Barth and Ramsey on Political Power

This is a summary of Oliver O’Donovan’s essay of similar title, found in Bonds of Imperfection.  What’s important is not so much the conclusions reached, but how they are reached.

Ramsey: The crux of the difference between pacifists and justifiable-war Christians turns on the person and work of Christ (Ramsey, Speak up for Just War or Pacifism 111, quoted in O’Donovan 247).

  • While this sounds pious and truistic, it has a very precise meaning for both thinkers.
  • For Barth it concerns the proper location of the political order within the covenant of Reconciliation between God and man (OO 251).
  • For Ramsey it means that Christ assumed one common humanity: there is no ontological disjunction between homo politicus and any other kind of man/order.

 

O’Donovan summarizes Barth’s ethics in several stages:

    1. Despite some of Barth’s shifts on election, there is a stable stream of ethical reflection–grudgingly acknowledging the state’s right of force but noting the abnormality of it.

 

  • Romerbrief may be discounted as “anarchist” and “backwater” (O’Donovan 249).

 

  1. Barth’s wartime writings veered closer towards a realist use of the State’s force.  His later writings veered towards a more anabaptist view.
  2. This is because of a dialectic within Barth’s thought that is never fully settled.
  3. This is partly the case because Barth doesn’t (will not?) imagine the possibility of both a peace-state and war-state within the same framework.

Here is where possible confusion arises:  Ramsey will critique “liberals” on pacifism and note they follow Barth.  What does he mean by “liberals?”  I don’t think it is simply “those who reject the Bible.”  I think he has in mind Niebuhrian liberalism.

Paul Ramsey

Key Point: The Legitimate Use of Power

  1. The use of power, including the use of force, is of the esse of politics
  2. The use of power is inseparable from the bene esse of politics.

As a foil, Ramsey will have Barth say:

B3: War should not be seen as a normal, fixed, or necessary part of a just state (CD III/4, p. 456).

Back to Ramsey’s theses.  We may add another

R4: The use of power implies the possible use of force.

Ramsey’s argument presupposes a proper ordo of politics, the connections of iustitia, lex, and ordo.

  • Ordo = the disposition of power.

R5: The cross casts a shadow over politics, not pure light (OO 259).  

Politics, community, and the cross should meet in that area where light and shadow meet.  

R6: “The task of politics is to be a sign of the rule of Christ, disclosing right, preserving community and determining the basis of community in right” (259).

Political reflection based on the gospels should not begin with the Advent, as important as it is, but with the fact that Christ has come in history.  O’Donovan: “He [Messiah] has reached for the crown which will allow no rival crowns beside it.  Because he has come, history has divided into two, its back broken on this outcrop of rock which it cannot negotiate” (260).

Corollary: There is a disjunction within the community of election (visible/invisible church), not in the works of God as such.  

Problems with Barth’s Political Ethics

For Ramsey, God accepts Christ’s regnant new humanity.  For Barth, God rejects the old humanity.  This seems to mean that God also rejects extra-ecclesial orders as such.  When Barth comes to war as such, he does not interact with Just War reasoning but simply lists the evils of the Second World War.

Ramsey can point to “monuments of grace” in such a horror, even to legitimate uses of State force.  Barth can only suggest a delaying action (CD III/4, p. 456).  As a result, notes O’Donovan, Barth “ends up precisely in the place he intended to bypass, in a politics that can only be viewed soberly and not with evangelical faith or hope” (O’Donovan 264).

A Way Forward With Ramsey

Ramsey has what Barth needs: a way to bridge the gap between homo politicus which is redeemed in Christ and homo politicus that is in need of redemption. We are back with the distinction between esse and bene esse.  The latter terms also suggests something along the lines of goal or end. Ramsey is speaking of true political activity.  

Is Barth an Apollinarian?

Ramsey offers a model in which political power is both used appropriately and judged:  the Incarnation, homo assumptus.  This means that Christ takes on the fallen order, including homo politicus.  There is no radical “Other” realm to which Christ has no access.  As O’Donovan notes, “Only so can the homo politicus that is redeemed be the same homo politicus that was in need of redemption” (266).

Barth will not grant this.  But in not granting it, he is partitioning off a section of man’s redemption.  To be fair, Barth resists this temptation in Christology but not in politics.

Who is Ramsey’s “Liberal?”

A liberal for Ramsey is one who splits politics and military doctrine.

Liberalism for O’Donovan: the inadequacy of every human attempt to render justice.  A magistrate’s power should be limited.    Therefore, power is suspect but necessary (270).

