Thursday 31 July 2008

Bruce McCormack: Engaging the doctrine of God

Bruce L. McCormack, ed., Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 271 pp. (review copy courtesy of Baker Academic)

This new volume brings together the essays from the 2005 Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference. The quality and diversity of contributors are impressive: there are essays by biblical scholars (N. T. Wright, Pierre Berthoud, Don Carson), scholars of historical theology (Paul Helm, Oliver Crisp), Barthian dogmaticians (John Webster, Bruce McCormack), and leading British and European theologians (Henri Blocher, Stephen Williams, David Wright, Donald Macleod). All of them are engaged in thinking or re-thinking specific aspects of the doctrine of God’s being and attributes.

With such a range of contributors and topics, the book will have something for everyone. But the real centrepiece of the volume is Bruce McCormack’s masterful and wide-ranging essay on “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism” (pp. 185-242). At nearly 30,000 words, this is virtually a monograph in its own right – and the book is well worth its price-tag for this essay alone.

The essay is a stunning intervention in the North American debate over open theism. McCormack sees exactly what is at stake in the debate, but he refuses to allow the debate to be conducted along the usual lines. He acknowledges that open theists (Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, et al.) have identified a real problem in the classical theistic doctrine of God, but then he transposes this problematic into an entirely different register, insisting that what it is really needed is a properly christological approach to the doctrine of God.

The problem with open theism is that it is not nearly radical enough; it critiques certain features of the classical-theistic doctrine of God, but never risks a fundamental break with the metaphysical apparatus of classical theism. This is why open theists finally prove incapable of resolving the doctrinal problems which they themselves have (rightly) identified: in spite of all their criticisms of “classical theism,” they continue to play the same game and to abide by the same metaphysical rules.

In contrast, McCormack argues that Karl Barth had already identified the same basic problems, but that Barth produced a fundamental break with the whole metaphysical structure of the classical doctrine of God’s being and attributes. For McCormack, the crystallising moment at the core of Barth’s theological project is the revision of the doctrine of election. Here, Barth advances the thesis that God’s own primal decision “stands at the root of God’s being or ‘essence’” (p. 210). The event in which God chooses to be “God for us” is identical with the event in which God “gives himself his own being.” And this event of election is not located in any timeless eternity. God’s eternal decision coincides with the temporal event in which this decision reaches its goal. This coincidence – this event of utter singularity – is God’s being. Time, then, “is not alien to the innermost being of God” (p. 222). The time of Jesus Christ is the time of God’s decision – it is the primal time, the time of God’s eternal movement into history. There is no still-more-primal divine being which lurks behind this movement into history; God’s being is this movement, this effectual decision. In a nutshell (if I can put it rather crudely): it is because of the man Jesus that God is God.

McCormack’s reading of Barth, and his response to open theism, unfolds as a gripping and commanding piece of theological reflection. McCormack is not merely repeating Barth in all this; he probes Barth’s thought sensitively but relentlessly, thinking with Barth and engaging him in critical dispute. In McCormack’s view, there are internal inconsistencies within Barth’s work, and the task for contemporary dogmatics is to carry forward Barth’s own best insights in order to produce a radically revised and re-imagined theological ontology.

McCormack’s metaphysical proposal has, of course, met with considerable criticism in recent years (for example, here and here). Indeed, a curious feature of this book is the fact that the editor comes under fire even from one of his contributors! Paul Helm’s chapter on “Calvin and the Hiddenness of God” aims to critique Barth and McCormack from the standpoint of Calvin’s theology. But when Helm counters McCormack’s theological ontology with the argument that “the act of electing is the act of a someone; it cannot be an act of no one which, upon its occurrence, constitutes a someone” (p. 79) – an argument like this reminds us how deeply ingrained, how apparently self-evident, these metaphysical assumptions are.

In a debate about the relation between being and decision, it is of course merely question-begging to insist that a “being” necessarily pre-exists its own decision. But the fact that such metaphysical assumptions run so deep – strictly regulating what counts as reasonable and coherent in Christian talk about God – indicates the extraordinary importance and drastic implications of Bruce McCormack’s proposal. Even those who finally disagree with McCormack should not fail to see that his work represents one of the most searching, creative and doctrinally far-reaching projects in contemporary theology.


Darren said...

Thanks, Ben, for this terrific and insightful review. I've had this book on my Wish List for several months now, and I think it just moved up to the top!

scott said...

It would be interesting for someone to spell out the relation of McCormack's proposal to Webster's defense of God's aseity, in the same section of the book.

Andy said...

how does this fit with Jenson's work on time and God's time in his systematic theology?

Anonymous said...

"the book is well worth its price-tag for this essay alone."

Spoken like one who gets his books free....

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ben,

I recently heard McCormack talk about this essay and give his view of Barth along these lines (Analogy of Being Conference), and he said that God's decision is not TEMPORALLY prior to his being(hence eternal), but it is LOGICALLY prior.

Perhaps this simply reveals my indebtedness to previous metaphysical traditions (which apparently were completely wrong)and my failure to understand McCormack, but this nominalizing of God (which someone noted at the conference without McCormack's disapproval) seems to privilege a big empty will (logically) prior to God that fits well with liberal and capitalist logic and anthropology. How is this not nominalist with regard to logically privileging God's will in God's self?

I guess I' just not sure what it would mean to say a will logically precedes God as trinity, which McCormack does affirm in some of his recent essays.

Am I not understanding McCormack here? Please help me get it, if I'm not.


Tim F

Anonymous said...


You wrote, "In a nutshell (if I can put it rather crudely): it is because of the man Jesus that God is God."

Doesn't this cut to the heart of the Hart v. Jenson debate Halden wrote about a week or so ago? (Hart, presumably, would say "It is because God is God that there is the man Jesus.")

You should NOT apologize for the "crudity" of the statemtent. If you're right, then that very "crudity" is one of the hallmarks of its truthfulness!

Anonymous said...

Is there anywhere that one may find a response from McCormack on the charge of theological voluntarism? I have read and heard him defend his doctrine of God against the issue of coherence, i.e who is deciding. However, at the already mentioned Analogy of Being conference the paper that he read explicitly links his concern with decision and will to God's lordship over even God's own being and essence. This sounds reminiscent of Occam's concern that God's lordship extend even to the Divine will standing in a relationship of decision to the good. Am I incorrect to see a common link here? Does, and if so how, Barthian actualism render this different than the voluntarism of the late middle ages? If there is a link is it somehow beneficial? Can such an articulation be freed from the charge that it is metaphysical ground and justification for a view of one's relationship to oneself and one's property as will expressed in decision/choice? Does "decision" in McCormack's sense differ from "choice"?

I intend no argument here. I only wish to know where or if I may find these questions addressed, which I take to be different than claiming that the subject must precede the "decision" (or in Aquinas' language "act").


Anonymous said...

One relevant difference between McCormack's "nominalism" and the nominalism allegedly characteristic of the medieval "nominalists" is that, for the latter, God's lordship over Godself entails that God is always free to reinvent Godself, so to speak, whereas McCormack insists that God exercises lordship over God's being precisely in determining wholeheartedly & irrevocably to be God-with-us, thereby forever rejecting the possibility of being God in any other way. This is a significant and fairly obvious difference, and the fact that anyone would have a hard time seeing it is testimony to the distorting power of labels. The moral of the story: instead of "ism"-mongering, we should do the hard work of trying to understand others accurately and charitably...and if we lack the time or ability to undertake such work, we should prefer silence over the perpetuation of a possible misrepresentation.

(To be clear, this last sentence is directed not at "Anonymous," whose remarks reflect an appropriate amount of tentativeness, but at others who seem to think that simply by labeling McCormack's proposal as "nominalism," they had entitled themselves to dismiss it.)

It seems to me, by the way, that on this point it would be instructive to compare McCormack's "voluntarism" not with Occam and company, but with John Zizioulas' emphasis on God's freedom over God's being. For what it's worth.

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry if my post sparked your response. I can see how they could be construed as you mention. I intended to offer my thoughts in order to engender further dialogue, which is why I asked for help in understanding McCormack at the end of my comments. I do want to understand him.

Thanks for your patient instruction in this matter.


Tim F.

Anonymous said...

Two things: firstly it would be great Ben if you, or someone, could spell out what you see as the 'real problem in the classical theistic doctrine of God' that both open theism and Barth have identified.

Secondly, I think open theism recognises that fundamental theological questions about the nature of God can only be addressed from within a particular understanding of the nature of time. Both classical theism and Barth's proposal seem to require some form of co-existence of past, present and future - whereas the open theist is not sure that the 'co' in 'co-existence' can even be rendered intelligible in this context. It's an Augustinian insight, I think, that only the present can properly be said to exist, or at least, the past and future exist only in a very different sense.

So a question then: if these theological questions about the nature of God can't be answered without first adopting a particular stance on the uncertain philosophical question of the nature of time, how can ANY answer to the theological questions be more than speculative?

Anonymous said...


My apologies if my questions angered you or insulted your intelligence. They were truly questions and were not intended to be dismissive of anyone by offering a label that goes proxy for a serious and charitable engagement and argument (a la Milbank). I asked because as I understand the response that you offered, which I have encountered before, it does quiet the worry that God would do otherwise at another time or is in some sense not faithful to who God is in Christ. But I do not understand if this position yet avoids making will as decision to be the primordial principle of all that is including the very Being of God. That is all I mean by voluntarism. The linking to Occam was not to perfectly identify their positions as an ism and then cast aside, but to point out that lordship/sovereingty is commonly articulated solely via the capacity to determine all else by an act of will. That is not necessarily a bad thing nor a good thing. Thus my questions that were driven by concerns over the relationship of this theology to certain regnant anthropologies of our time were genuine worries (not critiques). I was only asking for help to understand if I was drawing false conclusions and if there were arguments I had yet encountered that dealt specifically with my questions. There was no intention to critique, to dismiss, or otherwise cast aspersions.

And to be fair to Occam he did not think that God had power to change or determine Godself via will, but rather he stressed the Lordship of God via utter contigency of the created world, including what counted as good and evil, on a an utterly undetermined will. Of course Occam's ful account is very subtle and nuanced and is not done justice by my brief remarks.


Anonymous said...

Parable (true through this is a second hand story):
A priest friend of mine was recently at a conference where a Jewish woman, who is a scholar of NT scripture, presented this parable:
She (the Jewish woman scholar) dies. She is at the pearly gates and there encounters St. Peter. They talk and he admits her to heaven. Behind her in line is a Protestant minister who overhears all this, and upon seeing her admitted, begins a scripture-based argument with St. Peter as to why she should not be admitted (not baptized, etc.) St. Peter tries to reason with him but makes no progress so in frustration calls for Jesus to intervene. Jesus appears and faces the same complaints from the Protestant minister. Finally, rather annoyed, Jesus explains that scripture clearly states that no man comes to the Father but by him. And THAT means: HE gets to decide, not the Protestant minister.

The priests confirmed this was a valid interpretation of the passage and one they hadn’t heard before.

JKnott said...


Thanks for bringing this book, and especially Bruce's article in it, to your wide readership.

What I found new in this article, though it might have been new only to me since I haven't read ALL Bruce's work, is his admission that Barth was never completely consistent in viewing things the way Bruce does (p.221, n.57). I'm starting to think he may say the same about Juengel, as it seems Bruce would have no use for the distinction between "primary" and "secondary" objectivity.

This would concede and therefore in a way answer at least some of Hunsinger's criticisms in the recent Mod.Theo. article, it seems. Barth's thought inexorably tends in that direction, even if he never noticed that himself and even if Bruce were the first to make the final step.

Ben Myers said...

Hi JKnott: yes, you're right — Bruce's argument has always been that Barth's own thought suffers from internal inconsistencies. (In particular, he's often argued that earlier sections of the Church Dogmatics would need to be substantially corrected in light of CD II/2.)

The question about nominalism is a very interesting one. I don't really know how to respond to this (although, for what it's worth, I've never subscribed to a genealogy which regards nominalism as the root of all evil). Coming at Barth from a Catholic angle, Hans Urs von Balthasar thought there might be a connection between Barth's actualism and the best (but failed) intentions of medieval nominalism. Balthasar suggests that nominalism failed because it restricted itself to the purely "philosophical level"; whereas the whole aim of Barth's actualism is to articulate the "concretissimum" of "the person and activity of Jesus Christ" (Balthasar, p. 266).

In other words, as Kevin also comments, there may be some connections between Barth's actualism and nominalist voluntarism: both refuse to posit a necessary divine "nature" behind the operations of the divine will. But whereas writers like Ockham and Scotus were concerned with purely formal concepts of essence and will, Barth is fundamentally uninterested in these concepts — his concern is not with "will", but with the theologically thick concept of "election".

Ockham wanted to posit mere "will" at the foundation of God's being — and the result was the complete eclipse of christology (he notoriously asserted that even the incarnation was a matter of arbitrary choice: God could just as properly have chosen to redeem humanity by becoming "a stone, a tree or an ass"!). In contrast, Barth's one concern is christology, and so (as McCormack argues) Barth's doctrine of election is aimed at eliminating any possibility of an arbitrary will in God. God's own being is constituted by his decision to be God-for-us in Jesus; he could not have become incarnate in a stone or a tree, since God's freedom is not the power to choose between different options, but it is solely the power to make this particular decision. (Incidentally, this is why I think Paul Molnar's book on divine freedom is a step in the wrong direction: its whole aim is to rehabilitate precisely that view of freedom which Barth sought to demolish!)

In other words, the outcome of Barth's position is a million miles away from Ockham and Scotus (just as it is, on the other hand, a million miles away from Thomism or from any doctrine of a merely "necessary" divine nature). To put it a bit crudely, Barth wants to eliminate the entire formal choice between the "priority of will" and the "priority of nature" in God; in contrast to both these alternatives, Barth insists on the priority of Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ben,

Thanks for these clarifications; I have found them quite helpful.

Some more questions of clarification:

Are you saying that McCormack's view is simply that God's will IS Jesus Christ? I.e. that the divine will is identical with the person of Jesus Christ? This seems consistent with what I have read of Barth.

If so, then why all the language of "particular decision?" Is it only to secure divine freedom? Why not simply say that Jesus is the freedom of God?

If not, what is Jesus' relationship to the divine will/act of electing?

These are not critiques or accusations. I'm really trying to understand. Thanks in advance.


Tim F.

Anonymous said...


I am sorry to say that you have again misrepresented what I have written. Once before you did so regarding my book, Incarnation and Resurrection. Now you have done so regarding my book on Divine Freedom. I am wondering why it seems so hard for you to get these matters straight.

I find it sad that you are so devoted to your particular brand of metaphysics, which is little more than a view of "being" that sees God’s being as constituted by his relations with us in Christ. Barth frequently rejected any attempt to equate the study of being (metaphysics) with the study of the triune God. It is not being but the being of God in freedom as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that interested Barth. Your regrettable acceptance of the view that God gave himself his eternal being when he chose (elected) to be God for us represents a classic confusion of the immanent and economic Trinity, one that Barth rejected throughout his career and for good reason. A God whose very existence depends upon his election of us is simply not the Christian God.

I agree with you that God is not arbitrary. But it seems that the God of your metaphysics happens to be the Trinity only by an arbitrary choice.

The mature Barth always held that God could be God without us. But when you say: “In a nutshell (if I can put it rather crudely): it is because of the man Jesus that God is God” you demonstrate that you have misunderstood the whole of Barth’s theology. He argued that there could be no reversing analogical statements so that while it is indeed true that God became man in Jesus Christ for us and for our salvation, it is clearly false to claim that God is God because of this. That would be the same as saying that God needed the man Jesus in order to exist as triune. Nothing could be further from Barth’s thought, or from Nicene Christianity in general.

Further, for you to say that my book, Divine Freedom presents an "arbitrary" view of God’s freedom is unintelligible to me. I never once argued in that book that freedom is to be equated with an arbitrary decision to choose one thing or another (which, again, seems indeed to apply to your own idea of the Trinty). I did argue that God’s triune deity is his self-sufficient freedom to know and love himself in both eternity and in time: in eternity, as the only self-moved being; and in time, on the basis of his election of grace. I followed Barth closely in holding that God’s freedom is what is possible for him as demonstrated in his revelation in Jesus Christ.

But I was careful not to reduce God’s freedom to love us with his own eternal being as the triune God. Unfortunately you are not as careful since you say: “God’s own being is constituted by his decision to be God-for-us in Jesus” and you equate God’s freedom solely “with the power to make this particular decision”. God’s being is not constituted by his decision to be our God; rather the God who eternally exists as Father, Son and Spirit is the God who freely decided to be our God as well, despite our fall into sin and death.

God is already constituted in his being and will as the eternal Trinity. Why should this essential point be so difficult to grasp and accept? By equating God’s freedom solely with the power to make the choice he did in fact make in Jesus Christ, you have actually read a logical necessity back into the immanent Trinity, claiming that God therefore could not be God without us.

The Lord God could have made other decisions, as Barth readily admits citing Augustine, Thomas and F. Diekamp who wrote: “To make any one of His revelations unconditionally necessary is to make Him dependent upon creatures” (I/2, 32). By the way, I never argued that God’s nature precedes his will. What I did argue was that his will expresses the God he is, namely, the eternal Father, Son and Spirit, who freely affirms himself in all that he is, both in himself and for us. Therefore God does not become triune when he chooses to relate with us. The whole theology of the church stands or falls with that recognition.

Paul Molnar

Adam Kotsko said...

This very diverse volume does not include any women.

Halden said...

Prof. Molnar, Ben can ably defend himself, but when you say that you "never argued that God’s nature precedes his will" but then go on to assert that "his will expresses the God he is", I fail to see how you are not saying asserting precisely the former point. If God's will merely expresses what God antecedently is in Godself, then clearly God's "nature" (or whatever term one might chose) precedes his will, logically, ontologically and temporally.

In other words, if God's freedom must mean the sort of antecedent completeness that you believe in, there seems to be no way for you to avoid asserting that God's will is in fact preceded by God's nature. God is what God is and therefore wills what God wills.

This is not to say that therefore your position is refuted, only that I don't think you can so easily escape the charge that, on your view God's nature does in fact precede and determine God's will.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Tim, thanks for your thoughtful questions. Yes, you could sum up this view by saying that Jesus Christ is God's will. In Barth's terms, Jesus Christ is both the subject and object of election: he is the God who decides, and he is the total content of God's decision. Outside or apart from him, God simply has no "will" at all.

So Barth's understanding of divine freedom is shaped by this concept of election. For Barth, God's freedom is not what the Protestant scholastics called freedom of "indifference" or "alternativity" — it's not the capacity to choose any given option out of a range of possibilities. (In its sharpest form, this was Ockham's understanding of freedom: God could have chosen to become incarnate in a stone or a tree, but in fact he freely chose to become incarnate in Jesus. Here, God's freedom is not any specific determination, it's just a contentless and indeterminate abyss of potentiality.)

Barth has no patience at all for this notion of freedom as alternative choice: instead, Barth thinks that God's freedom is fully expressed in the one particular decision of Jesus Christ. God is free to be the one he decides to be; his freedom is his determination to be God-for-us in Jesus. Outside this specific decision, God has no will at all. His freedom doesn't entail the possibility that he could have been God in some other way. He is free to be this God; his freedom is (so to speak) "used up" without remainder in the election of Jesus. (To offer a very rough analogy: my freedom vis-a-vis my own children is the freedom to love them; it's a positive determination of my identity. If I said I was free to choose between loving and hating them, I would simply be proving that I have no proper freedom at all in relation to them. In other words, freedom is the opposite of alternativity.)

So this brings me to Paul Molnar's comment: thanks, Paul, for stepping into the discussion here, and for articulating your position so clearly. I appreciate that your intention is not to introduce any "arbitrariness" into God's being. But your whole book nevertheless amounts to an argument that God could still (hypothetically) be God-without-us. Standing behind God's actual decision (to be God-for-us in Jesus) is this hidden abyss of divine potentiality; God could have been other than he actually is.

My reply to Tim (above) already explains why I think your position here is really heading in precisely the opposite direction from Barth's. For Barth, God is God's own decision; in your account, I fear, God is rather a "free" potentiality which lies behind any actual decision. And that's exactly the notion that Barth set out to demolish in his doctrine of election.

That's how it seems to me, anyway...

JKnott said...

It seems to me in Ben's and Dr. Molnar's comments that the same old debate about freedom vs. determination concerning humans is now projected onto God. If God's eternal being, or if you will, character, determines his actions, then you could say he is "free" in that nothing outside him determines his will, or you could say he is not free because something, however internal, DOES determine his actions. Conversely, you could argue that God's actions are "arbitrary" (that's "free" with a negative connotation) if they are not determined by anything outside God, or you could say they are "arbitrary" if they are not determined by anything internal to God and subsequent to the decision (i.e., being or character).

So I tend to think about the difference between Molnar and McCormack (leaving Ben aside for now, no offense) in different terms than the seemingly unresolvable "freedom vs. determination" debate. For me, the question is whether God is truly EVERYTHING in himself that he is for us, and then the question of what God is for us becomes determinative.

For 16th Century protestants and those few holdovers today (in whose numbers I count myself and Bruce and maybe a few others), God is for us the God who loves us in spite of our radical and ongoing unworthiness. This is the significance I see in the Prot./Cath. debate about justification: imputed righteousness vs. infused.

Now when we think about what this means for God in himself, we have two choices. Either we say that God in himself must be the one who forgives sin, or that God in himself expresses a kind of generalized "love" into which forgiveness of sins can be annexed subsequently.

I think, perhaps (admittedly not knowing that much about Molnar) that the debate now is between these two options. That is, if God is in himself the one who forgives sins, then somehow the trinity has to be constituted in light of and if you will, toward, that forgiveness and therefore in light of SIN (McCormack?). There's danger here, of course. But if we don't face it we may run into the other danger, namely generalizing God's love such that forgiveness of sins sits uneasy with it. Can we really see loving the unworthy as an extension of loving the worthy? How?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your comments. You are posing a contrived dilemma. What I say in my book is what Barth says in I/1, 434. In God nature and will are one and the same. Therefore God’s nature does not pre-exist his will. God wills himself, but is not the result of his will since there is, according to Barth, no freedom of choice when it comes to God’s being. Barth follows Thomas and Hilary in this, saying that God is not the result of his will and that God is free to choose to create a reality distinct from himself or not, and would be the God he is with or without the world. Yet God is not free to will himself or not because God cannot not be God. But the most important point is to distinguish the immanent and economic Trinity at that juncture so as to realize that God freely wills himself since it is his nature to be the Father of the Son in eternity. But God does not need to will us in order to be God. That is the crux of the Nicene faith according to Barth. And that is the issue here. God does not pre-exist his will ontologically or logically or any other way (temporally for instance) because in God nature and will are one and the same. So for anyone to maintain that one must precede the other has to mean that they have introduced a logical necessity into the immanent Trinity, thus distorting the freedom of God who knows, wills and loves in himself from and to all eternity. This of course does not mean that God is limited to this because he is free to act outside himself as indeed he has as creator, reconciler and redeemer as is demonstrated in revelation. What I have said is that God’s nature and will precede his relations with us. That is the distinction I argue for in my book in order to recognize that our existence is totally dependent upon God’s grace.

Paul Molnar

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, Ben.

What you say here is what I have always thought Barth to be saying, and I want to add is not far from the mainstream Christian tradition if rightly understood. Here, I disagree with McCormack that Barth significantly departs from the previous "metaphysical tradition." But, that's another discussion!

Admittedly, however, I still get hung up on McCormack's "logically prior will" that determines God's triunity. If things are as you say, and I am in much agreement with you, then I just don't know what McCormack's phrase could possibly mean.


Tim F.

Anonymous said...


Your position is not Barth's at all because Barth never reduced God's will to what he does for us in Jesus Christ. He insists that God's omnipotence cannot be collapsed into God's omnicausality as you have done. To say God "has no will at all" outside his decision to be God for us is to reduce God's will, which for Barth is identical with his nature, to his actions for us within history. God is certainly for us in the full force of his eternal self-determination. But God remains the one he is. And for Barth the freedom of grace always meant that God did not have to be for us but freely chose to do so and does so in Christ. Barth repeatedly insists that God is freely bound to us. Your thinking undermines this freedom of grace.

Barth reiterates the point that God could be God without us very many times throughout the Church Dogmatics. I have documented this in my book and elsewhere. But by this he did not mean to embrace a God behind the back of Jesus Christ (to use T. F. Torrance's words). Rather, he insisted that we must see God's actions for us in Christ and his Spirit as free actions and therefore as actions which were not necessary for God to be God as the one who loves in freedom. In other words God's triunity is eternally necessary while God's eternal election of us is eternally contingent. God would still have been God (the Trinity) even if he had not chosen us. Nonetheless, for Barth, we cannot alter the fact that God has chosen us. Seeing that choice, however, as you do, namely, claiming that God's freedom is "used up without reminder in the election of Jesus" misses Barth's entire conception of the freedom of grace.

Ben, I did not argue for a "hidden abyss of divine potentiality" behind the God revealed in Jesus in my book or anywhere else. What I argued for is that the God who is revealed in Jesus is who he is as triune (this means that God is no hidden abyss, though he does remain incomprehensible even in his revelation) and would be so (that is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit)even if he had not created and reconciled us in Christ. God cannot be reduced to his love of us. There is a big difference between these two ways of putting the matter. To say that God "could have been God without us" is no argument for arbitrariness. It is an argument for the fact that the God who loves us does so freely, that is, without being under constraint to do so.

I do hope this makes sense. If not then perhaps we will be able to discuss this further when we meet again.

Anonymous said...

The conversation may have turned a bit heated but I think it has been fruitful. It seems both the traditionalists and the radical Barthians are conerned to articulate a theology of a free but not arbitrary God. It is interesting how different the approaches and substantive positions are in order to display the God who is precisely who he declares himself to be in Christ.

One point: For the traditional position it makes little sense to impute to this position the priority of nature over will or will over nature when it is an utterly simple and infinitely actualized God of which one speaks.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick question which I don't know the answer to since I haven't read enough of either him or the primary participants in this discussion (one of these days I'm sure...) -- where would John Webster's account occur within the differing views here? I don't even know has he addressed EITHER his interpretation of Barth's thought or his own dogmatic understanding in regards to this matter?

John (not Webster!)

Halden said...

Prof. Molnar, thanks for your response. I think, however that when you assert that God's nature and will are coterminous and that both precede God's willed act of election, you and I are talking about two very different things when we speak of God's will. When I speak of God's will it clearly cannot exclude God's act of election in Christ. When you speak of it however, it seems to simply become a synonym for God's immanent being as triune. I think you are simultaneously trying to assert, with Barth that God's being and act (or nature and will in the terminology we've been using) are one and the same. However, you collapse both God's being and God's act into some protological, immanent reality that precedes God's decision of election to be God for us in Christ while I am claiming that if God's being is in fact coterminous with his act, that includes God's act of election. You deny this, but then the question remains for you that I originally posed: ultimately on your view, it seems that God's being precedes God's act and is the source thereof. The difference between this and God's nature preceding God's will is merely semantical, not substantial. Thus, it still seems to me that on your view God's nature ultimately determines God's will and now we have lost what I know you care about so deeply, God's freedom.

As such you haven't really addressed the question I put to you, merely evaded it by using the term "will" in a different way. Your way of defining God's immanent being and will posits a completed, given reality that God is which is above/behind God's act of election in Christ. However, for your assertion to be either true or believable then we require some source of knowledge of that reality other than God's action in Jesus Christ. Clearly nothing in God's act of election in Christ can take us further back than that act itself. God's act of being God with us can only reveal that reality to us, not this protological reality of God in se that you are positing with such confidence. Thus, to posit as you do, that there is something further back, namely God's immanent being, requires us to have some knowledge of God other than that revealed in God's act of election in Jesus Christ. And no matter how one slices it, a position such as that can never be called Barthian in any meaningful sense. At least, that's my read on the matter...

Ben Myers said...

John: I don't think I could really venture an opinion about how John Webster's current work relates to McCormack's. It would be good to see them publish an exchange of views some time (since they represent the two real possibilities for the future of Barthian dogmatics). There are certainly some big differences between them. It's interesting that Webster seems to be turning more and more to a kind of classical-metaphysical doctrine of God, while McCormack is turning more and more away from it — and both through highly creative appropriations of Barth!

Thanks also to Paul Molnar for your reply, and to Halden for your excellent critical response to Molnar. Halden's comment elucidates very nicely the problem I was referring to when I spoken of Paul Molnar's "contentless abyss of divine potentiality". Anything in God which is "deeper" or more primordial than the election of Jesus can only be a dark abyss — what the early Barth might have called the menacing "No-God".

The essence of Barth's theology lies in this: "Jesus Christ is the electing God. We must not ask concerning any other but him. In no depth of the Godhead shall we encounter any but him.... There is no height or depth in which God can be God in any other way" (CD II/2, pp. 115, 77).

No height or depth in which God can be God in any other way: even in the immanent Trinity, we'll never find an abyss of indeterminate freedom, a God who "might have been God without us" — in the depths of the immanent Trinity, there is nothing but the face of Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...


I am not excluding God’s act of election—I am simply saying that God’s act of election cannot be equated with God’s eternal being and willing without remainder; otherwise election would not be an election of grace.

You say I collapse God’s being and act into some “protological, immanent reality that precedes God's decision of election to be God for us”. Here I don’t collapse God’s reality into this immanent reality you describe but actually acknowledge with Barth that

“We must guard against disputing the eternal will of God which precedes even predestination. We must not allow God to be submerged in His relationship to the universe or think of Him as tied in Himself to the universe. Under the concept of predestination, or the election of grace, we say that in freedom (its affirmation and not its loss) God tied Himself to the universe. Under the concept of predestination we confess the eternal will of the God who is free in Himself, even in the sense that originally and properly He wills and affirms and confirms himself” (CD II/2, 155).

Unfortunately, you and Ben keep confusing God’s eternal will which precedes predestination with his election of us as the beginning of his ways and works ad extra. For you God has lost this freedom by being tied necessarily to the world. Barth is not here saying that “God's being is in fact coterminous with his act”, as you say. If he were, he would be denying his own understanding of the divine freedom he so frequently asserts. Rather, he is maintaining the sense of his belief that “There is, for example, the distinction between His willing of Himself and His willing of the possibility and reality of His creation as distinct from Himself” (CD II/1, 590).

You say that for me “it seems that God's being precedes God's act and is the source thereof”. That is incorrect and is a contrived dilemma once again because I am saying that God’s being and act are one and the same, but God’s actions ad extra are freely made and not necessitated by God’s nature or by anything other than his free love of us in Jesus Christ. Put another way. God is fully the immanent Trinity with or without us; nonetheless, he is not limited to that being and act and is free to act for us and that is what takes place in election as the election of grace. Your denial of this existence on God’s part amounts to a collapse of the immanent into the economic Trinity. The difference here is not semantic but very real and concerns the freedom of God in the beginning of his ways and works ad extra which have their basis in the eternal resolve of the Father and Son. It is here that we cannot intrude into the divine being because no one can explain the how of this.

