Monday, September 26, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (3)

Allow me first to direct you once again to the synopsis of the chapter, and it may also make sense to read parts one and two if you haven't already.

We are now discussing The place of the doctrine in dogmatics.  As an aside, I think Barth is the theologian with the greatest appreciation for what might be termed the architecture of theology; for him, order of presentation matters, and should reflect the internal order of God's self-revelation.  So, the question that is answered by this sub-section is: why put the doctrine of election here, within the doctrine of God, ahead of discussion of Christology proper, ahead of creation, ahead of sin and reconciliation?  "As far as I know", Barth admits, "no previous dogmatician has adopted such a course" (76).  So it requires some justification.

The straightforward answer is given at once: Barth wishes "to maintain of God that in Himself, in the primal and basic decision in which He wills to be and actually is God, in the mystery of what takes place within Himself, within His triune being, God is none other than the One who in his Son or Word elects Himself, and in and with Himself elects His people" (76).  Election, for Barth, is God's own self-definition of himself, as the one who wills not to be without his people.  "There is no height or depth in which God can be God in any other way" (77).  Therefore, the doctrine of election belongs to the doctrine of God, and the latter is not complete (indeed, is fundamentally deficient) without it.  This is controversial, and I'll say more about it at the end.

By way of explaining his innovation here, Barth offers six alternative locations in which the doctrine of election has been placed historically (although the last three are pretty similar and treated fairly briefly).  In summary, they are as follows:

1.  The position of 17th century Reformed Orthodoxy, in which "the doctrine of predestination followed closely upon the doctrine of God, preceding directly the doctrine of creation" (77).  Although Barth wishes to uphold the positive concern of this tradition, he cannot quite adopt it, because as he sees it the Reformed Orthodox did not actually prioritise election, but "the tenet of the decrees of God in general", and so "it takes God in His general relationship with the world as its first datum, and understands His electing as one function in this general relationship" (78).  For Barth this is to get things backwards, and undermines the positive intention of the Reformed theologians.

2.  There is a minority position which adopts the sequence: doctrine of God; Christology; creation; predestination.  The valid insight here is "that the work of God (the work of all works!) is not creation, but that which precedes creation both eternally and in effect temporally, the incarnate Word of God, Christ" (80).  (Note that 'in effect temporally' - also controversial!)  However, the failure to co-ordinate Christology and election here makes this schema unacceptable to Barth.

3.  The third arrangement treats election "quite simply within the context of the doctrine of the Church" (81), i.e. after creation, sin, etc.  For Barth this has the virtue of a "direct relationship with the Bible" (83), which does represent God's election in terms of God's people.  However, for Barth placing the emphasis so squarely on the elect people rather than the electing God causes difficulties - not least when it comes to assurance (on which more later).

Arrangements 4, 5 and 6 can be grouped together: they place election at the beginning, middle, or end of the doctrine of reconciliation, seeing it as the first, central, or final word in that doctrine.  For Barth it doesn't really matter which of these is adopted: if election is first, it must also be central and last, and the same could be said of the other arrangements.  The problem here is that all these treatments fail to recognise that "the doctrine of reconciliation is itself the first or last or central word in the whole Christian confession" (88).  For Barth "Dogmatics has no more exalted or profound word - essentially, indeed, it has no other word - than this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself" (88).  How, then, can there be a doctrine of God which is not already essentially about the election which takes place in Christ?

The danger of making the doctrine of election "supplementary and secondary" (89) is very great.  Besides the fact that it leaves the doctrine feeling like an afterthought when it is introduced, it has the effect of distorting other doctrines.  For example, putting sin before election has the effect that "God Himself appears in a sense to be halted and baffled by sin" (90), sin creating a broken kingdom outside of God's will.  This will not do for Barth - "the regnum Christi is not one kingdom with others" (90), but in everything the triune God is sovereign, so that with regard to man Barth can say "Neither in the height of creation nor in the depth of sin is he outside the sphere of the divine decision" (90).  In short, all of God's works are to be understood as deriving from his election.  "Always and from every point of view they derive from Jesus Christ" (92).

