Book Reviews

Trinitarian Theology After Barth

Myk Habets and Phillip Tolliday (eds.), Trinitarian Theology after Barth Princeton Theological Monograph Series 148 (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), xviii + 400pp. $46.00.

Reviewed by Aaron T. Smith (January 30, 2013)

Sixteen essays collected from a symposium held in May 2009 at Carey Baptist College (Auckland, New Zealand), this text provides further evidence that the theology of Karl Barth excites—and provokes—continued attention in the church and academy. The book’s title reflects the title of the symposium, although the editors have organized the writings according to a more detailed schematic: not just Trinitarian Theology after Barth, but “with” (4 papers), “after” (7 papers), and “beyond” (5 papers). Discerning what the editors intend by these designations takes some interpretive effort. The preface hints that they refer to contributions by some whose academic work is focused on Barth, by others who are observers of him, and by a third group whose work is critical but appreciative of him. The content of the book’s three parts, however, does not match this paradigm, and no other is provided.

Contributions doing theology with Barth might best be characterized as illustrating the enduring relevance of particular features of his thought. Paul Molnar rehearses the significance of Barth’s construal of the role of the Holy Spirit in human knowing; he is the subjective correlate to the objective Word. The continued importance of Barth’s basically Reformed epistemology is that it marginalizes natural theology. Because God is known only by the Spirit’s act of commandeering human thought and making it correspond to his address, there can be no knowledge “that God is” apart from awareness of “who God is.” The Spirit does not illuminate the mind to grasp abstract deity, even a deity that could be associated with the Spirit generally over against the Word. Thus, attempts to prove the mere existence of “God” on the basis of reason and experience are by their very nature ineffectual.

Ivor Davidson and Murray Rae constructively expand upon two themes, which to date have not commanded much sustained consideration within Barth studies. Davidson takes up the subject of divine light. He sketches the NT disclosure that God is light (1 John 1:5) within a Trinitarian framework characterized by Barthian elements. God defines light, not vice versa; God is light in triadic self-repetition (the Son is “light from light,” the Spirit is the transparency between Father and Son); the shining of God’s light externally derives from the radiant fullness of his perfect essence, and thus reflection of God’s effulgence in time adds nothing to who God is in eternity. As to the last point, Davidson locates himself among those interpreters of Barth who consider God’s immanent triunity to be logically prior to his actions in history.

Rae considers the topic of space and God’s relation to it. He observes that Barth rejects the strict Augustinian separation of God from space, arguing instead that spatiality is proper to God. For Barth, triune God defines space. It is patterned after the unity in differentiation that characterizes God’s being. Space is not a bare container of static objects, but dynamic, “a condition by which persons and also things are differentiated one from another” (79). As T. F. Torrance also noted, this relational account of space places Barth in conversation with modern physics.

More than a decade has passed since Bruce McCormack argued thematically that, for Barth, God’s self-election in Jesus is logically (not chronologically or ontologically!) prior to his triunity, and therefore that Barth’s early, “traditionalist” trinitarianism would have to be revised on the basis of his later Christology. McCormack’s contribution to the present volume offers a much-anticipated explanation of what this revision must entail. Because McCormack’s thesis has so heavily influenced the scope and shape of Trinitarian theology in Barth’s wake, his essay is examined more fully here than are the others.

McCormack begins by identifying a problem in the way Barth derives his doctrine of the Trinity in CD 1.1 from the statement, “God reveals himself as Lord.” The problem is that at this point in Barth’s thinking,lordship is understood in the abstract, as God’s “freedom from human epistemic mastery . . . [and] his freedom in the ontological sense of independent and unique being” (93). God’s lordship is grounded in the noetic and ontic autonomy proper to theoretical Godness. But as McCormack observes, this abstract sort of power conflicts with the tangible way Barth eventually defines lordship in CD 4.1 in terms of command and obedience.

Methodologically, Barth’s attempt to derive the Trinity economically is short-circuited in his early work by principled commitment to God’s differentiation from time, and thus is not successful until undertaken in light of his mature, materially concretized Christology. Crucial to the latter is Barth’s reversal of the relationship of the person and work of Christ. In CD 4, he understands the person in terms of his salvific work, not the other way around as he had from Göttingen through CD 1.2. That reversal enables Barth to construe the Son, qua Son, in terms of suffering and submission.

Barth utilizes the controversial genus tapeinoticum (“genus of humility”) in order to make submission proper to eternal God. This interpretation of the communicatio idiomatum emphasizes that the Son’s act of self-emptying (Phil. 2) is not by subtraction of his divine attributes, but rather by addition of the attributes of his human nature. From all eternity, the logos exists in anticipation of the flesh he would assume in time. There is no logos asarkos but only the logos incarnandus, only the Word defined by qualities of existence revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, that is, by submission to the Father’s will and ultimately the cross.

