Tuesday 12 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.


Geoff said...

oh goodness.. I'm in Auckland and I didnt even know its on.. how on earth do i get to it?

Sean Winter said...

Hi Ben
Thanks for this. I was looking at Pannenberg Volume 1 this morning and he takes a different view. One small quibble, John 1 does not say that the man Jesus was in the beginning with God, doesn't putting it that way underplay the significance of 1.14. As my old NT teacher used to say, people who talk about the pre-existence of Jesus without nuance or qualification are basically saying "Jesus existed before Jesus existed". Look forward to reading the whole paper in due course

Mark Stevens said...

Hi Ben, I hope the bourbon helped! ;-)

michael jensen said...

Barth speaks of God's risk in II/2...so it sounds quite Barthian after all perhaps!

Dale Campbell said...

Hey Ben,
I'm a regular reader and a current student at Carey (and coffee buds with Antony Glading, one of the presenters), and was stoked to see you were speaking at this conference. I'm not sure I'll be able to attend or meet you but best of 'luck' (er... providential favour, etc.) with the presentation - loved your summary here; reminded me of the John V. Taylor quote "God is Christlike and in Him is no un-Chistlikeness at all..." :)

Rachel said...

Re: "...if I have internet access..."

Come on, Ben. New Zealand isn't THAT backward. Auckland is a lovely place with every amenity, including internet. :)

Have a great time!

kim fabricius said...

I'd love to see McCormack, Molnar, et. al. doing the haka before the plenary!

Old Slewfoot said...

Hi Ben,

Great post! I hope you get a chance to talk with Paul Molnar at the conference. I'm sure he'll want to know more about how Jesus' human life constitutes God's triunity as such! That means that human beings actually determine who God is in himself (oh, no there is no in himself...I mean in relation to us!) Finally, we can say with full confidence that God's being is limited only by what we can experience. That is truly good news. The triumph of the human is now complete. Viva la Feuerbach!

Erin said...

Hi Ben, all,
A quick question - who are the Barthian types/interpreters/authors/teachers that are not of European descent? Particular books that you might recommend? I hope your conference is fruitful and enjoyable!

janicer said...

Ben you are turning me into a damn Barthian!

kim fabricius said...

Ben, you take "Wiliams' reading [of Barth] as a point of departure" for your paper - and Williams reads Barth well, accurately (I think) plotting the differences between Barth's early and later Trinitarian and Christological theology (from I/1 to IV/1), and suggesting affinities with von Balthasar and Donald MacKinnon. Interestingly - and puzzlingly - however, Williams has little to say about the impact of Barth's doctrine of election on the development of his thinking.

More to the point, Williams, while recognising the challenge of the later Barth, is also critical of him. You will know of Andrew Moody's claim in his essay "The Hidden Center" in On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (2009) - because you have an essay in the same volume! - that "Williams derides the identification of 'Jesus as human subject with the second person of the Trinity' and warns against trying to apply 'the name "Jesus Christ" to the pre-existent Word'" (the quotes come, respectively, from the two Williams essays "Incarnation and the Renewal of Community" and "Beginning with the Incarnation"). I think "derides" is too strong a word, even if Williams does speak of "deeply damaging criticisms"; and "warns against" is also misleading: what Williams actually says is that "To ascribe the name 'Jesus Christ to the pre-existent Word, sans phrase is theologically problematic, yet it is a form of words enjoined in the texts of Nicaea and Chalcedon; ... discussion of the classical formulae has normally, in the history of doctrine, worked with what the formulae have made possible rather than with a notion that they have closed the debate for ever."

Still, I think it is clear that Williams is hardly a McCormack - or a Ben Myers! - here, and I was wondering if, in your paper, you use Williams only as a "point of departure" for your own reflections, or whether you have anything more substantive to say - to keep the debate going! - not only about Williams' reading of Barth, but also about Williams' own theology on the themes you raise.

ben myers said...

Old Slewfoot said "Viva la Feuerbach": Paul Molnar told me today that he saw this comment -- and loved it!

Kim, thanks for your question -- I'll try to reply later...

Sophia said...

Yeah...what Kim said!

bruce hamill said...

Hi Ben... thanks for a great paper. You pretty much had me persuaded but then again that may be only till I hear the other side of the argument in its next incarnation. You make a nice 3rd person of the trinity when all that mimetic twinning is going on between Molnar and McCormack ;-) I'm looking forward to your thoughts on my final question. This 'history of JC' which is part of teh being of the triune God and is also part of our history, in some sense - how do you define its parameters? Do you mean by it those events/states of affairs which together constitute the identity of that man? Are they the things that he does, as opposed, for example, to the things that are done do him? Is Peter's (and mine and Adolf Hitler's) denial of him part of his history?

bruce hamill said...

Also is it fair (for the sake of further provocation) to characterise the respective concerns in this debates along the lines of "No Son (Word) behind Jesus back - it's love all the way down" vs "No freedom for without freedom from". I'm sure there'll be objections and qualifications from all sides, but i'd be interested in the comments

Skeet said...

Dear Bruce,

It has to be both: the dialectic of love and freedom, freedom in love, love in freedom; otherwise grace becomes necessary and forgiveness is required. Eternal simultaneity, but in a proper order: "as se" then "pro nobis".

JKnott said...

If I can weigh in here on the discussion between Skeet and Bruce Hamill, as someone much more familiar with Bruce McCormack's views than Ben Myers' (and thus not really qualified to comment on their similarities and differences, though quite convinced that there are both!): I think what McCormack is doing is unjustly, though commonly, construed as taking away God's freedom. The classical position, as I see it (and the position defended by Molnar, et al) is that God's activities ad extra, pro nobis, are free, but God's being and activity within the immanent trinity are necessary. McCormack, in making the two one, does NOT say that both are necessary; rather, he says both are free. God's being is his own decision. God's being is his grace toward us. Therefore his grace toward us is also his own decision.

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