Barth's aim here seems clear: to establish election within the doctrine of God, so that there is no shadow God standing behind Jesus Christ, who may have chosen in one way or another independently of the gospel.  The election here is the election of God to be this God, and therefore to be for his people in Christ.  We are genuinely prohibited from seeking a view or understanding of election anywhere other than in Christ.  Although it's not particularly expanded upon, there is presumably in Barth's mind the knock-on pastoral effect that this has: rather than being advised to ignore the electing God and focus on Christ for assurance (a procedure which is somewhat Wizard of Oz like), we are to focus on the electing God in Christ.  There is no other God.  I don't think that means that God constitutes himself in this election; rather, God makes himself this God and no other in his eternal election of himself to be the God of Jesus Christ and his people.  This is the decision behind which we can never go.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Being wrong about things that are real

When you read Galatians 1 you can't escape the fact that there are people in Galatia saying things about God which are wrong, at least as far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, and that he is not best pleased about it.  (As an aside, Martin Luther maintains in his commentary that Paul addresses the Galatians here "patiently", "fairly excus[ing] their error", "with motherly affection".  One suspects that Luther was measuring Paul against his own standard of harsh address here...)

Clearly what we are dealing with in Galatians is heresy.  That is to say, it is an error about God and his gospel which is sufficiently drastic to constitute a desertion of grace and a loss of the gospel.  I think that is as helpful a description of heresy as any: it is an error which makes the good news impossible.  In the case of the Galatians, who are tempted to think that righteousness comes by the law, Paul ripostes that if this were the case "then Christ died for no purpose".  In other words, if things stand as the Galatian heretics think, then the good news of Jesus makes no sense.  That is what marks their position out as heresy.

There is, however, error which is not heresy.  Unless we are very arrogant, none of us will claim to have a perfect understanding of God and his ways.  Implicitly, when we confess this lack, we accept that we are wrong in at least some of the things that we believe about God and what he has done.  However, these errors need not be such as make a nonsense or impossibility of the central claim that God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.  We are wrong, but we are not necessarily heretics.  The distinction is important, because it allows us to get along together with all our misunderstandings without being in a state of constantly judging and condemning one another.  We can have sensible conversations about how we feel our own ideas may perhaps more accurately reflect reality than those of other Christians around us, without thereby anathematising any of those Christians.  Sometimes, of course, we must pronounce Paul's anathema - but not over difference of opinion.

The fact that there is heresy and the fact that there is error which is not heresy both rely on the fact that God is real and has really done things.  This is obvious in the case of heresy: if God has testified that he has sent his Son into the world and justifies us by faith in him, it is wrong and disastrously wrong to deny that he has done this.  If God is real, there can be error which is so serious that it just isn't the real God we're talking about anymore.

But the fact that there can be error which is not heresy also points to the reality of God.  If we were just talking about a form of words, we could learn them by rote, and all make sure we were saying exactly the same things.  But if we're talking about a really existing God, inevitably we will all have somewhat different perceptions of him.  This is true of any really existing person: different things about them strike different observers, and two descriptions of their character, whilst recognisably the same person, have some differences. If heresy is avoided, we can learn from each other's different understandings of God's revelation - and avoid anathematising one another.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Theoretically...

Following on from a thought last week, I noticed as I was reading the introduction to Peter Wilson's book on the Holy Roman Empire one more source of conspiracy theory-type thinking: the prevalence of theory over actuality.  Wilson bemoans the way in which historiography of the Holy Roman Empire has run into various dead ends over the years just because the Empire didn't fit in with the prevalent theories.  In the twentieth century especially, post-colonial theory has made the very name of 'Empire' a nasty word, and introduced a whole lot of assumptions about what empires are really like - and never mind that very few of them really match up with the reality of the Holy Roman Empire.  The theory tells us that empires in general behave in this way, so this empire in particular must have behaved in this way - and if it doesn't look like it did, then it must have just been doing it behind the scenes.

In short, a preference for abstraction over detail, and generalisation over the particular, can lead us to keep on making flawed assumptions about what is really going on in any given instance.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (2)

Before you start reading this, it would be worth your while to glance again at the synopsis here.

Having given us some orientation, Barth continues his treatment of the doctrine of election by looking at The Foundation of the Doctrine.  Where does it come from?  "We must at this point recall the basic rule of all Church dogmatics: that no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as a part of the responsibility of the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture" (35).  In other words, it has to come from the Bible: it has to be "an exposition of what God himself has said and still says concerning himself" (35).

