Saturday, December 31, 2016

Post-truth: a post-script to 2016

1.  There are no facts that are not embedded in, and dependent upon, wider stories.  It is not that isolated facts don't communicate the whole truth; it is that they communicate literally nothing.  If they seem to communicate, it is only because they carry with them unnoticed shreds of story, or because they are already a part of a story you know and believe in.

2.  In a culture where each person is encouraged to see their life as their own personal story, to be written as they choose, an overarching narrative that goes beyond 'everyone can be who they want to be' is impossible.

3.  That each person can be whoever and whatever they want to be is the lying story which we incorporate into all our children's films, presumably because we can't think of anything better to say.  But adults who still believe this story are surely to be pitied.

4.  In fact, this story is no story at all.  A story adds meaning, but this story negates meaning.  Within it there are no characters, because there is not even a shared world.  It is in principle impossible for us to interact with each other, because we are not characters but authors, writing private stories.

5.  Two things prevent us from actually living in this absurd state: the physical world, which is a given we can't easily deny (hence natural scientists are anchored, and tend to think post-modernity is nonsense, albeit often collapsing into a naive realism); and our own sense that we are not actually in control (reinforced by things that happen within our lives).

6.  Still, given we've spent the best part of two centuries as a culture arguing that there is no truth beyond my own personal sense of what is coherent with my life story as I like to tell it, it's a little bit rich for us to complain about living in a post-truth world.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Story

We are about to tell the story again.  You know, the story of The Girl Who Met an Angel.  The tale of The Shepherds and the Sky-full of Song.  The Little Donkey Story.  The Princely Presents.

Every year we tell the story.  For most of us, whether consciously or not, this story has been a big part of our story.  For some of us it is at the heart of our story; it would be one of the first stories we told to explain who we are.  For others it is background, barely noticed cultural wallpaper, a childhood memory.  But the story is still there.

Some of us will fret over the story telling.  For some the telling itself is a problem: the spreading of a dangerous myth.  Others will ask the truth question: how much of this story is real?  Could we draw a line on a map from where we are now to the place this story happened?  Can we count the years since the angels sang?  Is it a true story?  For others that question is answered, one way or another.  For some of those the story has become a collection of facts, something to get right at all costs (it doesn't actually say anything about a stable, you know...)  For some, the lack of truth makes the story safe, something that happened in fairyland, a children's tale that doesn't touch us.

One way or another, we all ask how to fit this story into our stories (or how to keep it out).

But what if this story really is The Story?  What if it doesn't want to be fitted into our stories?  What if we are just supporting characters in The Story That Contains All The Stories?

What if the song the angels sang in the sky above Bethlehem was the exact same song they sang when the first stars twinkled into existence - just another verse?  What if they are still singing that song now, and will sing it when the Bethlehem-Baby comes as Judge of All?  What if The Story stretched from the past when there was only the Three, and into the future when the One will be all in all?  What if The Story reaches highest heaven and deepest hell, and the manger is the centre of it all?

We are about to tell The Story again.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Advent IV: The Blessed Virgin

That Christ was born of a virgin means the complete contradiction of all human possibility.

It is not as if God could not have brought his Son into the world in another way.  We need to remember that Jesus was truly and fully human, and there is no obvious reason why he could not have been born in the usual manner, with a human biological father.  But the exclusion of human initiative and activity at precisely this point underlines what is happening here: God himself is taking the initiative, God himself is coming to save.

We need to see clearly that the role of the virgin Mary is not to be the height of humanity, the chosen product of human history, prepared by grace and made ready (or perhaps even worthy!) to be the Mother of God.  Far from it.  That she is the Mother of God is the accomplishment of divine fiat.  Not even her faith and acquiescence represents a cooperation with God.  The angel, after all, doesn't come with an offer which she can accept or refuse, but with an announcement: this is happening!  Mary's own 'fiat' is to her credit, but it is only an echo of the divine.  All is grace.

When Christ returns, and rights all wrongs, and ushers in eternal life - well, that too will be a one-sidedly divine accomplishment.  All our working and watching and praying will not bring in the new age.  At best, all of those things are just our own echo of the divine 'fiat', our acknowledgement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all is done.  Like the blessed virgin after the annunciation but before the birth in Bethlehem, we have heard God say that it will be, and we have said in response: so be it.

And after that, the wait.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Comfort ye my people

One of those mornings when the lectionary readings just line up rather nicely.  From Isaiah 51:
“I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass?"
 And from 2 Thessalonians 2:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
Note that it is God himself, with and through the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives objective comfort - the eternal comfort that comes from having hope.  And it is to God himself, with and through the Lord Jesus Christ, that Paul turns to ask that the Thessalonian Christians might have that comfort as a present, subjective reality.  (And implicitly Isaiah's preaching is doing the same: since it is God who comforts Israel [objectively], let Israel be comforted by God [subjectively]).

Comfort is a very Advent-y word.  It carries with it the sense that there is darkness and grief - it isn't joy or celebration, it's the arm around the shoulders when things are tough.  It's someone walking alongside you through the hard times.  That God does this, both by giving us objective reason to be comforted and by subjectively comforting our hearts - that is glorious.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Who is a God like you?

I preached the last two chapters of Micah at Cowley Church Community yesterday.  A lot of the material was familiar to us from the last couple of weeks - Judah's sin, God's judgement.  But there were two main new things.  One is in Micah 6:6-8:
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
This passage follows on from a plea from God, who recounts his history with Israel, and asks plaintively how he has burdened them that they should turn against him?  Judah's response should not be read as a genuine groping after some way to atone for sin and restore relationship with God.  It is rather an attempt to buy God off.  What can I give you so that you will leave me alone?  But God will not leave Judah alone; not for anything.  There is no offering they could give that would divert his attention from them, precisely because they are loved.  God will have their hearts and lives, entire and complete.  He will have them walk with him.  His determination to bestow his love on his people is what leads to his judgement on their sin!

Question: how do I try to buy God off?  What activities or things do I offer him, whilst still really desiring to maintain some little sphere of my own, independent of his love?

 The second really new thing is in Micah 7:8-9.  The previous chapters have shown that after judgement Judah will be restored.  But here is the dramatic revelation that God himself will turn from being their judge to being their advocate:
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be my light.
Because I have sinned against him,
I will bear the Lord’s wrath,
until he pleads my case
and upholds my cause.
Micah does not minimise either the horror of the judgement on Judah, or the extent to which it is well deserved.  But he looks beyond it, to the mercy of God which is sure to come.  And that leads to praise!
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry for ever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
Who is a God like this?  Who turns in mercy to his sinful, rebellious people?  A God who delights, not in judgement, but in mercy?

And then from the perspective of the New Testament: who is a God like this, who not only lifts us when we have fallen, not only gives us light when we sit in darkness, not only pleads for us after we have borne the wrath of the Lord - but actually comes down to us in our fallen state, actually sits in the darkness of the fallen world and finally the darkness of the tomb, actually bears the weight of his own wrath against sin in our place?  Who is a God like this?  Is there any but Jesus?

Question: does the God I worship and live for and preach look like this?  If so, why don't I worship him more joyfully, live for him more wholeheartedly, preach him more passionately?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent III: Prepare the way

The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord!'

That there will be a figure coming ahead of the Lord, one to prepare his way, is a theme of Isaiah's prophecy, and also Malachi 3 and 4.  The New Testament sees John the Baptist as fulfilling this role.  He is to prepare the way, to make things ready for the Lord when he comes, to prepare a people who are ready to receive him.

But who was prepared?  Just a few, I suppose - there were those who followed John initially and then became disciples of Jesus.  According to the fourth gospel, some at least of the apostolic band may have been amongst them.  And maybe there was some sort of general preparation going on, some sort of shaking loose of some of the common assumptions of first century Judaism, perhaps a little expectation-raising.  But in the end, even the prepared don't seem very prepared.  The disciples fail to grasp the mission of Jesus until after the resurrection - arguably until after Pentecost.

Who was prepared, really?

John the Preparer stands in a curiously ambivalent light.  There is the John who cries 'behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!', the first to acknowledge the identity and mission of the Messiah.  This is the same John who is happy for his own reputation to be diminished, so long as the fame of Jesus is increased.  He is the herald, the friend of the bridegroom, and as such the greatest born of woman.

