Reading Karl Barth on Election (6)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:51-63, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Of the four possible foundations for the doctrine of election detailed thus far, the final two excite Barth’s interest for in their own way they identify—inadequately to be sure—the elected man and the electing God. “Because of their incorrect form we must reject them as answers to the question of the basis of the doctrine, but we must keep their substance in so far as it indicates the two poles of the problem, God on the one side and man on the other” (52).

It is the name of Jesus Christ which, according to the divine self-revelation, forms the focus at which the two decisive beams of the truth forced upon us converge and unit: on the one hand the electing God and on the other elected man. It is to this name, then, that all Christian teaching of this truth must look, from this name that it must derive, and to this name that it must strive (59).

When Barth asks about the election he insists that “from first to last the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus Christ” (53):

If we would know who God is, and what is the meaning and purpose of His election, and in what respect He is the electing God, then we must look away from all others, and excluding all side glances or secondary thoughts, we must look only upon and to the name of Jesus Christ, and the existence and history of the people of God enclosed within Him (54; cf. 58-59).

To ground the doctrine of election and to speak of elected humanity, Barth turns to the Old Testament, using a narrative and typological approach which shows God’s electing work as God continually narrows his choice from amongst all people the particular person who is the elect—Jesus Christ. His treatment moves from Adam to Jacob to David to Jeconiah to Zerubbabel and finally to Jesus; four movements in the Old Testament in which each individual named is intended to function as a witness to Jesus Christ who is the fulfilment both of God’s judgement and the promise of God’s grace (55-58).

The Word—that Word which created Israel, and accompanied and directed it as prophetic judge and comforter—the Word itself became flesh. The Word Himself became the Son of David. Now at last there had come the special case for which there had had to be all those others from Adam to Zerubbabel, and for which Israel had had to be separated out from the whole race, and Judah from Israel. This coming was to the detriment of Israel. Face to face with its Messiah, the Son of David who was also the Son of God, Israel knew no better than to give Him up to the Gentiles to be put to death on the cross. In so doing, they confirmed the rightness of God’s dealings with them from the very first, when He cut them off and destroyed them. And yet because the righteousness of God stands fast like the mountains against the unrighteousness of man, this coming was also to the benefit of Israel, and of the Gentiles, and of the world. In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ the world was shown to be a co-partner in guilt with Israel, but only in order that it might be shown a co-partner in the promise with Israel. … Jews and Gentiles were in the same guilt of disobedience. But now they could hear the same words: You, my people; I, God, in the person of David’s Son, your King. Those who are called by this King, and hear this King, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, constitute the people whose existence was envisaged throughout the whole of that long history (57-58).

Barth finds this Christocentric focus of election in the New Testament, especially in Ephesians 1:4, though he also cites Ephesians 1:11 and 3:10, and Romans 8:29: “all these statements show us quite plainly that when we have to do with the reality indicated by the concept of election or predestination we are not outside the sphere of the name of Jesus Christ but within it and within the sphere of the unity of very God and very man indicated by this name” (60). So, too, the Reformers and their followers rightly focussed on Jesus Christ “as a bright, clear mirror of the eternal and hidden election of God” (Calvin; 61). We see in Christ, the mirror of our own election, the ground, prototype and essence of all election. Thus,

The elect must look always to Jesus Christ in matters of the election because whoever is elected is elected in Christ and only Christ. But if this is so, then it is settled conclusively that no one can ever seek the basis of election in himself, because no one is ever elected in himself or for the sake of himself or finally of himself. … It is not in man himself or in the work of man that the basis of election must be sought. It is in this other person who is the person of God himself in the flesh. It is in the work of this other person: a work which comes to man and comes upon man from without; a work which is quite different from anything that he himself is or does. Man and his decision follow the decision which is already made before him, without him and against him; the decision which is not made in himself at all, but is made concerning him in this wholly other person. And as he recognises this, he recognises in truth the meaning and nature of the divine election: that it is the essence of divine favour. He recognises, too, the meaning and nature of the doctrine of election: that it is the sum of the gospel (62).

This section is of particular interest, not only because Barth pre-empts his later discussion of Arminianism. His biblical orientation and hermeneutics are on clear display in his discussion of the Old Testament, and in his interaction with and extensive citation of the Reformers Barth skilfully identifies the main lines of the tradition, affirming where he can and also setting the framework for the critical question and observation he will go on to make.

