Attempting to Defend Barth Against the Thomists, Neo-Thomists, and Patrologists

I’ve been engaging with someone named Thomas over at Al Kimel’s blog. Al or Aidan (as I originally know him) wrote a blog post on the so called analogia entis, or analogy of being. Essentially the analogy of being was something posited by Thomas Aquinas as an apparatus by which humanity might come to know who God is. It is a mode of theology that comes from what is called in mediaeval theology, the via negativa or ‘negative way’; i.e. it is a mode of negation, and it presupposes a hierarchy of being, one where God is the UnMoved Mover (in an Aristotelian sense), and all aquinas2other ‘being’ comes from his ‘being’ as its first cause. In other words there is a necessary linkage between the being of God and the being of all else, and it is connected in a descending and hierarchical way (we can see how this would fit well with Tridentine or Roman Catholic theology wherein the church and its Pope sit above the rest of humanity in this type of chain-of-being relationship). The analogy of being basically looks at humanity, and its component attributes (insofar as those can be discerned), negates those, and says for example: ‘since human beings are finite, God must be infinite’ so on and so forth.  Anyway, Al ends his post with a reference to Barth and his disdain for the analogy of being (a disdain I hold in common with Barth). Anyway, Thomas, my interlocutor, makes many criticisms of Barth in response to my defense of Barth’s view against the analogia. Here’s what Thomas wrote:

My original point was simply that it is of course true that some of the apparatus of the analogia entis could be repurposed, but that is not what is controversial about Barth. The controversy is concentrated more on the question of how well Barth understood the analogia entis doctrine and the related question whether there is a philosophical approach to God.

It’s pretty clear Barth didn’t understand the doctrine of analogia entis as it was classically articulated. In fact, Barth had a quite poor understanding of Aquinas. In 1909, he gave a lecture claiming that Aquinas’ cosmological proofs depend upon an ontological proof. He’s simply parroting Kant here, of course; if you’ve read Aquinas you will recognize how bizarre that claim is. And, to his credit, he admits that he’s relying on Franz Hettinger for his interpretation of Aquinas. (This episode is recounted in the book by Oakes that you cite, on pages 29-30.) I don’t think Barth ever retracted that analysis.

Later in Barth’s career, Barth himself seems to recognize how limited his understanding of Aquinas is. He told Hans Frei that “I have also studied Thomas, but I am not so sure about what he is saying.” (‘Podiumsdiskussion in Chicago,’ 463). And indeed he is not.

As to the substantive question, Barth famously denies natural knowledge of God. I don’t think many people really take his Scriptural exegeses on this point seriously anymore; I would hope not. In the event that you do, you may want to consult James Barr’s 1991 Gifford lectures on the subject, published as “Biblical Faith and Natural Knowledge.”

Really, though, Barth’s strenuous denials of philosophic proofs for the existence of God rest on his insistence that such natural knowledge is simply impossible. And this is Barth’s way: his writings are propelled by the force of his assertions, not his arguments or scholarship. I am reminded Hegel’s rebuke to skepticism in the opening of the Phenomenology of Spirit: the apparent energy with which some deny the possibility of true knowing (Science) operates simply “to be exempt from the hard work of Science, while at the same time giving the impression of working seriously and zealously ….” And just as the best way of refuting skepticism is to go ahead with the business of knowing, leaving the skeptics behind to fret about its abstract possibility, so the best way of responding to Barth’s oracular pronouncements about the impossibility of e.g., demonstrating the existence of God is to go ahead and do it, leaving the Barthians and their worries behind.

Fortunately, these sorts of philosophical demonstrations are easy to come by these days. I’ve written about them myself at some length. Robert Spitzer’s and Joseph Owens’ works on the topics would be a good place to start.[1]

I am not going to respond tit for tat in regard to Thomas’s criticisms; they really don’t deserve that much work. But let me just offer some quick responses which might throw his comments into some relief.

