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KBBC Continues: Barth and Hauerwas

The KBBC is continuing unabated this week and today my own contribution, reflecting on the relationship between the work of Stanley Hauerwas and Karl Barth, has been posted. I’ve reproduced the entire entry here, but have closed comments. Please direct all conversation to Der Evangelische Theologe where the conference is being posted in full.

Barth and Hauerwas in Con-verse
By Halden Doerge

The topic with which I am concerned is what it might mean to bring Karl Barth into conversation with Stanley Hauerwas. As such I will try to avoid simply contrasting the two figures, or lodging a critique of one’s thought based on the other’s. Rather what is vital here is to investigate what it might mean to place these two figures in conversation with one another, and most specifically, as the theme of this year’s conference is “Karl Barth in Conversation,” my central concern will be with determining how we ought to read and appropriate the theology of Karl Barth in light of the work of Stanley Hauerwas. In short, my concern is what impact or opportunities Hauerwas makes for our reception of Barth.

Toward this end I will pursue two lines of inquiry. First, I will examine Hauerwas’s own articulation of his theological relation to Barth, showing how Hauerwas seeks to “place” himself and Barth in relation to one another theologically. As any reading of Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures, With the Grain of the Universe makes clear, Hauerwas clearly understands Barth to be a vital theological witness in regard to the mission of the church in the world, even as he seeks to, in his view, move beyond Barth toward an ecclesiology “sufficient to sustain the witness that he thought was intrinsic to Christianity” (WTG, 39). As such, Hauerwas understands his own work to exist, in some significant sense, along the trajectory of Barth’s own work, carrying it forward in a way that exceeds Barth’s own limitations. It is this self-perception of Hauerwas’s own project as a further development, or extension of Barth’s project that must be laid to rest before we can see these two figures in their proper relation, a prerequisite for any sustained and fruitful conversation between their particular perspectives.

Secondly, having gestured towards a more accurate understanding of the relationship between Barth and Hauerwas, I will move towards an investigation of what truly reading Barth in conversation with Hauerwas might mean. In doing so I will begin to show the degree to which Hauerwas’s particular departures from Barth help us to see and hear anew the particular challenge that Barth’s theology poses for the task of theology and the faithfulness of the church to its mission in the world.

The Hauerwasian Quest for a Barthian Anchor

In his earliest book, Character and the Christian Life, Stanley Hauerwas engages Karl Barth’s work in relation to the question of growth in the Christian life. In doing so Hauerwas discerns a vital contribution in Barth’s work, namely in Barth’s “attempt to describe the Christian life in terms of the fundamental relationship of the self to God” (CCL, 176). Where Barth falls short according to Hauerwas is in his failure to “exploit the language of growth and character” (CCL, 177). Hauerwas is critical of the fact that Barth “treats the Christian life primarily in terms of events and acts, which, while repeatable, cannot contribute in a theologically significant way to the development of ourselves as men of character” (CCL, 173). In other words, Hauerwas, while appreciative of Barth’s centering of the ethical question on God’s own agency and action, is troubled by Barth’s refusal to find, in the language of character and growth, a point of ethical concreteness.

While it is important to note that as his work developed, Hauerwas has moved away from the language of character and growth in favor of emphasizing the church as a configuration of social practices which form its members in virtue (see CC, 129–52), this initial critique of Barth remains fundamentally unchanged. Barth’s insistence that “the relation between God and man is not that of parallelism and harmony of the divine and human wills, but of an explosive encounter, contradiction and reconciliation, in which it is the part of the divine will to precede and the human to follow” (CD II/2, 644) remains problematic for Hauerwas in that such an insistence on the asymmetry of divine and human action is unable to adequately express the “growth characteristic” of God’s work of sanctification (CCL, 176).

In summary, the central dissatisfaction that Hauerwas has with Barth is that, in his view Barth does not leave enough room for human—and specifically ecclesial—action to contribute to the formation of the good. Barth’s insistence on the radical verticality of grace seems to occlude the notion that the church as a community of virtue can form its members in the way of Jesus. Indeed, for Hauerwas “Jesus” names not so much a historical figure to be reconstructed, or a divine inbreaking into history, but rather the communal story of the church which forms it into a peaceable community. Hauerwas is quite clear on this point, Jesus simply is the morally formative story the church tells: “Jesus is the story that forms the church. This means that the church first serves the world by helping the world to know what it means to be the world. For without a ‘contrast model’ the world has no way to know or feel the oddness of its dependence on power for survival” (CC, 50).

