Category Archives: Theology

New Book by Carolyn Tan

Congratulations to Carolyn Tan on the publication of her book, The Spirit at the Cross.

What was the Holy Spirit doing at the cross of Jesus Christ? Jesus’ death and resurrection are central to God’s reconciliation with humanity. Does the Holy Spirit’s work pause between Gethsemane and the resurrection? What does the phrase “through the eternal Spirit” in Hebrews 9:14 mean? In this book, Carolyn Tan examines the perspectives of John Vernon Taylor, Jürgen Moltmann, and John D. Zizioulas, from whom three views of the Spirit’s role at the cross are discerned: the Spirit as the “bond of love” between the Father and the Son; the Spirit as the Son’s coworker, enabler, and power; and the Spirit as the unifier who unites humanity to the Son. In addition, Karl Barth provides the intriguing concept of the Spirit as divine Judge (along with the Father and the Son) and specifically the one who carries out God’s judgment in Jesus Christ, the Elect. Integrating these theological perspectives with an in-depth examination of the manuscript and exegetical and hermeneutical history of Hebrews 9:14, Tan offers another way of understanding the role of the Spirit at the cross: Christ as the Father’s “pneumatic crucible” in whom sinful humanity is judged, destroyed, and reborn through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Carolyn worked extraordinarily hard over many years as she researched and considered this important question. Her book is significant for several reasons. First, the question itself is theologically and biblically important; what was the Spirit doing at the cross? Second it is important because of the way that Carolyn has engaged prominent theologians from different traditions as assistants in her exploration. This gives the book a substantial and respectful ecumentical flavour. Third, the book is important because Carolyn answers her question, and provides a powerful and carefully argued answer to her primary question. The Holy Spirit was present and active at the cross in surprising, gracious and transformative ways.

The argument of this book deserves a wide and careful reading, and I highly recommend it. You can purchase the book from Wipf and Stock.

The Christian’s Political Duty (10 Theses)

Last week I posted on Barth’s “conversation” at the Zofingia Student Association meeting on June 3, 1959. At this meeting Barth addressed the questions put to him, What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance? He responded with 10 theses as follows:

  1. The Christian is witness to the kingdom of God (= basileia) that has come in Jesus Christ and is still to be revealed in him.
  2. As a witness of the kingdom of God, the Christian is first and foremost a citizen of this kingdom.
  3. The Christian lives in each particular time and situation also as a citizen of a state in one of its different and changing forms.
  4. The Christian acknowledges the kingdom of God in the provisional order of God for the establishment and preservation of relative justice, relative freedom, and relative peace in his state.
  5. The Christian does not mistake the state, in any of its many forms, for the kingdom of God.
  6. The Christian does not fear or deny the state in any of its many forms, because each state contains something divine.
  7. In view of the kingdom of God, the Christian distinguishes between forms of the state insofar as they more or less correspond to the divine appointment.
  8. The Christian, as a citizen of the state, bears witness to the kingdom of God, insofar as he decides in each case for the more appropriate form of the state, meaning the more righteous form.
  9. The Christian decides about the preferable form of the state as well as about the form of his support for it, with a new, free orientation toward the kingdom of God in each particular time and situation.
  10. The Christian is always obligated to assume the particular political stance and action that correspond to his reflection on the kingdom of God (“Conversation in the Zofingia 1 (1959)” in Busch ed. Barth in Conversation Vol. 1, 1959-1962, 2-5).

The first three theses are uncontroversial. The wording of the fourth is a little obscure, but is simply declaring that the state is a divinely ordained institution for the establishment of (a relative) justice, freedom, and peace in human society. This, too, is uncontroversial as is thesis five. The sixth thesis is controversial, especially Barth’s assertion that every form of the state contains “something divine.” One immediately thinks of his own repudiation of Nazism in the 1930s. In his comment on this thesis Barth argued:

Ancient Christianity existed even in Nero’s empire. There is no anti-Christian state, and there is no civitas diaboli. The Christian is therefore protected against political scepticism or political despair. A Christian will affirm the state in each form. He distinguishes [certainly between better and worse forms of the state, but he does so] while never pronouncing an absolute yes or no. Therefore [since “each state contains something divine,”] he [the Christian] is not forced [or justified] to take a stance of neutrality [toward the state]. [Rather] he distinguishes between states of lesser or greater justice (4).

