"Modes of Being" and the Threefold Alterity of God

It's "brass tacks" time. Or at least, it's part 1 of "brass tacks" time. Yes, I'm still working on Jenson's "You Wonder Where the Spirit Went."

The article has five sections. The first explains Jenson's task, which is to "pick a nit"—not an insignificant task, given that it was a pest that both he and the Barth Society at the time saw as lively and unpleasant. And I agree—this article remains worth engaging precisely because, if this pest is really what's biting us, we are obliged to kill it stone dead for the sake of the health of our theology.

Barth has done something salutary in his use of the doctrine of the Trinity to identify the specifically Christian God. Jenson, of all people, knows how obliged the 20th century is to this insight. The problem, however, if it is real, is with Barth's development of this doctrine. Jenson locates it in two places: first, the insufficiency of Barth's "full technical doctrine of the Trinity" as to the nature of persons; and second, the use of that insufficiently-developed doctrine as a framework for everything else. And so, in the second section of the article, Jenson points to three cases of apparent "binitarianism," perceived conflicts of the three and the two in Barth's exposition, in which a two-sided relationship gives primary form to the material. This is the "nit," and Jenson will go on to associate it directly with a Father-Son binary that leaves no room for an equal third in the Spirit.

(Of course, I have my own explanation of Barth's play with the three and the two, and why Barth's dependence upon the relationship between God and humanity, and the corresponding relationship between human individuals, isn't "binitarian"—but I won't get to it today. That has to do with the impact of ethics, and Jenson doesn't go there. Besides, let's take one massive and complicated thing at a time, eh?)

The third section of the article is where Jenson engages in preliminary diagnosis, before proceeding onward to identify this "nit" specifically and trace its ecclesiological implications in the following two sections. And that preliminary diagnosis is where I will begin. Jenson commences this diagnosis with the declaration of the interconnectedness of the filioque, which Barth uses, and the heresy of modalism—which in fact Barth fights. And that is the territory I'm going to engage over today: modalism and the definition of God's threefold personality.

Preliminary Diagnostic: "Go East, Young Man!"

One of the most basic problems of the article is that Jenson, having been given a problem with Barth, believes it to be the case, and identifies it with problems with which he is more familiar. Given the heavy connections between this article and the book he had just written, this may simply be a problem of having a hammer. Making the claim that others have identified Barth's doctrine of the Trinity as traditionally Western, he goes on to attack flaws in the Western tradition of Trinitarian doctrine:
Notoriously, traditional Western teaching has its drawbacks, in my judgment one principally. Any theologian for whom the doctrine of Trinity is more than a relic, that is, any theologian who uses the doctrine of Trinity outside its own locus, is repeatedly led—indeed, compelled—to treat the three as parties of divine action, and that also “immanently.” … The problem with the Western form of teaching is that it offers little or no justification for this necessary practice; indeed, it seems actually to have quenched the practice in Western theology.
Here we have Jenson's basic Trinitarian scruple in the article—with which, in point of fact, I do not disagree. (My question is about the patient, not the DSM.) If one is not to be a modalist, besides rejecting the monarchy of the Father, one must posit—as Barth arguably does—that God is triune as a result of a becoming in eternity, and that the trinity in time is simply the manifestation of that triune being of God in act. (All the while, of course, upholding the understanding that the ad extra works of God are not genuinely subdivided as to persons because it is always the one God who acts. These concepts are conversant with one another, not contrary.)

His reading of Barth, however, leads Jenson to complain that Barth's grasp of the "persons" of God is improper—largely because of the use of the term Seinsweise, translated as "mode of being." Red flag in front of a bull, that. There are few things Jenson is more on his guard against than modalism. Hence the following paragraph:
The general problem is plainly present in Barth. The three in God are not to be regarded as “persons” in a modern sense, but rather as the “modes” in which the one God “is three times differently God” (dreimal anders Gott); in this systematically decisive definition Barth moreover intends the “is” as an active verb with the one God as its subject, so that the being of three is adverbial. Such a doctrine of Trinity can offer no better support for the actual use which Barth elsewhere makes of God's triunity than Western teaching in general does for such use. For also Barth's use invariably depends on taking the Father and the Son as parties of an action in God.
What is the ground of this problem? Let's dig up the footnote:
KD I/1, 380, “Dieser eine Gott ist aber dreimal anders Gott, so anders, daß er eben nur in dieser dreimaligen Andersheit Gott ist, so anders, daß diese Andersheit, sein Sein in diesen drei Seinsweisen ihm schlechterdings wesentlich, von seiner Gottheit unabtrennbar ist, so anders also, daß diese Andersheit unaufhebbar ist.”

CD I/1, 360, “But this one God is God three times in different ways, so different that it is only in this threefold difference that He is God, so different that this difference, this being in these three modes of being, is absolutely essential to Him, so different, then, that this difference is irremovable.”
If it weren't for that pesky word Seinsweise! I see no real cause for concern in this passage, nothing to suggest a real ontological problem with Barth's concept of the dreimaligen Andersheit Gottes. An essential triunity, this "threefold alterity" within the singular God—one that cannot be transcended, one that cannot be done away with for any "higher" truth. Surely Jenson has his grammar right when he says that "dreimal anders" is adverbial with respect to the being of God, but as Barth goes on to say in the rest of the sentence, this is the case "such that it is only in this threefold alterity that God is."

The Right Use of a Problematic Word

So let's talk "modes of being" then, this pesky word that seems to have come from a German Lutheran in the first place. Quenstedt, in his 1685 Theologia didactico-polemica, gives Seinsweise as his translation of the Greek τρόπος ὑπάρξεως, "manner of subsistence," which he gets by way of the Latin modus entitativus, hence the English use of "mode of being." We can find Barth's discussion of this term in this sense in two reasonably contemporary places. It appears here in CD I.1, §9.2, "The Triunity of God: Trinity in Unity," in a solid attempt to deal with the ridiculous breadth of imprecise terms used for intratrinitarian being across the tradition, and then again also in his discussion of "patrem omnipotentem" in Credo. But these are not Barth's first forays into the use of this term.

Seinsweise appears several times in the 1927 prolegomenon of the Christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf. In one early instance, Barth uses it with reference to the human "mode of being" under which we receive the Word of God in Christ:
Verhüllt durch diese an sich genommene menschliche Seinsweise ist das Wort Anrede Gottes doch nur durch Gott selber. Weder die menschliche Natur Christi, noch Geist und Buchstabe der ersten Zeugen, noch Wort und Sakrament der Kirche sind Gottes Wort an und durch sich selber. Sie sind es, sofern Gottes Wort sie angenommen hat zu diesem Dienst, sofern Gottes Wort durch sie redet. (GA 149)

The addressing Word of God is veiled behind this as-such assumed human mode of being—but only by God's own doing. Neither Christ's human nature, nor the spirit and letter of the first witnesses, nor yet the Word and Sacrament of the church, are God's Word in and of themselves. They are this only insofar as God's Word has coopted them into this service—only, that is, insofar as God's Word speaks through them.
This is the nature, the sine qua non, of revelation for Barth at this point. If it were not for the creaturely form taken by the Word of God, we would know nothing of God. This follows the line of the deus absconditus, who is the deus revelatus sub contrario specie. This use is not yet part of the Trinitarian sense, but it will be. Here Barth anticipates, and he will swing back around to this point.

Later, in developing the Trinitarian sense, Barth uses the term in translation of a sentence from Calvin's Institutes (GA 218-19): Personam voco subsistentiam in dei essentia, quae ad alios relata, proprietate incommunicabili distinguitur. Barth gives that in German as the following: "Person nenne ich eine Seinsweise in Gottes Sein, die in ihrer Beziehung zu den anderen durch eine (auf jene) unübertragbare Eigentümlichkeit ausgezeichnet ist." Translated into English, those work out like this: "I call a 'person' [ a subsistence in God's essence | a mode of being in God's existence ] which, in relation to the others, is distinguished by [ an incommunicable property | some characteristic that cannot be transferred to them ]." Barth goes on to add to this definition as follows:
Diese sogennante Relationslehre trifft zweifellos den Kern der Sache: die Trinität als solche und die drei Personen im einzelnen werden in der Tat konstituiert durch die Verschiedenheit der Beziehungen zu sich selbst, in denen sich Gott in seiner Offenbarung als der eine Herr erweist. Das Sein des Vaters, des Sohnes und des heiligen Geistes ist ein dreifaltiges «subsistere», eine dreifaltige Seinsweise seines eine Herrseins, von denen jede einzelne in ihrer Eigenart sich nur aus ihren Beziehungen zu den zwei anderen erklären läßt, wobei diese Beziehungen in der Tat «relationes originis» sind, bestimmte, für jede Seinsweise besondere Eigentümlichkeiten, in denen Gott so oder so oder so durch sich selbst Gott ist: ungezeugt als der Vater, gezeugt vom Vater als der Sohn, «procedens ex patre filioque» als der Geist.

