Introduction: The Prison of History?
A specter is haunting contemporary theology: the specter of Hegel. The much-touted renaissance of Trinitarian theology has come under heavy critique on the basis of its purported Hegelianism. An exhaustive examination of the theological implications of Hegel’s philosophy is far beyond my competence, and I suspect, beyond the competence of almost everyone. However, in regard to contemporary Trinitarian theology, the key issue regarding Hegel is centered on the question of the relationship between the eternal being of God and the unfolding of human history. Trinitarian theologians who have followed the lead of Karl Barth in stressing a radically Christocentric and revelation-centric mode of doing theology have come under critique on the basis of an alleged Hegelianism. To utterly define God by the historical figure of Jesus seems to be to claim that God’s being is dependent on created history, that God comes to be God only on the basis of creation. It seems that any such theology, insisting in a Hegelian manner that the reality of the human man Jesus is constitutive for the being of God ends up making God dependent on creation rather than its sovereign creator. So it is often alleged.
Due to the limits of space, these broad strokes cannot be substantiated in detail. However, a quick perusal of journal articles that are critical of theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Robert Jenson, and Eberhard Jüngel bears out the fact that the charge of Hegelianism often functions as a stand-in for substantial biblical and theological engagement. George Hunsinger’s review article of Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology is a pristine example of just such a method of labeling a certain perspective Hegelian and assuming that the simple application of this epitaph constitutes the closure of the argument. The fact that Jenson’s own perspectives have far more weighty exegetical support behind them is never even considered, let alone engaged by Hunsinger in his tirade. The same tendency can be seen in the otherwise very helpful works of Matthew Levering and Lewis Ayres.
This essay seeks to confront the alleged Hegelian problematic of historicist interpretations of the doctrine of God, with particular attention to Eberhard Jüngel’s theological reception of the theology of Karl Barth in his constructive work, God’s Being is in Becoming. In Jüngel’s appropriation of Barth we find an account of God’s being which is thoroughgoing historical. For Jüngel, the being of the Triune God is not merely manifested, but constituted in the history of Jesus. This would seem to land Jüngel squarely in the midst of the alleged problem of Hegelianism, namely of imprisoning God within the machinations of the historical process. I want to argue, however that, in fact, the opposite is the case. Jüngel’s work represents, not the problem of subjecting God to history, but rather the solution thereto (and to the opposite problem of removing the being of God from true participation in human history as in some versions of classical theism).
In an effort to make this case I offer three overtures or excursions into Jüngel’s thought which I hope will demonstrate how he is more of the solution than the problem to the thorny issue of the relationship between the being of God and human history. First, I examine Jüngel’s argument that the historical revelation of the economic Trinity constitutes God’s own self-interpretation. This argument suggests that the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth must be understood as the eternal self-interpretation of the Trinitarian Son of God, the Logos. Secondly, I examine Jüngel’s theological ontology, and in particular his claim that God’s being is constituted by his primal and eternal decision to be God-for-us in Jesus. The eternal event of God’s being God is coterminous with God’s decision to be the incarnate one, Jesus of Nazareth. As such, God’s very being is constituted through the history of Jesus. Finally, in light of the previous two observations, I argue how this radically historicized understanding of the reality of the Triune God does not imprison God within the historical process, but rather liberates history in the freedom of the Triune relations which God opens up to the world in the missions of the Son and Spirit. The radical historicization of God’s being which we behold in Christ does not sublate God in history, but rather reveals the historia praeveniens that both grounds and actualizes the reality of human history within the eternal conversation of the Triune persons. God is perfectly subject to history without being sublimated by it precisely in that the Triune conversation whereby God is God contains all of human history within itself. The being of God is constituted by the history of Jesus, but this does not mean that God is sublimated within history; rather it means that history, in all its dynamism of chance and change, is a predicate of God’s own eternity. God is not a godlet, not a “being” who could be imprisoned within history, precisely because God’s eternal Trinitarian life is the very space in which history takes place. Here the Trinitarian reflections of Herbert McCabe offer a helpful way of further specifying the radical theological ontology that Eberhard Jüngel has offered us in his post-metaphysical appropriation of Karl Barth.
