In the 1920s and ’30s, Karl Barth, the renowned Swiss Reformed theologian, began what became a decades-long critique of the important Polish-German Jesuit, Erich Przywara. But with the rise of fascism, their disagreement soon reached beyond the theology classroom and took on some of the confessional tensions of Reformation-era contests. Barth, looking at the growing appeal of Nazism, held that humanity retains little of the goodness it had before the Fall. Przywara, though forcefully anti-Nazi, was less bleak. Their debate went on for decades, and though much of it took place under the shadow of war and genocide, it ended up in a surprisingly hopeful place.
Karl Barth (1886–1968), the son of a Basel theology professor and violinist, was educated in the liberal Protestantism of the day, which followed Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) in emphasizing religion as private, inner feeling. Barth rejected this view when he saw Christians claim divine support for their side in World War I. His own teachers, including the prominent theologian Adolf von Harnack, signed a 1914 declaration supporting the German war effort. If this is how Christians interpret God’s Word when left to their own inner feelings, Barth decided, then the Word will be tweaked to suit private and political advantage. He concluded that humanity could not be guided by its feelings. We must instead adjust our thoughts and feelings to God’s revelation in Christ and Scripture. Barth developed his strong Christology in his thirteen-volume Church Dogmatics (1931–1967), and his views on humanity’s sinfulness became the linchpin in his debate with Przywara. Barth was also the principal author of the Barmen Declaration (1934), urging Christians to resist Nazism. He imprudently sent the letter directly to Hitler. In 1935, he was forced to leave Germany and took a position at the University of Basel, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Przywara (1889–1972), the son of a Polish father and German mother, was educated in music and theology in the Netherlands, taught in Austria and Germany, and was a rising star in Catholic thought when he, like Barth, began protesting fascism. In 1933, he explained that the Christian “Kingdom” was absolutely incompatible with the Third Reich. In 1934, while Barth was writing the Barmen Declaration, Przywara argued against church accommodation of Hitler’s government. By 1935, the Nazis had him under surveillance, eventually closing down his work and causing medical and emotional problems from which he never fully recovered. He nonetheless remained prolific through the 1960s, writing forty books and eight hundred articles and reviews, and influencing such thinkers as Karl Rahner and Josef Pieper.
It was Przywara’s work on human nature that provoked Barth’s initial criticism. Przywara set out his ideas in his 1926-7 Polarity and more fully in his 1931 Analogy of Being. But it was not Przywara who first came up with the idea that human nature partakes analogously of God’s “being.” That idea began with Thomas Aquinas. Its premise was that God is the ground and reason for everything. There could have been nothing at all, but instead there’s something; and the reason that there’s something is God. One might say God is what makes existence itself possible, from the existence of time to the existence of peaches. So something of God, the source of existence, can be found in everything and everyone that exists. God, Aquinas wrote, is “intimate” within us. In the charmed phrase of German theologian Christian Link, God cannot be found in the world any more than Charles Dickens can be found in his novels, yet he is there throughout and is the reason they exist.
But of course God is also radically different from humanity. We are material beings; he is immaterial. We live in time; he is outside time. Nevertheless, there is a kind of kinship between us. As Scripture puts it, we are made in his “image.” Or as Przywara puts it, following Aquinas, we are “analogous” to the divine “being.” Drawing on both Aquinas and Augustine, Przywara held that God is both “in us” and “beyond us.”
One important consequence of this is that, even after the Fall, humanity retains something of our original kinship with God. Because of our intimacy with God, we have the capacity to understand his Word. Przywara was careful to say what this does not mean. It does not mean we can develop moral living in our own way solely through human abilities. But we do have the capacity to grasp God’s way as it is revealed in Scripture. So grace comes to us “doubly,” through God’s redemptive work and through our created capacities to follow his Word in our worldly activities—for instance, in fighting for love and justice against Nazism.
This was what Barth would not countenance. In his 1931 Christian Dogmatics I, he called Przywara’s analogy of being “the invention of the Antichrist” and declared that “because of it one cannot become Catholic.”