Tag Archives: #barthtogether

Corporate Election

There is no election of individuals outside of the community. God has a chosen people, and chosen persons are part of that people.

This chosen people is, itself, the body of Jesus Christ, the elect one.

So Barth has moved in his exposition of election from election in Jesus Christ (§33) to election of the community (§34). I’ve been working on this section for a few weeks, holding off on blogging about it until I had gotten a bit deeper in. I’m experiencing the section simultaneously as some of the most insightful and the most troubling of the Church Dogmatics.

First, the good stuff.

Barth’s movement from the election of Christ to election of the community resonates with me deeply. To be in Christ is to be part of Christ’s body. There is no such thing as a person isolated in relationship to God. To be in relationship to God is to be part of the family of God, which is to be God’s child as one is in the Son.

This kept bringing back the kind of note I kept writing in the margins the first time I read Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul: Hays was arguing for an ecclesiocentric hermeneutic—that the community was the interpretive end of Paul’s use of scripture. But I kept wanting to say that this was only so because the community is in Christ. Thus, it is truly a Christological reading of scripture, first and foremost, with the communal dimension being the necessary consequence.

I think my critique of Hays was rather Barthian, now. (And I’m not sure but that Hays would agree to a certain extent with what I’ve said above.)

The heart of Barth’s discussion of the election of the community is his small-print exposition of Romans 9 and 10. Keeping in view the big question of Israel as a people, Barth works through Rom 9 with a recurring manta that the differentiations God makes are all about the election of a people.

Pressing against the notion of double-predestination, Barth wants to focus on the positive purpose of all the differentiations: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Israel, the remnant—any rejection is subordinate to the purpose of election and salvation of Israel as a people.

But the chapter was also troubling.

Perhaps I’m only now coming to be as troubled by Paul’s argument as I should always have been, feeling the weight of his assessment of ethnic Israel’s place in the story. Or, perhaps, Barth speaks with a directness that sets of the radar of a politically-correct era.

But I kept wincing at Barth’s differentiation among who is “in” and who is “out.” He speaks of the church as those who respond in obedience to the message, the synagogue as those who reject it, and Israel as this elect people whose rejection of the message can be overcome when they join with the church in confessing Christ.

I wondered, often, if Barth was losing sight of the fact that we gentiles, who by and large populate the church, are participating in the salvation narrative of Israel?

Throughout this section, Barth develops more of the notion that people might reject the election that is theirs in Christ. I think that this is in line with what we see in scripture, especially with respect to Israel, but it then raises the question of what good it is to lay out the argument he does in the previous section.

If the whole point of focusing election on Christ is so that we have a certain hope of our standing before God, but then he can go on to say that our election may be rejected, has he really accomplished the pastoral purpose of assuring people of God’s favor?

Perhaps it’s that last line that’s the key. We always have God’s favor. In Christ. As the overflow of the promise to Israel. As part of the church.

Does the Son Elect?

(And other pressing concerns generated by Church Dogmatics §33.2)

Question 1: Is it faithful to Scripture to say that the Son, Jesus Christ, elects, such that in the God-man the one who elects and the one who is elected are one?

Or, is it more faithful to scripture to say that the one who elects is, properly, God the Father, who makes known to the Son that the Son has been elected for a certain task?

Barth’s whole program, as he presents it, hangs on Christ being both the subject and object of predestination.

I like the idea, but I’m not sure it’s how the NT presents God’s election. It’s all well and good for us, in our more developed Trinitarian Theology, to think “Father, Son, and Spirit” when we think “God.” However, this is not what the NT writers were thinking. For them, when they say “God” they mean the one to whom we refer to as “Father.”

More specifically, when election is assigned to a person, it is most often the Father (e.g., 1 Peter 1:1-2) rather than the Son; unless, that is, the Son is seen as agent of electing those (not himself!) whom the Father has chosen.

Barth Elects to say Yes to God Via His Pipe

Indeed, Ephesians 1 itself, the great “in Christ” celebration that provides the clearest indication that Jesus Christ is the one through whom any others are seen when they are elect, places the whole in the provenance of the Father:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us… Just as he (i.e., the Father!) chose us in him (i.e., the Son), before the foundation of the cosmos… Having predestined us (i.e., the same Father predestines as chooses and blesses) to adoption through Jesus Christ…”

I don’t think that John 1:1, “the Word was God,” provides the kind of leverage Barth demands of it to assign to the son what is clearly assigned to the Father throughout scripture.

Or, to put a different spin on it, when KB says that the son’s suffering is something Jesus speaks of “not as a necessity laid upon Him from without, but as something which He Himself wills,” I wonder what Bible he’s reading. The Son wills it as the will of the Father placed upon him.

I do not think, however, that this is as fatal to Barth’s project as he would lead us to believe. Jesus Christ can still be the primary object of election, focusing the choosing of God on the Son who as Elected One responds faithfully in electing God as well, and much of what Barth wants to maintain is upheld.

Question 2: If Barth wants the election of Jesus Christ to be the sum substance of election, such that all of us can look to Christ and take confidence in our standing before God–has he not cut off any defense he might have had against a charge of universalism?

If not every single person can so look to Christ and be comforted, then election cannot serve this purpose, which Barth says it surely has. I know, I’m not saying anything new here. And I’m happy for KB to be a Universalist based on the capacious nature of Christ’s work on our behalf.

Question 3: is it really all potential loss for God and all potential gain for humanity that God would choose to become incarnate, to become a man who must elect God in order for humanity to be truly God’s people?

I get this idea: we suck, God is awesome, God takes care of our suckiness, but at the possible expense of some of his awesomeness.

However, what if God really loves people?

What if God, creating people in his own image and likeness loves us in the same way that, say, Adam loved Seth–one born in his own image and likeness.

In other words, what if being in the image of God means that we are God’s children and therefore beloved of him, and God has something magnificent to gain from this whole business–a beloved, faithful, loving family?

I love how Barth is moving away from double-predestination (although, again, I think a revisionist hermeneutic is involved here) and creating a doctrine that is radically christological in its focus. I think that much of this is a salutary corrective to predestinarian thinking.

But more work is going to have to be done if this is going to be a revision that stands up to biblical scrutiny.

Election and the God-Man

Blogsphere confessional: I’m over the predestination debate.

Been there. Done that. Committed myself. Realized that the debates makes people jerks/reveals that we are jerks. Pulled out. Don’t care anymore.

In particular, I find discussions of predestination to be theologically thin because they spend so much time in the ether that the story as it actually unfolds fades from view.

Barth, though, invites a reconsideration of predestination with a relentless focus on Jesus Christ, focusing on Jesus Christ himself as the object of God’s election (Dogmatics §33.1) daring me to give it one more try.

The section begins with what appears to be an intentional echo of Ephesians 1, as Barth begins sentence after sentence with “In Him…” Ephesians 1 was Calvin’s go-to text for discussing predestination.

Photo: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Barth is acutely aware of the charge of those who, like Roger Olson, assert that the Calvinist’s God is a moral monster. Barth is not only aware of this, he agrees with the critique. To him, the absolute decree of God is the demon produced in predestinarian thought that must be exorcised.

Thus, instead of some “absolute decree,” we are to focus on the Word of God who is Jesus Christ, the one whom God has ordained to bear God’s name. This, says Barth, is the essence of election: in the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word became flesh.

Election, in short, is God’s determination “that the goal and meaning of all His dealings with the as yet non-existent universe should be the fact that in His Son He wold be gracious towards man, united Himself with him” (101).

Barth divides his subsequent discussion in two: as God, Jesus Christ elects; as human, Jesus Christ is elected.

This gets to be a mess.

But before we get to the mess, here’s where it’s helpful: it takes the focus of election off of ourselves as responders, and onto Jesus as the Elect One who also faithfully followed God throughout his life.

Now to the mess: Barth has an insufficiently developed understanding of the significance of being human, especially within the story of Israel, and thus ends up placing too much of Jesus’ function as representative and Lord on his divinity.

Here’s a summation of Barth’s concern:

For where can Jesus Christ derive the authority and power to be Lord and Head of all others and how can these others be elected “in Him,” and how can they see their election in Him the first of the elect, and how can they find in His election the assurance of their own, if He is only the object of election and not Himself its Subject, if He is only an elect creature and not primarily and supremely the electing Creator. Obviously in a strict and serious sense we can never say of any creature that other creatures are elect “in it,” that it is their Lord and Head, and that in its election they can and should have assurance of their own.

How can Jesus Christ derive authority and power to be Lord? By being the obedient Davidic and Adamic son whom God appointed to rule over all things–the one who, because he was obedient, was given a name that was not his before!

How can his election be the assurance of our own? Only if his is truly the election of a human being such that other human beings might know that God can choose even those in the likeness of sinful flesh!

In what sense could we be elect in another? Only in the sense that this other is like unto us such that we might bear his image as the renewal of our own!

Even Barth’s desire to ground the story of election more in the story of the God who truly is remains too far removed from the biblical story.

This is so because in turning to election, Barth jumps immediately to the Trinity outside of time rather than the revelation of Jesus as one whose humanity speaks to us about the word of God in time. And this means, not primarily as witness to the God who is beyond time, but showing us in the here and now how God works within a particular earthly story.

Barth is pointing us in the right direction by demanding we focus on Christ, but I’m not sure he’s walked far enough down the road toward he gestures.

If God Is Love

God loves. And God loves freely. When God chooses to set his affection on creation, on people, on you, on me, God does this because God chooses, freely, to bestow God’s love upon his creatures.

This is the summary of Barth’s doctrine of God.

And this is why Barth presses the point that the doctrine of election lies at the heart of the doctrine of God.

When we say “God loves freely,” we make a claim about God, not only in Himself, but as one who is postured toward the world. If God is, in fact, the one who loves in freedom, then God must from all eternity be postured toward the creature in free love.

To be postured toward us in love from all eternity is to be not only the one who loves eternally, but the one who elects eternally. Election, for Barth, homes in on God’s free choice to love people.

God loves in freedom, as God is from all eternity. This is not merely a function of the earthly event of Jesus’ appearance to bring salvation. The act in history depends upon, and indicates, a prior eternal election.

I confess to having a few caution flags go up in Barth’s discussion of the place of election in dogmatics (§32.3). Mostly, they sprung from this: I worry that Barth wants to put so much in eternity that the reality of God responding to the world in its brokenness, sinfulness, and enslavement is minimized.

When we put so much of God’s activity in eternity, I worry that the reality, as it’s depicted throughout scripture, that God truly responds to the world and to the cries of God’s people, and to the promises and agreements made is rendered illusory.

When Barth shuns the notion that God is rescuing us from what might be a rival god, is he so focusing on the ideal reign of God that the reality of a conflicting dominion that must be displaced is, in essence, denied (p. 90)?

Coming up next: Barth will develop his doctrine of election on the election, first, of Jesus Christ. This, no doubt, gave rise to the thought among many that simply saying, “in Christ,” seals the deal in favor of a corporate, rather than particular and individual election. The subsequent section discusses the election of the community, and finally the individual is dealt with.

I’m curious: what do you do with election? Does a traditional Reformed outlook work for you? If not, how do you interpret the passages that speak about predestination and election without simply writing them off?

Jesus Christ v. Eternal Principles

At the beginning of Unlocking Romans, I reflected on how Christians have, at times, defined God. Scrolling through Augustine, Anselm, and the Westminster Confession, I summarized thus:

Not only do these Christian definitions, like their Greek philosophical counterparts, all focus on a g/God who is wholly other, they also define God in universal terms without reference to the story of Israel.

In the Scriptures of Israel, however, God’s identity is inseparable from a particular people and from certain actions performed on behalf of that people. God is not known in universal abstract qualities but in limiting and particular actions.

Little did I know at the time that this insistence that God be understood from with the particulars of the outworking of the story of Israel would be the heart of Karl Barth’s call for a massive overhaul of the doctrine of election.

When Barth talks about the “Foundation of the Doctrine of Election” in Church Dogmatics §32.2, he means to call us back to Jesus Christ as the foundation.

Where the history of doctrine points to the church going awry in its articulation of what it means to say “God elects” is at the point when it says, “God elects [full stop].”

If it is going to be the church’s doctrine of election, Barth calls us to say instead, “God elects in Jesus Christ.”

In step with Barth’s overall theological program, for something to be known as true in Christian theology, it can only be known because God has made it known in Jesus Christ.

When it come to election, this means placing front and center Paul’s claim in Ephesians 1: God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.

The problems with the church’s talk of election have risen, in Barth’s estimation, from principles such as power or majesty or omnipotence or sovereignty becoming the determining factors in the confession that God elects. This puts the whole idea within the realm of a God hidden behind the God who is known in Christ, and makes election a secretive eternal act that is not disclosed, as such, in Christ.

Such a doctrine can never be gospel, because the good news is revealed in Jesus Christ.

When we first started talking about Barth and election last week, someone commented on my FB Wall that Barth’s position puts him out of step with all the great theologians of the church, Augustine and Aquinas no less than Luther and Calvin.

Barth acknowledges this. He does it with some trepidation. But he parts company with them as he pinpoints the place where they leave “in Christ” behind, seeking an electing God hidden behind. For Barth, this simply will not do.

Election and Grace

The history of the doctrine of predestination has at times viewed humanity as the recipients of a stark dual decree of God: some are predestined to life, others to destruction.

As Karl Barth lays out his project for a revisionist assessment of the notion of election, he demands that the focus of election be the electing grace of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, predestination is not about God creating two categories of salvation and reprobation and populating those before all time (Church Dogmatics §32.1).

Instead, predestination is God’s free choice, from all eternity, to enter into an eternal relationship with humanity through the election the one man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Opening his discussion of election, Barth can even say that election is the gospel. Why? Because it is conceived as God’s free act of love toward the creature, the choice God makes not to allow the “No” that humanity perpetually flings at God be the last word, but instead to overcome it with a divine “Yes” that is mediated through the Man who himself said “Yes” to God throughout his life.

When Barth moves to discuss three facets of God made known in election (freedom, mystery, and righteousness) the exposition seems to fall into the sort of topical theologizing that Barth overcomes at his better moments.

However, the stage is set for a reimagining of what the Bible never hesitates to affirm (but which we all too often feel skittish about embracing ourselves): the people of God are, also, the elect of God.

This Story-Bound God

I know, I know, I’ve fallen way behind on my Barth reading. But travel sometimes has its perks, so I’ve polished off the last 140 pages of 2.1 in the past week. It’s been glorious.

Well, glorious right up until next week when, not having 2.2 and not yet being home, I will once again find myself a week behind. *sigh*

The final, large swath of Barth’s Doctrine of God continues to uncover how the God we worship is the God who is made known within the particular story of Israel, and most pointedly in the story of Jesus Christ.

God is power, but power is not God. Thus, the true God is truly known when that God’s power is made known in a certain way, in a certain story:

He is certainly the Lord, and therefore the substance of all power, but He is not any kind of Lord. He is the Lord who in his speech and action makes Himself our Lord and declares Himself to be such: “I am the Lord and as such thy God.” When God reveals Himself, His omnipotent speech and action are not self-exhausting but point back beyond themselves to the One who speaks and acts.

Barth will not allow Christian confessions about God to be drawn into abstractions about our “highest value” or “the power behind all.”

God is the God who makes Himself known as “our God.”

Barth spills countless ounces of ink on God as one who is “omnipotent,” in a power that is tied to God’s will and knowledge, in order to say, in the end: this must be so if God is to be love.

God’s power must be a power of knowing, of knowing things into being, of willing, of willing the things that happen–and a free willing of those things–in order for God’s reconciliation of humanity to be an act of love (599).

The final section, on God’s eternity and glory, started out a bit creepy for my blood.

Talking about how God is eternally extant, with time a function of creation, and God’s past, present, and future being a true proceeding from, acting, and proceeding to, but not bound by time (rather binding time)–well, that all gets a bit heavenly for my earthly-grounded brain.

But things turned a corner for me when Barth didn’t flinch at the implications of incarnation:

In Jesus Christ it comes about that God takes time to Himself, that He Himself, the eternal One, becomes temporal, that He is present for us in the form of our own existence and our own world, not simply embracing our time and ruling it, but submitting Himself to it and permitting created time to become and be the form of His eternity…. His name [i.e., Jesus Christ's] is the refutation of the idea of a God who is only timeless. (§31.3, p. 616)

Yes! That!

In talking about time, and locating Jesus Christ at the center of it, Barth is able to incorporate NT eschatology as an already and not yet reality: the overlap of the present with the future that ensures the reality of both.

