“Wholly Other” and “Wholly Human”? On Helmut Gollwitzer and Theopolitical Imagination

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This piece is part of a series of responses to the book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken. We will be posting five responses to the book as part of this series. Our fifth contribution is from Mitchell Mallary.

Mitchell Mallary is a doctoral student at the University of St Andrews-Logos Institute.

Without sacrificing academic rigor, W. Travis McMaken has accomplished an admirable feat: providing a clear and accessible account of Helmut Gollwitzer’s life, theology, and politics for the broader North American context. The timeliness of this volume cannot be understated. To borrow Gollwitzer’s own words, “these times of great distress”[1] demand nothing short of the disruptive and unsettling word of grace that crucifies, rather than baptizes, the status quo. If placed in the right hands, Our God Loves Justice will have the capacity to serve as a prophetic witness to the eschatological vision that this word of grace demands: “the true socialism of the kingdom of God.”[2]

In lieu of a summary, this will be a critical (but nevertheless appreciative) response of sorts to the vision of Gollwitzer’s political theology, which, if interrogated further, would almost certainly have implications for his theological politics as well. To this task we now turn.

Swimming within the broad currents of dialectical theology—somewhere, according to McMaken, between Barth and Bultmann—Gollwitzer endeavors to draw upon the key insight of dialectical theology and explore its theopolitical consequences: the “nonobjectifiability” of God.

Here we find ourselves in pleasant company. Attempts to objectify God—by which I mean attempts to think of God as one “generally-accessible” entity amongst others that may and must be known according to the “generally agreed upon” lines of reasoning that are supposedly “readily-available” to all—lead us along the idolatrous path of natural theology.

Statements about God that derive from “general truths”—be they the “necessary truths of reason” or the “contingent truths of history”—are not, theologically speaking, statements about the God revealed in hiddenness in Jesus Christ. They amount to nothing more than projectionism on the one hand, or the humanization of God on the other. In the former, “God” becomes either the opposite of the creature through negation (e.g., immutable, impassible, eternal), the greatest creature through perfection (e.g., omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent), or the first creature through causation (e.g., the “Prime Mover”). This god of philosophy—and that is not an uncharitable characterization—could not be further from the one nailed to a cross.

In the latter, however, “God” becomes reducible to and straightforwardly identified with historical phenomena in the past. And while this approach sounds much more pious and veers much closer to the theological vision of the biblical witnesses, the straightforward identification of God with Jesus of Nazareth collapses divinity into humanity in such a way that could, if one were working within the Christological confines of patristic orthodoxy, rightly be labeled as either Monophysite, Ebionite, or methodologically Arian. The “quest for the historical Jesus,” and whatever results it is able to produce given the nature of the available evidence, will not stumble across “revelation” or the Christian God through historical inquiry alone. To echo Barth, if the creature is saved by grace alone, apart from the works of the law, then so too must the creature come to knowledge of God by grace alone, apart from the works of reason or the results of history.[3]

What then is the alternative? Gollwitzer appeals to the “Wholly Otherness” of God as the antidote to all attempts to objectify God on the basis of “general truths.”⁠ This has a destabilizing effect on all theology, for God and God’s revelation are now incapable of becoming a creaturely possession that can be concretized and universalized into a system.

The political ramifications, McMaken notes, are numerous. If God is incapable of being objectified, then so too must God’s will no longer be objectified by identifying it with any concrete human culture. Neither nature, history, culture, nor the state, in other words, can lay claim to be the manifestation of God and God’s will. For those with eyes to see, the relevance of this insight is as important today as it was in 1930s Germany.

Our encounter with this nonobjectifiable God is, for Gollwitzer, the basis upon which our theological politics must be shaped. Put simply, yet poignantly, “the wholly other God wants a wholly other society.”[4] The hegemonic forces of history—the imperial and economic powers that dominate and oppress the “crucifiable” and marginalized members of society—must be named, exposed, and, if necessary, revolutionarily overthrown in the name of God’s distributive justice. Our present economics must, in other words, reject the social Darwinism of capitalism and instead approximate as closely as possible to the “absolute socialism” of the eschatological kingdom of God.[5] I take all of this to be, in light of the gospel, self-authenticating truths. So far, so good.

