Barth, Derrida and Différance: Is there a Difference?[i]

by David Guretzki


To mention Karl Barth and Jacques Derrida together in the same sentence might appear for some to be nothing less than a categorical mistake. What has deconstruction to do with dialectical theology? According to Cambridge theologian Graham Ward, much indeed. In his book, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology,[ii] Ward seeks to show that Barth's theology of language as expounded in Church Dogmatics II.1 as the analogia fidei ("analogy of faith") and Derrida's economy of différance[iii] have more similarities than one might expect. Though Ward's argument is dense and at times follows a rather circuitous logic, his conclusion is provocatively clear: Derrida's economy of différance provides a philosophical supplement to Barth's theology of language while Barth simultaneously provides Derrida with a theological supplement.[iv] Or in the precise words of Ward himself, Barth's theological discourse is "exactly the form, method and content of Derrida's philosophical discourse."[v]  


I. Are the "parallels" really parallel?

Ward's thesis, not surprisingly, has received a vigorous reaction from Bruce McCormack, arguably one of the important younger Barth scholars of the English speaking world.[vi] Indeed, McCormack's "No!" to Ward is reminiscent of Barth's infamous "Nein!" to Brunner's attempt to provide a "point of contact" (Anknüpfungspunk) between natural human reason and revelation.[vii] As Barth rejected Brunner's insistence that there could be a point of contact between philosophy and theology, so McCormack has rejected the possibility of correlating Barth's theology with postmodern philosophy. In short, McCormack charges Ward with "illegitimate appropriation of Barth . . . for 'postmodern' concerns."[viii]

For good reason, Garrett Green calls for careful attention to the emerging debate between Ward and McCormack. As he suggests, "we can use their interchange to focus attention on the key issue raised by the linkage of Barth's name with Derrida's. For however far apart they may be in their outcomes, Ward and McCormack agree on the central theological question," namely, the question of the immediacy of the Word through the mediation of words.[ix] Thus, Green succinctly frames what he believes to be the question of concern: Are the parallels between Barth and Derrida indications of a deep commonality or merely superficial affinities of expression between otherwise heterogeneous thinkers?[x]

However, Green's question is itself problematic because it presupposes an aporia between Ward and McCormack's positions: either there is deep commonality between Barth and Derrida (Ward) or there is mere superficiality (McCormack). Yet the situation is not so aporetic in nature. Indeed the similarities between Barth and Derrida are more than at a surface level, but I will argue in this article that the similarities are not to be understood as deep parallels, but as inversions of each other. And it is precisely the failure to perceive this inversion that can be so subtly deceptive in comparing Barth to Derrida. To put it metaphorically, I will argue that the relationship of the economies of discourse proposed by Barth and Derrida are as object to image when viewed through a lens: to look at either object or image independently from their relationship to the other yields a conclusion of "exact parallel." However, to look at object and image in dependent relationship to one another yields a conclusion of structural similarity, though in 180 degree inversion. Mutatis mutandis, the models of discourse proposed by Barth and Derrida, when viewed together from the formal and material principles operative in each, are formally and materially the inverse of one another. As such, my argument does not present a point-by-point refutation of Ward's argument as much as to seek my own juxtaposition of Barth and Derrida's models of discourse while adhering to the comparative framework Ward has initiated. Using Ward's three-fold description, I concur with Ward that in terms of content there is evidence in Barth of "deconstructive-like" parallels to Derrida. However, I will simultaneously demonstrate that the formal and material principles operative in Barth and Derrida are structurally and antithetically opposed to one another.[xi] This implies that the comparison of Barth to "deconstruction" while certainly yielding some fruitful results, must also be carefully limited. It is my contention that Barth and Derrida cannot be easily reconciled, nor are they to be seen as in some way supplementary to the other's programme.

In order to demonstrate this thesis, I will briefly identify some of the similarities (even if we cautiously refrain from calling them "parallels") in content between Barth's analogy of faith and Derrida's economy of différance. I will then follow up this exposition by identifying within this content the formal and material principles operative in both, thereby showing the inverse relationship to one another.


II. The Content of Derrida's "Economy of Différance" and Barth's "Analogia Fidei"

We are immediately faced with the task of expounding and juxtaposing the content of both Derrida's "economy of différance" and Barth's "analogia fidei." In the first instance, this is notoriously difficult since Derrida insists that "différance is neither a word nor a concept."[xii] But despite this assertion that literally defies attempts at definition, it is nevertheless possible to speak of some of the basic contours of the notion of différance.[xiii]

Spivak has identified différance as the closest thing to a "master-concept" that Derrida has developed.[xiv] Though nearly synonymous to the conditions necessary for the entire deconstructionist project, différance is Derrida's "neographism"[xv] connoting both the process and the condition for the process by which texts are written and read. In French différance is the conflation into a single term of two French verbs meaning respectively "to differ" and "to defer." As a result, différance speaks simultaneously of the tendency of words to differentiate themselves (i.e., "to differ") from other words and of necessity, "to defer" to other words in order to situate their proper meaning.[xvi] As Andrews points out, "A word is therefore a linguistic sign which has a twofold structure. It is a signifier and it also represents a signified object."[xvii]

One of the reasons Derrida has introduced the notion of différance is to better understand how it is possible to think of the conditions necessary for "difference." That is, what are the conditions by which it is possible to differentiate between signifier and signified,[xviii] or even between one signifier and another? Derrida's answer: the condition necessary for difference is différance. But what exactly is différance? At one point Derrida nearly succumbs to a definition when he writes, "Différance is the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences." Elsewhere, he concludes, "Differences, thus, are 'produced'—deferred—by différance."[xix] Thus, différance is not some thing, as much as it is that which makes it possible to distinguish between things. But such a definition obviously cannot suffice (and Derrida knows this!) on its own.