Thomas seems to think that if he can demonstrate a genealogy of Barth’s thought that this somehow marginalizes Barth’s material theological output. Thomas’s way is much like the Van Tilian approach to critiquing Barth’s critique of Federal theology with its absolutum decretum and decretal God; they, like Thomas, seem to think that if they can identify Barth’s sources (in the Van Tilians critique of Barth they like to bring up Barth’s reliance on Heppe’s accounting of Reformed theology), that this in and of itself marginalizes Barth’s theological counterpoints. The thing is, responses like this always seem to have a way of staying right there. Those making such critiques of Barth never really supply the type of sustained development of their assertions that one would pencilbarthexpect. In Thomas’s case he asserts that Barth didn’t understand the basic premises of the ‘analogia entis’; yet, I don’t think the threshold Barth needed to meet was his ability to understand every nook and qualification that someone like Thomas Aquinas or Erich Przywara made in their respective developments of the analogy of being. What Barth offers, in contrast, is a whole new paradigm; one where the grace/nature matrix is scratched. And all of this comes from Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election and how that implicates a doctrine of creation and everything else. I am not going to be able to get into examples of all of this here (although I have elsewhere in many other posts which you can try and find here at the blog).

The fact that Thomas wants me to read and engage with Barr’s critique of Barth is telling. Suffice it to say that Barr’s reading of Barth is just as off the mark in regard to Barth as is Van Til’s reading of Barth; both of them seemingly attempting to read Barth in their own rationalistic ways. Yucky.

The primary issue I have with Thomas’s comment is his assertion that Barth doesn’t make arguments, and doesn’t base his thought on actual scholarship. Does this even require a response? Barth, in his Church Dogmatics alone offers six million words of argument with footnotes the size that would make any scholar feel squeamish in comparison. The problem Thomas seems to have with Barth is that Thomas doesn’t like revelational theology, instead he likes philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. It is this that makes the most sense of Thomas’s dislike of Barth, and his (Thomas’s) desire to see the analogy of being have pride of place in theological endeavor. The difference between Barth and Thomas, is that Barth follows the tenor of Scripture, and Thomas follows the tenor of the classical philosophers; the former attempts to engage with reality as it is revealed by God in Christ and attested to by Holy Scripture—without feeling any type of burden to defend, in rationalist ways, how that revelation came to be. Barth allows God’s revelation in Christ to confront him as is without feeling like he has to prop it up with a bunch of proofs; Barth’s approach is confessionally and genuinely Christian. It starts from the vantage point of a Christian, without apology, and works out things dogmatically from there. Thomas’s approach, on the other hand, feels the burden of intellectualistically proving God’s existence; he feels like he has to rationally establish the viability of God before God can be real and speak to us. One serious fall out of this is that God always remains captive to my capacity as a philosopher to keep his existence viable in order for this God to speak. Of course the problem with Thomas’s approach, no matter how “venerable” the history of this line of thought might be in the history of Christian ideation, is that a God who can and needs to be proven will always tend to be more of a ‘projection god’, a god founded upon the philosopher’s ability to discover who God is through elaborate “proofs” and negating ‘human being’ in order to posit what the ‘being’ of God must be (i.e. the analogy of being).

Thomas’s critique of Barth is really rather basic and too facile to take all that seriously, but for some reason it has irked me enough to spend the time it has for me to write this. I obviously have written all of this off the top, and haven’t provided quotes from Barth and others in order to establish all of my points. But hopefully, at the least, what I have noted points up a fundamental point of difference between Barth and the classical theism that Thomas is thinking from as he attempts to critique Barth. There’s much more to all of this than Thomas would have us to believe. Barth is a virtuoso, of the Thomas Aquinas sort, that one cannot simply write off through a blog comment.

P.S.

Another commenter named Brian offered a well argued, but ultimately faulty response in regard to Barth’s rejection of philosophical theology. You can read all of this here. I’ll footnote the whole exchange via footnote, here is Brian’s comment[2], and then my response.[3] You will notice in Brian’s comment that he attempts to distinguish his approach from a neo-Thomist approach by aligning himself with Nouvelle Théologie and Henri DeLubac, but as you will also notice that even as he qualifies his position this way, he then almost immediately takes that away as he returns to a grace perfecting nature discussion.

 

[1] Original Comment.

