Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Barth and Evangelical Theology: Part 4, God and Election

After getting bogged down on my thesis, blogging about Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, and taking a slight break, I am finally returning to Barth and Evangelical Theology. The chapter I will comment on is called “A Bold Innovator: Barth on God and Election,” by the editor of the volume, Sung Wook Chung, a Korean theologian educated at Harvard and Oxford who teaches at Denver Seminary.

I was slightly surprised that the editor of Barth and Evangelical Theology was the figure so far in the volume with the most opposition to Barth’s theology. He says in the introduction to the chapter, “I am not in agreement with [postconservative theologians] that Barth’s theology is the hope for the future of evangelical theology. Rather, I am convinced that conservative evangelical theology should take issues with many points of Barth’s theology” (60).

While acknowledging that Barth believed in the Reformation principles of sola scriptura, sola gratia, a christocentric emphasis, and what Chung calls “theologianhood of all believers,” Chung argues that Barth was an “innovator” when it comes to the doctrine of God. First, Chung critiques Barth’s “actualism,” by which means Barth’s argument that “God is who He is in the act of His revelation” (63). Chung sites Princeton theologian George Hunsinger, who argues Barth “thinks primarily in terms of events and relationships rather than monadic or self-contained substances” (64). Chung opposes Barth’s emphasis upon God’s action rather than substance, thus arguing it is against scripture and thus anti-evangelical. Scripture however, often focuses more on how God acts to redeem Israel, in Christ, etc., and spends much less time discussing God’s substance. Chung seems unaware that Barth argued the economic Trinity (how God acts in relation to his creation in salvation history) is the immanent Trinity (the interior life of God).

Second, Chung critiques Barth’s view of God “as the one who loves in freedom” (65). Chung believes that one should begin not with “God is love” but instead with “God is spirit” or “God is good.” Because Barth places the emphasis upon God’s free love and free loving actions, Chung believes Barth argues “love is God,” which is unfounded (66). Chung argues that “one who loves in freedom can be evil,” but Barth obviously believes God is not evil and that God’s love is good and different from human love. Chung thus seems to define an evangelical view of God with a stream of Reformed thought that emphasizes God as spirit and God’s attributes of goodness, truthfulness, and holiness above love.

Third, Chung critiques what he calls Barth’s “metaphysics of relationship,” primarily because Barth “hated speculation” and “never defined God from a perspective of substantialist metaphysics.” Again, Chung seems unaware that for Barth, the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. Chung even argues, quite inaccurately, that “Barth’s relational ontology is a quite innovative pattern of thought that has no precedent in the history of Christian theology” (70). Then he says, “Of course, we may say that the three Cappadocian Fathers were an exception” (70). So, Chung shows a dislike of social views of the Trinity, which are present within Eastern Orthodoxy and recent western theologians like Colin Gunton, Stanley Grenz, Jurgen Moltmann, etc. So once again, Chung appears to only take seriously certain forms of Reformed theology.

Fourth, Chung critiques Barth’s doctrine of election, which centers upon Christ as “the direct object of divine election” (72) and the “Subject of election” (74). Thus, “In [Jesus], all human beings are directed indirectly” (72). Barth, while opposed to holding to universalism as dogma, held to it as an “article of hope,” much like some contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians (73). Chung is correct that few in church history discussed this view as the primary form of election, it does have support from some passages in Scripture and various figures in tradition. Chung thus correctly argues that Barth holds together both Calvinistic and Arminian tendencies.

Throughout the chapter, I found that Chung could not see outside of his lens of conservative Reformed evangelical theology in viewing Barth, who was a Reformed theologian of a different mold. One point I will seed to Chung is that Barth at times speaks of the Trinity in modalistic language, which is upsetting, but in other contexts he does not. It appears Barth, like Nicholas Lash, uses quasi-modalistic language to maintain an emphasis upon the oneness of God. As a person who is from a Arminian background and appreciates aspects of Eastern Christianity, Barth’s doctrines of God and election are less upsetting to me than to someone like Chung. I was pretty surprised that in a volume of essays that are supposed to constructively and appreciatively interact with Barth’s theology from an evangelical perspective that Chung’s essay was so critical.

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