Debates on Barth’s Doctrine of Election and Trinity

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As someone who has arrived late to the debates amongst different Barthian interpreters, I’ve spent this weekend reading the different positions. On the one hand, we have scholars like Molnar and Hunsinger who continually affirm that Barth’s doctrine of the election is entirely grounded in the Trinity. Or to put it another way, although God’s being and act cannot be formally distinguished (insofar as God’s being is only known through his act), it is inappropriate to say that God’s essence is determined by his election. On the other side of the debate, we have McCormack who believes that there is seismic shift that takes place in Barth’s Church Dogmatics right around the time he began writing CD II/2 in which Barth sketches out his radical doctrine of election. McCormack argues that God’s decision before time to be for us is actually constitutive and gave rise to the Trinity. McCormack goes on to argue that to remain faithful to Barth’s insights in CD IV, it is necessary that we re-interpret Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity laid out in CD I.

There has been a very solid exchange between Hunsinger and McCormack over the last two years. Hunsinger wrote something of a manifesto for what he takes his position to be a traditional interpretation of Barth’s theological ontology in opposition to the position McCormack defended in an excellent essay entitled Grace and Being found in the Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth. Hunsinger’s essay can be found here

Well, finally McCormack has responded here in the latest edition of The Scottish Journal of Theology in an essay entitled Election and Trinity: Theses in response to George Hunsinger

The debates encompass three important questions:
1. The evolution of Barth’s theology (Hunsinger alleges that it is fundamentally consistent all the way throughout, whereas McCormack recognizes an important shift)
2. Whether the christology advanced in CD IV would require a revision in Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity in CD I/1
3. The relationship between God’s triunity and the act of election

He makes the claim that from his early work to CD II/1 Barth in many ways still advanced a standard theological ontology. For McCormack, it was not until CD II/2 in which Barth began to develop an election wholly grounded in christology that he could properly construct a non-metaphysical theological ontology. This non-metaphysical theological ontology did not want to allow there to be a gap differentiating God’s being and God’s act for humanity. I’ve been thinking a little more through this paper and am curious what McCormack means when he asserts that the later Barth has a non-metaphysical theological ontology. One of his ideas is that Barth forecloses any sort of gap between the divine essence and will, hence the Trinity can have no metaphysical priority over the doctrine of election (only a logical priority). I guess I don’t understand how one can have a theological ontology that is non-metaphysical?

In Thesis 7, he writes:

“Christology constitutes the theoretical basis for all other doctrinal constructs from CD II/2 to the end of Barth’s life. But it was not until he had thoroughly ‘historicized’ his christology (beginning in IV/1) that he began to realize the critical potential of this epistemological starting-point. For if this new christology is now the epistemological basis for theology, then nothing may be said of God or the human which does not find its basis in this christology. Expressed another way: a doctrine of God built on the soil of this epistemological foundation may seek to find in God the ontological conditions for the possibility of this christology only. Anything beyond that is unwarranted speculation which takes place on a different basis – and is to be excluded. Seen in this light, there is much in Barth’s earlier doctrine of God that can remain standing, much that can remain standing only if seen in a different light, and some things which need to be rejected” (217).

Later in the paper McCormack makes a really helpful distinction between human decision making and divine decision making. We must first recognize that in God’s decision making there in no temporal gap that would render a before and after the divine decision (i.e. it is absurd to posit to some sort of deliberation process in God’s decision making). Yet, if we think God’s being precedes his act ontologically then we are forced to admit such a temporal distinction. Hence, we must admit that “God must therefore give himself being eternally in the act in which he sets himself in relation to Jesus Christ, and, in him, to the world. There is thus no metaphysical gap between God’s being and acting” (222).

Finally in Thesis 10 he writes:

“If God is what he is in the eternal decision of election and not in a state or mode of existence that is above or prior to that decision, then the question ‘who is the Subject of this decision?’ constitutes a transgression of the boundaries set by the divine reality itself. For embedded in that question is another, namely ‘What would God have been, had He not made this decision?’ Such a question can only be answered on a basis other than the one provided by Barth’s later christology. It is, inevitably, an exercise in natural theology” (223).

I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this once I complete CD III and begin delving into CD IV. Also, I’ll be writing a post soon on Barth’s reading of Nietzsche in CD III/2.

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7 Responses to “Debates on Barth’s Doctrine of Election and Trinity”

  1. Jonathan Post Says:

    I don’t really have anything interesting to say, only that your blog is one of the most underrated theology (I know it’s not just that!) blogs out there. Who tackles Barth and Alitzer with equal fervor? I lean far more to the former, but am happy to read you interacting with the latter and his ilk without dismissal

  2. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks for the kind words. To answer your question I’m pretty sure I may be the only person in the world who interacts with Altizer, period.

  3. A.J. Smith Says:

    @ Jonathan
    Ya, Jeremy’s blog is not well known or widely read enough. Its gotta be in the top ten theology blogs (maybe even top five?). Look at his category cloud. What other blog combines Barth, Altizer, Lacan, psychoanalysis, and everything in between? For example, you can find a blog series on the doctrine of atonement and then another on death of God theology and yet another on New Testament scholarship.

    @ Jeremy
    I feel ashamed to admit that I was not aware that there was quite this level of debate on interpreting Barth’s Doctrine of Election, so thanks for the post. Out of interest which, if any, of the two views do you side with at this point?

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Again, it’s hard for me to come down yet as I’ve yet to read CD IV, which seems to be where the real disagreement begins. I spent a lot of time reading old debates on F&T between Hunsinger and Kim, which were really interesting along with all of the journal articles I listed.

    I’ll admit having a stronger affinity for McCormack’s position on Barth, but again I’ve yet to read any of his books so I ought to reserve judgment until then.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    I could probably increase my theological blogging popularity if I talked more about the church, evangelicals or Milbank. I’m trying to resist all three temptations. Not to mention, I’m hoping to do some studies in liberation theology soon (specifically, queer theology) so I’m sure I’ll make tons of fans that way.

  6. jfrederickp Says:

    Looking forward to your studies in queer theology. I’m about to go back to the United States from South Korea in a month and a half, so I should then have access to theological texts in a way that was impossible here in SK. One of the first things I hope to read is the Jennings book, “Plato or Paul?: The Origins of Western Homophobia”.

    Also, I saw on your goodreads account that you read Pannenburg’s Anthropology in Theological Perspective. It’s been hyped to me through a couple of sources already and I feel it will help me bring some coherance to my worldview (ugh, what’s a better word?). Part of the hype is that it is massively sprawling through many disciplines. Do you feel like it’s a book that should be built up to, or could a non-academic theologian with very spotty background go through it with a relative degree of success?

  7. Jeremy Says:

    Jennings work is really good. I’ve read his book Jacbo’s Wound and the Man Jesus Love, which offer affirmative homoerotic readings of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Bible, respectively. Also, his work on Derrida and Paul was really solid.

    Yes, I have read Pannenberg’s Anthropology. Basically, he might be the most erudite of all 20th century theologians. His methodology is something I really respect, and the sheer breadth of his knowledge is absolutely stunning. I think you’ll be fine to read it. I’m no academic theologian, and I was able to wade my way through it. Also, I’d highly recommend Theology and the Kingdom of God and Jesus: God and Man is absolutely superb.

    I’m planning on his reading his Systematic Theology some time early next year. It should be exciting.

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