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Martyred for the Gospel

Martyred for the Gospel
The burning of Tharchbishop of Cant. D. Tho. Cranmer in the town dich at Oxford, with his hand first thrust into the fyre, wherwith he subscribed before. [Click on the picture to see Cranmer's last words.]

Collect of the Day

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.
The Collect.

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Daily Bible Verse

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pannenberg's Critique of Barth's Appeal to Paradox

The effects of Barth's use of neo-Kantian philosophy in developing his theology often led him to appeal to paradox. Also, according to Wolfhart Pannenberg, this is particularly true of Barth's development of christology and the two natures of Christ. "Barth's emphasis upon the 'dynamic' character of the divine-human unity in Christ does not overcome the dilemma of the orthodox doctrine of the communication of attributes; it avoids it" [ Pannenberg, GOD, JESUS AND MAN. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), page 303]. Because Barth, like many of the early patristic theologians and the later Protestant theologians of the Reformation era, began with the incarnation instead of beginning with the historical Jesus and working backwards, Pannenberg believes that Barth cannot offer a satisfactory answer of how Christ can be both God and man without compromising either of the two natures. The definition of Chalcedon tried to preserve the tension between these two seemingly irreconcilable theological assertions.

The point about Barth's view of Christology, however, seems to apply to his entire theological method. According to Pannenberg, any appeal to paradox is simply avoiding the issue and avoiding any further investigation or work, which is the antithesis of what doing theology is supposed to be about in the first place:

  • "'No trespassing' signs against 'betrayal of the mystery' ... are of little help. The majority of the patristic theologians, with all respect for the mystery of the incarnation, would surely have viewed as presumptuous a demand to stop trying to think through a formulation like 'incarnation,' which after all only arose from thought about Jesus, and to let it stand as a mystery. True respect for the mystery can express itself, among other ways, just in the attempt to understand it fully. ...It (patristic theology) protected the mystery by means of antinomies and negations where the content of Christology, because of the state of the discussion at the time, could not be positively and coherently expressed without decisive abbreviations. But patristic theology was never satisfied with such a situation. It continually made new efforts to transcend the embarrassment of concrete imperfections in its understanding of that which had been laid hold of in faith. Only after the attempt to transcend these imperfections may one greet the difficulties that emerge on a new plane as a sign of the profound mystery of Jesus' reality, which in spite of the most penetrating understanding can never be so ultimately resolved that there would remain no reason for further questioning." [Pannenberg, page 303].

Thus, it seems to me that Barth's doctrine of Scripture can be criticized on the same basis that Pannenberg criticizes Barth's christology. Because Barth disregards any idea of revelation being possible in written form, he too readily appeals to mystery and individual illumination. This highly individualistic and experiential view of Scripture makes Scripture, for all practical purposes, incomprehensible. Trying to figure out what Scripture says revelationally would be more like trying to pin jello to the wall if we take Barth's understanding of Scripture literally. I'm not sure how consistent Barth's theology is on this point, since some have pointed out that the sacraments and Scripture are mere "tokens" of God's grace to us.

However, it seems to me that Barth's famous comment, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so," is really inconsistent with Barth's view of Scripture. If the Bible tells us anything at all, we can't consider it to be revelation because revelation is separate and distinct from the written word itself. This disjunction between revelation and word is such that Barth's view of Scripture pragmatically amounts to mystery and that Scripture communicates practically nothing. It is merely a token of what we might think God is saying. Barth's neo-Kantian assumptions make it impossible for him to concede that the Bible is a historical document that reveals Jesus Christ to us mediately through the story of the Bible. Without the Bible we know nothing at all about Jesus Christ as an historical person or His mission or His preaching and teaching. Without Scripture we cannot develop a theological understanding of who Christ was and is and ever shall be, world without end.

The short of it is that despite the volumes of theological work Barth has done Pannenberg is right to say that Barth too easily evades issues and leaves them to mystery and paradox. Neo-orthodoxy essentially solves nothing because in the end it winds up appealing to mystery in an attempt to short circuit any critical or negative assessment of its approach to theology. As Pannenberg puts it,

  • "To retreat from the problems inescapably bound up with a particular approach with the explanation that it has to do with a mystery means the abandonment of the effort given to theology to understand critically its own statements. The situation is similar in Otto Weber's critique of the Antiochene theologians who are otherwise close to his own position: 'They could . . . . not think in paradoxes . . .' People who are prepared to refuse to continue thinking at specific points are hardly gifted in that particular art. Had the only issue been the 'paradox,' patristic Christology could have been satisfied with the formulas of Ignatius and saved itself the intellectual wear and tear of the following centuries" (Pannenberg, pp. 303-304).

Neo-orthodoxy ends up not being an answer to liberal theology or postmodernism after all, since it refuses to continue thinking about how the written word can indeed convey the very oracles of God to man and how that written word is indeed revelation and perfectly understandable propositional truth. Neo-orthodoxy winds up begging the same question Pilate asked: "What is truth?"

Barth's view isn't compatible with the doctrine of infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. But that is not the real issue. The real issue is revelation. In fact, Barth's view of the doctrine of Scripture is an attack upon the authority of Scripture as any form of revelation from God at all. If there is no comprehensible revelation in human words, then for all practical purposes we can know nothing about God in any meaningful terms at all. To retreat from the theological doctrine of divine revelation in all aspects, including natural revelation and special revelation in Holy Scripture and Jesus Christ and to then appeal to mystery or paradox, etc., is to misinterpret the doctrine of illumination of Scripture by the Holy Spirit and to instead make it to fit with a modernist skepticism of the noumenal via neo-Kantianism and other philosophical attacks upon theology.

