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.