Monday, June 30, 2008

New Barth Center Book Review: "Gott und das Nichtige"

Alexander Massmann reviews Matthias D. Wüthrich’s "Gott und das Nichtige: Zur Rede vom Nichtigen ausgehend von Karl Barths KD § 50" (TVZ, 2006). The review is available in English and auf Deutsch.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

2008 Barth Blog Conference: Conclusion and ToC

Well, that’s it. The highlight of my blogging year has come and gone. The excitement of anticipation has flow to be replaced by the satisfaction of rousing success. What sort of success, do you ask? Well…
  • 6 excellent posts and 5 great responses.

  • Vastly more comments, and therefore critical engagement with people and ideas, than last year. This is really the heart of the matter, and though we may not all have finally reached agreement, I believe that we have all been bettered by thinking through these things together.

  • If in real estate the dictum is "Location, Location, Location;" in blogging it is "Traffic, Traffic, Traffic." And we got some serious traffic. This year’s blog conference saw more than twice the amount of traffic than did last year’s. While I certainly do not consider traffic to be more important than good content and critical engagement through comments, what this tells us is that there are a lot of people reading and not commenting, but hopefully taking away some helpful insight or question. This is certainly to be valued.
As big a success as this second Barth blog conference was, however, we ought not to rest on our laurels. Rather, let’s see if we can’t turn in an even better showing next year. Speaking of next year, Shane suggested in a comment that the theme next year ought to be Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1 with reference to natural theology. Barth’s exegesis of Romans was actually my second choice for a theme this time around. So – barring the unforeseen –the theme of the 3rd Annual Karl Barth Blog Conference, coming in 2009, will be Karl Barth’s exegesis of Romans with special attention to Romans 1 and the question of natural theology. If you have some special insight to offer on this topic, please e-mail me and let me know, and I’ll remember you when the time for more concrete planning rolls around.

So, as Roy Rogers used to sing, happy trails to you until we meet again. Go read some Barth! ;-) For the truly fortunate, I will see you tomorrow at the Princeton Theological Seminary conference on Karl Barth and Theological Ethics.

Table of Contents
  1. Welcome to the Second Annual Karl Barth Blog Conference (2008)

  2. Introduction: The Impossible Possibility? Philosophy and Theology in the Work of Eberhard Jüngel, by Jon Mackenzie.

  3. “The Passion of God” - Some Questions for Jüngel on Divine Passibility, by Scott Jackson. Response by Matthew J. Aragon Bruce.

  4. A Still Greater Historicity: Hegel, Jüngel, and the Historicization of God's Being, by Halden Doerge. Response by Adam McInturf.

  5. Vestigia Trinitatis: More than a Hermeneutical Problem, by Jason T. Ingalls. Response by Shane Wilkins.

  6. Beyond Foundations: An exploration of the ‘transfoundational’ methodology of Karl Barth., by Jon Mackenzie. Response by Chris TerryNelson.

  7. Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann, by David W. Congdon. Response by Sergi Avilés.

  8. Conclusion and Table of Contents

Friday, June 20, 2008

Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann

Contributed by David W. Congdon. Page numbers in the text refer to Jüngel’s God's Being is in Becoming unless otherwise noted.

Subtitle: Jüngel’s Gottes Sein ist im Werden as an Attempt toward a Rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf

The debate between Barth and Bultmann has long since passed into the realm of myth. Today, we all too often hear caricatures of each position: Barth was a theologian of the Word of God, while Bultmann was a theologian of humanity’s word; Barth upheld the objectivity and realism of Jesus Christ, while Bultmann collapsed everything into subjectivity and existentialism; Barth was captive only to God’s Word, while Bultmann was captive to Enlightenment rationalism and the idols of modernity. But, to echo Eberhard Jüngel’s question, “Why then are the most questionable interpretations of Bultmann preferred to an interpretation of Bultmann in good part?” (41).

While a much more complete analysis would need to look at the historical context for this debate in detail, here I only wish to sketch each theologian’s positions while reflecting on the way Jüngel mediates between the two sides in his seminal work, Gottes Sein ist im Werden (ET, God’s Being Is in Becoming; all citations will be taken from Webster’s English translation unless otherwise noted).

According to Jüngel, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity performs “the same function” in theology that Bultmann intended his program of demythologization to perform (34). In saying this, Jüngel does not mean to suggest that there are no lasting differences between Barth and Bultmann, only that the differences cannot be understood properly apart from the important similarities between them. Their seemingly contradictory approaches stem from the same basic intention: to ensure that our talk about God is truly talk about God. I will first look at Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity and then examine Bultmann’s program of demythologization as Jüngel interprets each.

Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity

As Jüngel understands it, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “concerns the being of the God who reveals himself” (36). The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to understand the God we encounter in revelation. God’s self-revelation is the revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Such revelation is an event that occurs in the economy of grace, but the God encountered in this economy is the selfsame God who exists through all eternity. Revelation is, in other words, “God’s self-interpretation” (27).
[A]s the self-interpretation of God, revelation is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity. Consequently, the doctrine of the Trinity is the interpretation of revelation and thus the interpretation of the being of God which is made possible by revelation as God’s self-interpretation. (ibid.)
In the event of God’s self-revelation, we discover that God is a being of unity-in-distinction, who exists as “the revealer, the revelation, and the revealedness” (28; CD I/1, 299). That is, in the event of revelation, we have to do with the very being of God. God’s eternal being is a being-for-revelation, a being-for-us. Jüngel summarizes the implications of Barth’s doctrine well: “If revelation is God’s self-interpretation, then in revelation God interprets himself as the one who he is. . . . Therefore the dogma of the Trinity is the appropriate expression for the being of God. It protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33).

Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity thus serves a “critical and polemical function” in theology, a function which Jüngel argues “has not been considered adequately” (34). First, Barth’s doctrine rejects subordinationism, arguing that such a view undermines the single subjectivity of God by introducing a creaturely distinction between a “more” and a “less” within the Godhead. By differentiating between God and God, between the true part of God and the lesser parts of God (or perhaps the greatest parts of creation), subordinationism objectifies God—i.e., it compromises God’s lordship and makes the Trinity an object “we can survey, grasp and master” (CD I/1, 381). Subordinationism turns the God who confronts us as Thou into an It; it replaces second-person address into third-person analysis, turning God into a creature to be examined rather than the Lord to be worshiped.

Second, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity rejects modalism, which asserts that there is a true God behind and above the three moments of Father, Son, and Spirit that we encounter in revelation. Like subordinationism, modalism involves “an objectifying of God,” in which “the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God who does not exist” (CD I/1, 382). Modalism and subordinationism are, therefore, both efforts to master God, to place God at one’s disposal, either by undermining God’s single subjectivity in revelation or by going behind God’s revelation altogether to uncover some abstract entity.

Against both subordinationism and modalism, Barth argues that the burden of the doctrine of the Trinity is to articulate how God is both “our God” and “our God,” that is, both Lord over all and God with us (ibid., 383). The heresies seek to ensure that God is with us, but only by denying God’s Lordship; however, this means that it is no longer God who is with us but instead merely ourselves. The doctrine of the Trinity states instead that
[God] can be our God because in all His modes of being He is equal to Himself, one and the same Lord. . . . And this Lord can be our God, He can meet us and unite Himself to us, because He is God in His three modes of being as Father, Son and Spirit, because creation, reconciliation and redemption, the whole being, speech and action in which He wills to be our God, have their basis and prototype in His own essence, in His own being as God. As Father, Son and Spirit God is, so to speak, ours in advance. (ibid.)
The doctrine of the Trinity states that God’s being-in-revelation (Deus ad extra) corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity (Deus ad intra). The God who is for us and with us in Jesus Christ is the true God from all eternity. For this reason, we can address God as “Thou.” God is truly a personal God who meets and confronts us. The person of Jesus Christ is not a secondary form of God or simply a mode confined to the economy, but is rather the eternal God incarnate. And this means that God “is both to be feared and also to be loved,” feared because God is truly God and loved because God is truly our God.

