Wednesday, August 19, 2009

2009 Barth Blog Conference: Day 3

The No-God and God’s No: Barth’s Exegesis of Romans 1 in Romans II

By David W. Congdon

Barth’s Der Römerbrief needs no introduction. It fundamentally changed the landscape of modern theology. The first edition, published in 1918, set forth the basic contours of Barth’s break with 19th century liberalism. But it was the explosive second edition (hereafter referred to as Romans II, and from which I will exclusively cite), published in 1921 and translated in 1933, which established Barth’s lasting reputation.1 However, as important as it has been and continues to be, one easily forgets that Barth’s Romans is a biblical commentary.2 People tend to view it as a theological treatise, but Barth always intended it to be an exegesis—certainly, a theological exegesis—of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

With this in mind, I want to focus on Barth’s interpretation of the first chapter of Romans, specifically the latter half of this chapter (vv. 16-32). Specifically, I want to address two issues: (1) the way Barth reads Romans as a letter against the liberal historicism of his time, and (2) Barth’s handling of Rom. 1:20 and the problem of natural theology.

The No-God of Modern Liberalism

The story of Barth’s break with German liberalism is well-known, as is the central place of Barth’s Römerbrief in this theological revolt. There is, unfortunately, a lot of confusion about the nature of this revolt. What exactly is being rejected? The common response, based on Barth’s later writings regarding the analogia entis, is natural theology. But this is an anachronistic misreading of Romans II in light of the Barmen Declaration and the Church Dogmatics. Natural theology was not really on the radar at all for Barth in 1921. This can easily be seen by the stark difference between his treatment of Rom. 1 in this commentary and his treatment of the same passage in his Shorter Commentary on Romans, which began as lectures in 1940-41 and was published in 1956 (ET 1959). The later commentary directly addresses the issue of natural theology and remains, in my opinion, the best and most succinct argument against finding natural theology in Paul’s letter. The earlier commentary, however, says nothing about this topic. I will address what Barth does say later, but for now it will suffice to point out that Barth’s commentary has a different polemical target in mind.

F. W. Graf calls the break with liberalism the “anti-historicist revolution” in Protestant theology, and this insight helps to specify what it is that Barth is so angry about in Romans II. The issue is not with natural knowledge of God; that target would arise later in his dealings with Erich Przywara and Roman Catholicism. The issue here is with the liberal historicization of God, or more accurately, the objectification of God. “Historicism” has its basis in 19th century German theology and philosophy, but it reached its apotheosis in the work of Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch takes the historical-critical method as his starting-point, which, as he says, “relativizes everything,” and then he subjects Christianity to this method. He doesn’t reject religious absolutes; he simply identifies this absolute as the telos of the immanent historical continuum. The absolute arises out of the progress of history. Not everyone followed historicism to Troeltsch’s logical conclusion, but at the very least what made theology liberal was this subjection of Christianity to historical-critical research. That is, liberalism grounds the Christian religion on “objective” realities which can be established by “neutral” scientific methods. Most importantly, liberalism makes the so-called “historical Jesus,” as opposed to the Christ of orthodoxy, the basis for Christian faith.

Liberal theology thus implicitly presupposes what Rudolf Bultmann, in his well-known 1924 essay, calls a “pantheism of history,” in which God is given to us directly in social history as an object available for our investigation. It is this “givenness” of God within the nexus of social relations, human personality, and scientific history that defines liberalism. The consequence of this view is that revelation becomes a historical-psychological phenomenon, Jesus becomes a great religious personality (Persönlichkeit), and faith becomes a religious “feeling” (Gefühl) or “sense of value” aroused within the human conscience. In short, liberal historicism leads to the idolatrous deification of humanity.

We cannot understand Barth’s Romans if we do not see his commentary as an attempt to read Paul’s letter as a response to modern historicism. Now, before I demonstrate how this affects Barth’s interpretation of Rom. 1, some might object that this does violence to Paul’s text. A brief word on biblical hermeneutics is thus in order. In 1962, Krister Stendahl famously distinguished between “two senses” of meaning in a biblical text: “What did it mean?” and “What does it mean?”3 For Stendahl and others, the present meaning of a text is merely the application of its past meaning, with the latter established purely on the basis of descriptive-scientific exegesis. Barth completely (and rightly) rejects this scheme, preempting Stendahl by some forty years. In the preface drafts to the first edition of his commentary on Romans, Barth repeats a central and radical axiom throughout: “Whoever does not continually ‘read in’ because he participates in the subject matter cannot ‘read out’ either.”4 Exegesis is not possible without a certain kind of eisegesis—a participatory involvement in the subject matter (die Sache) of the biblical text.5 In the published preface to the first edition of Der Römerbrief, Barth says that “our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours” (1). And later in the same preface he says: “The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and to-day becomes impossible” (7). Barth’s theological hermeneutic is the basis for his exegesis, and we can only assess what he says later once we acknowledge this interpretive starting-point.

So with that said, how does Paul’s letter become a polemic against liberal historicism? Barth finds the key in Paul’s emphasis on the gospel (euangelion), a word which appears three times in the first chapter alone (1:1, 9, 16) and is more or less the theme of the entire opening to the letter. For Paul, the gospel is “apocalyptically revealed” (apokalupto) in Jesus Christ as the power of God (1:16-17). The gospel of God sets Paul apart for his particular vocation as an apostle. The gospel constitutes the church as a missionary community serving a missionary God, who sent Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to reconcile the world. This gospel is therefore not some new piece of wisdom teaching, because it “brings salvation” to those who are otherwise dead in their transgressions (1:16; 6:23; cf. Eph. 2:1-5); nor is it a secret message about the spiritual world, because as Paul makes clear throughout the letter, the gospel calls us to a this-worldly life of obedience and love (1:5; 13:10; 16:26); nor is it a self-evident truth which could be established on extra-revelatory grounds, because the gospel is the subversion of everything that was previously self-evident. It is the scandalous truth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. It is a truth that remains “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23), even while reconciling them both to God.

For these reasons, Barth declares in Romans II that “the Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths” (35). Anticipating Bultmann’s critique of liberalism, Barth also says that the gospel of God is “not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men. . . . The Gospel is not one thing in the midst of other things, to be directly apprehended and comprehended” (28). God is not one god among many, nor is the gospel a truth among many other truths. The gospel of God’s resurrecting power is instead a gospel for which one cannot be ashamed, which needs no external justification. God does not compete within the world as a person or thing among other persons and things clamoring for attention and authority. God, in short, does not need the world. As Barth puts it, “no divinity remaining on this side the line of resurrection; no divinity which dwells in temples made with hands or which is served by the hand of man; no divinity which needs anything, any human propaganda (Acts 17:24, 25)—can be God” (35-36). The god which needs the world—i.e., the god which is the ideological and infinite projection of human needs—is the No-God, the non-deity, the golden calf, the object of Babel.

All of this leads Barth to present a full-scale attack on metaphysics as a form of quasi-theological propaganda. The No-God of this world is the metaphysically-derived deity of religion. It is important to realize that Barth is operating with a very specific definition of metaphysics, and that this definition is historically situated in the context of his battle against liberal historicism. To flesh this out, let us examine Barth’s commentary. Directly following the passage last cited, Barth continues in his exegesis of Rom. 1:16 by stating that “the power of God can be detected neither in the world of nature nor in the souls of men. It must not be confounded with any high, exalted force, known or knowable. The power of God is not the most exalted of observable forces, nor is it either their sum or their fount. Being completely different, it is the krisis of all power, that by which all power is measured . . . . It is the Primal Origin (Ursprung) by which they all are dissolved, the consummation by which they all are established. The power of God stands neither at the side of nor above—supernatural!—these limited and limiting powers. It is pure and pre-eminent and—beyond them all” (36). As Barth says elsewhere, God is not “the extension of nature into a super-nature or a behind-nature (metaphysics).”6

The problem with supernaturalism is that it actually fails to live up to its promise. Supernaturalism claims to make God distinct from the world, but in fact turns God into an extension of it. The “supernatural” is epistemologically (and ontologically) dependent upon the “natural.” That is, we can only define what is supernatural on the basis of our prior knowledge of the natural world, which means that God is limited and determined by something external to God. The being of God is thus not sui generis, but rather the extension of something that is already given. God becomes an objectifiable datum that we can extrapolate from other data accessible outside of any revelatory encounter with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This act of divine objectification occurs even—or perhaps especially—when we endow God with the highest metaphysical attributes. As Paul Tillich rightly puts it, in relation to God, “superlatives become diminutives.”7 The supernatural, infinite god remains bound in a polar relationship with the natural, finite world. The infinite god needs the finite. Omnipotence is simply the extension of our limited creaturely power, and omniscience the extension of our limited creaturely knowledge. In every respect, the metaphysical-mythological deity is nothing more than a devout human projection in the manner of Feuerbach. It is the No-God of religion, the pious object of Babel: “In ‘believing’ on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves” (44).

What becomes clear in these passages is the radical distinction or diastasis between God and creation. Critics of Barth often misinterpret him to mean that God exists in a kind of static, abstract transcendence, as if God is “out there” and the world is “in here.” They usually make reference to the famous image of the tangent that touches the circle without touching it (30; Barth’s math is wrong, but we get the point), drawing the conclusion that Barth’s God is so beyond the world that God has no real relationship to creation. Barth is effectively a deist, or some kind of über-metaphysician. These kinds of critiques miss the point. Throughout the letter, Barth is at pains to emphasize the existential nearness of God, the God is other than us precisely as the one who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves (Augustine). Barth’s rhetoric regarding the “infinite qualitative distinction” serves not to make God distant from us, but to subvert the attempt on the part of historicism to objectify God as a given entity that can be analyzed and assessed apart from God’s gift of faith—that is, apart from the gospel that is “apocalyptically revealed” in Jesus Christ.

Metaphysics, as Barth defines it, is the theological program of liberal historicism. The No-God is the religious object constructed by metaphysical-historicist reasoning. By contrast, Barth’s method of theological exegesis is the hermeneutical antithesis of metaphysical liberalism.8 The God to whom Barth witnesses does not negate nature or reject reason, as some claim. The God of the resurrection is not a scandal to human rationality simpliciter. Such a god would in fact be a demon—the destroyer of creation instead of its reconciler. On the contrary, the God of Jesus Christ is a scandal to reason and nature in their bondage to sin and death, in their captivity to the ideological powers and principalities of this world. John Howard Yoder makes this point well in a theopolitical context when he writes the following:
The behavior God calls for is not alien to us; it expresses what we really are made to be. Yet, unfortunately, later Catholic strategy has foreshortened the critical potential of that vision by confusing the “nature of things” with the way things are now in the fallen world, especially in ethnic and national definitions of community and patriarchal definitions of order. When society has been defined as the nation and social order as patriarchy, then it is no longer true that grace completes nature; in the face of that definition of “nature,” the word of YHWH has to be like a fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces. Yet when the “nature of things” is properly defined, the organic relationship to grace is restored. The cross is not a scandal to those who know the world as God sees it, but only to the pagans, who look for what they call wisdom, or the Judaeans, who look for what they call power. This is what I meant before, when I stated that the choice of Jesus was ontological: it risks an option in favor of the restored vision of how things really are.9
We might translate Yoder for our purposes by saying that the “faith seeking understanding” which God calls for is not alien to us, but expresses what we really are made to know and believe. In the face of a metaphysical attempt to objectify and historicize God as a given entity for our intellectual control, the gospel of God has to be like an all-consuming fire, an “exploding shell” which leaves behind a crater-like void (29). Yet when we are seized by divine grace and reconciled to God through the gift of faith, the relationship between the Wholly Other God and the natural world is made clear. With Eberhard Jüngel, we can speak of a “more natural theology than so-called natural theology” (Christ, Justice and Peace, 26). God no longer seems like a distant supernatural thing, but a loving Creator who is existentially near to us. The cross is only a scandal to those who look for a god they can posit on the basis of a rationality which has not submitted in obedience to Christ. The cross is a scandal to those who are looking for a god to justify and affirm the power-structures of this world. The event of Jesus Christ is an epistemologically and ontologically determinative event: it simultaneously reveals and constitutes the way things truly are meant to be.

God’s No as Existential Anxiety

At its heart, the No-God of the modern world is the result of a “secret identification of ourselves with God,” which means that “[m]en have imprisoned and encased the truth—the righteousness of God; they have trimmed it to their measure, and thereby robbed it both of its earnestness and of its significance. They have made it ordinary, harmless, and useless; and thereby transformed it into untruth” (45). But as Barth goes on to say, “the situation might . . . have been very different” (47).