What does Ramsey mean by Just War and International Politics?  So, O’Donovan: “The international sphere was a constitutional vacuum, but by no means a moral or political vacuum” 271). Ramsey suspects there is a continuum that links violent with nonviolent resistance. Indeed, is not democracy justum bellum (Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience, 126)?  Jesus never said to resist evil by ballot boxes.

 

Are there then two Trinities?

I originally wrote this when some Neo-Torrancians were making hit and run attacks against McCormack, so it was initially a defense of McCormack.  My own position has changed much, so I will go ahead and offer the conclusion:

(5) McCormack’s actualism borders on Origenism.

(5*) Notwithstanding, McCormack read Barth correctly.

The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner now-famous rule–The Immanent Trinity is the Economic Trinity–has created an uneasy tension in Western theology.  The ontological Trinity is usually defined as “God in himself” apart from any God-world relation.  The economic Trinity is God’s deciding and acting to save the world in Jesus Christ (and it doesn’t matter which confessional gloss you put on this).  

I understand the resistance to Rahner’s Rule.  If we identify the two formulations, then it makes the God-world relationship necessary and this is clearly wrong.  On the other hand, if the E/T and I/T aren’t identical, then we have two Trinities–and this, too, is wrong.  Sure, one could salvage the doctrine by saying that the assumption of human nature doesn’t affect the divine nature (though one wonders if it would affect the divine person?)

Q1: Is God in himself different from God-for-us?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at Leibniz’s Law:

(x)(y)[(x=y)—>(P)(Px<–>Py)]

For any x, and for any y, if they are identical to each other, then for any property P, P will be true of x iff P is true of y.

To put it negatively, if the two entities have different properties, then they aren’t the same thing.  

Q2:  Is there a Property that I/T has that E/T doesn’t?

There is a way to get around this, I suppose.  One could say that the action of begetting the Son isn’t a property.  I don’t think this works, though.  The early fathers specifically defined the identity of the Father (and the Persons in general) in terms of their specific properties.

But this is a definition of the properties of the Immanent Trinity, not the economical.  True, the Father does not beget the Son in time or with a relation to the world.   Thomas Aquinas came close to solving this problem by saying that the missions contain the processions.  This must be affirmed at the very least.  If we don’t affirm this, then the E/T becomes unhinged from the I/T and we have two trinities (and maybe six gods).

Barth took it a step further and said the missions contain the processions because the processions include the missions.

Q3: Does God pre-exist his act?

This is what bothers people about McCormack’s claim that for Barth (or maybe not for Barth; maybe we can just pretend this is a truth-claim) that election constitutes God’s identity.  It seems, so they read, that there is a hidden premise:

Q3*: If election constitutes God’s being, then did God pre-exist his decision to exist?

Admittedly, if this objection obtains it is a devastating one.  But McCormack said if this objection obtains here, then what happens when we apply it across the board

Q3’ Did the Father pre-exist the Son prior to the act of begetting?

Of course, Q3’ is unacceptable in theology.  People will say it is an eternal and spiritual act.  I agree.  This doesn’t mean that the claim election constitutes God’s being holds, but only that it is logically coherent (if you hold to eternal begetting/procession).

There is a precedence, of course, but it is a logical one, not a temporal or causal one.  Thomas Aquinas joins knowing and willing (and in a different way, so does McCormack, 2009, p. 121).  Both Thomas and McCormack join knowing and willing in the divine processions (though McCormack says that God’s self-knowing takes place in the event of revelation).  The only difference is that McCormack gives the missions a heavier logical role than otherwise, but even then he doesn’t actually identify the two (p.122).

Q4: Are my critics more McCormackian than I am? It would appear so.

A Tale of Two Metaphysics

To wax hippie and postmodern for a moment, this is a “journey” of a post, more than a philosophical one.  Every year I go back and forth between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.  This seems to correlate with my reading of Barth.

Ultimately, I don’t care which school is right.  They are tools, not goals.  Which one advances the kingdom better?  Which one gives a better picture of God (oops, Wittgensteinian slip)?

And I don’t have a good answer. But maybe I can point out strengths and weaknesses and show where the church can be spiritually bettered.

Continental Philosophy

To navigate modern discussions, you have to deal with Hegel.  Plain and simple.  This doesn’t mean you are a “liberal” or a “pantheist.”  It just means you are doing responsible scholarship. And it means you have to engage a certain vocabulary (the “Other,” “positing,” etc).  Nothing wrong with that but not necessarily easy.

