It was once the Companion Controversy, now it is the Barth Wars; but what is it?

Maybe like me you have grown weary of what was originally called the Companion Controversy, but because of a recent First Things article by Phillip Cary has been relabeled bartharmyuniformas the Barth Wars. This controversy first started (in print anyway) when Bruce McCormack, of Princeton Theological Seminary, published an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth entitled: Grace and Being: The role of God’s gracious election in Karl Barth’s theological ontology. In this essay he lays out what he believes Barth intended or should have intended by way of his reformulation of Calvin’s doctrine of election, and how that reformulation implicates Barth’s doctrine of God. At base McCormack believes that Barth in Church Dogmatics IV reverses the usual order of things in regard to a doctrine of God. In other words, McCormack believes that election precedes Trinity, which is inverted from classical metaphysical understanding.

But since I want to communicate McCormack’s thesis as clearly as possible in this post (and thus the point of this post), and since I am currently reading Paul Molnar’s book Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology, I thought I would quote someone that Molnar is engaging with in his book. Yes, Molnar does engage with McCormack, but more notably he is responding to (and quite militantly) Ben Myers’ critique of Molnar’s reading of Barth (from Molnar’s earlier book). Myers is in company with McCormack, and as such offers a very clear presentation of the points that distinguish McCormack, himself and others from folks like George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar, D. Stephen Long et al (the other side of the Barth coin who read Barth as if he is more of a “classical” or “metaphysical” theologian). So I thought it would be helpful to share how Myers frames this, and as a result we will have a better understanding about what drives the so called ‘Barth Wars’. Here’s Myers (cited by Molnar):

(1) “The second person of the Trinity is a human being—or rather, the divine-human history enacted in Jesus”; (2) The “logos asarkos … represents … ‘some image of God which we have made for ourselves’”; (3) “from all eternity, there is really no ‘second person of the Trinity’, but only the divine-human history of Jesus of Nazareth”; and finally, (4) “God’s deity is constituted—through God’s own eternal decision—by the way God relates to this particular human being.”[1]

This is the conclusion that Myers derives from the McCormack thesis that Barth in CD IV reverses Trinity and election in a doctrine of God; i.e. that God elects his own being (inner life) as Trinity, and that this election is ontologically defined by God’s choice to not be God without us (i.e. humanity), but with us. As such there is no other being of God other than what is revealed in the history and event of God’s life in Jesus Christ; and history itself (as a result of God’s election) becomes ontologically determinative for who God is in an exhaustive manner—the resurrection being a capstone of this determination. Paul Molnar further summarizes this as it relates to Myers’ position; Molnar’s summary comes just after he has described what he believes to be Barth’s view of divine freedom and how that relates to what he thinks Myers, McCormack, et al. are attempting to do in what he believes (along with Hunsinger) is a revisionist reading of Barth’s theology. Here is Molnar on Myers (and company):

The above-cited very traditional statements about the freedom of God’s love in himself and in the incarnation have been questioned recently. For example, relying on Rowan Williams and Bruce McCormack, Benjamin Myers claims that Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity offers not just one doctrine of the Trinity but two. And from this he concludes that “God’s being as God is constituted by God’s self-determined relation to the human Jesus” and ultimately that “Jesus is not merely epistemologically significant [which is Molnar’s position], as the one who makes God known; he is ontologically significant, as the one who (so to speak) makes God God.” All of this follows, he claims, from the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God was radically changed with his doctrine of election in II/2, and that the doctrine of the Trinity that he presented in I/1 was formally based on revelation while the new doctrine presented in IV/1 was based on Jesus Christ as, in his mind, making God to be God! Now, from within any reasonable reading of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, it should be quite obvious that these claims not only obviate God’s freedom for us, but they destroy God’s freedom as eternal Father, Son and Spirit precisely by making God’s essence dependent on the historical existence of the man Jesus.[2]

If it isn’t clear yet, Molnar believes ultimately that Myers, McCormack, et al. collapse God into his creation by making God’s inner-life (in se) contingent upon (in a constituent way) his outer life (ad extra) in the humanity of Christ; furthermore, Molnar believes that christologically this leads to Arian or Adoptionistic heresies.


This is the crux of what drives the Barth Wars; whether God elects for himself to be Triune in the incarnation, or whether because God is Triune and gracious in his antecedent and eternal life he elects, as coordinate with that kind of life, to not be God without us; with the understanding that God could have remained who he was as Triune without electing humanity for Godself in Christ.