It may be that the “something divine” is nothing more than its institution as a state. It seems, though, that despite Barth obviously making a comment about the nature of every state—and about divine sovereignty, his intent is to describe the Christian’s posture toward the state; there is no room for scepticism, despair, or neutrality. A state cannot be proclaimed absolutely evil or just, but must be distinguished according to its relative degree of justice, and according to thesis seven, the canon for this assessment is the kingdom of God.

Theses eight and nine form a pair, with the Christian deciding in each case for the more appropriate form of the state and the nature of their support for that more appropriate form. They are not bound to traditions, conventions, concepts of natural law, or other approaches of response to the state. They may, of course, resort to such ways of response, but are free in each situation to evaluate the state in the light of the kingdom of God, and respond appropriately. Nor is the Christian required by God, theology, the church, or Scripture to support only this kind of state, or that. Nor is the Christian’s posture toward the state always critical: “it is possible for him to work actively within a dictatorship: for example, by enduring, by waiting in the quiet hope that the trees will not grow sky-high, or even by cooperating (more or less)” (4). This liberty—Barth’s refusal to prescribe a Christian posture or mode of action—is also the theme of the final thesis. The Christian must always take a stance; the Christian must always act, but they are free to do so in accordance with their own reflection on the kingdom of God. In this, “the Christian has . . . no choice, but rather only one possibility: the stance that he has been commanded to take” (5).

It is clear that in the final theses Barth applies his theology of the divine command to the Christian as citizen. Also clear, is that he is thinking as much about the believers in the communist east as he was in the democratic west. His answer to the two key questions asked: What are the role and duties of the Christian as a political citizen? Does Christianity commit the citizen to a certain political stance? are that (a) the Christian is to witness to the kingdom of God within each particular form of the state, including the support of justice, freedom, and peace in human society as an analogue of that kingdom; and (b) no, the Christian is not committed to a pre-determined political stance, but are always to act in accordance with their (no doubt theologically-informed) understanding of the kingdom of God.

The 2019 Annual Vose Lecture

On August 2, 2019 Ben Witherington III delivered the Annual Vose Lecture on the theme, “A Singular Jesus in a Pluralistic Culture.” In essence, the lecture was an applied New Testament apologetics within a Wesleyan Evangelical framework of thought. Witherington explored Jesus’ self-understanding as reported in the gospels, assessing the historical worth of this portrayal, and arguing that an incarnational understanding of Jesus is a necessary deduction from the New Testament data, and the foundation of Christian witness in a pluralistic context.

Witherington began by identifying two well-known key phrases in the ministry of the historical Jesus: his use of the title “Son of Man,” and his use of the imagery and language of “the kingdom of God.” He argued that these two concepts appear together in only one Old Testament text: Daniel 7:13-14, with the additional note that in vv. 25-27 the kingdom is given to the saints. Witherington argued that Jesus believed that he was both divine and human, and that he used the Son of Man title to indicate this. The title encompasses the fullness of Jesus’ person. As many other scholars have also argued, Jesus selected this relatively obscure title to set himself forth on his own terms, and in so doing, avoided other terms loaded with contemporary pre-conceptions and significance which were antithetical to the message he sought to communicate.

Turning to the issue of pluralism, Witherington insists that the Christian claim of Jesus’ uniqueness and supremacy is not about the wisdom or value of other cultures or their beliefs, but about the central question and reality of salvation. Jesus’ claim was unique, as was his death and resurrection, and his relationship with the Father. He was also sinless although Witherington, applying his Wesleyan framework to Christology, argues that Jesus could have sinned but did not. Jesus’ incarnation was a genuine embrace of a fully human life with all its limitations and possibilities. He was certainly tempted to use his divine powers (e.g. to turn stones into bread) but did not, for he did not access the inherent divinity of his person. His life was one of divine self-limitation without any aspect of loss of the divine being.

This was much more a popular than an academic lecture and much appreciated, especially by the ordinary church-goers who made up a sizable chunk of the audience. Witherington presented a thoroughly Evangelical account of apologetics grounded in substantial New Testament theology. The lecture both supported and called for a robust confidence in the gospel on the part of everyday believers as they encounter the challenge to faith in Jesus Christ in a culture that espouses the equivalence of just about any and all worldviews, spiritualities, and perspectives.

