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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte
Reading Barth with Charity. A Hermeneutical Proposal.
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2015. XVI, 186 S. Kart. US$ 24,99. ISBN 978-0-8010-9531-3.
During the last decade, a dispute about the doctrines of Election and the Trinity has stirred many Anglophone Barth scholars. The book by George Hunsinger, who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, addresses the issue extensively.
H. labels the two sides of the dispute the »revisionist« and the »traditionalist« reading. Both agree that for Barth God’s being is a being-in-act and »inseparable from a decision« (9). The dispute concerns the character of this decision. The ›revisionist‹ side, including this reviewer, is said to argue that God’s triune being is »subsequent to God’s relationship to the world,« whereas the ›traditionalists,‹ especially H. and Paul D. Molnar, insist that it is »logically and ontologically antecedent« (10). The »revisionists« argue that many passages in the Church Dogmatics (CD) support their view, while some do not, and that the differences can hardly be harmonized. The »traditionalists« argue that the problem does not exist, since Barth consistently maintains the priority of Trinity over Election.
The »principle of charity,« which gives the book its title, implies that one understands another position »in its strongest form be-fore subjecting it to criticism« (XII). If one reads Barth and adheres to this principle, H. proclaims, one discovers that the »revisionist« side fails to »rest its case on a detailed engagement with the actually existing textual Barth« (113). The claim is corroborated by paraphrases of texts from the CD and critical comments against the Barth readings of Bruce L. McCormack, who also teaches at PTS, Paul T. Nimmo (University of Aberdeen), and Paul Dafydd Jones (University of Virginia). H. charges »revisionism« with »a rationalistically deduced picture of Barth derived from abstract propositions« and »a penchant for accusing Barth of self-contradiction without recourse to testing this perception by applying the principle of charity« (73).
While many sections of the book are rather technical, the interpretation of Barth is performed charitably. Texts by theological opponents are not afforded the same care. Two central essays by McCormack are ignored. The constructive engagement of Barth by the »revisionists« is often invisible and sometimes distorted, as a close reading of the criticized authors reveals (cf. 85). Moreover, the characterization of »revisionism« remains ambiguous. The opening paragraph portrays it as contending that for Barth God’s gracious election ( Gnadenwahl) is the ground of God’s triune identity. H. exclaims: if the »revisionists« »cease[d] ascribing their views to Barth, they would have nothing to fear from his more careful readers« (115). The first chapter, in contrast, says the »revisionists« are aware that Barth »never reversed the order of the Trinity and election« (14). Here, they evidently do not contend that for Barth the Trinity is subsequent to Election. What they do, in fact, is to reflect on the implications of Barth’s doctrine of election for his doctrine of the Trinity and other doctrines.
Barth rejects the traditional concept of the decretum absolutum, or God’s inscrutable will of predestination, and replaces it with the concept of the decretum concretum, that is, God’s eternal will in the election of Jesus Christ, who is the elect human and the electing God. The gracious election specifies not only God’s dealings with creation but also God’s own identity. Is it therefore a »constitutive« or »necessary« aspect of God’s being, and what would this imply for God’s tri-unity, given that Jesus Christ elects »in company with the electing of the Father and the Holy Spirit« (CD II/2, 105)?
Barth speaks about an eternal will that »precedes even predestination« and can be known »only as the act, in which God from eternity and in eternity affirms and confirms Himself« (CD II/2, 155). At the same time, he insists that the election of Jesus Christ also is an act and a decision in which God eternally confirms Himself and commits Himself eternally to be God »for us«. Hence, »there is no such thing as a will of God different from the will of Jesus Christ« (CD II/2, 115, rev.). Yet, the idea of God’s eternal will apart from Election suggests that God’s self-determination to be the God of the covenant could be reversed and that there is a will of God different from the will of Jesus Christ.
H. offers the solution that there is one eternal act and will of God with two different aspects (cf. 18; his fellow »traditionalist« Molnar, however, would rather speak of two acts). The primary aspect is God’s »non-contingent« act and will »in Himself,« the second aspect is God’s »non-necessary« act and will »by grace« (29; 46 n. 4); God’s will preceding predestination concerns God’s non-contingent or »eternally necessary« triune being, while God’s will in the gracious election concerns God’s non-necessary or »eternally contingent« being as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer.
Alas, the construction does not hold. For Barth, election or God’s being »by grace« clearly belongs to God’s being »in Himself.« The word »contingent« commonly refers to an event that can occur or not occur. H. uses it for a property »whose existence or nonexis-tence for God is equally possible« (141). In this perspective, God eternally can be or not be the electing God, which does not match Barth’s conviction that the basis of all »Christian truth« is the belief that »from and to all eternity God is the electing God. […] There is no height of depth in which God still or yet again would be [wäre] God in any other way« (CD II/2, 77, italics added). The subjunctive wäre puts into doubt the idea that God eternally can be or not be – let alone wills to be or not to be – the electing God. Grace is not merely a gift »that God could give or not give, or an attribute that could be imputed or not imputed to Him. No, […] grace is itself properly and essentially divine« (CD II/1, 356, rev.). Passages like this imply that God’s triune being and the gracious election are equally primordial. CD II/2 designates both as God’s »primal decision«.
For Barth, election is not simply a free choice but an act of God’s free love. He criticizes the use of the word »choice« (Wahl) in an abstract sense, apart from its concrete determination. The criticism is directed against the prevalent »absolutizing« of God’s choice and freedom, which led to »utterances on the subject« that were »fairly generally distorted« (CD II/2, 25). H., however, claims that it »ex-plicitly warns against ›absolutizing‹ God’s pre-temporal decision of election« (55). Barth’s text does not warrant such a claim. Perhaps the misunderstanding is due to the imprecise English translation, but the point is clear: »What happens in this choice is under all circumstances this that God is for us« (CD II/2, 25, rev.). Barth warns against conceptions that obscure this good news, as the early de-bates about CD II/2 in the 1950s already recognized.
The list of problems in the book could be extended. In sum, while H. challenges the »revisionists« to read more carefully, he did not convince me that he has read the textual Barth, especially the German original, or other interpreters of Barth carefully enough. The revision of the doctrine of election continues to raise questions pointing beyond the horizon of standard assessments of the topic – and why should it not be so, since Barth himself was not a tradi-tionalist theologian.