Barth rejects four erroneous foundations for the doctrine - two relatively quickly, and two in more depth.  Firstly, we cannot rely on church tradition - whilst it can be helpful, "it cannot be the subject and norm of dogmatic effort" (36).  Secondly, we cannot proceed on the basis that the doctrine is useful, for teaching or for the cure of souls (37).  This is a backwards procedure, substituting a goal for a foundation and so leaving everything in the air.  (Barth also remarks: "it can also happen that many Christians and theologians have a natural sympathy with particularly hard and mysterious and high-soaring teachings" [37].  Yes, that can happen).

The two more serious erroneous foundations are twins.  Thirdly, there is "the possibility of basing the doctrine on a datum of experience, presumed or actual" (38).  Barth has in mind the possibility of starting with the observation that, of the many who hear the gospel, only some respond positively.  He thinks that Augustine based his doctrine largely on this experience, and that it grew up as an explanation for it.  Calvin also comes in for some criticism in this regard - especially in so far as he sometimes seemed to be able to tell just who was elect and who was reprobate on the basis of their opinions or behaviour.  For Barth, this is to build theology on a foundation of anthropology, which is a bad business.

The fourth rejected foundation is "the concept of God as omnipotent will" (44).  It is not that Barth wishes to question in any way the omnipotence of God's will; he merely wishes to raise a protest against founding such a momentous doctrine on one isolated perfection of God.  What we end up with when we absolutise God's omnipotence in this way is not the God of the Bible, but an abstraction.

The third and fourth answers are more serious, and more seriously wrong, because they do at least "indicate the real problem of the doctrine: God as the subject of the election and man as the object" (52).  The problem is that as they stand they discuss an abstract God and an abstract man, and not the God of the Bible and the particular man addressed by him.  The true God not an abstract or unknown God, but is known in Jesus Christ.  Indeed, "as we have to do with Jesus Christ, we have to do with the electing God" (54).  Similarly, "in the Bible we are not concerned with the abstract concept of man" (55), or indeed the generality of mankind.  The Bible relentlessly points us to particular people - even Adam, who in some sense stands for all humanity, is the really the first particular person encountered by God, and the Old Testament presents a string of such people.  And at the end - the goal - of this string is Jesus Christ (58).

"If we would know what election is...we must look only upon the name of Jesus Christ and upon the actual existence and history of the people whose beginning and end are enclosed in the mystery of this name" (59).  Here is the foundation of the doctrine, right at the heart of God's revelation, where we see the electing God and the elected man.

Barth rounds off the sub-section with a critique of Lutheran and Reformed Orthodoxy (the Synod of Dort comes in for a beating here) for their failure to genuinely base their understanding of election on Christ.  At the end of the day, in both the great continental Protestant theological traditions election happens somewhere else, and although it might be considered sound pastoral advice to focus only on Christ, this becomes somewhat arbitrary.  After all, the true decision is made elsewhere, either in God's absolute decree or in human faith.  The critique is involved and fascinating, but the question it leaves me with is this: it is all very well to say that Christ is the foundation of the doctrine - everyone, I suppose, would say so - and all very well to critique others for not being consistent with this.  But what would it look like, really, to build a doctrine of election on the revelation of God in Christ?  And I suppose that is what the next few hundred pages will be about.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Apocalyptic and Conspiracy

One of the things that frustrates me about modern life (and, by the way, don't ever ask me to recite the list of things that frustrate me about modern life unless you have a decent chunk of time to spare and nothing constructive to do with it) is that we are now all conspiracy theorists.  We have been so indoctrinated with cynicism that we are incapable of taking anything at face value; we always want to know what is really going on, and we all assume that whatever it is that lies behind the facade it is certainly sordid.  Oh, it looks like compassion, but it is really a power-play.  It looks like the pursuit of high ideals, but it is really all about money.  Practically the only thing we can accept as straightforward and true is the idea that nothing is straightforward and true.

It seems to me that this attitude is crippling our society and making public discourse impossible, as everyone knows that their side is the bearer of the truth which everyone else wishes to suppress.  Everyone knows that the media is biased against the Tories, everyone knows that the establishment is ganging up on Corbyn, everyone knows that religion is just about power and sexual repression, everyone knows that we are being lied to all the time.  And because all our thought now is conspiracy theory, we can't talk to each other: we just react with disbelief that the other person can't see what is really going on.  And of course every apparent event or action is explicable by the conspiracy theory, and so nothing can count as evidence against my own view.

The blame for this has to be fairly apportioned.  Philosophically, Nietzsche, Marx, and I guess Freud, must surely bear their share.  They taught us that everything is really about power, money, and sex respectively.  Between them, they raised the critical thinking that characterised the Enlightenment to the level of blanket suspicion, and in so doing of course killed off the Enlightenment itself.  But alongside them, we surely have to blame politicians, religious leaders, and others, who in so many cases have shown that suspicion was warranted, and that there really was something dark lurking behind the pleasant words and seemingly pleasant actions.

But there are deeper, and less arbitrary, roots of this attitude.  Certainly Marx drew on them, albeit in a hostile way.  These roots are Biblical.  Read the book of Daniel, or Revelation.  The message of these books is essentially: it may look as if one thing is going on (specifically, it may look as if God is defeated), but what is really happening is that God's plan is being worked out according to his timetable (and leading inexorably to his ultimate victory).  How is this not just another conspiracy theory?  It has to be admitted that no evidence is allowed to count against it.  It has to be admitted that the intention of these books is explicitly to unmask an otherwise unknown reality.  So how is this different?

I suppose the question that needs to be asked is one of authority.  How did Nietzsche, or Marx, or Freud, or your average Corbynista, come to see the reality that is otherwise hidden?  It cannot be based on empirical observation - it is the lens through which the world is viewed, it is too big for any data to sustain it, it is the substratum on which the facts themselves are built.  So how do they know?

The Biblical answer, the epistemological anchor for its own grand conspiracy 'theory', is the death and resurrection of Christ - because this one event is large enough (by virtue of involving the eternal Son of God in the history of the world) to anchor the grand interpretive scheme and to give it validity.  If in the one event, the forces of death and evil are overcome, then the defeat of death and evil is what is really going on in the world.

And hopefully the grand conspiracy loosens the hold on us which the other lesser theories wish to exert.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Authority in Galatians 1

I've been doing some work in Galatians 1 ahead of the beginning of our new preaching series at CCC.  Rather than being introductory, the chapter plunges straight into the substance of Galatians, and especially the apostle's astonishment that the Galatian Christians are already in danger of abandoning the good news about God's grace in Jesus.  The focus of the chapter is the issue of authority - perhaps the new arrivals in Galatia have questioned Paul's standing as an apostle and his authority to preach, or perhaps Paul is moving to counter their own claims to authority.  Regardless of the cause, Paul is very clear: he has a divine commission to preach, and the message he preaches comes from heaven and was not learnt from any other human being.

What has particularly struck me from this chapter, though, is a little phrase in verse 8:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.
Even if we.  This is as radical a disavowal of personal authority as could be made.  If Paul, the commissioned apostle, returned to Galatia preaching a message which varied even by a hairbreadth from that which he had preached before, the Galatians should not only ignore him, but should regard him as cursed.  This makes sense: Paul's authority is his commission, and his commission is to preach this gospel, and not another.  If he switches his message, he loses his authority.  The authority goes with the message, not the messenger.

I've been thinking a little about what that means for our understanding of authority.  I suspect there is always a danger in the church of establishing church leaders and then assuming that they have authority by virtue of their office.  But this is not so.  Church leaders are appointed as ministers of the gospel; the authority goes with the gospel, not the people.  That means that the authority of the church leaders is very much curtailed: they have authority only in so far as they are serving the gospel.  It also means that, as with Paul, the authority of church leaders is much greater than we often think: in so far as they restrict themselves to their legitimate sphere, they minister to the church with the authority of heaven, of Christ himself.

I do also wonder whether this ought to have an impact on our doctrine of Scripture.  You sometimes hear expositions of this doctrine where the authority is vested in the formal, and thence flows to the material.  I mean something like this: the Bible is God's word and therefore has authority; therefore everything the Bible says is true.  Would this be parallel to Paul saying: I am God's apostle and therefore have authority; therefore everything I say is true..?  And would Paul say something like this?  Doesn't the rhetoric of Galatians 1 indicate that he would instead begin with the content - the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection - and then declare the Scriptures authoritative on the basis that they bring this message?

The difference, of course, is that Paul genuinely could have turned up in Galatia preaching another gospel, whereas the content of Scripture is established and fixed, meaning that the question mark raised by Paul over his own authority never applies to the Bible.  Still, it does make a difference to see things this way.  It overcomes the felt apologetic need to prove the formal authority of the Bible before looking at its content.  It breaks the 'because the Bible says so' circular reasoning.  And perhaps it helps us to remember that the authority of Scripture is the authority of Christ, because it witnesses to him.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (1)

The first sub-section (which is itself part of the first section, which has the heading The problem of a correct doctrine of the election of grace - see the synopsis below) of Barth's treatment of election is entitled The orientation of the doctrine.  It is a good place to get our bearings.

The first thing to note is that this is part of Barth's doctrine of God.  It fits here because for Barth God's gracious election is fundamental to our understanding of who God is.  "If it is true, then, that this Subject is disclosed only in the name of Jesus Christ, that it is wholly and entirely disclosed in Him, then we cannot stop at this point, defining and expounding the Subject only in and for itself" (II/2, 5).  The God we come to know in Christ cannot be considered apart from his gracious election of a partner without dangerous abstraction from revelation.  The only way we know God is through Christ, and so the only God we know is the God who loves in freedom.

There are two main aspects of the election of grace.  On the one hand, the word 'grace' tells us that we are dealing with "a divine benefit or favour" (10).  More than that, "It is love in the deepest condescension.  It occurs even when there is no question of claim or merit on the part of the other.  It is love which is overflowing, free, unconstrained, unconditioned" (10).  In Jesus Christ, God is gracious.  On the other hand, the word 'election' tells us that this involves choice.  "First and foremost this means that God makes a self-election in favour of this other" (10).  Although having no need of any partner, God wills himself as the partner of another.  He chooses this for himself, and therefore he chooses the other.  This just underlines the concept of grace: "God owes his grace to no-one, and... no-one can deserve it" (11).  If they nevertheless receive it, it is all of God.

Barth is clear that the doctrine of election should be for us a "proclamation of joy", "not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation" (13).  "It does, of course, throw a shadow" (13), but this shadow does not undermine its character as fundamentally gospel.  God has chosen to be the God who is with us and for us, and as such has chosen us for himself.  Therefore, "the election of grace is the sum of the gospel" (13).  For Barth, the fact that many of the classical expositions of the doctrine (e.g. Augustine and Calvin) have left it with two equal faces shows that they have fallen prey to abstraction and not adhered to the revelation of God in Christ - even though he accepts that it was their intention only to expound that revelation.

There are three concerns which Barth believes lie behind the doctrine.  Firstly, the freedom of God.  This is "the nerve of the doctrine" (19), and the reason it has always been asserted.  God is free in his grace.  "Grace cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature" (19).  When God loves the creature, he does so in freedom.

Secondly, the mystery of God.  We cannot pry into God's designs and plans.  "We were not admitted to the counsel of God as He made His election, nor can we subsequently call Him to give account" (20).  It is the will of God, and that is enough.

Thirdly, the righteousness of God.  When we are silenced by God's election, it is not by a brute fact or by force.  "It is not that our mouth is stopped...  It is rather because our ears have heard the Therefore which is the truly satisfying and convincing answer to every Wherefore" (22).  In his election, God himself communicates himself to us,  He has "given us Himself as the answer" (22), and if that is not enough for us then we are fools.

Barth suggests that the classical exponents of the doctrine of election, who agree that these are indeed their main three concerns, have fallen into the error of abstraction, and so have not seen the doctrine of election as gospel.  They have in some sense sought to go behind the God revealed in Christ in order to see some unrevealed mystery of election driving God's interactions with humanity.  This won't do for Barth.  "As against that, we must take as our starting point the fact that this divine choice or election is the decision of the divine will which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and which has as its goal the sending of the Son of God" (25).  In other words, the doctrine of election is the gospel, and is not something that stands in the shadows behind the gospel.

At the end of this sub-section, Barth begins to sketch out what an evangelical doctrine of election ought to look like, in his view.  It involves the three points of consensus, but reconfigured, as utterly good news because filled out with the knowledge of Christ.  For me, this section is beautiful, and it is interesting to think that what Barth presents as the doctrine of election here fits with what I have been taught in my Calvinist upbringing, with this difference: there is no lurking spectre in Barth, no suggestion that perhaps these things may not apply to us.  I'm not sure how to process that yet.  But here is an example of the prose:

"If a man has not been allowed to fall by God, then he cannot fall at all, and least of all can he cause himself to fall.  God himself in his freedom has decided that he shall stand, that he shall be saved and not lost, that he shall live and not die.  He cannot take these things, but they are given to him in the freedom of God...  This is the incomparable and inexhaustible blessing visited upon him in the election of God".

And that, as Gandalf might say, is an encouraging thought.