Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Reading Barth with Rowan Williams (in Auckland)

I’ll be away for the next few days (blogging will continue if I have internet access) at a New Zealand conference on “Barth and Trinitarian Theology” – it looks set to be a great event, with about 60 people attending, and with papers by Bruce McCormack, Paul Molnar, Murray Rae, Ivor Davidson and many others.

My own paper is entitled “On Barth’s Second Doctrine of the Trinity: Reading Barth with Rowan Williams.” The paper discusses Rowan Williams’ essay on “Barth on the Triune God” (published here) in connection with Barth’s section in CD IV/1 on “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country”. Here’s an excerpt:

Taking Rowan Williams’ reading as a point of departure, I now want to focus more directly on the theological implications of Barth’s “second” doctrine of the Trinity, as it is articulated in IV/1. Whereas Barth’s “first” doctrine of the Trinity, in I/1, gives an account of the dynamics of divine revelation, the trinitarian theology in IV/1 functions as a critique of the very notion of God.

This critical dimension had already emerged sharply in the doctrine of election, where Barth had protested that “there is no deity as such”, but only “the deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (II/2, 115). Similarly, here in IV/1 Barth insists that “no general idea of ‘deity’,” nor any general divine attribute such as freedom or lordship, can be applied to Jesus Christ: “he defines those concepts: they do not define him” (IV/1, 129). The lowliness and humility of Christ show us that such humility belongs to the very definition of God; God’s deity “is not the deity of a divine being furnished with all kinds of supreme attributes” (IV/1, 177). God’s way of being God, “his ‘divine nature’,” comes to light only in the human history of Jesus; in his humble obedience, Jesus discloses “the mystery of the inner being of God as the being of the Son in relation to the Father” (IV/1, 177).

Jesus thus belongs to the very identity of God; as the prologue to the Fourth Gospel puts it, this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is in the beginning with God. God’s “godness” is an event that takes place in the relation between this man and the one whom he calls Father; there is no general “divine nature” lurking behind the particularities of this history. The “essence of the divine”, Barth writes, is something that takes place in Jesus’ history (IV/1, 186). We can think of a “divine nature” only as our thinking is oriented around the history of this man, the one who is obedient unto death: “It is from this point, and this point alone, that the concept [of the ‘divine nature’] is legitimately possible” (IV/1, 199). Barth thus insists that such a thinking of the death of Jesus eliminates the false and idolatrous concept of any “neutral deity,” the “pure and empty deity … of an abstract ‘monotheism’” (IV/1, 203). As Williams rightly observes, Barth’s argument here is driven not by formal categories of revelation or divine lordship (as in I/1), but by the highly specific texture, the historically determinate shape of Jesus’ life. God’s identity is bound up with the way of this man, Jesus of Nazareth; God is thinkable only in the thinking of this man’s history.

I should hasten to add that Barth is not merely advancing an epistemological claim about Jesus. He is not merely suggesting that God would remain remote and unknowable if God had not accommodated himself to us in Christ; at this point, Barth is worlds away from Calvin’s notion of divine accommodation. Instead, Barth’s point is precisely an ontological one: God has no being apart from what happens in the man Jesus. The merest idea of a “divine being” existing outside relation to Jesus is, Barth thinks, the very essence of idolatry. God’s being as God is constituted by God’s self-determined relation to the man Jesus. Simply put, this means that what happens in Jesus really matters for God.

Williams underscores this point by speaking of God’s risk in Jesus: “God, for our sakes, ‘risks’ his very identity” in the act of reconciliation”. Although this has a not-very-Barthian ring to it, I think it captures well the direction of Barth’s thought at this point. God’s being itself is at stake in what happens to Jesus. God has so chosen to identify with Jesus that there is no longer any divine being apart from relation to this man. Jesus is not merely epistemologically significant, as the one who makes God known; he is ontologically significant, as the one who (so to speak) makes God God.

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