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.

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