Reading Barth with Charity

A Hermeneutical Proposal

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George Hunsinger
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , April
     2015.
     208 pages.
     $24.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780801095313.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

George Hunsinger is a premier interpreter of Karl Barth. His many books have examined Barth’s theology in its breadth and depth. In Reading Barth with Charity, he takes a deep dive into an internal debate brewing in Barth studies in recent years. This is a technical discussion but a significant one, according to Hunsinger.

The dispute is between what the author calls the “revisionists” and the “traditionalists” who interpret Barth. The revisionists contend that “for Barth, God’s pretemporal decision of election in Christ is the ground of God’s trinitarian identity.” The shorthand for this is: “No election, no Trinity” (xi).

The traditionalists, with whom Hunsinger is aligned, believe this view is based on “a series of misguided inferences” (xvi). Traditionalists hold that “God’s pretemporal decision of election presupposes God’s prior reality as the Trinity. God’s trinitarian identity in no way depends on election.” Thus: “No Trinity, no election” (xi).

This basic issue is the focus of five chapters examining different aspects of the debate. Throughout, Hunsinger analyzes the revisionist view through its proponents: Bruce McCormack, Paul T. Nimmo, Paul Dafydd Jones, and Matthias Gockel, among others. The “charter document” is an essay by McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology.” This piece is examined in chapter 1 and forms a core focus of the debate. The book’s further chapters include engagement with other scholars and explore ways in which the basic convictions of the two views show themselves in relation to topics such as the Trinity and election, “God’s Historicity,” and “The Obedience of the Son and Classical Theism.”

This book is significant as a detailed theological debate as well as for Hunsinger’s proposal that Barth be read according to “the principle of charity.” This approach arises from recent analytic philosophy to guide interpretation of texts. Its value is in providing a way toward understanding texts that are particularly difficult or ambiguous. After outlining this “principle” as found in contemporary philosophy, Hunsinger adapts it in a series of questions to provide criteria by which the revisionist position of reading Barth can be assessed. These are his -preliminary questions- for the revisionists :

  • Does it seek to understand Barth’s theology in its strongest form before subjecting it to fundamental criticism?
  • Has it truly sought to understand Barth before picking out supposed difficulties or contradictions?
  • If apparent contradictions are discerned (as they are), has an active attempt been made to resolve them in Barth’s favor?
  • If no such attempt has been made (as it has not), does not a certain presumption exist against this interpretation?
  • Finally, do the revisionists honor the principle of humanity, or do they seem to adopt an attitude of condescension toward the writer whose views they are considering?
  • In short, are the revisions entitled to their key claim that Barth’s views on election and the Trinity, when taken as a whole are ‘inconsistent’? (xiii-xiv).

In assessing Hunsinger’s assessments of a revisionist position, another significant perspective emerges. This is Hunsinger’s judgment on a mode of operation for the revisionist and traditionalist views. Here he uses the difference between “Evangelical Calvinism” and “Rationalistic Calvinism,” terms drawn from the writings of Thomas F. Torrance.

Evangelical Calvinism is seen as closer to Calvin than the rationalistic approach, and is marked by being more biblically oriented and less indebted to scholasticism.  It was more open, not forcing the sharp distinctions of scholasticism. It saw that theological statements focused on God, recognizing that finite speech and thought could not contain God but were necessary to speak of God. In short, it sees that the relational was prior to the legal; the personal took priority to the propositional; and the inductive precedes the deductive. Spiritual insight can supersede logical reasoning.

Rationalistic Calvinism describes post-Calvin theological developments, beginning with Theodore Beza and leading to the Synod of Dordt (1618-19). Theological constructs developed here reflected a mode of reasoning that prioritized the legal over the relational; the deductive over the indicative; and the propositional over the personal. The approach was to draw logical conclusions from abstract propositional statements. The results were arranged in air-tight systems.

Hunsinger’s contention is that in the revisionist/traditionalist controversy over reading Barth about election and Trinity. He believes the Barthian revisionists reflect rationalistic Calvinism, rather than evangelical Calvinism. In rationalistic Calvinism and Barthian revisionism, what is at stake is a style of reasoning relying on propositions that are removed from contexts with logical deductions drawn from them. The result is that complex dialectical positions become reduced to a list of simple assertions which provide the grounds for erroneous conclusions.

Hunsinger believes the revisionists deduce a rationalist picture of Barth from abstract propositions; that they accuse Barth of self-contradiction without using the principle of charity; and they use a “black-and-white mode of thinking” that narrows options, not accounting for their complexities and shades of gray in Barth (73). They resort to “incautious assertions” leading to distortion (73).

These basics mark Hunsinger’s approach to his wide-ranging and detailed critique of a revisionist reading of Barth. The level of engagement with Barth texts is high throughout this book. Barth specialists will follow the nuances and implications in this debate. They will continue to weigh in on which reading of Barth is more viable. For those who have less acquaintance with Barth, the arguments will be challenging. But persistence in reading here can lead to deep understandings of Barth. It can also reveal continuingly important issues in contemporary trinitarian theology and Christology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Donald K. McKim is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George Hunsinger is Hazel Thompson McCord professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of two critically acclaimed works on Barth's theology--Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth andHow to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology--and author of the much-discussedThe Eucharist and Ecumenism. Hunsinger served as director of the Princeton Theological Seminary's Center for Barth Studies from 1997 to 2001 and has been president of the Karl Barth Society of North America since 2003. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he was a major contributor to the new Presbyterian catechism.

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