Is Barth's God Too Transcendent? It depends...
There are a number of stock criticisms made of Barth’s theology. Chief among them is the claim that his emphasis upon Jesus Christ and God renders his theology one-sided in that it leaves no room for the rest of us, for creation. In other words, the claim is that Barth’s God is too transcendent, so much God without us that there is precious little room left for God with us. Consequently, so the argument goes, the God we meet in Barth’s theology is fundamentally a God against us rather than for us. Amy Marga describes this worry in her book, Karl Barth’s Dialogue with Catholicism:
[A] doctrine of God in which God is wholly separated from creation can bring no hope to a broken humanity. An utterly transcendent God brings no peace. God must be both above all things but also in all things…Guilty of this kind of imbalance were none other than the dialectical theologians [ed. note, with KB in the van]. They…reverted back to a doctrine of God that originated in Luther, and put forth an imbalanced view of God’s Gegenständlichkeit (objectivity) that lay at the heart of Reformation theology. It…signal[ed] a ‘genuine rebirth’ of Protestantism. Theirs is a God who alone is real, and who alone effects and brings all thing to pass, without any role played by creation. This is a God without creatures, a God who acts and dwells in a space that is hidden from creation. This God’s Yes is a Yes to God’s own being, not a divine Yes to creation. In fact, God’s own objective positivity was expressed by the dialectical theologians as a diametrical opposition to all that is creaturely, and the immensity of God’s own Gegenständlichkeit leaves no option for the creature to be anything but God’s No (72).This is part of Marga’s description of the criticism leveled against Barth and the dialectical theologians by none other than Erich Przywara, and it is a penetratingly telling one. He hits the nail on the head in a number of ways. But, it is important to note that he made this criticism in 1923. Marga’s argument is to show that Barth learned from this (and other similar) criticisms, and developed his theology in such a way as to render them unnecessary with reference to his later theology. One need only to look at this excerpt from Barth’s 1956 essay on “The Humanity of God,” where Barth reflects on his early work:
We viewed this 'wholly other' in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch - not to say boxed his ears with it - in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...Who God is and what He is in His deity He proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-Himself, but precisely and authentically in the fact that He exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of man, though of course as the absolutely superior partner (45).The point of all this is to make clear that such criticisms of Barth as those mentioned at the outset do not in fact land against Barth’s mature theology. They landed against his early theology, and he moved to address them. For my money, there are two reasons why we keep hearing such criticisms, and I’ll conclude with this:
- Anglophone theology knew little more than the early Barth for a very long time, and so its reflexive picture of Barth is often built on his earlier work. Consequently, criticisms of his early work are repeated as though they pertain to his work as a whole. All this we might describe as the “neo-orthodox captivity” of Karl Barth’s theology.
- When Barth moved to address this and other criticisms of his earlier work, he did so in a way other than the way his critics wanted him to. So, even though Barth addresses the concerns of these critics, they remain unsatisfied because he did not simply drop what he was doing and go running into their arms. Barth was too creative a theologian for that, and many can’t be bothered to spend enough time with him to understand how he addresses their concerns. This is why books like Marga’s (and Keith Johnson’s, while we’re on it) are so important, namely, because they endeavor to clarify Barth’s theology and show how it addresses such criticisms.