The question I would like to pose to Gollwitzer—via McMaken—is whether or not the nonobjectifiable God has the capacity to self-objectify apart from our encounter with God in the event of faith. Put differently, does dialectical theology leave room for the later Barth’s Christology wherein the “Wholly Other” God has become “Wholly Human”? While recognizing the dead-end of historical Jesus scholarship for the purposes of theology, does the actual lived-existence of Jesus of Nazareth, as testified to in the biblical witnesses and the proclamation of the church, have a decisive and determinative function within the “Thou-objectivity” of God? Does the domain of dialectical theology extend wide enough to permit discourse about the self-objectification of God through what is commonly identified as the incarnation?

For all of my sympathies with the broader tradition of dialectical theology—including its theological epistemology, its rejection of natural theology, and its emphasis on the inseparability of God’s being from God’s act—I sometimes get the sense (likely based upon my ignorance) that a system has been constructed around the nonobjectifiability of God that sets limits upon the God who loves in freedom by precluding the possibility of divine self-objectification in the first-century Jew from Nazareth. In other words, granting the notion that dialectical theology’s “concept of God’s otherness [derives] not from a presupposed ontology but from a presupposed soteriology,”[6] is it nevertheless possible that the nonobjectifiability principle can itself begin to function as an instance of natural theology that rejects the “objective reality” of divine self-disclosure (viz. Jesus of Nazareth) in favor of the “subjective reality” (viz. the event of faith)?

Again, this likely comes from a place of (Barthian?) ignorance, rather than from genuine understanding. Be that as it may, it is at least worth mentioning at this point how common it is that, as soon as we begin the necessary task of articulating the theological politics that derive from our encounter with the God who saves, we end up appealing to the life, teachings, and death of a figure who actually lived in the past. And though we may of course exemplify the necessary caution of not identifying the “form” (the humanity of Jesus) in and through which revelation occurs with the “content” of revelation itself, avoiding an epistemological manifestation of Nestorianism (if that is something that one would want to avoid) would require that we say, at the same time, that revelation itself is indeed inseparable from the form in and through which it occurs.

Humanity, one might therefore reasonably conclude—and Jesus’ humanity to be specific—may be decisive and determinative for the “Thou-objectivity” of God. If that is indeed the case, what theopolitical implications would arise from the fact that the God we encounter in the event of faith is none other than the God who was in Jesus, the Jewish messiah, reconciling the world to Godself? Politically speaking, what nuances—if any—would be entailed in our attempt to approximate toward the “absolute socialism” of the eschatological kingdom of God with this Christological vision in mind that are not demanded by Gollwitzer’s own political theology? Or, perhaps, does Gollwitzer’s theological politics already presuppose that God has indeed self-objectified in Christ, even if his political theology does not make that explicit? Or, finally, have I misunderstood the nature of Gollwitzer’s dialectical theology vis-à-vis Christology entirely?

Whatever the case may be—and I’m sure I’ve unknowingly entered into the Princeton “Barth Wars” in the course of this response—I would like to end this brief discussion by summoning the readers of this online symposium (and privileged readers in the West in particular) to pick up a copy of this profoundly relevant book. It is not an overstatement to suggest that the life, theology, and politics of Helmut Gollwitzer are desperately needed in “these times of great distress.” McMaken has done the church and the broader English-speaking world a great service in bringing both visibility and accessibility to Gollwitzer’s work. And for that, we must be deeply appreciative.

[1] Quoted on page 36.

[2] Quoted on page 50.

[3] Cf. McMaken’s helpful discussion of how Barth’s rejection of natural theology was an extension of the Reformation’s soteriology into the sphere of theological epistemology on page 55.

[4] Quoted on 93.

[5] Quoted on 121.

[6] David Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 327.