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The Historicization of God’s Being

The Karl Barth Blog Conference is now well underway and my own contribution has just been posted today, dealing with the issue of Jüngel’s theological ontology and the whole thorny issue of the historicality of God’s being.  I argue in this post that, according to Jüngel, God’s very being is constituted through the history of Jesus’ death and resurrection and only if we affirm God as thus constituted by the historical man, Jesus can we rightly affirm the transcendence and freedom of the eternal God.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Solid essay, Halden. I didn’t post there, but I think ‘Joshua’ is on to something in suggesting you are poorly characterizing the traditional Christian view of transcendence. What you’ve described is more of a late scholastic univocalism, which is manisfestly not the traditional (i.e. patristic, analogical) view of transcendence.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I’ve left a response to Joshua over there which addresses his concerns, WTM just hasn’t moderated it yet so its not visible.

    Short story: My whole reason for bringing in McCabe has to do with the fact that he offers a post-metaphysical reading of Aquinas much in the same way that Jungel offers one of Barth. What I’ve characterized is not the tradition as such, but rather a sort of gravitational force within the tradition vis a vis which different figures stand differently. However, I still think this sort of metaphysical critique needs to be done on the basis of the kind of metaphysical assumptions that continue to dominate the average Christian imagination about God.

    Moreover, I do continue to think there is such a thing as the conflict between the hellenic and biblical interpretation of God and that this continues to have relevance (Pickstock’s notion that Plato actually thought positively of embodiement just doesn’t fly with me). Moreover, the vision I am proposing in the essay is manifestly not simply a reproduction of the traditional view either. The kind of historicity that I think the gospel demands we ascribe to God is a challenge to most of the tradition, even though the tradition as such should not be equated with the sort of schoalstic assumptions that the essay really is postured against.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I’m not suggesting that you actually don’t understand the issues, just point out that in a conference about Barth, referring to the “conventional of transcendence” and then equating it with the univocity of being is a good way to get written off as just another Barth hack who doesn’t actually understand analogia entis or the traditional doctrine of impassability (and there are a lot of these people running around). Your invocation of “the conventional understanding of transcendence” is a straw man. To be honest the “metaphysical assumptions that continue to dominate the average Christian imagination about God” are so varied and typically bankrupt as to be a difficult thing to address in a straighforward way. I do not deny, however, that the univocity of being, and everything it implies about God, undergirds the modern “Christian imagination” but that isn’t an argument for or against the kind of theology you are advocating.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 1:30 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    First couple of sentences there I managed to leave out several important words:

    “I’m not suggesting that you actually don’t understand the issues, just pointing out that in a conference about Barth, referring to the “conventional understanding of transcendence” and then equating it with the univocity of being is a good way to get written off as just another Barth hack who doesn’t actually understand analogia entis or the traditional doctrine of impassability (and there are a lot of these people running around).”

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Well, I don’t think I even mentioned the univocity of being in my essay, nor did I have it in view as you seem to think. I think one could still conceptualize God as a “top person” easily enough without subscribing to univocity. In fact it seems that some versions of the analogia entis do just that, though obviously not its truest proponents (e.g. Pryzwara, Balthasar, Hart). The issue I am looking at is one of how we conceive divine freedom and transcendence. In this regard I don’t think that talking about the conventional understanding of transcendence is a straw man at all. There is a very “classical” way in which this is generally understood in the Christian tradition. Nor did I imply in the article that the tradition does not believe that God involves himself with creation. Rather, within the tradition transcendence is generally taken to mean that God’s already-complete freedom in se is ontologically prior to and grounds his actions ad extra. God’s freedom consists in God’s protological pre-completeness from which God then freely (unconstrainedly) engages in acts such as the incarnation. In other words, first we have God’s transcendence and freedom completed in Godself and then we have God involving Godself in the world. This sort of understanding is articulated all over the place, most recently in the works of Paul Molnar and George Hunsinger.

    What I’m suggesting is an alternative to such conceptions of divine freedom that is actually grounded in the narrative of Jesus rather than derived from a metaphysic gleaned elsewhere. I suggest that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus itself constitute God’s freedom and God’s transcendence because the event of the resurrection is what we’re talking about when we talk about God.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Fundamentally, the univocity of being posits being which is other than God in which God and all things participate to different degrees. This is how I understood “God as an agent among other agents” or God as “top person.” These are fundamentally univocal understandings of being or in this particular case, agency or personhood. I’m not sure to which versions of analogia entis you are referring, because fundamental to the concept is that God is Being itself and, as a result, absolutely cannot be conceived of as “top person” or an “agent among other agents” because this presumes some category beyond God in which both God and creation participate. This is one of the most crucially important aspects of analogia entis. I realize this does not directly bear on the constructive elements of your essay. I find the “antimetaphysical” rhetoric to be somewhat unconvincing, especially when a clearly bad metaphysics is put up as exhaustive of conventional Christian metaphysical thought. I guess my point is that Milbank, Pickstock, Hart, et al. would all be critical of the “conventional understanding of transcendence” you offered, but certainly don’t need to appeal to Jenson or Jungel to make their arguments. Your position (and that of Jungel, Jenson, Barth, et al.) is a theologically sophisticated one, and it does better in conversation with other theologically sophisticated positions and not the metaphysical conceptions (such as they are) of average Joe.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    “Exhaustive of conventional Christian metaphysical thought”? I never made such a claim. If you were to read, for example, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity by Paul Molnar (a Catholc, btw), you would see that the position I am critiquing is not simply an amalgam of the conceptions of the average Joe, but is in fact a live option in Christian theology and has been for a long time. And more specifically (and this goes to why I wrote on it in a conference on Barth), it is an extremely live debate among serious Barth scholars (I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, or if you’d want to be, really – It’s a pretty parochial sort of debate.)

