The summer edition of Pro Ecclesia presents an insightful window into the heart of the debate between Thomistic and Barthian theologies. Although the content of the debate is interesting, the form or grammatical infrastructure that each respective position takes is even more so. In other words, it’s not so much what Keith Johnson, the Barthian or Joseph White, the Dominican says, as at it is the (often unexamined) presuppositions brought to the table.

White presents classical theology – theology as firmly rooted in the praxis and logic of Chalcedon – as an alternative to the deadlock of modern theology. According to White, too much modern theology, including a Barthian variety, takes its cue from Kant, thereby occluding the larger tradition and resources of Catholicism. At some point, theology made the unfortunate decision to shy away from metaphysical speculation upon the theologia gloria and to content itself within a theologia crucis, all to its own detriment. However, this theological mode is only an accident of history or at least a very German way of doing theology, as White later clarifies.

White wants to regain the classical register of theology because this can make sense of doctrine and history in a way that modern theology cannot. Theologies in thrall to dialectics have not delivered on the goods promised, and so we are need again to hear the voices of the patristic and Thomistic sense of grace perfecting nature. As White summarizes,

The mystery of the transcendent being of God that is unveiled in Christ Jesus (without himself ceding to a pure historicization of his deity) addresses a potential in human persons to come into the fullness of the knowledge of this same transcendent God. On such an account, however, there is necessarily no dialectic possible between Christological revelation of God and authentic anthropological fulfillment. Rather, there is a hierarchical order between the two and a mystery of participation of the latter in the former. God unveils who he is that we might become like him through the contemplation of his mystery. “The Word of Life…was made manifest and we saw it…the eternal life that was with the Father…It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 1:1-2, 3:2) (248).

White’s argument is fairly standard and offers two provocative challenges to the Barthian. First, must we regard grace as mere extrinsicism, so typical of Protestant theology? Second, what is the Barthian to do with a genealogical rendering of modern theology in light of the catholic tradition that implicates Barth? White lays the question at Johnson’s feet: why continue doing theology in a Kantian register, especially when it has so much difficultly maintaining dogmatic truth claims in the face of historical research.

In some respects, Johnson’s essay was helpful in that he clearly laid out a nuanced Barthian response. At the same time, his response was somewhat maddening. It was difficult to see how his response amounted to little more than stating that Barth’s theology offers a better “biblical” resource. Yet Johnson never carefully clarifies what “biblical” means (Both White and Bauerschmidt, thankfully, call him out on this in their responses).

It is certainly not the case that Johnson failed to understand White. For instance, he accurately summarizes White’s position as arguing that, “Jesus of Nazareth reveals God only analogically” (277). The main problem with analogical thinking, according to Johnson, is that it presupposes the validity of ‘unbiblical’ speculation read into the text vs. the immediate ‘witness’ of scripture. “From the standpoint of Barth’s theology, White’s account of the hypostatic union replaces the biblical narrative’s depiction of the person and work of Jesus Christ with an alternative, philosophical framework drawn from creaturely reflections that then shapes the terms of the union so that it reflects this framework rather than God’s own self-revelation in Christ” (278), states Johnson.

I found this argumentative tactic extremely curious, especially since Johnson did not respond to White’s charge of why we should assume that Kantian philosophy is normative for theological reasoning. It might be argued that ‘unbiblical’ speculation is read into the New Testament, but surely Johnson recognizes that Barth is operating with just as many contextualized assumptions? Why does Johnson not address this?

Another curious element: Johnson claims that White is operating with absolute distinctions between Christ’s substance and his accidents. States Johnson, “Can we really claim to have a ‘union’ of God and man in Jesus Christ if we can so separate his person from his work that it is no longer possible for the work even to reveal the essence of a person?” But White does not say this, at all. Rather, “being in act (entelegeia) is understood by Aristotle and Aquinas to be denoted analogically and to have similar but not identical modes of realization” (257). White’s point here, utterly missed by Johnson, is that Barth – and it seems Johnson – is incapable, or refusing, to think in analogical terms. For Johnson, Christ’s obedient actions are either fully constitutive of the very revelation of God or Jesus is not God, which is a fairly typical Barthian reading.

Johnson is a sharp fellow. And it’s clear that he’s refusing to be backed in a corner where he ends up defending modern theology or forced to reckon with the force of the analogia entis. In avoiding these probing questions, however, he ends up defaulting to a defense of a “biblical worldview” without ever defining what this is. This is unfortunate (I also look forward to his book).

White was offered an opportunity to respond. He begins by calling attention to the wedge Johnson attempts to drive: we either have the incarnate son or some speculative metaphysical philosophy.  Concerning this wedge White offers the following:

Johnson believes that, for a thinker like Aquinas, Christ’s actions are not revelatory of the being of God himself. This is a profound misunderstanding of the Thomistic position. It leads him to the unfortunate conclusion that classical Catholic theology has imbibed non-Christian philosophical thinking in such a way that its adherents cannot hear the gospel, and so come to know the humility and obedience of God that alone teaches us who God is. The Catholic is, in Barthian eyes, a preevangelized being, who has yet to encounter Christ (283).

