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Thursday 5 June 2014

The End of Accidental Protestantism

Karl Barth

Recent articles with eirenic Catholic critiques of the prominent Protestant theologians, Karl Barth and K.C. Berkouwer, are setting the atmosphere leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

G.C. Berkouwer

We are seeing interesting summaries of the calls for reform over the past half millennium and the systematic responses of the Catholic Church to these. 

Critiques of Protestant thought and practice include the fact that some Protestants have denied the role of a reasoned faith. Many have failed to respond to our Lord's call to unity in the Church of  Christ and so exist in a plethora of groupings defining themselves over against the Catholic Church. 

Those who continue to protest despite the reforms of the Church must consider their positions in light of our Lord's continuing call to unity, ut unam sint. 

Is it then defensible that Protestant protest continue indefinitely? What remains to be protested?

It seems to increasing numbers that protesting cannot be an end in itself and since protest was initially meant to be with a view to reform.  The development of doctrine under the Magisterium of the Church must be seen as reform and be evaluated in light of all that has happened since the Reformation.  This amounts to a call for a reformation of Protestantism through the sincere quest for unity with the Catholic Church and a willingness to accept the role of reason and natural law as they inform the Magisterium of the Church. 

In a recent FIRST THINGS article, Matthew Rose (director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute) makes the accusation that Karl Barth, like many Protestants, makes a fundamental error. In reaction to the Enlightenment Barth and other Protestants have:  

 . . . dissolved the classical synthesis of faith and reason, collapsing all theological understanding into an exercise of faith.

Rose continues: 

His basic error is evident in his rejection of natural theology, which holds that careful observation of contingent beings can disclose the necessary being of God. This argument comes in several permutations, most of which are sketched by Thomas Aquinas, but its success in demonstrating God’s existence was arguably a secondary concern. The primary purpose of traditional natural theology was to show the indissoluble connection between the human intellect and a transcendent God who is Being itself. 

Barth’s charge that some natural theologies compromised divine transcendence was true enough, but his indictment was indiscriminate. He did not appreciate that classical natural theology aimed at clarifying the proper reach and function of natural reason: that we can know with certainty that God exists but cannot understand his divine essence in itself. This teaches us both the nobility of reason (knowing that God is) and its radical insufficiency (not knowing what God is). 

He simply could not allow that a genuinely philosophical understanding of God is demanded by the intellect’s desire to know. He wanted to sharpen his dispute with classical theism so as to make it entirely about the revealed nature of God. But this could not succeed, if only because what one holds about God is informed by a host of philosophical commitments. For its part, classical theism maintained that Christian belief both presupposes and propels philosophical inquiry. It acknowledged, even celebrated, that Christian belief is committed to philosophical positions concerning the intelligibility of the natural world, the power of the human intellect to understand that world, and our capacity to communicate truth. (Hence the First Vatican Council’s condemnation of those who denied that God can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason.) 

Why did Barth fail to see the theological necessity of metaphysical inquiry? His idée fixe—that God is wholly identical with his self-enactment in history—stood in the way. There can be no natural knowledge of God, after all, if God lives in and through his self-revelation.

But we are living through the unraveling of the Christian metaphysic, which began with a rejection of classical theism, proceeded to abolish purpose from the material world, and is now eliminating the rational and moral nature of man. In order to recognize this metaphysical demolition for what it is — one can scarcely repair what one misunderstands —  Christians are no more helped by Barth than by theological liberalism. Both collude with secular reason in denying our capacity to attain knowledge of the highest things. We will be immeasurably better served by recognizing, as John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, that our “crisis of meaning” stems from failing to defend the ability of reason to know “the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.” 

In a February article in the same journal: THE ECUMENICAL LEGACY OF G. C. BERKOUWER by Eduardo Echeverria, the future of Protestantism is further assessed:

Few modern Protestants dealt as carefully, fully, or sympathetically with twentieth-century Catholicism as did Berkouwer,” writes Peter Leithart of the man Timothy George has called “the most important Reformed theologian of the twentieth century next to Karl Barth.” Gerrit Cornelius Berkouwer understood well that the occurrence of authentic ecumenical dialogue is a “gift at the service of truth,” in John Paul II’s words, and his careful and nuanced examination of the Catholic tradition can help advance ecumenism and mutual understanding today. 

. . . . In 1958 he wrote: “Every kind of Protestantism that stands merely in a protest-relationship [with Catholicism] is stricken with unfruitfulness. That is why the name Reformation signifies far more than Protestantism.”  

A protest that merely refutes Catholicism is unfruitful because divisions within the Church of Christ are no longer experienced as distressing, scandalous, let alone sinful. In a divided Church, “the different ‘forms’ of the Church are anything but harmonious; they are not directed to the well-being of all, to the equipment of the saints, to the work of ministry, or to the building up of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12).”

Berkouwer is critical here of what the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck had called the “church-dissolving dynamism” of Protestantism. Berkouwer declares that “the disunity of the Church stands under God’s criticism!” 

Echeverria goes on the recite how what he calls “essential Protestantism” as opposed to “accidental Protestantism” requires the Catholic Church in order to define itself over against it.  Protestantism has what J.H. Newman might call only a notional existence.

The “accidental” Protestant is one who finds him born into the Protestant cultural milieu but who through prayer and study comes to the conviction that though we are called to reform we are not called to a permanent state of protest.

Echeverria continues: 

Essential Protestantism, therefore, in a large measure needs Roman Catholicism and especially the papacy to know itself, to have a hold of its identity as Protestantism.” 

In contrast, accidental Protestantism “sees itself as the result of a particular, specific protestation,” and thus “to a large degree as a reform movement in the Church catholic.” These Protestants tend to have “one fundamental difference—and it can be the Petrine office itself—that prevents them from being Catholic. This difference cannot be just any but must be one without which the truth of the Gospel is decisively distorted or even abandoned. Being Protestant in this vein amounts to an emergency position necessary for the sake of the Gospel’s truth and the Church’s faithfulness; in short, accidental Protestantism does not understand itself as ecclesial normalcy.” 

Berkouwer is an accidental Protestant. He is persuaded that the New Testament teaches that there is only one Church, here and now, rather than many churches, and this Church is the concrete, visible Church. Thus “the plural for ‘Church’ is an inner contradiction.” He points to the way the Church is spoken of in the New Testament: the one people of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the building of God, the flock of the Good Shepherd. Of course there is diversity, but it is “the pluriformity of the Church” and not a “plurality of churches.” Division among Christians is the fruit of human sin and placed “under the criticism of the gospel.” 

Already in 1957, with the publication of his pre–Vatican II book New Perspectives in the Rome–Reformation Controversy, he had moved away from a primarily apologetical and antithetical stance because he was now prepared to ask how we can be open to the truth present in serious ecumenical theological dialogue. “When our mindset is neither dominated by an anxiety regarding the weakening of one’s own positions nor closed to possibly necessary corrections, then all sorts of questions, which early on were raised solely from an apologetical perspective, can now be raised on their own merits, with an honesty and open-mindedness, which is decisively necessary for all theoretical reflection.” In sum, as he makes clear in The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism, “Responsible [ecumenical] encounter is not a sign of weakness; it is rather recognition of the seriousness of the division of the Church.” 

Another idea that contributed to Berkouwer’s shift in ecumenical stance was the principle that we should not make judgments about Catholic councils like Trent and Vatican I without understanding the integral totality of Catholicism, because these statements were polemical and antithetical and in that sense historically conditioned. In other words, all truth formulated for polemical reasons is partial—albeit true. He refers to Hans Urs von Balthasar, who explains in ‘The Theology of Karl Barth’ that although the truth of those councils “will never be overtaken or even relativized, nonetheless there are still other views and aspects of revelation than those expressed there. This has always happened throughout church history, when new statements are brought forth to complete earlier insights in order to do justice to the inexhaustible riches of divine revelation even in the earthen vessel of human language.” 

Here von Balthasar makes the case for the necessity of an understanding of the Development of Doctrine in light of the principles outlined by Blessed John Henry Newman. 

. . . . This crucial principle for reading ecclesial texts is, says Berkouwer, of ecumenical significance when ecumenical partners accept “that the Church’s formulation of the truth could have, for various reasons, actually occasioned misunderstandings of the truth itself.” In other words, the formulation could be one-sided because the Church “has not been elevated above historical relativity in its analysis of the rejected errors.” 

. . . . Maintaining Trent’s fundamental teaching on justification, the sacraments, and the relation between Scripture and tradition is consistent with affirming a more comprehensive and balanced formulation of that teaching as a fruit of serious theological dialogue. The ecumenical import of Berkouwer’s interpretations of ecclesial texts is evident: Theological dialogue open to a fuller grasp of the truth may show that apparently opposed positions may be compatible at a deeper level. 

Furthermore, Berkouwer joined the chorus of voices, which includes luminaries like the Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann and the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, regarding the notion of the “hierarchy of truths” and its significant ecumenical breakthrough—indeed, a bold new approach to ecumenism. The Decree on Ecumenism states: “In Catholic doctrine there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith. Thus the way will be opened by which through fraternal rivalry all will be stirred to a deeper understanding and a clearer presentation of the unfathomable riches of Christ.” 

