God's Being Is in Becoming: God's Passion

[I know of no better discussion of God's passibility than the several pages near the end of Eberhard Jüngel's masterpiece, God's Being Is in Becoming. In this post, I quote the full text of that section, entitled, "God's passion."]

God’s passion

God’s being-in-act becomes manifest in the temporal history of Jesus Christ. The temporal history of Jesus Christ is the fulfilment in time of God’s eternal resolve. The fulfilment in time of God’s eternal resolve is God’s existence as man in Jesus Christ. God’s existence as man is not only God’s existence as creature, but equally God’s handing of himself over to the opposition to God which characterises human existence. The consequence of God’s self-surrender is his suffering of the opposition to God which afflicts human existence in opposition to God – even to death on the cross.

In this sense also, God's being is in becoming. It is a being in a becoming threatened by perishing. For humanity in opposition to God is condemned to perish. And in the existence of Jesus Christ God suffers this very condemnation. ‘The more seriously we take this, the stronger becomes the temptation to approximate to the view of a contradiction and conflict in God Himself’ (CD IV/1, 185). Barth takes the passion of God very seriously. ‘The Almighty exists and acts and speaks here in the form of One who is weak and impotent, the eternal as One who is temporal and perishing . . . The One who lives for ever has fallen a prey to death. The Creator is subjected to and overcome by the onslaught of that which is not’ (176). But he categorically rejects that we must draw from this the consequence of a contradiction through which God would come into conflict with himself (185). For Barth this consequence is blasphemy. However, his rejection of this consequence does not lead to any toning down of his discussion of God’s suffering, but, conversely, to a critique of the traditional metaphysical concept of God, according to which God cannot suffer without falling into conflict with his being. In this critique, Barth’s opposition to every kind of natural theology received its most pointed statement. No concept of God arrived at independent of the reality of Jesus Christ may decide what is possible and impossible for God. Rather, we are to say from what God as man in Jesus Christ is, does and suffers: ‘God can do this’ (187). For ‘who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. . . . It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to reconstitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be only the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, by the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ’ (186).

Thus it is not a contradiction of the definition of God’s being as ‘being-in-act’ when suffering is predicated of God. God’s suffering corresponds to his being-in-act. But God’s suffering is his being-in-act; thus ‘from the very first’ God’s ‘passion’ is to be understood as ‘the divine action’ (254). It is therefore no paradox when we also speak of ‘God’s being in the act of suffering.’ This statement would be a paradox if in his essence God were a god incapable of suffering, as was sometimes maintained in the early church, following the metaphysical concept of God in Greek philosophy. On the basis of Barth’s inference from God’s being revealed to his ‘inner’ being, we shall have to understand, in God himself, too, God’s ‘being-in-act’ which corresponds to the passion of the Son of God, as in a certain sense a passive being – passive in the sense of obedience. This passivity of obedience in God is also the highest form of activity in so far as it is affirmed passivity. It belongs ‘to the inner life [my italics] of God that there should take place within it obedience’ (201). In the obedience of the Son of God to the Father, the unity of the being of God is not jeopardized through the Son’s inferiority to the Father, but the unity of the divine being is concrete precisely, indeed, in its ‘modes of being which cannot be separated, which cannot be autonomous, but which cannot cease to be different. He is God in their concrete relationships the one to the other, in the history which takes place between them’ (203).

The unity of being in which God ‘in himself . . . is both One who is obeyed and Another who obeys’ (201) distinguishes God’s ‘being-in-act’ from a being which is to be understood as ‘a divine death’ (561). Precisely because obedience from eternity is not strange to the life of God, and precisely because this being is utterly other than a ‘divine death,’ God can suffer and die as man. This innertrinitarian ability of God must not, however, be thought of as a transcendental condition of possibility for the passion of God in Jesus Christ. Rather, God’s ability means that God is Lord. ‘The image, the correspondence in which He has set it up and revealed it among us, for our salvation, for the reconciliation of the world with God, is, however, His obedience in humility’ (208).

In this obedience God suffers, in that in Jesus Christ he exists as man. And in this obedience God abandons himself to death. Passion and death are not a metaphysical piece of misfortune which overtook the Son of God who became man. God chose this ‘fate.’ In his passion and death he did not therefore somehow waive ‘His deity (as did the Japanese Emperor in 1945),’ but was rather ‘in this humiliation . . . supremely God . . . in this death . . . supremely alive,’ so that ‘He has maintained and revealed His deity in the passion of this man as His eternal Son’ (246f). And so God as God has declared himself identical with the crucified Jesus. Therefore one must not exclude from this suffering the Father who gave his Son over to suffer death. ‘It is not at all the case that God has no part in the suffering of Jesus Christ even in His mode of being as the Father’ (IV/2, 357). ‘This fatherly fellow-suffering of God’ is rather ‘the basis of the humiliation of His Son,’ in that in the giving up of his Son God suffers ‘the alien suffering of the creature, of man, which he takes to Himself in Him’ (357). Indeed, God’s fatherly fellow-suffering as ‘the basis of the humiliation of his Son’ is ‘the truth of that which takes place historically in His crucifixion’ (357).

