Essay / Theology

Barth vs. Augustine

Benjamin Warfield once wrote that ‘the the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.’ Warfield captures both the centrality of Augustine to the faith of the Reformers and the contested interpretation of the bishop of Hippo. These same two features appear in Karl Barth’s reception of Augustine, though he would scarcely agree with Warfield’s conclusion, as we shall see.

Barth evinces what can finally only be called an ambiguity with regard to Augustine at a critical juncture in his career and the height of his engagement with Roman Catholicism. On the one hand, Augustine is ‘the great idealist among the theologians’ in his critical refusal to reduce theology to God’s givenness, recognizing his sheer unconditioned (that is, free) nature. And, of course, the Reformers are to be praised for clinging to Augustine’s views on predestination, his attacks on Pelagius and a host of other points.

On the other hand, Augustine’s unawareness ‘that righteousness by works as such was contained in this idea of God [who can be reached through ascent]’ led to an unclear doctrine of grace. He is the peddler of a ‘sweet poison’ under the name of ‘grace’, one against which the Reformers ‘neglected to warn, with sufficient clearness and force’. This ‘poison’ consists of a synergistic account of the operation of grace, one lying at the root of both Tridentine Catholicism and Protestant liberalism. This synergism follows from Augustine’s (then Catholicism’s) grounding of divine-human continuity in creation (so Bruce McCormack) and makes of grace a possession, a given rather than the gift of a present Giver. Barth’s perhaps surprisingly vitriolic critique at this point parallels his placement of election in the doctrine of God in its function to proclaim that the God who claims us in Christ, the God of grace, is always ever one who freely (which is to say, lovingly) chooses us. To Barth’s eye, then, the ‘triumph’ of Augustine’s doctrine of grace in the Reformation proved the necessity of semper reformanda.

[This is an excerpt from a longer article on Barth in A Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine, ed. Karla Pollmann and Willemien Otten (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).]

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