And yet, even in that phrase, something else is said: the least in the kingdom is greater than John.  The imprisoned herald openly questions whether this truly is Messiah.  There is something odd about the fact that John continues to have a band of disciples even after Messiah has come.  Ought not the forerunner to have completely given way?  Biblically this tension isn't resolved until the apostle Paul baptizes some disciples of John in Ephesus, years later.

It strikes me that even the ministry of John, the Preparer, the one who makes ready - even his work by itself is a dead end, a kind of cul-de-sac, a preparation which leaves nobody prepared.  It is only as Jesus himself pushes forward into the situation that the preparation of John has genuine light shone upon it.  The preparation proves to be ineffective except where it is taken up by a new and special work of grace; a work of grace which shows itself to have no need of preparation at all.

I'm struck this morning that this is Christian ministry: preparing, making ready, clearing the way - and knowing all along that nobody will be prepared, and nothing will be made ready, and the way will remain blocked, unless Christ himself comes and makes our work effective.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Person and Work

Who is Jesus and what has he come to do?

A simple but profound point from George Hunsinger (in Disruptive Grace, 131):  "The work presupposes the person just as the person conditions the work."  And then in more detail:
In any Christology, at least when internally consistent (which cannot always be presupposed), the person (p) and the work (w) of Christ mutually imply each other: If w, then p; and if p, then w.  Insofar as modern Christology has typically abandoned a high view of Christ's person, it has also abandoned the correspondingly high view of Christ's saving work...
If what we need is just an example, a very enlightened human will do - a relatively small w requires a relatively small p!  But if we need a saviour, we need God - only the divine p is sufficient for this w!

Or to think it forwards from Christmas, if the Messiah is really God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made - well, if he really is this p, we can assume that he has come to do a very great w...

Monday, December 05, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (13)

And so we arrive at the very last sub-section of this chapter - The determination of the rejected.  Who are these 'rejected' according to Barth?  "A 'rejected' man is one who isolates himself from God by resisting his election as it has taken place in Jesus Christ.  God is for him; but he is against God.  God is gracious to him; but he is ungrateful to God.  God receives him; but he withdraws himself from God.  God forgives him his sins; but he repeats them as though they were not forgiven.  God releases him from the guilt and punishment of his defection; but he goes on living as Satan's prisoner.  God determines for blessedness, and His service; but he chooses the joylessness of an existence that accords with his own pride and aims at his own honour" (449).  Underneath this, of course, is that the 'rejected' is, objectively, elect in Christ according to Barth - and yet, subjectively, does not and will not know that election.  What is the meaning of the life of the rejected?  "What is God's will for them?" (450)

Barth begins by stressing that the determination of the rejected is very different from the determination of the elect.  This is not a balanced equation.  There is only one will of God, which we know in Christ; hence we can only see the rejected as standing under the "non-willing of God" (450).  The rejection of each human being has been transferred to, and borne away by, Christ; "It is, therefore, the rejection which is 'rejected'" (450).  There is no independent sphere of rejection - as if God willed election on the one hand, and rejection on the other.  There is only the holy electing love of God in Christ.  "This love may burn and consume him as a rejected man, as is fitting, but even so it is still to him the almighty, holy and compassionate love of God" (450).  It is therefore impossible to consider the rejected apart from the elect - indeed, only the elect can truly know the rejected, seeing him primarily in Christ as he takes on our rejection and dies, but secondly in himself and his own godlessness, and only then thirdly in others who resist their election in Jesus Christ (451-2).  Rejection is the shadow of election, having no independent existence.

Standing in that shadow, the rejected man has three basic determinations according to Barth.  Firstly, "it is the determination of the rejected to manifest the recipients of the Gospel" (455).  He reveals in his shadowy existence the need of divine election.  He represents the lie, that man is still a sinner outside of Christ.  This "is only a representation, [and] as such it is a lie, because this man - the truly rejected - cannot be any other than Jesus Christ" (455).  In showing the nature of elect man who does not know and resists his election, the rejected reminds the elect both of who he or she is but for the mercy of God, and also continually calls the elect to witness to the gospel, and therefore to the election of this other, who does not know himself as elect.

Secondly, "the rejected has the determination constantly to manifest that which is denied and overcome by the Gospel" (456).  The gospel is made clear by the witness which this rejected man continues to bear to "himself and his false choice as the man isolated over against God" (456).  And thirdly, "the rejected has the determination, in the distinctive limitation of his existence, to manifest the purpose of the Gospel" (457).  "The rejected has no future...  But the purpose of the divine election of grace is to grant to the man who in and of himself has no future, a future in covenant with God" (457).

I wonder if we might summarise by saying that for Barth the rejected is determined as the frontier of God's election.  Without this line, this border, it would be impossible to make out the shape of God's election.  However, for Barth this is a frontier to be crossed - the elect recognise that beyond this frontier lie those who are objectively determined by their election in Christ, just as they themselves are, but are not yet living as those determined by this election; therefore they must bear witness on this frontier to the great love of God in Christ.

The long exegetical part of this sub-section (which will get only the barest summary here) has mostly to do with Judas Iscariot - "the character in which the problem of the rejected is concentrated and developed in the New Testament" (458).  Judas is an apostle and disciple, no less than the others, and indeed his solidarity with the others is stressed in the gospels.  He is one of the twelve.  The NT does not indicate that he was a false apostle; "what it does say is that it was one of the genuine apostles, one of the genuinely elect, who was at the same time rejected as the betrayer of Jesus" (459).  Judas is included in everything which benefits the other apostles - his feet are washed, he takes the Lord's Supper - but this does not prevent his sin, which "makes it clear that as far as he was concerned Jesus was present with the disciples in vain.  He protected and watched over them in vain" (465).  Still, in all this, Judas only exposes the sin of all the apostles.  They were all potentially Judas.  Apart from Jesus' special cleansing "even Peter would be in the fellowship of Judas, the fellowship of the devil" (473).

The particular form of Judas' sin was that he handed over Jesus to the priests (who handed him over to the Gentiles).  Barth notes that this language of 'handing over' is later applied to the apostolic preaching, and indeed that it finally has its root in God's handing over of his Son to death.  A positive light is thereby cast on the act of Judas, without in any way diminishing his guilt.  He in his guilt can only serve the election of God, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly.  In the end, God's election encompasses even Judas' sin.

"Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves.  From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God.  We certainly cannot deny its reality.  But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ..." (496).  Even for Judas, in his unrepentant suicide?  "Scripture speaks of countless men, as it does of Judas, in such a way that we must assume that they have lived and died without even the possibility, let alone the fulfilment, of any saving repentance.  if there is also light for them, and hope, it can only because and if there is an eschaton, a limit, by which even their inescapable bondage is hemmed in from outside" (496).  Barth refuses to see Judas as necessarily saved - no apokatastasis - but he also refuses to pronounce him definitively damned.  His guilt, which is great, nevertheless reaches its limit in that Jesus Christ has borne the rejection which it merits.  With regard to Judas and all those who present themselves to us as 'rejected', "it cannot be our concern to know and decide what has or will perhaps become of them, for they also stand in the light of what God has done for the world" (497).

If my image above is a correct interpretation of Barth - if rejection is the frontier of election and a border which cries out to be crossed with the gospel - it is perhaps even more true, or more deeply true, to see election as the border of rejection.  What presents to us as a duality of the elect and the rejected is itself encompassed and surrounded by the election of Jesus Christ, and of all men in him.  And if we have to leave their final fate to God, we know that in Christ he is their loving God - even if that love is a fire which burns.  Yes, in Christ he is the electing God.  Even to Judas.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Advent II: Might not die

The syllogism: All men must die, Caius is a man, therefore Caius must die, is no doubt an illuminating statement of pagan wisdom.  But it is not a statement of Christian wisdom...  It cannot be, because it overlooks the parousia of Jesus Christ...  (IV/3.2, 924).

People often think that the most characteristic claim of Christianity is that there is life after death.  The Christian gospel, based on the resurrection of Christ, does indeed make that claim.  But if it has become characteristic, that is because we Christians have lost sight of the bigger, and more outrageous, claim that the gospel makes about the end of human life.

