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D. Stephen Long: Saving Karl Barth

In Balthasar’s estimation, Barth wrongly saw the dividing difference between Catholicism and Protestantism as the analogia entis (analogy of being), when the real issue was that of a view of natura pura that had pervaded much of Catholicism through Neo-Scholasticism, and which Balthasar feared liberal Protestantism was following. For Balthasar, to follow Barth and negate pure nature meant humans simply became passive recipients of God’s act: “what role could there be for any other actors once God appear on the historical stage (7).” This did not mean, however, that the Church had to accept Aristotle’s natura pura on its own terms, but had to interpret natura pura incarnationally. In appropriating Aristotle via Aquinas, the Church had to remember Aristotle’s conception of nature was incomplete because it did not take into account the incarnation, the resurrection, or sin. Whereas Aristotle contended the end of man was natural and thereby nature had to provide the means by which humanity could reach their potential, for Balthasar, the incarnation demonstrated the natural end of humanity finds its fulfillment in union with the divine without evacuating human nature (76). Therefore, Aristotle’s realm of pure nature had to be reworked and viewed through a theological lens to become useful. This is what Balthasar felt the Neo-scholastics and liberal Protestants failed to do; they defined natura pura from a philosophical or abstract conception apart from Christ rather than as a theological concept that begins from Christ. Barth was right to oppose certain views of the analogia entis but in rejecting a realm of pure nature outright along with the analogia entis, Barth risked seeing nature as completely absorbed by grace. For Balthasar, pure nature exists but as a hypothetical category only able to be seen in reverse from Christ; pure nature works within revelation. A form of the analogia entis is still necessary because while it is difficult to detect the boundary between pure nature and graced nature, delineation between creature and Creator does exist: grace remains grace, and nature, nature.

By placing the starting point of theology within God’s revelation of Christ, Balthasar felt Barth provided a form that pressed through a divide between election and human freedom. Balthasar thought some expressions of Reformed orthodoxy and Neo-scholastism argued from a tacit nominalism that saw “an abstract, unitary God of power exist[ing] behind the Triune God manifested in the economy of salvation,” “a hidden God behind the revealed Triune God” (130). Here, God’s election comes prior to his revelation as Trinity, making the Trinity, creation, and human choice subject to election. Barth argued against the prior will of God by “placing the doctrine of election within the doctrine of God” for election cannot happen before or outside of Christ (139). God’s perfections, therefore, are not limited to those that exist in God’s unity, such as power, but are open to those found in his Triune nature, such as the freedom to love. Because God is love in himself and does not need creation to complete himself, he remains free and creation remains a free act; he does not become love when he creates, nor does he hold an absolute power able to act contrary to his essential being of love. Election does not create the Trinity. In this way, the Incarnation does not become a response to sin, but was always the means by which human nature could find its fulfillment within the divine. “Grace is proper to human nature because the latter’s true end exceeds its nature, friendship with God” (162).

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2014

About the Author: Derek Geerlof, M.C.S. (Regent College), M.A. (Ambrose Seminary), is a sessional lecturer in theology at Ambrose University (Calgary, AB) and is currently enrolled in Ph.D. studies at Regent University (Virginia Beach, Virginia).

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