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Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue

McCormack, Bruce L., and Thomas Joseph White, eds. Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 304 pp. $36.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger (November 28, 2017)



Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue is an impressive ecumenical endeavor. Bringing together a diverse range of both Catholic and Protestant scholars in dialogue, this edited volume reflects upon the lasting legacy of two of the most renowned thinkers in each tradition. In the introduction, Thomas Joseph White observes that putting Aquinas and Barth together in dialogue can and will be a fruitful undertaking precisely because “each offers us a profound vision of reality understood theologically in light of Jesus Christ” (4). Though Barth and Aquinas diverge at crucial points in their theological writing, their Christocentric grounding is the foundation upon which this “unofficial” dialogue builds. Further, this Christocentric grounding informs the ecumenical endeavor itself: “Christian ecumenism is a Christ-centered task” (38). White concludes by reminding the reader that the achievement of this unofficial dialogue rests in the cultivation of Christian friendship, a theme which will resonate throughout the book as individual scholars interact with Barth, Aquinas, and one another. The book is helpfully divided into five major theological themes under which a Catholic Thomist and Protestant Barthian interact. Readers are invited into an ever-unfolding conversation between scholars and friends who are masters of their traditions.

The first section, “The Being of God,” begins with the late Robert Jenson’s reflections on Barth and the being of God. Not only is Jenson’s essay exemplary in the way he describes his reading of Barth as a pilgrimage, but he also masterfully demonstrates the complexity and nuance of Barth’s deceptively simple “God’s being is act.” Ultimately, God’s being in act, for Jenson, is both an “implosion of freedom” and an “explosion of love” as the triune God elects himself in Christ to be our savior (51). Jenson’s essay is followed by Richard Schenk, who reflects upon Thomas’ writings that lend themselves capable of bearing up under the challenge of theodicy. In other words, Schenk’s essay seeks a Roman Catholic theologia crucis within Thomas. Schenk affirms that though Thomas accepted the role of metaphysics and philosophy in revealing the reality of God, these are insufficient for telling us that God is the God of our salvation (58). Seen in this way, then, Schenk affirms that metaphysics, for Thomas, functions more to remind human beings of their finitude, which in turn enables the possibility to have faith in the God of grace and salvation. Rather than providing human beings with every answer to existence and suffering, God’s reality, revealed through philosophical and theological encounter, reminds human beings of their fragility in relation to God.

The second section, “Trinity,” takes up the challenge to define God’s attributes in relation to God’s person and mission. Guy Mansini’s essay, “Can Humility and Obedience be Trinitarian Realities?” puts the Rule of St. Benedict in conversation with Thomas’ insights on the mission of Christ to help us understand just how the virtues of humility and obedience are present within the life of Christ. Following Mansini, Bruce McCormack’s essay advocates for a point of convergence between Barth and Thomas found in their shared understanding of the unity of God’s missions and procession. For McCormack, Thomas and Barth both articulate that the processions and missions form a single eternal act. The main difference between them, for McCormack, lies with Barth’s strongly Christocentric movement from the economy to the immanent Trinity versus Thomas’ speculative approach to the divine essence. The third section, “Christology,” begins with an essay by Keith Johnson on the role of natural revelation in creation and covenant. Beginning with Thomas’ account of natural revelation, Johnson notes that, for Thomas, knowing God through reason is a “preamble and presupposition” to knowing God through sacred doctrine (138). Natural revelation, then, isn’t alone sufficient for revealing God to a human being. Turning to Barth, Johnson points out that because of the reality of sin, the early Barth rejected any possibility of human beings receiving knowledge of God apart from grace. However, later Barth realized that because human beings are created by God, a relationship exists between them that cannot be totally severed by sin. Barth then articulates that human beings were created precisely as a function of God’s decision to reconcile sinful humanity through Jesus Christ. This allows Barth to embrace a qualified natural revelation that respects the relationship between God and humanity while keeping a Christocentric focus: all natural revelation must be tested against the person and work of Christ. Ultimately, though vast differences remain between them, Barth and Aquinas both affirm that God reveals himself through the created order, which is none other than a function of God’s relationship to human beings.

