With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Barth, Sin, and Analogy

Keith Johnson has a thorough and well-argued piece in Modern Theology ("Reconsidering Barth's Rejection of Przywara's Analogia Entis," Modern Theology 26:4, Oct. 2010, pp.632-650) attempting to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the Barth-analogy of being debate. I imagine this is a compact version of his book-length study, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2010), though I have yet to read the latter. I highly recommend the essay: as far as I can tell, Johnson has done all of the leg work needed to pin down what Barth did and did not grasp about Przywara's teaching. One of Johnson's main arguments is that Barth did in fact understand what Przywara was saying (contra John Betz) and his later adoption of a "kind" of analogy does not renege on his early criticisms. As I see it, however, the really interesting claim contained in Johnson's argument is this: the disagreement between Barth and Przywara (and conceivably Balthasar, Rahner, Gilson, Maritain, et al.) on the analogia entis is in principle reducible to Catholic and Reformed disagreements over the effects of sin. If this is in fact the case, for Catholics the discussion about Barth's views on the matter is, it seems, radically relativized: whatever version of the analogy Barth adopts in the more developed sections of the Dogmatics, it cannot actually satisfy Catholics and cannot succeed in grasping why Catholics think it important; just as for the Barthians, any reformulation of the analogy that continues to pay homage to Catholic teaching on sin remains an idol worthy of the hammer. Which is to say, from a Catholic perspective (somewhat vindicating Betz), Barth does misunderstand the analogia entis, not because of a failure to read the primary sources, but simply in virtue of being deeply mistaken about the effects of sin on human nature. Barth would in fact be correct to realize that the analogia entis is incompatible with his Reformed position on fallen humanity, but wrong to see this as a reason for rejecting the analogy rather than as a reason for rejecting his own teaching on sin. If then this former rejection is intimately tied to Protestantism (as Barth thought), for Catholics this would only solidify the point that (flipping Barth's famous maxim on its head) the analogy of being is the most compelling reason for not becoming a Protestant.

I'll let Johnson's words carry most of the weight here:
Barth’s argument on this point stems from his conviction that, in light of sin, humans have no ability to know anything about God or their relationship with God on the basis of God’s act of creation alone. Rather, for him, human existence must be “taken up, negated and transformed” by a new act distinct from the act of creation. This is why Barth cannot accept Przywara’s claim that “revelation does not destroy but supports and perfects reason”. For Barth, to talk about human reason at all is to talk about fallen human reason. That which we know on the basis of our reason, he argues, leaves us locked in a prison of “distance, alienation and hostility”, because our reason is governed at every moment by the fallenness and inwardness of sinful human nature. To know God, therefore, we need a completely new Word. The necessity of this second and distinct Word, because it is addressed to sinners, means that the doctrine central to the knowledge of God is not creation but justification. [p.640]
Note that here the concern for a "new act distinct from the act of creation" carries not only the connotation of novelty, but of opposition. I rather doubt that Barth thought the Catholic position was simply modernism is guise; that it actually denied the distinction between the orders of nature and grace. Rather, the concern is that Przywara's understanding of what's new in the act of justification is too continuous with nature.
This is the problem: Barth believes that God’s saving action is not merely supplemental to human action; it is opposed to human action. When God acts, he argues, he establishes “a barrier against all that is our own action”, and he does so because humans are utterly dead in their sins. Sin is not merely a “disturbance” that exists at one moment but then “can quite as easily be . . . removed again” by an infusion of grace. Rather, Barth says, God’s grace “cuts against the grain of our existence all through”. The sinful human and God exist in an “irreconcilable contradiction” with one another, and there can be no continuity between the actions of one and the actions of the other. [p.641]
If Johnson is descriptively accurate here (I defer to my Barthian friend), then I cannot begin to describe how deeply I disagree with Barth's position. Surely such a hyperbolic and totalizing vision of alienation bears the mark of the Antichrist more fittingly than any version of the analogy of being. A radical equivocity, it seems, is inscribed within this understanding (dare I say deification) of the power of sin, such that any "vindicated" concept of analogy that Barth adopts must in principle bend a knee before it. I cannot abide such worship.

