Tag Archives: Karl Barth

Reading Karl Barth: The “Bremen” Sermon

According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s “Bremen” sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 6, The Modern Age 1789-1989, 776, cited in Johanson, The Word in the World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 25).

This sermon, from November 1934, was given when Barth was forty-eight years of age, and shortly before his expulsion from Germany by the National Socialists. The Nazis had seized control of the German nation, were interfering in the life of the church, and seeking to gain a totalitarian control over all the affairs of the nation. Although Hitler and the Nazis are never mentioned directly—Barth does not allow them to intrude into the sermon—they are in the background especially as the “Jesus of our pious imagination.” The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus.

The sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, comment about context, etc.:

Jesus made his disciples—which means, Jesus compelled his disciples—to get into the boat and go before him to the other side.” He made them, he compelled them to go their own way without him, while he was somewhere else. They probably didn’t understand what he wanted of them. It probably wasn’t what they wanted. But that was of no consequence for them: they allowed what they were told to be right for them and they did it; they obeyed. And this already tells us something decisive about ourselves, who are Jesus’ disciples, his church. This tells us that the church of Jesus Christ is the place where there is a bond which regulates human activity, a bond which cannot be debated over, which we have not chosen for ourselves, and from which we cannot release ourselves, but on the other hand a bond in which we also have the security and consolation which enable us to go on our own way as we should. Disciples of Jesus are people who are answerable to Jesus, and precisely for that reason answerable to no one else, people who are entirely bound, and precisely for that reason and in that bond, free people (Johanson, 46).

And so the sermon proceeds as a line-by-line exposition of the biblical text from Matthew 14. The text itself is front and centre, rather than various points abstracted from the text. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.” Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. Thus the solitary Jesus of the story indicates that he “alone” is unique and sovereign; there can be no other sovereignty in competition with him. All other supposed sovereigns are “ghosts,”—fakes, yet still capable of being a destructive power in the world. There is no prize for guessing what Barth is saying here!

In Barth’s hands, Peter is the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! Is Peter’s request to walk on the water the result of pride (Calvin) or serious faith? Barth refuses to commit himself to an answer here, but says:

What is required—what Jesus Christ continually requires—are rocks like this who are certainly not perfectly untainted people, who are perhaps seriously objectionable in many ways and will have much to answer for, but are nevertheless ready to do something quite specific, to render obedience to a specific word by undertaking a specific service. In the church of Jesus Christ there is not only waiting, there must also be those individuals who are continually hastening, watching, rising where they are called to, with all the perils that entails. The church could not do without them, and the church cannot do without them today either. And now in this hour, the text puts this question to each and every one of us: And you, are you not also called to obey in a specific way? To be sure, we must examine ourselves to see whether we are ready to obey the orders of Jesus Christ, or whether the appeal we are now hearing might not come from some chimera within our hearts. But equally, let us examine ourselves to see whether it is not the result of our cowardice and unbelief if we not assume this specific task, this specific act of obedience to which we are summoned! (55)

It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

Barth finds in Peter’s example “the history of every great event in the church” (58). Peter has heard the word of Jesus but looks also at the storm, the wind, and the waves. Now it is no longer a matter simply of Jesus and his word, but of the storm, “of practical and strategic matters, of oneself and one’s desires and crises” (56). But even Peter’s little faith did not forfeit the faithfulness of God toward him. In the dark years that followed this sermon there is no doubt that many in this congregation would have been seriously confronted with the force of this dilemma: will I respond to the sole lordship of Jesus Christ—at great personal cost, or will I falter and look away, trying both to obey Jesus’ command to rise and walk, and to stay in the safety of the boat.

How, though, can we be sure that we are hearing his voice, his command, his encouragement—“is it him, or is it the illusion of our hearts?” (56). Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But we must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us. How may we distinguish the command of Christ from the deceitful or frightened desire of our own hearts?

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

Willimon: On Preaching

Perhaps you would have to be a preacher to know why Barth’s being a resolute theologian is his greatest gift to contemporary preaching. It’s not only that much contemporary theology languishes in the realm of theologies-of-this-and-that, but also that much of contemporary theology appears to have forgotten both the proper subject and the vital agent of Christian preaching.

Forgive me for having this so prominently on my mind, but I have just finished listening to the sermons of sixty of the preachers who are under my care. Many of the sermons were lively and engaging and most congregations would hear them gladly on a Sunday morning. Yet in a depressing majority of them there was little indication that the content of the sermon or the engine driving the proclamation was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other than that, most were fine sermons…. (Willimon, in Johanson (ed), The Word in this World, 11).

