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Robert Jenson: God as Decision & the Incarnation

“According to Barth, God’s being is most decisively construed by the notion of decision.  God is so unmitigatedly personal that his free decision is not limited even by his ‘divine nature’: what he is, he himself chooses.  But that must be to say God is the act of his decision.  Thus the doctrine of election, of God’s choice ‘before all time’ is for Barth the center of the doctrine of God’s being.

If we then ask what is chose, in the act of choice that is the eternal being of God, Barth’s answer is: he chose to unite himself, in the person of Christ, with humankind; he chose to be God only as one person with the man Jesus.  But since God is the act of choice, God in making this actual choice not only chooses that he will be the man Jesus; as the event of his choice, he is the man Jesus.

Thus it is the Incarnate Son who is himself his own presupposition in God’s eternity: the Incarnation happens in eternity as the foundation of its happening in time, in eternity as the act of decision that God is, and in time as the carrying-out of what God decides.”

–Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology: The Triune God (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 140.


  1. wtm wrote:

    I read this bit of Jenson a week or so ago. Provocative stuff. But, it shouldn’t be assumed that the decision that Barth alludes to on the last page of the being-in-act section of Church Dogmatics 2.1 is the decision of election. Indeed, Barth goes on to say this:

    “…an eternal self-realisation, which alone is possible in the case of God, can have nothing whatever to do with any idea of God taking His origin from Himself…”


    “If, therefore, we say that God is
    a se, we do not say that God creates, produces or originates Himself. On the contrary, we say that (as manifest and eternally actual in the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Ghost) He is the One who already has and is in Himself everything which would have to be the object of His creation and causation if He were not He. God. Because He is God, as such He already has and is His own being. Therefore this
    being does not need any origination and constitution.”

    Both quotes are from CD 2.1, 306.

    All of this is simply to point out that often what is assumed to be Barth’s own view is more properly a very specific and not necessarily self-evident interpretation of Barth.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Well, one thing’s for sure: No interpretation of Barth is self-evident! You got that right.

    I could spend weeks just trying to figure out the implications of these quotes from CD 2/1, in all honesty. However, does Jenson’s position that God is identical with the act of his own decision require the idea that God therefore is somehow his own origin? That doesn’t seem to quite follow for me.

    I suppose it all comes down to how we see the infamous problem of “act and being”.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  3. wtm wrote:

    It seems to me that the point of this who ‘debate’ is whether or not God becomes triune as a function of the decision of election. If that were to be the case, it would be God giving himself his being through decision. The point of the quotes I produce above is that this is not a self-evident interpretation of Barth.

    You are right about it coming down to ‘act and being’. Which comes first? For my money, you need an acting subject before you have an act. It seems to me to make a lot more sense to talk about God’s self-determination as opposed to his self-constitution.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I prefer the language of self-determination as well, but if Jesus is included in the Triune God’s eternal self-determination wouldn’t that in some sense (which of course, could be variously expositited) require us to view there being some sort of “eternal incarnation”?

    Of course, you don’t have to answer, I know that some of these questions are not to your vocational advantage to “come out” on, in either direction. : )

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  5. wtm wrote:

    When we talk about ‘self-determination’, we have to think about what that determination means. Is this an ontological determination? No, because then we might as well talk about constitution. So, it is likely to be an epistemological determination, which means something like this: In God’s self-determination, God decides and enacts what sort of God he will be in relation to his creatures.

    Of course, if this God is to avoid becoming not-God (something that he is not), this way of being with his creatures will be true to his way of being in and for himself. It is, in fact, the same God who exists in and for himself and who exists for us. However, the form that this takes will necessarily be different with reference to God’s being in and for himself and his being for us – because we are creatures, we can’t relate to God in the same way that God relates to himself.

    Thus, the distinction between the immanent and economic Trinities. These are not two trinities, but two forms of the one triune God.

    So, Jesus Christ certainly is part of God’s self-determination. But, as I have said, this self-determination has its reference ad extra. This means that we can still distinguish between the logos asarkos and the logos ensarkos. These are two forms of the one Son of God, the second ‘person’ or ‘mode of being’ of the triune God. The logos asarkos is not other than Jesus Christ (logos ensarkos) for the logos freely expresses itself in its self-determination as Jesus Christ.

    That’s where I am right now. Of course, considering where I study, this could change and will certainly at least be brought to clearer expression. At the moment I’m thinking about how to factor creation into this as a way to mitigate some things, but I can’t get into that now.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    However, the form that this takes will necessarily be different with reference to God’s being in and for himself and his being for us – because we are creatures, we can’t relate to God in the same way that God relates to himself.

    Why is this the case? This seems to especially be a problem given the incarnation. If Jesus is fully human, and thus fully creaturely and is simultaneously fully divine, it seems that God’s mode of self-relatedness need not be other than his mode of relation with us.

    And besides, I don’t really know how we could say anything about God-in-himself as distinct from God-for-us. The only God available for our knowledge is God-for-us. All we can say is that God in himself is identical with the God we meet in Jesus, can we not?

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  7. wtm wrote:

    One big point of the incarnation is that, because Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we have knowledge of God. Human beings simply don’t have the equipment to relate to God as God relates to himself.

    (I’m reminded of the scene at the end of Dogma where the humans have to cover their ears when God speaks, because they simply don’t have the equipment to hear that speech, and would thus die if they didn’t cover their ears. The whole thing is hokey, but the notion of ‘not having the equipment’ is right on.)

