Monday, January 16, 2012

Creation and Covenant

I started reading the Church Dogmatics at volume III/1.  I can't remember why; possibly I was looking for a doctrine of creation.  I found one.  Although I would probably recommend that people who want to tackle the Dogmatics begin at the beginning, if that doesn't appeal for whatever reason III/1 is a pretty good starting point, especially if you are coming from a more conservative evangelical background.  Most of the volume is taken up with a theological exposition of Genesis 1 and 2, and the close proximity of the Biblical text provides a sense of security whilst you get used to Barth's theological method and literary style.  Moreover, the volume is relatively slender, and if you don't quite get what is going on when Descartes makes an appearance at the end, it shouldn't mar your enjoyment of the rest.

The gist of Barth's doctrine of creation can be summed up in his two-fold definition of the relationship between creation and the covenant.  Creation is the external basis of the covenant; the covenant is the internal basis of creation.  It is perhaps helpful to think in terms of spheres.  Creation is the outer sphere, which contains and provides a medium for everything within; the covenant is the internal sphere, which supports and provides a reason for the outer.  This means that the doctrine of creation is always looking toward the developing covenant of grace for its justification.  "There is no independent reason for the creature's existence and nature, no independent teleology of the creature introduced with its creation and made its own" (p94).  Creation exists for the covenant.  On the other hand, because it exists for the covenant, creation has real value, not in itself absolutely but in itself as the realm within which God makes himself known and works out his purposes.

Barth thinks the two creation accounts reflect these two emphases.  In Genesis 1, the emphasis is on creation, culminating in the creation of man and the commencement of the covenant relationship with him; in Genesis 2, the emphasis is on the covenant, with man forming the centre and creation shaped around him as a suitable environment.  For me, this is a helpful and illuminating way to reflect on these two texts, and it is of interest that it is the second text rather than the first, which develops the covenant theme more clearly, which is open-ended and leads into the rest of Biblical history.

This relationship between creation and covenant underpins Barth's doctrine of creation generally.  When he speaks of providence, for example, he means God's control in that outer sphere of general human and cosmic history, which has meaning because and as it forms the external basis of his covenant dealings in the election of his people.  In really practical terms, when it comes to application to work, Barth will not say (as many who hold to a 'common grace' position will) that work has value in itself, but that it has value in so far as it has a relation to the covenant, to one's existence as a Christian.  Of course, to state the relationship between creation and covenant in this way leads Barth to make claims which will be problematic when it comes to living: for example, he can only maintain that there is value in non-Christian existence because of Christian existence.  If that is offensive, and it is, I would suggest that it is only what Scripture itself maintains.

Barth's doctrine of creation is powerful, and I am not aware of another way of looking at the issue which so clearly shows that a) all is about Christ and b) all is God's.


  1. Very interesting Dan; thanks for this!
    Makes me want to read Barth :)

    1. Do it, Michael! I'm sure you could grab a copy from a Uni library somewhere...