Dempsey, Michael T., ed., Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), x + 301pp. $38.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Mark R. Lindsay (January 31, 2014)

Karl Barth, it would seem, has been a perennially controversial figure. One need only rehearse his debates with Harnack, Brunner, and Van Til to catch a glimpse of the controversies with which he surrounded himself, or at least was inadvertently surrounded, during his lifetime. Indeed, one of the fascinations of Barth studies is the way in which Barth’s monumental corpus continues to facilitate multiple—and at times entirely contradictory—interpretations. Notwithstanding pleas to the contrary, Barthian orthodoxy remains as contested as ever. This is perhaps no truer at the moment than in the debates swirling around the constitution of the Trinity and the locus of God’s electing will. The arguments continue apace despite the fact that the genesis of the debate is now more than a decade old. Michael Dempsey’s collection is devoted to this debate. As he states in the introduction, these debates get to the heart of two very particular matters: the question of which contemporary theologian, or school, can properly lay claim to the Barthian mantle—at least within the English-speaking world; and the rather more ultimate question of the nature of God’s very being in freedom (17). In this volume, Dempsey brings together twelve eminently qualified theologians—including some of those around whom this debate has revolved, such as George Hunsinger, Bruce McCormack, and Paul Molnar, and other somewhat younger, though no less able scholars, such as Christopher Holmes, Paul Daffyd Jones, and Paul Nimmo—to tease out the implications of these two questions. The result is a highly readable and thought-provoking collection of essays.

The first five chapters are sets of ‘challenge-and-response’ from the two sides of the controversy. Kevin Hector and Paul Molnar square off against each other, as do McCormack and Hunsinger. For those who are not familiar with the contours of the argument, the issues can be roughly summarized in the following terms. According to Bruce McCormack, Barth came to understand Jesus Christ as both the electing God and the elected human being. This alteration of the doctrine of election constituted a fundamental break with Reformed tradition because it dissolved the distinction between the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos, between theincarnatus and the incarnandus. Election is not simply something that God does, but is rather intrinsic to God’s very being. Indeed, it is the decision by which God constitutes God’s own being as triune. In McCormack’s words, “God is what he is in the eternal decision of election and not in a state or mode of existence that is above or prior to that decision” (136). That is, the works of God ad intra (the Trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (election). Molnar and Hunsinger rail against this, both from the perspective of their own exegesis of Barth’s theology and also on account of the dogmatic implications of such thinking. In large part, the collapsing of the immanent into the economic Trinity—a charge directed against McCormack, but which he stoutly repudiates—renders God essentially dependent upon creation, at ultimate risk to God’s own freedom (see 55, 105, 109).

Those readers who have been following the debate will find none of the content or the essays in the first half of part one new. Each chapter in part one is a republication of an article which has previously appeared elsewhere (primarily in Modern TheologyIJSTand SJT, between 2005 and 2010). Nonetheless, their collation here is particularly useful for orienting the reader to the nuances of the debate.

In the second half of part one, we are introduced to fresh perspectives, largely from key representatives of the younger generation of Barth scholars. In “Obedience, Trinity, and Election,” Jones reflects materially upon the way in which Barth’s notion of christological obedience points to the complication of God’s triunity and electing action (155). It seems to me, however, that his more substantive point lies elsewhere. He urges us to think both with and, importantly, beyond Barth, arguing (perhaps contra the more senior scholars whose claims set the scene in the opening section) that, if one of the pressing questions here concerns Barth’s legacy, then the Church Dogmatics does not close off interpretive license or limit it to one dominant hegemonic reading. Rather, the Church Dogmatics opens up an array of competing interpretive possibilities. “Recent debates,” he contends, “should be viewed as an opportunity . . . to embrace a new sensibility, characterized by interpretive open-mindedness” (139). His welcome plea resonates especially loudly in light of the oft-times rancorous tone which has infected many of the exchanges between the key protagonists in this debate.

In the following essay, Nimmo criticizes the christological concentration of the debate. Insofar as the point at issue fundamentally bears upon the locus of election, at the center of which rightly stands the person of Jesus Christ, this concentration has been right and proper. Nimmo suggests that a pneumatological perspective is both helpful and necessary as well. Leaning ultimately more towards what he calls the “strong” reading of Barth—that is, towards McCormack’s view that from CD II/2 onwards election preceded Trinity within Barth’s epistemological frame—Nimmo pursues two constructive consequences for pneumatology. First, since the eternal Son can never be abstracted from the incarnate Logos, we must likewise reject the notion of a Spirit abstracted from the mediating activity between Jesus Christ and the community of God’s church (178). Second, since the Logos is always and ever the Logos incarnandus, so too therefore must we think of the Spirit as always the pneuma inecclesiandus, the Spirit “to be enchurched” (178).

The next essay shifts from a consideration of God’s own being and action to the actions of the human community. Christopher Holmes takes up the challenge of the debate with respect to Barth’s ethics which, he notes, is ingredient to the doctrine of election. Election includes within itself “a profound anthropological correlate” (200). Thus ethical orientation for the creature always means conformity to that for which she has been eternally elected. In the same way that God is eternally self-determined to be the One who gives Himself to the creature, so too the creature has an elected vocation; the creature is summoned to become what she is in Christ—the covenant partner who gives herself freely to God. With conscious reference to Jüngel, Holmes suggests that the best way of articulating this is in terms of “reiterative humanity”: “humanity is true humanity inasmuch as it reiterates in time what it is eternally determined to be” (198). In the context of the overarching debate, this preference for reiterative rather than constitutive language sways Holmes more towards Molnar’s side. While appreciative of McCormack’s stress on God’s constitutive determination pro nobis, Holmes nonetheless finds McCormack’s actualistic “covenantal ontology” by which true humanity is realized only in the act of faithful obedience, guilty of undermining God’s freedom and self-sufficiency and—consequently—it undermines human freedom as well.

Aaron Smith’s contribution is in large part an overview of the key differences between McCoamck and Molnar, through the interpretive lens of the time-eternity dialectic. He helpfully distinguishes between the two purposes of the McCormack-Molnar debate, which should in turn affect our interpretation of their respective merits. McCormack, he notes, presents a constructive thesis intended to tease out the logical implications of Barth’s position which Barth himself did not articulate. Molnar, on the other hand, seeks to defend Barthian orthodoxy without engaging the substantive concerns of McCormack’s argument. Noting that much of the force of the debate hinges upon the nature of God’s being in eternity, Smith highlights the different construals of eternity offered by both McCormack and Molnar. He points out that since they define eternity differently, they are bound to reach different conclusions (216–219). Similarly, whereas McCormack privileges Barth’s statements on divine unity—that in God, Jesus Christ always was “and stands at the most primordial moment of divine being” (220)—Molnar prefers to emphasize the distinction between the eternity of Jesus Christ and the nonbeginning of God in se (220). In sum, the great benefit of this essay is in demonstrating that insofar as McCormack and Molnar enter it with differing objectives, and define key terms differently, they are to some degree talking at rather than to each other.

Smith’s essay concludes part one. With contributions from Nicholas Healy and Matthew Levering, the essays in part two broaden the debate ecumenically by introducing two Catholic voices into the discussion. Both Healy and Levering ultimately reject McCormack’s thesis, though their differing reasons for doing so are in themselves materially instructive. Healy’s contribution engages less the question of the doctrine of God and more the question of theological epistemology—not, perhaps, because he wants this to be the case, but rather because he thinks that this is what McCormack’s argument entails (243). McCormack, notes Healy, argues that for Barth himself the problem of the knowledge of God is the central concern (242). Yet Healy suggests that McCormack’s characterization of the various interpretive schools—neo-orthodox (read “pre-modern”), postmodern, and Kantian critical realism—by which Barthian epistemology is mediated are themselves caricatures which do nothing more than compel McCormack to read Barth, paradoxically, in a transcendental speculative fashion. On the contrary, the “naïve realism” of pre-modern epistemology, which finds its classical expression in the Thomism repudiated by Kant bears no relation to what Thomas actually said. According to Healy, “It would certainly be a naïve mistake to read Thomas as if he were a philosophical thinker engaged in a kind of deduction of God’s being and attributes from principles generally available” (239). This is precisely what McCormack’s Barth does, but at the expense of falling victim (or better, being made to fall victim) to an uncritical speculative method. Reading McCormack’s Barth in light of Aquinas, Healy argues that McCormack’s articulation of election is “grounded not on Scripture but on a transcendental deduction, and thus on logic rather than revelation” (242). One gets the impression from Healy that McCormack makes Barth do precisely what he says Barth was trying to avoid.

In “Christ, the Trinity, and Predestination,” Matthew Levering also rejects McCormack’s conclusions, though with a touch more appreciation for his attempt to incorporate election within “a fully christological and Trinitarian framework” (245). He does so because he hopes to engage with McCormack on the basis of dogmatic theology rather than Barthian exegesis. Levering affirms van Driel’s contention that, if Jesus Christ is the subject of election, then one cannot avoid the tautology that Jesus Christ elects to be Jesus Christ and the correlative collapse of the constitutive distinction between trinitarian immanence and economy (247). His greater concern, however, is to “receive McCormack’s interpretation as a challenge to Thomistic theology,” noting that what non-Barthians have hitherto missed is the nexus between election and the doctrine of the Trinity (252). Levering teases out the implications of this by bringing McCormack’s thesis into dialogue with Thomas’s doctrine of predestination. In the end, he suggests, Aquinas would agree with the centrality of Jesus to the doctrine of election—yet, unlike McCormack (or McCormack’s Barth), would reach this conclusion not without metaphysical philosophy.

The third and final part consists of only one concluding chapter, in which Paul Louis Metzger queries the import of Barthian trinitarianism for contemporary ethics. Choosing a rather odd conversation-partner, the prosperity preacher Joel Osteen (one wonders how often he and Barth have been mentioned in the same breath!), Metzger engages with the idea of freedom, which in its various construals, is fundamental to the underlying debate about God’s being. Arguing that any discussion about God’s gracious election must include consideration of its “concrete implications . . . for human action” (281), Metzger’s aim is to tease out the social consequences of Barth’s doctrines of Trinity and election. He does this in deliberate contrast to the Osteen-style prosperity gospel movement. The latter, he says, is characterized by individualism (your best life now); consumerism (your best life now); and escapism (your best life now). The gospel, in contrast, speaks to us of a God in whom there is no inter-trinitarian competition or individualistic frame of reference, of a gift of grace that far exceeds consumerist impulses, and of a sacrificial co-existence that eschews moral escapism (286, 288, 291). The self-determining freedom of the prosperity gospel movement is thus contrasted with the freedom which derives from the security of knowing ourselves to be freely elected by the God who is eternally free in Himself, and which therefore enables a commitment to sociality.

In sum, this is an attractively presented book which engages with one of the most intriguing and hard-fought battles within Barthian theology of recent times. The weight of essays, at least numerically, leans towards the Molnar-Hunsinger position more than McCormack’s side even though his thesis frames the debate. In truth, however, this controversy extends beyond the boundaries of Barthian exegesis. It goes even beyond the question of who can now lay claim to the Barthian mantle. Much more importantly, as Levering has observed, this debate goes to the heart of dogmatic thinking about the nature of God Himself and His relationship with the world of creation.

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.