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.”
But this is not where the debate really began. In 1929, Barth had invited Przywara to lecture to his seminar on Aquinas at the University of Münster and, again, in 1931 in Bonn. The 1929 course protocols show that Barth’s reception was warm. In a letter to the Swiss theologian Eduard Thurneysen, Barth called Przywara’s presentation “a masterpiece.” Yet in two lectures later that year, he began to criticize Przywara’s position.
Barth’s issue was fallenness. He thought Aquinas’s “analogy of being” was a dangerous idea because it placed fallen humanity too close to God. Przywara, Barth said, aggrandized humankind, allowing us to imagine ourselves as “like” God, and therefore capable of acting rightly on our own. Any look at modern European history should dispel that illusion. In Barth’s view, the analogy of being downplayed God’s otherness. The only real bridge between humanity and the wholly other God is Jesus, fully human and fully divine. But the analogy of being suggests that human nature itself offers us another bridge to God. It suggests that, because we are in God’s image, we can understand God’s nature just by using our natural capacities.
Barth could not accept this. All we know of God and world, he insisted, comes from his Word and revelation in Christ, not from reason or other natural capacities. This knowledge is not “given to us in the givenness of history.” If we could figure God and the world out on our own, the Gospel would be reduced to a kind of public-service announcement reminding us to do what we already know we should.
This was also Barth’s objection to Augustine, whose work substantially influenced Przywara. Augustine included good works (along with grace) in the path to redemption. Barth feared that this implied a continuity between human efforts and God’s saving acts, whereas, in his view, grace and human effort are opposed. To save us, God sets “a barrier against all that is our own action” and “cuts against the grain of our existence.” The ugly grain of our existence was on full display in the politics of the day. Despite their supposed kinship with the Creator, human beings in Europe were flocking to fascism. If this was not evidence of man’s radical depravity after the Fall, what would be? Between December 1935 and March 1936, the Nazi police put Przywara’s offices at the journal Stimmen der Zeit (Voices of the Day) under surveillance and closed it permanently in 1941.
Przywara was puzzled by this line of argument. How did we get from Augustine and Aquinas to Hitler? Przywara had already written in 1927 that the analogy of being doesn’t suggest an undue similarity between humanity and God. It means only that the wholly other God reveals something of himself both in revelation and in creation. This means that our God-created humanity and God’s revelation cannot be altogether opposed as Barth had suggested they should be. They work together. To use the traditional formulation, “Grace does not destroy but supports and perfects nature.” Przywara repeated: grace comes “doubly,” through God’s revelation and the human capacity, endowed by God, to receive that revelation.
Barth, for his part, continued to insist that grace came singly, through revelation alone, but this yielded an unintended consequence. If we can rely on nothing in our created nature to understand revelation, how do we know that we understand it right? How do we know that our moral judgments, based on interpretations of Scripture, are sound?
Barth had painted himself into the same kind of corner that Immanuel Kant had. Kant had claimed that the human mind comes equipped with preset categories like length and time that we project onto the world. Because our minds conceptualize things as having length and enduring in time, we project those features onto the world “out there,” but the human mind has no direct access to that “outside” world. It produces only internal images—a “home screening,” in the theologian John Betz’s wonderful phrase. So how do we know whether that home screening is accurate? Like Kant’s philosophy, Barth’s theology seems to isolate fallen humanity from God—or at least to prevent us from knowing if we are understanding his revelation the way he intends for it to be understood. Perhaps another bridge between God and humanity—one that would allow him to communicate his will to us—was needed after all.
In spite of this weakness in Barth’s argument, his critique did prod Catholics to clarify their own positions. Gottlieb Söhngen, influential in advancing the career of Joseph Ratzinger, emphasized that we are like God only analogously: the analogy of being kept the proper distance between God and his creation. On the other hand, he worried that Barth’s position ruled out the proper closeness. It would turn whatever relationship we had with God into what he called “a purely external allocation”—an add-on rather than something foundational to human existence. No one, including Barth, wanted to say that. Everyone agreed that our relationship with God was a constant feature of the human condition. So what the analogy of being allowed us to understand, according to Söhngen, was our own nature, not God’s. To understand anything about God, we needed revelation. This was a small move toward Barth and away from Przywara, who held that our nature as creatures in God’s image does permit us knowledge of him.
Would Barth be persuaded by Söhngen’s overtures? In Church Dogmatics II, Barth conceded that if Söhngen was right, “then naturally I must withdraw my earlier statement that I regard the analogia entis (the analogy of being) as ‘the invention of the Antichrist.’” But somewhat cagily, Barth added that he wasn’t sure Söhngen’s views represented those of the Catholic Church: “I am not aware that this particular doctrine of the analogia entis is to be found anywhere else in the Roman Catholic Church.” In a sense, Barth was right. Never having been called upon to defend Aquinas’s analogy of being against a critique like Barth’s, the church had not yet laid out a thorough, modern explanation of it.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Przywara’s student and the friend who, in 1947, brought Przywara to Switzerland to recover from maladies provoked by continuous Nazi surveillance, took up the challenge. In The Theology of Karl Barth, Balthasar defended the analogy of being, explaining that God’s transcendent otherness is undiminished by his intimacy in us. It is “a suspended middle” between an absolutely transcendent, unknowable God and an immanent, knowable God. Balthasar believed that after the publication of his and Söhngen’s books “Barth’s attitude gradually changed” to accept the analogy of being “within the context of an overarching analogy of faith.”
Was he right? No one can be sure. Barth did not discuss the analogy of being in any book written after Balthasar’s work was published. In his final years, Barth confessed to having said “nasty” things about the analogy of being. But at Princeton in 1962 and at Tübingen in 1964, he maintained his opposition to Przywara’s Analogy of Being.
Yet in his late works, Barth did incorporate a different sort of analogy into his own theology—not the analogy of being but of being-in-Christ, in his grace. He recognized that, without some analogical connectedness to God, we could have no basis on which to choose one sin-distorted interpretation of Scripture over another. To avoid relativism and hopelessness, Barth wrote in Christian Dogmatics III that humanity is created with the capacity, even disposition, to receive God’s Word and grace: our “being and nature…is destined, prepared, and equipped” for grace. This preparedness remains even after the Fall.
For Aquinas and Przywara, what remains after the Fall is human nature, analogous of God. For Barth, what remains is God’s grace. Because God was determined to redeem us all along and this determination always remained “in” us, we are equipped to receive Christ and Scripture and be redeemed. Moreover, because humanity is created to receive God’s Word, each of us can be a partner in God’s grace. While we cannot add anything to that grace, our faith can bear witness to God’s determination to save humanity. The one who bears witness in this way refers “not to himself, but to God who points him to his neighbor.”
This was a far more optimistic outlook than might have been anticipated from Barth’s oft-repeated opposition to Przywara. Looking at humanity’s violent record, Barth was right to insist that we could not be left to our own devices. Przywara replied, But we are not alone: our very nature connects us to our Creator. This prodded Barth to develop his own understanding of how God makes it possible for us to receive his revelation. In the end, Barth—for all his insistence on human sinfulness—did recognize that God must have given us something that allowed us to understand and respond to his Word.