We believe that we might not die.

Indeed, every Christian must believe, on the grounds that the resurrected Christ has promised to return, and that this return will be the final, consummating event of human history as we know it, that there is a possibility that nobody else will die.

From the perspective of the NT, the whole of history is now hastening towards the final revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ in his coming.  In that perspective, there is a sense in which the 'normal' way for an individual human history to come an end now - in conformity with the end which we expect for general human history - is with the return of the Lord.  Death is a hanger-on, a left-over from an earlier age, an age which still looked forward to the cross and did not yet look out with triumph from the empty tomb.

You might not die.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Anything but the blood?

At the moment I'm reading through Deuteronomy with our ministry trainee, and yesterday we hit chapter 12.  Two things are striking about this chapter.  On the one hand, there is the mandatory rejoicing!  When the people of Israel have entered the land, God will choose a place, and at that place the people are to make their offerings and sacrifices "and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God".  The sacrifices, it is true, are offered to God, but the meat of the sacrifices is then eaten in a communal meal of joy in the presence of the Lord.

The second thing is more unique to this chapter.  Provision is made for eating meat away from the sanctuary, slaughtered without the sacrificial system.  This is just a practicality - it may be a long way to the place where YHWH has put his name, and the people will want meat.  That's fine - Moses is keen that they be able to enjoy God's blessings in the land.  They can eat meat apart from sacrifice.  But they still can't eat the blood.  That is a long-standing prohibition, the rationale for which seems to be most fully unpacked in Leviticus 17.  The blood represents the life of the creature, and that has been give to Israel to make atonement - it is for the covering of sin, not for consumption.  Blood has a sacred function, symbolising the life of the animal which has been given in exchange for the life of the sinner.  Even so-called 'profane slaughter' is linked to the sacrificial system, and the pouring out of the blood on the ground is a reminder that the animal's life stands between the Israelite and death.

Against this background, Jesus says (of the wine which the disciples have just drunk!), "this is my blood of the new covenant".  In Holy Communion, we are commanded to not only eat the flesh, but also to drink the blood.  Surely significant!

I've long thought that the part of the sacrificial system we ought to look to for parallels with the Eucharist is the meal in the sanctuary.  The sacrifice made, the worshippers celebrate their fellowship with God by eating in his presence of precisely the meat of the sacrifice.  We Christians eat together in God's presence, feeding on the body of Christ.  It is not a sacrifice - the one and only sacrifice has been made - but is a fellowship meal, enjoying together the fruit of the sacrifice.

But if that's right, what does it mean that in contrast with the OT sacrifices we are particularly commanded to take the blood?  Somebody has surely done some proper work on this, but a possibility that occurred to me was that the OT sacrifices never could 'transmit' life.  The animal life given up made atonement, but did not 'go into' the worshipper and bring new life.  There was transfer of guilt to the animal, and vicarious death (all symbolic, of course, of the great sacrifice), but there was no transfer the other way - no life flowing from the animal to the redeemed worshipper.  It strikes me that it is this transfer which characterises the various descriptions of the new covenant in the prophets - not just sin washed away, but sinners changed.  Is that why we drink of the blood of the new covenant?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (12)

In the second-to-last sub-section of this chapter, Barth discusses The determination of the elect - that is to say, the question "to what is he elected?" (410).  What character or goal is given to the elect individual by virtue of his election?  It will not be surprising to anyone who has vaguely followed thus far that "the comprehensive and in every respect decisive answer to the question is given in the fact that an elect man is in any case elect in and with and by and for Jesus Christ" (410).  Jesus Christ is for him, and therefore "the purpose for which he is chosen is to be the kind of man for whom Jesus Christ is" (410).  But this implies also a relation to the community of faith.  "Thus every election of individuals is an election in the sphere of the community" (410).  Indeed, "no individual can be His unless he is also theirs" (411) - there is no belonging to Jesus which does not entail belonging also to his people.

But what is the determination of those who are elect in Christ and in his community?  For what is the elect individual elected?  I will try to enumerate the things that Barth mentions as particular determinations, although he doesn't himself list them in this way. Firstly, "the determination of the elect consists in the fact that he allows himself to be loved by God" (411).  He is given this determination in and with Christ, whose own determination is "to be the One loved of God from and to all eternity" (411).  Secondly, being determined as the recipient of God's love, he is also determined for blessedness.  "God chooses the elect from eternity and for eternity, that he may catch up a beam or a drop of His own blessedness and live as its possessor, that he may rejoice in Him and with Him" (412).  This, too, is the determination of Christ, as particularly revealed in his resurrection and ascension.  Thirdly, then, he is determined for service, and this service consists of gratitude.  "Gratitude is the response to a kindness which cannot be itself be repeated or returned, which can therefore only be recognised and confirmed as such by an answer that corresponds to it and reflects it" (413).  Fourthly, he is determined for praise.  "He is elected in order to break forth with his weak voice, but with all his voice, into the rejoicing which has its source in the divine election of grace, and courses through all God's creation, accompanying all his works and ways" (414).

Fifthly, but decisively for Barth's whole presentation, "each elect individual is as such a messenger of God" (415).  This is the shape of the service which the elect render in their blessedness and gratitude and praise: they are sent to be apostles.  "The reason for this is the election of Jesus Christ to be an apostle of grace" (415).  The elect individual is not simply to rejoice in his own election and blessedness, but he has to look out to those who do not yet know their own election in Christ.  "When he thinks of them, he has to reckon with the recollection that their lost life outside the circle of proclamation and faith displays the rejection which would necessarily have fallen on him, too, apart from Jesus Christ; and with the expectation that the work of the Holy Spirit is the result of the decision which has also been made about their human life.  And in this recollection and expectation he has to address them" (415).  The elect individual is not the electing God; he has not control over whether and how people respond.  But as the elect individual, elect in The Elect, he is determined as one who follows Christ in bearing witness to the divine decision made in Him.

Barth sees in the election of the individual "an opening up and enlarging of the (in itself) closed circle of the election of Jesus Christ and his community in relation to the world - or (from the standpoint of the world) an invasion of the dark kingdom of the lies which rule in the world, a retreat and shrinkage of its godless self-glorification" (417).  In other words, far from being a restrictive concept (only the elect will be saved), election is an expansive concept - the election of each individual, as it is actualised in his call to faith, represents "the ongoing of the reconciling work of the living God" (417).  The circle of election is enlarged.  "It is [God's] concern what is to be the final extent of the circle" (417), and we cannot insist that it must ultimately include everyone.  "No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced.  Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind" (417).  The point here is that we are still dealing with the living God in the freedom of his grace, not with a metaphysical system of election.  However, neither can we impose any necessary limit on the circle of election - for in Christ we only know God's election as "a decision of His loving-kindness" (418).  Knowing God's electing grace in Christ, the elect individual has confidence in God's ability and will to call more and more to himself.  "He will never renounce the recognition of their (and his own) lost condition...  Nor will he renounce the confidence that the same grace is addressed to them to" (419).  It is up to God to decide the end result of the ministry of reconciliation; it is up to the elect individual to pursue that ministry.

The exegetical element of the sub-section falls into three parts.  First, Barth points out that in the OT the determination of the elect is always obscured by the fact that there is always a shadow - alongside Abel there is Cain, alongside David there is Saul etc.  Only in Jesus is this resolved (as discussed previously).  Second, he comments on the extent of election.  The salvation of all men is affirmed as God's will, citing 1 Tim 2:4 alongside 1 Cor 5:19, Jn 1:29 and 3:16-17,  and 1 Jn 2:2 amongst others.  "When we remember this, we cannot follow the classical doctrine and make the open number of those who are elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number to which all other men are opposed as if they were rejected" (422).  "And yet it is not legitimate to make the limitless many of the elect in Jesus Christ the totality of all men" (422).  It is a question of the freedom of the living God, but t the living God who has revealed himself in Christ - therefore, freedom, but always the freedom of the God who loves.  How many will be elect, in the end?  "It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which decides this" (422).  The third part of the exegetical element is an in-itself very interesting exposition of the character of the apostolate in the gospels, which can perhaps for our purposes can be summarised in the observation on the calling of the first disciples that "when Jesus calls them to Him, He does not promise that He will make them Christians, or even that He will make them first Christians and then as such apostles; but He immediately promises that He will make them fishers of men..." (444) - in other words, the apostolate is as such the character of the elect individual and community.

In all this we see the impact of Barth's Christological reformulation of the doctrine of election.  Because the elect is Christ, and because all others are elect in him, their election necessarily means that they are elected to service and witness.  Their election implies their sending, so that others might come to know themselves as elect by hearing and believing their testimony.  This is in striking contrast to the classical doctrine, in which the absolute decree of God to election/reprobation implies a closed and not an open system, and therefore the danger of election and mission becoming separated and even contradictory.  There is still some obscurity here, and I wonder whether in some sense Barth hasn't just moved the mystery from eternity past (in the classical doctrine: why did God at that point elect some and not others?) to the present (why does God call some and not others?) - but at the least, the Christological basis gives a different flavour and feel to the doctrine which does seem to me to have better fit with the Biblical emphasis.  What do you think?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent I: Contentment?

How do we hold together the Bible's call to be content in all circumstances with the fact that the Bible itself points us towards a glorious future hope for which we are to be yearning and looking forward?  How can we be content in the here and now, whilst acknowledging that we don't now have the one thing which we truly need and (at least sometimes) want - the presence of the Lord Jesus?  How can we be content in a broken world that is full of both suffering and evil (not to mention our broken selves, which are similarly stuffed full of woe and wickedness), whilst seriously and genuinely waiting for the redemption of creation?

The answer must have something to do with the relationship between the first and second coming of Christ.  One way of thinking about this relationship might go something like this: Jesus came to get the ball rolling on salvation, and he will come back to put the finishing touches to it; in the meantime he is, through the church, carrying on the plan.  On this scheme, I can understand the discontent that we are meant to feel - it's the discontent of a half-done job - but not the radical contentment to which we are called.

I think the Biblical relationship is more like this: Jesus came to accomplish salvation; there is nothing left to do, and the point of the continuation of history is just to give space for people to come to acknowledge his salvation, enjoy it, and bear witness to it.  His second coming will be to reveal that salvation as it has already been accomplished, thus rolling back the darkness of sin and suffering which still clouds our view of his victory, and vindicating both himself and all those who have trusted in him.  Contentment, then, is based on the accomplished work of Christ - everything needful has been one.  Yearning is based on the hidden nature of this accomplishment - we want to see him glorified!

And if that's right, then one aspect of advent must be mission.  We want to see him in glory, acknowledged and worshipped for all he has done.  That will happen, and we can rest in the knowledge that it will happen.  But a part of our waiting will surely be to bear witness in the darkness to his great light, so that we already see him glorified in the lives of people who come to know him.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Won't shout, won't stop

When God sends his Servant, according to Isaiah 42, he will be gentle:
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench...
By contrast with the frenzied activity of the idolater, God's Servant is serene.  By contrast with the harshness of the rule of idols, God's Servant is gentle.  The images are of such extraordinary care - he won't snap off the bent over reed; he won't snuff out the candle which is sending up a thin column of smoke.  God's Servant is almost excessively gentle.  He will bind up and preserve.  He won't write off anything that has the least good in it.

But neither will he stop in his mission to transform the world:
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
In his quiet and gentle way, God's Servant will persist in his dealing with the world, without faltering or turning back, until his kind and gentle rule is acknowledged throughout the world.  He won't quit.  Not with individuals, though they be reeds which are ever so be bruised and candles which barely smouder.  Not with all creation, though there seems to be every reason to despair of his ultimate success.  He will press on until he brings it about, because that is what has been given him by God.

What a Saviour Jesus is - what patience and what perseverance!  Christians, let's be encouraged that this is how he deals with us and with the world; and let's be imitators of him as we live out our witness to his goodness.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The transubstantiation trap

Transubstantiation is a very sensible and coherent way of expressing Roman Catholic eucharistic doctrine - or at least it was in about 1250.  The classic formulation, in Thomas Aquinas, explains that in the mass the essence or substance of the bread and wine is genuinely changed into the essence of the body of Christ.  The bread and wine still appear to be bread and wine to us, because their accidents are unchanged; that is to say, all that appears to the senses is still exactly as it was before.  Faith is required here: not to make the change (this is thought to be objective), or to receive the changed host (this is done, whether to judgement or salvation, by everyone who partakes), but to perceive the host as genuinely being the body of Christ, since the senses won't help.

As I said, this all makes sense in 1250.  Aquinas leans heavily on Aristotelian philosophy for the language of substance and accidents.  For Aristotle, accidents or properties of things reside in their substances.  The substance is the thing proper, and the accidents are, if you like, the presenting face.  Of course, for Aristotle these things couldn't be separated.  The idea that you could have a table that presented as a chair whilst remaining a table would have seemed bizarre to him.  Aquinas would appeal to miracle here, again not unreasonably.

Now, there are all sorts of reasons not to follow Roman eucharistic theory at this point.  The general thrust is wrong.  But granted the basic direction of Roman Catholic theology, this made sense.  Unfortunately, because at the Counter-Reformation the Catholic Church rather painted itself into a corner in terms of doctrinal change and the impossibility thereof, this is still the way the mass is explained today.  And it makes no sense.  Nobody believes in substances and accidents in this way anymore; nor should they.  It is certainly not inconceivable that the doctrine of the mass could be re-expressed in a way which kept its essentials intact without relying on an obsolete philosophy - but Roman Catholicism has closed that path to itself 500 years ago.  It's stuck with Aquinas, and therefore with Aristotle.

The reason I mention all this is because there is always a danger that Evangelicals, who are in theory open to their doctrine being continually reformed by the word of God, actually fall into the trap of holding on to formulations that no longer make sense, and in so doing losing the heart of the doctrine they're trying to defend.  As an example, I was reading someone recently who, when challenged that the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy is a species of philosophical foundationalism, simply gave the verbal equivalent of a shrug - we are apparently committed to epistemological foundationalism.  That would be an error.  Foundationalism has, in my view rightly, been found wanting philosophically.  And if our doctrine really springs from Scripture, we'd hardly want to wed ourselves completely to a philosophical doctrine that emerged with the Enlightenment!  Surely we can express our commitment to the authority of Scripture in a new way - without losing it?  Because my worry is that we will surely lose it - or at least, lose adherence to it - if we continue to express it in terms of an obsolete philosophy.

This is not about compromising with the spirit of the age.  It's about recognising that we have always used the language and concepts of the day to express what we think we're hearing in Scripture.  That is both inevitable and right - how else would we communicate today?  But yesterday's formulations must be open to re-expression if we're to make sure that it is God's revelation attested in Scripture that is driving our doctrine, and to avoid getting stuck in philosophical cul-de-sacs.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Less shopping

I've been preparing to preach the first couple of chapters of Micah at CCC, to kick off our advent series.  One of the things that is unavoidable in the chapters is that amongst the sins for which Samaria and Jerusalem are condemned - which include idolatry and a rejection of God's word - is the sin of greed, and oppression through greed.
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them away;
they oppress a man and his house,
a man and his inheritance.
Of course this goes together with the rejection of the true God and his word.  Either you trust him, or you seek to establish your own security.  One way to go about that is to ensure that you have more of everything than anyone else.  Then again, if your delight is not in him, you will find it in your stuff, and because stuff is not actually that satisfying you will need to be constantly topping up your stuff.

It's really easy to condemn our society along these lines.  We have built an economic system which relies on persuading us that we need more things, and even that we ought to be prepared to go into debt to get them.  In the US, there is the bizarre phenomenon of a day dedicated to giving thanks for what people have and enjoy being followed directly by a day dedicated to getting more stuff; in the UK, we are cursed by having retailers try to persuade us that 'Black Friday' is an important shopping day, even though we don't even mark Thanksgiving!

But one of the striking things about Micah is that complaints which one might expect to find directed at 'the world' are in fact directed at God's people.  I think that's how verses 2 through 5 of chapter 1 work.  Verses 2 to 4 use characteristic imagery to describe God coming in judgement from his temple - no doubt this would get a cheer for Micah's audience in Judah.  But then in verse 5 it emerges that it is Israel and Judah's sin which has drawn forth the judgement.  They are the targets of God's wrath.

So we in the church have to ask ourselves: how have we been different?  How, in particular, have we resisted consumerism?  It strikes me that this needs to be more than just standing against the particular excesses of acquisitiveness.  We are not, on the whole, ostentatious.  Just comfortable.  But is 'just comfortable' sufficiently different to really witness to the world that our delight and trust are in God and not in stuff?  If we were in the presence of alcoholics, we might restrict ourselves from an otherwise totally legitimate drink, as a witness and as a help.  I wonder if, given our society of shop-aholics, if we ought not to restrict even legitimate purchases.

This is a rebuke for me.  I am not by nature a thrifty person.  But I am going to try to do less shopping - especially on Friday...

Monday, November 21, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (11)

This week's sub-section bears the title The elect and the rejected.  At this point, we are moving beyond (although never away from!) the Christological basis of the doctrine to answer the question "what is it that makes individuals elect men (in Jesus Christ and by means of his community)?" (340).  Barth's first answer is simply that these particular men stand in a special relationship with God: their being is particularly determined to conform to his own (340-345).

But what does this mean in their lived experience?  "To the distinction, peculiar to the elect, of God's relationship to them and their relationship to God, there corresponds objectively their difference from other men.  This difference is their calling" (345).  Concretely, this means that they are able to hear the proclamation of the community, and that in them this proclamation meets with (or perhaps awakens?) faith.  The difference between the elect and other men is simply that they hear the good news of their election in Jesus Christ and by faith are assured that this is indeed their election.  By the work of the Spirit, these particular men are made witnesses to the election of Jesus Christ by the 'activation' of their own election through faith.

By contrast, the 'rejected' (and for Barth the scare quotes will always be necessary when it comes to this term) have no positive determination.  By contrast with the elect, who are determined as witnesses to the truth, the 'rejected', not possessing the Spirit or faith, and being unable to hear the proclamation of their own election in Christ, live in a way which lies against this truth.  That this is a lie is important: "those who undertake the attempt [to live as if non-elected, to live against and without God] may indeed lie - but can only lie - against the divine election of grace" (346).  The lie cannot actually render the truth any less true, even for them.

What is striking is that for Barth the elect and the 'rejected' belong together, "in the sphere of the divine election of grace" (346).  This certainly does not remove the distinction between them, but it does mean that on the hand and the other they attest Jesus Christ.  "Because this One is the Elect and the Rejected, He is - attested by both - the Lord and Head both of the elect and also of the rejected" (347).  On the one hand willingly and to their own joy and salvation, and on the other hand unwillingly and to their own misery and destruction, human beings witness to Christ.

That unity leads to "a very definite recollection for the elect and an equally definite expectation for others" (347).  The recollection for the elect is that their distinction as God's elect belongs primarily and properly to Jesus Christ.  They cannot stand on their election as if there were something in them that made them different from others; they can only stand on Jesus Christ.  But that leads directly to the expectation which they can have for others.  If they themselves stand only on Jesus Christ, they acknowledge that it is because Jesus Christ has become the rejected one for them and in their place - that he himself is the Rejected one.  But this is true of all the others.  They can only be the 'rejected', because the genuinely Rejected is Christ Jesus.  Their lie is serious, and it stands in the shadow of his rejection - it is a real danger and threat - and yet behind it all is Jesus Christ.  Therefore the elect "in view of their own election and in view of the Rejected one who has taken all their sins to Himself" have an expectation of all those others - "that this distinction [i.e. election] may also become theirs, no matter who they are or wish to be" (349-50).

In other words, the elect and the 'rejected' never stand over against each other without the elect at least being aware of their deep solidarity, and therefore the possibility that the 'rejected' will also be the elect.  (I'm tempted to say that Barth regards the continuation of their 'rejection' as impossible, but he doesn't exactly say that here; besides, he does often talk about people doing the impossible thing when they choose sin and rebellion, so maybe that doesn't help).  It is actually only in Jesus Christ that we truly see election and rejection brought face to face "in one and the same person" (351), and it is from him that we learn that rejection is for the sake of election.  "Thus Jesus Christ is the Lord and Head and Subject of the witness both of 'the elect' and also of 'the rejected'.  For all the great difference between them, both have their true existence solely in Him" (353).

Barth's treatment here is interesting because he does seem, very briefly, to reintroduce the classical problem of why some believe and others do not - it is the concrete expression of the particular relationship to which some are determined by God, effected by the Holy Spirit.  The difference is that Barth think that this has been stripped of its menacing dualism.  Nobody can say that because someone has not believed they are not in any sense elect; nobody can (or ought to) agonise over whether they are personally elect or not.  Christ is the elect one, as he is the rejected one, and in him every human being is rejected (as a sinful rebel) and elected (as a child of God).  Nevertheless, I don't think Barth can entirely avoid the fact that God, in his sovereignty, makes a distinction here between one person and another - perhaps he doesn't want to avoid it.  By placing the elect and the 'rejected' in the same sphere, he keeps open the possibility of God's overflowing mercy, without in any sense guaranteeing it to those who live the lie.  It's a more dynamic portrait of election, perhaps, than the classical one, and it is therefore more open to God's future dealings (and the possibility of man's future faith).

The sub-section concludes with a long and fascinating look at the Old Testament in its treatment of election and rejection.  In three examples - the two birds and goats in Leviticus 14 and 16, the two kings Saul and David, and the two 'prophets' and kingdoms of 1 Kings 13 - Barth shows that the elect and the rejected are bound together in the OT picture.  The darkness of rejection tinges even the elect (is David really better than Saul?), but the light of the elect falls even on the rejected (the prophet of Bethel is buried with the man of God of Judah and is preserved even in death).  In fact, no figure in the OT is truly the elect (as witnessed, for example, by the fact that even the elect king David must look to his son for the fulfilment of the promise).  Barth's question is: if the subject of the OT is not Jesus Christ - if these stories and rituals are not ultimately about him - what are they about?  If it is not about him, is it about anything at all?

Friday, November 18, 2016


Whilst doing some reading on Biblical counselling this morning (and you can expect to see some reflections on this reading at some point when I'm less cross about it), I came across an article containing the following paragraph:
Keep in mind that the normative perspective is not Scripture. The normative perspective includes ALL of God’s revelation, and that of course is universal. So theologians distinguish “special revelation,” “general revelation,” and the revelation in man as the image of God, what I call “existential revelation.”
Now, to be fair, that gets qualified later on - Scripture is uniquely normative, "ruling all the other norms".  But still, it made me think of this from Uncle Karl - who gets to play the Nazi card because, well, he was there and he was already saying it at the time, when far too few people were:

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (10)

"We shall now seek finally to do justice to the conception of the divine election in its relation to human beings" (306).  I don't know how that sentence sounded to Barth when he first wrote it (more German, probably), but in my mind as we crawl into the final section of the chapter there is a certain weary emphasis on the word "finally".  Well, here we are.  But in case we were tempted to think that the rest has just been preamble, we find ourselves back at the beginning, with the title Jesus Christ, the Promise and its Recipient.  Because for Barth, although the election of individual human beings is a crucial end point of the doctrine (and he even suggests it could helpfully be written in reverse, starting with the individual elect human being, so long as the logical order was respected), the essential work has already been done.  In the election of Jesus Christ, we really do see the very beginning of all the ways and works of God ad extra.

But does this leave space for the election of the individual?  Doesn't the election of Christ displace every other individual human being?  Barth says no.  "The individual who as the original object of election is for all the rest Another does not deprive them by that in which He precedes them, but preceding them in everything - He is indeed the real object of election - He is everything for them and gives them all things" (310).  Far from displacing the election of the individual (or for that matter the community), it is in the election of Christ that the election of the individual (and the community) is grounded - "whereas without him it could only emerge from nothing and proceed to nothing" (310).

Barth then considers two aspects to human individuality which it is necessary to explore both to clarify the doctrine and to guard against misunderstandings flowing from contemporary individualism and collectivism (contemporary to him, of course - but the basic issues haven't gone away).  On the one hand, "men have an 'individuality' in relation to the human group: the family, the nation, the state, society..." (313).  In this sense, we recognise that the doctrine of election has nothing to do with any of these groups - there are no elect nations ("even the Israelite nation is simply the first (transitory) form of the community" [313]).  "It is individuals who are chosen and not the totality of men.  And God seeks, calls, blesses and sanctifies the many, the totality, the natural and historical groups and humanity itself, in and through the individual" (313).  In this sense, election is to do with individuals.

But the other aspect clarifies that the elect individual is not chosen because of "the particularity in which he stands out above his membership of the group" (315).  It is only grace.  And that is seen when we realise that the individual "does not accept as grace, and gratefully correspond to, the distinction and dignity conferred on him by the one and only God" (315).  Rather, he seeks to justify himself, seeks to live for himself, seeks to be "the man who is isolated in relation to God" (316).  There can be no question of this individual warranting or meriting God's election, or attracting because of anything in himself.  God's election "confronts man - every man - as one who is isolated over against God by his own choice, and who in and with this isolation must be rejected by God" (316).  In the face of this defiance - this defiant act of individualism - God's election can only be grace.

But what does the community have to say, then?  Firstly, it knows about the awful possibility that the individual can choose to be isolated over against God.  It knows that "he can become a sinner and place himself within the shadow of divine judgement" (317).  It knows this, "but it knows, above all, about Jesus Christ...  It knows men, therefore, only to the extent that it knows Jesus Christ." (319).  So the community knows where the rejection which this man merits, the judgement which he chooses for himself, has been executed - and it knows therefore that in Jesus Christ "their desire and undertaking are pointless in so far as their only end can be to make them rejected.  And this is the very goal which the godless cannot reach, because it has already been taken away by the eternally decreed offering of the Son of God..." (319).  The community has to witness to the man who places himself in the shadow of God's judgement that this choice has been taken away from him, that he cannot choose rejection, that in Jesus Christ he can only recognise his own election.  "The community has no control over the outcome of this.  It cannot determine what man will make of it" (320).  But since it cannot distinguish between those who will accept it and reject it - and since in Christ it can have no desire to do so in any ultimate sense - it proclaims to all their election in Christ Jesus.

Now of course Barth knows that "between the being of the elect and his life as such there lies the event and the decision of the reception of the promise" (321).  It is not a matter of indifference whether the individual responds to the promise in faith or not.  It is the question of whether he will take up his life as one of the elect or not, whether he will gratefully move out of the terrible shadow of God's wrath or not.  And at this point, it becomes important to realise that this is not addressed to 'the individual' in the abstract, but to me and to you: "The promise says to those who hear or read it: Thou mayest not hear or read at this point something said about another.  Thou art not in the audience but in the centre of the stage.  This is meant for thee.  Thou art 'this' individual.  Thou art isolated from God, and therefore a godless man.  Thou art threatened.  And yet thou standest indeed under a wholly new determination.  It was for thee that Jesus Christ Himself bore the divine rejection and its real and terrible consequences.  Thou art the one who has been spared from enduring it.  And it is for thee that Jesus Christ is the elect man of God and arrayed in the divine glory.  Eternal life and fellowship with God await thee.  Jesus Christ died and rose for thee.  It is thou who art elect with Him and through Him.  And now that all this has been said to thee, it is the event of what thou for thy part shalt say and do (or not say, and not do) which decides whether the ancient curse will again be laid on thee with what is said, or the eternal blessedness will come on thee in utter newness" (324).

The sub-section concludes with a historical review of how things went wrong when people tried to work out how to spot the elect, or prove their own election to themselves.  In essence, Barth thinks that if the base of your doctrine of election is an absolute decree dividing humanity in two, you will always be anxious over these things.  But if you recognise Christ as the base, then anxiety is swept away, and all rests on him.

I think we're already starting to see the root of Barth's agnosticism with regard to the extent of salvation.  He knows that it matters what we choose when faced with the promise.  But over and above that, he knows that Jesus Christ has done away with our opposition to God.  In the end, he has to leave the outcome with God - but with a more hopeful and joyful stance towards the apparently (or not-yet) converted than might accompany a more traditional Calvinist conclusion.

But can he answer, and is he interested to answer, the question of why some believe and others don't?  I guess we'll find out.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Alternative Society

I don't really want to comment on the Donald, except to point out that it's no huge surprise (even if it is a tragedy) that a culture (not American culture uniquely, but perhaps particularly) which insists that human beings are gods chooses a leader who appears to believe that he is God.  Friends across the pond: I sympathise.  I don't know which way I would have jumped.  Appalling policies on the left, an appalling person on the right.  Into the valley of death...

But enough of this pessimism.  I want to think about the church.  What are we to do?  What are we to be?

In a sort-of follow up to this post, I want to suggest that the answer is pretty clear.  We need to be an alternative society, a society in waiting.

I suspect that the church in the West has re-entered (or perhaps in the USA is in the process of re-entering) a state of normality vis a vis culture and society at large.  There are basically three ways the church can exist.  Sometimes it is the martyr church, bearing witness with its blood and life to the resurrection of Christ in the midst of an actively hostile and aggressive culture.  On the other hand, the church is sometimes the Constantinian church, having a huge influence on culture and society and becoming in many ways the arbiter of morality and social mores as the majority at least outwardly acknowledge the lordship of Christ and accept Christian ethics.

We have to be ready at any time to be either of those churches again.  But that's not where we are now.  No, despite the slightly hysterical Daily Mail-esque concern of various Christian pressure groups, we are not being actively persecuted.  We are not (now, or yet) called to be the martyr church in the West.  But we have been the Constantinian church for so long that we have forgotten that there is a third, more normal mode of existence of the church, which is to be the marginalised church, the church outside the camp.  This is the church which is rejected by society but not actively persecuted; which finds itself with its norms and values barely tolerated but certainly outside the mainstream.  I say this is 'normal' because this is the church of the NT.  1 Peter is a classic example.  Mocked, but not martyred.  That's where we are.

Now things could get worse, and we do have to be ready to become the martyr church.  It might happen.  But can I suggest that we also need to be ready to be the Constantinian church again?  I don't mean the state church.  I just mean that, believing as we do in the omnipotence of the gospel, we have to be ready for people to be persuaded, to bow the knee to Christ, to join his people - and not in the trickles that we see now, but in torrents.  We need to be ready for that.  We need to balance our awareness that the future may be the martyr church with the knowledge that in God's grace it could also be revival.

I think that affects our stance towards wider society.  I think we need to offer a genuine alternative.  We need to be a society where, for example, left and right are welcomed as they submit to Christ, but where some of the things which left and right typically hold dear - let's say, for example, the right to murder our own children in the womb, or the right to exploit people and the earth purely for profit - will have to be left at the door.  We'll need to provide the community that serves as a plausibility structure for a different kind of sexual ethics, a different kind of economics, a different kind of leadership.  We'll have to do it whilst remaining genuinely open, and open to a world which will mock and malign us.  We're going to need to look like a society in waiting.

Church is political.  It's the society of the Lord.  It's not souls and clouds, it's people and policies and a new creation in the midst of the chaos.  It's the society of the gospel and the law, which says yes and no, but always the no for the sake of the yes.

O Church arise...

Monday, November 07, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (9)

For anyone who's still with me, we're getting there.  This is the fourth and final sub-section of the third of four sections, entitled The passing and the coming man.  We're wrapping up Barth's discussion of the election of the community, and with it his exposition of Romans 9-11.  I want to offer a very brief summary of the sub-section, and then some comments on the section as a whole.  So here goes.

"In the eternal election of the one man Jesus of Nazareth, God, merciful in his judgment, appoints for man a gracious end and a new gracious beginning.  He makes him die in order that he may truly live" (259).  The existence of the community in two-fold form (Israel and the Church) conforms to this, and in this way "it will serve to represent the passing and the coming man, the grace of God which kills and makes alive" (260).  For Barth, the Israelite form of the community bears decisive testimony to the passing man, the man brought to an end in God's merciful judgement.  It ought to do this in faith, as part of the Church, but even outside of the Church it cannot help but render this service (263).  The witness of the Church, gathered from Jews and Gentiles, is particularly the witness to the new man, the coming man.  "The Church exists among Jews and Gentiles because Jesus in his resurrection does not shatter the power of death in vain but with immediate effect; because as the witness to eternal life He cannot remain alone but at once awakens, gathers and sends forth recipients, partners and co-witnesses of this life" (264).  In so doing, the Church confirms the election of Israel - both in the remnant of Jews gathered in to its number, and in the hope which it has for the future salvation of Israel (266-7).