We come, then, to the controversial text of Rom. 1:19-21, in which Paul writes: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (NRSV). As numerous commentators have noted, it is deeply problematic to proof-text this passage and assume that Paul endorses a kind of general revelation in nature. Read in context and in light of his other letters—especially 1 Cor. 1:18-29—it becomes clear that if the traditional interpretation of this passage is correct, Paul is in serious contradiction with himself. How can Paul say that the pagan Gentiles “knew God” but “did not honor him as God,” and then later in the same letter, state that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:7-8)? Moreover, Paul consistently speaks of the “power of God” in relation to the cross and resurrection of Christ as a strictly soteriological—and thus christological and pneumatological—reality (cf. Rom. 1:4, 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18, 1:24, 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:7, 12:9, 13:4; Phil. 3:10; 1 Thess. 1:5). In other words, the power of God is something which must be “apocalyptically revealed”; it is an act of divine revelation and redemption, not something self-evident and objectifiable. For all these reasons and more, an alternative reading of Rom. 1:19-21 is necessary if we wish to respect the intelligence and authority of Paul the apostle.10

Barth certainly offers an alternative reading, but he seems utterly unaware of the debates over theologia naturalis in Paul. The contested verses would not become a source of concern until his 1934 wrangle with Emil Brunner. Instead, as I’ve already said, the issue in Romans II is with liberal historicism. And he responds to liberalism with his unique version of theological existentialism.

His exegesis seems to work like this: when Paul speaks of the Gentiles knowing God in 1:21, what is known about God, based on the context, is the wrath of God (cf. 1:18). There is no indication whatsoever that the Gentiles could have knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this wrath is an act of divine justice against the moral trespasses of the pagans. In short, the only real knowledge that pagans can have of God is that they stand guilty before the divine Judge. As G. K. Chesterton once said, original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” This pagan knowledge isn’t really a knowledge of God per se; it is knowledge of oneself, a self-understanding, as one who is held accountable before a Power or Being that is invisible and unknown. In existentialist terms, the knowledge that the pagan can have is a sense of her own existential anxiety. For this reason, when Paul says that “the invisible things of God are clearly seen” (1:20), Barth translates this in the following way: “The insecurity of our whole existence, the vanity and utter questionableness of all that is and of what we are, lie as in a text-book open before us” (46).

In his well-known book on The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich offers a helpful typology of existential anxiety, which he defines as “the awareness of one’s finitude as finitude.”11 Anxiety is the experience of the threat of nonbeing (or what Barth calls Nothingness, das Nichtige) upon our existence. He notes three ways in which nonbeing threatens us: ontic (the anxiety of fate and death), spiritual (the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness), and moral (the anxiety of guilty and condemnation).12 Barth is saying, on the basis of Paul’s text, that ontic, spiritual, and moral anxiety is indeed naturally perceivable—which, by the way, is quite different from saying that our “sinfulness” is perceivable (and for that reason, Chesterton isn’t quite right). We all, “by nature” so to speak, experience a sense of insecurity and questionableness. Every person recognizes that something is wrong with the world and with themselves in this world. According to Barth, the Gentiles stand guilty because they refuse to acknowledge this anxiety; instead of recognizing their need for something Ultimate, Primal, and Beyond, they take refuge in idols they can objectify and control.

Barth therefore makes a direct connection between the failure to acknowledge our existential anxiety, our utter questionableness, and human religion. The refusal to recognize our creaturely limitations results in the hubristic deification of humanity and the idolatrous objectification of deity. For this reason, “We make of the eternal and ultimate presupposition of the Creator a ‘thing in itself’ above and in the midst of other things, of that which is living and abstracted from all concreteness a concrete thing—no doubt the highest—in the midst of other concrete things, of the Spirit a spirit, of what is inaccessible and therefore so nigh at hand an endlessly uncertain object of our experiences. Rather than see in His Light—eternal and which no man can approach unto—the Light, we allow Him to become a light—no doubt the most brilliant and, indeed, immaterial and supernatural—at which we kindle our own lights and then, quite consistently, seek to find in concrete things their own light” (47). By making God a “thing,” the Spirit a “spirit,” the Light a “light,” we turn God into an object for our rational and religious manipulation. This is therefore the essence of metaphysics: an unwillingness to recognize our creaturely limitations which results in the attempt to grasp and control the divine apart from God’s apocalyptic self-giving in the event of Jesus Christ.

Barth’s reading of this passage may not have the exegetical rigor of Campbell’s, but it is certainly an improvement over the tradition. To turn Paul into an apologist for natural theology places him in contradiction with himself and does exegetical violence to the overall theological argument of Romans. In his brilliant virtuoso performance in Romans II, Barth offers an alternative interpretation within his existentialist and anti-historicist context.

Conclusion

I have sought in this brief essay to argue that Barth reads Romans as a letter directed against liberal historicism. Barth makes the central verses of Rom. 1:16-17 the interpretive key for the letter as a whole. His emphasis is on the apocalyptic power of God which is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything we say about God must conform to this unique concrete event. While Barth is unconcerned with the issue of natural theology, it is clear that this non-objectifiable conception of God has important implications for metaphysics and natural theology. As those who seek to think with and after Barth, we can certainly draw out these implications, but we must always keep in mind that Barth’s own interests lay elsewhere. Barth’s mind would later change, of course, but I would argue that the fundamental concern in this commentary—viz. that God is a non-objectifiable event, contra liberal historicism—remains basic to his entire theological enterprise. For this reason, we still have much to gain from returning again and again to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.


Response by Halden Doerge


We should all be grateful to David Congdon for his erudite analysis of Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1. Indeed, it is something of a challenge to offer a critical response to it in that I am already in substantial agreement with all of the salient points. However, there are a few points that bear making, at least in helping to clarify and extend this analysis of Barth’s thought on the matter of metaphysics and theology.

What is perhaps most helpful in Congdon’s treatment is the way it exposes the early Barth’s true theological concerns. The tendency to read Romans through the lens of Barth’s conflict with Brunner has clearly impeded attempts to properly understand the nature of Barth’s early theological project, and indeed the way in which that trajectory informs his later developments. By situating Barth’s concerns in the problem of liberal historicism where they correctly belong we are able to see the real conflict into which the Romans commentary fell like a Molotov cocktail, and thus to discern the real importance of Barth’s theology on this point.

What emerges from properly situating the Romans commentary in the context of Barth’s dispute with liberal historicism is the crucial point that for Barth, the question of God’s relationship to history is of the utmost importance. For Barth it is utterly axiomatic that the God of Jesus Christ be distinguished from the No-God of liberal historicism. Indeed, as Congdon points out, it is precisely the sort of historical “givenness” that liberal historicism that is his primary target. What is vital for Barth is that any theology that identifies God with the movements of human history (which inevitably entails identifying God with our own movement in history) is a denial of the utterly free Triune God revealed in Jesus.

