Tag Archives: Karl Barth

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).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 9

Read 1 Samuel 9

Chapter nine is a curious chapter, its portrayal of Saul, who is introduced here, open to various interpretations. Some scholars argue that the chapter, and indeed the Saul narrative as a whole, is a composite of different sources and traditions, some pro-Saul, and some anti. Others read the narrative positively, identifying those characteristics in the story which suggest that Saul has the right attributes to be king. Evans, for example, provides a psychological account in which she suggests that Saul may have harboured secret ambitions to be a leader, that he may, in fact, have had his own sense of calling to leadership which is now confirmed by Samuel (66-67). She further finds evidence for his suitability in the very ordinariness of his circumstances —obeying his father and searching for donkeys, and listening to the advice of his servant. Certainly Saul looks like king-material; he is tall and handsome and from a wealthy and influential family, despite his modesty in verse 21. Others, however, remain unconvinced and so find a very unflattering portrayal of Saul in the chapter. He is never defined as a man of God or as walking in his ways. He appears indecisive and lacks initiative, relying on his servant’s advice and even his money. When he meets Samuel he does not recognise him as the seer that he is seeking.

Despite this ambiguity, however, one thing is clear: God has chosen Saul. The whole story unfolds in an atmosphere of chance and coincidence—read: providence. Donkeys go missing; Saul arrives at Zuph just as Samuel does; this unknown man is “discovered,” pointed out by God to Samuel. The text is explicit:

Verse 16       
Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.

Then, when Saul arrives, the Lord speaks again to Samuel, saying to him, “Here is the man of whom I spoke to you” (v. 17). Evans is correct: “What is very clear in this instance is that the choice of Saul was entirely God’s. … There is no room here for misunderstanding. Saul was God’s appointed man” (65). This is no doubt the reason for Evans’ attempt to show that Saul was, in fact, an ideal choice to be king, or at least, a suitable choice.

This lack of ambiguity with respect to the divine choice, when viewed alongside the evident ambiguity of Saul’s character leads to further questions. Did God choose Saul knowing that Saul would prove to be a disastrous king, and so deeming this a somewhat disastrous choice? Did God choose Saul in this way to underline his displeasure in Israel seeking a king in the first place? Did God know whom he was choosing?

Those who recognise the work of divine providence in the story must find some way of answering these questions without compromising the divine foreknowledge and goodness. Open Theists, of course, are under no such constraint, being able to argue that God does not, in fact, know the future and watches it unfold as we do, in response to the freely chosen decisions and actions of the human actors involved. Ultimately, however, a view of providence in which God controls every action and outcome is as unsatisfactory as the idea that limits the wisdom and sovereignty of God as the Open Theist does. In the story of Saul, then, the mystery of divine providence and of the divine-human relation and interaction, comes into prominent focus.

God’s will in his choice of Saul is clear: you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines (v. 16). In language that echoes the Exodus and the call of Moses, God has “heard the cry” of his people, the voice of their suffering and oppression, and has raised up a leader for their deliverance. Ultimately, however, for those who know how this story proceeds, this saving will was frustrated.

Once more, Murphy’s reading of the text provides the benefits of wisdom and insight. Murphy rejects source-critical approaches, preferring a narrative reading to make sense of the text’s difficulties. She acknowledges the portrayal of Saul as indecisive and passive, but suggests that “the story is saying in the most emphatic way that Saul did not put himself forward, but was chosen by Yahweh” (74). The ambiguity of his character reflects the fact that he is “an unpainted canvas,” an unformed character: “what will he make of his beauty and strength when he becomes king?” (75). Neither overtly wicked nor overtly pious, the question arises concerning what kind of man and what kind of king Saul will become.

By presenting him as neither overtly wicked nor some pious Nazirite type, the author creates in Saul a figure who can make of the role of first king in Israel whatever he freely wills. … The question is what use he makes of his freedom. Our human freedom is intertwined in its choices with God’s free gifts of opportunities to act (75, 76).

God freely elects Saul with his people’s well-being at heart. Saul’s ignorance and lack of initiative in the selection signals Yahweh’s omnipotence at work. On the other hand, the blank and open portrayal of Saul’s character indicates that he himself is a free man, as yet indifferent with respect to the determination of his will. He has yet to make his choice between good and evil. … From here on, Saul has entered the arena where he will have to make free choices, and these choices will count (77).

