Barth on the being and knowledge of God

Who was it that said recently that a day without reading something from Uncle Karl is a day wasted, or something to that effect? Well today, a friend of mine reminded me of this interesting passage (not least in light of the fruitful discussion that arose from my post on Ten (Draft) Propositions on the Missionary Nature of the Church) from Uncle Karl (CD §28), who, at least on my reading, properly refuses to collapse epistemology and ontology:

‘When we ask questions about God’s being, we cannot in fact leave the sphere of His action and working as it is revealed to us in His Word. God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. Yet in Himself He is not another than He is in His works. In the light of what He is in His works it is no longer an open question what He is in Himself. In Himself He cannot, perhaps, be someone or something quite other, or perhaps nothing at all. But in His works He is Himself revealed as the One He is. It is, therefore, right that in the development and explanation of the statement that God is we have always to keep exclusively to His works (as they come to pass, or become visible as such in the act of revelation)—not only because we cannot elsewhere understand God and who God is, but also because, even if we could understand Him elsewhere, we should understand Him only as the One He is in His works, because He is this One and no other. We can and must ask about the being of God because as the Subject of His works God is so decisively characteristic for their nature and understanding that without this Subject they would be something quite different from what they are in accordance with God’s Word, and on the basis of the Word of God we can necessarily recognise and understand them only together with this their Subject.

At the same time we must be quite clear on the other side, that our subject is God and not being, or being only as the being of God. In connexion with the being of God that is here in question, we are not concerned with a concept of being that is common, neutral and free to choose, but with one which is from the first filled out in a quite definite way. And this concretion cannot take place arbitrarily, but only from the Word of God, as it has already occurred and has been given to us in the Word of God. This means that we cannot discern the being of God in any other way than by looking where God Himself gives us Himself to see, and therefore by looking at His works, at this relation and attitude—in the confidence that in these His works we do not have to do with any others, but with His works and therefore with God Himself, with His being as God.

What does it mean to say that “God is”? What or who “is” God? If we want to answer this question legitimately and thoughtfully, we cannot for a moment turn our thoughts anywhere else than to God’s act in His revelation. We cannot for a moment start from anywhere else than from there.

What God is as God, the divine individuality and characteristics, the essentia or “essence” of God, is something which we shall encounter either at the place where God deals with us as Lord and Saviour, or not at all. The act of revelation as such carries with it the fact that God has not withheld Himself from men as true being, but that He has given no less than Himself to men as the overcoming of their need, and light in their darkness—Himself as the Father in His own Son by the Holy Spirit. The act of God’s revelation also carries with it the fact that man, as a sinner who of himself can only take wrong roads, is called back from all his own attempts to answer the question of true being, and is bound to the answer to the question given by God Himself. And finally the act of God’s revelation carries with it the fact that by the Word of God in the Holy Spirit, with no other confidence but this unconquerable confidence, man allows being to the One in whom true being itself seeks and finds, and who meets him here as the source of his life, as comfort and command, as the power over him and over all things.

If we follow the path indicated, our first declaration must be the affirmation that in God’s revelation, which is the content of His Word, we have in fact to do with His act. And first, this means generally—with an event, with a happening. But as such this is an event which is in no sense to be transcended. It is not, therefore, an event which has merely happened and is now a past fact of history. God’s revelation is, of course, this as well. But it is also an event happening in the present, here and now. Again, it is not this in such a way that it exhausts itself in the momentary movement from the past to the present, that is, in our to-day. But it is also an event that took place once for all, and an accomplished fact. And it is also future—the event which lies completely and wholly in front of us, which has not yet happened, but which simply comes upon us. Again, this happens without detriment to its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity. On the contrary, it is in its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity that it is truly future. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday and to-day and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). This is something which cannot be transcended or surpassed or dispensed with. What is concerned is always the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, always His justification of faith, always His lordship in the Church, always His coming again, and therefore Himself as our hope. We can only abandon revelation, and with it God’s Word, if we are to dispense with it. With it we stand, no, we move necessarily in the circle of its event or, in biblical terms, in the circle of the life of the people of Israel. And in this very event God is who He is. God is He who in this event is subject, predicate and object; the revealer, the act of revelation, the revealed; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the Lord active in this event. We say “active” in this event, and therefore for our salvation and for His glory, but in any case active. Seeking and finding God in His revelation, we cannot escape the action of God for a God who is not active. This is not only because we ourselves cannot, but because there is no surpassing or bypassing at all of the divine action, because a transcendence of His action is nonsense. We are dealing with the being of God: but with regard to the being of God, the word “event” or “act” is final, and cannot be surpassed or compromised. To its very deepest depths God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event—not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action, in which we have a share in God’s revelation.

