Johnson, Keith L., Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis (New York: T&T Clark, 2010), ix + 244pp. $120.00 (pbk. $44.95)

Reviewed by Han-luen Kantzer Komline (May 29, 2013)

Interest in the dispute between Karl Barth and Erich Przywara over the analogia entis has recently undergone a revival as John Betz and David Bentley Hart have led the effort to rehabilitate Przywara’s work. Keith Johnson’s defense of Barth’s criticism of Przywara’s analogia entis comes at just the right time to add a vigorous new perspective to the discussion. But this book does more than make a persuasive case for the validity of Barth’s critiques. It also sets forth Barth’s own evolving views on analogy, offering a compelling alternative to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s interpretation in his classic The Theology of Karl Barth. Balthasar contended that Barth’s attention to the substance of theology eventually transformed his method so as to lead him away from dialectic, toward analogy, and therefore toward Catholicism. Johnson proposes that just the opposite was the case. Barth’s ultimate decision to embrace a form of analogy was anything but a correction of his earlier assessments of Przywara’s position, still less a capitulation to Catholic perspectives. With Barth’s mature doctrine of analogy, his earlier quintessentially “Protestant” critiques had attained full bloom.The structure of Johnson’s monograph already drives home a substantive point. Only after spending four chapters meticulously examining previous interactions between Barth and Przywara does Johnson address Barth’s infamous repudiation of the analogia entis in 1932 as the “invention of the anti-Christ” (123). This statement, Johnson illustrates, did not emerge from a vacuum but from nearly a decade of direct and indirect exchange. In chapters six and seven, Johnson evaluates Barth’s mature position on analogy vis-à-vis the Catholic theologians Gottlieb Söhngen and Hans Urs von Balthasar. The inclusion of these chapters is instructive too: the story of Barth’s thinking on analogy continues well beyond the mesmerizing polemical fireworks of 1932.

As it turns out, Johnson shows, this story begins where Przywara’s thinking on analogy does. The first world war irrevocably shaped the attitudes of both theologians toward analogy, though each drew a different conclusion from its events: “While Przywara believed the church had done too little in the face of this tragedy, Barth believed that it had done too much” (14). Przywara intended his doctrine of analogy to encourage the political activity and influence of the church in postwar culture and society. Barth sought to foreclose uncritical efforts to claim God for human political and social agendas. Neither Barth nor Przywara ever abandoned his initial stance on how Christianity and the wider culture should relate. Yet both Barth and Przywara were reformers who sought to help the church avoid its previous mistakes.

Especially in the early chapters of the book, Johnson gives readers more than his title promises, devoting as much careful and sympathetic attention to Przywara as he does to Barth, —and often more, measured by pages of coverage. Not only Barth had grave concerns about the ideas of his counterpart: Przywara saw Barth as a potent threat to the enterprise of cooperation between church and civil society, faith and reason, revelation and philosophy. According to Przywara, Barth’s theology so stressed God’s all-consuming agency as to render the church and her mission irrelevant. Johnson does more than engagingly retell the more familiar story of Barth’s early development from the angle of his evolving perspectives on analogy. He also introduces Przywara’s, lucidly summarizing the complex argumentation of his little-known writings precedingAnalogia Entis, including its most important precursor, Religionsphilosophie katholischer Theologie (1926).

Whereas the trajectory of Przywara’s thinking had been more or less set at the outset, Barth’s thinking on analogy underwent considerable and sometimes surprising convolutions on the way to his mature position. In a brief window of time following his move to the largely Catholic Münster, Barth even made an astounding attempt to appropriate a version of Przywara’s analogy of being. Ironically, it seems to have been Barth’s first encounter with Przywara in person, and his intensive reading of Religionsphilosophie in preparation for it, that decisively disabused him of Przywara’s account. Upon Barth’s invitation, Przywara traveled in February of 1929 to participate in a seminar Barth was teaching on Thomas’s Summa Theologiae. During the visit, Barth heard Przywara deliver a lecture, engaged with him in a seminar setting, and spent two evenings with him in his own home. Familiarity rather than ignorance, Johnson proves, prompted Barth’s eventual critiques. This case is convincing not least of all because of Johnson’s own familiarity with Przywara’s early oeuvre and the patience with which he introduces his readers to it.