This is supported by exegesis of Romans 11.  I can't do it justice here, and it deserves careful reading.  The question is whether God has rejected Israel completely, and Paul's answer is a stark negative.  For starters, there is the remnant, represented by the 7000 of Elijah's day.  "It is these seven thousand men, and not the unfaithful majority, who represent Israel as such" (270).  This OT theme is fulfilled in the remnant of Israel gathered in to the Church, a remnant which confirms the positive election of the whole of Israel.  For Barth, this election is ongoing - that is to say, it is not a static, one-off thing, bit is confirmed by the fact that the God who in mercy elected Israel continues in mercy to elect a remnant from Israel: "It is by God's mercy that there is, in fact, an Israel in Israel" (273).  In that remnant we see that "God's election is not simply transferred to the Gentiles" (274) - Barth is no supersessionist, although what he does he say is unlikely to please those who worry about supersessionism!  In fact, as Barth shows from Paul, "God has so little forsaken [Israel] that it is for their sake that He has stretched out His hand to the Gentiles" (279).  It is God's purpose, by calling the Gentiles, to provoke Israel to faith and salvation.  For the Gentiles, this means that "They must not object to being in some degree only a means to Israel's conversion" (281).  Of course, the full blessings of the Gentiles await this turning of Israel to faith (as per verses 12 and 15).

All of this is developed through the image of the olive tree.  The Gentiles cannot be proud because the Israelite branches were broken off so that they might be grafted in - although that certainly is an accurate reading of the situation according to Paul.  Rather they should fear, because it is only in faith that they stand and arrogance is contrary to faith, and they should hope that the cut off branches will be grafted back in.  Paul hopes for this, not based on "any optimistic view of the Israelites" (295), nor on any vague sense of God's power (Barth briefly remarks that it is this optimism regarding humanity and assertion that anything is possible for God that often leads to the doctrine of apokatastasis, the idea that all without exception will be redeemed.  "Paul does not start from this point and therefore he does not get the length of this assertion" (295).)  Paul is dealing with the concrete election of Israel, which remains even under their unbelief.  The point is that "we can never believe in unbelief; we can believe only in the future faith of those who at present do not believe" (296).  Barth refuses to step out of a position of faith to consider the situation, or to go behind Jesus Christ as God's elect.  What we know is that Israel has been hardened so that the Gentiles can be brought in, and the Gentiles are brought in so that Israel can be provoked to salvation.  "Everywhere we begin with human disobedience and everywhere we end with the divine mercy" (305).

So, what to think of the election of the community as Barth sets it out in the whole of this section?  A first thing to note is that it is great to have this section here at all.  There is a tendency to skip the communal aspect of election, or to make it follow on from individual election (i.e. God elects individuals to life, and they therefore happen to form a community),  When this happens, the reading of Romans 9-11 becomes about individual election, with the whole Jew/Gentile thing being merely illustrative or exemplary of the way God works with individuals.  This is to overlook a rich seam of Pauline theology, and also to get ourselves into a real pickle regarding the concrete issue Paul deals with in these chapters, which is precisely the election of Israel as Israel.  Barth's exegetical treatment is, in my view, really helpful.

I have a question about whether the exegetical stuff - the small type - really relates as Barth thinks it does to the theological sections - the larger type.  This last subsection is a good example.  Does Romans 11 really illustrate the passing and coming man?  It strikes me that Barth has a neat, and in some ways helpful, theological schema going on, built around his Christological (re)definition of election, and that the text of Romans is being slightly artificially read around this.  I think both the theological and the exegetical sections are helpful; it just isn't always clear how they connect!

We can take away a couple of things from this section, though.  In Jesus, God elects for himself a community.  In our individualistic culture, it is helpful to remember that the community comes in some sense before the individuals who make it up.  This only makes sense on the Christological basis: the first thing that God elects is Christ, and then in him the community which will form his immediate environment.  If we are members of this community (and therefore of Christ) by faith, this is God's mercy.  For me, stressing the communal aspect of this helps to drive that home.

We can also take away a really helpful remedy against anti-Semitism.  The Church's relationship to Israel - to Judaism as such - can only be one of respect, mingled with both sadness and hope.  There is a holiness and a sanctification which rests on Israel per se, but the Church can only grieve (with the apostle Paul) that this holiness is currently seen primarily by being "sanctified only by God's wrath" (287).  And yet that sadness needs to be mingled with hope - that God's calling and gifts are irrevocable, and that there will be an ingathering of Israel, indeed that this ingathering is in some sense the whole purpose and meaning of the Gentile mission and the Church of Jews and Gentiles.  The Church cannot ever wish to be without the Jews; it can only wish to be joined in a more perfect union through mutual faith in the Messiah.  It can only wish to see God's future mercy to his people in confirmation of his past mercy, his future election in confirmation of his past election.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (8)

The next sub-section - the third of four discussing the election of the community - has the title The promise of God heard and believed.  In terms of format, it is again mostly taken up with a small print exegesis of a chunk of Romans 9 and 10.

The basic point that Barth wants to make is clear.  The community, which is Israel and the Church bound together by their common (if unacknowledged, on the one hand) relationship to Jesus Christ, is together "the environment of the elected man Jesus of Nazareth" (233).  But it is this in a differentiated way.  The particular service for which the Israelite form of the community is elected is "the hearing, the reception and the acceptance of the divine promise" (233).  If Israel comes to life in the Church, it will be through the acceptance of the promise given to it, and its service will continue to be to bind the church to the word Israel has received.  But even if Israel resists its election, it still bears witness to the given-ness of God's word.  "It is for just this reason that the Israelite (Jewish) regard for sentence, word and letter must continue in the Church" (234).  The object of the Church's faith is the word of God delivered to Israel, and therefore for the church to become anti- or even a-semitic implies that the object of its faith is, or soon will be, lost.  The Church needs Israel.

The particular service of the Church, elected for this from amongst Jews and Gentiles, is "that it secures attention for the promise heard by putting faith in it" (237).  The promise creates faith in itself, by the power of the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and therefore wherever the promise is believed, there is the Church.  As we have already seen, this promise was not only heard in Israel, but was by a minority really believed, and so Barth sees the Church pre-existing in Israel.  For Barth, the existence of these few sheds light on the purpose of Israel's election and reveals its end and purpose - an end and purpose which is shown dramatically in the gathering in of the Church of Jews and Gentiles.  Nevertheless, that Church still needs the service of Israel; it still needs to be pointed back again and again to the actual word received from God, by which its faith lives.

The exegetical portion, which makes up the bulk of the sub-section, covers Romans 9:30-10:21.  Here we see that Gentiles who had not sought God have found him, whilst Israel with all its zeal for righteousness has not attained it.  This highlights that everything depends on God's mercy and not human running or willing: "The perfection of human running and willing under the very best conditions given man by God Himself, under the sign of a unique presupposition, preparation and pre-history of his salvation, proves only that God's mercy alone can bring and keep together God and man, and thus make man participate in God's salvation" (242).  After all, Israel has heard God's word - Paul is at pains to make this clear - and in the apostolate has heard the proclamation of the fulfilled promise in the resurrection of Christ.  Barth thinks that Paul himself is, implicitly, the fulfilment of the prophecies he cites - not as a Jewish Christian per se, but specifically as an apostle.  His ministry brings it about that the promise is preached, not only as promise, but as fulfilled promise.  That Israel will not believe is guilt to them, but does not negate their election.  Rather, "the meaning of [Israel's] election is that in the very act of becoming guilty towards God it must genuinely magnify His faithfulness" (259).

Thursday, October 27, 2016

On failing to be a charismatic

There's an interesting article over at Think about the relationship between theology and healing.  Although it doesn't directly address the issue of whether and to what extent we should expect healing today, it still pokes me in a sensitive place: my failure to be a charismatic.

