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Actualism: Discussion On Barth and Theological Ontology

January 26, 2012

Yesterday’s post evaluating Cornelius Van Til’s criticisms of Karl Barth’s theology quickly led to a discussion on actualism and theological ontology, and how Barth’s very approach to the theological task differs from what has been called “essentialism” or “classical metaphysics.”  In the interest of preserving the other post’s comment thread for any conversation that might emerge on the post’s main points, I’m abusing my privilege as moderator to spin us off to a new thread.

To kick us off, David Congdon, PhD student in systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, has allowed me to repost his explanatory comment. This follows on his December post on the topic at his blog, The Fire and the Rose. Thanks to David, and welcome to you as our first de facto guest blogger at Out of Bounds.

It seems I need to write a much longer post on actualistic ontology (AO), since the confusion about it appears widespread and extreme. I’ll do what I can at the moment (and under a lot of stress regarding other responsibilities).

First, let’s clear up some misunderstandings:

1. AO is not a system. It is not in itself a new philosophy or ontology alongside other philosophies and ontologies. The word “ontology” here is thus misleading.

2. AO is not the starting-point but the conclusion. Neither Barth nor Jüngel nor McCormack begins with AO. It is simply a way of describing the kind of theology implied in Barth’s explication of the gospel.

These misunderstandings aside, let’s try to establish what AO actually is:

1. AO is first and foremost an issue of theological epistemology. How do we come to a true knowledge of God? Barth here makes some axiomatic decisions that necessarily conflict with “classical metaphysics,” so there will not be mutual understanding about AO until there is first a mutual understanding about these axiomatic decisions. What decisions are these? Fundamentally, there is just one decision that takes multiple forms. I will describe this decision in the following way: “Jesus Christ is the sole and exclusive self-revelation of God.” Barth grounds this axiom in passages like the prologue to John’s Gospel, where the Son is understood as the only one who knows the Father and who has made the Father known. This axiom has a number of crucial implications for Barth, which we can list as follows:

(a) As self-revelation, God’s communication to the world is a personal event. It is not the communication of ideas about God, but rather the communication of God’s own being and reality. Revelation is self-communication.
(b) The object of theology is an event in history, i.e., the reality of God — and thus the reality of the gospel of our reconciliation — takes place as an event in the contingent historical occurrence of Jesus. (This is obviously a massive implication.)
(c) Knowledge of God is determined or normed by the event of God in Jesus Christ.
(d) Knowledge of God is also an event. Epistemology is the subjective correlate of the objective event of reconciliation. True knowledge of God happens as the Spirit of Christ awakens us to faith, which is a true knowledge of who God is and who we are in Christ.

Thus far, these implications set forth the basic conditions for Barth’s christocentric method in theology. Other than an implied aspect of (b), I have not yet made the explicit turn to AO. In order to make that move, we need one additional axiom: “God’s essence and existence are identical.” The essence=existence axiom is a classical aspect of medieval metaphysics. The crucial difference is methodological. Where the classical metaphysicians presupposed a definition of the divine essence (immutable, impassible, simple, etc.), Barth proposes to let’s God’s existence define God’s essence. Instead of trying to figure out how to connect what God has done in history with this assumed definition of what is divine (hence the convoluted mess of the Chalcedonian Definition), Barth proceeds by letting God’s self-revelation (i.e., God’s existence) determine what we can and cannot say about God’s being or essence. In short, God is what God does. Implications:

(a) God does revelation. Ergo: God is revelation.
(b) Revelation is (the event of) Jesus Christ. Ergo: God is (the event of) Jesus Christ.
(c) Ergo: actualistic ontology.

I’m sure this raises more questions than answers, but I hope this helps get at some of the issues at play here.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2012 1:17 am

    Beautiful stated. Thank you.

  2. January 27, 2012 4:28 am


    Thanks for the insight and clarity.

    If I’m reading you right, it would seem that there are several ways for one to argue against AO. Please correct me if I’m wrong (I’m not arguing any of these points here but only suggesting possible ways one *could* argue against AO).

    1) Based on the misunderstandings you mentioned, one could argue that classical metaphysics (or any other ontology) are the best conclusion to a given explication of the gospel. That is, they fail as a starting point, but as a descriptor of what we observe happening in the person of Christ they are fitting. Another way of framing this critique is that we have no a priori reason to buy into a given system that we subsequently allow to determine what we say about God in his revelation. In this way, one would satisfy Barth’s concern of avoiding speculation (though perhaps not his concern of avoiding natural theology).

