Hans Vium Mikkelsen, Reconciled Humanity: Karl Barth in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), xiv + 280. $30.00 / £19.99 (paperback)


Reviewed by Darren O. Sumner (January 30, 2012)


Hans Vium Mikkelsen (Center for Theology and Religious Education, Løgumkloster, Denmark) offers a reading of Karl Barth's theology that engages a most important question: Does the incarnation of God the Son affect God's own, inner life? If God is being-in-act, does the event of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection in some sense constitute God's own existence? Or does God exist in eternal repose apart from this event? Mikkelsen commends Barth as a vital dialogue partner for contemporary theology, and his approach here is threefold: [1] to describe Barth's doctrines of revelation, anthropology, sin, and atonement or reconciliation; [2] to place Barth in conversation with contrasting thinkers, including René Girard, Martin Buber, Regin Prenter and Wolfhart Pannenberg; and [3] to develop his own criticism of Barth's theology as failing to reach his aim of making the incarnation determinative for God's being.

In this review I will first offer a summary of the important chapters and Mikkelsen's major moves with a minimum of evaluative commentary, and then move to criticize his reading of Barth – particularly on this central question of the relation of Christology to the being of God. I conclude with more general comments on the book and its usefulness.

 

I

 

CoverReconciled Humanity is divided into three parts. Part I attends to Barth's doctrine of revelation. Chapters 2 and 3 present Barth's views on revelation and Scripture. Because human persons cannot attain knowledge of God by any other means, God must be both the subject and the object of revelation. This takes place according to the history of Jesus Christ narrated in Scripture – God has entered into time rather than eternally transcending it – and this is a free (non-necessary) act. For Barth, the text of the Bible is secondary insofar as it bears witness to Jesus, though it is primary in the sense that Scripture is the locus of one's "first and foremost encounter [with] God's self-revelation" (29-30). Chapter 3 concludes with a more constructive test of Barth's hermeneutical method, which Barth passes by offering a "two-way reading of Scripture" that attends not only to what the text has to say to the reader, but also to what the reader brings to the text in the act of interpretation. Through this act the reader is "able to enlighten the Bible" (40) even as she is enlightened by it. An approach like fundamentalism would read Scripture in only one of these directions, presuming that the text is the fixed locus of self-authenticating divine truth not also shaped in the act of reading.

This builds to the much longer fourth chapter, where Mikkelsen gives an attentive reading of Church Dogmatics (CD) I/1. He considers revelation's objectivity in light of its divine origin; the individual's experience of revelation in its ambiguity; the necessity of "acknowledgment"; and our participation in revelation as a transforming act. The subjectivity of revelation consists in the human person's experience of the presence of God, which gives men and women understanding of self viz. their relation to the Word of God (58-64). This is their "participation" in revelation, not as mere static hearers but as doers, those who are shaped by their encounter with the reality of God's disclosing presence. All of this is properly framed within a non-experiential approach to theology, however, in order to properly qualify Christian experience and maintain theocentrism. God is the agent, and the human person does not possess that which is given.

Part II concerns the question of creaturely life – as being-in-encounter (Chapter 5) and as subject to sin and nothingness (Chapter 6). Mikkelsen describes Barth's use of Buber and the I-Thou encounter in CD III/2, as well as the unpublished lectures of 1943/44 (in which Barth engages Buber more directly) that formed the basis of this part-volume. Failure to live in encounter with other creatures is judged to be a refusal of God's will, "the horizontal correlate to what Barth elsewhere describes as the impossible possibility: the human being's wish to live without God" (119). This material is generally satisfying, though there is a moment when Barth's anthropology is overshadowed by the author's affinity for Buber. In the following chapter, Mikkelsen provides a thorough summary of Barth's doctrine of sin as nothingness. Das Nichtige is the negative correlate to the divine election of grace, not created but rather "given existence through God's rejection" (135). It has no ontological substance since it lacks a God-given telos (131). Yet there is no eternal dialectic between election and rejection: as opposition to grace, sin is defeated and overcome (139-40). This approach is in contrast to Emil Brunner's anthropology, which Barth believed granted sin real ontological force by allowing free will to play an essential role in what constitutes humanity.

The sum of all this is a theological anthropology with both vertical and horizontal dimensions. On the one hand, the phenomenon of human being is subject to and rightly interpreted by the "true human," Jesus Christ, as creaturely being redeemed out of the sinful morass by its Creator. On the other hand, human being consists very basically in the mutual and self-sacrificing encounter with the other. Any other attempt at anthropology, such as a description founded in the human being's sinful character, is inadequate and misleading (93).

Mikkelsen's greatest interest lies in Christology and the atonement, the subject matter of Part III (seven chapters, nearly half of the book's page count). This is where the author is more constructive, more willing to venture disagreement with Barth, and more prone to flaws in his interpretation. Mikkelsen is right to note a certain "Chalcedonian pattern" in Barth's Christology. Barth overcomes the limitations of a more classically construed doctrine of the incarnation, however, by combining the two natures doctrine and the status duplex, so that Christology may be seen as both "from above" (the humiliation of God) and "from below" (the exaltation of the human) (147). Here Mikkelsen treats the important topics of anhypostasis/enhypostasis and the relationship of the Logos asarkos and the Logos ensarkos, although neither treatment goes very deep or seizes upon Barth's more provocative insights. The explanation of enhypostasis is somewhat muddled (the author suggests that the human nature of Christ had its own hypostasis which is incorporated into that of the Logos: 149), and the author introduces the troubling term "absorption" when speaking of the humanity of Christ in relation to his deity: ("The human nature of Christ is absorbed into the being of God"; 151).

In a short chapter on the covenant, Mikkelsen explains Barth's criticism of federal theology. Positively, federal theology tried to understand the work of God as an event and not as a system of interdependent doctrines (173). However, it also introduced a split between the divine persons, and between God's essence and will, by conceiving of the covenant of redemption as a mutual pact between the Father and the Son (175-7). This footnote in doctrinal history will be important for understanding Barth's own thought. Mikkelsen takes up in Chapter 9 the place of judgment and sacrifice in the atonement, comparing Barth's doctrine with René Girard's theory of mimesis. For Barth, God is both the subject and the object of judgment, and so the human desire to judge others is exposed and contradicted. For Girard, it is basic to human nature to imitate what another has, and so the only possibility for unity is when the community unites against a common enemy (a scapegoat) and therein justifies the violence inherent in its religious practices. Mikkelsen's best conclusion is that the two are only formally similar in this way, that is, as they both expose from without the a priori of the human condition (the inclination to judge others, or to imitate others; 192). Otherwise, Barth's use of Anselmian notions of judgment and punishment for sin are quite foreign to Girard's theory – though Barth does score points in downplaying the sacrificial model. Materially speaking, Mikkelsen is right to observe that Barth's theology requires that the death of Jesus on the cross is willed and accomplished by God – something inimical to Girard's view (cf. 190, 193).

The author rehearses the "double outcome" of the traditional doctrine of predestination, and Barth's well-known criticism of it, in a brief chapter on election. Mikkelsen's judgment is that Barth is an unqualified universalist, a verdict he offers without nuance or argument despite a two-page excursus wherein he seeks to justify the claim but finally offers no substantive engagement (212-13). This is followed by an important chapter on punishment and divine wrath. Barth eschews any doctrine of atonement that posits an inner conflict between God's justice and God's mercy, emphasizing instead that it is God who is at work on the cross. The Father does not punish the Son but, together, the Father and Son work self-sacrificially to do away with sin and restore the broken relationship with creatures. Mikkelsen stresses well that this fissure is on the human side: we are turned from God, but God is not turned away from us (as many forms of penal substitution theory would have it). Mikkelsen therefore describes the punishment endured by Jesus in terms of "God-absence" (215, 228-9). The Father did not pour out holy wrath upon the Son, but permitted the Son to take up the human being's status as separated from God. This is not only true of the cross, says Mikkelsen, but also of the whole of the incarnation since the Son takes on fallen human nature, humanity turned away from its Creator (pp. 237-8).

Mikkelsen argues in the penultimate chapter against the old thesis that the humanity of Jesus Christ plays no important role in Barth's Christology. Then in the provocative final chapter, he argues for the importance of Christology "from below": "Jesus can only be understood as Christ in and through the resurrection and ascension" (250). As Barth had it, proper Christology is methodologically neither strictly "from above" nor "from below" but a dialectic of both. The subject of the Christ event is seen to be the very Son of God, and "it is only through the story of Jesus that the Christology from above gains its content" (ibid).

 

II

 

Mikkelsen's descriptive work in Parts I and II is generally reliable, and so the following critical evaluation is mostly limited to Part III. With respect to Christology and atonement (his preferred translation of Versöhnung, rendered "reconciliation" in the CD; cf. 145n1), Mikkelsen's reading of Barth is solid on the larger picture, but deficient when explicating the details that make Barth's theology look the way that it does. He is right, for example, to point to Barth's actualist understanding of the being of God (cf. 158-60). But to speak of this being as "constituted by the acts of God" on the one hand, and of "the essence of God in and for himself prior to history" as the precondition for those acts on the other (158-9), seems to indicate that Mikkelsen's grasp of the matter lacks precision. Revelation may have a dialectical quality, for Barth, but actualism is not a dialectic.

Further, it is confusing that the author would stress the character of punishment as God-absence so vigorously only to then state that God the Father was not really absent from the suffering Jesus, but that Jesus only felt abandoned – a feeling that "God himself absorbs" and eliminates (229). Jesus' death in God-abandonment is important to Barth's understanding of the atonement as a judgment on sin, but it does raise difficult questions, particularly with respect to the triune relations and the unity of God. Mikkelsen's relegation of God-abandonment to "feeling" signals a last-minute failure of resolve in the face of these challenges. Instead of depicting the death of the Son as God's firm and final rejection of sin, Mikkelsen risks psychologizing the event of the cross, trading the intra-divine conflict for a fictive "punishment." He does not deal with Christ being made sin, or the need for sin (not the Son) to be destroyed by divine wrath, or the trinitarian problem inherent in all talk of "God-absence." On this latter point, Mikkelsen claims early on that Barth's doctrine of the triune persons as "one absolute subject's three modes of being" will need to be replaced with "three subjects of the Trinity" to make his thesis work (158; cf. also 176). This phrase should give the reader pause, as well as the author's failure to explain or defend it elsewhere in the text.

The author's stress on divine mutability strongly suggests the influence of process theology on his thought. "If God is really taking a risk, this must also … involve at least a potential change in the being of God" (226). God must be able to learn from His experience (262n27). God puts Himself at risk, risks Jesus deserting his task, risks losing Himself to the other. This simply presses Barth's rhetoric too far, failing to attend to the counterbalancing statement that in giving Himself to creatures God "does not give Himself away" (230; cf. also 232, where Mikkelsen cites this statement). God's commitment to being God for creatures is real and significant for God's own life; but, as Mikkelsen observes, Barth is unwilling to hedge on divine freedom, and certainly does not believe that he needs to do so in order to secure this point. Mikkelsen further confuses actualism with process theology, asking, "[i]f it is the acts that constitute the being of God, must God's being then not be a being in ongoing development (at least potentially)" (259)? But Barth argues that God's being is not constituted by "acts" of His relation to creatures in general, but by the et singularis act of God's revelation and reconciliation in Jesus Christ (cf. CD II/2, 264). Mikkelsen's version of actualism is not rooted in an eternal, divine decision but in the more Hegelian commitment to history that he seems – ironically – to eschew but of which he believes Barth is somewhat guilty (26-7; cf. also 160-4, 256-7). Mikkelsen is driven by the concept of Deus pro nobis, and has concluded that if God is in relation to creatures then God must be vulnerable to creatures: "To be in relation means to be able to relate, which again means to be able to interact mutually" (261). For Barth, however, "God is who He is in His works," yet "they are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them" (CD II/1, 260).

The author's central claim is that Barth thus failed to integrate the incarnation and the being of God because he upheld the doctrine of immutability (cf. 211n15). In Mikkelsen's judgment, Barth's actualist understanding of God therefore seems "not to make any major difference at all, as the intention of the incarnation can be traced back to God's original essence (whether it be in the form of an original being or an original will). Nothing new then has really happened to God in the incarnation" (260). Mikkelsen finally wants to argue against such a hidden God that God's inner being is "dynamic," i.e. capable of change, and therefore capable of absorbing Jesus' experience of death on the cross (157n23). When the Son suffers, "God really suffers in his own inner being; there is no God beyond the God who suffers" (257). This he takes to be contradictory to Barth's own Christology, despite Barth's best intentions to allow the life of Jesus to be determinative for God.

It is unfortunate that Mikkelsen successfully identifies the actualist character of Barth's theological ontology but later fails to apprehend the ways in which this impacts his thought – in areas such as intra-trinitarian relations and God's relationship to history, for example. Barth insists that the Word's becoming flesh means that God really has taken humanity into God's own life, with all the ontological implications that entails. This is a point that Mikkelsen stresses well. But because he has lost sight of the fact that Barth grounds the incarnation in God's eternal election, the author can only conclude that "one consequence of God's absorbing of human finitude must be that God not only is able to change, but also that God actually did change during the incarnation" (224). He acknowledges that this thesis contradicts Barth, but he fails to see why Barth could (and, indeed, had to) maintain divine immutability: God's inclusion of humanity in the divine life viz. the Son is eternal and not merely punctiliar. And so the incarnation, while not excluding God's being, does not signal a change in God but rather the actualization in history of that which God, by virtue of divine decision, has always been (cf. 224-5, 257). Mikkelsen's thesis falls apart not so much because he gets Barth wrong as because he has not paid sufficient attention to getting Barth entirely right.

In addition to overlooking the role of Barth's revised ontology here, and much to the detriment of his own argument, Mikkelsen relies on Pannenberg's misreading of Barth and the arguments of process theology. Barth ends up sounding too much like Cyril of Alexandria in the very ontological differentiation between the immanent and the economic Trinity, and divine freedom is regarded as in competition with God's self-commitment to creatures (258). Barth's authentic Christology, in fact, secures all that Mikkelsen seems to want, but without sacrificing divine immutability. Rather than subjecting God to history, actualism protects against God's mutability and historical contingency on the one hand, and God's failure to fully enter into the human condition and exist as Deus pro nobis on the other. Barth does this by locating the ontologically decisive "moment" in eternity.

 

III

 

There is much in Mikkelsen's work to admire. Reconciled Humanity is clearly written and approachable. Mikkelsen is a capable describer of the larger contours of Barth's thought when he allows Barth to speak for himself. The book evinces the author's clear grasp of Barth's theology with respect to the deeply important matters of revelation, humanity and sin, as well as his ability to communicate the relevant concepts. But those in search of an introductory text will likely find the book alternately illuminating and frustrating. The study begins slowly with a basic description of Barth's theology, but gains complexity as the author proceeds to increasingly critical analysis. For example, the issue of the analogia entis arises in Chapter 2 in more accessible (if perhaps confused) terms of Paul Tillich's method of correlation (22). On the other hand, Mikkelsen introduces the influence of Hegelian and Kantian thought forms without explaining them sufficiently (cf. 26-7), and a similarly unexplained comment refers to a Danish debate over Barth interpretation (110). All this results in an uneven discussion: too simple at times for Barth scholars, and too over-reaching for the layperson.

In areas where Mikkelsen seeks to engage Barth in dialogue – the incarnation and atonement, and the doctrine of God – he quickly loses the grounding provided by his descriptive skills, alternating between formal errors in his strategy of argumentation and material errors in ascribing to Barth either positions he did not hold (e.g. speculative theology and "the fear of an unknown God," retaining the fear of reprobation inherent in the older doctrine of predestination; 234-5), or problems that Barth did, in fact, overcome (e.g. a competitive account of divine freedom and God's self-commitment to the world; 257-8). The text also betrays the author's idiosyncrasies, such as dense repetition of the same point throughout a single paragraph, and the footnotes' compulsive badgering of the English translation of the Kirchliche Dogmatik as not adequately capturing what Barth really means (ten times by my count, seven of which are in Part I alone).

The book is heavy on interpretive claims and, at key moments, light on supporting evidence. Mikkelsen's desire is to commend Karl Barth as a dialogue partner for contemporary theology, which is a worthy undertaking. But one suspects that those likely to agree with Mikkelsen's material conclusions on divine mutability will not find reasons to engage Barth as a dialogue partner here, instead finding reasons to pigeonhole him as yet another representative of a tradition that describes the divine economy as merely "an outpouring of the original will of God," and that views the world as "nothing more than the stage on which God can perform his act" (260). This is unfortunate, since Barth has much to say here. On the other hand, more conservative interpreters of Barth will be just as unlikely to enter the dialogue, albeit for opposite reasons: Mikkelsen's agenda is beyond the pale for classical theism, rendering his actualist reading of Barth suspect.

Even if the work does not entirely succeed in its later analytical moves, Mikkelsen identifies all the right questions with respect to Barth's views of the triune God, the incarnation, and the atonement, and his descriptive powers are significant. Reconciled Humanity is a fascinating study and a welcome attempt to place Barth in conversation with other twentieth century figures and concerns.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.