In defense of modernity: a response to Matthew Rose

Matthew Rose has charged Karl Barth with a great failure. The story Rose tells goes like this:
  1. There was once a classical consensus about the powers of human reason to attain knowledge of God.
  2. Modern philosophy denied these powers.
  3. Liberal theology reconstructed Christianity to abide peacefully within the constraints of modern philosophy.
  4. Karl Barth rejected the liberal reconstruction but provided a new one in its place.
  5. Barth is, thus, in fact a modern theologian.
Reading this story, one might be forgiven for a little head-scratching. Is that really news to anyone? Apparently, it was to Rose. His piece sounds like it should have been written twenty years ago, back when this might have been an interesting claim within Barth studies (and then, only within Anglophone Barth studies).

Indeed, it is highly telling that the only Barth scholar he cites to support his contention that Barth is understood as “an opponent of modern thought” is John Webster. Here is Rose: “According to British theologian John Webster, Barth is ‘a central figure in the break up of the modern tradition,’ a theologian whose ‘vigorous critique’ of modernity exposed ‘its fatal weaknesses.’ Barth achieved no such thing.” These lines are taken from Webster’s essay, “Introducing Barth,” from the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth that he edited in 2000. (The whole section is repeated almost verbatim in Webster’s 2000 volume, Barth, in the “Outstanding Christian Thinkers” series. It’s clear that Rose was using the Cambridge version based on the lack of a hyphen in “break up.” And using some simple text-critical skills, it seems clear that this is the earlier version, since the Continuum book expands certain sentences with additional clauses and paragraph breaks.)

This is ironic on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that Webster would probably agree with Rose today. But things are more interesting when we look at the context of these lines. Rose conveniently does not quote the entire passage. Here is what Webster actually says: “Barth is certainly a central figure in the break up of the modern tradition in its theological expression” (emphasis mine). Notice that Webster is specifically highlighting the theological version of modernism, not the modern tradition as such. Indeed, Webster goes on to say: “What is less often discerned is that Barth was also in important respects heir to that tradition, and that even when he argued vociferously against it, it sometimes continued to set the terms of the debate.” If it was “less often” noticed in the late 1990s, it is a commonly recognized fact by this point. Rose is putting forward a charge that, to the community of Barth scholars, must elicit little more than a yawn. But perhaps the notion is still a surprise to readers of FT. Hard to say.

There are a number of problems with Rose’s presentation of Barth, but I only want to focus on one aspect. Rose claims on several occasions that Barth essentially surrendered to modernity on the issue of reason’s limitations. As he says, “Barth yielded to modernity’s most pernicious idea, which took aim not at belief in the supernatural but at our rational capacity for knowledge of it.” This is false, not because Barth did not deny such rational capacity, but because he did so on his own theological terms. There was no “yielding” to modernity, as if Barth simply conceded to what is made out to be a pernicious, self-defeating idea. On Rose’s reading, it becomes very hard to sustain the opening line that Barth is “the greatest theologian since the Reformation.” Unless that is meant as an instance of damning with faint praise: there has been nothing remotely good since the Reformation, and so Barth is the best almost by default!

Here is my thesis: Barth’s rejection of natural theology is grounded in the theological conviction of the justification of the sinner by grace alone. This is not an especially novel claim, and I have made it elsewhere, but it is worth repeating. Barth is a Protestant, and as a Protestant he is convinced that God is the sovereign saving agent of the world. God justifies the ungodly and gives life to the dead sinner. Barth’s dialectical theology is based on the conviction that what holds for soteriology also necessarily holds for epistemology (and, later, for ontology). Why does he think that? The short answer is that he finds strong biblical support for the notion that to know God is to be in a right relationship with God; to know God is to be known by God (Gal 4.9). We can say more about that another time. If we apply this reformational soteriology to epistemology, we find that just as salvation is by grace alone, so too knowledge of God is by grace alone, by revelation alone, by God’s word alone. And this means that natural theology is denied from the outset on the grounds that it compromises the very nature of God.

Now this claim has some interesting implications, the most controversial of which would be that modernity is actually more faithful to the gospel than not. And indeed, that is precisely the claim I, along with others, want to make. Here I am drawing especially on the work of Gerhard Ebeling. I think there are two main ways in which modernity is itself theologically grounded. First, though, we need greater clarity about what modernity actually means, intellectually speaking. Rose defines it as the idea that human reason does not have speculative power to reach knowledge of God. But this is only a part of the picture.

Modernity can be defined more accurately as the rise of historical consciousness. The rise of historical consciousness names the replacement of the old metaphysical and teleological interpretation of the world—what Hilary Putnam calls a “ready-made world”—and our existence in it with a historical interpretation. Whereas a metaphysical interpretation understands God, the world, and human existence in terms of an eternally fixed and unchangeable cosmic order, a historical interpretation understands them in terms of a historically situated and ever-changing nexus of forces. Whereas a metaphysical interpretation posits timeless essences underneath the contingencies and complexities on the surface of history, a historical interpretation denies that there is anything behind or beneath the historical that could stabilize and secure human existence in advance. The rise of historical consciousness thus coincided with the rise of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics presupposes that truth is elusive, but truth is only elusive when our existence is subject to myriad interpretations and possibilities. Modernity is the age in which the safe and stable explanation of life was called irrevocably into question. It is no accident that the Vatican and Protestant scholastics both sought to find ways of securing authority, with doctrines of papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy becoming central in this period in a way they had not been before.

The question before us is why this historical consciousness is a genuinely theological event that the church should welcome. There are two reasons.

