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Karl Barth, the Fathers of the Church, and 'Natural Theology.'

E. P. Meijering's new book, Von Den Kirchenvatern zu Karl Barth: Das Altkirchlichen Dogma in der `Kirchlichen Dogmatik' (Gieben: Amsterdam, 1993) proves a very good introduction to the whole thought of that great Christian theologian. It also brings fruitfully together three areas in which Meijering has a well-deserved reputation for work of the highest quality. These are: his commentaries and other books on the Fathers of the Church and the relation of their thought to Greek philosophy, in which he has been particularly successful in showing the influence of at least `popular' Greek philosophy on the least obviously `philosophical' of the Fathers, notably Athanasius; his books on the Reformed tradition, which are perhaps less well-known in the English-speaking world, but are also very good and enlightening; and his very distinguished work on the history of dogma, above all in his two books on von Harnack. This book is very well written and most richly documented, with many enlightening quotations from Barth himself. It is the work of a sincere admirer but, as one would expect in any book by Meijering, is by no means lacking in moderate and fair-minded criticism.

In elucidating Barth's thought for us, Meijering's book has two notable achievements. First, he shows and amply illustrates how Barth's work is permeated and dominated by his explicit trinitarian-christological foundation. Barth's insistence that Christ is God in the sense of Nicaea and Chalcedon grows from and is inseparable from his great vision of the eternal redemption of all humanity by God united to man in Christ. This is a real redemption: we have really sinned, and Christ has really borne our sins in his body on the Tree, as Christians in some way have always believed. But it is also an act of the sovereign will and grace of God, perfectly expressed in self-identical action, without regard to the creation of the world and humanity, or to our sinfulness. Barth held, strongly and surely rightly, that only by a vision of grace of this kind could the Gospel be made to seem, to most of humanity, to be truly Good News. Christians really should not be surprised or aggrieved if the Gospel, as preached by the Fathers and most traditional preachers until quite recently, is regarded by most human beings as very Bad News indeed, or just nonsense. But Barth also held that this was a matter of faith, which could be accepted as a gift of God, or rejected, but could not be proved. Barth's Christian faith demanded a thoroughly conceptualized triune God, and was strongly christocentric. It is important to remember this in view of what will be said later.

Meijering also shows throughout the book, whenever Barth's thought is compared with that of the Fathers of the Church, or of any one of them, that any major differences are due to the Fathers' acceptance of natural theology', which seems to mean to Barth anything about God and his creation which is not scripturally revealed. To make some progress in understanding this, we must look, even if quite inadequately and briefly, at the intellectual situation in life of that small minority of educated Christians in the first centuries of our era who wrote extensively, whose works and memories of their activities survived at least in some areas of the Christian Church, and a few of whom attained sufficiently wide influence and authority to be regarded, in some quarters at least, as `Fathers of the Church'. We should rather hurriedly compare their situation with that of more or less contemporary Christian theologians, of whom Barth was one. Barth did not, of course, as a Reformed theologian, regard the selection of writers whom he recognized as Fathers of the Church as possessing any sort of Christian authority. They were, rather, early and valuable witnesses to the Christian revelation who should be treated with respect, but could be freely disagreed with. And Barth very decidedly disagreed with them about `natural theology'. The peculiar difficulties about his own theological foundation which his rejection of natural theology brought for him, in view of his strongly anti-fundamentalist attitude to the biblical text, will be best considered a little later.

The Fathers were educated men of their time who had been brought up in or had adopted the Christian faith. Consequently, they had at least a smattering of Greek philosophy, as Meijering has so well shown, because that was simply part, though it could be a very minor part, of any advanced education. We should never, of course, forget (we often do) how remarkably haphazard, casual, individualistic, and non-institutional the whole process of advanced education in antiquity was: and even the most philosophically well-instructed of the Fathers had probably never studied with, or come very close to, any notable professional philosopher of the time. But in any case, the Fathers approached the Christian revelation thinking that a good deal was known about God from non-biblical sources, that is from the Greek philosophers. Greek philosophers had already speculated considerably about the divine, and in the first centuries of our era their speculations became, on the whole, steadily more `theological'. By the third century AD there seems to be a definite predominance of Platonism, and a general acceptance of an inclusive monotheism which traced back all gods and the whole universe to a single source, which to the Platonists was the Good, the giver of all goods.

In the third century this `natural theology' culminates in the thought of Plotinus, the greatest philosopher of later Platonism, though not the most immediately influential. In Plotinus we find the `apophatic' or `negative' theology fully formulated after a long period of rather tentative beginnings, and strongly stressed. To some this will seem the culmination and crown of Greek philosophical theology. The insistence of Plotinus that the Good, the source and goal of all things, whom he occasionally refers to as God, as later Neoplatonists do constantly, is altogether beyond our thought and speech, appears as a most valuable Greek corrective to that continual attempt, in which the Greek philosophers took the lead in our civilization, to make God more manageable for human purposes by conceptualizing him and even setting him as first principle of an intellectual system. But Barth, unlike many of the Fathers and many Christians since, is resolutely opposed to the apophatic theology, and regards what some think of as the highest achievement of Greek theological philosophy as the culmination of its error. His great vision of God and his grace seemed to him to demand a highly conceptualized, definable, God and a christocentric view-which is inevitably to some extent anthropocentric, though not altogether with Barth's good will.

