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A few weeks ago we had a seminar that revolved around Duke theologian (and recent convert to the RCC) Reinhold Hutter’s Suffering Divine Things. In the first chapter of Hutter’s book, we are placed before two 20th century scholars from the two great Christian traditions: Adolf Von Harnack and Erik Peterson. In the conversation over ecclesiology between these two we find ourselves caught up in Hutter’s dilemma: by what dogmatic authority? This is exactly the question Peterson, the Catholic, asks the Protestant, Harnack. What authority does the Protestant church(es) fall back on? It is to this question that every self-proclaimed Protestant must respond, and, in our seminar, we attempted to inaugurate this task. In Hutter’s work and in our conversation (amongst other things) we broached many topics, but there is one particular matter that I would like to briefly discuss here: the question of Barth’s role in the debate between Harnack and Peterson.

In an aside concerning neo-orthodoxy in the aforementioned debate, Erik Peterson remarks that it would be impossible for a “return to Scripture” to bridge this gap between the church as public and determinate dogmatic authority. In essence, the debate runs between these two poles. Liberal Protestantism holds to the former univocally, rejecting the latter as having little to no binding presence upon it. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, holds that the latter must determine the former in some meaningful sense, less the church be fully enveloped by the dominant culture. Barth’s protestation was that exactly this occurred with his liberal Protestant teachers (following Schleiermacher) in Marburg. The lack of a churchly, dogmatic authority allowed Protestantism to be complicit with the evils of the Third Reich.

While Barth may agree with Peterson over against the liberal Protestantism of his early career, his answer to the dilemma is quite different. Peterson’s contention contra Barth is that any simple “return to Scripture” is naïve. Without a binding dogmatic authority in place to interpret Scripture, the only result is “moral paranesis”. Perhaps what Peterson has in mind is the typical Reformed evangelical principle of “Sola Scriptura”. This sort of “Scripture as first theology” method would certainly lend itself to Peterson’s critique, for much of evangelical piety is quintessentially this “moral paranesis”. However, it may not be fair to judge Barth under this rubric.

To understand the context of the Harnack/Peterson debate, we must look at the issue at hand experimentally. Surely, the Barmen Declaration was not an example of moral paranesis. If anything, the Confessing Church was the perfect example of a quasi-institutional ethical separation in the form of its denunciation of Nazism. Something must be wrong, therefore, in the way in which Peterson frames the debate.

Peterson accuses Protestantism (of all stripes) of lacking any binding dogmatic, ecclesial authority (so far all sides agree), and that, therefore, the Church’s task in the world, as public, is permanently hindered; and here is where the agreement ends. The Barthian rejoinder to Peterson is strictly within these lines: that there is no need to make a strict bifurcation between event and institution, at least not in the way that Peterson does. Peterson seems to assume that the event of Christ constitutes the institution of the church as public, but that a particular dogmatic authority must sustain it. In contrast, Barth might argue that the event of Christ, the gospel itself, both constitutes and sustains the church as public. And this is precisely what I think Hutter is attempting to flesh out in Suffering Divine Things.

When Hutter describes the church as having a pathetic position before God, I believe that he is undertaking exactly this methodology. For Hutter (and Barth), theology is not aseitic. The character of dogmatics is not in its self-proclaimed authority (and this includes Scripture as well), but in its positive character as witness. It is the person of Christ, and Him alone, that guarantees the success of the church’s mission in the world. Therefore, the vocation of theology can only be a response to this foundational truth.

At this point, we have reached an impasse with Peterson. The disagreement between the Barthian and Catholic positions is at the level of first-order theology, and only indirectly at the ecclesiological level. Yet something still seems wanting. The spirit of Peterson’s qualm with the Protestant mind-set still seems operative. The fact that so many leading Protestants who have led the church in explicating this theological position have “given up the Protestant ghost” is telling. If nothing else, the eternally schismatic nature of the Protestant spirit will keep this critique breathing. What is it that has gone wrong? Has God not been faithful to His promises for the church? As we sit in our pathetic (notice the irony) position before God, waiting for something to unify us in the world, we must wonder if we wait in vain.

There is a noticeable similarity here between Hutter’s position of passive theology and Alain Badiou’s posture before the identity-constituting event of radical politics. It must be noted that, as of recently, Badiou has begun speaking about what must be done while one waits for the event, a sort of recognition of evental purgatory. Some have even brought up the issue of whether or not an event should be conjured up by its (eventual) participants! Is Protestant theology in the same boat? Must another Nazi party rise up and force us into internal reconciliation? This is the Catholic conscience of the Protestant West, and I’m not sure that it will ever go away.