1. First, according to Ebeling, Christianity “stands or falls with the tie that binds it to its unique historical origin.” Christianity identifies a particular historical event as revelation, as God’s unique self-disclosure to humankind. In a certain basic sense, therefore, the contingencies and complexities of history are internal to Christian faith, since they are internal to the very identity of God. This is the antidocetic essence of Christianity. While Christianity betrayed this essence in numerous ways throughout its history, it remains the bedrock to which we can and must always return.

2. Second, as I have already indicated, the doctrine of justification requires that we radically rethink revelation. Here I quote Ebeling at length:
The sola fide of the Reformation is directed not only against justification by works and thereby against a legalistic exposition of scripture, not only against mysticism and against multiplication of the revealing reality in the form of saints and against materialization of the revealing reality in the form of sacred objects. But the sola fide has undoubtedly also an anti-sacramental and an anti-clerical point. To the sola fide there corresponds solus Christus. Revelation and the present are separated from each other in such a way that only one bridge remains: the Word alone—and indeed, lest any misunderstanding should arise, the Word interpreted as salvation sola gratia, sola fide. All other bridges have been broken up. The whole system of Catholicism has thereby collapsed. There is no such thing as a simple, matter-of-fact presence of revelation. (Word and Faith, 35–36)
The sola fide rejects every means of controlling our access to revelation—whether rational, sacramental, or institutional. The only available means is entirely outside of our control, namely, an encounter with God’s word within our historicity. We are radically dependent upon God in all things, including knowledge.

Put plainly: modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, a theologian of the Reformation.


Jim said…
nailed it
Enjoyed this piece, David.

Thanks for redeeming the Webster quote a bit for me by putting it back into context.

I agree with your focus on historical consciousness -- rather than the crisis of rationality or classical metaphysics per se -- is the central problem that modernity poses for Christian faith and theology.

But I want to question a bit what you say in this passage:
"Whereas a metaphysical interpretation understands God, the world, and human existence in terms of an eternally fixed and unchangeable cosmic order, a historical interpretation understands them in terms of a historically situated and ever-changing nexus of forces."

I agree with most of that, as it pertains to humanity and the rest of the finite/contingent cosmic realm. But does modern historical consciousness or method really entail a particular reinterpretation of the reality of God, per se, along actualistic lines? I accept that historical conciousness radically reshapes how we understand human nature and experience, but I'm not yet convinced that it entails a complete revision of the main lines of the doctrine of God worked out in pre-modern classical theism (if I may evoke that term without defining it).

You continue:
"Whereas a metaphysical interpretation posits timeless essences underneath the contingencies and complexities on the surface of history, a historical interpretation denies that there is anything behind or beneath the historical that could stabilize and secure human existence in advance."

But why couldn't we posit a changeless eternal realm while also accepting the radical contingency of all things cosmic and human? I understand some of the reasons modern thinkers often make this move, but I'm just not sure that historical consciousness entails a radically revised metaphysics.
Kevin Davis said…
Much appreciated, David.
Anonymous said…
Great response, David. I just finished posting my piece this morning and came over to see yours. I was glad to see some of the parallels!
Chris Donato said…
I think you've actually made me comfortable, however fleeting, with being inescapably modern. Thank you?
Unknown said…
Dear David,

I just read your post a second time, and I appreciate what you’ve said and I am in general agreement (not that matters). As I read I wondered if your case against Rose and Catholicism in general might be strengthened by confirming that Barth, like Augustine and Aquinas before him, had a positive philosophical anthropology under-girding his reading of Scripture. But unlike Augustine and Aquinas, Barth’s philosophical anthropology was indebted to Kant’s First Critique and the limitations it places on human rational capacities. Barth affirms the limitations of reason that Kant’s critical project demonstrates, but he overcomes this limitation theologically, by responding to the limits with a robust understanding of revelation and the theological anthropology that it implies. Both Bonhoffer and Balthasar make this point, and I think it’s valid. Acknowledging Barth’s positive philosophical anthropology, despite the fact that it is a philosophical anthropology within limits, enables one to show that Barth is working with the same assumptions that both Augustine and Aquinas had when doing theology, namely, that there is one truth to which the right use of reason must be subject. Furthermore, it shows that Barth is not functioning within a so narrowly defined conception of modernity that Rose advances. Barth’s affirms the legitimacy of Kant’s critical philosophy, and this aspect of modernity, I believe, because he affirms that philosophy can come to the knowledge of some aspects of the truth, and the aspect of truth that Kant’s project unmasks is that speculative reason cannot know God. This aspect of Kant's philosophy comports well with a reformed reading of Scripture, but Barth came to the reformers through Kant not the other way around. In my opinion Barth’s rejection of neo-Kantianism was not a turn away from Kant but only from a certain reading of Kant. Acknowledging Barth’s positive philosophical anthropology has the advantage of showing that Roman Catholics, by espousing the theology of Vatican I and the “Oath against modernity,” have undermined the legitimacy of the rationality that Augustine and Aquinas assumed; that is, Augustine and Aquinas assumed that rationality can know some aspects of the one truth of the world, but they were limited in that philosophy had not progressed enough in their time to take advantage of Kant’s insights. Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies were all they had to work with, and they cannot be blamed for that. But the modern Roman Catholic Church can and should be. More importantly, however, by cutting itself off from the progress of knowledge that rationality (i.e. philosophy) acquired in modernity the Roman Catholic Church has committed itself to a form of philosophical provincialism.
Unknown said…
1) If Barth suggested that God is known to us primarily in the "flesh" of Jesus, then possibly implied here is that at least HUMAN reason is part of revelation? Whether Barth makes this move himself or not.

2) Next: whether one assigns Revelation or Reason priority in turn, might be almost irrelevant; since revelation is only known in human thinking, human fleshly reason.

What would be lost here to be sure, would be any TRANSCENDENT reason. But reason remains. Albeit being found rather more human than we thought.