Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth

Bruce L. McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2008), 320 pp; £15.00/ $32.00 [Review copy courtesy of Baker Academic]

It is easy to forget just how good a reader of nineteenth-century theology orthodox-and-modernBruce McCormack really is. Given the stature and boldness of his proposal regarding Jesus Christ as the subject of election (and the many implications that follow from it), the other many facets of his work have, of late, tended to be darkened by its shadow. Interestingly, McCormack’s renown has come about, chiefly, by his identification as the reader primarius of Karl Barth’s theological development, particularly as this development is situated within its surrounding historical context. In fact, without indulging too much in haliolatry, I think it would be safe to say, that if you want to get to grips with Barth, that is, if you want answers to the kinds of questions Barth was preoccupied with, one of the voices you should be listening to is that of Bruce McCormack.

While the entire collection of essays brims over with the kind of meticulous research and able marshalling of the sources one has come to expect from McCormack, it is in the first of the four sections that the reader is given a clear and firm reminder of why reading McCormack so compelling and, indeed, necessary. The motivation for some readers to get to the juicy material (and by juicy, I mean the material found under the title ‘Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology’) is naturally understandable but in so doing one bypasses over 100 pages of important stuff. Because a substantial part of McCormack’s project is devoted to offering an ‘orthodox’ profile of Barth, time has to be given to an analysis of those factors that facilitate such a position. As McCormack explains, ‘…what Barth was doing, in the end, was seeking to understand what it means to be orthodox under the conditions of modernity‘ (17). With McCormack at the helm, the reader would be hard pressed to find another who would be as able in navigating the conditions of modernity.

It would be hard to give a review of this piece without engaging, no matter how superficially, with McCormack’s reading of Barth’s Christology and doctrine of election – the juicy stuff! Suffice it to say, the matter has mustered a fair amount of heated rhetoric from all quarters and the reader has, in four essays (183-261), the bulk of what McCormack has argued on the topic, though it is in chapter 10 (‘Seek God Where He May Be Found’) where one finds McCormack’s most recent and nuanced account. At the centre of the controversy is McCormack’s proposal that Jesus Christ is the subject of election. Suspending this thesis in mid-air for a moment simply for the purpose of taking a brief look at the motivation behind it might help shed some light on the matter.

McCormack is driven by the concern that if one begins with a doctrine of the Trinity in the abstract, with the idea that God exists ontologically independent as a perfectly realised and fulfilled being in ‘a timeless realm above all relation to the world’ (273), then the incarnation, the assumptio carnis, is simply a cruel veneer for a God who is not prepared (or perhaps unable) to get involved in the messiness of human life.

Rather than following this path, which McCormack identifies as the traditional and classical route, he prefers to embark on a journey sign-posted by a careful analysis of Barth.

Whether or not Barth can be viewed as such a radical departure from the tradition, one can definitely say that McCormack does reflect Barth in his refusal to suffer counterfactuals and speculations. Rather than ask, ‘To whom does election apply?’ McCormack believes the primary question to be asked should be ‘Who is the God who elects? And what does knowledge of this God tell us about the nature of election?’ (185). McCormack’s answer: ‘Jesus Christ is both the Subject of election and its object, the electing God and the elect human’ (185). To say that Jesus Christ is the subject of election means for McCormack that election is no longer viewed as the overflow of God’s perfect life toward creatures, but now, election is that constitutive act whereby God gives to himself his own being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. ‘What Barth is suggesting’ holds McCormack, ‘is that election is the event in God’s life in which God assigns to himself the being he will have for all eternity’ (189).

This means that ‘there is no Logos asarkos in the absolute sense of a mode of existence in the Second Person of the Trinity which is independent of the determination for the incarnation, no “eternal Son” if this Son is seen in abstraction from the gracious election in which God determined and determines never to be God apart from the human race. The Second Person of the Trinity has a name and his name is Jesus Christ’ (191).

Of course, such a proposal does not contain the kind of familiar theological architecture one would expect to find in a doctrine of the Trinity, that is, a doctrine of aseity, processions and missions and so forth. Yet the absence of such architecture makes sense given McCormack’s understanding that who God is in himself and who God is for us are one and the same.

It’s not difficult to see how this thesis is bound to raise many questions, yet McCormack remains resolute in his position, since ‘Any attempt to look away from the God of electing grace revealed in Jesus Christ in an effort to find a ground of the possibility of election must inevitably open the door to natural theology. This is a door I chose not to open. What God in fact does is clearly possible for God; more than this I cannot say’ (275).

Whether intentional or not, McCormack’s reading of Barth has shifted to the degree that while there exists much overlap there also appears to be some independence. Interpretation is now giving way to a full-blown constructive theological proposal that simply cannot be ignored. Regardless of whether you are a reader of the theology of Karl Barth or not, you’ll eventually come up against the theology of Bruce McCormack and, in Orthodox and Modern, you’ll find the best place to begin.

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