    Now certainly the RO crowd would criticize such notions of transcendence on other grounds and certainly wouldn’t need the sources I utilize to make thier critique, but that is precisely because I am making my critique on other grounds and positing quite a different alternative than they are. A dispute between the analogical-participatory ontology of the RO crowd and the Christological-actualistic ontology of Barth and Jungel would indeed be an interesting dispute but it wasn’t the one I was trying to enter into. Rather, I was attempting to respond to some live critiques of the alternative I was arguing for that are coming from substantive voices in dogmatic and ecumenical theology (Molnar, Hunsinger, et al) who describe transcendence in the manner I articulated above. As such I don’t think it was out of line or simply a straw man. Rather I was just stating very harshly what I think the logical outcome of their conpections of divine freedom and transcendence turn out to mean.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    I have to admit, I’m not at all familiar with the theological points of view with which you are engaging. I suppose insofar as conventional modern theology is dominated by the univocity of being, your characterization is fair. I’m likely just not positioned in such a way as to see clearly with whom you are engaging, but that’s my shortcoming and not yours.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    What would make for an interesting question, at least at this point is to bring the analogical-participatory ontology (with which I assume you largely identify yourself) with the perspective I am rendering here.

    One of the fundamental points I am making is that in my view the historical person, Jesus in his cross and resurrection is constitutive for the eternal being of God. What do you think of such a statement?

    I know that Hart critiques Jenson on preciesly this point, though I think they ultimately end up at nearly the same place, for Hart also ends up saying that everything that Jesus is is eternal within the life of the Trinity. If that is the case it is hard to see how the history of Jesus is not constitutive for the being of God – and if that is the case we have to rethink all our notions of time and eternity it seems.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I agree with you Halden. I’m not competent enough, nor are my theological chops up to the task of trying to say anything one way or the other on the subject. Hence, my position has always been that of trying to trace out a faithful theological tradition which proceeds from the Creeds through the Fathers to Augustine and Aquinas and beyond. To my mind, this includes the doctrine of divine impassibility, analogia entis, and all of those other theological goodies. I’m confident in the veracity of these theological positions (which isn’t to say they are somehow static and not subject to continued expansion and clarification). It may well be the case that a more Jensonian (or Barthian, or whomever) approach may be arriving at consonant insights which expand our understanding of God’s revelation of himself to us. I am certainly open to that. My chief objection is to those who want to suggest that the great theologians of the past have some how been doing it wrong, and now that we’ve gotten rid of that pesky metaphysics, we can finally read the Bible and figure out what’s going on. I’m certainly not accusing you of this. I think ultimately, my view of the interpretative and theological functions of the Church is just more optimistic than that, so maybe it is finally an ecclesial issue.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Yes, it may be a whole difference of ecclesial “style” if you will, as it carries into theological method. I hope not to be a pessimist, I don’t think philosophical declension narratives are any more helpful than ecclesial declension narratives (the “fall” of the church, blah blah blah). However neither to I want a naive evolutionism to replace a naive devolutionism as a way of doing theological historiography.

    What I shoot for is something more kaleidiscopic that is able to negotiate the tradition faithfully while still being willing to dispute with it. For, if the tradition is a witness to a reality beyond it, then it is not unfaithful to call it into question. Tradition wants us to interrogate it in that way, however of course we can only do that rightly if we allow it to interrogate us as well.

    But, I would say that the sort of Jensonian-Barthian undertsanding of theological ontology is very firmly grounded in the patristics, especially the Cappadocians and Irenaeus (See Jenson’s Triune Identity if you’re interested in this). And if the McCabe connection is cogent, perhaps something like what I’ve sketched is consonnate with streams running throughout the tradition. Ultimately it seems that adjudicating what parts of our history as Christians eddy off dead ends and which draw us deeper into the wellspring of truth will always be a problematic endeavour and we shouldn’t try to deproblematize it.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    Investigating Jenson has been very high on my list of things to do for a while, it’s just that I don’t get around to those things very often these days. I like your kaleidoscopic characterization and would characterize myself similarly. It’s definitely not as if I look with unqualified (or really any kind of) approval on the dominant theological currents of the last 700 years. I’m thankful to have encountered you as an advocate of both Jenson and Barth, as I appreciate your even-handedness when it comes to these sorts of things. I have a visceral aversion to “protestant” modes of theology that seem to imply that we have finally emerged from the long dark night of Scholasticism/Metaphysics/Whatever thanks to the work of some German guys in the past 200 years. I’m not suggesting these German guys are even suggesting that, nor am I suggesting that this sort of thing is constitutive of Protestantism generally. It is sometimes the case, however, that confessional agendas can be hitched on to certain theological projects and cause them to be misrepresented. I think that’s probably what I tend to react against.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

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