On Saturday morning following the public lecture, Ben Witherington addressed a second more academic lecture to another audience on the theme of “Paul, Covenantal Theology, and the Law.” In this thoughtful and thought-provoking lecture Witherington insisted that the Law must be understood within its Old Testament / Ancient Near Eastern context, that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of both grace and law—and indeed all the biblical covenants had this feature. The New Covenant was not a renewal of the Old Covenant, i.e. as one covenant with diverse administrations, but was an entirely new covenant.

Witherington explored in some detail key New Testament texts such as 2 Corinthians 3, Galatians 4:1-8, Philippians 3: 4-8, before turning his attention especially to Romans (something we asked him to do). There he explored Paul’s thought in Romans 10; 7:7-25; and 8:1-4. He argues that Paul considered that the Law was a temporary arrangement for Israel (the paidagōgos or “child-minder”) until they should come “to maturity.” The believer has been set free from sin and death, and so also from the Law. Thus they are not under the Law of Moses, but under the Law of Christ.

Both lectures were followed by a lively Question & Answer session, and by ongoing conversation after the formalities were concluded. It was a privilege to have such an accomplished New Testament exegete and commentator visit Vose Seminary and bring the wealth of his learning to our community. Further, Ben Witherington’s Wesleyan commitments also brought a fresh flavour to the lectures; it is not that often that this perspective has been so competently and enthusiastically presented and defended (in my experience at least) in Perth in recent years. Despite his great learning, massive literary output, and global stature, Ben wore his learning lightly. I am sure that those who attended the lectures were certainly enriched by what he presented. This was the third Annual Vose Lecture, and a very fine addition to this growing heritage.

“Slow Conversion”

A brief article I wrote has been published in the Western Australian Churches of Christ journal On Mission Journal. My article is on the idea of Slow Conversion, based on the Patristic practice of the catechumenate, and is a ‘practical’ adaption of my longer recent article on baptism in the Pacific Journal of Theological Research.

I am also happy to report that at least three other articles in the issue are written by Vose Seminary graduates or students, Amit Khaira, Molly Lewin and Terry Nightingale.

Galli, Karl Barth for Evangelicals (Review)

Mark Galli, Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals 
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). Pp. xvi + 176. 
ISBN: 978-0-8028-6939-5

Mark Galli entitles his recent book on Karl Barth an ‘introductory biography for evangelicals.’ As a biography it is a faithful though simplified rendering of the broader and deeper story found in Eberhard Busch’s Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (1976), upon which it draws heavily. With respect to his intended audience, Galli is writing specifically for evangelical Christians, not as a Barth specialist, but as an appreciative student and fellow-traveller.

Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, has written his book to reintroduce Karl Barth to evangelicals for two reasons. First, initial evangelical introductions to Barth’s theology ‘got him wrong’ (6) with the result that a deep distrust developed among (especially North American) evangelicals so that even today his work is often ignored or dismissed by them (2). Nonetheless, the reception of Barth among evangelical theologians is now changing and it is only a matter of time, Galli suggests, before Barthian theology, ‘however chastened and revised, will make its way down into the pulpit and pews of evangelical churches’ (9). Second, and as a corollary to this, Galli believes that Barth’s insights have much to offer contemporary evangelicalism as they consider afresh what it means to proclaim the gospel and to ‘bear the cost of discipleship in these trying times’ (12).

After the introduction and first chapter provide the rationale for the book, Galli devotes nine chapters to a brief recounting of Barth’s remarkable life from his youth to his retirement years, highlighting his ‘conversion’ from nineteenth-century Liberal theology, his Romans commentaries, his participation in the church’s struggle against Nazism, his political activity in a post-war divided Europe, and his ongoing work on the Church Dogmatics. He considers Barth’s attitude toward Russian communism (‘in retrospect Barth does seem naive on this issue’ (103)), and his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum (‘it was clearly a case of emotional adultery’ (68)).[1] These chapters are supplemented by a further chapter on Barth as ‘preacher and pastor’ which also considers him as a family man, a person of prayer, and the struggles of his old age (‘he suffered from what we would today call depression’ (133)). This is a useful and very accessible biography for those new to Barth.

