Ben Myers on Barth’s interpreters


There’s a fantastic post on Barthian thought by Ben Myers today. It discusses the various ways in which modern readers of Karl Barth’s work have recognized that fullness of his thinking was not expressed in his appropriation by the neo-orthodox movement of the mid twentieth century.

Myers’ essay is long one and reviews the historical developments of Barth’s interpreters, and ends with these paragraphs:

“In these highly creative readings (and constructive revisions) of Barth, McCormack is pressing towards the articulation of a striking new theological ontology. I once remarked that, where theological ontology is concerned, John Milbank’s project is the only game in town – and it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that McCormack’s work represents the only thoroughgoing counter-proposal to Milbank’s ontological vision which is available in contemporary theology. While Milbank’s ontology is structured by hierarchical and participatory categories, McCormack articulates an ontology structured by actualistic categories and by a radically historicised doctrine of God. While Milbank’s thought presupposes an ontological state of primal harmony, peace and fecundity, McCormack issues a direct challenge to ‘the Trinity of peace and perfection’ (p. 276), and he envisions instead a Trinity of act and decision, centred on the insight that ‘the death of Jesus Christ in God-abandonment … [is] an event in God’s own life’ (p. 189). Although McCormack has never directly engaged Milbank’s work, his essay on ‘Participation in God’ (chapter 9) shows how much is at stake in the question of creaturely deification, and in the ontological categories through which ‘participation in God’ is understood.

In all this, McCormack’s writing is shaped by Karl Barth and by the distinctive problems of modern German theology; but his proposals have a much wider theological significance, and they deserve close attention and deep reflection. Within the narrower field of Barth studies, of course, McCormack’s work is not only a towering presence – it is also highly contentious and divisive. As McCormack himself observes, his recent work on ontological actualism ‘has incited a controversy that threatens to divide Barth scholars in the English-speaking world into two rival camps’ (p. 295).

I can only speak for myself here, but I think this division is a productive and important one – and I hope it is sharpened all the more by the appearance of this book. As I suggested in an earlier post (against Paul Molnar), I believe the future of theology lies not in any incarnational realism, nor in the recovery of a metaphysical Chalcedonian objectivism, but rather in a far-reaching appropriation of Barth’s christological actualism. And for this task, there is no better guide than the work of Bruce McCormack.”

I think Myers is absolutely spot on here. Our focus really needs to be on the actualist view of the Christ event if we want to hope to find categories of thought that will allow us to connect to the inherent actualism of scientific thought.

Read the full article here.

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Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I don’t see how McCormack’s work, valuable as it is, will bring Barth’s work itself into dialogue with science. One of Barth’s major weaknesses was in cross-disciplinary interaction, esp with science because Barth believed so heavily in the autonomy of theology. Additionally, Barth, remember, believed that the world was “unreal” and only became “real” by its eschatological assumption into God. While there may be a way of using Barth to cast the world as sustained by God via the future goal toward which God is pulling creation, and this might have connections with science, it would seem that to deny the creation as “real” in and of itself would make connections with science very difficult. FWIW

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