Finally, Barth turns to discuss God’s glory. God is glorious, and God also makes this glory known and fulfills it in the creation-story by people freely responding to this glory with our own glorification of God.

One of the most insightful moments of this chapter comes at the end, as Barth reflects on the Son’s incarnation and humiliation. These make possible the human glorification of God which reflects God’s own glory.

The whole point of creation is that God should have a reflection in which He reflects Himself and in which the image of God as the Creator is revealed, so that through it God is attested and proclaimed. For this reflection is the centre and epitome of creation concretely represented in the existence of man. … It was in order that there should be this reflection that the Son of God became flesh.

Bring on the Adam Christology!

Barth here has laid out some of the most nuanced argumentation about the conjunction of divine, determining foreknowledge, and human freedom. This is setting us up for a lengthy engagement, head-on, with the doctrine of election.

What will that look like in the context of a God who not only loves in freedom but calls on the creature to freely love? We’ll start finding out in a couple of weeks.

Knowledge and Power

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

“Why are you wasting your time speculating on a useless question?”–John Calvin

O.k., so that was more paraphrase than direct quotation. But it’s close enough. For all that Calvinism is accused of undue speculation into the secret things of God, the best of Calvin’s own writing was marked by an unwillingness to engage in useless speculations into things sub-divine.

“If God can do anything, can God make a mountain so big that God can’t move it?”

“You wouldn’t ask that question if you realized that you’re talking about the power of God rather than power (full stop).”–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics §31.2

Ok, I’m paraphrasing again. But in his talk about God, Barth consistently returns to this: we are talking about the God who has revealed himself in Christ, and it is this God who exercises power, this God who knows, that himself determines the definitions of knowledge and of power.

There is no abstract “all-powerfulness” by which God is measured.

We confess the God who has revealed himself as all-powerful, and thus the definition of “omnipotent” is what God can and will do.

God’s power is the real power that God exercises over all things. This includes the bestowal of freedom on people to act in accordance with God’s power and knowledge and love or in attempted rejection of them.

In so connecting God’s power and knowledge with the actuality of God’s acting, Barth is able to hold together certain foreknowledge and predestination with human freedom; he is able to affirm God’s power without entailing God in willing evil.

In other words, Barth operates firmly within the Reformed tradition without so clinging to God’s “absolute” sovereignty as to make God (as God so often appears in more popular and less well-nuanced versions) one who wills evil or fatalistically determines human destinies.

“If a person sins, this is not because God knew, as He certainly did from eternity, that the person would sin. For the object of the divine foreknowledge was not a fatum or fortuna, but the person who sinned of the person’s own will.”

There are times when I read this doctrine of God material and worry that we are still in the land of speculation. However, Barth continues to resonate with me because he is relentlessly building his theology from below: the God who has revealed Godself, and the humanity that knows itself in light of God’s self-revelation, are the determining factors about who God is and how God is at work in the world.

For Barth, the story is the thing. The reality we experience as free agents is part of that story, as is God’s declaration that God is powerful over all things, as is the actual world over which God has (and, seemingly at times, hasn’t fully) displayed God’s power.

These realities, rather than our ideals, are the means by which God is known, even in the midst of an imperfect world.

The God who Moves and Responds and Acts

One of the most significant ramifications of working out one’s theology from the starting point of Jesus Christ is that the actual involvement of God in the world curtails pious-sounding abstractions that, if true, would make God so distant and other as to be of no earthly good.

Because, let’s face it friends, on the day that we learn of the death of the great MCA of the Beastie Boys, we need to know that our God is not a pious abstraction, but a God who can and will and does act. (Can I get an amen?)

God’s constancy is not a constancy of one who is unmoved or unmoving. God’s life is “difference, movement, will, decision, action, degeneration, and rejuvenation” (Barth, Church Dogmatics §31.2).

With this litany of divine attributes, signaling what, exactly, God’s constancy looks like, Barth launches into one of the best discussions of divine identity and attributes I’ve ever read.

Barth's God Immutably Loves Mozart

In the world of theological abstraction, God’s “immutability” becomes “immobility.” But in the theology developed from the self-revelation of God in Christ, “immutability” becomes, instead, God’s constancy of action, as God chooses to act, in accordance with God’s desire to be in relationship with the world God created.

