Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:18-21; NKJV)An orthodox doctrine of the atonement must affirm that God’s economy of salvation is …
[God] is who He is, and lives as what He is, in that He does what He does. … The whole being and life of God is an activity, both in eternity and in worldly time, both in Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in His relation to man and all creation. (Barth, CD IV.1, 6-7)
(4) … actualized. By establishing actualism as a central parameter in a doctrine of the atonement, I knowingly distance myself from both liberal Protestantism and evangelical semi-Pelagianism: the former emphasizes our subjective imitation of Jesus as a moral example while the latter stresses that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was made available to all people but is only actualized in our subjective appropriation of that sacrifice. I will return to my dispute with both of these popular positions in more detail below, but for now it will suffice to point out that both liberalism and semi-Pelagianism undermine the exclusivity of Christ. By affirming the actuality of the atonement, I thus affirm the unique and exclusive nature of Christ’s person and work. Before continuing, however, I will review the essential features of an actualistic theological ontology.
The question of actualism is not primarily christological; rather, divine actualism first and foremost concerns our doctrine of God. One of the major revolutions in modern theology was the discovery of the dogmatic axiom, “God is what God does,” which was itself a clarification of the more basic axiom governing all orthodox theology, “God alone reveals God.” These two axioms together are an attempt to speak meaningfully of God’s being without metaphysical speculation, that is, without resorting to a substance metaphysics or a speculative deus absconditus. In order to accomplish this, theology must attend to the acts of God—i.e., to the event of God rather than the substance of God. In particular, an actualistic theology attends to the concrete revelation of God in Jesus Christ as “the beginning of all the ways and works of God.” (Barth, CD II.2, 316).
In connexion with the being of God that is here in question, we are not concerned with a concept of being that is common, neutral and free to choose, but with one which is from the first filled out in a quite definite way. … This means that we cannot discern the being of God in any other way than by looking where God Himself gives us Himself to see, and therefore by looking at His works, at this relation and attitude—in the confidence that in these His works we do not have to do with any others, but with His works and therefore with God Himself, with His being as God. (CD II.1, 261)Jesus Christ is the locus and criterion of divine revelation, and thus the locus and criterion of God’s eternal being. God’s very being is made known to humanity in the history of Jesus of Nazareth as the event of divine self-revelation. Of course, God is not self-evident to humanity but remains known only through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit: “The being of God is either known by grace or it is not known at all” (CD II.1, 27). Nevertheless, by faith we confess that in the person of Jesus, God defines Godself; in Jesus Christ, God acts. Jesus Christ is the event of God. Emmanuel—God with us—“is not a state, but an event” (CD IV.1, 6). We can thus state these insights in the form of logical propositions:
A. God alone reveals God.The assertion that God is a being-in-act means that “the being of God declares His reality: not only His reality for us—certainly that—but at the same time His own, inner, proper reality, behind which and above which there is no other” (262). God’s reality—actualized and revealed in Christ—is both pro nobis and pro se, both ad extra and ad intra, both historical and eternal, both actualistic and ontological. God’s triune being-in-act thus encompasses the full scope of the divine life both in eternity and in history: “The whole being and life of God is an activity, both in eternity and in worldly time, both in Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in His relation to man and all creation” (CD IV.1, 7). The whole life of God is a being-in-act in which the being of God is defined by the acts of God. By identifying God as a being-in-act, modern theology affirms the closest possible relation between actualism and ontology, the latter of which I will discuss in the next section (§8.IV.5). This divine relation—between history and ontology, between act and being—is a actuality in the person of Jesus Christ.
B. Revelation is the act of God.
C. God is (eternally) what God does (historically).
D. Jesus Christ is the historical self-revelation of God.
E. Therefore, Jesus Christ reveals in history who God is eternally; that is, Jesus reveals pro nobis [for us] who God is in se [in Godself].
F. Therefore, God actualized in Jesus Christ who God is ontologically from all eternity; that is, God ontologically defined Godself in the historical act of self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
G. To summarize, God is a being-in-act, “which is in no sense act in general but the concrete, specific action of His love” (CD II.1, 299).
