Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint Both Need to Repent: Responding to the Thomas Aquinas Analogy of Being Discussion Through Barth

I have been interested in the locus known as analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being’ for a long time; and have written about it as well. I have also been reading Richard Muller for many years, and have read most of his published writings. So it caught my eye when I saw an internecine rejoinder by him to his classical Reformed brother Scott Oliphint in regard to Oliphint’s reading of Thomas Aquinas and the analogia entis. For those who don’t know, the analogia entis is basically the idea that humanity has a capacity latent in themselves (intellectually) to conceive of God by way of negating the finite (i.e. the being of human) to the infinite (i.e. the being of God), even if there is great dissimilarity between the two beings (so ‘analogy’). Oliphant believes that Thomas Aquinas, and the whole Thomist project following, is in error by attributing too much to the fallen human being’s ability to think God in any way. Muller thinks Oliphint completely distorts Thomas’ thinking on the ‘light of natural reason’ (i.e. think Romans 1–2), and critiques Oliphint thusly:

The problem is most apparent in Oliphint’s highly selective use of Aquinas’ commentary on John 1:9, which leaves out the portions that undermine his argument. Aquinas indicates that human beings are enlightened by “the light of natural knowledge,” which insofar as it is light is such by participation in the “true light,” which is the Word. He adds, “If anyone is not enlightened, it is due to himself, because he turns from the light that enlightens.” Aquinas also distinguishes this true light, given to all by God, from which human beings turn away, from the “false light” which “the philosophers prided themselves on having,” citing Romans 1:21.11 Despite what Aquinas says quite clearly, Oliphint concludes, “We should make it clear here that Thomas does not think that the ‘enlightening’ of which John speaks necessarily includes divine truth or content” (p. 15).

For Aquinas, reason, “the light of nature,” is itself a gift of God to human beings in the original creation of humanity that is capable of knowing not only that God exists, but that God is good, wise, and powerful. Where reason falls short, because of its finitude, its rootedness in sense perception, and the errors brought about by sin, is that, without the aid of revelation, it cannot know the truths of salvation. This “Thomistic” assumption should have a familiar ring in Reformed circles. It is paralleled by the very first sentence of the Westminster Confession—as also by the second article of the Belgic Confession, and Calvin’s commentary on the passage. Oliphint’s claim that Aquinas’ reading has “no basis” in the text of Scripture becomes an indictment of Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well.[1]

Anyone familiar with Thomas’s theology knows that he has an axiom underwriting it, this: “grace perfects nature.” Latent in this axiom is the presupposition that nature has not been fully destroyed by the fall, but instead has retained some ‘light’ (there are theoanthropological reasons for this); that there is a continuity yet to be realized between nature and grace that is indeed realized, for Aquinas’s theology, by the coming of Jesus Christ. For Aquinas this bond between nature and grace is the basis by which he can construct his style of analogy of being, and suppose that humans, to a point, have this capacity retained within their natures (even as ‘fallen’) to reach towards a knowledge of God; even if that necessarily is an impoverished reaching requiring grace to bring it (to bridge it) to completion in its terminating cause in the Unmoving mover, God.

Oliphint, to his credit, rejects this type of Thomist understanding while Muller (to his discredit) embraces it and argues for it (as much as I argue against it). The quote I have shared from Muller should help to illustrate this. This is where it is pretty interesting to me; I think Muller is right to identify the heavy Thomist influence in the Westminster and Belgic Confessions of Faith; one would have to wonder what Oliphant wants to make of that.

So the timing of all of this is interesting because in my reading of Barth’s CD I/1 I have just come across his section where he is responding to Emil Brunner’s ‘point of contact’ theology, and the type of natural theology that funds that. Whether it be John Cassian, Thomas Aquinas, or Emil Brunner, in their own respective ways they all share the common idea that there is a ‘hook’ within humanity, or moral capacity that allows them to have some real knowledge of God apart from God’s “special” revelation in Jesus Christ and Holy Scripture. Barth rejects this notion, as do I! The following is indeed Barth’s response to Brunner, and yet I share it to not only observe Barth’s response to Brunner, but to illustrate how far the breach actually is between someone like Muller (and the Westminster theology he represents), and Barth in regard to natural theology and all the attending loci that are present therein:

This point of contact is what theological anthropology on the basis of Gen. 1.27 calls the “image of God” in man. In this connexion we cannot possibly agree with E. Brunner (Gott und Mensch, 1930, 55 f.) when he takes this to refer to the humanity and personality which even sinful man retains from creation, for the humanity and personality of sinful man cannot possibly signify conformity to God, a point of contact for the Word of God. In this sense, as a possibility which is proper to man qua creature, the image of God is not just, as it is said, destroyed apart from a few relics; it is totally annihilated. What remains of the image of God even in sinful man is recta natura [the good nature], to which as such a rectitude [goodness] cannot be ascribed even potentialiter [potentially]. No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God. Hence we fail to see how there comes into view here any common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, any occasion for the common exhibition of at least the possibility of enquiring about God. The image of God in man of which we must speak here and which forms the real point of contact for God’s Word is the rectitudo which through Christ is raised up from real death and thus restored or created anew, and which is real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall. Hence one can only speak theologically and not both theologically and also philosophically of this point of contact, as of all else that is real in faith, i.e., through the grace of reconciliation.[2]

