Monday 12 January 2009

Paul Nimmo: Being in Action

I was delighted to hear that Paul Nimmo has received the Templeton Award for Theological Promise – a prize that comes with $10,000, plus an additional $10,000 to fund a series of international lectures. Paul received the award for his excellent book on Barth, Being in Action: The Theological Shape of Barth’s Ethical Vision (T&T Clark, 2007).

Drawing deeply on the work of Bruce McCormack and Eberhard Jüngel, Nimmo shows that Barth’s ethical thought is structured by an actualistic ontology. “The action of God in electing to be God for humanity in Jesus Christ is not the act of an already existing agent. Rather it is an act in the course of which God determines the very being of God.” God’s being is an act, and the human agent is likewise constituted as a being-in-action through its ethical correspondence to God’s act in Christ. Indeed, Jesus’ history is the occurrence of human being. As Eberhard Jüngel puts it, “Between the being of the man Jesus and the being of all humanity there is an ontological connection, because in the history of Jesus, God makes history for all humanity.”

For Nimmo, the ontological connection between human agency and God’s act in Jesus does not entail any deification of the human, but rather “the humanization of the ethical agent.” Nimmo thus rightly critiques George Hunsinger’s argument that Barth envisions a realistic “participation” in Christ: for Barth, “participation” is a matter of actualistic/historical correspondence, not of mystical union. Indeed, there is no divine substance in which the human could somehow share; the divine essence is nothing other than the history of God’s way with humanity, arising from God’s eternal election of the man Jesus. The human agent thus participates in Christ not through a mystical union, but through an ethical correspondence to God’s will. In this life, “participation” takes the form of witness.

Nimmo thus also responds in detail to Stanley Hauerwas’s critique of Barth’s ecclesiology: Barth is able to relativise the moral function of the church precisely because of his confidence that God is acting in the church. Since the church depends on God’s action, it “cannot arrogate to itself the role of moral teacher or former of moral character.” The church is set free to be the church only where its identity is understood in terms of act and witness – or to put it another way, the church can be the church only where God is really conceived as God.

Being in Action is a superb study of Barth’s ethics, and an important analysis of the actualistic ontology which structures the Church Dogmatics. It’s great to see the Templeton Foundation recognising this kind of high-calibre theological research – and it’s very exciting to see the new directions that are opening up in some of the current work on Barth.


Unknown said...

Who posits God as a divine substance (i.e. something material)? Any orthodox proponent of methexis wouldn't stomach that kind of talk for participation is not with a substance or anything created (since God is not a thing) but with the Trinity.

And if Ethics is mere correspondence, how is God not some big thing really far away whom we only happen to correspond to? Or God is Hegel's Spirit of History?

It is moot to argue with a book one hasn't read, and Jungel may clarify this, but it just seems that the God described here (in your review) is dependent upon humanity ("the divine essence is nothing other than the history of God's way with humanity") and so did not create out of love but needs humanity in order to be.

Anonymous said...

$156? Nemo pro Nimmonem nummum habebit!

Bob said...

“The action of God in electing to be God for humanity in Jesus Christ is not the act of an already existing agent. Rather it is an act in the course of which God determines the very being of God."

This statement seems to cause problems for identity. If a being's essence is reducible to agency and that agency is capable of changing essence then it is theoretically possible that being to cease to be. Is this right?

Also...I've always believed orthodoxy required the "God-man" to be a non-essential property of deity. (I think this is what Wilson is getting at.) Again, am I just missing Nimmo's point on this?

Anonymous said...

Does Nimmo interact with Robert Jenson's work? With David B. Hart's critique of Jenson?

Anonymous said...

This is great news. Paul is not only a wonderful theologian, but also a wonderful and humble man. I'm quite pleased with this award and wish for his continued success back at Edinburgh.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of prodding questions, following up Bob's insightful question: Is it really the case that "an already existing agent" automatically implies either substance metaphysics or a hidden God "back behind Jesus Christ" (to cite Barth) in the "arcanum consilium"? (I think another way of putting this is to ask, "Is divine essence (or substance) somehow always separate from God's act of being God (and thus necessitates the claim that "there is no divine substance"), or can it be conceived otherwise?") If it is in fact not the case (which I believe it not to be), what exactly is the motivation to make "triunity a function of election" (to cite McCormack)?

And two more, though perhaps more important: Is this (Nimmo/McCormack) what Barth is getting at, and if not, why might that be for Barth? But, most importantly, is it not rather the case that many significant problems arise with such a formulation (and that perhaps Barth at least recognized this)?

I just have questions right now. thanks. This does in fact look like a good

Anonymous said...

Sorry...OpenID problems:

This does in fact look like a good one I need to pick up...yet again!

Anonymous said...

Revelation and reconcilation do not create His deity. His deity creates revelation and reconcilation.

-Karl Barth, CD I.1, 415

Anonymous said...

Any relation to Derek Nimmo the bumbling parson from the TV sitcoms Oh Brother and Oh Father?

Ben Myers said...

Just a quick observation in response to some criticisms: the point here is not that God is dependent on humanity, or that human history is necessary to God's being. Rather, God's self-determining decision is the election of Jesus Christ — so the point is that Jesus Christ is necessary to God's being. Apart from Jesus, God would not be God. God has eternally determined himself and identified himself in this way. God's freedom is this specific decision; the divine freedom is not a capacity to be other-than-Jesus. (As Barth sometimes remarked, the freedom to be other-than-Jesus is not the freedom of God, but the freedom of a demonic omnipotence!)

So from this perspective, I don't think it's true to say that God depends on human history; rather, human history is a predicate of God's election of Jesus. God determines God's being in the election of Jesus Christ; and human history exists because of Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ben, I just wanted to be clear that though my somewhat rhetorical questions were rather enigmatic, they don't bear on (or weren't worried about) God's dependence on the world or humanity...rather they have to do with the implications of what it means to say that God determines God's being in the election of (or that is) Jesus Christ.

Anonymous said...

But, that said, these are questions I probably need to hold a little more closely to myself until I can get a chance to read the book. Not only from you, but from others also, I have heard that this is a really fantastic book...and I'm already very sympathetic to Prof. McCormack's work -- and these questions are important to me because I am so convinced that these insights are right and need to be worked out as carefully as possible...luckily we have McCormack and others (such as Nimmo, and Ben Myers!) to help us along! Peace.

Bob said...


Thank you for your clarifications and for introducing this very important piece of scholarship. It has been 15 years since I studied philosophical theology, my study at the time being heavily slanted toward a Thomistic vantagepoint. Conversion to Reformed spirituality has granted me new categories and this work opens up the possiblity of re-examining metaphysics from a Reformed/Barthian perspective.

High regards to Dr. Nimmo for doing such work with distinction.

Matt said...

I don't know about this Barth character. No scholar here, but I think he got "stuck in a moment that he couldn't get out of", to paraphrase U2. Happens to the best of us and the rest of us. Anyways, I don't think God "determines Himself" either. That sounds like an inversion of a Reformed model being used by God on Himself.

Anyways, maybe I am merely in a grouchy mood.


Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

Not sure what you mean by Barth being stuck here, but his assertion that God "determines Himself" is based on his fundamental presupposition that God is the Being who is totally free to be who He is. So why is God Triune? Because He "determines Himself" to be, in His absolute freedom to be. I dunno, but I think it's a pretty good place to be stuck at, heh.

As for his model sounding like an inverted Reformed model...well, the guy was a Reformed theologian! No big surprise there :)

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