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The theological function of the doctrine of the divine attributes and the divine glory, with special reference to Karl Barth and his reading of the Protestant Orthodox

  • Christopher R. J. Holmes (a1)


Theological discourse on the doctrine of the attributes of God has lacked a clear sense of its purpose within the doctrine of God. It has far too often led one into an abstract realm in which an incipient naturalism is present concerning who God is and what God is like: the attributes resemble those of a supreme being rather than the triune God of the gospel. If the doctrine is to perform the salutary theological work for which it is capable, it would be to its advantage to describe, as does Barth, God's attributes in terms of a series of short-hand descriptions which agree with God's enacted identity in the history of Israel as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In doing so, Barth offers a tremendously creative re-inhabitation of the doctrine. It is creative precisely because Barth avoids many of the shortcomings of the historical shape of the doctrine, as exemplified for him in Protestant Orthodoxy's tendency toward semi-nominalism, by attending anew to the declarative and communicative character of the glory of the Lord, a glory which is inclusive of a multiplicity of perfections. The result is a rearticulation of the doctrine of the divine attributes that is truly concrete, inasmuch as it eschews not only a false apophaticism, which would deflect attention away from the resplendent contours of God's saving self-display in the economy of salvation, but also attests the extent of God's propensity to ever give of himself as he is and to evoke a form of creaturely life commensurate with his self-giving.



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1 Webster, John writes: ‘theological talk of the divine attributes is thus not primarily a matter of categorization but of confession; the attributes of God are conceptual glosses on God's name, indicators of God's identity’: Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

2 ‘The broad concept of the divine essence, namely “that than which nothing greater can be thought”, remains uncontested wherever that essence so defined is asserted to be unthinkable, whether for positive reasons (Fichte) or for negative reasons (Nietzsche). The result is that that beyond than which nothing greater can be thought is itself not capable of being thought’. Jüngel, Eberhard, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Guder, Darrell L. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), p. 204.

3 C. D. Osthövenor's work is the only available published scholarly treatment of the doctrine. See Die Lehre von Gottes Eigenschaften bei F. Schleiermacher und Karl Barth (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1996).

4 My intention, secondarily, in recounting Barth's reading of the Protestant Orthodox, is to demonstrate the extent to which Barth functions as a historical theologian. In fact, what differentiates Barth from his most sophisticated German Lutheran reader, Eberhard Jüngel, is that Barth does not participate in the habitual repudiation of aspects of the classical Christian doctrine of God endemic among much modern Lutheran theology in Germany. Barth, as a historical theologian, is at once more knowledgeable, more curious and more modest. See e.g. Jüngel's discussion of Aquinas. Jüngel concludes that Aquinas' doctrine of God remains trapped by a rather crude form of apophaticism: ‘God is understood “according to the receiving person (secundom hominem recipientem)”. [That is] Talk about God is defined by man's condition of knowledge. Since language must follow knowledge, and knowledge is defined through the mode of being of the knower, the language which speaks of God always remains behind God to the extent that it is the language of speaking man, the language of the world’. Jüngel, God as Mystery, p. 245 (emphasis added).

5 Richard Muller writes (incorrectly) that Barth's interaction with the seventeeth-century Reformed orthodox suffers ‘however, like most of Barth's dogmatic excurses, from a willingness to use the older materials as a foil for his own argument: for all its detail, it cannot be viewed as an attempt to enter the mind of the traditional doctrine on its own terms . . . His presentations must be studied carefully but also warily’. See Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, vol. 3, The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), pp. 24–5.

6 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics (hereafter CD), trans. Bromiley, G. W. and Torrance, T. F. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957–75), II/1, p. 322.

7 Gunton, Colin, Act and Being: Toward a Theology of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 9.

8 CD II/1, p. 324.

10 Ibid., p. 324.

11 Polanus, Synt. Theol. chr., quoted in CD II/1, p. 328 (my emphasis).

12 Van Mastricht, Theor. pract. Theol., quoted in CD II/1, p. 329 (my emphasis).

13 CD II/1, p. 333 (my emphasis).

14 Ibid., p. 328.

15 Polanus, Synt. Theol. chr., quoted in CD II/1, p. 334 (my emphasis).

16 CD II/1, pp. 334–5.

18 Ibid., p. 641.

19 Ibid., p. 642 (my emphasis).

20 Krötke, Wolf, Gottes Klarheiten: Eine Neuinterpretation der Lehre von Gottes ‘Eigenschaften’ (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 2001).

21 Hunsinger, George, ‘Mysterium Trinitatis’, in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 194.

22 This is not only Thomasius' mistake but the customary procedure of traditional treatments. See I. Dorner, A., System of Christian Doctrine, vol. 1, trans. Cave, Alfred and Banks, J. S. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1883), pp. 191, 189.

23 See, further, Molnar, Paul, Divine Freedom and the Doctrine of the Immanent Trinity: In Dialogue with Karl Barth and Contemporary Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002).

24 CD II/1, p. 644.

25 Ibid., pp. 644, 645.

27 Ibid., p. 646.

28 Ibid. Barth's positive appropriation of van Mastricht's fourfold schema demonstrates that Barth does not use the Protestant Orthodox simply as a negative foil. Although critical of their ‘semi-nominalism’, van Mastricht offers what Barth's regards as a fulsome account of the gloria Dei.

31 Barth, Karl, Dogmatics in Outline, trans. Thomson, G. T. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1959), p. 116.

32 CD II/1, p. 647.

34 Mangina, Joseph L., Karl Barth on the Christian Life: The Practical Knowledge of God in Issues in Systematic Theology (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), p. 158.

35 Webster, John, ‘Barth on Original Sin’, in Barth's Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth's Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 67.

36 Joseph Mangina offers a most helpful account of the logic of joy and gratitude ‘as the affective responses that most clearly correspond to Barth's actualism’. Mangina, Christian Life, pp. 132–39.

37 CD II/1, p. 648.

38 See further, ibid., pp. 179–204.

39 Jüngel, Eberhard, ‘Quae supra nos, nihil ad nos: Eine Kurzformer der Lehre vom verborgenen Gott – im Anschluß an Luther interpretiert’. in Entsprechnungen: Gott – Wahrheit – Mensch. Theologische Erörterungen II (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1980), esp. pp. 239, 248.

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The theological function of the doctrine of the divine attributes and the divine glory, with special reference to Karl Barth and his reading of the Protestant Orthodox

  • Christopher R. J. Holmes (a1)


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