For Hauerwas, the problem with Barth is that his transcendental Christology, which insists that Christ is a sovereignly free actor who breaks into history, who alone is the agent of the world’s salvation, does not allow for what he deems to be a “sufficient” ecclesiology (WTG, 39). For Hauerwas, Barth’s depiction of Christ as the sole effective agent of the divine work threatens to eliminate any necessary place for the church in the economy of salvation (see WTG, 192, 203).

This fundamental dissatisfaction of Hauerwas with Barth is expressed in its mature form in Hauerwas’s With the Grain of the Universe. While the title of this work is taken from John Howard Yoder, interestingly Yoder makes only a minor showing in Hauerwas’s argument. Rather it is Barth upon whom Hauerwas calls in attempting to rehabilitate a (Christological) natural theology. For the purposes of this post I shall leave aside the viability of such an attempt to read Barth in a manner amenable to any sort of refurbished natural theology and concentrate on the primary way in which Hauerwas positions himself relative to Barth.

What is crucial for Hauerwas in With the Grain of the Universe is Barth’s insistence that witness to the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ is the proper form of Christian discourse (WTG, 174–76). Indeed, Hauerwas posits throughout With the Grain of the Universe that the whole project of Barth’s Church Dogmatics is in fact to offer “a manual designed to train Christians that the habits of our speech must be disciplined by the God found in Jesus Christ” (WTG, 182–83). Thus Hauerwas finds Barth to be a major ally against Protestant liberalism in that he insists on the particularity of Christian theology as witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. However he fears that Barth’s constant emphasis on the radical completeness of God’s act in Christ eliminates the church’s necessity for the world’s salvation.

This point is crucial, for Hauerwas it is vital that the church, as a community of moral practice which forms its members in virtue, be necessary for the world’s salvation. In contrast to Barth’s argument that the world would not necessarily be lost if there was no church—since “Jesus Christ, his Word and his work” alone actualize the world’s salvation (CD IV/3.2, 826)—Hauerwas insists that “If the world is not necessarily lost without the church, then it is by no means clear what difference the church makes for how we understand the way the world is and, given the way the world is, how we must live” (WTG, 193). Here we come to the crux of the matter: for Hauerwas the church provides an anchor, a fundamental point of theological, ethical, epistemological, and indeed, soteriological concreteness. Were the church not necessary in this fundamental sense we would literally have no place to stand, no way to get our bearings, or even recognize the revelation of God in Christ if such thing had occurred at all (see PK, 99–102; CC, 89–94; CET, 59–62).

Hauerwas finds in Barth the truly praiseworthy virtue of breaking with liberal Protestantism and its individualism and social fragmentation (see WTG, 147–59). With Barth Hauerwas wants to assert the particularity of theology as a specifically ecclesial witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. However Hauerwas is dissatisfied with Barth precisely at the point where Barth is most forceful about the fundamental shape of Christian witness itself. For Barth it is axiomatic that the church, as a witness, points to a reality outside itself, the singular and irreducible reality of Christ’s work of reconciliation:

In Jesus Christ the alteration of the human situation did take place, and does take place to-day, the situation of Christians and of all men, the reconciliation of the world with God in Him who is the living Mediator between God and man in the power of His resurrection. What remains for them is high and appropriate and joyful and stringent enough—to welcome the divine verdict, to take it seriously with full responsibility, not to keep their knowledge of it to themselves, but by the witness of their existence and proclamation to make known to the world which is still blind and deaf to this verdict the alteration which has in fact taken place by it. Their existence in the world depends on the fact that this alone is their particular gift and task. They have not to assist or add to the being and work of their living Saviour who is the Lord of the world, let alone replace it by their own work. The community is not a prolongation of His incarnation, His death and resurrection, the acts of God and their revelation. It has not to do these things. It has to witness to them. It is its consolation that it can do this. Its marching-orders are to do it. (CD IV/1, 317–18)

For Hauerwas this insistence on the utter gratuity and completion of the divine work of reconciliation leaves no space for the church. Rather the church’s witness, if it is not to be rendered superfluous and unnecessary, must, in fact be constitutive of the reality of salvation itself. Hauerwas insists that “the truth of Christian convictions requires witnesses” (WTG, 211). Unlike Barth, for Hauerwas the performance of Christian witness does not point to something beyond itself, but rather is, at least in some sense, reflexive. It is precisely in the church’s own faithful act of witness that the Gospel is rendered true:

Does the truth of Christian convictions depend on the faithfulness of the church and, if so, how do we determine what would constitute faithfulness? Am I suggesting that the ability of the church to be or not to be nonviolent is constitutive for understanding what it might meant [sic] to claim that that Christian convictions are true? Do I think the truthfulness of Christian witness is compromised when Christians accept the practices of the “culture of death”—abortion, suicide, capital punishment, and war?

