What Am I Reading? Eberhard Jüngel

Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth (John Webster, trans; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

It is a point of shame for me that I have only lately read this book for the first time. Jüngel is an important personage in contemporary theology, and I really should have paid him greater attention sooner (I’m still hopelessly derelict in studying Jenson). However, I procured a copy of this work from Amazon at a particularly comely price, and figured that I should give it a quick read through.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I read this book in the space of about 3 hours. That is easily 1/10 of the time that one would need to spend with this volume in order to sufficiently plumb its depths. So, while I feel as though I have a sufficient grasp of the broad movements of the argument, I am by no means an expert on Jüngel or on this volume.

If one thing can be said about Jüngel, it is that he is a careful reader of Barth. Of course, as he readily admits, he does not seek simply to repeat Barth, but to learn from Barth and bring that learning to bear on further problems as they arise. This is explicit in the volume in question in that it is written to mediate in an argument between Gollwitzer and Herbert Braun, a Barthian and a Bultmannian respectively. Jüngel’s primary line of explicit critique falls upon Gollwitzer, whom he thinks has argued for a being of God that is quite static and detached from the world and, thus, abstract in nature. Critique of Braun and Bultmann, though present, seems to be more implicit.

It should be said about Jüngel is that, while he is a careful and penetrating reader of Barth, he has also drunk deeply from the streams of Fuchs, Bultmann and Ebeling – not to mention Luther. This means that some of the modes of thought through which Jüngel interprets Barth’s work are provided from a tradition other than that which most demanded Barth’s loyalties, namely, the Reformed tradition.

As much as I try not to gripe about respected theological figures, I feel as though I must add that I find Jüngel to be very vague in many cases. This has to do not only with his style, but with what we might call his theological genre, which Webster describes as “philosophical theology, or – perhaps better – philosophical dogmatics” (x). Webster’s point in this construction is that, while Jüngel goes about things in a very philosophical and philosophically aware manner, he endeavors to let dogmatic content control philosophical expression. One can come to one’s own conclusions as to the benefit of this type of theological work. As for me and my house, we will do dogmatics proper! It is interesting to note in this respect what Webster says a bit later – “the work which in Jüngel’s theology is undertaken by hermeneutics [read also, ‘philosophy’] tends in Barth’s theology to be undertaken by doctrines” (xxi). To me, this raises profound questions about Jüngel’s project.

In any case, what follows will be something of a hop-skip-and-jump tour of the volume organized by a few quotes or thoughts that I found to be interested, or that I think certain of my conversation partners would find interesting. Hopefully, it will be informative for others as well.

Theological Argument

I have a philosopher colleague who is currently disaffected with the state of the theoblogosphere. Particularly, he wonders about the dearth of actual argument. He has written on Six Propositions on What Makes Good Theology, and has been engaged in a similar discussion with Kim Fabricius and Ben Myers (Aside: I recently met Ben while he was doing research here in Princeton and he is an upstanding guy) in the comments section of Kim’s set of propositions on what it means to be human. Jüngel got upset about these things too. He writes in the 1975 Epilogue to the work in question:
“Theological anxiety about the use of the word ‘ontological’ needs more exact analysis, which cannot be undertaken here. But this is the place to protest against the way in which mere denunciation of a concept replaces argument.”
May we all remember to actually argue, for and against, rather than simply opining.

Theological Ontology

In my discussion above I mentioned my aversion to “philosophical dogmatics.” Ontology is a discussion of being, and insofar as we must discuss being, we should do so theologically. Thus, theological ontology. However, think about the grammatical structure of that statement – theological ontology. In the English language, an adjective modifies a noun, and in that sense the noun is the primary thing, and the adjective secondary. Thus, ‘theological’ comes off as the secondary thing, while ‘ontology’ is grammatically primary. This is not the relation that dogmaticians who do ontology are after, and Jüngel certainly wants to make dogmatics primary. But, if one is doing ontology, no matter how much one tries to do it theologically, there is grave danger for imbalance.

Now, to clarify, I’m not against doing something like “ontological theology.” In this sense, we are not doing ontology in a theologically conditioned way, but doing theology in an ontologically conditioned way. Here, when theological expression strains under ontological imprecision, a theologian may need to do a little ontology / make some good ontological distinctions. But, ontology is in this sense clearly being done in the service of advancing cogent theological argument.

I recognize that, in many ways, this is a very subtle difference. But, I think it is an important one. And, I would like to furthermore make it very clear that I love a good distinction – ontological or otherwise.


