Beyond Foundations: An exploration of the ‘transfoundational’ methodology of Karl Barth.

Contributed by Jon Mackenzie.

Theology is an intellectual endeavour. To this end, it requires certain basic structural suppositions on the behalf of the subject attempting to manoeuvre within this theological sphere. These suppositions range from the rudimentary (the need for a language by which to communicate and conceptualise the theological endeavour) to the complex (full-scale philosophical edifices which can be used to support certain theological approaches). These basic structural suppositions are the foundations upon which the theological task is supported.

However, although the study of theology must seek to operate in a manner that is continuous with other areas within the academy, theology can never fail to take into account its object of study – God. Deus non est in genere.[1] In this sense, the basic structural suppositions upon which the theological endeavour rests can never bear upon that which they seek to reflect. If this were to occur, God would cease to be Himself, God would cease to be God, instead becoming parasitic upon man for his existence.[2] Thus, the basic structural suppositions utilised within the theological milieu can never bear upon the ‘wholly otherness’ of the object of its study.[3] Instead, the basic structural suppositions should not be viewed as foundations in their own right, supporting the theological endeavour incontrovertibly. If this were the case then any removal of these ‘foundations’ would bring the edifice of theological study hurtling into the abyss.[4] We face an aporia which emerges in the symbiotic relationship between the basic structural suppositions utilised by the theologian and the theological truth-claims which they sustain. These theological truth-claims seek to reflect a God who is wholly other to this world and yet our talk about this God relies upon these basic structural suppositions.

It is this aporia that Bruce McCormack seeks to resolve when he labels the theology of Karl Barth ‘transfoundationalist’.[5] McCormack describes transfoundationalism as, “the result of an attempt to transcend philosophical foundations without negating them.”[6] In this way, if Barth’s methodology can be shown to be ‘transfoundationalist’ then it can be said to have transcended the limitations proper to these philosophical foundations. Thus, the basic structural suppositions are effectively denied any ultimacy with respect to theological truth-claims, and because they lack ultimacy, “philosophical formulations of the foundations of human knowledge must be open-ended and revisable.”[7] If this is the case, then any change in basic structural suppositions existing in symbiotic relationship with theological truth-claims should effect no change within these theological truth-claims. “The larger implication of this line of thought is that Barth did not and could not have granted to his Kantianism a nonnegotiable status.”[8]

McCormack’s investigation of Barth’s transfoundational methodology comes as an afterthought as he follows up his interpretation of Barth as a nineteenth-century theologian within the Schleiermacherian tradition with some ‘programmatic suggestions’ as to the transfoundational methodology which Barth displays.[9] In what follows, I am going to pursue some of McCormack’s suggestions through to a more decisive conclusion. If it is the case that Barth’s theological methodology is ‘nonnegotiable’, then it seems that any change in the philosophical foundations will not call his theological truth-claims into question. Thus, by analysing the theological methodology of a later proponent of Barth, the adequacy of the term ‘transfoundational’ with respect to Barth’s theology can be more fully investigated.[10]

The theology of Eberhard Jüngel is often termed ‘philosophical’ as it exhibits a careful elucidation of the basic structural suppositions which sustain it.[11] Furthermore, “Jüngel’s theology generally is so compatible with Barth’s that a summary of Barth’s approach to theology can serve practically as an introduction to Jüngel.”[12] However, the basic structural suppositions which Jüngel utilises are fairly incongruent to those adopted by Barth.[13] The following study will seek to analyse the theological methodology of both Barth and Jüngel before evaluating whether or not the theology of Karl Barth can be correctly termed ‘transfoundational’.

Karl Barth: The Development of a Transfoundationalist Methodology?