In “Fate and Idea,” a series of lectures Barth delivered in Dortmund shortly after Przywara’s visit, we see the fruits of his intensive engagement with Przywara. Barth states in this work: “everything that is exists as mere creature in greatest dissimilarity to the Creator, yet by having being it exists in greatest similarity to the Creator. That is what is meant by analogia entis.” Johnson’s conclusion that “Barth’s summary description of ‘what is meant’ by analogia entis corresponds directly to Przywara’s description of it” (98) downplays Barth’s misrepresentation of Przywara’s analogia entis. Far from implying parity between similarity and dissimilarity, Przywara places a decided accent on the latter. Still, Johnson identifies the heart of the disagreement with clarity and fairness: divergent ideas about what constitutes revelation separate Barth and Przywara, and this divergence stems from their differing views on the implications of human sin. For Przywara, sin does not undermine either creation’s revelatory function or human access to revelation. For Barth, sin entails that God’s revelation to the sinner requires God’s justification of the sinner, a new creation, not just the fulfillment of natural human capacities. This is why for Barth “the doctrine most central to the knowledge of God is not creation but justification” (108). Thus, Johnson argues, Barth’s reasons for rejecting the analogia entis “stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier” (121).

One might wish for a little more expansion on this claim. Later in the book Johnson cites Barth’s observation in “Nein!” that the statements of Calvin and Luther had to be sharpened in order to maintain their position. Barth went beyond the Reformers, he shows readers, by applying the principle of justification to epistemology as well as to soteriology. If this is the case, how, if at all, might Barth’s innovation upon their teaching entail a critique of their views as well as Przywara’s? For instance, Johnson observes that after Przywara’s second visit to Barth in 1931, this time to a seminar on “The Problem of Natural Theology,” “Barth’s seminar turned to the opening sections of Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion, and there they found a clear Protestant alternative to the Roman Catholic view as Przywara had presented it” (125). In a footnote Johnson observes that “Barth would turn to these passages from Calvin again on the discussion of the same topic during his response to Emil Brunner’s Nature and Grace.” Yet in Barth’s famous “Nein!” to Brunner, Barth himself states that “What Calvin wrote in those first chapters of the Institutes has to be written again and this time in such a way that no Przywara and no Althaus can find in it material for their fatal ends” (Natural Theology, Wipf & Stock 2002, 104). How does the tension reflected in this statement cohere with, or complicate, Johnson’s presentation of Barth as the champion of the Protestant Reformation’s position on the issue of analogy? The significance of Johnson’s important claim that the dispute between Barth and Przywara is really a reprise of disputes between the Reformers and Rome hinges on the answer to this question.

Johnson’s primary task in the book’s first part, however, is to assess the validity of Barth’s criticisms of Przywara, and he continues to execute it with remarkable sympathy, finesse, and precision as he explicates Przywara’s daunting magnum opus in chapter five. Johnson shows how Analogia Entis deepens Przywara’s insights from Religionsphilosophie without departing from them. Here Przywara continues to present the analogy of being not merely as one among many metaphysical theories, but as the underlying structure of creaturely being as such. Philosophical insight alone can uncover the similarity between human being and God’s being since creaturely being is obviously contingent upon an external source. Christian theology, however, is necessary to appreciate the even more basic feature of God’s relationship to humanity: dissimilarity.