Jesus as God’s Self-Interpretation
One of the central theses of Eberhard Jüngel’s book God’s Being is in Becoming is that the doctrine of the Trinity is our interpretation of God’s own self-interpretation. For Jüngel, God’s revelation perfectly corresponds to Godself. The triune God revealed in the history of Jesus is the one who corresponds to Godself. God’s being is God’s act, and the revelation of the Trinity in Christ and the Spirit constitutes God’s self-interpretation. The economic Trinity is God interpreting Godself before us; it is God’s act of saying who and what God is within the realm of created being.
Jüngel’s construal of the Trinity as God’s self-interpretation offers a helpful way to mediate the various debates surrounding the relationship between the man Jesus and the eternal Trinitarian Son (though even putting the matter this way is already problematic in advance). If Jüngel is correct that the economic Trinity is God’s self-interpretation, it would follow naturally to understand the man Jesus as the self-interpretation of the eternal Trinitarian Son. Thus, it isn’t strictly accurate to speak of the Logos as having an incarnate and an unincarnate state in a static sense. Rather, the man Jesus himself is the eternal self-interpretation of the Son. From all eternity the Son of the Father interprets himself as Jesus of Nazareth. And because God’s act of self-interpretation is identical with God himself (the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity), the Son’s self-interpretation of himself as Jesus means that Jesus simply is the eternal Trinitarian Son without remainder: “The man Jesus is in the beginning with God” (GBB, p. 96).
And thus, as Jüngel says, God’s self-interpretation, the event of decision to be the God that God is is identical with the eternal being of God. God is the event of his own decision and that decision is “not to be understood only as a decision for God, but also . . . as a decision for humanity” (GBB, p. 81). This “decision for humanity” which is eternally included in the event of the Triune God is precisely the decision we see actualized in the man Jesus. A proper understanding of the second person of the Trinity requires us to begin and end on this point. If we grant that the actualistic ontology of Jüngel and Barth is the most appropriate theological construal of being, on the basis of revelation, then we are forced to conclude that the man Jesus is the eternal self-interpretation of the Trinitarian Son. Everything that we behold in Jesus belongs to the eternal identity of the Triune God. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world is the Nazarene.
The Historicization of Theological Ontology
If, as Jüngel argues, the man Jesus is the eternal self-interpretation of the Logos, what does this mean about the nature of God’s eternal being? If Jesus in some sense defines God’s being eternally, what then must we say about the being of God? Here one of the most important quotes from Jüngel’s God’s Being is in Becoming is supremely helpful:
God’s being in person is in a specific way a free event in so far as it is not only ‘being . . . moved in itself and therefore motivating being’, but ‘being which is self-moved’. That means that, as event, the being of God possesses freedom of decision. Decision does not belong to the being of God as something supplementary to this being; rather as event, God’s being is his own decision. ‘The fact that God’s being is event, the event of God’s act, necessarily . . . means that it is His own conscious, willed, and executed decision.’ What was already worked out in the doctrine of the Trinity is now confirmed from working out a concept of being appropriate to God: God’s being is constructed through historicality. For in its ‘decision, and therefore personal being’ God’s being ‘is the being of God in the nature of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ in which ‘God live from and by Himself’.” (GBB, p. 80-81; Jüngel is here quoting from Barth, CD 2/1, 271ff.)What this quote shows is not only Jüngel’s superb exposition of Barth’s actualistic and historicist doctrine of God, but the way in which Barth’s doctrine of God establishes a properly theological construal of being. In contrast to John Milbank’s accusation, that Barth’s work ultimately fails “to redefine being and knowledge theologically” (Milbank, Pickstock, and Ward, Radical Orthodoxy, p. 22), Jüngel shows how Barth’s Christocentric theology of election grounds a radical redefinition of being on the basis of the revelation of God in Christ. For Barth and Jüngel, to be is to be included in God’s primal decision to be God-for-humanity. And, as revealed in Christ, this decision is not something extraneous to God, but is rather identical with God’s very being (for the whole reality of Jesus is “very God of very God”).
God’s decision to be God for us is the very same eternal event of decision by which God is God. As Jüngel points out, “the decision about God’s being is not to be understood only as a decision for God, but also - precisely as a decision for God - as a decision for humanity” (GBB, p. 81). Therefore, being is theologically defined as that which is included in the event of the Triune God’s election of the world in Jesus, which includes all things, leaving nothing out. In contrast to Milbank and others who see the triumph of a sort of post-Kantian philosophy in Barth’s thought, when he is read rightly, as Jüngel exemplifies, his theology offers a profoundly robust theological ontology that is at once Christological, historical, actualistic, and participatory. The being of God is the dynamic event of decision whereby the Trinitarian persons eternally commune and communicate with one another (the Word), and in which created being finds itself constituted as a non-necessary intonation, spoken into being out of nothing.
The radical implication of Jüngel’s notion of the being of God is that God’s being is not something that is only to be understood as internal to Godself, but rather that God’s eternal way of being God includes God’s turning towards us to be God-for-us. “God’s being takes place as historia praeveniens [prevenient history]. In this historia praeveniens God determines himself to be ours as one of us.” Moreover, this eternal self-determination, which is identical with the very being of God is eternally actualized in and as the man Jesus Christ. “The historia praeveniens in which and as which this divine self-determination takes place is Jesus Christ.” For Jüngel, as for Barth, “Jesus Christ is already in the beginning with God.” (GBB, p. 90-91).
However, all of this only takes us to the doorstep of our argument. If the following two points about Jesus as the eternal self-interpretation of the Son of God and the radically historical redefinition of being that takes place in Jüngel’s theology are fair expositions of his and Barth’s thought, where does that leave us with respect to our intial question, namely that of making the being of the Triune God a predicate of created history? If God’s being is constituted through historicality, how can it be that this event can be the event of divine freedom rather than divine sublimation?
Conclusion: The Liberation of History
How can the claim that God’s very being is constituted by the historical person and work of Jesus Christ square with central Christian convictions about the nature of God? It seems prima facie false to simultaneously assert that the historical person and work of Jesus is constitutive for the being of God and to maintain the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. It seems that either we must imprison God within history as a developing agent alongside of us (process theology) or ultimately sequester God’s being from history – the God of so-called classical theism may intervene in the world, but God’s very being is not at stake in his actions in the world. They may manifest God’s being, but in the end they do not define it. God’s being must, in some sense be prior to God’s act of election in Jesus Christ.
I want to argue, or at least suggest in closing that it is not only possible, but absolutely necessary for us to simultaneously assert that the person of Jesus is constitutive for the being of God, that God’s very being is at stake in the history of Jesus and that only by making this assertion can we rightly affirm the Christian doctrines of creation ex nihilo and divine transcendence. There is a certain prima facie plausibility to the seemingly classical assertion that God’s being must be complete in and of itself, independent of the history of Jesus in order for God to be the transcendent creator and sustainer of all things. Were God’s own being to be dependent on the particular historical reality of Jesus, it would seem that God has been reduced to nothing more than a predicate of history, a developing player within the historical drama rather than the author thereof. Either God must be independent of history or imprisoned within it. There are no other possibilities within inherited Western metaphysics.
However, this is precisely where the conventional understanding of transcendence is flawed, and indeed, potentially idolatrous. The conventional objection to the historicized understanding of God’s being offered by Barth and Jüngel is predicated on a fundamental metaphysical conception of God as an agent alongside other agents. God is ultimately conceived as a being who must either transcend history by not being implicated in it, or imprisoned in history by being so implicated. This is precisely where the inherited metaphysical tradition needs to be subjected to the kind of radical critique offered by Barth and Jüngel. As Herbert McCabe has helpfully reminded over and over again, “God cannot be a thing, and existent among others” (God Matters, 6). The dilemma of conventional metaphysics in which God must either be independent of the history of Jesus or imprisoned within it is predicated upon understanding God as a being alongside of other beings. However this is precisely what the doctrines of creation ex nihilo and divine transcendence deny. “It is impossible that God and the universe should add up to make two” (God Matters, 6). God is not a being who could be imprisoned within history because God is not a being who can be juxtaposed with created existents. The Triune God is rather the reason and ground for all being, existence, and history.
