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!


  1. Me too and what he makes of Judas.

    1. Judas has actually been briefly alluded to already - but I'm saving him for the main treatment later on. For example, in describing "the man with whom the eternal will of God has to do", Barth describes this man as "at very best Peter, and at worst Judas" - and then goes on to say "And God has chosen this man [i.e. this humanity, I think] and fellowship with this man..." And then "Judas who betrays Him He elects as an apostle". But this is all hints at the moment. I'm waiting for the meaty treatment.