It is vital to situate Barth’s critique of metaphysics in this context. As Congdon helps us to see, the metaphysics that are in Barth’s crosshairs are those of liberal historicism. Barth is certainly not rejecting ontology as such, or even the investigation of “being” (though utter clarity about what that means is vital). Rather Barth is attacking what Nathan Kerr refers to as “the metaphysics of history” (Christ, History and Apocalyptic, 37). What is to be rejected is any metaphysical framework that locates and defines God within the immanent frame of human history. As Herbert McCabe might put it, Barth is opposed to any metaphysical vision in which God becomes a being among other beings, or where God and the universe could ever be conceived to add up to make two. God is not to be found within us—the idolatrous divinization of humanity—but rather as missionally coming to us from without. God’s action toward the world takes the form of a radical and unprecedented interruption. The interruption of grace. For Barth all of this turns on rejecting the ideological postulation of God’s givenness in favor of receiving God as an utterly singular apocalyptic gift.

It is precisely at this point that I would like to do what I can to extend Congdon’s excellent analysis of Barth’s attack on liberal historicism. As we have seen, what lies at the heart of Barth’s critique is the way in which liberal historicism circumscribes God, rendering God as a teleological positing of history. Barth’s apocalyptic Christology utterly forbids any such teleological frame of reference. God can never be identified as the “absolute” which “arises out of the progress of history” as its telos. As such, Barth’s attack on liberal historicism arises out of a fundamental concern that God never become a predicate of any earthly-historical reality.

This is the point I wish to expand on, even if only briefly. The claim I wish to introduce is that Barth’s attack on liberal historicism and his vigorous critiques of Roman Catholicism are of a piece. As we have seen, Barth’s attack on liberal historicism was rooted entirely in his concern that God not become objectified within an immanent, ideological frame. I would like to argue here that it is precisely the same concern that grounded his objections Roman Catholicism. For Barth the Roman Catholic construal of the church as the effective mediator of grace, and indeed, of Christ’s presence elides the singularity and freedom of Christ in precisely the same way as liberal historicism. For Barth, the Catholic perspective on how the office of Christ is exercised through the office of Peter is unacceptable precisely in that it turns the church into a kind of entelechy which makes Christ’s own agency a predicate of the historical-institutional church.

In a way that may seem ironic to many readers of contemporary theology today, Barth construes Roman Catholic holism and liberal historicism as two sides of the coin. Both, in different ways seek to securely “place” God within a stable framework and in doing so objectify God in a way that Barth found extremely dangerous. In a quest to secure God’s givenness from within a stable historical framework, both Catholicism and liberal historicism resist accepting the grace of God which comes to us not as a given, but as an apocalyptic gift. Whether or not one accepts Barth’s critiques of Catholicism and liberal historicism (and I think they have purchase), it is certainly vital that we all remain attuned to the ideological temptations that beset all attempts to do theology. The gift is ever vulnerable to our attempts to turn it into a possessed given. And in resisting this temptation the witness of Barth is a vital one indeed.

32 comments:

Nathan Hitchcock said...

Thank you for this generous dose of clarity. The placing of 2Ro in an “existentialist and anti-historicist context” is exactly the way to understand Barth as he goes about his exegetical performance.

In this light, help me out with a dangerous question. For all his protest, can it be said that Barth was working his theology of crisis from within Romanticism?

R.O. Flyer said...

Really top notch stuff, David and Halden.

Shane said...

I'm confused as to the point of the whole first part of this piece. I thought the whole problem with metaphysics, according to historicism, was precisely that it tried to find unchanging, ahistorical, universal essences, etc. I thought that according to historicism (Dilthey, etc.), there are no such metaphysical entities, only diverse historically mutable concepts that carve up experience in different ways at different times and in different languages, etc. But David identifies historicism and metaphysical thinking. So, I struggle to think what that could mean. Perhaps he has Hegel in mind? That's the only thinker who comes to my mind that might link history and being in this particular way.

"Supernaturalism claims to make God distinct from the world, but in fact turns God into an extension of it. The “supernatural” is epistemologically (and ontologically) dependent upon the “natural.” That is, we can only define what is supernatural on the basis of our prior knowledge of the natural world, which means that God is limited and determined by something external to God."

I'm not sure what you're talking about here, either. I think on any sensible definition of the words 'natural' and 'supernatural' they will form an exclusive disjunction. So either you think God is natural (in which case you're a pantheist of some stripe) or you think he's not. And if he's not, then he's something supernatural.

David is partially right about the epistemic point. I agree with Thomas that we can only know immaterial things by means of material ones since all of our knowledge begins with the senses. So, insofar as we can have any knowledge of God without the aid of special revelation, that knowledge has to be derived in some way from our knowledge of creatures. But just because God is knowable from creatures as their creator does not in any way imply that one is thereby thinking of God himself as a creaturely object. Let alone that the dependence of our knowledge of God on creatures somehow implies that God himself is actually ontologically dependent on creatures. David seems to confuse what Thomas would have called the order of being with the order of knowledge here.

"Read in context and in light of his other letters—especially 1 Cor. 1:18-29—it becomes clear that if the traditional interpretation of this passage is correct, Paul is in serious contradiction with himself. How can Paul say that the pagan Gentiles “knew God” but “did not honor him as God,” and then later in the same letter, state that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:7-8)?"

How is that supposed to follow? There is simply no contradiction at all between "it is possible to know some truths about God without the aid of special revelation" (what I take Paul to be saying in Romans 1) and "those who are in the flesh cannot please God". If Paul says both of those things (and he does), then let's just assume that Paul isn't confused and that he doesn't take them to be contradictory. Earlier you said that my read of Romans 1 was wrong because it was inconsistent with other things Paul said. But obviously it isn't inconsistent. Nor have you given any good reason to think my interpretation of Romans 1 is actually wrong; you've just said over and over that you don't like proof texts and done a lot of hermeneutic handwaving.

But you need to do a lot better job saying just what the inconsistency is supposed to consist in to try to make your case.

Bobby Grow said...

I think David and Halden do a good job in providing and clarifying the historical context and issues into which Barth was speaking.

I think Shane would benefit from reading Nate Kerr's Christ, History and Apocalyptic; which Halden refers to in his response.

Even if its possible to know some things about God apart from Special Revelation (which I'm granting for argument's sake); if it is the mind set on the flesh who is able to observe these things, what is it to stop them from attributing those things to themselves? Objectifying God in their own image. Which leaves us where we started, in Genesis 3. In other words, man is trapped in a vicious circle of worshipping himself as God; which is to say that any "Natural Knowledge of God" is collapsed back into nature itself.

This is what I've understood Barth to be saying, and so far I really haven't seen this overcome or clarified by the "traditional" camp.

I look forward to the Friday response ;-).

Bobby Grow said...

Shane said about David:

. . . David seems to confuse what Thomas would have called the order of being with the order of knowledge here.