Thus the Father, too, participates with the Son in the passion, and the divine unity of God’s modes of being proves itself in the suffering of Jesus Christ. God’s being is a being in the act of suffering. But even in suffering God’s being remains a being in act, a being in becoming. God persists in the historicality of his being. And this persistence of God in the historicality of his being allows this being to remain even in death a being in becoming. In giving himself away God does not give himself up. But he gives himself away because he will not give up humanity. The Son of God who is united with the Son of Man, the Son of God as man, is certainly dead. This dead man cannot make himself alive. Here Barth thinks in strictly anti-docetic terms. That even in death God’s being remains a being in becoming is not the work of the Son of God who died as man. But God’s being remains a being-in-act only in the constantly new acts of God’s self-affirmation. And so God’s persistence in his historicality in the face of the death of Jesus Christ is a new act also. In the face of the death of the Son of God who died as man, ‘God’s being remains in becoming’ means the new act of the resurrection, which happens to the Son of God and with him to the man Jesus. In saying Yes to the dead Son of God, God also said Yes to humanity, indeed, with the same Yes. In that here God corresponds to himself anew, he also brings humanity anew into correspondence with God. For in the resurrection of Jesus Christ humanity is given a share in the being of God which asserts itself against death. But as grace this sharing, too, belongs to God’s being-in act. And so it belongs to God’s being to become the God of every person.

—Eberhard Jüngel, God's Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. John Webster, 98-103.


Shane said…
"No concept of God arrived at independent of the reality of Jesus Christ may decide what is possible and impossible for God. Rather, we are to say from what God as man in Jesus Christ is, does and suffers: ‘God can do this’ (187). For ‘who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. . . . It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to reconstitute them in the light of the fact that He does this."

This is precisely what I would object to against Juengel and Barth. Let me make it clear--I don't find these statements heretical, I just find them implausible.

Suppose you were a geneticist and someone were to say to you, "Behold the impenetrable and holy mystery of DNA! None may know its secrets because it surpassess all human knowledge. All merely natural, 'rational' knowledge of it is necessarily false, since its mysteries are divulged only to privileged prophets, such as myself. The very claim to know these secrets exposes one as hopelessly backward, trapped in an age where people thought they 'knew' about the natural world, which our (post)modern philosophers have shown to be impossible."

If I were a geneticist, I would not be likely to be persuaded of this objection to natural knowledge of DNA for two reasons:

1.) There isn't actually any argument here.
2.) I have good reasons to think that I do, in fact, have knoweldge of genetics, namely, I have proven 'merely rational' claims about it.

In order to really convince me you need to prove that I don't actually have knowledge, and then give a persuasive argument that in fact, I cannot in principle have it. Both seem lacking with respect to natural theology.
I guess I just find the analogy to DNA and other human sciences to be the very problem with those who wish to make theology a scientific discipline alongside any other academic affair. Theology is talk about God, and that should give pause to all people, particularly those who are steeped in the traditions of the church and know just how seriously the early church took God's ineffability. Bearing that in mind, I want also to stress along with Barth that God's written Word (Scripture) bears a true and faithful witness to God's incarnate Word (Jesus Christ). This witness is accessible only through the eyes of faith, but it witnesses faithfully to who God is.

Apart from this divine self-revelation in Christ and through the Scriptures, all other "potential" sources of knowledge are tainted and not actualized by God. Creation is not commandeered to serve as revelatory; only the language of the gospel is commandeered as such. Our minds are not capable of reasoning their way to kind, no matter how lofty and rigorous the way, simply because we cannot have knowledge of God unless God deems that we should have knowledge of Godself. God must avail Godself to us and allow Godself to become an object for us to ponder. But in that God does this in Jesus, God remains the subject of theological thought. We do not reason God; rather, we reason after God.

I think the biblical witness is most clearly in support of this position. The passages often used for support of so-called "natural theology," e.g. Romans 1, do not authorize human thought as a way of reaching knowledge of God. At best, Paul authorizes human thought as a way of recognizing our sinfulness and the moral necessity of God's law. But it does not offer a justification of using nature or reason as means of thinking God. Even the physical presence of Jesus could not offer that. God is never self-evident but is only available in faith, because in faith, God is the subject.

DNA cannot be a subject; it is only an object. DNA is not self-communicating; it is only discoverable. DNA is part of our own immanent reality; it is not the transcendent reality which governs our lives. Etc.

Furthermore, what "merely rational" claims about God have been proven? Unless by "proof" one means that the biblical witness confirms it, the only other option is that human reason logically demands it. If that is the case, we only have proof within the confines of our own immanent, creaturely reality — a reality that is fraught with sin and deception. If we are going to have knowledge of God, it can only come from God.

