I guess some TRs had gotten nervous because of my promoting McCormack’s understanding of the Trinity and Revelation. And about every Advent season I find myself reading through Church Dogmatics. Not intentionally, it just sort of worked out that way. Still, Barth isn’t the way forward in theology. Mind you, the TR Reformed critiques of Barth are more or less worse than useless. Mike Horton has a good critique. Jim Cassidy’s is alright. Aside from that don’t even bother.
And Barth did get a few things right. We don’t have to accept his “neo-orthodox” (what does that word even mean?) reading of the Bible to realize that the Bible points to Jesus. The Bible isn’t Jesus. To make the Bible a predicate of God’s being is idolatry.
And contra to his critics, Barth didn’t deny simplicity. He just pressed a few weak spots on the formulations and people got nervous. And his doctrine of election forced us to realize we can’t first posit a fully-formed identity of God apart from God’s decision to redeem the world in Jesus (in fact, the doctrine of simplicity won’t even let you do that).
I didn’t like what I was seeing in the Barthian sphere. Barth’s readers broke off into several groups. Most of them were disciples of Thomas Torrance who didn’t tolerate any “different” reading of Barth. And that’s fine. We all want to be disciples of some great teacher. But the rhetoric reminded one of the shrill hysteria of Puritanboard.
Ultimately, I am going to say that Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth is problematic of Christian Orthodoxy. But I am going to say something else: I think his reading of Barth is more or less accurate.
Here’s the problem. McCormack said Barth’s theology necessarily posits that God’s identity is “constituted” by his decision to elect. If true, this seems to mean:
- God came into being via election. Obviously, no one holds this but it is a problem.
- Yet, the eternal generation of the Son is a necessary act yet no one holds that the Logos “came into being” at his generation. So the initial criticism of McCormack simply doesn’t hold water.
- Yet, it does seem to mean that creation is in some sense necessary for God. I do think this criticism is valid. I’ve long said Barth was an Origenist.
At this point the Torrancians are no doubt cheering me on. But here is the problem: Barth said all of this in Church Dogmatics II:1. Specifically, he said Jesus of Nazareth is both Subject and Object of election.
McCormack never denied that Barth was probably contradicting himself. That’s not the point. The point is that Barth said things that the Torrancian/Molnarian school (to coin less than euphonic phrases) didn’t want him to say.
But enough of that. I have more problems with Barth:
- While I don’t think Barth held to the “gnostic view” of “Jesus faith history” vs. real history, he is nonetheless fuzzy on creation.
- Which means, necessarily, he is fuzzy on eschatology. I don’t mean the criticism that he held to universal salvation (I’m not convinced he did). I am not sure he held to any concept of “heaven” at all!
- Even though I am not excited about natural theology, I still agree that we can have cognitive access to God’s manifestation in nature. I have Barth’s commentary on Romans in my car right now (that’s not too strange. I have more books in my car than I do on my “to-read” shelf) and I am shaking my head at his chapter on Romans 1.
- Barthianism seems to straddle an uneasy ground before a full-orbed biblical narrative ontology and a metaphysics. Barth really doesn’t engage with the narrative flow of Scripture (except for parts in II/1). On the other hand, while I understand Barth’s criticism of using metaphysics as a ladder to God apart from God-in-Christ, I am uneasy about ditching metaphysics altogether. If we do that, are we not accidentally positing an entry-point to nihilism? I fear we are.
I will still probably read Barth in the future. But I think there are too many problems with Barth to go forward with him, not to mention the behavior of some of his disciples.