I suspect that Karl Barth would provide a slightly different reading of the text. God calls Saul in sovereign freedom, not dependent upon Saul’s suitability or otherwise for this calling. But this call also takes the form of a command: Saul is commissioned as God’s leader, as the one through whom God will save his people. God does not leave Saul alone at a crossroads free to go this way or that. Rather, God has commanded that he should go in a particular way, taking a specific path and road; he is to go this way and not that. Saul’s choices, decisions and actions are still crucial and still “count,” as Murphy has noted. However, his failure is not merely a tragedy of poor choices or human inability, but of disobedience; that is, he has turned from the way in which he was directed, and pursued his own path, with terrible consequences. The rest of the story will be an opportunity to test this thesis. In the meantime, however, we note that divine providence is always at work, that the divine call involves a command and a direction, and that the divine-human relation is an encounter of the free God and the free human in which our choices, decisions and actions really do matter with respect to the historical unfolding of the divine will.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 8 (Cont)

I have been surprised by what I have found in this chapter, and it is obvious that these reflections are only a beginning of the matter. There is much to ponder here.

My initial reflections centred on Samuel’s failure with respect to his sons, and the Israelites’ desire to be “like the nations.” Yet the chapter plays a critical role in the transition to a monarchical state. Hitherto the tribes have been a loose confederacy; God has been present amongst his people with the Ark being the symbol of this presence; and national leadership has been charismatic and ad hoc. Murphy notes that in tribal societies the extended family largely rules itself, is the centre of economic activity, as well as the transmitter of moral norms and identity.

What distinguishes tribal segmentary society from monarchy is not the hereditary principle, which is common to both, but that in a monarchy authority is imposed on kinship groups from without. What Samuel foresees is not just the emergence of monarchy but Israel’s coming to be a state. He pictures the state as substituting its powers for those of the family. … he is depicting the replacement of a brotherhood ethos with the authority of the state (Murphy, 62).

Introduction of the monarchy and its statutory powers will undermine familial and fraternal love as the basis of culture and society. Not only is the demand for a king a falling away from the covenantal relation between God and his people, but the familial and covenantal relations amongst the people are threatened by the rise of power relations and law. As previously noted, the people will trade valuable freedoms for visible security and accommodation to the nations, but in so doing will become “slaves” to a new bureaucratic order, and find themselves taxed and conscripted to pay for this privilege.

That the elders approach Samuel to make a king indicates not simply the esteem in which he is held, but the kind of authority he has attained amongst the tribes. As a prophet-judge, he represents God to the people, and the enactment of the divine will amongst them. By establishing the royal office he will provide legitimisation for the monarchy, and indirectly, indicate the divine approval of it. It is clear, however, that God’s approval for this development is conceded. God merely allows the people a king rather than commanding them to take this step. God grants the peoples’ request—against his primary will and against their best interests. God’s accession to their request is therefore in the realm of God’s permissive will.

In itself this is hardly surprising. Although human society without some form of government is virtually inconceivable, nowhere in scripture does God commend one form of government as the divine preference and command. Rather, it seems that the mode of government falls within the scope of humanity’s discretion. If this is true of church government in the New Testament, it is also true, it seems, of government in human society more generally. In this passage at least, it is apparent that the divine providence that not rule in such a way that the divine will is completely fulfilled in every detail. Rather, God gives ‘space’ to his people to make their own decisions and take their own actions within the limited sphere of their existence and responsibility—even when those decisions and actions are contrary to his express will. With this gift of freedom, of course, is also the realisation of responsibility for our use of it.

Nonetheless scripture is also realistic: all human government occurs within the context and arena of human fallenness; there is no perfect government and no perfect system of government. It may be that some governments and systems are better than others, and in this respect scripture has much to say, as I observed in my previous post on this chapter. But as Karl Barth noted in his second commentary on Romans, the divine Krisis falls on every human work. Even the revolutionary who is so disturbed by the evil of the present system can only install another system subject to the same evil impulses. Only the true and ultimate Revolution—the kingdom of God—will introduce the true order of justice and peace. In the meanwhile it is salutary for both revolutionary and reactionary to remember this, and to recall that their every effort can only be provisional at best, and that the best that they can hope for, is that their political work might bear true witness to the coming kingdom.

