Justification by Faith and the Theologian in History

barthFor all the revolutionary claims made about his program, Karl Barth was a historically-minded dogmatician. In section after section of small print paragraphs, Barth will frequently canvas sources from a broad swathe of church history, from the Fathers, through the Medievals, Reformers, down on into the present of his contemporary interlocutors. What’s more, while he makes no bones about disagreeing (strongly) with them when he sees fit, he’s generally quite respectful, quite careful, quite measured in his judgments about his historical forebears.

Some of the working theology behind that approach can be found in another of the small print paragraphs in his discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity (CD 1/1 &9, 377-378). I thought reviewing it in chunks might be helpful for those of us doing theological work today.

First, Barth notes the importance of recognizing the Church has always done its theology as a human institution, that is to say, in the middle of the muddle of sinful history, including the history of the trinitarian controversies:

In the dogmatic and theological history of every age, not excluding that of Protestantism, secular factors have played a part which tends to cover over all else. For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints.

Often-times, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we tell church history. All too often it has been a story of white hats and black hats, with the white hats always managing to defend the Orthodoxy we know and love, never fighting dirty to get there. The danger in this is that we set ourselves up to base our attitude toward the tradition on its utter purity.

In other words, Barth says that it’s good for us to understand that Athanasius’ disputes with the anti-Nicenes weren’t simple theological debates carried on with only the cleanest, lily-white gloves. He may not be the brawler and bully more recent, cynical skeptics would like to portray, but there was plenty of political struggle, maneuvering, and wrangling involved.

Indeed, he says that for us to be dismayed and thereby write him off for that reason wouldn’t be very Protestant:

Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every king, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of an in this worldliness.

Here Barth deploys the doctrine of justification by faith against what we might call a perfectionist, over-realized eschatology.

There’s a very common tendency nowadays that when we start to find out that our theological heroes in the faith were human–dreadfully human, at times–we write them off in toto as possible sources of instruction in the faith. Or, the flip-side of this attitude, of course, is to deny that what these people did was really, truly sinful.

Yes, we’ll admit that all are sinners saved by grace, and so every theologian is necessarily a sinner, but really, if there were politics involved, or theologian X really was a mean cuss, or a sexist, or a racist, or ended up an adulterer, or…then, no, we can’t really expect them to have insight into the Scriptures, or the faith.

Barth’s invocation of the doctrine of justification by faith, though, is a reminder that salvation in union with Christ is a dynamic reality encompassing the now and not-yet of the Kingdom of God. Every theologian and every age of theology is simul iustus et peccator–the object of God’s saving work in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, but at the same time subject to the corruption of the flesh and indwelling sin.

Of course, there is a to be a link-up between life and doctrine, standards for teachers within the Church, and so forth. But Barth’s realism sounds a salutary note for us to pump the brakes on our perfectionism that would prevent us from recognizing the gracious work of illumination even in the lives of God’s flawed saints (and seasons within the Church). If sinners couldn’t learn or mediate truth from the Scriptures, theology would be dead.

Barth then turns a corner and expands the point further with respect to the way we evaluate previous Church interaction with the intellectual and philosophical culture surrounding it. Prior to this section, Barth was engaging the sort of objection to Trinitarian doctrine that makes great hay out of the fact that the Fathers used terminology, concepts, etc. from drawn Plotinian or Aristotelian sources. The “Greek charge“, if you will.

The same may be said about the indisputable connexion of the dogma with the philosophy of the age. By proving philosophical involvement we can reject the confessions and theology of any age and school, and we can do this the more effectively the less we see the beam in our own eye. For lingustically theologians have always depended on some philosophy and linguistically they always will. But instead of getting Pharisaically indignant about this and consigning whole periods to the limbo of a philosophy that is supposed to deny the Gospel–simply because our own philosophy is different–it is better to stick strictly to the one question what the theologians of earlier periods were really trying to say in the vocabulary of their philosophy.

Barth exhibits a humble wisdom here. His point is very simple. Yes, you can probably find a connection between the theology of any period and the philosophy of its time. People have to speak using the language of their time, the intellectual milieu, and so forth.