It's really not through want of trying.  My background is hard cessationist: canon complete, no more apostles, therefore no more gifts or miracles.  Full stop.  For a variety of reasons, I've moved away from that position.  I've come to think that the "therefore" doesn't really work.  For a variety of reasons, including thinking more about the doctrine of Scripture and pondering the role which miracles and spiritual gifts seem to play in the NT churches, I couldn't sustain it.  And philosophically, I began to suspect that cessationism had more in common with the Enlightenment than its Reformed advocates would have liked to admit.  It's been a while since I've been a cessationist - in principle, anyway.

I remember chatting to a pastor who described himself as a failed cessationist.  He was inclined toward cessationism, it fit his view of God and church and revelation, he was alarmed by the clear excesses and often dubious theology of those elements of the charismatic movement with which he came into contact.  But at the same time, he couldn't make the Biblical evidence fit.  Whilst his experience pushed him towards cessationism, his reading of the Bible prevented him from landing there.

In some ways I feel like the opposite.  Theologically and philosophically I feel inclined towards the charismatic position.  In common with all evangelicals, I believe that God can do the miraculous today.  Unlike cessationists, I can see no reason why - given that he has done in the past, which is accepted by all sides - he would not do so today.  Particularly when it comes to healing, my understanding of the gospel pushes me to think that healing ministry ought to be a regular part of church life.  But my experience holds me back.  I have been in church all my life, but have heard no clear and credible accounts of miraculous healing.  None at all.  Maybe I'm setting the standard of credibility too high, but it seems to me that lots of people have 'friend of a friend' stories, and not many people even claim to have first hand experience of this sort of thing.  In terms of my own experience, I want to be 'open' to the miraculous, but to be honest my (very limited) experience of being in charismatic churches has been a massive turn off.  So, my theology pushes me towards the charismatic position, but my experience prevents me from landing there.

And that's a frustration.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (7)

This Monday's sub-section is entitled The Judgment and the Mercy of God.  It's worth just remembering that we are still in the discussion of the election of the community - that is Israel and the Church, which for Barth make up the one community of Jesus Christ.  In this sub-section, he ponders the existence of Israel as the witness to God's judgement and the Church as the witness to his mercy.  It's a short sub-section, but it's mostly a 'small font' section - for the uninitiated, when Barth is doing detailed engagement with Scripture or historical theology, he drops into a very small text.  It is often in the small text that the real argument of the Dogmatics is hidden, and you skip it at your peril!  In terms of approach, I want to summarise Barth's argument in so far as I'm able, and then offer a couple of reflections.

Developing the differentiation between Israel and the Church from the last sub-section, Barth here discusses the particular form of service for which each is determined.  It is, after all, for service that the community is elected: "Wherever the community is living, there - in the power and commission of Him who is in its midst - it will at all events exist in the service of this presentation, the presentation of the judgment and mercy of God" (206).  In the case of Israel, this determination to service means concretely that it is called to reflect the judgement of God from which man is rescued only by God in Jesus Christ.  "If in faith in Jesus Christ Israel is obedient to its election, if it is given to it come to the Church and rise to life again in it", then it will be the particular role of Israel within the Church to be a constant reminder of God's just judgement from which the Church is delivered only by his mercy (206).  It is not that Israel in itself knows nothing of God's mercy, but it is that in Israel's history what is means for God to elect humanity for himself: he takes on a rebellious and helpless people, and he takes on himself the judgement which this people deserves.  However, even Israel's disobedience to its election cannot alter the fact that it is determined for this service.  "Israel refuses to join in the confession of the Church, refuses to enter upon its service in the one elected community of God" (208), and yet "Israel's unbelief cannot in any way alter the fact that... it is the people of its arrived and crucified Messiah" (208).  Even Israel outside the Church bears unwilling witness to God's judgement - but it is nonetheless the judgement that forms "the shadow of the cross of Jesus Christ" (209); Israel cannot, even in their unbelief, undo the fact that the Messiah has borne away the judgement of sinful man, and of Israel itself.  Israel cannot undo its election.

The service of the Church, on the other hand, "consists always in the fact that it is the reflection of the mercy in which God turns His glory to man" (210).  As called from Jews and Gentiles, the Church knows itself as the community of the risen Lord, and therefore knows the meaning of his death, and knows its own judgement to have been borne away.  "If the judgment that has overtaken man (according to Israel's commission) forbids us to seek any refuge except in the mercy of God, even more strictly does the mercy of God laying hold of man (according to the Church's commission) forbid us to fear His judgment without loving Him as Judge, without looking for our justification from Him" (211).  On this basis, Barth sees the pre-existence of the Church in Israel during the OT period wherever there were those who were not only elected to serve the witness to God's judgement but who also show in their faith that they were elected to witness to his mercy.  Strictly speaking, this light on the OT history of Israel is shed backwards from the one man who is the true Israel - "Israel's future and goal" (213).

This is all backed up with an exegesis of Romans 9:6-29.  To summarise very briefly, these verses show that there always was a differentiation between the children of Abraham (e.g. Isaac and Ishmael), and therefore show that for all Paul's grief over the Jewish people he is clear that God has not failed them or deserted his word and promise.  In fact, Barth thinks Paul sees the confirmation of Israel's election exactly in this differentiation (216).  The Isaac/Ishmael contrast becomes even sharper when Jacob and Esau are introduced in verses 10-13.  Jacob is chosen, Esau rejected, but for Barth they are both within 'the community', and within that community "even its rejected members are not forsaken" (217).  He cites God's care for Hagar and Ishmael as an example.  But the question raised is: to what purpose this rejection?  What is Esau for?

The answer is in verses 14 to 29, but it is perhaps most helpful to look at Barth's exegesis backwards.  The conclusion is the inclusion of the Gentiles within the community, which Paul sees prefigured in Isaiah and Hosea.  That Isaiah and Hosea were without a doubt talking about the restoration of 'rejected' Israel and not the Gentiles underlines the fact that the inclusion of the Gentiles means hope for Israel - if even the Gentiles are not utterly forsaken...  The key is the argument in verses 22 to 24.  Here Barth perceives, surely correctly, that election and rejection are not laid out as two equal alternatives: rejection is for the sake of election, that God's glory might be seen in showing mercy.  Mercy is the end goal - there are not two end goals, mercy and judgement, but judgement is for the purpose of mercy.  With that in mind, Barth reads the potter analogy in verses 19-21 as being less about God's power over the clay, and more about God's will of mercy.  Since everything springs from the purpose of mercy, who can complain?  For Barth, Moses and Pharaoh (see verse 17) are "in the same sphere" (220) - the sphere of God's mercy.  The difference between them is that in the case of Moses God's mercy is followed by more, renewed mercy, whereas for Pharaoh that mercy is not renewed.  God is free.  Nevertheless, even for Pharaoh things are not hopeless; even his determination as the rejected is not without hope.

Is God, then, unjust?  (verse 14)  Absolutely not!  He is self-consistent.  He has mercy on whom he will have mercy.  "His right consists in the fact that as He freely shows mercy, so He will again show mercy" (219).  As he has been, so he will be.  In fact, it would be inconsistent with God's revealed character, and therefore not right, if he were to change his mind and start judging on the basis of human action and effort!  Rather, God is free in his mercy, and righteous in his judgement.  Nobody can complain, because all are those who stand in the sphere of his mercy.  If that mercy is not renewed to them, they are nevertheless those who are determined in Christ Jesus, whether to witness to God's judgement or to his grace.

What to make of all this?  The great thing about Barth's exegesis and theologising here is that he does deal with Romans 9 as a passage about Israel and the Gentiles, and not as one about the election of individuals per se, as is often done.  How the election of individuals fits in is not clear at this stage, but there are a few hundred pages to go yet...  One question about the dogmatic section (i.e. the large type section) is whether this isn't just an overly neat sytematisation.  I am not sure I find it 100% convincing.

The same could be said of the exegesis.  Whilst it certainly could be read this way, isn't it more natural to see Ishmael, Esau, and Pharaoh as genuinely rejected?  Is Barth not doing some exegetical 'skating' here - sliding over the bits which seem to count against his big thesis?  It seems so to me.  I think perhaps the proof will be in how well this system can incorporate the question of the individual, so I'm looking forward to that!

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.