I don't think so. I think he is assuming that both the object and subject of being and knowledge are inseparably, but distinctively, wrapped in the person of Christ; and that it is His particularity that breaks in on "ours" (in the man from Nazareth) which then becomes the starting point for our "knowledge of God" (by the Spirit).

I understand Barth to be saying (thanks to Kerr), that knowledge of God is apocalyptic; and that it is "Salvation Knowledge," which breaks in on "history" as a novum.

Hey, I'm still thinking these things through; thanks for helping me do that all, esp., Shane.

David W. Congdon said...

Shane,

I don't know if there's anything to be gained from interacting with you on this, but I'll say a few things. (I do have some things to say in response to your post and earlier comments to me, but I think it will have to wait for a full post, if I get around to it.)

First, you continue to think that metaphysics (and supernaturalism) posits a transcendent God. But on what basis? Metaphysics can only speak about God by first speaking about something else, something created. How do you know you are actually speaking about God?

Second, the connection between historicism and metaphysics should have been obvious: both make God an object to be analyzed outside of faith. Both make God a given thing among other things. Both abstract deity from the particular concrete reality of Jesus Christ. Both either bifurcate God into an abstract deity accessible within nature and a concrete deity accessible to faith or posit a modalistic deity in which Christ does not actually reveal the inner essence of God. In other words, both historicism and metaphysics fail to take the doctrine of Trinity with any seriousness.

Third, the God who is truly transcendent is beyond all creaturely antitheses, and that includes the antithesis between the natural and the supernatural. The problems with supernaturalism are legion. Theologically, it makes deity competitive with humanity; exegetically (as John Walton nicely shows from the OT, and Ernst Käsemann from the NT) it has no basis, since there was no divide between "nature" and "supernature" until much later in history. But my point here is simply that for any definition of "supernatural," you first have to know what we mean by "natural." That logically means that we can have no conception of the supernatural without presupposing a prior conception of the natural. This further means that we are able to define God without ever encountering God, without ever attending to God's revelation. On what basis, then, can we say that God is actually a supernatural being? Because logic demands it? What if that conflicts with what God actually reveals?

Fourth, the order of being follows the order of knowing. I take that to be axiomatic.

Fifth, for Paul, to know God is to obey God. There is no separation between knowledge and obedience, faith and love. If, therefore, one cannot obey God, it follows for Paul that one cannot know God.

Sixth, Paul makes it very clear in 1 Cor. (also in Phil. 2) that the crucified Christ is definitive for the very identity of God. This is precisely what is so scandalous: a suffering and dying man defines what the power of God really is. Any attempt to find an alternative way of defining the power of God (or any other attribute) is idolatrous, a rejection of Jesus Christ's lordship.

Seventh, I call foul on the entire project of defending natural theology. As you say, the knowledge to be gained there is not saving knowledge. The only reason then to pursue this project is to engage in rationalist apologetics. And that I view to be utterly foolish.

Shane said...

HI Bobby, you write:

" if it is the mind set on the flesh who is able to observe these things, what is it to stop them from attributing those things to themselves? "

I'm not sure what you mean. Natural theology purports to establish the existence of a necessary being who is the cause of everything else. Nobody who runs that philosophical argument is going to arrive at the conclusion, "Therefore I am God." I just cannot see how this is a legitimate worry for you or anybody else to entertain. Philosophical arguments prove that things are a certain way; they do not make it to be the case. So there is a good philosophical argument, for instance that gold is necessarily the element with atomic number 79, but gold is not necessarily = the element with atomic number 79 because of that philosophical argument. Ditto the case with God. If there's a good philosophical argument for the existence of a first cause, itself uncaused, and upon which everything else depends, then well, philosophy can know something about God. But that doesn't mean that it is the philosophical argument itself that is responsible for it being the case that there is a God, so I can't see any point in David's contention that supernatural is "dependent" on the natural or any of that.

The soteriological issue whether knowledge of a first cause is sufficient to lead one to the kind of salvific knowledge of God is a completely separate issue.

Shane said...

"hink he is assuming that both the object and subject of being and knowledge are inseparably, but distinctively, wrapped in the person of Christ;"

I just don't understand what this means. If Christ is the subject of my knowledge of Christ rather than me, then I don't have any knowledge of Christ to speak of and so it is meaningless to speak of it as 'my' knowledge. But surely you don't mean to say that it is impossible for me to have any knowledge of Christ whatsoever, do you?

I'd be happy to try to address whatever the worry is here, but I just don't see what the problem is supposed to be at the moment.

Shane said...

"Both make God a given thing among other things."

I don't see how those Christian theologians who have also employed metaphysical reasoning in the service of their explications of the faith can be faulted for this. I don't want to reduce a whole tradition just to Thomas Aquinas, but I will say that Thomas is especially sensitive to just these sorts of problems.

The reason the natural theologian understands God to be transcendent is precisely because she understands in what way God stands over against created reality. Thus, for Thomas, it is philosphically provable, that creaturely existence is always contingent and finite and always involves a composition of essence and existence. So, when we understand that there is a first cause which is necessary, not contingent, and infinite not finite and absolutely simple rather than composed, we understand that whatever it is that God is, it is clearly something other than the visible and invisible world that depends upon him.

But Thomas is resolutely opposed to the idea that we can 'define' God. And so, I might add, should all of the other orthodox Christians be. But inability to know God's essence or definition does not imply that there is nothing knowable about him whatsoever. Indeed, I think it is pretty clear that there is a difference between knowing whether a thing is (its existence) and what it is knowing its essence. We can't get knowledge of God's essence, but that doesn't mean we can't arrive at a knowledge of his existence from creatures.

Re: 3 your assertion that God is beyond all creaturely antitheses strikes me as that romantic elan of fideism again. It's just like the problem of the principle of bivalence. You cannot deny the principle of bivalence, because as soon as you say that the principle is false you implicitly invoke bivalence again by meaning that it is true as opposed to false. In the same way you cannot say that God is beyond all creaturely antithesis without setting up an antithesis and firmly locating God on the one side of it rather than the other. Either God is beyond all creaturely antitheses or he is not. And it turns out he is not.

In re: 4, you take it to be axiomatic that the order of being follows the order of knowing. Then you take a falsehood to be axiomatic. Here's why you're wrong about this: There are plenty of things that are self-evident in themselves (i.e. analytic truths) which are not themselves self-evident to us in the order of our acquisition of knowledge. It is self-evident in itself that all bachelors are unmarried men. But at some point you didn't know that that was the case and had to be taught the meaning of the words 'bachelor' and 'unmarried' and the like.