The determination of the development of the theology of Karl Barth ab ovo is notoriously difficult to identify as the various studies into the genetic origins of Barth’s thought testify.[14] However, although the full extent cannot be presumed, what is certain is that the early Barth was influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. From the very outset of his theological education at the University of Bern, the young Barth came across the philosophy of Kant which was to have such a marked effect upon him that he commented, “the first book which really moved me as a student was Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason.”[15] Furthermore, during his brief sojourn at the University of Berlin, Barth again worked through the Critique of Practical Reason as well as devouring the Critique of Pure Reason which he came across for the first time in Berlin.[16] When he finally reached the Promised Land of his university education, arriving at Marburg in April 1908, Barth once again came under the influence of Kantianism, although this was a Kantianism of a different strain. The triumphant scientific materialism of the 1850s had led to a return to the philosophy of Kant in a bid to develop a firm critical footing for the philosophical task. This so-called ‘neo-Kantianism’ was being developed by three Marburg philosophers, F.A. Lange, Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp when Karl Barth arrived in Marburg.[17] Barth experienced this school of philosophy both directly, by attending lectures by Cohen and Natorp,[18] and secondarily, through the theology of his Doktorvater, Wilhelm Herrmann. “On the one hand Herrmann was a Kantian… and on the other a pupil of the younger Schleiermacher, not the older… I studied Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and then I went twice through the Critique of Pure Reason almost with a toothcomb. At that time we thought that it was the only way one had to begin theology.”[19]

This palpable influence of Kantian philosophy upon the young Barth’s theological methodology should not be missed.[20] Whilst it would be specious to argue that Barth was a Kantian in his approach to the theological task, the important function of Kantian terms in the depiction of the problem of the knowledge of God should not go unnoticed.[21] As Barth conceived of the problem of the knowledge of God, he used the terminology developed by Kant to explicate it. For Kant, any epistemological endeavour had to operate with the humble acceptance of the limitation of theoretical knowing to that which was intuitable: viz. those things which could be known in the phenomenological realm. As God was not to be known within the phenomenological realm, he was not intuitable and, thus, there could be no true knowledge of God. It was this limitation of theoretical knowing which made the knowledge of God so problematic for the modern theologians.

However, whilst Kant may have provided the elucidation to the problem of the knowledge of God, Barth sought to overcome this problem theologically.[22] Barth’s original solution to this problem expressed in Kantian terms relied upon his Marburg schooling and the liberal theology of Wilhelm Herrmann.[23] Following his break from the liberal theology of Herrmann, Barth’s solution to the problem focussed upon a ‘divine act’ by which the human knowing apparatus is ‘commandeered’ by God from without and made to conform to God as its object.[24] “Briefly put, the solution now read if the unintuitable God is truly to be known, God must make Godself intuitable.”[25] However, Barth sought to remain faithful to the ‘wholly other’ character of God and so he added the rejoinder: “But God must do so in such a way that the unintuitability proper to God is not set aside.”[26] This theological solution appeared originally within the second edition of the Römerbrief, but reached its fullest expression within the Göttingen Dogmatics, the lecture series which Barth gave in 1924.[27] In the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth returned to the Reformed version of the notion of an enhypostatic-anhypostatic Christology which he gleaned from Heinrich Heppe’s compendium of Reformed Dogmatics. In this way, he was able to ascribe the attributes proper to each nature within the person of Jesus Christ to the one Person of the Logos. Once this ascription of the attributes has been achieved, Barth had overcome the first part of the problem: God, who was unintuitable, had become intuitable by ‘becoming’ man and entering the phenomenal realm.[28] However, Barth is careful to maintain the second half of the problem. “The life of Jesus does not in itself impart the knowledge of God (John 14:8-9). In itself it is instead a riddle, a mystery, a veiling.”[29] God never enters fully in the realm of intuitability; God remains unintuitable, the hidden Subject of the life of Jesus Christ. It is at this point that an appeal has to be made to the revealing power of the Holy Spirit,[30] but the larger argument stands. Barth has presented a theological solution to the problem of the knowledge of God which he presents in broadly Kantian terms.

