A penultimate bye to Barth

I guess some TRs had gotten nervous because of my promoting McCormack’s understanding of the Trinity and Revelation.  And about every Advent season I find myself reading through Church Dogmatics.  Not intentionally, it just sort of worked out that way. Still, Barth isn’t the way forward in theology.  Mind you, the TR Reformed critiques of Barth are more or less worse than useless.  Mike Horton has a good critique.  Jim Cassidy’s is alright.  Aside from that don’t even bother.

And Barth did get a few things right.  We don’t have to accept his “neo-orthodox” (what does that word even mean?) reading of the Bible to realize that the Bible points to Jesus.  The Bible isn’t Jesus.  To make the Bible a predicate of God’s being is idolatry.

And contra to his critics, Barth didn’t deny simplicity.  He just pressed a few weak spots on the formulations and people got nervous.  And his doctrine of election forced us to realize we can’t first posit a fully-formed identity of God apart from God’s decision to redeem the world in Jesus (in fact, the doctrine of simplicity won’t even let you do that).


I didn’t like what I was seeing in the Barthian sphere.  Barth’s readers broke off into several groups.  Most of them were disciples of Thomas Torrance who didn’t tolerate any “different” reading of Barth.  And that’s fine.  We all want to be disciples of some great teacher.  But the rhetoric reminded one of the shrill hysteria of Puritanboard.

Ultimately, I am going to say that Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth is problematic of Christian Orthodoxy.  But I am going to say something else: I think his reading of Barth is more or less accurate.

Here’s the problem.  McCormack said Barth’s theology necessarily posits that God’s identity is “constituted” by his decision to elect.  If true, this seems to mean:

  • God came into being via election.  Obviously, no one holds this but it is a problem.
  • Yet, the eternal generation of the Son is a necessary act yet no one holds that the Logos “came into being” at his generation.  So the initial criticism of McCormack simply doesn’t hold water.
  • Yet, it does seem to mean that creation is in some sense necessary for God.  I do think this criticism is valid.  I’ve long said Barth was an Origenist.

At this point the Torrancians are no doubt cheering me on.  But here is the problem:  Barth said all of this in Church Dogmatics II:1.  Specifically, he said Jesus of Nazareth is both Subject and Object of election.

McCormack never denied that Barth was probably contradicting himself.  That’s not the point.  The point is that Barth said things that the Torrancian/Molnarian school (to coin less than euphonic phrases) didn’t want him to say.

But enough of that.  I have more problems with Barth:

  • While I don’t think Barth held to the “gnostic view” of “Jesus faith history” vs. real history, he is nonetheless fuzzy on creation.
  • Which means, necessarily, he is fuzzy on eschatology.  I don’t mean the criticism that he held to universal salvation (I’m not convinced he did).  I am not sure he held to any concept of “heaven” at all!
  • Even though I am not excited about natural theology, I still agree that we can have cognitive access to God’s manifestation in nature.  I have Barth’s commentary on Romans in my car right now (that’s not too strange.  I have more books in my car than I do on my “to-read” shelf) and I am shaking my head at his chapter on Romans 1.
  • Barthianism seems to straddle an uneasy ground before a full-orbed biblical narrative ontology and a metaphysics.  Barth really doesn’t engage with the narrative flow of Scripture (except for parts in II/1).  On the other hand, while I understand Barth’s criticism of using metaphysics as a ladder to God apart from God-in-Christ, I am uneasy about ditching metaphysics altogether.  If we do that, are we not accidentally positing an entry-point to nihilism?  I fear we are.

I will still probably read Barth in the future.  But I think there are too many problems with Barth to go forward with him, not to mention the behavior of some of his disciples.


9 thoughts on “A penultimate bye to Barth

  1. Outside of the McCormack/Hunsinger(von Balthasar) debate, what do you think of other “Barthians”? What do you think of Jenson’s appropriations of Barth? Pannenberg? Moltmann?

    Maybe the genius of Barth is that his corpus is a place to raise, debate, and get entangled in interesting questions. The point isn’t who the real Barthian is, even though the debate between McCormack and Hunsinger is odd and amusing (i.e. Hunsinger has Barth’s own admission that von Balthasar understood him rightly, but McCormack is able to appreciate contradictions and logical outworkings that we’re not always aware of).

    But, like Calvin or Aquinas, it unearths topics we might have missed. Personally, though I have no real desire to ever read Barth deeply, I appreciate the discussions reviving an emphasis on forgotten patristic themes that might cut through some red tape in the West’s theological heritage.


    1. Jenson is fun. Pannenberg and Moltmann broke ranks with Barth–albeit in different directions.

      Here is the problem with von Balthasar. Yes, Barth said he understood him correctly. However, McCormack argued two things:
      a) Not everything HuvB said was incorrect on Barth (and that’s how McCormack’s critics read him)
      b) Barth didn’t “undo” his theology with the book on Anselm.


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel

    I see Barth as this great evangelical mountain that every preacher and would-be theologian needs to visit at some point. Some will want to make their home there and learn every crevice and crag; but most should not. The temptation to make him the touchstone for orthodoxy is just too great.

    When I read Barth I have the sense that I’m hearing the voice an Old Testament prophet, albeit one who knows and proclaims Jesus the Risen Lord. But despite his wide reading in the theological tradition, Barth in a real sense stands alone. His influence in the Church catholic will always be limited because of his iconoclasm and non- (or should I say, anti-?) sacramentalism. But Barthians seem to be deaf to this concern.

    And that is why I like Torrance. Barth was, of course, the far greater theologian; but TFT had a catholic sensibility and concern that one does not find in Barth. Barth could never have written the wonderful *The Trinitarian Faith*. Torrance loved the fourth and fifth century Eastern Fathers, especially St Athanasius. He has been criticized (probably rightly) for reading Athanasius through Barthian glasses, but given that we all read the Father through one pair of glasses or the other, that does not concern me. What is critical is that in a real sense he put himself under their evangelical authority. And in my opinion, that is the only way forward for the Church.

    Thank you for this article.


    1. I’m honored to have someone of Fr Kimel’s caliber comment on my blog. You are correct vis-a-vis Barth and TFT. I, too, loved the Trinitarian faith. In fact, I’ve enjoyed most of the Torrance books I’ve read.


      1. I really like Hart as well. I’ve been curious of Milbank, but I’ve also read some scathing criticisms. It certainly chastened me. I’d be curious to hear any possible potential pitfalls you could see, considering how Milbank assumes forms of ontotheology and chain-of-being that you previously warred against.

        As for the above post:

        One curious remark, noted by Stephen D. Long, was that Barth wrote to von Balthasar that if he had been born Catholic, he’d stay that way. However, simultaneously, Barth vociferously denounce analogia entis as the last standing difference between Catholics and Protestants. Perhaps Long’s own crypto-Roman sentiments add more to this then there is, maybe it was a sentimental statement, a kind of friendly rapprochement with a man who chased after Barth like a suitor after his bride-to-be.

        von Balthar’s chronology makes sense (doesn’t mean it’s true, it’s just logically coherent), and Barth even agreed with it (doesn’t mean he even understood, himself, all of his implications). I wonder if this is another mystery of the non-existent book V. Perhaps it’s really a doctrine of the Holy Spirit that would’ve made sense over a whole mess of Barth questions. But such will never be answered, no matter how hard we try.



  3. Pingback: Review: God Incarnate | Tractatus Logico-Geopoliticus

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