At the core of Derrida's thought—if we may be so bold as to suggest any kind of "centre" to his thought!—is his overarching concern to free Western science, literature and philosophy from "the concept of centred structure"[xx] or what he variously refers to as "logocentrism," "presence," or the "transcendental signified."[xxi] That is to say, Derrida is convinced that the history of Western thought has been dominated by a series of "metaphors and metonymies" by which the meaning of words are ultimately—and in his opinion illegitimately—grounded. The fact that the metaphors and metonymies are variously known as "eidos, archè, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia, transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, [or] man,"[xxii] does not matter; what Derrida resists is the limiting function each of these metaphors have in controlling the meaning of a text through imposition of alien notions onto the text. Logocentrism is thus, for Derrida, "the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a [transcendental] signified."[xxiii] Or put yet another way, logocentrism is the imposition of external limits upon the internal freeplay of textual structures. The "fundamental condition" of grammatology (i.e., the deconstructive reading of texts) "is certainly the undoing of logocentrism."[xxiv] Therefore, the primary objective for Derrida's deconstructionist programme is that texts be freed from any external influence, whether that influence be the intentions of the original author or the unintentional imposition of a logocentric meaning imposed upon the text either by the writer or the reader. Rather, the reading and writing of texts need to be opened up by the economy of différance, the unceasing freeplay of signification.[xxv]

Though all attempts at closure in defining différance is itself inherently problematic, we are constrained to move on to give a brief exposition of Barth's analogia fidei ("analogy of faith"), particularly as expounded in volume II.1 of the Church Dogmatics.[xxvi]

Ward rightly notes that for Barth, "language is both divine (God-given, God-referring) and socially constructed (by human beings in association and agreement with each other, but now separated from God)."[xxvii] Because of the double-origin of language, the key problem for the theologian, according to Barth, is to discern the way in which these two aspects of language are related.

Barth first explores the possibility of speaking of the relationship between human and divine words as one of parity or disparity. Barth asks, "Does there exist a simple parity of content and meaning when we apply the same word to the creature on the one hand and to God's revelation and God on the other?" In answer to his own question, Barth rejects the possibly of parity between divine and human language because

[a] parity of this type would mean either that God had ceased to be God and become merely a creature, or that man with his capacity had become a God. Therefore this parity means necessarily that the knower and the known are related either as two creatures or as two gods.[xxviii]


But if parity is rejected, can disparity be assumed? No, says Barth. "The impossibility of the thesis of a parity between our word and the being of God must not press us into the counter-thesis of a disparity between them. On the basis of the same presupposition the latter is just as impossible as the former."[xxix]

Central to Barth's rejection of speaking of the relationship between divine and human language in terms of parity or disparity is what he identifies as the "co-existence and co-inherence of veiling and unveiling in God's revelation."[xxx] It is upon this crucial presupposition of a "dialectic"[xxxi] between God's veiling and unveiling that Barth comes to reject any notion of analogia entis ("analogy of being"). "In contrast to this doctrine," he says, "we have affirmed that God can be known only through God, namely in the event of the divine encroachment (übergriff) of His self-revelation."[xxxii] Because the divine encroachment is unilaterally directed from God to humans, apart from this encroachment "we possess no analogy on the basis of which the nature and being of God as the Lord can be accessible to us."[xxxiii]

Despite his rejection of the analogia entis, Barth does acknowledge the usefulness of the concept of "analogy" for speaking of the relationship between human and divine language, provided that in referring to "analogy" the theologian not fall into what Barth perceives as the critical error of the analogia entis, that is, the error of erasing the "infinite qualitative distinction"[xxxiv] between God and man, or as he says elsewhere, the error of "crossing over to the false gods and no-gods."[xxxv] Although "analogy" is, in Barth's estimation, "burdened by its use in natural theology," it is nonetheless a useful tool, provided that it is understood as meaning no more than "similarity, partial correspondence and agreement."[xxxvi] Rather than an analogy of being, which expresses parity between the divine and the human, analogy must be restricted to an analogy of faith which expresses only partial correspondence between human and divine and then only a correspondence seen from within the stance of faith itself. In other words, outside of faith, every human analogy of the divine breaks down into idolatry.[xxxvii]

