Barth and the “fellowship” in the Trinity

January 27, 2013

In my recent Barth reading group (with several Presbyterian pastors in Charlotte), we had a fun discussion about whether Barth has a consistent trinitarian theology. As most of y’all know, Barth rejects the language of “person” as it tends to divide the singular divine subject into three distinct willing agents. Thus, the current push-back against social trinitarianism has hailed Barth’s theology on this point. Yet, the Church Dogmatics is replete with trinitarian language that seems quite serviceable to a social trinitarianism. Here is a very good example:

In Himself He does not will to exist for Himself, to exist alone. On the contrary, He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and therefore alive in His unique being with and for and in another. The unbroken unity of His being, knowledge and will is at the same time an act of deliberation, decision and intercourse. He does not exist in solitude but in fellowship. Therefore what He seeks and creates between Himself and us is in fact nothing else but what He wills and completes and therefore is in Himself. [CD II.1, p. 275]

The context is Barth’s discussion of God’s perfection as the One who loves in freedom. Here, Barth is using God’s immanent and eternal life as a loving fellowship as proof that God has no need to create in order to have the fullness of love. Yet, because his act is always a demonstration of his essence, the fellowship he seeks with us is “nothing else but” the fellowship he has in himself. The remarkable thing is how Barth describes this fellowship (of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as an act of “deliberation, decision, and intercourse.” With these terms — especially “deliberation” (!) — it is no wonder that many leading advocates of social trinitarian models were also avid readers of Barth, working to extend his project (and correct it or radicalize it, as seen fit).

Bruce McCormack will say that this language is metaphorical and not to be taken literally (see, for example, the first of his Kantzer Lectures), and he may be right. After all, that would be consistent with Barth’s rejection of the pactum salutis in classical Reformed theology because, among other reasons, it implied two or three distinct subjects (oh, let’s say, deliberating!). Yet, it is still rather difficult to conceive of a singular divine subject deliberating with himself and loving himself as “another” and making intercourse with the other modes, et cetera, and not use a basically social trinitarian apparatus.

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3 Responses to “Barth and the “fellowship” in the Trinity”

  1. john said

    Eh? You think that individuals require other individuals to deliberate about something? Not sure which dictionary you’re using…

    • Kevin Davis said

      Well, if we go with Merriam-Webster: “to think about or discuss issues and decisions carefully.” The “discuss” element of deliberation is what I had in mind, especially as Barth is grouping the term with “intercourse” and making a contrast with the “unity” of will and knowledge. By highlighting the term, “deliberation,” I did not intend to isolate it from the context.

  2. […] puts Barth in a unique position vis-à-vis the current controversies. He can say that God “does not exist in solitude but fellowship.” This is the living God — the God who has life and movement in himself and from himself. He […]

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