The Barthian objection

One different kind of ground for contesting the propositions of the Vatican Council - I shall characterise it in terms which are broadly 'Barthian' -is distinguishable from Kant's in that on this account an authentically Christian faith rules out the standpoint of natural theology as rivalling Christian faith as if with an alternative 'standpoint of unbelief', as Alvin Plantinga puts it.8 On this account of Barth's position, natural theology is a form of betrayal of the divine purposes of creation, for it would seem that, for a natural theology (these are Plantinga's words again), 'belief in God is rationally acceptable only if it is more likely than not with respect to the deliverances of reason', from which it would seem to follow that a natural theologian's 'ultimate commitment is to the deliverances of reason rather than to God'.9 This is, perhaps, rather to overstate the case, and the 'Barthian' point can be more sensitively put10 as consisting less in a hostility to rational proof on the sort of general epistemological grounds on which Kant opposed it than in a subtler and more complex objection

7 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B664, p. 528.

8 This is the reading of Barth's position as expounded by Alvin Plantinga in his 'Reason and Belief in God', in Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, eds., Faith and Rationality: Reason andBelief in God, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

10 I am much obliged to Susannah Ticciati, PhD student in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and to Dr Karen Kilby of the Department of Theology at the University of Nottingham, for advice which saved me from some egregious errors of interpretation in this chapter.

to the 'standpoint' occupied subjectively by the would-be natural theologian. What seems most to trouble Barth about the project of 'natural theology' in principle is the sort of theological mentality, the intellectual and moral disposition, which motivates it, attaching value to it as to some sort of theological starting point preliminary to, and so 'outside', faith. And it might just about be fair to say that, for Barth, such a mentality amounts in effect to a 'standpoint of unbelief' because the standpoint of faith - understood as the act of faith itself in response to our gratuitous election - is such as completely to relativise any purely 'natural' standpoint, or standpoint of creation. A 'natural standpoint' can have no true purchase on God precisely in so far as any epistemologically autonomous claims are made for it. For the Christian knows that there is nothing 'on the outside' of election, and so neither 'outside' of Christ, not even creation itself. As Barth himself says, 'it is impossible to separate the knowledge of God the Creator and of his work from the knowledge of God's dealings with man. Only when we keep before us what the triune God has done for us men in Jesus Christ can we realise what is involved in God the Creator and His work.'11 Nor has there ever been a condition of 'pure creation', as if to say: there was, chronologically first, the ex nihilo of creation, and then, afterwards, the ex nihilo of election. On the contrary, for Karl Barth, the creation of the world ex nihilo is already and always has been itself within our election ex nihilo for, as Susannah Ticciati puts it, 'election is God's gratuitous decision to create in the first place: a decision made in (and also by and for) Jesus Christ. Christ is thus the "space" in which creation comes into being, and exists.'12 The ex nihilo gratuitousness of creation is properly understood only as occurring within and for the gratuitousness of election in Christ.

It follows from this that any attempt to occupy a 'standpoint of creation' independently of our election in Jesus Christ will succeed only at the unacceptably high cost of rupturing the nexus between election and creation, thus to set them in opposition to each other, the outcome being inevitable: 'always, when man has tried to read the truth from sun, moon and stars or from himself, the result has been an idol'.13 Since creation ex nihilo is, on Barth's account, already our election in Christ, a standpoint of 'pure' creation such as appears to be presupposed to the project of natural theology is a standpoint which amounts to the rejection of Christ, in whom creation and election are one. In short, the standpoint for which creation is, as Barth puts it, 'a vestibule in which natural theology might

11 Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, trans. G. T. Thomson, London: SCM Press, 1949, p. 43.

12 In a written comment on an earlier draft of this chapter.

13 Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 43.

find a place'14 is a symptom of that dislocation and disruption of creation and of our epistemic relation with it which is sin, the improper desire and design of a human reaching out to God by some route other than that which God himself has given us. The natural theologian's distinction between creation and election therefore inevitably becomes a disjunction.

