Barth on the Attributes of God

With my post-Agamben eyes, and more recently in light of Anthony’s suggestion at the AAR that “God” should be aligned with the “never-living,” I took particular note of the places in Barth’s (rather laborious) exposition of the attributes of God where he talks about God’s life. In the section on God’s constancy, the main move that Barth makes to distance his concept of God from the traditional notion of impassibility is to understand God’s constancy as his life. We can’t think of God’s impassibility as a lack of movement, since that would mean that God is dead. He also wraps up the section on God’s eternity by saying that we must understand God’s life as eternal, to keep us from veering back into an abstract concept of eternity, etc. (I haven’t read the “glory” section yet — the end of the eternity section is what prompted this post.)

My question: Why not treat God’s “life” as a separate attribute?

16 thoughts on “Barth on the Attributes of God

  1. I took the idea from Anthony that God should be aligned with the never-living because God cannot die – unlike the other elements of the eco-system God is eternal, he has no birth and no death though is still a component of the eco-system – therefore she is, in an ecological sense, never-living – like the rocks, or – a better metaphor – the sea.

  2. PS – naturally it is my understanding that the non-living – eg dead matter decomposing – are part of the eco-system too…but are different from never-living elements.

  3. As I read it, this is tied into Barth’s notion of election – that God elects God’s self to be what it is from eternity. This includes God’s life as a Trinitarian communion that is relational and relates human life back to God. Not quite perichoresis, but along those lines and then taken bit further. Trinitarian relatedness is tied into human relatedness in a way where God is non-contingent, but human being is fundamentally contingent on the inner life of God. I think William Stacy Johnson’s exposition of this is actually quite good.

    Interestingly, and tangentially, Simone Weil has a similar concept specifically regarding the function of the Logos and the Incarnation as God’s self-elected limitedness, but far more related to the Platonic idea of “world spirit”.

  4. God only eternally elects Jesus of Nazareth to be the fulfillment of the covenant between God and humanity. That election displays God’s freedom to be “determined” as “for us.” That is very different than saying that God eternally elects “God’s self to be what it is from eternity.”

  5. Drew, I think I agree with Josh. But leaving aside that question — Barth devotes half a part-volume to the Trinity (I/1), and half a part-volume to election (II/2). He also has a huge portion of II/1 devoted to the attributes of God. At no point is “life” directly thematized in itself — it’s always an explanation of some other aspect of God (most notably constancy).

    So I guess my question is more one of organization or emphasis, and perhaps unanswerable.

  6. I’m going to expand a bit on what Josh said, because there was a time when I actually held the same position you describe, about God “choosing” to be like he is. The mistake here, in Barth’s terms, is submitting God to some preexisting notion of freedom. If he is how he is freely, then he must have chosen to be that way, and then there’s this creeping notion of some antecedent prior state. But for God to be free just is for him to be how he is — freedom is defined by God, not vice-versa.

  7. Adam, that’s kind of the paradoxical point about Barth’s doctrine of election no? God elects from eternity God’s own self as both Subject and Object of election. So yes Barth is clear about not submitting God to any absolute decree or condition as it were, but God self-determines or elects God’s own self from eternity. As it is an election “to be” from eternity, there can be no prior condition that determines the being of God since that would require some prior time before God’s own self. Eternity seems to be the crucial qualifier here.

  8. Drew, you are missing the most important point in the logic of election. The whole point is that it is Jesus of Nazareth that is elect from all eternity, and not God, because this reveals God to always already only ever be the God that is “with us,” and “for us.” This is the nature of God’s free, self-determination — that is, as for what is not-God.

  9. I’m afraid I don’t buy Barth’s argument against impassibility. If we study the virtue in patristics and matristics, we see that remaining immovably is an activity. They were more influenced by desert asceticism than we might think.

    Evagrius is very good on this: he has a load of techniques/practices that work to keep you still. But it would be a mistake to think of it as a state of passivity. After all, impassibility is to do with the absence of passions, and they are what tempt us to be passive.

  10. Does it change anything to realize that he’s arguing against late medieval and Protestant scholasticism rather than against the patristic writers? Not to mention Barth’s own skepticism about mysticism as an essentially non-“theological” way of getting at God — i.e., one that has little to do with Christ. If your starting point for knowledge about God is Christ, then impassibility as traditionally understood (and even as described by you here) does not seem like a self-evident postulate.

  11. Well, not really. At least not when the debate is about the quality of “impassibility” as such rather than any particular thinker. I myself don’t have any particular loyalty to the fathers in themselves: if they’re wrong, I’ll say so. So it doesn’t help if we find out that Barth liked Augustine (for example) after all.

    The mysticism argument would work much better against more recent (i.e. post-reformation) theologians than the church fathers, who saw spiritual exercises as work on the self rather than constructive theology.

    3 points then:
    -as a critique, Barth’s argument doesn’t apply to impassibility if we understand it properly (it just re-iterates Jerome’s criticism of Evagrius). So we’re back to zero positions: both have to argue for any position regarding impassibility;
    -the desert fathers developed a fairly coherent theology of the passions, based on a kenotic theology and Christ’s practice of love and non-violence, and this would be my christological basis for saying that God is impassible;
    -I don’t really see impassibility as contradicting the doctrine of the holy repentance of God, unless that doctrine involved God repenting in order to gain ownership over someone.

  12. Okay, I haven’t read the desert fathers, so I can’t pursue this further.

    I do have a question, though: Have you read the whole section in Church Dogmatics II/1 where he deals with impassibility, or are you critiquing “Barth’s argument” based on my one sentence in the post?

  13. I read it, but as I said, it was a long time ago (2001?). I’m no Barth scholar though, so I’m quite prepared to admit that I might have misunderstood it. I think I wrote an essay on it whilst studying Biblical Theology with Walter Moberley in Durham.

    But it was a crap essay, so I don’t think I’ll dig it up…

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