In concluding this section, the real question that comes to the fore is whether or not Barth did not and could not have granted to his Kantianism a nonnegotiable status.[31] The approach of Barth to the problem of the knowledge of God does rely partially upon the philosophical language of Kant for its direction. However, if Barth’s theology is truly ‘transfoundational’, then the replacement of this Kantian terminology with a different vocabulary should not endanger the theological edifice which it supports. It is with this question in mind that we approach the theological methodology of Eberhard Jüngel.

Eberhard Jüngel: Bringing the House Down?

In considering the theological methodology of Eberhard Jüngel, a certain degree of care must be taken in differentiating his approach to the problem of the knowledge of God from that of Barth. Whilst there are broad similarities between the two approaches to the problem of the knowledge of God, Jüngel formulates the problem of the knowledge of God in different terms to those of Barth. A reading of Jüngel’s paraphrase of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, God’s Being is in Becoming, is an impressive development of Barth’s thought whilst seeking to remain faithful to the material content of Barth’s theology.[32] What is most important is to notice how Jüngel fits this vocabulary alongside his own philosophical terminology. On the one hand, Jüngel is happy to talk about the unituitability of God, “As an object of the knowledge of God, God differentiates himself from all other epistemological objects precisely in his being-as-object, which cannot be defined in terms of the objectivity of other objects.”[33] However, Jüngel emphasizes the place of the knowing subject within epistemology in a bid to unite Barth’s epistemology with a more contemporary epistemology:
In that in his being-as-object God differentiates himself from all other objects of human knowledge, he himself also differentiates the human person who knows God in his or her being-subject from all other ways in which the human person as knowing subject stands over against an object which is to be known. The same would be true with regard to modern attempts to correct classic epistemology ontologically (N. Hartmann), or to think back its essence and so to overcome it at its starting-point (M. Heidegger).[34]
In this way, Jüngel takes Barth’s theological concept of the epistemological subject, the notion that God, “also sanctifies man in his relationship to Himself”[35] and aligns it with more contemporary approaches to epistemology.[36] Thus, for Jüngel, the problem of the unintuitability of God is still prevalent (“God…cannot be defined in terms of the objectivity of other objects”),[37] but the problem is reformulated using new terms which go beyond the Kantian framework within which Barth operates.

For Kant, and subsequently Barth, the unintuitability of God comes at the level of experience. The human knower can only cognise at the level of phenomena or not at all. Thus, the only way that God can become intuitable is if he enters the phenomenological realm and becomes ‘knowable’ – a solution which fitted neatly with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. For Jüngel, however, the problem of the knowledge of God seems to reside on a different level: not on the level of epistemology but rather the level of ontology. That is to say, it is not the limits of the human knower that leads to the claim that ‘the Deity, therefore, is ineffable and incomprehensible’.[38] Instead, it is the complete ontological otherness that separates us from God epistemologically. To be precise, the problem remains the problem of the knowledge of God, but the emphasis changes from a problem of the knowledge of God, to the problem of the knowledge of God. This approach to the problem is neatly summed up by Jüngel: “But over against this impressive conception [that God is mystery], the question must be raised whether it is not defining the concept of the mystery of God solely (!) through the limits of human knowledge. But is God a mystery because we are not able to know him adequately? Or is he full of mystery in his being? Does not a mystery constitute itself only through itself?”[39] Thus, for Jüngel, the problem of the knowledge of God is located in the notion of the mystery of God’s being. It is this mystery which compounds the problem of the knowledge of God. Any solution to the problem of the knowledge of God must seek to account for this mystery in God’s being.

