Thursday, 1 March 2007

Paul Helm on Karl Barth

Paul Helm of Regent College has written a critique of Barth’s doctrine of election for a forthcoming volume entitled Karl Barth’s Theology: Collected Critical Perspectives; and he has posted a draft of the essay on his blog.

Helm has done lots of excellent work on philosophical theology and on the history of Christian thought, so it’s interesting to see him attempting to grapple with Barth. Admittedly, he hasn’t yet really penetrated into the structures of Barth’s thought – and his interest in Barth seems to have derived mainly from Bruce McCormack’s essay on election in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (2000).

Bruce McCormack’s interpretation has generated heated debate among Barth specialists. And Helm attempts to weigh into this debate with his own rather heavy-handed philosophical critique: “It is no good saying, with McCormack, that for Barth ‘essence is given in the act of electing, and is, in fact, constituted by that eternal act.’ For necessarily actions have agents. The act of electing must be the action of someone; it cannot be an act of no-one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes the agent as a someone.” Although that seems like a common-sense objection to McCormack (and to Barth), it is in fact a petitio principii – it simply begs the whole question of the relationship between act and being. From one perspective, Barth’s entire theological project could be seen as a challenge to precisely Helm’s common-sense assumption that the agent must precede the act.

In the same way, when Helm objects to Barth’s view of divine freedom, his criticism rests on a theological petitio principii: “It may be granted, with Barth, that God is free in the sense that he is under no obligation to do what he does. But could he have done other than he did? On Barth’s view … it does not seem to be possible.” Again, Barth’s whole theological project could be viewed as a challenge to precisely this assumption that “freedom” entails alternativity of choice, a formal ability to choose between different options. For Barth (as McCormack has rightly emphasised), God is free precisely in his decision to be this particular God. To ask whether God “could have done other than he did” is simply to bypass Barth’s own understanding of what divine freedom is all about.

I enjoyed reading Paul Helm’s paper, and I’m delighted to see that a volume of “critical perspectives” on Barth is being published – this, at any rate, is better than any uncritical repetition of Barth! But an effective critique of Barth’s doctrine of election will have to engage much more deeply with the structures of Barth’s own thought, and will have to take seriously Barth’s own highly distinctive understanding of divine freedom on the one hand, and his highly actualistic understanding of the divine being on the other.

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