It should be obvious as to why Jüngel might be accused of Hegelianism. The title, God’s Being is in Becoming, certainly points in this direction. But, it should also be noted that Jüngel is very explicit in making it clear that he is not pursuing a Hegelian doctrine of the Trinity, referencing his critical treatment of Hegel (cf. 128). Furthermore, Jüngel mentions that he has lectured for years under the title “God’s being is in coming” (129), which detracts significantly – I think – from the worry about Hegel. If Jüngel is equally satisfied with the notion of “coming” to express that which he sought to express under the term “becoming,” this forces us to interpret “becoming” in a certain direction. Indeed, I think that “coming” would be a more accurate term for what Jüngel is on about. It is not that God goes through a process of “becoming” that which God is not. Rather, Jüngel wants to affirm that the God we meet in salvation history (specifically in the incarnation), the economic Trinity, corresponds accurately to God’s being in and for God’s own self, the immanent Trinity. And that, because this correspondences is God’s own self-repetition or self-reiteration, that God’s being includes all that we see in the economic Trinity, including the suffering of Jesus Christ.

Picking Some Nits

Perichoresis and the Trinity: “Through this mutual participation, the three modes of being become concretely united to one another” (44). Jüngel comes a little too close for comfort to establishing the oneness of God on the basis of God’s threeness. Moltmann makes this move explicitly, as do many social Trinitarians. This move is to be rejected as it basically, if not explicitly, affirms tritheism. However, I don’t think that this is what Jüngel is doing. If we remember about that ‘becoming’ can be exchanged for ‘coming,’ then what we have here is simply an actualization of the divine being / ousia. God’s oneness is an event of this perichoretic threeness. This is fine, so long as it is noted as well that God’s threeness is an event of this perichoretic oneness, or something similar. In any case, the foundational dogmatic considerations on this point tend to get lost behind Jüngel’s ontological / hermeneutical / philosophical language, making the dogmatic content hard to get a fix on.

Constitution and Definition: Jüngel likes to talk of how God’s activity constitutes God’s being. This is, I think, unfortunate. As best as I can tell, the word “defines” could be substituted for “constitutes,’ in keeping with some of the themes explored above. Jüngel’s primary concern seems to be that the economic Trinity we meet in revelation accurately corresponds to the immanent Trinity. For this it would be enough to affirm that the economic Trinity defines (on the human side) or manifests, etc. Besides, Jüngel talks about God being “defined concretely” (85), so it all seems to be moving in this direction. For a couple of instances of where this word-usage issue occurs, cf. 81 and 89.

God’s Verbal Being: Jüngel writes that “God’s being…is in itself verbal, and in precisely this way historical” (111). Fine. It makes sense in the argument, etc. But, does it seem weird to anyone else to say that God’s being is verbal? It’s just a funny construction, and one that seems more inclined to German philosophical dialogue than to Christian theology, at least outside of the Lutheran tradition. Things like this just frustrate me, and – when you put a lot of them together – lead me to feel as though Jüngel is a bit vague.


I'm fine with "defining"; I worry about "constituting".

With reference to God's being as verbal - I think this has more to do with Jungel's overall hermeneutic orientation and the Lutheran (and generally Protestant) emphasis on the Word (preaching, etc.).

I think the logic is something like this: To say that God's being is inherently verbal is to affirm that God is in his being what he is in his economy; that is, God has spoken the Word (Christ), ergo, God's being is verbal.

Of course, the value of these kinds of constructions is an open question, although they have their place.
That's fair, and what's more, its textually based (unlike my own assertion).
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Shane said…

what do you think about the way a theologian should do ontology? Should he do it systematically or ad hoc? Your statement that "me and my house will do dogmatics proper" makes me think you must mean ad hoc. Also, GH speaks in this same way.

Against this, I observe that 'ad hoc' is latin for "making shit up as you go along", which is why ad hoc arguments are considered fallacious.


You have a highly refined sensibility for putting a fine point on things. :-)

The delightful discussion of ad hoc argumentation that you pointed us toward is rather interesting. However, I think it also a bit disingenuous. When one employs arguments in an ad hoc manner simply to put up smoke screens, we are dealing not merely with ad hoc argumentation but with that argumentation employed as a ‘red herring’. This might otherwise be called ‘evasive action’, ‘avoiding the question’, etc.

Ad hoc in its most basic sense simply means ‘impromptu’. When I think of doing ad hoc ontology (or anything else), I mean that I am not engaged in trying to build a system of ontology; rather, I employ (as responsibly as I can) certain ontological concepts or constructions as the need arises and as they support my theological argument.
Is there implications for preaching and the sacraments in Jungel's work?

Jungel enthusiastically accepts Barth's rejection of traditional teaching on the sacraments. However, he has ways of talking about them, although - as far as I know - he nowhere gives significant attention to developing a positive account of the sacraments.

