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Karl Barth’s ‘Failure’? Modernity and the Capacity for God

May 16, 2014

Karl BarthMatthew Rose’s new essay in First Things — titled “Karl Barth’s Failure” (June 2014) — is prompting no shortage of objections from the younger Barth scholars online.  (See the very fine posts by Kevin Davis, David Congdon, Bobby Grow, and David Guretzki.)

I just have a word or two to add to this conversation.  It pertains to the idea that human beings are created with an innate capacity for God (capax Dei).

As Rose narrates it, “modernity” (viz. Descartes, Kant, Hume, et al) posed a serious epistemological problem for the Christian faith which Protestant liberalism sought to resolve.  After being reared in this school Barth subjected it to “pitiless critique,” rejecting religious experience as the foundation of the knowledge of God and returning instead to the necessity of divine revelation. This revelation is located in the (historical) particularity of Jesus Christ, and apart from Jesus no knowledge of God is possible.

This much of the account is certainly correct, in its broad brushstrokes.  Rose concludes that in (rightly) rejecting the anthropocentric values and conclusions of modernity, Barth himself finally could not escape its basic commitments.  He remained a modern, which Rose seems to find scandalous.  But, as David Congdon demonstrates, this is neither a surprise to Barth scholars nor at all a bad thing — at least for those committed to the sola fide and solus Christus of the Reformation (though I think Kevin Davis is right to point to Barth’s biblical exegesis as his source for these commitments).

Rose suggests that Karl Barth

made a tactical alliance with the Enlightenment on a key point: We are incapax Dei, lacking in speculative powers capable of reaching divine heights. Barth used this pact, however, to secure his claim that knowledge of God can come only from God himself. Barth was no reactionary. His arguments were almost always careful attempts to repurpose modern ideas for Christian ends.

… Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it. In denying what Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan called the “native infinity” of human understanding, Barth capitulated where he most needed to take a stand. He seemingly did not understand that restricting reason was modern philosophy’s great act of presumption, not humility. Nor did he understand that rejecting the secularity of reason was Christian philosophy’s great act of piety, not hubris. And his bargain with Kant—turning the limits of reason into an opening for revelation—could only corrode the foundations of Christian faith.

Barth is a self-consciously modern theologian, even in the midst of his critique of much of what modernism stands for (in particular the “turn to the subject” and the theological consequence of anthropocentrism).  But his conclusion that the human person is not capable of the divine is not a tactical allegiance with the Enlightenment: it is the result of how he reads the Bible, as well as his commitment to the Protestant Reformation.

I’ll go even further than this: Barth’s rejection of the human person’s innate capacity for God is consistent with the classical tradition and well-ordered doctrines of creation and sin.  The greatest difference is that Barth presses these doctrines to their final conclusions, refusing to avoid the full implications of creaturely limitation and of sin for revelation and epistemology.  What appears to be a capitulation with the values of modernism, then, is in fact a commitment embedded within the Christian theological tradition and now cast into sharp relief by modern philosophy: the human person is unable to secure knowledge of God by means of her own speculative reason.

The old Lutheran-Reformed debate had considered whether the finite (humanity) is capable of accommodating the infinite (divinity) — the maxim finitum non capax infiniti served as a logical basis for the Reformed doctrine of the extra Calvinisticum, for example, which Lutherans rejected categorically.  But note what are Barth’s real concerns regarding the human capacity for God:

[God] converses with us as those who are capable of hearing, understanding and obeying. He deals with us as the Creator, but as a person with persons, not as a power over things. … And this is by no means obvious. It is miraculous, and this not merely nor primarily as a miracle of power, as the mystery in which the principle finitum non capax infiniti is abrogated. Naturally this is true too. But the abrogation of this principle is not the real mystery of the revelation of the Son of God.

The real mystery is the abrogation of the other and much more incisive principle: homo peccator non capax verbi divini. God’s power to establish intercourse with us is also called in question of course, but in the long run not decisively, by the fact that He is infinite and we are finite, that He is Lord of life and death and we live as those who are limited by death, that He is the Creator and we are those who have been called out of nothing into being and existence. Godʹs ability is decisively called in question, however, by the fact that we are God’s enemies. (CD I/1, p. 407)

The more decisive question for Barth is not whether men and women are capable of knowing God (for this lack is something God can overcome in a sheer act of creative power), but whether sinful men and women are so capable.  In and of herself the human person is not merely limited by her created faculties; she is actively opposed to God.  And her hubristic attempts to attain to the knowledge of God by her own means is nothing less than sin.

Explicit elsewhere in this passage (and throughout Barth’s corpus) is the actual locus of God’s revelation — not a generic “disclosure” as God’s speaking from the sky, or “a side door through which God permits us an obstructed view of himself” (Rose), but the Incarnation.  Is humanity capable of that?  Is human nature able to bear not merely the divine image but the very presence of God himself in history?  Even fallen humanity? Barth’s answers to these questions make it clear that the Incarnation is always and only a divine possibility, and never a human possibility (contra Protestant liberalism).  Thus it is that human beings do have a real access to God — to both revelation and reconciliation, which in Jesus Christ are one and the same.  But we have it strictly by means of God’s grace, a divine act that overcomes not merely human finitude but human opposition.

In contrast, Rose’s driving concern is not so much with the Incarnation as it is with the knowledge of God — knowledge which the classical tradition suggests can come to men and women by other routes. What worries him is that if human beings are incapable of the knowledge of God, there will be no place left for theology to go but the way that Protestant liberalism went: into a sort of baptized, humanist speculation.  Such a theological project (and I think Barth would agree with Rose here) is doomed to end in failure.  The question, then, is whether this is true of Barth’s own work and its enduring, modernist commitments.

