Simul Sanctification: Barth’s Hidden Vision for Human Transformation

Jeff McSwain. Simul Sanctification: Barth’s Hidden Vision for Human Transformation (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2018), 334 pp. $39.00 (paperback).

Reviewed by Taylor Telford (May 21, 2020)


Jeff McSwain’s Simul Sanctification is a lucidly written, theologically creative exploration of what he describes as “the two humanities in the one humanity of Christ” (223). Using the lens of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, McSwain clarifies Barth’s doctrine of sanctification—an aspect of Barth’s theology arguably as innovative as his doctrine of election. In so doing, McSwain seeks to provide a scripturally grounded, theologically consistent account for why Christians commit terrible evil and non-Christians genuine acts of good. By exploring what he calls “Barth’s Christo-anthropological actualism,” McSwain seeks to address this concern by answering a central question of Barth’s theological conclusions: If Barth’s Christology claims Jesus as both the True Human and in full solidarity with sinful human sarx, what then are the implications for anthropology (281)? The answer, for McSwain, is what he calls “a Chalcedonian anthropology,” wherein “Jesus Christ’s singular life most accurately reveals to us the peccatum totality of false humanity’s condition, while simultaneously representing the iustitia totality of true human being;” the single subject, Jesus Christ, entails “a twofold determination of human nature” within the traditional twofold divine-human Chalcedonian formula (60).

McSwain’s argument can be delineated into corresponding sections of what, how, where and when, and why. Chapters 1 and 2 address what will be argued; these chapters form the central thread of the thesis woven throughout the book. Here, McSwain sets forth the most innovative aspect of his argument: “Chalcedonian anthropology”. Where Chalcedon affirms the two natures, divine and human, in the single subject, Jesus Christ, McSwain expands this to include a twofold human nature: justus and peccator humanity. McSwain is repurposing “Chalcedonian” to highlight a two-natures anthropology which includes true humanity and sinful flesh.

From here, Chapters 3-6 seek to answer the how questions: how one comes to know this “Chalcedonian anthropology” in Christ (Ch. 3), how this reading re-shapes and differs from other Barthian accounts, particularly regarding Barth’s ontological actualism (Ch. 4), and how it differs from other doctrines of sanctification (Ch. 5 and 6). For McSwain, other accounts of sanctification (Barthian and otherwise) are inadequate because they either separate the will and work of the Triune persons (e.g. all are objectively reconciled in Christ, but not all are subjectively redeemed in the Spirit) or they fall into monergism or synergism. In contrast, Barth’s Christocentric actualism not only means all humanity objectively participates in Christ, but also subjectively participates in Christ already. As the single subject who is both God and human (with both true and false humanity), both subject of election and object of election and rejection, Jesus is the objective act of God and the subjective response of humanity. Both justification and sanctification are located and actualized in Jesus. In addressing the corresponding how to the what question of his thesis, McSwain’s radical emphasis on “Christo-anthropological actualism” sheds light on the uniqueness of his contribution to Barth scholarship.

Chapters 7-12 explore the questions of where and when the simul occurs from varying angles. McSwain highlights a clear tension in Barth’s Christology: if Jesus is fully God and fully human, which includes both true and false humanity, then where does this originate and when does this occur? McSwain traces these concerns through the Church Dogmatics (CD hereafter), addressing Barth’s interaction with a range of topics including election, creation, the Fall, theodicy, Christ’s cross, resurrection, and intercession, theosis, time, and eternity. Regarding true humanity, McSwain adheres to Barth’s assertion that Jesus alone is the True Human, determined in election and fulfilled in reconciliation; iustus humanity is located in Christ. But what of false humanity? Like Barth, McSwain refuses to look behind Jesus in some way to explain the impossible possibility of sin and evil. Instead, he focuses on God’s radical responsibility for these things, particularly in the cross. Peccator humanity, too, is located in Christ, in order that it may be put to death. For McSwain, this is highlighted in Jesus’ own experience of the simul, poignantly revealed in Gethsemane and Golgotha (Ch. 7). Even as the reality of the simul is revealed in Christ, so is its timeline. Jesus’ death spells the end of the peccator, and the resurrection reveals the promise—and the reality!—of true humanity in Christ, which was established in election and fulfilled in reconciliation. In addressing the location and temporal aspects of the simul, these chapters draw out the pressure points and emphasize the radical nature and implications of McSwain’s reading of Barth.

The final chapters contain McSwain’s reflections on why this matters. Here, he creatively applies the argument in terms of reading scripture and applying theology concretely. These chapters highlight McSwain’s commitment to and awareness of Barth’s own concerns; namely, attending to the biblical witness and the inextricable connection between theology, ethics, and everyday life. McSwain shows how Barth’s account of sanctification reorients the question of why believers commit evil and unbelievers fruitful good. Because the human being is externally located in the person Jesus Christ, who according to “Chalcedonian anthropology” reveals both true and false humanity, all human beings on this side of the eschaton have both iustus and peccator determinations. There is no ontological delineation between believers and non-believers since all are objectively (and subjectively, as McSwain would add) in Christ. Sanctification is not a matter of personal “progress;” it is a dynamic process of becoming who you already are in the miraculous intervention of the Spirit who allows one to recognize their objective inclusion and participate in Christ’s own subjective response to the Father. For McSwain, this re-definition matters deeply for the way the church understands itself, vocation, and relation to the world.

It should be noted that as McSwain moves from question to question throughout this book, these questions are held together—in congruence with Barth’s own thought—by the central who question; that is, who Jesus Christ is as True God and True Human and who human beings are. This, alongside consistent engagement with the whole of Barth’s CD and his attention to typically overlooked sections (e.g Barth’s understanding of angels [Ch. 12] and the correlation between Jesus and Job in CD IV/3.1 [Ch. 8]) underscore the breadth and depth of research McSwain’s project. Likewise, his consistent engagement with Barth’s exegesis of scripture, as well as his “Final Reflections,” which explore the concrete implications for Christian life, show McSwain’s care for and consistency with Barth’s own theological concerns.

While the book reflects meticulous attention to primary source material, more attention to relevant secondary sources would better situate McSwain within Barth scholarship. Even so, it serves as a useful springboard for further dialogue within Barth studies and beyond. Though McSwain is aware of this danger, the structure and innovative nature of his argument can lead to accusations of using Barth’s CD to merely “proof-text” an imported thesis, which is an inherent risk when topically approaching a text as massive as the CD (213). For example, though cited throughout, there is no section that explicitly ties the thesis to Barth’s account of sanctification in CD IV/2 §66—an exercise that could lend support to McSwain’s claims that the simul is Barth’s thought, and not merely a way of reading Barth. Is McSwain’s thesis the product of exegesis or eisegesis of Barth’s theology? One thing is clear: Simul Sanctification offers an original and engaging reading of Barth, grounded in broad and in-depth research of the CD, which seeks to follow not only the content of Barth’s thought but also his underlying concerns to their ends.

Taylor Telford, Ph.D. Candidate, University of St. Andrews

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.