The solution to the problem of the knowledge of God is to be found for Jüngel, “in an attempt to understand the gospel as the human word which corresponds to the divine mystery.”[40] The two important elements of this attempt to solve the problem are, firstly, the grounding of the solution in the person of Jesus Christ, in Christology, and secondly, the ‘word-character’ of the person Jesus Christ as being the means to the solution of the problem. These two elements could be summed up in the statement that, “Jesus Christ is the event of the Word of God in person.”[41] The influence of the language theory of Martin Heidegger is palpable here.[42] The problem of the knowledge of God is that specifically there is a mystery within the being of God. The solution to this problem must be the revelation of this being to humanity. The means by which this solution is possible is through the function of language: “What does language do?… It permits being to be ‘present’, it makes being into an event.”[43] In this way, language operates as the ‘sacrament of reality’, the event in which being becomes actual.[44]

However, rather than relying upon an abstract theory of language by which God might be known, Jüngel’s solution to the problem of the knowledge of God relies upon the particular person of Jesus Christ as that by which God’s being as mystery comes to speech.[45] In this way, the emphasis is not in the movement of human words towards God, but rather upon the God as word coming close to man in human words through the event of Jesus Christ. “The son is the personal parable of the father.”[46] Thus, the coming of God to man in speech means that the problem of the knowledge of God is no longer problematic. This does not mean that the theological task is relegated to talking of a man instead of God, but rather, “what must be done is to speak of God as a man in such a way that this man whose name is Jesus can be named, confessed, and called on as God.”[47]

From Barth through Jüngel: Beyond Foundations

In pulling the various strands of argumentation together, the initial question remains: is the theological methodology of Karl Barth effectively ‘transfoundational’? Through the exploration of Barth’s methodology, the Kantian framing of the problem of the knowledge of God was highlighted: God cannot be known because he is not experienced within the phenomenal realm. The problem becomes primarily epistemological – “We cannot conceive God because we cannot even contemplate him.”[48] It is because the human faculty of cognitive knowing is limited to the phenomenological realm and, thus, God cannot be known. The solution of the problem for Barth, therefore, involves some incarnation of God within the phenomenological realm; something which coheres well with a Christian doctrine of Incarnation. Barth utilised the reformed doctrines of the anhypostatic and enhypostatic to explain this Incarnation of Jesus within the phenomenological realm. In this way, the problem of the knowledge of God was overcome.

However, as far as Jüngel is concerned, the problem of the knowledge of God is not primarily epistemological (humanity cannot know God) but rather ontological (humanity cannot know God). In this way, he frames the problem in a more Heideggerean manner: it is rather the revelation of Being which is problematic. How can God’s being be revealed to humanity? Nevertheless, for Jüngel, the solution remains the same: God makes knowledge of himself possible through Christology. Jesus Christ came to the world of human being as Word allows the being of God to come to speech in the world and, thus, God can be known.

The foundations of the theologies of both Barth and Jüngel are occasional; they both rely upon contemporary epistemologies to influence the theological problem of speech about God. However, this foundational methodology is ‘transfoundational’ in so far as it does not impose upon the resulting theology in a totalitarian or dictatorial manner. The theologies of Barth and Jüngel are comparable at the level of content regardless of their differing foundations.[49] In this way, the transfoundational theological methodology of Karl Barth does not compromise upon the ‘wholly other’ nature of its object of knowledge – God remains distinct from the world and yet gives himself to be known without negation. “Such was the God with whom man has to do when he takes the name of God upon his lips, when God encounters him, when he enters relation with God. We were confronted by the mystery comparable only to the impenetrable darkness of death, in which God veils Himself precisely when he unveils, announces, and reveals Himself to man, and by the judgement man must experience because God is gracious to him, because he wills to be and is his God.”[50]

  1. Thomas Summa Theologica, Ia. q.3a. 5co.

  2. See Feuerbach, Ludwig The Essence of Christianity, trans. G. Eliot, (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), Part II – The False or Theological Essence of Religion.

  3. “A God absolutely unique in his relation to man and the world, overpoweringly lofty and distant, strange, yes even wholly other.” Barth, Karl The Humanity of God, trans. J.N. Thomas, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1960), 37.

