Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thoughts on Barth and the Word of God

Drew Johnson has offered some comments on Karl Barth over at Michael Liccione's blog that echo my own observations of how Barth's view of Scripture offers a serious challenge to the Protestant concept of Scriptural authority. Moreover, Johnson argues that it was probably only Barth's hostility to the idea of the analogia entis (which I will call absolute ontological distinction or AOD) that prevented him from following his doctrine of Scripture to its logical conclusion in relating Scripture to Tradition. I would instead say that Barth has simply pointed out a contradiction in the Protestant monergism, where Barth holds his convictions purely. If there is a contradiction (and I believe that there is), then it is in the denial of the analogia entis, which Barth actually holds more consistently than his Protestant confreres.

The real trouble in AOD is that it entails Nestorianism, be it in Christology, the doctrine of inspiration, or any other matter of theology. One you reject union in being, then you have to cobble together union in some other way, and the only real alternative is some sort of external causal domination of one entity by the other. Historically, that was Nestorian-type monotheletism (aka, monoenergism, one operation), which can be pushed even farther to monergism, the work of only one agent. Even though I have no great love for John Romanides, because I think he misapplies his conclusions to the West more generally, his article tracing the Antiochene origins of this belief in Theodore of Mopsuestia is frankly (*groan*) his best work. The connection between Nestorian ontological convictions and monergism seems too clear to even be debatable at this point.

What Barth observed is that if you really believe in AOD, there's no such thing as a medium, because a medium is necessarily not God. So as Drew rightly observes, Barth must push on to a metaphysics of absolute subject (accusing even Calvin of creating an Arian separation between Christ and the Father), and likewise, he must push ahead to an absolute concept of witness. In this, I think he is completely consistent. If there is an absolute separation between Creator and creature, and if the only union between them can be in the external causal determination of one by the other, then it follows that it must always be immediate, so that revelation must always be the direct causal act of God producing a response. If you really want to see irony, read this article (*), which recounts Donald Bloesch's criticism of Barth as "Nestorian," in turn provoking a criticism from the author that Bloesch is Arian/adoptionist. But the author himself makes this charge in the interest of defending a "truly asymmetrical, interactive, unitary God-world-human (historical) redemptive relatedness," which is nothing other than Nestorian-type monergism! If anything, it proves the point that Barth is simply the most consistent advocate of AOD.

Therefore, I would disagree with Drew that this could ever lead to T3. T3 requires a common ontological union with God, effectively making both Scripture and Tradition the same sort of synergistic operation. Barth's view is effectively even a more pure view than T1 or even T0; it is really S0, in that even the actual text of Scripture lacks authority. Again, given his ontological commitments, I think this is absolutely consistent; only God can speak with the authority of God.

Most Protestants try to escape this necessity by a softer argument from miracles (e.g., God establishes a natural order in some lawful fashion and then breaks this natural order, which shows direct divine causation, making miracles the sign of divine inspiration). The problem is that this isn't direct divine causation on the person, and that is the hole Barth spots. Any merely historical argument of this fashion won't suffice to actually create the causal connection between God and man; what makes the witness is the individually caused response to God Himself. Even if God can be bound by His own covenants, it is only in the sense of the promise to that particular person; for each person, only His personal promise is binding.

Despite my profound disagreement with Barth, I highly commend his work to Protestants, because he is by far the most consistent advocate of what Protestantism entails. Frankly, if all Protestants were Barthians, then we could have a REAL discussion about what separates Catholicism from Protestantism, because then everyone's respective metaphysical commitments would be clearly and consistently articulated. Imputed justification and sola scriptura are both really the same monergistic understanding of the creature/Creator separation, and we could then have an argument over which metaphysical description is true: divine/human monergism (subdivided into the Barthian Nestorian-type monotheletism or the Lutheran Monophysite-type monotheletism) or divine/human synergism (Eastern or Western). Forget the whole question of fathers and councils, to which Protestants don't really give authority even when they read them per Dr. Liccione's argument, and instead have a discussion of what metaphysical commitments regarding God are coherent. If we could have that discussion openly, apart from the historical baggage, THEN we might actually have a meaningful dialogue.

