in Barth’s thinking, an image of God, even in the original creation, that wasn’t first imaged by Jesus Christ, Deus incarandus, ‘the God to be incarnate’.

Conclusion

I am not totally persuaded, as Hart develops his argument in his essay, that even the classical position on the analogy of being is at odds with Barth’s critique as someone like Hart would have us to believe. That’s not to say that anything like the classical analogia entis remains, but something more like what we find in Barth’s reformulation of election happens to the analogia entis. I think the ‘apparent’ impasse between the analogy of being and something like Barth’s analogia fidei is not a total loss; I believe there actually might be a constructive way forward here. But it would take an open heart in order for that to happen, a heart that is willing to be innovative and constructive; even to the point that that heart is willing to depart, in letter, from what it perceives as the tradition of the church. This is radical, I know, but no more radical than being a Protestant in the first place; just ask Martin Luther.

 

[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 123-24.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics: Reflections on the Analogia Entis,” accessed from somewhere online via Google. I don’t remember when or why I found this essay, but do remember it was a chance find.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 5-6.

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