Bultmann’s Program of Demythologization

Jüngel argues that Bultmann’s program of demythologization plays a similar role in Bultmann’s theology as the doctrine of the Trinity does in Barth’s. Unlike Barth, Bultmann focuses on hermeneutics rather than on ontology; that is, he is concerned with how humans interpret and speak about revelation. This includes both the interpretation found within Scripture, as an authoritative form of human talk about God, and our interpretation of Scripture. All such talk, however, can easily reduce God into an immanent reality, an object within the limited sphere of our understanding. To the extent that one’s anthropological perspective “objectifies” God, such talk is mythological in nature. For this reason, Bultmann often clarifies the word “mythology” with the term “objectifying representations.” For him, mythology is an objectifying mode of discourse about the divine.

According to Bultmann, in his 1941 essay on “New Testament and Mythology,” myth “talks about the power or the powers that we think we experience as the ground and limit of our world . . . within the circle of the familiar world, . . . within the circle of human life . . . Myth talks about the unworldly as worldly, the gods as human” (New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984): 9; hereafter cited as NTM). In an attempt to illuminate the divine, myth ends up illuminating the existential perspective of those who speak about the divine. Any interpretation of mythology must, therefore, also be existential in nature. The myth must be “translated” into our own contemporary context in order for the message to be rightly heard. Demythologization is thus a process not of excising mythological ideas from the pages of Scripture, but of translating the New Testament.
Demythologizing seeks to bring out the real intention of myth, namely, its intention to talk about human existence as grounded in and limited by a transcendent, unworldly power, which is not visible to objectifying thinking. Thus, negatively, demythologizing is criticism of the mythical world picture insofar as it conceals the real intention of myth. Positively, demythologizing is existentialist interpretation, in that it seeks to make clear the intention of myth to talk about human existence. (ibid., 99)
Demythologization, as Bultmann defines it, is primarily a positive attempt to interpret Scripture for the sake of hearing the kerygma as modern persons. It seeks to let the transcendent remain transcendent—i.e., to let God remain God—for those who no longer accept a “mythological world picture.” The program of demythologization does not reduce God to us, but interprets Scripture so that we, as modern persons, know that God is indeed for us.

Barth and Bultmann: Friends or Foes?

The theological “friendship” between Barth and Bultmann becomes clear when we see that both the doctrine of the Trinity and the program of demythologization intend, to use Barth’s terminology, to show that God is both “our God” and “our God.” In order to ensure that we are indeed speaking about God, each position is set in polemical opposition to both mythology and metaphysics, because both objectify God—they turn God into an object under our control. As Jüngel says, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33). The same can be said of Bultmann’s demythologization. In a 1952 essay, Bultmann further defines myth in a way that demonstrates the affinity between mythology and metaphysics:
Myth talks about gods as human beings, and about their actions as human actions . . . Myth thus makes the gods (or God) into human beings with superior power, and it does this even when it speaks of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, because it does not distinguish these qualitatively from human power and knowledge but only quantitatively. (NTM, 98-99)
According to Bultmann, myth speaks about God as quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct. God becomes a human being “with superior power,” not a truly transcendent being. This kind of quantitative distinction between God and humanity constitutes the nature of metaphysics. The via causalitatis, the via negativa, and the via eminentiae attribute to God aspects of creaturely existence. One cannot truly speak about God by first speaking about creatures. On this point, both Bultmann and Barth agree as dialectical theologians who understand God first and foremost as the Wholly Other.

What, then, is the abiding difference between these two theologians? We can begin by first identifying the points of agreement: (1) both theologians intend to speak about God as our God, as one who is both Wholly Other and wholly pro nobis; (2) both theologians reject mythology and metaphysics as improper modes for thinking about God and set their own theologies in opposition to them; and (3) both theologians seek to let us hear the kerygma, the Word of God, anew in our contemporary context. As Jüngel states, “The difference between the theology of Karl Barth and that of Rudolf Bultmann is therefore not grounded in the fact that Barth’s theological statements leave out of account the anthropological relation given in revelation, whereas Bultmann, by contrast, dissolves theological statements into anthropological statements.” (73).

But a difference remains. In what follows, I will parse Jüngel’s understanding of the difference before offering some comments on whether there remains room for a greater “friendship” between these two theologians. Jüngel begins by stating:
The difference [can] be seen in the fact that Barth believes that a distinction must be made between God’s being-as-object in his revelation as “secondary objectivity” and a “primary objectivity” in the innertrinitarian being of God which makes possible this “secondary objectivity,” whereas Bultmann holds that the question of the possibility of revelation (which is grounded in God) is forbidden. (ibid.)
Jüngel is correct to notice a sharp difference here regarding the Trinity. For Barth, the question of divine ontology is necessary on the basis of revelation. For Bultmann, divine ontology is always an objectification of God. According to Bultmann, “we cannot talk about God or what transcends the world as it is ‘in itself,’ because in doing so we would objectify God or the transcendent into an immanent, worldly phenomenon” (ibid.). His basic point is that we only know God as God relates to us, as God encounters us in revelation. We only know God for us. If God truly transcends all human speech about God, then talk about God in se is inevitably talk about humanity—i.e., it is inevitably metaphysics, and thus mythology. While Barth is also opposed to ontology as the pursuit of a system of being within which one may include God (76), he is nevertheless convinced that we must do the work of theological ontology when revelation demands it. Bultmann, however, remains convinced that all divine ontology is finally mythology, in the sense that such ontology requires metaphysics to get it up and running (at least as he understands it).

This difference might seem to be the end of the story, but it isn’t. In fact, the difference may actually be located somewhere else entirely. Jüngel goes on to complicate and illuminate the distinction between these two thinkers, and here I quote him at great length:
Barth does not seek to reach behind revelation by transcendental questioning, but rather sees himself induced to make his inquiry on the ground of revelation…. Nevertheless, for Barth, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is not the criterion of their truth. The criterion of the truth of theological statements is, for Barth, given in the fact that in all theological statements the freedom of the subject of the revelation remains safeguarded. Conversely, for Bultmann, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is the criterion of their truth because, for him, revelation is always an eschatological occurrence which as such becomes an event in an historical (historisch) “that.” It is a matter of the “paradoxical identity” in which an historical (historisch) “that” becomes historically (geschichtlich) meaningful as eschatological event. Bultmann insists on the “est” of this paradoxical identity, whereas for Barth, in accordance with the distinction between God’s “primary” and “secondary objectivity,” God himself has actually come into the picture, but “only” in his work which points to him as a sign. For Barth, even Jesus’ humanity is in this sense a “sacramental reality,” a parable. What finally separates Barth from Bultmann is the same reservation which Barth also has towards Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper: God’s presence in the parable of sacramental reality must not lead to an equation between God and our reality, if God is not to be objectified. The intention which bound Barth and Bultmann together in their common beginnings has thus remained unchanged in both….The problem of the relation of Barth’s theology to that of Bultmann can only be set out with systematic adequacy through a contrast between “analogy” and “paradoxical identity.” (73-74)
According to Jüngel, Barth’s criterion is the freedom of God, while Bultmann’s criterion is the anthropological relevance, i.e., its relation to us in the present-tense. Both Bultmann and Barth are dialectical theologians who understand God as the Wholly Other, but Bultmann interprets the event of revelation as the primary reality of God, whereas Barth—on this point, closer to Gollwitzer—interprets the event of revelation as the secondary reality of God. As Jüngel rightly points out, this does not mean that God’s “primary objectivity” is somehow abstracted from revelation. On the contrary, Jüngel points out that Barth’s entire dogmatics is a “thorough exegesis” of the axiom that “God corresponds to himself” (36). God’s being-in-revelation corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity. Revelation is therefore God’s self-interpretation.

Jüngel’s analysis of Barth and Bultmann, however brilliant, does not quite go far enough. In the final, more constructive section of the book, Jüngel presents some thoughts regarding God’s being-in-becoming which might help to bridge the differences between Barth and Bultmann. Following the insights of Barth’s mature doctrine of reconciliation, Jüngel proposes that we think of God “in a thoroughly historical way” (107), so that God’s freedom is a freedom for revelation and reconciliation. On the basis of the event of revelation, “God’s being is originally event” (ibid.). Since this event is an historical event, God’s being is “historical being” (109). According to Jüngel, “we must in any event formulate God’s historicality” (ibid.), and this involves thinking ontologically about God on the sole basis of the historical event of revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, insofar as we think about God on the basis of God’s self-reiteration and self-interpretation in revelation, God’s being is “not only able to bear historical predicates (despite their unsuitability) but also requires them” (110). God is “historical being,” because God’s being is grounded in and defined by the concrete event of revelation. This does not mean that God is constituted by the other with whom God enters into covenant fellowship. God simply is an historical event. God is eternally historical in that God has eternally elected this man Jesus and thus made space within God’s being for this particular historical predicate. The Logos, as Barth says, is the “stop-gap” for Jesus (113).

