The Barthian distortions in Aulen’s atonement typology

I’m getting ready to write a couple pieces for a reference volume on atonement, and that has got me thinking once again about how profoundly strange Aulen’s Christus Victor is. On the one hand, it was an absolutely decisive intervention insofar as it demonstrated the variety of approaches to making sense of Christ’s saving work through history and drew much-needed attention to the patristic “ransom theory.” On the other hand, his argument is at times tendentious and willful. This is clearest above all in his insistence that the patristic view is to be recommended because its narrative is a completely one-sided exercise of divine sovereignty from beginning to end. In reality, the whole point of the theory according to basically all the patristic authors is that God doesn’t use unilateral violent means to save us but intervenes non-violently in order to undermine Satan’s rule from within — and when people start objecting to the theory, it’s precisely because it’s not unilateral enough and grants too much legitimacy to Satan.

There are other odd points as well, though. For instance, he faults Anselm for overemphasizing Christ’s humanity, hence undermining the axiomatically desirable divine unilaterality — when it seems to me that Anselm and the patristic theory are at one in equally emphasizing the importance of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which is on the face of it the most “orthodox” way of going about it. Further, he credits Abelard with inventing the “moral influence” theory, when I show in Politics of Redemption that Abelard does no such thing.

What is going on here? I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is the Barthian framework that Aulen is working with. He finds the ransom theory in Luther and in the New Testament, and hence it must be Protestant in the full Barthian sense — which means divine unilateralism, etc. The moral influence theory is obviously much more associated with Liberal Protestantism, but it’s not enough for it to be a modern innovation. Instead, his strategy on both Anselm and Abelard is to show that Roman Catholicism was secretly Liberal Protestantism the whole time. With Anselm, this works because he turns redemption into too much of a human achievement, and with Abelard it’s a matter of finding some Roman Catholic root for the modern Liberal Protestant theory.

Overall, I’d say Aulen’s book is a huge net gain for theology — his Barthian-Protestant bias was probably necessary to give him “eyes to see” the ransom theory to begin with, and he gathers a lot of helpful material that would be hard to track down otherwise. The only problem is that the very bias that allowed him to see the variety in the tradition also led him to misread his own evidence.

On the Illusion of Orthodoxy

I’m no theologian, but Ben over at F&T has written a theological blog post entitled “On the virgin birth: or, why it’s better to say the creed than to criticize it” that is worthy of critique. In this post, Ben defends a belief in the virgin birth for multiple reasons. First off, I should say that I don’t care about the virgin birth theologically or personally, and I agree with Pannenberg that it’s historically questionable and I think it’s certainly dispensable (a la Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers).

Ben’s argument is that acts of revelation are singular and are “not part of the normal historical sequence”. Hence, although these events actually happened, they cannot be verified through the historical method. This position is as old as sin, and it smacks of the fideism that makes Barth’s entire Church Dogmatics (which I read for reasons I’m still trying to figure out) frustrating. Barth certainly bewildered his liberal theological professors with his dismissal of the historicism of classic liberal theology. Furthermore, from Ben’s perspective, these events are immune from criticism and must be accepted on the grounds that they are ‘divine’ and beyond reproach. I’ve always respected Pannenberg’s methodology because of his firm belief that theology has to be historical. Thankfully, Pannenberg is willing to reject certain theological doctrines if they do not stand up to the historical method, a method that Ben finds irrelevant.

Another problem I have with Ben’s post is the ethos of humility. Ben makes the typical orthodox theologian move by asking the question “[w]ho do I take myself for? Am I really so much smarter than St Matthew and St Luke?” From this perspective, faithful humility makes the theologian deeply gracious and respectful of the tradition. Presumably, anyone who questions the creed must be an arrogant, cynical maverick who believes they can flippantly dismiss creedal statements. Of course, Ben’s mature and respectful position only serves to alienate those believers who struggle with Christian doctrine. It should go without saying that one can legitimately question from a position of epistemological humility, and we all know many Christians who embrace the tradition in very arrogant and exclusionary ways. Side note, it never ceases to amaze me how orthodox theologians dismiss atheists and heretics as petulant children who are rebelling against the Big Other. This was evident in a post Ben wrote a year or two ago about how only orthodox Christians are patient and hold onto faith in God in the midst of suffering, whereas atheists lack the maturity of the wise believer and reject God. Atheists cannot endure suffering without rejecting faith, whereas believers possess the psychological and spiritual maturity to rise to the heavens as the atheists throw up their hands in impatient, childish despair. Although I identify as Christian, it’s obvious to me that this position is self-congratulatory bullshit.

Next, Ben writes, “[i]t’s a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don’t have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about.” This statement strikes me as wrong on multiple levels. Doesn’t this reduce faith to be simply therapeutic for folks who are trying to make sense of this world? Or, to put in Freudian terms, this type of faith is merely an illusion or wish fulfillment. It provides the individual a way to escape the existential anxiety of life by offering a coherent narrative that diminishes the stress of having to make decisions and take responsibility for his/her desires.

