Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 320. $35.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Matthias Gockel (October 23, 2009)

This collection of essays comes from one of the leading interpreters of Karl Barth and shows how his thinking has developed in the last decade. When one reads the book as a whole, it becomes clear that Bruce McCormack regards Barth not as an icon but as an exemplary companion in the quest “to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity” (17).

The first part of the book analyzes Karl Barth’s relationship to nineteenth-century theology. McCormack is convinced that the time has come to compare systematically “the relative merits of the two most impressive constructive theologians … in the modern period – those of Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth” (41).

Chapter 1 focusses on theological epistemology. After Kant’s limitation of theoretical knowledge to the realm of intuitable phenomena, knowledge of God has become “deeply problematic to modern theologians” (24). According to McCormack, Barth’s commentary on Romans attempts to establish the independence of revelation and, in doing so, belongs to a tradition that begins with Schleiermacher’s effort to make religion independent of metaphysics and ethics. Barth relocates the problem in the realm of theological epistemology and thereby attempts “to transcend Kant’s restrictions” (27). For Barth, revelation occurs “within the realm of theoretical knowing” (28), yet it is a distinct kind of knowing, because its source is an act of God in which the human knowing apparatus is “grasped by God from without and made to conform to God as its object”. Revelation as a Christian dogmatic concept must be God’s self-revelation. Moreover, if the unintuitable God is truly to be known, God must make Himself intuitable in such a way that His unintuitability is not set aside. Whereas the commentary on Romans imagines such an event by means of expressive metaphors and an “appeal” to divine power, Barth soon discovers Christology, especially the doctrine of the incarnation, as the dogmatic topic with which he could explain his discovery: “The life of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s life; his intuitability is God’s intuitability” (32).

The essay concludes with “programmatic suggestions” regarding the proper categorization of Barth. Philosophically, Barth is a foundationalist of the Kantian sort. Theologically, however, Barth cannot be called a foundationalist, since his philosophical convictions do not provide the “ultimate ground” for his theological truth-claims. McCormack suggests the term “transfoundationalism”, in which the prefix ‘trans-’ refers to the possibility of transcending foundations without negating them. Such an act of transcendence must not be understood as human self-transcendence, since its basis is a “realistically conceived divine act” (35, my emphasis).

Chapter 2 compares the doctrine of election in the theologies of Alexander Schweizer and Karl Barth. Both men agree that “what God does in time must be grounded in His eternal being” (a quote from Schweizer) and point out that the classical Reformed doctrine of predestination emphasizes the unconditionality of God’s grace. For Schweizer, God’s grace belongs to God’s eternally and omnipresently active love, insofar as this love is confronted by sinful human beings. Grace belongs to the divine attribute of love, insofar as this love is confronted by human sin. It is not dependent on a person’s faith or unbelief. Still, Schweizer follows the classical Augustinian model of election, which focusses on the question of why some believe and others not. He insists that God’s grace, like God’s love, is universal in its scope. Here, the concept of “applicative grace” comes into play. Applicative grace is not irresistible or compulsive but must be received willingly. God’s grace is universal in nature but particular in effect. Schweizer eventually treats election as “a subcategory of providence” (55). Herein, he is indebted to Schleiermacher.

Barth locates election in the doctrine of God, whereby God is not only the subject but also the primary object of election. The starting-point of Barth’s dogmatic reflection is the concept of God’s self-revelation in the history of Jesus Christ. On this basis, he asks: What must God be like to do what he has done? According to Barth, God reveals himself “in taking to himself a fully human life as his very own (in all of its limitations up to and including death)” (58). This act of God has its ground not in some hidden divine decree or decision but in the eternal being of God. The history of Jesus Christ is truly God’s self-revelation. But Barth goes even one step further, at once modifying and deepening the classical doctrine’s emphasis on God’s unconditional grace. Jesus Christ is not only God’s self-revelation but also God’s self-determination. God’s being is determined once and for all in a primal decision (Urentscheidung), in which God elects Himself for us in Jesus Christ. “There is no will of God that would be different from the will of Jesus Christ.”[1]

McCormack concludes: “The promise contained in the Schweizerian principle that what God does in time must be grounded in the eternal divine being could not be realized by Schweizer himself because he was unable to secure it against doubts that God might not be in himself what God appears to us to be through his works.” In contrast, Barth’s understanding of God’s self-revelation a posteriori in Jesus Christ makes clear “how the works of God are grounded in the eternal divine being as it really is in and for itself.” (61)

Chapter 3 is devoted to continuities in the theologies of Barth and Schleiermacher and the question why Barth reacted so strongly against Schleiermacher. McCormack argues that when Barth turned against Schleiermacher, he turned against a “form of Schleiermacherianism” (64) represented especially by Ernst Troeltsch.