[2] Bobby Grow, I don’t wish to antagonize you by impugning the philosophical acumen of Barth. I have read some relatively late comments of his where he admits that he was uncertain how well he truly understood the thought of Thomas. Regardless, the more fundamental issue, Barth aside, is indicated in Father’s most recent comments. There is a certain sort of Thomist (which I dissent from,) who posits a “two-tier” approach to God — one of supposedly “pure nature” that generally limits anthropology to Aristotelian potentialities and an additional “supernatural destiny” accomplished through grace and revelation. I surmise it is possibly this sort of conceptual approach that you reject as spurious. The Catholic ressourcement movement, especially Henri DeLubac’s Surnaturel, asserted the contrary view that the only real creation available to us was “always already” taken up into a supernatural teleology. One can conceptually distinguish, but not metaphysically separate nature from a single, supernatural destiny. However, the abiding questions of the relations between nature and grace remain. The early Christological controversies were precisely driven by confusion and lack of clarity over these matters. In Aaron Riches’ Ecce Homo, he delivers a compelling argument for the consistently “high Christology” of the Church whereby one must ultimately “unite to distinguish.” What he means by this formula, among other things, is that human nature is itself not clarified until the revelation of Jesus Christ. Christ illuminates how human nature is intrinsically constituted and made capable of truly human action by the enabling presence of the divine. However, Christological imbalance can occur in many ways. Nestorian tendencies falsely thought that human integrity would be abrogated by too close an intimacy with the divine. A converse temptation would be to understand (as may have been the danger in Apollinarian views) divine personhood as evacuating human nature of its own constitutive faculties. It seems to me that one can understand Christian revelation as overpowering nature rather than fulfilling it. This is tantamount to a one-sided Christology that ironically saves human nature by doing away with it. Likewise, Christ does not eliminate nature or suspend the need to live out a searching inquiry into the depths of creation. Rather, Christ validates the philosophic impulse; indeed, revelation infinitely extends the “ecstatic reach” of reason that is now shown to be “always already” “beyond itself,” founded upon the gift of a reality that dynamically exceeds any attempted intellectual closure. To forget or denigrate philosophy as radically superceded, then, is to court the danger of an overweening theology that unwittingly takes revelation for an overwhelming divine act that rides roughshod over the creature. Then the nuptial destiny of cosmos and Christ becomes a mere play acting and one is left with the kind of crypto-monism that hides a metaphysical occasionalism hard to separate from Spinoza where the creature acting is a modal figure for the divine alone.

[3] Brian, Yes, your points of Christomonism are well rehearsed when it comes to Barth’s theology. But, really, your whole argument here ends up being petitio principii. You’re presupposing the Thomist ‘grace perfecting nature’ mode that Barth rejects; if anything Barth flips that on its head as he speaks of creation being the exterior reality of which the covenant (i.e. God’s life of grace) is the internal reality. In other words, for Barth it is all grace, the ground of creation is ‘election’, and in Barth’s world that means God’s free choice to not be God without us but with us (Immanuel). Instead of ‘evacuating human nature of its own constitutive faculties’ this supplies a Christ concentrated bases for them not only teleologically, but protologically. Yes, Barth (along with Thomas Torrance) sees an independent integrity to creation itself, but one that is contingent upon God’s choice (i.e. election) to be for creation (humanity as its crown) rather than not; and this choice is primal to all else. There is nothing in Barth’s theology, from this perspective, that does away with human nature, instead human nature is always understood to be an image of the image(Col 1.15), and a reality that only finds its true and genuine taxis from God’s being Deus incarnandus. This is why resurrection is so important for Barth’s theology; contra your critique, what resurrection does in Barth’s theology is provides the type of integrity to human nature that you seem to think is elided by Barth’s theology. The resurrection/re-creation singles that God’s telos for creation, always already, has been realized as its ground is taken up within the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ; in other words, for Barth, humanity’s integrity has integrity because of the archetypal humanity of Jesus Christ (i.e. election). The Creator/creature distinction is honored in Barth’s theology, and even elevated, insofar as it is understood that humanity’s integrity was and is always already only what it is as conditioned by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ (before the foundations of the world). I don’t think the premise of your comment really works when confronted with Barth’s actual theology. What you haven’t really attended to is how Covenant and election function in Barth’s theology, particularly as that relates to a doctrine of creation and re-creation. There is no “overweening” of revelation in Barth’s theology, what’s operative in his theology, instead, is premium on God’s Triune life as normative for everything else. There is no ‘grace perfecting nature’ in Barth’s theology, but at the same time there is not a collapse into or conflation of grace into nature with the monist results you are wanting to charge Barth with. There is simply an attempt to think God from God’s Self-exegasato in Jesus Christ (Jn 1.18) in a principial way; in a way that avoids the chimera of a natural theology in favor of a de jure revealed theology and reality; an attempt to think God from God and not before but after this Christian God has spoken (Deus dixit). Even with your qualifications, in reference to Nouvelle Théologie, you still operate with the type of ‘grace perfecting nature’ and a type of naturum purum that Barth’s theology intentionally seeks to avoid; and he, again, does this by following his prolegomenon of God reveals God with no latent potentialities for that hidden somewhere in nature. So we seriously disagree.