Worship on Sunday

Every once in a while I am invited to preach at Mt Hawthorn Baptist Church here in Perth, something I always enjoy. The worship leader there, Gordo,  is a passionate guy who plays a fabulous bluesy guitar, and it seems that, each time I have been there, he includes this old hymn in the service. Last time I was there I challenged him in front of the congregation, “So, what does Ebenezer mean anyway?” He rose to the challenge coming straight back with his answer: “It’s a pile of stones, meant in the Old Testament as a memorial to God, usually remembering some great thing God did, or one’s commitment to God.” Great stuff!

I love the third verse, especially, and these lines always hit close to home:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

This version is not as good as the Mt Hawthorn version, especially when the whole congregation is in full voice, but it will have to do!

Some Favourite Lines

Illustration by Andy Friedman in the New Yorker,

Not everyone thinks Bob Dylan should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I don’t mind. I have enjoyed and listened to his music for many decades now. It is impossible to choose a favourite song or lyric, but here are a sample, with the best bits in italics…

From: Blowin’ in the Wind
How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

From: My Back Pages
A self-ordained professor’s tongue
Too serious to fool
Spouted out that liberty
Is just equality in school
“Equality,” I spoke the word
As if a wedding vow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

From: A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
Oh, who did you meet, my blue-eyed son?
Who did you meet, my darling young one?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

From: With God on Our Side
Through many dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side

So now as I’m leavin’
I’m weary as Hell
The confusion I’m feelin’
Ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God’s on our side
He’ll stop the next war

From: Mr Tambourine Man
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

From: Desolation Row
Now Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row…

They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words

The Whole Song: Ring Them Bells
Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
’Cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world’s on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride

Ring them bells St. Peter
Where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow

Ring them bells Sweet Martha
For the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know
That God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep

Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells, for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies

Ring them bells St. Catherine
From the top of the room
Ring them from the fortress
For the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong

From: Its Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleedin’
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark
Easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

From: Forever Young
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.


table-fellowshipSeveral years I gave my Introduction to Theology class an assignment on the Lord’s Supper. They were to explore biblical, theological and contemporary perspectives and conclude with their own hopefully-now-informed view. One student wrote a fine paper on the topic and then appended to her essay a poem she had written while reflecting on the material she was studying. I was delighted with Nicki Bowles’ poem. I hope you enjoy it as I did.


Bread of the earth
I smell you and see your substance
I reach out my hand and touch you
I break you, smell you, taste you…

I close my eyes
You are before me
I see your broken body
And the light as it fades from your eyes
I smell fear, and blood
I hear jeers and cries of pain
I reach out my hand and touch you
Your bowed head, your mangled hands
You are there, broken, and I take you in

I turn and see you — there, again!
You sit at a table
A feast laid out before you
I smell incense, the aroma of food
I see the light dance in your eyes
And your dear face smiling
I reach out my hand and touch you
Your energy pulses through me
You are here, alive, and I am with you

The bread
The sacrifice
The life
All so real
I take them in
And I am changed…

© 2012 Nicola Bowles

Reading Karl Barth on Election (5)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:44-51, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Barth names the fourth inadequate foundation for the doctrine of election as a doctrine which begins with a view of God in terms of omnipotent will. God is wrongly conceived if viewed as absolute power, and God’s election is also wrongly conceived if viewed as a sub-set of a thorough-going determinism in which God is viewed as the almighty causative agent of every happening. Certainly, for Barth, God is almighty but God’s divinity is not considered in abstraction from election. Indeed, his election is the context within which we conceive of his divinity and providence. The god of absolute power is not the God of Scripture (44-45).

Barth identifies the tendency to subordinate election as one moment in an overarching providence in Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and Zwingli. It is to Calvin’s credit that he broke with this tradition, treating providence together with creation, and predestination as the climax of the grace of God revealed and active in Jesus Christ. However, “that predestination should not only be subordinate to providence but superior to it was apparently not what Calvin intended” (46). Thus, Calvin’s followers again returned to the former tradition in which the ruling concept of the doctrine of election became once more, that of an “absolutely free divine disposing” (46). Barth cites extensively from the recently published volume by Boettner to show the contemporary continuation of this approach, which he attributes to Gomarus rather than Calvin (47).

Barth rejects this approach: “latet periculum in generalibus” (‘danger lurks in generalities!’; 48).

Once again we must say that use has been made here of a presupposition which is not so self-evident as it makes itself out to be. Recourse has been had here to an apparent movement in formal logic from the general to the particular, without any demonstration whether or not such a procedure corresponds to the specific logic of this subject. … If [the doctrine of election] is grounded upon the logical necessity of the free and omnipotent divine will active both in general matters and in particular, both in the world as a whole and also in relation to the salvation and damnation of man, this means that it is…abstractly grounded so far as concerns the electing God (48).

For Barth, the electing God must be properly identified, not abstracted from a general theory of deity. God is sovereign and does indeed rule, but as the one God has self-determined himself to be, in the concrete limitation of his being as given in this election, the particular God known in his self-revelation. Thus,

The true God is the One whose freedom and love have nothing to do with abstract absoluteness or naked sovereignty, but who in His love and freedom has determined and limited Himself to be God in particular and not in general, and only as such to be omnipotent and sovereign and the possessor of all other perfections (49).

If God is viewed abstractly in terms of absolute power and omnipotent will, not only is he viewed in a manner distinct from his self-revelation and the testimony of Scripture (49), it is difficult to escape the danger of portraying God as a tyrant, and of understanding his rule as that of absolute caprice (50-51).

Infinite power in an infinite sphere is rather the characteristic of the government of ungodly and anti-godly courts. God Himself rules in a definite sphere and with a definite power. What makes Him the divine Ruler is the very fact that His rule is determined and limited: self-determined and self-limited, but determined and limited none the less; and not in the sense that His caprice as such constitutes His divine being and therefore the principle of His world-government, but in such a way that He has concretely determined and limited Himself after the manner of a true king (and not of a tyrant); in such a way, then, that we can never expect any decisions from God except those which rest upon this concrete determination and limitation of His being, upon this primal decision made in His eternal being; decisions, then, which are always in direct line with this primal decision, and not somewhere to right or lift of it in an infinite sphere (50).

It is impossible to read these comments written in the early 1940s without hearing veiled references to the absolutist tyranny of Hitler’s Third Reich. Although God is indeed Almighty, his rule is not to be confused with the absolutist pretensions that marked Hitler’s rule. In the decision of election God has determined his being to be God only in a particular way.

Some Books Cost Too Much

the-missions-of-james-peter-and-paul-tensions-in-early-christianityWhile reading a commentary on James I came across references to Chilton & Evans (eds.), The Missions of James, Peter & Paul: Tensions in Early Christianity. It looked interesting enough for me to look for it on Google, check the table of contents, and look at a review. The review by Pieter Lallemann was not too complimentary:

This sequel to James the Just ( 1999) contains 16 essays by 10 scholars who set out to consider the three missions against their Jewish backgrounds. In two contributions Jacob Neusner presents much rabbinic material for comparison and then uses this to maximize the differences between James and Paul. Richard Bauckham likewise takes his point of departure in Jewish material—views on the impurity of Gentiles—but he rather uses it to argue for basic agreement between, and the historicity of. Gal. 2 and Acts 11 and 15. This is the essay to which I would give pride of place. It is comprehensive and convincing. In the following essay John Painter goes over much the same ground and also involves Matthew in the comparison, to draw conclusions which differ markedly from Bauckham’s.

Two very useful studies discuss archaeological evidence: Marcus Bockmuehl on Bethsaida and its connections with Simon Peter; Evans on Peter, James and contemporary burial practices. There are straightforward comparisons of the attitudes of Paul and James to such issues as the use of rhetoric (Painter), judgment (Marianne Sawicki), charity, riches and poverty (Peter Davids), and suffering (Davids). Chilton argues—I think unconvincingly—that James was a Nazirite. The contributors differ in their assessment of the value and reliability of the accounts in Acts 11 and I5, and as to whether the Epistle of James primarily has a Jewish (Davids again) or a Hellenistic (Wiard Popkes) background. The volume is presented as the outcome of several conferences (p. 211), but there are neither responses nor summaries, the essays do not interact and are not even cross-referenced. It would have profited immensely from some real editing. Its price would lead us to expect just that (JSNT 28:5 (2006), 16).

Still, our library did not have it and I thought it could be a useful addition. Until I checked the price: A$309.31 (freight-free). Ai-ai-ai! The book is hardback, over 500 pages in length, and published by Brill; nevertheless, some books just cost too much!

It may be more than a little bit naughty, but for anyone interested, I also found a PDF copy online which I have dutifully saved…

The Blood of His Cross (8) – Leviticus 17:11


Leviticus 17:10-11    
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.

On a cold April morning the young boy with his fishing rod ran across the busy road intent, I suppose, on reaching shelter from the sheeting rain. He was only about twelve years of age, and I was the first to reach him after the car hit him. He was unconscious and blood was folding out from his head like cake-mix into a baking dish. Another man arrived and took charge. A car pulled up to look and the man barked, “Call an ambulance! Quick!” Off they sped to find a phone. “We’ve got to stop the blood.” I had a wad of tissues in my jacket pocket and pulled them out. “Will these help?” He grabbed them and applied them to the boy’s head, pressing the sides of the wound together. We waited, together, in the rain, for the ambulance to arrive. The boy was still unconscious but still alive when they took him. Whether he lived, I do not know, but I think so. I checked the newspapers for days afterward to see if there were any deaths on the roads. There were no reports.

“The life of the flesh is in the blood.” We ought think of the image of blood in this verse not as holding some mystical or magical property of life, but as a metonymy or symbol for life. Had the boy’s blood continued to leave his body, he would certainly have died. Without blood, there is no life. The ancients, too, recognised and understood this.

The laws in Leviticus 17 have to do with the killing, sacrificing, and eating of animals, with a particularly strong prohibition on the eating of blood (vv. 10, 12, 14; see Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [NICOT], 244-245). Domesticated animals—the ox, the sheep and the goat—are to be killed only at the tabernacle, and their blood offered to the Lord. Those who kill such an animal elsewhere are guilty of shedding blood (4). Although the primary concern of the passage is idolatry and irregular sacrifice, the inherent value of the animal also is clear in this passage: its blood—its life—is sacred and valued. Other animals may be hunted for food, but still the blood must not be eaten (13-14).

The twofold reason for this prohibition is found in verse 11: the life of the creature is in the blood, and therefore God has given the blood for making atonement upon the altar. Because the text names the blood as the life, some commentators consider that God is commanding the Israelites to make an offering of life to God, as though the power of the life that is in the animal’s blood is sufficient to cleanse the worshipper (see the discussion in Emile Nicole, “Atonement in the Pentateuch” in Hill & James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement, 38-40). It seems to me that this imaginative interpretation is too literal, too unimaginative, and so precisely the opposite of what the text intends. It is not some property of life in the blood itself, but the death of the animal, the loss of its life which is splashed against the altar, and which makes atonement.

The Hebrew word for atonement kipper, can mean ‘to wipe clean,’ or ‘to pay a ransom’ (Wenham, 59). What sense is intended in this text? Does the blood offered cleanse or ransom the worshipper? Is the action of sacrifice directed toward the worshipper or towards God? If it is the death of the animal which is offered to God, ransom is the better interpretation, the death of the animal standing in for the death of the worshipper.

This seems to be what Lev. 17:11 has in view, “I have given the blood to make atonement (lit. ‘to ransom’) for your lives, for the blood makes atonement (ransoms) at the price of a life.” It is this interpretation that seems to fit the burnt offering best. God in his mercy allowed sinful man to offer a ransom payment for sins, so that he escaped the death penalty his iniquities merit (Wenham, 61).

Roy Gane concurs: “Leviticus 17:11 is unique in the Hebrew Bible in that it explicitly assigns sacrificial blood the function of ransoming human life” (Leviticus, Numbers [NIVAC], 304, original emphasis).

Many scholars object to this interpretation, which as Wenham notes, presupposes a propitiatory understanding of sacrifice: “the burnt offering does not remove sin or change man’s sinful nature, but it makes fellowship between sinful man and a holy God possible. It propitiates God’s wrath against sin” (57). Emile Nicole discusses a range of exegetical and theoretical objections to this substitutionary interpretation of Leviticus 17:11. He acknowledges the validity of the major objections, but shows they can be adequately addressed clearing the way for a substitutionary interpretation.

Whatever the problems of grammatical vocabulary, such as bêt-pretii, a substitutionary use of the preposition is rather well documented. The absence of other occurrences of such a construction with the verb kipper is not an insurmountable obstacle. … the poured-out life (dām) of the sacrificial victim is substituted for the life of the worshiper (39, 40, original emphasis).

Nicole also argues that the cleansing or forgiveness of the worshipper was on the basis of the ransom provided: “in kipper rites, purification cannot be disconnected from compensation: through compensation given to God, purification and forgiveness were granted” (48). Such a view preserves both the propitiatory and expiatory aspects of atonement, while establishing the latter upon the former. The sinner is cleansed and forgiven because the divine wrath has been turned aside and reconciliation enacted.

Leviticus 17:11 thus brings to the fore a general principle underlying the whole OT sacrificial system, whose practical carrying out was limited by the concern for the seriousness of sin, the freedom of God’s forgiveness and the will not to reduce the moral dimension of human life to the mere repetition of a ritual (Nicole, 44).

That is, the sacrificial system did not atone for or cover major, deliberate sins. It was not a trivialising of sin or of God’s holiness and goodness. It emphasised and reminded the sinner of their sin and their need for forgiveness, and of the moral nature of human life. Yet atonement could be made and sin forgiven. Even capital sins could find forgiveness, as David experienced, because God is merciful. But sin could never be trivialised nor forgiveness presumed. Its penalty was death.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (4)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:34-44, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

In the second sub-section of Barth’s prologue to the doctrine of election, he considers the source and foundation of the doctrine. He begins by identifying four insufficient bases for the doctrine including simple repetition of the tradition, the utility or usefulness of the doctrine, Christian experience, and a focus on the omnipotent divine will. Of these, Barth focuses especially on the third and fourth items which although wrong in form (52), are yet somewhat correct in intent or substance, in that they at least direct their attention to the elect person and the electing God. Barth declares his methodological hand early:

We must at this point recall the basic rule of all Church dogmatics: that no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as a part of the responsibility laid upon the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. Thus the doctrine of election cannot legitimately be understood or represented except in the form of an exposition of what God Himself has said and still says concerning Himself. It cannot and must not look to anything but the Word of God, nor set before it anything but the truth and reality of that Word (35).

Barth does not reject tradition, of course, but insists that it cannot be the subject and norm of dogmatic effort. Rather its function is to serve the Word.

But we shall be doing Calvin the most fitting honour if we go the way that he went and start where he started. And according to his own most earnest protestations, he did not start with himself, nor with his system, but with Holy Scripture as interpreted in his system. It is to Scripture that we must again address ourselves, not refusing to learn from that system, but never as ‘Calvinists without reserve.’ And it is to Scripture alone that we must ultimately be responsible (36).

In turning to Scripture, however, care must be exercised lest Scripture be misused:

Is it right to go to the Bible with a question dictated to us by experience, i.e., with a presupposition which has only an empirical basis, in order then to understand the statements of the Bible as an answer to this question, which means chiefly as a confirmation of the presupposition which underlies the question? … If it is to be a question of the divine judgment, as it must be in dealing with the doctrine of election, then Scripture must not be brought in simply as an interpretation of the facts of the case as given by our own judgment. The very facts which we consider must be sought not in the realm of our experience but in Scripture, or rather in the self-revelation of God attested in Scripture (38).

Barth insists that the doctrine of election cannot be read off our experience of the results of gospel proclamation and human response. Such an approach not only is a misuse of Scripture but presumes that the judgement of human experience is equivalent with divine judgement. Barth’s discussion in this matter, then, is a decisive repudiation of Calvin’s approach (39-41), whom he accuses of feeling very competent to distinguish “if not the reprobate, at least the stupid and deceived and wicked who in that age formed so distressingly large a majority of men” (40).

The fact which above all others inspired Calvin, and was thus decisive for the formation of his doctrine, was not at all the contrast between the Church on the one hand, and on the other the heathen world entirely unreached by the Gospel. … Again, it was not the positive observation that at all times the Gospel has both reached so many externally and also seemed to prevail over them internally. … [but] that other fact of experience which excites both pain and anger, the fact of the opposition, the indifference, the hypocrisy and the self-deception with which the Word of God is received by so many of those who hear it (80 per cent, according to the estimate there given). And it is this limiting experience, the negative in conjunction with the positive, which is obviously the decisive factor as Calvin thought he must see it. It was out of this presupposition, laid down with axiomatic certainty, that there arose for him the magnae et arduae quaestiones [great and difficult questions] for which he saw an answer in what he found to be the teaching of Scripture (39-40).

Behind this approach is a presupposition that election concerns God’s eternal and decisive foreordination of every individual in their private relation to God, which is then understood, on the basis of experience, in terms of election and rejection. Although Barth accepts that every person does indeed stand in a private and individual relation to God, and that this relation is indeed decisively determined by God’s election, he nevertheless rejects the presupposition that election is focussed first and primarily on the individual, and the corollary idea that each individual’s private relation to God is thereby unalterably established and determined in advance. God’s election is gracious and free, focussed specifically and primarily on Jesus Christ and his people, and only then on the individual (41-44). The great danger, Barth suggests, is that reading divine election from our experience of the fruitfulness or otherwise of the proclamation of the gospel will result in a portrayal of the electing God who resembles “far too closely the electing, and more particularly the rejecting theologian”! (41)

The Blood of His Cross (7) – Vanhoozer (ii, cont’d)

agnusdeiVanhoozer accepts several aspects of the postmodern critique of atonement theology, especially the temptation to reduce atonement to one description of its intent and efficacy. “We need a way to think non-reductively about the cross” (397). No theory of the cross is adequate in itself, and all the theories together, will not exhaust the meaning and mystery that is the cross. In a typically amusing and insightful quip, Vanhoozer suggests that,

Some atonement theories may, ironically, partake more of what Luther called the ‘theology of glory’—a trust in human reason to find out the ways of God—than they do the ‘theology of the cross.’ The cross represents a powerful critique of attempts to ‘explain’ God as well as attempts to make oneself right before God (401-402).

Thus Vanhoozer also appreciates the postmodern emphasis on ‘excess’—the cross is a case of how much more (Romans 5:9), always and forever exceeding our understanding of its depths and effects. Nevertheless, Vanhoozer’s non-reductive reading of the cross cuts both ways, and he challenges the postmodern temptation to reduce the biblical testimony of the divine work at the cross to a work only of God’s love and not also of his justice, or to an exemplary rather than also an objective work of God on our behalf.

Vanhoozer’s theology of the atonement circles around several key features. First, he insists that the atonement must be understood within the economies of grace and covenant rather than an economy of exchange. God did not have to do anything; “there is no causal explanation for grace” (396). What God did do was give himself, a gift of gratuitous love beyond all reason. The death of Jesus must be understood in terms of Old Testament covenantal categories of exodus (liberation), exile (punishment), and restoration and return (reconciliation). Thus Jesus’ death includes both legal and relational aspects, both punitive/retributive and expiatory/ liberational aspects; these polarities must not be reduced on the one side or the other.

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mk 14:24). … What Jesus is claiming in the Last Supper is that his broken body and shed blood are the place where sin is dealt with…making possible life in the presence of God. … The shed blood is a sign that God has proved this covenant faithfulness precisely by undergoing the sanctions, legal and relational, for covenant disobedience (398, original emphasis).

Second, Vanhoozer insists that a doctrine of the atonement must give equal ultimacy to both God’s love and God’s light (his justice and holiness):

The death of Jesus represents both the excess that is constitutive of the gift (love), and the excess that is constitutive of one’s ethical duty towards another (justice, as understood by postmoderns). God’s reconciling act in the death of Christ was ‘excessive.’ In loving his enemies (Rom. 5:10), God brings his covenant partner to justice, not simply retribution. … God did not merely compensate for human sin; he did more. He did not simply make up sin’s deficit; he destroyed it. The New Testament, of course, knows this ‘excess’ by its proper covenantal name: grace. … The economy of covenantal grace is not exhausted by the logic of penal substitution even though the latter has a legitimate place (403-404).

Third, Vanhoozer’s understanding of the atonement is necessarily substitutionary: “Substitution is the principle that best corresponds to the preposition (hyper); God pours himself out for us, not in an economic exchange, but in an excess of justice and love” (403, slightly altered). Substitution is a necessary if not sufficient condition for understanding the biblical testimony to the death of Christ. Jesus died for us.

Finally, Jesus’ death is excessive, an economy of eschatological promise, gift and blessing whereby his death issues in the gift of the Holy Spirit—God’s self-gift to the believer—which bursts the limits of an economy of exchange and calls forth the free subjective response of the believer.

Jesus gives his body and blood for us, and in return we receive his Spirit, the operative principle of the new covenant and of the new age. Jesus’ death both creates and cleanses a new temple, the people of God. … Jesus’ death on the cross is a new exodus, a new Passover supper, a new return from exile, an entry into a new kind of promised land, a building of a new and better temple. God reconciles the world to himself by providing his own Son as a substitute for the exile that should be ours. Jesus is God’s gift, the goat that bears our guilt—the covenantal curse, separation from the promises of God—who in doing so enables our covenant restoration. Jesus’ death on the cross is at once an exodus and an exile, the condition of the possibility of our entry to the promised land of the Holy Spirit (399, original emphasis).