For Troeltsch, the development of the religious consciousness takes place in accordance with “general laws and tendencies” (Troeltsch). McCormack doubts whether such an approach stands in the tradition of Schleiermacher, who does not think of religion in general terms and knows no religion or God-consciousness ‘as such’. The ‘feeling of absolute dependence’ does not exist in a pure form, since the ‘feeling’, or immediate self-consciousness, is always connected with the sensible self-consciousness. It cannot “be controlled, mastered and brought into play at the whim of any individual in whom it is found” (73). Schleiermacher’s theology is a critical one, and herein lies a basic continuity between Schleiermacher and Barth. The “infinite qualitative difference between God and humanity” is a trade-mark of Schleiermacher as much as of Barth. “Absolute dependence is indeed absolute; one can, under the impact of divine causality, surrender oneself to its power, but one cannot cause it to be effective.” (74) Moreover, Schleiermacher’s theology thematizes the contents of the Christian (not an abstract) pious self-consciousness determined by a community with particular religious beliefs and dogmatic propositions. In the process, the feeling of absolute dependence remains “beyond the conceptual grasp of the dogmatician” (77).

The difference is also visible in Troeltsch’s Heidelberg lectures on the subject of Glaubenslehre in 1912 and 1913. Here, McCormack argues, two central features of Schleiermacher’s “critical theology of consciousness” (69) are missing. First, the feeling of absolute depedence is replaced by a ‘Christian principle’ and an anti-naturalistic ‘religion of personality’. Second, Schleiermacher’s strict distinction between God and the world is abandoned in favor of an “interpenetration” of divine spirit and human spirit. Troeltsch himself was aware of the differences but thought he was “carrying out Schleiermacher’s program” (80). For McCormack, this is the main reason why Barth thought he was rejecting Schleiermacher when, in fact, he was rejecting Troeltsch.

So, which Barth shall we use for a comparison with Schleiermacher? McCormack chooses not the later Barth, “who seems in the eyes of many to have mellowed in his attitude towards Schleiermacher” (64), but Barth’s earlier theology (especially the lectures on systematic theology in Göttingen and Münster, 1924-26), which he calls a “‘Church Dogmatics’ in the Schleiermacherian tradition” (81). For McCormack both men think of revelation as a “giving”, not a “given”. Both use a critical and heuristic tool for their respective expositions of dogmatic topics: while Schleiermacher employs the notion of absolute dependence, Barth speaks of God’s veiling and unveiling in revelation. The intention is the same: to point to the limits of dogmatic propositions and to ensure that dogmatic reflection is not speculative or starting from principles a priori, but hermeneutical, “assimilating the witness of Holy Scripture to particular doctrinal themes and the witness of tradition to that witness” (85).

Chapter 4 discusses Barth’s theological exegesis of Philippians in the context of hermeneutical debates during the 1920s. It reminds us that Barth became famous not as a dogmatic theologian but as a “highly innovative exegete” (89), who shared the historical-critical concern for what the text says but was not willing to adopt positivist standards as a precondition of “scientific” exegesis.

Part two of the book (Chapters 5 and 6) contains a critical discussion of postliberal (or nonfoundationalist) and postmodern Barth interpreters in the English-speaking world, written especially for the German-speaking scene, which argues that these interpretations rest on “misreadings” (153) of Barth’s understanding of revelation. In order to flesh out his critique, McCormack offers a sophisticated exegesis of Church DogmaticsII/1, § 27 (“The Limits of the Knowledge of God”), which sheds new light on Barth’s critique and appreciation (!) of the analogia entis (cf. 310).

Part three turns to ontological issues and includes the essay that has elicited such a lively, sometimes heated debate (Chapter 7), due to propositions like the following: “God’s essence…is knowable because it is constituted by the act of turning towards us. God in himself is God ‘for us’” (190).

For McCormack (and not only for him), Barth’s greatest theological contribution is the doctrine of election inChurch Dogmatics II/2 (especially §§ 32-33), because here “the historicizing tendencies of well over a century of theology prior to him found…both their relative justification and their proper limit” (183). Here it becomes clear that God is not the hidden God of the ‘absolute decree’. “At the beginning of all the ways of God with the world stood … the God-human, Jesus Christ” (184). The Logos, or the ‘eternal Son’, never existed “in and for himself”, in “a mode of state of being above and prior to the eternal decision to be incarnate in time” (186). Barth arrives at this conclusion through an exegesis of the prologue to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ. And precisely that is the predestination.”[2] Certainly, the Logos was a-sarkos (not enfleshed) prior to the incarnation. Still, McCormack emphasizes that even before the incarnation the Logos was incarnandus (to be incarnate). “The Second Person of the Trinity has a name and his name is Jesus Christ.” Hence, the immanent and the economic trinity are “identical in content” (191).

The content of God’s election is the covenant of grace. In this covenant, God neither undergoes an essential change nor engages in “mere role-play” but remains true to Himself. This is so, because the eternal decision to establish the covenant of grace is also a decision about God’s self. God has freely decided to be defined in all eternity by the history of Jesus Christ, especially his death on the cross, “as a being-for this event” (189). Hence, Barth’s theological ontology is actualistic and covenantal. God’s being “is actualized in the decision for activity in time” and “constituted … in a most concrete, particular relation” (190). The incarnation is a historical event. Nevertheless, “God is already in pretemporal eternity – by way of anticipation – that which God would become in time”. God’s being in eternity is “a being which looks forward” (191).

At this point, McCormack calls for a critical correction of interpretations that subordinate the doctrine of election to the doctrine of the trinity. He admonishes us that Barth’s theological development should be taken more seriously. “The day when Church Dogmatics could be read as though it had been written in the space of a single afternoon, as though every part were fully consistent with all the others, is over” (17-18). Barth’s doctrine of election in CD II/2 deals with a question that was already adressed in the doctrine of the trinity in CD I/1: Who is the God who reveals Himself? The answer in each volume is fundamentally the same: God is the God of His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Yet, differences in the details exist, due to Barth’s christocentric revision of the doctrine of election. McCormack is not the first to notice them, as he himself acknowledges.

Logically, Barth’s doctrine of election in CD II/2 would require the retraction of certain claims (not every claim!)[3] in the earlier volumes, which suggest that God is triune ‘in and for himself’, independently from God’s self-determination in the election of Jesus Christ and the covenant of grace.[4] McCormack therefore regards “the triunity of God, logically, as a function of divine election”. God’s trinitarian self-differentiation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “is given in the eternal act in which God elects himself for the human race. Thedecision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity” (194). We are not dealing with a temporal sequence; the point is to emphasize the unity of the eternal act of God’s self-determination.

The issue is revisited in Chapter 10, where McCormack insists that the idea of Jesus Christ as the subject of election must be understood in light of the “basic paradigm” of Barth’s doctrine of the trinity, that is, “in terms of a single divine subject in three modes of being” (270). He argues that “if God is the same subject as ‘Father’ and as ‘Son’, then the subject who makes the decision to be Jesus Christ is the same subject who ‘becomes’ Jesus Christ as a consequence of this decision” (270-71, with reference to CD IV/1). He concludes that “in the strictest sense, it is the ‘Father’ who is the subject of election – and because this is so ‘Jesus Christ’ can be the subject of election only because the subject that the ‘Father’ is, is the same subject that ‘Jesus Christ’ is” (272). “Because God’s being is a being in the act of electing, the identity of the one divine subject as ‘Father’ is something He gives to Himself precisely in this decision – and therefore in the one eternal event in which the Son is begotten and the Holy Spirit is spirated.” (266)