You say: “Your way of defining God's immanent being and will posits a completed, given reality that God is which is above/behind God's act of election in Christ”. This is an interesting remark. But I think we need to say, with McCormack, that “The immanent Trinity is complete, for Barth, before anything that has been made was made (including time itself)” (Critically Realistic . . . 100). This has to include the covenant since the covenant is the internal basis of creation. Therefore, for Barth, God’s immanent being and will cannot simply be collapsed into his act of election in Christ. Nonetheless, God is not a different God in Christ than he is in himself. That is Barth’s point: what God is in Christ, he is eternally in himself—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one who loves in freedom (not its abrogation but its exercise). So while election takes place within the eternal Trinity and is exercised in history, God’s triunity can neither be said to be constituted by his election of us nor based on his election of us. Election is the election of the triune God and not of some indeterminate being who becomes triune by determining to be God for us. So, for Barth, as there is a will of God which precedes election, so there is a being of God which precedes election (that is the election of us). One cannot flatly equate God’s election of himself as triune with his election of us as his covenant partners without losing the distinction between God and us. It is here that we seem to be up against the very limits of what can be said about the relation between the immanent and economic Trinity.

For you to claim that we need a source of knowledge other than Jesus Christ to know of this immanent Trinity misses the point that I have made, namely, that what God is toward us he is eternally in himself. Still, it is imperative to realize that God was always Father of his Son, yet God was not always creator or always incarnate. That is the distinction which is crucial here. You say “Clearly nothing in God's act of election in Christ can take us further back than that act itself”. But the whole point of Barth’s theology is to say that God’s act of election takes us into who and what God eternally is within his own immanent divine life. We have no access to the eternal Trinity apart from election. But that hardly means that there is no being of God other than that act of election of us—such a statement would once again reduce God to his relations with us. That is what Barth attempted to avoid with the above statement and other similar statements. I am not arguing for a different being of God on the basis of revelation as you claim. Rather, I am arguing that what God is in revelation (election), he is eternally in himself. On your view, we have no access to the “eternally in himself” because this has been collapsed into God’s actions for us. And that is what Barth’s entire theology was designed to protect against.


You cite this text as the basis of your views: “Jesus Christ is the electing God. We must not ask concerning any other but him. In no depth of the Godhead shall we encounter any but him.... There is no height or depth in which God can be God in any other way” (CD II/2, pp. 115, 77).

But Barth here does not mean what you claim he means. He means that there is nothing higher or deeper than that God is eternally the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as when he writes: “We cannot say anything higher or better of the ‘inwardness of God’ than that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore that He is love in Himself without and before loving us, and without being forced to love us. And we can say this only in the light of the ‘outwardness’ of God to us, the occurrence of His revelation” (I/2, 377). The phrase that you quote from p. 115 is followed by the following statement: “There is no such thing as Godhead in itself. Godhead is always the Godhead of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. This is a clear affirmation by Barth that what God is in revelation, he is eternally in himself. He had no intention of collapsing the eternal Trinity here into the human existence of Jesus as you apparently wish to do. All that Barth means here then is that because God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ we cannot ask about any other God than the eternal Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact Barth continues by saying that he wants to undercut any absolute decree or hidden will of God that is not revealed in Jesus Christ since “Jesus Christ reveals to us our election as an election which is made by Him, by His will which is also the will of God” (II/2, 115). Barth also insists however that Jesus’ human electing “can only follow His prior election, and that means that it follows the divine election which is the basic and proper determination of His existence . . . as the Son of the Father He has no need of any special election, we must add at once that He is the Son of God elected in His oneness with man” (II/2, p. 103). The eternal Son is here presupposed as the basis of election itself.

Once again you reject Barth’s constant attempt to defend God’s freedom as when he says that God could have been God without us but chose not to: “the Word of God is properly understood only as a word which has truth and glory in itself and not just as spoken to us. It would be no less God’s eternal Word if it were not spoken to us, and what constitutes the mercy of its revelation, of its being spoken to us, is that it is spoken to us in virtue of the freedom in which God could be ‘God in Himself’ and yet He does not will to be so and in fact is not so, but wills to be and actually is ‘God for us’” (CD I/1, 171–2). Barth is not arguing for an “abyss of indeterminate freedom here”, nor do I, but for the freedom of the triune God. That is what your thinking obscures.

Halden said...

Prof Molnar, thanks for the continued and extensive responses, though I think this may have to be my last reply on this particular thread.

A few final remarks I would make, though:

1) I still feel that your way of approaching this matter involves playing too freely with the terms involved so as to on the one hand claim for yourself a faithful representation of Barth, and on the other hand, to advance a theological view that is in fact out of line with Barth's theological trajectory, especially in CD IV. This is seen, again in the way you continue to equivocate in your discussion of God's will/act and being/nature. On the one hand you say that I am wrong to assert that "God's being is in fact coterminous with his act" and then turn around and say that "God’s being and act are one and the same". Either God's being and act are one and the same or they aren't, you can't have it both ways.

2. I have never said that the world is necessary for God to be the God that God is. However, the only God we know is God for us and as such what more can we say about God then what we are given in Christ? You claim that God's freedom is eliminated if it is not a freedom to not be how God actually is in Christ. This has the rather disturbing effect of saying that God's revelation in Christ actually tells us nothing about God's freedom, since, for you God's freedom is defined by God's ability to not have been God for us if God had not voluntarily chosen to be so.

I prefer to say that God's act of election in Christ is the revelation of God's divine freedom, rather than to try to insert some sort of philosophically deduced notion of freedom as unrestrained choice behind God's act of election in Christ. To make the assertion that God's freedom consists in God's potential ability to be other than how God has in fact determined Godself in Christ, as you do, is to make a claim that cannot be substantiated by revelation, it can only be inferred from some other source of knowledge, as I pointed out above.

3. You say that "God is fully the immanent Trinity with or without us; nonetheless, he is not limited to that being and act and is free to act for us and that is what takes place in election as the election of grace." Here again you equivocate on the issue of whether or not God's being and God's act are one. If they are in fact one, we cannot exclude God's act of election and the human career of Jesus from God's eternal being, for these are part of the act of God. If God's being and God's act are one, then the reality of election, the human man Jesus, and everything that goes with that, must be understood as belonging to the eternal being of God, whether or not that sends metaphysical shivers through our philosophical sensibilities.

4. You say that "the whole point of Barth’s theology is to say that God’s act of election takes us into who and what God eternally is within his own immanent divine life." I agree with this, but this can only be true in Barth's sense, when we understand that the revelation of God in Christ is only really God's SELF-revelation if what is revealed in God's act of election is identical to who and what God eternally is. As such, God's eternal being and God's eternal election of humanity in Christ cannot be disentangled. To do so posits some sort of eternal "moment" in which God's immanent being-in-act (what your are calling his "eternal will") exists which is above and prior to God's eternal election of us in Christ. However, this is clearly never something that could be known on the basis of God's self-revelation in Christ, since by definition, for you God's immanent being is not bound to, nor requires God's election of us in Christ.

Ultimately your view of God's freedom requires a source of knowledge (revelation) other than Christ for it to work. And as such, it simply is not Barthian, at least in my humble opinion. Certainly it does not faithfully follow in Barth's theological trajectory, which to my mind is clearly what Barth would have wanted from those who seek to learn from his theology. Again, just my 2 cents. Thanks for the conversation.

Anonymous said...


I will make a few very brief remarks of my own.

1) I did not equivocate in my discussion of God’s will/act and being/nature. You steadfastly refuse to listen to what I actually said. I said God’s being and act cannot be reduced to his actions ad extra. Thus, God’s being is not simply “coterminous with his act” in the man Jesus in the way you have explained this because that would be a denial of his eternal pre-existent Sonship! Jesus Christ is God’s act of revelation and salvation in history because he himself is the incarnation of the eternal Word.

2) I realize you did not directly claim that the world is necessary for God. It is however implied in your position. When you say “the only God we know is God for us”, there is truth in that. But the moment that statement is taken to mean that there is no longer a God in himself existing in his own being independent of us, then the doctrine of the immanent Trinity is damaged. Barth goes to great lengths in many places in the Church Dogmatics to insist that one cannot speak of God’s incarnation in Christ as an absolute necessity but only as a factual necessity because we must distinguish between the Son of God in himself and for us in order to acknowledge the freedom and unindebtedness of God’s grace (I/1, 420). Your thinking is in the grip of what Barth called “an untheologically speculative understanding of the ‘for us’” (420). Barth claims when this happens “we turn . . . His being God for us, into a necessary attribute of God. God’s being is then essentially limited and conditioned as a being revealed, i.e., a relation of God to man”. That is your mistake. I never said that God’s revelation in Christ tells us nothing about God’s freedom. I said in fact that it tells us that God is eternally one who loves in freedom as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But you refused to listen to that and so make your false claims about my understanding of the divine freedom. I never said freedom was defined by God’s ability to have not been God for us. That statement is a recognition that God truly exists independent of us and as such is for us. That statement takes seriously the distinction between God in se and God for us—a distinction your thinking has obliterated. I have not introduced a philosophically deduced freedom. I have simply acknowledged that the Word has truth and glory in himself and not just as revealed to us. That is a recognition of faith not of philosophy. What you fail to see is that it is your thinking that is untheological here and not mine. As far as I can see you simply refuse to understand this point which I have documented very extensively as a point frequently repeated by Barth even in CD IV.

3) Again I did not equivocate regarding the unity of God’s being and act. See above, no. 1. Of course we don’t exclude election and Jesus’ human career from God’s eternal being. But to claim, as you do, that there is no divine being, act and will prior to God’s election of us and Jesus’ human career is to collapse the immanent into the economic Trinity because of your own philosophy of being that clearly will not allow you to recognize God’s antecedent existence as self-sufficient. This is not a metaphysical issue as you seem to think. It is a strictly theological one that concerns acknowledging Jesus’ true and eternal deity!

4) Finally, “God’s eternal being and God’s eternal election of humanity in Christ cannot be disentangled”. That once again is where you miss Barth’s point. God’s election of us is an election of grace—it is not demanded by God’s essence but is the result of his free self-determination to be God for us. Your untheological speculative grasp of the “for us” leads you past revelation and faith and directly to the logical (philosophically determined) necessity of claiming that God cannot be God without electing us!! That is not Barth’s position as I documented in this discussion, and extensively in my other writing on this subject. Barth himself insisted that we must not dispute God’s will which precedes predestination (as I indicated before). You simply ignore this to advance your philosophy which is at variance with the freedom of God revealed in Christ. We don’t know God as he knows himself on the basis of revelation. So your attempt to know everything about God amounts to a rationalistic intrusion into the divine mystery at that very point. My view of God’s freedom begins and ends with Christ. Your claim that it requires a source of knowledge other than Christ is contrived so that you can support your collapse of the immanent into the economic Trinity. It is your thinking that is not Barthian, not mine. I thank you as well for the conversation. Who knows? Maybe someday the Holy Spirit will enlighten us further so that we can see some of these issues more clearly.

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