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[Review] Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutic Proposal by George Hunsinger

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best. CD II/1, 3

In a recent review of George Hunsinger’s “Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal,”[1] Phillip Cary commented, “Barth’s Christocentrism is fundamental to the appeal of his theology, and it leads him to make some startling claims.” That is a bit of an understatement. But Cary is absolutely correct, a conception of Jesus is at the very center of all Barth’s theology. Christology is so important to Barth’s Theology that some have gone so far as to assert that Barth has no Christology per se, but that his entire theological project is Christological.[2] Therefore, one’s appropriation of the place of Barth’s Christology within the framework of his theological project, is critical for how one receives the entirety of Barth’s theology.

In his new work, Hunsinger sets forth a reading of Barth very different from his revisionist opponents; a Barth that is, well, strikingly less radical. Hunsinger arrives at this reading of Barth by using a “hermeneutic of charity,”[3] a methodological approach to ambiguous texts that seeks alternative interpretive options when faced with apparent contradictions. According to the hermeneutic of charity, the reader should only subject an argument or proposition to criticism after one has sought to resolve the difficulties themselves.[4] If one cannot resolve the apparent contradiction via a favorable interpretation (i.e. one that does not involve prima facie contradiction), then one is permitted to subject the argument or proposition to criticism. The principle of “charity” is more or less a hermeneutical application of the “Golden Rule.”[5] As one could probably guess, Hunsinger argues that the revisionists’ interpretation of Barth fails to read Barth charitably; that is, they’re guilty of pitting Barth against himself and through deductive reasoning setting a theological trajectory for his theology that Barth never intended.

Hunsinger cites T.F. Torrance’s[6] distinction between “evangelical” and “rationalistic” Calvinism as an example of the principle of charity in action.[7] It is a more or less classic “Calvin and the Calvinists” approach. The “evangelical” Calvinism is allegedly closer to the actual textual Calvin than the logical systemizing of the “rational” Calvinists following Beza. “It judged, according to Torrance, that the filial was prior to the legal, that the personal was prior to the propositional, that the inductive took precedence over the deductive, and that spiritual insight placed constraints on logical reasoning.”[8]

The rationalistic Calvinists’ approach to Calvin’s writings lead to the allegedly “extreme” doctrines of Limited atonement, supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism and worst of all (for Torrance at least), a “legalistic construal of ‘covenant’ that tended toward synergism.”[9] For Hunsinger the present debate is no more than an incarnation of the “Calvin and the Calvinists” debate, only this time, it is Barth and the revisionist Barthians.[10]

A Revisionist Manifesto

Hunsinger cites Bruce McCormack’s “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology”[11] as an impressive example of a revisionist[12] reading of Barth. It contains the seminal ideas that will work their way through much of the revisionist literature in one form or another. For example, the use of the word “ontology.” Hunsinger notes that ontology plays a significant role in modern receptions of Barth’s theology,[13] and that is part of the problem. Hunsinger therefore distinguishes between two types of ontology. First, there is the proper philosophical sense of the word as the study of “being qua being” (ontology1). Second, there is the looser sense which speaks to a “field of inquiry pertaining to the material covered and the sorts of things and relations one finds in it-to a general area of action, inquiry, or interest”[14] (ontology2). According to Hunsinger, the revisionists often fail to distinguish between these two uses of ontology.

Predictably, Barth rejects ontology1 as a danger to Dogmatic theology. Ontology1 represents a danger to the Dogmatic theologian in its penchant for imposing overarching systems wherein the Dogmatic theologian is constrained to operate.[15] While Barth felt free to plunder ontology1 for useful tools, he would never submit (according to Hunsinger) to the rigors of an independent ontology as presented in ontology1,[16] and this includes an “actualistic ontology” such as that argued for by McCormack.

So the solution for Hunsinger is found to be neither post-metaphysical in nature nor within classical essentialist metaphysics; it is, rather, a combination of both.[17] In other words, the Revisionist has set up a false dilemma against the textual Barth, and that is the rub for Hunsinger.[18]

“Actualistic ontology” a la Bruce McCormack is a way of describing the being of God as it is “determined” in Jesus Christ and is associated primarily with the “revisionist” reception of Karl Barth.[19] When worked out to its logical conclusion, an actualistic ontology argues for a pre-temporal non-Trinitarian act (i.e. election) that occurs “in relation to the world” and subsequently constitutes the Trinity. So behind God’s decision to be Triune, is an undifferentiated divine potentiality that is actualized only after God’s self-determination to be for His people in Jesus Christ. For McCormack, any talk of a Triune God prior to the act of election is “speculative.”[20]

The revisionists will argue that Barth had embraced an essentialist metaphysic prior to Church Dogmatics II/2 (hereafter CD),[21] and never fully purged it from his thought. The purging therefore has been left up to the revisionists, who took Barth places theologically he never intended to go.