Hopefully, if you have been wondering about the Barth Wars, that this makes things a little more clear (maybe I have muddied it further, I hope not). I mentioned in the beginning of this post how this was originally termed as the Companion Controversy, but I think it has legitimately expanded into what has now been called the Barth Wars; primarily because it isn’t just McCormack and Hunsinger anymore (which was where the original rift was here in North American English speaking Barth studies), but with lines drawn and castles being built, folks have started to take sides (and I do think this is primarily a North American English speaking battle – as I recall Barth scholar Darren Sumner noted somewhere that this battle is not present in German Barth studies [they simply take the McCormack view as the only possible read], but is just here in the States for the most part).

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downer Groves, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 141-42.

[2] Ibid., 134-35 [brackets mine].



  1. I’ve never heard it called the “companion controversy.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really? I think that might have been internal to PTS, and among their students (the ones who cared anyway). Travis McMaken told me they called it that years ago.


  3. Okay, I was curious. Every controversy needs a name I suppose. “Barth wars” will probably stick.


  4. Yeah, I bet it will.


  5. Bobby,

    Do you have any idea why McCormack’s read (not that it originates with him, but for ease of writing…) is the only serious option in German study of Barth? Particularly, I’m curious that von Balthasar has been neglected (rejected?) in his region of origin. I wonder if it has to do with how historical theology is done, whether there is less interest in reconstructing particular figures and more in doing constructive work beyond certain figures and in their “spirit”. I guess Pannenberg doesn’t quite count as a Barthian, but I’m not sure where he’d fit in this schema. Most of my exposure to Barth comes through Torrance and Ellul, and the latter read Barth probably in the more radical sense, but he was not a dogmatician and not nearly precise enough to say he’d agree with McCormack.



  6. Cal,

    Why would you say that Barth was not a Dogmatician? He wrote the CHURCH Dogmatics after all. But yes, if you read Barth himself, and if you read folks like Hunsinger and Molnar it would be very hard to conclude that Barth would agree with McCormack. McCormack himself believes he goes beyond Barth, and he does in constructive ways. I prefer the documentary Barth because in my view this Barth fits with the tradition, and even with classical theism to certain qualified extents.

    My speculation in re to German reception is that yes constructive theology is more in demand than is historical (but that is really a sweeping generalization). We’d need to get Darren here to help clarify that.


  7. Sorry that comment was unclear: Ellul was not a dogmatician, though he was heavily influenced by Barth. I don’t know if you ever read Jacques Ellul, but he’s worth it. Particularly his “Politics of God and Politics of Man” and “The Subversion of Christianity”.


  8. I’ve only read snippets of Ellul. Oh, okay, yeah that makes sense. I’ve read Ellul and secondary lit on his views relative to Christian universalism. It was good!


  9. Not knowing the German literature on this question all that expansively, I’ve only repeated to you what I have read elsewhere (e.g. Jungel in translation) and what McCormack has stated in print: that German theologians, such as Jungel, have read Herr Barth in this more strongly actualistic manner for decades without giving it a second thought. It is only in English that it has stirred much controversy, and that perhaps because of the Torrancean filters through which Barth is passing.

    The basic thesis that McCormack articulated in “Grace and Being” seems clearly present in Jungel’s God’s Being is in Becoming (1965), though not stated so sharply as McCormack did in that 2000 essay. At the very least, this would mean that Professor Hunsinger’s identification of the position as “revisionist” should not quickly be taken as stipulated.


  10. Darren:

    Is von Balthasar a non-starter in German readings of Barth?


  11. Rein Zeilstra · ·

    I’d be interested to see what the Dutch Reformed cadre’s opinion is; if there is an opinion at all. R.Reeling Brouwer
    (Miskotte/ Breukelman chair at Protestant University of Amsterdam) comes to mind. He is a Barth exponent of the highest order in touch with the Princenton establishment, also conversant with Sarah Coakley/ Rowan Williams as well as other European thinkers (philosophical) as well like Giorgio Agamben and Reza Banakar). If there was an issue at all it is strange the European mob didn’t pick it up, they are generally far more clinical than the English oriented. Barth himself on the whole was surprised (or often angry or piqued) of any trenchant critique or diversion on his own logical follow through and rebutted (e.g with Bonhoeffer and Brunner) that they misread his motives, but conceded his premises that were in question sometimes needed amplificatrion. See also his reason for the six revisions of Romans and the writing of the brief (and less daunting and digestible) “The Humanity of God”.