 

 

Advertisements

9 thoughts on “Attempting to Defend Barth Against the Thomists, Neo-Thomists, and Patrologists

  1. Pingback: Attempting to Defend Barth Against the Thomists, Neo-Thomists, and Patrologists | The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. I suppose my complaint is, again, a lack of actual argument. In my brief comment, I contended that Barth was not familiar with the doctrine of analogia entis in its classical form, nor with Aquinas’ arguments for natural knowledge of God.

    The facts I offered in support of these claims were the following:

    1) Barth didn’t understand Aquinas’ cosmological arguments. In a 1909 lecture, he claimed that Aquinas’ arguments presupposed the ontological argument. Of course, Aquinas rejected the ontological argument, on the grounds that we cannot know God (or the nature of being) quidditatively. Aquinas’ positive arguments for God’s existence suppose that we comprehend neither existence (as the ontological argument has it) nor God.

    Barth was borrowing this canard from Kant, and he admits that he was depending on secondary literature.

    2) Barth himself told Hans Frei that he doubted he understood Aquinas on this point.

    Now, if you grant points 1 and 2, you must conclude that, at least as far as Aquinas’ doctrine of philosophic proofs, Barth did not understand them well.

    So far I’ve not seen any actual argument against these points. You’ve not tried to argue that Barth later retracted the Kantian cliche about the cosmological arguments. (Maybe he did, and I’m unaware of the fact.) You’ve not tried to argue that Barth didn’t mean what he said in his conversation with Frei.

    By contrast, you’ve said quite a bit that is simply wrong. For instance, I like Barth, and prefer many aspects of his account of predestination over that of Aquinas. But, just as T.F. Torrance admits that Barth’s views were skewed (see Torrance’s “Natural Theology in Karl Barth” essay), I don’t feel the need to pretend Barth was always right, despite the evidence. There are a number of other issues with the post, such as the notion that Aquinas thought of God as the unmoved mover in an Aristotelian sense (actually, Aristotle rejected a real distinction between a thing and its being and likely did not regard God as an efficient cause, though some scholars disagree). But I’d rather talk about the two points I raised above and not rove over a completely irrelevant landscape (e.g., the Van Til rabbit trail).

    Like

  3. No Thomas, you have missed the whole point; i.e. Barth’s material theology. His theology, positively construed, was not in reaction to Aquinas, if anything his targets were moderns. His material theological offering incidentally offers a seismic type of Critique of Aquinas Aristotle and the whole scholastic project, if we think of that in conceptual terms. The heft of my response was your lame write off of Barth; there’s no rabbit trail there. And my comparison to your attempted genealogical approach to Barth relative to how Van Til et al approach Barth, is just that: a comparison—and it actually is parallel. It’s parallel because you all seem to think you have been able to marginalize Barth simply by noting certain genetics of his thought, which again does nothing to actually undercut Barth’s positive theological offering.

    TFT is the critic of Aquinas and the whole logico-causal schema represented by Thomism where I turn in order to find fruitful critique. I don’t really care what Aristotle thot of God, that’s the point, he didn’t think of the true God, no one can. Insofar as Thomas synthesized his thot with Aristotle’s conceiving of God, this makes Aquinas’s thot highly dubious and suspect as well. That’s not to say there is nothing resourceful there, but his mechanistic understanding of God, or monadic, in my view is less than helpful. And yes the concept of ‘being’ in Aquinas’s theology has some legs, but again, there is a better way in my view.

