Friday, October 21, 2016

Galatians: a hard question

Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

Paul doesn't seem to think that this is a hard question.  He obviously expects the Galatians to be aware at once that the Spirit came upon them as they heard and believed the good news about Jesus.  It's foundational to his argument, not only that this was the case in the past, but that it continues to be the case in the present - does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  He clearly expects that the Galatians will be able to give a straightforward and unequivocal answer: the Spirit is communicated to us, and works powerfully amongst us, as we hear and believe the message.

What do we do when the answer to that question no longer seems obvious?

If Paul hasn't massively misjudged the Galatian Christians - if they are in fact able to provide the answers which he expects to these questions - then it becomes baffling that they would be looking to work out their day to day godliness by way of the law.  And indeed, Paul seems pretty baffled and perplexed throughout the letter.  Obviously they don't see the law keeping which they are considering adopting as contrary to faith, and don't see clearly as Paul does that working out your holiness by the route of law is incompatible with reliance on the Spirit.  But at least they know, or should know, that it is the Spirit, received as they've heard and believed the gospel, who has provided the energy of their holiness thus far.

What if we're not even sure of that?

It seems pretty clear that spiritual experience is not an optional extra in the Christian life for Paul.  If you can't testify that you received the Spirit when you believed, and that the same Spirit continues to be poured out in your church community as you gather around the gospel with faith, then of course you will start to look around for another way to power the holiness engine.  But the engine of genuine godliness only runs on the Holy Spirit.  If you pour your own efforts into that fuel tank, whether shaped by the law of Moses or any other scheme, it will break down your Christian life, as surely as filling my diesel car with unleaded will lead to going nowhere fast.  It is the Spirit or nothing.

At this point, it's easy to get caught in sort of meta-law.  I can't get holy by my own efforts, I need the Spirit - now, what technique or discipline can I follow that will ensure that I experience the Spirit's power?  How do I do it?  How do I do it?  Bang, you're keeping the law, you're holiness engine blows up.

I can only think that the answer is, at least in part, waiting.  We have a hope of righteousness - certain, because grounded in Christ, but only very uncertainly worked out in our experience.  Wait for it - that active waiting which involves prayer and faith and watching for God's work.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (6)

We've made it into the third division (of four) in the chapter, which is to say we've discussed the problem of a correct doctrine of election, and we've talked about the election of Jesus Christ - although this being Barth, we will not be surprised to keep returning to that subject - and we are on to considering the election of the community.  This begins with a mercifully short section, entitled Israel and the Church.  As a preliminary observation, this was published in 1942, and that is probably significant.

Barth begins by clarifying why this section is here.  Scripture does not move from the election of Christ directly to the election of individual human beings in him.  It begins with a "mediate and mediating election", the object of which is "men as a fellowship elected by God in Jesus Christ and determined from all eternity for a particular service" (196).  Barth uses "the concept of the community because it covers the reality both of Israel and the Church" (196), and he sees the election of this community as mediate because in a sense the mid-point between the election of Christ and the election in him of individuals; and as mediating because the relation between Christ's election and the individual's election is "mediated and conditioned" by the election of the community.  Barth sees this mediation as mirroring the existence of Christ - in so far as the community stands over against the world, it reflects the freedom of God's election, and in so far as it serves the world it reflects his love.

Israel and the Church are bound together, then, as the one elect community in Christ, but Israel and the Church reflect the two different aspects of the election of Christ which we have already seen. "Jesus Christ is the crucified Messiah of Israel.  As such He is the authentic witness to the judgement that God takes upon Himself by choosing fellowship with man" (198).  But he is also "the Risen Lord of the Church.  As such he is the authentic witness of the mercy" shown by God in turning man to himself and to his own glory (198).  For Barth, Israel is the community which hears the promise, but which "resists its divine election" (198); in thus displaying what humanity is like, "Israel attests the justice of the divine judgement on man borne by God Himself" (198).  Israel reveals "the passing of the old man" (198), but in so doing it is also "the secret origin of the Church" in which the "new man becomes true" (199).  The Church, as the gathering of Jews and Gentiles together, is the community which recognises and testifies to the divine mercy in Christ - it not only hears the promise, but believes.  And yet, for all its newness, it understands its origin as being in Israel, and in its determination.

