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The Trinity and Creation in Karl Barth

Gordon Watson, emeritus professor of Systematic Theology at Brisbane’s Trinity Theological College, has revised and updated his 1995 study God and Creature: The Trinity and Creation in Karl Barth, a work that T. F. Torrance listed among a handful of exemplary books on Barth’s theology. Watson first develops Barth’s doctrine of God vis-à-vis revelation and Christology (chs. 1–2), then considers the Trinity-creature relation (chs. 3–4). Throughout the book Watson critiques Barth’s construal, culminating in a counter-proposal informed by Eastern theology.

Watson commences with Barth’s exodus from liberalism, a departure precipitated by revamping his doctrine of revelation. For Barth, revelation is God speaking, a divine-human encounter with implications for the doctrine of God. If God speaks (economically), then it is only God (immanently) who speaks: the God who speaks is the God who is revealed. Watson tracks Barth’s early insistence on revelation as an event of God’s transcendent grace (rather than a habitus internal to creatures, as in Schleiermacher et al.) until his doctrine of revelation reaches fruition through interaction with Anselm’s theological method.

The second chapter focuses on the content of Christian revelation: the Incarnation. Watson is indebted to Eberhard Jüngel’s interpretation of Barth’s doctrine of God—“God’s being is in becoming”—that is, God posits his immanent being with reference to his becoming incarnate. This is not intended to depict Hegel’s god who self-actualizes in history, but rather to underscore God’s freedom to make the Incarnation central to his immanent life. Accordingly, Barth’s Christology utilizes an anhypostatic-enhypostatic model to highlight God’s freely chosen assumption of human nature. Meanwhile, Barth’s Pneumatology treats the Holy Spirit as the appropriator of revelation to the creature and, on this basis, argues for the Spirit’s divinity. It is noteworthy that Barth describes God’s immanence (i.e., the Spirit’s divinity) by directly inferring from God’s economy (i.e., the Spirit’s role in applying revelation), a move that Watson challenges in his conclusion.

Chapters three and four exposit and critique Barth’s Trinity-creature relation. Watson’s basic complaint is that Barth underplays creaturely integrity, a charge evident in a couple ways. First, Barth’s doctrine of revelation stresses God’s Lordship so heavily that revelation is effected despite our natural faculties. Second, Watson argues that Barth maintained his fundamental rejection of an analogy of being throughout his career (for a similar argument, see Keith Johnson, Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis).

In response, Watson considers the work of E. L. Mascall and T. F. Torrance as examples of having something positive to say about humanity. Torrance shows how both the Fathers and the Reformers regarded the Incarnation as an accommodation to humanity that conforms to our natural faculties. Consequently, Torrance can affirm a natural theology (and analogy of being) in the sense that creatures know God through the sanctified use of their own capacities. All this paves the way for Watson’s counter-proposal.

The book concludes with an appeal to the Fathers to recover two interrelated concerns. First, Watson criticizes the Western tradition generally and Barth specifically for overvaluing dogmatics and undervaluing the liturgy. In particular, Western dogmaticians often read God’s economy onto his immanence; Watson likens this to the heretical Spirit-fighters who mistakenly interpreted the Spirit’s economic submission as evidence of his non-divinity.

In contrast, Basil’s apophatic refusal to project God’s economy onto his immanence demonstrates that God’s revelation is an accommodation to our creaturely ways of knowing. Thus, we should rightly distinguish God’s essence (experienced in the liturgy) from God’s economic energies (the subject of dogmatics). Second, Watson opposes Barth’s account of revelation since (almost) everything happens external to the creature. Instead, he contends that the Trinity-creature relation involves an ontological renewal of the creature that he does not hesitate to call “theosis” (164).

Those following the debate between Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger (among others) on the relation between election and Trinity in Barth’s theology will note that Watson’s interpretation does not fit either camp. With McCormack, he appears to affirm that God elects himself with reference to creation—God’s immanent being is constituted by God’s self-election to be incarnate. On the other hand, Watson also argues that God himself maintains a distinction between his immanent and economic life in the event of his self-positing (see 60–64). Watson does not explain how these two assertions—that God’s being is constituted by his economy and yet distinct from it—are reconciled. In light of the current antithesis between McCormack and Hunsinger, this is either a possibility for rapprochement or a misguided stand in no-man’s land.

Overall, Watson’s work may prove beneficial to thinkers like T. F. Torrance and the guild of Barth scholars, but its opaque, jargon-saturated language—exacerbated by frequent typographical errors—greatly diminishes its usefulness for students and pastors. Watson’s critiques of Barthian excess may have some merit, but his counter-proposal has issues of its own. His insistence on theosis fails to clarify whether he intends a (Protestant-friendly) notion of the creature becoming fully human or whether he refers to union with God’s essence. Further, the doctrine of God’s energies overcompensates for any alleged errors in Barth’s account; when God’s essence and energies are divided in this way, it is possible for God’s accommodation to become mere appearance and to undermine Jesus’ decisive disclosure of the Father. In the end, Watson’s study is valuable for flagging disagreements between Barth and the East, but less helpful in adjudicating the debate.

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