The definition that we must use as a starting-point is that God’s being is life. Only the Living is God. Only the voice of the Living is God’s voice. Only the work of the Living is God’s work; only the worship and fellowship of the Living is God’s worship and fellowship. So, too, only the knowledge of the Living is knowledge of God’.

– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 260–3.

So if you’ve read this far you can now sleep tonight in the full knowledge that your day wasn’t a complete waste of time. Certainy mine wasn’t: I drank gallons of Milo, finished marking a ute-load of assignments, and read some Barth. Oh, and we also decided on a school for our daughter, or at least I think we did!

The Triune God and the stratification of truth

My previous two posts invite some reflection on where theological thought begins. Here I want to suggest (taking my cues from TF Torrance, and drawing heavily on McGrath’s less-than-brilliant biography on Torrance) that theological reflection, or theological science, begins by immersion within the Christian community and its practices of worship and prayer. Here the believer absorbs the grammar of Christian faith, shares what Torrance calls its ‘evangelical and doxological’ experience, and begins to appreciate the ‘evangelical pattern or economy of the redeeming acts of God in Jesus Christ’ (The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, 98, 91). In other words, the basis upon which Christian theological reflection takes place concerns ecclesiology, christology and soteriology.

Consider the following statements about levels – or layers – of truth in the natural sciences:

… knowledge is gained not in the flat, as it were, by reading it off the surface of things, but in a multi-dimensional way in which we grapple with a range of intelligible structures that spread out far before us. In our theoretic constructions we rise through level after level of organized concepts and statements to their ultimate ontological ground, for our concepts and statements are true only as they rest in the last resort upon being itself. – Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology (Theology and Science at the Frontiers of Knowledge; Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), 136.

We start with our ordinary experience in which we operate already with some sort of order in our thought which is essential for our understanding of the world around us and for rational behaviour within it. We assume that the world is intelligible and accessible to rational knowledge … we operate on the assumption that by means of thought we can understand in some real measure the relations between events and grasp their orderly sequence and consistent structure. – Reality and Scientific Theology, 147.

This initial perception of orderedness and structure, however, turns out, for Torrance, to be a starting point for a more penetrating and discerning investigation in which successive layers of truth are identified and uncovered, and their inner relationships established. One of the most helpful areas explored by Torrance concerns how our knowing God differs from how we know anything else. Consider this (lengthy) quote:

[When it comes to our knowledge of God] we have to reckon with a considerable difference between the kind of knowledge that obtains in physical science, for the created universe does not disclose or declare itself to us as God does – otherwise it would not be the creaturely or contingent reality that it is. The universe does reveal itself to our inquiries in its own limited reality, in correspondingly limited ways, but it is quite unable to explain itself or to yield any final account of the fact of its astonishing intelligibility, and so at these limits the universe by its finite nature simply turns a blank face to our questions. In contrast, God opens himself to us and informs us of himself in a way that no created being can. Even though he retains behind a veil of ineffability the infinite mystery of his uncreated Being, he nevertheless unveils himself to us as the transcendent Source and sustaining Ground of all created being and created intelligibility, and therefore of all our knowing of him as well as of the universe he has made.

Moreover, the Being of God is made known to us as Subject-being, not just as Object-being over against us. As Subject-being he is the Creator and Ground of all other subject-beings, who sustains them in relation to himself as personal rational agents enabled to have communion with him. That is to say, God interacts personally and intelligibly with us and communicates himself to us in such a personalising or person-constituting way that he establishes relations of intimate reciprocity between us and himself, within which our knowing of God becomes interlocked with God’s knowing of us. In fact our knowledge of God thus mediated is allowed to share in God’s knowledge of himself. An ellipse of knowing, so to speak, is set up within which God’s uncreated Intelligibility and our creaturely intelligibility, God’s self-witness and our human understanding, are correlated, so that there arises among us within the conditions of our earthly and temporal existence authentic knowledge of God in which God’s self-revealing is met by human acknowledgment and reception, and in such a way that our knowing of him, however inadequate, is made to repose ultimately on the free creative ground of God’s own Subject-being.

