Colin Gunton advanced the radical claim that Christians have univocal knowledge of God. Just this, he said in Act and Being, was the fruit of Christ's ministry and passion. Now, was Gunton right to find this teaching in Karl Barth – or at least, as an implication of Barth's celebrated rejection of ‘hellenist metaphysics’? This article aims to answer this question by examining Gunton's own claim in Act and Being, followed by a closer inspection of Barth's analysis of the doctrine of analogy in a long excursus in Church Dogmatics II/1.
Contrary to some readings of Barth, I find Barth to be remarkably well-informed about the sophisticated terms of contemporary Roman Catholic debate about analogy, including the work of G. Sohngen and E. Pryzwara. Barth's central objection to the doctrine of analogy in this section appears to be the doctrine's reckless division (in Barth's eyes) of the Being of God into a ‘bare’ God, the subject of natural knowledge, and the God of the Gospel, known in Jesus Christ. But such reckless abstraction cannot be laid at the feet of Roman theologians alone! Barth extensively examines, and finds wanting, J. A. Quenstedt's doctrine of analogy, and the knowledge of God it affords, all stripped, Barth charges, of the justifying grace of Jesus Christ. From these pieces, Barth builds his own ‘doctrine of similarity’, a complex and near-baroque account, which seeks to ground knowledge of God in the living act of his revelation and redemption of sinners. All this makes one tempted to say that Gunton must be wrong in his assessment either of univocal predication or of its roots in the theology of Karl Barth.
But passages from the same volume of the Church Dogmatics make one second-guess that first conclusion. When Barth turns from his methodological sections in volume II/1 to the material depiction of the divine perfections, he appears to lay aside every hesitation and speak as directly, as plainly and, it seems, as ‘univocally’ as Gunton could ever desire. Some examples from the perfection of divine righteousness point to Barth's startling use of frank and direct human terms for God's own reality and his unembarrassed use of such terms to set out the very ‘heart of God’.
Yet things are never quite what they seem in Barth. A brief comparison between Gunton's univocal predication and Barth's own use of christological predication reveals some fault-lines between the two, and an explanation, based on Barth's own doctrine of justification, is offered in its place.