Review of George Hunsinger’s Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth

Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000. Pp. 375. $39.00 (cloth)

[1] Hunsinger is a great teacher because he is the best of students. He does honor and justice to the theology of Karl Barth through lucid studies in political, doctrinal, and ecumenical theology. His writing is the output of a rapt and apt pupil; it beautifully re-presents Barth, and brings his work powerfully and carefully into conversation with a host of modern interlocutors.

[2] Furthermore, Hunsinger’s title does full justice to his theological task. At the heart of Barth’s theology is a profound disruption, a critical moment where life comes in and through death, where the wholly other God becomes, like us, incarnate. Dialectically Barth maintains this disruption’s locus classicus in grace itself rather than in a nebulous and dualistic binary opposite. Any and all studies in the theology of Karl Barth will begin with this pre-supposition.

[3] What may come as a surprise to some readers of this work is that it begins with political theology. It is commonly noted that Barth stood in opposition (via the Barmen Declaration and his participation in the Confessing Church movement) to a fascist political system, but it is less well-expressed how his theology itself contributed to this position. Given the modern propensity to equate progressive political positions with liberal theology, Hunsinger’s clear and eloquent appeal to recover Barth as a voice for the uniting of progressive politics with orthodox theology is a breath of dialectical fresh air.

[4] In fact, within ecumenical conversations, and the American church more generally, it is difficult to express both how profound this proposal is and how difficult it is to imagine this proposal as a third alternative. Almost all radical political stances of the modern church arise out of a moral reading of the life of Jesus as exemplar. Or they begin with abstracted understandings of the Good, True, or Just, applied and assumed apositly to be attributes of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, much of conservative Christian politics finds its source in Scripture read in a literalist fashion as a propositional handbook. And since the hermeneutical lense of this approach is unacknowledged, the result is a “religiously glorified conservatism” (104).

[5] Christian communities of discourse seldom entertain the Barthian option, that a radical over-against-ness in the political life of the church can arise, in fact must arise, out of the confessing church’s loyalty to Jesus Christ. In short, we have neither a recoverable historical Jesus to guide us, nor a natural theology to discern, nor an inerrant and divine text to utilize as a playbook, but instead a God who maintains a relationship with us, and establishes a church, through the revelation of Wholly Other-ness. The church thus established is in this very way political, a church of reconciliation, nonconformity, and of the cross (105).

[6] Thus, Part I of Hunsinger’s work is an attempt to fill out the christological basis of this alternative political theology. Through a series of essays he proposes the maintenance of a high understanding of the atonement and a realignment of progressive politics with traditional faith. Within this framework, a confessing church true to the gospel of peace would realize that in the world of modern weaponry, the “refusal of noncompliance [is] an avoidance of the cross” (6). In essays on liberation theology, the Barmen Declaration, nuclear proliferation, and pacifism, he works at applying Barth’s theology to modern political disorders.

[7] In his capstone piece, “The Politics of the Nonviolent God”, he makes a classically Barthian move. He identifies in René Girard’s cultural anthropology an appeal to a source of revelation outside of and apart from God’s revelation. In this case, it is Girard’s own theory that replaces and supplants the revelation of God as salvific. If one is aware of the scapegoat mechanism deduced by Girard, one is set free from the controlling violence of mimetic desire. For Girard, this revealed mechanism is at the heart of the gospels, something hidden since the foundation of the world, and now revealed through his cultural anthropological insights.

[8] But Hunsinger does not allow Girard this hermeneutical excess, this attempt at making his own theories canonical. He must show that, contra Girard, sacrifice and nonviolence are not antonyms. By way of the trinitarian understanding of the atonement of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the incarnational unity(s) of Thomas Torrance, Hunsinger is able to develop a profoundly moving conception of Christ’s salvific work as understood by Barth. “As enemies of grace who brought him to the cross for their share in the sins of the world, [Christians] have received [Christ] into their lives by faith and are learning to be transformed by his love” (41). This is the revelation which itself gives life and liberates from cycles of violence, a revelation that qualifies sacrifice without demonizing it.

[9] Part II exhibits in fascinating detail how Barth was both a teacher of the tradition and an innovator within it. Barth did not approach doctrinal theology from a purely utilitarian position, but instead saw an intimate relationship between careful doctrinal work and correct ethical and ecclesiastical positions. Because doctrinal theology is the basis for true proclamation, all questions of doctrine are worth pursuing inasmuch as they guide us to a better understanding of God’s revelation in Christ and through Scripture.

[10] This portion of the book is replete with gems. Barth had an “‘almost aesthetic passion’ [for] the traditional loci of Christian theology” (55). In fact, he called theology the most beautiful of all the sciences. It is no surprise, then, that the essays on Barth’s doctrinal theology would be especially fascinating. But at this point Hunsinger almost outdoes himself. “Hellfire and Damnation: Four Ancient and Modern Views,” is a brilliant exposition not only of Barth’s “universalism,” but of the Christian tradition’s attempt to grapple with this doctrine over the centuries. It should be a standard essay for adult Bible study groups.

