Saturday, April 15, 2006
A Catholic Dialogue with Karl Barth: Beginning at the Center
One reader (a good friend of mine) recently asked, "How would a Catholic Anglican articulate a sufficiently Catholic ecclesiology, using Barth's definition?" (See readers comments in my posting "Food for Thought from Barth" http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=25190947&postID=114435868733104750) I've been pondering how I might be able to address this question all week. There is no easy answer without starting at the center and working outward through the implications of Barth's thought -- something that Barth did not live long enough to do completely himself.
The implications are where the rubber meets the road, where the hard work is done, and frankly where I find myself most exasperated with Barth as a dialogue partner. The Catholic reader of Barth discovers very quickly that for all of his erudition and clarity concerning the center of Christian theology Barth turns out to be just a man, and just as conditioned by his time and context as we are by our own. Simply put, Barth and I do not always agree, and certainly not about many things that I as a Catholic thinker hold dear. Nevertheless it is at the center of Barth's theology that one finds the pearl of great price, quite literally, for that center is Christ. And that is where we will begin.
There are two terms from Hunsinger's How to Read Karl Barth (cf. pp. 105-107) that I find quite helpful in my own dialogue with Barth. They are:
(1) "Soteriological objectivism," which refers to the idea that what took place in Jesus Christ avails for all without any exception, and is subject to no human condition or contingency whatsoever. Whatever takes place salvifically in us (e.g., faith etc.) is thoroughly and radically subordinated to what has already taken place for us in Christ.
(2) "Soteriological existentialism," which refers to the idea that though Christ and his work avails for all, no one actively participates in him and his righteousness apart from faith.
As Hunsinger explains: "The real efficacy of the saving work of Christ for all, the absolutely unconditioned and therefore gratuitous character of divine grace in him, the impossibility of actively participating in Christ and his righteousness apart from faith, the absolutely receptive and therefore nonconstitutive character of human faith with respect to salvation -- all these were axiomatic and nonnegotiable for Barth, because he took them to be the assured results of exegesis when the Bible was read christocentrically as a unified and differentiated whole" (p. 106-107).
In this quote we see soteriological objectivism and soteriological existentialism held in tension in Barth's thought. Christ's saving work is for all, not merely as a potentiality but as an ACTUALITY in Christ. There is no human condition that must be met in us to actualize our salvation that has not already taken place for us in Christ. The universality of Christ's work of atonement is upheld more so and more consistently in Barth than in any other thinker that I've come across; and yes, it would be fair to see this as a kind of "universalism." Yet it is a biblical universalism that we see in Barth as he adamently insists that the universal actuality of salvation in Christ be held in tension with the existential moment of salvation in the individual. To be faithful to the Bible is to acknowledge that Scripture clearly teaches that one's active participation in Christ is impossible without faith, and it is obvious that not all do or will come to faith.
When I first understood what Barth was saying, it was like understanding for the first time that the earth revolved around the sun not the sun around the earth. The theological applications of Barth's christocentrism are manifold, and we could hardly do justice to them in one blog entry. Nevertheless, let me just list a couple to get the juices flowing for future discussion:
(1) What implications might there be for the perennial Catholic/Protestant debates on Justification if our justification/sanctification are viewed as actualized realities in Christ?
(2) How does it change our understanding of predestination if election and reprobation are both understood as actualized in Christ?
(3) What do we make of sacramental efficacy in light of soteriological objectivism? Is there any place left for instrumentalism?
(4) How might soteriological objectivism help us better understand the Church's unicity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity (i.e., the Nicene notes) in the context of division, heresy, and schism?
Until next time.