Nevertheless when all this is admitted it still remains the case that God confronts and interacts with us as he who is utterly transcendent over all our knowing of him, infinitely inexhaustible in the Truth and Intelligibility of his own eternal Being. As such the Reality of God ever remains the Source of all our authentic concepts of him and the unchanging Ground of all our faithful formalisations of his revelation. God himself does not change, and in his unchanging Being is open to ever deepening understanding on our part, while our forms of thought and speech in which we articulate our knowledge of him are ever open to further clarification, fuller amplification, and change. The Truth of the divine Being cannot be enclosed within the embrace of our finite conceptualisations. In that God admits of recognition and understanding on our part we may indeed grasp him in some real measure, but we cannot contain him in the forms of our grasping. We may apprehend God but we cannot comprehend him. In so far as our concepts of God derive from him and terminate upon his Being, there is much more to them than the concepts themselves, more than the formal truths of conception, for the Reality conceived transcends conceptual control. Before the Reality and Majesty of the divine Being whom we are graciously allowed to know, we know that all our knowledge of him is at a comparatively elementary level, and all our articulation or formulation of divine revelation is a relatively insignificant reflection of its Truth. The knowledge and understanding of God, however, which we are allowed to have, and which in some measure we may bring to systematic expression, are what they are in their lowly forms because, in spite of their utter inadequacy, as the human end of the ellipse of knowing established by God and maintained between us and himself, they are locked into an infinite range of truth and intelligibility grounded finally in God’s own eternal Being.

The development of our knowledge of God evidently involves a multi-levelled structure in which our thought moves through various levels of concepts and statements, to the levels of created being through which God makes himself known to us in space and time, and then through them ultimately to the supreme level where God is the transcendent Source of all truth in the Truth of his own uncreated Being. Each lower level is governed by reference beyond itself to the level with which it is immediately coordinated, so that together the lower levels constitute a coherent semantic frame of reference through which we are directed to the ultimate Truth that God is in himself. Thus every lower level, in so far as it is true, must have the character of an open structure pointing us away from its own limited and relative status to its ontological ground in God who is ‘the norm for the truth of all beings’ [Clement of Alexandria]. In clarifying and deepening theological knowledge, therefore, we must learn to penetrate through the various levels of rational complexity that arise in the process of inquiry to the ultimate ground upon which they rest in the Being of God. Just as we do not think statements or even normally think thought but think things through them or by means of them, so the structures of the reason which arise in the process of gaining knowledge have to be treated as refined conceptual instruments through which we let reality shine across to us, in order that its own truth of being and inherent intelligibility can operate creatively in our understanding of it.

What are we to understand by ‘truth’ in a context like this? – Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology, 138–40.

What are the implications of this for the task of theological reflection? At the very least, it means that our knowledge of God is dependent upon God’s gracious self-unveiling, i.e. epistemology is grounded in the divine economy and particularly in Jesus Christ who comes to us ‘clothed in the gospel’ (Calvin). Jesus Christ is the ‘cornerstone of all authentically Christian theological reflection’. But this process of reflection, like all scientific enquiry, is also is multi-levelled. Torrance identifies three levels: (i) evangelical and doxological level; (ii) theological level; and (iii) higher theological level.

The first level is the evangelical and doxological level. (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 88–90). This might be thought of as the basic level of Christian experience and living, ‘the level of our day-to-day worship and meeting with God in response to the proclamation of the Gospel’. At this level, God is apprehended intuitively, ‘without engaging in analytical or logical process of thought’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). At this level, the Christian believer has an experience of the reality of God as a ‘basic undefined cognition which informally shapes our faith and regulates our trinitarian understanding of God’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89). The Christian experience of worship, reading of Scripture, and an intuitive awareness of the reality of God constitute the point of departure for further theological reflection.

From the very start of our believing experience and knowledge of the incarnate economy of redemption undertaken by Jesus Christ for our sakes, form and content are found fused together both in what we are given to know and in our experience and knowing of it. A child by the age of five has learned, we are told, an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he or she has become spontaneously and intuitively adapted – far more than the child could ever understand if he or she turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists. Likewise, I believe, we learn far more about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into whose Name we have been baptised, within the family and fellowship and living tradition of the Church than we can ever say: it becomes built into the structure of our souls and minds, and we know much more than we can ever tell. This is what happens evangelically and personally to us within the membership of the Church, the Body of Christ in the world, when through the transforming power of his Word and Spirit our minds become inwardly and intuitively adapted to know the living God. We become spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of divine order that are beyond our powers fully to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth as it is in Jesus which steadily presses for increasing realisation in our understanding, articulation and confession of faith. That is how Christian theology gains its initial impetus, and is then reinforced through constant reading and study of the Bible within the community of the faithful (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 89).

The second stage that Torrance identifies in this process of engagement is what he calls the theological level. This secondary level of engagement involves moving on from the primary level of ‘experiential apprehension’ of God, and towards discerning the structures which lie within it.

By forming appropriate intellectual instruments with which to lay bare the underlying epistemological patterns of thought, and by tracing the claims of connection throughout the coherent body of theological truths, [theologians] feel their way forward to a deeper and more precise knowledge of what God has revealed of himself, even to the extent of reaching a reverent and humble insight into the inner personal relations of his Being. Our concern at this secondary level, however, while distinctly theological, is not primarily with the organic body of theological knowledge, but with penetrating through it to apprehend more fully the economic and ontological and trinitarian structure of God’s revealing and saving acts in Jesus Christ as they are presented to us in the Gospel (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 91).

In the third level (or higher theological level) our thinking ‘enters more deeply into the self-communication of God in the saving and revealing activity of Christ and in his one Spirit’. At this level, Torrance continues, ‘we are explicitly concerned with the epistemological and ontological structure of our knowledge of the Holy Trinity, moving from a level of economic trinitarian relations in all that God is toward us in his self-revealing and self-giving activity to the level in which we discern the trinitarian relations immanent in God himself which lie behind, and are the sustaining ground of, the relations of the economic Trinity’. In other words, this level involves a move from ‘a level of economic trinitarian relations’ to ‘what [God] is ontically in himself’ (Torrance, Doctrine of God, 93, 98–107).

We might map Torrance’s trajectory of trinitarian theological reflection and formulation thus:

Experience of God → Economic Trinity → Essential Trinity

To be sure, Torrance’s distinguishing of different levels of reality must not be taken to mean that he is sponsoring their independence so that one or other may be dispensed with or treated as redundant or superseded. Rather, as McGrath notes, the ontological Trinity cannot be regarded as independent of the economic Trinity, nor of Christian trinitarian experience. Nor is Torrance suggesting that lower levels within the stratification of truth are to be regarded as false or redundant; they are all to be regarded as interconnected responses to their object. A failure to recognise the mutual interconnectedness of these levels of discourse can lead to theological reflection becoming divorced from Christian experience on the one hand, or from its proper ontological foundations on the other (McGrath, Torrance, 174).

2008 Gifford Lectures: ‘Religion and Its Recent Critics’

Professor David Fergusson (Professor of Divinity, The University of Edinburgh) will deliver the 2008 Gifford Lectures on the topic ‘Religion and Its Recent Critics’. The program for the 2008 Gifford Lectures is available here, and it looks impressive.

Tuesday 8 April
The new atheism: historical roots and contemporary context.

Thursday 10 April
The implausibility of religious belief: claims and counter-claims.

Tuesday 15 April
The genesis of religion: can Darwinism explain it away?

Wednesday 16 April
Religion, morality and art: invention or discovery?

Tuesday 22 April
Is religion bad for our health? Saints, martyrs and terrorists.

Thursday 24 April
Sacred texts: how should we treat them?

Sounds like something in there for everyone. The lectures will be held at the Sir Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, University Avenue/Gibson Street, Glasgow @ 18.00. They are free and open to the public. Registration to Clare Laidlaw (0141 330 4978)

Colin Gunton’s ‘The Barth Lectures’: A Review

Colin E. Gunton, The Barth Lectures (transcribed and edited by Paul H. Brazier; T&T Clark, London/New York, 2007). xxiv + 285 pages. ISBN: 9780567031402.

While he fruitfully enjoyed a life-long engagement with and formation by Karl Barth’s work, produced numerous articles on various aspects of such, and lectured on Barth most years he taught at King’s College London, Colin Gunton never fulfilled his ambition to pen a monograph devoted solely to this his favourite theologian. Had he done so, these lectures (recorded and transcribed almost verbatim by Paul Brazier, complete with charts, diagrams, live-questions and Gunton’s responses) would have served as the basis.