After the initial chapters of biography Galli has two chapters devoted to Church Dogmatics though in reality they address not the substance or structure of the work itself, but two theological issues of immediate concern to evangelicals: the question of Barth’s concept of the Word of God, especially as it relates to Scripture, and the question of universal reconciliation. In both cases Galli endeavours to provide a ‘larger understanding’ of Barth’s thought with regard to the issue, and with respect to Scripture concludes that ‘given this larger understanding, I don’t know that traditional evangelical theology has much to argue with’ (112). ‘Barth reminds us that Scripture is not something we preserve and manipulate, let alone protect, but the means by which the Word encounters us, preserves us, and, if you will, “manipulates” us—that is, shapes us into the beings we were created to be’ (115-116). Galli remains unsure as to whether Barth’s theology leads inexorably to universal reconciliation, and suggests that ‘insofar as Barth’s doctrines of election and justification move in the direction of universalism, of course, evangelicals rightly reject his views’ (121). Nevertheless he applauds Barth’s ‘fresh approach’ to long-standing theological conundrums, and ‘speaking personally, Barth has helped me talk about the gospel as unquestionable good news…[he] helps me as a teacher and preacher to proclaim good news that is really good news…with no ifs, ands, or buts. No quid pro quo. No qualifications’ (125-126).

In his final chapter ‘“Liberal” Evangelicalism,’ Galli returns to his rationale for writing the book only this time to argue that ‘today, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a liberal and an evangelical’ (141). In a rhetorical flourish he even suggests that ‘Schleiermacher has been born again in evangelicalism’ (144). Galli is clear that contemporary evangelicalism is not the equivalent of nineteenth-century liberalism, but is concerned at the extent it has assimilated much of its ethos, especially its emphasis on religious experience and Ritschlian moralism. For Galli, Karl Barth’s thorough-going battle against liberalism together with his clarion call to hear afresh the Word of God in Jesus Christ, will serve as a salutary summons to evangelicals. At stake, suggests Galli, is the very identity and mission of the church (145). The book concludes with an annotated bibliography useful for those new to Barth, and an index.

Galli notes that Barth ‘wrote his theology…as an attempt to think about Jesus Christ in the context of the challenges and problems of the day. He wanted to model a way of doing theology—grounded in the Bible—more than to champion a particular theology’ (137). If Galli succeeds in his attempt to reintroduce Barth to a new generation of evangelical Christians, students and pastors he will have rendered the movement a great service. While it is quite certain that evangelicals will continue to dispute with Barth over a range of issues, substantial engagement with his theology will assist them as they in their own way also think about Jesus Christ amidst the challenges and problems of the day. One hopes that this little book gains a wide readership amongst its intended audience.

[1] It is worth noting that Galli only became aware of the extent of the relationship and Barth’s justification of it, shortly after the publication of his book. See his comment and reflection at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/what-to-make-of-karl-barths-steadfast-adultery.html.

Ash Barty, Don Bradman, Grace and Virtue

I have enjoyed watching Ash Barty play tennis for several years now, and her win in Paris last weekend—her first Grand Slam title—was the icing on the cake. What is it I like?

To begin, she has extraordinary talent. Ash is a pint-sized giant killer, unafraid to face those taller and stronger than she is, and with impressive trophies already in the cabinet. She has a never-say-die attitude, and seems like she doesn’t know when to quit. If she was the kind to throw in the towel perhaps she might have done so in the Paris Semi-Final against Amanda Anisimova. Barty was up Five–Love in the first and lost it Five–Seven. She was down Three–Love in the second, and it must’ve seemed like a good time to quit. But she did not and went on to win the Semi and then the Final as well. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, she knows it is just a game.

Equally impressive, however, is that she is so down-to-earth, so ordinary in the best sense. With so many egos and prima-donnas strutting around, especially amongst the just-as-talented Australian male players, Ash is refreshingly different. Asked in January whether she really did not fear any of the women on the professional circuit, Ash thought for a moment before responding, “Fear won’t get you anywhere mate.” After she won the Miami Open in March and lifted her world ranking into the top ten she said, “It’s amazing what happens when you put your hopes and dreams out into the universe and do the work, you know? It’s amazing.”

