Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Adam Neder on Barth on History

Adam Neder did his PhD here at Princeton Theological Seminary, and was gone before I arrived. I have heard him talked about in the most glowing terms , and so it was with expectation that I picked up the published version of his dissertation, Participation with Christ (the Center for Barth Studies has published a review). Weighing in at a tidy 92 pages (plus bibliography, endnotes, and index), this volume nevertheless packs some punch. His treatments are concise and to the point, which is always admirable.

The following is from Neder’s discussion of Church Dogmatics 3.2.
Adam Neder, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Columbia Series in Reformed Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): 33.

“[H]istory occurs as a being in a state is encountered by a different kind of being and when the being thus encountered responds correspondingly with an action that is not within the range of its own inherent possibilities. The different between a history and a state is not that the latter is not dynamic or involves no change, cut rather that the movement that takes place within a state is generated from within that state, is intrinsic to that state, whereas for an even to be ‘historical’ it requires a transcendent action that intersects and interrupts the state. Furthermore, if this is the case, if a being in a state has such a history, then the nature of that being is located within the history itself. It has no nature in and for itself, because its existence is not isolated, but rather occurs in relationship with the transcending factor. A being with a history is as this history occurs, and its nature is therefore located wholly within the history.

After offering these rather technical definitions, Barth proceeds to show that they derive directly from the existence of Jesus Christ. Indeed, apart from him, all extant beings could be fully described within the concept of a state – as beings variously described according to the inherent limits of their own possibilities. In Jesus Christ, however, we are ‘forced’ to apply the concept of history.”
*UPDATE* Since I wrote this post, I had the chance to meet Adam at the most recent Barth conference, and am only sorry that I did not get to spend more time in his company.

11 comments:

Andrew Esqueda said...

Adam is a great guy! And I have also found "Participation in Christ" to be a very helpful and insightful book.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Funny, I was thinking of posting this same quote. This was very new territory in Barth that Neder helped to explicate. I'm wondering what is influencing his understanding of "history" here.

On "history," a number of people in private conversation raised the issue that Barth uses the category of "history" but then uses this category in a metaphysical way. So it's form looks anti-metaphysical, but it functions in much the same way as a substance-metaphysics. Not sure how this quote fits into that conversation yet, but I'll have to stew on it a bit more.

I met Neder for the first time at the Barth Conference too and he's even better than his book. :-)

Peter K. said...

Chris,

In terms of influence, I've got one word for you: Kierkegaard! The stuff on state, history, and transcendence is pure Kierkegaard.

In terms of the metaphysical question, my sense is that Barth retreats into a kind of metaphysical thinking when he allows his fear of Bultmann to cloud his listening to Kierkegaard, among others.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Peter, you sound like David.

As far as history and metaphysics, I think it is certainly true that Barth uses history to do work usually done by metaphysics. It isn't so much that he has a metaphysical concept of history as that history replaces metaphysics for him.

You and I might each be able to paint a wall. But, say that it takes me 5 buckets of paint to get a lesser quality paint job than you can provide with 2 buckets of paint. We do the same work (well, we try to do the same work...you do it better), but we go about it in different ways. You're history, I'm metaphysics.

Peter K. said...

Travis,

You're little parable supports my point. Barth wants to do the same work that metaphysics does, he just does it differently. But what if that is not the work that needs to be done? What if painting the wall is not what we are supposed to be doing?

I mentioned Bultmann because in the preface to IV/1, Barth claims that he is engaged in an implicit, sometimes explicit, debate with Bultmann. This is the reason, I think, that Barth is so keen in that volume to find an eternal ground to Jesus' history. This is precisely, however, to re-introduce, however subtly, the spectre of metaphysics, namely, some eternal "ground" that renders our thinking about the events of time (Jesus' history) an ontological "whole."

What I want to say is that this search for a ground to revelation moves attention away from the actuality of revelation, and therefore needs to be fundamentally questioned. This is one of Barth's foundational insights, particularly in his early fight against natural theology. But in IV/1, he seems to do just, this, namely, ground the possibility of revelation in something prior to the event of revelation itself. And he does this because he is afraid of Bultmann.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Peter,

While I'll grant that you're on to something, your way of making the point in our exchange is a bit slippery. I say Barth's trying to do the same work as metaphysics with history, and you claim this means that Barth is re-introducing metaphysics. Its not self-evident that these are the same thing.