Attention to the hierarchy of truths helps us to have a better understanding of what divides Christians. The answer to this question is unclear. Berkouwer notes that this idea “occupies all the churches” but that some misunderstood it in a “quantitative” fashion as if it were intended to reduce Christianity to its essential content, thereby reducing some truths to ultimate importance and others to relative importance. This was then taken by some to mean that the truths lower in importance in that hierarchy are not crucial to the foundation of our faith. 

This mistaken interpretation, as Berkouwer notes, breeds theological indifference. “Hierarchy is the very opposite of indifferentism.” The hierarchy of truths does not separate nonnegotiable teachings from optional teachings. It integrates the whole body of truths by considering the question of their interconnectedness with the central mystery of Christ and the Trinity. The fundamental issue of the hierarchy is the question regarding the relation of all revealed truths to the foundation of the Christian faith, the Christological concentration, as Berkouwer and others have called it. That concentration is an ­integrative principle of Christian dogma, not a selective principle. 

. . . .  I leave for last what is surely the most important catalyst that impelled Berkouwer’s shift in stance toward Catholicism, the ‘nouvelle théologie’. He stressed its distinction between truth and its formulations in dogma, between form and content, content and context, a distinction that made possible internal renewal within the Catholic Church by virtue of rediscovering the riches of the sources of the Christian faith. He rejected the relativistic implications that some drew from this distinction. Rather, it highlights “the abundant richness of God’s Word.” Indeed, that point “actually strikes both sides of the divide between Rome and the Reformation.” 

The ecumenical import of the distinction between truth and its formulations is also recognized by Vatican II’s ‘Unitatis Redintegratio’ and John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical ‘Ut Unum Sint’. Both documents speak to the issue of legitimate interconfessional diversity in theological expressions of doctrine that may be, [in the words of  ‘Unitatis Redintegratio’s], “considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.” 

. . . . Berkouwer rightly sees that the challenge of the nouvelle théologie was taken up by John XXIII in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council in a much-discussed statement: “The deposit or the truths of faith, contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing, while the mode in which they are enunciated, keeping the same meaning and the same judgment, is another.” Briefly, the pope’s statement raised the question of the continuity or material identity of Christian truth over the course of time. 

The problem we now face, says Berkouwer, is that the presupposition of the hermeneutic of continuity—that the same judgment of truth can be expressed in a variety of conceptual or linguistic formulations—no longer seems self-evident, given that truth’s expressions are historically conditioned, and that these expressions are never absolute, wholly adequate, and irreplaceable. Now “attention is captivated primarily by the historical-factual process that does not transcend the times but is entangled with them in all sorts of ways.” In sum, he adds, “All the problems of more recent interpretation of dogma are connected very closely to this search for continuity . . . . Thus, the question of the nature of continuity ha[s] to be faced.” 

What is Berkouwer’s answer to the question he raises regarding the nature of continuity, between that which is unalterable and that which is alterable? What is the criterion for distinguishing between form and content, context and content, linguistic formulation and propositional truth? 

Berkouwer intuitively understood that propositions—contents of thought that are true or false—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies. He speaks of unalterable truths, suggesting that truths of faith are more than their linguistic expression. But does he develop the import of this distinction for dogma? 

He underscores to such an extent the inadequacy of expressions or formulations of the truth that it remains unclear how he prevents himself from sliding into the position that inadequacy of expression entails inexpressibility of truth, or prevents interpretations endlessly deferring to other interpretations, such that we never have a statement that is simply true—even in Sacred Scripture, and hence that there could be no such thing as revealed (determinate) truth, expressing itself in and through sentences. We need such an account in order to prevent the breakdown of realism—doctrines are truth claims about objective realities—from leaving us unsure that the biblical narrative provides the datum of faith. 

. . . . His limitations aside, Berkouwer’s thought provides a prime illustration of the kind of receptive ecumenical exchange that is needed today. His ecumenical attempt to reframe in a new and promising way the dogmatic historical dispute between Reformed Protestants and Catholics has arguably gone a long way toward bridging the differences between them on Scripture and tradition, sacramental theology, revelation, ecclesiology, the development of Christian doctrine, and other matters [like the role of reason and natural law].  Berkouwer’s writings on Catholicism are ecumenism at its best. Those who read his work will experience ecumenical dialogue, in John Paul II’s words, “not simply as an exchange of ideas,” but also as “an ‘exchange of gifts,’” indeed, as “a dialogue of love.”

Protestants moving towards the dialogue of faith and reason in light of Christ’s call to unity increasingly see that they need to approach the Catholic Church.

In the face of secularism, militant Islam and relentless individualistic materialism the Catholic Church offers ever more attractive access.  Many are coming to realize that this access is available over the increasingly solid bridges provided by the Ordinariates and through authentic ecumenical dialogue, which involves real, as opposed to notional, ecclesiology which is found in the home of reasonable faith - the Catholic Church.   

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