Yocum, John. Ecclesial Mediation in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), xxiii + 200 pp. $135.00 (hardback).

Reviewed by W. Travis McMaken (February 01, 2007)

This volume comprises “a refined and slightly expanded version” (vii) of Yocum’s doctoral thesis, which he completed at Oxford under the supervision of John Webster. It is organized around three attempts, three claims, and one neglected conversation partner. Yocum attempts first to understand “Barth’s treatment of ecclesial mediation in light of his rejection of the concept of sacrament,” second to read the Church Dogmatics “as a whole” on this theme of ecclesial mediation, and third to connect this theme to Barth’s theological anthropology (xi). The first of Yocum’s claims is that Barth’s late rejection of sacraments “is not a necessary correction of his earlier theology, but rather a subversion of important elements of it” (xi). His second claim is that the polemical nature of Barth’s theology influences the content of that theology “in some important ways” (xv). Third, Yocum claims that ecclesial mediation is a central theme for Christian theology in that it helps us to understand the sort of relationship that “obtains between God and human beings” (xx). Yves Congar, a representative of “Roman Catholic Ressourcement” (xxi) that Yocum sees as providing an answer to Barth’s rejection of the sacraments, is the neglected conversation partner.The chapters of this study are organized according to the structure of the Church Dogmatics, such that each chapter deals with themes treated in a particular volume of CD. Yocum’s starting point in the first chapter is Barth’s assumption of “a communion of human and divine action in the work of revelation” (1). Proceeding through discussions of Barth’s theological method, the relation of theology to preaching, and of religion to sacraments, Yocum comes to understand the basic shape of Church Dogmatics I as sacramental.

Barth depicts divine and creaturely action as united, though not symmetrical: divine action is always logically and casually prior to the human action which attests it. Nonetheless…a certain instrumental role is given…to creaturely being (30).

Still, Yocum identifies the “seed of [Barth’s] rejection of sacraments” in his “notion that the Church has nothing to do but believe and give thanks” (27). Congar’s understanding of epiclesis as central to the sacraments is briefly offered as a way forward.

Yocum’s second chapter discusses the basic “structure of divine and human action” that Barth explicates in his doctrine of God, namely, that “divine action is always prior to, yet not exclusive of, but rather the ground of human action” (32). The high point of this chapter comes with his discussion of the place of community in Barth’s doctrine of election, in which Yocum identifies a tension between the “already completed and fully effective nature of the history of Jesus Christ” and the function of the community as a “genuine, visible and effective” witness to Christ (59). For Yocum, this tension leads Barth to an increasing separation of divine and human activity, especially in Church Dogmatics IV. But Yocum maintains that this divergence is not a necessary product of Barth’s doctrine of election precisely because election involves God’s establishment of human persons as God’s covenant partners. Drawing on the Apostle Paul and Yves Congar, Yocum maintains that we must be able to speak of the creature as an active participant in the work of salvation, especially at the ecclesial and sacramental level.

Chapter Three seeks to build on the previous chapters by exploring precisely what it means that “God’s act calls forth and demands corresponding human action” in a covenant that is “both accomplished and ongoing history” (68). This leads Yocum to a discussion of covenant, history and time, through which he comes to understand Barth’s position as depicting “eternity as embracing time on all sides” such that God “is able to accompany the creature who dwells in time” (81). A discussion of Barth’s doctrine of concursus reveals that “Barth ascribes a genuine causal efficacy to creatures in natural operations” (84) while at the same time affirming God’s causality in producing these effects, thus “attributing a single effect to a variety of causes which operate in different ways” (85). However, Barth limits this secondary causality of the creature to the natural sphere, a point that Yocum regrets and seeks to undermine through a discussion of Barth’s angelology. His contention is that, if angels act as creaturely servants of revelation in a way that is “not a threat to the divine agency” (95), why should similar action be denied to human beings?

Coming to Church Dogmatics IV/1-3 in his fourth chapter, Yocum begins with a discussion of the polemical horizon of Barth’s theology: a theology that “is determined to a large extent by what he wishes to rule out” (98). The targets of Barth’s most concentrated polemics in CD IV are identified as Bultmannian existentialism and Roman Catholic sacramentalism. As these polemic and dogmatic concerns converge, they produce a

general tendency…to secure the adequacy and completeness of the work of Christ and the freedom, integrity and autonomy of the human agent, by establishing separate, though corresponding, spheres of human and divine operations (103).

This tendency is traced through Barth’s ecclesiology, touching subsequently upon the themes of sanctification, proclamation and vocation. Perhaps the fundamental issue that Yocum raises in this section, in conjunction with Barth’s emphasis on the objectivity of Christ’s work, “is whether there is not a kind of mediated immediacy” (132). Except for Barth’s willingness to grant this in the case of prophets and apostles, and perhaps in preaching, his tendency toward a “very strong distinction of agents and actions” (132) leaves Yocum with little hope.

The fifth and final chapter deals with the baptism material in Church Dogmatics IV/4. Yocum provides an episodic history of how Barth’s thought on the sacraments developed, moving from the 1937-8 Gifford Lectures, to a discussion of the posthumously published portions of CD IV/4, to a treatment of the 1943 lecture on “The Teaching of the Church regarding Baptism.” Following a careful and admirably succinct description of Barth’s understanding of baptism in CD IV/4, Yocum offers a critical assessment. This assessment begins on a positive note with mention of Barth’s concern for a “faith that gives rise to active witness” (161) before moving on to critique Barth’s exegesis, his understanding of traditional sacramental doctrine, his lack of consideration for the communal nature of a human person’s identity, and his christology. This last point is especially interesting in that Yocum, without making the comparison explicit, seems to accuse Barth of the same christological imbalances that many find in Calvin, namely, of being “over-cautious against the danger of ‘confusion’ of nature” (169) and of giving too little attention to the work of the Holy Spirit.

In his conclusion, Yocum first endeavors to consolidate his reading of Barth on ecclesial mediation by clarifying how Barth’s rejection “of the sacramental action of baptism with water undermines a good deal of Barth’s theology in the earlier volumes” (172) and emphasizing once again the role that Barth’s polemical concerns played in this rejection. The final section is given over to a discussion of Congar’s sacramental theology with its concern for pneumatology (as seen especially in Congar’s interest in epiclesis) and in the joining of divine and human activity in the sacraments “on the basis of faith in the promise of God” (180).

Yocum’s volume certainly has many positive qualities. His discussions of Barth’s theology are textually driven and generally faithful. However, there remain certain deficiencies, three of which we will mention briefly. The first of these deficiencies is the composite character of Yocum’s study. His three attempts, three claims, and one neglected conversation partner put an undue strain on his prose. These things are difficult to hold together and his volume at times seems to lack cohesion. This is related to the second deficiency, namely, the lack of a more sustained engagement with Congar. Although this is more of a reader’s regret than a deficiency, that Congar appears only briefly and sporadically is certainly a disappointment. The third deficiency is to be found in his discussion of Church Dogmatics IV where the quality of Yocum’s exposition diminishes, perhaps understandably so in light of the vast tracts of text that he must cover. The theme of his treatment of this material is the increasing disjunction between divine and human activity in Barth’s thought. But, to affirm this is to overlook passages in which Barth holds divine and human activity closely together. For instance, consider the following:

The creaturely is made serviceable to the divine and does actually serve it. It is used by God as His organ or instrument. Its creatureliness is not impaired, but it is given by God a special function or character. Being qualified and claimed by God for co-operation, it co-operates in such a way that the whole is still an action which is specifically divine (IV/2, 557).

Or, consider even this fleeting comment from Barth’s discussion of the role of the Christian community in baptism with the Holy Spirit: “[The work of the community] stands or falls with the self-attestation and self-impartation of Jesus Christ Himself, in which it can only participate as assistant and minister” (IV/4, 32). That the community may ‘only’ assist and minister does not diminish the fact that it does indeed assist and minister! It seems as though Yocum’s dissatisfaction with Barth’s final rejection of water baptism as sacramental has lead him to overstate Barth’s disjunction between divine and human activity within Church Dogmatics IV.

These things notwithstanding, Yocum’s treatment of ecclesial mediation in Barth’s work is a challenge to those who understand Barth’s theology either in terms of a decisive shift or in terms of enduring continuity, and is therefore a real contribution to Barth studies.

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.