The triune being of God thus has a double relationality: God enters into relation with another because God’s being “is a being related to itself” (114). This most certainly does not mean that God ad intra is “in and for Godself” while God ad extra is “for us.” On the contrary, both aspects of God’s being are pro nobis, the one in actuality (ad extra) and the other by way of anticipation (ad intra). And so, as Jüngel says, the doctrine of the Trinity “understands God’s self-relatedness in his modes of being, not as a kind of divine ontological egoism, but rather as the power of God’s being to become the God of another” (ibid.). In other words, both aspects of God’s relationality are in becoming; both are aspects of God as historical event. Jüngel remarks, almost in passing, that in this affirmation and the corresponding rejection of a phenomenology of the divine being, “Bultmann may stand nearer to Barth than to any philosopher” (ibid.).

I want to suggest that Bultmann and Barth—at least the later Barth—indeed stand together. They may not sing the same melody, but they at least sing in harmonious counterpoint. While it does not become immediately clear in Jüngel’s fine treatment of Barth’s theology, the basis for a rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf can be found in this short monograph—a reunion that is only strengthened by Jüngel’s later work, God as the Mystery of the World. The important concept in that work, which is crucial to this debate, is the notion of the “humanity of God,” an idea that Barth himself only takes up late in his career, most notably in the lecture from 1956. There he says the following, in criticism of his own earlier theology:
[I]t was pre-eminently the image and concept of a “wholly other” that fascinated us and which we, though not without examination, had dared to identify with the deity of Him who in the Bible is called Yahweh-Kyrios. We viewed this “wholly other” in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch—not to say boxed his ears with it—in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. . . . We did not believe nor intend any such thing. . . . Who God is and what He is in His deity He proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-Himself, but precisely and authentically in the fact that He exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of man, though of course as the absolutely superior partner. He who does that is the living God. And the freedom in which He does that is His deity. It is the deity which as such also has the character of humanity. . . . It is precisely God’s deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity. (The Humanity of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960): 44-46)
According to Barth, “there may be godless humanity, but there is no God without humanity,” no “humanless God,” so to speak (137). To say God is also to say humanity, because the being of God includes the being of humanity as that which God elects from all eternity in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no God behind or before the God who exists as the covenant partner of humanity. As a result, God is most truly God when God becomes human in Jesus of Nazareth, and God is most truly divine when God goes into the far country and dies for the sake of humankind. As Jüngel would say, God’s being is located in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In short, God’s deity includes humanity, and God’s freedom is the freedom to be human.

Barth’s doctrine of the humanity of God offers the basis for a rapprochement with Bultmann. God’s freedom is the freedom to be anthropologically relevant, not only in Jesus himself but in the ongoing proclamation of the gospel as an event of the Word of God. Bultmann’s “paradoxical identity” of the human Jesus with God is no longer an objectification of God, because this humanity is itself constitutive of what it means to be God. The deity of God includes this—and therefore all—humanity. If God is by nature an historical event, then human history is not located only in God’s “secondary objectivity.” God’s eternal being includes and can therefore be identified with the historical event of Jesus. Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary objectivity, prominent in Barth’s doctrine of God, fades from view in his later doctrine of reconciliation. The point is that “God [can] not be conceived as God without humanity; conversely, God . . . always [has] to be brought to speech with the concept of humanity” (105). There can be no talk of “God’s being in and for itself” if this means God apart from or without humanity. Similarly, as Barth says, “we do not have to reckon with any Son of God in Himself, with any logos asarkos, with any other Word of God than that which was made flesh” (CD IV/1, 52). On the contrary, there is only “God for us,” the God who elects to live together with humanity, the God who is an historical event, the God who becomes human—the God whose being is truly in becoming.

Response to David Congdon

Contributed by Sergi Avilés.

Congdon’s central idea is one of the more interesting, if not the most interesting, topic in Jüngel: Is there a deeper similarity beyond the difference between Barth and Bultmann? The question is a difficult one, and a full account must – as Congdon correctly says – point to God as the Mistery of the World. In my opinion, Jüngel is closer to Barth than to Bultmann, although he likes to use the word “hermeneutics” a great deal. But, he uses it in a very different sense than does Bultmann.

Congdon conclusion is that the union Jüngel finds between these two great theologians is the historicity of God. Barth achieves this through his doctrine of trinity, and Bultmann by his demythologization project. Congdon’s demonstration of that point in Barth is excellent, as is suggested by the scope of his arguments and his extensive quotations. But, and here is my only criticism, I am not sure about Bultmann.

Is true that Bultmann’s project is to focus on God’s historicity? Is it true that for Bultmann God’s being is in becoming?

For Bultmann, history disappears when one is confronted by the true kerygma. That is why some of Bultmann’s critics say he leaves no room for future hope. If the time of salvation is now, history has vanished. The future does not matter; the present decision is all that really exists.

Faith in Bultmann is not a history made of successive events. This is clear in the so-called ‘history of salvation’: Jesus’ crucifixion, death, resurrection, and exaltation. For Bultmann, these are not historical, successive or chronologically ordered facts. They are, rather different expressions of the kerygma. For him, there is no link between Jesus’ resurrection and his exaltation. In fact, they are two different traditions that were connected only in late stages of the Gospels’ development. All this is to say that history vanishes when God appears, and that God’s appearances are not historically connected in successive events. They are unique moments, and we are not able to control their appearance.

In conclusion, I do not agree with Congdon that God may be defined as historical in Bultmann. But, I am willing to concede that a further study of Jüngel’s later work may shed new light on this.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Beyond Foundations: An exploration of the ‘transfoundational’ methodology of Karl Barth.

Contributed by Jon Mackenzie.

Theology is an intellectual endeavour. To this end, it requires certain basic structural suppositions on the behalf of the subject attempting to manoeuvre within this theological sphere. These suppositions range from the rudimentary (the need for a language by which to communicate and conceptualise the theological endeavour) to the complex (full-scale philosophical edifices which can be used to support certain theological approaches). These basic structural suppositions are the foundations upon which the theological task is supported.

However, although the study of theology must seek to operate in a manner that is continuous with other areas within the academy, theology can never fail to take into account its object of study – God. Deus non est in genere.[1] In this sense, the basic structural suppositions upon which the theological endeavour rests can never bear upon that which they seek to reflect. If this were to occur, God would cease to be Himself, God would cease to be God, instead becoming parasitic upon man for his existence.[2] Thus, the basic structural suppositions utilised within the theological milieu can never bear upon the ‘wholly otherness’ of the object of its study.[3] Instead, the basic structural suppositions should not be viewed as foundations in their own right, supporting the theological endeavour incontrovertibly. If this were the case then any removal of these ‘foundations’ would bring the edifice of theological study hurtling into the abyss.[4] We face an aporia which emerges in the symbiotic relationship between the basic structural suppositions utilised by the theologian and the theological truth-claims which they sustain. These theological truth-claims seek to reflect a God who is wholly other to this world and yet our talk about this God relies upon these basic structural suppositions.