Their claim to non-revealed knowledge about God, derived from the Greek philosophers' study of the creation, which they thought taught them that there was one good God who had made the world, is the main ground for Barth's disagreement with the Fathers. To them it would have seemed absurd and incredible (though the philosophical tradition which they knew was not lacking in some very powerful criticisms) that a good deal could not be known about God from rational contemplation of the creation, quite apart from any revelation. And, as they accepted the Christian revelation, they found in Christ an illumination of the perhaps rather commonplace and platitudinous non-revelational knowledge about the goodness of God which struck them with really revelatory force. And this combination of a `natural' and a `revealed' acceptance of God's goodness has remained the foundation of such spontaneous and unreflecting religion as most of us in the former area of Christian domination have left.

The position of most religious philosophers and theologians of our own time is very different from that of the Fathers. They have been driven, perhaps reluctantly, by what many regard as mere respect for the truth, to feel doubtful and challenged about two great points on which the Fathers of the Church felt secure. The first is the creation of the world by one good God. There was, of course, a formidable gnostic opposition to this, and Greek philosophy had a long tradition of disbelief, doubt, and dispute about it, which was available to the few who wanted it. But on the whole, by the time of the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, those in the educated minority who were interested in God, as most were, had settled down to an often rather vague monotheism which, for those who were not Jews or Christians, was inclusive, leaving plenty of room for the traditional gods and cults. This, as a general assurance supported by all relevant authorities, has gone from us, perhaps finally. The second point on which we, unlike the Fathers, feel doubtful and challenged, is perhaps more relevant to our main discussion. The Fathers of the Church did not exactly live in an age devoted to critical history. Consequently the acceptance of a sacred book as possessed of an unique authority in divine matters, The Word of God', was altogether too easy for them, especially as many of the collection of sacred books which they accepted had some pretensions to antiquity, and as the collection was powerfully endorsed by the highest present authority. We should never forget, in thinking of the `Age of the Fathers', the overwhelming power, spiritual as well as temporal, of the Christian emperors. The Bible is Scripture and the only Scripture, the only revealed Word of God' would be, and long has been, a very doubtful and disputable statement to many of us, even if we are Christians. It would not have been for the Fathers, simply because they were Christians.

At this point we should look rather more carefully at the theological foundation of Barth's vision of the Christian faith. This is a vision of God, united to men in Christ, redeeming the whole of humanity. It is therefore necessarily trinitarian. Barth maintained that the trinitarian doctrine on which his theology is based was Nicene, and that he accepted the definitions about the union of the divine and the human natures in Christ of the councils following Nicaea (his view of the christological controversies was eminently sensible and ecumenical). But this immediately raises considerable difficulties. Some of us would find 't difficult, if not impossible, to discover the trinitarian doctrine of Nicaea in the New Testament. Barth himself did not regard the text of the Bible as the `Word of God', for God's sovereign freedom cannot be tied to a text. Nonetheless, he certainly wished his theology to be based on the Bible, and only the Bible, as his rejection of the natural theology of the Fathers shows. But it is based upon a doctrine of the Trinity which is by no means certainly to be found in the Bible. And the difficulties do not end there. When Barth said that his faith was `Nicene', he appears not to have been thinking about what scholars can confidently attribute to the first council of Nicaea, or to Nicaea and Constantinople, but to the `Nicene Creed' as generally recited in Western Churches. This meant that his trinitarian creed included the later Western addition of the Filioque, from which he drew some theological conclusions. Eastern Orthodox theologians would have a very great deal to say about the attribution of this to Nicaea, and still more to the New Testament. And scholars have discovered signs of some influences very much later than the Filioque in Barth's trinitarian thought. Perhaps all that Barth can offer us is what any, even the best, of modern theologians can offer -- a noble and enlightening meditation on the goodness and love of God centred on the stories and conjectures which radiated from the figure of Jesus in the New Testament. This most clear and humble of theologians might not have wished to offer more as his own theology. But perhaps we can see more clearly after studying Barth's rejection of the natural theology of the Fathers that it is impossible at the present time to offer a credible, exclusively biblical, revealed theology, even as normative for Christians, unless one is to some considerable extent a fundamentalist about the biblical text. It seems strange and sad that Barth, who wrote so well, as Meijering has shown, about the continual, informal, uncovenanted communication of the Creator with creatures, should so firmly relegate to the outer darkness of ignorance of God's universal saving purpose the Greek philosophical teachers of the Fathers, and with them all outside the circle of those who accept, as Barth himself seems to do in this context, the authority of that Scripture which the emperors and bishops of the Christian Roman Empire, or the Age of the Fathers, imposed as the only Scripture and the exclusive revelation of God, outside which revelation cannot be found, and with which it is not permissible to disagree.
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Author:Armstrong, A. Hilary
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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