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Fully Alive

Fout, Jason. Fully Alive: The Glory of God and the Human Creature in Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Theological Exegesis of Scripture (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 224 pp. $122.00 (hardcover).

Reviewed by Ashleigh Elser (September 21, 2017)



Jason A. Fout’s latest book takes its title from an oft-quoted line from Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses: “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” While Fout departs from this popular translation of Irenaeus’ aphorism in the body of his text, preferring a closer rendering of vivens homo as “living human,” his argument about the relationship of divine glory to the human creature remains tethered to the word “fully” in the title’s translation. In Fully Alive, Fout considers how the fullness of divine glory might empower a corresponding fullness of human agency. Contesting the terms of “heteronomous” theologies of glory that tend to narrow or bracket human agency, Fout advances a vision of divine glory as a relational overflow, which exercises our creaturely capacities—and specifically, our capacities for interpretation.

Fout outlines the terms of his proposal in chapter 1, arguing for an understanding of divine glory that engenders what he calls a “non-heteronomous dependence” between God and human creatures. “The glory of God, far from dispensing with the self, actually constitutes a self that is capable of glorying God,” Fout writes, “a self which is ‘glorified’ by God in being constituted as an agent” (34). Unlike conventional, heteronomous doctrines of glory that demand “wooden obedience and conformity,” Fout argues that the glory of God enlivens human agency, inviting “conversational, creative response” and making room for the kind of discernment, creative performance, and “faithful questioning” that Fout finds modeled in scripture.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 take up the writings of two twentieth-century theologians—Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. These chapters offer a comparative analysis of two promising but, on Fout’s reading, ultimately narrow accounts of the relationship between divine glory and human agency. While both Barth and von Balthasar depict divine glory in relational terms as an “overflow” of divine joy (Barth) or love (von Balthasar) into creaturely life, Fout argues that these kindred accounts of glory often fail to live up to their own best insights on this score. By presenting a form of determinative “straight-line” obedience or pious self-effacement as the proper human response to God, these theologies of glory bracket out or even evacuate human agency.

While Fout’s criticism of these two accounts of glory proceeds along a number of lines, a central theme (and the one I will focus on here) is his claim that Barth and von Balthasar fail to grapple with the complex picture within the Bible regarding the relationship between divine glory and human agency. For example, Fout argues that Barth’s narrow understanding of the forms of divine revelation results in a correspondingly narrow range of appropriate responses to God. If revelation only comes “in the indicative and imperative or nothing else,” as Barth argues, then obedience to God always demands “precise performance or identical repetition,” with no room for discernment, doubt, creativity, or exploration (73, 101).

Although Fout finds much to commend in von Balthasar’s vision of the relational dynamics of God’s glory, he worries that von Balthasar’s model of relational, self-giving love encourages a “hyperbolic self-dispossession” that ultimately effaces human agency (115). “Although the human is active,” Fout writes, “the human activity seems to be primarily one of keeping one’s own agency in check” (123). Von Balthasar puts forth Mary as an exemplar of this form of self-dispossessing love, but Fout argues that Mary’s response to God is not purely receptive or submissive. Instead, the Gospels depict Mary as one who “questions, discerns, and wonders,” modeling a form of obedience characterized by dialogue and interpretive agency rather than passive, self-emptying assent (141).

The book proceeds in its fifth and final chapter by analyzing the shortcomings of Barth and von Balthasar’s accounts of glory to Fout’s own constructive proposal, grounded in a theological exegesis of select scriptural passages. Taking up material from Exodus, 2 Corinthians, and the Gospel of John, Fout draws out what he calls the “relational” dynamics of God’s glory, reframing it as a matter of God’s “honor, praiseworthiness, and (richly specified) identity” that “effects in creation what it is” (146, 191). As figured in the transfigured countenance of Moses, God’s glory begets glory, makes time for questioning and discernment and makes room for “a creative, responsive obedience, which engages human agency” (187).

This is a book about the meeting of divine glory and the human creature, but it is also, implicitly, a book about revelation. Though human agency appears in a variety of forms throughout this text, questions about interpretive agency remain in the foreground and constitute one of the strongest contributions of this work. How do we understand the relationship between divine glory and human agency as it is preserved in the words of the Bible or in the language and images of our theological tradition? Is God’s revelation self-evident and self-interpreting, or does it invite or even demand the creative, thoughtful participation of human interpretive agents?

Drawing on the work of thinkers like Paul Ricouer, David Ford, and Rowan Williams, Fout places himself firmly in the latter camp and offers his readers several suggestive meditations on the creativity, discernment, and human agency that animate all of our attempts to “think after” God.

Readers of Barth will appreciate the detailed analysis of Barth’s account of divine glory in the Church Dogmatics (CD) II/1 and IV/3.1, as well as Fout’s comparison of Barth and von Balthasar’s treatments of glory, which proves to be both illuminating and provocative. Those acquainted with the last decade of Barth scholarship will be familiar with Fout’s questions about human agency, which animate his reading of the CD. These questions have largely been asked and answered by scholars like Paul Dafydd Jones and John Webster in the direction of Barth’s Christology, which take seriously Barth’s claim that Jesus provides the ontological determination of what it is to be a human being. In this text, however, discussion of Jesus’ human agency seems strangely absent—both in Fout’s analysis of Barth and in his own constructive presentation. Given both the scope of this text and Fout’s interest in scripture, I wondered why Fout did not turn to Barth’s meditation on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in CD IV/1. Surely, this is a moment in which Barth’s understanding of obedience makes room for conversation and discernment. Is this event not the very form of “faithful questioning” that Fout has in mind? The omission of any sustained attention to Christ’s human agency seems particularly striking given the fact that the Irenaean aphorism, from which Fully Alive takes its title, appears in context as a statement that primarily refers to the fullness of Jesus’ humanity and then only secondarily to the ways in which God’s glory might be manifest consequently in our own human lives.

There may be reasons, of course, for finding Jesus’ humanity to be an insufficient answer to the incisive questions Fout raises about the relationship of divine glory to human agency, particularly his questions about the human qualities of our theological reflection or the human creativity implicit in the composition and redaction of scripture. Making these reasons explicit would lend further conceptual clarity to Fout’s argument. Even still, Fully Alive is well worth the read—not only for its scholarly contributions to a number of fields (including Barth scholarship), but for the suggestive power of Fout’s proposal that the glory of God might somehow inhere even in our lingering interpretive questions; glory gives rise to thought, and then gives time, and makes room.

Ashleigh Elser, Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow in Humanities and the Arts, Valparaiso University

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.