What is concerned is always the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, always His justification of faith, always His lordship in the Church, always His coming again, and therefore Himself as our hope. … And in this very event God is who He is. God is He who in this event is subject, predicate and object; the revealer, the act of revelation, the revealed; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the Lord active in this event. We say “active” in this event, and therefore for our salvation and for His glory, but in any case active. Seeking and finding God in His revelation, we cannot escape the action of God for a God who is not active. This is not only because we ourselves cannot, but because there is no surpassing or bypassing at all of the divine action, because a transcendence of His action is nonsense. We are dealing with the being of God: but with regard to the being of God, the word “event” or “act” is final, and cannot be surpassed or compromised. To its very deepest depths God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event—not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action, in which we have a share in God’s revelation. (CD II.1, 262-63; emphasis added)All of this can be reframed in trinitarian terms. We can say, following Karl Rahner, that the economic Trinity (what God does) is the immanent Trinity (who God is) and correspondingly the immanent Trinity (ontology) is the economic Trinity (actualism). In other words, the God ad extra is the God ad intra, and vice versa. To state it most simply, what God accomplishes historically reveals who God is ontologically. We thus have no grounds for permitting a split within God between the deus revelatus [the revealed God] and the deus absconditus [the hidden God]. We know only one God—the God of grace revealed to us in Jesus Christ—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God is who He is, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, supreme, the one true Lord; and He is known in this entirety or He is not known at all. There is no existence of God behind or beyond this entirety of His being. Whatever we can know and say about the being of God can be only a continual explanation of this entirety. … We either know God Himself and therefore entirely, or we do not know Him at all. (CD II.1, 51-52)While I affirm Rahner’s formula, I also recognize the danger pointed out by Hans Urs von Balthasar, that we might end up resolving the being of God into a purely immanent reality. In order to protect against this, we should remember that Jesus Christ is not the whole triune God incarnate but rather the incarnate second person of the Trinity. With this qualification in mind, however, we must still assert that the subject of the life of Jesus is indeed the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. God is the subject of the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, even while the triune God’s self-differentiation allows God, as the incarnate Logos, to act also as the object of the divine command. God is internally and eternally the self-positing and self-posited God; God self-determines Godself to be both subject and object. To ensure that we do not reduce the triune God into God’s historical self-manifestation, we should keep in mind the basic principle of Scripture: “All things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, … God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5.18-19, NKJV; emphasis added). God was actually in Christ—so that Jesus Christ truly acts as God and reveals the being of God—but God is not limited to Christ. The triunity of God enables revelation and prevents limitation. God precludes any attempt to exhaust the divine richness by confining the being of God to one particular system of thought.
God is wholly and utterly the good-pleasure of His grace and mercy. At any rate, He is wholly and utterly in His revelation, in Jesus Christ. And therefore it is not only justifiable but necessary for us to understand His whole being and nature as comprehended and ordered in His good pleasure. (75)
If God ontologically defines Godself out of the historical actuality of divine revelation, then we have the basis for a proper theological method ordered by God’s self-revelation. As stated above (Proposition A), the theological datum governing this entire project is that God alone reveals God. With this in mind, we can develop a theological method which (1) examines what God does in the history of God’s covenant relations with humanity and (2) then extrapolates from that concrete reality who God must be ontologically to enable the actualization of that historical event. In other words, an actualistic theological ontology thinks after (Nachdenken) the movement of God’s being in time and space. We do not think before (i.e., speculate about) God’s actions; rather, we allow God to define Godself within the concrete event of revelation. Theological thought is thus reflection on the event of God:
To think God means to be taken along by God. Theological thought is in a profound sense a process of being taken along. (Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World 159)What follows from this is the operative principle in a theological system which “thinks after” God’s being: If God has done x, then God must be capable of x in God’s own being. For example, if God has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, then God ad intra is a God capable of incarnation. The actuality of God’s movement in history depends upon the divine possibility of this actuality; conversely, we only determine what is possible for God based on what God has already accomplished. The acts of God (ad extra) truly reveal the life of God (ad intra), just as the life of God is the ground of possibility for the acts of God. An actualistic ontology will thus distinguish between possibility and actuality in the triune life of God—not through speculation but by attending to the concrete, historical reality of God’s being-in-act as a being-in-becoming.
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.’ (Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming 99)What bearing does any of this have upon the doctrine of the atonement? The doctrine of the atonement is concerned, first and foremost, with the event of reconciliation—a singular, exclusive, unrepeatable event. The name of this event is Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the atonement is not primarily concerned with how but with who. It is not an abstract teaching on how guilt is removed but is rather the most concrete doctrine—concrete precisely because it is cruciform. At the heart of the gospel stands the most particular and decisive act of God: the cross of Christ. The cross, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the mysterium paschale—is the sine qua non of the atonement and thus the heart of the euangelion, the “good news” of the gospel. At the heart of the Christian faith stands the person of Jesus Christ, who is indistinguishable from the reconciling work of God that was accomplished in his person: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5.19). Jesus unites in himself act and being, event and ontology, history and eternity.