Finally Ben writes, “[i]f you ask me, a faith like that is as good as Christmas: as reliable as the calendar, but full of surprises too.” This is a typical sentimental, romantic theological statement we often get from orthodox theologians. The only real adventure is orthodoxy; the only real revolutionary is the conservative; and the only truly radical ideology is…Christianity? That almost makes sense. These types of paradoxical statements sound cute and certainly make the believer feel good about himself, as if surprises are only afforded to the good Christian who accepts everything without struggle. But how can Ben reconcile his previous statement that faith is good because it prevents folks from “wondering about” and that this faith is also “full of surprises too”? Wasn’t the whole point of the previous statement that faith is good because it helps to mitigate anxiety about the unknown by providing a grounding, indubitable framework? Obviously, orthodox Christians can be surprised and struggle with doubts, but it seems wrong to assume that a faith that is better “to believe than to criticize” is somehow full of surprises, considering that everything is already decided for the believer in advance.

Weapons Grade Snark: Against Barth On Religions

I am frankly offended by this stunning display of bad faith, initiated by Barth’s tortured dialectic and Green’s defence of so transparent a piece of sophistry […] The parochialism and abject ignorance of the advocates of the Barthian position is not only embarrassing, it is offensive to the dignity of the spiritual and religious lives of literally billions of fellow human beings.

Ivan Strenski, “On “Religion” and Its Despisers,” in What is religion?: origins, definitions, and explanations, ed. Thomas A. Idinopulos and Brian C. Wilson (Leiden: Brill, 1998). responding to Green Garrett, “Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barth’s Theology of Religion,” The Journal of Religion 75, no. 4 (1995).

Imagine writing a piece that was so offensive that it actually was offensive to billions of people.

The Incarnation as God’s Leap of Faith

At perhaps the pivotal moment in the Church Dogmatics IV/1, Barth poses the question Cur Deus homo? He discusses the incarnation and what it meant for God “to deny the immutability of His being, His divine nature, to be in discontinuity with Himself, to be against Himself, to set Himself in self-contradiction” (184). Continuing with these questions, Barth goes on to ask about the how the perfect, eternal, and omnipotent God could become limited, lowly, and impotent. Barth considers what it meant that “His becoming man, consisted in this determination of God to be “God against God” (184). Further on he writes, “God in His incarnation would not merely give Himself, but give Himself away, give up being God. And if that was His will, who can question His right to make possible this impossibility?” (184). This rift, this gap in the Godhead for Barth culminates in cry of dereliction on the cross. With fear and trembling, Barth wonders if this cry ultimately is a temptation that would encourage the notion that there is a “contradiction and conflict in God Himself” (185). Barth comes very close but ultimately rejects this idea because “God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away” (185). Also, God is a God of peace not confusion (1 Cor 14:33). Despite the fact that God experiences this contradiction, “He acts as Lord over this contradiction even as He subjects Himself to it” (185). As Barth approaches the mystery of Christian theology, he stops short. He looks over the cliff but refuses to jump. At the very moment where he could ultimately embrace the death of the sovereign God, he pulls back. The sovereign God ultimately never left the control station even at the cross. Altizer once said that the death of God could help us finally come to terms with what the cry of dereliction actually meant for the Godhead. Radical death of God theologians seem to be the only theologians who actually take this question seriously.

Read the rest of this entry »

The rhetoric of decadent Barthianism

I am a great admirer of the work of Karl Barth. I engaged with him extensively in my coursework, and one of my exam areas dealt with him (in connection with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer). I find him to be one of the most consistently creative and surprising theologians in the history of Christianity.

And yet I have often detected certain predictable negative effects that Barth has on his followers. Namely, a certain rhetorical pattern has repeated itself in conversations with Barthians too many times to be a coincidence:

  1. State something that sounds more or less like a familiar Christian doctrine, albeit in more poetic and emphatic form.
  2. Claim that Barth’s articulation of this Christian doctrine differs in a subtle and yet crucial way from the familiar account, such that no standard critiques apply to Barth’s version.
  3. If someone asks for clarification of the difference, do one or both of the following:
    • Claim that explaining the difference would be such a Herculean task that it would be foolish even to begin to attempt such a thing in a conversational setting.
    • Claim that the interlocutor’s presuppositions make it impossible for them to recognize and appreciate Barth’s nuanced wonderfulness.

In short, Barth seems to give some theologians the license to make Christian faith claims while absolving themselves of the duty to answer any critics — or indeed, any questions or requests for explanation.

UPDATE: A Barthian responds! Executive summary: “I know you are, but what am I?”

My contribution to the Karl Barth Blog Conference

The annual Karl Barth Blog Conference has been underway for the last few weeks, this time around focusing on putting Barth in dialogue with various figures. Paul Dafydd Jones has written on Barth in dialogue with The Monstrosity of Christ, and I wrote a response (appended to his post). I’ve already written a considerable amount on that book, and so I focused on critiquing Barth more than on Zizek or Milbank.

Thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me to be a part of it.

“Good theology” and “bad theology”

In the hallowed halls of the theology blogosphere, one often reads that a given position “is just bad theology.” The confidence with which this verdict is reached makes me think that there is some clear standard of what counts as “good theology,” and after years of careful fieldwork, I believe I have hammered out the basic rules for writing theology that will be considered “good” by bloggers. The guiding principle is as follows: good theology unashamedly embraces Christian particularity. This principle has the following consequences: Read the rest of this entry »


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