As many readers of DET will know, Barth’s theology explicitly rejects Schleiermacher’s “anthropologising of theology” (CD I.1, 20). That is, Barth rejects anthropology as the normative principle and starting point of dogmatic theology. We see this even in the structure of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which effectively reverses that of Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith.
First, where Schleiermacher treats the doctrine of the Trinity in his conclusion (relegating it to a mere appendix in the eyes of some; not mine, though), Barth treats it in the very first of the fourteen part-volumes of the Church Dogmatics.
Second, by locating Christology in the Second Part of The Christian Faith, that is, within his treatment of the Christian consciousness of grace, it appears that Schleiermacher subordinates Christology to anthropology. According to James Duke and Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, even in Schleiermacher’s own day, “there was widespread suspicion that Schleiermacher treated Jesus Christ the redeemer as a postulate derived from the need for redemption” (On the Glaubenslehre, 28). Barth’s Christocentrism, on the other hand, is well known.
Finally, where religious experience, i.e. religious self-consciousness and the feeling of absolute dependence, dominates Schleiermacher’s dogmatics, Barth provides religious experience no such place in his scheme. In fact, Barth reserves his treatment of the individual Christian’s experience of faith, hope, and love to the concluding pages of parts 1-3 of CD IV. And even then, “we shall speak correctly of the faith and love and hope of the individual Christian,” says Barth, “only when it remains clear and constantly becomes clear that, although we are dealing with our existence, that we are therefore dealing with our existence in Jesus Christ as our true existence, that we are therefore dealing with Him and not with us, and with us only in so far as absolutely and exclusively with Him” (CD IV.1, 154). So much for an anthropological starting point.
We see the root of Barth’s allergy to “experience” in statements like this: “the term (experience) is burdened—this is why we avoid it—with the underlying idea that man generally is capable of religious experience or that this capability has the critical significance of a norm” (CD I.1, 193, emphasis mine). At issue in these differences between Schleiermacher and Barth over both dogmatic structure and the role of experience is the normative principle of dogmatic theology. For Schleiermacher, “the feeling of absolute dependence,” and therefore anthropology, remains the norming principle throughout his system. And even though Schleiermacher did suggest that he could have reversed the structure of The Christian Faith, placing the Second Part on Christology before the First Part on the development of the religious self-consciousness, nevertheless it seems that the feeling of absolute dependence laid out in his introduction, and therefore anthropology, remains the controlling factor of his system (On the Glaubenslehre, 58). For Barth, on the other hand, only God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ can stand as theology’s norm. Barth will allow for no general human capacity for revelation, no “anthropological prius of faith” to encroach upon the freedom and unconditional grace of the electing God (CD I.1, 38-39). The human experience of God’s self-revelation, then, is not a human possibility; humans do not possess the capacity for revelation naturally. The experience of the event of God’s self-revelation is possible, for Barth, only because God makes it a reality. This means that for him, anthropology cannot be the starting point of dogmatic theology. Against Schleiermacher’s theology from the ground up, Barth asserts his theology from the top down. What, then, of Zahl’s anthropological starting point for his theology of everyday life?
Zahl is unapologetic in saying that Grace in Practice is a “Christian theology that starts from the bottom up” (94). We see this especially in the structure of his second chapter, which is entitled, “The Four Pillars of a Theology of Grace.” In succession Zahl treats anthropology, soteriology, Christology, and finally, Holy Spirit and Holy Trinity (an order that closely follows the structure of The Christian Faith). The structure in Zahl is such that the problems under one locus find their solution in the next. It would seem, then, that Zahl could fall under the same observation made by Duke and Fiorenza noted above, that the redeemer is derived from the need for redemption. We’ll see that this is not the case shortly. With these close parallels to Schleiermacher, though, how is it that Zahl could possibly help to bridge the gap between Schleiermacher and Barth on dogmatic structure and the role of experience in theology?
In order to see how Zahl’s theology could remain compatible with Barth’s while still following after Schleiermacher, let’s first understand what Zahl is not doing in Grace in Practice:
This book is not about the metaphysical or philosophical ideas of Christianity. It is not about the so-called “doctrine of God.” It is not about the Trinity as a normative description of God’s unity in plurality. This book is not about anything related to essences or pure being or ontology or anything like that. This book is about how Christianity works…. It is perfectly fine to say that God is such and such a thing, or such and such a person. But the value of the idea is in its application (27, emphasis original).
By saying that “this book is about how Christianity works,” Zahl means that his book is about the experience of Christianity, the experience of law and grace in everyday life. We have here what we might call a distinction between doing theology ontically (according to the order of being) and doing it noetically (according to the order of knowing), Barth representing the ontic approach, Zahl the noetic approach to theology. But doesn’t that leave Zahl squarely in Schleiermacher’s camp with anthropology as the normative principle of theology? Not necessarily. In Zahl’s Grace in Practice, we have a theology from the bottom up, yes, but I think it is one that assumes a theology from the top down. (Zahl actually says something close to this in the second lecture in a course he taught at Knox Seminary entitled, “From the Bottom Up”).
Zahl’s theology of every day life does not assume an anthropological prius to the event of revelation. Humans are not capable of reaching up to God. But the event of revelation also does not exist in the abstract. For it to be genuine revelation it must (by grace) be understood and experienced by real, live human beings. We see an instance of this concern in one of Zahl’s descriptions of the law:
What we have to do in order to relate the concept of divine unbending law to human experience is to speak from analogy. The point is an old one: you cannot understand God, who is not understandable to human beings on his own terms, without reference to human (thus accessible) experience. I say this without apology. You cannot understand God apart from perceived, true, real life experience. Without connecting God’s law, for example, with the innumerable “laws” that people place on themselves, God’s law is a concept. It is an abstraction (28).
This is perfectly consistent with Barth’s theology insofar as Zahl understands the direction of the analogy as moving from “above to below,” or, as Bruce McCormack has said regarding the analogia fidei in his book on Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, if Zahl understands that in this analogy, “God’s act is the analogue, ours is the analogate; His the archetype, ours the ectype” (17). And if Zahl has this understanding in place, then there is nothing to stop him from “starting” his theology of everyday life with anthropology. In other words, I think that it is possible that if one were to take the conclusions of Barth’s dogmatic project and turn them into premises,[*] that person would end up with something like the “theology of everyday life” in Zahl’s Grace in Practice. Ultimately, the key, I think, is that while anthropology is Zahl’s starting point, it is not the normative principle of his theology.
My hunch is that Zahl assumes something like Barth’s top-down theology, but that with that assumption in place, Zahl seeks to express the experience of grace from the bottom up. If Zahl is successful, and if he removes the normative status that Schleiermacher gave to anthropology, then what we have in Zahl is a theology following the pattern of Schleiermacher, but following after Barth.
In my next post, I will lift up a number of examples in which Zahl shows “how Christainity works” in relation to law, grace, imputation and some other cases.
[*] I am indebted to my good friend and co-pastor Scott Jones for helping me to develop this insight within the context of our weekly preachers’ meeting.