Preaching is very important for Jungel.

What kinds of implications have occured to you, or what aspects of Jungels work that we have touched on here suggest implications in these areas?
This may help me understand Jungel better and I need to read and understand him more.

I would link preaching with the OT prophets who spoke the word, "thus saith the Lord." In our worship services the preaching event deals with the Word and Gospel of Jesus Christ may we come to understand preaching (through Jungel) as a verbal incarnation or sacramentally revelational?

A second question comes to mind: What are Jungel's views on preaching, are they typically Lutheran?
Thanks for the post, Travis. I too am rather shocked that you actually read this in three hours. I poured over mine for a couple weeks, though I also wrote copious notes in the margins. GBB (or, in German, GSW) is Jüngel's greatest book, in my opinion. Not as far-reaching and creative as God as the Mystery of the World, but definitely the most profound and (yes) beautiful.

I'm with Adam on the actualistic nature of Jüngel's divine ontology. But I also think "define" works in the context. Here's the thing you have to know about Jüngel: when he's explicating Barth, he's more conservative and "define" captures his meaning. But when he is doing his own constructive project (GMW), he is more radical, and constitute is what captures his meaning best.

This is what you miss in your discussion of "God's being is in becoming" vs. "God's being is in coming." The former is the more conservative; the latter is the more radical. And precisely for the reasons I just mentioned. (You wouldn't know any of this apart from reading GMW).

As Jüngel tries to make very clear, "God's being is in becoming" does not mean that God's being becomes something else. Rather, it means that God's being is ontologically located in the triune movement of God's being in history. To say that "God's being is in coming" is to say something else entirely, and that is worthy of another discussion altogether.

I want to pick some nits regarding your distaste for "theological ontology." There's a problem with your preference for "ontological theology." The problem is perhaps more clear if we use aesthetics. What is the difference between "theological aesthetics" and "aesthetic theology"? The former speaks of engaging in aesthetics out of a decidedly theological framework; the latter speaks of engaging in theology out of a decidedly aesthetic framework. The two are quite different.

Now we might agree on what constitutes an "aesthetic framework," but that's only because we approach the term with our own preconceived notion of what an "aesthetic" actually is. The point of "theological aesthetics" is to approach the study of beauty from a perspective rooted in the knowledge of God. Theological aesthetics has its own presuppositions, but they are rooted in the self-revelation of God -- in theology proper, so to speak. Aesthetic theology presupposes knowledge defined outside of God's self-revelation.

The same can be said of "theological ethics" vs. "ethical theology." The former defines ethics out of God's self-revelation; the latter defines theology out of a presupposed understanding of ethics. And, finally, the same different applies to theological ontology and ontological theology. The latter presupposes prior knowledge of ontology.

So I'm more with Shane on this one, as long as we heed Barth's warning that theology cannot be "our" system but only a thinking-after of God's Word. We do not dictate the terms, but rather God dictates them in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture.

Travis, while you're right about the sacrament of baptism, let's not forget that Jüngel has a very high view of the Lord's Supper. As a Lutheran theologian, Jüngel views the Eucharist as the center of what he calls the "ecumenical community." He has high hopes for an ecumenical movement rooted in the sacrament of the table.

But, of course, following Barth, he has nothing but the highest of things to say about preaching. His entire theology is shaped by the "word-event" of the gospel kerygma. The "word of the cross" is one of the central phrases in GMW. And in my own work on Jüngel, I suggest that we understand his theological ontology as a dialogical ontology, meaning that he conceives of divine-human ontology in terms of a dialogical relation between speaker and hearer. So, yes, the Yes and Amen of our preaching is important, though it is strictly secondary to the primal act of God's original Yes and Amen to us in Jesus Christ.

Thanks for swinging by and lending us your considerable expertise on Jungel.

Re: "ontological theology", etc. I think that we are (mostly) after the same things, but are parsing the grammar differently.

Re: becoming / coming. I would love to hear more about the difference here in Jungel. Maybe I should go read GMW in three hours! In any case, you should consider posting on this on your blog as it seems to be a way in to talking about Jungel's constructive project and its relation to Barth.

Re: sacraments. Thanks for parsing this out!
Anonymous said…
I find Jungel's prose in this book is muddled via constant topical repetition. Certainly the reader will find no relief in the footnotes which prove to be just as dense. I can understand Jungel's attempt at a thorough study of Barth because he is eager to show how easily Barth has been misunderstood by others. However, when you knead the Barthian dough as much as Jungel has, you end up with less clarity. I gained more from Torrance's "Trinity" essay in the Cambridge Companion to Barth than I the detailed Jungel monograph.

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