    PS @ Cal @ Darren: I might venture (??) that while v B. has a clear sight on Barth’s orientation and obviously agrees with much of the dogmatics (systematics) in principle but then that feeds his more esoteric (well that is how it comes across to some) RC spiritual drift. While v.B. doesn’t flinch at Curia critique and supravision, it is understandable to drift to more mystique laden (and therefore less controversial) ecclesial / hermetic avenues (just a thought?).


  12. Cal: I’m not sure that von Balthasar had much to say on this aspect of Barth’s thought, i.e. whether Barth’s theological ontology would point to grounding the Trinity in election. vB’s periodization thesis did reign in German circles for decades, as I understand it, and there the reception of McCormack’s challenge has been warm (as it has been here) since his 1995 book. Speaking (very) broadly I would guess that vB was more interested in matters of method and epistemology, and Jungel in ontology.

    Rein: George Harinck has as essay in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism that might start to answer your question about Dutch Reformed reception of Barth. Cornelius Van Til is only one part of that story, and Harinck puts Van Til in a bit of a broader context. Today, however, my sense is there is much friendliness toward (if not necessarily agreement with) Barth’s project from the Dutch.


  13. Thank you Darren! Your insights on this are very helpful! When I read Hunsinger or Molnar on Barth I feel like I’m reading Torrance; and the quotes they voluminously offer from Barth make it hard to not see that in Barth. It’s interesting how even with Barth the issue comes down to competing hermeneutical commitments and schemas. And thank you for pointing out Jungel. I’d forgotten about that connection between him and McCormack. I read Jungel’s book years ago and it was very intriguing!


    I’m going to be writing a book review of Reeling’s book *Barth and Post Reformed Orthodoxy*, I’m getting close to being finished. Also, if I ever can get the time to get my PhD going I’ve had correspondence with a Barth/Bavinck scholar (through a friend who is doing his PhD with him, Corenelius (Kees) van der Kooi at the Free University of Amsterdam. He has delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton in the past, and you’re right, the truly Dutch reception of Barth in the Netherlands is as you say more clinical it seems than in other places on the globe. Kees also has a book on Barth and Calvin; I’ll find the title for you.


  14. By the way, Rein, Darren has a brilliant article on Van Til and Barth over at his group blog. I’ll get you the link (I’m on my phone) when I get to a computer.


  15. Rein Zeilstra · ·

    Hi Bobby
    Yes I have that book on the young Barth of Cees v d Kooi. It is in Dutch and I am starting to translate it for my own edification. Dutch is by now my 2nd lgg. I am in correspondence with Rinse Reeling Brouwer and had a look at the pre Princeton Dutch original of one of the chapters. It researches the early reformed dogmatic of characters like Turetini, Werenfels, Heppe and a host of others. They provided Barth with a Damascus road perspective on what reformed doctrine might still possibly pertain other than that of Schleiermacher and von Harnack. It was a bit of a seat of of the pants curriculum for him teaching it as he learned himself barely clear on what tumult might arise from him ringing the belltower with panicky alarm.


  16. Rein,

    Actually I was thinking of this one: As in a Mirror. John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God, A Diptych, by van der Kooi.


  17. Yes, Rinse’s book is good. This one Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy.


  18. Rein Zeilstra · ·

    Thanks guys. All good food for more thought. Yes my v d Kooi volume deals with the development of the young Barth from 1909-1927 and was the author’s academic thesis toward his defense then granted doctorate in 1985. I appreciate your informed and prompt replies. I am a mere B Theol (Melb) grad from back in 1993 and was then accepted into a Masters program me in New Zealand but ran out of $$. Got in touch with K.H. Miskotte systematics (well he was more an outstanding aesthete and literary Christian disciple). We live retired in central NSW in Australia in a very quiet (dry) valley 25 km, so there is finally plenty of opportunity (still not easily achieved) for more divine infusion (the dialectical flipside of the prius of election).
    Bless you lads.


  19. 25 kms from the nearest decent town.


  20. Rein,

    I’ll have to look that particular book (by van der Kooi) up. Thanks.