Thursday, 18 September 2008

Bruce McCormack on trinity, election, and the eternal Son

Just to whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from Bruce McCormack’s new book, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth – this is from the extraordinary chapter, “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just How ‘Chalcedonian’ Is It?”, an essay which appears here in English for the first time:

“For Barth, the triunity of God consists in the fact that God is one Subject in three modes of being. One Subject! To say then that ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God’ is to say, ‘God determined to be God in a second mode of being.’ It lies close to hand to recognize that it is precisely the primal decision of God in election which constitutes the event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being. Election thus has a certain logical priority even over the triunity of God. [Quoting Eberhard Jüngel:] ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God. In that here one of the three modes of being is determined to be the God who elects, we have to understand God’s primal decision as an event in the being of God which differentiates the modes of God’s being.’ So the event in which God constitutes himself as triune is identical with the event in which he chooses to be God for the human race. Thus the ‘gap’ between ‘the eternal Son’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ is overcome, the distinction between them eliminated…. There is no ‘eternal Son’ if by that is meant a mode of being in God which is not identical with Jesus Christ” (pp. 218-19).


This is great Barth-interpretation, and great theology.

8 Comments:

Martin Kemp said...

Could you clarify some things Ben? I'm not being picky, just genuinely interested to learn...

If God is 'one subject in three modes of being', then what stops this from being Modalistic? Is the idea of 'mode' different here?

And if there is "an event" where God elects to have different modes of being, then is there a point prior to this election? What stops this from being Arian? Is the key to think of the event in a non-temporal way?

Perhaps you or your readers might care to offer some help for me here...

kim fabricius said...

As an emphatic addendum, here is a passage from McCormack's stellar essay "The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism", in Bruce McCormack, ed., Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008):

"Barth's basic model of the Trinity was (and would remain) that of a Single Subject in three 'modes of being.' One Subject three times, 'an eternal repetition in eternity' - this is the basic structure of the triunity of God as Barth understands it. God is the same subject as Father and as eternal Son. And because God is the same subject in both modalities, it is the same Subject who makes the eternal decision to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ and who in consequence is Jesus Christ. So whether we say that the Father is the electing God or the eternal Son is the electing God, we are really speaking of one and the same Subject. The only real question is, Why say 'Jesus Christ' instead of 'the eternal Son'? And the answer is that the eternal act of choosing to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ is the very act in which God constitutes himself to be triune. Again, there is only one eternal act, not two. To speak of Jesus Christ as the electing God, then, serves the purpose of reminding readers that the Second Person of the Trinity is not the 'eternal Son' in abstraction from the humanity he would assume. The eternal Son has a name and his name is Jesus. Any talk of the eternal Son in abstraction from the humanity to be assumed is an exercise in mythologizing; there is no such eternal Son - and there never was" (pp. 218-19).

To answer Martin's questions - briefly:

(1) God's three "modes" or "ways" of being are eternal - so no modalism. To avoid the foreseeable misunderstandings that would result from his choice of the term Seinweise, and, indeed, in confromity with his insistence that the church must not let the tail of conventional usage wag the dog of the theological lexicon, perhaps Barth should have stuck to persona (so Karl Rahner), defining out of it any tritheistic notion of "personality".

(2) There was no point prior to God's election, anymore than there was a point prior God's being: God's being and act are one. According to McCormack, not only was there never a time when the Logos was not, there never was a time when Jesus was not. So Arianism is excluded twice over.

And the logos asarkos? I assume that would be a prime example of McCormack's mythologising abstraction.

George Hunsinger, of course, disagrees. He insists that, while there are occasional lapses, Barth's considered opinion is pro-logos asarkos. Indeed Hunsinger thinks that, again, with occasional lapses, Barth does not identify God's being with God's act but thinks of God's being as "in" God's act - a "unity-indistinction" he calls it.

Here lies a (the?) seismic fault line in contemporary Barth studies. Tertium non datur?

kim fabricius said...

Sorry, hypen omitted in the last line of the penultimate paragraph: that should be "unity-in-distinction".

Evan said...

A question on the logos asarkos... and I tread in deep waters as I haven't followed this debate very closely.

In Ben's quote, McCormack speaks of an event (God's election- that is God's differentiation of modes of being- that is God's election of Godself for humanity). He also speaks of a gap (between the eternal Son and Jesus Christ, "overcome" by the aforementioned event).

I'm assuming that McCormack wants to make God's election for humanity be that aspect of the event which overcomes the gap. But this still leaves wide open the question (the assumption, really) of the gap itself. This seems to be where the rupture between the two Barthian camps occurs. One can affirm all that McCormack says about the event of election without agreeing that the logos asarkos constitutes a gap that is in any way problematic as a distinction of Christology between the eternal and incarnate Son. Furthermore, the defense that you offer (rightly, I think... I'm entirely okay with "modes of being" language as employed by Barth) against accusations of modalism serves to emphasize the eternal nature of the event of God's election for humanity. It seems to pave the way for the logos asarkos rather well, that is. I imagine even those following McCormack would want to say that the modes of being, the electing event and indeed the subject of election are eternal and thus the Son (also affirmed to be the divine electing subject by McCormack) is eternal. What I don't understand is where the mode of being of the Son as subject and Jesus Christ as subject are shown to need to be identical.