Yes! On every count the answer is “Yes.” (WTG, 231)

Here we see the zenith of Hauerwas’s mature position about the nature of Christian witness vis-à-vis Barth. While Hauerwas has sought to break company with liberal Protestantism’s faith in humanity as an immanent field through which God’s will is achieved in the world, he has regurgitated a vision that is structurally identical to it, simply replacing and immanent faith in humanity with an immanent faith in the church. For Hauerwas it is no longer Christ himself, but the church that is “the subject of the narrative as well as the agent of the narrative” (CET, 59). Or more precisely, in the logic of Hauerwas’s position Christ has become so utterly appended to the church that any meaningful distinction between them is not apparent. The church is no longer a witness in any ordinary understanding of the term, for after all witnesses are, by definition, those who point away from themselves to a reality beyond them. This is fundamental to Barth’s understanding of the church as witness. Hauerwas, in his zeal to make the church’s witness “necessary” rather than a superfluous overflow of grace (see CD IV/3.2, 608) has actually constructed a notion of witness diametrically opposed to Barth, whose very project he claims to be carrying forward. Far from taking up Barth’s impetus and seeking to extend his thought, Hauerwas loops back behind Barth’s critique of liberal Protestantism and recasts it in ecclesiocentric form. Hauerwas’s quest to find in the church a conceptual anchor from which to go beyond Barth has yielded something entirely opposite: a retroactive bypassing of the very challenge that Barth poses for theology and the mission of the church.

Barth’s Witness to Hauerwas

If the exposition of Barth and Hauerwas above has merit, where then does that leave us? If Hauerwas’s theology does not represent an extension of Barth’s thought, but rather its calculated reversal, what might it mean for us to place these two theologians into conversation? What would it mean to read Barth in light of and in contrast to Hauerwas’s rejection of Barth’s theology of witness? There are, I believe two important consequences that would follow from such an attempt at conversation between the theologies of Barth and Hauerwas. I will gesture towards these, albeit briefly and incompletely.

First, reading Barth in light of Hauerwas’s turn to an ecclesiocentric rather than Christocentric notion of witness offers us an opportunity to hear anew Barth’s critique of liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Indeed, as I have argued previously (Ed: David Congdon’s essay and Halden’s complete response from the 2009 KBBC) Barth’s critique of liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are two sides of the same coin (see especially WGWM, 112–15 on this point). For Barth both of these ecclesiastical modes were problematic in that they reduced God to an object within the immanent frame of either humanity or the historical process (Protestant liberalism), or the hierarchical church as the extension of the incarnation (Roman Catholicism). In both cases the diastasis between God and the world is lost and we are left with an ideological rejection of the gospel.

In an interesting way Hauerwas’s move towards an ecclesiocentric notion of witness actually brings together both the Roman Catholic and the liberal Protestant tendencies which were the very objects of Barth’s parallel critiques. Indeed this is born out in that Hauerwas’s own critique of Barth is couched in the assertion that Barth is not “sufficiently catholic,” by which Hauerwas means that “his critique and rejection of Protestant liberalism make it difficult for him to acknowledge that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are made part of God’s care of the world through the church.” Hauerwas further specifies this lack of catholicity as consisting in the fact that Barth “cannot acknowledge that the community called church is constitutive of the gospel proclamation” (WTG, 145).

Hauerwas is quite correct that Barth cannot acknowledge the church as constitutive of gospel precisely in that Barth rejects liberal Protestantism’s commitment to immanence and Pelagianism. Indeed, insofar as Hauerwas seeks any sort of “catholicity” that finds its constitutive source in the church rather than solely in the death and resurrection of Christ, Hauerwas forsakes Barth at the most fundamental level possible. Indeed, Hauerwas’s mature statement of an ecclesiocentric vision of salvation and the church provides the most perfect crystallization imaginable of the object of Barth’s multifaceted critique of religion:

Religious righteousness! There seem[s] to be no surer means of rescuing us from the alarm cry of conscience than religion and Christianity. Religion gives us the chance, beside and above the vexations of business, politics, and private and social life, to celebrate solemn hours of devotion—to take flight to Christianity as to an eternally green island in the gray sea of the everyday. There comes over us a wonderful sense of safety and security from the unrighteousness whose might we everywhere feel. It is a wonderful illusion, if we can comfort ourselves with it, that in our Europe—in the midst of capitalism, prostitution, the housing problem, alcoholism, tax evasion, and militarism—the church’s preaching, the church’s morality, and the “religious life” go on their uninterrupted way. . . . A wonderful illusion, but an illusion, a self-deception! We should above all be honest and ask ourselves far more frankly what we really gain from religion. Cui bono? What is the use of all the preaching, baptizing, confirming, bell-ringing, and organ-playing, of all the religious moods and modes, . . . the efforts enliven church singing, the unspeakably tame and stupid monthly church papers, and whatever else may belong to the equipment of modern ecclesiasticism? Will something different eventuate from all this in our relation to the righteousness of God? Are we even expecting something different from it? Are not we hoping by our very activity to conceal in the most subtle way the fact that the critical event that ought to happen has not yet done so and probably never will? Are we not, with our religious righteousness, acting “as if”—in order not to have to deal with reality? Is not our religious righteousness a product of our pride and our despair, a tower of Babel, at which the devil laughs more loudly than at all the others? (WGWM, 19–20)

