Reading Barth with Charity: a book review

Certainly George Hunsinger is a charitable reader of Barth. You’d suspect so. He is well known as a Barth scholar and has been president of the Karl Barth Society of North America since 2003.  He knows Barth’s theology well and the subsequent literature on Barth.  However Reading Barth with Charity: a Hermeneutical Proposal takes aim at several less charitable readings. Namely, Hunsinger takes on the Neo-Barthian revisionists for misrepresenting Barth’s theology and then calling Barth ‘inconsistent.’ At issue is whether or not Barth believes, as classic theists do, that the Trinity is the antecedent to the election of Jesus Christ or subsequent to it. The revisionists say that the category of Christ’s election is of preeminent importance in Barth  and therefore gives shape to the economic Trinity. So Hunsinger takes on the major revisionists: Bruce McCormack, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Daffyd Jones.

In his introduction, Hunsinger summarizes what he means by reading with charity. What he is arguing for is a reading which seeks to understand Barth’s point of view, starts with the assumption of truth and internal coherence, seeks to resolve and seeks to resolve apparent contradictions (xii). Hunsinger identifies the following critera to assess the revisionist position:

  • Does it seek to understand Barth’s theology in its strongest form before subjecting it to fundamental criticism?
  • Has it truly sought to understand Barth before picking out supposed difficulties and contradictions?
  • If apparent contradictions are discerned (as they are), has an active attemt been made to resolve them in Barth’s favor?
  • If no such attempt has been made (as it has not), does not a certain presumption exist against this interpretation?
  • Finally, do the revisionists honor the principle of humanity, or do they seem to adopt an attitude of condescension toward the writer whose views they are considering?
  • In short, are the revisionists entitled to their key claim that Barth’s view on election and the Trinity, when taken as a whole, are “inconsistent”? (xiii-xiv).

One major  point that Hunsinger demonstrates is that the textual Barth (what Barth actually wrote) contradicts the revisionist claims about the Trinity and election. Hunsinger documents repeated statements from Barth as early as 1932 and as late as 1968, when Barth died, evidence that in Barth ‘election presupposes the Trinity, rather than constitute it (52).  The claims that the revisionists make of Barth’s inconsistency, seem to be (at least in how Hunsinger presents it) ways of dismissing the claims of this actual, textual Barth.

Hunsinger  identifies several points of agreement with the revisionists. He reads them charitably, though he vehemently disagrees with their reading of Barth and identifies points of sloppy reasoning. He praises them where he thinks they read well and sensitively (especially Jones, who advocates a soft revisionist position). Hunsinger also demonstrates Barth’s metaphysical eclecticism. Barth held, at least in some form, an Anselmian ‘Perfect-Being’ theology. However he also draws on the actualistic Hegelian model. He affirms a classical Chalcedonian account of the Incarnation, but not in  way that made the incarnation ‘static and immobile.’ There was an ongoing process of incarnation (162-63)

This is a book of analytical theology and the ordinary reader may wonder why it matters at which point in eternity God elected Jesus Christ as the savior of humanity. I think Hunsinger frames well what is at stake. If the election of the Son dictated the make up of the Trinity than the constitution of the Godhead is subsequent to the plan for human redemption. If the Trinity is presumed first than the Godhead acts in freedom to redeem humanity. This seems to be a more consistently Barthian claim and have a better rational basis. The Son exists in eternity as the logos asarkos before he is the incarnate one (logos ensarkos).

I give this book five stars because I think that it is a important scholarly book for clarifying Barth’s theology. No doubt the revisionists named by Hunsinger will make a response which will further the debate and clarify it further. If you are not aware of at least the broad contours of the debate you will find this book difficult despite its brevity (about a 180 pages). So I recommend this only for the serious student of Barth.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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