Thus, the story of Jesus is not the story of a being called God involving Godself with other beings in created history, rather the story of Jesus “is actually the story of God” (God Matters, 48). We are able – or rather, are driven – to assert that the historical person of Jesus is constitutive of God’s being because history is not a thing that could be juxtaposed with God as another thing. Rather, all of human history is grounded in the Trinitarian differentiation within Godself. The primal difference between the Father and Son whereby God is God, what Jüngel calls “God’s Yes to himself” (GBB, 117) is the Father’s Yes to the Son in the resurrection. It is not possible to premise an intertrinitarian story of the Father and Son before the story of Jesus and the Father precisely because there is no “before” within the eternal life of God. Ironically, as McCabe, Jüngel, and Barth saw clearly, the doctrine of divine timelessness is what grounds the doctrine of God’s radical historicality in Jesus. There is no “beforeness” in God, because God is not a being alongside other beings. Rather God is the reason for all being. God’s being is ultimately historical, is constituted in and through the history of Jesus precisely because all of history is a predicate of God’s eternity. God is defined by Jesus’ history precisely because all of history is defined and grounded in the eternal life of the Triune conversation.
Thus, the question of whether or not the history of Jesus could somehow imprison God is ultimately absurd. History could not imprison God because God and history are not two things of the same order. History is rather the way in which we talk about how the Triune conversation includes that which is not God within God’s own eternity. There are not two stories of God, one prior to history and one of God’s involvement within history, rather there is only the eternal conversation of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. And that eternal conversation, that eternal “Yes” of God to Godself whereby God is God includes all of history within it. The historicality of God’s being, far from imprisoning God within the world’s fate, rather liberates history within the eternal life of the Trinity. The God whose being is defined by Jesus of Nazareth is anything but a predicate of history. The historicization of God’s being is rather the liberation of all history for eternity. This God is, as Jüngel understood, the mystery of the world, in whose being-in-becoming all of created history finds redemption and transfiguration.
Response to Halden Doerge
Contributed by Adam McInturf.
There was a movie theater down the street from me on 82nd when I was a kid that in recent years went defunct and was bought by a protestant Slavic church of some kind. They kept the old marquee and would rotate the message every month or two, but for at least a year its been stuck on the same one, which reads in huge letters,
WE ARE THE REASON THAT HE GAVE HIS LIFE.I love the audacity of this sign. For this is something we absolutely could not dare to say about God had he not already said it about himself. To be sure, God himself is the ground of his own decision without external compulsion, so that he is the reason he gave his life. But to take what Scripture and the creeds have to say about God being in Christ reconciling the world to himself seriously is indeed to say simultaneously that we are the reason he gave his life. I would like to extend my appreciation to Halden for his excellent explication this notion of Barth’s and Jüngel’s that God has already from eternity willed to be the God who gives his life to be with us in the man Jesus Christ.
I have no substantial qualms with Halden’s exposition of the issue of the historicization of God’s being in Jüngel’s book (it just occurred to me that this response is the 5th order reflection me on Halden on Jüngel on Barth on the Bible!). I might have wished for closer and more consistent attention to the progression of Jüngel’s argument in the text (especially since God’s Being is in Becoming is itself simply a thoroughgoing reading of someone else’s thought). That said, I rest assured that the view Halden sketches is in fundamental continuity with Jüngel (and Barth).
Thus, I would like simply to pose a trajectory for further inquiry into this issue, and hopefully spark some discussion here that might move beyond the stalemates of the recent IJST articles and the ongoing spat between the Molnar/Hunsinger and McCormack/Jenson camps.
Had Halden had the space to provide some Biblical exegesis to substantiate his position, he surely would have attended to the fact that God’s self-revelation to Israel was always an exclusively historical affair. “You will know that I am YHWH your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians” (Ex 6.7). As Robert Jenson puts it, our God is simply whoever it was that led Israel out of Egypt. And it is Jesus Christ who is portrayed at several points in the New Testament as the recapitulation of Israel’s exodus (especially Mt 2.14-15, 1 Cor 10.1-2). God, then, wills to be known by the historical event of his execution of Israel’s liberation out Egypt, and further, God himself is the event of that liberation in his eternal decision to be God for us in Jesus Christ. So what does this mean for our experience of history right now? What does the subsistence of history within the Trinitarian life mean for our actual experience of history?
All this to say that when we start talking about the historicization of God’s being we need sooner or later to put ourselves into dialog with those who have been considering such issues for some time, namely Marx (especially his essay “On the Jewish Question”), the neo-Marxist revivals of “materialist Christianity” (for instance, Slavoj Zizek in The Puppet and the Dwarf), and of course the multifarious discourse of liberation theology which, to put it broadly, understands God to be that which is encountered in the historical event of liberation. In other words, what would it look like to read liberation theology through the lens of Jüngel?