Barth and Aquinas on Theology and Public Life

As part of my studies for comprehensive exams, I was reading an article by Ronald Thiemann from The Thomist (1986) on “The Significance of [Karl] Barth for Contemporary Theology.”  Thiemann is a Lutheran minister and professor at Harvard Divinity School who works specifically on theology and public life.

Karl Barth (1886-1968 ) was a Swiss Reformed theologian, and some describe him as the father of Neo-Orthodoxy.  Barth based theology on God’s revelation alone, not on history, or religious feelings, or most importantly, philosophy.  He is famous for his rejection of natural theology, which attempts to speak about God based on how God has revealed himself in nature or history.  For Barth, the only true knowledge of God is God’s own self-definition in Jesus Christ, as attested to by the Scriptural witness.  The only task of theology, therefore, is testing the church’s proclamation of God against God’s own self-revelation.  Natural theology differs from something like Barth’s revealed theology because it attempts to talk about using reason, rather than revelation, as God is found in the natural world, not Scripture or salvation history.

Thiemann claims that modern culture is characterized by the collapse of Christendom, and by a theological and moral pluralism in which belief in God can no longer be presumed.  Moreover, the antithesis of belief in God–atheism–has become a logical possibility for increasingly more people.  The challenge to atheism is met by many with arguments based on natural theology, rational arguments for the existence of God, or other arguments that try and argue for the inherent religiousness of every human being (Thiemann cites specifically David Tracy‘s transcendental argument and Schubert Ogden‘s argument on experience and language).  Because Barth rejects such arguments, he seems passé to those who want to find a positive role for theological discourse within modern pluralism.

As we have already said, Barth does not think that human reason can prove God’s existence or anything about God.  Because of the primacy Barth attributes to revelation, he claims that the necessary condition for our knowledge of God is God’s movement toward us, God’s revelation of God’s self.  Barth is not a fundamentalist, meaning he does not think that the revelation of God is contained exclusively within Scripture, which would no longer make him a hidden God.  Rather, we come to know God through another external reality, which is the exclusive vehicle for revelation, namely the person of Jesus Christ, to whom Scripture bears witness.

Barth insisted that correlation between Christian theology and the language of culture threatened the integrity of the Christian faith.  In Thiemann’s words: “Christian language does, in its own halting and piecemeal fashion, describe the reality of the world in which we all live, a world whose origin and destiny are determined by the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ.  Insofar as the language does truly describe, its irreducible integrity and distinctive logic must be preserved.  Because that language describes our common world of experience, it must be related to other forms of human discourse, but the terms of that relation must always be ruled by the logic of the Christian gospel.”

Thiemann thinks that the situation of modern pluralism calls into question any attempt to ground the meaning and truth of Christian beliefs in any system outside the Christian faith.  He points to Barth, however, as an example of Christian theology may participate in the public square, “engaging the world of culture from within an integral vision of reality as formed by the Christian gospel.”  This does not mean rejecting science or philosophy or any other non-theological discourse, but it does mean placing  them at the service of Christian theology.

As a Thomist, I am sympathetic to much of what Barth is trying to do.  Part of his project, which I think the Barmen declaration reflects, is rejecting the idea that there are two spheres of existence for the Christian–a public and a private, a worldly and a religious, a faithful and a rational.  For Barth, the church does not serve the state, or science, or philosophy, nor does it change or water down its message in light of cultural pressure to do so.  The job of the church and the task of theology is to proclaim God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  To the extent that science and philosophy and other disciplines facilitate that goal, they may be used, but always as a means to theology’s end.

Thomas would agree with much of what Barth sees as the task of theology and its role in public life.  For Aquinas, theology is a sacred science which depends exclusively on knowledge revealed by God which “surpasses human reason.”  The knowledge that sacred science contains is essential to man’s salvation and must be accepted on faith.  Sacred science uses philosophy and the other sciences, “not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer.  For it accepts its principles, not from other sciences, but from God, by revelation” (I, Q. 1, art. 5).  Aquinas’ theology, like Barth’s, is a revealed theology.

Aquinas, like Barth, also does not think that there is a realm of rational human existence, and a realm of faithful human existence.  Just as theology is the queen of the sciences, revealed knowledge is the height of all knowledge, and is the standard for judging all other knowledge: “The principles of other sciences either are evident and cannot be proved, or are proved by natural reason through some other science. But the knowledge proper to this science comes through revelation and not through natural reason. Therefore it has no concern to prove the principles of other sciences, but only to judge of them. Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science must be condemned as false: “Destroying counsels and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).”

Theology for both Barth and Aquinas is the highest of the sciences, and the standard for judging all other human experience.  In the context of modern pluralism, especially in light of the rise of atheism, theology has a place only insofar as it does not compromise its integrity.  Both Aquinas and Barth think that the ability to participate in pluralistic discourse, therefore, is limited by the absolute and particular nature of the foundation of Christian life, which is God’s revelation.  No arguments for the revealed God of Christianity suffice.  No  philosophy can contain this God who has communicated himself in Jesus Christ.  Aquinas says on this note:

Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations” (I, Q. 1, art. 8).

Christians are not called to withdraw from public life.  Neither Barth nor Aquinas would support the idea that Christians could not be judges or politicians or biologists or even soldiers.  Both Barth and Aquinas would agree, however, that this participation must always be Christian participation, and unapologetically so.  It means that Christ must be the standard of judgment for all things, even worldly things.  Both Barth and Aquinas would say, for example, that an allegedly Christian politician could claim that he agrees with his church’s teaching on the dignity of all human life, including the pre-born, but could still support pro-abortion as a public figure.  For both Barth and Aquinas, Christian existence has an integrity and continuity.  There is no public realm over which Christ does not have authority.

What Barth pushes stronger than Aquinas, however, due to his historical circumstances which are especially relevant today is that not only does the church not subordinate itself to or separate itself from culture, it also cannot assimilate itself into culture.  For Barth, the identity of the church could not have its locus in a particular Volk or political movement, like the rise of National Socialism in the 1930’s.  Barth vehemently opposed the German Christians who exalted Hitler as bringing salvation to Germany, and demanded that Protestant churches  should cooperate in national renewal under his leadership, not letting theological scruples prevent them from wholeheartedly supporting the project of National Socialism.  That people saw God speaking through Hitler must be categorically false, according to Barth.  God cannot be humanized in some department of history, nor does he speak in anything other than the one Word, Jesus Christ.

To bring this discussion to the practical realm, I cannot help mentioning my discomfort with the way Christian theology has been co-opted in support for Barack Obama.  Check out this blog as an example of what I am convinced is a widespread belief about Obama–he is the change we want to see.  MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews’s comment on Obama’s messianship have become almost legendary but they bear repeating: “I’ve been following politics since I was about 5. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament. This is surprising.”  Barth would undoubtedly see too many parallels between the Christian response to Obama in 2008 and the Christian response to Hitler in 1933.  He would probably call for another Barmen declaration in response.  Not because Obama and Hitler are remotely comparable as politicians (I don’t think they are), but because the Christian response to them is so similar.

There is only one revelation, and this is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  Any person, or philosophy, or thing that replaces Jesus as the fulfillment of truth, as the object of hope, as the standard of judgment is simply inconsistent with Christianity, at least as Barth and Aquinas understand it.

The church must bring its theological scruples to the public square and not allow itself to be co-opted for any other purposes not the purposes of God.  Nor should it water down its proclamation to serve worldly powers.  Theology is the rule and measure of worldly powers.  Theology  is the criterion of experience, not vice versa.  The public square, therefore, is not a non-theological square, nor is it immune to distinctively Christian critiques.  On this point, Barth and Aquinas would wholeheartedly agree.


2 comments so far

  1. everydaythomist on

    Check out this article for Hauerwas’ confirmation that Barth and Aquinas had more in common than you might think:

  2. everydaythomist on

    Commenting on Barth’s essay The Christian Community and the Civil Community, written in 1946, Will Herberg writes,

    “This later Barthian doctrine of the state is, in its developed form, Christocentric indeed, but Christocentric in a very special way. The authority of the state is seen as “included in the authority of Jesus Christ,” as “an image of him whose Kingdom will be a kingdom of peace without frontiers and without end.” In fact, the entire teaching is a teaching that hinges upon a correspondence between what is “above” with what is “below,” between the “heavenly polis” and the “earthly polis.” The state, Barth insists, must be seen “as an allegory, as a correspondence and an analogue to the Kingdom of God which the Church preaches and believes in”; indeed, it is the Kingdom of God in “an external, relative, and provisional embodiment.” Political action is to be guided by this criterion: “Among the political possibilities open at any particular moment, it [the Church] will choose those which most suggest a correspondence to, an analogy and a reflection of, the content of its own faith and gospel.”

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