This so-called "doctrine of the relations" doubtless strikes at the heart of the matter: the Trinity as such, and the three individual "persons," are in fact constituted by the differentiation of the intra-Trinitarian relationships, in which God in God's own revelation proves Godself to be the one Lord. The being of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is one threefold subsistere, one threefold mode of being of God's singular Lordship, from which each individual in its uniqueness can only be explained in terms of its relationships to the two others, in which these relationships are in fact relationes originis, special characteristics particular to each mode of being, in which God is God either in this way or as such: unbegotten as the Father, begotten of the Father as the Son, and procedens ex patre filioque as the Spirit.
All of this is quite normal and orthodox, if Western in its acceptance of the filioque as the explanation of the procession of the Spirit. Barth has, in spite of the potential of the term, not said anything modalist! He will go on to say that, whether with respect to the one God or any of the three persons, the aspect of God's Lordship cannot be abstracted away (GA 231). And this circles back, in his following discussion of the Son, to what was said about the Word: God proves God's deity in revelation precisely by becoming a second, totally new mode of being: by the Father positing Himself as His own Son (GA 259). This only-begotten Son is, in being the only Son, the singularity of revelation, the creaturely and human mode of being of the Word of God.

And, returning to the locus in CD I.1, Barth does give a defense in §9.4 as to modalism, in which he uses this term in the same basic sense as he has been using it:
On the other hand [the first being the rejection of subordinationism], the doctrine of the Trinity entails, as the rejection of modalism, the express declaration that those three moments are in no way alien to God's being as God. The doctrine does not suggest that we should have to seek the true God beyond these moments, in some higher being in which God were not Father, Son and Spirit. The revelation of God—and therefore of God's being as Father, Son and Spirit—is not some economy alien to the divine essence, something with an "upper" or "inner" limitation, so to speak, such that we would have to ask about the hidden Fourth if we were really to ask about God. On the contrary, if we ask about God, we can only ask about that which reveals itself. … The indissolubility of God's subjective existence is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God, "above" or "behind" which nothing higher exists. … The one who rushes past that which, according to the biblical witness, addresses us in threefold expression as Thou, can only rush into the void. Modalism finally entails the denial of God. (CD 382/KD 402)
These modes of being are the subjective existence of the divine essence, and in fact the only subjective existence that essence has—or at very least, the only subjective existence we are given to know of the objective existence of God. We are not, however, given to know any other God, or any other in God, nor have we cause to believe that God has withheld anything essential from us, so it comes to the same thing. There is nothing beyond the threefold alterity of God to be asked after. The God who may be spoken of as One is this God who is three, the Trinity as itself the Unity.

The Doctrine in Use

As long as Barth only means this term, Seinsweise, in the sense of permanent, eternal, subsistent personal being within God, refusing to subordinate or temporalize the existence so designated relative to any other sense of the being of God, this is not modalism. It may in fact be argued that Barth's use of the filioque against the Eastern Orthodox insistence on the Father as sole origin is part of his defense against modalism! The dual procession of the Spirit from Father and Son weakens the claim to the monarchy of the Father that is the root of many heretical claims regarding the singularity of God's being. But that's a different footnote, and I will get to it in due time.

The question that remains, the real claim that in practice Barth does not live up to his doctrine of the Trinity, is whether the reality of the persons he expounds is what is both necessary and sufficient to the doctrine so defended. As Jenson has noted, taking the doctrine seriously requires that the theologian who "uses the doctrine of Trinity outside its own locus … treat[s] the three as parties of divine action, and that also 'immanently.'" What Jenson wants here is "a specific salvation-historical initiative of the Spirit" distinct from that of the Father and the Son. Jenson believes that Barth has a problem with his understanding of what the person of the Spirit does within the being of God—the vinculum caritatis problem—and therefore that he does not find himself obliged to define an ad extra action for the person, instead subordinating the Spirit into the role of supporting power behind the personal actions of Father and Son.

As I originally stated, I find that this claim rests on an insufficient reading of Barth. Jenson has said, relative to what I have discussed in this post, that "such a doctrine of Trinity can offer no better support for the actual use which Barth elsewhere makes of God's triunity than Western teaching in general does for such use. For also Barth's use invariably depends on taking the Father and the Son as parties of an action in God." I believe I have pointed to the absence of the modalist flaw Jenson claimed, and so the next question is to demonstrate that Barth's use also invariably depends on taking the Spirit also as a party of an action in God.

But that's another footnote in and of itself, here in the preliminary diagnosis Jenson makes in the article. The next post will discuss this point under the concept of the threefold parousia, in which context it will become clear that Barth does in fact involve the Spirit in the being of Christ. The question is, as always for Lutherans, "What does this mean?"


  1. n.b.: Obviously the next post didn't continue the thread. I'm not sure at this point if I'll pick it back up or not. It pains me to do it, and I'm not even sure it's necessary or fruitful to continue.

    If I'm going to "tilt" at Jenson any further, it'll be on his own terms in his mature doctrine, preferably as I attempt to deal with the ways I find his work both necessary from the perspective of dealing with the Trinity in the tradition, and insufficient for going forward with that today. Then, at least, I'll be doing something constructive, and making use of him as a help.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts