Actualism: Discussion On Barth and Theological Ontology
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:
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:
I’m sure this raises more questions than answers, but I hope this helps get at some of the issues at play here.