The Sinlessness of Jesus 4: Karl Barth

Karl Barth approaches this question not as an issue to be explored in and for itself, but as part of his discussion of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. Specifically, his treatment comes in Church Dogmatics I/2, section 15.2 “The Mystery of Revelation: Very God and Very Man.” Barth’s exposition in this subsection is a meditation on John 1:14 “the Word became flesh,” and in this portion specifically (15.2.ii; pp. 147-159), Barth is considering what is meant when Scripture speaks of the divine word becoming flesh.

That the Word was made “flesh” means first and generally that He became man, true and real man, participating in the same human essence and existence, the same human nature and form, the same historicity that we have. God’s revelation to us takes place in such a way that everything ascribable to man, his creaturely existence as an individually unique unity of body and soul in the time between birth and death, can now be predicated of God’s eternal Son as well (147).

For Barth, the Johannine phrase means first and primarily that the Word became “participant in human nature and existence”; that is, in the humanitas by which humanity is distinguished as human as opposed to God, angel, or animal (149). Since, however, human “nature” cannot be real in an abstract sense but only in the concrete reality of an actual person, the Word became not simply “flesh” but an existing person, a single individual, the man Jesus Christ. “Thus the reality of Jesus Christ is that God Himself in person is actively present in the flesh. God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting” (151).

Barth goes further, however, to consider the nature or quality, as it were, of the “flesh” that the Word appropriated:

But what the New Testament calls σάρξ [sarx, “flesh”] includes not only the concept of man in general but also, assuming and including the general concept, the narrower concept of the man who is liable to the judgment and verdict of God, who having become incapable of knowing and loving God must incur the wrath of God, whose existence has become one exposed to death because he has sinned against God. Flesh is the concrete form of human nature marked by Adam’s fall … The Word is not only the eternal Word of God but “flesh” as well, i.e., all that we are and exactly like us even in our opposition to him. It is because of this that He makes contact with us and is accessible for us (151).

Here Barth argues at some length from both Scripture and the history of theology, that the Word became “fallen flesh,” that is, he partook of fallen human nature. “He was not a sinful man. But inwardly and outwardly His situation was that of a sinful man. He did nothing that Adam did. But He lived life in the form it must take on the basis and assumption of Adam’s act” (152). This is precisely what Donald Macleod cannot and will not say. For Barth, though, this is a key distinguishing feature between Christianity and other religions both ancient and modern, which also include instances and concepts of incarnation. In Christian faith, God did not merely become human, and did not come as a hero figure—something found in the other religions, but took the nature identical to ours in the light of the Fall (153).

But this is necessary not simply as an apologetic point. More important is the fact that if the Word has not come to us—actually come all the way to us—then we still reside in the darkness, untouched by the light which has come into the world and which, shining in the darkness, enlightens every person (John 1:5, 9), untouched by revelation and reconciliation. God’s Son has come all the way to us, not only assuming our nature but entering “the concrete form of our nature, under which we stand before God as men damned and lost” (153). Only thus can Christ be “like us” and so represent us before God.

True, the Word assumes our human existence, assumes flesh, i.e., He exists in the state and position, amid the conditions, under the curse and punishment of sinful man. He exists in the place where we are, in all the remoteness not merely of the creature from the creator, but of the sinful creature from the Holy Creator. Otherwise His action would not be a revealing, a reconciling action. He would always be for us an alien word. He would not find us or touch us. For we live in that remoteness. . . . Therefore in our state and condition He does not do what underlies and produces that state and condition, or what we in that state and condition continually do. Our unholy human existence, assume and adopted by the Word of God, is a hallowed and therefore a sinless human existence; in our unholy human existence the eternal Word draws near to us . . . supremely and helpfully near to us (155-156).

Thus although the Word came in sinful flesh, he did not do what we in the flesh do; he committed no sin. Again Barth turns to Scripture, this time to Romans 8:3, to argue that there

In the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does (156).

