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Reading Barth with Charity: 
A Hermeneutical Proposal

by george hunsinger

baker, 208 pages, $24.99

Rumors of war persist in Princeton. The seminary faculty there boasts two eminent Barth scholars, George Hunsinger and Bruce McCormack, who don’t see eye to eye. Recently the battle has spilled over into the pages of First Things,with Matthew Rose accepting McCormack’s view of Barth and arriving at “Karl Barth’s Failure” (June/July 2014)—as any Catholic accepting McCormack’s very Protestant view is apt to do—and Hunsinger responding with a vigorous defense of Barth in a more traditional and ecumenical vein.

The battle lines in the Barth wars are drawn around a crucial point: the role of Jesus Christ in determining the identity of God. Barth’s Christocentrism is fundamental to the appeal of his theology, and it leads him to make some startling claims, including that “Jesus Christ is the electing God.” What’s startling is not the identification of Jesus with God, which is simply the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Nor is it that Barth identifies this particular man as the object of divine election, the one in whom God chooses to be incarnate. Rather, it is that this man, born of Mary in the first century a.d., is the God who does the choosing—the subject as well as the object of God’s eternal act of election. Barth is saying this one human being is present somehow at the beginning and foundation of all things.

The conflict concerns how to interpret this startling claim. ­McCormack’s interpretation is the more radical and provocative, and has helped recruit a small army of “Barth revisionists,” as Hunsinger calls them in his new book, Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal. By contrast, the “Barth traditionalism” advocated by Hunsinger gives us a Barth who looks more like other theologians in the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Hunsinger’s Barth belongs in the ecumenical discussions of our day and indeed helped inspire them, whereas ­McCormack’s Barth is a modernist dealing with the same problems as Friedrich ­Schleiermacher, the founding figure of Protestant liberalism. From the revisionist standpoint, Hunsinger’s Barth looks rather tame, whereas from the traditionalist standpoint ­McCormack’s Barth looks (in ­Hunsinger’s words) “­hyper-Protestant.”

The Barth wars thus expand from one startling claim to involve fundamental questions about the task and method of theology. We can lay out the shape of the battlefield by taking a series of steps toward McCormack’s radical position, and seeing where Hunsinger insists on calling a halt.

The first step is to consider what it means to give the eternal God a human name. This is something Christians do whenever they recite the Nicene Creed about the second person of the Trinity. They confess faith in “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten from the Father . . . true God from true God,” before going on to say that this same person “descended from heaven” and was “born of the virgin Mary.” This naming of the eternal Son of God with the name of the man Jesus looks a good deal like what New Testament scholars call “proleptic” discourse, describing the past in terms that anticipate the present or the future.

If we allow ourselves to picture eternity as “before” time, then it is a little like a woman saying “my husband was born fifty years ago.” The baby born fifty years ago was, of course, not yet her husband. And yet he is the same person who becomes and is her husband, so we find nothing surprising in her speaking this way. Likewise, Christians reciting the creed have found nothing surprising in giving the eternal Son, who is true God from the beginning, the name of a man who was born long after the world began. The astonishing thing is not the naming, but the ­Incarnation itself.

Now take another step. Imagine that somehow, from the moment he came into the world, this woman’s husband had already made the choices that would join him to her in the covenant of marriage. From the beginning he has chosen to be hers, and to that extent he determines his identity by this act of choice, his “election” of himself as her covenant partner. That gets us closer to Barth’s idea that the eternal Son of God is always none other than Jesus Christ, for he is the one who has from the beginning chosen to be this one man. To that extent, God has eternally determined his own identity as humanity’s covenant partner. So far we are well within the territory of traditional orthodoxy, which sees all of God’s acts, including the choice to be incarnate, as eternal.

But now take a further step—an epistemological and methodological step. Because election is how God determines his own identity, Barth insists that we know nothing of who God is apart from his choice to be our covenant partner in Christ. To take this step with Barth is like saying the bride can know nothing about her bridegroom’s identity before he became her husband, because there is no point at which he has not already chosen to be her husband. It is true that he could have chosen otherwise—as God could have elected not to be humanity’s covenant partner in Christ—but that is forever an identity he does not have.

