Karl Barth's theological method: some analytic notes and queries
Friday, 31 May 2013
A post dedicated to Oliver Crisp, to celebrate the launch of his new open access Journal of Analytic Theology.
One of Karl Barth's most characteristic patterns of thinking – you'll find it everywhere in the Church Dogmatics – goes something like this:
(1) God has done x
(2) Therefore God can do x
(3) But God doesn't have to do x
(4) Therefore x is an act of God's freedom (the Can) and God's love (the Doesn't-have-to)
(5) By recognising God's Can and God's Doesn't-have-to in x, we understand x as revelation (i.e., a revelation of the God who loves in freedom).
Some observations and queries about this pattern of thought:
a. This might be called a theological method, but it is the furthest thing in the world from a generic method for producing knowledge. It would be more accurate to call it a distillation of Barth's doctrine of God, which is organised around the two mega-attributes of love and freedom (see Barth's definition in CD II/1: God is "the one who loves in freedom"). The content of theology is already written into the theologian's method.
b. This method of thinking would not get anywhere without (1) – that is, without God doing something. Method alone does not generate information about God. Method generates information only as it is applied to (1), to the fact of God's having done something. Specifically, in any given instance of God doing something, method is used to infer from that instance certain things about God's freedom (the Can) and God's love (the Doesn't-have-to). These inferences supply the content of theology. It is in this sense that Barth understands all theology as obedience, as thought following after God. His method is inferential abstraction from the facts of revelation.
c. Yet in (1) – "God has done x" – the word "God" already has content. The God who does something in this instance is already assumed to have a particular character, to be "the one who loves in freedom". It is only this assumption that gives the ensuing method any traction. For example, if God were not already assumed to be free, then instead of (3) we might simply posit that "God must have needed to do x", and the rest of the chain of reasoning would be aborted.
d. Does this mean that the method is incoherent? That in fact the Can and the Doesn't-have-to are supplied not by revelation itself but by the theologian? If so, it would mean that the method is in fact functioning as a revelation, since God's freedom and love are prescribed in the method and not derived from God's doing x.
e. Or does this reflect a recursive pattern that is proper to theological knowing? That the theologian's reflection on God's doing x will be a means of participating in the reality that x itself has brought into being? If so, then the method of theological knowing is itself one of the effects produced by revelation. The theologian does not initiate a process of knowing, but begins to think out of a participation in the God who has been revealed in x as the one who loves in freedom. In that case, what happens to the knower in the event of revelation supplies the method by which the knower begins to appropriate revelation as knowledge.