Given such a characterization of the analogia entis, Johnson asks, does Barth’s allegation that Przywara’s analogy moves from below to above still apply? Johnson answers in the affirmative. Przywara may ground the analogia entis in “revelation,” but he understands revelation differently from Barth. In this work, as previously, the key difference between Przywara and Barth is that Przywara locates revelation in creation whereas Barth finds it only in Jesus Christ. According to Barth, God’s revelation in Christ points to moral, as well as ontological, dissimilarity between God and human beings that cannot be ignored in an account of the relationship between God and the world. Thus, although Analogia Entis emphasizes the importance of divine revelation to a greater extent than Przywara had previously, this new emphasis does not allay Barth’s concern that Przywara elides the problem of human sin; Przywara fails to acknowledge sufficiently that because of sin, revelation must correct, not simply perfect, human actions, thinking and institutions.

Johnson helps readers to see that precisely this concern about the lack of critical and corrective distance between God and human beings motivated Barth’s explosive rejection of the analogia entis as “the invention of the anti-Christ” in 1932. As in 1914, Barth feared the Church’s entanglement in alliances that would betray its true identity and saw the potential of Przywara’s ideas to encourage them. It was vital, he believed, to name this threat in unmistakable terms.

Barth eventually ceased to express his critiques of the analogia entis, Johnson explains in the second major part of the book, not because he had become convinced that his earlier critiques were mistaken, but because new versions of the analogia entis such as Gottlieb Söhngen’s had adapted to many of his early objections. Barth wished to do nothing to interfere with the flourishing of a Christocentrism like Söhngen’s in Catholic theology. This did not mean, however, that Barth’s mature view coincided with his. Though Söhngen circumscribed the human pole of Przywara’s analogy such that it concerned the human being in faith, his analogy of being remained intrinsic, while Barth’s was extrinsic. Söhngen wanted to see the created human being per se as transformed by grace, while Barth preferred to limit any analogy strictly to the human as she lived outside of herself in Christ. Again Johnson exposes how doctrines of analogy depend on key decisions about other doctrines, in this case justification as establishing either inherent (Söhngen) or alien (Barth) righteousness.

According to Johnson, these more fundamental differences reveal why neither Barth’s analogia fidei nor hisanalogia relationis imply the kind of rapprochement with Catholic versions of the doctrine that Balthasar attributes to them. The mature Barth does come to allow for much more continuity between divine and human action, creation and reconciliation. But for Barth this continuity is first and foremost a function of election. God’s electing grace is the reason for creation and this statement can never be reversed in such a way as to suggest that creation has a coherent reality apart from it. To say merely that Barth’s analogia fideiand analogia relationis presuppose an analogia entis, Johnson insists, is to overlook the heart of Barth’s conception of analogy: God’s electing grace.

Though many critics still see Barth’s theology of God’s gracious election, and particularly his critical stance on analogy, as undercutting the value and significance of human agency, Johnson shows in a masterful turning of the tables that Barth’s extrinsic and Christological conception of authentic human being inherently includes, rather than precludes, a robust understanding of the human vocation and mission of the church. Human beings are called to participate in Christ’s prophetic work of proclamation as covenant partners who “cooperate with God’s work in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit by sharing in the task of proclaiming the reality of Christ’s work to the world” (224). This vocation to cooperation with Christ’s way of living for the sake of others by proclaiming to them the good news of the gospel is, for Barth, the true meaning of human being in analogy to Christ.

Johnson’s book neither hides behind terminological similarities between Barth and his Catholic interlocutors nor dismisses them. Rather, it probes patiently and painstakingly to discover the distinctive meaning and function of the concepts such as “being” and “revelation” for each thinker, locating these notions in the wider network of doctrinal commitments and presuppositions that define them. But one of the most surprising contributions of Johnson’s book considered as a whole is how—even as it persistently leads the reader beyond superficial disputes to root disagreements about creation, revelation, and justification—it finally offers portraits of Barth and Przywara with a striking similarity. Though their approaches were different, both Przywara and Barth were missional theologians to the core, passionately committed to equipping the church to engage the world beyond her walls. Perhaps this explains why Barth recognized Przywara as a “kindred spirit” with whom, as Johnson observes movingly in the final chapter, he knew he belonged at one table (93). This incisive book comes to us in the vivacious spirit of their fellowship.

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.