* UPDATE -- I forgot to include a warning about the abominable application on page 17 of Einstein to "the Nicene homoousion, reflecting unitary, interactive relatedness, identity-in-difference. And so too is such a stratified model reflective of the incarnate Word-inscripturated Word relationship." Clearly, this guy has not read David Bohm's Wholeness and Implicate Order and does not fathom the pantheistic implications of what he is saying! Again, sloppy metaphysical concepts lead to sloppy theological applications.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The lifeblood of Christianity

Before I get started, I have to ask for prayers for Madeleine McCann, the toddler abducted in Portugal. Every parent knows that brief flash of horror when you lose sight of your child in a crowd when you've turned away for a few seconds. I can't imagine the torture of losing them for good. Please pray also for this Orange County family, who lost their three children when a big rig hit their minivan while they were stopped in traffic on the freeway.

In view of these sorts of things happening lately and work consuming a lot of what is normally free time, I have been spending what moments I have left with the kids. I have a finely balanced system for timing my writing in between work and kids that is probably best described as "controlled avalanche," and this usually produces some things worth saying as ideas mulling around the subconscious gradually crystallize into some expressible form. Getting them down is an essential process, because otherwise, I will be juggling them mentally until I get something written down, and that becomes progressively more stressful as time goes on. But sometimes I get SO busy that there aren't even enough spaces in the schedule to fill in the snowmass with good quality powder. And rather than subjecting people to a river of slush, I prefer to spend time on responses to other people's ideas, which I can draft more quickly. The good thing about doing that is that such discussions have a habit of overflowing into new ideas for writing, as they have recently (see my comments on this thread over at Michael Liccione's blog). That means it's just about time to shake the slopes and see what comes down.

That idea of "overflowing" is itself part of the theme I'd like to establish. Just like the case of writing itself, creativity can't result from confined systems. There has to be an overflow from experience, and by "overflow" I mean the pressure that reality exerts on one's thinking to keep it active and responsive. That pressure is real, and the attempt to confine that pressure is ultimately futile. The only question is whether your conceptual outlook is sufficiently flexible to adapt to new experiences; otherwise, it will just break. I strongly believe that Christianity is the only mode of life capable of actually responding to reality in this way, not fleeing from contact with reality (which intellectually impressive systems like Hellenism, Hinduism, and Buddhism often do) nor trying to hold together the pieces of a machine that is obviously broken. The entire history of Christianity, East and West, testifies to a tenacious grip on reality where other conceptual frameworks have lost it. Christianity clings to reality even at its most awful, which makes it the only true consolation in the worst of circumstances (and it is hard to imagine worse than the ones with which I introduced this post).

The most startling testimony to how important confrontation with reality is to Christianity is the fact that Christianity itself breaks under the pressure of reality when it loses this adaptability, as one can see in Evangelicalism (see also my comments here) and in the anti-Western Orthodoxy Drew Johnson, Michael Sullivan, and I confronted over on Michael Liccione's blog. The temptation for Christianity is always toward Gnosticism, the ultimate escapism, but this is also intellectual suicide. Speculative theology, using the mind to apply theology to reality, has always been the lifeblood that keeps Christianity from Gnosticism, and it remains so today. This is the fundamental truth recognized in Pope Leo XII's Aeterni Patris, which acknowledged St. Thomas Aquinas's paradigmatic role in preserving this ancient method of the Fathers. The problem with Gnosticism wasn't speculative theology per se, but this ungrounded speculative theology detached from reality. And I'd like to think that even outsiders to the apostolic churches, like Gagdad Bob and the Maverick Philosopher, are nonetheless drinking from the true fount of divine wisdom in their resistance to such unreal philosophies.

Anyway, the point is that this mental, speculative engagement is part of what keeps the blood flowing in the Christian community. If the faith is starved of its ability to seek understanding, the organism dies. The faith may have been once delivered to the saints, but if its modern-day adherents are simply curators for the faith, which they experience but do not change, then what is being preserved is not the apostolic faith. Life requires overflow, and overflow manifests itself in the creation of dogma. That is how Catholicism shows itself to be the Church; it continues to announce dogma in continuation with the same process. Christian churches that cut off speculative creation of dogma are ceasing the process that gave them life, and eventually, they die because of it.

UPDATE -- In line with the theme of this post, see this comment I wrote at Sacramentum Vitae.