Moreover, the separation between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ acts of God, or between God’s nature and God’s will, is put aside. Instead, there is one eternal act or event. “What is ‘natural and necessary’ in God is itself the consequence of the one eternal act of self-determination”. Divine freedom is not simply a freedom from ‘internal’ or ‘external’ need or deficiency, so that God somehow must be able to exist ‘in and for himself’. Such a concept of God is too narrow and limited by metaphysical assumptions about the self-sufficiency of divine being. It easily leads to a concept of God “as impassible, as removed from suffering, and so forth” (273). The consideration that existence is a necessary predicate of God should never be “abstracted from the decision in which God gives to himself his own being” (266). McCormack points to a passage Church Dogmatics II/1, § 28, where Barth explains that God is not only actus purus (Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastics) but actus purus et singularis, “concretely, in the singularity of the event of God’s self-revelation in time” (272). We will encounter the ‘essence’ of God “either at the place where God deals with us as Lord and Saviour or not at all.”[5]

Although these passages in CD II/1 do not refer to election as God’s self-determination, the theological ontology is the same, as Barth’s understanding of the divine decree makes strikingly clear. The key here is the idea of God’s constancy, faithfulness, and reliability, “the absoluteness and finality of the free love, in which God, at the beginning of all things, has chosen and decided.” God’s freedom is the concrete decree, that is, God’s free decision to determine His own being as God in the covenant of grace. Predestination “without doubt is also a bond and an obligation, which God for Himself has taken upon Himself and which he has decided to keep in complete freedom (a freedom that is but the freedom of His love).”[6]

Chapter 8 discusses Barth’s historicized christology. Although he was opposed to “metaphysical speculation” from early on, there was a time when his thought was not without it and indebted to “the abstract metaphysical ontology which underwrote the Christology of the Chalcedonian Council” (207). With his doctrine of election, however, Barth moves beyond such an ontology. The key is the insight that Jesus Christ is the subject of election, so that election is “a free act in which God assigned to Himself the being God would have for all eternity” (216). God’s decision to be God-for-us is also the event in which God differentiates himself into the three modes of being – Father, Son and Spirit.[7] As a result, Barth is able “to bid farewell to the distinction between the eternal Word and the incarnate Word” (217): the second mode of being in God isJesus Christ.

This insight leads McCormack to support Bertold Klappert’s “striking claim that ‘Barth does not think incarnationally in the neoorthodox sense’” (221).[8] The doctrine of reconciliation in CD IV/1 does not any longer include a ‘special christology’, that is, a doctrine of the person of Christ in terms of the two-natures-doctrine. Instead, the two-natures-doctrine is an implication of the doctrine of reconciliation. “The being of Jesus Christ is a being in a history” – the history of the gracious God and the reconciled human being in their unity. “And exactly that which takes place in this history, and therefore in the being of Jesus Christ as such, is reconciliation.” According to McCormack, the root of this understanding of christology is to be found in Barth’s doctrine of election. For Barth, there is no metaphysical subject that unites itself to a human ‘nature’. Instead, in the divine election humankind is taken up “into the event of God’s being”, in which both God and humankind receive their “most essential determinations” (223). This does not mean that the asymmetry in their relation is set aside. God participates directly in the being and life of a human being, whereas the human being Jesus of Nazareth “participates in the being and existence of God indirectly by freely willing to live in correspondence to the history of God inaugurated in the covenant of grace” (228). Still, the two modes of participation are two aspects of a single history. They find their unity in the primal decision (Urentscheidung) of God’s gracious election.

The topic of participation is discussed extensively in Chapter 9, in the context of the recently revived debates on ‘deification’. McCormack brings Barth into conversation with Eberhard Jüngel and shows that their position is very similar: “Participation in God, Yes; Deification, No” (235).

The fourth part of the book contains five shorter writings that add flavour to the collection by highlighting the relevance of Barth’s theology for contemporary culture and, specifically, our life in the church and in society. McCormack interprets Barth not as a pre-modern or postmodern but as a modern theologian. Yet, what does he mean by ‘modernity’? The introduction mentions two main characteristics – the rise of historical consciousness and the acceptance of critical methods in Biblical studies; the demise of classical Greek metaphysics and the corresponding cosmological paradigm – and asks how Barth reacted to them. According to McCormack, Barth accepted the Kantian critique of metaphysics and found inspiration in the thinking of the Marburg neo-Kantians, especially their actualistic ontology, which he applied to the concept of God: to be is to act. He also accepted the historical-critical approach to the Bible and followed Schleiermacher (and others) in the rejection of natural theology. But the truly novel aspect of his theology is visible, according to McCormack, in the attempt to develop a historicized Christian doctrine of God. God’s eternal election “to be ‘God for us’ in Jesus Christ is an act in which God constitutes his being as a being for historical existence (i.e., the incarnate life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth)” (13).

On the one hand, McCormack’s thesis that Barth’s alleged turn from ‘dialectical’ to ‘analogical’ thinking between 1921 and 1931 – proclaimed by both critics (Tillich) and friends (von Balthasar, T. F. Torrance) – is a chimera, has been largely accepted. On the other hand, it is still possible to project such a turn simply onto a later stage in Barth’s thinking and thereby neglect the decisive development in Barth’s theology: the shift from a pneumatocentric to a christocentric dialectic. McCormack points us to the epistemological impact of God’s veiling and unveiling in revelation: “where God is truly known in his hiddeness, it is the whole of God which is known and not ‘part’ of God” (110). Initially, the Realdialektik focuses on the actualistic relation of God to individual human beings, which shapes the prolegomena to the Church Dogmatics (CD I/1 and I/2). From CD II/2 onwards, it is transformed into an ontological Realdialektik of the covenant, which focusses on the actualistic relation of God to God’s self and thus to human beings.

Despite many discussions of McCormack’s monograph from 1995, I wonder if Protestant theologians in general and Barth scholars in particular have absorbed its insights. These days, it is alleged that McCormack interprets Barth through Schleiermacher or through Hegel, who were, by the way, devoted Christian thinkers. Others find fault with his thesis that the ecumenical creeds are only “relatively binding as definitions of what constitutes ‘orthodoxy’”, since a perfect conformity of Christian teaching to the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture “is not attainable in this world” (15). But what really matters are other considerations, for example, the thesis that “the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment, precisely as a human experience, is…an event in God’s own life” (189).[9]

According to Karl Barth, the doctrine of God’s gracious choice is the ‘sum of the gospel’. Are we ready for the good news that the history of Jesus Christ is the history of God and we as human beings are an integral part of it?

[1] Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. II/2, 124. ET Church Dogmatics, vol. II/2, 115.

[2] Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. II/2, 157. ET Church Dogmatics, vol. II/2, 146.

[3] Cf. the following quote that anticipates the central theme of CD II/2: “the reality of God which encounters us in His revelation is His reality in all the depths of eternity” (Church Dogmatics I/1, 479).

[4] Indeed, the quote McCormack offers from CD IV/1 (193n14, cf. also 220-21) is startling, and all the more so, since a few lines down in the same passage Barth admonishes us that we shall not “dream of a ‘Logos in himself’”, that “we have to reckon behind [God’s free, gracious will] with no Son of God in himself, particularly with no logos asarkos, with none other than the incarnate word of God” (see Karl Barth,Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. IV/1, 54-55. ET Church Dogmatics IV/1, 52-53).

[5] Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. II/1, 293. ET Church Dogmatics II/1, 261.

[6] Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. II/2, 200. ET Church Dogmatics II/2, 183. Therefore, it makes little sense to ‘guard’ God’s freedom by referring to the immanent trinity.

[7] McCormack speaks of a “certain logical priority” of election over the triunity of God (218). Kevin Hector has argued that, for Barth, “triunity is logically prior to election,” but he agrees with McCormack that “God’s triune being coincides eternally with God’s decision to be God-for-us” (Kevin W. Hector, “God’s Triunity and Self-Determination: A Conversation with Karl Barth, Bruce McCormack and Paul Molnar,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 7 [2005]: 258).

[8] Similary, albeit with a different focus, Ingolf Dalferth points out that incarnation christology is an interpretation of the confession that Jesus Christ is risen and not “the christological theme”. Ingolf U. Dalferth, Der auferweckte Gekreuzigte. Zur Grammatik der Christologie (Tübingen 1994), 31.

[9] Again, Dalferth is an important conversation partner. He also understands the death of Jesus Christ as an event in God’s own life, although he conceptualizes it in terms of an existential-theological hermeneutics, instead of a christological ontology, with a focus on the “eschatological significance [of the cross] for God, and through God for us.” Dalferth, Der auferweckte Gekreuzigte, 44.

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.