I could be wrong but I don’t think we should take that literally, as though she really believes the ‘universe’ responds to our hopes and dreams—a not uncommon modern idolatry—but more symbolically: decide what you hope for, put yourself out there, do the work, back yourself. Otherwise expressed: put aside fear, focus on your hopes, do the work, see what happens.

So far I have not said anything remotely Christian. But there is grace here too, creational grace at least. In a pre-final interview with her first coach, he recalled meeting her as a very young child and noting that she had hand-eye coordination like no one he had ever seen. But grace does not operate on its own without works—even saving grace. Certainly we are saved without works but in order to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). And Ash Barty has worked. To the natural advantages she gained at birth and in the course of her upbringing she has added hard work, consistent work, probably lonely work many times, unseen work, seemingly unrewarded work, except she has been rewarded, and not merely in winning the French Open: she has become who she is, a better person.

Australian cricket great Don Bradman once said,

When considering the stature of an athlete or for that matter any person, I set great store in certain qualities which I believe to be essential in addition to skill. They are that the person conducts his or her life with dignity, with integrity, with courage, and perhaps most of all, modesty. These virtues are totally compatible with pride, ambition and competitiveness.

Again, Bradman does not refer to grace here, and his comments may reflect an earlier time in Australian life. Far earlier still, Aristotle commended the virtuous life. The measure of one’s life is not merely one’s achievement but the kind of person they have become. If this is true of persons in general it must especially be true of those who are Christians, to whom are given the Beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And remember Peter’s words: ‘Add to your faith, virtue…’ (2 Peter 1:5).

I am indebted to Will Swanton’s article in
The Australian
June 10, 2019 for the citations in this post.

Re-Thinking Baptism

The new edition of the Pacific Journal of Theological Research is now available. I am very pleased to have been part of this issue. It began when I was asked, over a year ago now, to speak at the induction of my friend, Steve Ingram, as the Chair of the Council of Australian Baptist Ministries. Given that so many leaders of the Australian Baptists were to be in the room, I chose to speak on what I considered a significant issue for the future and health of the church. Afterwards, the journal editors agreed to publish the essay, and indeed to devote a themed issue to the topic if we could find additional essays—which we did!

The issue includes my essay in addition to some very good essays by Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Anne Klose of Malyon College in Brisbane, and Frank Rees, former principal of Whitley College in Melbourne. It is well worth reading.

Love, and the Law: A Meditation

And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold
(Matthew 24:12)
.

In my devotional reading this morning, this verse stood out for me, specifically, the relation between love and the law. Many contemporary Protestants think in terms of the incompatibility of love and law, that love and the Law are ‘antithetical.’

But this verse in Matthew suggests we revisit this relation. Matthew is very concerned that we consider the abiding validity of the ancient law: ‘until heaven and earth pass away’ not ‘the smallest stroke or letter shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished’ (Matthew 5:18).  And, of course, scholars continue to debate the meaning of what Jesus meant when he said he came not to abolish but to fulfil the law. Jesus, in Matthew 7:23, also excludes those ‘who practise lawlessness’ from his eschatological salvation (cf. 13:41).

It is clear that in his own life and teaching Jesus was dedicated to the law, although he also interpreted it idiosyncratically, in accordance with the Israelite prophetic tradition, and called his disciples to faithfulness with respect to this vision. He was concerned that they adhere to and practise the ‘weightier matters of the Law’ (Matthew 23:23), while not neglecting the other provisions. His teaching in Matthew 5:21-48 shows that he approaches the Law as instruction that points God’s people toward an understanding of God’s righteousness which is far more demanding than a mere adherence to its various stipulations. It is clear that Jesus also considered some aspects of the law as passé, at least as Mark understood his teaching (see Mark 7:14-23).

All this background should be considered when approaching this verse and its context in Matthew 24. In my meditation this morning it seemed to me that love and the Law are closely integrated with one another, and not at all set in opposition. This is not to say that the law is love, or even that the law can produce the desired love, although the Law certainly commanded God’s people to love their neighbour (Leviticus 19:18), and even the alien amongst them (v. 34). The law regulates human life and society, providing boundaries and restraint for the self. Remove these restraints—let lawlessness increase—and love grows cold, says Jesus. Lawlessness as an ethos, gives free reign to the self, and it is this that is antithetical to love, for love’s first concern is for the other.

Jesus’ words should challenge the kind of Christian antinomianism that finds no place at all for the Law. Frederick Dale Bruner agrees:

One of the best criteria for distinguishing false from true teachers will be the treatment of God’s law: false teachers will reject it, while true teachers will honor it, especially as it is interpreted messianically by Jesus (The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, revised & expanded edition, 488).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (15)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:134-138, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism (#2).

The strength of the supralapsarian position is that the divine decree of election stands at the head of all God’s works, in contrast to the infralapsarian doctrine in which the decree of election is subsumed as it were under the doctrine of providence, following the decree of creation and fall. This view has the effect of placing salvation behind or beneath creation, distinguishing two distinct orders in the divine work. Nevertheless, the infralapsarian position has two advantages. First, the harshness of the supralapsarian position is mitigated somewhat since God elects those who are already and actually fallen; God has not brought humanity into the world in order to fall and so to be damned. Second, this helps avoid the supralapsarian difficulty of making God responsible for the fall and for evil.

The Supralapsarians so exalted the sovereignty of God above everything else that they did not sufficiently appreciate the danger of trying to solve the problem of evil and to rationalise the irrational by making it a constituent element in the divine world-order and therefore a necessity, a part of nature (138).

Nevertheless, each side is also deficient in some way. As already hinted, the supralapsarian view presents a particularly harsh view of the electing God—“the Supralapsarian God threatens to take on the appearance of a demon” (140). Their error was not their desire to “know” more than could be known, but in seeking to know in the wrong place (135). Barth also finds another problem: by making self-glorification the centre and measure of all things, supralapsarianism could and did prepare for a corresponding movement in which human concerns became the centre and measure of all things (137). The direct link between the divine sovereignty and the individual exacerbated this tendency. There is, no doubt, some degree of irony here, that the emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God should issue instead in an emphasis on the absolute centrality of the human. Barth sees this development occurring early in Reformed theology: “What vistas open up and what extremes meet at this point! Is it an accident that A. Heidanus, and even so pronounced a disciple of Coccejus as his son-in-law F. Burmann, were at one and the same time Supralapsarians—and also Cartesians?” (137).

But the weakness of infralapsarianism is even more concerning. First, although their arguments against supralapsarianism “sound well enough, … they are not the arguments of faith” (135). Their objections are “logico-empirical,” applying to God standards taken from the order of human reason (135-136).

But the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ and of the Church is not played out within the framework of a prior and already preceding history of nature and the universe. That is not the picture of the world and history as it is given us in the Bible. According to the Bible, the framework and basis of all temporal occurrence is the history of the covenant between God and man. … It is within this framework that the whole history of nature and the universe plays its specific role, and not the reverse, although logically and empirically the course of things ought to have been the reverse. At this point the Supralapsarians had the courage to draw from the biblical picture of the universe and history the logical deduction in respect of the eternal divine decree. The Infralapsarians did maintain the sequence of the biblical picture in respect of the realisation of salvation, but they shrank from the deduction. In respect of the eternal divine decree they maintained a supposedly more rational order, isolating the two dispensations and subordinating the order of predestination to that of providence. … It was inevitable, then, that the Infralapsarian construction could at least help towards the later cleavage between natural and revealed theology. It is that which (within the framework of the common presuppositions) makes it appear the less happy of the two (136).

This long citation reveals a crucial element of Barth’s hermeneutics and theological method. Although scripture begins with the story of creation and fall and then moves onto the story of redemption commencing with the account of Abraham and the covenant established with him, Barth insists that in fact, the proper understanding of the divine work is the reverse: the covenant of God with humanity precedes the creation as that covenant established in the person of Jesus Christ in the eternal divine self-determination in the decision of election. By prioritising creation and fall above redemption the Infralapsarians did manage, as already noted, to remove from God the responsibility of sin and evil. Nevertheless a danger lurked here as well:

According to the Supralapsarian opinion man was nothing more than the elect or reprobate in whose whole existence there was only the one prospect of the fulfilment of a course already mapped out either one way or the other. But the Infralapsarians knew of another secret of God side by side with the decree of predestination. Theoretically at least, then, they knew of another secret of man apart from the fact that he is either elect or reprobate. For them man was also (and indeed primarily) the creature of God, and as such responsible to God. This view involved a softening in the understanding of God which is both dangerous and doubtful (137).

Thus in his exposition of this theological dispute, Barth finds something to commend on both sides, as well as something to critique. The Supralapsarians rightly emphasise the divine sovereignty and grace but open the possibility of making God responsible for sin and evil, and indeed the whole order of creation being a monstrous economy intending the fall and damnation of multitudes. The Infralapsarians rightly retreat from this position by interposing the decrees of creation and fall in advance of the decree of election though this has the disadvantage of separating the orders of creation and redemption. Interestingly, Barth finds that both sides opened a theoretical possibility which later became actual, of an anthropocentric turn in theology in which humanity became the centre and concern of theology.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (14)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:127-134, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism.

Having detailed his theology of Jesus Christ as electing God and elected human, Barth inserts a lengthy excursus surveying the supralapsarian-infralapsarian controversy in Reformed theology from the early seventeenth century. He begins by noting that this was a controversy within the one church that did not disturb or rend the church, but nor was it ultimately settled. He identifies the central question of the controversy: “Is the one elected or rejected homo creabilis et labilis [i.e. humanity to be created and fallible], or is he homo creatus et lapsus [i.e. humanity created and fallen]?” Barth develops his argument in three sections. The first section provides an overview of the two sides of the dispute, plus a mediating position proposed late in the century (127-133). The second section (133-139) analyses what the two sides have in common, as well as the particular strength of each side, together with a suggestion of each side’s weakness. In the third section Barth proposes his own assessment of the controversy (139-145). The whole is an exemplary piece of historical theology and argument.

In Barth’s exposition the supralapsarian position is characterised as “a system of consistent theistic monism” (129). It is an audacious and consistent attempt to exalt the divine sovereignty as the rationale and originating cause of all things, and in particular, the eternal destiny of every person, whether to life or to damnation. God’s primal and basic purpose is the divine self-revelation, viz. the glory of his mercy and justice, with creation, the fall, and salvation ordained as means toward this end.

Infralapsarianism is a derivative position, formulated in response and opposition to supralapsarianism. It proposes a more modest understanding of the divine purpose. Whereas the supralapsarian “knows” God’s basic and primal will, and why it is that the creation and fall had to take place, and that God has created each individual in order that they might fulfil either this destiny or that as a revelation of either the divine mercy or the divine justice (128),

The infralapsarian does not think that he has any exact knowledge either of the content of God’s primal and basic plan or of the reasons for the divine decree in respect of creation and fall. On the contrary, he holds that the reasons for this decree are ultimately unknown and unknowable (129).

The decree of election is the first and chief of those decrees which relate to the destiny of sinful man, but it is not the first and chief of all the divine decrees. Between creation and the fall on the one hand and salvation on the other there is no necessaria connexio et subordinatio (130).

The infralapsarians insist that God’s decree of election concerns actual humanity, created and fallen, rather than a hypothetical humanity with no real existence. Creation and the fall are not the means of election by which God achieves the ultimate aim of self-glorification, but the presupposition of election. Thus the divine decrees which establish creation and allow the fall precede the decree of election.

In the second section, Barth finds four presuppositions common to the two parties (133-134). Both groups emphasise the priority of divine grace which selects human individuals as the object of election. Both understand the divine decree as a determinative “system” according to which the entirety of history is played out. Third, God’s election is balanced:

When God set up this fixed system which anticipated the life-history and destiny of every individual as such, then in the same way, in the same sense, with the same emphasis, and in an exact equilibrium in every respect, God uttered both a Yes and a No, accepting some and rejecting others. … The two attitudes together, the one balancing the other, constitute the divine will to self-glorification, and God is glorified equally in the eternal blessedness of the elect and the eternal damnation of the reprobate (134).

Finally, both sides understand the divine good pleasure which issues this decree in terms of the decretum absolutum; God’s grace is understood in terms of an absolute freedom whose basis and meaning are completely hidden.

Behind both these views (at a different point, but with the same effect in practice), there stands the picture of the absolute God in Himself who is neither conditioned nor self-conditioning, and not the picture of the Son of God who is self-conditioned and therefore conditioned in His union with the Son of David; not the picture of God in Jesus Christ (134).