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Systematische Theologie: Dogmatik


Molnar, Paul D.


Karl Barth and the Theology of the Lord’s Supper. A Systematic Investigation.


New York-Washington/ Baltimore-Bern-Frankfurt/M.-Berlin-Vienna-Paris: Lang 1996. XI, 333 S. gr.8 = Issues in Systematic Theology, 1. Kart. DM 63,-. ISBN 0-8204-2825-6.


George Hunsinger

Anyone looking for an incisive analysis of how Karl Barth differs from other prominent contemporary theologians should read this book. Molnar, a professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in the Queens, New York, emerges from this study as a vigorous critic who is both perceptive and formidable. Of the three theologians who receive the most sustained attention - Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Rahner - Moltmann is simply devastated, Pannenberg is deftly unmasked, and Rahner is called seriously into question. Other theologians subjected to searching criticism include Kaufman, McFague, E. Johnson, Wainwright, Knitter and Hick. This is a book in which the footnotes must be read in order to get the full force of the critiques. Even Jüngel does not come through entirely unscathed. Aligning himself squarely with Barth, M. tells us exactly what he finds wanting on the current theological scene. Friends of Barth may rejoice at this very ken intellect in their midst.

What M. finds wanting is essentially that the above theologians all manage to undermine the deity of God, for in various ways they each see God’s relationship to the creature as one of mutual conditioning. It is as amazing as it is instructive to see just how much mileage M. can extract from this basic insight. The unfortunate Moltmann, for example, has retracted his best arguments from Theology of Hope. In The Way of Jesus Christ and other recent writings, his position on Christ’s resurrection has come to resemble the views he once rejected. Where he once relied on the idea of creatio ex nihilo, he now espouses a woeful panentheism that not only requires a naturalistic and historicizing version of the resurrection, but also sees nature and grace, explicitly, as conditioning one another. Though not posing so easy a target, Pannenberg also finally represents a kind of dialectical and historicizing monism which explains the resurrection by appealing to a power supposedly inherent in history and experience. Since the being of God is said to change "retroactively" by what happens in the course of history, God finally depends on the creation and its history in order to be God. Rahner, whose difficult theology receives the book’s fullest and most provocative dismantling, exhibits similar flaws. Insofar as grace is thought to be ingredient in nature, the uniqueness of Christ’s person and work cannot be properly sustained, and the sovereign freedom of grace is seriously compromised. Although M. carefully traces these flaws back to their roots in theological method, his various critiques might have been strengthened in two ways. First, he does not always sufficiently acknowledge the tensions, ambiguities and complexities - including what Barth would have called the "happy inconsistencies" - in the writings of his principal opponents, nor does he always take notice of changes that have occurred over the years in their views. One feels this problem especially in the case of Rahner, thought also to some extent of Pannenberg. In other words, M.’s analysis might have been more nuanced. But that would only have served to strengthen a strong and imposing case. Perhaps more serious, though still relatively minor, is a matter of terminological precision. The term "docetism" has two uses in contemporary discussion, one proper, the other improper. Properly used, it means that Jesus’ humanity is overwhelmed or truncated by its union with his deity so that his humanity is merely apparent. Improperly used, on the other hand, it means that his incarnation - the very union of his deity and humanity - is merely apparent. The improper use confuses docetism with Nestorianism. Unfortunately, M. regularly uses the term "docetism" in the improper sense, though in any given case his critical analysis of the substance to which the label is misapplied would seem to be unerring. Nevertheless, a lamentable note of confusion is introduced at these points.

When we turn from M.’s critiques to his constructive proposal, the results are less successful. He wants to present Barth’s "theology of the Lord’s Supper". In effect, a better job is done with the theology behind Barth’s view of the Lord’s Supper, so to speak, than with his theology of the Lord’s Supper. Barth actually drops a number of tantalizing remarks in passing throughout the Church Dogmatics on the Lord’s Supper, but unfortunately M. scarcely picks up any of them. His account stays at a very general level (though there it is very good). One would never know from reading M., for example, that Barth had a view not only about Christ’s "real presence" in the eucharist, but more to the point about "the real presence of Christ’s body and blood" - a view that was arguably an improvement over what we read on this question, say, in the Heidelberg Catechism. Nor would one know that Barth saw the Lord’s Supper as pertaining primarily to the renewal of our communion with Christ through faith. M. expends so much effort in trying to "reconstruct" the general background to this unwritten portion of the Dogmatics, and in refuting general errors of theological method in other theologians, that he pays insufficient attention to what Barth actually did write on the eucharist.

What many of us sympathetic to Barth really want to know is just why we should follow him (as M. insists we should) in his odd views about the sacraments instead of following theologians like Luther or Calvin, to say nothing of contemporary theologians like Jenson, Torrance, or von Balthasar. On this matter the Moltmanns, Pannenbergs and Rahners (though not entirely without merit, of course) are fundamentally uninteresting. Why couldn’t Barth at least have followed Luther and Calvin by seeing baptism and the Lords’ Supper as forms of God’s Word, for example, and to that extent as "means of grace"? Why did he have to make them into merely "means of gratitude" in response to grace? M. glosses over the profound shift in the course of Barth’s Dogmatics away from a favorable use of the term "sacrament" for anything other than Jesus Christ (a shift carefully analyzed in Jüngel’s Barth Studien, a discussion M. unfortunately does not cite). It is not enough for M. to say that we should not abandon the term sacrament. Nor is it enough for him to show that a general continuity exists here in the Dogmatics between the earlier and the later volumes. What we need, it seems to me, is an account which shows just why Barth’s rejection of the term "sacrament" was not a necessary development in his theology, and why in taking this path Barth entered into contradiction with some of the deepest impulses in his entire project, not to mention with virtually the entire ecumenical church.