It is this aporia that Bruce McCormack seeks to resolve when he labels the theology of Karl Barth ‘transfoundationalist’.[5] McCormack describes transfoundationalism as, “the result of an attempt to transcend philosophical foundations without negating them.”[6] In this way, if Barth’s methodology can be shown to be ‘transfoundationalist’ then it can be said to have transcended the limitations proper to these philosophical foundations. Thus, the basic structural suppositions are effectively denied any ultimacy with respect to theological truth-claims, and because they lack ultimacy, “philosophical formulations of the foundations of human knowledge must be open-ended and revisable.”[7] If this is the case, then any change in basic structural suppositions existing in symbiotic relationship with theological truth-claims should effect no change within these theological truth-claims. “The larger implication of this line of thought is that Barth did not and could not have granted to his Kantianism a nonnegotiable status.”[8]

McCormack’s investigation of Barth’s transfoundational methodology comes as an afterthought as he follows up his interpretation of Barth as a nineteenth-century theologian within the Schleiermacherian tradition with some ‘programmatic suggestions’ as to the transfoundational methodology which Barth displays.[9] In what follows, I am going to pursue some of McCormack’s suggestions through to a more decisive conclusion. If it is the case that Barth’s theological methodology is ‘nonnegotiable’, then it seems that any change in the philosophical foundations will not call his theological truth-claims into question. Thus, by analysing the theological methodology of a later proponent of Barth, the adequacy of the term ‘transfoundational’ with respect to Barth’s theology can be more fully investigated.[10]

The theology of Eberhard Jüngel is often termed ‘philosophical’ as it exhibits a careful elucidation of the basic structural suppositions which sustain it.[11] Furthermore, “Jüngel’s theology generally is so compatible with Barth’s that a summary of Barth’s approach to theology can serve practically as an introduction to Jüngel.”[12] However, the basic structural suppositions which Jüngel utilises are fairly incongruent to those adopted by Barth.[13] The following study will seek to analyse the theological methodology of both Barth and Jüngel before evaluating whether or not the theology of Karl Barth can be correctly termed ‘transfoundational’.

Karl Barth: The Development of a Transfoundationalist Methodology?

The determination of the development of the theology of Karl Barth ab ovo is notoriously difficult to identify as the various studies into the genetic origins of Barth’s thought testify.[14] However, although the full extent cannot be presumed, what is certain is that the early Barth was influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. From the very outset of his theological education at the University of Bern, the young Barth came across the philosophy of Kant which was to have such a marked effect upon him that he commented, “the first book which really moved me as a student was Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason.”[15] Furthermore, during his brief sojourn at the University of Berlin, Barth again worked through the Critique of Practical Reason as well as devouring the Critique of Pure Reason which he came across for the first time in Berlin.[16] When he finally reached the Promised Land of his university education, arriving at Marburg in April 1908, Barth once again came under the influence of Kantianism, although this was a Kantianism of a different strain. The triumphant scientific materialism of the 1850s had led to a return to the philosophy of Kant in a bid to develop a firm critical footing for the philosophical task. This so-called ‘neo-Kantianism’ was being developed by three Marburg philosophers, F.A. Lange, Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp when Karl Barth arrived in Marburg.[17] Barth experienced this school of philosophy both directly, by attending lectures by Cohen and Natorp,[18] and secondarily, through the theology of his Doktorvater, Wilhelm Herrmann. “On the one hand Herrmann was a Kantian… and on the other a pupil of the younger Schleiermacher, not the older… I studied Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and then I went twice through the Critique of Pure Reason almost with a toothcomb. At that time we thought that it was the only way one had to begin theology.”[19]

This palpable influence of Kantian philosophy upon the young Barth’s theological methodology should not be missed.[20] Whilst it would be specious to argue that Barth was a Kantian in his approach to the theological task, the important function of Kantian terms in the depiction of the problem of the knowledge of God should not go unnoticed.[21] As Barth conceived of the problem of the knowledge of God, he used the terminology developed by Kant to explicate it. For Kant, any epistemological endeavour had to operate with the humble acceptance of the limitation of theoretical knowing to that which was intuitable: viz. those things which could be known in the phenomenological realm. As God was not to be known within the phenomenological realm, he was not intuitable and, thus, there could be no true knowledge of God. It was this limitation of theoretical knowing which made the knowledge of God so problematic for the modern theologians.

However, whilst Kant may have provided the elucidation to the problem of the knowledge of God, Barth sought to overcome this problem theologically.[22] Barth’s original solution to this problem expressed in Kantian terms relied upon his Marburg schooling and the liberal theology of Wilhelm Herrmann.[23] Following his break from the liberal theology of Herrmann, Barth’s solution to the problem focussed upon a ‘divine act’ by which the human knowing apparatus is ‘commandeered’ by God from without and made to conform to God as its object.[24] “Briefly put, the solution now read if the unintuitable God is truly to be known, God must make Godself intuitable.”[25] However, Barth sought to remain faithful to the ‘wholly other’ character of God and so he added the rejoinder: “But God must do so in such a way that the unintuitability proper to God is not set aside.”[26] This theological solution appeared originally within the second edition of the Römerbrief, but reached its fullest expression within the Göttingen Dogmatics, the lecture series which Barth gave in 1924.[27] In the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth returned to the Reformed version of the notion of an enhypostatic-anhypostatic Christology which he gleaned from Heinrich Heppe’s compendium of Reformed Dogmatics. In this way, he was able to ascribe the attributes proper to each nature within the person of Jesus Christ to the one Person of the Logos. Once this ascription of the attributes has been achieved, Barth had overcome the first part of the problem: God, who was unintuitable, had become intuitable by ‘becoming’ man and entering the phenomenal realm.[28] However, Barth is careful to maintain the second half of the problem. “The life of Jesus does not in itself impart the knowledge of God (John 14:8-9). In itself it is instead a riddle, a mystery, a veiling.”[29] God never enters fully in the realm of intuitability; God remains unintuitable, the hidden Subject of the life of Jesus Christ. It is at this point that an appeal has to be made to the revealing power of the Holy Spirit,[30] but the larger argument stands. Barth has presented a theological solution to the problem of the knowledge of God which he presents in broadly Kantian terms.

In concluding this section, the real question that comes to the fore is whether or not Barth did not and could not have granted to his Kantianism a nonnegotiable status.[31] The approach of Barth to the problem of the knowledge of God does rely partially upon the philosophical language of Kant for its direction. However, if Barth’s theology is truly ‘transfoundational’, then the replacement of this Kantian terminology with a different vocabulary should not endanger the theological edifice which it supports. It is with this question in mind that we approach the theological methodology of Eberhard Jüngel.

Eberhard Jüngel: Bringing the House Down?

In considering the theological methodology of Eberhard Jüngel, a certain degree of care must be taken in differentiating his approach to the problem of the knowledge of God from that of Barth. Whilst there are broad similarities between the two approaches to the problem of the knowledge of God, Jüngel formulates the problem of the knowledge of God in different terms to those of Barth. A reading of Jüngel’s paraphrase of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, God’s Being is in Becoming, is an impressive development of Barth’s thought whilst seeking to remain faithful to the material content of Barth’s theology.[32] What is most important is to notice how Jüngel fits this vocabulary alongside his own philosophical terminology. On the one hand, Jüngel is happy to talk about the unituitability of God, “As an object of the knowledge of God, God differentiates himself from all other epistemological objects precisely in his being-as-object, which cannot be defined in terms of the objectivity of other objects.”[33] However, Jüngel emphasizes the place of the knowing subject within epistemology in a bid to unite Barth’s epistemology with a more contemporary epistemology:
In that in his being-as-object God differentiates himself from all other objects of human knowledge, he himself also differentiates the human person who knows God in his or her being-subject from all other ways in which the human person as knowing subject stands over against an object which is to be known. The same would be true with regard to modern attempts to correct classic epistemology ontologically (N. Hartmann), or to think back its essence and so to overcome it at its starting-point (M. Heidegger).[34]
In this way, Jüngel takes Barth’s theological concept of the epistemological subject, the notion that God, “also sanctifies man in his relationship to Himself”[35] and aligns it with more contemporary approaches to epistemology.[36] Thus, for Jüngel, the problem of the unintuitability of God is still prevalent (“God…cannot be defined in terms of the objectivity of other objects”),[37] but the problem is reformulated using new terms which go beyond the Kantian framework within which Barth operates.

For Kant, and subsequently Barth, the unintuitability of God comes at the level of experience. The human knower can only cognise at the level of phenomena or not at all. Thus, the only way that God can become intuitable is if he enters the phenomenological realm and becomes ‘knowable’ – a solution which fitted neatly with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. For Jüngel, however, the problem of the knowledge of God seems to reside on a different level: not on the level of epistemology but rather the level of ontology. That is to say, it is not the limits of the human knower that leads to the claim that ‘the Deity, therefore, is ineffable and incomprehensible’.[38] Instead, it is the complete ontological otherness that separates us from God epistemologically. To be precise, the problem remains the problem of the knowledge of God, but the emphasis changes from a problem of the knowledge of God, to the problem of the knowledge of God. This approach to the problem is neatly summed up by Jüngel: “But over against this impressive conception [that God is mystery], the question must be raised whether it is not defining the concept of the mystery of God solely (!) through the limits of human knowledge. But is God a mystery because we are not able to know him adequately? Or is he full of mystery in his being? Does not a mystery constitute itself only through itself?”[39] Thus, for Jüngel, the problem of the knowledge of God is located in the notion of the mystery of God’s being. It is this mystery which compounds the problem of the knowledge of God. Any solution to the problem of the knowledge of God must seek to account for this mystery in God’s being.

