Friday, 19 September 2008

Bruce McCormack: Orthodox and modern: studies in the theology of Karl Barth

Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), 317 pp. (review copy courtesy of Baker)

Bruce McCormack’s 1995 work on Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology is one of the towering monuments of Barth studies. It casts its shadow over all subsequent interpretation of Barth, just as it has corrected or relativised much earlier work in the field.

Since 1995, McCormack has produced a steady stream of essays on Barth’s theology (a full list here) – essays which have continued to expand the horizons of Barth-interpretation in many directions. Broadly speaking, McCormack’s full corpus of essays can be divided into three categories: historical studies, focusing especially on Barth’s relation to the 19th century; studies of Barth’s relation to contemporary theology (especially to contemporary evangelicalism – although unfortunately none of the essays on evangelicalism appear in this collection); and finally, constructive essays on the contemporary significance of Barth’s theological ontology.

The essays selected for this volume (all of them previously published, but some appearing now in English for the first time) are organised under these three categories. In the first section, McCormack explores Barth’s relation to the 19th century, particularly the traditions of Schleiermacherian theology and Kantian philosophy. Against the common tendency to find in Barth a complete break with Schleiermacher and with Kantian foundationalism, McCormack situates Barth within the broad Schleiermacherian tradition of “mediating theologies.” He argues that Barth’s thought remains wedded to neo-Kantian categories (even if, admittedly, “Kant is no longer Kant by the time Barth is finished with him”), and he shows the extent to which Barth remained “a 19th-century theologian” who was deeply preoccupied with the questions and problems of the Schleiermacherian tradition. 

If Barth’s project was born of an effort to overcome theological historicism and psychologism, this was in fact a struggle not against Schleiermacher but against Troeltsch – although Barth himself persistently confused Schleiermacher with Troeltsch, or at least imagined that a root-and-branch repudiation of the latter had to entail a rejection of the former. Throughout Barth’s career, however, he shared the fundamental concerns of Schleiermacher, and he agreed with Schleiermacher that post-Kantian dogmatics had to be shaped by the epistemological “turn to the subject” and by the problem of the limits of human knowing.

In this set of historical interventions, McCormack’s antipathy to “postmodern” readings of Barth is never far from the surface. For McCormack, postmodern and non-foundationalist appropriations of Barth’s thought are based on flawed understandings of Barth’s own questions and contexts – and also on a failure to grasp the real priorities for contemporary constructive theology. The essays in the book’s second section bring this critique explicitly to the foreground. McCormack analyses and critiques the “postliberal Barth” of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, together with the “postmodern Barth” of Walter Lowe and Graham Ward. He finds more promise in the work of John Webster – although he observes that, at times, “Webster’s Barth can come across as a bit too ‘premodern’,” too closely wedded to the assumptions of classical metaphysics (p. 164). In any case, McCormack’s main point is that English-language research tends “to move much too quickly to ‘use’ of Barth’s theology before having acquired a proper understanding” (p. 165), so that Barth’s theology too easily becomes a mirror of our own contemporary assumptions and commitments. In short: “The followers of Frei and Torrance must look elsewhere for resources for their various projects” (p. 294).

While McCormack’s historical work on Barth is peerless for its depth, range and sophistication, his own recent constructive engagement with Barth’s thought represents a major event within contemporary theology. The essays collected in the third section of the book provide a sample of this recent theological engagement with Barth – beginning with the widely discussed Cambridge Companion essay on “Grace and Being,” where McCormack offers a critical correction of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity. The argument here is that Barth ought to have reversed his ordering of Trinity and election: properly understood, Barth’s own doctrine of election entails that God’s decision to be God-for-us is the ground of God’s triunity. Simply put: according to its own internal principles, Barth’s dogmatics ought to begin with the doctrine of election, not with the doctrine of the Trinity.

In chapter 8, a magisterial essay on “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology” (previously published in German), McCormack continues to pursue this revisionist reading of Barth, by exploring Barth’s own revision of Chalcedonian christology. Before developing his doctrine of election, Barth’s thought contained significant traces of “the abstract metaphysical ontology which underwrote the Christology of the Chalcedonian Council” (p. 207). It was only with the development of his doctrine of election that he was able to excise this metaphysics from his thought; the turning-point here was his 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” (p. 216). God’s decision to be God-for-us is an event in which God differentiates himself into the three modes of being – Father, Son and Spirit.

The gap between Jesus Christ and the eternal Son is thus eliminated; the second mode of being in God simply is Jesus Christ. Indeed, this insight can lead McCormack to support Bertold Klappert’s challenging remark that “Barth does not think incarnationally.” For Barth, there is no absolute metaphysical subject which unites itself to a human “nature.” Rather, there is a divine decision in which humanity is taken up into the event of God’s own being, so that “the human history of Jesus Christ is constitutive of the being and existence of [the second Person of the Trinity]” (p. 223).

In these highly creative readings (and constructive revisions) of Barth, McCormack is pressing towards the articulation of a striking new theological ontology. I once remarked that, where theological ontology is concerned, John Milbank’s project is the only game in town – and it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that McCormack’s work represents the only thoroughgoing counter-proposal to Milbank’s ontological vision which is available in contemporary theology. While Milbank’s ontology is structured by hierarchical and participatory categories, McCormack articulates an ontology structured by actualistic categories and by a radically historicised doctrine of God. While Milbank’s thought presupposes an ontological state of primal harmony, peace and fecundity, McCormack issues a direct challenge to “the Trinity of peace and perfection” (p. 276), and he envisions instead a Trinity of act and decision, centred on the insight that “the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment … [is] an event in God’s own life” (p. 189). Although McCormack has never directly engaged Milbank’s work, his essay on “Participation in God” (chapter 9) shows how much is at stake in the question of creaturely deification, and in the ontological categories through which “participation in God” is understood.

In all this, McCormack’s writing is shaped by Karl Barth and by the distinctive problems of modern German theology; but his proposals have a much wider theological significance, and they deserve close attention and deep reflection. Within the narrower field of Barth studies, of course, McCormack’s work is not only a towering presence – it is also highly contentious and divisive. As McCormack himself observes, his recent work on ontological actualism “has incited a controversy that threatens to divide Barth scholars in the English-speaking world into two rival camps” (p. 295).

I can only speak for myself here, but I think this division is a productive and important one – and I hope it is sharpened all the more by the appearance of this book. As I suggested in an earlier post (against Paul Molnar), I believe the future of theology lies not in any incarnational realism, nor in the recovery of a metaphysical Chalcedonian objectivism, but rather in a far-reaching appropriation of Barth’s christological actualism. And for this task, there is no better guide than the work of Bruce McCormack.


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