Jesus Christ did not sin, and it was impossible actually that he could for, as we have already noted above, in Christ “God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting” (151). God is the subject of this genuinely human life, something Barth will go on to explore and exposit in the following paragraphs.

Finally, Barth goes as far as to identify what constitutes Jesus’ sinlessness: standing where we stand in the state and position of fallen humanity Jesus bears the divine wrath which must fall upon sinful humanity.

He judged sin in the flesh by recognising the order of reconciliation, i.e., put in a sinner’s position He bowed to the divine verdict and commended Himself solely to the grace of God. That is His hallowing, His obedience, His sinlessness. Thus it does not consist in an ethical heroism, but precisely in a renunciation of any heroism, including the ethical. He is sinless not in spite of, but just because of His being the friend of publicans and sinners and His dying between the malefactors. . . . This is the revelation of God in Christ. For where man admits his lost state and lives entirely by God’s mercy—which no man did, but only the God-Man Jesus Christ has done—God Himself is manifest (157-158).

Several things are clear in Barth’s exposition. First, he adopts an Alexandrian christology in which the Word assumes human nature, though he goes beyond what the Fathers taught by insisting that it is a fallen human nature. Second, he understands Jesus’ sinlessness as the New Testament portrays it: the fact that Jesus did not sin, rather than in terms of an ontological sinlessness located in sinless flesh. Third, his exposition is shaped by his commitment to the priority of divine grace in salvation, and indeed his exposition serves the proclamation of the gospel of grace, for there is no place here for a Pelagian moral heroism, or for works-righteousness. Rather, the way of Christ as presented by Barth, is the way of salvation for all: a humbling acknowledgement and acceptance of the right of divine justice by which we are condemned as sinners—slain by the word of divine judgement, and yet marvellously and miraculously raised by the mercy of God into the newness of life.

Jesus did not run from the state and situation of fallen humanity, nor seek to bargain with God about the justice or otherwise of his situation, nor sought to improve his situation through his own attempts at moral goodness, but bowed under the divine judgement, and bore it “in solidarity with us to the uttermost,” so that there was done which we do not do: the will of God” (158).

The Word & Work of God

As Barth considers the eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ, he notes in passing that,

The very best of the older theologians have taught us that in the word which calls and justifies and sanctifies us, the word which forms the content of the biblical witness, we must recognise in all seriousness the Word of God. Beside and above and behind this Word there is none other. To this Word then we have good cause to hold fast both for time and eternity. This Word binds us to itself both for time and eternity, and in it all our confidence must be placed. This Word does not allow us to go beyond it. It allows us no other view of God or man than that which it reveals itself. It focusses all our thoughts upon this view and keeps them focussed there. It warns us against any distraction. This Word alone must satisfy all our questioning because it alone can do so. The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word (Church Dogmatics II/2, 150).

Barth is here arguing against speculative doctrines of divine election that begin elsewhere than with the revelation of God given in Jesus Christ. How can we truly understand the divine work if we turn from the place where God has made himself known: Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in holy scripture. When Barth says, “Word of God” we do well to keep in mind that he refers to both the Living and the Written Word in their mutual relation.

Of interest to me was the last sentence in the above citation, which provides a hermeneutical and methodological principle: The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word.

It is not uncommon to speak with Christians who adhere, for example, to the word of Jesus but who do so in a way at odds with the life and work of Jesus. Nor is it uncommon to speak with Christians who seek to follow in some aspect of the way and ethos of Jesus but do so in a way at odds with his teaching. For Barth, Jesus Christ is the criterion of all knowledge of God, but Jesus Christ as both the word and the work of God. No separation is permissible here, nor any division on the one side or the other. It may be that the emphasis falls now at this point, and then at another. It is likely that theological reflection leading to faith and work will alternate back and forth between the two, allowing both the Word of God and the work of God to mutually inform one another, but always with a precedence given to the Word which binds us to itself, and to and by which we also are bound.