Lordship now refers to God’s peculiar freedom to will such an existence for himself: from all eternity, God determines to be what he will become in time. In Trinitarian terms, the Father commands and the Son obeys humanly by the power of the Holy Spirit. And this means that God’s triune being is logically determined by his election in Jesus to be God-for-us. God does not exist as an essential philosophical substance, but actualistically as an unchanging subject—his immutability is the constancy of his self-determination to exist in the triune act of command and obedience.

One wonders whether McCormack might be comfortable replacing the traditional definition of “Trinity,” asone essence in three coequal and coeternal Persons, with one subject in three coordinate and coeternal actions, or perhaps better, one action in three co-determinative and coeternal iterations. The second appears more provocative, but might best encapsulate the insight McCormack harvests from Barth: God’s existence is entirely in the act of coming to humankind, which takes a triadic pattern as giving, receiving, and upholding actual covenant designs.

McCormack’s essay makes for a nice segue to the second part, doing theology “after” Barth. Writings in this section more or less target unresolved tensions in Barth’s thought, typically by engaging secondary analyses, and propose correctives. Two essays that do not fit this characterization, and seem better suited to Part One, are those by Andrew Burgess and Adam McIntosh. Burgess highlights the essentially Trinitarian character of salvation for Barth. Triune God is who the act of saving is “done by” and the one the act is “done to” (he is Subject and Object in a proper ontology of election), as well as salvation’s ultimate “purpose” (eschatological reconciliation of all things in him). McIntosh’s thesis is likely to be a stretch for many students of Barth: Barth’s doctrine of appropriations functions as an ordering principle for the whole of the Church Dogmaticsand supplies triune “language” for a “radically particularized ecclesiology” (239).

Outliers recognized, remaining contributions to the book’s second section engage various interpretations of Barth and attempt to carry forward, correct, or apply their conclusions. Phillip Tolliday takes up the work of Kevin Giles and a report issued by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney to assess whether Barth might be accused of subordinating the Son to the Father, particularly in a way that could be used by cultural conservatives to support coordinate gender subordination. Myk Habets criticizes Barth’s defense of the filioque by following Torrance, and by critically examining the work of David Guretzki. Habets finally seasons Thomas Weinandy with Leonardo Boff in order to suggest that filioque be augmented with patreque and spirituque. Besides the avoidable architectural complexity of these two chapters, they lack the kind of wide-ranging primary-source interaction with Barth required to handle their sweeping topics successfully.

More successful are the essays by Andrew Nicol, John McDowell, and Benjamin Myers. Nicol explores the way that both Barth and Robert Jenson construe death in a dialectical way—as basic to human finitude and as the “wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23). Death itself is not judgment, since human life is not naturally infinite, but the sign of judgment. The gospel message is that our bounded lives, which are under this sign, will be “divinely interpreted by love in the infinite eschatological community of the triune God” (252).

McDowell contrasts Vincent Brümmer’s account of prayer with the Trinitarian logic of CD 1.1. Whereas Brümmer posits a “conversational” model of prayer that projects modern categories of personhood on to God, treating him without plurality, Barth offers a genuinely Trinitarian model in which the object of prayer is an actualistic subject. Because God has his being in the event of triune relationship, McDowell concludes that certain common features of praying assumed by Brümmer (and others) must be challenged. For instance, there is no prayer generally, but only response to the God whose being is in coming to us in Christ by the Spirit; prayer is not getting something from God by acting upon him; God is not readily objectified, and so prayer is more complex than “relay-race” (280) succession from our act to God’s act.

Myers notes that McCormack is not the first to find discontinuity between the trinitarianism of Barth’s early work and doctrinal convictions of his maturity. In a 1979 essay, Rowan Williams suggested that Barth’sChurch Dogmatics contained two doctrines of the Trinity. Myers interprets Williams’s work as an implicit defense of McCormack—a somewhat complicated argument on the surface, but capably worked out. “The aporia of [CD 1.1],” Myers says summarizing Williams, “emerges from its portrayal of God as something akin to an autonomous human subject” (128). Just as McCormack would, Williams finds Barth’s early thought to be governed by an abstract concept of lordship, defined by noetic and ontic autonomy. And with McCormack, Williams identifies the corrective to this in Barth’s doctrine of election. Election is of critical importance because as noted, it allows Barth to conceive of the economy as constitutive of God’s self-determination (to be-for-us) without necessitating change to the Godhead.