This step takes us to a place within distinctively Protestant territory. It means we can’t know God apart from the Word of God, the revelation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In its original Protestant context, this Barthian doctrine is very good news: It eliminates the “hidden decree” of predestination that played such a terrifying role in Calvinist theology, determining before the foundation of the world who would be saved and who would not. For Barth, the divine choice at the beginning of all God’s actions in the world is to be the covenant partner of all humanity in the man Jesus. Election is precisely God’s decision that the Gospel of Christ will be the true story of the whole world. There is no God to know apart from this story.

But as Barth insisted, this step eliminates something else as well: the whole project of “natural theology,” which aims to acquire knowledge of God apart from the Gospel. We are denied any access to a Word or Logos of God that is other than the man Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word,” says the Gospel of John, referring to the eternal Son of God, and any Greek speaker will know that the original term, Logos, means “Reason” as well as “Word.” Following one important strand of early Christian thought, we could conceive this along the lines of natural theology, just as the pagan philosophers once did. The primal Logos is the divine Reason that all minds desire to understand, the origin and goal of every rational soul. Thus theLogos prior to and apart from the Incarnation—a Logos asarkos or Word without flesh—gives all humanity access to true divine being apart from the man Jesus. It is possible to say the word “God” and know what you mean, even if you have nothing to do with the baby in the manger and the man on the cross.

That’s the kind of theology Barth was aiming to block: an account of the knowledge of God that can do without Jesus Christ. To take this step with Barth puts a large question mark beside the Christian use of classical philosophy and metaphysics, as well as severe limits on the power of reason to know God. But if you think that what’s needed is to eject classical philosophy and metaphysics from Christian theology altogether, then you’ll want to take one extra step—the step McCormack takes and ­Hunsinger resists. That’s when we get to something that, from the standpoint of traditional Christian theology, looks really astonishing.

The extra step can be put like this: The election of Jesus Christ does not just determine the identity of God but constitutes God’s being. As McCormack puts it, the being of God “is a being that God gives himself” in the eternal act of election. To continue with our analogy, it’s like saying a man’s choice to get married to a particular woman is what made him a human being. The provocative conclusion is that not only the Incarnation but the Trinity follows logically from the act of election. God has chosen to be God as­ ­Jesus Christ, and therefore as the Father of Christ and the Spirit of Christ. He is eternally triune in his being because he has eternally chosen to be for us in the man Jesus. In short, Trinity follows from election, as God’s triune being follows from his act of election.

Philosophically put: Act comes before being. And being itself has the character of an act, an event, or a history. In a word, Barth’s ontology is “actualistic”—in contrast to the “substance” ontology that has governed Western metaphysics since the Greeks, for whom being looks more like things than like events or acts. Jean-Paul Sartre popularized the idea of actualism with the existentialist motto “to do is to be.” But McCormack points out that its roots go back much further into the heart of modern thought.

Modern science rejected substance ontology, not because it didn’t believe in things, but because there was no way to know what they essentially are. “Substance,” in the Aristotelian view that modern science rejected, did not mean the material out of which things were made but their formal being or essence. And how often do you recall hearing about the being or essence of things in science class?

Taking his cue from modern ­science, Kant argued that we have no intellectual faculty for knowing the essence of things in themselves. But we can make scientific sense of the world because its conceptual structure and intelligibility come from us, from the activity of our minds as we conceptualize the data of our sense ex­perience. The intelligibility of the world lies not in the substance of things but in the a priori categories imposed on it by our active, ­conceptualizing minds.

The challenge for German theo­logy in the wake of Kant, therefore, was to show how we may have knowledge of God without putting God in a conceptual box of our own making—conceptualizing God in the same terms by which we make sense of everything else in the world. That is why the liberal Protestant “turn to the subject,” beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher, sought to ground knowledge of God in a pre-conceptual experience, a mode of consciousness prior even to our a priori categories.

Barth, by contrast, started at the other end. This meant grounding the knowledge of God on God himself, the object known, rather than the knowing subject. Theology must begin with God himself and his act of revealing himself, rather than our conceptual activity or our pre-conceptual experience. The world of empirical phenomena remains Kantian or (what we would now call) naturalistic, something to be mastered by human conceptualization. But in the event of grace and revelation God can act—in the Word of God which is Christ himself—to make himself known in a freedom that no concepts can control and no experience can anticipate.

Actualism, in other words, is Barth’s conceptual escape hatch from Kantianism. It results in what McCormack describes as “a dialectic of veiling and unveiling,” in which God remains hidden precisely in his “indirect identity” with the created things he uses to reveal himself, such as the flesh of Christ and the preaching of the Word of God. Created things remain empirical, conceptualizable, and we could even say secular, while God uses them as a veil through which to unveil nothing less than himself. It is this actualism that underlies Barth’s famous notion that the Bible becomes the word of God by God’s free decision, whenever he uses it to make himself known.

McCormack’s position has a severe weakness: Barth never said any such thing. He never said the Trinity results from divine election. This is what Barth should have said, McCormack contends, but never did. To be consistent, he should have applied his actualistic ontology to the doctrine of the Trinity, deriving the triune being of God from his act of election. Yet even after he worked out his mature doctrine of election, Barth kept talking as if the Trinity could be conceived independently of Jesus Christ. At this point McCormack can only say that Barth failed to carry out consistently his own deepest insight about the being of God.

This is the point Hunsinger attacks. He asks us to read Barth “with charity,” seeking to discern the fundamental coherence of his thinking. This leads him to offer a detailed explanation of the part of Barth’s theo­logy that McCormack finds inconsistent. The key is what ­Hunsinger calls the “doctrine of antecedence,” according to which all that God does in the world finds its ground in what God is antecedently in himself, prior to the work of creation and redemption. God’s grace toward the world in Christ corresponds to, but is not identical with, what he is in himself as the triune God. In this context, there is a place for the notion of a logos asarkos or unincarnate Word, not as a principle of rationality to which we have access apart from Christ, but as a necessary concept in the doctrine of the immanent Trinity.

As Catholics may recognize, the doctrine of antecedence presents an alternative to a powerful trend in liberal theology ever since Karl Rahner, which denies any meaningful distinction between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity (between God’s being in himself and God’s being for us in the economy of salvation). To take up our analogy again, it’s like saying the bridegroom has being prior to and independent of his choice to become this particular woman’s husband. His choice determines his identity as her covenant partner but does not give him being.

What is safeguarded by the doctrine of antecedence, as well as by the distinction between immanent Trinity and economic Trinity, is the freedom of God. God does not need any creature, not even the man Jesus, to give himself the being he actually has. As the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he is already in himself “the one who loves in freedom,” in Barth’s memorable formulation. His choice to love his creation in the particular man Jesus is an expression of this freedom but does not constitute it. For when Barth says, famously, that God has his being in his acts, he does not mean—as the “Barth revisionists” tend to think—that his acts generate his being. Rather, he possesses his being in his acts, which do not alter him but correspond to and reveal what he is antecedently in himself.

Both sides of the Barth wars are aware that something more than formal logical consistency is at stake. Hunsinger in effect accuses McCormack of being too consistent in one respect: too one-sided in following out the logic of Barth’s actualism. Hunsinger sees actualism as one of a number of mutually reinforcing themes in Barth’s theology rather than, as McCormack would have it, an ontology that ought to govern how Barth speaks of God. Otherwise the escape hatch from Kantian conceptuality becomes, ironically, a kind of prison of its own. For if we make actualism the conceptual key, we subject God to our conceptuality so drastically that we can claim to know how his being is constituted.