Because of Barth's rejection of the analogia entis, human and divine language are not naturally united. Though humans are "permitted and commanded"[xxxviii] to speak of God, their language "consists only in 'approximations' . . . [and] stands in need of correction at every point."[xxxix] Even these "approximations" or "pictures" with which humans speak of God

are in themselves unfitted to this object and thus inappropriate to express and affirm the knowledge of Him. For God—the living God who encounters us in Jesus Christ—is not such a one as can be appropriated by us in our own capacity.[xl]

By the time he reaches the end of chapter 5 of CD II/1, one can sense the limits of theological discourse which Barth has uncovered, the burden of which he himself bears:

In respect of the circulus veritatis Dei we have no last word to speak. We can only repeat ourselves. We can, therefore, only describe Him again, and often, and in the last resort infinitely often. If we try to speak conclusively of the limits of our knowledge of God and of the knowledge of God generally, we can come to no conclusion. . . . In this matter, we have definitely no last word to speak. If we think we have, we have already pronounced our own judgment, because we have denied faith.[xli]


Though there are clear stylistic differences in their modes of presentation, at this point it should be evident why Ward and others have rightly detected similarities between Derrida and Barth. At least three points of similarity can be briefly noted. First, both Derrida and Barth have attempted to grapple with the issue of "difference" and the role of language in specifying "difference" itself. Though both were wrestling with unique concerns to begin with (i.e., Derrida being concerned with the differentiating process of language itself and Barth being concerned with the differentiation between the language of humans and the language of God), both seek to provide a conceptual framework by which they can grapple with the problem.

Second, both Derrida and Barth are critical of any transcendental justification which seeks to ground human language in something beyond itself. Though Derrida rejects what he sees as a dominating "logocentrism" in the Western metaphysical tradition, Barth similarly rejects the analogia entis and its Greek heritage as it has dominated Western theology. For both, human language cannot reach out beyond itself and ground itself upon an apodictic foundation securing its unequivocal meaning. Neither a foundational or transcendental Logos (Derrida) nor an ontological identification of a commonality of Being (Barth) is able to guarantee the permanence of meaning in words. For Derrida, language is in constant need of supplementation due to its constant tendency to "slide" in meaning; for Barth, human language, even theological language, by itself is limited, indeed, incapable of speaking the truth about God who is "Wholly Other."

Third, both Derrida and Barth emphasize the inescapable conclusion that discourse, whether theological or not, is never complete. As often as a subject is addressed, textual constructions can never be definitive or final. For Derrida, to limit the endless play of signification inherent to textuality is to succumb to logocentrism. For Barth, to cease to speak about God is to forget that theology is itself an impossible, even if necessary, task. Thus, from the perspective of the content of Derrida's economy of différance and Barth's analogia fidei, one is hard pressed to deny the similarities, even if those similarities are couched in significantly different rhetorical styles[xlii] and with significantly different underlying concerns.


III. Formal and Material Principles for Derrida and Barth

Having examined the basic features of Derrida and Barth's linguistic models, we now turn to the most pressing question which Ward's project initiates: Do the similarities between Barth and Derrida suggest that Barth provides a theological supplement to Derrida and that Derrida provides a philosophical supplement to Barth? Of course, the answer to this question depends in great measure on what Ward means by the use of the term "supplement." Ward qualifies, at least partially, what he wants to argue. In the first place, he is not arguing that the programmes of Barth and Derrida are in some way covertly engaged in that which they are explicitly opposed. Barth does not underhandedly appeal to a hidden philosophy of language in order to support his notion of the analogy of faith, nor is Derrida covertly engaged in a type of philosophical theology, in either positive or negative form.[xliii] Barth remains a theologian and Derrida remains (perhaps to his protest!) a philosopher, or at least, a philosopher on the margins! Rather, Ward argues that Barth's theology of the Word in words, taken on its own, is susceptible to accusations of philosophical incoherence. And Derrida's "différance calls the theological into play" and "lends weight to the ineradicable nature of the theological question in and of language."[xliv] It is in this sense that Ward attempts to argue for mutual supplementation through a creative "negotiation" between the Barth and Derrida.

Ward's notions of "supplementation" and "negotiation" are unapologetically derived from Derrida. This immediately raises the question of whether the so-called "negotiation" is thus unavoidably weighted in favour of Derrida. In other words, one might commend Ward for seeking to show mutuality of supplementation between Barth and Derrida but this can only be accomplished through subjection of Barth to Derrida's framework. This calls into question whether they really stand on equal footing with one another or whether in the end, Barth is read through Derridean lenses but not vice-versa.[xlv] Though this is a legitimate criticism in its own right, we will give Ward the benefit of the doubt and assume, for the sake of argument, that he has been fair in his "negotiation" of Barth and Derrida. But a major question remains unanswered: Is the relationship between Barth's and Derrida's economies of language truly that of "supplementation" or, after closer examination, are the economies more along the lines of what one might call "cancellation" or even "antithesis"?

If we proceed from Ward's Derridian use of the term "supplementary," the economies of Barth and Derrida must simultaneously "supplant" and "compensate for" the other.[xlvi] However, it is argued here that the supplementation of Barth and Derrida is accomplished in the former sense, that is, Barth and Derrida's economies supplant, dispossess or cancel one another by structural negation, but as a result of that same cancellation, their economies are unable to supplement each in the latter sense of "compensating" one for the other. Why is this so? The reason is because the formal and material principles operative in both Barth and Derrida are mutually exclusive. In other words, Barth's analogy of faith is formally closed and materially open, whereas Derrida's economy of différance is formally open and materially closed. It is to this crucial aspect that we now turn.

As mentioned earlier, one of the key concerns that has characterized Derrida's work has been to emphasize the endless freeplay of signification in the reading and writing of texts. This aspect of Derrida's thought will be designated, for the purpose of the argument here, the formal principle of Derrida's economy of différance. As defined above, the economy of différance is the condition by which endless signification is opened up and it is Derrida's insistence that signification must never be restricted or hindered which functions as the operative principle of deconstructive reading. In short, without différance (with an "a"), difference (with an "e") is impossible. And without difference, signification is itself rendered impossible. Therefore, the economy of différance is one of formal openness—openness to ongoing, endless freeplay of differing and deferred meanings in texts. Closely related to this is what Derrida calls the "iterability" of the text, that is, the characteristic of a text which makes it not only possible, but necessary, for a word or phrase to be repeated in another context. As Ward explains, "without the capacity to be repeated, the conventions which underpin the exchange and value of signs, making signs meaningful, cannot become established."[xlvii] To close off the freeplay and iterability of the text is, according to Derrida, to slip back into logocentrism, to assume that there is a restriction that stands outside and limits the economy of différance, a "transcendental signified" whose meaning is beyond "supplementation" and beyond re-contextualization.

But it is exactly this formal principle of différance that logically leads Derrida to his important statements about the role of "texts" in human discourse. Of course, to insist upon the endless play of signification would itself be meaningless, as a formal principle, were it to be applied to anything other than texts. This has led Derrida, early on in his career, to posit his oft quoted statement: "There is nothing outside the text."[xlviii] Unfortunately, it is all too easy to misconstrue Derrida on this point and to assume, wrongly, that in this axiom, Derrida is making some kind of idealistic metaphysical statement. As Caputo explains, "It is not that texts and languages have no 'referents' or 'objectivity' but that the referent and objectivity are not what they pass themselves off to be, a pure transcendental signified."[xlix] Or as Hart has helpfully framed it, "When Derrida claims that there is nothing outside the text, he is making a remark concerning constitution, not concerning what is. In other words, he does not say that everything is only a text but that everything is also a text."[l] In light of this, the necessary counterpart of Derrida's formal principle of open, free signification is an economy which is materially closed and limited, methodologically speaking, only to textual representations. Texts speak only of other texts within a closed universe of textuality and any attempt to penetrate the closed system is to fall once again into a logocentric mode. An appeal to something outside of the text can only be made itself through textual mediation. Whether there really is anything outside of text is not of concern for Derrida because in the end, even if there is anything outside of text, it can only be spoken of materially through text itself. Thus, the formal principle of endless signification for Derrida can be properly and materially applied only to the closed world of textuality—words and texts being reappropriated or reiterated in ever new contexts.

Turning to Barth, we recall that Barth's analogy of faith bears certain resemblances in content to Derrida's economy of différance. However, the formal and material perspectives stand in stark contrast.

In the opening pages of CD II/1 ("The Fulfilment of the Knowledge of God"), Barth refuses to dwell on the question of whether God can be known because

where God is known He is also in some way or other knowable. Where the actuality exists there is also the corresponding possibility. The question cannot then be posed in abstractio but only in concreto; not a priori but only a posteriori.


On the contrary, the question of whether God can be known

presupposes a place where, no doubt, the possibility of knowledge in general and then of the knowledge of God in particular can be judged and decided in one way or another. . . . But this is the very thing which, from the point of view of its possibility, must not happen.


This is where Barth is definitive: "the knowability of God cannot be questioned in vacuo, or by means of a general criterion of knowledge delimiting the knowledge of God from without, but only from within this real knowledge."[li] Therefore, it is of crucial importance for Barth that the language of theology proceeds formally from within the knowledge of God. But all knowledge of God begins in the concrete, in the particular, and can only be gathered a posteriori. For Barth, this is the necessary postulate of God's freedom—the freedom of God to be God. As White describes this aspect of Barth's thought, "God is always free to surprise people and reveal himself in a way that does not conform to the criteria [of human culture.]"[lii] That is to say, there is no place outside of the particulars of revelation itself from which the knowledge of God can be certainly known. As a result, there are real constraints for theological discourse; theologians cannot speak freely or arbitrarily about God without simultaneously ceasing to talk about the very God whom they intend to speak about. As Barth himself puts its,

The knowledge of God with which we are here concerned takes place, not in a free choice, but with a very definite constraint. It stands or falls with its one definite object, which cannot be different, and which cannot be exchanged for or even joined with any other object.


And what is this object? For Barth, none other than "God who in His Word gives Himself to the Church to be known as God. Bound in this way it is the true knowledge of God."[liii]  

The constraint of which Barth speaks is of special importance for a consideration of the two types of language which Barth relates in the analogia fidei—the divine and the human. If God himself in the revelation of his Word is the constraining object of the language of God, then and only then is it "possible and necessary to speak and hear about God." But on the contrary,

not every object is God; and so not all our human consideration and conception is knowledge of God. For although God has genuine objectivity just like all other objects, His objectivity is different from theirs, and therefore knowledge of Him . . . is a particular and utterly unique occurrence in the range of all knowledge.[liv]


Barth's insistence upon the knowledge of God (in contrast to all other types of knowledge) as sui generis is a fundamental axiom which informs his entire theory of the analogia fidei. For Barth, language does not simply in its "givenness" bear an analogical relationship to God's self-revelation of himself. Language does not, for Barth, automatically participate in an analogia entis. Rather, it is only on the basis of faith, and in faith, from within the community of faith, that theological reflection can take place. In fact, in his discussion on the nature of faith itself, Barth distinguishes between faith and false forms of faith. Unlike erroneous faith or superstition, faith

does not arbitrarily choose objects to set up as signs, in that way inventing a knowledge of God at its own good pleasure. It knows God by means of the objects chosen by God Himself. It recognises and acknowledges God's choice and sanctification in the operation of this knowledge. And, for its part, it uses these special works of God as they ought to be used—as means of the knowledge of God.[lv]


From this, Barth clearly understands the operation of the analogy of faith to be formally restricted and limited. That is, discourse upon the object of the theology, God in the revelation of himself, is formally closed. In other words, there is no approach to theological discourse from outside of God's Word because, as Barth argues, "'from outside' means from the point of view of a human position where truth, dignity and competence are so ascribed to human seeing, understanding and judging as to be judge over the reality and possibility of what happens here."[lvi]

Perhaps there is nowhere in CD II/1 that Barth more clearly identifies the limits of theological knowledge than when he admits,

formally considered, even our theological knowledge of God, even our movement of thought as it is properly concerned with the triune God and directed and determined by the Bible and dogma, still has this natural, general and normal aspect, viewed from which we are still concerned with nothing but ourselves and not even with ourselves in truth.[lvii]


Barth even goes on to say that such a formal movement of thought, even when concerned with the high and lofty subject matter of the knowledge of God, eventually leads to being "driven into a certain skepticism" such that we "see ourselves really and definitely compelled to look above and beyond it."[lviii] Elsewhere Barth puts it this way: "[T]he lines which we can draw to describe formally and conceptually what we mean when we say 'God' cannot be extended so that what is meant is really described and defined; but they continually break apart so that it is not actually described and therefore not defined."[lix] Unless Barth here is wanting to throw up his hands in defeat in the face of the impossibility of speaking of God (which is doubtful!), his description of theological discourse, though formally closed, hints here at some kind of material or actual openness which can save theology from linguistic relativism at best, or nihilism at worst.

The object of theological language, according to Barth, is God himself, and not simply God as humans think God to be, but God as God is from eternity. In a key passage, Barth admits that to speak of God in the immanence of his being,

since we are men and not God, might be entirely closed to us. But in the fulfilment of the true knowledge of God, it is not actually closed. This is the sphere of what God is in Himself, . . . In all its invisibility and incomprehensibility this sphere, which might of course be closed to us, is not actually closed to us. If there is any encroachment (übergriff) here, it is the encroachment which God Himself has made in His revelation in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Of course, we accept the fact of this encroachment.[lx]


Here Barth makes clear that despite the fact that the language of theology is formally closed and poses real restrictions upon the theologian, it nevertheless can become God's own Word by merit of its material openness to God himself—an openness that looks beyond the lifeless words of theological discourse to the eternal Living Word and Mediator of God, Jesus Christ. Though theological assertions must be restricted to the attitude and community of faith, and though there is no guarantee that theological assertions may in any way correspond, even partially, to God's own Word concerning himself, and though "the living God who encounters us in Jesus Christ—is not such a one as can be appropriated by us in our own capacity," nevertheless, "[Jesus Christ] is the One who will appropriate us, and in so doing permit and command and therefore adapt us to appropriate Him as well."[lxi]

In what way is this material openness related to the discussion of language? One could anticipate that Derrida might see in Barth an example of logocentrism and of transgressing the limits of textuality by appealing to Jesus Christ as the material "mediation" by which human language is appropriated and made God's language concerning himself. After all, Derrida might argue, such appeals are still appeals to textually mediated constructions—christologically centred texts.

Though one can only guess at what Barth's response would be, at least two clues can be gathered. In the first place, Barth does not flee from the linguistically mediated character of revelation. In fact, for Barth, "Revelation means the giving of signs."[lxii] In a sense, then, Barth would have to agree, in a restricted way, that there is nothing outside text, if text is defined as anything which signifies. But the point of divergence between Barth and Derrida is that "in His revelation God is present to man in a medium" and this presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ made known by the Spirit, ensures the "real knowledge of God"—a knowledge which is first and foremost "concerned with God in His relationship to man, but also in His distinction from him."[lxiii]

What is of special importance in this regard is the significance Barth gives to the particular event of incarnation. "The Word was made flesh: this is the first, original and controlling sign of all signs."[lxiv] Though in relation to this original controlling sign, Barth includes the creaturely testimony of the apostles and prophets, the visible existence of the Church, the sacraments of the Gospel, and the visible existence of those who believe in Christ, it is only through Jesus Christ that there exists "the great possibility, created by God Himself, of viewing and conceiving Him, and therefore of speaking of Him."[lxv]

As for the second possible Derridean objection to the material openness of Barth's analogy of faith, Barth admits that "we certainly cannot refer to Jesus Christ without making use of various articles of Christology." But this reference, for Barth, has more to do with the formal aspect of theological discourse than the material. Articles of Christology must unavoidably be taken into account when attempting to formulate dogma and doctrine. But in reference to the material aspect of the analogy of faith, Barth protests that "we are not referring to Christology. We are referring, christologically speaking, to Jesus Christ Himself."[lxvi] In this last carefully crafted sentence, Barth brings together, in characteristic dialectical tension, the formal and material aspects of the analogy of faith: Formally, the analogy of faith is limited, closed as it were, to speak of God only through the lenses afforded by the Church's dogmatic christological formulations, whether in Corinthians, Creed or Chalcedon. But it is only when through formal theological assertion, uttered in the context of an appeal to God's grace, in faith, that materially speaking, God is present with us, albeit in a mediated way, in the person of Jesus Christ by the power and testimony of the Holy Spirit. As Barth concludes chapter 5 of CD II/1 he says,

When we appeal to God's grace, we appeal to the grace of the incarnation and to this man as the One in whom, because He is the eternal Son of God, knowledge of God was, is and will be present originally and properly; but again through whom, because He is the eternal Son of God, there is promised to us our own divine sonship, and therefore our fellowship in His knowledge of God.[lxvii]


In the sense suggested above, Barth's analogy of faith can be described, in contrast to Derrida's economy of différance, as formally closed as it pertains to the operation of human language, but it is materially open in expectation of the divine encroachment (übergriff) of the "real man" Jesus Christ, "to whom we have to keep if we do not want to speak meaninglessly and futilely, but with final substance and content, of man and his relationship to God."[lxviii]  


IV. Conclusion

Do the similarities between Barth's analogy of faith and Derrida's economy of différance "supplement" one another, as Ward suggests? The answer, as we have seen, is not simply that of "yes" or "no." Granted, similarities of content between the two cannot be simply swept away, despite the widely divergent rhetorical styles that each displays. But it has also been shown, through an analysis of the formal and material structures of the Barth's and Derrida's respective theories of theological and philosophical discourse, that they are structural opposites to one another. It is thus questionable how it is possible that two linguistic models, one being formally open and materially closed (Derrida) and the other being formally closed and materially open (Barth), can finally be said to truly "supplement" one another without being swallowed up by the other in logical and systemic negation. Therefore, the fact that Barth's and Derrida's linguistic models do contain important similarities must not overshadow the grave differences, indeed, the grave contradictions, between them. For it is in these structural contradictions that taken together, the two models end up not supplementing one another (in the full Derridean sense of the term), but canceling one another out. For Derrida is wary of those who might seek the Logos either within or beyond the logoi, but Barth is clear that it is impossible to impart to the logoi any real significance apart from the encroachment of the living Logos himself, Jesus Christ mediated to the church by his Holy Spirit.


– David Guretzki, McGill University/Briercrest Bible College




[i] Original published as: David Guretzki, Barth, Derrida and Différance: Is there a difference? Didaskalia 13.2 (Spring 2002): 51-71 (ISSN: 0847-1266). An earlier version of this article was presented at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA) annual meeting of the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, Université Laval, Québec, QC, 23 May 2001. Special thanks to Doug Harink, Jim Kanaris, Dustin Resch, and John Franke for their critical comments and encouragement.


[ii] Graham Ward, Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).


[iii] Readers should note that the term "différance" has been italicized throughout this article. Some authors have insisted that only the "a" should be italicized, i.e., "différance." However, this convention is not consistently followed in the secondary literature and so I have opted for the more conventional use of italics. For more on différance as a "neographism," see footnote #15 below.


[iv] Ibid., 256.


[v] Ibid., 247. Emphasis added. Isolde Andrews, a former doctoral student of Ward's, has argued along similar lines, but has focused more narrowly upon the parallels to Derrida evident in Barth's soteriology. She concludes: "From the point of view of Barth studies, the insights of Derrida shed a totally different light on the C[hurch] D[ogmatics], than do the standard works. This book defends the view that the deconstructive reading of Barth should be given a serious hearing and not just dismissed because deconstruction, différance, and the gift cut across traditional norms of thought. Systematic theological and philosophical thought has tended to apply its presuppositions uncritically and this, as Derrida has shown, has been at the expense of failure to notice the inconsistencies, gaps and ruptures in such thought. Barth's C.D. show a cognisance of this matter even though he does not express it in the formal terminology and thought of Derrida. Isolde Andrews, Deconstructing Barth: A Study of the Complementary Methods in Karl Barth and Jacques Derrida (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1996), 243.


