Choice Quotations: George Hunsinger on the shape of Barth's theology
If Barth’s theology will not yield its treasures to a single overriding conception, and if inherent limits accompany the loci approach, is there perhaps another interpretive possibility? This essay proposes that there is. Several recurrent “motifs” or modes of thought, it is argued, can be seen to run throughout the Church Dogmaitcs and to shape the doctrinal content of Barth’s mature theology as a whole. “Actualism,” “particularism,” “objectivism,” “personalism,” “realism,” and “rationalism” are the names that will be used to designate these motifs…
“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation…For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.
“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that says, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to be applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.
“Objectivism” is a motif pertaining to Barth’s understanding of revelation and salvation. It describes not only the means by which they respectively occur, but also the status of their occurrence. Revelation and salvation are both thought to occur through the mediation of ordinary creaturely objects, so that the divine self-enactment in our midst lies hid-den within them. The status of this self-enactment is also thought in some strong sense to be objective – that is, real, valid, and effective – whether it is acknowledge and received by the creature or not. Revelation and salvation are events objectively mediated by the creaturely sphere and grounded in the sovereignty of God.
“Personalism” is a motif governing the goal of the divine self-manifestation. God’s objective self-manifestation in revelation and salvation comes to the creature in the form of personal address. The creature is encountered by this address in such a way that it is affirmed, condemned, and made capable of fellowship with God. Fellowship is the most intimate of engagements and occurs in I-Thou terms. The creature is liberated for a relationship of love and freedom with God and therefore also with its fellow creatures.
“Realism,” as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to Barth’s conception of theological language. Theological language is conceived as the vehicle of analogical reference. In itself it is radically unlike the extralinguistic object to which it refers (God), but by grace it is made to transcend itself. Through transcending itself by grace, theological language attains sufficient likeness or adequacy to its object for reference truly and actually to occur. Besides the mode of reference, realism also pertains to the modes of address, certainty, and narration found in scripture as well as in the language of the church based upon it.
“Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptural exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, the doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity.