Tuesday, 21 October 2008

How to read Karl Barth: George Hunsinger's foreword to the German Edition

A guest-post by George Hunsinger

[This is the foreword to the new German translation of his book, How to Read Karl Barth – the German edition is titled Karl Barth lesen: Eine Einführung in sein theologisches Denken, and will be published next month by Neukirchener.]

This book started out twenty years ago as my doctoral dissertation at Yale, written under the supervision of Hans W. Frei. I had already developed the idea of “motifs” as a way of introducing students to Barth. When I sat down to write my dissertation, I had expected to discuss them only briefly in the preface. As it turned out, however, the preface took over the work!

Since then I have continued to read Barth and teach his theology on a regular basis. I have found that explaining these “motifs” still helps students to gain a better grasp of his theology and to read him without becoming discouraged by the difficulties. It is almost always better to read Barth than to read about him. But reading him, as everyone knows, is not easy, and it helps to have some guidance. Since he is one of the greatest – and most inspiring – theologians in the history of the church, the richness of his work repays every effort to understand him. I keep reading him, because I keep learning from him. I find that the more I know, the more he has to teach me. I also find that when I feel depressed, he cheers me up!

At least three new insights have emerged for me in reading Barth, and my students have also found them to be helpful.

The first is rather simple but well worth knowing. Every “paragraph” in the Church Dogmatics is written around a single main point. Even when the Absatz may run on for more than one page, as sometimes happens, the rule holds. What this means is that it becomes possible for the reader to reconstruct Barth’s overall outline. Reconstructing the outline is not only a very good discipline, but also a way of not getting lost. By looking for the outline, one keeps one’s head above water. Every page of Barth’s dogmatics is literally teeming with ideas. It is all too easy to get diverted by an arresting point or by mistaking the part for the whole. I find that by digging for the main point of each Absatz and writing it down, I can help my students follow Barth’s argument much more readily than would otherwise be the case. Then, of course, it also helps to look for the sub-points within the Absatz, of which there are usually quite a few. All this may seem rather pedestrian, and indeed it is. Nevertheless, I have found it to be a most valuable procedure in reading the Church Dogmatics.

Another deceptively simple point for the beginning reader is to keep an eye out for the antecedent to Barth’s pronouns. Almost everyone has had the experience of reading Barth, feeling that one is following the train of thought, and then suddenly getting to the bottom of the page and finding that one is hopelessly lost. At this point it is easy to give up with the sense that Barth is just too hard to understand. Very often, however, all that has happened is that the reader has lost track of the antecedent to Barth’s many pronouns. (I can’t imagine what it would have been like to try to follow this material, which began as classroom lectures, by ear.) In any case the pronouns are like the bread crumbs in “Hansel and Grettel”. One only needs to trace them back in order to get out of the forest. For an especially vexing passage, I sometimes underline the antecedent twice, once I have retrieved it, while then underlining the subsequent pronouns once. The passage is then much easier to follow if I need to revisit it for purposes of further study or instruction.

Finally, there is the matter of actualism. Even as I was writing this book, I felt that I didn’t have it fully worked out. Now after all these years I think I have a better grasp of its peculiar complexities. Much of what is distinctive in Barth, as well as much of what is difficult, hangs upon it.

Since not everything can be unpacked here, a few remarks will have to suffice. Barth’s proposal that God’s being is in act is an idea that expresses the heart of his actualism. Barth regards salvation in Christ as a perfect work (opus perfectum) that is also a perpetual operation (operatione perpetuus). The perpetual operation adds nothing new in content to the perfect work, which by definition needs no completion. Yet it belongs to the perfect work’s perfection that it is not merely encapsulated in the past. On the contrary, it operates perpetually to make itself present for what it is, again and again. Barth would sometimes articulate this idea in terms of Heb. 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever.” The event of Jesus Christ, he would say, is not only “a past fact of history,” but also “an event that is happening in the present here and now,” as well as an event that “in its historical completeness” and “full contemporaneity” is also “truly future.”

As these comments suggest, Barth saw the person of Christ in his finished saving work as subsisting in three tenses. The past tense of salvation – consisting of his life, death and resurrection – was always definitive and constitutive. By virtue of his resurrection and ascension, however, those events of the past did not remain merely past. Through Word and Sacrament, in the power of the Holy Spirit, they continued to occur in a new and different form in the present. Salvation’s present tense, however, could give only a secondary and derivative form here and now to what had already been constituted there and then. The past-tense form and the present-tense form were seen as two forms of one saving event, or better, as two forms of the one person of Christ in his saving work.

There was, however, also a future-tense form, which was final and unsurpassable. The promised future would bring the glorious revelation of Jesus Christ in his universal saving significance. It is important to note, however, that Barth has often been misread here. Throughout his dogmatics, revelation always involved an ontic as well as a noetic component. With regard to salvation’s future tense, the ontic element meant that the universal unveiling of what had been hidden would also mean the radical (ontic) transformation of all things. Unveiling would mean universal transfiguration. The present tense of salvation was not only secondary and derivative. Relative to the promised future, it was always provisional and anticipatory as well.

The result was a kind of double asymmetry. On the one hand, the past-tense form of salvation (which Barth called “reconciliation”) served as the ground for which the future-tense form was simply the consequence, because the past tense-form was necessarily always constitutive. On the other hand, however, salvation’s future-tense form (which Barth called “redemption”) was the goal and fulfillment for which the past-tense form was simply the necessary precondition. Beyond these two relational patterns, there was no higher synthesis. The person of Christ in his work was a complex event that always formed a unity-in-distinction. Although the ground/consequence pattern dominated Barth’s dogmatics, he did not live to finish the project. As intimated at various points along the way, the precondition/fulfillment pattern was the great conceptual reversal that would have dominated Barth’s unwritten volume V on the doctrine of Redemption.

Barth also conceived of the one Jesus Christ in his threefold temporal form (Heb. 13:8) according to the logic of the trinitarian perichoresis. What he once said in a more limited application indicated the logic of the three forms as a whole. “Each of them also contains the other two by way of anticipation and recapitulation, so that without losing their individuality or destroying that of the others, they participate and are active and are revealed in them.” Each form of Christ’s person in his work was seen to dwell in, and be active in, and be revealed in the others. Each contained the other two by way of anticipation or recapitulation. They were three temporal forms of one and the same saving event. They did not differ from one another by degree, nor were they three parts adding up to a larger whole. They indicated three different forms of one and the same person of Christ in his unique saving work – yesterday, today and forever. Barth’s actualism was a matter of one indivisible event in three dynamically coinherent forms.

24 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

Thanks, George, for this mini-reader's guide. And for saying:

"I also find that when I feel depressed, he cheers me up!"

Absolutely! No theologian hits the Glee-spot quite like Karl Barth. I press this point to people who are otherwise intimidated by the CD - that this Moby-Dick is, in fact, a BIG, beautiful dolphin: jump on and go for the ride of your life! Nor - a related point - can one over-emphasise the sheer beauty of the CD. Like entering Chartres Cathedral, the experience of reading it is as aesthetic as it is intellectual. Those who are either mournful or unmoved in the presence of Barth surely have the tinniest of ears.

David Williamson said...

A very helpful guide! Barth really does reward note-taking - it's like doing a brass rubbing.

J.D. Blanchard said...

This is helpful. I agree with the first commenter that it is important to note the potential joy of reading Barth. Too often he is considered the quintessential academic, leaving nothing that you can sort of "walk away with."

The focus on motifs seems to be a good one. Reading Barth's work at any length reveals the breathtaking coherence contained in his thought. (even insofar as he tends to "change his mind"!)

Mark Stevens said...

Thank you George. I found your piece very encouraging. As someone who is dialoguing with Barth your introduction has provided encouragement and an insight to continue the mammoth joy of 'engaging with the CD.

I was wondering if you or anyone else could help me out. As minister in a suburban parish (in Australia) my interest in dialoging with Barth lies within this context. With my limited understanding of Barth studies, there seems to be very little engagement between Barth's work and the daily grind of pastoral ministry and the current climate of pragmatic ministry method (especially within an evangelical framework). Is there anyone who is writing/reflecting in this area and perhaps critiquing ministry and the culture of church life? The only person I have come across so far is Ray Anderson (and his work is brilliant).

Again, many thanks.

Mark

Michael said...

Hi Mark, where are you? I am a pastor in Perth, just completed a doctorate in Barth's ecclesial ethics up til 1922. I have found the Gospel and our Culture network have some useful categories of thought, many of which resonate with Barth, although some which do not. Certainly worth a read. The simplest entry point is their "Treasure in Clay jars" where they explicate the understanding of what it means to be a missional church by way of case studies of very diverse churches - all in the North American context, but good even so!

And thanks George. I certainly appreciated your treatment of motifs in your book, and found your collection of essays (Disruptive Grace) very useful in understanding major Barth themes. Your little edited work on Radical Politics was also very relevant to my own work. Many thanks.

Mark Stevens said...

Thanks Michael, I am in Adelaide. Is your doctorate available at all?

Anonymous said...

For you Australians, it seems that John C. McDowell (a very insightful reader of Barth at Edinburgh) has just been announced as the new professor of theology at the University of Newcastle - he might be able to help you out?

nate kerr said...

This is a helpful introduction, Professor Hunsinger. I continue to have deep reservations about (and even real problems with) fundamental aspects of Barth's actualism. But I do think that getting clear on the questions at stake in Barth's actualism is vital to theological work today. I'd like especially to think of what it might mean to free the idea of "contemporaneity" from what I think are some of Barth's metaphysical trappings. But you continue to make clear why the "motif" of actualism, as you call it, is central to all of this. Thanks.

Nate

George Hunsinger said...

To Mark Stevens:

On relating Barth to pastoral ministry, may I recommend two works by my wife, Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, who teaches pastoral care and counsellng here at PTS?

Pray Without Ceasing: Revitalizing Pastoral Care (Eerdmans 2006).

Theology and Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (Eerdmans 1995).

Both works engage deeply with Barth with a keen eye toward pastoral ministry.

George Hunsinger said...

To Nate Kerr.

As you may know, I have tried to pay particular attention to the "grammar" or formal logical structure that underlines Barth's actualism.

The grammar finally integrates three different formal patterns. I call them the "trinitarian pattern," the Chalcedonian pattern, and the Hegelian pattern. You will find a discussion of them in my book on How to Read Karl Barth. They are also employed in my recent essay on "Election and Trinity" in Modern Theology (April 2008).

Barth develops, for the first time in the history of doctrine, I believe, a fully trinitarian conception of eternity. I discuss this in my essay "Mysterium Trinitatis" in my book Disruptive Grace.

Barth's actualism (which has little or nothing to do, in my opinion, with the simplistic idea of "being as act," especially if that means historical act) is an enormously innovative attempt at integrating and revising traditional aspects of Nicene orthodoxy. It is also enormously challenging.

What one needs to see is how Barth turned the relational aspects of Nicaea and Chalcedon into a kind of "algebra" into which different values could be plugged than the original ones found in Nicaea and Chalcedon themselves. The move in this "algebraic" direction was anticipated by Luther and Calvin, but not taken nearly as far as Barth went on to do.

Barth is way ahead of us here. It will take a long time for the tradition to appreciate just what he was proposing. It cannot be evaluated until it is better understood. Hegelian forms of reductionism are no help here, but merely distract us from the challenge of understanding Barth.

Phil Sumpter said...

This is one of the most valuable posts I have read in a long while. I'm struggling to understand the canonical approach of Brevard Childs and I've become convinced that Barth's "actualism" is the dogmatic presupposition that undergirds his approach. I don't think you can read the text canonically without it. I've struggled to understand Barth, as I have no formal training in theology per se, and these thoughts are elucidating. I will definately follow up on the books you mention in your response to Nate Kerr.

I think R. Jenson is taking Barth's metaphysics further, isn't he? His thoughts on "heaven" (along with those by D. Farrow on the ascension/parousia) in the volume Nicene Christianity will probably be integral to my own "canonical exegesis" of Ps 24.

George Hunsinger said...

To Phil Sumpter.

Thank you for this very interesting comment. I will be eager to see what you come up with regarding an actualistic connection between Barth and Childs.

On another matter, I would say that Jenson departs from Barth, not that he takes Barth's "metaphysics" further.

Jenson is one of the Hegelianizing theologians who most radically historicizes eternity (though this move did not become fully clear to me until vol. 2 of his Systematic Theology).

When Jenson says that time belongs to God's being, he actually means created time. See my review essay in the Scottish Journal of Theology 55 (2002), pp. 161-200.

nate kerr said...

Professor Hunsinger:

Thank you for your kind response. I have found your work on Barth extremely helpful for my own work, and I want especially to agree with you as regards what Barth is seeking to accomplish with his actualism, inasmuch as it is a profound resituation of the questions of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

I do genuinely wonder, however, what you mean by the last paragraph of your reply to me. Certainly, there is a sense in which "Barth is way ahead of us here," but does this really mean that what Barth was proposing with his actualism "cannot be evaluated until it is better understood"? What I mean by that is this: Is it not the case that a certain (even if negative) evaluation of aspects of Barth's actualism is necessary for an understanding and appreciation for what Barth was proposing? I would agree with you that "Hegelian forms of reductionism" in themselves "distract us from the challenge of understanding Barth." But is it not possible that Barth's own actualism was initially conditioned (even perhaps in ways which Barth did not fully realize) by certain Hegelian and Idealist residues that are in themselves reductionistic? It seems to me that this kind of evaluative criticism of Barth (undertaken in the process of understanding itself) might well be necessary to understand why Jenson, Pannenberg, and others engaged in the kind of historicizing of eternity that you rightly decry can be read as "extending" Barth. Departing from Barth's intention, perhaps; but this by way of extending tendencies that are really present within Barth and the possibilities of which extension Barth himself did not adequately guard against.

Am I wrong about this? Perhaps I misunderstood your last paragraph, and what you mean by "Hegelian modes of reductionism." But I do think the kinship of Barth to Hegel may in fact be such that without criticism of the way that kinship work we cannot rightly understand and evaluate what Barth is up to; without the critical evaluation of this kinship as it appears in Barth himself it may turn out that we are unable to avoid precisely those reductionistically Hegelian readings of Barth that preclude understanding. Surely Barth on some level understood the implications of his own work and intentions to be "way out ahead" of even he himself and his own formulations as well.

(Wow, that's a lot of talking about understanding without actually saying what I do understand Barth to be doing with his actualism. Perhaps that is for another post. For now, I'll take solace in the fact that I have tried hard to work out such an understanding, as well as in the fact that I am in basic agreement with what you understand as at the heart of Barth's actualization -- certainly it is not the mere historicization of God's being-in-act.)

Michael said...

Hi Mark,
Sorry for the delayed response. Yes, Murdoch have put it online. Go to

http://prospero.murdoch.edu.au/search~S1/X?SEARCH=Forming+Moral+Community&Go=+go+&searchscope=1&SORT=A

and then click on Access to the Digital Thesis Project.

George Hunsinger said...

To Nate Kerr.

Well, I have to say that I do think you are wrong. By no stretch of the imagination can the "historicizing of eternity" be properly interpreted as "extending" Barth, since it absolutely contradicts his most fundamental premises.

For example, eternity cannot be historicized without abandoning the idea of the divine simplicity. It is very largely the understanding that God's being is indivisible (non-composite) in itself that accounts for God's being "wholly other" than the created order.

The ontological divide between the Creator and the creature has deep roots in patristic theology, for example, in Athanasius. Barth stands in this venerable tradition.

I assume that a view cannot properly be criticized until it is understood. You seem to have a way to go before you understand Barth's actualism. Heb. 13:8 and Rev. 13:8 are major clues to what Barth is proposing. But I don't see many who seem to grasp this, not least among regular contributors to this website.

Joshua Davis said...

Dr. Hunsinger,

I read Dr. Kerr's comment as in fundamental agreement with your objection to the "historicizing of eternity." It seems to me that he was only suggesting that perhaps it is a latent Idealism in Barth's actualism that is responsible for these mistaken readings. If I have misread him, then perhaps he can correct me.

George Hunsinger said...

To Joshua Davis.

Thank you, Joshua. Perhaps you are right. But I was keying off of the unfortunate idea that Barth's "metaphysics" (something I don't think he really has, i.e., a "metaphysics") could be "extended" in a Hegelian direction.

Barth learned from almost every major figure he criticized. In the case of opponents like Feuerbach, Schleiermacher, Hegel and Jaspers, for example, he found a way to incorporate many of their distinctive themes.

But he always did so critically, within his own basic premises. In the case of Hegel, I think he baptized or re-baptized him, so to speak, without in any sense becoming a Hegelian.

Stephen Crites rightly notices Barth's indebtedness to Hegel in CD IV, but fails to grasp some of the major ways that Hegel was resisted and revised by Barth. (See Crites, Dialectic and gospel in the development of Hegel's thinking, 1998).

We might better say that Barth turned Hegel upside down and transformed him into a Barthian. As was only fitting!

Ben Myers said...

George, just a quick note regarding your response to Nate Kerr. You said: "I assume that a view cannot properly be criticized until it is understood. You seem to have a way to go before you understand Barth's actualism."

I realise that you're just shooting from the hip here, but I don't reckon you should respond to Nate like this until you've read his (quite extraordinary) forthcoming book. In the book, he develops a very sophisticated reading of Barth, and his critique of Barth's actualism is based on a very nuanced interpretation of Barth's relationship to 19th-century thought. Even though I disagree with some of Nate's criticisms of Barth, I think his reading of Barth is remarkably incisive. Much more than in most recent Barth-studies, Nate grasps what really matters to Barth, what Barth was trying to do. So the mere fact that he happens to disagree with your (or with my) evaluation of Barth doesn't prove that he has failed to read Barth carefully!

Anyway, I'll post more about Nate's book soon...

nate kerr said...

Dear Professor Hunsinger:

I have no problems readily admitting that I have much yet to learn in coming fully to understand Barth's actualism. That said, and with all due respect, I do think you have seriously misunderstood me insofar as you have taken me as both suggesting that Barth "has" a metaphysics strictu sensu and as also suggesting that the "historicizing of eternity" that someone like Jenson is involved in is an adequate extension of Barth's intentions or even of his actualism as such. In fact, in my book that Ben mentions (which is now available for order from the publisher) my criticisms of Barth turn on just the opposite point: viz., that there is a tendency in Barth not so much to "historicize eternity" but rather to "eternalize history" (to use a clumsy phrase). Now, I don't expect you to agree with those criticisms, nor do I suspect we shall be able to arbitrate in this forum the extent to which that tendency is really as present in Barth as I take it to be. I hope someday to be able to undertake that conversation with you more completely and with more nuance. But surely the very fact that one might critically raise the question of such a tendency, when another very good reader of Barth does not necessarily see that tendency, does not mean that the raising of the question is automatically rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding (or a naive understanding) of the intent and purpose of Barth's actualism.

Now, briefly: I take the real important upshot of Barth's actualism really to be Christological and precisely thereby to be trinitarian. I have learned as much from you, Professor Hunsinger, as from any other interpreter of Barth in coming to this understanding. Barth's actualism is of course as you say not simply reducible to the idea of being-as-act nor to the idea of God's "historical" action. Rather, I take Barth's actualism as a dogged and persistent refusal not to abstract from the concreteness of Jesus Christ (of Christ's "person" in the concrete relation of its two "natures") when articulating what it means to say that God's being is the eternally free action of God. That is, I take it to be a dogged and persistent refusal to abstract from Jesus Christ as not only the content but also as constitutive of God's eternal being-in-act. This is what enables him to give a "new form" to Christology, one that is irreducible to the unfolding of an "obscure metaphysics" (as he puts it in CD IV). To the large extent that Barth really does refuse such abstraction, I think Barth's actualism works. However, to the extent that there are moves which Barth makes that are less vigilant in this refusal, there are tendencies to slip back into the metaphysical formulations (such as in his, to my mind, never completely explicated understanding of Jesus Christ as the "concrete universal"). And I think we need more self-consciously at points to question these tendencies precisely for the sake of maintaining a proper understanding of Barth's actualism and of guarding against those later, more deliberately "metaphysical" mis-readings of Barth that claim to be "extensions" of his intent and purpose.

That is really all I am saying at this point, and to the extent that my reading of Barth needs to be evaluated and criticized, I trust that you'll at least evaluate it and criticize it in terms of what I actually do say, for the sake of a greater shared understanding of Barth himself. At the end of the day, what we may really differ on (and this would of course be a real methodological difference) would be how to read Barth for understanding. As for the contributors to this website, I really take it for granted that all of us in this conversation who are sympathetic to Barth are genuinely trying to work out what it means to follow through with what Barth was pursuing with his Christological actualism, and I really do think that critical dialogue is crucial to that shared task. I don't think that necessarily reflects a lack of understanding at all, but perhaps rather an honest and true understanding of how to read Barth, that is, to examine ever-anew the norms of our own assumed theological understandings, and our own commitments to the questions, and to understand what it means to explore those questions with the same committed passion and freshness as does Barth himself.

george hunsinger said...

Dear Friends,

I am not responding to Nate as a person, nor to whatever may be his more considered views. Nor am I shooting from the hip. I'm responding to a particular statement that he made, no more, no less. I stand by what I said regarding that statement.

Barth always insisted that no "system" could be used to understand the biblical God. I am convinced this means that he had no "metaphysical" or "ontological" system up his sleeve. He used philosophical ideas only in a deliberately ad hoc fashion. That's how he kept them under theological control. Anyone who fails to understand this has failed to understand Barth.

Here is an exceprt from II/1. It exhibits what Kim Fabricius has so nicely described as the "sheer beauty" of Barth's theological work. It pertains to why "actualism" does not entail a "metaphysics" for Barth. It is not a metaphysics, because those with Hegelian bent who mistakenly take it as a "metaphysics" inevitably fall into some sort of "panentheism."

CD II/1, 312:

Every relationship into which God enters with that which is not Himself must be interpreted—however much this may disturb or correct our preconceived ideas of connection and relationship—as eventuating between two utterly unequal partners, the sheer inequality consisting in the fact that no self-determination of the second partner can influence the first, whereas the self-determination of the first, while not canceling the self-determination of the second, is the sovereign predetermination which precedes it absolutely.

From this point of view all the conceptions of God must be excluded a limine and definitively which take the form of what is called pantheism or panentheism.

God does not form a whole with any other being either in identity with it or as compounding and merging with it to constitute a synthesis—the object of that master-concept, so often sought and found, which comprehends both God and what is not God. God enters into the closest relationship with the other, but he does not form a synthesis with it...

Hegel could not have said this. The friends of Hegel who want to claim Barth for their views cannot consistently say it either. If Nate or anyone else wishes to align himself with what Barth says here, all well and good. For Barth there is no "master-concept" -- whether history, eschatology or actualism, for example -- that can comprehend both God and what is not God.

george hunsinger said...

A further comment.

Here is why I don't think Barth "eternalizes history" in any pernicious sense. This criticism essentially accuses him of Docetism. If it is possible to be consistently "Chalcedonian," as I believe it is, then Barth is not Docetic but Chalcedonian.

McGuckin has demonstrated that the Chalcedonian Definition is more nearly indebted to Cyril than to Leo. Barth, as I mentioned, tries to think through the inner logic of Chalcedon beyond Chalcedon itself. He sees Jesus Christ as the embodied relation between time and eternity. He therefore thinks through the relationship between time and eternity in distinctively Chalcedonian terms. (I discuss all this in How to Read Karl Barth and in the other essays mentioned above.)

Just as God became human without ceasing to be God, so the reverse is also in view from a teleological standpoint. In and through Christ, humanity will become "divinized" without ceasing to be human. That's behind the famous statement of Athanasius (reflected also in Cyril) that God was "humanized" that we might be "divinized." (In the original Greek the famous statement is participial.)

For Barth Jesus Christ is fully eternal and fully temporal. In him eternity becomes temporal without ceasing to be eternal. The grammar is always: "without separation or division," and "without confusion or change," and with eternty in an asymmetrical relation to time (as in the remark about "two unequal patrners" above).

By virtue of his glorious resurrection and ascension, Jesus Christ remains irreducibly temporal, but in a new glorified, transfigured and "divinized" form. In him finite, temporal humanity is made capable of something that does not belong to it by nature: eternal life in communion with God. We might say that history is eternalized without ceasing to be historical. We might also say that this is how Barth critically appropriated the Hegelian idea of Aufhebung.

This idea of time becoming eternal in the risen Christ without ceasing to be temporal is entirely possible on Chalcedonian terms. It involves no implication of "confusion or change" and therefore no trace of Docetism. Any statement to the contrary would imply a rejecton of Chalcedon and so of the mystery of the Incarnation. Barth must always be read dialectically, and one might hope, also charitably. (I discuss this dialectic in my chapter on christology in The Cambridge Companion to Barth.)

nate kerr said...

Professor Hunsinger:

Thank you for continuing to engage in this dialogue. I took none of your statements as responses to me personally nor to the specific nuances of my own reading of Barth, as I did not expect you to have been able to consider that reading in the fullness of its exposition. I will not try to rehearse that exposition in all its details here, which I have laid out fully in the chapter on Barth in my new book. Should you be willing, I am hopeful that you will consider the position that I am arguing for there and that we might in the future have the opportunity to discuss that position in light of my own thesis regarding what is at stake in this discussion. To me, it all comes down to Christology, and to the concreteness of the reality of our participation in Christ, and that is why Barth interests me and why I find what he is seeking with his actualism to be indispensible to how we are to consider the nature of our participation in Christ's life today. So thank you for the engagement and for the conversation. I trust only that these conversations with Barth and between us about Barth will have ultimately to do with serving (alongside Barth) a mode of theology as that faith which seeks an understanding humanity's own movement into the life of the triune God who saves.

The reason I have taken a couple of days to respond to your final comments is that I wanted to take the time to re-read the two essays of yours to which you pointed me on Barth's Chalcedonian Christology and Election and the Trinity. Having read those essays again in light of our discussion here, I feel as if I have a better sense of the fault lines that underlie our divergent readings of Barth. I cannot possibly address all of those in this limited format, but as the impetus for the discussion which has ensued here was a cryptic statement I made concerning what I called certain "metaphysical trappings" in Barth's actualism, I would like at least to say something brief about how I'm reading Barth here.

I am in full agreement that Barth is not seeking to articulate a metaphysical "system." I take Barth's actualism to be at the heart of what for him is one long deconstruction of Western theistic metaphysics in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do take the position, however, as with Rowan Williams and your colleague Bruce McCormack, that Barth's position is not without its own inner tensions, and that as this struggle unfolds for Barth he does not always adequately guard against the metaphysical residues of some of his methodological devices which preclude a full outworking of the implications of the material dogmatic decisions that lie at the heart of this his deconstruction of metaphysical abstraction.

An example of this comes for me in CD IV, where Barth's actualism undergoes another major development that has implications similar to those which his doctrine of election had, but which implications he did not live to work out. That is the way in which for him he comes to realize the sense in which the historicity of Jesus, in the most basic sense as the singularly lived life and death of this human being, is of irreducible importance not only for safeguarding the meaning of the Incarnation but for refusing any account of God's being-in-act that abstracts from the particularity of this life-history. The radical historicity to which the logic of CD IV points throughout not only demands a modification of his account of the Incarnation as embodying the relationship of eternity to time, but it also demands a rethinking of the very notion of eternity with which we have to deal, and of the relation between time and eternity which Christian theology has uniqeuly to grapple with. And yet I don't see this rethinking forthcoming, in part because Barth's actualism presupposes a residual metaphysical account of the relation of time to eternity whose overturning would have required a whole reworking of what he had done in III/1. We see these residues at work in the account of the resurrection in IV/1 ("The Verdict of the Father"), where Barth articulates the resurrection as the revelation of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as that particular one in whom human history now "universally" corresponds to the Urgeschicte within God. This correspondence is the actualization of Christ's contemporaneity with all times and all places. But Barth is still thinking "contemporaneity" and of the relation of time to eternity here in terms of a "correspondence" of below to above, of the temporal posterius to an eternal prius, of an historical telos in relation to an eternal origin (pp. 192ff. of CD IV/1 are helpful here). This is an inversion of Hegel whose Aufhebung doesn't succeed in doing what Barth thinks it does, as it turns out to account for eternity's relation to time in a matter that is metaphysically Boethian. What I am suggesting is that Barth's actualism here leads to a Christological historicism that should have led him to a rethinking of "contemporaneity" in more Kierkegaardian terms, whereby eternity is not merely be a prius which we abstract to in speaking of God in se, or of the universal to which all particulars of time relate by way of correspeondence, but is rather the action of God whose eternity is a singularity, and whose singularity is encounterd as eternity precisely by way of the non-identitical movement (repetition) from singular to singular (and thus beyond the dialectic of general to particular and particular to general), which movement is the paradoxical becoming time of eternity as eternity's transfiguration of time.

