Did Barth fail? Responding to Matthew Rose

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Matthew Rose’s respectful indictment of Barth’s theological failure is engaging, but in the end unconvincing because it tells us more about Rose’s theological and philosophical commitments than Barth’s.

The essence of Rose’s argument is put simply enough: Karl Barth’s genius is that he used epistemological categories of modernity to dismantle the modern liberal theological project itself. But increasingly, Barth found himself unwittingly trapped in the prison of his own critique by having to capitulate to modernity’s limitation of the use of reason in attaining to knowledge of God. Therefore, where Barth may have managed to provide a devastating critique of the rational prison of modernity, he failed to find a key that would free himself from that same prison.

How do we assess Rose’s argument? At one level, Rose’s argument is hardly new, if by making it Rose is claiming that Barth was a modern theologian who somehow never stopped being modern. If that is all that Rose is saying, his article would be rather unremarkable, not the least because he fails to mention the many scholars in the past decade who have insisted that though Barth may have undergone a radical conversion from liberalism to orthodoxy, he remained a thoroughly modern theologian from beginning to end. Here Rose would have benefited from making Bruce McCormack an important interlocutor. In his book Orthodox and Modern, McCormack makes the extended argument that Barth is best understood neither as a theologian  trying to return to a pristine “premodern” orthodoxy, nor a pre-cursor to the so-called “postmodern” commitment to non-foundationalism. Rather, Barth was a theologian steeped in liberalism who nevertheless rejected liberalism by seeking a way to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity.

But of course, Rose is not simply saying that Barth always remained modern (most everyone familiar with the field of Barth studies already knows that).  More significantly, Rose insists that Barth ultimately failed to escape what Rose calls Barth’s “flirtation with novelty.” Rose doesn’t expand on what he means by this, but the implication is clear: Barth failed to remain orthodox because in adopting modern categories, he was unable to keep his theology from jettisoning the deep traditions of orthodoxy. But what is Rose getting at here?

As we read on, we soon discover Rose’s main indictment against Barth: Barth fails because he adopts a fundamental Enlightenment epistemological axiom, mainly, incapax Dei–that human minds are incapable of gaining knowledge of God through the exercise of speculative reason.

At a basic level, I suspect that Barth would indeed concur with Rose: It is true, Barth would say, that human rationality is incapable of coming to a knowledge of God. But that would be to uncover only half of what Barth has to say. Thus, at another level, Barth would resist Rose’s charge that incapax Dei somehow functions in his theology as a fundamental axiomatic commitment. For example, in CD IV.2, Barth insists, “It is a complete—if common—misunderstanding to attribute this protest to a barren intellectual zeal for the axiom: finitum non capax infiniti, and therefore for the impassibility of the divine essence. In older Reformed dogmatics this axiom did not play the outstanding role attributed to it in later presentations” (68)–a later category of presentations among which Rose’s presentation must now be counted. In other words, even if Barth would agree with the axiom, it is a mistake to assume that the main point of Protestant theology was to defend incapax Dei with “intellectual zeal,” as if in defending it, everything else falls into place. So, Rose rightly identifies Barth’s (and the Reformed tradition in general) rejection of some kind of natural capacity for humans to come to a knowledge of God in and of themselves. But what Rose chooses to ignore specifically is Barth’s (and the Reformers in general) own explicit identification of what he would call a fundamental axiom for Christian theology, mainly, that apart from God’s own free self-revelation, knowledge of God is impossible. 

Rose critiques Barth for adopting incapax Dei, but fails to attribute to Barth his own self-identified fundamental axiomatic starting point. So what is Barth’s starting point? The basis of Barth’s dogmatic reasoning can be located as far back as his Göttingen Dogmatics (GD) where he suggests that the first and most important starting point for theology is not an anthropological assertion about the capacity of humanity, but a theological presupposition about the nature of God.

As Barth liked to put it, theology begins with the assumption of Deus Dixit–God himself has spoken. Indeed, after giving some brief prolegomenal reflections in the GD, Barth launches the dogmatics proper with a chapter entitled, Deus Dixit. To paraphrase Barth’s fundamental commitment outlined in that chapter:  “Christian preachers dare to speak about God only because they assume, in faith, that God has first addressed us and made it possible for us to have real knowledge of himself given in this self-address.” (See GD, 45-68). And it is here that Barth, without ceasing to be modern, nevertheless refuses to play the dogmatic game governed by the rules of modern epistemology. Theological knowledge is not defined first and foremost by a philosophical commitment to the limits of anthropological capacity but by theological reflection upon divine initiative. Whatever capacity we may or may not have as humans finally does not matter if God has not freely communicated himself to us and enabled us to receive that communication, whatever epistemological mechanisms might be at play.

So, Rose’s reading of Barth itself makes a fatal misstep: It assumes that all modern theological discourse necessarily starts from the assumption of an epistemological axiom and builds up from there. (And of course, that sounds very Cartesian, doesn’t it?). The problem is, Barth, in fact, does not proceed in this way at all–and never did. He does not start with a bedrock epistemological axiom from which all theological assertions stem, but rather deliberately refuses to build upon a philosophical prolegomena. In contradisitinction, Barth starts not with epistemology, but with the action of God in history as the “starting point” from which all theological knowledge comes. Even if Barth, as a modern, would accept that humans are incapax Dei, this is not to something known a priori but only a posteriori because God has revealed it to be so.

So in short, Rose’s reading of Barth tells us much more about Rose’s commitment than Barth’s. That is to say, Rose is apparently committed to the necessity of establishing a fundamental epistemological starting point for theology and that the particular starting point which he says Barth adopts is a starting point which Rose rejects. But in rejecting the incapax Dei principle, Rose necessarily commits to the opposite, capax Dei, which he calls the “classical synthesis of faith and reason” and thereby the fundamental epistemological starting point Christian theologians must assume in order not to fail. But does this not tell us much more about Rose’s epistemology and anthropology than Barth’s? And does not Rose’s essay falter because he fails to address Barth’s own explicitly stated starting point? Thus, in my mind, Rose’s essay could have been much more fruitful if he could have shown evidence why Barth’s commitment to Deus Dixit is ultimately the point at which Barth’s theology fails. But such an argument remains to be made.

Rose’s essay is unconvincing because it makes the argument that Barth fails because he is a Protestant who is following through on the deep Protestant cry of sola fide–that there is no knowledge of God apart from a gift faith in hearing the Word of God. In other words, Rose’s argument is not really against Barth, but against anyone who rejects the classical synthesis of faith and reason deeply imbedded in Thomistic Christianity.

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6 thoughts on “Did Barth fail? Responding to Matthew Rose

  1. Maybe if God is especially human “flesh” (Jesus), as Rose pictures Barth saying, then likely He could be, even in revelation, reflective of human reason. Therefore Barth does not quite make the mistake that Rose seems to see in him: not being Catholic/rational/Thomistic enough.

    Here though we might be revising Barth a bit? And against Rose, we picture reason as human, not transcendent or metaphysical.

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