Theologians and Rookie Mistakes

So, I think it’s safe to say that often theology is behind on its philosophical assumptions, historically speaking, or, in other words, behind on intellectual developments. That is, sometimes we humans learn something about the world that makes theological explanations inaccurate or obsolete. A great example of this is in the history of Christian atonement theory. Analogies have plagued the field, and as society has developed, the theories and analogies to describe atonement have changed, sometimes for the worse. I think one of the problems is bad council. Theologians tend to stay in an intellectual bubble.

We’re in one of those eras right now as it comes to our concept of God. The enlightenment and modernism ravaged traditional views of God. And responses to those paradigm shifts have been plethora but, in general, they’ve been bad. Let’s take the most famous bad example: Karl Barth’s concept of God. 

For Barth, God is his object, subject and predicate. What that means in application is the doings of God (events plural) are equal modes of his life in his overall life (event). Not only are they modes, but, because they are free determinations of himself, they are who he is. Here’s a quote I took off the web to illustrate in his own words:

God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. (CD II.1, 260; Molnar, 308; also cited by Alan Torrance, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, 90, n.28)

Or here’s another quote:

God is, “Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.” CDI/1

Simply put, Barth thinks what God does is what God is, and what God is is what God is, AND God is himself whether he does or doesn’t do anything because God is God. I know, Barth is confusing. Let’s put that into an analogy…

(“God is God.”) If God punches something, then the object punching is God; the action (or verb), “punching,” is God too; and the punch (or the noun) as a thing that happened is God too. Do you see the problem yet?

The problem is first I had to do some word trickery to explain God in the analogy above. I started the first clause with using “God punches.” But, in the second clause I slipped in my categories and used “punching” and inferred “God is punching.” Then from this slip and bad use of language I took the predicate, “God is punching,” and made it a literal ontological statement rather than a simple adjectival description of an event. I slipped from “God is punching,” in the action sense (describing what he does) and used its literal sense to mean something nonsensical that God is literally a “punching.” Explaining God as such confuses language categories. BUT BARTH DOES THIS AND THINKS GOD CAN BE EXPLAINED AS SUCH.

The Rookie Mistake 

We can talk about what we know epistemically and what we know ontologically. And as categories, epistemic and ontological, can additionally have two senses, the objective and subjective. So there’s two categories (ontological and epistemological), with two senses (objective and subjective), and a whole lot of ways of confusing those categories and senses. 

The Analogy

A “punching” is an epistemic objective thing in that we know when someone is punching. But it should be obvious that there’s not a thing in the world that is in and of itself a “punching,” that’s a category mistake if we do so. In reality there’s just the persons fist. Whether a fist’s action can be cut out of reality as an object, let’s say into a 4 dimensional thing, is debatable, and is more likely to be a description; but, either way it is not clear that it’s possible or real in the ontologically objective sense. 

The ontological objective sense would be generally nouns, like a hand. The fact that a hand is beautiful is an epistemological subjective thing. And me using “fact” there is a confusing use. The fact that a hand is part of the human body is both an epistemically objective thing and an ontologically objective one (if the person has a hand of course). But there are a million ways to confuse those categories and senses and to do so is to misunderstand how language works. 

Barthians (and Barth) want to hide their category mistakes and language use confusions when it comes to the concept of God that says God is his events. They usually do this by saying that only God gets to reveal and decide who he is, and that he’s done so as he has is not for us to define, but solely of himself by grace. In laymen’s terms, we can’t criticize Barth’s conception of God because it’s either a mystery that just is, or only God gets to define himself because only he is sovereign enough to do so. Notice that last clause written. The conversation was about Barth’s concept but when pressed with criticism the only other response ever given besides mystery is outright dismissal and the circular logic that God is like such therefore Barth’s concept can’t be criticized. 

“This is how God loves. This is how He seeks and creates fellowship between Himself and us. By this distinctive mark we recognize the divinity of His love. For it is in this way, graciously, that God not only acts outwardly towards His creature, but is in Himself from eternity to eternity (Barth 357, 401).” (Quote taken from here:

The point is our general concepts of God develop, as knowledge grows; but these general concepts can be wrong by making these kind of mistakes (like Karl Barth and his followers do). It is important more than ever that theologians consult specialists, like analytic theologians, so these mistakes don’t happen because the world will laugh us off more and more as a direct result from those who need not be the cause of such things: theologians! Well, theologians that make these rookie mistakes. 

(Don’t get me wrong! Barth is still an important figure. And his theology is a leap forward on the level of Calvin.)

May prayer and wise council be at your back and fill your sails!
God bless.

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