Barth is careful at this point to guard against the interpretation that makes Israel the 'rejected' community and the Church the 'elected' community.  "The object of election is neither Israel for itself nor the Church for itself, but both together in their unity" (199).  This must be so, for their election is grounded in the one election of Jesus Christ.  What Barth doesn't particularly dwell on here, but which is implicitly clear, is that there can be no question of 'the Jews' being rejected; the Church does not mean the Gentile Church, but means the gathering together of believing Jews and Gentiles.

This two-fold determination of the one elect community mirrors the two-fold determination of the elect Christ, and the two-fold determination implies the unity: behind the apparent resistance of election by Israel stands the rejection of God - but that rejection is seen in the light of God's election of man to fellowship with himself, and thus in light of God's taking this rejection on himself; behind the faith of the Church stands the election of God - but that election is seen in the light of God's rejection of sinful man, and thus in light of God's taking that rejection on himself (200).  Israel and the Church are one community, united in their witness to Christ - although only in the latter case is this actually known.

Barth backs this up by reference to Romans 9:1-5 - he will expound Romans 9-11 throughout this section.  From verses 1 to 3, he argues that "Paul is in a position to exercise the apostolic office committed to him by Jesus Christ only in the name and on behalf of both the Church and Israel,"  Indeed, "as the apostle of the Church, Paul can be, and means to be, more than ever a prophet of Israel" (202).  For Barth, Paul isn't just naturally distressed at the lack of faith shown by his compatriots; rather, this goes to the heart of his mission.  Israel's rejection of the Christ is one determining factor in his preaching.  On the other hand, from the Church's point of view, it is clear that "the Church lives by the covenants made between God and Israel" (203) - the promises which the Church grasps and believes are Israel's promises.  It is impossible for the Church to want to be without Israel, or at least in so far as it wants this it is not living from faith in Israel's Messiah.  "The Church leads no life of its own beside and against Israel.  It draws its life from Israel, and Israel itself lives in it" (205).  In the face of Israel's unbelief, the Church can only confess its faith in Israel's Messiah.  "In the name and on behalf of this dead Israel, it must confess the One who (as the Lord both of the dead and the living, Rom 14:9) does not even, in view of this form of death, cease to be the living Head of the whole community and therefore the hope even of these dead" (205).

I felt a bit uncomfortable reading through this section.  But I wonder whether I've just drunk a bit too much pluralism.  If Jesus really is Israel's Messiah, you'd have to say something like this, wouldn't you?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Creation and Covenant

Psalm 147 is a prime example of how the Psalms can be both 'nature' psalms and songs celebrating God's covenant with Israel at the same time.  Are we talking about God building up Jerusalem, or about God creating and maintaining the stars?  Is the theme that God's word melts the ice, or is it that God's word is sent to Israel for their obedience?  Ultimately these things cannot be unpicked.  Here are some slightly jumbled thoughts on the Psalm.

1.  Creation is not in itself the covenant.  There is a particularity about what God does for Israel which is lacking in creation - "he has not dealt thus with any other nation".  That God chooses Israel to be the witness of his glory (not least his glory revealed in creation!) is not just another part of the unfolding of creation itself, but is something subsequent and new.  (Although sometimes it seems to be prior and older - the building of Jerusalem takes precedence over the creation of the stars!)

2.  Creation is not a neutral sphere within which the covenant is enacted.  Israel is governed by God's word - "his statutes and rules" - but so, in its own way, is the snow and ice and water - "he sends out his word, and melts them".  There is continuity in the way God works, and he is absolute Lord over all he has made.

3.  Creation and covenant derive from the same power and evoke the same praise.  The greatness of God is revealed in his healing the broken-hearted of Israel, and in his giving the stars their names and number.

4.  Creation exists for the covenant, but there is 'gratuitous' overflow.  God fills Israel "with the finest of the wheat" - creation is geared up to provide covenant blessing.  But then, he also feeds the young ravens!  Though God's delight is in those who fear him and hope in his love, that same love overflows to those who cannot fear him and hope in him.

