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On Being Orthodox and Modern

On Monday the Aberdeen Theology department was graced by a visit from the inimitable Paul Molnar, who is known in these parts for his tireless advocacy of divine freedom, his work on the theologies of Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance, and for his rock solid commitment to the absolutely, super-duper, don’t-even-think-about-not-thinking-about-it triunity of God (he’s also a Met fan, but we’ll just try to ignore that).

In any case, I found Dr. Molnar to be great fun, both for his intensity as well as for his totally refreshing New York sense of humor. I wish I could share with you some of his choice zingers from our lunch meeting, but (sigh) a handshake yesterday morning effectively sealed the contents of those conversations for the ages. If you do ever run into the guy, though, be sure to take him out for coffee and experience him for yourself.

On to the serious bit.

As someone who is trying to integrate the insights of a quintessentially modern theologian like Schleiermacher with those of Karl Barth, Molnar’s seminar presentation raised some specific questions for me. It seems to me that, for Molnar, Barth is at his best when he’s able to carry on constructive dogmatic work within the bounds of traditional orthodoxy. Of course, Molnar grants the occasional lapse (e.g., the presupposition of immanent divine condescension in the account of grace in CD II/1), yet by and large, he seems convinced that Barth remained generally faithful to the gospel correctly identified and upheld in the classical tradition (even as he pushed the conversation forward). Now, importantly, this appears to mean that, for Molnar, Barth accepted and worked with not only the formal insights of, for instance, the ecumenical councils, but also something of their substance. To be sure, in Molnar’s view, Barth was no mere repristinator, but nevertheless, if there’s a spectrum with “spirit” on the one side and “letter” on the other, I think Molnar would tick Barth more on the “letter” side of orthodoxy than, say, Bruce McCormack. Consequently, in Molnar’s mind, there really aren’t divergent streams or tensions in Barth’s thought; rather, there are simply those places where Barth said things rightly (i.e., Christianly), and others where he said things not so rightly. In all cases, however, this much is clear: Barth’s intentions were noble, i.e., he was aiming with all his might to stay in line with historic Christian beliefs, particularly concerning the doctrine of God. Such is my impression of Molnar’s Barth.

So, then, how to relate orthodoxy and modernity. As is well known, Bruce McCormack has proposed his own model wherein Barth plundered the key insights of orthodox theology, stripped them of their premodern metaphysical baggage, and then used these insights to push forward to fresher and more faithfully Christian dogmatic vistas. In this model, modernity serves Barth not only in exposing the shortcomings of classical ontology, but also in challenging particular doctrinal conceptions (e.g., concerning the immanent life of God). In other words, Barth is not only operating within a modern context; he’s actually hearing and in some cases granting the concerns of modernity as amenable to the task of doing faithful Christian theology. Accordingly, McCormack’s Barth seems to take the formal insights of classical orthodoxy and retool them using some of the material insights of modern Protestantism (all the while in careful attendance to Scripture, of course).

For Molnar, however, it seems to be just the opposite. His Barth takes on the formal concerns of modernity while retaining in force the material claims of classical orthodoxy. What made Barth a genius, therefore, was not his ability to be a modern theologian, but rather his ability to be a classically orthodox theologian who can speak powerfully and prophetically to modernity.

(I’m sure that if McCormack or Molnar were to read this, they’d likely accuse me of gross caricature – but recall that I’m trying to place them on a continuum, not on opposite poles.)

So this kind of puts me in a bind. I hate having to choose between orthodoxy and modernity. Are both approaches really so forceful as to dominate the other either materially or formally? Why not simply appropriate those insights, material and formal, from both modernity and orthodoxy which best serve our Christian witness? Have not our minds become a bit too systematic when we find ourselves being forced to choose, wholesale, the perspective of one particular approach as either the context or the substance for all our theologizing? I honestly think McCormack is onto something important when he suggests that being both orthodox and modern is a good thing; I’d just like to make sure that this relation is fitted with enough pliability to remain true to the Word of God. You know, semper reformanda and all that.

Right – so give me the answers. I gather you are all smarter than me, and I’m giving all you academics in particular a golden opportunity to flex your interpretive muscles and show me how I’m looking at this issue in ever so slightly the wrong way. So have at it!

Posted in Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth, modernity, Paul Molnar

6 comments on “On Being Orthodox and Modern

  • “Why not simply appropriate those insights, material and formal, from both modernity and orthodoxy which best serve our Christian witness?”

    Whence the criteria for deciding what best serves our Christian witness? We need a working paradigm for understanding the relation between the historical revelation of God in Christ and the historical progression of the church’s human understanding of that revelation (probably appealing to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit). I really don’t have this figured out myself. I’m totally sure the formal/substantial dichotomy is totally helpful in figuring it out either. Maybe.

    • I don’t know – the Bible?

      On the formal/material thing – I should say, I don’t think I’m proposing an interpretive paradigm here. It’s rather benign to say that in the world of theology there are formal proposals and there are material proposals, is it not? I just want to make sure that both sorts of proposals are given equal and serious consideration (i.e., I reserve the right to cobble together my own weird theology from disparate sources!).

  • I’ve corresponded with Molnar via email a few times. He is a great guy, and has been helpful in clarifying for me what he’s after in regards to Barth (he and Hunsinger seem to be in more/less agreement on their reading of Barth).

    I think McCormack’s reading of a post-metaphysical Barth is probably more correct (than trying to place him in a Trad framework). Barth just seems like a guy who wears all the vintage/classical clothing with all of the modern guts hidden inside. But I’m still reading . . . which is why I prefer TFT, who is way more “metaphysical” and Trad (but modern too ;-). See you’ve got me talking in circles now.

    • Yes, well – I wanted to mention the Torrance connection here – that Molnar seems to see TFT as the more pristine version of what Barth was on about (at least viz. God) – but not being a Torrance guy I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth more than I already have.

      I should clarify though that I don’t think Barth is a modernist in classical clothing – I suspect he was actually much more eclectic in his approach than that (hey – kind of like me! imagine that – painting a theologian in one’s own image!).

      • Yeah, that’s the impression or grid that I understand Molnar to be reading Barth through too (the TFT one).

        And, yes, I probably overstated (which I’m prone to do 😉 ) on Barth. I don’t mean to say he was pure “modernist,” either (whatever that actual divide might look like). Maybe my impression is more that TFT erred more Trad, while Barth more Mod.; and that both are just people, thus not fitting in anywhere nice and neat.

        I think the way I’m thinking about the divide between Mod. and Trad. is that the former goes post-metaphysical and the latter still appeals to more metaphysical (even in TFT’s case). So really the divide between McCormack & Hunsinger/Molnar on how they read Barth, respectively.

        I put my foot in my mouth all the time. I chalk it up to learning experiences :-) . Thanks for sharing this stuff, Justin.

  • Hey Justin,

    you, like myself, ‘hate having to choose between orthodoxy and modernity’ – however, I wonder if there is much a choice possible, or whether it’s rather just the acknowledgment that we DO live, think and perceive post-Kant. The old Barth-Schleiermacher divide seems, in my view, to run somewhere along the question how gladly one acknowledges it – Schleiermacher was eager to show just how far he could go, and Barth tried to retain as many ‘traditional’ commitments as he could. The question with Barth is then the more complex one, namely how well he did, or whether he could have saved more, or let go of more etc.

    Anyway, it’s fun to read your blog.

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