Barth and Brunner Part 4
In 1929, Brunner goes beyond Barth’s explication of the primary task of theology as scientific interpretation of the Word of God, forming the discipline of “eristics,” derived from the Greek word erizein, which means “to debate.” According to Brunner, eristics allows the theologian to fight on two fronts: (1) the philosophical presuppositions of non-believers; and (2) the existential theology of believers in response to the Word (in contrast to the objectivistic dogmatic theology of Barth). Barth writes to his friend Edward Thurneysen in 1930 to express his intention to distance himself the from the “dialectical theology” movement he had earlier been ascribed to along with Friedrich Gogarten, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, as well as Brunner:
"The whole line is entirely not a good thing: under no circumstances do I want to be associated with it. Is it not the case that all of us, who apparently stand close to each other, have gradually come to want exactly what we . . . did not want and struggled against from the beginning – standing in the nearest relationship to . . . a grounding not in actuality, but in laying the possibility of faith and revelation on the table? . . . What is all this . . . if it is not the renewal of the relationship between theology and philosophy, just like Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, De Wette, etc. – only that now, for a change, philosophy has become something negative, existential, etc. . . . Is it just a question of a harmless difference, while the rest of our theologies are “fundamentally” at one? I don’t know, . . . but I simply oppose with all the hairs on my head the entire state of affairs . . . , and I don’t know whether I should bunch together one great article of resistance and bid farewell to Emil, Paul, Friedrich, and Rudolf."
Barth decides to write such an article, and entitles it “Theology and Modern Man.” Here, Barth claims that theology raises three scandals to the modern person: (1) God’s freedom in revelation forces modern people to engage the doctrine of predestination; (2) theology binds itself to the church; and (3) faith – rather than history, psychology, or philosophy – becomes the way to obtain human knowledge of objective truth. This third scandal is particularly challenging because it suggests that theology does not (nor must it) offer any proof for its propositions, but calls for obedience without guarantee.
Barth then goes on to show three typical responses to these scandals: (1) atheism, which rebels against theology’s primary task; (2) Liberalism, which seeks to tame theology; and finally (3) Roman Catholicism, which desires to control theology. Barth describes these three responses in the following analogy:
"If you see a wild and threatening horse galloping straight at you, you could either jump out of the way [atheism] or try to soothe it with friendly words [Liberalism]. Or, if you had enough self-confidence, you could jump on its back and become its rider and master [Roman Catholicism].”
Barth goes on to describe his colleagues as giving various formulations of the third response:
"Perhaps it might be a negative metaphysics, an apparently very non-Thomistic metaphysics, not the zenith but the nadir of human knowledge, an ontology of the “hollow space,” to whose dimensions faith and theology correspond exactly, and . . . are clearly indicated [Bultmann]? Perhaps an “eristic” theology, which would have the task of making it clear to the modern person, with paternal wisdom, that he, without recourse to Christian faith, necessarily must become entangled in an evil self-contradiction [Brunner]? Or perhaps a doctrine of history, whose truth would correspond exactly to what the biblical presentation describes as the reality of the relationship of God and humanity [Gogarten]? (p.394) . . . It is more dangerous [than Roman Catholicism] because unbelievably good theology loses its way at one small point: it no longer says that human thinking reckons with the Word of God only through faith. But isn’t it precisely on this one little point that everything hinges? Is there any secure place which we can give to theology? Is not theology precisely theology only in the uncertainty of the real science of faith, . . . only as a stranger in the areas of the other sciences, without its own area? . . . Perhaps this is the fatal question which our generation asked, whether theologians are in the position to recognize this last and dangerous temptation for what it is."
Brunner responds to the article by trying to show that Barth is unconscious of how his own theology depends and assumes a rational certainty and a set of “guarantees” prior to and coupled with faith. He views Barth’s use of Anselm as evidence that Barth cannot escape Brunner’s undertaking. Brunner writes:
"Anselm is a powerful Eristician. ‘Why did God become man?’ – that is entirely and completely an eristic way of asking the question, just as the way he conducts his proof is eristic. Eristics . . . is the demonstration of the gap which God’s revelation or God’s grace covers . . . Whoever says possibility says eristics. Whoever sets up conditions of grace, guarantees it."
Brunner views Barth’s article as a “case and point” of the dialectical watch-dog that barks at everyone including Barth. He finds the article unhelpful due to its polemic against theology seeking certainty because he thinks all theology does exactly that, even Barth’s. Brunner believes Barth has overlooked the constant certainty of human logic utilized in his own theological thinking. Brunner writes:
"[Just look at] your unsubdued faith in the power of (theological) logic, with which you trust yourself to examine thoroughly the depths of the Trinity. How solid you must consider the human capacity for thought, that you trust your conclusions so unconditionally based on a concept of revelation. . . . How does it happen that humanity, which has nothing left of the image of God, has such a phenomenally trustworthy logic? . . . In reality you trust humanity in its fallen condition no less than I (your proof is not by virtue of regenerated logic, but is a result of purely natural logic), but you do not want to bring it into relationship with the original possession of a knowledge of God through creation."
Here we begin to see the development of a concept of a general revelation through creation that Brunner will later expound in Nature and Grace, where he ascribes to human logic the possibility or entry point for this revelation, which further allows the entry point of special revelation in Jesus Christ.
Barth responds by showing their theological alliance as having inevitably come to an end, and that the differences are so fundamental that there can be no rectification through the clarification of terms. This rift upsets him greatly, mostly because Brunner failed to see it sooner. Barth writes:
"Accept the fact . . . that you completely misunderstand not only my prolegomena, . . . but also my Romans, since you have obviously not noticed that since 1920 (not 1930, but 1920) it has been for me a question of “constructing theology from predestination.” . . . What have I said to you in this lecture that I have not always maintained as my presupposition, and which I have often expressed to you? And which of my “constructions” in all their forms do not spring from the ground of this presupposition, bound to it and conditioned through it, up to the last little proposition? That is true of my Prolegomena as well. . . . You have not let it be pointed out to you . . . that this anthropological background is lacking in me. Thus, my entire work, despite all the manifold similarities, is to be explained differently from yours. Thus, if not from the very beginning, then for a goodly time, you should have made the most fundamental stand against my work. . . . Why do you interpret me thus now . . . as if I indeed work with ‘guarantees,’ when you used to be in the habit of reproaching me in other discussions that I lacked such guarantees and that you must, so to speak, supply them with your eristics? . . . Have you ever heard from me . . . anything other than that I consider all theology to be nonsense which does not absolutely begin ‘formally’ with obedience?"
Finally, Barth suggests that at this point one must persuade the other to convert: either Brunner converts Barth to adding the other task of theology found in “eristics,” or Barth converts Brunner to “a theology which, like a spinning top, supports itself on only one point.”
John W. Hart sums up Barth’s definition of this theology as “a theology which respects the absolute freedom of God in his revelation, a reality which creates its own possibility, a reality which is both received and thought out only within the realm of the church and faith. As a theology of the living God, it relies on no external preconditions or possibilities or supports, but only upon grace, revelation, and faith.”