Within that 'fallen' perspective, then, a natural theology appears possible, but only so as to reconfigure the relationship of radical dependence of creature on Creator, and so of the radical asymmetry between them which is implied by the ex nihilo of election, misrepresenting it as one of reciprocity and symmetry between the creaturely knowing subject and God as object known. That standpoint of creation, in so far as it is construed as accessible to rational powers alone, would therefore appear, on this 'Barthian' view, to tie God and creation into a relationship which, being governed by reason and bound by its logic, obliterates the freedom of both by obliterating the gratuitousness of their ex nihilo. Faith, by contrast, the response to election, is our re-entry into that creation which is at once 'new' and at the same time 'originary', a relationship which continually questions the 'natural' relationship of creature to Creator; it disrupts the seeming epistemic security of a fallen rationality and calls into question the stabilising reciprocities and symmetries between knowing subject and object known which a purely rational standpoint would seem to imply as obtaining between creature and Creator. And so it is our election, our 'new creation' by faith and grace, which is the true creatio ex nihilo, relativising every natural standpoint, for our election is given by God in absolute freedom, and is embraced in the absolute freedom of faith by the believer.

Susannah Ticciati therefore puts the case against 'natural theology' succinctly and somewhat more subtly than does Plantinga. She writes,15 in Barthian spirit, that election is to be understood as more fundamental than creation. This gives rise to a historical ontology in which there is no point of stability other than God's faithful activity of questioning, which calls everything else into question. A rational proof of the existence of God would be such a stable point outside this activity of God. But in so far as God brings the questioning and reasoning self itself into question, such a 'proof', being a function of the rationality of this self, is also called into question and uprooted. It is possible [consistently with this] to concede that the human's purpose exists in asking questions about that which lies beyond human comprehension, but such questioning results in a historical transformation in which the human being probes deeper and deeper into God and self [and] there is nothing outside this historical transformation that assures the existence of God at the end of the questioning ... Only God's faithful interrogation can constitute this assurance and continuity. All else is continually uprooted in its being transformed.

14 Ibid. 15 In a written comment on an earlier draft of this chapter.

It is not, therefore, Karl Barth himself who sees the natural standpoint of creation and that of election as polarised. Rather, it is Barth's view that creation and election become polarised within any theological project which allows for an independent natural theology. Consequently, the position of Vatican I does on this account stand condemned - in principle - in so far as it allows room for the possibility of a purely rational and certain knowledge of God. I shall examine in the next chapter one, neo-Barthian, revival of an aspect of this critique of natural theology, that of Colin Gunton, who supposes that any 'natural' doctrine of creation, such as is found (as both he and I believe) in Thomas Aquinas, must work against the freedom of God to create and the freedom of the creature's response. Such a reading of what is implied by Thomas's theology of creation cannot, I shall argue, be defended. In the meantime, however, some provisional comment is required on the general proposition that the standpoint of faith precludes the possibility of any standpoint of 'pure' creation 'external' to it, and so external to faith's historical specificity as the divine 'election' - as any such standpoint as that of a natural theology would seem to make claim to.

Powerfully as Ticciati's case is made, it seems to share with Barth's the likelihood of its being truer in what it affirms than in what it denies, for while the 'Barthian' and the Vatican Council are at one in affirming the epistemic authority of faith over reason, and the primacy of the historical events of salvation over the non-historical, timeless, standpoint of 'nature', all that would seem obviously to follow from that priority is the tautology that faith must exclude as false any standpoint which is defined or posited as 'natural' in some sense of 'natural' which a priori rivals faith as a 'standpoint'. At any rate we should at least note - if at this stage of the argument we do no more than note it - that when Barth says that 'what God does as the Creator can in the Christian sense only be seen and understood as a reflection, as a shadowing forth of [the] inner relationship between God the Father and the Son',16 Thomas Aquinas agrees17 with the reservation that in thus far agreeing with Barth he appears to observe no inconsistency with saying also that the Creator God can be known by reason. For Thomas, Barth is right except for his 'only'. Indeed, otherwise than on the assumptions of a Kantian agnostic rational

16 Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 43.

17 The 'Father has caused the creature through his Word, which is the Son; and through his Love, which is the Holy Spirit. On this account it is the processions of the Persons which are the source-principles of the production of creatures in so far as they include the essential attributes of knowledge and will.' - 'Et Deus Pater operatus est creaturam per suum Verbum, quod est Filius; et per suum Amorem, qui est Spiritus Sanctus. Et secundum hoc processiones Personarum sunt rationes productionis creaturarum, inquantum includant essentialia attributa, quae sunt scientia et voluntas.' ST 1a q45 a6 corp.

epistemology - ever present in the background to Barth's theology - there seem to be no a priori grounds for supposing that a standpoint of faith must be so understood as to rule out a natural standpoint however defined. For that would amount to the proposition that there can be no theological standpoint 'external' to Christian faith simpliciter, however consistent with faith that standpoint may be construed to be - it would be the externality to faith as such which would be excluded, or 'abrogated'. And such an account of faith would seem to be prescriptive in a manner too a priori, since it would rule out in advance and simply by fiat what might upon investigation turn out to be a real possibility, namely that reason possesses some theological potential in its own right. It is not clear why, as against that possibility, a dichotomy between 'history', even 'salvation history', and the timelessness of'ahistorical reason' should be so polarised a priori as it appears to be in Barth.

