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Election and the Trinity: Theses in response to George Hunsinger

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 March 2010

Bruce McCormack*
Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton NJ


The theses offered here for discussion constitute a response to theses published by my Princeton Theological Seminary colleague, George Hunsinger. The debate carried out between us has to do not only with the question of how Karl Barth's theology is to be understood, but also with how his theology is to be taken up today in order address pressing issues of concern. As the debate has unfolded, it has centred upon three areas of questioning: 1) the genetic-historical question of how Karl Barth's theology developed, whether his mind changed on important issues and in what way; 2) the question of whether Barth's later christology (in volume IV of the Church Dogmatics) would require modifications to be made in his earlier treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity (in CD I/1), his christology (in CD I/2) and of the being and perfections of God (in CD II/1); and 3) the question of the logical relationship between God's eternal act of election (as treated by Barth in CD II/2) and God's triunity. The last question does indeed take me beyond Barth, but it does so in a way that does full justice to the christological commitments found in his doctrine of reconciliation. The position I set forth here is one I have held to with a high degree of consistency since 1994 – which means that it antedates the publication of my book on Barth's theological development in 1995. Since that time, I have been engaged in a process of further elaboration and clarification.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2010

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1 Hunsinger, George, ‘Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth’, Modern Theology 24/2 (2008), pp. 179–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Ibid., p. 179.

3 I have in mind here the following works: Jüngel, Eberhard, God's Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. Webster, John (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001)Google Scholar; idem., ‘. . . keine Menschenlosigkeit Gottes . . . Zur Theologie Karl Barths zwischen Theismus und Atheismus’, in Jüngel, Eberhard, Barth-Studien (Zurich–Cologne and Gütersloh: Benziger Verlag and Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1982), pp. 332–47Google Scholar; Härle, Wilfried, Sein und Gnade: Die Ontologie in Karl Barths kirchlicher Dogmatik (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1975)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Goebel, Hans Theodor, ‘Trinitätslehre und Erwählungslehre bei Karl Barth’ in Korsch, Dietrich and Ruddies, Hartmut (eds), Wahrheit und Versöhnung: Theologische und Philosophische Beiträge zur Gotteslehre (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1989), pp. 147–66Google Scholar; idem., Vom freien Wählen Gottes und des Meschen: Interpretationsübungen zur ‘Analogie’ nach Karl Barths Lehre der Erwählung und Bedenken ihrer Folgen für die Kirchliche Dogmatik (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1990); Gundlach, Thies, Selbstbegrenzung Gottes und die Autonomie des Menschen: Karl Barths Kirchliche Dogmatik als Modernisierungsschritt evangelischer Theologie (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1992)Google Scholar. I have described in detail the ways in which these works provide a genealogy of my own work in McCormack, Bruce L., ‘Karl Barth's Version of an “Analogy of Being”: A Dialectical No and Yes to Roman Catholicism’, in OP, Thomas Joseph White (ed.), The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or the Wisdom of God? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, forthcoming)Google Scholar. A more detailed comparison of my views with those of Jüngel may be found in ‘God is His Decision: The Jüngel-Gollwitzer “Debate” Revisited’, in McCormack, Bruce L. and Bender, Kimlyn J. (eds), Theology as Conversation: The Significance of Dialogue in Historical and Contemporary Theology (A Festschrift for Daniel L. Migliore) (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 4866Google Scholar.

4 See Williams, R. W., ‘Barth on the Triune God’, in Sykes, Stephen (ed.), Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Methods (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 178Google Scholar: ‘From all eternity, God's self-differentiation as Son or Word is directed towards the human and worldly object of election, Jesus of Nazareth’; Collins, Paul, Trinitarian Theology West and East: Karl Barth, the Cappadocian Fathers, and John Zizioulas (Oxford: OUP, 2001), pp. 84–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar: ‘The divine intentional agency lies at the very heart of God's relationship with that which is other than himself, and also is that which is constitutive of the divine being, and thus of the divine relationality’: Collins goes on to speak of ‘the decision to be the Trinity’ and concludes, ‘The divine intentionality is expressed in the decision to have being-in-act as the Holy Trinity.’

5 For a thorough investigation of Jüngel's book on Barth's doctrine of the Trinity, see McCormack, ‘God is His Decision’, pp. 48–66.

