From June 19-22, a group of Catholic and Protestant theologians met at Princeton Theological Seminary to participate in a theological conference on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. This conference was sponsored by the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and the Thomistic Institute, in cooperation with the Karl Barth Society of North America. Several Dominican priests were in attendance, including Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., of the Thomistic Institute.
Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P., offered the following reflections on the conference:
"In a time when more and more people are believing less and less, and what is believed is obscured by a muddy penumbra of sentiment and agnosticism, a number of Christians have bucked the cultural trend and emphasized the importance of clear dogmatic positions: and so a group of Protestant and Catholic theologians met for four days to discuss the theology of Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas, two men separated in many ways, but united in their search for and love of the authentic Word of God.
The theological conference was billed as “an unofficial Protestant-Catholic dialogue,” which was no false advertising, but it was more than a mere opportunity for dialogue. The dialogue between Protestants and Catholics was not an exchange of information between opposed camps for a practical purpose: it was a coming-together of brothers and sisters in Christ meant to foster divine wisdom. To put it another way, it was a series of Christian conversations held for the sake of communion.
Barth and Aquinas alike had a concern for theological method; probably they would have appreciated the organization of the conference, for it ensured that the dialogue would be dialectical. Each session focused on a particular theme, for example, “Grace and Justification,” with one scholar (generally speaking) presenting a paper on the theme from the perspective of Barth (in this case, Amy Marga), and another scholar doing the same from the perspective of Aquinas (e.g., Joseph Wawrykow). This organization encouraged presenters and attending scholars to engage the thought and work of those outside of their ordinary sphere of reference: in discussing the thought of Barth, the insights of Thomas were often employed as context and counter-point, and vice-versa. The similarities and important differences between the two thinkers, and those of their respective students, came to the fore. And this was good, for, as more than one speaker suggested, at this point in world history, Protestants and Catholics should not blur the doctrinal lines that may separate us, but mark them clearly and discuss why they matter.
On the formal level, the themes of the lectures covered most of the major categories of theological inquiry: God’s nature and being, the Holy Trinity, Christology, Grace and Justification, and Divine and Human Action. A prominent note sounded through these themes regarding the relation of the world to God, or who God is with respect to His redemptive plan wrought in Christ. A few examples may suffice to give a flavor of the rich fare offered by the participants. Robert Jensen’s rousing conclusion argued that God’s being is an implosion of being, so purely contingent that only it is necessary; it is likewise an explosion of love such that it makes sense only in the doctrine of election. Bruce McCormack emphasized God’s eternal being, that God willed from all eternity to save creation through His Son, which raises the question: What must God be if His act of redemption is a choice of His eternal love? Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., posited that because God saves us in Christ, we attribute divine actions to a man—but to do so coherently, one must be clear on the philosophical premises one employs implicitly or explicitly, whether they are derived and adapted from Aristotle, Kant, or Hegel. In a related thought, John Bowlin showed that one’s understanding of human relationships and their requirements, especially in the realm of friendship, has inevitable consequences on how one conceptualizes theological concepts of grace, justification, and the love of God.
On the less formal level, the issues of philosophical presuppositions and the centrality of dogma for Christian life continually arose in table talk, all the while friendships old and new were being strengthened by food and conversation. At the end of the conference, Bruce McCormack, the Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, praised the Catholics for their humility and erudition, while Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., the director of the Thomistic Institute, praised the Protestants for their zeal and love for the truth. These overtures were not the empty plaudits that often mark the ending of formal events; they were expressions that recognized that unity in Christ was not only hoped-for and sought-after through the conference; it was already present in seed-form. Practically all of the participants agreed that the Holy Spirit, the source of all true unity, was moving through the conference in a special way."
Fr. Ezra Sullivan, O.P. was ordained to the priesthood on May 27th of this year. He is currently serving as an associate pastor at St. Gertrude's Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio.