Friday, October 01, 2010

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

“You Wonder Where the Spirit Went”:
Jenson and Barth on the Hiddenness of God

By Peter Kline

I am entering into a conversation that Jenson has already begun with Barth. In a constructive essay on the hiddenness of God (Jenson 2000), Jenson considers Barth’s position on the matter only to find it lacking. I want to explore why Jenson has problems with Barth on this issue, as well think critically about his constructive alternative. I will suggest that Jenson is only partly right in his diagnosis of Barth; he in fact overlooks the heart of Barth’s teaching on divine hiddenness. The reason is that he looks in the wrong place for Barth’s pneumatology. Jenson can’t find the Spirit in Barth not because the Spirit isn’t there, but because the Spirit is hidden. These considerations will open out into a comparison of Barth and Jenson on the logic of revelation. By “logic” I mean: what is discourse about God’s revealedness and hiddenness supposed to accomplish?

Part I

Jenson focuses his analysis of Barth’s doctrine of divine hiddenness on the doctrine of the Trinity in CD 1/1. There Barth makes the dialectic of hiddenness and revealedness, or veiling and unveiling, the very root of his doctrine of the Trinity. He writes, “Revelation means in the Bible the self-unveiling to humanity of the God who essentially cannot be unveiled to humanity” (315). The doctrine of the Trinity is the grammar of this dialectic because only it can uphold the affirmation that the event of revelation is itself the event of God’s utterly free and lordly being. That is, only the doctrine of the Trinity allows us to say: this human Jesus is God’s revelation, God speaking in person. But the source and effect of this human Jesus is utterly transcendent, beyond our ability to produce or control. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, either one side or the other of this christological dialectic is lost. Either we posit a gap between the events of revelation and God’s being, which would make the validity of revelation dependent on our religious efforts to close the gap, or we make revelation a static given, something we have come to produce or control, which would violate God’s freedom and lordship. Either way, we will not have truly encountered God.

In Barth’s hands, then, the doctrine of the Trinity is the theological grammar of human participation in God, which is to say that it is commentary on the an/enhypostatic dialectic of revelation that constitutes Christ’s person. It is not primarily an ontological description of God’s “being.” It does not answer the question, “What kind of being does God have that would make revelation possible?” The doctrine is rather a way of affirming that the event of God’s self-knowing is identical to the event of God’s self-giving in the humanity of Jesus, such that our knowledge of God is both objective, because rooted in God’s self-knowledge, and wholly miraculous or gratuitous (i.e., hidden), because God’s self-knowledge simply is a self-giving that is received only as the human subject is radically transformed by grace to correspond to the humanity of Jesus. Revelation is reconciliation.

The crux of the dialectic here is actually pneumatology, but not as discourse about a second work of God running parallel to that of the Son. Rather, pneumatology is that theological moment when we recognize that the Father’s single work in the Son overflows itself to include human subjects in its reality. Barth’s refusal to accord the Spirit an “independent” work alongside the Son is not a downplaying of the Spirit’s role but a radical affirmation of the Spirit’s role in all its intensity. Precisely because Barth understands the Spirit as the One who grants human participation in God, he refuses to think of the Spirit in any other way than as the third mode of God’s single self-giving agency in Christ or, what is the same, the third mode of God’s single essence. Because God’s self-giving in Christ is God’s self-knowing, our knowing of God by the Spirit is this same self-giving of God in Christ insofar as it reaches beyond itself to include us. If we think of the Spirit otherwise, as an additional work of God alongside of Christ, we fracture the essence of God and so compromise the integrity of our knowledge of God.

Yet Jenson points to an instability in Barth’s use of the doctrine of the Trinity in CD 1/1 (Jenson 2000, 8). As just demonstrated, trinitarian doctrine, for Barth, is fundamentally about the christological dialectic of revelation. However, there are moments when Barth allows this christological dialectic to slip into a trinitarian dialectic. The seminal insight that grounds Barth’s theology from 1924 on – namely, that the time / eternity dialectic is inscribed in Christ’s person, that the Son enacts both the veiling and unveiling proper to God by way of his hiding in the an/enhypostatic flesh of Christ – is at times put in tension with a trinitarian dialectic of revelation in which the Father and Son, rather than Christ’s two natures, are the two sides of the dialectic. For instance, Barth uses the doctrine of the Trinity to say that there is in God the ontological possibility of revelation that is distinct from its christological actuality. The possibility of self-giving or unveiling is the eternal Son (CD 1/1, 320), the possibility of remaining utterly free or veiled in this self-giving is the eternal Father (324), and the possibility of these two possibilities meeting us in the event of revelation as the single possibility of the one God is the eternal Spirit (332).

Jenson critiques this account of divine revealedness / hiddenness for tending toward a subtle form of subordinationism. That is, God’s essential nature or deity, the inability to be “unveiled to humanity,” is here appropriated uniquely to the Father. God remains God in revelation because there is an infinite reserve in God identical to the Father. This means that the Son and Spirit, although the same Subject as the Father, are not directly identified with that which separates God from all that is not God, namely, hiddenness. Jenson acknowledges that this criticism is somewhat ironic, since by far the most common complaint against Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity is that it tends toward modalism because he is so set against subordinationism.

I think Jenson is right to raise a complaint against Barth here. What this means is that Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity in CD 1/1 was not yet fully stabilized with his christology. That is, his doctrine of the Trinity, rather than being simply and totally in service of explicating the actuality of the christological dialectic of revelation, functions here—even if only for a moment—to ground the possibility of revelation by positing a moment in which God “produces” God’s identity. Despite explicit protests to the contrary (CD 1/1, 330), Barth is operating here with a kind of Hegelian logic. The moment of self-reflexive othering in eternity, what Barth calls the moment in which God is God’s own “alter ego” (316), is the condition for the possibility of revelation. Yet this is to introduce a split into the essence of God, between the moment of God’s self-knowing and the event of God’s self-giving. This in turn prevents Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity from doing the very thing he intends it to do—guarantee that there is no God behind the actuality of revelation.

Of course, Barth did eventually stabilize his doctrine of the Trinity with his christology. This happened when the doctrine of the Trinity was no longer used to ground the possibility of revelation but rather to refuse the very question of possibility by riveting our attention on the always-prior actuality of revelation. This, I take it, is the heart of Barth’s teaching that Jesus Christ is the Subject of election. It is not a claim that in the act of election God “gives to himself his own being” (McCormack 2008, 266), which would be to reintroduce into God’s essence a split between self-knowing and self-giving. It is, rather, an attempt to think through the implications of divine simplicity more thoroughly and more radically. That is, to say that Jesus Christ is the Subject of election means that there is such a unity between God’s being and act, between God’s essence and existence, that God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ just is God’s essence. Barth couches this thought in the idealist language of “self-determination,” which leaves him open to succumbing to the logic of identity production—according to which concrete identity is explained as the result of a prior moment of self-objectifying—but I think he resists this temptation in the end. The language of “self-determination” functions for Barth more in an ethical than in an ontological register, that is, it functions not to explain the “how” of God’s eternal identity but simply to gesture toward the mystery of a Love that is pleased to give itself totally in the disfigured face of a Jewish peasant. Barth’s doctrine of election is meant to close off not only the possibility that there is a God behind Jesus Christ but, in so doing, also to close off also the possibility of asking how there could be no God behind Jesus Christ, which would ironically be to question behind Jesus Christ! “The will of God in His grace knows no Wherefore. God’s decision is grounded in His good-pleasure, and for that reason it is inexplicable to us” (CD 2/2, 30). “Where we see what has actually happened in His Son, there can be no question of understanding how the condescension of God acts. We can only know and worship its actuality” (CD 1/2, 34).

All this to say that, in light of Barth’s revision of the doctrine of election, the doctrine of the Trinity is allowed to be simply and totally the grammar of human participation in God. Divine hiddenness from CD II/2 on ceases to be a function of an infinite reserve in God that exceeds the finite events of revelation and becomes instead the very mystery of revelation, namely, that in Jesus, God comes closer to us than we are to ourselves. God is hidden because our knowledge of God is our transformation by an unfathomable act that we can neither produce nor control—God’s total self-giving in Jesus Christ. It is here where the question of the Spirit assumes priority, and it is here where Jenson once again becomes our conversation partner.

Part II

I want to claim that, ultimately, Barth’s pneumatology is his doctrine of divine hiddenness, which explains why so many critics have failed to notice his pneumatology. The Spirit, precisely by virtue of the Spirit’s unique “role” in the Trinity, is hidden in Barth’s pages. Pneumatology, for Barth, is not an isolatable discourse that identifies another agency in God alongside the single agency of the Father that gives itself without reserve in the Son. Again, this would be to fracture God’s essence. Pneumatology is rather an apophatic moment in Barth. It is the place where theology’s discourse is broken apart by that which exceeds it, namely, the lived reality of our transformation by the risen Christ. To give due witness to the Spirit is simply to turn the reader ever again to Jesus Christ as a present reality that is claiming her for radical and free obedience. It is a performance of the fact that, by the Spirit, Jesus Christ is so intensely close that any abstraction from that closeness in order to consider the Spirit’s “own” reality would be disobedience to that very Spirit.

This is perhaps the reason Jenson does not see a need to move beyond the instability of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity in CD 1/1 in his consideration of Barth’s account of divine hiddenness. In his constructive search, Jenson is looking to conceptualize divine hiddenness, and CD 1/1 provides such a conceptualization, simply an inadequate one. But as I have tried to show, it is the very move to conceptualize—that is, to ontologize—divine hiddenness that is a betrayal of Barth’s own best insights; it is the root of the problem. This does not mean that Barth abandons divine hiddenness as his theology becomes more consistent; rather, it means rather that divine hiddenness becomes less something to be explicitly conceptualized, and more a performative feature of both theological discourse and the Christian life itself. Therefore, in his own effort to conceptualize—to ontologize—divine hiddenness, Jenson sees no need to consider the later Barth. To put the matter this way is to suggest that critiques of Barth’s pneumatology, insofar as they regard it as a thematizable theological topic, miss the point entirely.

Jenson’s constructive alternative to Barth employs the same logic as the faulty doctrine of divine hiddenness that he criticizes in Barth. That is, he locates divine hiddenness within a trinitarian dialectic. “God is hidden precisely by his triunity, by the mutual life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Jenson 2000, 9). This sentence is less innocent than it sounds. By “mutual life,” Jenson means the “plot lines of the narrative constituted between [the triune persons] and with us” (Jenson 2000, 9). In other words, God is a story. There is an idealist logic at work here, similar to the one that allowed Barth to slip into subordinationism. This logic is operative whenever theology attempts to explain revelation by interpreting it as the necessary unfolding of a concept, one rooted in a prior moment of identity production. The concept, for Jenson, is that of story or narrative. God has a concrete identity only insofar as God’s essence unfolds dialectically as a narrative. Therefore, God must enact Godself as a story in order to be God (Jenson 1997, 65). Here God is hidden because every good story must have a crisis and an unpredictable resolution. Inhabiting God as creatures, we inhabit this story, and therefore we inhabit the crisis of the Son’s abandonment by the Father and the unpredictable resolution to this crisis in the Son’s resurrection by the Spirit. Just so, we encounter the hiddenness of God. The result of this, however, is the same tilt toward subordinationism as occurs in CD 1/1, just flipped toward the Spirit. The deity of the Son is not identical to the Son but is located in the Son’s rescue from the crisis of time and creaturehood by the Spirit. God is hidden from creatures, it follows, because the Spirit has yet to rescue us from time and creaturehood in the same fashion—we have yet to be deified. Which is to say that God is not yet “all he ever could be” (Jenson 1997, 66). Divine hiddenness is the fact that God will surprise Godself (and us) in the timing and manner of our inclusion into the divine being.

What is occurring here is the “‘Jesus Christ pit’ of the Lutherans” Barth warned about in an early letter to Thurnysen (McCormack, 1995, 351). By identifying divine revelation directly with the humanity of Jesus – directly with the crisis that Jesus confronts as a human being – Jenson is forced to locate divine hiddenness elsewhere than in the an/enhypostatic constitution of Jesus’ person. But as Barth perceptively saw in his later christology, this leaves a door wide open to “wander right away from christology” (CD IV/2, 81). Without the enhypostatic grounding of Jesus’ humanity in the eternal Son, Jesus’ humanity becomes simply the occasion to affirm other creaturely realities as themselves divine revelation. The form this takes in Jenson is an inflated ecclesiology. He transforms Barth’s christological dialectic into a trinitarian dialectic in which the finitude of Jesus the Son over against the transcendent Father is dialectically sublated into the infinity of the Spirit. Pneumatology overtakes christology, and so ecclesiology—“the Community,” in Hegelian terms—becomes the capstone of his theology.

Part III

Two very different logics of revelation have emerged here. When Barth is most consistent, he interprets revelation according to the logic of a christological dialectic centered on God’s encounter with humanity in the an/enhypostatic constitution of Christ’s person. The doctrine of the Trinity, for him, functions to articulate the theological intelligibility of this actualistic encounter. Jenson, by contrast, interprets revelation according to the logic of a trinitarian dialectic centered on God’s encounter with Godself in the narrative crisis of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The doctrine of the Trinity functions as the metaphysical structure of this crisis and its resolution. It provides the guarantee that reality works like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end that serve to “bracket” time (Jenson 1997, 222).

Appeal to revelation performs very different work for these two theologians. For Jenson, revelation authorizes a particular language with which to tell the story that is itself what God is. In telling this story with its three primary actors—Father, Son, and Spirit—we know God. There is no God behind the story or its language. God is the sacramental language of the church. Knowledge of God is primarily an act of interpretation (Jenson 1997, 14). It involves assimilating the discourse that God is into the human discourse called church. To say that God is hidden in this revealedness is to say that what we have to interpret is the crisis and unpredictable resolution to Jesus’ story, of which we are characters. It is the strangeness and sheer contingency of this story that is God’s hiddenness:
[Divine hiddenness] means…that we are stuck with the names and descriptions the biblical narrative contingently enforces, which seem designed always to offend somebody. It means that their syntax is hidden from us, so that we cannot identify synonyms or make translations. It means that we have no standpoint from which to relativize them and project more soothing visions (Jenson 2000, 6-7).
For Barth, on the other hand, the question of revelation that the Trinity answers is a “Who” question, not a “What” question. Who encounters us in this man Jesus? To answer “the triune God” is not to legitimize constructing an elaborate trinitarian ontology in which everything has its place within an order of “being.” Rather, it is to realize that the manner in which we know the particular God spoken of by the church includes the renunciation of all “ontologizing.” The “Who” we encounter in Jesus is One whose self-knowing is identical to an uncontrollable self-giving, which means that our knowing of this God cannot be knowledge of a metaphysical structure in God—even if that structure is named “Jesus Christ.” What we know when we know this God is the event of our radical conversion by and to an infinite Love. This is what it means to say that the revealed God is the hidden God. It means that we know God only in the movement of obedience that is possible only as God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It means that we know God only in the face of our needy neighbor that we are given to serve. It means that we know God only as we are sent into the world as Jesus Christ’s witnesses. Knowledge of God is not possessed in the church; it is performed in the world. It is not an act of thought that corresponds to “being;” it is an act of will that corresponds to Love.

The key to both of these logics is once again pneumatology. More specifically, it is pneumatology as the grammar of witness. For both Jenson and Barth, revelation is a referential event, one in which the Spirit directs us to participation in the reality of God in the world. Barth understands the Spirit’s witness as witness to Christ, whose identity – whose very person – is his self-giving to the world as its reconciliation to God. Therefore, the Spirit enacts knowledge of God in us only as we are sent into the world to witness to Christ as the one who is himself the world’s reconciliation to God. This is what Barth means by the “very special visibility” (CD IV/1, 654) of the church, which is the ecclesiological correspondent to the hiddenness of God. The church and its knowledge of God is an event of the world’s transfiguration, a movement of reconciliation in which the church is the church only as it identifies with God’s would-be enemies in order to call them God’s friends. The church is never a stable gathering of those who have conversion behind them. Jenson, on the other hand, because he lacks the enhypostatic grounding of Jesus’ humanity in the eternal Son, cannot think of the Spirit’s witness as witness to Christ as the one in whom reconciliation is an achieved reality. Rather, the Spirit witnesses to Christ only insofar as, by the Spirit, Christ is “risen into the church and its sacraments” (Jenson 1997, 229). The Spirit witnesses to itself as the ecclesiological sublation of the dialectic between the finite Jesus and his transcendent Father. This creates a church whose knowledge of God consists not in its sending into the world but in its self-maintenance over against the world.

We arrive now at the concrete implications of the difference between Barth and Jenson on God’s hiddenness. Is God hidden in the church’s culture that is already established, or is God hidden in the world’s conversion that is coming to pass? Is God hidden in the untranslatable syntax of the language of revelation that the church safeguards, or is God hidden in the polyphony of praise irrupting uncontrollably in every language? To ask these questions is to raise Jenson’s query about where the Spirit has gone. And the answer far exceeds the capacity of theologians with their words. The answer is given only as words open out to that which exceeds them: a lived participation in God’s self-giving to the world.


Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Robert Jenson, “The Hidden and Triune God,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 2000 2:1, pp. 5-12.

Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909-1936 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2008).
Response - The Spirit is in the Details
By William T. Barnett

Is it Jenson who ‘looks in the wrong place for Barth’s pneumatology’ or Kline who looks in the wrong place for Jenson’s critique of Barth? Kline somehow neglects the 1993 Pro Ecclesia article on Barth’s pneumatology (to which his title alludes), and the early works on Barth, Alpha and Omega (1963) and God after God (1969), where Jenson displays his critical appreciation for Barth’s dialectics, including the later Barth. I summarize the analysis and critique: In CD I/1, the dialectical structure of revelation is that of: ‘Hiddenness (Father) – Unveiling (Son) – Impartation (Spirit),’ or: ‘Freedom – Form – Historicity.’ The implicit subordinationism is an issue, but the basic criticism regards the Spirit’s function. Historicity is identified with the occurrence of analogical correspondence for human agents between the objective (i.e. spatio-temporal) form of Jesus Christ and the eternal being of God. This relation is inherently participative. As our minds are informed and wills conformed to the historical form of Jesus Christ, our whole selves enter into living fellowship with God. This is an analogy forged by grace, received through the Spirit’s gift of faith, so God remains the Lord of its occurrence. Restating the structure then as the triad of ‘Freedom (Eternity) – Form (Time) – Analogy (Correspondence),’ we can see how it remains after its christological stabilization where the dialectic is drawn between Christ’s two ‘natures’ rather than Father and Son. For instance, there is CD II/2: Jesus Christ is first the electing God. Divine freedom is now construed positively as the eternal self-determination whereby the eternal Son is decreed to condescend to humanity. Jesus Christ is also the electing human. The unveiling side of the dialectic is now occupied by the humanity of Christ, Jesus in his history of obedient fellowship with God. From II/2 onward, the humanity of Christ is considered the mirror, copy, and reproduction of the movement of the eternal Son. The relation is one of analogical correspondence (cf. Jenson 1963, 84-93). The relation between Christ and the believer simply repeats this structure as the Spirit brings us into analogical correspondence with the humanity of Christ. Jenson fully recognizes the Spirit is the generative force of analogical correspondence. His problem is with the concept of analogy.

Here Jenson reads Barth against Barth. The thesis of God after God is that Barth’s entire theology, from Romans onward, is driven by the polemic against religion, the quest to render eternity into a form of our liking, to tame divine freedom before its exercise. The specific pathos of Greek religion, an abiding influence on Western theology, is to posit eternity outside of time, a bulwark against suffering and change. Jenson detects the persistence of such pathos in Barth’s image-analogy (center-circumference; Word-echo) constructs where God’s decision to say ‘Yes’ to humanity in a primal eternal moment forms the center while the events of history are the radiant effects, echoes, or analogues forming the circumference. Thus, while Barth understood the eternal decision as teleologically oriented to its historical expression, Jenson’s criticism is that the concept of analogy evacuates historicity of any constitutive significance, deprives it of ontological weight and, just so, the work of the Spirit is not full party to defining the essence of God. The reasons why history should have such weight are entirely biblical (Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return provides indispensable background here). Simply put, the Lord God is not identified as ‘the One who already decided in eternity to save you and then brought you up out of Egypt’, but only by the latter clause. This is the root of Jenson’s avowedly Lutheran attempt to render historicity as the site where eternity (divinity) is given in, with, and through time (humanity), rather than as the site of analogical correspondence. The question then is not whether the Spirit is the performative force of participation in Jesus Christ, but on how this takes place. Is story an alien concept foisted onto revelation or an even more faithful rendering of Christ’s metaphysical significance, of God’s freedom for historical life, than Barth’s concept of analogy allows?

Kline avoids the question, pigeonholing Jenson as a Hegelian, in virtue of the claim that ‘[k]nowledge of God… is not an act of thought that corresponds to ‘being,’ it is an act of will that corresponds to Love.’ The Spirit is ‘hidden’ in ethical performance, by which Kline means knowledge of God is non-thematizable, resistant to conceptual description, ostensibly unable to answer the question ‘what is the nature of reality if Jesus is Lord?’ All this because such ‘ontologizing’ distracts from the purity of witness and the urgency of obedience. This juxtaposition of ontology and ethics is questionable on multiple grounds.

To begin, the juxtaposition is quite Kantian. Theoretical reason cannot grasp God, so the only place we find ‘knowledge’ of God is in practical reason as the necessary regulative prop to moral action. It finds contemporary form in Levinas where the ethical force of the Law given in the face of the Other has priority over, and so undoes, theoretical reason’s ontological grasp of the Other. But surely Barth does not use Kant to such ends. The dialectic of revelation is Barth’s way of accepting Kant’s limits on theoretical reason yet showing how God transgresses these limits, providing objective self-knowledge hidden in the historical form of Jesus Christ, without abolishing them. Intellectual knowledge of God is possible where the revealed historical form of Jesus Christ controls the employment of concepts, not speculation.

Kline’s more defensible argument is to say, not knowledge of God as a whole, but only the Spirit is non-thematizable. To do so would be a fruitless attempt to conceptually represent the event of representation. But does not Scripture represent the Spirit with a distinct set of images (dove, wind, fire, tongues)? The faithful theologian’s task is to translate such representations not with independent concepts, but ones that cohere with, and are normed by, the objective historical form of Jesus Christ. Barth does just this in CD IV/3, §69.4, where the Spirit’s outpouring is treated as the distinct, middle form of three, perichoretically-related historical forms of the single event of God’s self-declaration. Barth makes explicit conceptual space for the Spirit! Jenson’s complaint is simply that Barth does not fill in the details. Instead God’s prophetic declaration becomes an extended meditation on the resurrection itself. Ignored are the Spirit’s gifts to the congregation, precisely where Scripture registers prophecy as essential to the building up of Christ’s body. Jenson interprets Barth’s hesitancies not as an allergy to ontologizing, but anxiety about over-identification between the Spirit and the church’s own subjectivity. Barth lacks a concept that allows for a dialectical identification between the two, so just keeps emphasizing the ground of the Spirit’s work in the history of Jesus Christ. Jenson moves forward where Barth stutters, borrowing the concept of communicative agency from the tradition of hermeneutical ontology as the leading concept of his pneumatology.

But do such thematization efforts distract from obedience and render Christian witness solipsistic? The answer is ‘yes’ only if one endorses a fully voluntarist account of moral agency where the will acts in the absence of intellectual judgment and on the sole strength of a kind of pure encounter with the command of God. But again this is not Barth. He argues that the command of God, the imperative form of the indicative given in Christ’s historical form, comes to us through a prophetic ethos. This is to introduce a concept of a Spirit-filled prophetic congregation that participates in the objective form of Jesus Christ, one somehow mauetic in the provision of concrete norms for moral action. But Barth’s anxieties again prevent his filling out the details. Thus, instead of casting Jenson as Barth’s rationalist foil, is it not perhaps best to view his work as one step toward filling out such details, a fulfillment of the possibility, even dream, of the later Barth for a theology of the third article?
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Peter Kline said...

Thanks, Will! I'm really appreciate of your response, as I think you are raising all the right issues. So many points, where to begin?

Instead of defend my reading of Barth, let me proceed from the more constructive side. I actually agree that there are problems with Barth's pneumatology that are rooted in prior problems with his doctrine of God. This did not come out in my essay, where I largely advocate for Barth over against Jenson. The reason was strategic. I think many critiques of Barth's pneumatology proceed too quickly. Most of them (including Jenson) point to the absence of a certain kind of ecclesiology in Barth that is supposedly the symptom of a deficient pneumatology. What these critiques miss is that Barth has an incredibly rich ecclesiology rooted in a pneumatology of witness. Only if you think mission and witness are peripheral ecclesiological categories will you be tempted to say that Barth has a low pneumatology/ecclesiology.

So my strategy in this essay was to answer Jenson's question to Barth, "Where did the Spirit go?" with: she went the way of mission! (here I am channeling the spirit of John Flett) The Spirit (and so God) is hidden because she blows the church outside of herself into the world, where she meets God not in security of a familiar narrative but in the face of the stranger.

It seems I have slipped into defending my reading of the constructive point.

Despite my defense of Barth, I agree that there are problems with Barth's use of analogy as the category to describe human participation in God. I agree that at times Barth ascribes little more to the Spirit than the power to "echo" Jesus in our subjectivities. I agree that this is a problem. The question is: how do we correct it? What constructive moves need to be made?

Again, my essay here is strategic. I think the way to move forward is to develop Barth's pneumatology of witness and mission, rather than "objectify" the Spirit's work via an ecclesiology of narrative. Another way to put this (and here I am dependent on the recent dissertation of Travis Ables) is that what needs to be developed in Barth is his Augustinian tendencies, rather than his Hegelian tendencies.

Peter Kline said...

I also want to make a comment on the supposedly Kantian bifurcation between thought and will that I perform.

I don't want to bifurcate thought and will, as if will or practical reason is somehow the "backdoor" into knowledge of God. What I want to say, and here I am making a fundamentally Augustinian point, is that because God is a pure ethical reality--God is Love--the way we participate in God is through the transformation of our desires. I can only think God once I have come to love God.

It is this Augustinian point in Barth that I want to highlight and develop. The Hegelian point is also there in Barth: God is an eternal history or narrative. But I think the Augustinian path is more fruitful.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Before one starts in on analogy in Barth, one must imbibe deeply from Keith Johnson's new work on the subject. Peter, you know what you have to do to get a free copy of this.

I'd like to hear more from Peter about the story bit that Will brought up in his response.

On the other side, I want to affirm Peter's line of "it all depends on what sort of church you're looking for in Barth." Will writes that Jenson is able to develop: "a concept of a Spirit-filled prophetic congregation that participates in the objective form of Jesus Christ, one somehow mauetic in the provision of concrete norms for moral action. But Barth’s anxieties again prevent his filling out the details." I don't think the issue is Barth's 'anxiety,' but that the sort of 'spirit-filled prophetic congregation' that Barth envisions is very different than that which Jenson envisions. For more, see Joh Flett's recent volume.

(P.S. I consider the two books cited here to be the cutting edge of Barth scholarship today, and works than anyone interested in Barth needs to read.)

Peter Kline said...

Will asks, "Is story an alien concept foisted onto revelation or an even more faithful rendering of Christ’s metaphysical significance, of God’s freedom for historical life, than Barth’s concept of analogy allows?"

The central question is: what kind of work is Jenson intending the category of "story" to do? If by story or narrative he means that without which concrete identity cannot be rendered, then I have no problem with it, and neither does Barth. But I think Jenson intends the category to more work than this.

For Jenson, story is a metaphysical category. That is, when once penetrates via reason to the basic structure of reality, once arrives at a story. This is the Hegelian thrust of Jenson's thought. Reality is fundamentally open to reason. And the way in which reason grasps the structure of reality is by knowing or telling the story of God.

It is this metaphysical use of story that I want to object to. I don't think this renders Christ significance for us more clear. For me, the reality of Christ is not opposed to story, but it is always in excess of story. Again, I return to the Augustinian point. The way we participate in God is by loving God concretely by loving our neighbor that we are sent to. Or to use Kierkegaard's language, we encounter Christ in the world only in the incognito of the neighbor we are given to love. And the works of love we are sent to perform are always in excess of telling our neighbor a story. Love of God in the love of neighbor is a concrete praxis; it is discipleship; the way of the cross.

Peter Kline said...

Regarding story, let me simply quote a remarkable passage from Craig Keen's essay, "The Human Person as Intercessory Prayer," found in the book, Embodied Holiness:

"Agape–and here I must ask one to listen hard to what must remain counterintuitive–agape opens wounds, it doesn’t heal them. It opens the walls of communities, it doesn’t guard them. It tells a story that even the most far-reaching and flexible narrative cannot get its arms around. It lives not for us, but for them. It is not a perfection that is hard to come by. It is a gift, even if a rare gift. It is not taught by hard times, but in spite of hard times; just as it is taught in spite of good times. It is an openness that prevails even when one can no longer cope with the chaos of another day, cannot say how the events of one’s life are steps on a journey. Agape is perfection, holiness, because it is a kind of ek-stasis that unravels every communitarian fabric, every story, every virtue, every habit.

Does this mean that “community” is to be jettisoned in some lonely return to individualistic pietism? Is there no story of the holy life? Does virtue, does habit, have no complicity with perfection? No. Not this. There are indeed a community and a story and a habituation that are hallowed. However, this community is ecclesial, gathered–and gathered by what can never be lodged in that community–gathered by what will only disruptively dwell there. And so, the story of the community, however wordy it gets, however effectively it appropriates the events that befall it, must always come to silence–before an ex-propriating mystery that cannot be said. So, too, one’s habits, as helpful as they are as a kind of collection of our worldly goods, are to be offered–in the freedom of the gift, the gift that is the Holy Spirit."

To the extent that this is the logic of Barth's pneumatology and ecclesiology, I want to lift it up, defend it, and push it forward.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to both of you for a fascinating paper and response.

One comment, Peter, as kind of an aside to your main argument: This issue of a subtle Father-Son "subordinationism" that you (and Jenson) note in Barth is not limited to his dialect of hidden-revealed in I/1. It comes up again in terms of the Son's obedience to the Father in the doctrine of reconciliation (IV/1, par. 59, I think; maybe also in II/1, though I haven't read this stuff in a while). So you do well to tag it as a potentially troublesome issue.

A second comment (or question) more from the constructive side: Do we really want to abandon completely the Trinitarian distinction between Father (as hidden) and Son (as revealed/revealer) as a resource for explicating revelation? Barth, of course, did not invent this idea: It has a long pedigree in Trinitarian doctrine, going back at least to the Cappadocians, and has done some useful work at times -for example in pointing to the revelatory agency of the Word among the OT prophets. Perhaps you (along with Jenson and maybe even Barth), want to focus revelation in a more radically christocentric (incarnation/two natures direction). But I'm not completely persuaded. (This is a big fight to have, though, and may go beyond the purpose of this forum).

Again, though, very interesting papers.

Scott Jackson

W. Travis McMaken said...

This is a blog, Scott - discuss whatever you want for as long as you want! ;-)

Will Barnett said...

Peter, first of all, thanks for your paper! It is stimulating and does point us to the heart of the key issues b/t Barth and Jenson. My main worry was that Jenson was being used as a foil as you worked out your constructive position on Barth. I wasn't able to fully affirm and dialogue with a lot of great points in your paper. I can only comment briefly right now as I am in transit. I'll comment in greater length later tonight.

A few points:
1. I understand the missional emphasis you are advocating (though I haven't read Flett) and I think it comes down to Jenson's point about the two ways of looking at the church (I don't have the time to look up the quote) whether the thrust is put on the movement out to the nations or the call of the nations to join in the one body of Christ. Jenson's theology intentionally chooses the latter, though wants to think them compatible. I think on your reading of Jens, this makes all the difference. Jenson's theology is structured around the goal of the mission. Rather than eternal predestination/election, where God's yes to us keeps radiating outwards and encountering us again and again, Jens orients things around postdestination, the life into which this encounter brings us, on the gathering in of the nations into the triune conversation. I think our ecclesiology needs to somehow say both and the differences are on how and what has priority.

2. After I reread your essay, it makes much more to spin the emphasis on will as opposed to thought, in terms of Augustine, and the language of 'excess' (i'll need to read the dissertation you mention). Nevertheless, I still have some worries about that language of excess, even if it is faithful to Augustine and Barth. Can 'excess' turn into a Pietist privileging of loving God with the heart over loving God with the mind? Are ongoing 'unraveling', 'disruption', and a 'mystery that cannot be said', the best categories to describe the Spirit's ongoing prophetic intervention in the body of Christ? Jenson wants to remove the analogical gap that those sort of concepts uphold. But he uses a different set of tropes to describe the ongoing ekstasis of Christ's body which, I think, avoid the charge of triumphalism, and keep our journey into love one that engages both reason and will equally. For Jenson, the church is brought into a 'harmony', a 'conversation', but a dynamic one so there are ever new reiterations but we never lose the basic harmony, and there is ongoing 'reinterpretation' of our lives and being opened to love in new, creative ways, but always in dynamic continuity with God's own self-interpretation in Christ. Perhaps here then story and concrete praxis coincide?

3. And here I wonder if Hegel is of more help and less the rationalistic than you perhaps suggest. It seems Hegel thinks about God (if you interpret him that way) as fundamentally ethical reality, but a rational one where what we freely will relies on recognizing communal norms. Such content is necessary for action. Without out, the will is empty. My worries are about the fine line between love in 'excess' of the story and an 'empty' love that isn't sure where its headed. A good deal of contemporary Hegelians are showing how the necessary recognition of communal norms need not dead-end in a conservatism or triumphalism, but if we think about ethical reality in terms of 'conversation', then rational dimension of this reality has a built-in dynamism and open character.

Alright, I need to go now. Looking forward to keeping the conversation going!

David W. Congdon said...


As you know, I'm sympathetic to the work you're doing, but as you also know, I'm critical of your reading of Hegel and your competitive understanding of reason and love. I want to clarify the latter issue in response to a claim you make in a comment.

You write: And so, the story of the community, however wordy it gets, however effectively it appropriates the events that befall it, must always come to silence–before an ex-propriating mystery that cannot be said.

This is where I want to return to a comment I made in response to the plenary about Barth and Bavinck regarding Eberhard Jüngel's concept of mystery. Juengel distinguishes between a "negative" and a "positive" mystery in God as the Mystery of the World. A negative mystery is one that requires one to be silent; it is something about which we cannot put into words. A positive mystery is rather "a mystery which must be said at all costs and which may under no circumstances be kept silent." A positive mystery wants to be known and makes itself heard and understood: "it reveals itself as mystery."

I think, Peter, that you are guilty of turning the excess of love into a negative mystery, into something that withdraws into silence instead of revealing itself to us while remaining a mystery. It seems that you believe that if something can be grasped in language, it necessarily becomes something objectified and secure, something over which we have rational possession. But this is what Jüngel, following Bultmann and Barth, rejects wholeheartedly. If it becomes objectifiable, then it no longer remains a mystery. A positive mystery is thus a middle way between negative silence and objectifying reason.

The claim I want to make is that your bifurcation between Kierkegaard and Hegel does not transcend the dichotomy between negative mystery and objectifying reason. A via media will require recognizing the possibility of a truly positive mystery that affirms your emphasis on the contingent, concrete encounter with the neighbor while at the same time affirming the knowability and speakability of this concrete event. While I agree with you that Jenson is not the way forward (for reasons having to do with his non-missionary ecclesiology), I think your position needs to shift from a negative mystery of love to a positive mystery of love.

mjbruce said...

This is part 1 of a 2 part post - I can't seem to figure out this character count think!

I am sympathetic with Peter's formal claims: Jenson doesn't get Barth right on the Spirit. And this has ecclesiological and missional consequences. However my sympathy ends there. Ultimately I find this paper nearing incoherency in regard to its own intention. One way to get at this is to examine it use of "ontology.”

Peter tells us that Barth's doctrine of the trinity is a way of affirming that the event of God's self-knowing is identical with the event of God's self-giving in Jesus, i.e. God's self-knowledge simply is self-giving. Further, he tells us that this is not an ontological claim. But I ask, what is this if not an ontological claim? This is precisely a claim about the very being of God. God is the one who knows himself as the one who gives himself in the humanity of Jesus; this IS who God is!

It is simply the case, that if you use the word "is" in reference to God, and have a predicate after it (and that predicate might be merely "is"), you are engaging in some form of divine ontology. Where the predicates come from is a different question (i.e. from metaphysical speculation or divine revelation). But at a simply formal level, Peter's distinction between grammar and ontology (or rejection of ontology or what have you) is simply incoherent. This incoherency continues throughout the paper where ontologizing is identified with conceptualizing.
Lets pause here: I at least cannot come up an example of a concept that does not, by analogy at least, somehow refer to being. I at least have only ever experienced things that have being. So even if I were to imagine something that doesn’t exist it is going to, in my imaginary conception at least, be like concepts I have for actual existents. This is the case even for God who is outside the order of being (and I think he his). When we think of God, we can only think of him in categories that we have for objects in the created world. We learn to think of God properly in divine revelation but this occurs via the media of created objects, or put differently, by analogy to created objects with the same language we use for created objects (This is what is meant by the phrase the analogia entis is contained in an analogia fidei). The language of analogy protects us from assuming that we have mastered God or that we have knowledge of him in any direct way. The object of analogical knowledge is always indirect, always veiled, always hidden. This is because we don’t know the basis of the analogy which is in reference to an object outside the realm of which we have epistemological access.

mjbruce said...

Part 2

This is why I find Peter’s claim that the manner in which we know God includes a renunciation of all ontologizing so problematic. Human beings can only think and speak humanly. God must adopt human means to make himself known to humans (which is exactly what Barth’s doctrine of Revelation claims). With his de-ontologization thesis Peter has cut all possibility of this off and thus leaves us with no way to speak of God. God might reveal himself and we might through some dark glass perceive it but we can't conceptualize it, thus can't speak of it, and thus cannot engage in mission, i.e. tell others the Good News of Jesus Christ (which I take to be the driving force behind Peter's paper).

Will I think has got things just right. Jenson's theology builds on Barth, fills in details where Barth was incomplete. And this means rethinking some things. In so doing Jenson rightly speaks in his own voice. And this is OK. After all he is not Karl Barth nor should we wish him to be. Do I think he gets Barth entirely right on the Spirit? No. Does his ecclesiology make me uncomfortable as a Reformed theologian? Yes. Do I think that his theology undermines mission? Well, perhaps if one accepts the at times over reaching rhetoric of my dear friend John Flett who at times seems to reduce theology to missiology. Flett is no doubt right that missiology needs to be an essential locus of any theology properly termed Christian. But should theology not also include space, e.g. to contemplate God and offer him honor and praise and worship? If we think glory is an attribute of God and with Barth that it is the summation of all the other attributes, then I think so. Missiology is not the only loci in Christian theology either. John has done us all a great service by pointing to the centrality of missiology in Barth’s theology. A lesson we should never neglect or forget. Unfortunately to do so, he’s had to holler so loud that it drowns out other voices at times. But as Barth said: “That and only that human act which is obedient to God’s commandment is that which keeps holy the right of God established in Jesus Christ in such a way that it has its limits in the incomparability and inaccessibility of God, but also in God's glory and worthiness of worship,” Karl Barth, Die christliche Lehre nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus, p. 106.

John Flett said...

Hi Matt
I do not want to usurp the discussion, but want to clarify my own position with reference to Jenson’s ecclesiology. Part of the issue with the lack of dogmatic reference to mission is that theology cannot do away with mission, but subsumes missionary themes in a particular way. That is, we come to think it possible to contemplate God in a way that is not also an external moving witness to him: ‘worship’ becomes separated from ‘mission’ resulting in a problematic definition of both. This type of bifurcation results in a particular form of missionary method. As an example, to quote from Jenson’s “you wonder where the Spirit went:” If the Spirit were himself a liberating agent of the love shared between the Father and the Son, ‘immanently and economically, then the church, as the community inspiriated by this Agent, would be the active mediatrix of faith’. (p.303) That is, the church itself, ‘in its structured temporal and spatial extension would be seen as the Bedingung der Möglichkeit [condition of the possibility] of faith’. (p.303) Herein lies Jenson’s missionary concern. His language of objectivity refers to the concrete visibility of the church as establishing the basic structures necessary for faith. The externality of the gospel, its antecedence to human response, is located in the objectivity of the church because the Spirit’s particular personal agency links the contingency of the church to the life of God. With mission distinguished from church/worship, the form of missionary replication which results from this is always the replication of the originating culture, i.e., propaganda. Mission is, by this, not “undermined” but takes of a frenetic from. I certainly do not want to subsume theology into mission – to do so will be to maintain the false dichotomy at the heart of the problem. Worship is rightly the contemplation of God, but the contemplation of him as he is revealed in JC, i.e., his glory is not that he is locked inside himself and enters the world by way of an abrogation of his being, but that his coming into the world properly belongs to his being (CD IV/1, p.184-5).

mjbruce said...


My first concern here is that if we start talking about Jenson’s ecclesiology this is going to sidetrack us from the issue at hand, i.e. the conception of knowledge of God and analogy contained in Peter’s paper. Peter wants, at least as far as I understand him, to give a much needed emphasis on mission. I could not agree with him more. But this is a formal agreement. My contention is that the material way he goes about this in fact undermines this very intention. He’s precluded the very possibility of human beings having knowledge of God because the notion of ontology he’s put forth undermines human knowledge of God. Simply put, without concepts we can’t talk about anything at all, even imaginary things, let alone talk in such a way that our words have any connection to an actual object. To do mission we have to talk. And to talk we have to have understanding, have concepts of something, even if veiled and indirect. Human understanding is only possible by means of creaturely media. Thus, when we talk about God we can do so only by analogy to creaturely media; there is simply no other way. This does not mean that the creaturely media determines the content of our God concept, i.e. we can't read knowledge of God directly off of created being. Its an analogy after all! And analogy, especially when the object we are referring to is one that we don’t have direct empirical access to, like God, is, as I said, always indirect and thus veiled or hidden.

That out of the way, in terms of the particular concept of mission that you are arguing for, I agree with you. After all I learned it from you and Guder. Our difference is interpretative in I that simply read Jenson more charitably than you and moreover because I find him an ally on so many other issues apart from ecclesiology and mission I’m loathe to make him such a target. There are other fish worth frying here, e.g. R. Hütter, as I have said you before. That said, I fully admit that when it comes to the communion ecclesiology in Vol. 2 of Jenson’s ST and its result for mission I also cannot altogether follow Jenson (though I don’t find him guilty of all that you accuse him). And we can talk about that.

As an example, I agree that mission and worship cannot be separated. My question is if Jenson really does? Mission is proclamation in order to gather persons into the worshiping community. Put differently, mission is about getting human beings to act as human beings, to be what we were created to do, i.e. to be corporate worshipers of God. And the primary agent here is God, He acts, he gathers, he reveals himself as the sole subject worthy of worship. We on earth now, who have some blurred notion of this are carried up into God’s action (correspond to him) as instruments of God’s agency. Furthermore, I understand worship to be human beings mirroring knowledge of God back to him. And of course, God is not locked up in his own glory: God is ec-static; he goes out from himself to us. This is after all how we have knowledge of him, he comes to us as a creature so that we can know him and worship him. I think this requires some minimal notion of a visible church, albeit one that is only a shadow of the true community in the eschaton. Is Jenson’s conception of the visible church over-wrought? Yes I think that’s true; I’m reformed after all. My own quibble is that your presentation of his ecclesiology as mere replication of the originating culture is over-simplified and selective. I’m open to be convinced otherwise. But this means listening to Jenson too and he thinks his ecclesiology does not require simple straightforward reproduction of the originating culture. There is room for change and growth in the ecclesial culture, predominately by means of God’s agency in the Church via the Spirit in Jenson’s ecclesiology.


David W. Congdon said...


I think you are quite correct in stressing the fact that Peter's non-ontological theology is still ontological in nature. In a sense, there's no avoiding that. But I want to clarify the issue in a way that perhaps problematizes things.

Let me do this by way of Bultmann (surprise, surprise). Bultmann was quite fond of quoting Herrmann's axiom that "we cannot say of God how he is in himself but only what he does to us," as well as Melanchthon's dictum, "To know Christ is to know his benefits, not to comtemplate his natures and the mode of his incarnation." Now, since we are writing post-Barth and post-McCormack, it is quite easy at this point to respond with the panacea of "actualistic ontology." That's not necessary wrong, and I intend to do something along those lines in my dissertation.

But that response can also be quite glib and overlook the more serious issue here. What Bultmann (et al.) is exercised about is the attempt on the part of the theologian to identify what God is in a general and universally true sense. Ontology is therefore the attempt to speak about what something is irrespective of the speaker (or knower). Here we can replace "ontology" with the notion of "realism" (as in Barth's critical realism).

The orthodox Barthian is quick to then label a Bultmannian or a Kierkegaardian as a critical idealist. But here is the crucial point: the Kierkegaardian-Bultmannian insight is that the realism-idealism dichotomy is false to God's revelation and misses the point altogether. (I'm not accusing you of making the idealist charge, but I'm anticipating what someone might say and what I've heard people say. McCormack, e.g., has indeed charged Bultmann with idealism.)

The insight is this: the being or identity of God cannot be construed along the lines of subject/object or realism/idealism. Knowledge of God, according to Bultmann, is not a universal worldview that, once established (even if one claims to establish it by "revelation"), can be confidently grasped and treated like any other piece of information. But neither is knowledge of God a private, introspective experience of God, such that God is whatever an individual claims. Instead, God is rather the event in which one person encounters her neighbor within a particular social-historical context. Knowledge of God happens in the missionary occurrence of neighbor-love. It is a social knowledge, and while we can still call this an ontology insofar as the being of God is truly known (here I differ from Peter), we have to insist that God is not known in a universal or general sense. We cannot say what God is in general, but only who God is here and now pro me.

