A God of lonely majesty or supreme vulnerability

In a 2017 review by Mark Lindsay, Trinity Theological School, Melbourne, in 2017 of Dogmatics After Barth: Facing Challenges in Church, Society and the Academy, Thomas, Günter, Rinse Reeling Brouwer and Bruce McCormack eds, (Leipzig: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012), he draws our attention to Matthias Gockel’s essay Theology after Barth – the Dogmatic Challenge. He says that “Gockel returns us to the heart of theology, the knowledge of God on the basis of God’s Self-knowing, and thus the paradox that the object of theology is a Subject. Referencing Barth’s 1929 essay “Schicksal und Idee in der Theologie” and his later more developed theological ontology in CD II, Gockel neatly demonstrates the connection between what it is possible to know and then say about God, and what God says to Himself about Himself, as the “One who loves in freedom.” Seeing this as the herald of Barth’s doctrine of election, Gockel concludes with the suggestion that dogmatics after but in the manner of Barth should abstain from any speculation about God’s being that divorces Him from creation and covenant. Thus, in a nod to the Trinitarian-election debates, Gockel—who has been aligned with McCormack amongst the “revisionists”—argues that if as Barth claims God is truly affected by His creation, then the full realization of the divine Self-identity is contingent upon the history of creation (121-122).”

This is perhaps something that Karl Barth in his doctrine of Election (CD II/2) might not have foreseen and which has caused so much ink to run in recent years eg Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, Michael T. Dempsey (Editor), Eerdmans, 2011.

Bruce McCormack of Princeton University, in his ground breaking essay “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology.” in Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, 183-200. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008: 193 (Originally published in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (ed. John Webster; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92-110, has posited that the later Karl Barth saw the existence of the eternal Trinity not as the ground and presupposition, but as the consequence of God’s pre‐temporal decision of election. George Hunsinger argues that a more “traditionalist” reading, would deny that proposition. He maintains that the texts adduced by the revisionists fail to make their case.

In the context of this debate, defending God’s aseity (God has no need of any other being for His existence) at all costs does not, I would suggest, take into consideration Barth’s own later revisionism (The Humanity of God, Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) in which he famously claimed that “God’s high freedom in Jesus Christ is His freedom for LOVE. The divine capacity which operates and exhibits itself in that superiority and subordination is manifestly also God’s capacity to bend downwards, to attach Himself to another and this other to Himself, to be together with him. This takes place in that irreversible sequence, but in it is completely real. In that sequence there arises and continues in Jesus Christ the highest communion of God with man. God’s deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself. It is rather His freedom to be in and for Himself but also with and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man’s eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity! All that, rather, in the highest proof and proclamation of His deity! He who DOES and manifestly CAN do all that, He and no other is the living God.”

This is complex territory! For some it is drawing too long a bow to suggest that Barth was heading in the direction mentioned above, particularly that the Trinity is not the ground and presupposition, but the consequence of God’s pre‐temporal decision of election. A reading of both Old and New Testaments would suggest that we have to do not with a God of lonely majesty but rather of One Who has made Himself supremely vulnerable.  Binding God’s innate being to the the story of redemption and that somehow His being was constituted by his movement towards a fallen humanity is anathema to some as it challenges mainstream orthodoxy. But this is the God we worship through the One who made Himself of ‘no reputation’ (Philippians ch 2). 

Is this just another sterile pointless debate for theologians? Perhaps not. We tread on holy ground here – ‘And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory‘ Paul to Timothy (1 Timothy 3: 16 NKJV).

It would appear that Pierre Maury agreed with Barth’s mature doctrine of election, as in his 1954 lectures in Evanston, USA at the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches when he was speaking to pastors on the topic of Predestination and what he called The Second choice of God: the Incarnation, he affirmed that
In speaking of the election of Christ, we must realize that it is not enough to say that God chose Jesus Christ, but that he chose to be Jesus Christ. This is the second divine election. It was not only the most complete form of the covenant between Creator and creature; it was the very possibility and the reality of that covenant. For in Christ, in his twofold nature, God and man are present: God as the sovereign of free grace, man as that special creature among all others who answers for the whole of creation before the Creator. The “gathering together of all things in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:10), as well as their reconciliation (Col 1:20), is fulfilled in him.” (Election, Barth and the French Connection, p83)

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