The solution to the problem of the knowledge of God is to be found for Jüngel, “in an attempt to understand the gospel as the human word which corresponds to the divine mystery.”[40] The two important elements of this attempt to solve the problem are, firstly, the grounding of the solution in the person of Jesus Christ, in Christology, and secondly, the ‘word-character’ of the person Jesus Christ as being the means to the solution of the problem. These two elements could be summed up in the statement that, “Jesus Christ is the event of the Word of God in person.”[41] The influence of the language theory of Martin Heidegger is palpable here.[42] The problem of the knowledge of God is that specifically there is a mystery within the being of God. The solution to this problem must be the revelation of this being to humanity. The means by which this solution is possible is through the function of language: “What does language do?… It permits being to be ‘present’, it makes being into an event.”[43] In this way, language operates as the ‘sacrament of reality’, the event in which being becomes actual.[44]

However, rather than relying upon an abstract theory of language by which God might be known, Jüngel’s solution to the problem of the knowledge of God relies upon the particular person of Jesus Christ as that by which God’s being as mystery comes to speech.[45] In this way, the emphasis is not in the movement of human words towards God, but rather upon the God as word coming close to man in human words through the event of Jesus Christ. “The son is the personal parable of the father.”[46] Thus, the coming of God to man in speech means that the problem of the knowledge of God is no longer problematic. This does not mean that the theological task is relegated to talking of a man instead of God, but rather, “what must be done is to speak of God as a man in such a way that this man whose name is Jesus can be named, confessed, and called on as God.”[47]

From Barth through Jüngel: Beyond Foundations

In pulling the various strands of argumentation together, the initial question remains: is the theological methodology of Karl Barth effectively ‘transfoundational’? Through the exploration of Barth’s methodology, the Kantian framing of the problem of the knowledge of God was highlighted: God cannot be known because he is not experienced within the phenomenal realm. The problem becomes primarily epistemological – “We cannot conceive God because we cannot even contemplate him.”[48] It is because the human faculty of cognitive knowing is limited to the phenomenological realm and, thus, God cannot be known. The solution of the problem for Barth, therefore, involves some incarnation of God within the phenomenological realm; something which coheres well with a Christian doctrine of Incarnation. Barth utilised the reformed doctrines of the anhypostatic and enhypostatic to explain this Incarnation of Jesus within the phenomenological realm. In this way, the problem of the knowledge of God was overcome.

However, as far as Jüngel is concerned, the problem of the knowledge of God is not primarily epistemological (humanity cannot know God) but rather ontological (humanity cannot know God). In this way, he frames the problem in a more Heideggerean manner: it is rather the revelation of Being which is problematic. How can God’s being be revealed to humanity? Nevertheless, for Jüngel, the solution remains the same: God makes knowledge of himself possible through Christology. Jesus Christ came to the world of human being as Word allows the being of God to come to speech in the world and, thus, God can be known.

The foundations of the theologies of both Barth and Jüngel are occasional; they both rely upon contemporary epistemologies to influence the theological problem of speech about God. However, this foundational methodology is ‘transfoundational’ in so far as it does not impose upon the resulting theology in a totalitarian or dictatorial manner. The theologies of Barth and Jüngel are comparable at the level of content regardless of their differing foundations.[49] In this way, the transfoundational theological methodology of Karl Barth does not compromise upon the ‘wholly other’ nature of its object of knowledge – God remains distinct from the world and yet gives himself to be known without negation. “Such was the God with whom man has to do when he takes the name of God upon his lips, when God encounters him, when he enters relation with God. We were confronted by the mystery comparable only to the impenetrable darkness of death, in which God veils Himself precisely when he unveils, announces, and reveals Himself to man, and by the judgement man must experience because God is gracious to him, because he wills to be and is his God.”[50]

  1. Thomas Summa Theologica, Ia. q.3a. 5co.

  2. See Feuerbach, Ludwig The Essence of Christianity, trans. G. Eliot, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), Part II – The False or Theological Essence of Religion.

  3. “A God absolutely unique in his relation to man and the world, overpoweringly lofty and distant, strange, yes even wholly other.” Barth, Karl The Humanity of God, trans. J.N. Thomas, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1960), 37.

  4. As an aside, perhaps the metaphorical language of ‘foundation’ could be replaced by a more useful referent within the linguistic sphere. A better metaphor by which to explicate these basic suppositions might be that of ‘semantics’. This notion can be seen within the philosophical approach to logic proposed by Aristotle but is being more fully developed by the logician Alfred Tarski. Generally, in logic, validity is often defined in terms of semantics. In this way, an argument is said to be ‘valid’ if its conclusion is true in every interpretation of the language in which the premises are true - “The semantic conception of logic is an attempt to explicate the underlying notion of ‘model’ or ‘interpretation’ that underlies this definition of validity.” Shapiro, Stewart Foundations without Foundationalism: A Case for Second-Order Logic, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Thus, the resulting argument does not rest upon the premises which it assumes but there is a mutual relating between the conclusions and the premises. Perhaps this notion of semantic structural suppositions could be further expounded within the area of theological study but that is not the concern of this study.

  5. McCormack, Bruce L. ‘Revelation and History in Transfoundationalist Perspective: Karl Barth’s Theological Epistemology in Conversation with a Schleiermacherian Tradition’ in The Journal of Religion 78 (1998), 33.

  6. Author’s emphasis - Ibid. Here McCormack is reacting against recent claims that Barth is at the head of the ‘Nonfoundationalist’ tradition – a group represented by the Yale theologians, Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, alongside their students, Ronald Thiemann and Kathryn Tanner. See Thiel, John Nonfoundationalism, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), chap. 2.

  7. McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 33.

  8. Ibid.

  9. “I will conclude with some programmatic suggestions with regard to the tasks which a proper understanding of Barth’s theological epistemology places on the theological agenda today.” Ibid., 20.

  10. In his essay, McCormack tentatively reaches backwards as he suggests that Barth works within a Schleiermacherian framework by means of a “mediation of tradition by means of a modern theological epistemology” – McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 28. What I am attempting to do is work forwards from Barth through to the work of Eberhard Jüngel and attempt to analyse the same ‘mediation of tradition’ but by means of a more recent ‘modern theological epistemology’.

  11. Jüngel approaches post-Enlightenment theology, “without sidestepping the task of vigorous debate with the philosophical traditions of modernity.” Webster, John ‘Jesus in the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel’ in Calvin Theological Journal 32 (1997), 45.

  12. Zimany, Roland Daniel Vehicle for God: The Metaphorical Theology of Eberhard Jüngel, (Mercer, GA: Mercer University Press, 1994), 6.

  13. Barth operates with a broadly Kantian approach to the problem of the knowledge of God (See McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 31-32) whereas Jüngel is much more sympathetic to an account of epistemology which is flavoured by the phenomenological existentialism of Martin Heidegger although he is by no means a strict adherent to this philosophical school (See Zimany, Vehicle of God, 9-12, 18-21).

  14. For example, did Barth experience two breaks in the development of his theology (See Balthasar, Hans Urs von Karl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie, (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1976), 101) or only one? (See Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Von der Dialektik zur Analogie: Die Schule Kierkegaards und der Einspruch Petersons’ in Barth-Studien, (Zurich and Cologne: Benziger Verlag, 1982), 127-179) Was the early Barth plagued by the questions posed by post-Enlightenment epistemology (See McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 18-20) or was he more concerned to depict the sovereignty of God and the form of historical life to which it gives rise? (See Webster, John Barth’s Earlier Theology, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2005), 12)

  15. From the autobiographical sketch Fakultätsalbum der Evangelisch-theologischen Fakultät Bonn, 1927 cited in Busch, Eberhard Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. John Bowden, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 34.