In addition to determining the Divine being, the revisionists seek to explain the “how” of God’s gracious act of election. How can God become man without undergoing any ontological change? Hunsinger offers two answers in response: first, God is free to do whatever he pleases. If you need proof, look no further than the Incarnation. The Incarnation of the Logos can occur only because God is both powerful and free.[22] Second, Barth had what Hunsinger helpfully refers to as a “doctrine of antecedence,”[23] which basically asserts that God’s ad extra acts find their “antecedent ground” in God’s own Trinitarian being. The revisionists err, according to Hunsinger, in their removal of the Trinitarian foundation of God’s ad extra act of election. The result is, “What God is eternally in Himself is subsequent to what he determines himself to be relative to the world.”[24]

But isn’t all this talk of “antecedence” speculative as McCormack asserts? For Barth, speculation is defined by any idea not directly tied to the historic revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Hunsinger counters, it [the doctrine of antecedence] is not speculative because knowledge of God in Christ is only possible due to God’s own antecedent self-knowledge. “Far from being speculative, the idea of the eternal Trinity is the ground of all revealed truth.”[25] The revisionist will reject the doctrine of antecedence because it is not grounded in actualism. They will go even farther and argue that one cannot understand the Incarnation apart from an actualistic ontology (see ontology1). The problem is, that is the very idea militated against by Barth. So if the revisionists desire to maintain their interpretation, they do so in spite of Barth’s own stated desire not to be bound by an overarching ontology. If we stick with the “Calvin and the Calvinists” example used by Hunsinger in the introduction, we could safely place the revisionist in the “Calvinist” camp. Only in this instance, it’s an example of “Barth and the Barthians.”

One of the major weaknesses of the revisionist movement, according to Hunsinger, is the uncharitable use of deductive reasoning. The revisionists have selectively isolated certain Barthian texts that seem to support their actualistic ontology, and then reasoned deductively from those texts to establish a radically different trajectory for Barth’s theology. “The thesis of this study is that the revisionist position derives, not entirely, but to a large extent, from taking one of Barth’s statements out of context, and turning it into an abstract proposition, and deducing certain conclusions from it that Barth would not have drawn.”[26]

For example, McCormack argues that the Logos asarkos only becomes the Logos ensarkos after the decision of election. There is no LA apart from Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ (Logos ensarkos) is the subject of election.[27] McCormack then offers three logical deductions from the above proposition: 1. If Barth wishes to speak of Jesus as the subject of election he must deny any notion of the Logos prior to the decree of election. 2. Barth must deny there is any Logos apart from God’s act of predestination. 3. Only then would it be clear that the Logos ensarkos is the Subject of election and not the Logos asarkos.

The revisionists use a hermeneutic of deductive reasoning that, according to Hunsinger, cuts against the grain of Barth’s actual dogmatic intent. “The inferred Barth is the gold standard against which the actually existing Barth comes up wanting. The deduced entity is used to claim that the textual Barth is inconsistent.”[28] According to the revisionists, the actual Barth was never able to consistently work out the implications of his own theology or he would have reached a post-metaphysical stage of development.

Throughout this book Hunsinger pursues lengthy, somewhat technical discussions of the more nuanced disagreements between the Barthian traditionalists and revisionists. These sections are helpful due to Hunsinger’s careful delineation of terms and concepts that help one navigate the debate. One such instance is his debate with Bruce McCormack over the “Extra Calvinisticum.[29] Briefly, for McCormack there is no Logos asarkos apart from the Logos incarnandus;[30] the two are identical. Hunsinger explains, “The Logos was always slated to become incarnate, having no other raison d’etre in the Godhead, and once the Logos has become incarnatus (incarnate), it can no longer be asarkos at the same time.”[31] For McCormack, there is a fundamental identity between the Logos asarkos and the Logos incarnandus, which excludes any notion of a self-determined Logos asarkos behind the act of election. But once the Logos becomes incarnate (incarnatus) the Logos asarkos disappears as it is “absorbed into the incarnation without remainder.”[32]

The traditionalist on the other hand argues that because the Logos asarkos is determinate in and of itself, the Logos asarkos retains its role during and after the Incarnation. While the revisionists view the Trinity as subsequent to the act of election, the traditionalist understands the act of election to be predicated on the self-existent Trinity.[33] The revisionists require the abolition of the Logos asarkos in order to warrant the “reversal from antecedence to subsequence.”[34] In other words, instead of grounding the economic Trinity in the ontological, the revisionist reverses that order so the ontological is grounded in the economic, ensuring that there can no longer be any God outside of God for us (Deus pro nobis).

