Over the past two decades Christian theologians sympathetic to the theology of Karl Barth (1886-1968) have been locked in a heated debate over whether Barth fundamentally altered his theological program while writing Church Dogmatics (hereafter CD), and specifically whether his earlier doctrine of the Trinity is incompatible with his later doctrine of divine election. There have been many works published by Barth scholars on both sides of the debate, and Tyler Frick’s Karl Barth's Ontology of Divine Grace: God's Decision Is God's Being stands in the camp of the “Barth revisionists.” Frick’s book interprets Barth’s doctrine of divine election as a major development that corrects earlier claims in CD, and traces how the doctrines of the Trinity and divine election reconnect in the later volumes of CD.
Frick’s thesis is that the essence of God for Barth is irreducibly gracious. This follows from the fact that Barth identifies the divine being with God’s eternal and pretemporal decision to become incarnate in Jesus and atone for the sins of humanity in his passion and crucifixion. Frick thus aligns with the Barth “maximalists” (e.g., Bruce McCormack and Paul Nimmo) in contradistinction to the Barth “minimalists” (e.g., Paul Molnar and George Hunsinger). Frick then rehearses how Barth’s mature theology developed over the many volumes of CD, showing how his doctrine of God was altered by his doctrine of election.
However, before delving into CD itself, Frick spends chapter 1 arguing that an earlier work on Barth’s theology by Eberhard Jüngel (God’s Being is in Becoming [T&T Clark, 2001]) set the stage for the current “maximalist” interpretation of Barth’s theology. In chapter 2, Frick ventures into Barth’s doctrine of God in CD II/1 and evaluates his doctrine of divine freedom. Frick sees Barth’s reconstruction of divine freedom as freedom for something rather than freedom from all things. Frick also contends that Barth, at this point in his academic career, had yet to connect his earlier doctrine of the Trinity to this understanding of divine freedom, which continues to create confusion among Barth scholars. In chapter 3, Frick discusses Barth’s doctrine of divine love, particularly how it is revealed and actualized in God’s salvific work in Jesus.
In chapter 4, Frick engages with Barth’s doctrine of divine election in CD II/2 and focuses on how Barth’s doctrine of divine election shapes his doctrine of divine identity; however, Frick still sees a slight trinitarian deficit because Barth has yet to show how the eternal act of divine election relates to the eternal triune processions. In chapter 5, Frick moves to CD III/1 to show how Barth’s reconstruction of divine election in II/2 determines his doctrine of creation. In the sixth and final chapter Frick addresses CD IV/1, specifically Barth’s mature Christology, contending that the obedience of the eternal Son of God to become incarnate in Jesus to suffer and die for alienated humanity reveals who God is and determines the triune relations eternally.
Frick argues that, for Barth, the Son’s eternal obedience to God the Father is rooted in the eternal act of divine election, and that this move by Barth finally bridges the gap between God’s triunity and his act of election in and for himself and all humanity. In the conclusion, Frick advances three points to further the conversation. First, the Triune God cannot be historicized, that is, reduced to space and time. Second, the Triune God cannot and must not be co-opted for any ecclesial and/or social programs; rather, the Triune God must be understood only soteriologically. Third, the Triune God is essentially and eternally triune, and thus the God revealed in space and time is the same God in eternity—past, present, and future.
I commend Frick for entering a difficult debate that shows no signs of abating; the correct interpretation of Barth’s mature theology will continue to be disputed. Embracing arcane terminology, the sheer volume of Barth’s theological opus, and multiple interpretative traditions of Barth studies, Frick thoroughly engages the primary and secondary literature and advances his thesis that God’s essence is essentially gracious. He does this by demonstrating how Barth’s earlier doctrine of the Trinity/divine attributes realigns with and is determined by his doctrine of divine election. I also appreciate that Frick rehearses the German interpretive tradition of Barth by defending the “maximalist” position. Frick not only cogently argues for a greater continuity between the two volumes of CD that elucidate Barth’s doctrine of God, but also shows how later volumes of CD heal the division between those two earlier volumes, as seen in Barth’s doctrines of creation and reconciliation. Most importantly, Frick is correct to claim that one cannot understand, know, trust, and worship the God of Jesus Christ without knowing that the God revealed historically in Jesus is identical to the God who exists in eternity and vice versa.
I conclude with two constructive criticisms, which do not detract from Frick’s overall argument; rather, they identify areas for further investigation. First, although the chapter on creation helps bridge Barth’s doctrine of God with his doctrine of reconciliation, it is quite short and could have been left out to make room for a discussion of Barth’s earlier doctrine of the Trinity and how it was corrected by his later doctrine of election. Second, it would have been helpful had Frick also ventured into CD IV/2 and IV/3 to illuminate further how Barth’s mature Christology corrects and completes his earlier doctrine of God.
These minor criticisms notwithstanding, Karl Barth's Ontology of Divine Grace is impressive and demanding and will be rewarding for those interested in the difficult debate over Barth’s doctrine of God, and how his doctrine of election corrects earlier sections of CD and shapes its later volumes. Because this work engages in and is written at an advanced level of theological scholarship, it is best suited for readers who have a healthy acquaintance with Barth’s theology, especially CD, and a working knowledge of the debates surrounding Barth’s doctrine of God.
Bradley M. Penner is an independent scholar.
Date Of Review:
February 18, 2023
Tyler J. Frick Born 1986; 2010 BA; 2013 MA; 2019 PhD in Systematic Theology from King's College, University of Aberdeen; currently an independent scholar living in Seattle, Washington.
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