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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.’