As to the relation between Christology and election, I think you're simplifying things a bit much. It seems like your imposing on Barth something like a traditional view of eternity as something that is static "out there" and strictly "before." Barth clearly doesn't have such a view. From Hunsinger, "God has fashioned the shape of eternity so that, without ceasing to be eternity, it conforms with the shape of time" (DG, 203), descending into time and elevating time into itself.

Now, I feel like I've been beset by Bultmannians lately - and, don't get me wrong, these are Bultmannians that I respect and care for - but I must saw that, at least for the time being, I remain unconvinced.

David W. Congdon said...

Travis,

Peter's point (and mine) is that the problem with metaphysics isn't simply the terminology that it employs (its form) but the very work that it seeks to do (its content). Metaphysics is an abstraction from the particularities of history. It retreats away from contingency and historicity.

The problem with Barth's concept of history in CD IV is that it follows the logic of the "assumptio carnis." Our history is assumed into Christ's history, in precisely the same way that classical theology spoke of our humanity being assumed into Christ's humanity. But this presupposes some abstract notion of "humanitas" that all human beings participate in. There is some universal "substance" that binds us all together, and we are passively and ontologically assumed into Christ. The fact that Barth calls this a "history" rather than a "substance" is, in the end, basically meaningless. It functions in exactly the same way and accomplishes exactly the same purpose.

On this point, Edwin Chr. van Driel makes a very good point in his book. See pp. 105-11, 140-42.

W. Travis McMaken said...

What Van Driel misses on those pages is that there is more than one way to talk about "assumption," that is, there is more than one mechanism of assumption. His argument is that Barth's "historicalization" of assumption doesn't escape the substantialist difficulties of the same. It does, however, escape this because the sort of assumption in question is not concerned with the sort of connections and consequences inherent in substance metaphysics, but is concerned with such as founded on the basis of imputation.

An illustration: traditionally, original sin and guild were said to pass through the process of physical procreation. The federal theologians argued, to the contrary, that original guild was a condition imputed by God to the whole of humanity as a consequence of original sin.

Likewise, in Barth, Christ's history assumes each individual human history by imputation - that is, by a divinely willed determination of the latter by the former. I don't see how Van Driel's concerns remain under this account.

Peter K. said...

I actually think there is significant tension throughout the Dogmatics on this metaphysical question, and that it is fundamentally an issue of pneumatology. I have been helped immensely on this question by Travis Ables' recent Vanderbilt dissertation, "A Pneumatology of Christian Knowledge: The Holy Spirit and the Performance of the Mystery of God in Augustine and Barth."

He argues that there is a constant vacillation throughout the Dogmatics between Augustinian and Hegelian logics of revelation. In IV/1, the Hegelian logic is especially to the fore, but by the end of the Dogmatics in IV/3, the Augustinian logic wins out. In IV/3, revelation is not thought according to the ground of its possibility in the metaphysical structure of eternity (as it is in IV/1), but according to the eventfulness of its actuality in Jesus' prophetic work.

The mistake of IV/1 is that Barth locates the dialectic of revelation not in the two natures of Christ's person, but in the relation of Father and Son as an "above and below" in eternity. This is what is meant by an Hegelian logic of revelation--a moment in eternity that grounds the possibility of revelation in time.

In IV/3, however, the dialectic moves back to the person of Christ himself so that the dialectic becomes one of the eventful encounter between God and humanity, not a confrontation of God with Godself in eternity that supplies an eternal "ground" for events of time. This is Augustinian in that it thinks revelation according to a logic of simplicity. If the fullness of God is truly in the singular work of Christ, then we can't think behind this work to discover some moment of divine self-reflexivity as the "ground" of the work. The work itself is its own ground. Which means that theology should not be about thinking the "ground" of revelation, but always beginning again at the beginning by listening to the actuality of Christ's present speech.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I am not sympathetic to arguments like that. While development and nuance in Barth can certainly be shown, volume 4 is such a unified whole that I would rather chalk this phenomenon up to constitutive parts in a whole as opposed to countervailing tendencies.

Sorry to be dismissive. I'm really trying to get stuff done on my dissertation this summer, and am trying not to be sidetracked too much.

Joshua said...

Adam is an even better big brother than he is a theologian. Love you Ad, Josh