    2) One could argue against any of the axiomatic decisions that you mentioned Barth making. For instance, one could argue any of the following:

    a) that Jesus Christ is *not* the exclusive revelation of God;

    b) that genuine self-revelation is possible without the revealer being identical with the revelation or that genuine revelation can be both personal and propositional;

    c) that the object of theology is God himself and that there is genuine knowledge of God apart from the history of Jesus Christ (be it through natural theology or Scripture);

    d) that the norming/determining event of Jesus Christ only entails that we correct our theological formulations in light of what we see in Christ and that such a commitment does not entail AO;

    3) Or, one could argue that the implications you mentioned are not necessary entailments of the conclusions you previously reached; that is, one could argue:

    a) God is not identical with that which God does;

    b) God is not numerically identical with Jesus Christ;

    c) Even if God is what God does and is numerically identical with Jesus Christ, AO is not a necessary entailment of these propositions.

    Since AO is a conclusion rather than a starting point, I take it to be the case that one cannot, therefore, argue any of these points on the ground of actualism (perhaps with the exception of it being the best explanation of the facts).


    In light of what you said previously, I completely agree with you that Barth makes use of actualist ontology and that interpreters of him must attend to that fact. Barth must be read as an actualist. Yet, in moving from describing what Barth said to evaluating the claims on their own terms for constructive dogmatic discourse, I’m not convinced that one must give him his actualism (or, as you put it, “Evaluate Barth’s claims on Barth’s terms and not your own”).

    Why does it follow that one cannot critique Barth based on classical metaphysics, especially if David is right that actualism is a conclusion rather than a starting point?

    I’m not sure that I agree with you about what counts as speculation in Barth’s mind. But I do agree that if he is right that “1) theological speech is not possible without divine self-disclosure, and 2) that this disclosure takes place only in the event of Jesus Christ, then it follows that other starting points will not be valid.” I’m just not convinced *that* Barth was right about these two claims.

  3. January 27, 2012 10:02 am

    David, thank you again for your post here and for letting me make such use of it. It’s quite helpful to me to see such a clear outline, and I admit that I’ve heretofore looked at actualist ontology somewhat in reverse — i.e. from the conclusions moving backward, simply taking it as an alternate ontology that commends itself as better suited to the task of dogmatics. So your clarification will help me think through things more consistently.

    James, I imagine you’re right that one could remove any one or two stones from the foundation David has outlined and render the structure unsound. If one grants natural theology, or doesn’t regard as material the distinction between God’s revealing propositions versus God revealing Himself, it would impact the conclusions. Is classical metaphysics simply a different reckoning, then, but just as good? A case could be made, but unless it still adheres to most of points (a) through (d) (historical event, normed by Jesus Christ, etc.) it remains vulnerable to the charge of speculation.

    (In that regard even the doctrine of Scripture as outlined by the Protestant tradition contains an element of speculation. How do we know that this text is this thing? Is that belief conditioned by the presence of God in Jesus Christ? Or is it merely an ecclesial inheritance that the Reformers relocated to the sphere of pneumatology so as not to look too Roman Catholic? Barth, as you will know, gives a reckoning of Scripture that looks rather different because he wants to retain its authority over Christian life and confession but ground the doctrine in Christ.)

    How does one evaluate an actualist theology such as Barth’s, then, without becoming an actualist? By taking him on his own terms of course I mean that one can’t ignore the actualist shape of it, any more than one can ignore the dialectical shape of it, or its formal qualities as a Protestant dogmatics, or its nineteenth and twentieth century conditioning, etc. You don’t have to agree that he’s right, but if you’re going to account for his moves you should know how and why he is making them. That’s all I mean to say. (If you want to get further into this point, maybe you could suggest a doctrine under critique as an example …)

    Finally, to David’s formal description above I want to add a couple of bits we might consider more doctrinally material with respect to Barth in particular (that is to say, they are not necessarily entailments of what he has outlined above):

      (A) God is the Lord. In an actualist framework, wherein God has His essence in His lived existence or His being in His act, the freedom of God suggests that God actively determines His being.
      (B) God is eternal. (Or: God is Creator.) He is outwith created time and therefore relates to time — to the moments of past, present, and future — in a different way than do creatures.

