Wednesday 23 March 2016

Jenson about Barth on Jenson on Barth: a review-anecdote

In a “review” of D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth published in Pro Ecclesia last year, Robert Jenson offers a corrective and an anecdote. Long, like many others, takes exception to Bruce McCormack’s view that II/2 forms the metaphysical centre of Barth’s theology. Students of Jenson will know that Jenson himself made the same claim—well before McCormack—in his PhD, which was revised and published as Alpha and Omega. Long claims that there is “no positive statement by Barth of II/2’s centrality.” Jenson is amused at this argument, since “there is in fact such a statement, and I am its most direct witness.”

In the summer of 1959 we moved our young family from Heidelberg to Basel in hope of my consulting Barth himself during the final drafting of my Heidelberg dissertation, which was on ‘The Election of Jesus Christ in the Theology of Karl Barth.’ Barth was open to this, reading a final version before we returned to Heidelberg. In it I argued, as bluntly as possible, that his doctrine of election in II/2 upended traditional understandings of the relation between time and eternity and thus inaugurated an innovative ontology, and that this complex was then—for better or worse—the ruling center of his subsequent theology. Barth invited me to his study, and after some conversation said, "Aber Herr Jenson—Sie haben mich verstanden," "But Mr. Jenson—you have understood me." A bit later an interviewer for the Christian Century asked Barth if anyone had grasped the real center of his thinking. Barth answered that there was ‘one, a young American.’ Subsequently I was identified by name in the journal as the one—not by me.

McCormack's theology is hardly identical to Jenson's, but they accord the same status to II/2. The result, Jenson claims, is that Barth's imprimatur extends to McCormack on at least this point. One who wishes to disagree with McCormack’s central thesis about election, Jenson concludes, is not discrediting McCormack, but “it is Barth’s teaching that is thus discredited.”

And so the Barth-wars continue.


mattjenson said...

This is great to have online and available - thanks for it! I'd suggest one qualification: That last line would be better to read "it is Barth's understanding of his teaching that is thus discredited." Perhaps that's a bit too scrupulous, but I think it's a distinction worth drawing.

Steve Wright said...

Hi Matt,

There's quite a bit of the review that is elided here. Jenson's argument is pretty much what is stated at the end of the post: "What if McCormack's reading is correct? Then it is not McCormack's reading that is discredited by what Long says it entails, it is Barth's teaching that is thus discredited.... about the presence of Christ in the act of election Barth plainly says—for better or worse—what McCormack says he does. Therefore, by my judgment, if Long has proven something here, it is that Barth is not to be saved, at least not in von Balthasar's sense of salvation."

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