Thursday 18 September 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Anonymous said...


Is it true that Barth's words only exist when we encounter them?

Anyways, in real basic language, what would you say is Barth's contribution to theology? Please remember I am a layman that easily get's lost by real technical language.

Also, where do you more or less place yourself theologically. I was just wondering, looking over your site.

I guess I am kind of J.I. Packer Reformed/Evangelical, for what it is worth.


Anonymous said...

Hey Matt,
Barth's contribution to theology is rather immense and I don't think a comment on a blog is going to help you find an answer to your question. I'd suggest that you try to find and read Barth's "Evangelical Theology." It's a great introduction and will help you to see that he has a lot to offer Reformed/Evangelical Packer types like you and me. Here's a great quote from it:

"Evangelical theology, on the other hand, is to be pursued in hope, though as a human work it is radically questioned by God, found guilty in God's judgment and verdict-and though collapsing long before it reaches its goal, it relies on God who himself seeks out, heals, and saves man and his work. This God is the hope of theology...We say this simply in view of the fact that the God of the Gospel is the God who has acted and revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God's work and word. He is the fire of God's love, by which all theological existence is consumed even more radically than all human existence. He is the Judge before whom all men can only fall and perish along with their knowledge and deeds-and this is known best by those who know Him best. Ecce homo! Behold the man!"

Unknown said...

Most excellent as always. Thanks.

The Trinity as act and decision sounds a lot like what Balthasar was trying to achieve with Theo-Drama, furthering the comparisons between the two theologians.

Dave Belcher said...

Ben, excellent review. This is a great volume...I had previously read some of these articles, but I am enjoying them thoroughly (not quite to the good stuff in part 3 yet though!).

The opposition of Milbank and McCormack was most interesting...I think this might be right, but it will have to be -- as all critiques of RO must eventually be -- very nuanced. I mean, we can already anticipate Milbank's response here: "Precisely. Barth's actualistic ontology is thoroughly voluntaristic, and thus has its real root in a late medieval Scotism, whereby we lose any real account of transcendence, and thus any true account of mediation." But, of course, the penultimate sentence to this great review already anticipates the necessary response: "christological actualism"...don't think Milbank knows what to do with Christology without making the Logos into some cipher for linguistic mediation...McCormack (and McCormack's Barth) certainly do a little better with Christology!

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for the review. You've forced me to order a copy!

Anonymous said...

“The followers of Frei and Torrance must look elsewhere for resources for their various projects” (p. 294).
I am surprised that Frei and Torrance are linked. Can you expand this a little? What is common between these two men, in their use of Barth?

Anonymous said...

You should check out Edwin Chr. Van Driel's work on what Bruce McCormack has to say..."The Eternal Existence of Jesus Christ" in Scottish Journal of Theology and Incarnation Anyway Oxford 2008.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anon. Yes, van Driel's essay on McCormack is a good piece — and McCormack's response to him is also printed in this volume.

Paul, one of the recurring themes of all McCormack's work is his critique of "neo-orthodox" appropriations of Barth. It's in this context that he links Frei and Torrance — he sees both of them as proponents of "neo-orthodox" theology. To quote a bit more from the same page: "the attempt to find in [the early volumes of CD] a 'revelational positivism' must surely fail. And this means, too, that the neoorthodox project could not appeal to Barth as its guarantor. The followers of Frei and Torrance must look elsewhere for resources for their various projects" (p. 294).

Anonymous said...

There's a response to the review here.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to a see the following cage match:

Hunsinger v McCormack
Webster Gockel
Molnar Hector
Van Driel Myers

Such a good contest but let's be honest, once big mac goes down the other three will run and molnar will chase them out of the arena and give them the fore-arm shiver in the parking lot

Anonymous said...

Ben, glad you've seen the article, the book Incarnation Anyway, responds to McCormack's response, and from an amateur's perspective is quite forceful.

Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks Ben. It's heartening to see that some Barth scholarship today has real value for positive theology.

Unknown said...


