Trinitarian Theology after Barth: a Review

Book: Trinitarian Theology after Barth (Princeton Theological Monograph) ed. by Myk Habets and Phillip Tolliday, with a foreword by John Webster (AMAZON LINK)

Publisher: Pickwick Publications (an imprint of Wipf & Stock Publishers), included in the Princeton Theological Monograph Series #148 (PUBLISHER LINK)

Overview: Like any collection of essays, there will always be those essays that hit a home run, those that intrigue great interest, and sadly sometimes also those that fall flat. In this collection there were far more home-runs and sparks of intrigue than in most of the collections I’ve read, and for that reason alone this is an excellent and thought-provoking book well worth your time. It will be of special interest for those wanting to study Barth’s Trinitarian theology, and particularly to examine the diverse streams of thought of those who have more or less followed after his work.

Without a doubt the most striking essays in this collection came from Bruce McCormack and Benjamin Myers, at least for me anyways. I have been loosely familiar with the so-called “companion controversy” or the “Barth-wars”, as some have exaggeratedly dubbed it. This is the debate over the ramifications of Barth’s doctrine of God following his radical revision to the doctrine of election. McCormack has pioneered this debate with his thesis, and up until now I have remained mostly indifferent to the outcome. But after reading McCormack’s essay I am all the more intrigued by what he has to say. I am not saying I am convinced quite yet, because what he argues is radical, but I am more interested now than I had been before. And most of all, I am far more informed as to what McCormack is actually saying, which is surprisingly much different from what I was told he is saying.

The expertise and elegance of McCormack’s essay, aptly followed by Myers’ essay, struck a chord with me. Accordingly, in this review I will focus on the chief argument of these two essays, and examine various quotations from each.

But I would be in the wrong not to at least mention a few of the many other excellent essays I enjoyed from this volume.

Myk Hybets’ essay on the filioque clause, which relies upon T.F. Torrance’s work heavily, was simply excellent. A solid essay, and I am grateful for it as I have begun working on my own book about Torrance. (T.F. Torrance in Plain English, forthcoming.) Particularly I am thankful to Hybets for drawing attention to a theologian unknown to me up until now: Thomas Weinandy. Hybets praises Weinandy’s book, The Father’s Spirit of Sonship, as a profound way forward after both Barth and Torrance. I plan on picking up a copy of Weinandy’s book soon. (You can purchase your own by clicking here.)

Other essays that I enjoyed were Molnar’s essay highlighting the role of the Holy Spirit in knowing the Triune God in the work of Barth and Torrance. Often Barth is under-appreciated for his subtle attention to the Holy Spirit, but Molnar does a great job highlighting the importance for Barth of the Spirit’s role.

Davidson’s essay and Rae’s essay were also noteworthy. Rae’s especially brought out several interesting points regarding the “spatiality of God”, something that I recall intrigued me greatly about Barth’s work in CD II/1. Tolliday’s essay was also insightful, regarding the issue of subordination in Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity.

Another home-run was Andrew Nicol’s essay “Why Do Humans Die?”, which examines the role of death in Barth and Robert Jenson’s thought. I am not tremendously familiar with Jenson’s work, but this was an interesting look into his understanding in dialogue with Barth.

And finally, Haydn D. Nelson’s essay on divine immutability and impassibility was of great interest. I feared Moltmann would be only negatively engaged with in this book, and I was right to assume he would be. But this was a fair and insightful treatment of Moltmann’s work (though indirectly), which offers some possible steps forward into a more nuanced understanding of impassibility and immutability.

These were my favorite essays, not because I agreed with them completely, but because they were the most interesting to read. Some may likely find a few of the other essays to be more stimulating, such as Link-Wieczorek’s work on inter-religious dialogue or Moyse’s on biomedical ethics. But I can only say which essays I enjoyed the most.

But as I’ve said, in this review I want to briefly examine McCormack’s essay and Myers’ essay since they were the most profound in my eyes.

McCormack’s essay

McCormack’s essay begins with a story. He once asked T.F. Torrance what the difference between his doctrine of the Trinity and Barth’s was. Interestingly, Torrance replies that “his own doctrine owed a great debt to Gregory Nazianzen while Barth’s doctrine was ‘Basilian.'” (87) This is something McCormack unpacks towards the end of his essay.