5.  It is pleasant to sing praise to God for his glory in creation and covenant.  When creation is seen in the light of God's dealings with Israel, there seems to be a return to the 'it was good' of Genesis 1.  Here is a positive delight in the works and ways of God which it wouldn't hurt us to imitate!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Day to day godliness

The tragic irony in the book of Galatians is that those who are encouraging the new Christians to shore up their righteousness and their status as God's children by getting circumcised are actually directing them away from the only source of holiness.

In Galatians 6, the apostle Paul launches a last sally against these people, whom he regards as agitators.  They are not genuine, he says; their concern is not real godliness, but just fleshly appearances and the avoidance of persecution.  They do not keep the law themselves.  (They perhaps did not consider themselves obligated to keep the whole law, but Paul sees the logic of their position: if you are making your righteousness dependent on things you've done, you'd better make sure you've done all the right things!)  Paul has no interest in such a position.  The cross of Christ means the death of that fleshly way of doing things.  Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything, but only a new creation.

The point, I think, is that trying to seek righteousness by fleshly methods - by which Paul means anything that is driven by human effort or works, although obviously circumcision is a very literally 'fleshly' example! - is futile because the fundamental tendencies of the flesh are towards sin. Trying to get righteous using tools which are inherently biased against righteousness is pretty foolish.  The cross of Jesus puts an end to it; he has done everything necessary, and we must trust in him.

But it seems that the question in Galatians is mainly about lived experience.  How does the righteousness we're given by faith in Christ live its way out in daily experience?  Surely at this point human effort has to come in?

Fundamentally the answer is no.  Not that there isn't hard work involved, but it flows from the same Spirit who began the new creation in us.  Since the Spirit gave us life, let's live in a way shaped and directed by the Spirit.  And how is that Spirit given and received?  Through the preaching and believing of the message of Christ.

So anything that takes us away from hearing and believing the message that Jesus alone is our righteousness also takes us away from the engine that drives practical, day to day godliness.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Overflowing glory

A slightly lengthy excerpt from Church Dogmatics II/2, p 169, which didn't make it into my Monday post:

"Because there is no darkness in God, there can be no darkness in what He chooses and wills.  Nor is there anything midway, anything neutral, between light and darkness.  In aim and purpose, God is only light, unbroken light.  What God does is well done.  Our starting point must always be that in all His willing and choosing what God ultimately wills is Himself.  All God's willing is primarily a determination of the love of the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the Holy Ghost.  How, then, can its content be otherwise than good?  How can it be anything else but glory - a glory which is new and distinctive and divine?  But in this primal decision God does not choose only Himself.  In this choice of self, He also chooses another, that other which is man.  Man is the outward cause and object of the overflowing of the divine glory.  God's goodness and favour are directed towards him.  In this movement God has not chosen and willed a second god side by side with Himself, but a being distinct from Himself.  And in all its otherness, as His creature and antithesis, this being has been ordained to participation in His own glory, the glory to which it owes its origin.  It has been ordained to exist in the brightness of this glory and as the bearer of its image.  In all its otherness it is predestined to receive the divine good which has been revealed and communicated.  This is what is ordained for man in the primal decision of the divine decree.  The portion which God willed and chose for him was an ordination to blessedness.  For to be able to attest the overflowing glory of the Creator is blessedness.   God willed man and elected man with the promise of eternal life.  Life as a witness to the overflowing glory of God is eternal life."  (Bold added).

That is to say:

Everything God wills is good and glorious because at base it comes from his own inward life of perfection as he is from eternity and through eternity Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The creation of humanity is already the overflow of this goodness and glory; I take it this means that our very existence as people owes itself to God's choice to be himself in this particular overflowing way.

The predestined end of humanity is the experience and enjoyment of God's glory; that is to say, human beings move from their creation as the overflow of God's goodness and glory to their consummation as the witnesses of God's goodness and glory - meaning those who in themselves derive their greatest joy from God's goodness and glory and therefore those who attest it.

Real blessedness and true life is to stand in the position of those who know God's overflowing glory, both as recipients and - because this glory is overflowing - as communicators.  In the present age, one can imagine this communication as evangelism; in the age to come, won't it just be praise?

Monday, October 10, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (5)

If you're feeling a bit lost, remember that the synopsis of the section is still just over here.  Today we round out Barth's teaching about Jesus Christ as the electing God and the elected Man, under the heading The eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ.    As a reminder of what it is that Barth is seeking to explain and defend in this sub-section, he summarises his doctrine thus far: Jesus Christ is the electing God (the subject of election), and he is the elected man (the object of election); "In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ.  And that is predestination" (145).  But of course that is rather different from the traditional understanding, and so it requires defence.  This is a long sub-section, which makes four main points.  I will try to give an overview, although in the nature of the case it will be with very broad brush-strokes.

1.  An "epistemological observation" (146).  Barth's thesis differs from the traditional view because in that view the subject and object of predestination "are treated as unknown" (146).  This won't do.  "For as long as we are left in obscurity on the one side or the other, and in practice both, as long as we cannot ultimately know, and ought not to know, and ought not even to ask, who is the electing God and elected man, it does not avail us in the least to be assured and reassured that in face of this mystery we ought to be silent and to humble ourselves and to adore" (147).  Are we really faced with this unfathomable mystery on each side?  "The decisive point is the reading of the Bible itself.  It is the question where and how we find in the Bible itself the electing God and elected man..." (148).  For Barth, the answer is that the Bible points us to Jesus Christ and no other, and he is critical of the theologians of Protestant Orthodoxy who generally understood and stuck to the rule that God is known in his revelation, in Christ, and in him alone - except at this point.  "Is Jesus Christ really the One who was, and is, and is to come, or is He not?" (153) - and if he is, why does that 'was' not include election and predestination?

2.  Predestination is "eternal, preceding time and all the contents of time"; it is "the beginning which has no beginning except in God's eternal being in Himself" (155).  This does not mean that God is "tied in Himself to the universe" (155) - Barth knows that God is in himself self-sufficient, and knows that it is in freedom that he has committed himself to the universe.  (I think this is a place where Barth does rely on the traditional doctrine of the immanent Trinity).  So far, so traditional.  But the difference is that for Barth "at the beginning of all things God's eternal plan and decree was identical with what is disclosed to us in time as the revelation of God and of the truth about all things" (156).  As an aside, I don't think there is any collapsing of time into eternity here; the will of God in eternity is enacted in time.  But what God does in time is identical with his will from all eternity.

3.  "The eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ is His will to give Himself for the sake of man as created by Him and fallen from Him" (161).  This is a two-fold predestination, in that it involves God's choice of himself for man, and of man for himself.  But God has nothing to gain here; in choosing himself for fellowship with man, he is "hazarding ... His Godhead and power and status" (162).  "Where man stands only to gain, God stands only to lose" (162).  In reference to the Calvinist doctrine of a double predestination - election and reprobation - Barth comments "that in the election of Jesus Christ which is the eternal will of God, God has ascribed to man the former, election, salvation and life; and to Himself He has ascribed the latter, reprobation, perdition and death" (163).  In saying this, "we say implicitly that this portion is not man's portion" (166).  In fact, "the self-giving of God consists, the giving and sending of His Son is fulfilled, in the fact that He is rejected in order that we might not be rejected.  Predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man's acquittal at his own cost" (167).  For Barth, the big problem with the classical Calvinist doctrine of predestination is that because it is not founded on Christ it ends up being dangerously balanced between good and evil, election and reprobation, life and death.  In his own reworking, election predominates, life predominates.  This does, of course, raise the question of the individual's election (or reprobation?), but Barth doesn't attempt to tackle that at this stage.  It seems to me that the logic of this point directs us towards universalism, and if Barth isn't going there we'll need to see why later.

4.  Because God's eternal will is "identical with the election of Jesus Christ" it is "a divine activity in the form of the history, encounter and decision between God and man" (175).  This point is a little obscure to me.  The overall thrust seems to be that predestination doesn't mean the setting up of an immutable law, but that it means rather the playing out of the history between God and man which we see in Jesus Christ.  On the way, Barth says that "the purpose and meaning of the eternal divine election of grace consists in the fact that the one who is elected from all eternity can and does elect God in return" (178) - I take it that what he is saying is that God's election leads to genuine relationship between God and man, not just a puppet show with God pulling all the strings.

The overall effect of this sub-section, for me, is to clarify what Barth means by making Christ the subject and object of election - and it is a beautiful and I think pastorally sensitive construction.  But along the way I'm not sure that the question of the individual's election hasn't become less clear.  God's election plays out in history, and indeed can only be known in this way ("There is no knowledge of predestination except in the movement from the electing God to elected man, and back again from elected man to the electing God" [186].) - but what does this mean for us as individuals exactly?  We'll see whether we get answers or not.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

On not fighting the culture wars

For most of the British Christians I know, it is a source of some pride or at least satisfaction that we are not fighting the culture wars.  A quick glance across the Atlantic appears to reveal a war-zone in which Christians are fighting what looks very much like a desperate and increasingly compromised rear-guard action against the modern world.  We are pretty glad to be out of it.

There are a number of reasons we're not fighting the culture wars, I think.  For starters, Christians are fairly evenly spread across the main political traditions in the UK, which makes it almost impossible for us to act as a block in political matters.  There is enormous value in this for the church - it means that we have represented in our congregations people who see the goodness in each of those political traditions, which keeps us from becoming narrow, and it brings us regularly into contact with people who share our fundamental allegiance (to Christ) whilst having a largely different political loyalty, which keeps us from becoming too partisan.  This is good.  I think there is also a different tradition of Bible-reading and interpretation, less influenced by fundamentalism (in its historic, not its pejorative, sense), which is less quick to shut down discussion with a 'because the Bible says so'.  This, I think, is also good.

Because there are good theological reasons not to join in this fight.  I think the central reason is that the gospel is not a worldview or a philosophy or a rule-book for society, but is the glorious and joyful good news of what God has done in Christ.  That good news cannot be identified absolutely with any worldview or form of society, but critiques them all; it is therefore not in order to use the gospel to defend a nostalgic or utopian social order.  Then again, there is good theological reason to avoid fighting because the offensive or defensive posture necessary for the culture wars does not sit well with the openness of the gospel or the freedom of its invitation.  Angry or frightened soldiers don't as a rule look like emissaries of the gracious King.

Still, I have a few anxieties.  The first one is about motivation.  There are all sorts of potential motives for not fighting the culture wars which are really good, but I can't help feeling that quite often we don't fight because we want to look good or credible to the world, or just because we're afraid of taking a stand for anything.  That is something I need to check my own heart on.

Second, I'm anxious that by not fighting we must just be losing by default.  After all, it only takes one side to start a war.  When you notice the preponderance of stories on the BBC seeking to normalise the idea of gender fluidity, for example, it's hard to escape the impression that just because we're not fighting doesn't mean we're not being fought against.

Third, I'm anxious that we're allowing a social order to solidify which presents a sort of penultimate challenge (in Bonhoeffer's sense) to the gospel.  That is to say, although issues of, for example, sexuality or economics are not ultimately gospel issues, it is entirely possible to create a setup of penultimate things which makes it harder for the ultimate (the gospel message) to be heard.  I wonder if we're doing that.

Fourth, I'm anxious for my children, who are growing up in a world where a Biblical stance on numerous ethical and social issues is completely implausible - much more so than when I was young.  Have we let them down?

Fifth, but perhaps most urgently, I'm anxious - or rather, distressed - at the way in which we've allowed issues of the utmost importance - like the value of life - to become grey areas.  There's nothing grey about killing babies, and I'm not sure that avoiding fighting the culture wars, even for good motives, is a good reason not to speak up.

I don't want to fight the culture wars.  I don't think we'd win anyway, and I don't think it would do the cause of Christ's gospel any good.  But what are we going to do?