Contributions made to the third part, doing theology “beyond” Barth, reflect a range of interest in Barth, and comprehension of him, as they consider various constructive proposals. Nicola Hoggard-Creegan rather breezily asserts that Barth’s resistance to finding vestiges of the Trinity belongs to a bygone era. She claims that today it is necessary to identify triadic analogies, patterns of love and relationship, and semiotic presentations of unity and diversity in order to counter the secularized account of creation given by contemporary atheists and agnostics. Unfortunately, Hoggard-Creegan barely acknowledges the pitfalls of self-projection when seeking presumptive evidence of anything (surely, if God was thought to be a unity of four “persons” rather than three we would ignore triadic structures and “find” only quadratic ones), fails to assess the relationship between books of nature and scripture, and therefore offers no treatment of what the latter says about our inabilities (in a state of sin) to rightly translate the former. She also seems unconcerned with the fact that Barth articulated his theology in the face of modern atheism.

Haydn Nelson makes a more rigorous attempt in his paper, although it is not clear how it amounts to doing Trinitarian theology “beyond” Barth. Nelson contends that God’s impassibility is best understood as “active constancy,” that “God is active in that he is touched by suffering, yet is constant in that he is not overwhelmed or ontologically shaped by suffering” (343). While this formulation echoes certain features of Barth’s early trinitarianism, once again Barth’s early doctrine of the Trinity was largely a restatement of the tradition. It is a nice approximation of what the tradition has been saying at least since Cyril, but this formulation rejects a central element of the late Barth: the cross affects God’s very being.

Ashley Moyse and Antony Glading are deliberate in engaging Barth. Moyse utilizes Barth’s doctrine ofperichoresis to construct a model for ethical dialogue that he believes is better suited to application in biomedical fields than traditional options. Deontological (duty-based) and existential (being-based) ethics proceed from teleological pictures (outcome-based)—as do the Son and Spirit from the Father, respectively—and all three interpenetrate each other. Glading refreshingly refutes the popular notion that the Spirit is subordinate in Barth’s theology, demonstrating that for Barth the Spirit gives structure and content to time itself as the contemporaneous “here and now” of Christ. He understands Barth to move along a “Christo-pneumatological” trajectory (as opposed to Spirit-christological).

Finally, Ulrike Link-Wieczorek argues a welcome and thought-provoking thesis—that the Trinity should not be a doctrinal stumbling block in inter-religious dialogue. Link-Wieczorek reminds that throughout the OT, God names himself in a way that takes up covenantal history. The NT naming of God is thus merely a continuation of this reality. “Father, Son, and Spirit” are gains for the language by which we contemplate God, not gains for God’s ontology. God was, is, and will be the God who makes himself known among humankind. (In Barthian terms, Jesus is the eternal subject and object of God’s elective activity, and this activity defines his being; similarly, God ad extra is eternally determinative of God in se). This means that contemplation of God’s presence enjoys fundamental continuity between the old and new covenants—in both cases we encounter the God who determinatively reveals himself in the act of human cognition. Link-Wieczorek recommends that Trinitarian grammar is useful not for deriving a doctrine of God, as Barth did inCD 1.1, “but rather for ascertaining the contemplative culmination of the vision of the presence of God” (305).

As indicated, the quality of argumentation among the volume’s contributions is inconsistent, which is to be expected in any collection. It is also worth noting inconsistency in the book’s editing. Essays range from 44 pages to a mere 15. In some cases, grammar is flawless. Others contain multiple infelicities. Obvious errors are a citation of a nonexistent volume of the Dogmatics (2.3), formal inconsistency in references to theDogmatics awkward or incomplete sentences and spelling mistakes, inappropriate punctuation (commas and periods that need to be removed or inserted), unnecessary spaces, and inconsistent use of block quotations. None of these problems is egregious, but as an aggregate they give the work a feeling of sloppiness.

The volume’s upside, however, outshines its downside. The range of topics covered within its broad Trinitarian rubric is remarkable. Certain constructive proposals (e.g., by Davidson and Rae) frame pregnant lines of inquiry. Several pieces by younger scholars and students suggest a lively future for Trinitarian theology after Barth. For those studying Barth in Europe and North America, it is refreshing to hear from conversation partners from Australia and New Zealand. Lastly, it is perhaps a signature strength of the work that contributors include a vicar and two ministers. Their inclusion in no way compromises the learned temper of the volume, and it hearkens to Barth’s own participation in Pfarrertage. It also functions as a welcome reminder of the ecclesial focus of his theological efforts.

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.