A Mini-Primer on How to Read Karl Barth with Appeal to George Hunsinger and Paul Molnar

Since I have been ranting so much about Karl Barth I thought it would be helpful to at least offer a kind of primer for reading Barth; since one of the charges for evangelical non-engagement of Barth is that he is too complex and un-accessible (which is a total cop-out when you look at the theologians who are being engaged with by those who make such claims). Let me appeal to two top-whitebarthnotch Barth scholars, George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and Paul Molnar of St. John’s University in New York.

Hunsinger offers six regulative motifs in Barth’s theology that are essential to understand if you and I are going to have a hope in understanding Barth’s theology. Here are those six motifs as articulated by George Hunsinger:

“Actualism” is the motif which governs Barth’s complex conception of being and time. Being is always an event and often an act (always an act whenever an agent capable of decision is concerned). The relationship between divine being and human being is one of the most vexed topics in Barth interpretation, and one on which the essay at hand hopes to shed some light. For now let it simply be said, however cryptically, that the possibility for the human creature to act faithfully in relation to the divine creator is thought to rest entirely in the divine act, and therefore continually befalls the human creature as a miracle to be sought ever anew.

“Particularism” is a motif which designates both a noetic procedure and an ontic state of affairs. The noetic procedure is the rule that say, “Let every concept used in dogmatic theology be defined on the basis of a particular event called Jesus Christ.” No generalities derived from elsewhere are to applied without further ado to this particular. Instead one must so proceed from this particular event that all general conceptions are carefully and critically redefined on its basis before being used in theology. The reason for this procedure is found in the accompanying state of affairs. This particular event requires special conceptualization, precisely because it is regarded as unique in kind.

“Objectivism” is a motif pertaining to Barth’s understanding of revelation and salvation. It describes not only the means by which they respectively occur, but also the status of their occurrence. Revelation and salvation are both thought to occur through the mediation of ordinary creaturely objects, so that the divine self-enactment in our midst lies hidden within them. The status of this self-enactment is also thought in some strong sense to be objective–that is, real, valid, and effective–whether it is acknowledged and received by the creature or not. Revelation and salvation are events objectively mediated by the creaturely sphere and grounded in the sovereignty of God.

“Personalism” is a motif governing the goal of the divine self-manifestation. God’s objective self-manifestation in revelation and salvation comes to the creature in the form of personal address. The creature is encountered by this address in such a way that it is affirmed, condemned, and made capable of fellowship with God. Fellowship is the most intimate of engagements and occurs in I–Thou terms. The creature is liberated for a relationship of love and freedom with God and therefore also with its fellow creatures.

“Realism,” as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to Barth’s conception of theological language. Theological language is conceived as the vehicle of analogical reference. In itself it is radically unlike the extralinguistic object to which it refers (God), but by grace it is made to transcend itself. Through transcending itself by grace, theological language attains sufficient likeness or adequacy to its object for reference truly and actually to occur. Besides the mode of reference, realism also pertains to the modes of address, certainty, and narration found in scripture as well as in language of the church based upon it.

“Rationalism,” finally, again as used in this essay, is the motif which pertains to the construction and assessment of doctrine. Theological language as such is understood to include an important rational or cognitive component. This component is subject to conceptual elaboration, and that elaboration (along with scriptura exegesis) is what constitutes the theological task. Because of the peculiar nature of the object on which it is based, rationalism takes pains to rule out certain illegitimate criteria and procedures in the work of doctrinal construction and assessment. Within the critical limits open to it, however, doctrines may be derived beyond the surface content of scripture as a way of understanding scripture’s deeper conceptual implications and underlying unity.[1]

Getting a grasp on these motifs will help the theologian who desires to engage with Barth, to do so with understanding and a critical structure for understanding why Barth comes to the conclusions that he does in his theological offering.

Paul Molnar helps elaborate what Barth’s Objectivism entails, particularly as it comes to a knowledge of God. He gets into what is called for Barth primary objectivity and secondary objectivity (if the reader is familiar with Reformed theology this might make you think of archetypal and ectypal knowledge of God, even though these are a bit different, I see some overlap). Here is how Molnar describes how Barth’s conception of ‘objectivism’ works:

Barth proceeds to speak of God as an utterly unique object by positing what he calls God’s primary objectivity, in distinction from his secondary objectivity. “In his triune life as such, objectivity, and with it knowledge, is divine reality before creaturely objectivity and knowledge exist,” Barth wrties (II/1, p. 16). That is God’s “primary objectivity.” Yet God “gives Himself to be known by us as He knows Himself.” That is God’s secondary objectivity. Barth maintains that God is “first to Himself, and then in His revelation to us … nothing but what He is in Himself. Here the door is shut against any ‘non-objective’ knowledge of God” (II/1, p. 16), as seen especially above in chapter one. It will be recalled that Barth’s opposition to non-objective knowledge of God was based on the positive assertion that since God revealed himself to un in his Word and Spirit, we must know God objectively and conceptually as the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who is active precisely in the history of Jesus Christ and in the community’s witness to him through the power of his Spirit. With Barth’s distinction between primary and secondary objectivity in place, then, he asserts that all of our knowledge of God is knowledge of faith that rests on God’s objectivity. But since it is mediated through the veil of secondary objectivity, it is indirect and not direct knowledge of God’s “naked objectivity.” That is why says that

the Word does not appear in His eternal objectivity as the Son who alone dwells in the bosom of the Father. No: the Word became flesh. God gives Himself to be known, and is known, in the substance of secondary objectivity … in the manhood which He takes to Himself, to which He humbles Himself  and which He raises through Himself. (II/1, pp. 19-20)

Knowledge of God, however, takes place, Barth notes, as primary and secondary objectivity are distinguished without being separated and as long as God is understood as the living God, i.e., as the creator from whom we come even before we know him; he is our “Reconciler, who through Jesus Christ in the Holy Ghost makes knowledge of Himself real and possible,” and he is our “Redeemer, who is Himself the future truth of all present knowledge of Himself. He and none other is the object of the knowledge of faith” (II/1, p. 21)[2]

Hopefully Molnar’s pointing up of Barth’s conception of primary and secondary objectivity help to flesh out even further Hunsinger’s motif of “objectivism” in Barth’s theology. There is more to be said, but hopefully this gets us a little further. One thing I hope people can begin to appreciate is that studying the intricacies of Barth’s creative theological offering is no different than studying, in depth, those theologians from the Post Reformed Orthodox period who so many evangelical theologians of today consider so foundational to forwarding a sound theological trajectory for this current generation of the church, and for evangelical generations to come.

Barth and the Torrances, in my view, should be theologians who evangelical theologians spend time with for the sake of the edification of the church of Jesus Christ. Evangelical theologians shouldn’t give into some ad hoc conception of “orthodoxy,” they ought to test all things [by Jesus Christ!], and hold fast to what is true. Hopefully sharing what I just did in this post will at least serve as illustrative that it is possible to grasp Barth’s theology in fruitful ways, and with no more energy expended than what is expended in trying to understand the theology of Herman Bavinck, Francis Turretin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Theodore Beza, Thomas Aquinas, or whoever else evangelicals like to resource as orthodox fountain-heads. The goal of any sound theology is that Jesus Christ is at the center and is magnified and worshiped. Barth’s theology does that, so evangelical theologians ought to seriously consider adding him to their constructive theological endeavors.

[1] George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015), 108-09.


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