Karl BarthThe real heart of the matter in Rose’s reading of Barth is the latter’s doctrine of revelation. According to Barth revelation is secured by God, originating on the divine side, and shown to human beings in such a way that it never becomes a fixed possession, a human possibility now susceptible to the tools of modern historical criticism.  Barth’s epistemological point is not that human beings are incapable of being recipients of revelation (and thus of knowing true things about God), but that this revelation is not based in the creature and her rational or even her existential capacities.

With this in mind (and it should be noted that this is a theological judgment, not one emerging from prior philosophical commitments), we can see why Barth’s condemnation of natural theology is so important.  And we also see how it was that Barth could limit the divine self-disclosure to Jesus Christ.  The event that is Jesus Christ is, on the one hand, theologically remote — and modernism is right to tell us that we don’t have the immediacy of access to history that we once thought we did.  On the other hand, Jesus Christ is not merely history but is present to us today through his Spirit — and so the encounter with him, and the knowledge of God that he alone makes possible, is available to us by faith alone.

In both cases — Jesus’ historical remoteness and Jesus’ presence in faith — the human person is prevented from claiming revelation as her own and subjecting it to her critical judgments.  The older claims in favor of the human person’s capax Dei not only neglected the reality of history and distance, but failed sufficiently to account for the effects of sin on human knowing.

This is far from the claim that the knowledge of God is impossible, or that it is bound to “secular” reasoning.  Ironically, Barth’s theology secures revelation against modernism’s corrosive influences by the use of modernism itself!  Put another way: Barth has made use of modern philosophical commitments in order to expose and shore-up a weakness in the classical tradition.

This is Karl Barth’s enduring theological genius. Were we to grant that the knowledge of God is a human possibility, the only options are either (1) to grant that revelation is now at our disposal and thus subject to the inquiries of human reason (inerrancy and modern biblical criticism), or (2) to reject modernism as a whole and return to a pre-critical theism (which I think is both naive and impossible).

Rose’s account of Barth and modernism thus seems to have all the right pieces, but when they are assembled the picture that he describes is a caricature.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2014 2:51 pm

    It seems to be a very common thing to see Barth as capitulating to modernity, instead of working with/through/against it and modifying it in light of revelation (and, as needs to be noticed more often, his exegesis).

  2. May 16, 2014 4:34 pm

    Great response, Darren! Glad you chimed in.

  3. Kevin Davis permalink
    May 17, 2014 6:03 am

    That’s a solid overview. Love the quote from I.1.

  4. jared permalink
    June 2, 2014 2:36 pm

    To play the devil’s advocate: I have recently learned to read Barth along postmodern lines, a move strongly supported by your analysis. If one were to read, for example, Lyotard and Barth in conjunction, the similarity is striking. Both use modernity against itself, but to the effect that they end up, as it were, saving the modernity they were critiquing through a negative anthropology (which is precisely what the immanence of modernity functionally accomplishes, despite its glowing view of human reason). I agree with what you say about Rose’s position. However, your conclusion, based on your reading of Barth as a modern blinds you to the another possibility. You say that the only options in light of the possibility of “genuine knowledge” (by which you mean seem to mean “natural” knowledge of God) is either 1) modern hubristic humanism, or 2) retrograde premodern theism (scholasticism?). Of course, there is a third possibility, the one Rose fears: namely, postmodern nihilism, the despair of any meaningful knowledge of anything, God included. Lyotard speaks of knowledge as “paralogy” which is very close in meaning to “contradiction.” Because humans cannot logic reasonable, or rather, they do not share the same reason, there can only be a newness fetish to validate knowledge, but as soon as the newness has been stated, its knowledge shared, it is no longer knowledge. Anything shared is by definition rational, which is by definition banal. Barth’s rejection of any natural knowledge of God does not safeguard God (since God can well take care of himself), and while it might help prevent some of the most egregious forms of mistaken conceptions of nature and knowledge of God, it does so by rejecting tout court all forms of meaningful (shared) knowledge of God. In short, Barth is the other side of Lyotard. He has not “shored up” the classical tradition, which has since Justin (and even Paul) viewed the Logos as a shared, if shattered, correspondence between the human and the divine (imago dei). Rather Barth has rejected it in favor of the modern one, incapax dei, by accepting a thoroughly negative view of human reason. Bruce Morrill has argued convincingly that Barth’s anthropology is so negative that humanity is ultimately viewed as “epiphenomenal”.

    From the Catholic side at least, Barth’s critique of natural theology has been understood and absorbed as a useful tool to clarify how knowledge is to be validated communally, i.e. by revelation. The real issue here is that for Barth, while Jesus Christ is that revelation in name, its practical manifestation is located in the Biblical witness alone (and if i might be so bold, in Barth’s interpretation of that witness alone), whereas for Catholics the bible, tradition, reality, and nature, all testify to the triunity which is God, and some perception of this unity has been graciously given to man, certainly before sin entered the picture, but also in man’s fallen condition. Grace is the source of this and every gift of God, but as Henri De Lubac has shown, nature and its knowledge is precisely one such gift. It is the gift that keeps on giving, a gift so powerful it can even be enjoyed as it is being rejected. While there are grave consequences for indeed rejecting it, for failing to fully recognize the gift as gift, we do not need to maintain either that man isn’t real (as Barth’s epiphenomenality would suggest), or that he is incapable of any knowledge of God “naturally”, which is to say, as he plays with the gift God has given him. What Barth in the end has accepted from (post)modernity is its un-classical view of the banality of human nature, its naturally meaninglessness.

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