Barth: A Guide for the Perplexed (Review)

Nimmo, Paul T., Barth: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017). Pp. xiv + 210. ISBN: 978-0-567-03264-5

Introductions to Karl Barth’s theology continue to arrive, each distinctive in its own way, and more or less helpful and memorable. Those new to Barth and seeking an entry to his major work will find Paul Nimmo’s new book a helpful guide, fulfilling its purpose in the Bloomsbury series. Nimmo’s approach to his subject is straight-forward. After an initial survey of Barth’s life, and an orientation to his theology in chapter one, there follow six chapters in which Nimmo provides terse expositions, or better, synopses, of the various sections of the Church Dogmatics, interspersed with brief reflective comments on Barth’s doctrine in those sections. Thus chapter two examines the first volume of the Dogmatics—the doctrine of the Word of God. Chapter three details volume two on the doctrine of God, and chapter four addresses the doctrine of creation in volume three of the work. Nimmo breaks the pattern when he reaches volume four. He devotes two chapters to an exposition of the doctrine of reconciliation, and here, instead of working through each part-volume in order as he has in the other chapters, he works through each doctrinal theme across the part-volumes, thus treating each doctrine as a unity rather than in parts as Barth did. Chapter five gives attention to Barth’s Christology and his doctrine of sin, while chapter six examines his soteriology, and the work of the Spirit in the church and in Christian life. This method of exposition has the advantage of providing a clear overview of each of these doctrines in a unified account. The final chapter is also a departure from a straight-forward exposition. In this chapter Nimmo treats Barth’s ethics, drawing together material from the each of the volumes, and including a brief exposition of the lectures published posthumously as The Christian Life.

Nimmo’s comments at the conclusion of each section highlight areas of ongoing conversation or dispute in Barth studies (for example, with respect to the doctrine of election), or methodological insights (for example, Barth’s grounding of the divine perfections in scriptural exposition). He is aware of contentions with respect to Barth’s interpreters, shows the various sides of the arguments, but remains impartial with respect to the issues. Although his own commitments are not the focus of his exposition, they do surface at times as part of his discussion. Thus Nimmo takes up common concerns that Barth is fideist, or has no place for human agency, or that his soteriology is universalist. In particular, he emphasises the event nature of God’s being and work, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in the doctrine of reconciliation. Although it is clear that Nimmo writes with great sympathy for the Barth’s project, he is no epigone, writing that “although theologians today should certainly think about Barth and with Barth, they are also called to think after Barth in their work, acknowledging that he does not have the final word” (201). While we do well to learn from the Swiss master, we do even better to follow in his way of doing theology with “responsible obedience” and “joyful freedom,” attending to the revelation given us in Christ, and aiming at the witness of this same Jesus Christ in the world.

Nimmo has provided a well-written and able overview of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. That he could accomplish this task in a work of this size is quite remarkable. That he succeeds in making Barth’s magnum opus accessible for those wanting to engage the Church Dogmatics is a worthy achievement. The real success of his work, however, will be measured in accordance with those who, having read this introduction, go on to read Barth for themselves, and then to think with Barth and after Barth in their own contexts.

Karl Barth Study Group 2017

The Karl Barth Study Group met at ANZATS for the third time, this year in Adelaide. We chose a theme for the papers this year: “Reading Romans with Barth,” in view of the upcoming centenary of the first edition of Barth’s commentary on Paul’s epistle. Although four papers were scheduled, one presenter had to withdraw due to family medical concerns. However, the remaining papers were each interesting and well received, and good interaction and discussion followed the presentations.

The first paper given by Chris Swann, a doctoral candidate at St Mark’s Theological Centre, addressed the topic “Discipleship beyond Taste & Taboo: Barth on Food & Freedom in Romans 14:1 – 15:7.” When I was doing my own work on these chapters in the second edition of Barth’s commentary I was disappointed, feeling that Barth had missed an opportunity to develop a strong theological description of relations in the Christian community. But Chris did a better job than I had with respect to Barth’s position. He recognises that Barth follows Paul by calling for the strong to sacrifice their liberty, and as such, insists that the divine krisis falls on weak and strong alike. Barth rejects all liberty as well as rigorism: all human positions are impure before God. But Chris showed that Barth’s position does indeed open into a thick description of a truly generous community ethic as we recognise and honour the One in the other.

Sean Winter, New Testament scholar at Pilgrim College in Melbourne, examined Romans 11:33-36, which is the climax of the first long section of Paul’s letter. Sean noted the utter forcefulness of Barth’s rhetoric in this section—a forcefulness attenuated in Hoskyns’ translation.