Thus Jüngel: "Bultmann's program [of demythologizing] [is] the concern for appropriate speech about God (and so about humanity), and ... this concern [is] fulfilled in not objectifying God or letting him be objectified as an It or He, but in bringing him to speech as You." The problem with ontology, even in its actualistic varieties, is that it very rarely avoids becoming an objectification of God as an "It or He." The key is to confess that we only know God in the moment in which we encounter God in the neighbor. We know God, therefore, as an ethical event that occurs in our embodied sociality. Here I think we can learn a few lessons from the later Bonhoeffer.

David W. Congdon said...

Continued ...

What does all this mean for theological ontology? First, theology is intrinsically and always missionary in character. That means that our speech about God is inherently translatable. We must always be open to the new thought-forms and concrete media that will burst open our God-talk with surprising and unanticipatable possibilities.

Second, we must recognize that talk about the being of God is a hazardous enterprise. And that's because revelation is not some static occurrence in the past (incarnation, e.g.). Christ's advent is always happening ever anew. It's not "deus dixit" but "deus dicit." We confront God's word here and now in the concrete context of our present time and place. God-talk, in order not to be theological propaganda, must always enter into the insecurity of hearing a fresh word today that calls into question the words of yesterday. What holds the speech of the church together is thus not a dogma or doctrinal formulation, but rather the consistent "word of the cross" that proclaims the enduring saving action of God in Christ as an ever new event today. (The problem with universalism is that it avoids this posture of insecurity.)

Third, we have to jettison all talk about humanity-in-general or humanitas. Any talk about general humanity is a lapse into bad ontology or metaphysics. God does not assume human nature in the incarnation. This is the major problem with actualistic ontology, insofar as it claims to define what humankind is universally. We can deal with the issue of God-talk because God is a singular reality. But actualistic ontology goes astray if it also claims that the being of Jesus somehow defines the being of all other humans in advance and in the abstract. This is a relapse on Barth's part to the logic of substance ontology that he wishes to overcome. Simply letting Jesus be the source of this definition is not sufficient. The substantial logic that binds every human person together via a kind of Platonic ideal form is unacceptable for Christian faith. Freeing ourselves from this will serve to make our theology all the more missionary in character and all the less propagandistic.

Well, now you have a preview of my dissertation. I trust this was sufficiently provocative to make a lot of people uncomfortable. :)

Peter Kline said...

Well! Let's see if I can respond to some of you people. I'm appreciative for all the forceful comebacks. They are helping me to think through the issues more clearly in a way that I could not on my own. So thanks.

@ Scott--I don't like mapping revelation onto the Son and hiddenness onto the Father. This is a too flat-footed way of talking about the trinitarian distinctions in revelation. But nor do I want to talk about the revealedness/hiddenness dialectic simply in terms of christology that doesn't operate at a trinitarian level. Somehow I want to combine christology and Trinity in a way that speaks of a trinitarian encounter with humanity in Christ as the site of the revelation of God's mystery. I've recently discovered St. John of the Cross, and he is really helping me to think through what this might look like.

@Will--I'll respond to each point:

1. My article on Jenson in the IJST addresses this issue. I'm happy to send it to anyone, just let me know your email address.

2. What keeps "excess" from floating off into a problematic pietism (thought not all pietism is problematic! You should know this, Will, as a good Evangelical Covenanter =)) is the fact that the logic of excess is internal to the history of Jesus. Here I will simply defer to the work of Nate Kerr in his book "Christ, History, and Apocalyptic." It is precisely the humanity of Jesus that is delivered over to an excess, namely, the excess of the coming Kingdom that is always more than the church can narrate or represent.

3. I really don't have anything to say about Hegel himself. It is certain "Hegelian" moves within theology that can be problematic. And Jenson clearly makes some of those moves, whether or not you think they are problematic.

@David--first, I didn't write the quote you attribute to me. I was quoting Craig Keen.

I want to challenge the Bultmann/Juengel emphasis on revelation as a word event. I think it places the emphasis in the wrong place. Faith, for these figures, is very much about understanding, specifically self-understanding. What I miss from the emphasis on revelation as word event is the sense in which faith is first and foremost a kind of embodied praxis, or discipleship. Not that revelation is not a word event. But I want to say that it is an embodied act first and foremost, which is why it is always in excess of language. Revelation is an act that speaks, not a speech that acts.

The moment in the Gospels that crystallizes this for me is the silence of Jesus before Pilate. What you have there is Jesus in the midst of act that is in excess of any language. "What is truth?" Pilate asks. Jesus says nothing. Not because there is no answer, but because his act of self-giving that is taking place in that very moment is the answer.

@Matt--on the ontology issue, I will defer to much of what David has said. I don't want to say that Barth is not making ontological claims. He clearly is. The point is about HOW we speak ontologically. I want to say that the Gospel always fractures every ontology we throw at it. The way properly to speak of God is to use language and concepts in such a way that they open out to the reality of God that exceeds them. And the way to do this opening is not simply to use language analogically. Language points to that which is in excess of it as it becomes a call to embodied action on behalf of the neighbor within reach.

Chris E W Green said...

Thanks to all, for the deeply interesting paper and response, and the many responses that have followed from them. This is my first KBBC, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

To David (continuing a conversation we've been having for a while, on his blog and in private correspondence): I think you're shortchanging Jenson's ecclesiology by characterizing it as 'non-missional'. I understand why you disapprove of his description of the church, but the truth is he does take mission with lively seriousness. Admittedly, this is likely not the place to have this conversation, but as something of a Jensonian, I found myself bound (should I say freed?) to voice some dissent! :-)

Chris E W Green said...

Peter, you conclude that Jenson's approach 'creates a church whose knowledge of God consists not in its sending into the world but in its self-maintenance over against the world'. Earlier, you characterized his ecclesiology as 'inflated'. Allow me to push back a little, again with my Jensonian badge shining.

Yes, his notion of Christ's ecclesio-sacramental embodiment is problematic, but I don't see that his emphasis on the church's otherness vis-a-vis the world is necessarily 'non-missional'. Instead, he proposes a certain kind of missionality , one that depends upon the Sprit's establishing the church's as a 'sign of contradiction' amidst the world. The church, as Jenson sees her, is against the world for the world. This is not that far from what Bonhoeffer does, is it? Or, more importantly, from Ephesians and, in a very different way, the Apocalypse ?

Further, Jenson wouldn't say the church maintains her own existence; instead, he would say the church's continued existence is nothing less than Christ's self-maintence.

David W. Congdon said...


First, I thought that quote was only one paragraph; I didn't notice that it continued. Nevertheless, you confirmed my criticism of the negative mystery by your appeal to the silence of Jesus before Pilate. To me, that is a huge mistake. For starters, the passage does not say that Jesus kept silent; it just doesn't record anything at all after the question is asked. That may imply silence, but you can't infer it from the text itself. Second, the story doesn't help your argument, because Jesus' silence (assuming he kept silent, and assuming that said silence is even significant) does not coincide with any concrete ethical action. If you really want to embody Jesus' example in this story, then you should probably stop doing theology.

I think this is all just a simple example of misreading the story. The gospel of John does not record a response by Jesus, not because this lack of a response tells us something about Jesus or about the truth, but because it is blatantly obvious that the question is illegitimate. Prior to the question, Jesus has just said that only those who "listen to my voice" belong to the truth. Pilate's question is therefore a complete misunderstanding of Jesus. Pilate focuses on the idea of truth instead of asking what it would mean to follow Jesus. The silence of Jesus – or rather the absence of a response – indicates nothing about the idea of truth; that is, in fact, to misunderstand the situation precisely the way Pilate does. The lack of a response instead is a judgment against imperial power and the attempt by those in power to control truth and falsehood, to master the world. Pilate's question is an attempt to objectify the truth rather than to follow Jesus in faithful obedience to the will of God. It says nothing about the thinkability and speakability of truth; but it says everything about the fact that truth cannot be known apart from faith, apart from the submission of our wills to the will of God.

I think you are trying way too hard to distance yourself from Hegel, Barth, Bultmann, and really the whole Protestant tradition, insofar as the definitive aspect of the Reformation is the centrality of God's Word. I understand your concerns and, as you know, I'm sympathetic with many of them. But you have imposed a dichotomy between language/reason and action/will that I find theologically unacceptable – not to mention highly questionable on basic scriptural grounds.

One of those dichotomies is found in your statement: "Revelation is an act that speaks, not a speech that acts." First of all, this is incoherent, since speaking is acting; but I get your point. You want to say that ethical action is prior to and in excess of every attempt to articulate it in theological speech. Fair enough. But this excess is only correctly understood if it is an excess that propels us toward ever new articulations of this revelational mystery. That is, it is an excess that thrusts us into new situations where we must discover how to translate our God-talk for new times and places. If it is an excess that shuts down linguistic articulation, then it is only a negative mystery that is contrary to the radiance of God's self-communication.

A final note regarding Bultmann: if there is anything that Bultmann rejects, it would be making ethical obedience secondary to linguistic articulation. Bultmann is very Kierkegaardian on this point. But he understands the need to see ethical action and rational speech as being paradoxically identical. Action and speech cannot be ordered in terms of primary and secondary, above and below. Juengel and Ebeling certainly emphasize the linguistic element more than Bultmann, and so perhaps more than you would be comfortable affirming. But Bultmann should not be differentiated from them on this point, in that he more strongly emphasizes the love of the neighbor as the event in which we believe and know God.

David W. Congdon said...


To continue our email conversation, there is a real difference between Bonhoeffer and Jenson on the role of the church in the world. For Jenson, the church is an end in itself; it is the goal of God's ways in the world. For Bonhoeffer, things are more complicated. In his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, he argues that the church is indeed an end in itself in a way very much like Jenson. But by the time we reach his Ethics and his prison letters, we encounter a very different ecclesiology. Though he'll still on occasion use the language of the church as an end in itself, he (mostly) redefines it to mean that the church is an end solely in its self-dispossessing service toward the world. It is God's goal only in that it divests itself of any claim over against the world. It becomes wholly the community-for-others whose being is found in its kenotic love for the neighbor. This is why Bonhoeffer can argue for a religionless Christianity: he understands that there is nothing visible and public which distinguishes the church from the world. The church is distinguished solely by its recognition of God's will and calling to exist for others. It has no additional identity or being, nothing stable or possessed. I would say that Bonhoeffer gets most of this by the time he writes the Ethics manuscripts, but he seals the deal in his final letters.

So even though, in Ethics, he still tries to balance the Catholic and Protestant impulses (i.e., being-for-itself and being-for-the-world) and says that the church does, in a sense, call people to itself, I don't think you can still affirm this after the prison writings. It seems to me that, if you follow Bonhoeffer's direction of thought, you end up with the conviction that the church doesn't call people to itself, for that would be to reinstate religion. The church instead points people toward God and lives incognito in the world. The church is therefore not the visible, tangible embodiment of God's kingdom; it is rather the servant of the world in its humble hiddenness within a secular, religionless age.

Mission, for Jenson, remains religion: it is a gathering-in based on the fact that the church is defined by its sacramental identity. Mission for someone like myself is a sending-out based on the fact that the church is defined by its apostolic identity. The church is wholly defined by its function of serving the reign of Christ through the act of faithful witness. The church that is faithfully missionary has no interest in expanding its size or in establishing its public visibility. It is wholly uninterested in proselytizing. Instead, the missionary church seeks to serve others in concrete local contexts, always allowing the gospel to illuminate the needs of the moment. The missionary church is continually engaged in the act of translating the message of Christ for new times and places. It points away from itself, away from any stable center point, and toward the margins – toward the far country.

Peter Kline said...


I take your criticism about Jesus before Pilate. You're right, I can't really defend that on exegetical grounds. For me it is more of an evocative picture. I wouldn't want to defend my position exegetically from there.

The way I would do it is through a reading of Jesus' parables. Here, I take it, we have the heart of Jesus' preaching ministry. Yet he speaks in a way precisely to be misunderstood! What Jesus is bringing to speech is not a new teaching, but the event of the Kingdom itself, which cannot be contained or mediated in speech. When the Kingdom comes into language, as in Jesus' parables, language is contorted and turned upside down. And to the extent that the parables have a discursive point, the point is usually about the irruption of divine action into the world that one can only wait and prepare for with imminent expectation and radical action.

What this means is that our speech about the Gospel is faithful only as it delivers us over to a mode of concrete action on behalf of the world, an action, moreover, that awaits a further action of God for its fulfillment and meaning. Jesus' parables thrust him into concrete confrontation with the political and religious realities of his day, and thrust him into this confrontation in such a way that his life was a failure in this world. Jesus' speech amounted to nothing in this world. His parables did not win him a great following. They scattered his disciples and got him killed. Yet this failure in the world is precisely the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into the world. Jesus' failure in the world is an utter openness to the act of God that is in excess of the world and its immanent determinations.

All this does not mean that must somehow abandon speech or an emphasis on the Word of God. It simply means that the best speech can do is unravel itself in light of the excess of God's coming Kingdom. Such unraveling will take many forms: silent prayer, ecstatic prayer, praise, doxology, call to risky action, silence at the sides of those suffering, poetry, works of mercy, refusing to use religious language to establish cultural capital, and on and on.

Thanks again for the conversation everyone. I am in the midst of forging these thoughts, and I am glad I have smart and tough people to forge these thoughts with. I take it that the point of conferences is to help each other refine our thoughts. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to do that here.

David W. Congdon said...


I do find it ironic that you appeal to Jesus' parables, since Ebeling, Fuchs, and Jüngel are the most prominent modern theologians to emphasize their significance as -- precisely as you put it -- the in-breaking of the kingdom. That's the thrust of Jüngel's main works, from his dissertation onward, to argue that these parables are indeed a word-event wherein the kingdom comes to expression. Such is the analogy of advent in which language follows the God who comes nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

Of course, we all agree that God's act "is in excess of the world and its immanent determinations." That much no one can really dispute and remain a Christian. If you lose the extra nos, you lose everything. But it simply does not follow from this that language is itself excluded. That is to say, your view presupposes that language and reason are part of the world's immanent determinations. But this is precisely what Ebeling & co. reject wholeheartedly! On the contrary, it is precisely this fallible, broken language that God commandeers and transfigures, so that our speech can, however falteringly and provisionally, bear witness to the living God. This is why analogy is so crucial and indispensable. It frees language to bear witness to God as is our missionary calling.

The exclusion of language from this task is not only due to a problematic doctrine of revelation, but one could also trace it to a potentially problematic christology. Now, I'm not in favor of the logic of assumption, but the one thing this logic got right (and which must be retained at any cost) is the notion that God took on every aspect of our humanity and left nothing out. Hence the maxim: "What is not assumed is not redeemed." We can find other post-metaphysical ways to do the work that assumption-talk performed in the early church. But I feel like your view ends up with a christology in which human reason and language is not assumed, and therefore not redeemed. That is to say, language is excluded from the reconciling work that Christ enacted, such that the Spirit is incapable of bearing witness through our words to the reign of God. Is not something along these lines operative in your position?

Chris E W Green said...

Peter and David,

I wonder if Jüngel's understanding of the claim 'God is love' cuts to the heart of this debate. He insists that 'love' has to retain a meaning for us that allows us to make sense of the subject in question. In his words, love 'as a predicate of God may not contradict what people experience as love'. It seems to me Peter is in danger of making 'love' an empty predicate; and in so doing, making all God-talk vain, too.

Peter Kline said...

Ok, let me try to clarify.

When I say that the event of revelation is in excess of both reason and language because it is first and foremost a divine act, the point is not to say that language and reason are not assumed in the Incarnation, nor is it to say that reason and language are left behind as we seek now to witness to the coming Kingdom of God.

To invoke Kierkegaard, the issue is not whether we speak, or even so much what we say--the Gospel will always be "Jesus is Lord"--but HOW we speak and HOW we say what we are always given to say. Yes, reason and language were assumed in the incarnation, but like Jesus' human body, they were assumed only to be broken apart, to be shattered in the event of the coming Kingdom.

Now Jesus is risen from the dead, which means that reason and language and all things human are risen with him. But it is precisely the Crucified who is risen, which means that our language about the Crucified (which will always be operative!) is faithful only as it is borne along by a more basic and more fundamental life-movement or praxis.

So to the question "How do we speak?" I would answer: we can speak rightly and faithfully of the Crucified only as our very lives and bodies take the shape of the Crucified. And at times this will mean that bearing witness to the Gospel must take the form of silence, or indirection. For example, in a North American culture where religious language and identity is a kind of cultural capital, how do we witness to the Gospel? By participating in the language games by which religious and cultural identity is established? Or by silently turning to those whose very lives are forgotten and oppressed by these very discourses?

Perhaps one way to look at my position is to view as a reading of the book of James. What I want to say is this: faith without works is dead. And religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress.

Peter Kline said...


I don't see how I am in danger of making love into an empty predicate. What I mean by "love" is this: Jesus' self-giving to his brothers and sisters. It is entirely concrete. Jesus treats those around him as already members of the eschatological feast. This is why he eats with tax collectors and sinners. This is the meaning of Love.

But precisely because I let Jesus define Love concretely, Love is never something we can definitively know or point to directly. Jesus is Love only as he points others to the coming of the Father's Kingdom. And the coming of this Kingdom is the Father's gifting of all flesh with the Spirit, yet the way the Spirit does this is by incorporating us into the flesh of Jesus, on which Spirit rests. But being incorporated into Jesus means that we are once again deferred to the Father...and so on. God's love is this continual trinitarian movement. It is this eternal "deflection" of Love between the trinitarian persons that defines Love. And this is why it can only be known in the transformation of desire and a concrete self-giving to the neighbor within reach, a self-giving that is a participation in this trinitarian deflection.

David W. Congdon said...


I don't think you've really clarified anything. Everything hinges on your statement that reason and language are "shattered in the event of the coming Kingdom." This is precisely the kind of nonsense talk that I find so frustrating. As much as I admire and respect Nate Kerr as a friend and colleague, it seems that he, like, appeal to meaningless phrases like this to do a lot of theological work. But it can only do this work if their meaning is actually clarified. My fear in your case is that once such statements are clarified, it will become quite obvious that they are deeply problematic, if not vacuous.

What exactly does it mean for language and reason to be shattered? In your case, it is clear, again, that it means reason and language are incapable of articulating the event of revelation. They are, again, excluded from God's self-giving; or, put different, God's self-giving is not understood as God's self-communication. In short, you appeal to this phrase to accomplish the bifurcation between theory and praxis that I believe scripture and faith compel us to reject.

Appealing to the crucified one is not an argument. In what sense does the cross of Christ shatter the possibility of language as the vehicle for the communication of God's truth? To repeat what I've said before, if by "shatter" you mean that it disrupts any attempt to objectify God or capture God in language, then we are in total agreement. But again it does not follow that we are left to silence and praxis as the modes for faithful witness to God. These false dichotomies, which I see running rampant in your writing, are only going to undermine the mission of the church. You are simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is not a constructive basis for the future work of the church.

David W. Congdon said...

Sorry for the grammatical and typographical errors. I'm writing hastily in the midst of working on exams.

Peter Kline said...

I don't want to say that reason and language are incapable or articulating the event of revelation. We can articulate revelation. But given the nature of revelation, our articulation of it can only be a kind of stammering and stuttering; it can only be done in fragments; all we have to offer are crumbs, bits if discourse that can never pretend to be finished or adequate to their object. This is what I mean when I say that revelation shatters language. I mean what someone like Gregory of Nyssa means when he says that we have no words to define the divine essence. The divine essence is infinite, which means that whatever words we throw at it, even if they are correct and come from the Bible, are ultimately exceeded by the reality of God's essence. God's essence is only known in the never-complete transformation and purging of desire, which takes place at a "deeper" level than discursive knowledge. This does not mean that discursive knowledge becomes forbidden or useless. It does not mean that we are not given concrete words with which to speak the Gospel. It does not mean that theory is severed from praxis. Reason and language have their place. But ultimately they are not capable of the infinite. To use Rowan Williams' language, theology must always display "the wound of knowledge" that revelation inflicts upon theological discourse. This does not mean that theological discourse comes to an end or is set over against praxis. It means that reason and language must be totally in service of that praxis in which our lives become embodied enactments of God's infinite love.

Matthias Gockel said...


I would like to comment on your interpretation of Bultmann.

You stress an important element in Bultmann’s theology: his criticism of theological “objectivism” (in the bad sense of the word, not in the sense of George Hunsinger’s “How To Read KB”!). You say that for Bultmann knowledge of God occurs in the event of love of the neighbor. In doing so, you interpret him along the lines of Dorothee Sölle (who, in turn, relied heavily on Herbert Braun, a NT student of Bultmann’s). While there are similarities between these two theologians, the differences should not be overlooked. Sölle criticized Bultmann for being too individualistic, since he focused almost exclusively on the “pro me”. I sense that your interpretation of Bultmann is also prone to individualism, although you insist that God is not simply what the individual claims. Still, if you emphasize the “pro me” so strongly, there is hardly any other possibility that God indeed will become almost anything what a person claims God to be, since the only criterion is an individual (or communal) experience.

I believe that at this point the “critical” quality of Barth’s theology comes into play. In fact, there is no strict dichotomy between “critical realism” and “critical idealism”. McCormack himself mentions the critical element in idealism as being very important for the development of Barth. Like idealism, critical realism stands in opposition to a naïve a posteriori approach, which simply infers the divine origin from empirical reality or which identifies “reality” with empirical reality. In theological terms: God is not simply given as one object among others. On this point, Barth and Bultmann agree. And even Bultmann speaks of God as a “reality”. The question, then, becomes how do we know this particular reality? So it is a question not only of ontology but also of epistemology. Here, the difference between critical idealism and critical realism comes into play.

Finally, by saying that “Christ's advent is always happening ever anew”, do you not thereby generalize the particular history of Jesus Christ – contrary to your own intentions?

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for raising those good points. To be honest, I won't be able to defend my reading entirely here, since as I mentioned, that's the topic of my dissertation. My basic thesis is that Barth and Bultmann are much more similar than almost anyone has acknowledged, with the exception that I think Bultmann is more successful in articulating a non-metaphysical theology than Barth was. But I do want to correct Bultmann with Barth and Bonhoeffer's emphasis on the sociality of revelation. I will state that my reading of him is very similar to Christophe Chalamet, thought I think that even Chalamet overly stresses the differences between Barth and Bultmann (e.g., on the issue of law vs. gospel).

Okay, on to your points. First, while I do follow Sölle and Braun on certain points, I do not interpret Bultmann strictly along their lines. I read Bultmann as a true "Barthian," so to speak, i.e. as a faithful representative of dialectical theology. While it's true that knowledge of God coincides with love of neighbor, that is not the full picture. I also claimed that "what holds the speech of the church together is ... the consistent 'word of the cross' that proclaims the enduring saving action of God in Christ as an ever new event today." In other words, knowledge of God is not reducible to the individual act of love, because it is determined by the church's kerygmatic proclamation. The kerygma for Bultmann, or "the word of God" for Barth, is what situates our God-talk within a communal horizon that cannot be confined to the individual encounter with God. Put another way, the pro me is always also the pro ceteris.