  4. As an aside, perhaps the metaphorical language of ‘foundation’ could be replaced by a more useful referent within the linguistic sphere. A better metaphor by which to explicate these basic suppositions might be that of ‘semantics’. This notion can be seen within the philosophical approach to logic proposed by Aristotle but is being more fully developed by the logician Alfred Tarski. Generally, in logic, validity is often defined in terms of semantics. In this way, an argument is said to be ‘valid’ if its conclusion is true in every interpretation of the language in which the premises are true - “The semantic conception of logic is an attempt to explicate the underlying notion of ‘model’ or ‘interpretation’ that underlies this definition of validity.” Shapiro, Stewart Foundations without Foundationalism: A Case for Second-Order Logic, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Thus, the resulting argument does not rest upon the premises which it assumes but there is a mutual relating between the conclusions and the premises. Perhaps this notion of semantic structural suppositions could be further expounded within the area of theological study but that is not the concern of this study.

  5. McCormack, Bruce L. ‘Revelation and History in Transfoundationalist Perspective: Karl Barth’s Theological Epistemology in Conversation with a Schleiermacherian Tradition’ in The Journal of Religion 78 (1998), 33.

  6. Author’s emphasis - Ibid. Here McCormack is reacting against recent claims that Barth is at the head of the ‘Nonfoundationalist’ tradition – a group represented by the Yale theologians, Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, alongside their students, Ronald Thiemann and Kathryn Tanner. See Thiel, John Nonfoundationalism, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), chap. 2.

  7. McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 33.

  8. Ibid.

  9. “I will conclude with some programmatic suggestions with regard to the tasks which a proper understanding of Barth’s theological epistemology places on the theological agenda today.” Ibid., 20.

  10. In his essay, McCormack tentatively reaches backwards as he suggests that Barth works within a Schleiermacherian framework by means of a “mediation of tradition by means of a modern theological epistemology” – McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 28. What I am attempting to do is work forwards from Barth through to the work of Eberhard Jüngel and attempt to analyse the same ‘mediation of tradition’ but by means of a more recent ‘modern theological epistemology’.

  11. Jüngel approaches post-Enlightenment theology, “without sidestepping the task of vigorous debate with the philosophical traditions of modernity.” Webster, John ‘Jesus in the Theology of Eberhard Jüngel’ in Calvin Theological Journal 32 (1997), 45.

  12. Zimany, Roland Daniel Vehicle for God: The Metaphorical Theology of Eberhard Jüngel, (Mercer, GA: Mercer University Press, 1994), 6.

  13. Barth operates with a broadly Kantian approach to the problem of the knowledge of God (See McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 31-32) whereas Jüngel is much more sympathetic to an account of epistemology which is flavoured by the phenomenological existentialism of Martin Heidegger although he is by no means a strict adherent to this philosophical school (See Zimany, Vehicle of God, 9-12, 18-21).

  14. For example, did Barth experience two breaks in the development of his theology (See Balthasar, Hans Urs von Karl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie, (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1976), 101) or only one? (See Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Von der Dialektik zur Analogie: Die Schule Kierkegaards und der Einspruch Petersons’ in Barth-Studien, (Zurich and Cologne: Benziger Verlag, 1982), 127-179) Was the early Barth plagued by the questions posed by post-Enlightenment epistemology (See McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 18-20) or was he more concerned to depict the sovereignty of God and the form of historical life to which it gives rise? (See Webster, John Barth’s Earlier Theology, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2005), 12)

  15. From the autobiographical sketch Fakultätsalbum der Evangelisch-theologischen Fakultät Bonn, 1927 cited in Busch, Eberhard Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, trans. John Bowden, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 34.

  16. “I worked through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of Pure Reason (which I read then for the first time, but equally intensively).” Barth, Karl ‘Nachwort’ in Schleiermacher-Auswahl, (Siebenstern Taschenbuch, 1968), 290.

  17. See Fisher, Simon Revelatory Positivism?: Barth’s Earliest Theology and the Marburg School, (Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 9-10.

