McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 3

Some final thoughts in response to Bruce McCormack’s Ch. 10 re: open theism. Remember that McCormack locates open theism and classical theism as “occupying a shared metaphysical ground” (viz., “essentialism”). Though both open theism and classical theism have valuable contributions to make, in the end neither can adequately express the values of both in a unified concept. The fundamental methodological flaw shared by both was the commitment to incorporate metaphysical conclusions based on a priori philosophical reflection (as opposed to basing one’s doctrine of God exclusively upon the events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection).

This dependency upon philosophical reflection led both open and classical theology into an essentialist ontology wherein the key concepts used to describe God (‘nature’, ‘person’, ‘being’, etc.) were all filled with content before any consideration of God’s concrete self-revealing act in Christ, and so Christ gets accommodated to metaphysics rather than the other way around.

Let us agree for the sake of brevity that “essentialism” is the doctrine that essence precedes existence. I would like to suggest that open theism is not in fact committed to an essentialist ontology even if many or most open theists are essentialists. I see no reason why an open theist could not, for example, agree to McCormack’s/Barth’s “actualism.” What is actualism? It’s not possible to reduce Barth’s doctrine to a summary statement, but for the sake of space we shall have to. As I understand it, Barth’s “actualism” is the doctrine that God is what God does. This can indeed be expressed as meaning God’s essence and his existence are identical, but not in the sense classical theists mean. For Barth God’s existence defines his essence (i.e., God just is, essentially, what God does) and there’s no getting behind what God has done in the event of God’s self-revelation in Christ to speculate on what God is independent of this act (or the determination to act thus).

The question an open theist might ask is why think either that such a methodology (viz., Christ alone reveals God and is thus the exclusive source of truth about God) could not be pursued by an open theist (which we partly addressed in Part 2) or, furthermore, that actualism in principle requires the divine determination of all things? Unless actualism entails the B-series view of time (‘eternalism’ or the ‘block universe’) — which I have not heard anyone argue — there’s no obvious reason why an open theist couldn’t embrace an actualist understanding of God’s existence/essence (God’s being-in-act). It would be interesting to know (from informed Barthians) if, and if so why, actualism entails the divine determination of all creaturely occurrence. Along this line of questioning, Peter Leithart wonders what the implications of actualism are in response to George Hunsinger’s summary of Barth’s actualism (Hunsinger’s How to Read Karl Barth, p. 31). Hunsinger writes:

“Negatively [actualism] means that we human beings have no ahistorical relationship to God, and that we also have no capacity in and of ourselves to enter into fellowship with God. An a historical relationship would be a denial of God’s activity, and an innate capacity for fellowship would be a denial of God’s sovereignty. Positively, therefore, our relationship with God must be understood in active, historical terms, and it must be a relationship given to us strictly from the outside.”

This can be read as implying divine determination of the content and course of history, but such determinism isn’t obviously entailed in belief that God is what God does or that God’s self-revealing act in Christ is the exclusive source of truth about God. On the other hand, there’s nothing in Hunsinger’s summary of Barth’s actualism an open theist couldn’t agree to in principle.

It seems perfectly plausible to suppose that an open theist could work strictly within the methodological commitments McCormack advocates (i.e., that God reveals himself in Christ and not in the deliverances of a priori philosophical reflection) as well as agree that the Son is eternally the Father’s electing act by which God determines to be God-for-us in covenant relation in/through Christ (and no other God) without having to suppose that God’s predetermining will embraces all creaturely occurrence constituting the unfolding of history. Nothing necessary to the open view of the future or God’s knowledge of actual (temporal) realities (in a manner consistent with the future’s being ‘open’) requires an essentialist ontology or prevents an exclusively Christocentric epistemology/methodology. We are of course not advocating for Barth’s actualism or his (theological) epistemology. We’re only arguing that an open theist could adopt these without having to abandon her open theism.

7 comments on “McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 3

  1. fenoglios says:

    Y’all should write a book titled “Barthian Open Theism.”


  2. tgbelt says:

    Lol! We’d have be be Barthian first, and we’re not. We didn’t want to weigh our response to McCormack down with defending all the point over which we disagree with him which were also irrelevant to open theism.

    Congrats on the new blog!


  3. Jeff says:

    I’m trying to figure out how we can make reasoned inferences about God at all if some metaphysics has nothing to do with knowledge of God. IOW, assume we know nothing about God apart from Christ. How pray tell could believing there was a historical figure called “Christ” by some tell me a dang thing about God if I theretofore knew absolutely nothing about God? By that view, “God” is utterly undefined. How, then, can the use of the mere grammatical “word” “god” help me a bit? To help me, you’d have to refer to notions like “creator” etc, which is exactly what Barth would have to say are completely arbitrary ideas. As arbitrary, they have no warrant whatsoever. Therefore, no one could appeal to any rational basis for taking such notions/ideas seriously. Hence, there’s no accountability entailed in such a “theology.” Are we to believe that Christianity is a religion utterly void of discernible accountability? How then is such an approach any different, in that sense, than the most extreme versions of Calvinism out there?


    • fenoglios says:

      Good points!


    • tgbelt says:

      I feel ya Jeff. I’m not familiar enough with Barth to say in what senses he did think philosophical reflection warranted or legit. Seems to me that whatever arguments one would use to defend that methodology per se have to be made on the outside OF that methodology and thus rest on just reflections, which doesn’t make sense to me. But we didn’t wanna go there in our response since open theism per se doesn’t require a particular position on this.


      • Jeff says:

        And of course the same “derived meaning” problem exists for “open theism” if indeed we had to somehow extract or abstract that whole meaning for the very first time from an interpretation of an historical “Christ.” Interpretation presupposes an epistemological perspective of some kind. Hopefully we’ll come to see that Barth is meaning by that approach something intellectually applicable after all.


      • Jeff says:

        As you’ve showed, Tom, Craig doesn’t actually contradict open theism by any notions seemingly widely-held. And if it’s actually just what we mean by libertarian free-will and foreknowledge that rules out the simultaneous reality of both (as per the law of non-contradiction), then it seems we just do bring those definitions of libertarian free-will, etc into our interpretation of history. And it certainly seems undeniable that humans had notions of divinity prior to Christ’s birth as well. Indeed, if that’s not the most plausible interpretation of history, just how much is actually knowable by humans in the first place? What, in that case, did the greek and hebrew words we assume mean something like “god” actually mean before Christ? I don’t think I understand Barth at all.


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