This is longer than I meant it to be, but I will leave it as it is. I will make one final point, though. I said above that I agree with you that what is at stake here is how we understand Barth. If we understand Barth's oeuvre in terms of the ongoing struggle to which the identity of God's being-in-act with Jesus Christ not only refuses but deconstructs theistic metaphysical abstraction, then to refuse to acknowledge these tensions within Barth's work and to refuse to acknowledge where this deconstruction remains (however unintentially) incomplete, is itself to not understanding Barth. And so we are not reading him faithfully as regards the theological work of the gospel. To try to harmonize these tensions and not to deal critically with them is to get caught up in doing exactly what I think Barth is seeking to refuse, viz., to involve ourselves in speculative description of God's being sub specie aeternitatis (whether that be of the Trinity, the eternal Logos, etc.), in abstraction from the singular life-history of God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

george hunsinger said...

Dear Nate,

Thank you for this full response. The questions you raise, however, would take more space to discuss than we have here.

I am open to the possibility that there are unresolved "tensions" in Barth's theology and that they may have emerged over time. I am not open, however, to mere assertions. If such "tensions" exist, it will take more than mere impressionistic judgments derived from selective readings in Barth's dogmatics. It will take careful textual demonstration.

I have not seen this kind of care from the critics whom you mention. We cannot proceed as if Barth would have no rejoinders.

You write:

The radical historicity to which the logic of CD IV points throughout not only demands a modification of his account of the Incarnation as embodying the relationship of eternity to time, but it also demands a rethinking of the very notion of eternity with which we have to deal, and of the relation between time and eternity which Christian theology has uniqeuly to grapple with.

This is a very large claim on more than one level. Its validity is not self-evident to me. I await with interest its fuller demonstration.

Again you write:

We see these residues at work in the account of the resurrection in IV/1 ("The Verdict of the Father"), where Barth articulates the resurrection as the revelation of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as that particular one in whom human history now "universally" corresponds to the Urgeschicte within God.

Again a rather large claim. You would need to demonstrate, at a minimum, that Barth has significantly departed from his discussion of Christ's resurrection in III/2, or for that matter from his view of eternity in II/1 and II/2. Your argument is far from self-evident, and on its surface I would regard it as implausible.

This is not to suggest that Barth did not deepen and elaborate on his view of God's eternity and its relation to Jesus Christ over the course of his dogmatics. It is only to suggest that the burden of proof falls on anyone who argues for fundamental discontinuities.

nate kerr said...

Dear Professor Hunsinger:

Thank you again for your engagement in this conversation. I do agree that we may have reached a point at which the limits of this forum will not allow for all of the exposition and nuances that would be needed for what either of us is saying to be worked out to our satisfaction. I do hope that the space for such to occur may open up for us sometime in the future.

Just to be clear in a final way: The tensions that I locate within Barth have to do with a tension between what I think should have been a particular rethinking of certain key issues (esp. regarding the nature of eternity to time and of history's relation to God's being-in-act) in light of the actualist Christology of CD IV, but which rethinking I do not think Barth adequately did work out. And this is because I do not find discontinuities between his account of resurrection and eternity in IV/1 and his account of eternity in CD II/1 & 2 and of the resurrection in III/2. I don't find discontinuity here, and this is at the heart of the conceptual tension I am trying to trace. I lay this out as carefully as I am able in my book, but it needs also to be kept in mind that the context of that discussion of Barth is set within my own constructive proposal for an alternative, apocalyptic account of history and of eternity's relation to time as enacted in Christ, which I readily concede is not Barth's own position and which is the basis of my own criticisms of Barth. I am trying to affirm and to extend an insight of Barth's that I think needs some alternative construction. I would only ask that one keep in mind that I am not advocating Barth's construction nor do I take my own extension of this particular insight to be "Barthian," per se, when my reading of Barth is assessed. I hope it will be assessed in terms of my own constructive thesis as a whole.

Thank you again for this conversation, Professor Hunsinger. This dialogue has been very helpful for me, and I have learned much and continue to learn much in the course of engagement with you. I am grateful.

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