[vi] See Bruce McCormack, Graham Ward's Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, 49, no. 1 (1996): 97-109. Not all reviewers of Ward's book have been as negative as McCormack, and many have registered points of cautious support and concern with Ward's argument. Richard Roberts, for example, is "yet unconvinced" by Ward's argument and therefore "suspends judgment." Nevertheless, he suggests that "every interconnecting link [of the book] . . . deserves testing to the point of survival or destruction." See Richard H. Roberts, review of Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology, by Graham Ward, in Journal of Theological Studies 48 (April 1997): 350-1.


[vii] For a relatively recent reprinting of Barth's response (in English translation) to Brunner, see Karl Barth, No! Answer to Emil Brunner, in Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, ed. Clifford Green (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991). For two recent and very helpful discussions of the Barth/Brunner debates, see Gary Dorrien, The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology: Theology Without Weapons (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 106-30; and Trevor Hart, Regarding Karl Barth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 139-72.


[viii] McCormack, Graham Ward's Barth, 97.


[ix] Garrett Green, The Hermeneutics of Difference: Barth and Derrida on Words and the Word, in Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Merold Westphal (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 92.


[x] Ibid.


[xi] Space prohibits rehearsing comprehensively Ward's entire argument but neither is it necessary to do so. However, it should be noted that a large portion of Ward's book is dedicated to situating Barth's theology within the Sprache and Rede philosophical debates of Barth's day as well as demonstrating the convergent and divergent influence of Heidegger, Levinas, and Buber upon Derrida. At any rate, the first two sections of Ward's book deserve careful attention for his masterful and careful exposition of the interrelationships of all of these thinkers, even if one chooses in the end to disagree with his conclusions.


[xii] Jacques Derrida, Différance, in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 7.


[xiii] For two succinct descriptions of différance, both authorized by Derrida himself, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Translator's Preface, in Of Grammatology (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), xxxviii-xlv; and John D. Caputo, Khôra: Being Serious with Plato, in Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, ed. John D. Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 96-105. Two other works which have dealt at length with différance are Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986) and Irene E. Harvey, Derrida and the Economy of Différance (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986). For a treatment of Derrida's notion of différance with respect to theological conceptions of difference, see Walter Lowe, Theology and Difference: The Wound of Reason (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993).


[xiv] Spivak, Translator's Preface, xliii.


[xv] Note Derrida's own designation of the term as a "neographism" rather than a "neologism." As a "neographism", "it is read, or it is written, but it cannot be heard." This is to indicate that the change of spelling from "difference" to "différance" can be seen (in writing) but not heard in speech. Thus, Derrida privileges the place of writing over the often assumed priority of speech over writing even while not wanting to displace speech, but simply to give writing its due place. See Derrida, Différance, 3.


[xvi] A concrete example may be illustrative here. If asked to define the word "chair," it would be necessary to use other words in the definition. Thus a chair is a "a piece of furniture with four legs used primarily for sitting." However, each of the words in the definition also need to be defined. What is "furniture" or "four" or "legs"? Thus, the meaning of a word is constantly "deferred" to other words and those words deferred to must be deferred to other words ad infinitum. However, the word "chair" may also refer to a position of headship over a committee or department, i.e., a "chairperson." In such a case, it is only through deferring to other words in context that "chair" (as a four legged piece of furniture) is able to "differ" from a "chair" (as the head of a committee). Thus, différance is the economy in which constantly "differing" and "deferring" is able to take place.


[xvii] Andrews, Deconstructing Barth, 67.


[xviii] Note that Derrida, though heavily indebted to the work of Ferdinand Saussure, is ready to see a distinction between "signifier" and "signified," whereas Saussure saw in the "sign" a "solid unity" between signifier and signified. On this point, see Peter Bürger, The Disappearance of Meaning: Essay At a Postmodern Reading of Michel Tournier, Botho Strauss and Peter Handke in Modernity & Identity, eds. Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman (Oxford, UK & Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), 95.


[xix] Derrida, Différance, 11, 14.


[xx] Jacques Derrida, Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 148.


[xxi] Ibid., 149.


[xxii] Ibid., 149, 147.


[xxiii] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (France: Les Editions de Minuit, 1967; reprint, Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1976), 49.


[xxiv] Ibid., 74.


[xxv] For a brief but helpful exposition of Derrida on différance and deconstruction, see Stanley J. Grenz,A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 142-150.


[xxvi] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II.1, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), hereafter referred to as CD II/1. Though it would be possible to refer to Barth's other works to expand and supplement the exposition of his analogy of faith, the present discussion will be largely be restricted to CD II/1, if for no other reason than to show that Ward's comparison of Barth and Derrida can be challenged from within the primary Barth text from which Ward draws. Furthermore, I agree that Barth's analogia fidei as developed in chapter 5 of CD II/1 is, in Ward's words, the "theological and linguistic hub around which the whole of the Church Dogmatics circulates." See Ward, Barth, Derrida, 14.


[xxvii] Ward, Barth, Derrida, 30.