Johnson additional misunderstandings arise, according to White, because he fails to grasp that “Aquinas need not be understood as ‘what Aristotle says’ but rather as Christian philosophy, or as a rational and naturally accessible form of knowledge that has already undergone critique and reformulation in light of the gospel (283).

As I mentioned above, White calls Johnson out on his defense of a ‘biblical’ worldview (apparently White’s exegesis of 1 John was not biblical enough for Johnson). Here White pegs him to the wall:  “Barth and those who follow him are not philosophically innocent thinkers. Post-Hegelian philosophical ontology in fact deeply informs not only Barth’s Christology of CD IV, 1, but also Baukham’s reading of theology of the divine name in Scripture (for Baukham is, as is commonly acknowledge, deeply indebted to Moltmann on the question of divine suffering, and Moltmann in turn is deeply indebted to Hegel and to post-Hegelian Lutheran kenoticism)” (285).

Next, White offers what will probably go down as one of my all time favorite journal ripostes. Speculating about Barth’s German-Lutheran-Hegelian infused metaphysics, White asks:

Perhaps a post-Cartesian modern ontological monism derived from the German idealist tradition is in fact more biblical. But this has to be argued explicitly with some real reference to philosophical concepts and a clarification of their meaning. Such ideas ought not to be imported into theology without explicit acknowledgement, under the moniker of ‘Ignore the man behind the curtain, we’re all just reading the Bible here.’ To Catholics, the Barthian claim that a different philosophical tradition (one more thoroughly vetted by Christian theology, in fact) is incapable of the lowliness of heart necessarily to submit to the views of its critics seems like a mere ad hominem argument: a difficult accusation to disprove, but also impossible to substantiate (286).

There was much more to the debate, but these were just a few key the points I took away. Until Barthians recognize the genealogy of their theology (yes of course, we have to define which Barth), the debate really can’t get off the ground, and it certainly cannot be decided on what is “biblical.”

Fortunately, Frederick Bauerschmidt was able to offer some further reflections and in so doing provided some breathing room. He asks if we might be better served by presenting a leaner Aquinas and a Barth who is “robustly engaged with the broader Christian theological tradition” (290).

A leaner Aquinas no doubt entails a Wittgenstein-infused Aquinas for Bauerschmidt. Perhaps classical theologies can and should become more modest with metaphysical terms, such as substance, accident, secondary causality, etc. For the grammar of these terms do not denote the discovery of “hitherto unknown entities.” Rather, a grammatical Thomism is “simply offering a kind of commentary on and analysis of the game that is already underway. Rather than the metaphysical distinction being a ‘foundation’ upon which theology builds, it is the theological discourse that is primary and the distinctions that serve as tools in avoiding conceptual mistakes along he way” (292).

Barthians need to be careful as well. Bauerschimdt’s critique, although charitable, seems entirely appropriate for Johnson’s reading:

The only truths we can know about God are those revealed truths that contradict ‘all general concepts of God’ (CD). Or, as Barth puts it in his book on Anselm, ‘God shatters every syllogism.’ This would appear to disallow even the leanest of metaphysics, since it seems to say that in revealing himself God also reveals an entirely new logic, such that the process of inference itself must be thrown out the window. But if this were the case, then Barth’s theology would be a pure fideism, offering us nothing except the transient frisson that accompanies prophetic declarations of credo quia absurdum. Theology would be entirely displaced by the sacrificum intellectus and the many volumes of the Church Dogmatics would be merely a bloated paraphrase of the Bible (294).

Although Barth can be read in this way, he need not be. As Bauerschmidt clarifies, “Barth should be numbered not among the fideists but within the rich tradition of apophatic theology, which locates our unknowing of God not in the overturning of logic but in the superemeinent transcendence of the very premises from which we begin our reasoning” (295). This of course is a much more Catholic Barth, a Barth read against his own Kantian tendencies.

Interestingly, Bauerschmidt also felt it necessary to call out Johnson’s critique of White’s supposed unbiblical speculation. Johnson claims that his Thomistic interlocutor thinks that “salvation takes the form of ontological healing rather than the atonement of sin” and that “this is not the biblical story, nor does it stand in line with the best Christological insights of the tradition” (296-7; cf. Johnson, 280). Bauerschmidt counters, noting that “it is true that Thomas Aquinas is very consistent in understanding the work of Christ as not only ‘removing us from evil,’ but also as ‘advancing us in good.’ – salvation is the healing and perfection of our human nature. It is not entirely clear, however, that this view of salvation is a result of Thomas’s metaphysics. Rather, it is based on a different reading of ‘the biblical story – on that includes such texts as 2 Cor 3:18, Col 3:10, or 2 Pet 1:4 – and a perhaps different estimation of what constitutes ‘the best Christological insights of the traditions” (297).

At the end of the day, Bauerschmidt notes that in many ways the differences between White and Johnson represent the classic divides between Protestants and Catholics. Is grace an alien invasion or participation in the divine life the Trinity? Are we constituted by an aptitudo passiva or left with nothing but our depravity? Do we read the biblical text with 19th century German eyes or do we read informed by communion and a catholic body-politic? For the next “Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue,” I hope the debate will go farther back; that is, probe deeper into the specific theological assumptions of each respective tradition.

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