  16. “I worked through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of Pure Reason (which I read then for the first time, but equally intensively).” Barth, Karl ‘Nachwort’ in Schleiermacher-Auswahl, (Siebenstern Taschenbuch, 1968), 290.

  17. See Fisher, Simon Revelatory Positivism?: Barth’s Earliest Theology and the Marburg School, (Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 9-10.

  18. “There has been… a philosophical fervour which is almost priestly. This was impressed upon us at Marburg… by the figures of Cohen and Natorp.” Barth, Karl Theology and Church, (London: SCM Press, 1962), 256.

  19. In conversation with Wuppertal students, 1 July 1968 cited in Busch, Karl Barth, 45.

  20. Even the references suggesting a methodological shift from Kant to Schleiermacher (“After Kant, I then hit upon Schleiermacher” – Ibid.) cannot ignore the fact that Schleiermacher was, in turn, influenced by the Kantian representation of the problem of the knowledge of God.

  21. “We cannot conceive God because we cannot even contemplate him. He cannot be the object of one of those perceptions to which our concepts, out thought-forms and finally our words and sentences are related.” Barth, Karl Church Dogmatics II/1, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), 186.

  22. For the best overview of Barth’s solution to this problem of the knowledge of God see McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 21-31.

  23. See Barth, Karl ‘Moderne Theologie und Reichgottesarbeit’ in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 19 (1909), 317-321, ‘Der christliche Glaube und die Geschichte” in Schweizerische Theologische Zeitschrift 29 (1912), 1-18, 49-72. For a summary of the Herrmannian influence upon Barth’s response to the problem of the knowledge of God see McCormack, Bruce L. Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 68-77.

  24. This is what McCormack labels Barth’s “new critically realistic starting point” – McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 25.

  25. Author’s emphasis - Ibid.

  26. Author’s emphasis - Ibid., 26.

  27. Whilst the rubrics of this solution to the problem appeared in Römerbrief II, this attempt to overcome the problem of the knowledge of God was far too punctiliar and ex tempore to adequately present God within the realm of the phenomenal. See McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 26-27.

  28. It is important to highlight that Barth’s later doctrine of election functions as a control to this near affirmation of the genus tapeinoticum. This is not a full ‘kenosis’ but rather an eternal decision by the Trinitarian Persons which give the ontological conditions for such a divine ‘becoming’. This can be seen in hints in the Göttingen Dogmatics – see Barth, Karl Göttingen Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. G.W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 166.

  29. Ibid., 334.

  30. Is this a problem? “If the life of God has become historical, then appeals by the individual theologian to the Holy Spirit are not made in a vacuum. They are made with respect to a reality in history; the veil of the divine Self-revelation, at least, is something to which the Church as well as the guild of historians has access.” McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 31.

  31. This is something McCormack thinks is arguable – see Ibid., 33.

  32. The subtitle of God’s Being is in Becoming reads, ‘The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. A Paraphrase’, which stresses the methodological objective of the work. Jüngel is seeking to ‘paraphrase’ Barth which, in the language of Barth, is the attempt to interpret: “Interpretation means saying the same thing in other words” as opposed to illustration which “means saying the same thing in other words.” Barth, Karl Church Dogmatics I/1, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 345.

  33. Jüngel, Eberhard God’s Being is in Becoming, trans. J.B. Webster, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 56.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid., 57.

  36. As Jüngel highlights above, the notion of the epistemological subject is integral to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein. See Heidegger Ultimately, Jüngel remains faithful to Barth whilst developing the foundations which support the theological edifice developed by Barth. In this sense, the transfoundational nature of the Barthian methodology is verified if the new foundations are transcended without calling into question the material content which they support.

  37. Ibid., 56.

  38. Jüngel, Eberhard God as the Mystery of the World, trans. D.L. Guder, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1983), 232.

  39. Ibid., 245.

  40. Ibid., 261.

  41. Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Die Freiheit der Theologie’ in Entsprechungen: Gott-Wahrheit-Mensch: Theologische Erörterungen, (München: Kaiser, 1980), 16.

  42. For Heidegger, thinking seeks the word in which Being can ‘become language’ and thereby be communicated. See Heidegger, Martin ‘What is Metaphysics?’ in Existence and Being, ed. W. Brock, (London: Vision Press, 1949), 389-391.

  43. Fuchs, Ernst Studies of the Historical Jesus, (London: SCM Press, 1964), 207.

  44. For a fuller expression of Jüngel’s notion of the sacramentality of language see Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Metaphorical Truth’ in Theological Essays, trans. J.B. Webster, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989).

  45. “The translation of the model of human speech to God is based on the certainty that God has shown himself to be human in the execution of his divinity. To think of him as the one who speaks, to speak of him as one who speaks, is not a ‘dogmatic anthropomorphism’ which comes too close to God, but rather the result of an event in which God becomes accessible as God in language, which the Bible calls revelation.” Jüngel, God as Mystery, 288.

  46. Ibid., 289.

  47. Ibid., 298.

  48. Barth, CD II/1, 186.

  49. Even to the level that enhypostasia and anhypostasia are used within Christology to overcome the problem of the knowledge of God. See Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Jesu Wort und Jesus als Wort Gottes’ in Parrhesia: Karl Barth zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. E. Busch et al., (Zürich: EVZ, 1966), 140.

  50. Barth, Humanity of God, 37.

Response to Jon Mackenzie

Contributed by Chris TerryNelson.

Jon Mackenzie has given us much food for thought with regard to Barth’s “transfoundationalism.” Let me paraphrase the main argument. Jon has sought to show that Karl Barth’s theology is “transfoundationalist,” whereby the philosophical formulations of the foundations of human knowledge are subservient to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the primary object of theological inquiry. This secondary character of philosophical language means it can (and must) be revised for the service of proclaiming the Gospel. Jon claims that despite Jüngel’s revision of Barth’s foundational Kantian epistemological vocabulary in favor of a more Hegelian ontological vocabulary, he still finds the same theological truth-claims proper to both theologians. I like this thesis, but I wonder about how clear-cut Jon has portrayed the foundations of both theologians.

Jon makes the statement: “[f]or Kant, and subsequently Barth, the unintuitability of God comes at the level of experience. Thus, the only way that God can become intuitable is if he enters the phenomenological realm and becomes ‘knowable.’” However, for Jüngel, we are told, the problem lies in the “ontological otherness that separates us from God,” or in the “notion of the mystery of God’s being.” While I find this distinction between Kantian epistemology and Hegelian ontology interesting, and believe Jon is speaking truth with regard to their different foundational languages, I think that is all that can be said. I find it hard to believe that Barth is wedded to the vocabulary of the former while Jüngel to the latter. Barth, it seems to me, would want to affirm the ontological distinction between God and humanity (Lessing’s ditch) as the foundation for the epistemological problem. While he may not give it the Hegelian spin that Jüngel does, the ontological distinction is still important for Barth. And so perhaps we should content ourselves with speaking about a difference in emphasis, between the “knowledge of God” and the “knowledge of God.”

One of the things I found most helpful about Jon’s post is that it helps to bring the utter translatability of the Gospel into the academic scene. That is, just as the Gospel is spoken to humanity in many languages, so too does this happen in the world of theology as it witnesses to the Gospel in the different philosophical modes of its time and place.

Here are a few questions that could be raised to Jon’s work:

(1) Is Jon correct in his interpretation of Barth and Jüngel? Is there a sense in which his distinction is too clear-cut?

(2) How is Barth’s “transfoundationalism” related to what is often called “post-foundationalism” in theology today? Do they differ in any significant way?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Vestigia Trinitatis: More than a Hermeneutical Problem

Contributed by Jason T. Ingalls. Page numbers in the text refer to Jüngel's God's Being is in Becoming, unless otherwise indicated.

Good day, and welcome to my post. I hope you’ve been enjoying this year’s DET Karl Barth Blog Conference. I, for one, have found it rather engaging.

So, I should start with a statement which I will then unpack: Jüngel’s idea of revelation lends itself to an Evangelical humanism. It might be better to say a “revelatory” humanism because its ‘mechanism’ is tied to the dynamic of revelation, of God’s self-giving on our behalf. It is precisely in the way that Jüngel unpacks Barth’s doctrine of revelation (and, therefore, the doctrine of God) that drives the connection I would like to make more explicit here.