The pro me, which I have no intention of over-emphasizing, is only meant to acknowledge that the act of faith is a personal and individual act. No one can believe for me, which is why the Reformers rejected the Catholic doctrine of "implicit faith." But neither is faith a past-tense occurrence that we can look back upon with a kind of security. Faith is never behind us but always before us; the word of God is spoken anew to me here and now. I am continually placed in the position of having to hear God's gracious judgment today. So we come to know the reality of God in and through the justifying word of the cross, that is, through our encounter with the kerygmatic Christ in the Spirit. The reality of God is not an object that we can analyze apart from faith; it is instead a word of grace that we can only hear and receive in faith, which in fact creates the faith to receive it.

As for the issue of generalizing Christ's advent, I mean to affirm rather that the singular event of Christ's coming is repeated ever anew in the Spirit. The concept of repetition I borrow from Kierkegaard (here I agree with Peter), but I would also nuance it with elements from Gilles Deleuze. If you'd like me to expand on this, I can.

Peter Kline said...

Regarding discipleship and silence: a friend put me on to a really fascinating book by Jonathan Malesic called, "Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity."

The author uses Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, among others, to argue that a kind of withdrawal, not from soceity, but from a certain way of engaging society that focuses on the explicit establishment of religious identity, is the most faithful way to witness to the Gospel in the current state of North American culture.

It is an interesting contextual commentary on certain things I am trying to say about the hiddenness of God.

David W. Congdon said...

On that point, Peter, I am in complete agreement. Concealment of identity is not at all the same thing as apophatic silence about God. I make a case for concealment in my recent paper on "secular prayer" that you've read. So you know I'm on board on that issue.

Let me now respond to your previous comment which I forgot to address. Of course, theology is always provisional, always fragmentary. No one is under the illusion of having achieved some final statement about God. (Parenthetically, the common criticism of Hegel along these lines is a facile way of writing him off instead of listening to him.)

But I think it is very telling that you appeal to Gregory and the apophatic tradition. You write: "I mean what someone like Gregory of Nyssa means when he says that we have no words to define the divine essence. The divine essence is infinite, which means that whatever words we throw at it, even if they are correct and come from the Bible, are ultimately exceeded by the reality of God's essence."

I find this statement utterly baffling, especially coming from you. Of all people, you should know that the definition of God's essence as "infinite" is precisely the kind of metaphysical reasoning that runs contrary to God's self-revelation. The notion of the infinite posits itself in contrast to the finite, and for that reason it makes God the negation of the human in stark contrast to Jesus Christ. Theology which follows after Christ must reject any conception of the divine essence that makes this essence competitive with the human, mortal, rational, and finite. What you've done in appealing to Gregory is simply confirm my criticism of a flawed christology implicit in your view. If the divine essence is not a reality that becomes accessible for us in Jesus Christ, then you have a God behind Jesus not determined by revelation. In short, it is a retreat into mythology and metaphysics.

You write: "Reason and language have their place. But ultimately they are not capable of the infinite. Reason and language have their place. But ultimately they are not capable of the infinite." No. This is a metaphysical logic that begins with what is given in the world and then posits the being of God in contrast to it (via negativa). I refer you again to my paper on secular invocation. Everything you are saying here is rejected by Barth, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, and the whole dialectical school. In fact, you can't be a theologian of mission if you retain this kind of thinking. Either the infinite becomes finite and is given to us in Jesus Christ (i.e., either God is wholly and eternally a missionary God), or you have a metaphysical idol of irrationality that competes with reason and language.

Peter Kline said...

Perhaps what I need to do is work on clarifying what I mean by "excess." I don't intend this in a metaphysical sense. That is, I don't mean that the way revelation is excessive is because it opposed to or in contrast to the finite (via negativa). Nor do I mean that revelation is the infinite perfection of the finite (via eminentia).

I want to say that there is a logic of excess internal to very events of revelation, internal to Jesus' human history. Again, Nate Kerr's work is central for me here. It is precisely the human Jesus who opens us to the excess of revelation. The excess is not "behind" Jesus or "behind" revelation. It is the excess of revelation itself. We encounter the excess of God, the excess of revelation, only as we participate in the very concrete history of Jesus. Excess is tied to Jesus. It is the excess of Jesus, of the Kingdom he proclaimed and enacted.

Just because I appeal to Gregory of Nyssa's notion of divine infinity does not mean that I am importing the entire apophatic tradition, which, by the way, is extremely diverse and not reducible to the via negativa. I am following someone like Robert Jenson here, who makes extensive use of Gregory's notion of divine infinity precisely for anti-metaphysical purposes. It would be an reductionistic reading of Gregory to say that his notion of divine infinity is simply a crude notion of the via negativa that posits the real depth of God behind revelation. Gregory is way more sophisticated and better than that. For him divine infinity is not opposed to the finite. Precisely because God is infinite, God can incorporate our finite lives into the infinite movement of God's own life.

I don't think Barth ever lets go of the Reformed non capax over against the Lutheran capax. However, Barth does say, and here I want to echo him, that the infinite is capable of the finite. But the way in which the infinite comes upon the finite is in a movement that opens up the finite to participation in the excess of in infinite. So when the infinite Son becomes a finite human being, that finite human being is in turn delivered over the excess of the Father's coming Kingdom.

David W. Congdon said...


The language of "excess" here is entirely unclear - even, you'll forgive me, sloppy. You are letting this word do an immense amount of work without once clarifying how this work is actually done.

For instance, if the work of "excess" is an operation of the Spirit, then you are left with one of three options: either (1) the Spirit constitutes a repetition of and witness to the concrete, reconciling work of Jesus Christ, or (2) the Spirit performs a work in addition to Christ (in time or eternity), or (3) the Spirit contradicts the self-revelation of God in Christ (new revelation). I assume you don't want the last two, but if you go with the first, then the excess cannot be something beyond the finite but must be the repetition of the finite, incarnate, divinely-given reality in Jesus Christ.

Let me put this in a different way. You speak of the relation between the infinite and the finite. And by the way, as long as you retain this kind of language, you are working within a metaphysical register that is not controlled by God's self-revelation. It is not the infinite that is capable of the finite; it is God who is capable of, and defined by, the human. These statements are not exactly the same.

But I'll ignore that for now. The more important issue is how you understand the relation between the divine and the creaturely. Based on your last comment, you apparently believe that the "excess" is something that is "in addition to" the finite. You say that God "incorporate[s] our finite lives into the infinite movement of God's own life." Similarly, you assert that "when the infinite Son becomes a finite human being, that finite human being is in turn delivered over the excess of the Father's coming Kingdom." What is this "infinite movement"? What is the "kingdom" to which Jesus is "delivered over"? It seems fairly clear to me that you are speaking about some life or reality of God that is beyond and outside of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Because if you were to let Christ control what you say about God, then you'd have to say, instead, that God's own life simply is the ongoing movement of God's finite existence in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of the Father is nothing else but the reality actualized by the crucified and risen Jesus. God does not subsume the finite into some infinite reality that is always "in excess of" the finite. Rather, God willingly condescends to and conforms Godself to the human existence of Jesus – and the excess is simply the repetition of this finite historicity. The finite is not swallowed up into some divinized eternity; rather the divine is humanized and historicized in a concrete actuality.

As I see it, your position remains thoroughly metaphysical, despite your claims to the contrary.

Peter Kline said...


Everything hinges on the sense in which the logic of excess is internal to Jesus' history. Jesus' history is a logic of excess. The "more" is not beyond or behind Jesus but within the very life he lived. The Spirit is the repetition of this life as a repetition of the "more" internal to Jesus' life. Let me quote a passage from Nate Kerr's book to try to clarify what I mean:

"What the cross reveals is that Christ is involved in the contingencies of history as one whose identity and action is inassimilable to any immanent 'historical' arrangement of these contingent 'givens.' Rather, Jesus lives in and through the contingencies of history as that one whose life of perfect love is entirely coincident with (because entirely given over to) the more and new that God gives to history as God reaches into history from beyond. And precisely here, in this human life, as it comes into view as a life lived in and through the contingencies everywhere surrounding his journey to the cross, Jesus, as this human being, is singularly and unsubstitutively identified as 'God' and 'Lord.' For here on the cross hangs one who entire identity is dependent upon the irruption into history of an event which no immanent concatenation of historical contingencies is able to determine or produce: Jesus' resurrection to new life in the power of the Spirit." (Christ, History, and Apocalyptic, p. 149)

So what the Spirit "repeats" is not simply the finite Jesus as such. The Spirit repeats the finite Jesus whose finite life is what it is only as a total self-giving to the irruption of the Kingdom into history. The identity and non identity of Jesus with this "irruption" or "more" or "excess" has to be worked out in trinitarian terms. Jesus' handing himself over to the irruption or excess of the Kingdom is but the eternal Son's obedience to eternal Father. Likewise, the irruption of the Kingdom into time as that which Jesus is sent to be open to an enact, and which is enacted in Jesus' resurrection from the dead, is simply the eternal Father's begetting of the Son. The distinction between Jesus and the Kingdom he proclaimed and enacted is the intra-trinitarian distinction between the Father and the Son. The Spirit is the repetition or celebration or glorification of this begetting and obedience. Just so, it is a repetition of the "excess" that is internal the Father's begetting of the Son.

So the "excess" I am referring to is an excess internal to God's trinitarian life, which in the incarnation becomes the excess of Jesus' human history. His human history is his self-giving to the Father in the Spirit. Precisely so his life is given over to the excessive gift of new creation that is inaugurated in Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

This is why, for me, revelation is more than a "word event." It is apocalyptic new creation. It is bodily resurrection.

David W. Congdon said...


All of that sounds very interesting, and yet your statements have no logic connecting them. How exactly does any of you've said about "excess," much of which I find borderline incoherent, result in the conclusion: ergo, revelation is not a "word event"? After reading your comment a few times, I think it's a total non sequitur. If there's an argument here, you still need to spell it out. In short, you've done nothing to clarify the notion of "excess." It's still empty verbiage. How exactly does this excess render language and reason incapable? What exactly is your doctrine of revelation? That is what remains obscure in your statements. You should be able to explain your position without once using the words "excess" and "repetition."

Peter Kline said...

Notice that I did not say that revelation is not a word event. I said that is it "more than" a word event. Revelation includes a word event, but it is not exhausted in a word event. The word event is situated within a more encompassing event: the embodied life act of Jesus Christ from the Father in power of the Spirit. Word events are one form that the event of revelation can take as it is enacted in our midst. But there are other forms as well. And all of these forms are dependent on the one embodied life-act of Jesus Christ.

The reason that language and reason are not capable of revelation is not because revelation cannot be spoken or thought. It is because the nature of faith is first and foremost a primal trust in a concrete historical human being, namely, Jesus. Only in the context of such trust can revelation become a word. Now this in and of itself would not render reason and language incapable of revelation. It simply means that reason and language are entirely dependent on an object of faith that originates from beyond the horizon of my consciousness.

Reason and language are incapable of revelation, I want to say, because of the nature of this historical object. As an historical object, Jesus is not open to reason and language in the same way as other historical objects. The reason is because his historical life is sheer self-giving to the Father in the Spirit. His life-act is a bringing to pass of the transcendent Kingdom of God. And this "bringing to pass" includes more than a "bringing to speech." It is not against a "bringing to speech," but "bring to speech" does not exhaust the life-act of Jesus Christ as that which brings to pass the Kingdom of God.

This is my point about the parables. Once Jesus has spoken the parables, once he has brought the Kingdom to speech, there opens before him a further act to accomplish: his embodied self-giving on the cross. And what arises from this embodied self-giving on the cross is not simply the word of the cross, although this does arise. What arises is the "apocalypticization of history." The resurrection does not simply mean that we can now speak the word of the cross, although it does mean that. It means more basically that the very sphere of history has been opened to the coming Kingdom of God, and it is now for us a sphere in which embodied self-giving and action for the neighbor is what we are given to do. This action will always be accompanied by the word of the cross, but just as the cross itself is more than the word of the cross, our very lives of obedience are more than our speaking the word of the cross. Our embodied life-acts of following Jesus await the more of the Kingdom of God that we pray and hope for, just as Jesus self-giving on the cross awaited the more of the Kingdom that was his resurrection from the dead.

Nate Kerr said...

Part I:

I'd like to join others in saying thanks to Peter and Will for these fine contributions and for the conversation that has followed. Aside fram having to take an unsubstantiated jab from David Congdon (whom I also regard highly as a friend and colleague), I've thoroughly enjoyed it.

The late hour forbids me saying too much at this time (which probably means I shouldn't post at all), but if you will, allow me to note a few impressions that struck me in reading through the conversation, which the commenters may confirm or dispute as they will.

(1.) It seems to me that one of the things that Peter is working against in his post and comments is a too "logocentric" or, perhaps better, "logologically" reductive account of incarnation, and this because such an account cannot escape the dangers of a "logomonist" rendering of the incarnation as a trinitarian event. Rather, it seems to me that in wanting to speak of a "trinitarian encounter with humanity in Christ as the site of the revelation of God's mystery," Peter wants to think revelation in such a way as to prioritize the prevenience of the trinitarian act of self-giving love. The point here then would not be to denigrate or to downplay the Word, but rather to insist on the distinctiveness of the Word (and of Jesus) as the second person of the Trinity. The incarnate Word is thus a trinitarian event of revelation insofar as the "Word" (Son) "encloses" (hides) within itself the "mystery" (Father) of God's "free love" (Spirit). Thus, God's trinitarian act of free, self-giving love never occurs apart from or without the Word, but is precisely thereby irreducible to the Word. But this does not render the mystery of God "external" to or "behind" the incarnate Word. In fact, insofar as the mystery of God is "enclosed" (hidden) within God's revelation in Jesus Christ we should perhaps refuse the bifurcation between revelation as an "act which speaks" and a "Word which acts." These are rather the trinitarian and christological inflections, respectively, which are dialectically to be held in tension as we affirm the paradox of a trinitarian act that is at once in excess of of Jesus Christ as the Word of God as also internal to (hidden within) that Word. To say that the Word as such delivers us over to an engaged and embodied action of self-giving to the other that cannot be linguistically controlled or thematized in advance (and requires a certain silence) is in fact not to abandon faithfulness to the Word, but rather precisely to be faithful to the trinitarian event which that Word is (and this by refusing to conceptualize the Word as a mere "speech-act").

(2.) Re. the question of divine ontology. I take such an enterprise more or less to mean an account of the divine life which reasons inferentially from the category of "being" to account for the nature of divine reality. I take it that such an excercise (as Matt Bruce has shown in his comments) cannot but make recourse to a mode of analogy which abstracts from knowledge of creaturely being to speak of the divine reality. Ontology, in the end, renders the analogia entis unavoidable, that is, it renders inescapable at least one conceptual step remoto Christi in order to gain a foothold by which to speak of the divine reality revealed in Christ. In this sense, I'm not convinced ontology can escape the stranglehold of metaphysical abstraction. Now, I do agree that we cannot but help to use the language of "being." But what must occur is a thinking of being otherwise than ontologically. For me, that is to think being doxologically, which occurs as we are given to think the trinitarian event not ontologically but, von Gott aus, kenotically.

Nate Kerr said...

Part II:

(3.) Re. the question of infinity. What if we thought of infinity not as some categorization of the divine essence that is always "beyond" the finite, as in-finity, as the paradoxically eternal enactment of the singular, finite, and contingently limited reality that is Jesus of Nazareth? Infinity, as an operation of God's own eternal life, would thus be an event of boundlessly, limitlessly being given over to love each singular other in all her limitedness and timeliness and contingency. God's in-finity (and our participation therin) is thus God's (and our) freedom for the finite -- because God in Jesus Christ freely lives in the mode of God's own boundless self-giving as and to the finite other, so we are properly finite only as we are made in our finitudethis finite, singular human being Jesus (with all the limitedness and conteingency such entails) is constitutive of in-finity as such. Conceived as such, to be given over to partipation in God's infinity is entirely coincident with being given over ever-anew, eternally, to the encounter with Christ in the strangeness (Fremdartigkeit) of the finite, contingently singular other. The incomprehensibility of the divine essence is "beyond" us not as an abstract "something," but rather as it comes to us and confronts us as always-hidden in the concrete other.

(4.) Finally, as for the "shattering" of reason and language that are said to occur in the coming of the Kingdom, or, the event of the cross: Is this not simply a matter of retaining the reality of God's "No!" that always occurs in the event of God's Word, as the condition of possibility for the hearing of God's "Yes!"? In other words, is not such shattering itself just an event within the event of God's apocalyptic transfiguration of all things in Christ's cross and resurrection? To say that reason and language are "shattered" by the irruption of the kingdom is simply to refuse to shrink from the manifest implications of the fact that the world has been crucified with Christ, and so has no hope of speaking or thinking "God" apart from the resurrection that comes as a free, sheerly contingent gift of God's grace alone.

David W. Congdon said...

Peter & Nate,

Thanks for these comments. I'm very busy with comps, so I can't give as complete a response as I'd like. But I'll say what I can. Let me reiterate that on many points I am in agreement, and thus I debate with you as an ally - with a couple (somewhat significant) points of exception.

Nate, I'm going to address Peter here, but it will indirectly respond to a couple of your points/concerns.

Peter, you write: "Revelation includes a word event, but it is not exhausted in a word event. The word event is situated within a more encompassing event: the embodied life act of Jesus Christ from the Father in power of the Spirit."

I'll tackle this with a couple different points:

1. The concept of "word-event" as employed by the post-Bultmannian tradition does not refer to literal "words" as the sole exclusive form of such events. Ebeling & co. are following the later Heidegger in understanding all reality as a matrix of signs and signifiers in which communication is taking place - with or without actual words being spoken or written. So the reduction here to actual linguistic modes of communication is a misunderstanding on your part.

2. Bultmann and Juengel, in particular, are more nuanced than Ebeling on this issue, in that they do not limit themselves to parabolic speech as the definitive form of a word-event. Both rather focus instead on the self-giving, kenotic act of love in Jesus Christ as the true word-event, such that we participate in the word-event of God through our own acts of neighbor-love. In other words, even if your claims about revelation being more than linguistic touched on Ebeling's work, they certainly do not touch Bultmann or Juengel who make no such reductions.

3. Most importantly - and here I think we come to the crucial point of debate - it is quite simply the case that the Christian is grounded in and defined by words and the Word. Scripture, preaching, proclamation, Jesus as Logos, etc. These are the forms within which the event of God's self-communication takes place. That is, we are bound by the confession of Jesus as Lord to a particular word-event, whether we understand that as scripture or as the kerygma or some other form of communicative relation. That of course does not mean that we can only speak or write about the reign of God - far from it! But it does mean that this apocalyptic event is inherently speakable. It gives itself to us as a divine gift of self-communicative grace. God comes to us in a word here and now, and this word demands to be spoken. In fact, and I cannot stress this enough, the Protestant Reformers rightly realized that the present mode of existence of God is in the form of word. God meets us today as a speech-act, in and through the preaching of the church. Does this mean that God is only found in the institutional walls of the empirical church? No. Does it mean that God only meets us in actual language use? No. But it means that wherever we encounter God, wherever God confronts us with the disruptive event of God's reign, it is intrinsically thinkable and speakable and so open to the hermeneutical-missionary process of interpretation and proclamation. God always confronts us as a positive mystery that demands to be heard and spoken anew.

David W. Congdon said...


Barth understood this well and developed his threefold form of the one Word of God accordingly. Bultmann understood this as well in his doctrine of the kerygmatic Christ. Juengel gets this point as well, in his more Ebeling-like formulations of word-event and parable. But the point is the same: God is an event that commandeers and empowers the proclamation of human beings, calling us to the risky and hazardous task of communicating the word of God to others (whether this involves actual words or not).

Is there more to the life of Jesus than preaching parables? Obviously. But that's not the point. The point is that this Jesus, who certainly did deliver himself over to the Father, meets us here and now primarily as a word-event in the kerygmatic proclamation of forgiveness, but also secondarily in the infinite diversity of our neighbors and enemies. Christ confronts us in the multiplicity of our finite, historical existence – but we can only properly recognize him within this multiplicity in the light of the proclaimed word of the gospel. Thus, even in the strangeness of the neighbor, God remains a word-event, an event of the kingdom that presupposes and provokes the ongoing proclamation of God's message of mercy and love.

David W. Congdon said...


Some brief thoughts in response:

1. My comments in response to Peter address your first and fourth points. I will simply say that it all depends on how you hold the Yes and No together dialectically. I hold it together by insisting that, while God is eternally and wholly an event of divine self-communication as revealed in God's self-giving in the form of the incarnate Word, this word-event never becomes our secure possession such that we could master God and bring God to speech out of our own immanent resources. Instead, God must always give Godself anew to us in order for our speech to conform to the reality of God's advent in Christ. This is the key dialectical insight informing everyone from Barth to Juengel. If there is a priority here, though, it is a priority of the Yes over the No, insofar as God is always in the movement of giving Godself to us, of speaking to us ever anew. We are not overwhelmed by the distance of God but by God's nearness to us, nearer than we are to ourselves. The problem I see in Peter's view (perhaps yours as well?) is that he emphasizes the No over the Yes, that is, he emphasizes the No to our reason and language as being incapable of expressing and interpreting the entirety of the event that is God. But if God is the one who comes to us, who gives Godself to us, then reason and language is not in-itself capable of God, but God makes our limited human resources capable of God's own self through the power of the Spirit. Language is not shattered against the crucified one; rather, the Spirit enables our language to conform to the crucified one ever anew. That is the positive mystery of God's love.

2. While I stood up for Peter earlier, here I must stand up for Matt against your views about ontology. I'm sorry about the earlier jab, but I'm afraid you only confirm my criticism when you play words like "doxological" and "kenotic" off against "ontological." This is the kind of sloppy use of language that I criticized Peter for. You can't simply use these words in place of an argument; their significance and meaning have to be logically defended. I take doxology to mean that we address God as Thou and not as He or It (and thus Bultmann's program of demythologizing is an attempt to doxologize our God-talk!). But if we say in doxological affirmation, "You are holy," we are still making an ontological statement about who God is. The same goes for the statements, "I am a sinner," and the response, "You are forgiven." These declaratives have ontological significance (or "ontic" significance, if we follow Bultmann). To play doxology off against ontology is no answer to the problem.

Also, your rejection of analogy is really only a rejection of certain kinds of analogy. It most definitely has nothing to do with Barth's analogia fidei, at least if this is properly understood as God's self-giving in a concrete speech-event and not as our abstraction from given creaturely realities.