If the event of Jesus Christ is indeed decisive for reconciliation to take place between sinful humanity and the holy triune God, what is the nature of this event? What does it mean to call the atonement an act of God? Christian tradition has tended to view the atonement in two different ways, and by this I do not mean the different theories of the atonement. Outside and above the different theories, Christian tradition has viewed the atonement in one of two ways, which can be described using different pairs of terms: objective/subjective, exclusive/inclusive, actualized/non-actualized. Each of these pairs offers slightly different perspectives on the same basic question: Did Christ completely and actually atone for sin in himself, once and for all? The first term in each pair answers this question in the affirmative, the latter in the negative.
What is the significance of either position? (1) If one affirms that the atonement was actualized in Christ, then one affirms that Christ’s atonement for sins was objective and exclusive; that is, Christ excludes all other attempts to achieve salvation by locating salvation objectively in his own person as the messiah of God. (2) If one affirms that the atonement was not actualized in Christ, then one affirms that Christ’s atonement for sins is (at least potentially) inclusive of other means of salvation (by works, other religions, etc.) and that salvation is thus located not in the objective reality of Christ but in the subjective reality of the believer. The actuality of the atonement thus means that the atonement was fully, objectively, and exclusively accomplished in Jesus Christ. The non-actuality of the atonement means that the atonement was not completed in the event of Jesus Christ and thus that Christ is not the sole and exclusive basis for reconciliation with God.
By affirming divine actualism—and thus the actuality of the atonement—we rule out the idea that Jesus only made reconciliation possible. We deny that Jesus made reconciliation a potential reality, which we as believers must then actualize by our faith. By undermining the actuality of the atonement, one also undermines the event-character of the life of Jesus as the act of God. The very being of Jesus Christ becomes a potentiality, not an actuality. Correspondingly, any attempt to lessen the actuality of the atonement implies that the subjective completion of the atonement is not only a completion of reconciliation, but the completion of God’s own being in Christ. The very being of God is at stake in the doctrine of the atonement.
Furthermore, with the loss of actuality and finality in the event of reconciliation, Jesus becomes merely a teacher and moral influence who urges his followers to actualize his example. Jesus does not accomplish anything exclusively on his own as the Son of God—other than perhaps living the perfect moral life. Denying the actuality of the atonement denies the centrality and divinity of Christ and elevates the human believer as the center of the faith. In other words, whenever we lessen the actuality of God’s reconciling work in Christ, we elevate our own status as reconciling partners with God. Whenever we lessen divine actualism, we threaten our very knowledge of God as a being-in-act and undermine our assurance of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ. Divine actualism allows us to be passive recipients of God’s reconciling love and frees us from the unbearable responsibility of trying to earn God’s favor. Divine actualism preserves God’s relation to us as a relation of pure grace.
We preach and teach the Gospel evangelically, then, in such a way as this: God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very Being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once and for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. … He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, … so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted by him. (T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ 94)The gracious actuality of the atonement involves both the death and life of Jesus, both the objective sacrifice and the objective response. Jesus Christ is the Mediator, whose vicarious mediation restores us in relation to God through his death to sin and his life of righteousness. In Jesus Christ, both sides of reconciliation are complete: both the movement of God to humanity and the movement of humanity to God. In Christ alone, God not only actualizes the divine forgiveness and acceptance of sinful humanity, but God also actualizes the human repentance and decision for God. Divine actualism ensures that salvation is sola gratia—by grace alone.
God is He who in this event is subject, predicate and object; the revealer, the act of revelation, the revealed; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the Lord active in this event. We say “active” in this event, and therefore for our salvation and for His glory, but in any case active. Seeking and finding God in His revelation, we cannot escape the action of God for a God who is not active. (CD II.1, 263)God is the Lord, as Barth stresses, and as the Lord, God is active “for our salvation and for His glory.” God does not depend on human creatures to finish the work of redemption and reconciliation, just as God does not depend on us to create the cosmos. God is the personal event of Love, and we are the recipients of the gracious gifts overflowing from this event for all people. God is subject and object, revealer and revealed, giver and receiver, speaker and hearer, beginning and end, origin and telos. The event of reconciliation begins and ends within God’s own being, and yet we participate in this reconciliation because we participate in the being of Jesus Christ who assumed human nature ‘for us and for our salvation.’ God does not need us, yet God freely and graciously makes us God’s covenant partners. God has divinely decided to not be God without us, and thus to be God for us.