The primary idea McCormack is after is to “reconstruct Barth’s doctrine in the light of his later Christology”. McCormack points to a fundamental change from CD I/1 to IV/1 in Barth’s Trinitarian thought. He essentially claims that Barth has two doctrines of the Trinity: the first from CD I/1 is based on the statement, “God reveals Himself as the Lord”, and the second from CD IV/1 is based on a more concrete Christology. McCormack writes that the question occupying Barth’s thought in CD I/1 was, “How can God enter into the sphere of human knowing without surrendering himself to epistemic control, thereby setting aside his sovereign freedom?” (105) However, that question significantly changes in CD IV/1 into a “deeply ontological” question “of the Godness of God in his self-revelation”. Essential, Barth now is asking, “How can God live a human life, suffer, and die—without undergoing change on the level of his being?”

A key quotation for this that McCormack points out happens to be one of my favorite statements from CD IV,

“Our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human, all too human. Who God is and what it means to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself, and thereby, His nature, the essence of the divine. And when He reveals Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does such things, then it must lie far from us to wish to be wiser than he and to maintain that such things stand in contradiction to the divine essence.” (Karl Barth, CD IV/1, 186; emphasis McCormack)

McCormack notes, “Barth’s solution to the ontological form of his central question is clear: suffering and death do not change God because they are essential to him.” (105) This is a difficult statement to unpack, but McCormack does well at explaining the significant moves Barth is making to reach this conclusion.

Essentially, McCormack argues that Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity in CD IV/1 is more “concrete” and therefore less “abstract” than his earlier treatment, since here Barth takes as the basis of his doctrine the concrete history of Jesus Christ and not merely the statement that “God reveals Himself as the Lord” (which has been often criticized). McCormack explains, in a summary statement of sorts:

“Taking a step back, it has to be said that the basic structure of Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity remains unchanged in my reconstruction. One Subject in three modes of being—that remains Barth’s view. But materially, the doctrine has changed as a consequence of the fact that Barth’s derivation of the doctrine has changed. He no longer equates the divine essence with hiddenness, but with the concrete Subject who is completely given in each of his three modes of being. I call this Subject ‘concrete’ because nothing is said about him beyond that which is made possible by his self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and everything that is said about him is authorized by the historical event.” (111)

And at the core of this argument is the thesis that God’s eternal being was before all time what God became in the history of Jesus Christ. McCormack writes,

“The immanent Trinity is already, in eternity, what it will become in time. If obedience is proper to God, if it is a personal property of the triune God in his second mode of God, then there is no difference in content between the immanent and the economic Trinity. The immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and vice versa. … If the incarnation is not a new event when it takes place in time, this is because the condition of its possibility is already found in an eternal act of willed receptivity vis-a-vis the humanity to be assumed. …To put it this way is to suggest that there is no such thing as an ‘eternal Son’ in the abstract. The ‘eternal Son’ has a name and his name is Jesus Christ.” (111)

This is all rather complex and difficult to conceive, and McCormack’s essay does a far better job than this summary has does so far at explaining his point. However, there is a helpful remark McCormack makes that brings this all into focus. McCormack writes that Barth is here at once Cappadocian and modern: 

“The Cappadocian element consists in the recognition that God is triune because the Father has freely willed to be so. The modern element consists in the integration of the covenant into the eternal act in which the Father freely constitutes himself as triune.” (112-3)

And finally, McCormack summarizes his thinking so far:

“The train of thought I have developed to this point may be summarized as follows. An act of self-determination that makes humility and obedience to be essential to God is clearly and freely willed activity that is constitutive of what and who God is. But now, if the act of self-determination is an act whose consequences ‘become’ essential to God, then we are confronted with two possibilities. Either the divine essence was constituted in one way before this ‘eternal’ act and in another way after it or this act is ontologically primordial in the sense that there is nothing ‘before’ it—no constitution of the divine essence that is other than or different from what the divine essence is made to be in the act itself.” (113)

The former necessitates a rejection of divine constancy, and the latter necessitates a change in divine ontology. McCormack’s argument is that Barth takes the latter path over the former, and therefore we come full circle. McCormack sees the grounds for a second doctrine of the Trinity in Barth’s decision, a revision that, if Barth had completed CD V, he thinks Barth would have likely drawn out himself.