Again, the gap between the eternal and incarnate Son that McCormack speaks of seems to be the point of difference- whether the subjects need to be "identical" and their eternity be communicative. And would Jesus Christ and the eternal Son be identical in the same way that the divine subject of Father and Son are? If so, would this, in avoiding modalism and remaining consistent with McCormack's intentions, only lead to patripassianism (or whatever the corollary might be for the identity of the man Jesus Christ as identical to that subject who is God?

I can go along with the idea of the idea of the logos asarkos as mythologizing abstraction, but it is so in the sense that any theological construct might be. It answers a real question, that is. In this sense, it is no different than speaking of God as "subject" or "triune" insofar as it is a mythology. It is not real in the sense that, no, there is no problematic gap between logos asarkos and Jesus Christ. But this is precisely what Hunsinger would want to say, isn't it? The whole point in question is whether this "gap" is itself a problem.

One last thing- your assertion that Arianism is "excluded twice over". This affirmation seems more rhetorical flair than real substance, as Arian doctrine was concerned only with the former claim of eternity (of the Son) rather than the latter (of Jesus). Asserting the eternity of Jesus counters nothing that Arianism taught against eventual Nicene orthodoxy, and so it doesn't really exclude anything.

Chris Donato said...

Not that it matters to me too much, but wouldn't treating the logos asarkos as a mythologising abstraction introduce some kind of eternal matter into God's being?

George Hunsinger said...

Even if we were to accept the definition that "God's being is his act," that would not necessarily make a difference in the debate.

Of course I do not think that this definition is Barth's. However, it is important to see that he does not use the term "act" only to describe God's relationship to the world.

For Barth God's being is in act (or exists "as" act) to all eternity.

God's being is eternally in act, in and for himself, as the living God. God is eternally the living God, as the Holy Trinity, and he would be so even if he had not created the world.

God does not need the world in order to act, in order to be the living God, or in order to be the Holy Trinity in and for himself. (That is also why the logos ensarkos does not do away with the logos asarkos. The two are dialectically related: totus/totus.)

Therefore in no sense is God's being constituted by the world or by God's relation to the world, however active that relation may be.

Evan said...

A question on the logos asarkos... and I tread in deep waters as I haven't followed this debate very closely.

In Ben's quote, McCormack speaks of an event (God's election- that is God's differentiation of modes of being- that is God's election of Godself for humanity). He also speaks of a gap (between the eternal Son and Jesus Christ, "overcome" by the aforementioned event).

I'm assuming that McCormack wants to make God's election for humanity be that aspect of the event which overcomes the gap. But this still leaves wide open the question (the assumption, really) of the gap itself. This seems to be where the rupture between the two Barthian camps occurs. One can affirm all that McCormack says about the event of election without agreeing that the logos asarkos constitutes a gap that is in any way problematic as a distinction of Christology between the eternal and incarnate Son. Furthermore, the defense that you offer (rightly, I think... I'm entirely okay with "modes of being" language as employed by Barth) against accusations of modalism serves to emphasize the eternal nature of the event of God's election for humanity. It seems to pave the way for the logos asarkos rather well, that is. I imagine even those following McCormack would want to say that the modes of being, the electing event and indeed the subject of election are eternal and thus the Son (also affirmed to be the divine electing subject by McCormack) is eternal. What I don't understand is where the mode of being of the Son as subject and Jesus Christ as subject are shown to need to be identical.

Again, the gap between the eternal and incarnate Son that McCormack speaks of seems to be the point of difference- whether the subjects need to be "identical" and their eternity be communicative. And would Jesus Christ and the eternal Son be identical in the same way that the divine subject of Father and Son are? If so, would this, in avoiding modalism and remaining consistent with McCormack's intentions, only lead to patripassianism (or whatever the corollary might be for the identity of the man Jesus Christ as identical to that subject who is God?

I can go along with the idea of the idea of the logos asarkos as mythologizing abstraction, but it is so in the sense that any theological construct might be. It answers a real question, that is. In this sense, it is no different than speaking of God as "subject" or "triune" insofar as it is a mythology. It is not real in the sense that, no, there is no problematic gap between logos asarkos and Jesus Christ. But this is precisely what Hunsinger would want to say, isn't it? The whole point in question is whether this "gap" is itself a problem.

One last thing- your assertion that Arianism is "excluded twice over". This affirmation seems more rhetorical flair than real substance, as Arian doctrine was concerned only with the former claim of eternity (of the Son) rather than the latter (of Jesus). Asserting the eternity of Jesus counters nothing that Arianism taught against eventual Nicene orthodoxy, and so it doesn't really exclude anything.

kim fabricius said...

Sorry, hypen omitted in the last line of the penultimate paragraph: that should be "unity-in-distinction".

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