God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth

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Tyler R. Wittman
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     2018.
     328 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781108470674.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, Tyler Wittman sets out to write a coordinate “analysis of theology and economy in Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth” (15-16). The idea of confessing God as God, according to Wittman, has first to wrestle with types of knowledge (ectypal vs. archetypal), and second, it has to avoid idolatry. By confessing the creator-creature distinction in some way, it manifests itself in theological inquiry (e.g., simplicity).

In his discussion of Aquinas, Wittman demonstrates that God’s blessedness entails perfection. This, in turn, showcases that theology’s material object is God in himself apart from his works. But the reader need not worry about any neglect on the doctrine of the Trinity. As revelation shows the goodness of God, willing and intellect underscore the perfections and completeness of trinitarian processions.

As Wittman raises the issue of creation in Aquinas’ theology, he frames the issue with God’s relation to creation as nonreciprocal or mixed. Foundational for this section is to show Aquinas’ theology of self-correspondence of God’s act with God’s being. Whatever is revealed to creatures about the triune identity must be correspondent to what God is in se.

In his section on Barth, Wittman continues to trace “theology’s formal orientation and material subject matter” (130). Barth’s aversion to speculation means that he prefers a formal orientation that prioritizes actuality instead of possibility. This makes Barth’s doctrine of God concentric with God’s self-determination in Jesus Christ. This is not a naked decision, but one that Barth has reached by reflecting deeply on the nature of God’s free love and at the same time avoiding the fears of nominalism (in its own idiosyncrasies). Conversely, theology’s formal orientation becomes similar to the material subject (174).

Reflecting on Barth’s critique of nominalism, Wittman points out that when Barth tracks closely with God’s perfection, he manages to avoid “what he calls ‘nominalism’” (176-177). Wittman writes that the theology of God’s perfection in Barth’s theology aims to state that the living character of God is among the community, and then that this living God’s economic life has correspondence to the life he, himself, is in. Moreover, the focus of the living and actual is demonstrated, for example, in Barth’s treatment of God’s uniqueness. By focusing on God’s unique existence in the unity of the triune god, Barth avoids the later scholastic theology that “lost itself” (189).

When turning to the controversial notion of Barth’s doctrine of election, Wittman wisely relates it to creation in order to trace “God’s self-determination and self-correspondence . . . to demonstrate their ontological significance for the type of relation God bears to creation” (201). After canvasing the scholastic and some Protestant traditions, Wittman is able to evaluate Barth’s doctrine of election and self-determination in its inner coherence. Although Barth avoids commenting technically on real relations, Wittman concludes that the end result of a theology of self-determination as Barth articulates it is not met with real relation in the self-revelation of Jesus Christ. Such an approach is not completely unqualified, but although there is a “beyond principle” in God’s relation to the world, in the end, Barth interprets “God’s otherness strictly in terms of self-determination” (250).

In his conclusion, Wittman reflects on Barth and Aquinas with the following questions in mind: "What kind of judgments about God’s being and activity best serve this confession [confessing God as God]? And how does this concern inform the character of the relation God bears toward creation? Our adjudication and tentative resolution of these questions proceeds by isolating three themes: God’s actuality, the relationship between God’s activity and being, and the character of God’s relation to creation" (254).

The work is careful in stating that Barth’s formal orientation in God’s actuality tends to blur the God-creation differentiation. This judgement, nonetheless, is parsimonious. The evaluation of Barth’s orientation was made under its own rubrics. Contrary to many dialogues between Barthians and Thomists, Wittman’s book succeeded in actually reading each approach in its own terms. Having my own leanings towards Thomistic concerns for theology’s material subject, I found that the author was a careful reader of Barth.

For example, Wittman points out that both Barth and Aquinas operate within a correlation of act and being under the formality of God’s relation to world. The difference emerges when and where each author locates causal efficiency in creation. Wittman’s learned discussion obviously favors Aquinas—but this, again, is not necessarily because of previous allegiance, but because metaphysics and theology’s material subject tends to carry more weight in accordance to the biblical testimony.

This is where I see the payoff of Wittman’s question: what approach actually accords better with patterns of speech woven in the biblical testimony? Although the work carries a philosophical tone, it fittingly concludes with Psalm 111:12: “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” Wittman is preoccupied with the works of Thomas and Barth, insofar as they aptly bring forth “intelligible articulation of God’s self-consistency” (295).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rafael Bello is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Martin Bucer Seminary.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tyler R. Wittman is Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. His research and writing concentrates on issues surrounding the theology of God's perfections, the Trinity, and Christology. His articles have appeared in International Journal of Systematic Theology, Modern Theology, and Pro Ecclesia.

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