[xxviii] CD II/1, 224.


[xxix] CD II/1, 225.


[xxx] CD II/1, 235.


[xxxi] McCormack has rightly demonstrated that Barth's ongoing emphasis on the dialectic between "veiling and unveiling" calls into question older readings of Barth that assume a shift from "dialectical" to "analogical" modes of thinking—a historical typology of Barth first introduced by Hans Urs von Balthasar. (See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie [The Theology of Karl Barth], trans. E. T. Oakes (Cologne: Jakob Hegner, 1951; reprint, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1992).) Rather than seeing a break between an earlier "dialectical" mode and a later "analogical" theological method in Barth, McCormack argues convincingly that Barth's theology, from start to finish, is characterized by a "critically realistic dialectical" methodology. See Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectic Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909-1936. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).


[xxxii] CD II/1, 79. For Barth's critique of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the analogia entis, see CD II/1, 79-84.


[xxxiii] CD II/1, 75.


[xxxiv] See "The Preface to the Second Edition," in Karl Barth, Der Römerbrief [The Epistle to the Romans], 6th ed., trans. Edwin Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), 10.


[xxxv] CD II/1, 7.


[xxxvi] CD II/1, 225.


[xxxvii] In an earlier article, Barth speaks of the first commandment ("You shall have no other gods before me!") as an "axiom" of theology. See Karl Barth, The First Commandment As an Axiom of Theology, in The Way of Theology in Karl Barth: Essays and Comments, ed. H. Martin Rumscheidt (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1986), 63-78.


[xxxviii] CD II/1, 199.


[xxxix] CD II/1, 202.


[xl] CD II/1, 188.


[xli] CD II/1, 250.


[xlii] For an insightful analysis of the role of Barth's rhetorical style in the development of his early theology, see Stephen H. Webb, Re-Figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991. Webb's analysis, while certainly helpful in identifying the close relationship between form and content, ends up pushing the analysis too far and functionally collapses form and content in Barth's theology to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable.


[xliii] Ward, Barth, Derrida, 255-6. Ward warns, "[I]t is a misconception to interpret this book as either providing Barth with a philosophical foundation for his theology, or suggesting that Derrida's examination of différance offers a basis for a natural theology." However, Ward does suggest that "Negative theology, in its many guises, most clearly exemplarises the economy of différance." Ibid., xviii. For an extensive treatment of the use of deconstruction in the construction of a negative theology, see Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).


[xliv] Ward, Barth, Derrida, 232.


[xlv] One of McCormack's complaints against Ward's reading of Barth follows a similar logic. As he puts it, "The Derridean 'supplement' advocated by Ward is not a supplement at all, for the simple reason that the theology it seeks to 'negotiate' is not Barth's." McCormack, Graham Ward's Barth, 107.


[xlvi] Derrida's verb is suppléer. See Derrida, Of Grammatology, 280ff. See also "Derrida's Supplement" in Ward, Barth, Derrida, 209-34.


[xlvii] Ward, Barth, Derrida, 211. Illustrative of Derrida's concept of the "iterability" of texts is his article entitled, "Signature Event Context" (Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context" Glyph 1 (1977):172-97). In an 82 page rejoinder to John Searle's accusation that Derrida is guilty of quoting texts entirely out of context, Derrida manages to quote all of Searle's text, mostly out of context, to demonstrate how an author loses control of her or his own text once it has been put in print. Cited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 211.


[xlviii] "Il n'y a pas de hors-text." Derrida, Of Grammatology, 163. Derrida calls this statement the "axial proposition of the essay."


[xlix] Caputo, Khôra, 80.


[l] Hart, Trespass of Sign, 165.


[li] CD II/1, 5. Emphasis added.


[lii] Graham White, Karl Barth's Theological Realism, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 26 (1984): 61. Several scholars in past years have developed what White has identified as Barth's "theological realism." For further discussions of this key aspect of Barth's theology, see especially McCormack, Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology; Ingolf U. Dalferth, Karl Barth's Eschatological Realism, in Karl Barth: Centenary Essays, ed. S. W. Sykes (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989); and George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), especially pp. 43-49. Curiously, Ward more or less upholds the scholarly consensus on this point, but refers to this aspect of Barth's thought, somewhat confusingly, as "non-realism." Ward suggests, "Barth's non-realism lies in his refusal to accept anything as true or real outside of the knowledge given to human creatures through Christ." See Graham Ward, Barth, Modernity and Postmodernity, in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 284.


[liii] CD II/1, 7.


[liv] CD II/1, 14.


[lv] CD II/1, 17-8.


[lvi] CD II/1, 31.


[lvii] CD II/1, 71-2.


[lviii] CD II/1, 72.


[lix] CD II/1, 187.


[lx] CD II/1, 67. Emphasis added.


[lxi] CD II/1, 188.


[lxii] CD II/1, 52.


[lxiii] CD II/1, 10.


[lxiv] CD II/1, 199.


[lxv] CD II/1, 199.


[lxvi] CD II/1, 251.


[lxvii] CD II/1, 252.


[lxviii] CD II/1, 153.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.