It should be said from the outset that the argument I will unpack here is based on a reflection of Jüngel’s argument in God’s Being is in Becoming, not on a reading of the Church Dogmatics. It is only a reading of Barth insofar as it is a reading of Jüngel’s reading of Barth. There is not the space here to do a close comparison of Jüngel, in which the connection I would like to make is explicit, with the relevant sections of CD. That I will leave for another time and place.

I’ll begin our discussion with the vestigia trinitatis, that very interesting idea in Christian theology that one can find vestiges of the Trinity throughout the created order that was most famously expressed in St. Augustine’s De Trinitate and further expounded through medieval and protestant scholastic theology. The definition of the vestigia that Jüngel works with is derived from Barth: “It was thought that it was possible to discover ‘an essential trinitarian disposition supposedly immanent in some created realities quite apart from their possible conscription by God’s revelation’ as ‘traces of the trinitarian Creator God in being as such’” (17, quoting CD I/1, p. 334). The vestigia, as they came to be seen in medieval and protestant scholastic theology, had three traits: they were essential, immanent, and revelatory.

That the vestigia were essential means that there was something left over in the very being of the created order, especially in human beings created in the image of God, that left a trace of God. That is, these vestigial remnants of God’s creative hand were actually revelatory, they signified in a meaningful way God’s trinitarian being. That might not be so bad for Barth, except the vestigia were also immanent, that is, they were in a sense cut off from God’s being, free-floating, objective, and observable.

But this causes a problem for both Jüngel and Barth, for “if one accepts that there are such vestigia trinitatis and that they can be identified as such, the problem arises whether these are not to be regarded as the root of the doctrine of the Trinity” (17). If they are the root of the doctrine of the Trinity, then every Protestant ground is taken: revelation itself is called into question and therefore the notion that theology might be grounded in revelation alone, which finally might undermine the very “meaning and possibility” of theology itself. For Barth, the real problem is one of theological language, a hermeneutical problem (18). “There is no dispute about the fact that revelation is spoken about in this language, indeed, appropriately spoken about. The dispute rather concerns the possibility of this state of affairs” (19).

Jüngel insists, following Barth, that for revelation to take place, then human language much be stretched beyond itself to accommodate the coming of God (which is, by the way, the very definition of revelation for both thinkers). Language has to be “commandeered” “by revelation for revelation” (23). Ironically, it cannot be a latent possibility in human language or the possibility of God coming to speech would be lost. Instead, since revelation does comes to language and commandeer it, there is a gain to human language. “The gain consists in the fact that God comes to speech as God” (23). Revelation means that human language, by God’s grace alone, does the impossible. It is to this gain that we should pay special attention, both by seeing what it is, and what it is not.

This gain is the entering of God’s Word into human words. It is the reiteration for us of God’s internal self-interpretation. As such, “revelation is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and not something essential, revelatory, and immanent within the created order itself (27). “Thus the revelation of God itself is that which makes the interpretation of revelation possible,” that is, it is perfectly reasonable, and even faithful, to look for ways to interpret revelation immanent within language, but the reverse cannot be true.

For Jüngel, the gain may also be described as faith. Faith, in a sense, is the recognition of the language’s inability to talk about God, but, in so recognizing, faith speaks anyway (cf. 60). In faith, God comes to human language and takes it up by taking up human beings themselves into His salvation. Here, Jüngel quotes Barth extensively to elucidate this dynamic:
The taking up of humanity into the event of the knowledge of God is grounded in the taking up of humanity into the event of the being of God. That sounds strange, and in no way does Barth think of it in the sense of a […] [deification] of the being of humanity. The taking up of humanity into the event of God’s being is, rather, humanity’s salvation. And ‘salvation is more than being. Salvation is fulfillment, the supreme, sufficient, definitive, and indestructible fulfillment of being. Salvation is the perfect being which is not proper to created being as such but is still future…. To that extent salvation is its eschaton…being which has a part in the being of God…not a divinized being but a being which is hidden in God, and in that sense (distinct from God and secondary) eternal being’ [IV/1, p. 8] (75).
This taking up in response to God’s coming in revelation “makes history,” that is, it moves through the impossible and creates and actualizes a non-latent possibility in the very act of God’s coming. The possibility is grounded in the event of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth through which God “brings human being into correspondence with the being of God which corresponds to itself” (112). God has “brought himself to speech in a human way” in this irreducible and decidedly transcendent event (112). In this sense, the gain to language is an ontological gain to human beings in general. Human beings are caught up in the one Human’s life in God. In this way, the doors are open for more possibility for human beings than was possible ‘before’ this event by God’s grace.

Having sketched the gain to language, we need to briefly sketch the loss to revelation that would result if the vestigia trinitatis were indeed essential, revelatory and immanent. In this case, we are no longer talking about revelation commandeering language and endowing it with an impossible possibility. We speak instead of language commandeering revelation “on the fundamental structure of the analogia entis per analogiam nominum” (23). “The loss consists in the fact that God does not come to speech as God but as nomen” (23). In revelation, God comes to speech as God. Based on the analogy of being, God comes to speech only as another word among words.

But, in the end, what a reified vestigium trinitatis ends up representing not only threatens revelation, in Jüngel’s view, but also threatens language itself: “When language seeks to be itself revelation, it loses itself as language” (26). If the commandeering of language leads to its gain and a loss of revelation leads to its losing its proper place as human language, we begin to see a pattern of relationship between revelation and human language that resonates with John Webster’s description of divine and human freedom at his recent Kantzer lectures (; lecture #3, 01:11:50f). Instead of conceiving of human and divine freedom/agency as inversely proportional such that if God is acting then human beings must be passive in His wake, Webster suggested the clue is that these two are actually directly proportional. In such a relationship, the more God acts upon us the more free we are. In a similar way here, the commandeering presence of God in revelation is not the presence of a “dumb aggressor but rather gets involved with and in language through speaking” (27). The more God acts upon our language, the freer it is to interpret God’s self-interpretation in Christ.

We should pause, as did Jüngel, and point out that Barth himself thought there must be “something in” all the talk about the vestigia. The question was “what” that something might be (18). If the what starts from revelation and moves to find language with which to interpret it, that would be fine. But, if the vestigia are used to prove some latent capacity for God in language or human being, then Barth believes it deserves the utmost censure. Here we find the classic Barthian opposition of the analogia entis by the analogia fidei. “This, at any rate, is how Barth understands it when he fears that in the doctrine of the vestigia trinitatis we are concerned—probably counter to the intention of its discoverers—with ‘a genuine analogia entis’” (20, from CD I/1, p. 340).

Having come this far, it might be prudent to recap where we have been. There was a hermeneutical problem raised by the vestigia trinitatis. Revelation, according to Jüngel and Barth, constitutes a gain to language in that God comes to us in it as God, and we are enabled by this presence of God as God in speech to respond in faith, to actually speak about God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ and to be drawn up in Christ into God’s salvation. In this connection, the problem raised by the vestigia is far more than hermeneutical, it is soteriological and anthropological as well. Revelation not only constitutes a gain to language but also a gain to human being in its salvation. Without revelation, these are negatively affected, i.e., a loss of revelation leads to a plateauing of humanity. But in revelation, we begin to see the actualized God bringing creation and its creatures to their ultimate and eschatological fulfillment.

Barth’s view of God is based on revelation so conceived. With this God we’re dealing with the actus purus et singularis, the self-moving, self-giving God of the Bible (cf. 79). In revelation, we are dealing with the place in which “‘the fullness of the original self-existent being of God’s Word reposes and lives’, [and, therefore, with] that event in which the being of God comes to word” (27, qt. CD I/1, p. 304-305). The perfect God does not remain at a distance but – precisely in God’s Lordship – God come to us as the One who loves in freedom. This movement of God’s being towards us is the problem of revelation and also the basis of its glorious benefits.

And here we find the connection towards which I have been driving, that Jüngel’s idea of revelation lends itself to an Evangelical humanism. There is far more than a gain to language - there is a gain to human being and society. From his 1975 epilogue to God’s Being is in Becoming, in response to the apparent falling apart of dogmatics and social responsibility that had begun to dominate the theological discourse (as it still does today), Jüngel wrote the following:
In this, I see one of the most important contributions of Christian theology to the question of ontology: God is at one and the same time the interruption of the coherence of being and its intensification; and, therefore, the correspondence between person (mind) and reality, which occurs in all true knowledge, means, in the case of knowledge of God, a gain to being which at the level of practice makes more possible in the actuality of the world than that actuality is capable of granting to itself. If God’s being is in becoming, then for us, too, more is possible (138-139; emphasis mine).

