Bruce McCormack’s TFT lectures (3)

Posted on December 21, 2007

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The third lecture, ‘Immutable in Passibility: The Contribution of Karl Barth,’ traced the origins of Barth’s Christology in Dorner and Herrmann. Jason has suggested in a comment on the second of this series that this was the best of the lectures; I would not disagree. It happens it was also the one I chaired.

There is a danger with any great theologian that s/he becomes detached from historical context. St Thomas is studied as if Peter Lombard had never written, and Albert the Great had never responded; works on Calvin represent him as springing from nowhere, ignoring half a generation of Reformation debate that is crucial to understanding what he was about; all of us who teach, I fear, have painted the caricature of Barth that has him repudiating all he learnt in the German schools when he came to write on Romans. Bruce, by contrast, took us from the speculative idealism of Dorner to Church Dogmatics IV, via Herrmann’s critique of metaphysics, showing the connections along the way. The result was an impressively fresh vision of what Barth was about.

Wilhelm Herrmann was the key here, at least to the thread I am trying to develop in these comments (there were other narratives going on in the lecture series; I judged this to be the main and controlling one, but I am open to correction on that). Herrmann’s rejection of metaphysics remains in Barth as a rejection of abstraction. The truth is not found in such conceptions as ‘humanity’ and ‘deity’, which are then applied to particular things; rather it is found in concrete actual events. We should not first consider what it is to be divine and then think about incarnation; we should consider the particular history of Jesus Christ, and discover any ideas about ‘divinity’ we may want to hold from there.

This is some distance from Herrmann’s own, almost existential, take on the nature of Christianity, of course. Dorner’s influence is what is important in explaining the shift. Despite his heavy commitment to idealism, Dorner succeeds, at least in part, is shifting from substance to actuality in his consideration of Christology. That is, he narrates the incarnation on the basis of the particular event that happened, not abstracted accounts of what must have happened given the necessary properties of ‘divine nature’ and ‘human nature’. Barth completed what Dorner set out to do. His Christology makes use of classical metaphysical terms at times, and idealistic language at other times, but this is all merely a borrowing of language when it happens to become useful; these technical vocabularies do not indicate, still less demonstrate, a commitment to the underlying intellectual systems. (Bruce argued this point at some length, and completely convincingly to my mind. In fact, my major, perhaps only serious, criticism of the entire lecture series was that he argued this point too convincingly for one of his subsidiary theses to stand. More on than later, though.)

So, for Barth we can only understand what deity means by listening closely to the gospel history. This means that (picking up the language of CD IV) humility, obedience, and the like are intrinsic to what it is to be God—specifically, to what it is to be God the Son. Dorner’s devastating critique of the nineteenth-century Lutheran kenoticists can be avoided by extending his own insights concerning incarnation: in the act of kenosis God the Son does not surrender what it is to be God; rather the act of kenosis is precisely what it is to be God the Son.

However, this victory cannot be too easily won. (One of the—many—impressive features of these lectures was the repeated refusal to claim victories too early; problems were faced up to and addressed with seriousness at every turn.) If kenosis is what it is to be God the Son, then from all eternity this must always be true. Barth’s response to this is his doctrine of election: the gospel story mirrors the triune shape of God’s life; in the act of election the Son is determined for reprobation; suffering; rejection; self-abnegation; death. The Son empties himself—that, simply, is what it is to be the second mode of being of the divine life.

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