Another example, the principle of non-contradiction is prior in the order of being to all the knowledge we acquire from the senses because things themselves are prior to our knowledge of them and things in reality obey the principle of non-contradiction. Indeed the principle itself is self-evident and cannot (consistently) be denied, but that doesn't mean it is the first thing that we learn. Indeed it takes a considerable reflective skill and education to be able to suss the principle out from our confused experiences and apprehensions of the world. Hence the order of being is not the same as the order of knowledge.

"Fifth, for Paul, to know God is to obey God."

Obviously not in Romans 1.

your sixth point is beside the point.

What so wrong with apologetics? I don't understand the addition of the modifier "rationalist", but I'll ignore that. Do you have some argument independent of your rabid barthian fideism to think apologetics is wrong?

And what about the value in trying to learn everything we can learn; to try to discover the truth on the most important and wonderful matters possible? Don't you think that's a valuable goal in itself? That's why I do philosophy.

Bobby Grow said...

Shane,

It's the dualism of your position that causes me problems.

I don't have time to explain, off to work . . . maybe later. Like I said, TFT in Ground and Grammar of Theology explains what I am trying to get at here; and more.

David W. Congdon said...

I don't have time or the desire to respond to your points, Shane, because we differ on such a fundamental level that dialogue simply isn't possible.

If by "fideist" you mean that knowledge of God is only possible by virtue of God's apocalyptic in-breaking through Word and Spirit to which we respond in faithful obedience — and thus there is no rational, logical bridge between knowledge of ourselves and the knowledge of God – then I am most definitely a fideist. I don't think there is any other way to be a Christian without sacrificing something central to the gospel.

The only other thing worth commenting on, I think, is the issue of the ineffability of God's essence. Jüngel argues convincingly in his masterpiece, God as the Mystery of the World, that it is precisely the tradition's emphasis on the ineffability and unknowability of God's essence that is the source of the problem. The ineffable God is precisely the objectifiable, metaphysical deity that the gospel subverts.

Finally, apologetics is a fruitless waste of time because the only knowledge that matters is saving knowledge. The gap that needs "bridging" is not the gap between the non-existence and the existence of God, but rather between abstract deity of religion and the crucified Christ who is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

Shane said...

@Bobby,

I have no idea what the label 'dualist' could mean as applied to me.


@David,

So, let me get this straight, it's precisely because the tradition says that God is not an object or not a being and that his essence is ineffable and unknowable that God becomes an object which is known and defined in metaphysics?

scott prather said...

Shane,

A quick comment on your last comment, if I may interject. I take part of the difference between yourself and David (and probably WTM and many other Barth-sympathizers who might be following this) to be summed up in the lack of distinction between God's "not being an object or being-among-beings" and the tradition's investment in discussing the divine "essence" as ineffable or unknowable. To equate those two, the non-objectifiability of God and the ineffability of a transcendent essence, is - as I take David's point - precisely where Barth departs from the tradition, insofar as that is what it had been doing. The point seems to be that, in making such an equation, then no matter how "beyond", or Other, or analogically dis-analogous the divine essence is perceived to be, one is still working backwards, as it were, out of the known into the unknown. For Barth, however, there simply is no positive knowledge on the basis of which one could extrapolate any real transcendence, apart from God's self-revelation in Christ. Barth's basis for maintaining the non-objectification of God is not, therefore, a logical or philosophical point about transcendence per se (if such a thing existed), but the freedom of God as the one who creates and redeems and makes himself known in the non-necessity of love, and hence the priority of God's self-revelation as determinative of all knowledge of God and world.

Does that clarify anything, or further muddy the waters?

Shane said...

Hi Scott, i'm afraid to say that I am no clearer despite your explication.

I know that Barth thinks that there is simply no positive knowledge, etc.

What I don't see is what good reason he has that entitles him to these claims. I just don't see the exegetical argument. In fact, I think the exegetical evidence points against Barth, and nothing David or any of the other people on this blog have said gives me any reason to think otherwise. And well, if there's no good exegetical evidence for Barth's claims, then why are you guys spending so much effort doing these mental gymnastics trying to hold onto a borderline incoherent view when there's a much more philosophical and theological palatable view around that ALSO coheres better than Barth's with the biblical data?

WTM said...

Hey Shane,

I've yet to make an appearance in this post's comments thread and, since this is my conference, I thought a little "official" visit might be fun.

You mentioned above Thomas' argument to a first cause. I have two questions about this that you might be able to clear up for me.

(1) Why does it make any more sense to think that there is a first cause than to think that the chain of causes infinitely regresses? It seems to me that the infinite regression makes more consistent sense since the operative assumption is that each cause must have in turn been caused. Isn't it a bit arbitrary to say that this regression terminates at some particular point?

(2) You mention how Thomas defends God's transcendence and is well equipped to do so. However, two sub-questions:

(2.a) If God is the regresively terminal cause in a series of causes, doesn't this imply that there is at least some way in which it is related in kind to the other causes?

(2.b) Building on that, isn't it the case that God's transcendence turns out to be on this account merely a matter of degree (a difference in what sort of cause, but a cause nonetheless)?

It seems to me that if we want to affirm a truly transcendent God (as, I'd wager, any natural theology that you would want any part of would have to), and a truly contingent creation (which point the success of empirical science depends upon), we need to dump natural theology and its root, namely, the possibility of natural knowledge of God - the reason being that any such concievable possibility would depend on undermining God's transcendence in the way I've suggested.

scott prather said...

Shane,

Two quick remarks:
(1) My original comment was meant only to hopefully shed some light on what I took to be your previous question to David, about the "ineffability" of God being bound up with metapyhsical objectification.

(2) As for the exegetical case for Barth's reading - obviously, as David maintained, much hangs on how seriously we take the point about "the Gospel" being apocalyptically revealed (1.16-17), as well as our understanding of how the gospel so revealed relates to "knowledge" from other sources. You have a case that based solely on Rom. 1, Barth's exegesis appears odd or contrived - but the prior question, as David also put, is what kind of exegesis one is engaging in. I've got no real stake in defending Barth's rejection of "natural knowledge" (or, as the case may be, liberal-historicist metaphysical knowledge), but I do think the oddity of his reading appears so only because he is working within a theological framework different than that of most of the tradition on this point. The exegetical case, in his case, isn't a point-by-point, verse-to-claim logic, but the exposition of a certain theological rationale (which, of course, is for Protestants in a certain sense tested by its derivation from and ability to explicate scripture).
I think you are right to reject it, if you want an exegetical account whose understandings of the scope of the revelation of the Gospel, and its relation to "knowledge" derived from "creation" and "nature" - all the concepts involved therein- are determined by that single passage.
But, you have been invoking Thomas, to help explicate your own account, no? Is the tension here not simply an instance of different theological rationales?