  18. “There has been… a philosophical fervour which is almost priestly. This was impressed upon us at Marburg… by the figures of Cohen and Natorp.” Barth, Karl Theology and Church, (London: SCM Press, 1962), 256.

  19. In conversation with Wuppertal students, 1 July 1968 cited in Busch, Karl Barth, 45.

  20. Even the references suggesting a methodological shift from Kant to Schleiermacher (“After Kant, I then hit upon Schleiermacher” – Ibid.) cannot ignore the fact that Schleiermacher was, in turn, influenced by the Kantian representation of the problem of the knowledge of God.

  21. “We cannot conceive God because we cannot even contemplate him. He cannot be the object of one of those perceptions to which our concepts, out thought-forms and finally our words and sentences are related.” Barth, Karl Church Dogmatics II/1, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), 186.

  22. For the best overview of Barth’s solution to this problem of the knowledge of God see McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 21-31.

  23. See Barth, Karl ‘Moderne Theologie und Reichgottesarbeit’ in Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 19 (1909), 317-321, ‘Der christliche Glaube und die Geschichte” in Schweizerische Theologische Zeitschrift 29 (1912), 1-18, 49-72. For a summary of the Herrmannian influence upon Barth’s response to the problem of the knowledge of God see McCormack, Bruce L. Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 68-77.

  24. This is what McCormack labels Barth’s “new critically realistic starting point” – McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 25.

  25. Author’s emphasis - Ibid.

  26. Author’s emphasis - Ibid., 26.

  27. Whilst the rubrics of this solution to the problem appeared in Römerbrief II, this attempt to overcome the problem of the knowledge of God was far too punctiliar and ex tempore to adequately present God within the realm of the phenomenal. See McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 26-27.

  28. It is important to highlight that Barth’s later doctrine of election functions as a control to this near affirmation of the genus tapeinoticum. This is not a full ‘kenosis’ but rather an eternal decision by the Trinitarian Persons which give the ontological conditions for such a divine ‘becoming’. This can be seen in hints in the Göttingen Dogmatics – see Barth, Karl Göttingen Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. G.W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 166.

  29. Ibid., 334.

  30. Is this a problem? “If the life of God has become historical, then appeals by the individual theologian to the Holy Spirit are not made in a vacuum. They are made with respect to a reality in history; the veil of the divine Self-revelation, at least, is something to which the Church as well as the guild of historians has access.” McCormack, ‘Revelation and History’, 31.

  31. This is something McCormack thinks is arguable – see Ibid., 33.

  32. The subtitle of God’s Being is in Becoming reads, ‘The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. A Paraphrase’, which stresses the methodological objective of the work. Jüngel is seeking to ‘paraphrase’ Barth which, in the language of Barth, is the attempt to interpret: “Interpretation means saying the same thing in other words” as opposed to illustration which “means saying the same thing in other words.” Barth, Karl Church Dogmatics I/1, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 345.

  33. Jüngel, Eberhard God’s Being is in Becoming, trans. J.B. Webster, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 56.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ibid., 57.

  36. As Jüngel highlights above, the notion of the epistemological subject is integral to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein. See Heidegger Ultimately, Jüngel remains faithful to Barth whilst developing the foundations which support the theological edifice developed by Barth. In this sense, the transfoundational nature of the Barthian methodology is verified if the new foundations are transcended without calling into question the material content which they support.

  37. Ibid., 56.

  38. Jüngel, Eberhard God as the Mystery of the World, trans. D.L. Guder, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1983), 232.

  39. Ibid., 245.

  40. Ibid., 261.

  41. Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Die Freiheit der Theologie’ in Entsprechungen: Gott-Wahrheit-Mensch: Theologische Erörterungen, (München: Kaiser, 1980), 16.

  42. For Heidegger, thinking seeks the word in which Being can ‘become language’ and thereby be communicated. See Heidegger, Martin ‘What is Metaphysics?’ in Existence and Being, ed. W. Brock, (London: Vision Press, 1949), 389-391.

