Choice Quotations: George Hunsinger on the shape of Barth's theology

George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (Oxford:OUP, 1991) 4-5.

If Barth’s theology will not yield its treasures to a single overriding conception, and if inherent limits accompany the loci approach, is there perhaps another interpretive possibility? This essay proposes that there is. Several recurrent “motifs” or modes of thought, it is argued, can be seen to run throughout the Church Dogmaitcs and to shape the doctrinal content of Barth’s mature theology as a whole. “Actualism,” “particularism,” “objectivism,” “personalism,” “realism,” and “rationalism” are the names that will be used to designate these motifs…

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation…For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that says, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to be applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.

“Objectivism” is a motif pertaining to Barth’s understanding of revelation and salvation. It describes not only the means by which they respectively occur, but also the status of their occurrence. Revelation and salvation are both thought to occur through the mediation of ordinary creaturely objects, so that the divine self-enactment in our midst lies hid-den within them. The status of this self-enactment is also thought in some strong sense to be objective – that is, real, valid, and effective – whether it is acknowledge and received by the creature or not. Revelation and salvation are events objectively mediated by the creaturely sphere and grounded in the sovereignty of God.

“Personalism” is a motif governing the goal of the divine self-manifestation. God’s objective self-manifestation in revelation and salvation comes to the creature in the form of personal address. The creature is encountered by this address in such a way that it is affirmed, condemned, and made capable of fellowship with God. Fellowship is the most intimate of engagements and occurs in I-Thou terms. The creature is liberated for a relationship of love and freedom with God and therefore also with its fellow creatures.

“Realism,” as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to Barth’s conception of theological language. Theological language is conceived as the vehicle of analogical reference. In itself it is radically unlike the extralinguistic object to which it refers (God), but by grace it is made to transcend itself. Through transcending itself by grace, theological language attains sufficient likeness or adequacy to its object for reference truly and actually to occur. Besides the mode of reference, realism also pertains to the modes of address, certainty, and narration found in scripture as well as in the language of the church based upon it.

“Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptural exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, the doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity.


I found this critique of Barth's actualism at Peter Leithart's website:
Is there any particular reason why you felt the need to point out that critique?

For my own part, I will briefly comment on that criticism by saying that there is a different between taking something seriously for what it is, and taking something seriously for what it is not. My view is that Barth takes creation seriously for what it is, namely, created.

In his post, Leithart wants Barth's doctrine of creation to deal with what in the kuyperian tradition might be called "common grace," that is, a "grace of creation" attached to the simple fact of existence. To me, this is simply wrong headed in that it doesn't take seriously creation ex nihilo. Sure, nothing would be here if God had not created it, but what is here is in no way connected to the being of God except that it is grounded in the creative act of God. There is no "graced" relation there, simply existence - albiet an entirely dependent existence. And, in my view, to recognize this is the have a strong doctrine of creation, because it recognizes the independent integrity given to creation. That is, especially in humanity, we find something that is independent enough from God to act as a covenant partner.

The other line that I would pursue is to say that creation does not exist for itself, but it is the theater of the covenant. Creation is the external presupposition of covenant, Christ and redemption; and covenant, Christ and redeption are the internal basis and telos of creation. They do not exist independent of one another, but creation always serves covenant, and covenant always "completes" creation (to use an imprecise term). Thus, for creation to have some kind of "graced" relation to God outside of covenant seems silly, at least to me. However, it will be helpful to remember that the underlying basis of this second line of thinking is commitment to a supralapsarian logic, which many are unable to stomach.

More on that in person, if you wish...
Leithart seems to be a decent theologian elsewhere in his writing. Just wanted to know what you, as an experienced Barth interpreter, picked up on. Of course, this could just be read as the mind of a theologian simply processing something he read without any intense scholarship.

Still, the trajectory of his "musings" reminds me very much of what was at stake in the Brunner/Barth debate. Brunner, like many Reformed theologians (Kuyper I presume to be in that camp as well), wants to keep some notion of grace in nature itself. It all seems to come back to this particular idea of "relationship."

