The Freedom of the Triune God and Our Own: a book review

Paul Molnar, professor of systematic theology at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, previously published a major work on the Immanent Trinity, the inner-relations of the Triune God in eternity–Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (T & T Clark, 2005). In Faith, Freedom and the Spirit (IVP Academic 2015), he returns to the topic of Trinity, this time exploring the economic Trinity–God’s revelation to us in time, especially as it relates to theeconomy of salvation.  He wrote this book “as a discussion of just how a properly conceived pneumatology would assist such theologians speaking of the economic Trinity to think more accurately about divine and human interaction in the sphere of faith and knowledge within history” His aim is to “explore God’s relations with us and our relations with God within the economy by focusing on the activity of the Spirit who enables faith and freedom” (7). He affirms human freedom and the Triune God’s actions within history; however he refuses to reduce Trinitarian theology and Christology to a historicized versions of it, and reflects thoughtful on the role of Spirit in mediating the gospel of grace to us.

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Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology by Paul D. Molnar.

Throughout this book, Molnar is in dialogue with Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance and several contemporary theologians. Molnar has published monographs on both Barth and Torrance. In general, Molnar defends Barth against the neo-Barthian revisionists and uses Torrance to critique Barth in the places where Barth is inconsistent. Barth remains the genius of twentieth century theology, but where Molnar disagrees with him, he tends to follow Torrance. This is especially true when it comes to Torrance’s careful distinction between Christ’s vicarious activity for us and his ‘inner being as the Word’ (341-44).  Barth certainly affirms both, but his writings are inconsistent and allow for confusion regarding Christ’s mission and processions, and the error of subordinationism (339-340).

Faith, Freedom and the Spirit is made up of eight chapters.  The first two chapters explore the role of the Holy Spirit in imparting faith and bringing true knowledge of God through the incarnate Word. Chapters three through six critiques the missteps by contemporary theologians in understanding the relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity, as well as contemporary misreadings of Barth. Chapter seven explores the obedience of the Son in the economic Trinity (and why this doesn’t necessitate subordinationism, especially according to Torrance’s reading). Chapter eight unfolds the theology of grace and how it enables true human freedom (freedom to live by the Grace of God through surrender to Christ)–God’s work in human history. A brief conclusion reviews the terrain and declares the necessity of the Spirit’s work for living the Christian life.

Continue reading The Freedom of the Triune God and Our Own: a book review

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.

The Church in the Image of Christ :a book review

Karl Barth is the giant of 20th Century theology. He is credited with stemming the tide of theological liberalism and recovering a Christological and theological hermeneutic. Others regard Barth with suspicion seeing in his theology a dangerous trend toward univeralism and an undermining of the authority of scripture. Still others are troubled by his ‘theology from above,’ and his dismissal of natural theology (theology from below). For my part, my forays into Barth’s theology have been fruitful, though not without difficulty. Barth is a prolific and complicated theologian and it is helpful to have a guide who illuminates the significance of his theology for my context.

Kimlyn J. Bender (Ph.D, Princeton Theological Seminary) is associate professor of theology at Truett Seminary (at Baylor) and has previously published a book on Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology (subject and title). In Confessing Christ for Church and World: Studies in Modern Theology he explores a range of topics: ecclesiology and ecumenical relations, Canon and confessionalism, Creation and Natural Theology. Karl Barth remains his chief interlocutor but he also looks at the work of Fredrick Schleierlmacher, as a counterpoint to Barth, and several contemporary voices.

Confessing Christ for Church in World divides into three parts. Chapters one through four make up Part One and explore Karl Barth’s ecclesiology in conversation with American theology, evangelicalism and the Catholic church. Part Two (chapters 5-9) explores Barth’s understanding of Canon and the chastened role of confessions in Barth’s theology. Part Three (chapters 10-11)  explores Barth’s doctrine of Creation and rejection of Natural theology as exemplified in his 1938-39 Gifford lectures. Bender concludes in chapter twelve with a ‘postscript’ on Schleiermacher’s Christology.

Part one begins with a brief summary of Barth’s ecclesiology. Barth sees the church as the body of Christ in his ‘earthly-historical form of existence’ (22). As with any other point of contact between God and humanity, Barth speaks, by analogy, using the Chalcedonian formula to speak of  what the church is (29). That is, the church is to be understood as a divine institution and a human one (fully human, fully divine). Christ is not fully identified with or dependent upon the church, but the church shares in his life and bears witness to his coming (32). As Bender states:

Barth’s own position is to speak of the church as both divinely constituted and historically situated, a reality comprised of both an inner mystery of the Spirit and a society of human persons in fellowship and joint activity. The Church is for Barth both invisible and visible, so that the inner mystery is not sacrificed to the external form, or vice versa, thus maintaining the integrity of each. Barth seeks neither to confuse nor separate the divine event and the historcal and sociological form, presented in a highly dialectical construal of the relation between divine action and historic duration. (36-7).

Bender then surveys recent critiques of Barth (that he subsumes pneumatology into Christology, how his soteriology makes the church appear non-concrete or unnecessary (43-51). However Barth, agrees that the church is a concrete reality, but is concerned that our definition of church doesn’t collapse into its visible expression solely (55). Furthermore,  Barth sees redemptive history coming to close with the cross but that doesn’t mean that he dismisses all human agency(58). Barth’s  high Christology means the church is always subservient to him. As Bender notes, “While the church is necessary for us because God has freely chosen it and freely joined himself to it, it is not necessary for God, nor is God’s salvific activity limited to the church by some type of necessity (62).

In Chapter two, Bender brings Barth’s ecclessiology in conversation with evangelicalism showing where Barth would critique it and  its practice, where he may contribute something of value for evangelicals, and where Barth’s project is sympathetic to its aims. Bender argues that Barth would critique evangelicals for substituting a movement for a church, the ways we may be anthropologically grounded rather than theologically grounded, our triumphalism and secular methodology, our ‘cults of personality,’ and our reliance more on testimony than the gospel (77-78). Bender sees Barth as contributing to evangelical ecclesiology by providing a rich theology of church (rather than a concession to sociological categories or Catholic substance), a critique of evangelical individualism, and a theology which sees church both as divine event and human institution (79-87). Bender sees common ground between evangelicals and Barth in their shared embrace the scandal of the gospel (87), and believe in commitment to a particular congregation (ibid.). and the commitment to mission (89).

In chapter three Barth delves into Reinhard Hütter’s critique of Barth, from a Catholic perspective, and illustrates how Barth provides a radical alternative to Roman Catholic ecclesiology. While Roman Catholicism (in Hütter’s understanding) sees the church as an ’embodied pneumatology,’ which undergirds the ‘great Tradition’ in the Nemanesque sense (109-110), Bender observes this is opposed to not only Barth but  Protestantism (116). Like many other Catholic theologians Hutter sees a ‘Catholic substance’ in the church’s ecclesial life where the church is the continution of Christ’s work making the church a ‘steward of grace.’ In contrast, Bender observes:

Herein lies the difference between Catholic substance and the Protestant principle. For there is an irrevocable insistence by the latter that the gift never be seen as a transferable entity entrusted to a steward who possesses it, that the church can be a servant and not a steward of grace, and a permanent distinction be made between Giver and recipient, between Christ and his bride, between Spirit and temple. In effect, this insistence is made because a Protestant vision is predicated on a refusal to grant that the church is, itself, an extension of the incarnation. This refusal is in turn joined to a basic recognition that Jesus Christ is present, and not absent, and is so though the power of the Spirit. The church does not “make” Christ present, but Christ makes himself present through the power of his self-attestation (118).

Bender brings this Protestant-Catholic distinction to bear on ecumenical discussions between Evangelicals and Catholics in chapter four. While conversation between the two is increasingly friendly and mutually edifying, too often Evangelical Protestants have conceded their lack of ecclesiology and looked to Rome. Bender sees in Barth a mature and thoughtful alternative to Catholic Substance (133).

Part two examines Barth’s Canon,  his understanding of scripture and ecclesial confessions. Barth’s theological education schooled him in liberal theological assumptions and the historical-critical method. Bender traces Barth’s move away from his training in his early theological works (chapter five) and as a mature theologian (demonstrated by his published dialogue with Harnack discussed in chapter six) to an understanding of scripture rooted in its particular witness to the coming of Christ. In chapter eight, Bender turns to the work of Barth Ehrman (our modern day Harnack?)  and illustrates the problem of reading scripture (and the canon) non-theologically. Chapter eight shows how Barth’s understanding of creeds and confessions brings him into fruitful conversation with Baptists and other non-creedal, free churches. Barth banged out his understanding of Creeds against Lutheranism (not Catholicism). In Lutheran Orthodoxy, the Augsburg confession took on scriptural authority whereas Barth found, in the Reformed tradition, the various confessions were offered provisionally. Bender argues that free church can learn from Barth an appreciation for confessions without a capitulation to a forced subscription (264). While Baptists will find points of tension with Barth, Bender illustrates several points amendable to them in his theology (265).

I particularly enjoyed Bender’s chapter on Barth and atheism (chapter nine). Barth did not see secularism and the growing antipathy toward God as a new problem. For Barth, this was a new spin on an old issue. Religion and Atheism were but two sides of the same coin; both were an idolatrous rejection of Christian particularity: the gospel of Jesus Christ (275). Barth’s response to Atheism was to emphasis the peculiar person of Christ, to subject atheists to critical negation, not allowing them to set the terms of the debate, and to continue to hold out grace toward them through Jesus (271-280). Barth could even see a value in the growing secularism and Atheism in helping the church clarify its identity over and against the wider culture.

Part three discusses Barth’s (and Schleiermacher’s) Christological understanding of creation and his rejection of some-sort of universal natural theology. As Barth’s Gifford lectures demonstrate, Barth was much more interested in the particularity of special revelation.  This Christocentric particularity (and contra-Schleiermacher, an objective Christology) is instructive for us and the church’s proclamation of the God in Christ.

What should be evident from the above summary, Bender is a sympathetic reader of Barth (though I would hasten, not uncritical). I found this book helpful in helping me hear how Barth would critique our age. I recommend this book for students and theologians. As a pastor, I found Bender’s discussion helpful for clarifying the purpose and witness of the church. Whatever differences I may have with Barth (and I am a neophyte in his theology), I appreciate his challenge to secular and sociological modes of church. I also think that Bender argues convincingly that there is a such a thing as a Protestant ecclesiology with substance. The Church is the invisible-that-becomes-visible, bearing witness to our redemption through Christ. I give this book five stars.

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

What has Basel to do with South Bend? a book review

When Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian, famously denounced natural philosophy it appeared to some that he was anti-rational and no place for philosophy within his theological framework. Indeed he did reject a ‘theology from below’ which worked out a basis for belief in the Triune God through reason or from some generalized theistic position. But this does not preclude that possibility of Christian philosophy. Philosopher Kevin Diller (PhD, St. Andrews) brings the work of Karl Barth into conversation with Alvin Plantinga and argues that together they present a unified response to Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma.

Diller aims at showing both the combined response of Barth and Plantinga to epistemic problems and their areas of incompatibility. The two great thinkers stand about a generation apart, and Plantinga did not interact much with Barth’s theology. They occupied two different guilds in the academy, Plantinga’s work is useful in some apologetics while Barth doubted the value of apologetics (102). In Barth, theology is personal while Plantinga jumps much quicker to propositional truth (100). Despite the differences, their respective projects both rest on the fact of Revelation as Divine gift.

Diller’s book divides into two parts. In part one, Diller begins by identifying ‘theology’s epistemological dilemma. Modernity posits a high view of truth but is highly skeptical about human ability to apprehend truth. Postmodern approaches to epistemology are personal and pragmatic, valuing what is known by the individual but denying but is skeptical about an overarching Truth. Diller posits that neither option is available to the Christian theologian. Against post-modernity, Christians hold to a high view of truth; against modernity they assert that Truth can be known (albeit not through our cognitive means alone).

From here, Diller turns his attention to Barth’s theology.  In chapter two he illustrates that for Barth, theological knowledge is rooted in God’s own self revelation, that knowing God is a personal, cognitive, participative knowledge (54), that it is self attested, Divine initiated grace (60), resulting in transformation and reconciliation with God (64). Chapter three explores the way that (and the degree that) Barth engages with philosphy.  Contra Harnack and Pannenberg, Barth is not anti-rational and anti-philosophical but he does reject Enlightenment epistological assumptions, namely the: (1) the obligation assumption which argues that theological knowledge needs to account for the grounds of its metaphysical claims; (2) the general-starting point assumption which claims that such an account must stem from general epistemology; and the access-foundationalist assumption which anchors theological claims in trustworthy, readily accessible grounds (75).  Over and against these, Barth argues that theological knowledge is not contingent on our fulfilling the obligation to give an account of said knowledge (76-7),  that theological knowledge comes from above (through revelation) rather than being reasoned to from below (81), and therefore God is the ground for theological knowledge rather than nature (87-8). None of this negates the positive contribution of Philosophy. What Barth rejects is enlightenment style foundationalism and ‘philosophy’s presumed competency’ to speak of God and matters of faith (90,92).

Diller than turns his attention toward Plantinga and shows how his idea of Warrant similarly calls the question on Enlightenment foundationalism and Scientific evidentialism. Yet, Plantinga is more positive on the role of reason though even positing a form of natural theology–a sensus divinitatis (147).  Nevertheless, Diller sees ten areas of convergence between the two thinkers:

  1. – The knowlege of God comes as a real gift.
  2. – Tuth is ‘theo-foundational’–grounded in God’s self revelation.
  3. – The revelation of God is transformational.
  4. – Knowledge of God is corporately known through participation in the body of Christ (church).
  5. – All knowledge of God is contingent in some way on the grace of God.
  6. – Knowledge of God is both personal and cognitive (relational and propositional).
  7.  – Our knowledge of God is mediated to us through the Bible and church, but knowledge of God is not reducible to this medium.
  8. – Communion with God is the only secure grounding for the knowledge of God.
  9. – Theology is ‘faith seeking understanding’ and so is not concerned primarily with prolegomena but seeks to think in light of the givedness of God’s self revelation
  10. – Theological knowledge is coherent and warranted (169-72)

In Part Two, Diller  explores further the tensions between Barth and Plantinga and the way that their unified response speak to the realm of natural theology and reason (chapter seven),  the nature of revelation and human knowing (chapter eight) and the ontology and authority of scripture (chapter nine).  Diller makes the case that Plantinga’s version of natural theology is compatible with Barth’s theology of revelation because it is rooted in God’s revelation and does not function independently (219). Diller further demonstrates that their unified approach provides a beneficial place for apologetics (though a much more of a humble place than some of apologists’ presume).

Diller’s proposal of a unified Barth-Plantinga approach to epistemology is intriguing. I am a better reader of Barth than Plantinga and I think Diller does a good job of presenting Barth’s views (especially as found in Church Dogmatics 1.1, which I am currently reading). He avoids many of the caricatures of Barth (i.e. he correctly points out that Barth is neither an apophatic theologian or against critical thinking). My knowledge of Plantinga’s thought is mostly mediated to me through secondary literature, but I found Diller’s description compelling. This does point a way forward for analytical theology and Christian philosophy and warrants careful study. I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christian theologians and philosophers. This is ‘faith seeking understanding’ at its finest. Five stars: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic for the purposes of this review. I was not asked to write a positive review.