Direct knowledge of God? Nein! Cooperation with his dec isions? Nein! The possibility of holding him, or binding him, or obligating him, or ente3ring into a reciprocal relationship with him? Nein! No Federal theology. He is God, he himself, he alone. That is the ‘Ja’ of Romans.

God is known only in his inscrutability, clearly seen in his invisibility. God does not give himself over to us in his revelation but remains the utterly sovereign and hidden God.

My own paper examined Barth’s commentary in the first edition on Romans 5:12-14 where Barth addresses the question of Adam. In particular, I examined the curious translation of typos as Gegenbild, or ‘antitype.’ Is Barth playing fast and loose with the biblical text? Can we see in this translation an early indication of the theology which would come to expression later as a result of his doctrine of election in which Christ precedes Adam? I argued that the answer on both counts was No, and that in fact, Barth’s exegetical approach treated the biblical text very seriously and carefully, although also in accordance with his own hermeneutical stance which I picture as Barth standing alongside Paul looking at that to which Paul is pointing, seeking to see—in his own twentieth century context—what Paul could see, and to hear—in his own twentieth century context—what Paul could hear.

This year’s meeting of the Study Group fulfilled the purpose for which I started it three years ago. It was an encouraging and stimulating experience to meet with other scholars and explore something of Barth’s legacy. Perhaps we may even be able to do it again, next year!

New Barth Books

Two new Barth books arrived in the post this week, all the more exciting because they are primary documents rather than new books about Barth.

The first A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons contains thirteen sermons preached by Barth to his small congregation at Safenwil from July 26 through November 1, 1914 – the first three months of the war. Here is the young pastor Karl Barth, twenty-eight years of age, wrestling with the meaning of the war in the light of Scripture and theology. Nine of the sermons are based on New Testament texts, and four on the Old Testament. This is the first time these sermons have been translated for an English audience, and I am very much looking forward to reading this volume, together with its introductory essay by Canadian translator and editor William Klempa.

The second volume is also early Barth. The Epistle to the Ephesians were amongst the first lectures given by Professor Barth in the winter semester at Göttingen, 1921-1922, just months after Barth had ended his pastorate at Safenwil and finished the second edition of his Romans commentary. It seems Barth spent most of the course exegeting his way through the first chapter of the epistle, and then devoted the final lesson to chapters two through six! This volume also comes with introductory essays by Francis Watson and the late John Webster.

I have dipped at random into A Unique Time and present a brief excerpt (pp. 112-113):

So war, even this terrible war, has its place in God’s purposeful design of peace for us. Hence, for us men and women, what matters is that we have a living experience of the wrath and of the unspeakable grace of God, to which the European nations now tread so near. Nothing else will help us. In this time, victory and defeat can again be quickly reversed. For thousands of years the history of humanity has simply been a story of alternating victories and defeats. God has permitted time and again that humanity would go its way and on its way find only misery. Victory and success should no longer be what they want; what do they get out of them? Surely, we should all let God speak to us through the present storm, for which human beings are at fault. This will pass away, but you remain! As long as we keep on praying only for victory and success, God will not hear us, and we will continue to be confronted by new storms through our own fault.

Moveover, we Swiss should not think and pray in this manner. Yes, we want to pray for our beloved country, but not to a god of war and victory, in accordance with the practice of the ancient Jews and the pagans. Nor are we to pray that narrow-minded selfish prayer: “Spare our house; instead, burn down someone else’s!” Yes, and if the situation were to become serious, in no way could we boast about our just cause! Nor could we at all demand without question that the good Lord stand right behind our soldiers and cannons. We also are culpable in our whole being for the present world’s situation. Rather, we must pray as Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come! Your will be done! And forgive us our sins! And deliver us from evil!”

Lord, set us free, not from the enemies but from the powers of darkness that are in and around us, from falsehood and arrogance, meanness and thoughtlessness. Lord, let us be victorious, not over foreign nations but over ourselves, over our selfishness. Lord, let us triumph, not in outward success but in letting ourselves be filled and empowered with your love, freedom, and justice. Dear friends, let this be our war prayer, the war prayer of a neutral nation. . . .  May God grant this. If we so pray, God hears us. 

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).