One of the advantages is that Continental Philosophy seems to merge easily with other disciplines, like literature.  This gives it an immediate relevance that analytic philosophy seems to lack.  On the other hand, I am not always sure I know what they are saying.30665548

Analytic Philosophy

Analytic philosophy is clear, precise, and similar to doing mental exercise. I just feel sharper when I am done reading guys like Plantinga.  And I didn’t always know that analytic philosophy of today is not the same thing as of earlier generations.  Earlier analytic models thought reality (or clarity or meaning) was obtainable simply by asking the question, “Well what do you mean by that?”  Ask it enough and you arrive at meaning (or get punched in the face).

The more dangerous implication is that things are truly knowable only in the abstract and not in systems of relations.  This is deleterious for Christian theism.

But even guys like Ayer realized that was a dead-end.

After the Plantinga revolution, Christian philosophers started using many of the tools of analytic philosophy, without necessarily committing themselves to earlier conclusions–and the results are often amazing.  See especially Plantinga’s Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom, and Evil.

One of the problems, though, is that analytic guys are perceived (whether this is fair or not) as having a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to the history of doctrine.  I will come back to that point.

Biola and Calvin College:  Can They Meet?

I single out Biola and Calvin as two respective representatives of the above tradition.  Biola boasts of luminaries like JP Moreland and William L. Craig.  The “Calvin tradition” is represented by James K. A. Smith.  And both streams have done outstanding work. Even more, analytic guys like Moreland are able to tie philosophical analysis in with the “spiritual disciplines” movement, Renovare.  Here is great promise but also great danger.

Renovare

This is the brainchild of Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline.  On a practical level, much of it is quite good.  The idea that bodily disciplines break bad habits is just good, practical psychology (I got accused by a powerful Gnostic Magus on Puritanboard of denying the gospel for that sentence).

But…there is almost zero discernment in these guys.  They will take handfuls of Pentecostal, Quaker, Catholic, and Reformed spirituality and just mix ’em together.

Nevertheless…My prayer life improved from following Moreland’s advice.

Calvin Cultural Liturgies

James K. A. Smith has found himself the sparring partner of what is known as the “Biola School.”  Smith’s thesis–which I think is fundamentally correct–is that we aren’t simply “brains on a stick.”  We are embodied and liturgies, to be effective, must engage the whole person.  (I also got accused of denying the gospel on Puritanboard for that statement.  )

We will come back to that statement.

Smith, however, takes his apologetic in a different realm.  While I agree with Smith that “postmodernism” doesn’t just mean “Denying absolute truth” (what does that statement even mean?), I fear that Smith’s cultural applications do not escape the worst of postmodern, low-brow culture. Further, Smith is weak on the doctrine of the soul (in some of his cultural liturgies books he uses “brain” when he should be saying “mind”).

Is that evident at Calvin College?  Rumors abound that Calvin is gutting some of its biblical language programs, and Calvin has invited homosexual speakers in the past.  Make fun of Vineyard and Biola all you want, but I don’t think that has happened.

It is not that Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project is wrong.  I think much of it is quite insightful and I eagerly await his volume on Augustine, but I am nervous where the applications are going.

To be fair to Smith, though, and to Continental Philosophy, they have been more attentive to the history of philosophy (and perhaps, history of doctrine)

Possible Overlap

I do see some areas of overlap with Smith and Moreland

  1. Both believe in Jesus’s Kingdom Power for today
  2. Both believe in the body’s importance in spiritual disciplines

What should we do?

In the end, I side with Moreland.  We need analytic philosophy’s discipline and precision.  While both Smith and Moreland believe in Kingdom Power and bodily disciplines, the latter’s “cultural” applications are far more responsible.

A penultimate bye to Barth

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).

But…

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.

T. F. Torrance (Intellectual Biography)

This book is divided into two parts: a brief treatment of Torrance’s life and an examination of his thought. His parents were missionaries to China and fostered a deep piety and evangelistic zeal in the young Torrance. Torrance grew up reading the bible through each year. His dad could repeat the Psalms and Romans by heart.

T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography

Of particular interest is Torrance’s lectureships in America, ironically at liberal institutions. They were not ready for his evangelistic style of lecturing. Auburn Theological Seminary (largely liberal) invited a 25 year old Thomas Torrance to guest lecture. He ended up evangelizing his students on the deity of Christ. He was invited to teach at Princeton University but they told him it was to be a neutral atmosphere and that he shouldn’t get involved with the students religious beliefs.
Torrance: I make no such promises. He was hired nonetheless.

McGrath skillfully makes use of unpublished mss and shows us a very interesting side of Torrance. Torrance’s life often borders on a heroism found in novels.

His Thought

Was Torrance a “Barthian?” No. As he made powerfully clear to Donald Macleod he was an “Athanasian” before he was a Barthian. Nevertheless, Torrance’s legacy is connected with Barth’s.