And this is where the so-called “Barth-wars” have come from. McCormack argues that “election and triunity are given together in one and the same eternal event.” Clarifying further that, “Neither has ontological priority over the other. But election has a logical priority over Trinity—because decision has a logical priority over being.” (115)

This second remark is an extremely helpful one. Some have caricatured McCormak’s argument vs. Hunsinger’s as “election first then Trinity” vs. “Trinity first then election”, but McCormack is clearly arguing more for “both” at once, with only a logical priority given to election. This clarification doesn’t make his argument correct by default, but it does shed light on what exactly McCormack is after.

As I’ve said initially, I am not agreeing with McCormack’s conclusion here anymore than I am agreeing with Hungsinger’s (even though that was my natural inclination before reading McCormack’s argument). I am simply interested in clarifying what it is that McCormack is actually arguing.

I am unable to adequately weigh in on such a complex issue, but I am beginning to understand it better, following my reading of McCormack’s essay. I hope this limited summary has encouraged you to do the same.

Myers’ essay

I want to quote some highlights from Myers’ essay, which works well as a companion to McCormack’s. Myers more directly engages this thesis with the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, which was fascinating for me to read. Myers essential thinks that Barth is more radical in his ontology than Moltmann in his famous book, The Crucified God. 

Myers writes, “election is Barth’s alternative to a Moltmannian theology of the cross.” (131) Calling this a “more metaphysically radical than anything Moltmann achieved in The Crucified God…” (131) Those interested in Moltmann and Barth alike will undoubtably find this essay to be of great interest.

But I want to end this review with a few clarifying statements from Myers’ essay that I found helpful for understanding McCormack’s radical thesis. Myers writes,

“God has no being apart from what happens in the human Jesus. The idea of a ‘divine being’ existing outside relation to Jesus is, Barth thinks, the very essence of idolatry. God’s being as God is constituted by God’s self-determined relation to the human Jesus. Simply put, this means that what happens in Jesus really matters for God.” (130)

“God’s deity, then, is not some entity which calmly precedes (in order to be disclosed in) the history of Jesus. God’s deity, rather, consists in God’s determination to be the God whose own internal life takes on the form of humiliation, lowliness, and crucifixion. God elects the cross of Jesus as the site of God’s own being. The crucified Jesus is the content of God’s decision about who God will be from all eternity.” (130)

“For Barth, then, God’s triunity is always already a cruciform triunity. God elects the death of Jesus as the shape of God’s own life. God ‘is not untrue to himself but true to himself in this condescension.’ The crucified Christ is the perfect—the beautiful and terrible—realization of what it means for God to be God. The wound of the cross is a real wound; but this wound is already at the heart of that eternal communion, that love which is always in motion between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” (132)

Myers then argues against the Logos Asarkos and dialogues with Molnar’s critique of McCormack’s thesis. In a summary of the three possibilities after Barth, Myers writes,

“In contemporary considerations of the relation between the human Jesus and the eternal being of God, we are, I think, faced with three main alternatives: a mutable being who undergoes change as a result of what happens in Jesus (Moltmann); an indeterminate and unknowable divine being who lies behind the election of Jesus (Molnar); or a divine being who is both knowable and immutable, since it is always already determined towards the history of Jesus (McCormack). …I have argued that Barth’s ‘second’ doctrine of the Trinity points to this third option, a God whose being is eternally shaped by what happens in Jesus’ history, and by a self-determined movement towards that history. …

Or to put it more succinctly: God is eternally self-consistent because Jesus Christ is not only the elected human but also the electing God. Jesus is God’s self-consistencey, God’s way of being God.” (135-6)


This review has been somewhat overpowered by the thesis presented by McCormack and Myers, in very much the same way that the book, for me anyways, was determined by these two essays. I enjoyed reading it tremendously, and I hope I have not under-valued the great essays that exist alongside these two.

Fundamentally, I neither wish to argue for or against McCormack’s thesis. Instead, I found myself surprised by how much I initially misunderstood it! I would hope that those interested in McCormack’s work would not hastily judge his thesis as wrong just because it is complex, difficult, and quite radical. This volume would be a helpful entry-level study into exactly what McCormack is after.

Primarily, however, this was a great collection of essays well worth reading, which obviously has been the cause of much thought for me personally. I recommend reading it if you are interested in furthering your understanding of Barth’s thought and especially of the contemporary status of Trinitarian theology following his profound theological career.

My thanks to Wipf & Stock for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work.

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