George Hunsinger offers six helpful motifs in order to grasp the way that Karl Barth maneuvers in his theological developments. One of those, and significantly, is Barth’s so-called actualism. In this post we will see what that entails for Barth, according to Hunsinger; and then see an example of that from Barth, in his Church Dogmatics, as that pertains to human agency in salvation vis-à-vis a doctrine of Christ conditioned election. In other words, the question of “freewill” in salvation will be viewed from the vantage point of Barth’s unique framing of these things through his particular deployment of an actualistic understanding of being in becoming in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.
Hunsinger writes the following in regard to Barth’s actualism:
“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.1
Fittingly the aforementioned broaches both the divine and human sides of the soteriological complex. That is, humanity’s relationship to God, in a God-world / Creator-creature combine, is given its full measure by way of up-pointing the fact that without the Creator unilaterally becoming what humanity was always already intended to be vis-à-vis God, that the possibility for humanity to elevate to such altitudes would always remain the great impossibility. Thus, God’s intervention, His invasion into our lives, His disruption into the fallen, His irruption of our self-possessed selves is required; typically, when God does something so sui generis, so apocalyptic, so unexpected and against the grain of natural observation, we come to call this: miracle! As such, Barth’s actualism entails the idea that God has already decisively acted for us, by becoming us, that the impossible possibility might become possible, and actual, in His humanity for us. This is the unilateral nature of Barth’s motif of actualism as that pervades his total theological project.
In my current reading of the CD I came across a clear example of how Barth’s actualism informs his understanding of human agency in salvation. This evinces a clairvoyant picture of how an actualized humanity, in Christ’s humanity, funds the way that Barth thinks about the possibility for humans simpliciter to say Yes (or No) to what is in fact the reality of humanity before God. That is, humanity is determined by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ. Here Barth writes about people who hear the Word of God proclaimed to them, about them, as that it shaped by the measure of what humanity actually is. The question is whether or not individual people will submit to their new humanity in Christ, or for some inscrutable reason (for such is the love of the darkness) continue to reject the Yes of God for them in Jesus Christ. So Barth,
The promise says to those who hear or read it; Thou mayest not hear or read at this point something said about another. Thou art not in the audience, but in the centre of the stage. This is meant for thee. Thou art “this” individual. Thou art isolated from God, and therefore a godless man. Thou art threatened. And yet thou standest indeed under a wholly new determination. It was for thee that Jesus Christ Himself bore the divine rejection in its real and terrible consequences. Thou art the one who has been spared from enduring it. And it is for thee that Jesus Christ is the elect man of God and arrayed in the divine glory. Eternal life and fellowship with God await thee. Jesus Christ died and rose for thee. It is thou art elect with Him and through Him. And now that all this has been said to thee, it is the event of what thou for thy part shalt say and do (or not say, and not do) which decides whether the ancient curse will again be laid on thee with what is said, or the eternal blessing will come on thee in utter newness. In and with that which thou dost now say or do (or not say and not do), thou must and shalt give answer to that which has been said to thee, and either way (persisting in thy ungodliness or turning thy back upon it, for thy salvation or thy destruction) confirm its truth.2
Some might say this sounds like Arminianism redivivus. But this would miss the reality of Barth’s functional actualism. What Barth is saying is that salvation has been exhaustively realized without remainder in Jesus Christ. As such, salvation isn’t something waiting for your approval or mine, it isn’t something with potency waiting to be actualized. For Barth, salvation has already been fully actualized in God’s Yes for humanity in Jesus Christ’s Yes and election to become human for us. Some will say this sounds like universalism. It is, but because of God’s freedom, it isn’t a fatalistic universalism; instead, it is a universalism that is circumscribed by the life of God in Christ, which necessarily entails that what He does has universal consequences. But this is different than a deterministic or decretal universalism in the sense that by way of ‘actualism’ the question under consideration isn’t an abstract humanity, but one that has always already been in relation to its Father, the Creator. So, it is a relational-universalism conditioned by the Son’s primal and cosmic relationship to the Father by the Spirit. In this sense, the logic of Barth’s actualism as applied to salvation is universalistic. In the sense that the Son-Father/ -by Holy Spirit relationship is all that there actually is. Grasp this, and you’re on your way. Pax Vobiscum
1 George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 16-18.
2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 §35 The Doctrine of God: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 111.