Chapters 1-3 attend to the intellectual, historical and theological background to Barth’s thinking. Beginning with a focus on Enlightenment philosophy as it finds voice in Kant, Schleiermacher and Hegel – all three of whom ‘identified Christianity too closely with modern culture’ (p. 17) – Gunton then turns to Barth’s early theological formation in the nineteenth-century liberalism of Harnack and Herrmann, as well as to some other voices and ideas that impinged on Barth’s theological development – Johann Christoph Blumhardt (who also influenced Moltmann), Albert Schweitzer and Franz Overbeck through whom eschatology was re-confirmed on the theological radar. Barth’s engagement with existentialism (Kierkegaardian and other) and theologies of ‘religion’, ‘crisis’ and ‘dialectics’ are introduced in the second and third lectures, and re-appear subsequently throughout. Certainly, for the Swiss theologian, ‘no road to the eternal world has ever existed except the road of negation’ (p. 33). Thus when Gunton later comes to unpack something of the charge concerning Barth’s ‘irrationality’ through the continuing influence of Der Römerbrief, empiricism, and Barth’s ‘assertive style’, the United Reformed Church minister notes:

The influence of empiricism, especially on the minds of English and American theologians, cannot be dismissed. The English, or to be more pertinent, the Anglican theological mind is shaped by a philosophical tradition that does not find Barth’s approach to theology easy to understand let alone agree with … Part of our intellectual tradition makes it hard for us to understand – particularly an Anglican tradition. Anglicans on the whole like things to be nice and middle way, the via media. And there is not much of the middle way in Karl Barth! … Barth’s assertive style does make it difficult for mild-mannered establishment Anglicans to cope with. (p. 66)

Whether critiquing Augustine, Calvin, Kant, the ‘Absolutely Pagan’ Hegel (p. 17), or the ‘great opponent’ Schleiermacher (p. 15), Gunton repeatedly identifies that the crucial question for the author of the groundbreaking Der Römerbrief remains ‘how much of your intellectual method hangs on something foreign to Christianity?’ (p. 42; cf. pp. 52-3). To this end, Gunton also devotes an entire lecture (pp. 53-63) to Barth’s 1931 work on Anselm, Fides quaerens intellectum, and to the Archbishop’s understanding of the relationship between ‘proof’, ‘reason’ and ‘faith’. He later writes: ‘Barth is a post-Reformation thinker with the rallying cry, by scripture alone and by faith alone! Barth found in the Reformation tradition a conception of theology based on a view of God that is linked with human salvation. The problem for Barth with the Scholastic tradition is that they begin with a rational view of God – a rational idea of God abstracted from human salvation. Barth begins with scripture because the God of scripture is about salvation not philosophical argument’ (p. 69). And on a comparison with Schleiermacher: ‘the problem with beginning with religion is that it is not theological, it can be, it can lead into theology, but in essence it is not: religion is an experiential concept, not a theological concept. Barth wants a theology that is theological right from the very outset. Barth considers that Roman Catholics and Protestants such as Schleiermacher are wrong in thinking that there can be a non-theological basis for theology. Barth is a theologian you see, to the fingernails’ (p. 69).

From Chapter Four onwards, Gunton turns to Barth’s Church Dogmatics, acutely aware that ‘there is nothing as boring as résumés of Barth’s Dogmatics‘ and that ‘the way to get into Barth is to select and to read – read him, there is no substitute!’ (p. 71). Over the next 190 pages, this is precisely what Gunton masterfully helps us do; whether on Barth’s theological prolegomena, his witness to the three-fold Word, trinity, the doctrine of God proper, election, christology, soteriology, ethics and creation, we are all along driven by the only thing of theological interest for Barth, the question ‘Who is the God who makes himself known in Scripture?’ (p. 77). ‘When Barth is at his best’, Gunton writes, ‘he looks at the biblical evidence in detail; when he is weak he tends to evade it’ (p. 119)

A few tastes from ‘5. Barth on the Trinity and the Personal God’:

Barth is anti-foundationalist … God’s revelation is self-grounded; it does not have to appeal to anything else beyond itself. Because it is revelation through itself, not in relation to something else, because it is self-contained, lordship means freedom. This is characteristically Barthian: a characteristically Barthian phrase. Lordship means freedom – freedom for God, absolutely central for Barth’s theology. (p. 78)

The basis of all theology lies in the fact that revelation does happen … This revelation is Christological: Jesus Christ is God’s self-unveiling. The Father cannot be unveiled, but the Father reveals through the Son. This is imparted through the Holy Spirit. A little artificial I actually think, but you can see what he is actually trying to do: he is trying to show that inherent in the structure of God’s presence in Jesus Christ is a Trinitarian view of God … The point here is that in Jesus Christ we see the limits, the possibilities of the knowability of God … So Barth in a way is still retaining this dialectical structure: veiling-unveiling, knowability -unknowability, revelation-hiddenness … In the end you have only got paradox … God preserves his privacy. (pp. 79-80)

The logic is that if God is like this in time then because he doesn’t con us, so to speak, he doesn’t pull the wool over our eyes, because he is a revealing God, then that is what God is. So don’t think that the God we meet in Jesus is one God and that the God of eternity is entirely different from Jesus. The God you meet in Jesus is no different from the God you might meet if you were able to have a direct view of eternity. (p. 83)

Barth is against all mathematics in theology – he is against theories and ideas propounded down the centuries by theologians whereby examples are given of the Trinity, where three things make one; Augustine was often doing this, it is pure analogy or an attempt at analogy, which generally fails to offer any theological elucidation … I don’t like Augustine. I think he is the fountainhead of our troubles. (pp. 84, 96)

[Barth] is often accused of modalism, and I think he is near it … I think he is on a bit of a knife-edge myself, but then all theology is on a knife-edge, it is such a difficult discipline. [Barth] wants to do what the Cappadocians did, and Barth thinks he has done it better with this term – ‘modes of being’. Well, I don’t agree with him, but that is the way he puts it. (pp. 88-9)

Theology is our interpretation of God’s self-interpretation. God interprets himself to us, that is what revelation is. Our response is to interpret this faithfully, or as Jüngel would put it, responsibly … We move from faith to understanding. We move from a grateful acceptance of revelation to an attempt to understand as best we may what that revelation means for God and ourselves. And the understanding consists in the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit. It is so obvious that we should, isn’t it! We might talk of God as a tyrannical monad, but the fact that we can talk of God as Father, Son and Spirit is, so to speak, a demonstration after the event that we are making sense, that God is making sense, our theology makes sense. (p. 91)

And from ‘8. Ethics: Church Dogmatics Chapter VIII:

I do think that there is a problem of abstractness because there isn’t really in Barth, I think (and I say this tentatively), I think that there isn’t really in Barth an account of how this relationship between God and the moral agent takes shape. There is not much of a principle of formation. How are people formed so as to take one ethical direction rather than another? Barth is relatively weak in ecclesiology; that is, some account of how ethics are shaped by the community of belief. He is so anxious not to tie God down; that is always his anxiety, not to tie God down. (p. 133)

Throughout, Gunton is rousing his 30-40 mostly MA and PhD students (although the lectures were intended for undergraduates and so leave considerable ground un-traversed and engage minimally with secondary literature) to ‘read as much of the man himself’ not least because ‘the people that write about him are much more boring than he is’ (p. 9; cf. p. 39). In a sense, this is one book to ‘listen to’ more than to ‘read’. At times, it’s a bit like the difference between a live album and a studio version. Not all the notes are spot on, but the energy – filled with a depth of theological and pastoral insight that betray years of wrestling with the things that matter – is all there.