Following on in this small print section, Barth continues, in contrast to the analogia entis (‘point of contact’), develops his analogia fidei (‘analogy of faith’) which we can already see him segueing to towards the end of his paragraph. What we have heard from him though is sufficient for our purposes. And this is the point at which I sometimes scratch my head, particularly when it comes to classically Reformed people touting a doctrine of the total depravity of humanity. True, many of them will qualify what they mean by distinguishing total depravity from something like total inability, but it still leaves me wondering why. This is where Barth, in my view, out-Reforms the Reformed; viz. when it comes to thinking biblically about total depravity (in particular, from a Pauline perspective found in such pericopes like Rom. 3; Eph. 4 etc.).

Unlike Richard Muller, and the Westminster Confessional theology he represents, Karl Barth sees a total discontinuity between original creation and new creation; particularly when it comes to issues that have to do with purported ‘moral capacities’ that humans may or may not retain post-fall. For Barth the point of contact is the Word of God (extra nos), and faith is the knowledge of God that comes from the Word of God; and the Word of God, for Barth, is the Logos of God, Jesus Christ. It is because of this principia in Barth’s theology—a radically Reformed focus on the living Word of God, Jesus Christ—that a doctrine of resurrection necessarily becomes centrally-dogmatic and important. The point of contact between God and humanity in Barth’s theology is not a continuity between creation and new creation, it is instead a continuity between the God of original creation and the God of new creation, and the Logos that has been present and central for both creations to actualize. Robert Dale Dawson helps to emphasize this point for us:

For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

As George Hunsinger has developed Barth’s theology he refers to ‘disruption’ as an apropos way to think of how grace works in the theology of Barth; I couldn’t agree more! Resurrection in Barth’s theology provides the new basis from whence a genuine knowledge of God can be obtained; in Christ. There is no old man, or old creation to think from; there is only the Word of God. Yes the Word of God present for the original creation, but with the knowledge that this original creation would be superseded by a required new creation bringing all of creation to its ordered telos in the beatific vision of God that God had always already desired from the very beginning. We can see why nature doesn’t have a ‘point of contact’ between God and humans for Barth now; creation was never intended to have this type of capacity (i.e. for knowledge of God), only God in se could be capacious enough for such knowledge—and in Barth’s theology the point of contact that God freely chose was/is grounded in his eternal Logos and Son, Jesus Christ.

I think Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint should both repent and recognize how radical things need to get in order for there to be a genuine way for knowing God. Sure, the 16th and 17th centuries did the best they could do with the metaphysics they had available to them, but in my view such categories don’t jive so well with the categories and emphases we find in a Bible that Jesus thinks is all about him.

[1] Richard Muller, Aquinas Reconsidered, accessed 02-19-2018.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 235. [emboldening mine]

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

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9 thoughts on “Richard Muller and Scott Oliphint Both Need to Repent: Responding to the Thomas Aquinas Analogy of Being Discussion Through Barth

  1. I think you have done an admirable job defending Barth on the analogia entis, but the reef I keep running aground on when it comes to Barth/TFT/Evangelical Calvinism is one of balance or emphasis or mode of knowing and being. I might be kind of clunky on this, so forgive me, but I’ll state from the offset – while I think Thomists go way (wayyyy) overboard on their metaphysics of being, I don’t think Barth is right on anologia entis. This isn’t to say, however, that I think his arguments against the notion are unwarranted, I think they are not only warranted but necessary. What we ended up with in Reformed Orthodoxy was a mechanized-Newtonian beast that we still have a hard time taming (evidently we Calvinists have a rep on the streets). But his rejection of the analogia as a whole seems to me to be an over-correction. For example, it’s hard to square Barth with Athanasius on what happened to the image of God in man. To me it threatens his otherwise beautiful incarnational theology. How could there be any continuity between Christ and humanity if he assumes an “annihilated” image?

    My sense is that Barth, taken too far here ends up on the skating on the very edges of the Kantian idealism he is trying to escape through his Christocentricsm (and I love his Christocentrism), that the point of contact between God and humanity becomes awfully remote, to me at least. I do think that Henri Bergson does present a metaphysical approach that bridges some of the gaps (not entirely) in the age-long idealist/realist schools. As I have read Hart, he seems to recover a patristic analogia entis that isn’t overcooked, allows for continuity and discontinuity between Creator and creation, and avoids some of the nasty little traps that we have fallen into in the Augustinian/Thomistic/Calvinist tradition. All to say, I agree that Reformed can continue to be Reformed, but I’m not so sure that abandoning the anaologia entis entirely is the way to go either.

