Book Review: Reconciled Humanity – Karl Barth in Dialogue

The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Seminary has just published my lengthy review of Hans Vium Mikkelsen’s book Reconciled Humanity: Karl Barth in Dialogue (Eerdmans, 2010).  Rather than limiting myself to a standard, 1,000-word book review, I opted to take advantage of the lack of space restrictions afforded by the venue and write a fuller-length engagement with the book.  This is because I find Mikkelsen’s thesis so important: Does the incarnation of the Word touch the inner being of God?  Barth says yes, and Mikkelsen worries 1) that he does not carry this through with full consistency, and 2) that it has negative consequences for other doctrinal loci.  It is important to get Barth right here, particularly because Mikkelsen is rightly attending to the actualist character of Barth’s theology (insofar as he understands it).

Here is an excerpt from the critical section of the review:

The author’s central claim is that Barth thus failed to integrate the incarnation and the being of God because he upheld the doctrine of immutability (cf. 211n15). In Mikkelsen’s judgment, Barth’s actualist understanding of God therefore seems “not to make any major difference at all, as the intention of the incarnation can be traced back to God’s original essence (whether it be in the form of an original being or an original will). Nothing new then has really happened to God in the incarnation” (260). Mikkelsen finally wants to argue against such a hidden God that God’s inner being is “dynamic,” i.e. capable of change, and therefore capable of absorbing Jesus’ experience of death on the cross (157n23). When the Son suffers, “God really suffers in his own inner being; there is no God beyond the God who suffers” (257). This he takes to be contradictory to Barth’s own Christology, despite Barth’s best intentions to allow the life of Jesus to be determinative for God.

It is unfortunate that Mikkelsen successfully identifies the actualist character of Barth’s theological ontology but later fails to apprehend the ways in which this impacts his thought – in areas such as intra-trinitarian relations and God’s relationship to history, for example. Barth insists that the Word’s becoming flesh means that God really has taken humanity into God’s own life, with all the ontological implications that entails. This is a point that Mikkelsen stresses well. But because he has lost sight of the fact that Barth grounds the incarnation in God’s eternal election, the author can only conclude that “one consequence of God’s absorbing of human finitude must be that God not only is able to change, but also that God actually did change during the incarnation” (224). He acknowledges that this thesis contradicts Barth, but he fails to see why Barth could (and, indeed, had to) maintain divine immutability: God’s inclusion of humanity in the divine life viz. the Son is eternal and not merely punctiliar. And so the incarnation, while not excluding God’s being, does not signal a change in God but rather the actualization in history of that which God, by virtue of divine decision, has always been (cf. 224-5, 257). Mikkelsen’s thesis falls apart not so much because he gets Barth wrong as because he has not paid sufficient attention to getting Barth entirely right.

The full text of the review is available on the Center for Barth Studies site.

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