Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: The Freedom of God for Us—Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity

Today’s post features a book review by Jared Michelson, a postgraduate research student in St. Mary’s College. We are grateful to Jared for his contribution.


The Freedom of God for Us: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity, Brian D. Asbill, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015 (ISBN 978-0-5675-2071-5), pp. 240.

In The Freedom of God for Us: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity, Brian Asbill undertakes a dogmatic and genealogical sketch of Barth’s evolving account of divine aseity. This essay, which began as a dissertation under John Webster, succeeds with impressive brevity in accomplishing three tasks. First, Asbill carefully excavates the development of Barth’s doctrine of divine aseity with special focus on the evolution of the doctrine from the Göttingen Dogmatics (GD) to Church Dogmatics (CD) II/1, without neglecting the breadth of Barth’s career. Second, Asbill situates the doctrine of divine aseity within the larger setting of Barth’s doctrine of God. Third, Asbill locates Barth’s account of aseity in, and puts it in conversation with, the development of the doctrine in the western tradition—his brief but helpful narration of the doctrine’s evolution stretches from Anselm to Pannenberg—and contemporary debates in Barth studies.

Let me briefly summarise the argument. Chapter one identifies the historical antecedents of Barth’s doctrine of aseity, identifying the key dogmatic functions of aseity in the tradition. He concludes the chapter by identifying four dogmatic questions in contemporary Barth studies which Asbill hopes his retrieval of Barth’s doctrine of divine aseity will clarify. Chapter two outlines Barth’s evolving account of aseity. Asbill largely accepts McCormack’s portrait of Barth as an enduringly dialectical theologian, and intriguingly contends that corresponding to this dialectical consistency there exists an ongoing commitment to divine aseity. Chapter three is a description of Barth’s revelational objectivism and actualism. Chapter four discusses the employment of noetic and ontic dialectics in the GD and CD. Asbill likewise distinguishes between a complementary dialectic characterised by ongoing polarity and tension, which he associates with Hermann, with Barth’s supplementary dialectic, in which the divine No and veiling is teleologically ordered to be sublimated by the divine yes and unveiling. Chapter five argues that in the GD, Barth employs the dialectic between personality and aseity in order to identify the inherent insufficiency of creaturely concepts to denote divine perfection. Asbill likewise contends that at this stage, Barth is in danger of projecting the Realdialektik, which characterises divine revelation to creatures, into the divine being itself. Barth’s struggle at this stage to adequately affirm the undialectical peace of God’s life in se sets the groundwork for CD II/1. Asbill outlines the resolution of this tension in chapter six, as he argues that in CD II/1, divine veiling is Christologically ordered to unveiling and the dialectical denkform between love and freedom is employed not to create tension with God’s life, but to emphasise the final unity and compatibility of the divine perfections. Chapter seven provides an anatomy of the fundamental features of Barth’s account of aseity, as Asbill contends that Barth’s account of aseity grounds revelation in God’s self-demonstration and self-movement, affirms God as this particular triune God rather than generic deity, binds creaturely knowledge of God to God’s self-interpretation, and ensures that divine aseity denotes God’s readiness for movement towards the creature. In chapter eight, Asbill explicates the dogmatic functions of aseity in the CD. The weight of the chapter distinguishes Barth’s account of aseity as the self-sufficient readiness of God to be ‘with us’ in Jesus Christ, from abstract accounts of aseity which threaten to undermine the dignity and integrity of creaturely existence. Asbill closes the volume in chapter nine offering a few critical questions of Barth, wondering whether Bath’s account of aseity, despite his stated aim of rendering a trinitarian account of the doctrine, pays sufficient attention to the operations of Father, Son, and Spirit. Additionally, Asbill questions Barth’s dialectical ordering of love and freedom, negatively evaluating its serviceability for Barth’s aim of articulating the unity and peace of the immanent divine life. Asbill concludes by reassessing the four debates within contemporary Barth studies which he introduced in chapter one.