Like his students, Barth believes that Przywara’s account of the analogia entis fails to account for the reality of human sin, because Przywara sees the human relationship with God as a constantly-available feature of human existence that occurs because humans have their created being by participation in God’s being. For Przywara, grace must be seen “doubly”—that is, it must be seen both in God’s act of creation and in God’s act of justification—and this is why he can speak of God’s revelation in creation as standing in continuity with the revelation in the Church that fulfills and perfects it. It is also the reason why he believes that what can be known of God by means of philosophical reflection upon created human existence stands in continuity with what is known through divine revelation in the Church. [p.641]
Here, it seems, Barth- and his students- gets Przywara right. But...
For Barth, however, this construal means that human action stands in continuity with God’s saving action, because what the human can know and do naturally is perfected and fulfilled by what God reveals and does in Jesus Christ. For him, grace cannot be seen “doubly”; it must be viewed strictly in terms of God’s reconciling act in Christ. God’s relationship with humanity, he says, is not a function of “an original endowment” given to the creature in creation, but a “second miracle in addition to the miracle of [the creature’s] own existence”. [p.641]
Again, note that for Catholic theology, God's relationship to humanity expressed in the order of grace is not simply "a function" of "an original endowment" given in the order of creation/nature. It is, as much as Barth's notion, a second miracle genuinely distinct from creation: God's self-revelation in history is not just a different way of reiterating the basic truths of natural theology. The difference implied here is that of an oppositional relationship between the first and second miracles.
In sum: Barth rejects Przywara’s analogia entis because he is unwilling to accept the notion that what we can know of God from God’s act of creation stands in continuity with what we know of God through God’s justifying act in Jesus Christ. This kind of continuity is unacceptable, he believes, because it overlooks the effect of sin. This conclusion stems from Barth’s and Przywara’s divergent views of the nature of divine revelation. For Przywara, God’s revelation in Christ presupposes his revelation in creation, and the former does not cancel out the latter. Conversely, for Barth, revelation is strictly God’s Word to sinners in Jesus Christ. Fallen humans do not retain any natural fitness for a relationship with God, nor do they have anything to contribute to it by virtue of their createdness. Rather, Barth says, they will be “made fit by God for God” as God relates to them in his specific, moment-by-moment, revelation in his Word, received by the power of the Holy Spirit. Any relationship humans have with God, therefore, stems from their justification in Christ alone—not the fact that they are creatures who have
their being by participation in God’s being. [p.642]
As late as Church Dogmatics II/1, Barth has yet to address this problem, because in this volume, he still rejects the notion of an intrinsic analogy between God and the human because he believes it opens the door to the existence of the kind of continuity between God and humanity that prompted him to reject Przywara’s analogia entis. He thus argues in CD II/1 that any analogy must be extrinsic to humans—that is, it does not occur on the basis of something in the human, but rather, it happens to the human in the event of revelation. [p.644].
Barth is right to note that Balthasar signals a kind of "Christological renaissance" (p.642) in Catholic theology (though Balthasar himself found precedents for Barth's Christocentrism among Catholic thinkers of his own generation). Yet if Johnson is right, then Catholics should remain suspect that Barth goes quiet in the face of later, more theological reformulations of the analogia entis (i.e. situating the analogy of being within a more foundational analogy of faith). This is because presumably Barth would only temper his critique if he thought that the reformulations of analogy actually committed their Catholic adherents to a much more totalizing conception of human sin. This is why I think Thomists in general have resisted the attempt to ground the analogia entis in an analogia fidei, and are far less worried about the consequences of the analogy's philosophical pedigree. Surely any version that does accommodate itself to Barth's oppositional view of God's grace and human nature contradicts itself from the get-go: it will ultimately remain a dialectical "No" to humanity masquerading as an analogy of being.

I think this can be seen in Barth's attempt, noted by Johnson, to let an extrinsic analogy (based on justification, or God's covenant election prior to creation) do the work that the analogy of being is meant to do. At the end of the day, it simply can't do that. By refusing to accept an enduring analogy in the very structure of human nature, ontologically speaking, Barth's position denies the very possibility of salvation. If continuity is only established in virtue of an extrinsic relation, something that happens to humanity, everything about man qua man (qua God's creation) remains fundamentally incompatible with God; sin has gone to man's very core and clings so tightly to his essence that corruption- depravity- becomes practically definitional of man. But once you make this move, you can't actually describe God's act of justification as something that happens "to" humanity: such a description would require some principle that remains structurally the same across the two conditions, in virtue of which "fallen man" and "justified man" can both be identified as human. But this is precisely the continuity that Barth's account of sin denies. If sin goes so deep as to destroy any capacity of man for God given in creation, then grace cannot transfigure nature but only destroy it and create something else in its stead. There would be absolutely no ontological continuity between fallen and re-created humanity (the word "re-creation" is even misleading, since it would not even result in the creation of the same thing). This is precisely to deny that God can redeem humanity: all he can do is repeat the gesture of the Flood and destroy my sinful soul, and afterward create an entirely different being in my place (since this time, there can be no ark). This is, however, the gesture God promised never to repeat.

Hence, the traditional Catholic concern to deny that sin goes "all the way down." If it becomes so totalizing as to blur important ontological distinctions, then you actually end up blurring the distinction between the cross of Christ and the waters of chaos. The analogy of being is precisely what allows one to keep those lines from being blurred.

Pax Christi,


  • At 1/17/2011 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    If Barth's rejection of the analogia entis implies a doctrine of sin that is too destructive, do you think the analogia entis, taken on its own, could lead us too far in the other direction, i.e., toward a doctrine of sin that is not sufficiently grave?

    One of the strengths of Balthasar's use of the analogy of being is that he combines it with a more serious engagement with human sinfulness than one finds in Przywara's text. It seems to me that the sort of ecumenical rapprochement that Balthasar tried to inaugurate between Przywara and Barth provides room to critique the analogia entis for its dangers without forsaking it altogether.