God is life.

We have also to understand it as a proof and a manifestation of God’s constant vitality that God has a real history in and with the world created by Him. This is the history of the reconciliation and revelation accomplished by Him, by which He leads the world to a future redemption.

God has tied himself to a history, bound himself to a story.

We know all this because as Christians we don’t start with abstractions about the identity of God and attempt to figure out how such abstractions make sense within our story. We begin with God’s actual revelation in Jesus and Christ and learn from there who this God is who is at work.

Two highlights from later in the chapter include small print sections on prayer and on the Philippians Christ-hymn.

An immutable God might lead one to believe that prayer can have no effect on the divine. “It’s all about changing us, not getting God to act.”

Wrong.

…the prayers of those who can and will believe are heard; …God is and wills to be known as the One who will and does listen to the prayers of faith… So real is the communication that where it occurs God positively wills that man should call upon Him in this way, in order that He may be his God and Helper.

The living and genuinely immutable God is not an irresistible fate before which man can only keep silence, passively awaiting and accepting the benefits or blows which it ordains. There is no such thing as a Christian resignation in which we either have to submit to a fate of this kind or to come to terms with it.

God acts. God acts in love. This is what we learn of the immutability of God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ. The God of love acts on behalf of God’s people. More specifically:

It is because God was in this way one with the creature in Jesus Christ, that there was and is fellowship between God and the creature.

No, the God of all did not need to bind Himself to humanity. But he did. In God’s freedom, God has bound himself to all humanity in Jesus Christ.

So when God is immutable and constant, that changelessness will be for us an our salvation, for the maintenance of the relationship God has created anew.

The surprise in this is that it is in self-giving, self-humbling love that “Christ is Christ and God is God.”

The upshot for us, of course, is that only in such self-giving, self-humbling love and “In it alone can Christians be Christians” (p. 518).

Storied Omnipresence

God is everywhere.

Omnipresent.

Some things make me nervous even though I’m sure they’re true. Start pulling out the “omnis,” and I start looking for the exits. I want a God whose identity is shaped by the story to which God has bound himself, not the God of philosophical abstraction.

Enter Barth’s exposition of God’s omnipresence (Church Dogmatics §31.1). Here, I experienced Barth on his Christological A-game in a way that I haven’t seen in several chapters.

Yes, God is everywhere. But it is not that God measures up to some abstract notion of timelessness or placelessness. The God who is “other” than creation as timeless and placeless is not everywhere, but nowhere.

The Biblical God has revealed himself quite differently. God has made a world where God’s own ability to be somewhere can be made manifest.

God not only can be someplace in general, and not only is everyplace in general, God has chosen to be located in particular ways in particular places. God in the OT was, truly, in the pillar of fire, in the tabernacle, and in the temple–even as neither tent nor temple can hold the God of heaven.

The particular truth that God is present with God’s people in special ways forms the basis by which the more general idea is affirmed that God is present everywhere. God is present in certain times and ways in order to judge or to love; God is present on earth as redeemer and reconciler.

And all of this we know to be true because these instantiations are grounded in the true and ultimate occupying of a particular place that happened in the incarnation of Christ. God’s presence on earth is the definitive indication that God can be present with God’s people, that God has in fact been so present, and that therefore God can be and is present everywhere, if in different fashion.

This section resonated with me for two reasons.

First, Barth was so clearly here forcing the theological confession to conform to biblical narrative rather than vice versa. I’ve been missing this in much of the past few weeks’ reading.

Secondly, Barth’s talk of God occupying space, and being able to interact with humanity because of it, resonated with how I’ve been thinking about Paul’s union with Christ soteriology. I’ve been using language such as, “God has created reconciled, cosmic space in Christ–and we are saved by being placed in that space by Spirit, faith, and baptism.”

Barth wasn’t talking reconciliation in this week’s reading, but he was talking space. Lots of space. God-occupied space. Space which God occupies so as to be present to God’s people.

And, Barth was talking the space of incarnation.

This chapter showed the best of how Barth’s theology works–where the reality of God’s self-revelation in Christ reframes the discussion of old theological points and better depicts the God we meet on the pages of the Bible.