    Anyway Bobby, loved the post, and please push back as hard as you can on this issue, it’s one that I keep looping around.

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  2. Jed,

    I’ve read DBH on his understanding of the analogia entis, and I’m not altogether happy with it (I have a pdf essay of his on it). I think there are a variety of factors—socio-culturally—driving Barth’s hard stance on the analogia and natural theology in general, but I ultimately think he is being a good biblical exegete. When compared to a variety of Post Reformed orthodox Barth actually isn’t that much different in this area, except for the fact that he completely ameliorates any space for an analogy of being with reference to developing a knowledge of God. I think it really just comes down to a decision and judgment; i.e. how far do we see depravity and the noetic effects of the fall going down? Barth believes they incapacitate to the point that there is no remnant of knowledge of the true God whatsoever. I’m hard pressed, from Scripture, to make a case against him. Henri de Lubac and nouvelle theologiae offers an alternative and constructive analogia entis approach, but I still don’t think that goes far enough and remains in line with Brunner’s own impulses. As indicated from the post, there is more to this than just the analogia entis; there is Barth’s doctrine of election, creation, resurrection etc. The analogia entis necessarily falls prey to these broader loci in Barth’s theology.

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  3. As far as Athanasius and Barth, I don’t think we should presume that Barth sees no correlation between the original creation and the new creation; the focus of creation for Barth is Jesus Christ (which is in line with Athanasius — albeit from a different vantage point and method into that).

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  4. Bobby,

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful and irenic interaction, it is of tremendous benefit for me as I grapple with Evangelical Calvinism and the profound potential it has not only within the Reformed community but in broader ecumenism (especially with Orthodoxy). This line from your response represents a via media that I want to ponder more:

    When compared to a variety of Post Reformed orthodox Barth actually isn’t that much different in this area, except for the fact that he completely ameliorates any space for an analogy of being with reference to developing a knowledge of God. I think it really just comes down to a decision and judgment; i.e. how far do we see depravity and the noetic effects of the fall going down?

    I do grant the validity of Barth’s program vis-a-vis Reformed orthodoxy, and the important critiques he offers, all I am driving is for a more nuanced vision of the analogia entis that is present in both kataphatic and apophatic forms dating back to the Patristics. Perhaps there is a nuanced way forward, and my sense is you are far better equipped to grapple with these concepts than I can be.

    FWIW, my own intuitive approach is that a synthesis of the Barthian critique of Reformed Scholasticism has a lot to offer when viewed through the unparalleled Christology of Athanasius. As much as I can gather by my readings in On the Incarnation the image begins with Christ and is carried into the catastrophies post Eden and the catastrophes prior to the restoration of the New Eden. Am I wrong in reading Athanasius’s Christology restoring an effaced image in his person, work, passion, and resurrection? Maybe there are some important vistas of a synthetic approach between these two great theologians.

    I quite enjoy reading Barth, his style is eliptical and profound, but at times difficult to decipher. Your interactions have been of real value as I probe into his issues. I’ll post more when my brain isn’t on overload, so even where we aren’t in total agreement, I am impressed by your cogent interactions with a Reforming Protestantism. Look forward to more interaction here, and thanks again for your prolific and helpful discussions on this blog. My aim in pressing is only to understand more fully, not to grind an axe with your interesting approach.

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  5. Pingback: Analogia Fidei in Contrast to Analogia Entis; Barth Committed More to a Theology of the Word than the Classically Reformed | The Evangelical Calvinist

  6. Hey Jed,

    I think with Athanasius the way he sees “image of God” is corollary with Barth’s (and esp TF Torrance’s) view on the vicarious humanity of Christ. So even for Athanasius, as I read him, even though there is an effacing of the imago in the fall, as Myk Habets points out in his book Theosis in the Theology of Thomas Torrance the imago, because it is archetypically grounded in the image of God who is the Christ holds humanity ‘suspended’ as it were by the grace of God to be God for us in Christ. So there is this continuity even for Barth’s theology, this is really felt as the reader gets a grasp on Barth’s doctrine of election and the subsequent theological anthropology that results from there.

    I don’t think, at least with Barth, that we’ll be able to find a via media in his theology relative to the analogia entis/fidei. That’s not to say that something like that couldn’t be constructively produced by placing him into conversation with other interlocutors in the history, but this wouldn’t end up being Barth proper theology. I think, as far as my reading goes, that Henri de Lubac’s approach and the nouvelle theologie he represents probably offers the best via media that I’m aware of on this front.

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  7. Thanks for the dialogue. I still think that Thomas and James Torrance along with Ray S. Anderson are better nuanced with all of this. Francis Schaeffer in “The God Who is There” and “Escape From Reason” called out the fatal flaws of Aquinas appropriating Aristotle. Years later, R. C. Sproul, calling himself “a Thomistic Calvinist” challenged Schaeffer on this. Sproul, along with John Owen of old, failed to get the repudiation of Aristotle in Luther and Calvin. Oliphant gets it correct in counter distinction to Muller.

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