Eberhard Jüngel: Theological Essays

Written by J.B. Webster (ed.) Reviewed By Trevor Hart

In this compact and relatively affordable volume John Webster has gathered together a selection of nine essays by one of the foremost contemporary German theologians. Dating from the early 1970s to the early ’80s, and translated into English here for the first time, these pieces cover a broad range of topics. Yet they reflect an identifiable common theological agenda, namely the concern to take seriously the categories of grace and of the divine as breaking into the sphere of human experience in a manner as unlooked for as it is unconstrained. Thus the language of divine address, of the necessary recreating of human creatureliness, and of the unconditional freeness of divine self-giving is to be found throughout the volume in treatments of themes so diverse as those of epistemology, ethics, the nature of theological language and the imago Dei. This willingness to reckon seriously and unashamedly with divine action and self-revealing will doubtless be attractive to the evangelical reader as a welcome change to the more familiar cautious and apologetic approach of the Western theological and philosophical tradition to these themes.

Nonetheless, the way in which Jüngel works out the substance of his thought within this broad framework reflects the influence, not of an evangelical orientation, but rather of his teacher Karl Barth, of whose theology Jüngel is among the best and most reliable of contemporary interpreters. Yet it is clear from this volume alone that Jüngel is no Barthian in any purely imitative sense. Standing clearly on the shoulders of Barth’s theological achievement he nevertheless forges his own distinctive theological product.

The most interesting essays in the volume were, for the reviewer, those treating the nature of metaphor in its significance for theological discourse, and the metaphysical issue of the relationship between actuality and possibility, viewed with the doctrine of justification by faith specifically in mind. A further piece takes a provocative look at the subject of natural theology (‘anonymous theism’) and Rahner’s idea of so-called ‘anonymous Christianity’ among the adherents of other religious traditions. Here we touch on an issue more familiar, perhaps, to the average reader than some to be found in the book. Notwithstanding the central Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, Jüngel reminds us, it remains true (and certainly was so for Luther) that faith does not create the reality of salvation, but rather acknowledges and lays hold of a reality established quite independently of itself. Otherwise faith itself becomes a vehicle for self-redemption and as such antithetical to the very purpose of the doctrine. ‘In view of the justification of all which has already taken place, faith is that human attitude in which we affirm that we are justified and thereby also affirm that we need add nothing to our salvation and have nothing to add apart from this affirmation’ (p. 186). If this is in any sense true, Jüngel argues, then we must make sense of the ontological affirmation that all are in some sense and to some extent already related to Jesus Christ by his redemptive act on their behalf, rather than viewing them as utterly divorced from him until the moment of their faith.

This is not an easy book, and most of its contents will not be immediately accessible to the novice in theology. Nonetheless, for those with some knowledge of theology already under their belt, who have not yet attempted to scale the heights of Jüngel’s more substantial writings, this anthology affords a valuable introduction to his thought, and is a welcome addition to the corpus of modern German theology available to the English-speaking reader.

Trevor Hart

University of Aberdeen, Scotland