Barth and the End of Classical Metaphysics

McCormack, Bruce.  Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth.  Baker.

Bruce McCormack suggests that the best model for understanding Karl Barth’s theology is Realdialektik–God is indirectly identical with the medium of his self-revelation.  It is dialectical in the sense that it posits both a veiling and unveiling of God. God is unveiled in Jesus’s flesh, but since it is in Jesus’s flesh, God is in a sense veiled (McCormack 145).   This is another way of using Luther’s Deus absconditus.  Interestingly, this dialectic solves the postmodern problem of “Presence-Absence.”

What is Classical Metaphysics?

Barth’s project is in many ways an attempt to overcome the limitations of classical metaphysics.  Among other things, classical metaphysics (and it doesn’t matter whether you have in mind Eastern and Western models) saw the essence of God as an abstract something behind all of God’s acts and relations (140).  This view is particularly susceptible to Heidegger’s critique of “Being.”  It is also susceptible, particularly in its Cappadocian form, to Tillich’s critique:

The Cappadocian “Solution” and Further Problem

According to the Cappadocians, the Father is both the ground of divinity and a particular hypostasis of that divinity.  Taken together, we can now speak of a quaternity.  Secondly, the distinctions between the relations are empty of content.  What do the words “unbegotten,” “begotten,” and “proceeding” mean when any analogy between the divine essence and created reality is ruled illegitimate, as the Cappadocians insist (Tillich 77-78)?  The Augustinian-Thomist tradition at least tried to move this forward, even if its solution was equally unsatisfactory.

Further, with regard to the Person of Christ, essentialism connotes an abstracted human nature which is acted upon (McCormack 206).  Further, in essentialist forms of metaphysics the idea of a person is that which is complete in itself apart from its actions and relations (211).  A wedge is now driven between essence and existence.  Christologically, this means that nothing which happens in and through the human nature affects the person of the union, for the PErson is already complete anterior to these actions and relations.

Election and the Trinity

Barth navigates beyond this impasse with his now famous actualism.  Rather than first positing a Trinity and then positing a decision to elect, which necessarily creates a metaphysical “gap” in the Trinity, Barth posits Jesus of Nazareth not only as the object of election (which is common to every dogmatics scheme), but also the subject of election.  How can this be?  How can someone be both the elector and the elected?

For Barth the Trinity is One Subject in Three Simultaneous Modes of being (218).  To say that Jesus Christ is the electing God is to say that God determined to be God in a second (not being used in a temporal sense) mode of being…this lies close to the decision that [Election] constitutes an event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being (218).  Election is the event which differentiates God’s modes of being…So the event in which God is triune is identical with the event in which He chooses to be God for the human race” (ibid.)

Participation, not Theosis

Barth’s actualist ontology allows him to affirm the juridicalism within the Scriptures (which is markedly absent from many Eastern treatises) and the language of participating in the divine but without recourse to the theosis views so dependent on classical metaphysics.

Barth is historically-oriented, not metaphysically.  The divine does not metaphysically indwell the human so as to heal the potential loss of being.  Rather, the exaltation occurs in the history of Jesus Christ.  “The link which joins the human and divine is not an abstract concept of being, but history” (230).

For Barth, God’s ontology is the act of determining to enter human history (238).  God’s essence and human essence can be placed in motion–they can be actualized in history.

Exaltation, not indwelling

The terms describing Jesus’s history are agreement, service, obedience–they speak of the man Jesus standing before God, not being indwelt.

Reworking the Categories

If Barth’s criticisms of classical ontology hold, then a humble reworking of some categories is in order.  Instead of hypostasis, Barth uses the term “identification.”  The identification in question is an act of love.  Jesus is God, but God as self-differentiation.

This may seem obscure, but it bears great promise.  Both East and West have struggled with defining “person.”  A good Eastern theologian will not even define it, since, as John Behr notes, you cannot give a common definition to something which is by definition not-common.  Eastern Orthodox like to say how “personal” their theology is, yet ask them to define “person.”   The West actually does define it, but the problems aren’t entirely gone.  If person = relation, then how come the relations between the persons are not themselves persons, and ad infinitum all the way back to Gnosticism?  Given these huge problems, we should not so quickly dismiss Barth’s proposal.

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5 comments on “Barth and the End of Classical Metaphysics

  1. Justin says:

    We’ll, Tillich’s arguments against the Cappadocians are weak. Also, do you remember where that Behr quote is from? Way to Nicea, perhaps?

    • Olaf's Axe says:

      The quaternity is charge is as old as Abelard. And the second point should not be dismissed: the Cappadocians deny there is an analogy between created things and God (or so the East claims); it’s not surprising that Nazianzus admits he has no idea what these terms mean. This gets even worse when we say the persons are hyperousia.

      I think that is where the Behr quote is. I remember it from some long-forgotten footnote.

      • Justin says:

        How does 1 arche in the Trinity lead to a quaternity?The Cappadocians used plenty of creation analogies when describing the Trinity. 3 torches/suns for the persons, sun/sunbeam, Adam/Seth for Father/son, 3 copper coins for generic unity, etc. this may be inconsistent with their view of incomprehensibility, but it can’t be denied that they didn’t use them.

        also, the terms procession, generation aren’t defined in scripture explicitly, so is it surprising that they don’t know what they mean? Every Trinitarian deck contains a mystery card.

      • Olaf's Axe says:

        Tillich didn’t develop the point explicitly. I know Drake has dealt with it. I’ll retract it for the moment.

        As to Cappadocian analogies: as much as I will say right now is that they did not accept the social analogy.

  2. […] my review of McCormack on Barth, I noted some key weaknesses in classical metaphysics.  Further, in a recent essay on a […]

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