[11] “The Mediator of Communion: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” is another welcome essay. Here Hunsinger deals with a puzzling and often neglected aspect of Barth’s theology. For Barth, the relationship between what had happened illic et tunc and what continues to happen hic et nunc was central in understanding the Spirit’s saving work. Furthermore, although Barth’s central theological focus was the revelation of God, Barth always understood this concept as inseparable from, and fluid with, reconciliation and redemption as well. Thus, much of his doctrine of the Spirit is exhibited implicitly rather than explicitly in his Church Dogmatics. This Christ-centered pneumatology is “trinitarian in ground, christocentric in focus, miraculous in operation, communal in content, eschatological in form, diversified in application, and universal in scope” (151). This quote alone gives substance to Hunsinger’s claim that Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit is rich and complex.

[12] Other essays in this section continue the explication of Barth’s doctrinal fecundity. For example, “Mysterium Trinitas” reflects on what is characterized as “perhaps the first sustained attempt in history to reformulate eternity’s mystery in fully trinitarian terms. The mystery of eternity becomes in effect a subtopic of the Trinity” (189). Anyone familiar with Barth’s extensive reflections on the “divine perfections” will find this essay both a helpful review and a recasting of the reflections in an even more eschatological key that yet maintains a connection to beginning and middle.

[13] Finally, in his essay on “Beyond Literalism and Expressivism,” Hunsinger seeks to propose Barth’s hermeneutical realism as a much neglected, yet needed, postliberal proposal in modern scriptural intepretation.

[14] If Part I works at bringing together misaligned poles (progressive politics and traditional faith), and Part II is a celebration of Barth’s love of dogmatics, Part III is an attempt to bring Barth, the lonely theologian, more fully into the ecumenical conversation. This is not a new proposal. Von Balthasar has already said of Barth, “we have in Barth… two crucial features: the most thorough and penetrating display of the Protestant view and the closest rapprochement with the Catholic” (255). Not an insignificant appraisal from a theologian often considered to fill a similiar place from the Catholic side.

[15] Central in this regard is Barth’s consistent assertion that salvation is a finished and perfect work which we receive in faith, not a possibility attainable through participation in redemptive activity. This is because, within the Reformation tradition, “grace perfects nature precisely by destroying it” (270). Over against the gradualism or naturalism of Catholicism and liberal Protestantism, Barth always maintained that salvation is an accomplished act in which we already participate because we have died and risen with Christ, because we are hid with Christ in God, because in baptism we have once-and-for-all been saved.

[16] Central also, and of interest especially to Lutheran readers, is the essay on “What Karl Barth Learned from Martin Luther.” Again, anyone who picks up volume I/1 of Barth’s Church Dogmatics will immediately see Barth’s debt to Luther. From Luther Barth learned his christocentrism, as well as his focus on the theology of the cross. In addition, Barth learned his focus on the Word of God, and in fact, because in Luther he found this focus so well expressed, Barth granted “uncompromising precedence to the Reformation over modernity itself” (293). Finally, from Luther Barth learned to reject every form of soteriological gradualism, and instead to celebrate the perfection of Christ’s salvific work on the cross. All of which are, for Hunsinger, genuinely ecumenical proposals, for “Luther’s breadth may offer the greatest ecumenical promise not only for advancing Reformation soteriology after Barth, but also for renewed dialogue with Catholicism” (14).

[17] Here we can see that Hunsinger has learned from Barth what constitutes a genuine dialogue rather than a false irenicism. Forthright ecumenical dialogue will not hide or disguise true difference, for to do so is to fail to have dialogue in such a way that the truth of revelation is honored. If truth is truly truth, it is a self-involving truth that cannot be accepted without believing, and is a truth that has an objective superiority to the actions that follow, and thus is necessarily something to be spoken in spite of difference and conflict, it will be spoken in naked honesty rather than gaudy and over-dressed double-speak (310).

[18] The remaining essays illustrate these fundamental principles. A paraphrase of the Harnack/Barth correspondence exhibits Barth’s primary theological motifs, and shows him fully engaging and contradicting his correspondent when necessary. In an essay on what evangelicals and postliberals can learn from each other, Hunsinger generously celebrates the contributions of both camps while criticizing their obvious failings. His recipe for a sympathetic ear working in unison with a concise and critical mind is indeed a model for ecumenical theology.

[19] Although a collection of essays centered on the theology of a single theologian runs the risk of repeatedly trouncing other thinkers while forwarding the author under consideration, Hunsinger largely avoids this problem through a clear and generous presentation. In addition, the format lends itself to use in the congregation, because Hunsinger’s style is precise and eminently readable, and the individual essays do not demand expert, or even prior, knowledge of Barth in order to join in the discussion. The book is an exercise in bridge-building, a recommendation of Barth to a broader readership, and a lively and faithful presentation of an under-considered theological alternative in the life of the church.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at