Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Barthian Neo-Protestantism

Here are some fissiparous and unorganised thoughts on Barth...

Karl Barth is a twentieth-century manifestation and embodiment of puritanism, of a biblicist protestantism that adheres to sola scriptura and sola fide. As such he denies any role to the authentic expression or interpretation of Scriptural doctrine as conveyed by and enshrined in Church Tradition. His focus is on the renewal of the magisterial protestant confessional religion of the sixteenth century and so his version of 'neo-orthodoxy' is better described as neo-protestant orthodoxy in the mould of Luther, Calvin and the sixteenth century reformers. During seminary I took a marvellous course on the work and writings of Archbishop William Temple of Canterbury, one of the greatest modern orthodox theologians in the Church of England. When the subject of Karl Barth arose, we discovered very quickly that the Anglican approach to Holy Scripture and the necessity and authority of Holy Tradition was at antithetical odds with the strictly 'sola scripturist' approach of Barth, whose Church Dogmatics are a carefully designed and nuanced re-presentation of the systematic theology of the Calvinist reformation. For Barth, the Bible alone is the standard of dogmatic truth and Christian practice, in opposition to the belief that the Church needs the consensus fidelium and consensus patricum of the earliest centuries.

Barth states that Scripture must be read and applied fresh in every generation on the basis of its direct content, to the exclusion of any applicative or hermeneutical role of Tradition as the transmission of the Gospel in the context of the living and worshipping communion of the Church.

In this respect, Barth is radically anti-Catholic, or at least anti-ecclesial, in his assertion of an absence of any collective and consentient Church authority in the transmission of the Scriptural kerygma. For Anglicans, of course, it is 'the Church to teach, the Bible to prove.' The Bible is the Church's Book, which is only rightly and authoritatively interpreted through the lens of the Church's ongoing life, witness and worship. Scriptura omnia continet, Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation, prima scriptura, Scripture is the uniquely-inspired and primary, most important, source of doctrine and practice for the Church's life - but the Holy Catholic Church and the Anglican formularies do not teach sola Scriptura, that is, that the Bible alone, apart from the canon of ecclesiastical tradition inherited from the Creeds, Councils and Fathers, establishes the regula fidei, the Rule of Faith, the salvific doctrinal deposit of Christian belief. Bible and Church are inseparable, for the Bible was written by the Church, in the Church, and for the Church. Barth maintains that even Scripture itself cannot be strictly equated with revelation, the Word of God, and so Tradition is regarded in an even dimmer light as a divinising of human thought and human modes of speech and language.

He holds that the Church confuses God with the Bible and the Church! In his understandable and praiseworthy effort to demolish liberalism, a quasi-Christian form of secular humanism, he undermines the genuine article by attacking Christian and world history and professes that no human form or creation however noble can infallibly convey revelation or signify God's Word - the baby goes out with the bathwater. Humanity, all human form, transmogrifies into ideology, merely human principles. Barth accused Catholic Tradition of making itself into a divine revelation, although he asserts it is merely a human construct. Tradition, for Barth, is merely human philosophy, a concept anathema to him, for he sees philosophy as man's attempt to make his own word God's Word. Barth holds that Tradition impedes and confuses the revelation God intends to give through Scripture, for Tradition can only be a human and fallible enterprise. The most severe critique one can offer, I think, concerning Barth is that his systematic theology seems to deny any real Incarnation of God the Word as Man, for Barth seems to say that no human realities can be associated with God to such an extent that God actually and unfailingly mediates Himself and communicates His Life and Word through that which is human. God will not limit Himself to the human, and yet that is precisely the point of the Incarnation, the willing kenosis and self-abasement and self-limitation of God to the human sphere. Or, at least, I should think such an anti-Incarnational stance seems to be the logical consequence of his view of Scripture and Tradition, which strikingly divorces God from the process of human history and society. A God who does not communicate His Word infallibly in Scripture and indefectibly in the Church and her Tradition cannot ultimately be a God who assumed human nature in the Incarnation. I would actually dare to state that Barth, being a neo-Calvinist, brings Calvinism to its proper conclusion, which is nothing short of gnosticism, that God eschews human life and the material world and remains purposely apart from His own creation, and thus the only access to God is through intellectual noetic gnosis and the spirit, not the world of matter redeemed, transfigured and sacramentalised by the Incarnation and Atonement.

Anglo-Catholicism and Barthian neo-orthodoxy agree to some degree on the inspiration and authority of the Holy Scriptures, and both serve to be strong and principled reactions against theological liberalism-modernism, but from those points forward the two movements part company in most profound ways and could not be more different. Barthian neo-orthodoxy is really a form of sixteenth-century reformation-based discarnate biblicism. Barth produces yet another instance of confessional protestantism's exchange of one form of tradition for another: Apostolic Tradition, the Traditio Ecclesiae handed down by Christ through the Apostles and their Successors in the episcopate, is displaced for a radical synthetic hermeneutic loosely based on the Calvinist confessions in which even Scripture itself is not held to be identical with the revelation of the Word of God, although the revelation is given through Scripture as a condescension of God's love and mercy. Barth's approach to Scripture is the classical protestant model, and thus is, frankly, Quranic, the Bible alone, but he then empties the Scriptures of their inerrancy by being unwilling to state that Our Lord is actually present in and uniquely linked to the Scriptures. Thus, Anglicans, with their sacramental view of creation, the Church and the Bible, have a higher view of Scripture than Barth himself.

I may have completely and utterly erred in my reading of Barth, but this is what I remember of my reading of him from my seminary days...

1 comment:

Leonard said...

As far as I know you haven't erred at all in your reading of Barth, although I know more about early Barth than the later Barth you cite. Of course, though, Barth wouldn't concede that he doesn't take the doctrine of the Incarnation seriously enough. The assertion "...I should think such an anti-Incarnational stance seems to be the logical consequence of his view of Scripture and Tradition, which strikingly divorces God from the process of human history and society. A God who does not communicate His Word infallibly in Scripture and indefectibly in the Church and her Tradition cannot ultimately be a God who assumed human nature in the Incarnation." -- may overstate the case.

One growing edge of my theology is deciding the degree to which Anglo-Catholicism requires a Catholic theology and habit of doctrinal positivism. For that matter, the Protestant equivalent as well. If, as you contend, Barth claims that God divorces himself from human history, does this claim mean that Barthian theology is more inculcated with, and even rooted in, divine mystery than positivist Christian traditions allow (or at least suggest)? It seems to me that the great facts of Anglo-Catholicism, such as the Incarnation and Crucifixion, are divine mysteries so beyond human understanding that Anglo-Catholicism cannot be primarily a positivist religion in the ultimate sense, although it would be one that strives for articulated and concrete doctrine. Does Anglo-Catholic doctrine allow for radical skepticism as a foundational principle? I don't know. If Barth claims that God is divorced from human history to the extent that Holy Scripture is at best a shabby reflection of the Logos, then doesn't his theology imply a wisdom that we dare not challenge for weakness of our argument? On the other hand, if Anglo-Catholicism were to allow that divine mystery is, perhaps, the unequivocal basis of Christian theology, then where exacty is the harm in the Barthian approach?

Fr Chad, sorry I haven't polished and articulated these ideas very well but I have to rush out to lunch now. Perhaps I didn't phrase my question right. Let's discuss this sometime over either work or beer. :-)

I look forward to meeting with you again.