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Michel Rene Barnes and the Problem of Idealist History

In his highly influential essay, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Michel Rene Barnes gives a very helpful deconstruction of the methodology of many contemporary theologians, noting that while claiming to be doing historiography, they are actually doing critical and systematic philosophical and theological apologetics. They are not, in fact, interested in uncovering the facts of history as they may be presented, but instead of finding historical figures to embody certain important ideas. The key feature of this approach is the “paradigm,” and it reduces all facts to symptoms of an ideology. This results in both a profoundly skeptical treatment of history, as well as a mostly unaccountable academic methodology.

Dr. Barnes writes:

The overwhelming presence in systematic discussions of Augustine of a watered-down version of de Regnon’s paradigm, coupled with an ignorance of the origin of the paradigm, reveals the systematic penchant for using grand, broad-stroked, narrative forms. Like turn-of-the-century historians, contemporary systematicians seem to be distinguished by the confidence with which they will deploy such grand, architectonic narrative forms. This confidence springs, I think, from two attitudes. First, the confidence reflects a positive sense of all the new things that we have learned as moderns through the mechanism of “paradigm shifts”; not the least of what we have learned is the existence of such paradigms themselves. Secondly, the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of “facts” can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any “fact” can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology. One can imagine that either or both of these attitudes would make historical judgments or characterizations more tentative and rare, but I think it is fair to conclude that this has not been the case.

The idea that historical facts are only epiphenomena of a hermeneutic is now implicit in left-wing histories of doctrine just as it has been implicit in right-wing histories of doctrine. It will be remembered that many of the accomplishments in Catholic historical theology (and Catholic theology generally) in the first half of this century were driven by a desire to escape the tendency of the right to regard the actual reading of historical sources as superfluous if not subversive in virtue of official interpretations (such as those of Thomas Aquinas). A striking illustration of a similar tendency on the left may be seen in a recent article by Thistlethwaite, who is able to characterize the sense of trinitarian language in all the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, and Tertullian without ever citing a single specific text or even a mediating secondary source. Her argument pivots on a characterization of Gregory of Nyssa’s trinitarian theology that appears all but manufactured to support her own position. The idiosyncratic nature of Thistlethwaite’s judgment that Gregory held a Logos-centered theology is telegraphed by the fact that she cannot provide a single primary source in support of this position and that she can only draw upon a secondary source that is 100 years old to get as far as impugning Gregory by association with Origen. Thistlethwaite thus provides a painful illustration of a grand narrative which is based upon something other than a knowledge of the texts being narrated, indeed a narrative which is positively based on conceptually bypassing the need, simply put, to read the texts being narrated. The texts have no content(s) apart from the grand narrative, and thus no integrity that would demand a direct encounter.

The preferred narrative form among systematic theologians is, as I have already called it, the architectonic, by which I mean two things: first, an account that is open-endedly comprehensive; and second, a description of the development of doctrine in terms of the internal logic of an idea. What seems to me to be distinctive about the systematicians’ quest for comprehensiveness is the way in which it is tied to understanding change in a cultural form, that is to say in a doctrine, in terms of the logic of an idea. Yannaras’ recent account of the influence of Augustine on Western civilization provides a conspicuous example of this kind of idealizing account of doctrine. Yannaras argues that the rise of “logocentrism” in the culture of Western Christendom (as opposed to the culture of Eastern Christendom) is due to Augustine’s influence as the theological paradigm of the West. Yannaras takes the same description of Augustine as the theologian of the logos par excellence that one finds in the French Augustinians mentioned earlier and applies the logic of idealism to Augustine’s influence: each historical epoch is defined by Yannaras by the way it purifies and enlarges as an idea the scope of what was originally a doctrinal insight by Augustine. This method of describing the development of doctrine in terms of conceptual purification and expansion appears in a number of treatments of doctrine in general and Augustine’s doctrine in particular; LaCugna’s and Jenson’s works, especially, follow this pattern.

Yannaras’s own work with Martin Heidegger makes it impossible to deny his debt to German idealism, and he would not want to deny it. Let me offer the thesis that (1) the fascination with conceptual categories of polar opposition, (2) the use of the logic of ideas to describe cultural forms, and (3) the claim to comprehensiveness on the basis of polar categories and ideal logic all suggest that the influence of German idealism among systematic theologians is not limited to Yannaras. There has been a decision by systematicians to prefer an architectonic and idealistic style of writing; this decision has been objectified, for no one can remember making it. Aside from amnesia, the problem with the influence of idealism in systematic appropriations of patristic theology is not that philosophy in general has no place in theology, or even that idealism in particular has no place in theology. Rather the problem is that, unacknowledged, idealism draws to itself bad history: the integrity of the discipline of historical studies is ruptured by the need to find a “historical” account which is already cast in idealistic terms. History is then treated as the material enstructuring of those themes which are constitutive of contemporary systematics. The dialogue between systematic theology and historical theology is transformed into a conversation between a ventriloquist and her or his prop.

“Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology.” Theological Studies 56 (1995) 239-244

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.