But this is true of every period–including Barth’s own (and our own). In which case, simply noting that the Fathers or the Medievals used the language and concepts of Aristotle to exposit the faith, doesn’t thereby disqualify them. Nobody can simply carry out a pure, biblical dogmatics, simply sticking to Scriptural conceptualities and language unless they’re simply repeating the text of Scripture (in the original languages, mind you).

In fact, our ability to spot the non-Biblical “philosophy” poking out in the works of earlier ages is likely the result of our own philosophical tendencies drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from our own milieu. We can spot the Aristotelianism so glaringly likely because of our post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, etc. lenses. (And for the record, I have never understood why I am supposed to prefer Hegel over Aristotle).

Instead, we should take these ages and thinkers seriously on their own terms,  figure out as best we can what Biblical issues they were grappling with, and accord them the same respect and care we would hope others would take with our own age and thought. And then critique them on the merits, if we must. But we ought not simply assume that just because a certain philosophical conceptuality is used, the Spirit could not be at work to illumine the work of the Church to stumble onto an essential dogmatic truth. Must we not consider the simul iustus et peccator here as well?

A final caution in this section.

Caution is especially demanded when we insist the differences in the so-called piety of different periods and therefore claim that the piety out of which the dogma of the Trinity arose was completely different from our own piety with its sober focus, as they said some years ago, on “worldview and morality.” What right have we to regard our own piety, even if its agreement with the Reformation and the New Testament seem ever so impeccable, as the only piety that is possible in the Church, and therefore to exalt it as a standard by which to measure the insights of past ages? Let us be sure of our own cause as far as we can. But the antithetical rigidity especially in evaluating the subjective religion of others is something against which we can only issue a warning.

Here Barth is clearly speaking to the temptations of theologians in his own day, who were tempted to moralize doctrine and therefore have little time for “metaphysical” doctrines like the Trinity. But the material caution is relevant.

There is a dangerous tendency to separate our age, our values, our spirituality, our theological concerns and contexts out from the rest of history as the standard of relevance to which all other ages must be held up and measured. As if our age’s questions were the most important, as if our emphases are the right emphases, as if in our day we have reached a sort of eschatological moment that has decisive influence for the way all theology afterwards must be pursued.

Yes, history happens, and so there is a sense in which we cannot simply reverse the flow of history to an earlier period in order to completely ignore questions that have been raised since that time. But we should not cultivate the sense that the Enlightenment (or postmodernity, etc.) is some Rubicon beyond after which the “old answers” simply won’t or can’t do the job anymore. Or more positively, that “after theologian X” (maybe even Barth himself?), if we are truly aware of their epochal significance, we must recognize that we live in an absolutely new theological age. Barth cautions us against this myopia.

Though we strive for fidelity to God in the particular challenges of the contemporary age–its spirituality, its dialogue partners–the contemporary theologian, just as that of every other age of the church, is simul iustus et peccator, is still justified by faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

7 thoughts on “Justification by Faith and the Theologian in History

  1. Isn’t it always going to be true that we can “know them by their fruits”? If we or others engage or have engaged in “power over” “lordship” strategies and practices there is, I think, good reason to question and doubt the validity of the calling and content of those behaviors.

  2. Derek you wrote:

    In fact, our ability to spot the non-Biblical “philosophy” poking out in the works of earlier ages is likely the result of our own philosophical tendencies drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from our own milieu. We can spot the Aristotelianism so glaringly likely because of our post-Kantian, post-Hegelian, etc. lenses. (And for the record, I have never understood why I am supposed to prefer Hegel over Aristotle).

    I’m not sure, though, among the evangelicals, who is claiming that Aristotle shouldn’t be preferred over moderns. The circles you run in in fact, I would contend, suffer from one extreme over the other. That’s not to say that can’t be reformed, but thus far I don’t see it.

    • Bobby,
      The circles I run in are probably wider than you know. But just off the top of my head: Van Tillians, Revisionist theists of various stripes , biblical studies types of various sorts, etc. might complain about Aristotle/The Greeks from various angles.

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