Hunsinger on Barth’s Actualism

Hunsinger on Barth’s Actualism September 9, 2003

George Hunsinger describes one of the implications of Barth’s “actualism” in this way:

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 ahistorical 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 . . . . Our relationship to God is therefore an event ( How to Read Karl Barth , p. 31).

That gives me pause, on two points. First, if the relationship comes “strictly from the outside,” is there really any relationship? There is nothing innate in me that serves as a “foundation” on which a relationship with God can be built; but if that’s the case, am I actually relating to God, or is God’s relationship to me a moment in God’s relationship to Himself? Does creation have any integrity, any independence? Grace, Hunsinger says, is the “condition for the possibility” of relationship. Which is true. But is there, in Barth’s system, room for creation grace, grace that is identical with the gift of existence itself. This is one of the many places that I see Barth’s theology suffering from a weak theology of creation.

Second, this casts a shadow over Barth’s Trinitarianism. The phrasing sounds like an anthropological application of modalism, and that raises the issue of theological modalism. Are Father and Son really other to one another?

No doubt I’ve phrased that ill. But I sense mischief in the notion of “actualism,” or at least in Barth’s treatment of it, or at least in Hunsinger’s summary of Barth’s treatment of it.

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