Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics II/1 (Doctrine of God), review

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Barth’s volume is largely divided into two parts:  Our knowledge of God’s Revelation and God Himself. Per the latter, he famously rephrases the attributes of God as God’s perfections (more on that later).  This review will give a (very short) exposition of the book, highlight some interesting passages, list some concerns and criticisms. Just because I saw a few positive things about Barth does not mean I am a “Barthian,” whatever that is.  For what it’s worth, I firmly reject the Anglo-Barthian Neo-Orthodox school of thought (though for somewhat different reasons than most).

Realdialektik

Per our knowledge of God’s Revelation, we see Barth developing his Real Dialektik.  The following exposition of realdialektik is based on Bruce McCormack’s reading of Barth in Orthodox and Modern (OM) and his Karl Barth’s Critically Realist Dialectical Theology (KBCRDT!)

God is indirectly identical with the creaturely medium of his revelation, the creaturely medium being Jesus’s flesh (110).   If revelation is Self-revelation, then it involves the “whole” God, albeit his whole being is hidden in a creaturely veil.

Per Kant’s epistemology, Barth was willing to grant this insofar as it dealt with empirical reality.   However, Barth said that God entered into the Phenomenal (143) and would have had to break with Kant at some point.

The hiddenness of God in revelation is the hiddenness of the whole God in revelation.  There is no “behind the back” of God when God reveals himself. He doesn’t hold back. This does not mean we fully know the hyperousia of God, whatever that is.  Rather, when God gives himself to us in Jesus, he gives the full Jesus. Jesus doesn’t hold back on us. The dialectic of veiling/unveiling is not static. Veiling is ordered towards unveiling.  The stand together in an “ordered history” (179). As McCormack notes elsewhere, “God unveils himself by veiling himself in human language” (KBCRDT 18).

So far, critical realistic dialektikal theology.

The Goddity of God: God’s Being in Act

God is who he is in the Act of Revelation.  We cannot begin with a generic idea of “being” or “the divine” and then project that idea onto the Triune God (Barth 259).  Deus non est genera.  Interestingly, Barth does indeed affirm that God’s revelation as event did happen (262), but it cannot be reduced to one happening.  What does he mean by this? He doesn’t say here, but one can speculate. We say that the Father eternally generates the Son and speaking analogically, we can say that this “happened.”  Yet the language of “happened” is temporal and the Father’s generating the Son happened in pre-temporal eternity.

More concretely, Barth identifies the being of God as “vita” (263).  I think this is his most defensible statement in the whole book. He is clearly in line with the best of Cappadocian thinking which identified the essence of God as the shared life.   In any case, at this point he isn’t making up new stuff.

Even more concretely, Barth places this “vita” in conjunction with another phrase from Reformed scholasticism:  et singularis. This is crucial for the doctrine of simplicity and anticipates his argument in CD IV:1. God’s moment of identity and act (i.e., modes of generation and spiration) was a singular act without reserve. I see Barth’s statement here as an inference from divine simplicity.

This brings us to an important debate in Barth studies: Is God’s being constituted by Act?  George Hunsinger says no. Bruce McCormack says yes. (Most modern conservative Reformed default to Hunsinger’s reading). In this volume Barth never really answers (or asks) the question, though I believe we can see the beginnings of an answer.  If God’s being is the event of his act, and this act is et singularis (264), and if we maintain the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity, then I think McCormack has the correct reading. I haven’t read Hunsinger yet, so I won’t go further on this point.

Following this discussion, Barth gives us his treatment of the attributes of God.  He largely defaults to the Reformed scholastics, except he rephrases the attributes as manifestations of God’s perfections. He then spends the next 400 pages discussing the attributes.

Notae Bene

The following sections are quite interesting and worth a thoughtful perusal, but time and space preclude a full exposition.  

  • Barth anticipates and rejects some of the modern Evangelical silliness, taken from Orthodox and Roman Catholic bloggers, that the world is “sacramental” (309).
  • Concerning the via negativa, he asks the obvious question that isn’t often asked, “How can our negation be a trustworthy transcending of the created world and as such a trustworthy description of God” (347)?
  • He has a beautiful meditation on Solomon’s wisdom (433).  
  • Excellent discussions on the nature of space/time and how they affect Reformed and Lutheran debates on the sacraments and Christ’s presence (464, 482, 488ff.).
  • Excellent discussions on how the Reformed Scholastics spoke of God’s knowledge.  Further, he gives an awe-inspiring and brutal critique of Molinism (567-586–all small print)
  • Interesting discussion on ordained and absolute power (593-596).

Criticisms

  • My main criticism of Barth is that he always remained something of an Origenist. He comes close to sometimes seeing our problem as “non-being” as opposed to being (281).  
  • While Barth does point to where the Reformed scholastics didn’t always solve the problem, I am not always certain that Barth himself really advanced the discussion.
  • While to his credit he doesn’t use sappy, sacharine evangelical views of love, he tends to prioritize this attribute. However, the doctrine of simplicity does not allow us to do that.
  • Very little mention of God’s covenant.  

 

About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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