Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fighting for Barth's Doctrine of Creation as Epistemology

Having recently had a (remarkably well-regarded, for me) public argument over the differences between Barth and Pannenberg over at Travis' blog, and having just yesterday taken a somewhat rambling path from McCormack to the necessity for a defense of Barth's doctrine of creation in its integrity as proper theological science, it's time I put up a preliminary declaration of another war I've been fighting for years, as a dedicated Barthian who does religion-and-science dialogue. If CD III.1 can be defended against its pseudo-scientific critics who prefer epistemological naturalism, this is the way I can see to do it. Follow along, and tell me what you think.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Barth, Disordering "Nature", and Disordering the Trinity

Okay, so I feel like way less of a crackpot since the last post, in which I expressed the realization that my key problem with the work of Bruce McCormack to date isn't his focus on the doctrine of election as such, but the narrowness of his attention through the lens of Barth's "anhypostatic–enhypostatic Christology." As profoundly important as that insight has been, and as far as he's advanced the field, we're not done yet, because it isn't the whole of Barth's theology.

But really, that leaves me with now two axes on which to expand the foundations, not just the one I started with. I can begin fixing the subtle distortions introduced by the edges of that lens through an approach that handles Barth's larger doctrine of God more fairly, but that necessity has therefore been added to the whole "fix the time-and-eternity problem" approach I'm currently taking to Barth's economy. Which, I suppose, just means I have to handle both economy and immanence explicitly if I want to surpass McCormack's accomplishment in grasping their integration in the person of the Son through connecting the holistic act of election to reconciliation as the exemplary province of the Son. Which means I have Father and Creator and Spirit and Redeemer to integrate with Son and Reconciler.

Those are six separate things, mind you: three economic loci in which the Trinity participates in a unity of outward act that may be expressed in the inward cooperation of persons whose sole differentiation is relational, as the irreducibly threefold alterity of Seinsweisen in Gottes Sein. Three persons of the Godhead, each of whom is treated as the exemplar of a locus and not as its exclusive agent. This is the miss involved in taking reconciliation as Barth's "mature Christology," even if it involves the most mature form of his exposition on the second person that we're ever likely to get. He's far from the only person involved! But also, Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son and so the full expression of the logos theou—which means he is not merely the "second person," even as he is all the Son there is. Jesus Christ is the Son in relation to the Father, but the Father is not other than he is in nature. The Father is not, for Barth, "first" in a way that could allow us to posit a prior nature of God to that expressed in the incarnate Son. God does not will to be Jesus Christ for us; in being Jesus Christ, God wills to be God for us. (I have previously expressed, in line with this, the opinion that if we want a logos asarkos, the only place we will ever find it is in the person of the Father, who is not incarnate at the same time that the Son is.)

Beyond the problem of identifying persons with actions—which is why "Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier" is not a Trinitarian reference, but "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is—the problem of order in God is perhaps the most important hurdle to be overcome in this process. Barth does it, but I don't think he's been seen doing it for all the attention we've paid to his doctrine of God. So I'm gong to try to shake the branches of that tree and get some fruit to fall out of it today.

Monday, December 7, 2015

It's the Anhypostatic–Enhypostatic Christology, Stupid

So I've been fighting Bruce McCormack as a necessary part of my dissertation development for ... oh, let's go ahead and say years, now, but more actively in recent months. Why? Because the Barth I'm working on in CD III and the Barth of the doctrine of redemption that would have gone into CD V is not the Barth he sees—and sees fairly well, actually—in CD II and IV. Or, I should say, not merely that Barth of election and reconciliation. And I've been putting it down to an undue fixation on the doctrine of election—which I still think there is, in the dominance of this II.2–(mostly-skip-III)–IV-and-project-it-all-back-over-the-prolegomena perspective McCormack has been building since the 1990s.

But the problem isn't that McCormack's got election wrong. If anything, in spite of his approaching it from thoroughly Modern Schleiermacher work, he's recapitulating a basic "Barth as Reformed theologian" rediscovery of Reformed priorities that appears throughout the English-language reception history. It's a biased perspective for that reason, it leans too heavily on Barth as reframing Reformed distinctives in basically Reformed ways—which was always the positive end for which the "not truly Reformed-Orthodox enough" protests were the negative—but the pieces it sees are actually there even if the structures are imputed forensically. Formal analysis of Barth's dogmatics has always been problematic, even and especially once we acknowledge that he's doing loci communes and not a linear system, because that lets us off the hook a bit too much. We have to walk a line between making a consistent theological narrative and seeing the larger context through which it is only one path at best.

No, the problem is that his thread makes sense, but it makes so much sense after so much nonsense in the field that we've started thinking of the thread as though it were the tapestry itself. McCormack knows the structure of this thread so incredibly well that he's begun weaving his own, more consistent tapestry around it. (Which pisses off his opponents to no end, especially those who have chosen to weave a more-consistent-with-Chalcedon pattern.)

But the fact that this thread runs from election to reconciliation, and characterizes protology and eschatology in precisely those terms on the basis of the doctrine of God, isn't because of election or reconciliation. It isn't even because of the (still present, if in lesser ways) imputed patterns of Reformed systematics. It's because of what McCormack calls Barth's "anhypostatic–enhypostatic Christology". It's because when the only thread runs along the life-line of the Son, that's where everything has to start and end. Christological actualism on the basis of the Maury lecture finds its fulfillment in a doctrine of reconciliation that ceases to be seen structurally because it now functions as "Barth's mature Christology." And so I am told there is nothing beyond the parousia as coming-in-judgment, in the same way that Kreck thought that Barth's eschatology had to be one of the hic et nunc in 1961, because we lack both CD V and the imagination necessary to see the other threads that determine it. And so I am told that "protology" and "eschatology" for Barthians must simply mean God's pre- and post-temporality, respectively, and not the coming-into-being and fulfillment-in-being of the creature.

No offense, guys and gals, but I'm going to keep working. I'm not convinced. It's a good thing the next Barth conference is on pneumatology, even though I've already seen what happens when an avowed pneumatological Barthian like Aaron T. Smith looks at Barth's doctrine of redemption. (Hint: he reduces it to anhypostatic–enhypostatic Christology, because what else is there? But he could have done so much better, because CD V is pneumatologically controlled! And yes, that should raise problems with McCormack's sense that Barth shifts from pneumatology to Christology. I intend to raise the same problems for David Congdon's "shift from an eschatologically oriented soteriological theology to a protologically oriented soteriological theology.")

And yeah, I suppose them is fightin' words. But the fight is for contextualization, not to lay yet another set of hands on the elephant and say "no, it's this way." If I do that, if all I do is declare another theological through-narrative, I have failed at my job.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Interpreting Barth on Election: Section 32 Thesis

I've been working for a while on what it means that election is "the sum of the gospel" for Barth. Obviously, McCormack has his own thorough exposition of this, which I'm going to attempt to undermine at length because I think there's a major difference between "sum of the gospel" and "source and ground of dogmatics". Even to the extent that election is that, the focus on election and reconciliation/atonement (especially by attention to "Barth's mature Christology" as though CD IV supplanted prior volumes) always seems to me to short-circuit reading the other loci in their own rights, making just too much of a linear system out of Barth's loci communes.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start by doing some subtle work, translating first of all. What does Barth say it means, for the doctrine of election to be the sum of the gospel?

KD II.2, 1: »Die Erwählungslehre ist die Summe des Evangeliums, weil dies das Beste ist, was je gesagt und gehört werden kann: daß Gott den Menschen wählt und also auch für ihn der in Freiheit Liebende ist. Sie ist in der Erkenntnis Jesu Christi begründet, weil dieser der erwählende Gott und der erwählte Mensch in Einem ist. Sie gehört darum zur Lehre von Gott, weil Gott, indem er den Menschen wählt, nicht nur über diesen, sondern in ursprünglicher Weise über sich selbst bestimmt. Ihre Funktion besteht in der grundlegenden Bezeugung der ewigen, freien und beständigen Gnade als des Anfanges aller Wege und Werke Gottes.«

Frost: "The doctrine of election is the sum of the gospel because this is the best thing that can be said and heard: that God chooses people and so is for them the one who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, because this one is both the electing God and the elect human being. It belongs therefore to the doctrine of God, because by choosing people God does not merely decide about them; in an original sense God decides about Godself. Its function is to provide foundational witness to eternal, free, and enduring grace as the beginning of all the ways and deeds of God."

CD II.2, 3: "The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God's election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God."

Do you see the differences? Will you minimize them, or will you ask whether they mean something important? Phrasing matters, rhetoric matters, and translation that shifts those shifts meaning. What do these differences of language mean for you? What do you see here?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Apokatastasis in Barth's Doctrine of Election

To say Barth opposes "universalism" isn't to say Barth thinks the scope of salvation is partial rather than total. It's to say that of the positions asserting total human salvation that Barth sees, he likes none of them. He is not "a universalist"—though if you're worried about that, as Lewis Smedes recollects, you might want to worry that your Bible is!

The position on total salvation that Barth gives the most press, the most explicit mention, is apokatastasis, which he treats as an eventual, total restitutio ad integrum of the world of humanity. This is the one position he chooses to serve as foil for the rest. The important question to ask is, why does he oppose it? (And really, what is it that he opposes when he does so?)

Obviously, the way to answer these questions is to go reference by reference and understand what's going on in each. And the first references come in CD II.2, sections 34 and 35, on the elections of the community and of the individual—specifically, 34.4 on the passing vs the coming humanity, and 35.3 and 35.4 on the determinations of the elect and the rejected respectively. I'm only going to hit the first one, and not promise to come back to the others here, but this is at least the crucial one for this volume.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Favorite Barth Quote

There's a quote from Barth's dogmatics, part of which I might someday stick on a mug or something, but which I find particularly appropriate to my own practice. I don't like the standard English rendering, and the cheap slogan versions do no justice to the fact that this is a section on the divine perfection of joy as an attribute—not, y'know, about simply being happy.
The fact may certainly be emphasized, at this point, that theology as a whole—in its parts and in their correlation, in its content and method, distinct from all other sciences if their tasks are only seen and attacked correctly—is a uniquely beautiful science; one might even say the most beautiful among all the sciences.

It always implies barbarism if someone can find science boring. What extreme barbarism would it take for theology to possibly be boring? There is no reason to be a theologian at all, if one does not yearn joyfully to be one.

Especially in this science, it is impossible to tolerate dour faces, peevish thoughts, and tedious rhetoric. God protect us from what the Catholic Church listed as one of the seven monastic sins, tædium, in the great, spiritual truths with which theology has to do!

But we must indeed know that only God can protect us from it.

–Karl Barth, KD II.1, § 31.3, S. 740
Now, don't mistake this statement. Barth isn't telling you that if you find someone's exposition of theology boring you're a barbarian. Barth isn't demanding that you enjoy your molecular biology textbook, for that matter. This isn't about finding discussion of science boring; it's about (not) being a boring scientist.

(The standard English uses "Philistinism" where Barth says "Barbarei"; I can see why the British translators might have gone for that, but this is far stronger a claim, and not in any way related to residents of Philistia.)

Why should we not do boring theology? Why should we not be peevish, dour, and tedious? What makes that possibility of all sciences particularly inappropriate for this one? Why are we committing "hyper-barbarism" if we subject theology to our own moody and unpleasant dispositions? Why can only God keep us from such sinful tædium?

Simple: God is not boring. God is not grim-faced, irritable, and long-winded. To contemplate the object of theology, to speak about this object to others, and to be so opposite in attitude to God who is in Godself joy? Only the fallen creature can do such a thing! Only the creature that would rather its own self-incurvature, its own joy in self, can morosely contemplate God who is an wholly other joy for us. God is a way out of this, indeed our only way out.

All sciences, Barth posits, have a beauty and a joy in the contemplation of their objects. The pursuit of knowledge is a pleasurable one, or we would not do it. And yeah, there's a touch of "queen of the sciences" here, but theology should be more beautiful, more joyous, more profoundly interesting than even the most interested and joyous contemplation of the beauty of the creature in its detail and complexity. This isn't anything against the other sciences; they should also be done well and joyously, and if you don't find them joyous pursuits you should do something else that you do enjoy. God doesn't call us to boredom; God calls us to interested and engaged struggle. But if we are so to submit to one another in joy and just engagement as creatures, how should we do less in engagement with God?

This is not a command to be obeyed in order to be saved; like all other true commands, it describes a life to be striven for because we are in fact saved, and the tide has in fact been turned for us. The gospel makes this possible, and it is the only thing that does. This is why we preach the gospel—and if you can do that with "dour faces, peevish thoughts, and tedious rhetoric," chances are very good you need to go back and hear some more gospel yourself.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gehenna is for the Church

A really interesting gospel for this coming Sunday, now that we're back in Mark in this year of Mark:
John spoke to [Jesus] saying, "Teacher, we observed someone casting out influential spirits in your name, and we interfered because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not interfere, for there is no one who can wield authority on the basis of my name and speak ill of me—indeed, those who are not against us are for us. Should someone give you a glass of water for the fact that you are the messiah's, I assure you they will not waste their pay! And should someone slander one of these little ones who trust in me, it would be far better for them if a millstone—you know, the kind it takes a mule to turn?—were placed around their neck and thrown into the sea. And should your hand slander you, strike it off; it is better for you to enter into life maimed than to depart with two hands into Gehenna, the unquenchable fire. And should your foot slander you, strike it off; it is better for you to enter into life lame than to be thrown with two feet into Gehenna. And should your eye slander you, pull it out; it is better for you to enter into the reign of God one-eyed than to be thrown with two eyes into Gehenna—where the maggots don't stop and the fire isn't quenched. Indeed, everything will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but should salt become un-salt, with what can it be spiced? Have salt among yourselves, and live peaceably with one another."
Isaiah 66 is the origin of this last bit, and the Gehenna reference. And in verse 5 we have this: "Listen to the word of YHWH, those who tremble in fear of his word: Your siblings who hate you and exclude you in my name have said, 'Glorify YHWH that we may see your joy'; but it is they who will be shamed." Those who rely on God will receive peace and comfort from God, but that group doesn't include those who oppress their own brothers and sisters among the people. The oppressors without and the oppressors within will receive God's wrath, and die horribly, and God will make a new world for those who are honestly faithful—but the wreck of the old will be so large relative to them that the maggots eating the bodies and the fires to dispose of the corpses will go on forever.

When your brothers and sisters who exclude you and cut you off from the body in disgust demand that you conform to them to be counted as righteous, and use the demand that you praise God as a demand that you obey their narrow religious culture, God gets pretty pissed off. This is the complete opposite of our popular American piety: the sinners whose bodies will burn forever in Gehenna are fundamentalists who unite their worldview so tightly with trust in God that conformity to their piety becomes the criterion for God's glory and your joy. This is why the tax collectors and prostitutes are among the first to enter into the reign of God!

It is not our job to cut others off from Christ. If we become the kind that do, it would be better for us to cut ourselves off from Christ, to dismember ourselves from the body, than to see the body of which we are a part burn with the delirium of our fever. We are not going to be rewarded for speaking ill of God, or the deliverance God has accomplished, or the one by whom that deliverance has been accomplished, or the ones for whom that deliverance has been accomplished. It is absolutely and entirely not our job to get in the way. Do not interfere with salvation! Do not get in the way of the power that can displace the powers of this world. Do not, do not, DO NOT get between the Lioness and her cubs!

It is far better for you to be a universalist, and to allow that God has done and is doing the work, than to find yourself on the outs with God for deciding among the saved according to your own criteria of belongingness. Have yourself a little spiritual barbecue, in which you use salt and fire upon those parts of your self that are inclined toward this kind of hubris. Because Isaiah 66 may be hyperbole, but it's hyperbole with a point. Do not persecute. Do not oppress. Live peaceably, rather than exacting a kind of "peace" for your way of life by using force against others.