6 Jüngel, God's Being is in Becoming, p. 83.

7 Ibid., p. 81, here citing Barth, CD II/1, p. 271.

9 Ibid., p. 86.

10 Ibid., p. 106.

11 The ‘hiddenness’ of God, for Hunsinger, has to do with the relation of the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos; the Logos asarkos is hidden behind the Logos ensarkos. For Barth, by contrast, it is a description of the ontological structure of the Logos ensarkos. That is why Jüngel says, ‘He [Barth] wanted as little to do with a deus absconditus lying in back of the deus revelatus . . . as he did with a Logos asarkos which was fundamentally distinguishable from the Logos ensarkos.’ See Jüngel, ‘. . . keine Menschenlosigkeit Gottes’, p. 338; cf. p. 342: ‘According to Barth, every concept of God which treats the Godness of God only in terms of the absoluteness of His essence and not, at the same time, as a relatedness of this essence to humanity turns God into the Devil.’

12 I am unable to attach any meaning to the claim made by Hunsinger in this context that ‘The Son incarnatus subsists in the eternal Son without ceasing to be incarnatus’ (thesis 8, a). A subsistence of the members of the Trinity in a divine essence which is itself understood against the background of substance metaphysics – that I can understand. A subsistence of the human nature of Christ in the ‘person’ of the Logos (as Cyril had it) – that too I can understand. But a subsistence of the Son in the Son?

13 Karl Barth, Unterricht in der christlichen Religion, vol. 2, Die Lehre von Gott/Die Lehre vom Menschen, 1924/1925, ed. Hinrich Stoevesandt (Zurich: TVZ, 1990), p. 70.

14 Karl Barth, Unterricht in der christlichen Religion, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1924, ed. Hannelotte Reiffen (Zurich: TVZ, 1985), pp. 156–7.

15 See Beiser, Frederick, Hegel (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 60, 74–5Google Scholar.

16 Karl Barth, CD IV/1, p. 192.

17 Ibid., p. 193.

19 Ibid., p. 195.

20 Ibid., p. 199.

21 Ibid., pp. 199–200.

22 Karl Barth to Rudolf Bultmann, 12 June 1928, in Jaspert, Bernd (ed.) and Geoffrey Bromiley (trans.), Karl Barth–Rudolf Bultmann Letters, 1922–1966 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 41–2 (my emphasis)Google Scholar: ‘I will not defend in principle what you call my ignoring of philosophical work. . . . It is also a fact that the defect of older theology was never clear to me at the point where Harnack's Dogmengeschichte lays its finger, that the Platonism and Aristotelianism of the orthodox was not a hindrance to my (shall we say apparently) perceiving what was at issue and therefore to adopting the older terminology into my own vocabulary without identifying myself with the underlying philosophy. . . . My own concern is at any rate the voice of the Church and the Bible, and to let this voice be heard, even if in so doing, for want of anything better, I have to think somewhat in Aristotelian terms.’

23 See on this point, Gockel, Matthias, Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election: A Systematic-Theological Comparison (Oxford: OUP, 2006), p. 162, n. 14CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Barth, CD IV/1, pp. 204–5: ‘By Father, Son and Spirit we do not mean what is commonly suggested to us by the word “persons.” This designation was accepted – not without opposition – on linguistic presuppositions which no longer obtain today. It was never intended to imply – at any rate in the mainstream of theological tradition – that there are in God three different personalities, three self-existent individuals with their own self-consciousness, cognition, volition, activity, effects, revelation and name. The one name of the one God is the threefold name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The one “personality” of God, the one active and speaking divine Ego, is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Otherwise we should obviously have to speak of three gods. . . . Christian faith and the Christian confession has one subject, not three. But He is the one God in self-repetition, in the repetition of His own and equal divine being, and therefore in three different modes of being.’ Cf. Barth, CD I/1, pp. 350, 353–68.

25 Barth, CD IV/1, p. 201.

26 For the derivation of the doctrine of the Trinity from the grammar of revelation, see Barth, CD I/1, pp. 304–33.

27 Barth, CD IV/1, p. 202.

28 Ibid., p. 209.

29 I take it that this is also what Gregory of Nyssa means when he says ‘Rather does every operation which extends from God to creation and is designated according to our differing conceptions of it have its origin in the Father, proceed through the Son, and reach its completion in the Holy Spirit. . . . [T]here is one motion and disposition of the good will which proceeds from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit.’ But that, then, is the same as saying that there is in God one mind, one will, and one energy of operation – which proceeds from the Father, through the Son, to the Holy Spirit. See Gregory of Nyssa, ‘An Answer to Ablabius: That we Should Not Think of Saying there are Three Gods’, in Hardy, Edward R. (ed.), Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 262Google Scholar.

30 Barth, CD II/1, p. 264.

32 Ibid., p. 271 (emphases mine). With respect to this passage, Hunsinger makes a series of claims which merit close scrutiny. He holds, first, that this statement says nothing more than that ‘God exists absolutely in His own act’ (thesis 9, c, first bullet point). In reducing the act in question to his own version of a necessary act of self-affirmation, Hunsinger has made nonsense of the emphasis placed by Barth on the divine willing. He then says, second, that ‘The point is largely polemical’ and that Barth is ‘positioning himself over against Feuerbach, Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl.’ This too is incorrect. The point is altogether a positive one. In the context in which this statement appears, Barth is explaining why it is that God defines what it means to be a ‘person’ – not human beings. The polemic against Feuerbach et al. is intended to serve this greater point. Third, Hunsinger takes the phrase ‘executed decision’ to mean that there is ‘no potentiality’ in God's being. Where this claim is made to apply to the being-in-act of the necessary God, however, one winds up with the scholastic concept of God taught by Thomas. This cannot be Barth. Fourth, he tells us that ‘God does not bring Himself into being out of nothing, nor does He constitute Himself by eternal fiat out of some prior, non-trinitarian state of being.’ The first half of this statement is so obviously true that it leaves me to wonder why it has been said. Certainly, I have never said anything remotely like it. The second half of the statement is problematic because it speaks of a prior state of being. But it is precisely every thought of a prior state of being – whether of a non-trinitarian or trinitarian kind – that I have been seeking to erase. With the exception of bullet point 13 (which again speaks of a ‘coinherence of Jesus Christ in the eternal Son (on which see above, n. 12), the remainder of the bullet points under 9, c consist in quotations from Barth whose meaning as implied by Hunsinger I do not dispute.

33 Ibid., p. 261.

35 Barth, CD II/2, p. 79.

37 Ibid., p. 77. Hunsinger is much too cavalier in his handling of this text. He says simply that ‘The electing God of which it speaks is the Holy Trinity’ (thesis 9, d, second bullet point). However true that may be, the force of this statement is to insist that even the triunity of God is not to be conceived in abstraction from election. One cannot open up a metaphysical gap between being triune and acting in election without violating the principle set forth in this statement.

38 Barth, CD II/1, p. 263. Hunsinger holds that the ‘event’ of which Barth speaks in this passage is not the event of his electing grace but an event which lies in back of that event, the event in which God is triune. Such a reading corresponds neatly to the Orthodox distinction of the divine essence and the divine energies. But if that were the case, then Barth would then be saying that we humans have, in revelation, a share not just in the divine ‘energies’ but in the divine ‘essence’. This is not Orthodox; it is hyper-Orthodox. And I don't believe that Barth intended such an outcome – though an appropriate sense of the passage is more readily attainable when it is read in the light of Barth's mature christology.

39 Ibid., p. 261.

40 Ibid., p. 306.

41 Ibid., p. 305.

42 Ibid., p. 307.

44 See Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1993), p. 41: ‘the ontological “principle” of God is traced back . . . to the person. Thus when we say that God “is,” we do not bind the personal freedom of God – the being of God is not an “ontological necessity” or a simple “reality” for God – but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through “being” His free will to exist. And it is precisely His trinitarian existence that constitutes this confirmation: the Father out of love – that is, freely, begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit.’ Cf. p. 44: ‘The manner in which God exercises His ontological freedom, that precisely which makes Him ontologically free, is the way in which He transcends and abolishes the ontological necessity of the substance by being God as Father, that is, as He who “begets” the Son and “brings forth” the Spirit. This ecstatic character of God, the fact that His being is identical with an act of communion, ensures the transcendence of the ontological necessity which His substance would have demanded – if substance were the primary ontological predicate of God – and replaces this necessity with the free self-affirmation of divine existence.’

45 Barth, CD II/1, p. 306.

46 Barth, CD II/2, p. 102.

47 Ibid., p. 155.

48 I owe this formulation to my daughter Catriona, a fine theologian in the making and an excellent conversation-partner.