Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Was Karl Barth a 'neo-Orthodox' Theologian? The Third Time ...

For anyone who was interested in that question of mine a few posts ago – e.g. whether or not Barth was actually neo-Orthodox – well, another Princeton guy I know (a bit ;-), David Congdon has offered the lineaments of a really helpful argument for why Barth was not neo-Orthodox [and he also comments on where he sees T.F. Torrance on (or not) spectrum as well]. It gives me hope, relative to my own thinking, that what David iterates jives with my earlier hunch (i.e. that natural theology is definitive for whether or not something can count as neo-Orthodox, or not). Below are the two links to the previous posts on this, and then David's clarifying comment.

1st post & 2nd post

I see you've posted Travis's comment. It's mostly right, but I would like to specify matters somewhat further. What neoorthodoxy did was to marshal certain ideas from Barth (mainly, divine transcendence, revelation as encounter), abstracted as static, stand-alone propositions, and use them to buttress the project of Christian orthodoxy within the modern era (hence the "new"). Neoorthodoxy is fundamentally ideological, in that it presupposes the validity of something like a Christian orthodox tradition. Having presupposed this tradition as something to be preserved and maintained, it then finds in Barth certain concepts that are useful toward that end. The reason neoorthodoxy is not dialectical theology is that the latter makes no such presupposition; it is in fact the total abolition of ecclesiastical presuppositions. Dialectical theology is a thoroughly destabilizing understanding of the gospel. Neoorthodoxy is basically a species of natural theology, in that it takes for granted something stable and given in the world -- in this case, the church. It is therefore no wonder that Barth and Brunner would fall out over that issue.

For these reasons, I demur from Travis on two points. First, existentialism as such is not a constitutive element of neoorthodoxy. It is only existentialism as it is welded to a certain kind of natural theology, as it was in Brunner's case, but emphatically not in the case of Bultmann. Second, I cannot help but see Torrance as operating within the ambit of neoorthodoxy. He did not engage in natural theology (I agree fully with Travis there), but it seems to me that he takes for granted a kind of ecclesiological givenness in the form of the orthodox tradition. That was precisely the underlying presupposition for his ecumenical work. And, conversely, it is why Barth cared so little about such ecumenical agreements: not because he did not believe in the unity of the church, but because such unity only exists in the person of Christ -- and the person of Christ is a reality that does not give itself to ecclesiastical and theological traditions. The saving event of Christ must always be an offense to those theologies that seek to sustain and prop up the tradition of the church. Orthodoxy, as Barth insisted, is only ever an eschatological reality. As such, there is no orthodox faith in history. And therefore there can be no neoorthodox theology. [David Congdon's comment, here]

To be as radical and 'critically-dialectically-realistic' as Barth, the theologian must endeavor to rub out any inkling of human mastery when it comes to knowledge of God in Christ. This is why Barth is known as a post-metaphysical theologian who works from his actualistic mode of theological endeavor.

Thanks, David.


  1. Two points:

    (1) I think there is a different reading available of TFT, but I haven't demonstrated this yet. David certainly does point to the most prevalent understanding of TFT, and so cannot be faulted (i.e., most "Torrencians" would fall under David's criticism).

    (2) What I meant by "existentialist" in my original post (which is 3.5+ years old!) is something like the abstract notion of revelation as encounter that David highlights.

    1. I defer to Travis on all things TFT, and I hope I'm wrong. Readers are welcome to replace "Torrance" with any number of ecclesiocentric theologians of the modern era.

    2. Travis,

      Hurry up and demonstrate then ;-).


      It seems that TFT is a different kind of ecclesiocentric theologian, if he is one; don't you think?

  2. I've been getting some feeling that Barth is rather dismissive of history as a real phenomenon.

    I'm not natural theologian but a catholic church was promised and not to be contained by Hades. Maybe the hang up is in what constitutes 'church'. Unlike many in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism, Church is "where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am among them".

    So instead of quibbling when the Roman Church lost its status (usually Trent) or trying to find a "trail of blood" to prove the Baptists, which usually is all very bad history, I look for the fact that Christ will remain among us, even if it is two goatherds in Tibet who worship at dawn in a cave.

    I have a feeling that Barth was reacting against the former and didn't realize the latter as a something understood by the "heretics" of Medieval Europe. There has always been an orthodox/orthoprax Church, but it has not always been clearly visible or recorded in the annals of human history. Yet the Lord knows His own.

    1. Cal,

      Barth wasn't dismissive of history at all, to the contrary. His view of history, though, is eschatological and apocalyptic. Anyway, I will have to return to flesh this out further; there is a link to a post that an e-friend, Darren did over at his blog "Out Of Bounds" that is pertinent to your thought.


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