At this point, Hunsinger offers a helpful distinction between God’s “correspondence” to and “dialectical identity” with His creation. The traditionalist understands the relationship between the Father and the Logos to foreshadow God’s relationship to the world.[35] He defines dialectical identity as the act of “looking at one self-identical object from two different but mutually exclusive perspectives.”[36] Hunsinger argues that “dialectical identity” must be replaced by a view that recognizes the “asymmetrical unity in distinction” present in Barth’s theology. By “asymmetrical” he simply means the logical and ontological priority of the ontological Trinity as the “basis on which God turns to the world.”[37] That is, the economic Trinity is ontologically and logically grounded in the ontological Trinity.

Now, Hunsinger observes, the allegation of inconsistency (leveled by the revisionist against Barth) serves as a lynch pin for the revisionist, making their claims practically non-falsifiable. “No matter what the counter evidence may be, it can always be chalked up to inconsistency.”[38] Part and parcel to Hunsinger’s proposed hermeneutical approach is the willingness to grant a writer the courtesy of a charitable reading. If you run across what appears to be a contradiction, do not immediately assume the writer is simply daft. Rather, seek diligently for a solution to the problem and rescue it from contradiction.

Back to Barth and the extra Calvinisticum. Barth famously differs with the extra due to his fear that it could invite speculation into the being and act of God. It may invite one to consider the Logos asarkos apart from the Logos ensarkos and could even lead to the denial of Jesus as the “subject” and “object” of election.[39] “For Barth, Calvin failed to see that it was the whole Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), not just God in abstraction, who was the Subject of election…Calvin’s doctrine of election was therefore ‘speculative’ in Barth’s eyes precisely to the extent that it was not grounded in the Trinity.”[40] Barth, according to Hunsinger, would reject the revisionist reception of his theology precisely because he emphasized the absoluteness of the Triune being of God. He would be averse to any notion of a “pre-trinitarian God beyond God”[41] as speculative.

Seek God where He May be Found

In chapter 2 Hunsinger analyzes a debate between McCormack and Edwin Chr. van Driel, a professor of theology at Pittsburgh theological seminary. The centerpiece of their discussion is the statement, “Jesus is the subject of election,” a claim of central importance in the traditionalist revisionist debate. According to Hunsinger, van Driel exhibits the principle of charity in his reading of Barth. Contra McCormack, van Driel proposes that “Jesus Christ is not the acting Subject of election but instead ‘the verb, the action.’”[42] In his overall critique of McCormack, van Driel rejects the notion of a self-constituting God due to the shadow cast by Hegel over the idea.

Obviously Hunsinger has a problem with this proposition as it fails to do justice to Jesus as the “Subject” of election (and not simply the “verb” or “action”). In response, Hunsinger offers three alternative interpretations. First, he argues that for Barth God has no beginning. Jesus Christ as the Logos ensarkos cannot rightly be considered a “constitutive” member of the Trinity as the Logos ensarkos has a beginning while the Trinity does not. Similarly, the Logos ensarkos is not eternally begotten as is the case with the Logos asarkos. Additionally, the Logos asarkos does not exist for the sake of the Logos ensarkos (as the revisionist idea of subsequence would require), rather the Logos asarkos exists “in and for himself.” Therefore, election presupposes the Trinity. It is by way of election that God “determines,” not constitutes, himself to “deal graciously with the world.”[43]

Hunsinger’s second point is slightly more opaque. He seeks to determine in what sense the Logos ensarkos was present “at the beginning of all things.”[44] The Logos ensarkos is not the same as the asarkos, and neither is the Logos ensarkos pre-existent in the same way as God.[45] Hunsinger explains “as the antecedent Logos asarkos, he wills himself as the subsequent Logos ensarkos. It is obviously not the Trinity that is subsequent to the incarnation, but the incarnation that is subsequent to the Trinity.”[46] The result is an eternal-historical conception of Jesus Christ as He belongs to eternity as the Logos asarkos and to history as the Logos ensarkos.[47] This means that for Barth, according to Hunsinger, God’s decree of election, the cross, and the final judgement are three “forms” of the same eternal act, so that, “They remain eternally distinct while also coinhering.”[48] For Barth, “beginning, succession, and end” exhaustively indwell one another in a perichoretic relationship.[49] This means that Jesus, according to God’s act of election is “present in the eternal foreknowledge and counsel of God.”[50] Jesus is present at the beginning due to the foreknowledge of God, as he is known by God in eternity to be the object and subject of election. Hunsinger explains, “Because everything that exists outside God exists first of all in God, in his eternal sight or foreknowledge, it follows ‘that [God’s] knowledge is not actually tied to the distinction between past, present, and future being’ ([CD] II/1, 559). It is again supremely the person of Jesus Christ in his irreducible historicity who, for God, sub specie aeternitatis, is not tied to the distinction between past, present, and future being.”[51]

So while Jesus is essentially present in eternity with God, He is not present according to his historical actualization. But that is not to say that Jesus exists in a less than real way in God.