On the reception of Barth

No one is a pure Barthian. McGrath notes the numerous difficulties in Barth’s reception in the English-speaking world. This narrative takes place within Torrance’s “cold war” with John Baillie. McGrath quotes A. Cheyne in suggesting four different ways someone could “receive” Barth’s teachings:

1. Superficial influence, but largely unchanged and staying within the liberal tradition
2. Entire outlook affected but withheld ultimate approval.
3. real but cautious admirers.
4. Uncritical admirers (Alec Cheyne, “The Baillie Brothers,” in Fergusson, Church and Society, 3-37, 33, quoted in McGrath, 89).

McGrath notes that Barth wasn’t well-received in the Scandinavian Lutheran countries, given Barth’s firm commitment to Reformed Christology. Barth took longer to make headroads into Anglican because, as McGrath ruefully muses, Anglicanism didn’t have much of a dogmatic center (McGrath 122-123). This was not the case in Presbyterian Scotland, which in many ways was a dogmatic center!

McGrath lists four criteria that must be in place if a foreign thinker like Barth is to make headway:
1. Competent translations of the most important works into the new language.
2. A journal dedicated to sympathetic viewpoints.
3. A publishing house which is prepared to handle primary and secondary material.
4. A platform where a rising generation may be influenced.

Torrance’s thought is a Reformed reworking of Athanasius’s insight that the homoousion–the oneness of being between Father and Son–means a oneness of Being-in-Act in God’s saving and revealing himself to us. The doctrine of the Trinity is an outcome of an intellectual engagement with God kata physin. “The nature of God was disclosed to be such that Trinitarian thinking was the only appropriate response to the reality thus encountered” (161). Scientific realism allows direct correlations between self-revelation of God and God himself.

McGrath breaks new ground in shedding light on a key tension in Torrance’s so-called “Barthianism.” Can there be a positive relation between God’s self-revelation and a bare natural theology? Maybe. Problem: If all theology proceeds from God’s self-revelation in Christ, then where can natural theology fit (185)?

Early Torrance: “revelation is an act in which God confronts us with his person, in which he imparts himself” (Torrance, Christian Doctrine of Revelation, 32, Auburn lectures). If this is the case, how can man “reason upwards to God?” Again, and as always, the solution is found in Athanasius. Knowledge of God and knowledge of the world share the same foundations in the rationality of God the creator.
1. God is in possession of an intrinsic rationality–the divine logos.
2. That logos has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, so that Christology becomes the key to accessing the inner rationality of God.
3. the divine rationality is also seen in the created order, in which the divine logos can be discerned at work in the contingent yet ordered nature of the world.
4. Creation (1-3) makes natural theology possible.

The book is magnificent. Its rather foreboding price prevents it from being an otherwise perfect introduction to Torrance’s thought

Frame: Neo-Orthodoxy

I can only deal with Barth in this post. Others will follow.

If there is one single chapter in this book that is just bad, it is this one.  I am not trying to defend NeoO (in fact, I share Frame’s problems with Tillich and I can take it a step further), but he took cheap shots on Barth and failed to get at the heart of the matter.

He says the critics “Must face the task of explaining away what Barth appears to say in my quotations” (Frame 366).  This is easy: we don’t agree with Barth on all points.  Further, we can acknowledge Barth said this, but he said this under specific horizons.

He advances the typical rejection that Barth says the Bible becomes God’s word “from time to time.” Let’s try to look at something first.  When we see the phrase “revelation” or “God’ Word” in the Bible, does it univocally means the enscripturated canon?  Of course not.  This should take some pressure off of Barth.

But here is a bigger point:  Can “God’s Word” be a predicate of a creaturely entity?  No, it cannot it–otherwise you divinize that creature.  Not surprisingly, Barth’s Reformed Christology controls his doctrine of Scripture–as it should.

Frame calls Barth “an extreme nominalist” (367).  This is just false.

When Barth talks about dialectical unveiling, it means that God is indirectly identical with the medium of his self-revelation.  God makes himself present in the Word, but there is also a veiling of God in the flesh of Christ.

Frame writes: “This view of Scripture encourages us to hear  the Bible tentatively, selectively, critically” (370).  This is just silly.  It encouraged Bonhoeffer to die.

When Barth talks about Geschicte, he doesn’t mean a gnostic “not-quite-real” history.  He means that salvation and revelation come from God’s realm of reality and do not arise from within creaturely reality.  In other words, Pelagianism is false.

In conclusion, Frame focuses all of his attention, with a few exceptions, on CD I.1.  This leads to a distorted picture of Barth.  The reader is encouraged to read any random essay by Bruce McCormack for a better picture.