I shall now return to where we began this discussion of divine actualism. The affirmation of actualism has a two-fold polemic in mind: First, actualism denies semi-Pelagianism, which states that we have to meet God half-way; that we have to freely seek God, and then God will grant us the grace of salvation. We see this most prominently in evangelical revivalism, in which people are implored to step forward toward the altar and make a decision for Christ. The free human decision is what completes the event of reconciliation—and thus also the being of God in Jesus Christ. Apart from this decision, salvation remains merely potential. Calvinism and Augustinian-Thomism state that this first move is purely an act of divine grace, because these were the people elected by God in pre-temporal eternity (double predestination). The former position (Calvinism) believes that these people are eternally secure, while the latter (Augustinian-Thomism) believes such people must maintain their salvation through penance and works of love. Universalism accepts all the tenets of the former except that it refuses to place limits around the scope of God’s grace: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”
Second, divine actualism rejects the liberal position of Christ as mere moral example. Jesus as example does not definitively accomplish anything in himself but only urges his followers to imitate his example in their own lives. Divine actualism is replaced with divine exhortation. But exhortation without reconciliation is salvation by works, while reconciliation—when it comes first and comes from God—liberates us to live according to the exhortations of Christ. Abelard’s liberal theological position is untenable for anyone wishing to affirm a high Christology that proclaims boldly: “God was in Christ.”
The question of the atonement—as the christological-soteriological question about God’s being-in-act—is thus intimately connected to the question of faith. Do we complete the atonement by professing faith in Christ? Or do we affirm something that is already true? Does our faith reconcile us to God, or does our faith instead recognize and affirm that God has indeed reconciled the world to himself in Jesus Christ? The answer of classical Protestantism was and is that God alone reconciles, and we are the recipients of that reconciling love. In light of divine actualism, we must then define faith, as we addressed in §7, as our Yes to God’s prior and actualized Yes to us in Jesus Christ. Faith asserts that the atonement is complete—“it is finished”—and yet also affirms that the ontological reality of Christ’s reconciling work must become existentially effective—“be reconciled to God.” Faith is faith in the actuality of the atonement, in the event of Jesus Christ, in the gracious being-in-act of God as Deus pro nobis.
The simplest answer to the question of the nature of human faith is that faith is the human ‘Yes’, the affirmation, coming from the heart, to the definitive affirmation from God which comes to us in the occasion of our justification. It is the human ‘Yes’ to that clear and already accomplished negation by God which we have because of that definitive affirmation in Jesus Christ. ... Believers agree that God’s condemning and acquitting judgement is already accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ. (Jüngel, Justification 237)Divine actualism is no abstract teaching about God’s being. Actualism is the most concrete and central affirmation of the Christian faith. The actuality of God ensures that the triune God we encounter in history is the triune God who lives for all eternity in the repleteness of God’s being-in-communion. The actuality of God ensures that what Christ accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection is indeed ‘for us and for our salvation,’ effective and complete, objective and exclusive, in our place and on our behalf, pro nobis and pro omnibus, total and free. The actuality of God promises that our condemnation and acquittal, our negation and affirmation, our judgment and justification, are already accomplished in Christ, thus liberating us to be passive recipients of God’s overflowing grace as participants in the being of Jesus Christ.
Faith ... is our grateful Yes and Amen to God’s own Yes and Amen, which has come into being in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:19f). There can be no additions made to this Amen. (251)
In conclusion, the narrative of God’s being-in-act frees us for faith now and awaits the eschaton with hope. The actuality of the triune God involves the past event of reconciliation, the present event of reunion, and the future event of resurrection: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). Only as the actuality of reconciliation occurs extra nos in Jesus Christ can reunion with God be existentially realized in nobis and eschatologically perfected pro omnibus. Our hope and salvation is solus Christus—Christ alone. The actuality of God thus takes the form of a servant and the shape of a cross. Divine actualism is the assurance of the faith, the confidence in the truth, and the confession of the gospel: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” Yes and Amen.