Jesus Christ is present ‘in the beginning’ with God as ‘an eternal [event] in the form of time, and [as] a temporal [event] with the content of eternity’ ([CD] II/2, 97). In the beginning, he is no less real to God in pretemporal eternity than he will be in time, and as he is real in God’s pretemporal foreknowledge and counsel, so he will also be actualized in time.[52]

By virtue of God’s foreknowledge, Jesus is in eternity what he will become in the economy.[53]

As I mentioned above, one of the strengths of Hunsinger’s work is his close exegesis of the Barthian texts critical to the traditionalist/revisionist debate. It also makes his book very difficult to review. Hunsinger frequently interacts with fairly lengthy sections from the “Church Dogmatics” and offers pages of incisive exegesis and makes extremely helpful distinctions. Following his discussion of Jesus as the “Subject and Object of election,” Hunsinger attempts to explain the relationship between the Logos asarkos and ensarkos in Barth’s theology. Hunsinger argues that the man Jesus Christ (Logos ensarkos) was brought into the Triune being of God via the Logos asarkos. Thus, the man Jesus is the Son of God by grace, not by nature. Hunsinger explains, “Although in some sense he belongs to the Holy Trinity he does so not by nature but by grace, not by eternal generation but by historical (and thus contingent) participation.”[54] This act of election presupposes a “fully constituted” Divine Triune God who elects in grace.

If Hunsinger is correct, Barth is clearly contradicting the revisionists’ reception of his theology by affirming that election is grounded in the Trinity and “represents the free overflowing of the superabundant glory of the Triune God.”[55] Election cannot therefore be viewed as God reducing some potentcy within Himself, He is not filling up what was once lacking, rather His goodness is overflowing freely and graciously according to Hunsinger.

It is important to remember that in the act of election the Logos asarkos is not totally absorbed into the Logos ensarkos, the Logos asarkos still subsists behind the Logos ensarkos in a manner incomprehensible to man.[56] The Logos asarkos must have logical and ontological priority over the Logos ensarkos while both must remain united together in the One eternal Word. In other words, the relationship between the Logos asarkos and Logos ensarkos is one of asymmetrical unity-in distinction. This asymmetrical unity-in distinction makes it possible for the Logos asarkos to be “completely abased” while the Logos ensarkos is “completely exalted.” Simultaneously, the Eternal Word as the Logos asarkos transcends its abasement even while it completely participates in it.[57] Hunsinger argues that Barth preserves the unity of the Logos asarkos and Logos ensarkos while still respecting their unique roles. More pointedly, the eternal Logos in its two forms and their asymmetrical unity-in distinction makes it possible for the Logos to fully experience sin and death as the Logos ensarkos while simultaneously transcending death in its form as the Logos asarkos. The Logos asarkos simultaneously participates in and transcends all its activities in and with the Logos ensarkos. Similarly, the Logos ensarkos and its antecedent grounding in the Logos asarkos, makes the transcendence of sin and death a reality.[58]

Returning to McCormack and van Driel, Hunsinger notes that van Driel sees the antecedence of the Logos asarkos, “but at the expense of his proleptic unity with the earthly Son of Man.”[59] McCormack, on the other hand, grasps the unity of the Logos asarkos and Logos ensarkos but fails to see the distinction between the two. They both fail to grasp (according to Hunsinger) how Jesus Christ could be the Subject of election. For Hunsinger, the solution is found in understanding Jesus to be present in pre-temporal eternity, namely by way of his election and union with the Son based upon the foreknowledge of the Triune God.[60] In this sense, Jesus is present “before the dawn of his own time, as the one he will be in time.”[61] Additionally and following from the previous point, the human will and essence of Jesus are “enhypostatic” with regards to the Person of the Son even in eternity (proleptically). The essence and will of Jesus are necessarily “anhypostatic” as well.[62] This tells us, according to Hunsinger, that Jesus has no hypostasis apart from the eternal Word, but that the eternal Word makes himself the subject of election “really but contingently (and irreversibly) identical with Jesus of Nazareth.”[63]

Being and Action: The Question of God’s Historicity

In chapter 3 Hunsinger interacts with professor Paul T. Nimmo’s work “Being in Action,” a work Hunsinger still finds praiseworthy despite the revisionist current that runs through it. Hunsinger notes, “[Nimmo] presents Barth’s entire ethics as dominated by a particular philosophical structure [see ontology1] ’Actualistic ontology’ becomes the controlling idea within which Barth works out his ethics.”[64]

Under the controlling concept of “actualism” Nimmo defines God’s personhood in terms of “decisions, acts, and relations.” Act and being are not basic to God, rather God constitutes his Triune Being through act.[65] Hunsinger disagrees with Nimmo’s notion of God’s self-determination “filling up some deficit as though without election God would be less than fully constituted as God.”[66] The apparent confusion occurs when the line between constitution and determination are blurred.[67]

While traditionally revisionists have turned to CD II/2 for justification for their actualistic ontology, currently many scholars are turning their attention to CD IV/1 pp. 192-210, “The Way of the Son of God into the far Country,”[68] for more solid evidence of their position. Hunsinger lays out some helpful guidelines for reading the text: first, read it in its entirety; second, don’t neglect the “second ending,”[69] and third, read it in light of Barth’s “doctrine of antecedence.”[70]

God’s economic activity, for Hunsinger, is based in eternity (antecedence) and in that way time and eternity correspond to one another in form (temporal/eternal), and in their correspondence “they comprise an asymmetrical unity-in distinction.”[71] Hunsinger argues that Barth’s conception of eternity is essentially Trinitarian, and therefore eternity includes elements of pre, supra, and post temporality which while sequentially distinct, mutually coinhere.[72] “They [pre, post, and supra temporality] constitute God’s (antecedent) history with himself while also serving as the eternal basis of God’s history with the world.”[73]

In the same thesis, Nimmo proposes 2 conclusions regarding the Holy Spirit: first, that the Holy Spirit should be considered “elected God” with Jesus; and second, he suggests that Jesus was only incarnate for the sake of election, so likewise the Holy Spirit’s sole purpose is the establishment of the Church. “No antedent and independent Trinitarian role exists for the Spirit in eternity (logically and ontologically)- no role, that is, such as the one Barth actually assigns to the Spirit of being the eternal (and antecedent) bond of peace between the Father and the Son.”[74]

Hunsinger responds by arguing that the Holy Spirit’s antecedent role in the eternal being of God involved being the “mediator of communion between the Father and the Son.”[75] This antecedent (eternal) reality (of the Spirit as mediator) grounds the Spirit’s mediatorial work (temporal) in history. Additionally, Hunsinger offers his own reading of CD IV/1 that seems to answer how the Son of God could be submissive to the Father without falling into either modalism or subordinationism. He argues that the obedience of Jesus in the economy is actually based on Divine Freedom, so Jesus’ obedience to the Father is performed, “in virtue of the richness of his divine being (CD IV/1, 194)”[76] (unity-in distinction). The Father makes Himself “identical”[77] with Jesus in the sense that the two are inseparably one “but never lose their abiding distinction.”[78]

Now the question must be answered, how can we speak of economic and eternal obedience? If Jesus is eternally obedient, how do we avoid subordinationism? Hunsinger explains, “obedience is not just an earthly event undertaken in the economy.” Or to state it more directly, “Moreover, it [economic obedience] can occur in the economy only through its antecedent in eternity.”[79] That is, the obedience of the Logos ensarkos presupposes the obedience of the Logos asarkos. This reading safeguards Barth from any notion of election constituting the Trinity for the act of election presupposes the Triune God.

Now what follows from the Son’s obedience in eternity (ad intra) according to the doctrine of antecedence? As you could probably guess, his obedience in the economy (ad extra).[80] This is where Hunsinger introduces his “Chalcedonian grammar,” “[Jesus] simply ‘activates and reveals himself’ for who he is in a new and temporal form.”[81] The two “forms” of Jesus’ obedience (eternal and temporal) coexist “without separation or division” and “without confusion or change” and are asymmetrically related.[82] Hunsinger’s intention is to correct the revisionist trajectory by shifting it away from Hegel and towards Chalcedon.[83] It is worth noting that the Son’s obedience is “parallel in status to his lordship.”[84] In other words, by being obedient Jesus does what only God can do. His obedience, therefore, does not suggest any inherent ontological deficiency as is so often assumed.

Two Disputed Points: The Obedience of the Son in Classical Theism

At the heart of the traditionalist/revisionist debate is the assertion that the Son’s obedience to the Father is constitutive of his essential deity. But how does that claim square with Barth’s own assertion, “What he [God] is in revelation he is antecedently in himself” (CD I/1, 466)? Hunsinger explains, “On this basis Barth argues from below to above. He reasons from the Son of God’s obedience in the far country back into the Trinity’s inner life. He draws inference from time to eternity…He could not be obedient in the economy were he not already obedient in eternity[85] [emphasis mine].

Now Hunsinger is not arguing that we can reason our way back into the Godhead and understand exactly what the eternal obedience of the Son is like simply because we can observe his obedience in the economy.[86] But we can discern the Son’s identity as son by witnessing his obedience in the economy, the obedience which finds its antecedent ground in the eternal obedience of the Son.[87] The Father and the Son share the same will and essence, but in differing ways. The Son receives His essential deity from the Father via His eternal generation and his will from the Father is “in the mode of perfect and eternal submission.”[88]

Regarding Barth’s unusual use of history, Hunsinger comments, “I propose to ‘disambiguate’ Barth by designating his concept of God’s eternal history as ‘history1’ and his concept of God’s earthly history as ‘history2.’”[89]

Barth states,

The divine being and life and act takes place with ours, and it is only as the divine takes place that ours takes place. To put it in the simplest way, what unites God and us human beings is that he does not will to be God without us, that he creates us rather to share with us and therefore with our being and life and act his own incomparable being and life and act, that he does not allow his history to be his, and ours ours, but causes them to take place as a common history…

The whole being and life of God is an activity, both in eternity and in worldly time, both in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in his relation to humankind and all creation. But what God does in himself and as the Creator and Governor of humankind is all aimed at the particular act in which it has its center and meaning.(CD IV/1, 7)

Hunsinger interprets Barth as arguing for “one indivisible activity in which God subsists”[90] which would embrace both “history1” and “history2.” The above passage is frequently used by revisionists[91] to support their departure from classical metaphysics in favor of an “actualistic ontology” in which the very being of God is conditioned by his creation. As a result, many of God’s attributes would by necessity be historicized by this “common history” God shares with his creation.

For Hunsinger the “common history” of God and creation poses no threat if it is “governed by the grammar of the Chalcedonian pattern.”[92] This gift of unity “occurs in and through the Incarnate Son” and therefore presupposes the “Triune God’s antecedent eternal perfection.”[93] As a result, “history1” and “history2” are united “without separation or division” (inseparably united) and “without confusion or change” (abidingly distinct).

Now that is not to say that Barth was in no way Hegelian, according to Hunsinger. “Barth drank deeply from the wells of both Anselm and Hegel.”[94] Barth appreciated Anselm’s emphasis on the perfection of God’s being, but disliked his apparent incipient essentialism. “[Barth] worried that in [Anselm’s] theology ‘God was at bottom a supreme being with neither life, nor activity, nor history, in a neutrality which can never be moved or affected by anything.’ ([CD] IV/1, 112).”[95] Predictably, Barth saw in Hegel the idea that God was living and active, over and against the static (allegedly), immovable God of Anselm. On the other hand, Barth disliked Hegel for his seeming disregard for the freedom of God, and his dialectic which makes God dependent on the contingent for his [God’s] own self-actualization. He was in Hegel’s dialectic the possibility for a “fatal reversal”[96] making God dependent on man. That is precisely why, according to Hunsinger, Barth developed his doctrine of antecedence.

According to Hunsinger, Barth includes both Anselmian and Hegelian elements in his theology. He revises the attributes of God[97] in lieu of his actualism so that, “[t]hese aspects or ‘perfections’ of the divine being are not the same as those in classical theism because they are all qualified by God’s sovereign freedom [emphasis mine] as the freedom of his love.”[98] In other words, Barth “Hegels” the traditionally received incommunicable divine attributes and so “actualizes the divine perfections while maintaining their absolute, self sufficient, antecedence.”[99]

Revisionism Scaled Back: a Partial Dissent

In the final full chapter of his book, Hunsinger interacts with a Barthian scholar Paul Dafydd Jones. It seems that Jones has managed to achieve a revisionist reading of Barth while for the most part adhering to the “principle of charity” as laid out by Hunsinger. Jones rejects the revisionist receptions’ most shocking idea, namely that the Trinity is constituted by election, and substitutes it with what he has called “the doctrine of subsequence.”[100] Jones asserts, “God decides, freely, that the economic elective activity of the Son, realized by way of his union with a contingent human being, should prove eternally determinative for God’s second way of being.”[101] In other words, God’s act of election conditions his eternal existence as the Son.

The problem is, for Barth, “a doctrine of divine antecedence took precedence over all elements of subsequence. He argued that the Lord God remained the same in and through every change.”[102] Hunsinger reads Barth as positing that impassibility, as is traditionally received in the Reformed tradition, threatens the freedom of God, but not in the way we may think. For the historic Reformed, impassibility safeguarded God’s independence and therefore His freedom. Barth reconfigures the doctrine to mean that God is free to suffer and still remain essentially absolute. He makes God sovereign over his own independence so that God can choose to be passible and remain (somehow) independent.[103]

According to Hunsinger, Barth conceived of a suffering God as a means of explaining how the cross dealt with sin. What he comes up with is a thoroughly actualistic passibilism in which sin and death are consumed by suffering. This is for Barth the unique mode of God’s victory in defeat. A dialectical re-interpretation of impassibility. The sufferings of the Logos ensarkos are mediated back to the Logos asarkos, and thus to the very being of God.[104] The sufferings were abidingly distinct and yet united, the Father and Son suffering in tandem. For Barth, God must have remained impassible in suffering or he could not overcome sin and death.[105]

Tolle Lege?

