The Three and the Two

Barth's doctrine of God is an interesting thing. I was once asked where the doctrine of the trinity was in Barth, and I was kind of stumped as to where to start—because where isn't it? There are places I could point to as more or less concise expositions, but they're microcosms of the whole. It's structural. It's a basic presupposition. (Yes, yes, I know, "presuppositionless theology"—which means theology done on its own internal presuppositions, as thoroughly examined as possible.) Dealing with Robert Jenson (well beyond the article I've been wrestling with lately) has forced me to re-evaluate certain things, and crucial among them is my estimation of how structural Barth's doctrine of the Trinity is. Or, more to the point, where and in what way structural.

It can be well-said of Barth that he takes Calvin's axiomatic sense of theology as on the one hand concerned with God, and on the other concerned with humanity, and takes it with utter seriousness. There is no moment of the Church Dogmatics that is concerned with God and not also humanity, even if only by implication. Those implications are realized, by and large, because dogmatics is at every point ethics. Or, better, dogmatics is at every point an ethos. It is a human action to be done well in moral terms, a human action itself with moral consequences—but as such it is the human action of expounding and working out the basis of the metaphysics of morality. It is this because, in place of any "categorical imperative," there is for Barth the present intersection of God and humanity in relationship. The first commandment is not merely a theological axiom; it is a moral one. It is the nature of the problem of ethics, and the single reality that any ethical solution must accommodate. Our existence with respect to neighbor is normed by our existence before God.

And so ethics begins with explicit talk about this particular God. And it begins in the prolegomena, well before Barth's official doctrine of God. There is a distinct sense in which volumes I and II of the Church Dogmatics are of a piece. Volume I gives us the church confronted by the Word, and expounds the nature of that Word and our responsibility to it as the hearing and speaking church. Volume II gives us humanity confronted by God, the general case of volume I, but Barth has already expounded the nature of God in volume I. So what we get, instead of the threefold inner relationship that is Trinity, is the binary outer relationship that is the economy of God at work.

The problem is that everyone technically already knows that volume II is Barth's doctrine of God. Says so on the tin. But the doctrine of the Trinity is so important to Barth as a technique for speaking about God that it cannot be handled as the doctrine of God itself. Otherwise he will spend the entire concert worrying about technique and not making music. So Barth has gone ahead and gotten this technique under his fingers and into muscle memory and out of the way in volume I. That is, he has wedged a deep and thorough doctrine of God into the middle of the method section. And, unfortunately, he's also split it across two parts of the first volume, which causes misunderstandings.

We don't think of the Church Dogmatics in terms of its chapters. But it has them, all the same. And the notional chapter II, which begins in sections 8-12 in I.1, finishes in the second part-volume in sections 13-18. And you must read it as a whole! Now, this is obviously complicated by the six years it took Barth to get volume I.2 published originally, a pivotal set of years between 1932 and 1938, and further complicated for English and post-English audiences by the length of time it took for this second part-volume to be translated (1936–1956). Even today we are stuck reading two books, separated at the most awkward point for their internal sense. But people who read I.1 in the 1930s, in either language, were stuck with a single book that made noises about scientific methodology, discussed the interrelationship between church proclamation, scripture, and revelation, and then ended with an exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of its persons, their interrelationship, and the actions we may take to be especially appropriate to each of them. It is a ridiculous kind of a thing, by itself. A kind of avant-garde anachronism. It appears to violate the whole principle of the work.

And yet this appearance is voided once we take account of chapter II as a whole consisting of three parts. (The new student edition has done a service here, ironically, by further subdividing volume I into six parts, so you can grab these three parts individually as the second through fourth of them.) And in this arrangement, if anyone gets short Schrift it is the Father. One could, with a certain justice, call the person of the Father (or the concept of fatherhood) the principle of the Trinitarian becoming of God—and Bruce McCormack has done something of this sort in his recent discussions of the processions and missions. And yet even this is not a fair statement. It is this fatherhood of God in relation to humanity that is the subsistent being of the Father and Son in relationship, embodying the economy in order to extend it. It is the Son who proceeds, in this mission, to be us in relation to God in the same way as the Son is in relation to the Father. And it is the Spirit, the being of God who is the unity between Father and Son, who proceeds to execute that unity between humanity and God, recreating us into its image.

None of these three—and simultaneously each of them and all of them together—are the principle of God in acting, and so therefore in becoming and being. There is no monarchy of the Father—no monarcheia at all, in fact; only a focused attention to the Son as the basis for the logic of the three persons. (With justice one could easily say that John stands second only to Romans in Barth's canon of scripture, and this is an example of that.) And so when Barth moves on from his careful elaboration of the Trinity, he does so by moving into the twofold relationship between God and humanity that is embodied in the Son and enacted by the Spirit.

As I say, it is the Father who gets most clearly left out of the action. The inner filial relation between Father and Son is the model for the outer economic relation between humanity and God. And Barth uses this relationship as the frame for the economies of God's action most appropriate to the persons of the Son and the Spirit, by making an objective/subjective split. The second part of chapter II, "The Incarnation of the Word," handles the objective side, the factual historical reality of the singular event by which God's freedom for us is demonstrated and our relationship to God is constituted. The third part, "The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit," handles the subjective side, the eternally present reality of the plural event by which our freedom for God is (re)constituted in us and God makes us properly children of God in freedom.

Now, these are actions described in terms of persons of the Trinity, but they take place in the twofold, binary relationship between God and humanity. How Barth juggles the three and the two is a crucial point to understand, and easily misunderstood. And this is in fact the nature of Barth's doctrine of God in volume II, describing the eternal economic aspect of the two-sided relationship between God and humanity in election. This is also what will so vex Jenson in 1993. However, it is a necessity cribbed directly from Calvin about the nature of theology itself.

Reminds me a bit of an album by Shelly Manne, "The Three and the Two," which is made up of a set of trio work and a set of duet work. (Hence the title of this post.) Except, of course, that Barth combines the three and the two. One party of the duet is itself the trio, and one party of the trio is itself the duet. Of course, the other party of the duet is the creation, which is itself vastly plural but always singular. And so there really is only this duet, between the trio and its manifold creation. God has taken up this duet into the divine life in Christ, and that is the determining shape of things: we stand in the relationship to God as the Son to the Father. God continues to realize the fullness of this duet in the present in the Spirit, and that is also the determining shape of things: we stand in the world as conscious humanity acting before God.


  1. Ah, but how does the subjectivities/consciousness of Father, Son and Spirit work out in Barth's work? Or rather, which one gets lost? Mostly Barth seems to stress the 'single subjectivity' of the one Triune God... but, given his inclination to identify the second person of the trinity with Jesus Christ without remainder, that would seem to imply there's at least two sets of consciousness, two streams of qualia, in the Godhead... at least after 3BC!

    Now we could say there's an 'eternal' single subjectivity/consciousness of the triune God, of Father Son and Spirit, in heaven, whilst Jesus is merely the 'temporal' consciousness. But the thing is, at Gethsemane the Son is praying to His Father.... not to some generic Godhead, certainly not one which includes an eternal double of Himself. The Son is praying to the Father: one subjectivity fully immersed in another.

    But what about the personhood of the Spirit? No real mention of consciousness here... which to me just seems bizarre. The Father is eternally conscious, the Son is conscious (at least in Jesus) but the Spirit is not conscious at all? In what sense are these three persons? It seems we only have two persons.... and if we add an apparent weak view of the Son's personal pre-existence into the mix, only really one and a half. Humph.

    Would love to here your thoughts... what do we make of the subjectivity, or subjectivities, of God, and how does this affect our theology of the Spirit?

    1. The question you've asked has several problems. The first of which is the basic assumption that Barth must not do justice do some one person of the Trinity! None of them "gets lost" at any point. But the shape of Barth's doctrine of the Trinity flexes and moves depending on the doctrinal point of action being described at any given moment, such that it is hardly ever a perfect equilateral triangle.

      Barth's theology is always an attempt at describing the Living God in action, and in obedience to Augustine's dictum, never truly an attempt to describe the three persons as acting and being independent of one another—or of the being of God whom each and all of them inseparably are. To the extent that the persons play roles in Barth's telling of God's being-in-act, these roles belong to their interrelations, not to God's actions with respect to the world. When those interrelations suggest "parts" within a given action in the world, Barth does parcel out roles, but the rule is still that the external works of God are indivisibly works of God.

    2. Second: of course Jesus Christ is the Son of God, without remainder. There is nothing of God not represented in Christ, so Jesus Christ is also the representation of the being of God without remainder. That he is this inseparably from and equally with the other two persons in no way invalidates the fact that he is also this in himself. He is neither part of, nor subordinate to, God. He is, in fact, God.

      But there is not therefore a temporal disjunct in God, such that being in time is suddenly a new thing in Christ. There is no conflict between God's eternity and God's being in time. These are not two modes of existence, and they are not separable, as though God outside of creation were one thing, and God within it, another. The Lord of creation has never not been in and with creation. There is no border at the edge of the world, as though God could be barred or limited by God's own creation. It is the eternal God who is thus actively present in every moment of time.

      So, once again, the persons interrelate. This is God being in self-interrelationship, Father with Son with Spirit. And it is in fact only these "genetic" relationships within the triune being of God that we may call real when we distinguish the persons. These are permanent, eternal in the sense that God faithfully and self-consistently wills to be these three in relationship, all three and fully each.

      This involves no "weak" view of the Son's eternal existence, even if we declare that the becoming of the Son is identical with the temporal becoming of Jesus Christ. Don't make the mistake of running eternality as a stream alongside temporal continuity—it will wreck you every time!

    3. So the subjectivity of God is always and at every point also the intersubjectivity of the persons, and their own subjectivity is the subjectivity of God in action, even as they also relate internally to one another.

    4. So if we wanted to say that Jesus Christ has a consciousness separate from that of the Father, and that of the Spirit, we might—as long as we kept that submerged within the context of persons in the triune being of God. As such they relate to one another. And as each and all together, God relates to us and the world. But to speak of "consciousness" is probably not the best way to describe the persons of God, except by analogy. Only Jesus Christ, being fully human, is conscious exactly as we mean the term—and in him, God is conscious exactly as we mean the term as well. But the personal being of God that is the Son does not cease to be when Jesus is unconscious.


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