    I guess you’re unable to grasp my basic premise though, which is this: even if Barth had a misconstrued conception of Thomas A et al, this does not then mean that Barth’s theological development does not have the apparatus to offer a direct critique of Thomas’s theology; even if Barth did not intend that to be the primary development of his theology (and he didn’t).

    So your constant appeal to Barth’s genealogy of thought doesn’t really work to marginalize Barth’s thought in the way you seem to think it does. I’ve said nothing wrong thus far relative to what my response back to you is; you’ve simply chosen to overlook that response. Your critique of Barth doesn’t actually engage with Barth’s actual theology, instead you choose to focus on the negative aspects of Barth’s intellectual development; but this says nothing substantive relative to what Barth actually produced theologically. And thus far I’m not sure you understand what that is.

    Like

  4. If we can agree that Barth’s understanding of the classical analogia entis doctrine (I specifically did not defend Przywara’s version, since that complicates the question) and of Aquinas’ philosophic arguments of the existence of God are not accurate, insofar as they mistake Aquinas’ meaning, then we can address the substantive question: is there natural knowledge of God, and is that knowledge analogical?

    That’s not to say Barth was a bad theologian, only that he was a product of his time. Aquinas was not his main concern; he was more interested in the likes of Hegel or Przywara. Moreover, much of the manual Thomism with which Barth was familiar was something not particularly true to Aquinas, and not something I’d want to defend. All that to say, my saying Barth is mistaken on Aquinas is not to say that he is dumb, or that Thomists haven’t in some way contributed to misunderstandings of Aquinas.

    So: if you’re willing to grant that Barth’s understanding of what Aquinas actually meant is not definitive (something Barth himself granted), then we can move on to the more interesting issue: is there natural knowledge of God, and is that knowledge analogical?

    To the former, I would argue this: it is a necessary condition of Barth’s rejection of the natural knowledge of God that there be no successful argument for the existence of God. Yet, there is such a successful argument, in fact a number of them. For the sake of this debate, I’ll single out Aquinas’ argument from efficient causality. Therefore, Barth’s rejection of natural knowledge is wrong. P iff Q, ~Q, therefore ~P. Or, to put it another way, a successful argument for God’s existence is a defeater for Barth’s contention that there is no natural knowledge of God.

    Now, the critical premise here is the second, namely, that there is no successful argument for God’s existence. I’ve presented one such argument here. The way to show that an argument fails is to either to reject a premise or identify a formal defect in the argument. I’ve numbered the premises and made the inferences clear, so it should be easy to indicate which premises you disagree with.

    Like

  5. No you haven’t proven anything, Thomas, and this is where your lack of understanding Barth is illustrated most clearly. Sure you can “prove” a god concept, but you haven’t proven the Triume Christian God, but instead a god concept that you have projected and “diecovered” by your own wits. The Gospel of John makes it clear that only Jesus can exegete who God is, not you or the philosophers; you really don’t get some basic stuff about what Barth was getting at, do you?

    You are doing philosophy of religion, not Christian theology; that’s just how it is. I don’t really see how anything fruitful can come from this discussion. You are too bound up, sadly, with philosophy, too vested, in order to actually see what you’re doing here and what Barth, Torrance, et al we’re doing. You can prove your concept of god all day long, just know you haven’t proven the God revealed in Christ; that’s the point of this whole thing, and you seem blinded to that. Too bad.

    Like

  6. In other words, Thomas, you can prove the no-God, as Barth would call him, all day and never touch the actual God revealed in Christ. This is where Barth’s critique is not contingent upon him being a Aquinas scholar et al.

    Like

  7. Bobby:

    You’re simply assuming your conclusion. You are arguing that an argument for the existence of God does not succeed because God’s existence can’t be proven. But that’s not an argument; it’s just assuming that you’re right about the question. It gives someone who disagrees with you no reason they should accept your views over their own.

    Now it could be that you’re just a fideist, i.e., you don’t wish to attempt to ascertain the truth of things by rational discourse. It certainly appears from your response that you reject the principles of inference and conclusion. If that’s so, that’s fine. I was raised in the Bible Belt, and I know plenty of fine people who don’t wish to critically examine their views.