The Blood of His Cross (7) – Vanhoozer (ii)

agnusdeiKevin Vanhoozer’s essay “The Atonement in Postmodernity: Guilt, Goats and Gifts” (in Hill & James (eds), The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological & Practical Perspectives, 367-404) responds to postmodern critiques of atonement theories generally, and the penal substitutionary theory of atonement specifically. For some postmodern theorists, atonement theories seeking to understand and explicate the death of Jesus are problematic on two fronts: first they are reductionist, attempting to ‘control’ the biblical material that witnesses to the death of Christ, and hence second, are violent, imposing a ‘system’ on this material.

The scandal of the cross, for postmoderns, is that theory reduces otherness precisely by explaining it. Postmoderns might say that we need to recover the scandal—the paradox, the ‘aporia’—of the cross through a ‘sacrifice’ of the intellect, acknowledging that conceptual thinking has here reached its limit, its death. … The challenge for theology is to ‘theorize’ the cross (i.e., in a doctrinal formulation) while simultaneously respecting it (i.e., as an ‘other’ that eludes our conceptual grasp). The problem is that theologies of the atonement seem unable to articulate a theory that explains the saving significance of Jesus’ death without betraying the rich testimonies to the event of his death (369, original emphasis).

With respect to penal substitution, the problem is not simply the attempt to render an explanation of the saving significance of Jesus’ death, but the content of the doctrine is also abhorrent: it is thought to legitimise personal and social violence by portraying God as violent, and thereby legitimising a view, practice, and system of retributive—violent—“justice.”

Hence, the scandal of the cross is not metaphysical (how could God suffer and die?) but moral: Does God need to be placated before he can love and forgive? Is God party to an economy of retaliatory exchange? (372, original emphasis).

The idea of atonement as a form of exchange is repudiated by postmoderns: “The operative concept in postmodern theological understandings of the atonement is excess, not exchange. The death of Jesus exceeds our attempts to explain it” (396, original emphasis). God, in this view, does not maintain a ‘moral’ or ‘legal’ economy in which every wrongdoing attracts a penalty of retribution, for retribution alone is not transformative (378).

Vanhoozer examines Girard’s theory that Jesus’ death was as the scapegoat that unmasked the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ which functions at the heart and foundation of every society, culture and institution. The scapegoat mechanism, according to Girard, secures the peace of a particular group by assigning blame and violent retribution to a third party, a victim which by its sacrifice saves the group from tearing itself apart. By taking the place of the scapegoat, Jesus unmasked and repudiated this sacred sacrificial violence. His death was not a sacrifice for us, but rather his exemplary death shows that pattern of divine love which submits to human violence in order to absorb and transcend it.

Jesus’ suffering and death were necessary because of the world’s inability to free itself from the cycle of rivalry and violence, not because God’s justice demanded death. … The death of Christ is thus a unique breakthrough, a decisive event in the history of human consciousness. The purpose of his death is to end all scapegoating, all sacrifices (387).

Postmodern theorists and theologians have also questioned the ‘economy of the gift’ (Vanhoozer discusses Milbank, Derrida, Marion, and Ricoeur):

As soon as we give something to someone, we put that person in our debt, thus taking, not giving. The gift disappears in a web of calculation, interest and measure. Such is the aporia of the gift, according to Derrida. It cannot be given without creating an economy of debt (392, original emphasis).

So long as the gift of God is viewed as part of an economy of debt or exchange, God is implicated in a dubious and oppressive system. But the idea of gift need not be reduced to a system of exchange in which the gift issues in debt and duty. Rather, a gift may exceed all expectations:

Ricoeur especially wants us to get beyond the ‘moral vision,’ together with its economy of retribution and logic of equivalence, in order to perceive the ‘eschatological vision,’ with its economy of restoration and its logic of extravagant excess. The moral vision is guilty, Ricoeur thinks, of an overly literalistic reading. … It is only by interpreting within the old economy of law, where the loss of an eye demands exact compensation (another eye), that we arrive at the notion of penal substitution theory of atonement. … In Ricoeur’s view, the doctrine of atonement belongs, not in an economy of crime and punishment, but in a hyper-economy of gift and grace (395-396).

Continued tomorrow…