Thomas Joseph White’s essay, “The Crucified Lord: Thomistic Reflections on the Communication of Idioms and the Theology of the Cross” compares Barth’s later Christology with the Christology of Aquinas as a way to move forward in ecumenical conversation. White notes that Aquinas’ Christology actually stands closer to the classical Reformed scholastic tradition than Barth’s Christology, even though Barth is perhaps the most prolific modern expounder of the Reformed tradition. White suggests that, because of this reality, Reformed engagement with classic Thomism might prove to be especially fruitful. And for Catholics, White suggests that the philosophical implications of Barth’s theological positions warrant more investigation.

The fourth section, “Grace and Justification,” begins with Joseph Wawrykow’s reflections on grace in Aquinas and Barth. Wawrykow affirms that both Barth and Aquinas recognize the divine initiative of grace—it always precedes every human activity. Thus, for both figures, anything human beings do is in response to divine initiative. But Wawrykow also points out several key differences between Barth and Aquinas’ understanding of grace. Most notably, Aquinas has an account of merit that Barth does not share. Barth rejects the idea of merit because of its sinful element; it allows human beings to claim too much for themselves. And though Wawrykow affirms Barth’s concerns, he concludes by noting that Aquinas himself keeps the focus squarely on the glory of God when discussing anything about human merit as one lives a life of grace.

Amy Marga’s essay, “Reconciliation in Karl Barth and the New Life of the Justified Sinner in Christ,” argues that Barth and Aquinas converge on their shared understanding of how grace operates in a person’s life. They diverge in how the justified sinner relates to their new existence, mediated through Jesus Christ. Focusing primarily on Barth, Marga affirms that grace, for Barth, is inherently disruptive, annihilating the old self in order to re-create a new self, mediated through Christ. This stands in opposition to Aquinas, who understands grace operating in the life of the reconciled person on multiple levels.

In the final section, “Election, Providence, and Natural Law,” John Bowlin explores Barth and Aquinas on election and requirement in relationships. Bowlin observes that Barth and Aquinas assume a social theory of obligation, defined primarily by the “friendship that God’s gracious love creates” (240). Though Barth and Aquinas will diverge at significant points as to how the relationship between humanity and God unfolds, both assume that obligation is a part of human life, and that it is predicated upon friendship, not coercion, when applied to the divine human relationship. Holly Taylor Coolman ends this section with an essay on divine and human action in Aquinas. Coolman coins the term analogia lex to describe Aquinas’ comprehensive understanding of law through an exegesis of the Secunda pars to argue that the law serves to move human beings toward ultimate happiness with God. Coolman concludes her essay by emphasizing that the law, for Aquinas, has a distinctly Christological and pneumatological focus in the way it directs us toward our eternal end with God.

Bruce McCormack concludes the volume with a brief epilogue on the possibilities of philosophy and ecumenical dialogue. McCormack poignantly observes that the ecumenical endeavor ultimately is one striving toward a faith that does not yet exist. The common faith toward which ecumenism aims can only exist as ecumenical conversations respond to the needs and concerns of its conversation partners. This volume is an excellent example of McCormack’s observations. The scholars engage with one another’s work in charity and with acuity, presenting Barth and Aquinas’ lasting legacy with fresh possibilities for further dialogue and friendship. Surely this book should be a model for “official” Catholic-Protestant dialogues in the future. Those who wish to cultivate friendship across lines of Catholic-Protestant difference would do well to acquaint themselves with the essays contained in this book. It is ideal for those who have engaged either Aquinas or Barth in their studies and wish to expand their understanding of both figures in a distinctively ecumenical setting. One’s theology will be better for it.

Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger, Benedictine University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.