3. I don't have a problem with your redefinition of infinity, with the sole exception of your use of the word "incomprehensibility." If by "incomprehensible" we mean that the mystery of God is not an object that we have at our disposal, then it's certainly correct. But this is just a limit concept in theology. If it means, however, that God is intrinsically in Godself incomprehensible, such that God is defined in contrast to the comprehensibility of finite realities, then you have simply extrapolated from our human limitations in order to arrive at a metaphysical definition of God. So God's incomprehensibility is a statement about our own limitations as sinners estranged from God, not about God's being as somehow intrinsically inaccessible to human reason and speech.

Peter Kline said...


Thanks for your comments here. I think they allow the conversation to move forward somewhat.

If what you (and Bultmann et al) mean by "word-event" is that revelation is always meaningful, that is always divine self-communication, that God always encounters us as Person, and not as sheer force, then I am totally on board. Perhaps I've been assuming a too narrow definition of "word event." I am happy to be corrected about this.

Maybe it would help if I said that the kind of incomprehensibility I want to articulate is not epistemological but ethical. It is the kind of incomprehensibility resident in an act of total self-giving. In a real sense, finite creatures do not have categories or concepts to describe what an act of total self-giving involves. All we know in our creaturely sphere is a kind of self-giving in which we must hold something back. When God comes to us as an event of utter self-giving, in which God's self simply is the act of giving that self, this cannot be captured in any of our categories. It is a mystery. But not because God remains aloof or beyond, but because God is so intensely close.

Let me quote again those lines from Barth in my essay. It is the ethical incomprehensibility of God that Barth is here trying to capture: “What is the meaning of the mystery of the freedom of this divine work? The will of God in His grace knows no Wherefore. God’s decision is grounded in His good-pleasure, and for that reason it is inexplicable to us” (CD 2/2, 30). “Where we see what has actually happened in His Son, there can be no question of understanding how the condescension of God acts. We can only know and worship its actuality” (CD 1/2, 34).

So yes, God meets us in the proclamation of the Word. But the content of that Word is an incomprehensible act of divine self-giving. Which means that the obedience of faith which that Word creates in us is one characterized by a self-giving on our part that is also in some sense incomprehensible. It is incomprehensible because it is carried along by the mystery of God's love. It calls us to works of love we never thought possible. It produces in us "groanings too deep for words." Will this groanings always surface in proclamation? Yes. But that proclamation will be of a possibility unknown to us on the horizon of our experience.

Nate Kerr said...


I hardly have any time at all right now, but I will respond to your point 2 re. the ontological:

What I was trying politely too suggest is that it is you and Matt who are perhaps using the word "ontology" too loosely here. Ontology is not merely a matter of using "is" language, of speaking in terms of predication, or even of the facticity of things. Ontology properly considered is to render an account of reality (whether in general or of any particular thing) by way of conceptual recourse to some notion of the Being of beings. Talk of the "being" of God, or even of "beings" does not in-itself arise to the level of ontology: it does so, however, whereever there is involved a prior or lateral conceptualization for the purposes of accounting for the Being of that being. This is why ontology always requires at least one moment of metaphysical abstraction.

Now, I'm more comfortable with a kind of positive affirmation of onticity or facticity or singularity of the other that does not reduce to ontology.

To say that such a postive affirmation can only occur theologically in the mode of doxology is to say that these others can only be related to in their singularity and facticity and onticity as we are given over to them in the mode of participation in God's self-giving love -- God's doxa.

Now, one last point, for the sake of dialogue itself. Just because in the space of a comment box one gestures to how one might think otherwise than is predominantly being suggested (as I did with my reference to "doxology" and "kenosis") does not mean that one is necessarily being sloppy with their words.

That could be the case. But it could also be that the point of the comment was to make a negative case and merely to gesture towards one's positive alternative. That does not mean that positive alternative is not well thought out or cannot be articulated. It only means that it hasn't been so articulated in the given comment box. So in the future, in the future, if you'd like me to say more, just ask me to say more. That is, it seems to me, how conference dialogues are to go, when thoughts are often on display only in a series of fractured interjections and responses.

David W. Congdon said...


That's fair enough, but if a productive dialogue is going to take place, one has to begin with the clear, straightforward statements and only then go on to use the technical terminology, neologisms, and verbiage that function as shorthand.

As for your understanding of ontology, surely you must realize that Matt and I are speaking of a theological ontology, and therefore not at all about ontology in the crudely Heideggerian sense of ontotheology. That is to say, we are not talking about an abstract, general account of the being of God. We are speaking about who God concretely is in God's own trinitarian life as this life is revealed to faith in the historicity of Jesus Christ. Here it is very instructive to remember Jüngel's words about Barth in God's Being Is in Becoming (a book which addresses almost all of our disagreements):

"After what has been said about revelation as God's self-interpretation, it is clear that, in Barth's talk of God's being, the concept of being is not used in the sense of a general doctrine of being. Barth's Dogmatics makes ontological statements all the way through. But this dogmatics is not an ontology; at least not in the sense of a doctrine of being drawn up on the basis of a general ontological conception within which the being
of God (as highest being, as being-itself, etc.) would be treated in its place. Barth directs strong protest to the 'threatened absorption of the doctrine of God into a doctrine of being,' from which he certainly does not exempt Protestant orthodoxy. Yet he does not shy away from making ontological statements. All statements about the knowledge of God and thus about God's being-as-object possess a thoroughly ontological character."

In other words, if doxological speech means that we only speak about God's "being" as part of our participation in God's self-giving love (i.e., within the life of faith), then we are all in agreement. But that does not mean we don't still have a theological ontology. We still speak about the ontology of God, even if this divine being is not some general, abstract concept. In short, we are working within the analogia fidei rather than the analogia entis. The use of "fidei" or "entis" makes all the difference; to reduce it to a problem with analogy is simply unacceptable.

David W. Congdon said...


Yes, you were indeed operating with a much too narrow view of "word event." I think further reading in Juengel and others will quickly bear that out.

I'm in substantial agreement with you. But I want to point out again that you are criticizing something which is not at all on the table. In short, you are attacking a straw man that has nothing to do with me, Barth, Bultmann, or Juengel. This becomes very clear in the final words of your last comment. You write: "But that proclamation will be of a possibility unknown to us on the horizon of our experience.

The last phrase is crucial. Everyone who follows the dialectical revolution in theology is in agreement that revelation speaks of something that transcends, that exceeds, the immanent confines of our experience. That is pretty much the definition of dialectical theology. That is the No. But there is a corresponding and far more important Yes: that when God wills to meet us in the word, in Jesus Christ, what is possible only for God becomes possible for humanity. We may indeed know, think, and speak of God. This is not a possibility resident within some immanent given; it comes to us purely as gift, as divine self-bestowal. And yet it happens. It indeed comes, because God comes to us. God reaches out to us in the advent of the Word, and this becomes an event of ever new possibilities for thinking and speaking. As Juengel puts it, this event brings language to its proper essence. It commandeers language so that our broken, fallible, finite speech truly bears witness to God.

So I hear your No, and it's important. But you need to envelop this No within the more decisive and divinely eloquent Yes. God's kenotic encounter with humanity in the cross is also at the same time our plerotic participation in God's overflowing self-communication.

I'd like to recommend that you read Juengel's essay on "Metaphorical Truth," if you haven't done so. It addresses the new possibilities that God grants human language in light of revelation.

Nate Kerr said...


I'll respond to the ontology stuff more thoroughly later tonight when I have more time. I'm sure you can imagine, though, that I'm not convinced that Jungel's characterization of the issue resolves the problematic, for me. Jungel's equivocal use of the term "ontology" in the passage you quote is itself part of the problem. No doubt Barth is rejecting the kind of ontological talk of God in terms of the general category of Being that Jungel insists he is. The problem is that Barth then goes on to make ontological statements as such -- as I argued in my book, his actualistic theo-ontology forces Barth into altogether different mode of abstraction, viz., from the ongoing particularities of history in the singularity of each particular's contingent otherness. For me, a theological ontology does not overcome the onto-theological problematic; it rather inverts it.

But I do want to say that the only mode of analogy that I have yet to reject in this conversation is a mode of analogy that abstracts from knowledge of creaturely being to account for the divine reality. That is, I have only rejected what might properly be called one form of the analogia entis. I have not even raised the issue of the analogia fidei and have not reduced the problem of ontology to a problem with analogy as such. So I would appreciate if you'd read my posts closely enough to refrain from attributing to me either statements I have not made or positions I have not purported to hold.

David W. Congdon said...


I apologize if I've misspoken. I don't mean to misconstrue what you're saying, and I certainly want to retain you as an ally. We share common theological opponents, and it's important not to lose sight of this.

But I want to remind you of what you said earlier: "I take it that such an excercise (as Matt Bruce has shown in his comments) cannot but make recourse to a mode of analogy which abstracts from knowledge of creaturely being to speak of the divine reality. Ontology, in the end, renders the analogia entis unavoidable, that is, it renders inescapable at least one conceptual step remoto Christi in order to gain a foothold by which to speak of the divine reality revealed in Christ."

Whether you intended to or not, this statement effectively means that Barth's analogia fidei, which results in a theological ontology, is inescapably a form of analogia entis. That is, by accusing Matt of holding to a form of analogy of being, you inevitably declare the analogy of faith guilty of the same ontological abstraction. Is this not what you intended? If I misread you, I'm sorry; but I do hope you can see how I came to that conclusion.

As for Barth, you already know that I don't think your chapter on Barth reads him correctly. To be more specific, I think you're wrong about the first abstraction but right about the second. But this is territory we've covered in person, though I'm happy to rehearse it here if you wish.

Peter Kline said...


Somehow you think I have launched a full scale attack on Bultmann, Juengel, Ebling, the entire dialectical school and Protestant theology itself. Please remember that this all began as a post about Karl Barth and Robert Jenson. You are the one who brought Bultmann et al into this. I have raised questions about the limitations of the category "word event," but I am in no way trying to overturn thinkers who use this category. Bultmann and Juengel are not really in my sights. My real target is Jenson's metaphysical use of narrative. I am trying to articulate a constructive position of my own, and I feel as though you keep shoving me back into your own categories. You are reading my posts as attacks on your figures when they are not that. Perhaps one reason you find what I am saying to be "incoherent" and "sloppy" is because you have yet to put aside your own categories and listen charitably and imaginatively to what I am trying to say.

Now, I am extremely grateful for the interaction so far. I really am. I have learned a lot. But it would be helpful if you did not too quickly assume that I am trying to overturn your project. I'm not.

David W. Congdon said...


I'm sorry you feel that way. But if you look back through the comments, you'll see that your statement isn't accurate. Yes, I brought up Jüngel, and mentioned Bultmann and Ebeling in passing, but the notion of word-event didn't once come up until you wrote:

"I want to challenge the Bultmann/Juengel emphasis on revelation as a word event. I think it places the emphasis in the wrong place."

Prior to this statement, I spoke about my own project only in response to Matt and in defense of your position. I think that's worth remembering.

Peter Kline said...


My comment was in response to this comment of yours: "But I want to point out again that you are criticizing something which is not at all on the table. In short, you are attacking a straw man that has nothing to do with me, Barth, Bultmann, or Juengel." You then go on to explain how the "dialectical revolution" is not touched by my "criticism."

The point is, I wasn't directing criticism to anyone in the dialectical school. I was elaborating on what I mean when I say that revelation is incomprehensible. You overlook all my substantive comments and interpret the last sentence as an attack on the whole dialectical school, which it isn't.

I am not really interested in defining my position over against anyone at this point, except perhaps Jenson, at certain points. I am happy to have my position overlap with Bultmann or whoever. Again, as I said, if Bultmann's concept of "word event" is broad enough to include what I am talking about, so much the better.

To more substantive matters: the incomprehensibility of divine revelation, I want to say, is not simply a "No" that needs to be dialectically balanced with a comprehensible "Yes." The "Yes" itself is what is incomprehensible. The revealed God is the hidden God. Which means that God is not incomprehensible in that God does not have concrete content. God's content is always and only the finite Jesus. But this finite, human Jesus is that event in which the eternal God gives Godself without reserve. Knowing this giving without reserve is, as I said in my blog essay, not an act of thought that corresponds to Being but an act of will that corresponds to Love. This is not to say that there is no content given to thought. There is, namely, Jesus. And what we will in Love is concrete, namely, Jesus. What I mean by prioritizing Love and will over Being and thought is what Kierkegaard meant by prioritizing the passion of faith over the speculation of reason. Faith is enacted in the existential encounter with the love of God that sends me to my neighbor. As I understand you, Bultmann says this too (at leas the last sentence).

David W. Congdon said...


Yes, you're right, Bultmann definitely says that. But I would want to insist equally, here with Barth et al., that the will-love trajectory does not compete with the reason-being trajectory. In other words, I am uncomfortable with prioritizing either over the other. We are given to know the being of God at the same time that we are delivered over to the act of self-giving love for the neighbor.

Nate Kerr said...


That's a fair enough interpretation of what I said with regard to Matt. I should have perhaps been clearer in saying that insofar as the analogia fidei is deployed in such a way as to suggest that knowledge of revelation occurs and is mediated by analogy to created being, that indeed the analogia fidei is deployed in such a way as inevitably to entail an analogia entis. This is what I take Matt to be saying. He may correct me if I am wrong.

This is not a rejection of analogy as such, nor even of the analogia fidei as such. It is rather a rejection of the kind of reading of the analogia fidei that is inevitably made to entail an analogia entis. I think Barth is problematic here, and also not entirely consistent (I know, I know, I need to substantiate my concerns here and probably read Keith Johnson's book before doing so). Suffice it to say that I do think there is a way to think the analogia fidei that does not reduce to a theological ontology. Whether or not does this is a different question altogether, which I am pretty sure cannot be adequately settled within the space of blog comment boxes. In short, my concern here in this particular conversation is not with analogy per se, nor with the analogia fidei, but with any deployment of these that is made to smuggle the analogia entis in through the back door (which is what I think "theological ontology" does).

Now, I still need to address the question of "theological ontology," and to the extent I've done that in my critique of Barth's actualistic ontology in my book I'll let that stand. I take your disagreement with my reading of Barth. However, what I would like to suggest is that any theological ontology that abstracts from the particularities of ongoing history is actually to have gotten Jesus wrong, having transcendentalized his particularity in a way that abstracts from the manner in which Jesus is the man that he is for others as the man that is given to be received ever anew as God in the ongoing particularites of history. To abstract from these ongoing particularities is to abstract from the way in which the human being Jesus continues to give himself to be received ever-anew in the ongoing apocalypticization of history. My argument is that Barth's particular theological ontologization of Jesus' particular history is at the heart of the problem of his abstraction of God's being-in-act from the ongoing particularities of history. I take it from our conversations that while you agree with my point as to this second mode of abstraction in Barth, you disagree as to my analysis of the source of this problem as rooted in Barth's theological ontologization of Jesus' particularity. I'd be interested in your own account of what you take to be the source of this problematic abstraction in Barth. Presumably if, on your reading, I am wrong about the abstraction from Jesus' particularity but right about the abstraction from the ongoing particularities of history, then you redress the problematic differently than do I. I'd be interested in how you redress the problematic on which we agree.

Finally, you need not be concerned about losing me as a theological ally. I would just ask that we assume in good faith that each one of us is working towards clarification of one's position in response to questions and calls for revision and rethinking, and I suggest that we try as much as possible to stick with such honest questions and calls for clarification as the modus operandi of blog discourse. I, for one, am more likely to stay engaged and remain patient with my interlocutors if that is the case.

Peter Kline said...

To grant a priority to will/love over thought/being is not to make them competitive; it is to put them in an ordered relationship. I want to say the human beings are first willing and desiring creatures and only because of that thinking and reasoning creatures. These aspects are not temporal or sequential to each other. They exist simultaneously in an ordered relationship. Again, I simply want to make the Augustinian point that to know God's being is to be enraptured by God's beauty, which is God's outgoing love.

The priority of love here is finally why our speech about "being" should not be "ontological," that is, situated within an abstract account of the whole of reality. Because the love of Jesus for each singular other is what constitutes reality, there is no ontological structure that can be abstracted from Jesus' singular giving to particular others. All that exists are the ontic determinations that occur in the repetitions of Jesus' singular self giving love. We cannot abstract from these ontic determinations to arrive at an ontological structure. The ontic determinations are all there are.

David W. Congdon said...


An ordered relation is perfectly acceptable, but throughout our conversation you have consistently argued for an "excess" beyond reason/language, i.e., a place where reason/language cannot go and thus must become silent. If you mean to retract that notion that simply affirm an ordering, so that the way into language is through love, then I have absolutely no problem at all - I would agree wholeheartedly.

As for the ontic/ontological bit, I am pretty much in full agreement, except that I want to insist that we do not reduce the notion of "ontology" to "ontological structure." So I think we can speak of a divine ontology, but this is no structure of being but the radically actualistic and missionary movement of God in the world.

David W. Congdon said...


I agree with you that the ontologization of Jesus' singular historicity is the source of the problem, but only in a certain direction. That is to say, I think Barth was correct to "ontologize" Jesus vertically but wrong to ontologize horizontally. I use scare quotes on the first usage, because I don't think the vertical ontologization involves any abstraction from the particularities of Jesus' concrete historicity, though the latter, horizontal ontologization most certainly does.

To restate: I think Barth correctly sees that the being of God is concretely and historically defined as the actualized, missionary being of Jesus in time and space. God simply is this concrete, historical event as it unfolds through the empowering presence of the Spirit. The triune being of God is not a transcendental abstraction from this history, but rather it is this history as it unfolds within the contingencies of concrete human existence. Where Barth went astray was in his attempt to oppose people like Bultmann by making this singular historicity the history of all humanity. Barth abstracted from this specific historical event in order to ensure that all humanity was included in its reconciling scope. So while he had the right intentions, he had the wrong execution.

To restate once more in the form of election: Barth was right to allow election of Jesus Christ to define the being of God, but he was wrong to make it define the being of humanity.

mjbruce said...

I noticed this morning that this conversation is still going on and since my name keeps popping up and Nate has done me the service of inviting me to correct his interpretation of my comments, I will do so.

1. Humans can only speak or think with human language; thinking without words does not occur. Our access both to the outside worlds and ourselves is entirely linguistic.
2. Human language has developed to refer to things that human beings have direct experience of, i.e. objects of the created or material world.
3. God is not of the created, material world.
4. But God speaks (Deus dixit, dicit, et dicet to make David happy) and acts in the created, material world.
5. When God speaks and acts in the created world he does so in such a way that human beings can refer to his speech and action. (If he acts in other ways or speaks to other creatures, we can’t know about it and thus can’t refer to it, i.e. we have no epistemological access.)
a. This means that God himself uses human words when he speaks to us.
b. And when God acts and since human beings only have access to God within the created world and only have human language with which to refer, human beings can only speak and think of God with human language
6. But because human language has developed to refer to objects of the created world, and God is not an object of the created world, how exactly then our language refers to God is unknown to us.
7. But that it does do so is something we must either trust that God has achieved, or else knowledge of God is impossible for humans.
8. We can thus say this: When we say for e.g. God is wise, we know that this does not mean that God is wise in the same way as a grandfather is wise, but it is something like it.
9. I call this “something like” analogy, and I think it is rightly described as an analogia entis inside an analogia fidei.
a. This needs explanation. A pure analogia entis would intend that since God created the world we can proceed by analogy to God directly by means of objects in the created world.
b. An analogia fidei intends that God makes himself known by means of human language and does so such that he is in control of the analogy. Language refers to created objects first and only by analogy to God, so there is in a particular sense an analogia entis. But how this analogy works is under God’s control and only operates with in the realm of faith, i.e. we trust God that the analogy is true; we do not establish the basis or veracity of the analogy.
c. see Keith’s book!
10. Questions of whether or not revelation is a historical given, or is ongoing, or of whether or not “any theological ontology that abstracts from the particularities of ongoing history,” are besides the point. Either language about God refers to God in some way analogous to the way it refers to objects of the material world or else one of two other things are going on: 1) it does not refer to God at all, or 2) it refers in a way that is not analogous, i.e. in a way that is fundamentally discordant with how language refers to created objects.
11. If options 1) or 2) in thesis 10 are correct then God is thus fundamentally unknowable, at least in this world this side of the eschaton. Thus there must some minimal degree of an analogia entis albeit one contained in an analogia fidei if we are to have knowledge of God in the here and now.
12. This is where I find folks like Jüngel or (less so but still) Gunton so helpful. If this is the case, if God is fundamentally unknowable, then I think the responsible thing to do is quit being both a theologian and a Christian; atheism seems the intellectual and moral high ground. Basically, if I came to the conclusion that Peter (and it seems Nate, though I’m not sure) I would see no other responsible option then to abandon my faith: if I didn’t, it would be either the Holy Spirit who kept me in the church or the fact that I’ve now devoted 10 some odd years to theological education and I am pot-committed.

Peter Kline said...

"Basically, if I came to the conclusion that Peter (and it seems Nate, though I’m not sure) I would see no other responsible option then to abandon my faith."

Are you serious!? I'm baffled by this. After reading my essay and all my comments do you really think that the morally responsible thing for me to do is abandon my faith? Do you really think my position leads inevitably to atheism or agnosticism?

This is absurd. And it is precisely the kind of thing I was getting after David about. You have not taken the time to understand what I am trying to say and instead import all kinds nonsense into what I am saying. I readily acknowledge that my position needs clarification and fleshing out. This is precisely what I am trying to do with these comments. But you don't seem interested in helping me to do that. You want to take the easy way out and claim that my position is just nonsense and that I might as well stop being a Christian and a theologian. I am offended by these suggestions and don't understand how they could have come from one of my friends.

W. Travis McMaken said...


I don't think Matt was trying to tell you to become an atheist; rather, he was trying to explain his thinking and why your position looks to him to be one where such a change would be the responsible move. The fundamental difference here is that the former interpretation reads it as a slur on your intellectual character, while the latter reads it as honest concern for you and an attempt to help you think through some of the implications to your position.

mjbruce said...


You ask two questions. My answer to the first is, “No.” To the second, “Yes.”

You accuse me of not taking the time to understand you and of importing nonsense into what you are saying. You acknowledge readily that your position needs clarification and fleshing out. And then you accuse me of not wanting to help you do that. In short, you read my post as an ad hominem attack on you as a human being and child of God. It is not. I am forcefully rejecting a theological argument that I think undermines faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is something that I understand you as seeking to defend, I have endeavored to point out how I think your particular argument in this case does not.

My aim all a long has in fact been to help you clarify your position. I do think your position as it stands, or at least as I currently understand it, leads to the conclusion that human beings in this life can have no knowledge of God at all. I have pointed out why I think your position leads to this conclusion. I don’t want you to take the easy way out. I pray that you remain a disciple of Jesus Christ. But right now, as I have attempted and will continue to attempt to understand you, the only way I can see you can do that is to maintain belief in Christ in opposition to the conclusion to which your argument leads.

Peter – I am not out to make a fool out of you. You can take that on faith or choose not to. I am not attacking Peter Kline, I am disagreeing with an argument that Peter Kline has made. I take it that this is what this conference is about, to argue theologically about positions put forth. The reason I have not replied for several days is that I have been thinking about this, and thinking hard. I have made the attempt to understand you. What I have understood, perhaps errantly, has upset me. To be frank it makes me worried for you, someone who I continue to consider a friend and colleague, and also about the students you will one day teach.

I humbly and respectfully ask you to enter into dialogue with me as a Christian brother, to show me how my argument does not apply to your position, and in that light to correct me. Help me understand you better. Reason together with me. This is what I intended to do for you: to show you how I understand your argument and what I think it leads to. So far you have dodged or ignored much of the substance of the questions put to you. I felt the need to be firm in order to get your attention.

With all sincerity,

Matthias Gockel said...

David (and Nate, implicitly),

thank you for your reply. I want to add a few comments (belatedly but hopefully still of interest).

The similarities between Barth and Bultmann were something that Jüngel’s earlier writings emphasized. Jüngel tried to mediate between the two, since he had learned from both. And I think he was right. At the same time, one has to keep in mind that Bultmann was not really interested in Barth’s dogmatic theology (he hardly read it) and that the students of Bultmann’s often took a posture of having “overcome” Barth. So, the ‘Barthian’ response was to assume there is not much common ground or, in fact, to regard the two positions as mutually exclusive.

In your reply, you clarify the relation between faith and love. I would like to push our discussion a bit further and take up this comment of yours:

“The pro me, which I have no intention of over-emphasizing, is only meant to acknowledge that the act of faith is a personal and individual act. No one can believe for me, which is why the Reformers rejected the Catholic doctrine of "implicit faith."”

I probably should have mentioned in my first comment that, for the Reformers and for Bultmann too, the ‘pro me’ is, first and foremost, a soteriological category. So the alternative of ‘pro me’ and ‘pro ceteris’ is not quite correct. ‘Pro me’ (or ‘pro nobis’) says something not about the situation of the encounter with God’s word but about the ‘content’ of this encounter: justification by faith alone.

Now if one puts justification by faith alone in the center, one can easily disregard other important aspects of faith. This is where Sölle’s critique comes in, and it is a critique that concerns not only Bultmann but also many other Protestant theologians. Barth also was wary of the Lutheran focus on justification, although his own understanding of faith was for a while very similar, as we can see in the Göttingen Dogmatics. In fact, this position of Barth’s fits nicely with this comment of yours:

“But neither is faith a past-tense occurrence that we can look back upon with a kind of security. Faith is never behind us but always before us; the word of God is spoken anew to me here and now. I am continually placed in the position of having to hear God's gracious judgment today. So we come to know the reality of God in and through the justifying word of the cross, that is, through our encounter with the kerygmatic Christ in the Spirit.”

What you say here sounds very actualistic: the word of God encounters us in the here and now, and the decision of faith is made in the moment of this encounter. My overall impression is that you elaborate on this position and refine it, while you reject certain moves that Barth later made.

Matthias Gockel said...


Hence, you criticize Barth himself precisely for being too abstract, when you say in your latest reply to Nate Kerr:

“Where Barth went astray was in his attempt to oppose people like Bultmann by making this singular historicity the history of all humanity. Barth abstracted from this specific historical event in order to ensure that all humanity was included in its reconciling scope. So while he had the right intentions, he had the wrong execution.”

Am I right to say that your critique (and Nate’s criticism too) is a sophisticated version of Brunner’s (rather heavy-handed) critique against Barth’s ‘eternalizing’ of (or ‘abstracting’ from) history in general and the history of Jesus in particular?

Then, what exactly do you mean by “right intentions”? I would say that Barth’s main intention was to say unambiguously that God reconciled the world with Himself in Jesus Christ and that this has occurred once-and-for-all. I sense that you agree with the claim that all humanity is included in this event, while you disagree with Barth’s elaboration on this claim.

Or would you say that the reality of reconciliation is dependent on our acts of neighborly love (as Bultmann said that the reality of reconciliation depends on our decision, that is, our acceptance or non-acceptance of the kerygma)?

ken oakes said...

I would like to add one other question to Matthias's comments

David said, 'To restate once more in the form of election: Barth was right to allow election of Jesus Christ to define the being of God, but he was wrong to make it define the being of humanity.'

My question is whether you can have just one half of Barth's doctrine of election (JC as true God) and still call it (or even appeal to) Barth's doctrine of election (without JC as true man).

Granted this is a blog, so brief comments are the norm, but I am wondering what you think is left of Barth's doctrine of election without the second, neccessary claim that the humanity of Jesus Christ is determinative (ontologically) for each and every human.

Peter Kline said...


You said that if you came to the conclusions that I had, then you would consider it the morally responsible thing to do to quit being a Christian and a theologian. This is not an attack on my argument, it is a direct attack on me as a person, on the integrity with which I hold my positions. You seem to think that, given my position, the only reason I am remain a Christian is because the Holy Spirit is saving me from my theology. Again, this has nothing to do with my argument, this has everything to do with me as a person.

I also resent your incredibly patronizing comment about my "future students." Again, nothing to do with my argument, everything to do with my integrity as a thinker and teacher.

Matt, whatever your intentions are, these comments are hurtful. What you need to realize is that you can't so easily separate me as a person from me as a theologian. This is who I am. When you attack my arguments in the way you have, you touch directly on me as a person.

This will be my last comment on this thread. I have explained my position enough, it is time to move on to other things.

Will Barnett said...

I haven't been able to keep up with this thread due to the ethical excess of my own life ;). But I do want to say @ Peter that your paper and the position you articulate are both creative and challenging: I think these issues about the proper ordering of being and will, the tension between Augustinian/Kierkegaardian and Hegelian accounts of subjectivity, are at the heart of nearly all theologizing we do right now. Thanks for challenging me to think in new ways, especially in regards to Jenson. I lament that somewhere in this process good, constructive conversation seems to have lost its proper character.

David W. Congdon said...

Matthias & Ken,

Thanks for the very stimulating comments. I'll respond to you at the same time.

Matthias, you're right that there is a soteriological point that I didn't address, but in order for me to respond adequately to that question, I would need to write my dissertation! In fact, what I hope to argue there is a way of thinking soteriology that mediates between Barth and Bultmann. Before I say more about this and the revision to Barth's doctrine of election that I hope to carry out, I do want to say that I agree with Bultmann and Juengel with making the doctrine of justification the heart of Christian faith and theology. I also agree with Juengel when he argues that Barth was misguided when he said that christology, and not justification, is the heart of theology. The two are one and the same. On this point, I agree with Bultmann very strongly (and I think Barth was essentially saying the same thing): christology and soteriology are two ways of speaking about the same thing. There is no "special christology" as if person could be separated from the saving work. Rather, I want to say that the saving significance of Jesus is constitutive of his personhood. Only in this way do we thorough demetaphysicize christology.

So yes, I am arguing for a thoroughly actualistic conception of Jesus Christ and the reconciliation accomplished in him. I do not agree with Brunner's criticism, since I take McCormack's line of thinking to be correct about Barth. However, as I understand Brunner, his criticism concerns the "vertical" relation between Jesus and God, not the "horizontal" relation between Jesus and humanity. (Which is to say, Nate's first criticism of Barth in his book is, I think, simply a rehash of Brunner.)

The problem I have with Barth and almost all Barthians is the tendency to think in terms of subject and object. That is to say, if salvation is not "objective" and so already accomplished for all people in Christ, then it must be "subjective" and so actualized in our own decisions of faith. Now, I used to be a Barthian universalist in the sense that I strongly upheld the objective-salvation line of thinking. But Bultmann (as well as Nate et al.) have helped me to rethink my position. What I want to say now is a kind of sublation of these two poles of thinking, and the agent of this sublation beyond objective and subjective is precisely the Holy Spirit.

First, a clarification: I am not going the route of Jenson and others who want to make the Spirit a second reconciling agent in addition to Christ. I intend to work within Barth's doctrine of God, not against it. But it's crucial, in my view, to see the Spirit as working within the Christ-event, and not merely as the one who awakens people to a past reconciliation that has already occurred. Put differently, I want to say that the Spirit repeats the work of Christ in every new time and place, and that this repetition connects with our concrete historicity without requiring our conscious affirmations of faith to be the vehicle for our salvation. I have a fuller account of this that I'm developing, but I don't want to lay it all out here. I'll simply say for now that I want to appropriate and revise Bonhoeffer's notion of "unconscious Christianity."

As for election, the implications should be clear. I don't want to jettison the notion that Jesus is the true human being, but I want to replace the metaphysical notion of an assumptio carnis in which we all participate in this humanity "objectively" with a pneumatic-actualistic mode of participation wherein the true humanity of Jesus is repeated ever anew for us.

So, Ken, I don't claim that this is Barth's doctrine (clearly it isn't), but that doesn't concern me because I feel no need to stay within Barth's framework. I want to think beyond Barth, but I also believe that I am working alongside and with him, and not against him.

David W. Congdon said...


I'm sorry you feel alienated and hurt. That certainly isn't my intention or anyone else's. I respect your work greatly, and I think we have a lot in common. I apologize for anything I've said that's upset you.

That said, I do think you are working with too many false dichotomies and oversimplifications. Even if it's not your intention, you've been defining yourself over against people and positions in ways that are inaccurate or at least unhelpful. If I've misread you, then please correct me. I've endeavored to understand your position, and by and large I am in agreement. But there remain a few very key areas that I think are deeply problematic.

Matt and I have pointed out the most significant issue: viz. the ability to know and speak about God. Your position seems to strongly suggest that you do not have a way to fully account for a theological epistemology/ontology. Christian theology needs to have some way to account for this. Without it, there's not much hope for Christian dogmatics. I'm not saying you have to embrace Hegel, and I don't think you have to reject your overall position. I just think you need to allow for a paradoxical identity where you seem to insist on a disjunction. That's all.

I wish you the best in your studies, and I hope we can continue this dialogue for years to come.

All the best,

scott said...


I just wanted to comment on where I think part of the discord occurs between Matt's logical enumeration of his view, and the position (insofar as it is a shared one) Peter/Nate are working with.

Matt, there seems (to me at least) to be as much logical slippage in your list as in anything Peter (or Nate) has said. I feel the discrepancy most in how you begin (#)1 and your main point (10). Your founding claim (1) makes all human thought and speech an intra-linguistic reality, and you drive the point home by saying there is no thought without words. Now, I agree with the latter as far it goes, but the way you set up the entire problematic (i.e., in terms of the reliability of conceptual reference to God beyond-the-world) seems to me to elide entirely the nuances Peter/Nate have been trying to develop regarding the function of "ontology" and "analogy" for Christian theology. One way to put the charge is to say that while it may be true that all thought/speech is mediated by language, language is not all there is. It thus does not follow that "our access both to the world outside worlds/ourselves is entirely lingustitic". The very distinction between "world/ourselves" and language implies the possibility of non- (or least extra-)linguistic modes of relation to whatever is "external" to "us". This may mean that theology has to speak about multiple forms of "knowledge" of both creaturely and divine reality (if analogy need reign supreme here, too), but it at least implies your founding claim presumes too much when it moves from "humans only speak/think with language" to the second half of 1 -- that all "access" to reality "is entirely lingustic". If there are other forms of human "access"/knowledge to reality (creaturely or divine), then your teasing out of this opening claim in points 2-9 -- which mention the theological need for both divine speech and action, but nonetheless ends up focussing solely on the problematic of how human language itself is the primary medium of divine "speech" -- is at best only a partial account of why knowledge of God requires "analogy" (fidei or entis). Worse, it is perhaps entirely off the mark, because it presumes that some of what must be said (in terms of divine speech/ the trustworthiness of conceptual "reference") captures the whole reality of the God-world relation, and determines the whole question of the form of human "knowledge" of God.

scott said...

[2 of 2]

I think this foreshortening of the relevant issues, by casting the whole question of knowledge of God in these terms, has everything to do with your big claim in 10 -- that "whether revelation is a historical given, or is ongoing, or [re: Nate's claim] that whether or not 'any theological ontological...abstracts from the ongoing particularities of history'" is beside the point. These things may not matter if the only issue is the philosophical problem of how (fallen) creaturely words can reliably refer to a transcendent reality; but if the "split" that the coming of the divine Word overcomes is itself part of material reality, and is a split humans enact and perpetuate not just in conceptual knowledge but also in the very form of their being-in and relation to embodied others and/or the material world, then all proper lingustic "reference" to God is itself situated in a wider context in which the Word must needs be actively present, in an ongoing way, for genuine "revelation" to occur.

I take this to be part of what Peter is getting at with his prioritization of the ethical, and part of what Nate was getting at with his remarks about "logological" accounts of the reality of Christ needing a kind of (finally Trinitarian) balance by emphasis on the kenotic form of the divine Word itself.

Even though I think your logical slippage may have disastrous theological consequences, I don't think your ideas are all that matter -- so I won't accuse you of potential heresy.

mjbruce said...

Again in 2 Parts: Part 1


First of all thanks for you response.

My primary concern is the question: Is it possible for humans to think and speak about God, such that our “words” actually refer to God in a meaningful way, i.e. in a way that we can have some small inkling of understanding about who God is. We have to answer this question in the affirmative if we are to do theology at all. I take it we agree on this?

By “words” or “language” I do not simply mean oral expression, I include e.g. pictures under such a category; in short any expressive human action that communicates something either to another or to oneself falls under this category. And I take all the blame that I was not clear in this regard. The simple point I am trying to get clear on is that we use expressive actions to refer to God that we also use to refer to created things, perhaps better put, non-divine things, both real and non-real (by the later I mean e.g. ideas we might have about spaceships that don’t actually exist). Human expressions (be they pictoral, linguistic, or what have you) are all we have got.

Now I fully admit, that in so far as we use such expressions to refer to God, the way in which they refer and what exactly they mean is not straightforward. We have to admit that something unique is going on when we depict God with human expressions and will also admit that we don’t quite know what is going on. The phrase “beside the point” was not intended to dismiss “ontological” “ethical” or “logological” and such problematics entirely. Rather my point was to insist that before we go on to talk about these problematics we must first agree that either we use our human expressive abilities to refer to God in some way that is not entirely dissimilar to the way we use such expressions to refer to everyday ordinary things or we do not. There must be some common ground however minor between God-talk and ordinary-talk. If there is not, how can we do what do as theologians? I can’t resist this example: if “excess” or “shattering” in reference to God’s actions do not mean something like what they mean when we refer to an excess of rain in a reservoir or the shattering of a glass, then how can I now what the person who uses this words is talking about, how can I understand him?

It appeared to me that this point – that we can speak of God in such a way that in some way our expressions truly do refer to God in a way that we can understand what these expressions mean -- was not being granted. And if that is the case, I felt the need to ask, what exactly are we doing then?

mjbruce said...

Part 2:

Let me approach this from a different direction. The “beside the point” issues are problems, as you note, in this “fallen” world. But if there remains an eternal distinction between creator and creation even in the eschaton, the question remains even there. Can “the saints” talk about God who is qualitatively different (infinite to name but one example of these differences) and understand to even some small degree who God is, if the expressive acts the saints use to do so (either between each other or in the individual saints’s mind) do not pertain in regard to God in a way somehow similar to the way they pertain to other objects, e.g. other saints. The fact that we are fallen makes understanding who God is even more difficult to grasp of course, but here too we have to admit, at least as I see it, that human ways are still all the saints have too. Once we agree on this point, thus enter into the conversation the various problematics that Nate and Peter introduce. I want to talk about these problematics, but first we have to either agree or disagree that human beings can refer to God by means of expression that also meaningfully refer to creaturely media (be the agents fallen or redeemed). If we disagree that this is possible, that is a conversation stopper.

What I have been longing to hear here is that it is indeed the case that human “words” (again this is not merely oral expression) refer to God in a way similar – analogous – to the way our “words” refer to non-divine things. And I wanted an explanation for how this is the case. I tried to offer one however sloppy it might be.

Now that I have explained what I mean by “words” and “language.” My questions to you are as follows:
1. Is this qualified and more expansive sense of “language” sufficient to allay your fears that I not have engaged in an under-determined reduction of possible forms of access/knowledge?
2. If not, would you please give me examples of these other forms of access/knowledge. This is not meant as a snarky question, but rather an honest one. I simply am currently unable to conceive of what these other forms might be.

At the end of the day, I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of describing the mechanics of analogy and the ontological, essentializing problematics that arise. In this sense, I not only appreciated and support what Peter and Nate are doing. But first we have to agree that humans can have access/knowledge to God via actions that also refer to creaturely media.


scott said...

Thanks for your reply.
For me the theological problem is not primarily whether or not human ‘expressions’ (in any form) can adequately refer to a trascendent being, but about the conditions of responsible or fitting ‘reference’. The problem is not how reference/expression that is adequate for one sphere of relationality (creature-to-creature) can also function adequately in another realm (creature-to-divine). The primary problem is not if and how creatures have capacity to understand and comprehend a transcendent being, which fallenness then compounds. Limited as we are (qua creatures), our creatureliness -- which is our being-in the Word of God -- is itself wholly good, the very condition of our being-in-relation to God. Therefore I think that to start off in the above ways misses what “knowledge” (and derivatively, more specialized “theological” “reference”) of both God and creation is about.

So I have no problem saying that human words/expressions/however-you-want-to-define it can “refer” to divinity in the same way they “refer” to creaturely realities. I was trying to suggest that a preoccupation with this question is in fact indicative of a too-heavily “propositionalist” or ideational account of knowledge of God. To me, the question is rather the prior one of the whence/whither or all human expression or reference . We can speak of God because God has spoken and continues to speak to us. Indeed there is a deep sense in which all things 'are' in the speech of God. God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. The question then is precisely whether human 'expressions' are properly sensitized to our oriented by the work of God’s own Word. I think there is always an interplay between perception and expression, and perception itself is a matter of having been made aware of – sensitized to – the active presence of the Word of God. 'Good' theological reference is thus speech about God (or creation) that follows God’s ways, and so is sensitive to the present activity of his Word, which always sustains us from “outside”, as it were – from beyond the capacities of creation itself. The question then is whether human discourse (about God or creation) recognizes that God alone is God – and this is not first an issue of intellectual beholdenness to the creator/creature distinction itself, or a proper understanding of the limitations and abilities of our referential capacities, but rather about what forms of creaturely action/speech recognize the irreplaceability of Yahweh’s rule – that there is only One who is our present help, and that this help always meets us and keeps us (and thus claims all our thought, speech and action) in the form of Jesus Christ.

All human “expressions” are claimed by this particular logos as attestation of its work, as it makes its way in our given context and orients us to ourselves/world/neighbors in definite ways. But this claiming of our thought, speech, and action for certain disposition and work here and now -- our following its own way in our given context -- is the question that, in my view, underlies the secondary question of true conceptual reference. This account is, I think (correct me if you don't think so), quite different from a worry about the humanity of our 'reference' and 'understanding', which revolves around the question of the innate limitations and (divine) possibilities of creaturely capacities.

R.O. Flyer said...

My primary concern is the question: Is it possible for humans to think and speak about God, such that our “words” actually refer to God in a meaningful way, i.e. in a way that we can have some small inkling of understanding about who God is. We have to answer this question in the affirmative if we are to do theology at all.

I think the way you put this actually reveals the disagreement and really the central problem with the way you've articulated the issue, Matt. Your thinking seems to be ultimately determined and driven by the necessity of analogical correspondence. But it seems to me that it is precisely this kind of (crude) mechanical formalism, which sets the terms of God's relation to us in advance, that Peter is attacking in his rejection of 'ontologizing.' In the end, you cannot help but assume an analogia entis at the outset. The fear of equivocity ('agnosticism' or 'atheism' in your mind) predetermines your thinking on this matter such that correspondence (in particular, an analogical one) between God's being and creaturely being is an absolute necessity. But this is precisely what we must avoid.

The truthfulness of theological speech (our words referring to God) is not guaranteed in advance. We cannot confidently state, as you do, that truthful theology is a 'human possibility.' And so, the formal 'coherency' that you seek in Peter's piece is at the heart of what's at stake here! The relation between God's act in Christ and our creaturely speech is not something that can be formally articulated in advance. Nor is such correspondence something that inheres in theological speech as such (even if we call it an 'analogia fidei'). It is only on account of God's free act--which cannot be predetermined--that our words are ever 'commandeered' to refer to God. To speak in terms of the 'mechanics of analogy,' as you want to do, is to miss this point altogether.

David W. Congdon said...


In defense of Matt, you've really missed the point of what he's saying, or at least I don't think you've understood him. Matt is nowhere saying that it is possible in the abstract, in advance, or out of our own creaturely resources (i.e., apart from revelation) to speak about God. The whole point of enclosing the analogia entis within the analogia fidei is precisely this: that the analogy is only ever granted by God's prevenient act of grace. The possibility for language to refer to God is not an immanent property of the words themselves; it is bestowed upon language in the event in which God claims this language for Godself.

Put differently, revelation does not give us new words; it claims the words that already exist and grants them a new mode of reference, a new linguistic significance. This is Jüngel's point about metaphor: revelation brings about a "gain to being" so that our language can do more than it once could. Revelation doesn't establish a new language but opens up this language to the new possibilities of God's future.

Parenthetically, this is what Bultmann means by distinguishing between ontological and ontic possibilities, and also what he means by the notion of preunderstanding (Vorverständnis). On the one hand, we have the ontological possibility of speaking of God, insofar as revelation does not require or bring about an ontological change within us. We remain the same human beings we were before, just as the words we use are the same words used by everyone. But this ontological possibility does not mean that we can actually speak of God or that we already know God apart from revelation. Our total fallenness means that our ontological possibilities are never ontic possibilities; they are never possibilities that we could ever actualize out of our own immanent, finite resources. God must act, and the good news is that God has indeed acted and continues to act here and now. Only because of this divine action do we have the ontic possibility for speaking of God.

mjbruce said...

@ Ry: This statement puzzles me and demonstrates that we are not on the same page at all: “The fear of equivocity ('agnosticism' or 'atheism' in your mind) predetermines your thinking on this matter such that correspondence (in particular, an analogical one) between God's being and creaturely being is an absolute necessity.”

My argument is precisely for equivocity and that alone (though perhaps plurivocity as well with careful distinctions and qualifications). Univocity is of course ruled out tout court I would hope all would agree (there is nothing Scotist on my end to be clear). My fear is rather the rejection of any and all notions of similitude. Clearly there is a severe lack of understanding between the two parties here if I am being accused of having fear of the very thing for which I am in fact defending.

This statement also really puzzles me: “The truthfulness of theological speech (our words referring to God) is not guaranteed in advance. We cannot confidently state, as you do, that truthful theology is a 'human possibility.'”

I think God and God alone guarantees the truthfulness of theological speech. Humans cannot speak of God at all naturally, it is God who makes human speech about God possible. And that we can have knowledge/access to God and speak of God is entirely the result of God’s free act. It is again not a natural human possibility. My argument is that God does so through the appropriation of creaturely media, not by teaching us how to speak some sort of “Gottessprache.” Now the mechanics of how God appropriates “language (again in the broad sense)” requires a lot of heavy theological work. I take it that this heavy lifting was the task Peter and Nate are undertaking, and I am not only sympathetic to that task but find it absolutely necessary. My point has been that the argument put forth hitherto seemed to me to rule out equivocity.

The truth is Ry that you’ve accused me of doing the very things I am arguing against, so I don’t really know how to respond???

David has correctly understood me.


R.O. Flyer said...

My argument is precisely for equivocity and that alone (though perhaps plurivocity as well with careful distinctions and qualifications).

I will respond more later, I need to take two restless kids out for a walk, but I am really curious to know how you can maintain an account of analogical correspondence and defend equivocity. When you say that Peter's logic effectively rendered God 'unknowable' I assume this was a defense of analogy over and against equivocity. To my mind, equivocity maintains that all knowledge of God is strictly metaphorical, thus ruling out any analogical correspondence altogether.

mjbruce said...

Ry: Sorry but I can make no sense of that at all. Go read Thomas, Summa Theologiae, q. 13, esp. art. 5 for how I use the word equivocal. Metaphor is ruled out entirely.

mjbruce said...

@ Scott: I’ve read your post three times and I find nothing I disagree with. It appears to me at least to be largely congruent with Jüngel’s “God’s being is in becoming” which I find to be the best book written on this subject in the 20th Century. I agree with your ordering of the issues. God acts, humans follow and they follow only because God enables them to do so. When we do dogmatics, we treat first God’s actions and then the possibility of human response, which is the result of God’s act. There is by the way, in my opinion at least, nothing I’ve said, when the proper order is taken into account of course, that I think Jüngel could not affirm.

With the phrase: “My primary concern” I meant my primary concern within this particular debate. I was not arguing for a starting point, since I wasn’t writing a complete theological treatise but posting on a blog. I made an argument for how “language” refers to God within a dogmatic account that I agree rightly begins with the questions to which you give primacy. I think the solution Peter give in the midst of his paper resulted in a serious problem. I began with the problem. I have no interest in defending propositional truth claims as defended by certain forms of analytic philosophy by the way either.

The point I’ve been arguing is: the argument made by Peter, which starts correctly and identifies real problems, actually ends up ruling out the possibility of human language being able to refer to God. Let me say it again a bit differently: I am deeply sympathetic with the problem Peter is addressing, I think the solution given fails because it actually results in the rejection of a notion of analogy in which human “language” refers to God equivocally to the way it refers to created stuff.

So is it the case that the reason human language can refer to God at all is because of God’s action? Yes, there is no natural human ability to do so and we can’t start with human language. We cannot do so because we first have to account for the fact that it is God who has spoken to us, who has revealed himself to us and that God is not like other objects. We can “talk” about him because in his freedom he continually permits or does not permit us to moment by moment.

What I’ve asked for hitherto is an argument that shows how Peter’s (or Nate or their defender’s) argument don’t actually end up ruling out analogous, equivocal, “language” in reference to God. I could’ve and should’ve been clearer on this admittedly. It seems to me that you and I have no issue in this regard or at all from what I have seen. But an answer to my question was never given nor do I think it will be. It would seem that to answer these questions we will each have to start writing volume 1 of our systematic theologies and I for one am at least 30-40 years away from being able to do that.

R.O. Flyer said...

From ST I, Q. 13, Art. 5. The respondeo reads: "Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: "The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made" (Romans 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion."

Matt, Thomas believes that equivocity renders God unknowable. Is this what you want to defend?

David W. Congdon said...


As Matt said, you have some reading to do. Aquinas is the master on this, but if you want an excellent presentation of the medieval position on analogy, see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Also, read §17-18 in Jüngel's God as the Mystery of the World.

But let me just say this: all talk about God is equivocal outside of faith, i.e., outside of God's self-revelation which commandeers human speech so that it corresponds to God. But within this event of divine self-revelation and commandeering, our language does indeed speak analogously of God. You cannot have analogy and equivocity at the same time; rather, you have equivocity outside of faith and analogy within it. Hence, the analogia fidei as the basis for truthful God-talk.

Matt is also right about metaphor: equivocal speech is most definitely not metaphorical speech. If the metaphor is intended to say something truth about the object in question, then it is analogous speech.

David W. Congdon said...


With regard to your last comment, I'm confused: are you reading what we're saying? We are rejecting equivocal speech, because you cannot talk about God within the confines of equivocity. Only analogy gets you actual speech about God.

mjbruce said...

No. Only the sed contra:
"whatever is predicated of various things under the same name but not in the same sense, is predicated equivocally. But no name belongs to God in the same sense that it belongs to creatures; for instance, wisdom in creatures is a quality, but not in God. Now a different genus changes an essence, since the genus is part of the definition; and the same applies to other things. Therefore whatever is said of God and of creatures is predicated equivocally."

R.O. Flyer said...

Matt said: My argument is precisely for equivocity and that alone

David said: We are rejecting equivocal speech, because you cannot talk about God within the confines of equivocity.

And I'm the one having trouble understanding you here? Is this not a contradiction?! Frankly, I find your patronizing responses pretty insulting, especially coming from you David. I'm not claiming to be an expert on this issue, but as you know, I published a paper in PTR last year dealing precisely with this topic in Jüngel and Aquinas. So, at the very least, I've read the relevant material. The condescending tone with which you have engaged Peter and Nate, (and now myself) is really pretty sad.

David W. Congdon said...


My apologies. I don't think I was being condescending at all, but if I was, that wasn't my intention.

I see now that there is a lack of clarity in Matt's comments. If Matt is arguing for equivocity in our God-talk, then I don't understand what he's saying either. But I understood him from the start to be arguing for analogous speech about God. But maybe I have Matt wrong. Do I, Matt?

David W. Congdon said...

And you'll have to forgive me about not remembering your PTR piece. I can barely remember the names of people here at PTS who I've met on numerous occasions, much less what people have written and published. So sorry about that. I have a very limited brain capacity for stuff like that.

mjbruce said...

There has to be some sense of equivocity if there is some similitude between wise in reference to my grandfather and wise in reference to God. But the basis for the similitude is not a natural object but rather the result of God’s act. See what David said in his post. The analogy language qualifies the equivocity lanague, as Thomas writes “For in analogies the idea is not, as it is in univocals, one and the same, yet it is not totally diverse as in equivocals; but a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing.” Pure equivocity would also give creatures control over the object, and that can’t be if the object is God. It’s a qualifed equivocity and the analogy language is primary.

My response was only to the confusion that arises when metaphor-language is introduced. We can’t just pull out quotes selectively and sling them at each other. Nor can we explain an entire systematics behind all our thoughts each time we comment. This is growing tiresome and I’ve turned off the email alerts.

David W. Congdon said...

Just a quick follow-up: Boethius divides equivocation into chance (or pure) and deliberate. Under deliberate equivocation, he has four subdivisions. Later medieval thinkers would then take a couple of those subdivisions and establish a third category (in addition to univocal and equivocal speech) called analogy. So in a sense, analogy is a subdivision of equivocity, but a special kind. And the uniqueness of theological analogy is that God alone is the one who makes such analogous speech possible, instead of being pure equivocation.

mjbruce said...

Part 1:


I need to issue a retraction per this afternoon’s debate. I’ve been very unclear and rather sloppy: The result of trying to do too many things at once or just plain stupidity, probably both.

Pure equivocation means that something is either 1) homonymous or 2) polysemous i.e. 1) two words have the same pronunciation or spelling, or, more important for our concerns here, 2) one word having two or more meanings. We are not concerned with the first definition.

But analogy of course can thus not be a pure case of polysemy, i.e. a word referring to God with one meaning and to creatures with another. Analogy argues for some degree of similitude of meaning. Thus my argument that “there has to be some sense of equivocity if there is some similitude between wise in reference to my grandfather and wise in reference to God” is rather nonsensical, since equivocity is not the basis for similtitude.

Thomas (in ST 1, q.13, a.5) argues however for a qualified equivocity, analogy is a sort of qualified equivocity (no doubt following Boethius as David pointed out). In short he first affirms that whatever is said of God and of creatures is said equivocally and then says that it can’t be purely equivocal, for, as Ry pointed out, this would lead to skepticism, nothing could be known about God. He then refers to analogy as the mean between univocation and pure equivocation. Analogy then appears to be a qualified form of equivocation or Thomas is inconsistent. I’m going with the former. I think Thomas considers analogy a form of equivocation in order to emphasize that there is a rather severe but not absolute difference between the meaning of language when it refers to God and when it refers to creatures. The key difference is that it is not absolute.

mjbruce said...

Part 2:

Thomas argues for, as we all know, an analogy of being. The basis for the similitude between creatures and God for Thomas “is some relation of the creature to God as to its principle and cause.” The question thus is: what does Thomas mean?

Barth, following Pryzwara, thinks that Thomas understands the analogy of being to be based on the notion that creatures, by the very fact they exist, participate in God’s being, i.e. being, and in an identical sense, is something human beings and God have in common. And thus, creatures can attain “knowledge of God by reflecting upon their own existence as creatures. Barth concludes that this means that ‘the experience of God’ is an ‘inherent human possibility,’ even if we can correctly interpret this experience only in light of the perfecting and completing revelation found in the Church” (K. Johnson in Modern Theology 26.4, p. 639). If this is Thomas, than Barth rightly rejects him for this is natural theology and of the anti-Christ. For if Pryzwara is right, knowledge of God is innate human ability, grace only perfects it.

But is this Thomas? Not if Thomas thinks that God and creatures do not share the same being but rather that creatures exist as creatures, i.e. predicated of them is created being and not the same being as God. If this is the case, God and creatures are not on the same chain of being and knowledge of God is not possible through a simple analogia entis. Knowledge of God is rather possible only if knowledge of the being of God is subordinated to the action of God. That means of course God acting in the realm of created being. And more specifically, God participates in human being. And of course, God does this in Jesus Christ.

As Barth says, quoting the Catholic Theologian Söhngen, “the analogia fidei is what heals and elevates the analogia fidei. But that means, by Jesus Christ: The divine word assuming human nature is our analogy of faith assuming the analogy of being.” Thus a correct notion the analogia entis is, again Barth citing Söhngen, “‘not a gracious participation in God by reason of a purely human ability for participation, but a truly human participation in God by reason only of the divine power of grace’ (pp. 134 f.). A concern for the actuality of the word and faith must be linked ‘with a concern for the substance of the word and faith. Otherwise the substance of the Word and of faith will be swallowed up by a movement of actuality and of events in which the substance will degenerate into movement or even into spiritual and historical ‘movements,' and it will therefore become a mere object of movement. For the Word of God must always be the sovereign Subject in every living movement of faith, which is always its own movement because it is carried by its substance and in that substance it has the inward constructive power consistent with its essence.’ (p. 185).” (CD II/1, p.82).

Contemporary Thomists seem to be to almost entirely united in claiming that Thomas does not understand divine being and created being to be on the same chain, i.e. of the same species. This would rule out knowledge of God via reflection upon our own existence and move Thomas in the direction Söhngen reads him and thus in the direction of Barth.

Mea culpa,

Matthias Gockel said...


Thank you very much for your comments.

I concur with the interest not to separate Christ’s person from Christ’s work, an interest already expressed by Schleiermacher. At the same time, I don’t think Bultmann had a strong interest at all in Christ’s person, since he was very critical of traditional Christology and its ‘substantialist’ assumptions. But o.k., this is not the main issue.

I disagree that for Barth “Jesus’s historicity [is] the history of all humanity”. One may say that Jesus’s history is the history of all humanity, but only because Jesus’s history is God’s history. In this perspective, and not on the basis of its “historicity”, it is the history of humanity.

As I understand it, when you speak of “horizontal ontologization”, you imply that history has come to an end in Jesus Christ. This is what you criticize. But this is only one part of the story for Barth.

Yes, Barth speaks of the incarnation as a fact (Tatsache), as something that happened once for all. Hence, he says: “When we say Jesus Christ, this is not a possibility which is somewhere ahead of us, but an actuality which is already behind us” (CD IV/2, p. 46 – on purpose, here I use a passage that Nate criticizes in his book). I take this to mean that, if we confess Christ as Lord and Savior, we assume that he really is Lord and Saviour.

Does Barth therefore engage in an unwarranted ontologization or abstraction? He qualifies the incarnation as an act of God, which means it is not a sheer fact but an event (Ereignis) that is open towards the future. He even uses the language of a “being in becoming”. This may be close to your idea that “the true humanity of Jesus is repeated ever anew for us” – as long as you grant that this true humanity is not constituted ever anew. Yes, I know, this is the language of ontology. But is it not the kind of theological ontology that you seem to be willing to consider? To quote again from the same page of CD IV72: “Incarnation is the actuality of this work of God. A recognition of the ultimate character of this actuality depends upon our avoidance of all abstractions”, which for Barth includes both vertical and horizontal abstractions.

You are wary of Barth’s view of the assumptio carnis. But Barth does not think that Jesus simply shares the shares the same nature as every human being. Rather, he assumes human nature in that he creates it anew (as Paul says: “If someone is in Christ, he or she is a new creature”). This is why Barth insisted that the true “essence” of human nature is defined by Jesus Christ. It is not Christ who participates in us, but the other way around.

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks very much for those comments. You're right, of course, that the history of Christ is only our history because it is the history of God. But the question I am raising is this: how does the history of Christ (as the history of God) then become our history? I completely agree that Barth rejects any notion that the being of humanity precedes the being of Christ; that much is quite clear. So I'm not accusing Barth of actually having a doctrine of assumption in the classical metaphysical sense. My contention is that while he rejects the notion of ontological substances that precede the history of Christ, he maintains the general logic of assumption that defines this history as the history of all humanity.

My concern is thus to critique and revise Barth's statement in §57: "A report (Bericht) about ourselves is included (eingeschlossen) in that report about God" (CD IV/1, 7). Barth also speaks about the Geschichte between God and humanity as a "common history." And the entirety of §58.2 on the "being of humanity in Jesus Christ" testifies to this problem. There Barth writes: "It is not that they lack Jesus Christ and in him the being of humanity reconciled to God. But rather they lack life in obedience to his Holy Spirit."

My problem is that the work of the Spirit is external to the reconciliation of humanity to God. I think it is more biblically faithful and theologically helpful to see the Spirit's work as internal to the work of reconciliation. Barth famously said that both Schleiermacher and Bultmann could be salvaged if they were understood as theologians of the third article. But this makes the work of the Spirit, the Christus praesens, a mere recollection of a reality that lies behind us. Barth is opposed to the notion that Christ's work has to be repeated. But what if the work of repetition is actually internal to the singular actualization of this work? What if we understand the Spirit as the one who "stretches" the time of Christ to include our contingent times (here borrowing a bit from Giorgio Agamben)?

I have to go at the moment, so I'll have more to say later, but hopefully this states my concern in a clearer way.

David W. Congdon said...

Let me add to my previous by saying that I am qualifying Barth's notion of Christ as the "concrete universal." In Barth, as I understand him, Christ is (a) concrete as the singular life-history elected by God, but he is (b) universal as the one in whom all humanity is elect. All people are elect in him. This is all true apart from the work of the Spirit as the one who awakens specific individuals to the reality of their election in Christ.

My concern is that this creates a separation between objective and subjective, between Christ and the Spirit, that needs to be overcome. Barth gives hints at a way forward in §33, and if you want, I can send you a paper where I begin to sketch my proposal out. Essentially, I want to take up and develop Barth's notion that election is an "act of divine life in the Spirit," a phrase he mentions only three times in II/2. I don't think Barth remains adequately faithful to this insight, and I think that is largely because of his attempt to combat what he believes are the errors of Bultmann. (The entirety of CD IV is, I take it, a very long dogmatic response to Bultmann and others like him.)

David W. Congdon said...

Sorry, one more point I forgot to mention. You said that Bultmann isn't interested in Christ's person, and that's true, he isn't. But if Barth does indeed point the way toward an actualistic ontology, then we can correct Bultmann (and avoid the metaphysical abstraction that he is worried about) by claiming that Christ's work simply is the constitution of his person. This is, I think, the way toward a thoroughly postmetaphysical christology.

(Parenthetically, the problem with someone like Torrance is that Christ's work is constituted by or subsumed into his person. That is, Torrance correctly tries to overcome the separation between person and work, but he does so in the wrong direction.)

Nate Kerr said...

This will be in two parts. Also, I hope it makes sense, as I accidentally lost part 2 somewhere in the interwebs and had to reconstruct what I said quickly from memory.

Part I

Allow me if you will to interject just a couple of brief comments. I mean these comments to be precisely that -- interjections -- and neither substantial criticisms nor constructive counter-arguments. If anyone would like to converse in more detail about these questions, I'm happy to do so by email (

(1.) On the question of analogy. As I've said, it is not that I am opposed to analogy as such. It is just that analogy for me needs to be thought in such a way that it is not in the first place (that is, ultimately) a matter of linguistic, or epistemological, or ontological conceptualization. Analogy within theology is in the first place concerned with the way in which our response to God's Word delivers us over to participation in the eternal, self-giving love of God -- God's doxa. This is what I mean when I say that theology must finally be about the passage from analogy to doxology: Our response to God's Word is from beginning to end determined by the way in which that Word itself delivers us over to participation in God's own trinitarian, doxological act of free, self-giving love. This is what I mean when I say that we need to be vigilant about understanding the Word of God trintarianly, and not mere "logologically," to the extent that it is this trinitarian act of outgoing, self-giving love that is the doxa of God to which our response to the Word in faith (the ana-logia fidei) delivers us. Another way to state this is to say that my concern is with a "telescoping" of the question of analogy, in which concern with analogy reduces to the matter of discerning the linguistic or epistemological ratio between creaturely words and the divine Word, which I am not convinced can finally escape a metaphysical account of being-as-cognitive ratio, and thus the analogia entis as such. Furthermore, my main concern is with the tendency to elevate such an epistemological or linguistic telescoping of analogy to the level of the condition of possibility of theology itself. For this, first of all, risks trapping theology itself within a logic of mere linguistic or cognitive ratio. And, secondly and more importantly, it evinces a desire for theology's ultimata ratio itself to be something more than faithful "action in response" to the Word spoken in Jesus Christ, without which our "thinking and speaking would be empty, meaningless, and futile" (Barth, Evangelical Theology, 17). That is, it makes analogy as a linguistic or epistemological or ontological category so determinative that it loses sight of the manner in which theology is ultimately about how our faithful response to the Word (ana-logia) is an act of praise by which we are delivered over to participation in the trinitiarian act of God's self-giving love (doxa).

Nate Kerr said...

Part II

(2.) On the question of Jesus and history. The exchange between David and Matthias has been very interesting and helpful for me. I would just simply want to register my disagreement with the idea that my critique of Barth's treatment of Jesus' historicity in my book is a rehashing of Brunner's critique. For as I understand it, Brunner's critique had to do with the conviction that if Jesus' history is to mediate the revelatory Word of God to us, it must fully conform to a general phenomenological account of our own natural, religious historicity. Without such a naturally "prior" historicist context of interpretation, according to Brunner, to speak of any kind of historical revelation would be theologically meaningless. This is not what I am seeking to critique in Barth. I am rather trying to move towards my own constructive position that the apocalypse of Jesus Christ is constitutive history in the way that the singularity of Jesus as God is transfigurative and constitutive of "historicity" itself. On this point, I would caution severely that my critique of Barth and the question of history is bound to be misundersood if read in disjunction from my own account of Jesus' "apocalyptic historicity" in ch. 5 of the book. Whether or not Barth can be read more in line with what I sketch out there in terms of the "apocalypticization of history" is a different matter, but a reading of ch. 5 as the constructive backdrop for my critique of Barth in ch. 2 should show that my concerns there do not coincide with Brunner's, Berkouwer's, and van Til's various arguments about Barth's failure to conceive of revelation as conformable to a generally observable natural or biblical Heilsgeschichte.

Now, I do think that Peter and David in their own ways have interpreted me rightly in terms of the directions I want to go with this stuff as regards the issues of excess and repetition. I would only say that I am not convinced that one can have the "vertical" ontologization of Jesus' history with relation to the eternal Urgeschichte of God without necessitating the "horizontal" ontologization of Jesus' history with relation to our own singular historicities. I will not rehash my reasons for this here, except to say that this is indeed bound up in part with the problem of "ontology" itself: Barth's "vertical" ontologization is a transcendentalization Jesus' history for the sake of identifying this history with universal history as such. And I fail to see how on the basis of this move Jesus in his singular, contingent history might still be conceived as constitutive of our histories as genuinely contingent and singular (that is, as not themselves being ontologized "vertically" in relation to the primordial Urgeschichte of God -- as I think is the outcome of Barth's treatment in IV/3). Finally, as to the question of "actuality." I fully want to affirm what Barth is after with the notion of "actuality" in terms of the "finality" of Jesus Christ and his saving work as Lord. The question turns on how we conceive of that finality. For me, Barth achieves his conception of that finality by way of a dialectically idealist resolution of possibility into actuality. I want to think eternity's relation to time more in terms of Kierkegaard's overturning of the Hegelian assumption of the necessity of such a dialectical resolution by way of his concepts of "the Moment" and "repetition." However, since articulating that here would amount to no more than a report on a paper that I am only in one of many stages of preparing to write, I will leave that question off for now.

Bobby Grow said...


You said:

(Parenthetically, the problem with someone like Torrance is that Christ's work is constituted by or subsumed into his person. That is, Torrance correctly tries to overcome the separation between person and work, but he does so in the wrong direction.)

Would you mind on expanding on this? Why would you say that TFT goes in the wrong direction? Is it because you think that TF has too much vertical and not enough horizontal relative to the working out of his theological anthropology in his vicariousness?

I have a vested interest in this since I am about to start my doctoral studies on "the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ in TFT's theology." I would be interested in hearing your suggestions, at the outset of my research . . . it could prove fruitful (not that I'll necessarily agree with you, though ;-).

PS. The discussion here, for the most part, has been provocative!

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for those comments. They are very helpful. Let me begin by first saying that your reading of Barth has a lot of merit, and it's not a reading I want to dismiss in the slightest. There are seemingly as many "Barths" as there are readers of him, and your interpretation has much to support it. So even if I demur from your reading at points, I think it is very instructive. I also want to clarify my own point of view here. As you know, I read Barth through the lens of McCormack's actualistic reading, and this means that I seek to place Barth against Barth. There is a "canon within the canon" of Barth's writings, so to speak. This means that while I recognize those parts in Barth that I find disagreeable and problematic, I find other parts which are much better, and I choose to make those passages normative for my interpretation of his theology as a whole. All that's to say: I don't want to get into a proof-texting battle regarding whose Barth is the "right" one. I fully admit that you have evidence to support your position, but I also think I have evidence to back up my own.

