Milliner has typically astute thoughts on the relationship–it’s a stormy one, where it exists at all–between beauty and the theology of Karl Barth.  In the comments (which are all worth reading), he writes:

But I found that Barthian concerns did not help me when I left Seminary and tried to engage other disciplines.  There is something somewhat solipsistic, bubble-like and self-referential about Barthianism, like a cell that lacks the proper receptors.  Yes, liberalism forced the gospel to submit to foreign standards, but a thelogy that is perpetually driven by the fear that theology will be submitted to foreign standards strikes me as somehow overdetermined by liberalism, and especially ill-equipped to engage other disciplines (compared to say, Milbank’s appropriately entitled Theology and Social Theory which begins by taking a crack at the Barthian “fideistic drift”).

As an analysis, this strikes me as correct.  But count me for one as more suspicious than my smarter counterpart Milliner that engagement with other disciplines leads to liberalism.  Social theory is an interesting field, but its fundamental starting point is one that fits uneasily with revelation.  And “engagement with other disciplines” can often be tantamount to proceeding from their presuppositions and starting points, rather than–as Barth actually does in C.D. III.2–taking a “retrospective glance” at the other disciplines and revising their questions in light of theology.

But there’s a question there about “engagement” with other disciplines, and whether we should let them remain autonomous.  Approaching other fields with explicitly theological concepts–a la Alvin Plantinga and the medieval Christian scientists–can open up fruitful lines of research that might otherwise lay dormant.

But not surprisingly, the Barth scholar John Webster offered a Barthian take on this problem  in his essay on theological anthropology:

Whatever else we may wish to say about the location of church and theology, that, at least, must be said:  church and theology stand in the space between Jesus’ humiliation and his coming in glory.  That space–and not any cultural space, postmodern or otherwise–is determinative of what church and theology may and must be.

Put differently, Christian theology, and therefore Christian eschatology and anthropology, is responsible in its context but not in any straightforward way responsible to its context.

He continues:

The question, therefore, for Christian eschatology and anthropology in postmodernity is not what may still be said by CHristian theology in the postmodern condition:  ‘the possibility of speech about God can be founded on nothing less than God’s own speaking’.  That means that in one important sense, Christian theology in postmodernity must, as Barth once put it, carry on ‘as if nothing had happened.’

In Barth’s case, this was not because nothing had happened; indeed, what had happened in Barth’s context was very grave indeed.  But Barth knew better than almost anyone in his context that what that context required was the service of a theology which was theological to the bone, which did not allow its context, however stringent, to distract it from the task of clarifying the Christian confession, precisely so that it could indicate to its culture the word of judgment and grace spoken to it by the gospel.

Theology’s task, in other words, is neither apologetic nor revisionary, but exegetical and dogmatic, busying itself quietly and confidently with its proper concerns, not in order to sidestep the exigencies of whatever its host culture may be, but precisely so as to be able to address them with the right kind of Christian specificity, determination and hope.

Webster’s point is actually stronger than Barth’s, as the latter does include a (brief) return to the other disciplines, at least in his theological anthropology.  But in that sense, Barth’s thought functions as a caution about a temptation which is ever present and all the more dangerous for its subtlety than for its transparency, which Barth’s contemporaries still managed to miss.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Great post!

    If people would actually read Barth’s doctrine of Creation in the Church Dogmatics, they would hardly consider it an “impoverished” fideism or whatever silly accusations. Barth pursued a positive correlation between nature and revelation precisely because God’s revelation requires it. The problem is when theologians refuse to hold together the dialectic of condemnation and mercy, making the latter the foundation of a positive correlation and accusing Barth of making the former the foundation of a negative correlation. The mystery of God’s “yes” and “no” in Jesus Christ disallows either, and Barth skillfully held both together.


  2. You’re kind to engage my comment so thoughtfully. “Social theory is an interesting field, but its fundamental starting point is one that fits uneasily with revelation.” This is exactly the point that Milbank makes in his engagement. He calls social theory another religion and summons it to the true one instead. His is anything but the weak kind of engagement that Barth and Webster rightfully criticize. We do need to carry on as if nothing has happened. Milbank and Hart, however, carry on all the way back to Patristic metaphysics, which may be what makes their engagement so effective.


  3. Kevin, I’d love to know more about where to go for that Barth – but when I pick up my CD III.i. I see the same old Barth pulling up the drawbridges and criticizing the Fathers for trying to build bridges to their contemporaries. “The statement concerning creation,” he says, summarizing his view, “cannot be anything but an articulus fidei” (CD III.i. p. 22).


  4. Milliner, but isn’t the statement concerning creation properly an article of faith? “Maker of heaven and earth” and all that. I haven’t read that section yet (to my shame/detriment), but that alone doesn’t suggest a hostility to other disciplines, so long as they stay properly located.

    I believe you about Milbank, and his ability to critique social theory. I wonder, though, whether making that his starting point actually has a similar effect on his theology that you think happened to Barth: it unduly colors his thinking and makes it difficult to escape social theory’s clutches (such that ecclesiology takes its cues primarily from social theory, rather than the Word). That’s Webster’s critique in Word and Church, which I summarized here:
    and here:

    Have you read it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, if so.



  5. Yes the first article of the Creed is a faith statement. My concern is the quintessentially Barthian “anything but.” If Barth is right, there is no cosmological argument and Anthony Flew died an atheist. The perfectly legitimate concerns Barth had about depending too much on such reasoning are very reasonably addressed by Aquinas.

    I haven’t read Webster’s Word and Church but I can assure that fully immersed Barthians will have an answer for every objection I have. Barthians always have an answer for everything from within the system, and to be honest, that’s what scares me.


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