Merry Christmas! This is our first blog post since Dec. 10. Yes, it has been twenty days! I know that in the blog world that is nearly an eternity and I’m sure some of you were wondering whether it was the end…
Alas, it was only finals and grading and then Christmas. But we’re back now, or kind of back. We will really be back when the Spring semester starts in a couple weeks.
Just around finals time I started working on the present post on Vatican I and Karl Barth but then got bogged down in grading and had to leave it unfinished until now. I have posted about Vatican I on this blog once before. The topic of the previous post was the Council’s teaching on God’s natural knowability. That is what I want to talk about in this post too. But here I also want to look at Barth’s critique of Vatican I’s teaching on God’s natural knowability in the second volume of his Church Dogmatics.
The focus of Barth’s critique is this passage from Dei Filius:
The same holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, may be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things; “for the invisible things of God from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20). It was, however, pleasing to his wisdom and goodness to reveal himself and the eternal laws of his will to the human race by another, and that a supernatural, way. This is how the Apostle puts it: ”In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).
In sum, the Council fathers wish to say that God can be known by reason and by faith. As for knowing God by reason, they take this to be taught by revelation itself, in particular it is taught in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
In Church Dogmatics, II.1 Barth makes three objections to these statements of Vatican I. I would summarize these objections thus:
(1) In its distinction between knowledge of God by reason and by faith, the Council makes a “partition” in the one God, abstracting God as Lord and Creator from God as Reconciler and Redeemer. Scripture does not warrant this, for even when it speaks of God under a particular description (say, as Creator) it always intends to be speaking of the one God who answers to all his proper descriptions (pp. 79-80).
(2) The “God” abstracted from the one God of Scripture is not, therefore, the Christian God but only a human construct (pp. 80-81, 84).
(3) Vatican I assumes that the God known apart from revelation is accessible to us because his being, which we cannot directly know, is analogous to the created being that we can directly know. (Barth does not put it exactly this way but this seems to be the gist of what he says on this point.) This implies that God and created being both participate in “some being in general” and, therefore, puts God on the same level as created being. But this is a false God and not the God of revelation since the latter is the “origin and boundary of all being” (p. 83).
Barth also takes exception to Vatican I’s interpretation of Rom. 1:20 but I will leave that discussion for another time.
What can be said in response to (1)-(3)? A lot. But I will limit myself to just some brief comments.
With respect to (1), I can only say that Barth must be able to read the bishops’ minds and has found that what they are really thinking is poorly conveyed by the text. There are no indications in the text that they do not think of the God knowable by reason and the God knowable by faith as identical. In fact, the plain sense of the text indicates just the opposite.
Suppose I tell you the following: “My pen-pal in Switzerland, Fritz, wrote me for a year and told me that he is a banker, likes skiing, and smokes Nat Shermans. Last week Fritz called me on the phone for the first time and I discovered that he has a gravelly voice and speaks quite slowly.” Now I would not have been able to tell from his letters that he has a gravelly voice and is slow of speech. Suppose I had told Barth all of this about my pen-pal. Would he have accused me of making a partition in old Fritz? Would he have assumed that I did not think of the Fritz knowable from the letters and the Fritz knowable from the phone as identical?
Fritz is also relevant to (2). Is the letter-writing Fritz a mere construct of mine while the telephone Fritz is the true Fritz?
Fritz might be relevant to (3) too but let me try a different tack here. Nowhere does the Church of Rome teach that God and creatures share in the same being. So, if this is what Barth claims, he must assume that if God is to be knowable through creation, as the Church of Rome does teach, this can only be so if he participates in the same being as creatures. But is this a necessary implication?
The answer, of course, is “no.” Obviously, there are other options. For example: creation can lead us to God, as is traditionally claimed in Catholic theology, because causes can in some way be known through their effects. If effects could not lead us to their causes, it would be foolish to hope that the clues amassed in a criminal investigation could lead us to the culprit. It is true that Catholic theology traditionally teaches that the being of creatures bears a distant likeness to divine being, but this is not because they both participate in the same being. This is so because effects are understood to resemble their causes in some manner. There is no third being, then, linking together creaturely and divine being. The likeness of the former to the latter is because of the impress, so to say, of the cause on the effect.
None of the three criticisms of Vatican I that Barth makes in this part of the Church Dogmatics seems to hold up very well under scrutiny.