    The actuality of the incarnation implies a distinction in mode. Only the Son has seen the Father, and the Son has made the Father known – so Jesus tells us. Our mode of relation to God is mediated by Christ’s humanity, but God’s mode of relation to himself is not thus mediated.

    We can speak of God-in-himself only on the basis of God-for-us, and that speech is limited to exploring what the actuality of God’s being for us implies about God’s being for himself. Any proper affirmation about who God is in himself ought to be tied to something revealed about God in his being for us. This is very much how doctrine developed in the early Christian centuries, despite the complications imported from pagan theologies / philosophies.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Certainly we can’t relate to God in the exact way God relates to himself. Nevertheless if God’s mode of self-relatedness is revealed to us in Christ, then it seems to me that our mode of relation to God cannot be in competition with God’ self-relatedness. Certainly we do not have an “inside view” of God, but we do know God “as he is” because God is no different than what we see in Christ.

    Also, even though you only pointed it out for fun, I think the Dogma reference is misleading. According to the Christian tradition, when God speaks, what we hear is Jesus. We have precisely the right equipment for that.

    I guess I just don’t see much in God-for-us in Christ that would lead me to posit a logos asarkos, unless by that we just mean that the Son of God has eternally been what we see in Jesus. If that’s all we mean, then I would just as soon lose the term.

    In speaking of the “more” that God is in himself, I can only speak of it that way. There is “more” to God than can be grasped in the revelation of God, but that “more” is just “more of the same” so to speak, otherwise we do have two Trinities. That is why I see the incarnation as belonging to the eternal identity of God the Son in some fashion. Otherwise it would seem that the being of the Logos undergoes a radical change in the incarnation, which I don’t find a viable alternative.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  9. wtm wrote:

    I don’t think we are finally saying very different things. In fact, I think that through much of your latest comment you simply restate things that I have tried to say in other language. I certainly don’t want to posit any divergence between who God is from the ‘inside view’ and who he is as we see him in Christ.

    Barth actually parses this all out very well, I think, in the early sections of CD 2.1. He distinguishes between God’s primary objectivity (how he relates to himself) and his secondary objectivity (how he relates to us, with special reference to Christ), but he emphasizes that this secondary objectivity is not any less truly God than the primary objectivity. It is the same God in each case.

    “I guess I just don’t see much in God-for-us in Christ that would lead me to posit a logos asarkos, unless by that we just mean that the Son of God has eternally been what we see in Jesus.”

    This is, I think, what the logos asarkos means. And it extends to God’s relation to himself. God has always been Father, Son and Spirit just was we see that relation in the economy and especially in Jesus. This is, however, an important point to maintain and – thus – I don’t want to drop the term.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    I agree, I don’t think we’re saying much that is very different. This whole discussion seems to involve a lot of terminological sorting-out and conversations like this are helpful, at least to me.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  11. Aric Clark wrote:

    Hate to break up your little two-person party here, but I have some thoughts tangentially related to what you’re talking about.

    First, you’re both dead right that there is no such thing as a self-evident interpretation of Barth. Second, I DO think Barth leans toward Acts as more fundamental than Being and as such seems to describe a God who becomes who he is through decision, even if he resists saying that God “constitutes” himself by his decisions.

    However, the real question I wanted to bring in here is, have either of you ever studied Buddhism?

    WTM, you said, “You are right about it coming down to ‘act and being’. Which comes first? For my money, you need an acting subject before you have an act.”

    I think you’ve stated, broadly, the Western bias on this question, which Christianity largely follows. This is also why we tend to have a more positive view of the self, than most eastern traditions that consider the self a doubtful concept.

    In Buddhism the subject originates dependently through action. Consciousness is the result of intentional action, not the other way around. This seems counterintuitive to many folks, and I’m not a good apologist for their view, but as it’s been explained to me on several occasions I find it very compelling. It seems to me that Barth is closer to this view, though perhaps not straightforwardly so.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 3:19 pm | Permalink
  12. james wrote:

    “Otherwise it would seem that the being of the Logos undergoes a radical change in the incarnation, which I don’t find a viable alternative.”

    Nice conversation.

    Halden, what do you make of Christ being “rich” and then becoming “poor” for Paul? The whole forsaking of that status would seem to affect his “being”, wouldn’t it?


    Tuesday, October 30, 2007 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    I don’t think that refers to the being of Christ at all. Rather it refers to his crucifixion, his humbling himself unto death for our salvation.

    What would you make of the statement that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever”? Or that Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world”?

    Wednesday, October 31, 2007 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  14. Freder1ck wrote:

    In some ways, this position parallels the Orthodox tradition that when Adam met God in the garden, he met Christ.

    I wonder if it does justice to the two natures of Jesus…

    Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 5:18 am | Permalink
  15. Is not Barth in effect saying that the familiar distinction between an individual’s “nature” and “will” does not apply to God?

    In “The Divine Decicision,” I think it is, Bowman uses this to bridge Barthian and process theologies, something few attempt!
    I think she is on to something.

    Friday, November 9, 2007 at 7:18 am | Permalink
  16. I think Aric Clark’s comment that we are hampered by a culturally contingent view of selfhood that may be worth reconsidering in the light of Buddhism. I often wonder what we would be discussing if Christianity had reached us by way of Asia rather than Europe.

    Friday, November 9, 2007 at 7:25 am | Permalink

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