So what McCormack sees as a great achievement—his escape from classical metaphysics and substance ontology—Hunsinger sees as a prison in which Barth wisely avoided being trapped. At issue is not merely consistency but fundamental intentions. Everyone can agree that Barth’s intention was for Jesus Christ to take precedence over any theological conceptualization, including his own. The question is how to weigh Barth’s intentions to be (in McCormack’s formulation) both orthodox and modern. McCormack’s Barth aims to be “orthodox under conditions of modernity,” which means he is asking the same fundamentally modern questions as Kant, Hegel, and especially Schleiermacher. It is no surprise, then, that McCormack reads Barth as offering an approach that has “reconstructed the whole of ‘orthodox’ teaching from the ground up.”

Hunsinger’s Barth is less impressed by the conditions of modernity. If the central task of theology is to bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ, then it is orthodoxy, not modernity, that sets the agenda. The great tradition that is an outworking of the Holy Spirit continually invites rethinking but not reconstruction from the ground up. This living tradition of orthodox theology makes our concepts supple enough, including revisable enough, to respond to the unique act of God in Jesus Christ without putting Father, Son, and Spirit in a conceptual box of our own making, whether the making is Aristotelian or Kantian or Schleiermacherian—or Barthian.

If Christ is central, then orthodoxy matters much more than Barth does, and the Barth wars begin to look like a tempest in a teapot. As they should. In most places outside Princeton, judging who gets Barth right is vastly less interesting than judging what Barth gets right—a work of discernment which belongs to the ongoing life of the tradition of Christian orthodoxy. Like all great theologians, Barth stands under the judgment of the tradition, even as he inspires us to new thinking within it. By his resolute insistence on knowing God only in the Word of Christ, Barth ­reinvigorates a distinctively Protestant witness within the tradition, which those who love orthodoxy would be ill advised to ignore. He has quite a number of things to teach us about dealing with the conditions of modernity—including, as Hunsinger points out, how we might today ­reappropriate, not merely discard, many of the key notions of classical metaphysics, such as the simplicity, immutability, and impassibility of God.

What Barth cannot do is save Protestantism. He shouldn’t have to, of course, but one has the suspicion that some of the unedifying energy of the Barth wars stems from the hope that he could. Protestant theology is in a bad way nowadays, and it is tempting for those of us who love that part of the tradition to look for an intellectual hero to rescue it. When that happens, Barth becomes more than just one great theologian among the many given to us by the Holy Spirit in the great tradition. He becomes instead the great mind whose vision we have to understand in order to get things right. Sola scriptura, among other things, goes out the window.

Part of the problem has to do with Barth’s peculiar homelessness. He belonged to the Reformed Protestant tradition, but the Reformed churches never took him to their bosom as they did with Calvin in centuries past. He made a point of calling his theology a church dogmatics, but his institutional home was the university, and his influence has been that of an academic rather than a reformer or a teacher of the Church. So his work ends up coming to the Church from outside, like an intellectual super-hero who might be coming to the rescue, if only we understood what he has to teach us as he reconstructs Christian teaching from the ground up.

That is the kind of modernity we don’t need. It is an unhealthy situation when a brilliant mind is put in the position of rescuing the Church and rebuilding its theology. This is not just a Protestant problem. Thomists in modernity have seen in Aquinas “an ark of salvation”—as the blurb on my copy of the Summa Theologica attests. It was a great service to the Roman Catholic Church when scholars of ressourcement such as Henri de Lubac and Jean Marie Daniélou retrieved the writings of the Church Fathers and thus restored Thomas to his position as one great theologian among many, not the sole standard of sound doctrine.

So it is best, even for Protestant theologians, to stay out of this particular teapot and to keep at the kind of work that might make for a Protestant ressourcement. It is not a new kind of work, as the extensive patristic scholarship of the early Protestant Reformers shows. And it is work in which Barth, too, can be a valuable guide. If you have never dived into the wonderful fine-print sections of the Church Dogmatics, those long and nuanced engagements with Scripture and tradition that have taught many of us how to think theologically, then you have missed a treat—rather like the objections and replies in ­Thomas’s Summa, which model the healthy kind of reinterpretation of the tradition. With such a cloud of witnesses, we don’t need rescuers.  

Phillip Cary is professor of philosophy at Eastern University.