Why Do You Say Such Things?!

Last night I found myself in the happy company of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics once again. And he was, yet again, talking about theological method.

In talking about God, the Christian always begins with revelation as the given. What we mean by God, by salvation, by revelation are all reflections on the actual given of the revelation of God in Christ.

We start with the given. And we attempt to explain.

This is what it means to do Christian theology.

We do not begin with our categories of “God”, and attempt to then describe our God such that our God alone fulfills that category.

We do not begin with our understanding of “the possibility of humanity hearing from God,” but from the given of God’s revelation of Godself to humanity.

At this most basic point of theological method, I find myself in profound agreement with Barth. And, this is why I have been engaging this conversation about Law for the past week.

This is one of the most vexing questions of the NT–What is the relationship of the Law to Christian faith and life? It is one subset of the question that has pressed the church to wrestle within itself for two millennia: where is the continuity and where is the discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New?

For Christians, it is these two “givens” that make the place of the Law so challenging to articulate: (1) despite what we might have thought from reading, say, Exodus or Deuteronomy, Christians must confess that the Law was not what Christ is: the means of righteousness and life in the presence of God; and (2) though some commands are repeated in the NT, the Christ event, not the Torah, is the defining standard for measuring the fidelity of the Christian life.

These are the givens. What, then, about the Law?

Its place in the story is surprising. It is something waiting to be “fulfilled” (Matthew); not the giver of life but what witnesses to Jesus (John); the parental stand-in, the power that ruled Israel until maturity came (Galatians); the thing that is passing away (Hebrews).

And, it is precisely in this temporary place, in this witnessing beyond itself to the coming Christ, that the Law is God’s, and good, and an inescapable part of the story of redemption, and what is required as the penultimate gift of God in anticipation of the ultimate gift of grace–in Christ.

None of this I say because of what I think a Law should do.

None of this I say because of what the Law itself says it should do.

All of this I say because it is what we must say if the revelation of God in Christ is true. Christ is holy, righteous, good, necessary and ultimate. Law is holy, righteous, good, necessary, and penultimate.

21 thoughts on “Why Do You Say Such Things?!”

  1. Daniel,

    What is your (or Barth’s) take on the idea that the “righteousness of the Law” and “the one who does these shall *live*” apply to ‘temporal blessings’ of health, wealth, long life, large family, etc, that the Law promises to those who keep the Covenant and NOT to ‘eternal blessings’ like Eternal Life, the Indwelling of the Spirit, etc?

    1. I’m not convinced about that, Nick.

      In general, I see the whole movement as a gradual transformation form land to world to cosmos. That is, the way Paul talks about the particular promises of the OT is to affirm them by transforming them into these cosmic categories. Now I do think that’s a different reading of the text from what an “original audience” would say, but I’m not sure it means that the more temporal and local promises were what Law righteousness could give, but eternal and cosmic is what it could not. In fact, the whole development of the idea of an eschatological future started to arise as people who were, in fact, righteous by Law did not receive the temporal blessings.

  2. Daniel, are you saying “the Law is … an inescapable part of the story of redemption, and what is required” because you find this to be an unexplained given in God’s revelation through Paul’s writings. Or do you find Paul, in giving his explanation of things people are finding problematic in redemption, shows by argument that Law is an inescapable part and required.

    1. Paul, and all the NT writers, work with the assumption that the Law is an important part of the story of redemption. It is God’s word. It is good. And that’s what makes Jesus so surprising.

      1. Davey,

        I am not so sure Daniel adequately answered your question. Since I myself find it to be a very interesting question, I will take a stab at it.

        So, if I could elaborate, is Law (as integral part of the story of redemption) a revelation, insofar that revelation means or requires an “unexplained given” by God via humans (or: a divine intelligence which infiltrates the human mind yet remains phantasmic in origins, but in the end comes out on the paper quite clear); in this case Paul is the vessel? Or is the expression of Law’s role in redemption a necessary part of Paul’s argumentation, one which extends his gained knowledge of things via the authority and weight of Scripture?


        Is this elaboration getting what you were getting at?

        1. Michael, the elaboration doesn’t seem to me what I was getting at, unfortunately! Daniel says he is trying to lay out what Paul says, without reading into it any other things that people are prone to, as a start in then going on to try to understand it properly for a change. However, if one is to try to say precisely what Paul is saying in different words than Paul, I reckon one had better understand what Paul is saying, but that is the problem – what is Paul saying! One thing Daniel seems to want to say Paul is saying is that Law was absolutely necessary or else there could not have been salvation from sin. And another thing Daniel seems to want to say that Paul is saying is that God can only disarm sin fully if Law increases it. I was asking Daniel whether he finds these are simply asserted by Paul, or if he finds Paul giving any explanations of why they are the case (of course, if Daniel finds Paul saying these things, I’d like to know where Paul says them, and if there are explanations of these things by Paul, I would want to have them in the open and discuss them). Paul does give some considerations about why Law was given, that it was witness to Christ (even if it was not easy to see it was till Christ), that it was a guardian, that it identified sin, and that it showed sin’s power (which two last are my reading of Paul’s saying it increased sin). But these reasons Paul gives for why Law was given do not seem to me to include or entail Law being necessary for there to be salvation from sin, or that Law must increase sin in order that it can be disarmed and without which it can’t be disarmed.