Ouch! Willimon continues:

One sermon began well enough, the Second Sunday of Christmas, Luke 2, young Juses putting the temple elders through their paces, abandoned by Mom and Dad. After reading the text, and noting Jesus’ amazing ability to stupefy professional scholars, the preacher then sailed off into a veritable shopping list of things to do. We were told that we needed to resolve, in the coming year, to be more proficient in study of God’s word. We should all strive to “increase in wisdom and in stature.” We ought to spend more time with our families. 

Note how quickly, how effortlessly, and predictably the preacher disposed of a story about Jesus and transformed it into a moralistic diatribe about us. Moving from a text that simply declares what Jesus did and, by implication, who Jesus is, the preacher moved to a moralistic list of all the things that we need to do if we (in the absence of a living, active God) are to take charge of our lives and the world…

Barth’s robust view of an active, unfailingly surprising, living God puts Barth at some distance from lots of the sermons that I hear and many that I preach. God too often enters the sermon as some sort of vague mystery about whom little is to be said. So we must quickly abandon the text and sail by the seat of our pants, offering exclusively human advice derived from limited human experience. There is a modern sort of modesty that refuses to claim too much for God. Presuming to be intellectual integrity, this reticence to do theology is in most cases the simple fear that to speak decisively about who God is and who God isn’t would endanger our godlike aspirations to run the world as we damn well please. Thin descriptions of God are killing our sermons (11-12, 18).

Reading Karl Barth: The “Titanic” Sermon

This sermon was delivered by Barth on April 21, 1912 to his congregation in Safenwil where he had been pastor for just over a year. The First World War was still two years away and Europe had not yet lost its modern sense of triumphal optimism. The newly minted pastor was just twenty-five years of age when he delivered this sermon.

In this sermon we see Barth the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. Although he does use a biblical text at the head of his sermon, he does not exposit the text or discuss its meaning. Rather he uses it for an idea that he then applies to the subject matter at hand. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them.

For I believe that, just as we may not approach events such as this one out of curiosity and a thirst for sensation, nor may we disregard them in silence and indifference, however much daily newspaper reports might cause us to do so. Rather, they should speak to us. For through them God addresses us with a power and urgency that we only rarely perceive: concerning the greatness and nothingness of human beings who are so like God, and yet so unlike him, concerning the wrath and mercy of the eternal God, who reigns in and over our destinies, sometimes close at hand and tangibly, but sometimes infinitely far away and mysteriously. God speaks in this way even through a tragedy like the one which has shocked the entire civilised world this week, and we cannot fail to hear, nor may we (cited in Johanson (ed.), The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 31-32).

Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36).

We see also the young socialist pastor at work:

Yesterday in the “Freier Aargauer” newspaper the sinking of the Titanic was referred to as a crime of capitalism. After everything that I have now read about it I can only agree. Indeed, this catastrophe is a crude but all-the-more clear example to us of the essential characteristics and effects of capitalism, which consists in a few individuals competing with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits (40).

Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)! The system of capitalism is the real cause of the disaster, the competitive practice based on self-interest at the expense of others. This system must be replaced by a common communal system of labour.

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. He describes in some detail the magnificence of the ship with respect to the feat of its engineering and the luxury of its appointments. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered.

As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress.

Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down only two years later with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology. The anthropological orientation and natural theology will give way to a more thorough-going theocentric orientation and theology of revelation. More significantly, in his search for a new theological starting point, Barth will discover the “new world in the Bible.”

Reading Karl Barth on Election (13)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:122-127, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

In his reflections on Jesus as the elected human Barth raises two issues worthy of additional comment. First, he provides a brief glimpse of his theodicy; second, is his portrayal of the prayer of Jesus as the true fulfilment of his creaturely existence.

In his discussion of the election of Jesus Christ as suffering, Barth explores the reason for this. God, for the honour of his own name and for the honour of the creature also, will not allow evil and sin, and Satan and his kingdom to overthrow his good work or to have the final word. Rather, in his Son, God determines to confront and conquer this evil. Nevertheless the question must inevitably arise concerning the origin of this evil. Here, Barth insists that “from all eternity judgment has been foreseen” (122).