    This will let us get at a great deal of misunderstanding in Barth interpretation, including Van Til’s worry about the eternal humanity of Jesus. Actualism and dialecticism described in this way allow Barth to say “both/and” with respect to many doctrines where the older tradition felt it had to opt for an “either/or.”

  4. January 27, 2012 11:46 am

    Yeah, I’m not reading this carefully – but I’m for hearing a definition of what speculation precisely is. For example, is it a) a statement which is completely unrelated to God’s revelation in Christ, b) a statement which is inferable on the grounds of God’s revelation in Christ, or c) something else? Just curious – Thomas Curran’s book on speculation in Schleiermacher has alerted to the need for precision on this issue.

  5. January 27, 2012 2:02 pm

    Darren, thanks for taking the time to write your post. I am not well versed in Barth, so I still have lingering questions regarding AO and time/eternity. What view of time does Barth take (A-Series [dynamic actualization of only the present], B-Series [static “block universe”], or some dialectic of the two?) Either way, AO with a non-A theory of time just doesn’t seem to get around the idea of an eternal and necessary creation of the universe/incarnation-death–resurrection of Christ/good and evil. Thoughts?

  6. January 27, 2012 2:55 pm

    Here is a very old post that might help advance the conversation concerning Barth and time. For a more specialized discussion, I suggest that you get in touch with my colleague at Princeton Theological Seminary, Mark Edwards, who is currently dissertating on Barth and time / eternity.

  7. January 27, 2012 3:00 pm

    Thanks, Travis, for the link. What do you think of the Hunsinger/Leftow discussion in For the Sake of the World?

  8. January 27, 2012 4:28 pm

    William: I, in turn, am not especially familiar with philosophical accounts of the nature of time, so I can’t speak to the “series” you mention. I’ll defer to those who know about this sort of thing. (Maybe if we cheer loudly enough we could entice Mark E. onto the thread.)

    I’ve heard of at least three dissertations on Barth’s view of time and eternity currently underway (James Cassidy’s is another), so I suspect we’re just a few years from being gobsmacked by a plethora of new books on the subject. That’s great to see; when I first dipped into the Dogmatics on the topic of time I found that Barth comes back to it in a major treatment about once every volume.

    Justin: In this context I take “speculation” to refer to any unrevealed “knowledge” of God (which is therefore no knowledge at all). It does seem, though, that this is not a simple, binary category (this doctrine is revealed, that way of nuancing is not revealed) when it comes to theological reflection. Thus I read David’s “determined or normed” in (c) to be two different things (though he may not have intended so). Proper knowledge of God is either 1) determined by the event of Jesus Christ, directly; or it is 2) normed by the event of Jesus Christ, indirectly. Speculative theology is that which does neither. (Perhaps a comparison could be made to the sixteenth century debate over that which Scripture instructs versus that which Scripture does not explicitly forbid.)

    Practically speaking, what you call inference may be permitted by the latter (indirect). That is, doctrines which are normed by the Christ event may not be directly revealed there; but they ought to be subjected to and tested by God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. But now I’m just riffing off the top of my head.

  9. April 19, 2012 4:20 pm

    William: Barth doesn’t presuppose either a tensed A-Series or a tenseless B-Series view of time. While we may (or may not) have intuitions about the genuine validity of our experiences of “before” and “after,” Barth doesn’t simply adopt/presuppose a view of time based upon our intuitions and/or arguments for their validity. To do so, he feels, would be to base too much theology upon a foundation outside of God’s self-revelation. Like with so many other issues in the CD, Barth turns to Jesus for the true understanding of time and argues, that the true understanding of our time can’t be had apart from Jesus. Throughout, Barth argues that “Time is” & “Time is real” (III/2, 521). That this is so, is what is shown to us in Jesus Christ. Barth’s noetic key, here, is the event(s) of Jesus’s life and the fact that as Revelation attests, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (1:8). The ongoing temporality of Jesus (i.e. that He is *living*-which is all what “act ontology” is about) is then the basis for our ongoing temporality. Barth, then, really seeks to develop and build a fully Christocentric understanding of time, in which Jesus is the true ground for all our beginnings, middles, & ends / befores, durings, & afters / pasts, presents, & futures. That our time comes from Jesus, means then, that Jesus is “Lord of Time” (III/2, #47.1). Perhaps this clarifies?

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