          1. So, you are asking, where exactly does Paul assert/elaborate that God needed for sin to increase via Law in order to disarm it; also, where does Paul assert/elaborate on Law having to come about in order for there to be salvation in the first place.

            Your reading of Paul’s logic for sin increasing is interesting, in that sin is identified not on the margins of Israel, where so-called pagans roam about with their idols, but rather it finds its power right in the middle of Israel and Law itself. In other words, Israel has the capacity via God’s election to do great, wonderful things or awful, horrible things (blessing and bane).

            Though, did Paul really say that sin had power per say? I always thought of sin as being the absence or misuse of power…

            1. …although, I suppose in regarding humankind’s power in relation to sin, “absence” and “misuse” are two very different things. The former implies a complete nullification/lack of power via sin whereas the latter implies a concurrence albeit adumbration of power via sin. To say that sin has “power” is to realize and uphold the unquenchable good in all things, to realize the good as foundational (the “very good” one might quip), something which sin cannot usurp completely.

            2. Michael, well, Paul thinks Israel didn’t have the capacity to do great things! And as to his logic, I think I’d say that while it looks true to say that Law identifies sin and makes it worse (in the sense of it being against a stated law, though not in the sense of it being any worse otherwise than the same thing done without law), and by making boundaries clear suggests to those so disposed further possibilities of sinning, Law is not logically necessary in order for people to sin comprehensively. So, Paul’s attempt at explaining why Law was given is not satisfactory. This doesn’t mean his attempt is useless, just that he hasn’t tied up all the ends, but then why should we expect that!

              1. Right, Paul is writing a letter to a group of people with particular needs, working with the contingencies of his history — not ours. Therefore, why should we expect a full accounting of Law.

                Pre-flood, which is to say pre-law, the entire world was inclined toward sin; thus, Law is just a recapitulation of that age-old tendency, only on a smaller scale as it is now within the tribe of Israel itself and not worldwide.

                1. Michael, in looking again and again through Romans and Galatians to try to understand Paul on Law, here are my latest reflections on a run through Galatians yesterday in light of especially things said on this blog. Many (probably all) statements are about Paul’s present (so not statements about what might be taken as universally applicable for all time). The ones of faith are sons of Abraham, Law added until the promise, guarded until faith, fulness of time. And on the ending of Law, Christ came under Law in order to redeem those under Law, in order that we receive sonship (it’s not clear to me whether these ‘in order that’s are in apposition or the second dependent on the first), Christ became a curse in order that blessing to Gentiles, in order that we receive Spirit (apposition, or not?), through Law died to Law. Right, I don’t find Paul’s historicism congenial! I’m inclined to think faith must have been in the driving seat from the beginning, so gentiles were never excluded from salvation from the time of Adam, and Israel was only ever privileged in having more information about things from God (though not much information!). I suppose the Law, then, would only be some requirement from God similar to personal requirements God put on various people, like Jonah’s commission (where, note, gentile Nineveh repented). But, on the ending of Law, Paul’s statements imply something more of Law. Christ had to come under Law and be cursed by it and through Law die, to redeem those under Law (which four points I just don’t know what to make of), and until they were redeemed blessing couldn’t come to the Gentiles (why couldn’t Christ die for the sins of the world, which would include any done by those under Law without somehow making that special?). And then, also, for example, what about the times from Adam to Abraham and Abraham to Moses, and what about the gentiles from Moses to Christ?

                  1. Davey,

                    Call me crazy, but if the thematic push of Galatians is about describing Law in explicit honorific terms, we ought not harmonize Pauline theology across the board, as it seems he is nuancing his argumentation in order to fit his changing context (bringing out the inner philosopher in Paul). I think it is safe to say, Romans certainly doesn’t negate Law, however the epistle’s thematic use seems adumbrated compared to Galatians. So, let’s not just draw conclusions about Law via Paul’s opus, Romans; rather, let’s put it all out there and look at his overall curriculum vitae, and then draw some conclusions.

                    I’m inclined to think faith must have been in the driving seat from the beginning, so gentiles were never excluded from salvation from the time of Adam, and Israel was only ever privileged in having more information about things from God (though not much information!).

                    Intriguing. I would add that the imago Dei statement coupled with the original mandate statement in Gen. 1:26-28 is indeed remembered and recapitulated by the Genesis text in a postfallen situation (Gen. 5;9), which would bolster your point about faith being in the driver seat from Adam onward. Furthermore, and MOST (you gotta say that like a British bloke) intriguing, Paul explicitly cites the imago Dei as well in Colossians.

