Source: Bruce McCormack, ‘Divine Impassability or Simply Divine Constancy? Karl Barth’s Later Christology for Debates over Impassability’ in Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering, James Keating & Thomas Joseph White eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, pp. 150-186
In this article, Bruce McCormack argues that we should dispense with the apostolic doctrine of divine impassibility, not just because of Adolf von Harnack’s Hellenization thesis (that the apostolic fathers’ exegesis has been contaminated by platonic thoughts), but more so because of Christology.
It is more justifiable to speak of God‘s fidelity and constancy. God’s affectivity is demonstrated in His own free power and His innermost essence, open and ready to co-suffering with alien suffering. Barth criticizes Schleiermacher’s conception of absolute dependence because the source of this absolute dependence has no heart and no soul (KD II/1, p.416; CD II/1, p.370).
For Barth, the human Jesus that suffers and dies is truly and fully God, and this creates two problems concerning the immutability and the impassability of God.
We have only two options. The first is to mystify the relationship between the ontic Trinity and the economic Trinity—that the transcendent God is also the immanent God with us is a paradox, a paradox culminated in Mk 15:34: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In the incarnation God not only becomes the creature, but gives himself over to the human’s contradiction of him, placing himself under the judgment that rests on that contradiction.
But according to Barth this solution is intolerable in that it sets God in self-contradiction. How can God reconcile the world with Himself if there is any fundamental self-contradiction in His [immanent and economic] nature?
Communication of attributes between Christ‘s two natures is an area of debate between reformed orthodoxy and Lutheran theology. But no one here who holds to the traditional paradox can give a satisfactory single-subject Christological account of the communication of attributes without either drifting into Nestorianism or winding up with greater paradox.
The only remaining option is to affirm that God has completely faithful to Himself. God must be fully committed in being in Christ and must not flirt with other possibilities. We can successfully hold this claim only by beginning with what God does in Jesus Christ, such a God that can be emptied, humiliated, suffer, and die. God’s immutability is preserved by if we speak of the ontology of God first and foremost in light of the Christocentric historical revelation. The Majesty of the father and the obedience of the son are manifestations of a single divine subject in different modes of being, a purposive /willed “self-repetition”. We might say it is precisely the father’s majestic command which posits Himself over against himself in the person of the son that is capable of responding in obedience.
Tweaking Barth’s theology in this actualistic way, there will be no room left for divine impassability.
The homecoming of the son of man” in CD IV/2
Barth and Cyril of Alexander both hold to the conviction that “what the man Jesus does, God does.” Cyril’s solution is to instrumentalize the human nature of Jesus to make it a tool/performative agent of the Logos as the single subject in Jesus Christ.
But to prevent it from collapsing into a Hegelian reduction, the abstractness of the Chalcedonian formula needs some reworking. Classically there is a static center between the great divine acts of virginal conception and resurrection that bypasses the history of Jesus. Barth thinks that we have to ‘actualize’ the doctrine of the incarnation that the traditional concepts of unio, communion, and communication will be all “terms which speak of actions, operationes, events.” (CD IV/2 p.46)
Christ exists in a modality of being in perfect receptivity in a kind of relation of his humanity that is more than merely economic, it constitutes God second mode of being in eternity. That the command and the obedience are the dual aspects of the divine election into eternal processions means the second person of the Trinity is always the “Logos asarkos in anticipation of the Logos ensarkos”. The hypostatic union is not a static state but can only be spoken as hypostatic uniting from a timeless aspect. Barth has set aside the essentialism of the ancient church and rejected that there is a Logos acting in and through and upon the human nature. He exchanged what was essentialist for an understanding that is historicized and actualistic.
Barth is not Arian, but also not a modalist according to the following reasons:
1) Though Modalists (Noetus and Praxeas) and Barth both attributed suffering to the Father in certain ways, Barth has an adequate distinction between the person of the Father and that of the Son. The threes persons for Barth are distinguished not according to temporal or economic phases, but in the decision that takes place in eternity. The modalist thinking has been continued in 19th century Lutheran kenoticism (Wolfgang Gess). (Notice also that Swiss reformed concept of “the genus tapeinoticum” [literally: the “genus of humility”] is the logical contrary of the Lutheran genus majestaticum.)
2) Barth also distinguishes himself from Sabellius. The three persons for Barth exist in their different modes of being, and for Sabellius different modes of appearance.
3) Barth identifies the misguided doctrinal commitment to divine impassibility as the root problem of both modalism and subordinationism. That is to say, God could have remained impassible only if He did not elect Himself to be for us. But since He did and He is completely faithful to whom He is, then there is no place for impassibility.
McCormack’s final suggestion is that Karl Barth has completely moved away and beyond early church fathers, including Cappadocian fathers, in terms of metaphysical framework.
The Scholastic effort to tie them back together is wrong and useless. We have to accept Karl Barth and reject church fathers because their worldviews were conditioned by their Hellenistic world rather than the biblical one. This is inevitable because the Bible simply did not give us a firm and consistent teaching in metaphysics. That is not the concern of the biblical writers. This means today we have to develop a different set of Scriptural ontology according to our best understanding of the conditions of our time- the postmodern, and even the postliberal condition.
- The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Bruce McCormack)
- Jesus Christ Embodiment of Grace
- Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union (Adam Neder)
- God’s Perfect Life (John Webster)
- [書摘] Christ and Canon, theology and history – the Barth-Harnack dialogue revisited (breath35.wordpress.com)
- [書摘] God is His Decision: The Jüngel-Gollwitzer "Debate" Revisited (breath35.wordpress.com)
- [書摘] Argue Theologically with One Another: Karl Barth’s Argument with Emil Brunner (breath35.wordpress.com)