    I think, if we're going to defend the analogia entis today, we've got to do so without reigniting the inter-denominational polemics of the first part of the twentieth century--which may mean being willing to grant that Barthian worries are not entirely without basis, even if one decides that they are too extreme.

  • At 1/17/2011 7:13 PM, Blogger W. Travis McMaken said…

  • At 1/19/2011 6:17 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Your point about the polemics is well taken. The tone was meant to be playfully polemic only. I do think that if Johnson's interpretation is correct (which seems to call into question Balthasar's)then articulating the radical differences on the doctrinal issues can be a first step for an ecumenical approach. Indeed, I think it a necessary one, and precision need not exclude charity by any means. If this dimension of the debate isn't adequately diagnosed, then Catholics and Barthians are bound to talk past each other; and whether they are doing so in a polemical or a kindly tone will no longer make much difference.

    I do acknowledge that Barth's worries had and continue to have currency. However, I'm rather unconvinced that these worries either 1) necessarily follow from the analogy's inner logic; or 2) are somehow exclusive to Barth.

    The strong claim would be that the analogia entis necessarily constitutes idolatry. This is significantly more than a mere worry, and it is a position I think has been thoroughly refuted. The weaker claim would be that the analogia entis potentially constitutes idolatry. But if one admits this, as I do, then it seems to make the criticism drastically unoriginal and little more than a reminder to be careful with one's concepts. I'd be open then to arguments for why the analogia entis is somehow in itself more likely to be misunderstood and taken to be the kind of thing it actually protects against (in a word, ontotheology). But I don't see why it should be especially singled out here, as any concept employed in theology is potentially idolatrous. Idolatry, in the end, has far more to do with the thinker than it does the thought. I don't think the analogy has any more claim to this status than, say, Barth's earlier rhetoric of "alienation." Or even his analogy of relation: to paraphrase Fr. White, key Barthian terms like "relation," "actuality," and "extrinsic" are all metaphysically loaded terms, ones which he modifies so as to prevent confusion with their typical meanings. But are they any less likely to produce straw-men than the analogia entis? In fact, if one denies an analogy in the structure of being, use of terms like these is almost certainly going to fall into equivocity or univocity.

    In other words, I'm reluctant to give Barthians too much credit for the critique, either because 1) its based on other theological commitments I'm committed to not committing to; or 2) it's nothing unique to the analogia entis, and to think it is would be to miss what's really at stake.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 1/20/2011 4:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for writing back. I think you raise lots of interesting points. But instead of trying to talk anymore in this forum, I hope we can actually talk about Przywra in person at some point (I hear there may be a DR going on, so perhaps I can meet up with you guys sometime this semester).

    In any case, you have inspired me to share my own two cents about the analogia entis:


  • At 1/23/2011 1:09 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Pat -

    You GOTS to alert me to when you post on the blog - esp. when it is on this particular topic.

    One quick, and rather elementary, criticism of Barth (as far as he is presented in your post and the text to which you refer): if Barth's position is accurate, and if we were to follow his theo-logic, then how could there be any trust, whether ontological or epistemological, between the fallen sinner and any attempt to mediate his fallen state?

    In other words, if Barth's equivocation is as fierce as it appears here, then it follows that there can be no mediation whatsoever! Even if God, in Christ Jesus, were to appear to me, given the fact that any act of communication must pass through (Created!) sensuality, I have no basis whatsoever to trust what is communicated. Sin will stain every encounter, so long as I remain other to the divine essence. Must this not apply, a fortiori, to 'theological postures' least of all Barth's very own?!?!

    It seems that Barth runs into an inherent contradiction: he teaches that man is so sinful and fallen, his created state can only disrupt and obscure God's communication. But then, how trust this teaching itself? Are we to believe it comes directly from God to Barth to us? Even if it does, does it not follow from Barth's own teaching that he himself would obscure the divine intention?

    (It's no wonder he wrote "Church Dogmatics" rather than "Church Systematics".)

    Now, Barth was a scholar of the highest order. And I'm sure that somewhere in his corpus he gets around this issue somehow. Still, I would love to know how.

    As Desmond notes, the fiercer the equivocation, the fiercer will be the univocity that will inevitably emerge from that (as happens with Plotinus's One).

    While I appreciate and share to an extent Barth's appraisal of man's depravity, I would entirely agree with your observation that overemphasizing it may in fact be more in tune with the counter-melody of the anti-Christ than the analogia entis.

    great post!

  • At 1/25/2011 4:07 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    I think that's essentially it, and its negative consequences are also, as you suggest, consequences for a theological aesthetics (unsurprising in one sense, since for Balthasar the analogia entis is the metaphysical presupposition of theological aesthetics).

    The question at issue is whether or not Barth's mature adoption of a version of analogy (one ultimately determined Christologically) is capable of adequately counteracting those kinds of consequences. As far as I can tell, there are at least some good reasons to think it isn't so capable.

    Pax Christi,


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