Given that Asbill does not hesitate to address himself to some of the most controversial debates within contemporary Barth studies, and equally, is not reticent to offer some critical corrections of Barth’s account, it would be impossible for him to please all readers. However, his synoptic approach, which always keeps an eye on Barth’s broader dogmatic aims, makes Asbill’s portrait of Barth’s account of divine aseity difficult to dismiss. Asbill addresses four contemporary debates: assessing whether God’s pronobeity is contingent or necessary in light of divine aseity; evaluating accusations that Barth’s account of aseity is a reversal and extension of modern conceptions of the autonomous subject; determining whether the dogmatic function of aseity is to establish the divine presence with creatures or to safeguard the integrity of God’s immanent life in his revelatory acts; and finally, appraising the debate between traditionalism and revisionism with reference to trinity and election. Of these I was surprised to find that I was least satisfied by Asbill’s answer to the question of whether Barth’s account of divine aseity is overly determined by modern notions of autonomous subjectivity. Asbill responds to this charge by contending that such a reading of Barth only succeeds by falsely substituting an abstract voluntarism in the place of Christology. However, one need not have reached a decision on the question of whether Barth’s doctrine of God is overly determined by this modern vision of the autonomous subject to wonder if mere recourse to Barth’s Christological determination of the divine will is sufficient to settle the question. One might wonder whether Barth’s portrait of God as a self-positing being, of the trinity as an I-Thou relation, and of God’s self-determination and self-affirmation through the language of ‘decision,’ are sufficiently serviceable concepts for safeguarding Barth’s affirmation that God is utterly a se in his condescension pro nobis. A stronger version of this worry concerning the relation of Barth’s doctrine of God to modern conceptions of autonomous subjectivity, would not straightforwardly (and incorrectly) insist that Barth inserts indifferent voluntarism in the place of a willed determination to be pro nobis in Christ, but might wonder about the fittingness and serviceably of Barth’s portrait of the divine being-in-act which undergirds and explicates the Christological determination of the divine will. This should not be read as a criticism of Asbill, but a testament to the insightful and pressing questions which are raised in this impressive book. The Freedom of God for Us is an indispensable entry, not merely into discussions surrounding divine aseity, but to the wider field of studies concerning Barth’s doctrine of God, and likewise, to the most heated debates in contemporary systematic theology ‘after Barth.’

Book Review: The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea

Today’s post features a book review by Adam Renberg, a postgraduate research student in St. Mary’s College. We are grateful to Adam for his contribution.


Johannessen, Hazel. The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016. Hardback. 272 pgs. $91/£71. ISBN: 9780198787242.

The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea by Hazel Johannessen serves “to explore the ways in which Eusebius’ ideas about the demonic influenced and interacted with his thinking on a range of other subjects that comprised his political ideas” (203). Johannessen’s main emphasis focuses on correcting (in her view) the unfair assessment of Eusebius as a naïve triumphalist by arguing that Eusebius’ conception of the demonic suggests “doubts, fears, and hesitations” (16) concerning the state of the Church and the world in the Constantinian Empire.

In the first chapter, ‘Eusebius’ Works,’ Johannessen discusses the Eusebian corpus, including questions of genre, dating, and composition. She reviews the relevant debates for these issues with focus on Historia Ecclesiastica, Praeparatio Evangelica, Demonstratio Evangelica, De Laudibus Constantini, Vita Constantini, and Contra Hieroclem—the works most relevant to her study. Lastly, she considers methodology, identifying the potential pitfalls of surveying a scholar’s works and forcing them into a philosophy or theory. This chapter introduces readers to the political thought of Eusebius, arguing that he remained largely consistent, despite living in turbulent political times.

Chapter two, ‘The Nature of Demonic Threats,’ provides the foundation for Eusebius’ understanding of the demonic in its various facets. While Johannessen notes similarities with Neoplatonic conceptions of demons, especially in Porphyry, she argues that Eusebius primarily follows Origen’s conception of the demonic in a characteristically Christian cosmology. Demons, for Eusebius, are physical, present, and external beings who hate goodness and use their status above humans to lead them astray. Demonic beings (demons and Satan) led primitive humanity away from God and are likewise seeking to do so in the present age.

‘A Divided Universe,’ the next chapter of this book, sketches out Eusebius’ cosmology. Johannessen argues that his conception of the universe is “fundamentally divided between hostile spiritual opponents” (74). She notes that Eusebius speaks of angels and demons in opposites: rational vs. irrational, light vs. darkness, good vs. tyrannical. Then, she discussed Eusebius’ dualistic tendencies, emphasizing his view of the division between the spiritual and physical realms. Ultimately, she clears Eusebius of proper dualism as God maintains complete control throughout Eusebius’ oeuvre and theological system, despite his discomfort with and sidestepping of the implications of God creating and using evil. Demons, then, are a real presence who seek to deride God’s plan, but ultimately serve his purposes.

After surveying Eusebius’ cosmology, Johannessen moves onto the demonic in other facets of his thought. Chapter four, ‘Demonic Influence and Human Responsibility,’ surveys demonic influence on humankind. To do this, she discusses an important word for Eusebius’ conception of free will, προαίρεσις, which becomes the foundation for her discussion. Johannessen argues that Eusebius is positing an understanding of free will as a deliberate choice between good or evil. Demons do not impede this decision (Eusebius leaves little room for demon possession), but they do seek to deceive human beings. Johannessen then writes about the nature of moral character, noting a person’s ability to succumb to or escape from demonic influence. In other words, Johannessen traces the implications of the demonic for an individual who has changed their moral behavior, from immoral to moral and vice versa. Then, she makes certain claims about Eusebius’ soteriology founded on his conception of free will and the demonic.

Chapter five, ‘Demonic Activity and Historical Progress,’ argues that Eusebius does not see the Roman empire as the triumphal end of history, directly challenging scholarly consensus that Eusebius was a political optimist. She does this by showing how demons interacted in history before and after the incarnation. This includes demons leading people into polytheistic worship before Christ, while after the incarnation engaging in persecution and heresy. She briefly engages with Christology in this section, yet emphasizes the role of bishops as the present (intellectual) key to salvation.

The final body chapter, ‘Demonic Tyranny and Virtuous Kingship,’ discusses Eusebius’ political conceptions. Here, Johannessen examines Eusebius’ conception of virtuous kingship through the negative: by his understanding of tyrants. Johannessen argues that readers gain a stronger understanding of virtuous kingship by showing what poor kingship looks like. She discusses broader non-Eusebian conceptions of tyrants and what constitutes a ruler being labelled as such. Then, she argues these tyrants were enslaved to demons in Eusebius’ thought and therefore were unfit to rule. This unqualified rule is not based on a king’s vices but on the ruler’s relationship to demons. The following section places significant importance on μίμησις (imitation), as leaders imitated either the divine or the demonic and their subjects followed suit. A virtuous king imitates God, while tyrants imitate the devil and the demonic.

Johannessen writes succinctly and clearly, but this work contains significant shortcomings. Like many other monographs adapted from PhD theses, this book is at times redundant, overly-qualified, and oversteps the boundaries of what she is able to say about Eusebius’ thought. While focused on the demonic, she flattens other facets of Eusebius’ thought, such as soteriology and Christology, to serve her purposes. While she rightly seeks to push scholarship towards a healthier understanding of Eusebius’ political theory, she reduces the political to the demonic alone. In other words, the demonic becomes the primary source for understanding Eusebius political theory and cosmology, which neglects other aspects of his thought that are more prominent throughout his work. She also tends to read the demonic into texts that are not immediately relevant.

Johannessen succeeds at her goal to discuss facets of Eusebius’ thought in relationship to the demonic, but she places the demonic as the key to understanding Eusebius correctly. She thereby reduces broader facets of his thought into oversimplified argument which better accommodates her non-triumphalist reading of Eusebius. More positively, she evens out an area of Eusebius’ thought which was largely ignored, opening up further research and understanding of Eusebius’ theology. This monograph also provides an interesting window into Neoplatonic and Christian conceptions of angels and demons in the fourth century, containing quality word studies and insights into this turbulent time. Despite the pitfalls in Hazel Johannessen’s The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea, the study is enjoyable, fresh, and well worth a read.