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?
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.
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.
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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