Thanks for the helpful review. It looks as if I'll need to pick up this text, as McCormack and I share much as regards our assessment of Barth's relationship to 19th century theology (particularly vis-a-vis) Troeltsch but put this assessment to very different constructive theological "uses," if you will. As you might imagine, I would really want to probe you on what you mean by "a far reaching appropriation of Barth's christological actualism." This is in part because I'm not sure Barth's actualism works as an ontology as such, insofar as it does not avoid the same kind of metaphysically transcendental appeals that is sought to be avoided in the particular modes of Chalcedonianism and incarnationalism that you reference. It might be that Barth here diverges from Troeltsch so as to converge with him again at the point of a residual Hegelian idealism, as regards "history." If that's the case, Barth's historicizing is actually too-Troeltschian. But I've yet to read McCormack on this and I'll have to engage him. If I shoot from the hip here, I hope it will at least be excused by the fact that I don't shy away from really questioning Barth's actualism at this point in print. All of that is to say that I'm not sure its actualism "per se," that we need, but a real probing of what is at stake in Barth's christology throughout -- which I think is what you are pointing to. A far-reaching "christological actualism" may not be a "Barthian" actualism at all. You of course know that; and are doing much to help us understand that. It is at this point, however, that you are most exactly right: The inevitable divergences of interpretation I think will be the most fruitful and generative of theological conversations at present. Thank you for being a part of initiating this conversation and helping to carry it forward.


Doug said...

Ben,insofar as I grasp what you're saying (or indeed what the book is saying) – you know I'm not a systematician – can I ask whether this "christological actualism" can lead anywhere but to a model of salvation that is exclusively theopoiesis and which all the other language we use in connection with atonement and salvation is partial metaphor for this fundamental transformation? (Which would be fine by me, but I'm curious whether McCormack goes there.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, Ben. Thank you for the brief answer. I personally think it is very important to be able to say succinctly what we also say in prose. I think you did well. I actually think this pattern (saying things in brief overviews as well as through longer articulations) is actually a biblical, even when I read the apostle Paul. Short hand and long hand. Good accouterments for any soldier or ambassador of grace.

Balthazar (spelling?) and Theo-drama, from another response after yours. I have a Catholic friend who has spoken about these matters Interesting stuff.


Bobby Grow said...

Thank you for this review, Ben!

So are you saying (or McCormack) that Torrance isn't the best guide for getting to know "Barthian" theology?

What distinction does McCormack offer between "neo-orthodox" theologians vs. "real Barth" theology?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben,

It's always great to hear the latest in process theology!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these various comments. A few quick responses:

Nate: I really appreciate your probing comment here! I myself would take your critique of Barth's actualism very seriously, since you're really grappling with some of the core issues that were driving Barth's thought. (And I think your own work on Barth's relation to Troeltsch is extremely challenging and important.) Anyway, I don't have any substantive responses to your comment at the moment — but I hope we can revisit these questions when we come to discuss your own new book in a couple of weeks...

Skeeter: No, I'm afraid this has nothing to do with process theology! For an explicit treatment of how McCormack's approach differs from process thought on the one hand and open theism on the other, see another of his recent essays (not included in this volume), "The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism," chapter 10 in Engaging the Doctrine of God (Baker, 2008).

Bobby: Yes, you're right — McCormack doesn't think Torrance is the best guide to Barth's theology; he thinks the work of Eberhard Jüngel is a much better guide. McCormack once reviewed a book by Torrance (in SJT, I think), and he remarked there that Torrance tends to efface the differences between Barth and himself — a tendency which both hinders the interpretation of Barth, and conceals the real distinctiveness and independent importance of Torrance's own thought.

Doug: No, McCormack isn't advocating any sort of deification — he critiques deification in chapter 9, and he argues for a historicised understanding of "participation in God". The Son of God is not a metaphysical substance which we could indwell realistically; he is rather a specific history into which our own histories have been scripted through the decree of election. On the question of justification etc., you could also see another of McCormack's recent essays: "Justitia aliena: Karl Barth in Conversation with the Evangelical Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness," in Justification in Perspective, ed. Bruce McCormack (Baker, 2006), 167-96.

Hope that helps!

Bobby Grow said...

Thank you Ben, that does help!

Anonymous said...

A fine review Ben.

Anna Blanch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna Blanch said...

Thanks for the review Ben. I always find Barth a little unaccessible and you've helped me somewhat.

On a side note...for years i confused in my mind Roland Barthes and Karl Barth. I think they call it a fossilized mistake. It led to some rather curious internal intellectual machinations.

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