Thursday, March 14, 2013

What Makes Barth's thought Dialectical?

Since Bruce McCormack's work on Barth, one should read Barth less as a representative of neo-orthodoxy and more of a modern/orthodox thinker.  Kenneth Oakes recently even sees no problem in calling him orthodox/liberal because of Barth's continual use of the theoretical format he learned from the Neo-Kantians and Wilhelm Herrmann specifically.

McCormack has insisted that Barth was a dialectically critical-realistic (Realdialektik) theologian.  God's existence is the transcendent real that humans come in contact in a dialectically veiled/unveiled revelation with God as both the Object (Sache) and Subject of the matter.  Barth interpreter Paul La Montagne lists 7 points to illustrate what exactly this means:

1. Barth takes God's existence and God's self-revelation for granted.
2. His theology is nonfoundationalist (not anti).
3. His theology is critical and self-critical (This is a KEY point often ignored by Barth's readers).
4. We cannot speak of God, but we refer to God in our theology.
5. Our knowledge of God is mediated and indirect.
6. Our language of God is fallible; it is actualistic witness at its best.
7. Theology as a science is of a hypothetical character.


  1. Hey Michael,
    Thanks for this handy post. I find Gunton's interpretation of Barth interesting in light of #4-#7. Gunton seems to think that Barth believes we have real, noetic knowledge of God, which goes quite beyond any claim to mere "hypothetical" knowledge. Perhaps Gunton is mis-reading (or diagnosing, applying) the terms "noetic" and "actualistic."

    Also, if you're interested, to fill the lacuna I've started a Balthasar blog: Maybe check it out from time to time, if you want.

  2. Great, Trent! I sure will check it out!

  3. Hey Michael, what is La Montagne mean exactly when he says that theology as science is hypothetical? It would seem to me that in 1/1 as well as the Gottingen Dogmatics Barth considers theology a science in and of itself, a hard science not to be subject to other sciences.

    I think what really makes Barth dialectical is his conception of history. History for Barth is not grounded in an either/or conception of time and eternity, history, for Barth, is rather grounded in the actuality or "becoming" of persons. Thus, there is a careful preservation between what some might consider ontological incoherence. This so-called incoherence is ontologically preserved in a model of simultaneity in distinction. What happens on both the level of imminence and economy provide not distinct ontological features, but holistic ones.

  4. Andrew,

    Here is his quote:

    Theology has something like the hypothetical character of the sciences. Our attempts at interpretation are an essay. The philosophy we use in approaching the reading of the scripture can only have the character of an hypothesis. We are guided by the confessions in our reading of Scripture, but the confessions have something like the character of an hypothesis. The confession is the authority of the Church, to which its members are bound to listen. But the confession has only a preliminary significance, which is always subject to revision in the light of "such further discussions as become necessary" in which the confession is "again questioned, transcended and corrected by the Word of God as newly read and understood." And the confession which has this preliminary significance is itself the product of the hearing of the word of God in the text of the Scripture. It is Barth's dialectical attitude towards theology that gives our theological formulations the character of hypotheses. We do not know in advance what God will say when God speaks. Our act of going again to the Scripture for a fresh hearing of the word of God is an exploration into the unknown. And so the theology we take with us on that exploration is always hypothetical relative to what God may do and say.

  5. By the way, the name of his essay is "Critical Realism as a Context for Barth's Dialectical Theology"

  6. That is helpful to see the quote, and his assertions makes good sense. I will have to check out the text.