For teleologically the election of the man Jesus carries within itself the election of a creation which is good according to the positive will of God and of man as fashioned after the divine image and foreordained to the divine likeness (reflection). But this involves necessarily the rejection of Satan, the rebel angel who is the very sum and substance of the possibility which is not chosen by God (and which exists only in virtue of this negation); the very essence of the creature in its misunderstanding and misuse of its creation and destiny and in its desire to be as God, to be itself a god. Satan (and the whole kingdom of evil, i.e., the demonic, which has its basis in him) is the shadow which accompanies the light of the election of Jesus Christ (and in him the good creation in which man is in the divine image). And in the divine counsel the shadow itself is necessary as the object of rejection. To the reality of its existence and might and activity (only, of course, in the power of the divine negation, but to that extent grounded in the divine will and counsel) testimony is given by the fall of man, in which man appropriates to himself the satanic desire. When confronted by Satan and his kingdom, man in himself and as such has in his creaturely freedom no power to reject that which in His divine freedom God rejects. Face to face with temptation he cannot maintain the goodness of his creation in the divine image and foreordination to the divine likeness (122).

Barth provides an ontological account of the origin and mystery of evil. For Barth, evil arises as that which God does not will. It is the “shadow” cast by the light of what God does will. The mystery of evil emerges as it were almost as a consequence of the divine will. Evil has reality but not substance. The fall also has an ontological basis in the inherent creaturely incapacity to withstand the attraction or temptation of evil. Yet there is also a moral component to the fall: humanity “appropriates to himself the satanic desire” to be a god, and in so doing becomes, like Satan, a rebel. “In himself and as such man will always do as Adam did in Gen. 3” (122).

Humanity’s fall, then, is both inevitable and culpable. On account of human culpability it lies under the divine wrath; on account of human weakness, however, it is the object of divine pity. Jesus Christ as the elect human stands in humanity’s place under the divine wrath and for humanity suffers and dies taking their rejection upon himself. Yet Jesus Christ is also the electing God and although subject to the same weakness and incapacity that afflicts the rest of humanity, actually can do and does for humanity what humanity cannot do for itself: resist Satan’s temptation.

Why this imposition of the just for the unjust by which in some incomprehensible manner the eternal Judge becomes Himself the judged? Because His justice is a merciful and for this reason a perfect justice. Because the sin of the disobedient is also their need, and even while it affronts Him it also moves Him to pity. … Because in the powerlessness of sinners against Satan He sees their guilt, but in their guilt He sees also their powerlessness. Because He knows quite well that those who had no strength to resist Satan are even less able to bear and suffer the rejection which those who hear Satan and obey him merit together with him. Because from all eternity He knows “whereof we are made” (Psalm 103:14). That is why He intervened on our behalf in His Son (124).

That God did this is, of course, due to his own grace in which God elected humanity in his Son. The grace of election is also at once the grace of reconciliation for the same Jesus in whom we are elected is also the Judge who takes the place of the judged.

In the One in whom they are elected, that is to say, in the death which the Son of God has died for them, they themselves have died as sinners. And that means their radical sanctification, separation and purification for participation in a true creaturely independence, and more than that, for the divine sonship of the creature which is the grace for which from all eternity they are elected in the election of the man Jesus (125).

This sonship, this radical sanctification, this true creaturely independence seen in the steadfastness of the humanity of Jesus, and specifically in his prayer by which he “fulfils His creaturely office” (126). Jesus’ prayer is his intercession with God on behalf of his people. It is the human answer and assent to the will of God as it confronts his own will. It is his affirmation of the divine right in the exercise of holy wrath against human sinfulness to which he submits as victim, even as he is both priest and judge.

The election of Jesus Christ, therefore, stands as the pattern for the election of all, for they are elect in him.

The mystery of the elected man Jesus is the divine and human steadfastness which is the end of all God’s ways and works and therefore the object and content of the divine predestination. … Being elected “in Him,” they are elected only to believe in Him, i.e., to love in Him the Son of God who died and rose again for them, to laud in Him the priest and victim of their reconciliation with God, to recognise in Him the justification of God (which is also their own justification), to honour in Him their Leader and Representative, their Lord and Head, and the kingdom of God which is a kingdom above all other kingdoms. It is as they love Him and laud Him and recognise Him and honour Him in this way that they can have their own life, their rejection being put behind them and beneath them, rejected with His rejection. To believe in Jesus means to have His resurrection and prayer both in the mind and in the heart. And this means to be elected. For it is the man that does this who “in Him” is the object of the divine election of grace (126-127).

New Barth Books

Today Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth arrived in the post, the Conference papers from the 2015 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. Contributors include Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Bauckham, Willie James Jennings, Bruce McCormack, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, and a sermon by Fleming Rutledge. The line-up looks great, and I am very much looking forward to reading the contributions by Moltmann and McCormack particularly. Moltmann’s essay addresses “Barth on the Doctrine of Predestination,” while McCormack explores “Barth on Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction.”

A week or two ago Paul Nimmo’s new introduction to Karl Barth arrived. Nimmo is a prominent younger Barth scholar, who I had the privilege of meeting briefly last year at the Barth Conference. (I also got to meet both Migliore and Guretzki at the same Conference!)

There are quite a few introductions to Barth and I look forward to seeing how he interprets Barth. His approach is to give an overview of each volume of Barth’s Dogmatics, and then provide a brief reflection. Because I am lecturing on Karl Barth this semester, I have already started reading sections of Nimmo relevant to my lectures, along with the magisterial treatment of Barth’s theology by Eberhard Busch (The Great Passion).

Finally, I have been sent a review copy of David Guretzki’s An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth which I need to read and review in the near future. This looks like a very different kind of introduction; Guretzki appears to have written for the novice approaching Barth for the first time, and it will be fun to read his book alongside the more formal treatments by Nimmo and Busch.

I will post reviews on this site in time…

Reading Karl Barth on Election (12)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:115-127, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

Barth concludes, then, that “there is no such things as a decretum absolutum. There is no such thing as a will of God apart from the will of Jesus Christ” (115). He is the eternal choice and decision of God, and as such also the manifestation, mirror and ground of our own election. Once more we see that Barth’s concern in this matter is pastoral, the assurance of the saints:

Jesus Christ reveals to us our election as an election which is made by Him, by His will which is also the will of God. He tells us that He Himself is the One who elects us. In the very foreground of our existence in history we can and should cleave wholly and with full assurance to Him because in the eternal background of history, in the beginning with God, the only decree which was passed, the only Word which was spoken and which prevails, was the decision which was executed by Him. As we believe in Him and hear His Word and hold fast by His decision, we can know with a certainty which nothing can ever shake that we are the elect of God (115-116).

Barth now turns his attention to Jesus Christ as the elected human. What does it mean that he is the elect? The content of the divine decision of election is the person Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, “and the work of this man in His life and death, His humiliation and exaltation, His obedience and merit” (116). That the decision of election concerns Jesus Christ, however, indicates that the object and content of this decision concerns the whole work of creation, reconciliation and redemption, the covenant of God with humanity concluded in him, and therefore the salvation of all. As such,

Jesus Christ, then, is not merely one of the elect but the elect of God. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), as elected man He does not stand alongside the rest of the elect, but before and above them as the One who is originally and properly the Elect. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), there are no other elect together with or apart from Him, but, as Eph. 14 tells us, only “in” Him. “In Him” does not simply mean with Him, together with Him, in His company. Nor does it mean only through Him, by means of that which He as elected man can be and do for them. “In Him” means in His person, in His will, in His own divine choice, in the basic decision of God which He fulfils over against every man. . . . As elected man He is also the electing God, electing them in His own humanity. In that He (as God) wills Himself (as man), He also wills them. . . . His election is the original and all-inclusive election; . . . And for this reason, as elected man He is the Lord and Head of all the elect, the revelation and reflection of their election, and the organ and instrument of all divine electing (116-117).

In Jesus Christ as the elect human we observe the nature of predestination as it is manifest always and everywhere: the acceptance and reception of humanity only by the free grace of God:

Even in the man Jesus there is indeed no merit, no prior and self-sufficient goodness, which can precede His election to divine sonship. Neither prayer nor the life of faith can command or compel His election. It is by the work of the Word of God, by the Holy Spirit, that He is conceived and born without sin, that He is what He is, the Son of God; by grace alone. And as He became Christ, so we become Christians (118).

Barth calls upon Augustine, Thomas, and Calvin, as traditional witnesses who say much the same (118-120). “The election of Jesus Christ is, in fact, the revelation of our election. In His election we can and should recognise our own” (119).

Further, Barth speaks of Jesus as the elect human in terms of his mission, of his obedience to the will and works of the Father, of his submission, therefore, to the rule of the Father, and ultimately of his suffering: his election is “election for suffering” (118; cf. 120). Barth cites G. Schrenk: “He is elected man not only in His passion and in spite of His passion, but for His passion” (117).

The suffering of Jesus arises on account of the presence and reality of evil into which humanity has fallen. In fact, humanity has become God’s enemy and the object of divine wrath, subject to rejection. As the electing God, Jesus Christ takes the rejection of humanity upon himself—as the elect human, suffering for humanity and in their place.

The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in His love for men transfers from all eternity to Him in whom He loves and elects them, and whom He elects at their head and in their place. God from all eternity ordains this obedient One in order that He might bear the suffering which the disobedient have deserved and which for the sake of God’s righteousness must necessarily be borne. . . . For this reason, He is the Lamb slain, and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. For this reason, the crucified Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (123).

From all eternity and to the very depths of his being God loves the human creature that he has created. From all eternity and to the very depths of his being God has demonstrated this love by taking responsibility for the humanity he has created, doing so in the person of the Son who is also “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Barth’s final sentence in the above citation is worthy of much reflection: “the crucified Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God.’” To all eternity and to the very depths of his being God is as we see Him here to be in the suffering self-giving love of his Son.

The Birthday of Every Christian

“It is true exegesis, not eisegesis, to say that the nativity of Christ is the nativity of the Christian; Christmas day is the birthday of every Christian”
(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/4: 15). 

What does Barth mean by this extraordinary statement? The Christian is one whose entire existence is grounded in the life and history of Jesus Christ. He is the Representative of all humanity, of each and every person. He was born, lived, died and was raised again for them, in their name and in their stead. As the Messiah and Saviour of all, Jesus entered into solidarity with us, identifying himself with us to the extent that his baptism includes within itself that of his disciples. So, too, his death includes within itself our death also, so that we die in him and with him.

Jesus does not drink that cup for Himself alone. He is not baptised with that baptism in isolation. This all takes place in their stead and for them. Hence they, too, will die in His death, and therewith their entry into glory will be secured (16). 

“In his death, therefore, He took the place of all….Inasmuch as He died the death in our place, we have it absolutely behind us. In His death we who deserved to die as He died are already put to death” (16).

His birth, life and death is our birth, life and death. His resurrection is our resurrection.
He is our Christmas, the wonder, mystery and miracle of grace.
Happy Christmas!

Reading Karl Barth on Election (11)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:103-115, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

In its simplest and most comprehensive form the dogma of predestination consists, then, in the assertion that the divine predestination is the election of Jesus Christ. But the concept of election has a double reference—to the elector and to the elected (103).

For Barth, Jesus Christ is the electing God and the elected human, both the subject and the object of divine election. He is the electing God together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it is with this emphasis that Barth begins his exposition:

It is true that as the Son of God given by the Father to be one with man, and to take to Himself the form of man, He is elected. It is also true that He does not elect alone, but in company with the electing of the Father and the Holy Spirit. But He does elect. The obedience which He renders as the Son of God is, as genuine obedience, His own decision and electing, a decision and electing no less divinely free than the electing and decision of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Even the fact that He is elected corresponds as closely as possible to His own electing. In the harmony of the triune God He is no less the original Subject of this electing than He is its original object. … Of Jesus Christ we know nothing more surely and definitely than this—that in free obedience to His Father He elected to be man, and as man, to do the will of God. If God elects us too, then it is in and with this election of Jesus Christ, in and with this free act of obedience on the part of His Son. … It is in Him that the eternal election becomes immediately and directly the promise of our own election as it is enacted in time, our calling, our summoning to faith, our assent to the divine intervention on our behalf, the revelation of ourselves as the sons of God and of God as our Father, the communication of the Holy Spirit who is none other than the Spirit of this act of obedience, the Spirit of obedience itself, and for us the Spirit of adoption (105-106).

In the divine harmony of the eternal will of the Trinity, God determined to be God only in union with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. The eternal Son of God for his part, was obedient to this divine will, determining himself and being determined for this particular union of God with humanity. His obedience was his own electing—his choosing to be incarnate, to be God-with-us—and his election, his being elected. And in his election we find the only ground of our own election, its promise, and its enacting in time.

In the small-print discussion which follows these assertions Barth insists first, on the basis of a number of texts in John’s gospel, that the action of Jesus the Incarnate in choosing and calling his disciples is itself the action of God’s election:

In the light of these passages the electing of the disciples ascribed to Jesus must be understood not merely as a function undertaken by Him in an instrumental and representative capacity, but rather as an act of divine sovereignty, in which there is seen in a particular way the primal and basic decision of God which is also that of Jesus Christ (106).

Second, he engages in historical discussion to argue that Jesus Christ is not simply elected passively, that is, with respect to his human nature, but is also actively the electing One (106-115). Barth’s motive in prosecuting this argument is pastoral, concerned with Christian assurance: if Christ is only the elect and not also electing, then we must look elsewhere than Jesus Christ to find the ground of our election, and indeed will confront only mystery.

And of the reality of that mystery we know nothing. We cannot even believe it. In face of it we can only attempt to create the necessary knowledge by constructing a decretum absolutum. In such circumstances predestination is not only a higher something behind and above the covenant effected and revealed in the divine-human person of Jesus Christ. In its very essence it is something quite different from this person. It is a hidden decree which we can never recognise as divine and to which we cannot possibly be required or advised to entrust ourselves (107).

For Barth, the election of Jesus is truly the “light of predestination” for us too, but only if Jesus Christ is the subject as well as the object of election: only, that is,

if we can be absolutely certain that in Jesus Christ we have to do immediately and directly with the electing God. If this is not the case, we are exposed always to the doubt that in the election we have to do perhaps with the will of a God who has not bound Himself in covenant with us and who is not gracious towards us (108).

In this section Barth explores the idea of election found in Thomas Aquinas, and over against Thomas’s view he calls Augustine and, especially, Athanasius. He laments that Athanasius’ insight had no continuing influence and development in the history of theology with respect to this question. The Reformers, too, failed to see that Jesus Christ must be the electing God with the result that all their attempts at spiritual consolation direct us elsewhere than Jesus Christ.

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which He has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus [“purely hidden God”]. It is not the Deus revelatus who is as such the Deus absconditus, the eternal God. All the dubious features of Calvin’s doctrine result from the basic failing that what was in the beginning with God must be sought elsewhere than in Jesus Christ (111).

Barth agrees with the Reformed doctrine in so far as it insists that the origin and eternal ground of election must be sought in God. He rejects the tradition, however, insofar as it attributes this eternal ground to the will of the Father apart from and prior to Jesus Christ. For the Reformed, the will of the Father to save (only some) is primary and first, and the election of Jesus Christ is reduced to a means for the accomplishing of this end. The Reformed doctrine was, therefore, “Christless,” a “false start,” which but for a doctrinal and pastoral inconsistency, could have issued only in mysticism or moralism (113). Therewith Barth identifies his central theological move with respect to his own doctrine of election:

And the possibility of such a happy inconsistency should not prevent us from recognising this false start for what it was. Nor must it encourage us to perpetuate the error. It must encourage us rather to correct it, replacing the doctrine of the decretum absolutum by that of the Word which was in the beginning with God (113-114).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (10)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:94-110, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

It is necessary to revisit these pages already treated to attend Barth’s astounding claim that Jesus Christ—the man—was in the beginning with God. How can the man Jesus Christ be in the beginning with God? Is it not more correct to speak of the Son, or of the eternal Logos?

Barth’s remarkable claim rests especially on his exegesis of John 1:1-2. In this seminal text, the Word is before and above all creaturely reality, standing outside the series of created things. It precedes all being and all time—like God himself (95). This Word which was in the beginning “with” God and which “was” God participates absolutely in the divine mode of being, and thus in all the perfections of the one divine being. Barth then asks, “But who or what is the Word whose predicates are declared in Jn. 11?”

As is well known, in the Johannine Prologue the concept recurs only once (v. 14), and in the rest of the Gospel it does not recur at all in this sense. In the presentation as a whole its character is obviously that of a stop-gap. It is a preliminary indication of the place where later something or someone quite different will be disclosed. … In Jn. 11 the reference is very clear: λόγος is unmistakably substituted for Jesus. His is the place which the predicates attributed to the Logos are meant at once to mark off, to clear and to reserve. … It is the x in an equation whose value we can know only when the equation has been solved. (96, 97).

Barth continues his argument by insisting that the meaning of verse 2, “the same was in the beginning with God,” also points forward to the one who fills the position of the Logos: Jesus Christ. “We have no need to project anything into eternity, for at this point eternity is time, i.e., the eternal name has become a temporal name, and the divine name a human. It is of this name that we speak” (98). Jesus Christ, then, is the eternal Son, and Barth finds confirmation of this in a range of New Testament texts (98-99).

If this is true, then … in this person we are called upon to recognise the beginning of the Word and decree and election of God, the conclusive and absolute authority in respect of the aim and origin of all things. And this authority we must acknowledge not merely as something which is like God, but as God Himself, since God Himself in all His ways and works willed wholly and utterly to bear this name, and actually does bear it … We are not thinking or speaking rightly of God Himself if we do not take as our starting-point the fact which should be both “first and last”: that from all eternity God elected to bear this name. Over against all that is really outside God, Jesus Christ is the eternal will of God, the eternal decree of God and the eternal beginning of God (99).

It is clear why Barth makes this move: if Jesus Christ is the eternal decree of God there can be no decretum absolutum. “In trying to understand Jesus Christ as the electing God we abandon this tradition, but we hold fast by Jn. 11-2” (104). In an extraordinary statement Barth makes clear what he is saying:

The subject of this decision is the triune God—the Son of God no less than the Father and the Holy Spirit. And the specific object of it is the Son of God in His determination as the Son of Man, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who is as such the eternal basis of the whole divine election (110; note that the English translation omits a word found in the Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, where Barth refers to “the pre-existing God-Man…”)

Jesus Christ is not simply pre-existent in a general or abstract way, but absolutely, as the primal decision of God to be God only in this union with humanity in Jesus Christ. Obviously he is not pre-existent in terms of his flesh, but in anticipation, determined for incarnation.

Barth establishes his ground-breaking doctrine of election on his exegesis of this critical text, supported by other New Testament passages, and discussions of the church fathers. His meditation on and exegesis of John 1 is essential to understand his doctrine.

A Hauerwasian Advent (2)

Stanley Hauerwas MatthewFor my own benefit, I am using Stanley Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew 1-2 to help me prepare for Christmas, and also in hope of spiritual renewal in this time of new birth. The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is attentive to the biblical text, but in a theological and ecclesial rather than historical and linguistic manner. It is a different kind of commentary. Hauerwas reflects on the meaning of the Christmas story in the light of the church’s faith and for the church’s faithful response. In this week’s excerpt, he reflects on the work of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth.

It is often said that the Holy Spirit is an afterthought in modern theology, but the Spirit is certainly present in Matthew’s gospel from the beginning. For Matthew, the work of the Spirit is to point to the humanity of Christ. … (33)

That the Holy Spirit is necessary for our recognition of Jesus as the Son of God is not surprising, given our presumption that it is surely not possible for God to be one of us. Our temptation is to believe that if God is God then God must be the biggest thing around. Accordingly we describe God with an unending list of superlatives: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God is all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present, but these descriptions make it difficult for some to understand how God can be conceived by the Spirit in Mary. Yet that is to presume we know what it means for God to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent prior to God being found in Mary’s womb. Admittedly this challenges our presumption that we can assume we can know what God must be prior to knowing Jesus, but such presumption is just another word for sin. By Mary’s conception through the Spirit, our prideful assumption that we are capable of knowing God on our own terms is challenged. … (33-34)

Virgin births are not surprising given that this is the God who has created us without us, but (as Augustine observes) who will not save us without us. … What should startle us, what should stun us, is not that Mary is a virgin, but that God refuses to abandon us. … (34)

And so Hauerwas cites Karl Barth (“The Humanity of God,” 48-49):

God’s deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself. It is rather His freedom to be in and for Himself but also with and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man’s eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity!

Hauerwas, like Matthew, makes no attempt to explain the virgin birth or seek to make sense of it. He simply asserts that this is the story of what God has done, and without it, “the story cannot be told. Mary’s virginity is simply required by the way the story runs. The one to whom she gave birth is none other than Emmanuel, “God with us,” and such a one can have no other father than the Father who is the first person of the Trinity” (36). The meaning of the passage is not the historical question of whether a virgin can or cannot have conceived a child, but the identification of God as the One who meets us in and through this child, and who in so doing, overturns all our presumptions about who and what God must be. We learn to know God here, or we do not know God at all.

An Advent Prayer

Restore us, O Lord, we pray,
bring us back to that place
where we once met,
as shepherds to the stable
after hearing angels sing.
Bring us back to that place
when our love was fresh,
not embarrassed
to express itself in praise
to our heavenly King.
Restore us, O Lord, we pray.

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4S4OUrwch