Why should a Reformed believer (I’m speaking more narrowly of someone who would fit into the category “Calvinist” in the Calvin and the Calvinist paradigm) read this book? First, every Reformed believer shouldn’t read this book. It is definitely not intended for a general readership. While Hunsinger does a superb job of writing clearly and with varying levels of complexity, this book is not one I would pick up for spiritual edification. Now, this book is required reading for anyone who intends to enter the “Barth Wars” (whether they are critical or sympathetic to Barth it really does not matter, the book is simply too important to neglect reading carefully). That said, it is unlikely that this book will convert many “revisionists.” It seems to me that the greatest good that will come from this book is the response it will likely elicit from the “revisionist” camp.

With the above proviso in mind, I have at least three reasons why a Reformed believer should read this book. First, Hunsinger’s exegesis of Barth is interesting to say the least. However, I think his main proposal to read Barth using a hermeneutic of charity is more of a rhetorical than a substantive move. Additionally, it seems that Hunsinger would spend a bit more time explicitly developing what a hermeneutic of charity looks like.[106] It was helpful to observe Hunsinger deal with the problem texts for “traditionalist” Barthians, but again, given the title of the book one would expect to see more explicit development of the hermeneutic of charity as it is applied outside the context of analytic philosophy. Second, Barthianism is in vogue. And while the number of Barthians may not increase substantially as a result of the resurgence of interest in Barth, we can rest assured that Barth’s influence will nonetheless be felt in evangelicalism. If the Reformed pastor and engaged layperson are to serve effectively in the context of the Church (given this resurgence of interest in Barth) they should at least consider becoming acquainted with the most influential appropriations of Barth’s theology. We have to square with the reality that many today are captivated by what appears to be new in Barth’s theology. The Reformed pastor owes it to his people to stay informed on these issues. Third, and I want to state this point carefully, reading Barth and his most recent expositors critically has the potential to make us better theologians. These are not easy books to work through, but I think critical engagement with the source material will prove to be of use in clarifying and advancing a more consistently self-conscious confessional Reformed theology.

[1] George Hunsinger, Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015)

[2] “While Barth has no Christology as such because the whole of his theology is Christological he does, however, have a doctrine of God as such even though the whole of his Church Dogmatics could be called a doctrine of God. The reason for this is obvious. For Barth an isolated Christology would be an abstraction since it would not deal with the whole Jesus Christ in his being and action in their unity.” John Thompson, Christ in Perspective: Christological Perspectives in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978) 1N1

[3] Not a principle unique to Hunsinger (see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/davidson/)

[4] Hunsinger, xii

[5] Ibid. xiii

[6] Ibid. xv

[7] For a devastating critique of the “Calvin and the Calvinists” thesis see: Richard Muller, Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early modern Era) Plant the ‘TULIP’?” [http://www.calvin.edu/meeter/Was%20Calvin%20a%20Calvinist-12-26-09.pdf]

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The reasoning of the Barthian revisionists seems closer to rationalistic Calvinism than to evangelical Calvinism.” Ibid. xvi

[11] Bruce McCormack, Grace and Being: “The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 92-100

[12] As with any theological movement there is a great deal of diversity within the “revisionist” camp. If I speak of the movement monolithically I do so with the above proviso in mind.

[13] Hunsinger, 2

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. 3

[16] Ibid. 4

[17] Ibid. 5

[18] He says as much on p. 115 “Perhaps this is the place to reiterate that the driving interest of this book has to do with Karl Barth, not with revisionism.” Hunsinger’s concern is for the textual Barth, and that concern is evinced by Hunsinger’s careful exegesis of the relevant Barthian texts. The revisionist may find fault with much of Hunsinger’s take on Barth, but they definitely cannot say that he hasn’t provided a nuanced and textually based argument against their position.

[19] Ibid. 5

[20] Ibid. 7

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. 7-8

[23] Hunsinger offers this disclaimer, “I use the word doctrine here only as a matter of convenience. I do not mean to suggest that Barth has anything like a formal ‘doctrine of antecedence’” Ibid. 8N11

[24] Ibid. 8

[25] Ibid. 9

[26] Ibid. 10

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid. 14

[29] “A term used by 17th century Lutheran theologians to describe the Reformed view that after the incarnation the eternal Word as the second Person of the Trinity continues to be present and active beyond the flesh of Jesus Christ himself. Thus the Word is never totally contained in flesh.” Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: WJK, 1996) 100

[30] The Logos to become incarnate. Ibid. 16

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 19

[33] Ibid. 18

[34] Ibid. 19

[35] Ibid. 19-20

[36] Ibid. 20n22

[37] Ibid. 21

[38] Ibid. 21

[39] Ibid. 33

[40] Ibid. 34-35

[41] Ibid. 36

[42] Ibid. 41

[43] Ibid. 43

[44] Ibid. 45

[45] Ibid. 46

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid. 48

[48] Ibid.

