In his review of George Hunsinger’s recent book, Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal, Matthias Gockel makes an interesting comment in a footnote in the context of God’s relation to the world and and God’s being in himself. He says there that:
Occasionally, Barth himself seems to forget his own insight, for example, in the passage CD IV/2, 345–346, where Election is simply an opus ad extra, in distinction from God’s triune being as opus ad intra,while the identity of Election with Jesus Christ is overlooked. (How to Read Barth with Charity, in Modern Theology, p. 265n.13 )
The review itself is worth reading in full, but for the moment I want to reflect a bit on this footnote. The main thrust of Hunsinger’s book is directed, perhaps somewhat ironically in light of the above comment, against a strain of Barth interpretation (let’s call it the revisionist reading – yes, I know that what the English-speaking theology world calls the revisionist reading is the dominant reading in German theological circles) which claims to identify and correct inconsistencies, contradictions and moments of forgetfulness in Barth. Hunsinger aims in his book to show why Barth is not inconsistent if what we consider is the ‘actually existing textual Barth’ (Reading Barth with Charity, p. 21 – AETB from here on out). Barth is, however, inconsistent if the interpretation of the revisionists is accepted (call this the revisionist Barth – RB from here on out).
Anyway, the point of all that is this: one of the central points of disputation in the Barth Wars is whether or not Barth was consistent or inconsistent (whether by way of forgetfulness, outright contradiction or self-conscious modification of his thought) on the issue of just whether or not God is triune apart from election in Christ. A key sub-issue has to do with the (in)famous Logos Asarkos (LA). These two issues bear heavily on each other: if God is not triune apart from election, then we have to grant that the LA must be jettisoned, but if God is triune before and apart from election, then the LA must be maintained, and it is on these issues that I want to focus on as a kind of case study on Barth’s (in)consistency.
There are some key passages in Barth that lend strength to the idea that Barth was not inconsistent here, but maintained that God was perfectly triune before and apart from election. The LA connects to this in the following way:
The Logos Asarkos, for Barth, is primordial and perpetual. It has an indispensable role to play within the inner life of the eternal Trinity. It is not only logically but ontologically prior to the incarnation. Relative to the incarnation, the Logos Asarkos is known as the extra Calvinisticum. It indicates that aspect of the eternal Logos that retains its primordial role within the inner life of the Trinity once the logos has become enfleshed. Although Barth rejected the extra Calvinisticum in certain respects, he did not reject it in this primordial and perpetual respect.
The Logos Asarkos in its primordial aspect is described as follows: “It is legitimate and imperative that that by the expression ‘Son’ or ‘Word of God’ we should here understand the second mode of existence (‘person’) of the inner divine reality in itself and as such” (CD III/1, 50). In this statement Barth affirms, as he always does in the Church Dogmatics, that the antecedent Trinity is something that enjoys “an inner…reality in itself and as such” (italics original). In other words, the Trinity (and each “person” within it) is determinate prior to God’s dealings with the world. The Word of God (the Logos Asarkos) belongs to the Trinity’s inner divine reality and needs no external relationship to make it become determinate. (Reading Barth with Charity, p. 17)
This is far from a one-off slip of the pen or lapse in the mind for Barth. Similar thoughts can be found all throughout the CD, from early in II.2 through IV.2. If, as Gockel and others in the revisionist claim, Barth was simply inconsistent, then it is a remarkably consistent inconsistency. There is a clear sense in which Barth does reject the LA, however, which depends upon the context in which we are speaking. Insofar as we are speaking of God’s being in itself, we are correct to speak of the LA -however, insofar as we are concerned with God’s dealings with the world, or the economy, Barth is right to object to our speaking of the LA. Barth notes that:
The second “person” of the Godhead in himself as such is not God the Reconciler. In himself and as such he is not revealed to us. In himself and as such he is not Deus pro nobis, either ontologically or epistemologically. He is the content of a necessary and important concept in trinitarian doctrine when we have to understand the revelation and dealings of God in the light of their free basis in the inner being and essence of God. (CD IV.1, p. 52, emphasis mine)
There are two things to note here: (1) the context here is the inner being and essence of God, and in this context, Barth is 100% okay with talking about the second person of the Godhead not being revealed. (2) the LA is key to understanding the freedom of God to be God for us. Immediately after the above passage, however, Barth cautions against using the LA to understand God’s revelation and dealings:
But since we are concerned with the revelation and dealings of God, and particularly with the atonement, with the person and work of the Mediator, it is pointless, as it is impermissible, to return to the inner being and essence of God and especially to the second person of the Trinity as such, in such a way that we ascribe to this person another form than that which God himself as given in willing to reveal himself and to act outwards. (p. 52)
The takeaway here is that it is the context that matters when we talk about the LA. God’s relation and dealings with the world are determined by Jesus Christ, not the LA, but it doesn’t follow from that that the only context that matters is God’s relation to the world. In other words, God’s relation to the world is not the whole story of God’s life. The LA is presupposed by God’s free act of election, which have their free basis in God’s inner life, a life which is already perfectly full with no need of anything or anyone to become fully perfect:
For everything that the creature seems to offer Him – its otherness, its being in antithesis to Himself and therefore his Own existence in co-existence – He also has in Himself as God, as the original and essential determination of His being and life as God. Without the creature He has all this originally in Himself….we have to say this because we are in fact dealing with an overflowing, not a filling up of the perfection of God which needs no filling. (p. 201)
Paul Molnar, commenting on the passage cited by Gockel as a moment of forgetfulness on Barth’s part, reaches the roughly the same conclusion, ‘…Barth maintains that God is fully who he is in himself as one who commands and obeys, and does not need us in order to be the perfect God he already is.’ (Faith, Freedom and the Spirit, p. 247) It is just this perfect inner life as such which secures God’s freedom to be God for us. If we reject the LA, then, we are in danger of losing the freedom of God. If, as some in the revisionist camp claim, that the distinction between the eternal and incarnate word needs to be done away with so that we are left with God giving himself being in the act of election, we are left with a god who could not fully be god without being god for us:
…for Barth, God does not have to give himself his essential being because he already has it and is it as the eternal Father, Son and Spirit. Nonetheless, he does take form for us in the incarnation in accordance with his eternal election, and so he gives our human existence its essential being in his son Jesus Christ as an act of gracious election, incarnation, reconciliation, and redemption…God does not need to realize his own being, not even as the son who does not need to be incarnate in order to be who he is. But our humanity does need to be realized, and it is indeed true that this is what happens in Christ the Mediator for us. (Faith, Freedom and the Spirit, (p. 311)