Very early in Volume II, Part 1 of Barth’s Doctrine of God, he makes it clear that much of what he has to say about the possibility of the knowledge of God – and therefore the possibility as the science of the church as the explication of the declared faith of the church – is rooted in a small book he wrote on the so-called “ontological proof” for God of St. Anselm, something that comprises a very small portion of a far larger work entitled Proslogion. I was fortunate enough to have a copy, thanks to our work at the Wesley Theological Seminary bookstore when I worked there. I also kept putting off reading it, despite knowing its importance within Barth’s theological project (that I have a published dissertation entitled The Anselmic Shift should tell most readers all that’s needed about the ongoing work on linking up the medieval Roman Catholic and 20th century Calvinist).
From the beginning, Barth makes clear is not the least bit interested in examining the logical strengths or weaknesses of St. Anselm’s famous dictum that “God is that than which nothing greater can be thought.” The entirety of Barth’s study is right there in the rather long subtitle: Barth wants to understand Anselm’s “proof” within the context of St. Anselm’s theological work. Otherwise, all we have is a nice piece of logic that sets to one side questions of revelation, justification, the rootedness of faith in the acts of God and the Trinitarian reality of the Godhead, and the eschatological nature of faith’s roots and hope.
While small compared to the enormity of the Church Dogmatics, the work on St. Anselm is neither easy nor quick reading. In fact, it is dense, requiring some rudimentary understanding of Latin, and the ability to understand the subtle distinctions Barth finds within Anselm’s work (and sometimes insists are there whether they are or not). Like his far larger theological project, which Barth once insisted could be summed up in the children’s song, “Jesus Loves Me”, the aim of the study is understanding St. Anselm as a theologian doing theology, rather than a philosopher doing philosophy. In order to do that, Barth consults the vast bulk of St. Anselm’s writings to make clear his main point about the proof: it cannot be separated from its theological roots without doing violence to the argument itself and to St. Anselm’s faithful theological work.
While taking pains to distance himself from St. Anselm’s reliance on tradition and church authority as sources and norms for theological truth, Barth nevertheless agrees with his elder that rootedness in the Church’s proclamation of the Word of God is the first norm for determining whether or not a statement is theological. While theology itself is reflection upon the Credo both in a formal and material sense, that Credo either sits squarely upon Scripture or at most certain logical consequences thereof, or it is not a true Credo. Therefore, the closer a theologian comes to repeating Scripture itself, the more true are that theologian’s statements.
Barth also asserts, clearly and with emphasis, that all theology is ever only partial precisely because truth is not a property of human language but of the God revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to the Glory of the Father. No human statement can ever contain the object of theology. Therefore, all it can do is point the reader toward the Truth that is the Trinitarian God. That this supposition of St. Anselm also roots Barth’s theological project should be excellent news to post-modern theologians uncomfortable with the Truth-claims too often still made in theology, i.e., that they are absolute, universal, and complete. In fact, all we can ever do in the face of the revelation of God is point to it as absolute, universal, and complete. How we encounter it and come to understand that revelation is rooted in our creaturliness, a state of ontological difference that separates object and subject by an unbridgeable gulf, while continually feeding the possibility for theological exploration moving forward.
There is more to come, but Barth’s agreement with this ancient Doctor of the Church while in the midst of much controversy over the question of “natural theology” is a welcome excursion in to historical analysis and updating, bringing back to life the work of someone who has been, sometimes unfairly, superseded by later theologians.