Understanding How We Come to Know God: Through The Being of God in Christ For Us; Or Through Human Being Come to God By Created and Uncreated Grace?

How do we know God? There are traditions for answering that very question; I follow a particular tradition in contrast to another prominent tradition. This post will explore this question by providing some lengthy description of its unfolding in 20th century modern theology. We will read along with David Congdon, at length, as he describes Karl Barth’s relationship to the analogia entis tradition, and the alternative that is situated in Barth’s dialectical theology. After we have read along with Congdon we will bring what Congdon has surfaced for us in Barth’s theology into a brief discussion on a doctrine of creation in general. I recognize that I write about this issue frequently and often here at the blog, and this should alert you to the importance I see in it.

In the process of developing Barth’s (and Bultmann’s) style of dialectical theology Congdon breaks off in a section and gets into the issue of knowledge of God vis-à-vis the infamous analogy of being; most commonly associated, in medieval theology, with Thomas Aquinas, and in modern theology with Roman Catholic theologian, Erich Przywara. The version of analogia entis that Barth is most animated by is the version of his German theological counterpart, Przywara. Barth’s reasons for being so animated are indeed contextual to the Third Reich milieu he was situated within, and the way that the Volk (national) church deployed things like the analogy of being, and natural theology in general, towards their evil ends. Some want to relativize or marginalize Barth’s animus towards the analogy of being by arguing that that was only a consequent and development per his idiosyncratic situatedness. Thus the marginalization goes, Barth’s stance against the analogy of being may have served his purposes towards an attempt at assassinating the Nazi conflation of church and state, but for our current purposes, theologically, such animus would be misdirected. But what this critique fails to appreciate is that the forces Barth was contesting are the dark forces and principalities and powers that have always already been present in this space-time continuum. In other words, there is nothing idiosyncratic about Barth’s stance against the analogy of being or natural theology in general that aren’t just as prescient and present in the 21st century—look around, we are currently in a corporatist oligarchic globalist state wherein the principalities and powers are just as heavy upon us (in their own expressions) as they were in the Deutschland of Barth and the Confessing Church of Bonhoeffer.

In the following David Congdon helps elucidate what in fact this whole debate is about; in particular in Barth’s contest with Przywara (and then by application to the German civilization and Emil Brunner). You will also see the way Condgon, per his thesis, ties this particular debate into a theology of mission (which ties into colonialism and nationalism). We will leave that particular discussion to the side (i.e. mission) to focus on Barth’s problem with the analogia. Congdon writes (in extenso):

The year 1932 marks the climax of the confrontation between Barth and Erich Przywara. Three years earlier, in February 1929, Barth invited Przywara to Münster to participate in his seminar on Thomas Aquinas. In December 1931, Przywara visited Barth again in his seminar on “The Problem of Natural Theology” while at Bonn. These debates, together with Przywara’s request in April 1932 that Barth review his book, Analogia Entis, and the rising political unease in Germany, resulted in Barth’s famous statement in the preface to KD 1.1 that the analogia entis is “the  invention of the anti-Christ.” It was the 1929 meeting that really set the stage for their disagreement, and in particular a comment Przywara made on the morning of February 6. According to the student protocols of the seminary, Przywara began by defending his position regarding the manifestation of God’s revelation in history, including in human consciousness. In his defense he cited the Thomistic axiom “gratia non destruit se supponit et perficit naturam” (grace does not destroy but supports and perfects nature). Przywara understood grace to be both created and uncreated, both native and alien. The justification of the sinner does not annul but rather brings to fulfillment the grace already present in us by virtue of our creaturely participation in the being of God.

Within weeks after this seminar visit Barth delivered his response to Przywara in the form of his lecture in Dortmund, “Schicksal und Idee in der Theologie.” While Przywara is not mentioned, he is the “silent conversation partner throughout.” This is especially clear when he addresses the Thomistic axiom directly:

“Gratia non destruit, sed supponti et perficit naturam.Analogia entis: thus each existing being as such and also we human beings as existing beings participate in the similitudo Dei. The experience of God is for us an inherent possibility and necessity. . . . The word of God does not mean for human beings a confirmation and reassurance of the naïve confidence that the experience of God is, but rather . . . in contrast to the whole range of possible experience it says something new and not merely more strongly and clearly what people could know anyway and even experience elsewhere. Indeed, this is how things always stand between God’s word and human beings, in that it proclaims something new to them and comes to them like light in the darkness. It always comes to them as to sinners, as forgiving and thus as judging grace. . . . Therefore that ability and necessity, that capacity for experiencing God, cannot be understood at any rate as something “natural”—meaning something given with our existence as such or subsequently associated with our existence as such, nor can it be understood by an appeal to a “gratia inhaerens,” by virtue of which the knower and known would simply and in themselves be in the relation to God of the analogia entis.

Barth explicitly rejects the very axiom to which Przywara appealed to support his position. Grace, Barth says, neither has a basis in nature nor does it become subsequently part of nature. The grace of God is always a judging and forgiving grace, and for this reason it never becomes a “given” (datum) that lies at our disposal. It remains wholly nongiven even in the concrete event of Christ wherein God gives Godself to us. Grace always confronts us as a new event.

Keith Johnson makes this astute observation that much more is at stake here for Barth than simply the old Protestant-Catholic debate over justification, though that is certainly at the heart of the dispute. What concerns Barth is, in fact, the same colonialist logic of the gospel’s cultural captivity that prompted his dialectical revolt against liberal theology fifteen years earlier.

The link between humanity and God [Barth] recognized in 1929 followed the pattern he had seen in 1914 when his former teachers enlisted God in support of their own cause by giving their blessing to the war. Barth’s theology, from that moment on, had been driven by his goal of overcoming this mistake. In Przywara’s analogia entis, he discovered a sophisticated version of the same error, and in the Germany of 1932, the political winds were stirring in much the same way they had in 1914.

Barth’s remark in 1932 about the analogia entis as the “invention of the anti-Christ” is therefore “a direct function of h is context. . . . The political turmoil around him had to be on Barth’s mind, and in his view, the church appeared to be complicit in the events that were unfolding.” In other words, the danger in Przywara’s thinking was that he provided a robust theological framework capable of justifying the nationalist propaganda and colonialist endeavors of the German nation. The fact that Przywara’s theology had such a strong internal consistency and grounding in the tradition made if far more dangerous than the liberalism of Barth’s teachers and Protestant contemporaries. It is for this reason that Barth was compelled to sound a clear and unequivocal denunciation of the analogia entis.

To make matters even more interesting, Przywara developed his account of analogy for missionary reasons. He understood the analogia entis as a “missionary principle” whose purpose is to prompt the church to positively engage German culture as the place where God is presently at work. The analogia entis accomplishes this task because “it attempts to meet the world on its own ground rather than insist that the world move to its ground.” We have to recall that, during these years of conversation with Przywara, Barth was simultaneously engaged in a debate with Brunner regarding the “point of connection” between nature and grace. And like Przywara, Brunner also viewed his account of the Anknüpfungspunkt as a missionary concept. A pattern quickly began to emerge. In each of these three situations—the liberal capitulation in 1914, Przywara’s analogia entis in 1929–32, Brunner’s Anknüpfungspunkt in 1929–35—Barth faced a theological position that claimed mission as its ground and aim, and on the basis of this appeal to mission sought to find a point of connection or continuity between God and humanity. The liberal theologians found it in German civilization, Przywara in human consciousness and experience, Brunner in the faculty of reason. In each case the will and work of God became continuous with what is already given and native to human beings in their creaturely existence, and so in each case Barth rendered a decisive verdict in the form of, respectively, the “No-God” in Der Römerbrief (1922), the “invention of the anti-Christ” in KD 1.1 (1932), and the famous Nein (1934).[1]

After this lengthy and enlightening treatment offered by Congdon, I think the primary point of reduction comes to the issue orbiting around a “point of connection” (Anknüpfungspunkt) between God and humanity. As Congdon underscores this has taken various expressions through the centuries, whether that be with Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, Przywara, the German nation (of the third reich), or Brunner; it is the issue of ‘the point of contact’ between God and humanity that is significant. It is significant, particularly in Barth’s context, because of the ethical and theopolitical implications this locus entails.

If God can be thought from nature (or natural capacity), if the boundaries between God and humanity, God and the nations can be forcefully brought together by identifying an inherent capacity with nature itself that is gestationally waiting for God to activate and give it birth, then who’s to regulate this sort of grounding between God and humanity; the theologians, the politicians? Barth says Nein. He seeks to take away this seduction for the ‘natural’ human heart, and place the ground for “the point of connection” within the life of Godself in the hypostatic union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. This is why the type of analogical knowledge of God that Barth supports is grounded in what he calls an analogia fidei/relationis (analogy of faith-relation). Barth recognizes the role that analogy plays in the correspondence of our knowledge of God with God’s knowledge of Godself; but again, even as Barth recognizes the ‘infinite qualitative difference’ between God and humanity, and precisely because of that, the shape of analogy he can support is one where it is objectively grounded not in a faceless apophatic God, but only in and from a center in himself that is for us in Jesus Christ. For Barth, within the Calvinian frame, faith is knowledge of God, and faith itself is the bond that God alone in the humanity of Christ has in se but for us as he transcends the ditch between himself and us within a creational nexus wherein all of creation has always already been attenuated and teleologized by Christ who is the Supreme and Firstborn of and for Creation.

I said at the beginning of my post that I was going to also get into a doctrine of creation. At the close of my paragraph above I start to hint at that discussion, but because of the length of this post I am going to close it now. I hope you can at least appreciate what is at issue in this discussion as a result of reading this post. Indeed, Barth had a context, but so has all of theological development; even so called catholic or ecumenical developments. The contextual and conditioned nature of theological development doesn’t negate its global availability or reduce its force to the period or circumstances of its locational unfolding; instead, the merit and weight of various theological developments, such as Barth’s anti-natural theological / anti-analogia entis posture, are weighed strictly by their proximate value in bearing witness to the res (the reality) and power of God’s Gospel who is Jesus Christ. I hope you’ll consider that if you are prone to writing Barth’s position off simply because Barth wrote his theology in the context and shadow of Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. Just maybe Barth’s theology, even though his heretic was partly German nationalism instead of Arius, has angel’s wings under it; in such a way that it might be a ministering spirit to the thirsty souls adrift in the 21st century evangelical theological wasteland (and I’m referring to the lacuna of Christian Dogmatics for the evangelical world).

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 292-95.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding How We Come to Know God: Through The Being of God in Christ For Us; Or Through Human Being Come to God By Created and Uncreated Grace?

  1. Pingback: Understanding How We Come to Know God: Through The Being of God in Christ For Us; Or Through Human Being Come to God By Created and Uncreated Grace? — The Evangelical Calvinist | James' Ramblings

  2. I look forward to more conversation on this topic, because I do see it as an important one in contemporary theology. I’ll share a couple quick impressions, and while they are general, I don’t mean to imply that they should be read as over-generalizations because there is needed nuance that I don’t have time tonight to detail:

    1) While I don’t implicate Barth in this line of thinking, I do think that the danger in over-developing his dialectical program is that it can lead to equivocity in our language for God, and this is something I am concerned about.

    2) I do think that inasmuch as Pryzwara imbibes the medieval Catholic doctrine of grace he is overstating the way the Eastern Fathers would have understood grace – which is the superabundance of Divine gratuity that has protological and eschchatological dimensions. This is probably where his defense of the analogia entis deserves critique.

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  3. 1) I’m curious, what do you think dialectical theology entails? Or how would you define it? Because I’m sensing, based upon your fear about “equivocity” that you’re not fully appreciating the role that analogy plays in dialectical:apocalyptic theology, particularly when that’s understood under Barth’s thinking (and TFT’s after him) on the analogy of faith-relation. Hunsinger writes well on this.

    2) As far as Przywara, no matter what we mean by the superabubdance of grace the issues remain. The issue has to do with how we conceive of nature itself. How we conceive of that within a doctrine of creation. How we conceive of God prior to creation, Dogmatically. The analogia entis, no matter whose version, starts with a conception of humanity that has latent capacities (created grace for the Latins) that are thought of in abstraction from a humanity that is not ontologically or even covenantally bound to Christ. As far as the Eastern Fathers; okay as far as they go. But I see no reason for stopping with them. And I do think Barth and the trad he comes from, inclusive of Bultmann and other moderns, are saying things beyond them and under different pressures and categories that in some ways are helpful and more effulgent than the Fathers were privy too.

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