Okay, having said all that, let me address the issue of Brunner. I confess that I've read very little Brunner and Berkouwer, so I honestly cannot say whether your understanding of their critiques is accurate or not. I do want to register one critical point regarding your attempt to distance yourself from Brunner, though I fully admit the possibility that I've simply misunderstood you. The issue is that it appears you've dissociated yourself from Brunner because you and Brunner criticize Barth for the sake of different constructive ends. If it is indeed the case that you think Brunner's critique is in itself different from yours, that's perfectly fine; but it appears from your comment that you differentiate yourself from him because his criticism arises from different presuppositions and is oriented toward different ends. If that's true, then I would still say your position could be understood as a "rehashing" of Brunner's, by which I mean that the essential point remains the same while the conditions for the argument are different. Or, to use Aristotelian language, it seems that the material cause is the same, while the efficient and final causes are different. But like I said, perhaps you see the material cause as itself different, so let me address that issue.

I am taking my cue here from Edwin Chr. van Driel's book, Incarnation Anyway, where he summarizes and assesses four different views about the eternal existence of Jesus Christ as this pertains to the ontological implications of Barth's doctrine of election. The first response he identifies with Brunner and Berkouwer and goes under the heading: "Christ's eternal existence as preemption of the temporal."

David W. Congdon said...

Van Driel goes on to say:

"They read Barth as moving salvation history's center from time to eternity. If Christ was in the beginning with God ... then what is decisive for salvation history does not take place in the hills of Judea and the streets of Jerusalem, but in the realms of eternity. ... On Barth's proposal, Berkouwer suggests, there is no conceptual space for what Berkouwer calls the stepwise character of God's work. Everything has already been decided."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but is this not more or less the very critique you raise in your book regarding our "eternally actualized situation before God," i.e., the fact that "the history of Jesus of Nazareth can only make known what is antecedently actualized from all eternity"?

Now, I'll grant you that Barth often does speak in ways that seem to abstract from the concrete historicity of Jesus. But I take it that, within his limited conceptuality, he is seeking to articulate the fact that this particular, contingent person, Jesus, is constitutive of what it means to be God. That is to say, this particular life-history is the event of God's triune self-determination to be this God and no other. In other words, to return to the issue of "vertical ontologization," I mean by this term not that God is the eternalizing of (and thus abstracting from) the concrete history of Jesus Christ, but that Jesus Christ is the humanization and historicization of God. Or, more accurately, this particular historical reality is the actualization of God's very being. What I mean by this "ontologization" is therefore simply that God's is kenotically self-determined for and by the contingent historicity of Jesus Christ.

I'll admit this isn't a standard reading of Barth, but it is an interpretation that I think is faithful to a certain line of thinking in Barth. Would this be a position more in keeping with your own?

Your criticisms of Urgeschichte can be addressed when Barth is read differently. But there is also the issue of Barth's changing use of "primal history" throughout his career. This is a point that Jüngel makes in God's Being Is in Becoming. See p. 90 n. 57 in the Webster translation. The burden of this footnote is to show how Barth's use of "primal history" changes from early to later Barth. Some of Barth's most intriguing statements on this point come from Die christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf. What Jüngel argues on a constructive level (implied in the footnote and substantiated in the book as a whole) is that the notion of primal history is simply a way of saying that what occurs in time and space is not external or supplementary to a reality that is always-already decided in eternity; instead, revelation is primal history because it is determinative for who God is from all eternity.

I'll leave aside the issue of analogy for now, mainly because I'm not as invested in that question. But also because I simply cannot accept the separation you make between logological and doxological. Perhaps that is a point where we will simply have to disagree.

David W. Congdon said...


I'll put it this way: Torrance views reconciliation as our participation in the Son. The saving work that Christ accomplishes is a mediation of a person that ontologically precedes this work. We can thus speak about the being of the Son apart from the action of God within the economy of grace. Not only that, but we can also speak about the being of humanity in metaphysical-substantial terms as a naturam humanam that the Logos assumes in the incarnation. So the being of God the Son and the being of humankind both precede the divine-human event in Jesus Christ. What Christ does is to accomplish a deifying mediation, whereby deity participates in sinful humanity and humanity participates in reconciling deity. Jesus Christ is the site where this ontological exchange occurs.

To summarize: for Torrance (1) deity and humanity both precede the event which, for Barth, determines and even constitutes what it means to be divine and to be human; and (2) salvation is found in the person of Christ who is then mediated to us through the vicarious work of incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension. In short, it is not the work which defines the person, but the person who is mediated via the work. And while this sounds like a good position, it presupposes a being that exists outside of and behind the event in which that being ought to be actualized. So if Barth has an actualistic ontology, then Torrance has precisely the opposite. That is, Barth has an act which is ontological, while Torrance has an ontology which acts.

Bobby Grow said...


Thank you. The way you describe TF in your first paragraph is the way I've understood him as well.

As you know, Torrance is fond of saying "there is no God behind the back of Jesus." But what you're saying is that on the "humanity" point Torrance 'has a man behind the back of humanity' --- thus an metaphysical humanity that does not consistently honor the an/enhypostatic relation that inheres in the homoousially shaped hypostatic union --- even though this is exactly what TF is seeking to overcome. Okay.

I realize that the 'surplus' spoken of earlier in this thread would apply to what you describe of Torrance. But, to speak of surplus or left over (the metaphysical stuff) seems to engage in the same kind of scholastic rationalization that our friends, the Federal Calvinists engage in when parsing their views on unconditional election, atonement, etc. Not that simply noting a similar method defeats what you're saying, I just find it interesting that there are certain forms of Barthianism that are conceptually logico/causal; much in the same way as the Westminsters.

The problem I have with actualisation is that I don't see how it necessarily avoids collapsing God's life into His creation, thus providing a sort of pantheism or panentheism. So how does your non-metaphysical approach avoid giving us a physicalizing approach to God's life? In re. to Torrance, don't you see a credible distinction between the "Son's" relation to the Father and our's? And that our's is a relation through Christ's mediatorship by 'grace' and adoption, while His is by His onto-relation to the Father? The homoousial link.

David W. Congdon said...


The difficulty that you and others have with an actualistic ontology comes from the difficulty of understanding the freedom of God as a freedom which coincides with a kind of mysterious necessity. As finite creatures, we naturally think of freedom and necessity as opposites, as competitive concepts that repel each other. But God's self-revelation, if definitive for God's eternal identity, forces us to think of a freedom that is simultaneously a necessity. Hence Barth speaks in CD IV/1 of there being an "inner necessity" within the freedom of God. God has no liberum arbitrium, Barth says, no abstract libertarian free will to do this or that. God's freedom is the freedom to do what God has done, and thus God constrains Godself for the sake of accomplishing this particular concrete end. We cannot speculate about a God outside of revelation, a God who could do anything in the abstract. We are limited in our thinking and speaking about God by God's own self-limitation in Jesus Christ.

McCormack has already answered the concerns regarding the relation between creator and creature in this way of thinking. I'll simply say here that it's not as if God, on this account, is dependent upon the world to be God. Rather, God wills to be God only in this way, only in this concrete relation to the world. God refuses to be God without us, and thus God makes a decision regarding God's own being: viz. to make the world necessary to God's eternal identity.

As for your final questions about the Son's identity. I would reject the notion that Christ has an ontological identity prior to his being-for-us as the crucified one. In a sense, I want to say, the Son comes into existence as the crucified and resurrected one, in the scandalous event of death and new life in the Spirit. The doctrine of preexistence, if it is to be retained at all (and I'm quite willing to dispense with it altogether), means that this man Jesus is the apocalyptic turning point of the world because of a divine decision (i.e., a divine act of self-identification and self-determination) and not because of some natural-causal force within the immanent continuum of history. I would say the same thing about the concept of homoousias and the doctrine of election. These are all different ways of identifying this concrete individual as the apocalyptic irruption of God within the world, and thus as the one who is presently repeated ever anew in the Spirit's power.

Bobby Grow said...


Thanks. Yeah, I've read McCormack's pertinent essays on this; and I understand the position, it's just that I don't buy the idea of Barth or McCormack on this --- while at the same time, I highly respect both (you as well).

I think Torrance stands in the line of the Tradition and orthodox thinking contra Barth at this point. Which is why I am persuaded by TFT more, and Barth less (again recognizing that Barth is a pivotal figure, and w/o him we wouldn't have Torrance or a whole slough of other edifying theologians and pastors).

I obviously think that God in Christ pro nobis is much more Biblically faithful and thus orthodox vs. the idea of God not being God without us. I note your thinking on "freedom" and your (Barth's)remedy of 'mysterious necessity'; I just don't think this formula creates the conceptual space it intends to create, relative to the "apparent" competition. Why not ground this 'dilemma' in the economy of God's life in Christ for us --- and just say there are certain things in the economy that cannot be read back into the ontology of God's inner-life? I prefer this, I think the 'Tradition' prefers this, and more importantly, I think that scripture presuposes this as it's 'inner-logic'.

Thanks, David. Again, I respect your work, and the work of other Barthians (I'll simply claim to be Torrancean in this context) . . . keep it up, in the eschaton you Barthians will have finally made it to the top of the mountain and realize that Torrance was right all along ;-).

David W. Congdon said...

You very well could be right, Bobby! I have little doubt that we'll all find our theological proposals to be filthy rags, the chaff that gets burned away in the consuming fire.

Nate Kerr said...

Part I:


I don't care at all either to reduce this to a matter of Barth "proof-texting." Like I said, if Barth can be read consistently in the direction that I am wanting to go in my constructive position, I am happy for him to be so read. In fact, I think your reading of Barth moves in a direction more resonant with my own position. The issue for me still revolves around the "ontologization" of Jesus' historicity at any point. I am perfectly fine with some version of your statement that "God's [being?] is kenotically self-determined for and by the contingent historicity of Jesus Christ." But I want to affirm in addition to that some version of this statement: "Jesus in his contingent historicity is kenotically determined for and by us in our own contingent historicities." For me, the vertical ontologization forbids this second statement, not only on the basis of its identification of Jesus' historical being with the Urgeschichte of God (as you say, there are other ways to think this concept, though I'm not sure Barth went far enough in his development of it), but mostly for the way in which it universalizes Jesus historicity as the History of history (this is what I mean by the ontologization of Jesus' history).

For me, the issue is bound up with how we conceive of the relationship of eternity and time. This is a realization that I've come to in hindsight since the publication of my book, and is one of the key questions I am currently trying to work out in relation to the responses to my book. What I want to say is something like this: the repetition in time of this singular contingency that is Jesus of Nazareth as God is eternity. The eternal life that God "is" is internal to this repetition, which is the work of the Spirit. (I realize I need to say much more here, but since this is work in progress and since what I'd say would rehash much of what I've said already above, I'll leave it at that -- I would only challenge you to consider whether you can make the constructive moves you are wanting to make without questioning more deeply the structure of eternity's relation to time for Barth, and without also, at the same time, considering whether this renders even the "vertical" ontologization that you want to uphold problematic.)

Nate Kerr said...

Part II:

As to the question of Brunner, Berkouwer, etc., I think that your reading of that passage which you cite from my book in light of van Driel's categories is fair enough on the face of things. And perhaps van Driel should like to place me in that category. I think my differences from Brunner, Berkouwer, etc. are sufficiently clear that I do not need to defend myself against identification with their projects here. I do think that there is a formal difference to the critiques here, however, which is as follows. For Brunner and Berkouwer, the abstraction from time and history that Barth is being accused of is the result of Barth's inability to conceive Jesus human-history on their own natural theological and covenantal-heilsgeschichtlich terms. I want to take seriously the way Barth is thinking history itself differently (that is, see my positive reading of Barth's apocalyptic Christology in the previous section of my book). And my critique is that his treatment of Jesus' historicity in light of his identification of the resurrection with the Urgeschichte of God actually effects an unintended abstraction from the very kind of radical, apocalpytic historicity that Barth's own actualist Christology opens up and makes possible. That is, I want a more thoroghly apocalyptically actualist account of history, and the abstraction for me is an abstraction from what Barth makes possible on his own terms. The abstraction for Brunner and Berkouwer is an abstraction from a formal "eternity-time" relationship which they already assume. The abstraction from me occurs within Barth's own movement towards a rethinking of the eternity-time relationship by way of his actualism which he does not complete, to my mind.

Alright, I've got to go pick up Zoe. I don't know if we have exhausted the possibility of moving forward any further with this conversation within the blog context; my hunch is that we probably have. But I do think we've clarified a bit the terms for an ongoing conversation that needs to continue to happen. What do you think?

David W. Congdon said...


It's clear on the basis of your last comments that we are in substantial agreement on almost every point. The places where there seem to be disagreement I think are largely due to a misunderstanding, or at least a confusion over terminology. I fully admit that my language of "ontologization" is rather problematic. For the sake of clarity, let me just restate my position. What I mean by "vertical ontologization" is not really the ontologization of Jesus' historicity, but the kenotic self-identification of God with this contingent, concrete historical reality. I am defining the former in terms of the latter. So there's no abstraction from the concrete individual but rather an ontological identification of God with that particular life-history.

I want to address the following passage from your last commment:

I am perfectly fine with some version of your statement that "God's [being?] is kenotically self-determined for and by the contingent historicity of Jesus Christ." But I want to affirm in addition to that some version of this statement: "Jesus in his contingent historicity is kenotically determined for and by us in our own contingent historicities." For me, the vertical ontologization forbids this second statement, not only on the basis of its identification of Jesus' historical being with the Urgeschichte of God (as you say, there are other ways to think this concept, though I'm not sure Barth went far enough in his development of it), but mostly for the way in which it universalizes Jesus historicity as the History of history (this is what I mean by the ontologization of Jesus' history).

I really agree with what you've said here, with one exception: the "second statement" you mention refers not to vertical ontologization as I've been defining it but rather to the horizontal ontologization that I criticize Barth for. It seems that, for you, the vertical and horizontal are inseparable, if not identical. Thus, it seems that, in your understanding, if Jesus defines the being of God, then Jesus must also become "the History of history." My claim is that this is true on Barth's account, but not on mine. The vertical ontologization of which I have been speaking refers strictly to the notion that this particular person, Jesus, is the event of God's being, the concrete site where deity is properly defined and identified. But it does not follow from this that Jesus also defines the entirety of world history or the being of humanity in the abstract. That would require presupposing that the being of God includes the being of the world. But that's precisely what I'm rejecting. I take the being of God to be a radically singular reality actualized in the contingent historicity of Jesus. Eternity is thus, as you say, the repetition of this singular contingency. On that point, I concur fully. But once you've said that this contingency is eternity, you have made precisely the vertically ontological move that I am arguing for. To claim that this historical existence, in its pneumatic repetition within time, is constitutive of eternal life is to engage in the work of theological ontology. Perhaps you have an allergy to the word "ontology" because of its numerous gross abuses throughout history, but as the cliché dictum goes, this doesn't rule out proper use.

David W. Congdon said...

So yes, I would agree with you that my constructive moves require rethinking much of Barth's theology and dispensing with a number of aspects. And it may also require revising his understanding of the time-eternity relation, though on that point I would still argue that you're making his earlier views (CD II/1 and prior) normative in a way that I would not accept, since I think Barth revises his views significantly in CD III and IV. That's not to say his later views are not still problematic, just that they point in a different, better direction. In any case, all of this may need serious revision, but as a theologian, I cannot lose the notion that Jesus is the event of God's being and still remain a theologian. That is to say, what I have thematized under the rubric of "vertical ontologization" is essential to Christian theology as I understand it; it is the indispensable basis for christology, i.e., for the theological affirmation and articulation of this concrete person as the Word made flesh.

As for the rest, I still don't see the first part of your critique of Barth as being all that different from Brunner and Berkouwer. Sure, it's framed differently, coming from a different starting-point and aiming at a different conclusion, but the essence of the critique seems basically the same. But that's not really important, and it wouldn't matter to me one way or the other. In any case, I agree with you in pursuing a more thoroughly apocalyptic-actualist account of history. There, again, we agree.

To conclude, yes, I definitely think we've established a solid basis for continuing conversation. I've learned much from you and I look forward to learning much more.

Matthias Gockel said...


Thanks again!

I think we mostly agree. Still, there are a few points of contention! I try to put them as sharply as possible.

1) You say: “The question I am raising is this: how does the history of Christ (as the history of God) then become our history?”

In other words: How is salvation (redemption, reconciliation etc.) communicated? This is indeed a central issue.

2) As you may guess, I also favor a “McCormackian” approach. My impression from CD IV/1 is that Barth here is more coherent than in CD II/2.

In the passage you quote from the beginning of CD IV/1, Barth relates our life to the life of God, which is something that corresponds to your own interest. If such a “report” about ourselves is not included in the report about God, the proclamation of the gospel would have no meaning (Bedeutung, an important term for Bultmann!) for us.

The passage you quote from §58.2 speaks about the life in obedience to Christ’s Spirit (!) as a consequence of reconciliation. It does not address the difference between the objective and subjective side of reconciliation. This issue comes up in the ecclesiology and pneumatology of CD IV/1-3. Does Barth here tend to regard the work of the Spirit as “external” to reconciliation. One could ask: How does the Spirit participate in the work of Christ, and how does Christ participate in the work of the Spirit?

3) For Barth, all human beings are elected in Christ. On your account, human beings are elected in Christ when they believe in Christ. Or would this be an exaggeration?

4) Yes, a separation between the objective and the subjective side should be avoided. But is there then no differentiation? You want to overcome the subject-object-model, so this question may be beside the point, but still you work with the distinction internal-external. In CD IV/3, Barth develops the idea of Christ’s “self-proclamation”, which precisely serves the purpose of holding the objective and subjective side together without identifying them. Your position sounds as if you “collapse” the two.

Yes, Christ’s work is the constitution of his person. But again, the question is: Has God reconciled the world with Himself or not? I don’t see how one can affirm this statement (as I think you do, although you have not commented on it) and at the same time reject any implication that reconciliation is a perfectum - in an eschatological sense, that is, not merely historically.

The difficulty may have to do with the employment of the term “historicity”. To me, it sounds as if not only our relation to God but God Himself (yes, ontology again!) is constituted by something finite, namely, the historicity of our existence.

I agree with your claim: “This particular historical reality is the actualization of God's very being. What I mean by this "ontologization" is therefore simply that God's is kenotically self-determined for and by the contingent historicity of Jesus Christ.”

But problems arise when one says that God is determined (and constituted?) also by other particular histories (or historicities).

Faith is based not on any historicity, not even the historicity of Jeus, but on the resurrection of Jesus. And I do not understand the resurrection simply as the negation of the cross (that is, as a continuation of Jesus’s history) but as a new act of God.

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for clarifying the issues. I will try to respond as best I can.

1. The two passages I cited from §§57 and 58 were just two passages picked almost at random. But it seems you've misunderstood what I was trying to communicate by citing them. Regarding the first (on the "report"), my problem is that this "report" is included in God apart from the Spirit's work of contingently included each historical particularity in the work of Christ (or, put differently, repeating the Christ in the context of each contingent particularity). Regarding the second passage, let me quote the statement again:

""It is not that they lack Jesus Christ and in him the being of humanity reconciled to God. But rather they lack life in obedience to his Holy Spirit."

The problem is precisely the fact that life in obedience (Spirit) is construed as a consequence of reconciliation (Christ). My claim is that we need to see the work of the Spirit as internal to the reconciling work of Christ. The Spirit is the one who repeats and extends the Christ-event to include us in our concreteness. So the Spirit's activity cannot be located in the realm of ecclesiology, as is the case with Barth. On my account, pneumatology is internal to christology.

2. You ask: "On your account, human beings are elected in Christ when they believe in Christ. Or would this be an exaggeration?"

I am attempting to reconcile Barth and Bultmann on this question. Bultmann states (in his essay Gnade und Freiheit) that election occurs in faith. I want to say that this is correct, but only when we allow for what Bonhoeffer calls unconscious faith or actus directus. Election occurs in faith, but this faith need not be a conscious act of reflection. This is how I reconcile universalism and particularism. The universality of the Spirit's repetition of Jesus Christ meets us in our contingent particularity, though it may only become conscious and reflective in the moment of eschatological clarity, wherein Christ confronts us directly.

3. In a way, yes, I do want to collapse objective and subjective. Or, rather, I want to sublate them within the singular christic-pneumatic event of reconciliation. I'm not entirely sure what you mean when you say I'm still working with a distinction between internal and external. Could you say more about that? It could well be true, but I'm just not sure what you mean.

David W. Congdon said...

4. Now to address the key question: "Has God reconciled the world with Himself or not?" The true but unhelpful answer is simply: yes and no. More precisely, and here I'm drawing a bit on Alain Badiou, I want to say that reconciliation has to be rendered in the "future anterior": it will have been the case that God has reconciled the world in Christ through the Spirit. This places the soteriological focus in eschatology rather than protology, while also granting this eschatological reality a retroactive significance.

5. You raise a very good question regarding the relation between God's being and historicity. There are really two questions here: (1) where should we locate the actualization of God's being: the historicity of Jesus or his resurrection?; and (2) what is the relation between God's being and the multiplicity of other contingent historicities apart from Jesus? Is God determined by these other histories as well?

Regarding the first, I see the resurrection as being paradoxically identical with Jesus' crucifixion. That is, the resurrection is a new act insofar as it is the event in which Jesus lives with us in the Spirit. There is therefore no conflict between Jesus' historicity and his resurrection. The resurrection refers to the fact that, with the eyes of faith, we interpret this concrete historicity as the event of God's very being.

The second question is an interesting point. I don't want to say that God is constituted or determined by other historicities. I want to say that God is actualized in the singular historicity of Jesus Christ, and yet this particular history is contingently repeated ever anew in the Spirit. So it is one and the same historicity that meets us in the multitude of our concrete historicities as the reconciling event of God. But our histories do not then become determinative for God, because our histories only take on significance in their confrontation with the historicity of Jesus. That is to say, we only become truly historical in our contingent encounter with Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

David W. Congdon said...


I forgot to comment on the following question: "One could ask: How does the Spirit participate in the work of Christ, and how does Christ participate in the work of the Spirit?"

It's probably clear already from my previous comments, but I'll formulate my view briefly for the sake of clarity. The Spirit participates in Christ by acting as the power of resurrection. The Spirit is the one in whom Christ is repeatedly concretized and existentialized in every new moment. Christ participates in the Spirit as the one who is continually resurrected and repeated. Christ lives in the Spirit, which is to say, Christ lives in the word-event of the gospel kerygma as this word traverses our contingent particularities in order to mobilize our communal act of bearing witness to God's reign.

Blahoslav Fajmon said...

last comment here is nearly 5 years old, so I am not sure someone would reply. I got to this page searching for phrase "how God appropriates human discourse" and I found this: "Now the mechanics of how God appropriates “language (again in the broad sense)” requires a lot of heavy theological work. I take it that this heavy lifting was the task Peter and Nate are undertaking, and I am not only sympathetic to that task but find it absolutely necessary."

Who is Peter and Nate - and is there now any link or paper covering this topic? Thanks for the answer.

W. Travis McMaken said...

They refer to Peter Kline (who wrote the post these comments address), and Nathan Kerr, who wrote a book on apocalyptic theology. Hope that helps!