[49] “That being is eternal in whose duration beginning, succession, and end are not three but one, not separate as a first, a second, and a third occasion, but one simultaneous occasion as beginning, middle and end. Eternity is the simultaneity of beginning, middle, and end, and to that extent it is pure duration. Eternity is God in the sense in which in himself as well as in all things God is simultaneous, i.e., beginning and middle as well as end, without separation, distance or contradiction.” CD II/1, 608 cited by Hunsinger on 49

[50] Ibid. 49

[51] Ibid. 50

[52] Ibid. 51

[53] Hunsinger offers this clarification, “Pretemporal election is a comples transaction that unfolds as follows. The Father elects the Son; the Son elects himself in free obedience to the Father; in electing himself the Son also elects the human Jesus into unity with himself; the man Jesus elects himself by consenting to be the objet of the divine election; and finally the man Jesus consents to his election by electing the God who elected him. Remarkably, all this is seen as occurring in pretemporal eternity. In this pretemporal occurrence, the man Jesus is thought to be present with the Holy Trinity in a unique way, namely, from before the foundation of the world. He is present proleptically according to the eternal counsel and foreknowledge of God.” Ibid. 160

[54] Ibid. 51

[55] Ibid. 53

[56] Ibid. 58

[57] Ibid. 59

[58] Hunsinger explains, “The actuality of the multiple and simultaneous forms of the one Word of God in its diverse temporal and eternal operation s surpasses anything that we can think or imagine. That is the surpassing mystery of the divine Logos.” Ibid. 59

[59] Ibid. 69

[60] Ibid. 71

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid. 72

[64] Ibid. 76

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid. 77

[67] “For Barth, however, self-determination means that the triune God decides to be who he is also in another and contingent way. The transition is not from the indeterminate to the determinate, but from the noncontingent to the contingent. In an act of free self-determination, contingent ‘properties’ are added by the incarnation to God’s already determinate reality as the eternal Trinity.” Ibid. 77n2

[68] Ibid. 81

[69] “Barth’s second ending has him returning home to himself. For in this section he endorses what he had written more than three decades earlier. He openly reaffirms the doctrine of the Trinity found in [CD] I/1, the first volume of his dogmatics. Not surprisingly, Barth revisionists tend to sidestep this second ending. The ending calls into question their claim that the later Barth had disowned his early work on the Trinity.” Ibid. 82

[70] Ibid. 82

[71] Ibid. 83

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid. 86

[75] Ibid. 86

[76] Ibid. 91

[77] Ibid. 92

[78] Hunsinger continues to explain, “It is always a matter of unity-in-distinction and identity-in-difference.” Ibid. 93n16

[79] Ibid. 94

[80] Ibid. 102

[81] Ibid.

[82] In other words, the eternal takes precedent over the temporal.

[83] “ It [the revisionist thesis] misreads him [Barth], in other words, as if her were operating with a more or less ‘Hegelian’ ontology as opposed to the ‘Chalcedonian’ pattern. It overlooks that Barth continues to uphold ‘an absolute (and infinitely qualitative) distinction’ between divine and human being ([CD] IV/2, 61)” Ibid. 162

[84] Ibid. 111

[85] Ibid. 116

[86] “The eternal obedience of the Son must differ from any obedience we know.” Ibid. 118

[87] Ibid. 119

[88] Ibid.

[89] Ibid. 120

[90] Ibid. 121

[91] Ibid. 122

[92] “Divine history in itself (history1) and divine history in relation to us (history2) are related not only in inseparable (‘without separation or division’) but also in abiding distinction (‘without confusion or change’).” Ibid. 123

[93] Ibid.

[94] Ibid. 128

[95] Ibid. 129

[96] Ibid. 130

[97] For a very helpful summary of his revision of the incommunicable attributes see pp. 131-132.

[98] Ibid. 133

[99] Ibid. 134

[100] Ibid. 138

[101] Ibid.

[102] Ibid. 165

[103] “What he [Barth] denies is that God’s impassibility is an impediment to his sovereign freedom. He denies that God is a prisoner of his own perfections (IV/1, 187)…In the cross of Christ, divine impassibility is hidden under the form of its opposite without ceasing to be what it is.” Ibid. 152

[104] “The inseparable unity meant that Christ’s sufferings and death took place in his humanity without being strictly confined there. Through the flesh of the Word made flesh, they were mediated back into the being of God, where they were destroyed as through a raging fire [emphasis mine].” Ibid. 155

[105] Such is the “surpassing mystery of the incarnation.” Ibid. 155

[106] Instead Hunsinger offers only a few short explanations see pp. xii-xiii, 39-40, 41, 47N4, and 73.


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