Why an Evangelical humanism? Because the idea here is one of an opening vista. Human beings can flourish. We can order ourselves into just societies that treat the least of these with love. We can exist in a world in which turning the other cheek is neither mocked nor ignored. We can finally and fruitfully live as human beings whose freedom it is to steward a world full of endless and yet increasing possibilities.

Why an Evangelical humanism? Because everything about the increase in possibility for human being is firmly rooted in God’s grace. Unlike the classical use of vestigia, this humanism is not essential - it is not as though we had the capacity in ourselves to move upward - nor is it revelatory - the growth of human potential is not somehow the basis for our understanding of God as the Big Human in the sky (cf. Feuerbach). As a non-essential and non-revelatory humanism, it is also not immanent. There is room for human freedom not because God has withdrawn Himself from our creatureliness, but because God has Himself entered it and reconstituted it in Himself. Insofar as God moves upon us, we have our freedom, and this freedom is the freedom of the children of God. “For us, too, more is possible” (139).

If we appreciate Jüngel’s linking of revelation and this special type of Evangelical humanism, we can see that the world left in the wake of the vestigia is a damned place. Conversely, the world in which the light of God’s revelation enables us to find vestigia trinitatis exists at the doorstep of heaven.

Response to Jason Ingalls

Contributed by Shane Wilkins.

"God is a Noun, and There’s Absolutely Nothing Wrong With That"

Ingalls deserves credit for trying to chart a path through this tangled thicket of Jüngel’s ugly prose, but he seems much more willing than I to humor Jüngel’s bald assertions and unargued assumptions.

As far as I can tell, the basic structure of Jüngel’s argument goes like this:

- (1) If you believe there are vestigia trinitatis, then there is a question whether they are the roots of the doctrine of the trinity.

- (2) If the vestigia trinitatis are the roots of the doctrine of the trinity, then some creaturely reality is revelatory, or perhaps better, adequate to the task of revelation.

- (3) But creaturely reality is not of itself revelatory, or is inadequate for the purposes of revelation, hence the vestigia trinitatis are not the roots of the doctrine of the trinity and, in fact, there are no such things as vestigia trinitatis.

This is the basic form of the argument. For “creaturely reality is inadequate for the purposes of revelation” one could also substitute “there is an analogia entis” or “natural theology is successful” to discover two basic variations on the theme. So this is just the familiar Barthian position. However, there is a further, final claim:

- (4) Nevertheless, in the doctrine of the vestigia trinitatis, Augustine, et al. were looking for the right thing, namely a language in which to speak about God.

This last bit is what Jüngel is really hot and bothered about. As per (3), it seems to be his opinion that natural human language is unable to speak about God unless “commandeered by revelation” (23). The conclusion is that language itself is unable to speak about God by any intrinsic power of its own, unless commandeered by revelation. If there were vestigia trinitatis or analogia entis, then Jüngel believes this would constitute a loss to revelation because God could not come to speech as “God but only as nomen.”

By ‘nomen’ Jüngel is presumably alluding to q. 13 of the Summa Theologiae. Thomas Aquinas never uses the expression ‘analogia entis’, and the quasi-aristotelian theory of the grades of being and the analogy between substances and accidents and so forth has little direct application to the question of theological language. But, Thomas does discuss an analogia nominum in the context of the adequacy of theological speech. The ‘names’ here are also nouns, like “justice.” The question, as the scholastics would ask it, is this: “Is justice predicated univocally of God and creatures, equivocally or in some other way?”

So, I take it that Jüngel means his position to be a criticism of Thomas’s view. Further, seems to be insinuating that Thomas’s position makes creaturely reality revelatory or that Thomas would somehow ground his doctrine of the trinity in the vestigia trinitatis.

Now, that is all nonsense, of course.

To show what’s wrong with this, let’s start with Augustine. In De Trinitate VI, Augustine does say that, “When we regard the Creator, who is understood by the things that are made we must needs understand the Trinity of whom there appear traces in the creature, as is fitting.” However, I doubt that Augustine intends to claim that we can gain knowledge of the trinity from creatures independent of revelation. In the first place, I think Augustine famous credo ut intelligamwould make us suspect that Augustine believes that one understands the vestigia trinitatis in the creation after having come to know the creator, not the other way round. Second, just sentences later, Augustine characterizes this knowledge as knowledge “in part, or through a glass and in an enigma.” I take it that Augustine’s point here concerns how we understand the trinity by means of analogues, not the actual origin of the doctrine itself.

Citing this passage from Augustine, Peter Lombard agrees that “through the contemplation of creatures a sufficient knowledge of the Trinity cannot be had nor could it without the revelation of doctrine and/or of interior inspiration” (I Sent d. III). In his sentences commentary on this passage from Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas also agrees, “that by natural reason one is not able to come to the knowledge of the persons of the trinity, and therefore the philosophers have written nothing about it, except perchance by revelation or hearing from another.”

So, contrary to Jüngel’s insinuation, the existence of the vestigia trinitatis does not seem to tempt any Christian theologian (that I know of) into claiming that the doctrine of the trinity is knowable by natural reason alone. The only person who believes that absurdly implausible claim is Hegel. Augustine, Lombard, and Aquinas all had a healthy appreciation for the necessity of revelation and the mystery of the trinity.

Let’s compare very briefly compare then, Jüngel’s view on theological language with that of the augustinian tradition. On Augustine’s view, “human speech labors under a great dearth of words. So we say ‘three persons,’ not in order to say that precisely, but in order not to be reduced to silence” (De Trin, V.10). Later in the tradition, for instance, Thomas develops an analogical account of theological language which expresses precisely this point: there are things that we must say of God but these are never completely correct because of the inadequacy of finite creaturely language to an infinite transcendent creator.

Analogical predication is a mean between univocity and equivocity. If theological language was univocal, then perhaps there would be a legitimate worry that creaturely realities are somehow revelatory. On the other hand, if theological language were purely equivocal, then everything we said about God would not be merely inadequate but actually false. Therefore, Thomas opts to say that the predicates we apply to God are like the ones we apply to creatures, but not identical. So, it is true to say that God is just, and his justice is not wholly dissimilar from our understanding of it, but our understanding is never truly “adequate” in this life.

I think that is all that Barth or Jüngel ought ever to want in terms of trying to safeguard the distinction between God and creatures and the necessity of revelation. But Jüngel’s wants something further. He wants revelation to “commandeer” language to prevent God from being just a nomen. But what the hell is that supposed to mean? When revelation commandeers language, God is no longer a noun? The only evidence I am able to detect for a claim’s being “commandeered” is that it has some paradoxical, dialectical character: “Faith is an impossible possibility” and so forth. I find this claim preposterous for the following reason.

Suppose Jack and Jill both say “God is good”, and Jack says this without the benefit of revelation, and Jill says it with revelation. Is it Jüngel’s view that Jack’s statement is false and Jill’s is true? (Or perhaps Jill says “God is good” where the italics indicate that God has commandeered ‘good’, so that it is no longer a mere creaturely adjective.) Obviously the proposition about God is either true or false, independent of who says it. Revelation makes one to believe the proposition to be true—it does not change the proposition’s truth-value. But, this does not make the word “good” itself to be revelation, because revelation happens when Jack comes to believe that the proposition “God is good” is true. This might occur through special revelation—by a direct illumination by God’s grace; or it might occur through common grace—as mediated by reason, say.

In sum, I think Augustine and Thomas Aquinas’s view are to be preferred above Jüngel and Barth’s. Augustine and Thomas give you all the mystery you need to safeguard transcendence, but do not imply the obscure absurdities Barth’s view leads to. Nor can I see how Thomas’s position implies that the creaturely order is revelatory apart from divine grace in some problematic sense.

I invite you to look at some of the primary sources from which I have been working.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Still Greater Historicity: Hegel, Jüngel, and the Historicization of God's Being

Contributed by Halden Doerge.

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,
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?