Bobby Grow said...

Shane,

Let me just close my comments (at least in this thread) with you by saying; you certainly represent the scholastic tradition well, but I'm just not interested --- I've been there, done that.

Negative Theology, wherein we methodologically posit a "godness" prior to seeing Him in the face of Christ; is just backwards to me. We end up with a "God behind the back of Jesus," from whence the Father, Son, and Spirit subsist (substance metaphysics) --- not interested.

As far as your Thomist Intellectualist anthropology, again not interested. This is what the cross of Christ indicted (the wisdom of man I Cor. 1:17-25 [chapt. 2] --- the topic of my Masters thesis ;-); I'm sure you'll say it indicted Barth (and maybe in some ways it has).

Nevertheless what I've come to appreciate about Barth and TFT was their stated methodology; and then how they followed through. Their goal of doing "Christian Theology," accomplished by thinking and working Trinitarianly and "Christicly," is why I appreciate their approach. They weren't concerned with "proving" God before they could speak about Him. Instead, like the Bible's disclosure of God, they recognized His giveness to us; and fruitfully worked from there.

You've chosen your "tradition" based upon certain a priori commitments, as have I. I think when viewed abductively, the Barthian tradition --- even with its flaws --- provides the greatest explanatory power; simply because it starts with Christ, instead of me.

peace.

Shane said...

@WTM

An infinite sequence of causes is impossible because it would imply the impossibility of motion. Suppose each movement from one cause to the next takes some finite amount of time (even a very small amount). Then in order for x to move y it must have been moved by w which had been moved by . . . and if there is an actual infinity of causes then there are an infinite number of these steps (w to x) and (x to y), etc. But if each of these steps takes a finite amount of time and there is an infinite number of them, then it would take an infinite amount of time for all of the intermediate steps like (w to x) to occur, and so it would never actually happen that x would move y.

But of course we do observe change and motion around us, hence there cannot be an actual infinite sequence of movers. But if there is not an infinite sequence, then there must be some first member in the sequence.

In re: 2. First let's notice that there are all kinds of relations: spatial relations (to-the-right-of), temporal relations (before), cause-effect relations (the-child-of), etc. Relations simply show how things stand between two or more relata. There is a very special relation, the relation of identity that makes a stronger claim, namely that the two things being related are actually one thing. Identity is the only relation that is transitive (x = y; y = z; implies x = z), symmetric (if x = y then y = x) and reflexive (x = x).

God is in some way related to everything else, namely he's related to the world as its creator. Being the creator of x is a way of being related to x. Unless Barth wants to admit some platonic demiurge was the creator of the world rather than God, then he is going to have to admit that God has a relation to the world too. What's crucial to see is that this doesn't amount to a compromise of divine transcendence, because the relation we're positing here doesn't identify the Creator with his creature. It doesn't identify the two because the creation relationship isn't reflexive. "God created the world" does not imply "The world created God"; and since this relation isn't reflexive, it isn't identity either.

But if the relation doesn't identify God and the world, what's the big problem for transcendence supposed to be?

Shane said...

@scott,

To my 'only having one passage' in support of my view, I should like to remark that it is the one and only passage in the entire NT that actually speaks to the issue at hand. It would have been nice to have others to corroborate my point. But as it stands now, I have some exegetical support for my position, and Barth has none.

Suppose the issue at hand were the issue of divorce. Wouldn't the most natural place to start be the passages where Jesus talks about divorce? And wouldn't those relatively clear statements about the topic under discussion carry a lot more weight than any incidental questions about, say, how the apostle James thought of marriage?

Well that's what I'm doing here. I'm talking about the one place in the NT where natural knoweldge of God comes up, and David and Travis are trying to shoot what I'm saying down with all of these peripheral objections. (Neither have offered a substantive criticism of my exegesis of Romans 1 itself, interestingly). Even if their peripheral objections were cogent, I think I would still be within my rights to stand my ground on Romans 1. However, their objections aren't cogent. David said that knowledge always implies obedience in Paul and so Paul would be contradicting himself to hold out the possibility of non-salvific natural knowledge of God. But that's obviously false. Romans 1 is a clear counterexample. So is 1 Cor 8. Travis tried to object with the prologue of John, but John's claim that Jesus shows us the Father is supposed to contradict the possibility of natural knowledge of God. So here's how things stand: I've got the one clear verse in the NT on my side an no reason to think that my interpretation is incompatible with any of the other substantive commitments of St. Paul or the other NT writers. That's not 'proof-texting,' its responsible biblical exegesis.

Shane said...

@bobby,

I'm representing a tradition in the church that extends back as far as Justin Martyr and continues well through to the reformation. I've brought Thomas up just because he is a masterful natural theologian, not out of any particular devotion to his doctrines.

I'm still waiting to hear in what sense you can possibly think I'm a dualist.

I'm also perplexed by what you are calling my thomisitic intellectualist anthropology. We haven't talked at all about the soul or its powers, so I don't know what you are basing any of this on.

I think you are also mistaken about what the term 'negative theology' means. A negative theologian is going to say that the only true things you can say about God are going to be negations "God is not evil" etc. I think negative theology is completely insufficient for articulating the Christian testimony about God. We are forced to say more about God than that he is merely not-evil. We have to say he is good, but clearly not good in the same sense creatures are. He is goodness in some higher and more perfect way. Creatures are good by participating in goodness, or possessing it as an attribute; whereas God is goodness itself and the source of all goodness. I think that's what we have to say.

Now you can hem and haw about metaphysics all you want. But you can't make any sense out of the things the creeds affirm about God without making some metaphysical statements. There is one God subsisting in three persons. Jesus Christ has two natures in one person. Tell me that isn't a metaphysical claim.

So the question is: do you want to think clearly and carefully about the metaphysics involved in order to be able to articulate the mysteries of faith as precisely and accurately as possible? If so, then you'll already be moving away from Barth.

WTM said...

Shane,

My point is that it seems just as silly to me to posit a theoretical first cause as it is to posit an infinite causal regression. Since we’re talking causality here (I know there are other ways to cast it), empirical science seems pertinent. The empirical sciences assume that the cosmos is contingent (in the not-necessary sense) because if it weren’t, then we could deduce the way the world works rather than needing to actually do empirical science. Given this assumption, namely, that we work from the bottom up, I don’t see why we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders and say something like “As best as we can tell, things just keep going further back into infinity. If the regression ever stopped, it would stop at a point that we could know nothing about because as far as we can tell, every cause requires a previous cause. Anything else is just speculation.”

As an example of something that does have both infinite regression and progression, I give you numbers.

