Barth and MacIntyre on Tradition – More from Kimlyn Bender

Kimlyn J. Bender, Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).*

Barth’s Gifford Lectures from 1937 and 1938, published as The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation, receive – in my humble opinion! – far too little attention these days. So I was very pleased to see that Bender’s eleventh chapter takes them as its theme. It is a good and useful chapter, which I appreciated especially for the way it contextualizes the Gifford Lectures historically, as well as Barth’s contribution to them. This leads Bender into a number of interesting sub-conversations about natural theology in general, what it means for theology to be not only “a science” but “a peculiar science” (emphasis mine, p. 318), and the place of theology in the modern university.

The piece of the chapter that I want to highlight for you below has to do with the place of tradition in theology. Bender here brings Barth and Alasdair MacIntyre into conversation. Bender highlights shared ground between these two thinkers, which is important, but I will emphasize the dissimilarity (you are reading a blog, after all – go get Bender’s book if you want the whole story). As always, bold is mine.

Barth and MacIntyre have serious differences in material commitments and what they propose to set over against the modern project, not least the difference between MacIntyre’s Aristotelian and Thomist retrieval and synthesis and Barth’s own staunch Reformed and Protestant vision. Barth would have little sympathy for placing Aristotle once more at the center of the theological project, and perhaps even less for thinking of the task of theology solely in terms of the retrieval and extension of a tradition, which, to Barth, could once again be seen as the domestication and confusion of divine revelation with the historical medium of its appearance and transmission. . . . Barth would also be suspect of a tradition that placed at its heart the inculcation of virtues. . . . In short, . . . Barth’s concerns with MacIntyre’s project would perhaps not differ very much from those he expressed regarding Roman Catholicism.

. . .

Barth differs from MacIntyre in that he ultimately does not locate the compelling power of a tradition within the tradition itself, or even on the winsomeness and compelling nature of the form of its social embodiment. Here he differs not only from MacIntyre, who focuses especially on the first, but also from Hauerwas, whose emphasis is on the second. In other words, Barth refuses to locate the ultimate power of the Christian tradition within the tradition itself, or to locate the compelling power of the gospel solely or primarily in the truthfulness of its communal life as church. For Barth, the ultimate power of the Reformation argument he is making in his lectures rests in the end not in the intrinsic winsomeness of its presentation and in its ability to outnarratve its rivals, nor even in its social embodiment in a community of witness. (p. 347–48)

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