You misunderstand Barth's, Jüngel's and my position. You wrote:

Someone might claim that since it is impossible for unaided human reason to work its way up to God, then there are no possible proofs for any properties God might possess. If I can produce a successful proof of a property of the divine, then this view is necessarily false. Of course, even if the proofs I produce or all the proofs produce [sic] by all the philosophers in history just happen to be false, this will still not disqualify my position or confirm the other one.

I did not say that there are no possible proofs for properties of God. You can produce all the proofs you like, and they might all be logically sound. But how would you know that any of those proofs actually correspond to God's being? The only way to know the nature of God is if God reveals Godself to us. In other words, a proof depends on its starting-point. All metaphysical proofs work from creaturely reality. But this depends on an analogia entis in which our being is naturally related to God's being, and thus arguments for God's being can be constructed on the basis of our being. The three classical paths of knowledge (negative, eminent, causal) have all been shown to be highly problematic, and to use any of them places human reality at the center of our knowledge of God. But our being and God's being are assymetrical and utterly different. We do not know God unless God makes Godself known.

Thus, your last comment in the section I quoted above is very problematic. It seems that you are saying the truth and falsity of the proofs is not the point. But it is the point! How do we know that our talk about God is actually about God? How can we be sure that we are truly speaking about God when we think and speak theologically? How do we know that our discourse corresponds to the object of our discourse? We can only know this correspondence in God's revelation to the prophets and apostles, made concrete in the person of Christ.

In the proof that you offer, you begin with the assumption that God is a perfect being. This assumption can be reached three different ways:

(1) A religious a priori that assumes God as a given.

(2) A metaphysical argument for the necessity of God's existence, derived on the basis of our creaturely reality and therefore suspect. This method assumes God is just an infinite projection of our being or the negative inverse of our being or the cause of our being. The word "God" could be anything, and has no necessary connection to the God of the gospel. But if the gospel rightly and truly tells us who God is, then we can no longer rely on such metaphysical arguments. We must instead reevaluate all positions in light of God's revelation.

(3) We start from God's self-revelation to the prophets and apostles, all of which centers on the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

I have to get to class, so I cannot specifically address your statements you make in the "possible objections" section. I will write on that soon.
Even our knowledge of DNA (or anything in the creaturely realm) is discoverable only to the extent that it makes an impression on our senses. Before we can know DNA, it has to:
A.) Exist
B.) Be knowable (transfer into sense data that we can understand).
Thus, DNA self-communicative in a sense, and so we rely on DNA as the controlling subject before we can discover it as object.

I think it's helpful to remember that God is knowable to us because:
A. He IS ("I AM That I AM")
B. He is communicating to us that He IS
and just WHO he is (i.e. The Triune God).

From our standpoint, we can only work backwards, as David has pointed out, from this communication back to who God is in His essence.

One could argue that this analogy breaks down because God is not like nature, because God is never our object, our possession. I actually don't care about the essence of nature, and whether we know it or not. Therefore, nature is analogous to God in that nature never purely becomes our object either (completely known).

It was this humble view of the natural world as self-communicating that allowed Einstein to have an open-mind towards seemingly contradictory phenomena. To be a theologian requires a similar stance towards God.

Thus, the epistemic stance is like that of Duns Scotus:
We must have knowledge of God in accordance with God's nature of being (as God knows Himself), through an actual relationship with us. But it must also be stated: we cannot have knowledge of God cut off from the conditions of our present life in this world.

An interesting question just hit me: when we speak of "knowledge," what do we mean? And is knowledge the same as "faith"?

Shane- as a philosopher, do you know anything about Gordon Graham from Aberdeen? He's just started teaching philosophy here at Princeton (offering philosophy of religion and mental philosophy courses). Is he worth checking out?
Shane said…
another response here.

Gooby--don't know greene's work, someone told me he has an interesting book on aesthetics, but i haven't seen it.

Also, I reject your materialist view that we can have knowledge only through our senses. Just think about pure mathematics. Nobody ever sensed a Klein Bottle.
Shane said…
as to the question about knowledge and faith, this is something i've been thinking about. Are you asking from a history of philosophy perspective or a NT exegesis standpoint?


Talk about God is pure equivocation unless our talk about God begins and ends with God's concrete self-revelation. That is my position, following Barth and Jüngel and others. Apart from God's revelation to us, we have absolutely no way of speaking of God without simply projecting our human realities upon God in some way (cf. Feuerbach). But starting with faith in God's Word allows analogical predication to occur, for two reasons:

(1) We are ontologically made to correspond analogously to God in our reconciliation to God; and,

(2) God has made Godself knowable in human language, because in revelation, God opens up a way for human speech to correspond properly to the God who is revealed. Read the section on "God's Being Revealed" in God's Being Is in Becoming. If you find Jüngel's argument there unsatisfactory, then we will simply agree to disagree.
Also, Shane, did you read the selection from Jüngel's book that I quoted earlier? It's from the section "God's Being-as-Object." It's pertinent to our discussion.