The doctrine of creation can go different directions. God as creator is related to the creation in a transcendent way. To use a mathematical analogy, God and creation are not two values on the same continuum. Creation is relatively independent of God. What that means is that God grants to it and sustains it in an independent existence. But, as so chartered and sustained, it is independent. The relation always flows from God to the creation, not vice versa. God comes to it and sustains it from behind, as it were.

Also, I still think you’re being silly about John 1 (absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, etc). The only reason you can dismiss it is because you work with the presupposition of two distinct types of knowledge of God. Of course, that is precisely what the argument is about. I point you to the day 4 post for more on why Romans 1 doesn’t necessarily support such a position.

ken oakes said...

Shane,

Two questions that will perhaps move the discussion along in more fruitful directions:

1) What is the current status of this natural knowledge of God that the Gentiles possess?

2) Isn´t this the argument that you really want to defend and advance: arguments for the existence of God succeed?

Shane said...

Numbers are abstract entities that don't have (efficient) causal connections to things. So there's no problem there.

Real material entities that have efficient causes simply cannot have an infinite sequence of them because, as I explained above, an infinite sequence would destroy the possibility of motion. So, if you think there is motion, you can't think there's an infinite sequence of causes. So it is not open to the natural scientist (if she is thinking straight) to shrug her shoulders and postulate an actual infinity of causes. If your natural scientist really wants to be a strict empiricist and not say anything that might have any bearing on the metaphysics here then she isn't going to pop for an infinity of causes (which is just as metaphysical a claim as a first cause), she's just going to shrug her shoulders and say that she has no idea because all she cares about is how fast this little ball is coming out of the muzzle of the cannon, not with the whys and wherefores.

Romans 1 does support the position of Paul countenancing two kinds of knowledge of God, as does 1 cor 8 and a few other places in Paul. James also acknowledges two kinds of knowledge, etc. as we have previously mentioned. So I'll flip your accusation back on you: the only reason you read john 1 the way you do is because of some prior commitment to Barth's being right. At any rate, its probably more polite to continue this convo over at the post for day 4, which is where the action has now moved.

Chris Donato said...

It was written: "For Barth, however, there simply is no positive knowledge on the basis of which one could extrapolate any real transcendence, apart from God's self-revelation in Christ."

I too think Rom 1 provides evidence to the contrary on this point, even I don't conceive of that evidence as "proof" in any scholastic sense. Does not Barth, and others here who wish to follow him on the path toward dogmatic fideism, serve to undo the very possibility of discourse with others who do not admit the revelation of God in Christ? In other words, 'special' revelation means nothing to the world. But 'natural' revelation, and the 'signals of transcendence' therein (taking cues from Berger here), provide a wonderful starting point.

And there's more than Rom 1 to corroborate this fact, folks. Saint Paul's dealings in Lystra (Acts 14:8–18) and in Athens (17:16–34) must also be taken into account.

WTM said...

Shane,

Then I think that the only position available is a shrug of the shoulders. Infinite regression doesn’t make sense, and a first cause doesn’t make sense.

I don’t see what you are referring to in 1 Cor 8. Your citation of James doesn’t work either for there is no good reason to think that demons have knowledge of God outside Christ – they simply reject Christ. I read John 1 the way I do because there is no indication there that some sort of natural knowledge of God is possible; granted, it doesn’t declare it impossible, but the movement of the passage is in that direction. Romans 1 is the battleground.

Re: Chris

Apologetics isn’t the point. It is impossible to reason someone to faith. You can have arguments and show Christianity to be potentially plausible, but if faith occurs it is solely the work of the Spirit. All we can do, ultimately, is preach – even if preaching can sometimes take different forms.

All that Acts 14 affirms is that God maintained his relation to the cosmos as Creator and, insofar as creation is sustained, the creation can be said to be a witness to God. But, this can only be seen from within the standpoint of Christ’s revelation – hence, we find the notion here as part of gospel proclamation.

All that Acts 17 shows us is Paul being clever about getting a hearing for the gospel. Ah, the Athenians have an “unknown god” – I’ll use that to talk about the God and Father of Jesus Christ! You’ll notice that Paul goes on a verse or to later to undermine everything the Athenians thought about the gods and how they ought to be worshiped.

Finally, we have to be careful with Scriptural narrative. Just because something happened doesn’t mean it is truth at the surface level. For instance, the OT books of Joshua and Judges, among others.

Chris Donato said...

Thanks for your response, WTM. I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about apologetics (I'm all about plausibility over against "proof"), and I do realize that isn't the point. But I still have a suspicion that Barth's perspective here potentially destroys the apostolic act of apologizing. It is indeed hermeneutically unsound to build a foundation upon narrative, but at the very least, the episodes to which I pointed show a follower of Christ employing a facet of the world's natural theology because it was true. His use of it of course isn't intended to condone it in totem, but it wasn't wholly false either, as it served its purpose as a signal of transcendence—the very thing, it seems to me, that Barth decries.

WTM said...

Chris,

I see no clear indication from the text that Paul employs these tools which lay to hand because they were in some sense independently true. What I see indicated is that he used them because they were serviceable, and not so on their own merit but because of the proclkamation of the gospel in that moment making them to be so.

jon said...

Are those tools not serviceable precisely because they are shadowy reflections on that same created realm which was ultimately indwelt by the Creator? Surely special revelation in Christ is necessary (because of our finitude and our fallenness), but total rejection of natural theology seems like it separates Christ and creation, the New Man and the graciously sustained humanity, too much.

WTM said...

No, they are not serviceable because they posses inherent analogical reference to God or something divine. They are serviceable because, thought in themselves they are no way serviceable, God makes them serviceable and for no other reason. This does not separate creation and redemption unfitting-ly because election ensures that everything is always already bound up in Christ and moving outward from a center in him.

roger flyer said...

Kudos, Mr Congdon! Thank you for the clarity and readability. What a gift! I would look forward to being in your classes...

Anonymous said...

I'm thankful for the Thomist/Reformed interaction as it helps those of us less informed currently to think better through the issues.

Thanks for an outstanding article David, and thanks to Shane, WTM, etc. in the comments for the interaction.

Tony said...

David's essay seeks to provide a historical context for Barth's Romans commentary. It seeks to answer a historical question about this particular bit of Barth's writing. Halden's response however adds to David's piece by equating theological liberalism with Roman Catholicism. He does it however by ignoring one Catholic answer to Barth's position: Balthasar's book on Barth. As an expansion of the historical context for Barth's Romans commentary, that is fine. Balthasar targets the adequacy of Barth on this point. It is my contention that he demolishes Barth precisely on this very topic.