Central Question: How is what occurs in Christ related to what occurs in us? (Hunsinger)
Much attention has been given to the “objective” aspect of salvation in Barth’s thought (and in Trinitarian-Incarnational theology in general). By “objective” salvation, I mean the full, final and complete salvation for all accomplished in Jesus Christ. Less attention, however, has been paid to the subjective (or, “existential”) side of the God-human relationship. By “subjective,” I mean the role (if any) played by the individual believer in salvation.
Both Barth and Torrance have been subjected to criticism (unjustly, I think) for “neglecting” this aspect of salvation. In my reading of these giants of theological thought, however, I find that both men attach significant importance to the subjective aspect of salvation, not as a condition for salvation but as the appropriate and―dare I say―necessary response to it. I have wrestled with the relationship between the objective and subjective aspects of salvation for many years, even decades. Finally, George Hunsinger has helped me greatly to understand Barth’s description (not explanation!) of the relationship between the objective and subjective aspects of salvation.(Hunsinger has provided an “answer” I can live with at any rate.)
Professor George Hunsinger (Princeton) is one of the world’s leading interpreters of the thought of Karl Barth. In this post, I will share with you the salient points I have taken from Hunsinger regarding the subjective and existentialist aspects of salvation. I will be writing from notes, so the material may seem disjointed at times. I highly recommend that you read this important chapter for yourself.
A Paradoxical Relationship
Soteriological objectivism refers to that position wherein any human contribution to salvation is radically subordinated to what has taken place in Christ. Soteriological existentialism, on the other hand, refers to the opposite position, wherein what has taken place in Christ is at some point subordinated to what needs to take place in us. According to this view, salvation is not constituted or complete until something decisive takes place within us. In short, what took place in Christ does not acquire validity and efficacy until something decisive also takes place in us. (Of course, both Barth and Torrance reject soteriological existentialism as described here.)
Hunsinger identifies two points that are essential to Barth in regard to salvation: 1) What took place in Jesus for our salvation avails for all. This is the objective aspect of salvation. 2) No one participates in Christ apart from faith. This is the subjective or existential aspect of salvation. These points are not to be confused. As Hunsinger notes, “The human act of faith is in no way determinative or creative of salvation, and the divine act of grace is in no way responsive or receptive to some condition external to itself as necessarily imposed upon it by the human creature. . . . Grace therefore confronts the creature as a sheer gift. The human act of faith, moreover, in no way conditions, contributes to, or constitutes the event of salvation” (p. 106)
In regard to the relationship between the objective and subjective (existentialist) aspects of salvation, Hunsinger identifies three “non-negotiables for Barth: 1) The real efficacy of the saving work of Christ for all; 2) the unconditioned, gratuitous character of grace and 3) the impossibility of actively participating in Christ and his righteousness apart from faith. For Barth, these points were axiomatic when the scripture is exegeted Christocentrically.
In regard to the objective “moment” of salvation, Barth asserts that the history of every human being is included in the history of Jesus Christ. Jesus enacts our salvation as a gift which is valid and efficacious for all. As Hunsinger notes, “The validity and efficacy of this gift cannot be denied without compromising (among other things) the absolutely unconditioned and therefore gratuitous character of divine grace in him” (p.108). The history of every person is in Jesus. To deny the universal efficaciousness of salvation is to deny its gratuitous character. Conversely, the history of Jesus is in every person. To deny the continual, miraculous presence of his history to every human is to deny his resurrection. According to Hunsinger, “The once-for-all event of Jesus’ history, without ceasing to be such, reiterates itself so as to be present to the history of each and every human being” (p. 109). In other words, through his vicarious humanity and resurrection, the history of Jesus is present to all.
However, the subjective (“existentialist”) aspect of salvation remains. Quoting Hunsinger:
[I]t is impossible for anyone actively to participate in Jesus Christ and the salvation he has accomplished apart from the decision of faith. . . . Faith is necessary as the only apt response to the objective validity and efficacy of salvation. It is the response of gratitude, joy, trust, love, and obedience. . . . It does not in any sense constitute, contribute to, or bring about the occurrence of salvation. It simply undertakes to enact the appropriate consequences in response to an occurrence of salvation which in itself and as such already avails in validity, efficacy, and completeness for each one and therefore for all (pp. 109, 110, emphasis added).
Thus, there is a non-constitutive character to faith with respect to salvation. Simply stated, faith does not make it so; rather, faith joyfully and gratefully accepts that it is so. Faith in no way causes, constitutes or contributes to the objective reality of our salvation. Per Hunsinger:
The non-constitutive character of one’s faith with respect to one’s salvation could not be denied without denying (among other things) not only the absolutely unconditional and gratuitous character of divine grace, but also the saving work of Christ as something finished, complete, and unrepeatable in itself (p. 110).
In other words, to require a decision of faith in order to be saved (as is common in evangelicalism) is to deny the finished work of Christ and the gracious nature of salvation.
Obviously, there is a tension (paradox) here: if grace is unconditional, how is faith indispensible? If faith is necessary, how is grace unconditional? (p. 110). As Hunsinger explains, the tension between grace as unconditional and faith as indispensable must simply be allow to stand. Barth does not try to explain the paradoxical relationship between unconditional salvation and indispensable faith. For Barth, “mystery precludes mastery.” Thus, theology must be content with description, not explanation (p. 111). As Hunsinger notes, closely following Barth:
The unity of grace and faith occurs in such a way that grace is always universal and unconditional in its objective efficacy and validity, yet at the same time faith is always necessary and indispensable in its existential receptivity and freedom. A theology which could explain how this unity occurs as it does or how it occurs as a unity would be explaining the modus operandi of the Holy Spirit (p. 111).
COMMENT: Barth does not try to explain away the tension between unconditional grace and the necessity of faith. If I understand Barth correctly, he is simply trying to describe―not explain!―what the New Testament teaches in regard to this paradoxical relationship. It impresses me deeply that a thinker of Barth’s magnitude would simply allow the paradox to stand. He does not attempt a “rational” explanation of the mystery of the atonement as, for example, do R.C. Sproul and many other Calvinists, who reduce salvation to a logical formula (i.e., the five points of Calvinism). Nevertheless, because faith is indispensable to experience or participate in salvation, I can stand alongside an evangelical and preach “repentance and faith,” not as conditions for salvation but as the appropriate and again―dare I say―necessary and indispensable responses to the gift that is already ours in Christ. At least today, I am content to leave it at that.
Notwithstanding the indispensable nature of faith, three things must not be said in regard to the existential moment of faith: 1) The existential moment of faith must not be spoken of as making the objective moment of salvation real, as though salvation were unreal or merely abstract until the moment of its existential appropriation; 2) “Nor may the existential moment be spoken of as effecting a transition from being outside to being inside the objective moment, as though the objective moment did not already include each and every human existence within itself” 3) nor may the existential moment be spoken of as effecting a transition from a potential state of grace to a real state of grace, as though the objective moment of salvation was not already real, valid and efficacious for all (p. 113).
The transition effected by the existential moment of faith is a movement from non-acknowledgement to acknowledgement. It is a transition from ignorance, indifference or outright hostility to an attitude of gratitude and surrender. There is an inner unity in the objective and existential moments of faith such that the objective does not occur without the free existential reception and response nor does the existential occur without the sovereign precedence and actualization of the objective. From the standpoint of eternity, faith contributes nothing new to the objective moment of salvation; from a personal, subjective standpoint, faith makes all things new (p. 113). Quoting Barth, Hunsinger writes:
[The phrase] “In Christ” is the key indicator of Barth’s soteriological objectivism. . . . “In Christ” means that we are reconciled to God, in him we are elect from eternity, in him we are called, in him we are justified and sanctified, in him our sin is carried to the grave, in his resurrection our death is overcome, with him our life is hid in God, in him everything that has to be done for us, to us, and by us, has already been done . . . (Barth, CD I/2, 240; cf. II/2, 117; Hunsinger, 115.)
We are incorporated “in Christ” by Christ. It is solely by his acts as Mediator; it is accomplished without reference to us (p. 115). Hunsinger notes:
In his role as the true covenant partner, Jesus Christ took the place of humankind before God in a positive sense, enacting obedience and service to God on humankind’s behalf [active obedience] . . . . By his suffering and death he thereby also took humankind’s place before God in a negative sense, assuming to himself the accusation, judgment, and punishment that were rightfully humankind’s [passive obedience] (p. 116).
As a consequence of the mediatorial work of Christ (both positive and negative; active and passive), human salvation is already accomplished. “Whether we acknowledge it or not, salvation comes to us as a gift that is already real and complete. It needs no further actualization or completion by us or even in us, for by Christ we already have our being in Christ” (pp. 116, 117; emphasis added). Our salvation is real and effective whether we know it or not, for “the great alteration of the human situation,” our reconciliation in Christ has already been accomplished. According to Hunsinger, “Our being in Christ is understood in the strongest possible terms: as an ‘ontological connection.’” It is a connection that is grounded and established not by our action but solely by his action, not in our subjective experience but solely in his experience, and thus not in ourselves but solely in him. As Barth asserts, the gospel “does not indicate possibilities but declares actualities” (CD IV/2, 275). For Hunsinger, “The gospel does not proclaim that if only we will fulfill certain conditions, salvation will then be effective for us.” Our being “in Christ by Christ” is not a mere offer or a possibility; it is a reality, an event which “in its scope is determinative of all human existence.” Our salvation is not merely potential, it is actual. Our salvation is not contingent upon the fulfillment of conditions such as making the necessary decision, undergoing various religious exercises, righting social wrongs or receiving properly validated sacraments. Our salvation is already actual and effective; we need only to acknowledge and receive it in freedom, not make it effective ourselves (Hunsinger, p. 117). Barth argues:
Is Jesus Christ only the possibility and not rather the full actuality of the grace of God? Is his intervention for us sinners anything other or less than the divine forgiveness itself? And what does this forgiveness lack in order to be effective if it has taken place in him (CD IV/1, 487. Cited in Hunsinger, 117, 118).
Rather than a mere open possibility, salvation is an effective reality because it is a “comprehensive, total and definitive” event that has taken place apart from us but not without us. Our salvation takes place because we are included in the history of Jesus Christ. “His history is as such our history,” because in his life, death and resurrection he has made our situation his own (Barth, CD IV/1, 547, 548; cited in Hunsinger, p. 118).
If we are to find the truth of our salvation and the ground of our existence in Christ, the “basic rule” is that we should look away from ourselves to Jesus. We are not to seek knowledge of our salvation in introspection or self-examination but rather we are to look away from ourselves to the reality of our salvation in Christ (Hunsinger, p. 118).