Where does this idea of "relationship" come from? I would assume Leithart to think the following: a relationship requires that two beings, God and human, have independent grounding. Relationships are voluntarily between two equal parties, and so there can be no relationship if there is no "foundation" for our equality upon which we can relate to God. Yet this idea of relationship seems to be much closer to being contractual than covenantal in nature.

But supposing we take this equality between two beings as somehow metaphysically necessary for a God-human relationship to happen (based on our a posteriori understanding of its revealed actualization):

The superlapsarian logic would have election prior to creation. If this is true, then the nature of that election should play a huge role. What seems to be missing in Kuyperian theology is is any Christological notion of election. If there is any equality between God and humanity, this equality (justification?) is received by humanity in the election of Christ. This justification is actualized in our relating to God through the Holy Spirit in this life. Creation, as you say, is the "theatre" for such sanctification.

On another note, how does humanity relate to God through other members of the Trinity? Barring any notion of grace that is common to the fact of existence (which Brunner locates in the "imago dei" and in Romans 1), are there different modes of Triune relation happening between God and humanity? If so, would covenant be the overarching relation-act, while Father, Son, and Holy Spirit play their own specific roles (albeit in union)?

I would also like to know what Leithart is saying in his second point:

"Second, this casts a shadow over Barth's Trinitarianism. The phrasing sounds like an anthropological application of modalism, and that raises the issue of theological modalism. Are Father and Son really other to one another?"

Do you know what he's talking about here?

Lastly, where do we get the notion of creation ex nihilo? What exactly does this mean? Our studies in Genesis have challenged such a view recently in OT 101, if it simply means "creation out of nothing." Others could site Hebrews 11:3 for such a view. This doesn't really affect your point about the passivity of creation, of course.
I would hardly call myself an “experienced Barth interpreter”! That takes more years than I have had the privilege of being alive, much less those that I have spent studying Barth. However, it is – in my humble opinion – easy to miss precisely what Barth is up to. And these critiques that Leithart brings are much older than he.

As much as I would love writing a thesis to answer your questions…no, wait, I don’t think I would love doing that…right now anyway. So, I won’t! But, I would be happy to chat with you about these in person, if you care to pursue them. In brief, then:

(1) Relationship – you have some insightful things to say here, but I think that may be a little wide of the actual driving concern. More on that below in #3.

(2) Supralapsarian logic – you are on the right track here! And, I always appreciate it when people understand vague Reformed scholasticism references.

(3) Trinitarian interaction with humanity – this is possibly the most important point here. Does humanity interact with the Trinity in any way outside of Christ? Barth answers negatively, many answer positively. To be slightly cryptic, the most important question to ask here is this: “Wherein is true humanity to be found – Adam or Christ?”

(4) The same people who get exercised by #3 tend to think that Barth is a modalist. Frankly, I think this is just silly, but it is a widespread criticism of Barth. In my humble opinion, the problem here is all the recent work on the Trinity that has tended in a tri-theistic direction – cf. Jürgen Moltmann. Even those who may remain orthodox in their trinitarian ramblings, tend to emphasize the 3 over the 1 – cf. Colin Gunton. However, Barth (and Torrance) is intent on maintaining both the 3 and the 1, and on discovering how our understanding of the 1 must influence our understanding of the 3, and vice versa. More recent trinitarian theology has focused simply on seeing how understanding the 3 influences the 1. In any case, if you’re really interested in this I have a paper that deals with it that I could show you sometime.

(5) Creatio ex nihilo - this is only improperly drawn from Genesis 1. More accurately, it comes from theological reflection on John 1 and other scattered passages. In fine, it means that neither did creation emanate from God (as per Platonist conceptions), nor did God create it out of pre-existing matter (a kind of neo-Manicheanism, for lack of a better term); rather, God called it from non-existence into existence. Hence, creation is both utterly dependent upon God (it doesn’t exist apart from God), but it is also completely different than God (in the sense that it isn’t and never was part of God’s being, etc). See T.F. Torrance in Divine and Contingent Order for a thorough discussion.

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