Secondly and finally, reading Barth in light of Hauerwas provides us with the opportunity to appropriate anew Barth’s explicitly missionary vision of the church. While for Hauerwas the first task of the church is “to be the church” (e.g. PK, 100), for Barth the fundamental meaning of “church” to be called and sent out into the world as witnesses of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, one cannot put too fine a point on this difference: for Hauerwas the mission of the church is to be; for Barth the being of the church is mission. For Hauerwas the reality of the church is fundamentally oppositional. It exists as a “contrast model” for the world (CC, 50). This oppositional definition of the church gives rise to a fundamentally concentric notion of mission in which the form of the church’s (reflexive) witness is primarily that of fixating on its liturgical practices which are then asserted to be its “effective social work” (PK, 108). Thusly the church’s central task in the world is to “find a way to sustain its existence generation after generation” (PK, 107). The Hauerwasian notion of mission is thus rendered in a thoroughly concentric mode in which the church’s primary task is to preserve, defend, and prolong itself.

Barth, by contrast understands the being of the church fundamentally in terms of Christ’s sending of the church into the world as the community that witnesses to the resurrection. Indeed, for Barth the reality of the church cannot be grasped except in terms of denying that the church, in any sense, constitutes an end in itself. From beginning to end the church exists as a community sent into the world, for the sake of the world, bearing witness to the world in word and deed that in Christ all creation has been reconciled to God:

As an apostolic Church the Church can never in any respect be an end in itself, but, following the existence of the apostles, it exists only as it exercises the ministry of a herald. It builds itself up itself and its members in the common hearing of the Word of God which is always new, in common prayer, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the practice of its inner fellowship, in theology. But it cannot forget that it cannot do these things simply for its own sake, but only in the course of its commission—only in an implicit and explicitly outward movement to the world with which Jesus Christ and in His person God accepted solidarity, for which he died, and in which He rose again in indication of the great revelation of the inversion accomplished in Him. For this reason the Church can never be satisfied with what it can be and do as such. As His community it points beyond itself. At bottom it can never consider its own security, let alone its appearance. As His community it is always free from itself. In its deepest and most proper tendency it is not churchly, but worldly—the Church with open doors and great windows, behind which it does better not to close itself in upon itself again by putting in pious stained-glass windows. It is holy in its openness to the street and even the alley, in its turning to the profanity of all human life—the holiness which, according to Rom. 12:5, does not scorn to rejoice with them that do rejoice and to weep with them that weep. Its mission is not additional to its being. It is, as it is sent and active in its mission. It builds up itself for the sake of its mission and in relation to it. It does it seriously and actively as it is aware of its mission and in the freedom from itself which this gives. If it is the apostolic Church determined by Scripture and therefore by the direction of the apostles, it cannot fail to exist in this freedom and therefore in a strict realism more especially in relation to itself. And when it does this it cannot fail to be recognisable and recognised as apostolic and therefore as the true Church. (CD IV/1, 724–25).

In the thought of Barth and Hauerwas we are confronted, despite certain affinities and even Hauerwas’s own self-presentation, with two decidedly divergent understandings of the gospel, the church, and the world. From what has been said up to this point it should be abundantly clear that I believe that Barth offers a decidedly necessary corrective to the views exposited by Hauerwas. Whatever else it may mean to place Hauerwas and Barth in conversation it cannot mean less than clearly presenting the radically different theological visions at work in their respective proposals. In so doing we are given the opportunity to see how deeply Barth’s vision of the gospel stands in variance to that of Hauerwas. At the very least such analysis will serve to exemplify the important differences between these two thinkers. At its best, we can hope that such an exercise will spur us on to ever and again fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2).


Works by Stanley Hauerwas:

CCL: Character and the Christian Life: A Study in Theological Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.
CC: A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.
CET: Christian Existence Today: Essays on Church, World, and Living in Between. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001.
PK: The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
WTG: With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001

Works by Karl Barth:

CD: Church Dogmatics. Edited by G. W. Bromily and T. F. Torrance. 4 vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956–77.
WGWM: The Word of God and the Word of Man. Translated by Douglas Horton. New York: Harper, 1957.

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