  43. Fuchs, Ernst Studies of the Historical Jesus, (London: SCM Press, 1964), 207.

  44. For a fuller expression of Jüngel’s notion of the sacramentality of language see Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Metaphorical Truth’ in Theological Essays, trans. J.B. Webster, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989).

  45. “The translation of the model of human speech to God is based on the certainty that God has shown himself to be human in the execution of his divinity. To think of him as the one who speaks, to speak of him as one who speaks, is not a ‘dogmatic anthropomorphism’ which comes too close to God, but rather the result of an event in which God becomes accessible as God in language, which the Bible calls revelation.” Jüngel, God as Mystery, 288.

  46. Ibid., 289.

  47. Ibid., 298.

  48. Barth, CD II/1, 186.

  49. Even to the level that enhypostasia and anhypostasia are used within Christology to overcome the problem of the knowledge of God. See Jüngel, Eberhard ‘Jesu Wort und Jesus als Wort Gottes’ in Parrhesia: Karl Barth zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. E. Busch et al., (Zürich: EVZ, 1966), 140.

  50. Barth, Humanity of God, 37.

Response to Jon Mackenzie

Contributed by Chris TerryNelson.

Jon Mackenzie has given us much food for thought with regard to Barth’s “transfoundationalism.” Let me paraphrase the main argument. Jon has sought to show that Karl Barth’s theology is “transfoundationalist,” whereby the philosophical formulations of the foundations of human knowledge are subservient to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the primary object of theological inquiry. This secondary character of philosophical language means it can (and must) be revised for the service of proclaiming the Gospel. Jon claims that despite Jüngel’s revision of Barth’s foundational Kantian epistemological vocabulary in favor of a more Hegelian ontological vocabulary, he still finds the same theological truth-claims proper to both theologians. I like this thesis, but I wonder about how clear-cut Jon has portrayed the foundations of both theologians.

Jon makes the statement: “[f]or Kant, and subsequently Barth, the unintuitability of God comes at the level of experience. Thus, the only way that God can become intuitable is if he enters the phenomenological realm and becomes ‘knowable.’” However, for Jüngel, we are told, the problem lies in the “ontological otherness that separates us from God,” or in the “notion of the mystery of God’s being.” While I find this distinction between Kantian epistemology and Hegelian ontology interesting, and believe Jon is speaking truth with regard to their different foundational languages, I think that is all that can be said. I find it hard to believe that Barth is wedded to the vocabulary of the former while Jüngel to the latter. Barth, it seems to me, would want to affirm the ontological distinction between God and humanity (Lessing’s ditch) as the foundation for the epistemological problem. While he may not give it the Hegelian spin that Jüngel does, the ontological distinction is still important for Barth. And so perhaps we should content ourselves with speaking about a difference in emphasis, between the “knowledge of God” and the “knowledge of God.”

One of the things I found most helpful about Jon’s post is that it helps to bring the utter translatability of the Gospel into the academic scene. That is, just as the Gospel is spoken to humanity in many languages, so too does this happen in the world of theology as it witnesses to the Gospel in the different philosophical modes of its time and place.

Here are a few questions that could be raised to Jon’s work:

(1) Is Jon correct in his interpretation of Barth and Jüngel? Is there a sense in which his distinction is too clear-cut?

(2) How is Barth’s “transfoundationalism” related to what is often called “post-foundationalism” in theology today? Do they differ in any significant way?


Shane said…

In your second post, I think you are making an argument that goes like this:

(1) Theology has basic "structural suppositions."
(2) If those structural suppositions "bear upon" that which they seek to reflect, then God would be "parasitic upon man for his existence."
(3) But God is not parasitic upon man for his existence.
(4) Therefore, the structural suppositions of theology cannot "bear upon" its subject matter, namely God.

I take it that you think Barth's theology is "transfoundational" in that it can accept some basic philosophical presuppositions, but those presuppositions do not supply any content to its conclusions or something like that? I presume that "bear upon" means something like that; my knowledge of the history of France "bears upon" my belief that Paris is its capital.

I think there are two problems here.

First, I think the second premise is false. Foundationalism is a theory in epistemology, not ontology. So why should the existence of epistemological foundations entail an ontological conclusion about God? In other words, suppose it were the case that we could come to know that God exists by means of some foundationalist version of philosophy. Why would that fact entail that God's existence was dependent upon our knowing him? It certainly seems possible that God exist without anyone knowing about it, even if they could know in principle. So, I agree with (1) and (3), but (2) is false, so (4) doesn't follow.


The second problem with the conclusion is that it seems odd to say that theology has to have philosophical or scientific presuppositions, but these presuppositions can't furnish any content or something like that. If they can't furnish any content, why in the world would you need them in the first place? What do these presuppositions do if not provide some content?

Maybe you're thinking something else though, more along these lines: the philosopher supplies the structure, but not the content of theology. And by "structure" we mean logic. So the "structural supposition" upon which theology rests is really just the modus ponens inference, say. If you put it that way, maybe you can make sense of the distinction between the logical structure of the science of theology and it's content.

I'm always a little suspicious of form/content distinctions, and I think there are good arguments to be made that logic is not ontologically neutral. But, that seems like a stronger position you could occupy.
Luke said…
I like very much what you say about God and language in Jüngel. Language as event that makes present what it is not. Indeed, this is very heideggerian. Not only language describes reality, but also transforms it. If I say “Maria, I take for wife”, I am not describing a fact; I am transforming reality, doing something. In this sense, God as word, transforms reality, makes it different of what it would be without its presence.

I encourage you to deepen this tendency in Jüngel’s theology.
Anonymous said…
I have a confession to make. As soon as I finished this paper I was unhappy with it and have changed my opinion on the matter somewhat. I agree with Chris in saying the conclusion is too neat - there is not a simple distinction at work between Barth and Jüngel's methodologies. However, Shane's statement "why should the existence of epistemological foundations entail an ontological conclusion about God?" isn't the knock-down, drag out argument to render my argument useless.

The issue for me is this - can there be a link between epistemological foundations and ontology? I think there can. For Barth, the problem is focussed upon epistemology - we cannot know God because we are ontologically distinct from God. I think the same is true for Jüngel - it's the focus that changes. We cannot know God because he is ontologically distinct from us. Am I being annoyingly dialectical here? I don't think so - the subtle difference between the two positions highlights the important distinction in my argument which deems Shane's refusal to accept (2) untennable. The first ontological distinction is highlighted upon Barth's 'total depravity' model i.e. Man is depraved and thus cannot know God because ontologically he is unable to approach God epistemologically. The second is far less negative - Jüngel approaches the mystery of God as located in the being of God - God is unapproachable by human minds (regardless of any depravity of humanity) because he is ontologically distinct from us - his being is mystery and wondrous to us. Our minds cannot comprehend him because they exist within a disparate ontological order. This is affirmed by Jungel “But over against this impressive conception [that God is mystery], the question must be raised whether it is not defining the concept of the mystery of God solely (!) through the limits of human knowledge. But is God a mystery because we are not able to know him adequately? Or is he full of mystery in his being? Does not a mystery constitute itself only through itself?”

I think there is something behind this subtle distinction. It allows Jungel to move beyond Barth's anthropocentric (he really is you know) problem of the knowledge of God to Jungel's theocentric problem of the knowledge of God. Thus, Jungel can develop a 'theology of the natural' which goes beyond anything Barth might have attempted. God is mystery not because of sin - God is mystery because he is God! That is why we don't need a confused account of veiling/unveiling which highlights the salvific trajectory of Barth's solution to the problem of the knowledge of God. We need an account of revelation which accords with the mystery of God's being and remains awed at the possibility that man can know God "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him, but you made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honour!" Does that not excite you that we can even have this discussion! Can you not see the importance in distinguishing between Jungel and Barth?

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