    With respect to the arguments for God’s existence, there are plenty of best-selling authors who refuse to engage with the arguments because they believe–entirely as a matter of faith–that the arguments are wrong. If you wish to be the religious Richard Dawkins, or the Daniel Dennett of the Barthians, who am I to persuade you otherwise? I can present someone with an argument, but I cannot force them to understand it.

    Like

  8. Thomas,

    You’re a rationalist, I am not. I am engaging in Christian Dogmatics you are not. I am self-consciously doing work as a Christian for Christians, for the edification of the church. I am not insecure about the reality of God, I am sorry that you are, and that the rationalists have gotten to you. But you unfortunately have confused thinking intelligently and accurately about God with your ability to “prove” God. I don’t need to prove God, I am already a Christian (if that’s tautologous then so be it). You’re confusing the work of apologetics with the work of Christian Dogmatics; the former is an attempt by Christians to respond to questions that the world puts to the church, the latter is an attempt by the Church to provide the inner-logic and intelligible doctrine required of it as it is pushed up against and confronted by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

    Don’t chide me for doing the work of Dogmatics when you can’t make a coherent distinction between that and the work of an apologist. And also, don’t confuse the work of an apologist and what he/she produces via his/her proofs with actually proving anything; all the apologist is doing is “proving” a god concept, among other things. You will never be able to “prove” the Christian God to anyone, in case you hadn’t noticed Scripture’s teaching militates directly against such a notion; given the noetic effects of the lapse. You don’t really appear to have a strong grasp on some important and basic distinctions in the realm of Christian thought; such as I just identified. If you want to critique me, then at least make them substantial critiques and not these silly ones based on elementary confusions.

    And maybe your own insecurities can be explained by your upbringing in the Bible belt; who knows. Maybe you feel compelled to prove God’s existence because you were surrounded by people growing up who didn’t feel that burden. Maybe the anti-intellectualism you grew up with has propelled you to swing to another extreme (i.e. rationalism), and motivated you to dig yourself out of the pit of anti-intellectualist squalor. But I will assure you, that’s not what you’re engaging with here, or with me. Again, you’ve sorely confused the work of Christian Dogmatics with apologetics or eristics; and you’ve also confused what even apologetics can and can’t “prove.” You ought to re-think all of that and get back to me.

    Like

  9. By the way, I’ve led people to Christ simply by engaging in good Christian Dogmatics in front of them. Engaging in abductive thinking, and allowing the compelling power of the Gospel itself to confront and contradict the false no-god concepts operative in their unbelieving hearts. I’m not fighting fire with fire, I’m fighting fire with the pure water of the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Antony Flew repented of his atheism (largely because of ID), but he only repented and “converted” to theism. Why? Because he was argued out of his atheism to the positive side of that a-theism; to the theism that atheists negate. But he didn’t convert to the Christian Triune God? An apologist argues against the no-God to a god concept, but not necessarily to the genuine and living God reality.

    Again, you don’t seem to be able to make this important distinction, though, between the work of an apologist and that of a Christian dogmatician. And even if you can make that distinction, you are falsely importing the tools and method of apologetics into the work of Christian Dogmatics; as if the god of the philosopher’s is univocal with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. You are sorely mistaken, Thomas.

    You shouldn’t come here though and assert that I am a fideist. In a sense that doesn’t totally bother me, but it does because it is based on a rationalist non-Christian construal of things. I think as a Christian because I am one and I have the Spirit of God in me who has united me to the vicarious humanity of Christ. It is from his mediatorial humanity wherein I can finally think God accurately, from a center in God himself. This is why it is so important to understand the axiom: reconciliation is revelation. You are working from an intellectualist anthropology wherein the intellect as the essence of what makes humans human has remained relatively intact even after the Fall. You are appealing to this ‘natural’ principle to find common ground between yourself and the unbelieving person; but I do not think that common ground is there. What is required is a the re-creation of all things (which has happened in the resurrection of Christ). It is here where humans can think God, but only from the resurrection/re-creation; otherwise they only think God in terms of projection (that’s the God you’ve proven, a projected God, not a revealed One. A revealed God by definition is One known through revelation, not discovery based upon an untouched intellect).

    Like

Comments are closed.