Such wrestling means that whether expounding a key motif in Barth’s theology or fielding questions, Gunton reveals not only a deep indebtedness to Barth’s work, but also points of divergence. He is upfront in the first lecture: ‘Not everyone buys into Barth … I don’t, all the way along the line, as I get older I get more and more dissatisfied with the details of his working out of the faith … over the years I think I have developed a reasonable view of this great man who is thoroughly exciting and particularly, I can guarantee, if you do this course, that you will be a better theologian by the third year, whether or not you agree with him – he is a great man to learn to think theologically with’ (p. 10; see the prefaces to his Theology Through the Theologians and to the second edition of The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). Clearly, Gunton is no clone of Barth. Though mostly unnamed, he draws upon Coleridge, Owen, Zizioulas and Polanyi as allies in order to attain a measure of distance from Barth’s theology (and that of Barth’s student Moltmann), notably on creation, trinitarian personhood (Gunton prefers the Cappadocians), natural revelation, Jesus’ humanity, Christ’s priesthood, the Word’s action as mediator of creation, ecclesiology, and an over-realised eschatology, among other things (see pp. 52, 74, 82, 88-90, 96, 133, 142, 148, 170-1, 186, 200, 212, 227, 236, 250, 253-4, passim). Not alone here, Gunton reserves his strongest criticisms for what he contends is Barth’s weak pneumatology (for which he blames Augustine and the filioque): there is ‘not enough of the Spirit accompanying and empowering Jesus at different stages of his ministry’ (p. 200). Again: ‘the second person of the Trinity is made to do a bit more than he does in Scripture’ (p. 212). Gunton is always cautious and respectful however: Barth ‘never really forgets anything, he is too good a theologian for that. And when you are criticizing Barth it is only a question of where he puts a weight; he never forgets anything, he is too good a man for that’ (p. 171). Even on the Spirit, Gunton suggests that he can only be critical here because of what he has learnt from Barth already: ‘That’s the great thing about Barth: he enables you to do other things that aren’t just Barth but yet are empowered by him. Yes, that’s his greatness’ (p. 200).

While the reformed theologian is ‘too-multi-layered a thinker to have one leading idea’ if there is one, Gunton suggests it is that of covenant: ‘that from eternity God covenants to be the God who elects human beings into relation with himself’ (p. 149), that from eternity the triune God is oriented towards us. Gunton’s chapter on Barth’s revision of God’s election in CD II/2 is an astounding example of his adroitness and élan as a theological educator. Not many teachers could summarise so sufficiently and with such economy (just 12 pages!) what for Barth is the root of all things, ‘creation, atonement, all’ (p. 115), that is, election. Gunton concludes by (over?)-suggesting that Barth’s effort was ‘a huge improvement in the crude determinism of the Augustinian tradition, which did not represent a gracious God. The Augustinian doctrine replaces grace with gratuity: God gratuitously chooses group A and not group B – this is not the God who seeks out the lost [even Judas] and does not reject them’ (p. 121).

This volume is significantly more than merely a course on the theology of the twentieth century’s superlative theologian. It is also a reminder that to read Barth attentively is to be introduced to a broader dogmatic and philosophical tradition. Moreover, it is to be led to do so by one of Britain’s ablest pedagogues. A foreword by Christoph Schwöbel and a warm introduction by Steve Holmes prepare us for one of the freshest introductions to Barth available. Again, we are placed in Professor Gunton’s debt.

Does contemporary theology require a postfoundationalist way of knowing?

The latest issue of SJT includes an essay by a good mate of mine – Kevin Diller. The article, which offers a response to Shults’ call for a postfoundational epistemological approach, seeks to answer the question, ‘Does contemporary theology require a postfoundationalist way of knowing?’ Here’s the blurb:

In his The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology, F. LeRon Shults recommends postfoundationalism as a via media between modernist foundationalism and postmodernist antifoundationalism. He advocates postfoundationalism as an epistemological approach which avoids the pitfalls on either side and provides the best way forward for constructive theological work. In this article I attempt to assess how well Shults’s proposal treats Christian theological knowing. I begin by entertaining a Barthian theological concern which might be employed as soft criteria for an assessment of any proposed theological epistemology. This concern stipulates that an epistemology in the service of Christian theology must respect a commitment to the objective reality of God who, as Word become flesh, makes himself known through the human experience of reality to his church, while recognising the fallibility of human knowing, presupposing a knowledge of God accessible through experience always only by the prevenient, self-giving action of God. I then turn to a brief analysis of the Shults–van Huyssteen case against foundationalism and nonfoundationalism, focusing particularly on the postfoundationalist critiques of foundationalism and fideism in dialogue with Barth. The article concludes with an appraisal of the postfoundationalist recommendation. I argue that Shults’s approach maps well to the theological concern for critical realism and a recognition of the social embeddedness of human knowing. Postfoundationalism’s underlying commitments, however, leave it closed to an external source of warrant, and as a consequence repudiate a from above view of theological knowing. I suggest instead that only a theofoundationalist epistemology avoids the pitfalls sketched by Shults in a way that maintains proper epistemic humility without entering the ghettos of fideism or scepticism.