Secondly, 'questioning', even the divine 'questioning', can always yield more than one answer, and for sure there will be those strategies of theistic proof which are - and perhaps those strategies of theistic proof which are not - radically subverted by God's interrogation of them through and in faith: and Barth is right that a philosophical form of idolatry is always a possibility. But it ought not to be supposed a priori that 'reason' cannot, by its own powers, ever achieve a truly radical ex nihilo, that it cannot itself challenge any merely rationalist 'normalisation' of the relation between creature and Creator. On the contrary, it is my case that Thomas's proofs of God's existence have precisely that character of challenge to any such 'normalisation': they too question any epistemic 'symmetry' between the knowing subject and the God known. As we shall see, the proofs prove a radically unknowable God, and so just as radically 'question' the cognitive subject as such: the apophaticism of the proofs already radically destabilises the epistemic subject; they throw down any form of idolatrous and pretentious rationalism. And by contrast with any fiat of faith which would rule out that apophatic possibility in advance, it seems that the Vatican Council's decree insists only upon leaving it open, as a condition required by faith's epistemic superiority to reason. The difference between Ticciati's 'Barthian' case and that of the Vatican Council would therefore appear to be direct in this degree that, for the 'Barthian', a natural theology in principle and however defined would, whereas for the Vatican Council it would not, necessarily offer such a rival standpoint, the council leaving entirely open the question of how a natural standpoint not in conflict with faith might be construed.

The 'open-ended' character of the Vatican decrees seems therefore to have been intentionally self-limiting: those decrees are designed simply to exclude an exclusiveness of faith, disallowing any account of the relation between a standpoint of natural theology and a standpoint of faith as being mutually exclusive, whether construed 'objectively' as alternative sources of truth about God, or 'subjectively' as regards the acts of response respectively of reason to creation and of faith to the divine election. They are not mutually exclusive 'objectively', for 'it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth.' Not 'subjectively', for the charge of 'unfaithfulness' would seem relevant only to a case made for a natural theology according to which faith needs it as supplying a cause, motive, or object of personal faith. And no such case is made by Vatican I.

And so some clarifications at least as to what the Vatican Council does not say or imply seem at this stage to be possible. To maintain that the existence of God is in principle rationally provable is not to hand over one's 'ultimate commitment to the deliverances of reason rather than to God' or to 'make reason a judge over Christ';18 nor is to say, as the Vatican Council says, that the possibility of rational knowledge of God is entailed by faith, to place faith's authority in thrall to a merely theoretical rational possibility; nor yet is it to place a rational condition upon the possibility of personal faith in Jesus Christ: none of these consequences follows from the Vatican Council's decrees if, as I hope to show,19 it is precisely on account of Christ that this confidence in reason is justified. In any case, nothing is said by the Vatican Council to suggest that the act of faith presupposes an actual proof of God; nor is anything affirmed about the credibility of what faith assents to being dependent upon anyone's actually knowing even the possibility of rational proof, for you can truly believe and not know that God can be known with certainty by reason: obviously nearly every Christian in fact does, and there is nothing inconsistent with the Vatican Council's decrees in that fact. What is claimed is only that the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who is so related to the world known by our rational natures that his existence is capable of being known from that world, as Paul says; that the mind which believes, the intellect to which the gift of faith is given, is a mind and intellect created with some capacity of its own to recognise what is given to it in that revelation, a capacity which could, at least theoretically, be expanded out into a formal proof of the existence of God. It may be that no actual valid proof is ever discovered; the Vatican Council does not imagine that faith would thereby be weakened for want of rational support. But suppose

18 As Plantinga describes Barth as concluding, see Plantinga, 'Reason and Belief in God', p. 71.

19 See chapter 10 below.

the thing could be done: then on the Vatican's view neither is faith thereby threatened. Hence, there is something misguided in the account of faith for which even the attempt to prove, never mind successfully proving, the existence of God would entail faith's downfall as a personal act of complete trust in God. And by no means is this to say, as Plantinga's 'Barth' appears to think, that 'belief in God is [thereby deemed to be] rationally acceptable only if it is more likely than not with respect to the deliverances of reason'.20 No such proposition is maintained or implied by the decrees of the Vatican Council.

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