It is a grave mistake to think that Barth has contributed something new or different, especially when Barth hides behind mystery and paradox at every turn. Of course, at the end of the road we may eventually have to appeal to mystery. But as Pannenberg points out, it is inexcusable to appeal to mystery before we have exhausted every effort to arrive at a theological resolution of the dilemma. Furthermore, it is not wrong for churchmen and laymen to use abbreviated solutions to the dilemma since not everyone is called to be a theologian of the church. This is merely shorthand for much more complex issues. While the orthodox creeds do not solve all the dilemmas, they do nicely summarize shortened solutions that work. In this regard I find the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and other modern statements on the doctrine of Scripture to be extremely helpful. While those Evangelicals tending toward neo-orthodoxy might vehemently and strongly disagree, I believe those of us holding down the fort should not give in to pressures to accept Barth's principles of mystery and paradox as if that were somehow really dealing with the issue at hand. No, we must continue to think hard about the doctrine of Scripture. We must never put up the 'No Trespassing' sign and say that Barth's solution is any solution at all.

7 comments:

Marshall said...

Charlie, thanks for looking in and commenting on my blog.

I am neither a scholar of Barth or of Pannenberg, but am more familiar with Barth. My understanding is that acknowledging the mystery is not grounds to suppress further inquiry. It is, rather, the opportunity to continue theological conversation, acknowledging our own limitedness. It is surely sin to believe that God is fully comprehensible to us, or comprehensible even in the most limited sense except by grace. To recognize the frontier of mystery is not to see any limit on God, but to recognize our own.

My own experience is that it is assertions of clarity and finality that tend to suppress theological exploration and discussion, at least as severely as assertions of mystery. We are no better off to claim we can know what in fact we can't than if we assert that we can know nothing.

Charlie said...

You're essentially saying you are right and I'm wrong. But you can't have an opinion if we take your view seriously. I, on the other hand, can have a confidence in the Scriptures, the confessions and the creeds, though these are only abbreviated summaries of the issues at hand. I can have the same confidence the church did at that time while at the same time acknowledging that there is further work to be done and that there is a mystery at the end of the road; I don't have to resort to skepticism to avoid responsibility and accountability in the here and now.

Your position seems out of step with orthodoxy and tradition and the Scriptures. While you might not like it, I know that I'm right:) You can't know if I'm right or not if you're going to take the agnostic or consistently agnostic approach. We conservatives are here to stay.

Charlie said...

I decided to post here Marshall's response to one of my other comments at his blog. Here it is:

Marshall:

Charlie, thanks for reading and commenting. I would note that I am really more an old style Broad churchman - looking at both the catholic and evangelical traditions within Anglicanism, considering them critically, and then trying to apply from both traditions what seems to best present the content and experience of the Christian faith as I have received it.

And that, of course, is pertinent to the discussion. In the Anglican tradition as I have received it, we are not a confessional tradition. That is, we distrust any single understanding of doctrine as likely inadequate, since God is always beyond our comprehension. Further, it tends to suppress, not to encourage reflection and so continued exploration. We hold to Creeds - statements of faith - without embracing confessions - specific and exclusive interpretations - because God can still lead and surprise us.

While clergy of the Church of England have always been expected to sign off on the Articles - and even then, not in the same sense as some sign off on the Augustana or the Westminster - but it has never been required of clergy in the American church. It would indeed be innovation to impose such an understanding now.

Marshall said...

Charlie, I must admit I'm somewhat flattered that you find me worthy of response.

Are you right? Well, then, good for you. Certainly, I can't say with certainty that you're not; but, then, being "right" isn't my primary concern.

I have confidence in the Scriptures. I believe that the Word of God is expressed in them, and that they contain all things necessary to salvation. I also believe that the Word continues to express himself, and may well lead me places I did not intend to go. If I'm not listening through and beyond Scripture, I may well miss what Christ is saying now in the Spirit, and miss the witness to which I am called.

I don't hear God calling me to be "right." I hear God calling me into relationship with God, and with all of God's children. I hear God calling me not to be "right," but to be faithful. So, whether you're right or not is not my first concern. My first concern is to hear from you about Jesus, and what Jesus has meant in your life now, and in the lives of those you serve. After that, perhaps you'll want to listen to me. Between the two of us, sharing those stories, we may well know more about God in Christ than we knew before.

Charlie said...

I think behind all the double talk you really think you're right, Marshall. :) I may doubt your salvation, being the good fundamentalist I am, but it is entertaining to hear that CPE line of questioning again. "Where is God in all of this for you?" It's about as precise as a sawed off shotgun.

Personally, I think the Anglican Communion Network is as bad as the church they are criticizing, being of course ECUSA. I don't believe there is any such thing as a "broad" church or a via media. It's rather like saying the church has made peace with the devil himself. Competing truth claims can't all be correct. If justiication by faith alone is true, then the Anglo-Catholic reinterpretation of justification is wrong. I prefer the 39 Articles of Religion as a confessional document. But then I'm not a member of ECUSA or the ACN. I'm just one of those restorationists who is trying to reform the church.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Hiding behind the incomprehensibility of God to deny the propositional truth of Scripture is a cop out.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Relationships are defined by truth and propositions, which in turn are understood through reason. Appealing to relationships as a way of throwing out reason and propositional truth is just relativism, liberalism, and agnosticism.

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