                    As to your other point regarding Christ’s actions of dying under the curse of Law, I think he had to deal with Israel first, and then the world second, because God’s redmptive efforts of kosmos via Israel (which effectively narrowed the redemptive efforts of Adam onward) clogged things up and put everything to a sudden halt, thus bottling up the gentiles/kosmos which was awaiting the blessing through this now narrowed venue of redemption. One might use the image of a bottlenecking action to better understand this point, where the whole thing was plugged up by Isreal as they failed to implement the Law’s redemptive purpose.

                    In the end, you have a kind of chaismis, where Gen. 1 starts with all humankind and creation as sinless, only to have Adam introduce sin to all so that none were sinless, which then began to work toward reversing this via an overall human effort (which ended in widespread evil), which required a narrowing of tribe, then a person, and then, finally, via fulcrum of the one person of Christ, all of the kosmos was opened back up — or, better, the door is cracked, as the already-here/not-yet of the new heavens and new earth awaits the full reentry and further development of the story of creation.

  3. Daniel, like yourself I try out various things to see what Paul might be saying, and one try is to find Paul saying (1) the Law helped Israel keep together (as guardian), and not considering whether something else without its problematic effects might have done that. And (2a) that the Law increased sin, but because that was its effect when given to fallen people because it gave them ideas they might not have had, though he doesn’t consider that people don’t have much trouble coming up with every way of sinning. But, also, (2b) increasing sin, both in seriousness and in amount, so that people could see that they were sinning and how bad sin was, and by contrast how good God’s grace was, though again he doesn’t consider that people would not have much trouble seeing at least the first of those things without Law. If that try has anything to be said for it, it seems to make what Paul says on Law not very edifying! The search goes on!

    1. Davey, on your point 2b: I want to be very clear that this “see Gods grace” thing is not a timeless or repeated idea in Paul’s thinking. All this discussion of Law is derived from Rom 5, where “grace” means, specifically, what came through the one man, Jesus Christ.

      1. Yes, Daniel, that’s ok.
        I’m also still thinking about the “because”s and “in order that”s and suchlike in Paul. In English, anyway, these don’t have to imply ‘only if’. So, in order to get from A to B one may use a bus, but it doesn’t imply one can’t get from A to B other ways. Although they can also be ‘unless’, as in doing a thesis in order to get a PhD. And sometimes there is limitation because of context, as one needs a rocket to get to the moon, but maybe only at present (teletransportation might come in!). So, one must read Paul carefully!

        1. No, it’s not “and only if,” because Paul isn’t trying to articulate a logical, a priori, necessity. He is trying to explain what did in fact happen. That one might get from A to B in other ways is always possible, and for Christian theology in general usually irrelevant. The question is why, in fact, did God choose to go from A to B? Can we know? Does it matter? Does anyone in scripture say?

          I think that many of our problems with explaining Torah’s place in the story, and by “problems” I mean, why our explanations don’t find the support in scripture we anticipate, comes from developing our own thoughts about what it means for a good God to give a good Law and figuring that these thoughts create the a priori necessities that the story must fulfill. But the scriptural story doesn’t work like that, almost ever, from what I can tell.

  4. So the apostle John might rework Psalm 1 to read something like:

    “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked … but whose delight is in Christ, and who meditates on his gospel, day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water”

    In other words, what Israel and, more specifically, the author of Psalm 1 hoped that Torah would do — be the source of abundant Life — only Christ could do.

    Yep. Surprising.

  5. So, revelation is an “actual given,” by which Barth means that there is genuine, meaningful raw data of truth that is “out there” to be had by the individual believer (via the Spirit of the Word); that is, of course, with the right theories of discernment. Thus revelation is not, for Barth (and Daniel), a naive realism, an internal known to be had by the rational Knower (Kant is ousted here). N.T. Wright demonstrates an implicit continuation of this Barthian thought, with his adoption of “critical realism.” Wright holds out that we can, with the right theoretical tools, arrive at the mind/truth of the author and his intent.

    Though, how does perspective play into this approach by Barth/Daniel/Wright? Doesn’t our point of view, however measured and steadied, immediately color our theories and thus in turn colors our collection of theological datum? Since we see through a glass darkly, is not our bid to reach or arrive at a givenness prone to fall into power grabs at a truth that we think can be found “out there,” whole and for the taking?

    Maybe a more suitable approach is establishing a “second naivete” (see Ricoeur). Maybe then we could see with eyes anew that via the biblical story we aren’t just “given” revelation but are also “called” therein (Creation theology par excellent, which I would maintain is Pauline). Thus maybe we need some balance between the two, or what Christian philosophers Middleton and Walsh call the “relationship between the givenness of the world and our epistemological response to that world” (Middleton and Walsh in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be). That is just my two cents.

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