One-Upping the Prodigal: CD §57.1

So, after working through volumes III and II of Barth's Church Dogmatics, I've moved on to volume IV. And right away in IV.1, one hits the theme of the Prodigal Son. Which Barth does brilliant things with, when it comes to extending his prior analyses and discussing salvation. As you might expect, I'm walking through looking at the internal grounds for Barth's own brand of universalism, and here's a great beginning, so I'm going to map it and push the themes.

The first thing that hits me is that the salvation of the Prodigal serves a very similar function to the effect of the doctrine of the virgin birth: it makes very clear that it is God's action, and no positive human action of any sort, that is going on. Now, the virgin birth is its own basket of problems, and besides there's a new book out on Barth's take on the doctrine itself, which you should definitely have a read through, but separately from that, let's frame it this way: classically, Mary is the surrogate womb for the deposited embryonic Jesus. This is the importance, for example, of the doctrine of the immaculate conception—the non-contamination of the deposited gift by the container, to put it crassly. The relevance of Mary as theotokos is largely discipleship as faithful curation. There is no genuine co-operation involved, because the real action is carefully reserved to God. And that is precisely the point of the salvation of the prodigal: there is no co-operation involved. The real action is carefully reserved to God.

However, that's not exactly the story we remember, is it? That's not the story the Bible tells about the Prodigal. You know, the one where the son, gazing wistfully into the slop-trough, having left kashrut behind somewhere along the road—probably somewhere near where he left most of his pride—realizes he's hit rock bottom and hatches a plan to at least be treated like a higher class of hired labor, and to live in relative style, working on his father's farm instead. This is a story where repentance precedes grace. And sure, grace abounds, after the fact. But it's not exactly like the father was out combing the world for his "lost" ingrate of a son. The robe, ring, and slaughtered calf are a disproportionate reward, a ridiculous and profligate gesture in response, but they are a reward and a response nonetheless.

The problem with that version of the story is that salvation is the kind of gift we don't quite deserve, but it is one that makes us feel better about our situation because it tells us we have an "out," an escape hatch, any time we need one. There's a place for that message, and Judean discussions of redemption are the proper context in ways Christian ones are not. We've so completely remade the relevant doctrines that perfectly good Judean images are actually counterproductive for what we're really talking about. While we could use to be reminded that there is always a gracious response to repentance, that has nothing to do with our doctrine of salvation.

The Christian doctrine of salvation is a quite different kind of gift. It's the kind of gift that puts the recipient in their place, by leaving no doubt as to the total lack of merit on their part. It's the kind of gift that, if we are honest with ourselves, we didn't really want, or at least weren't really looking forward to. It may be God's grace for us, but it is grace of a kind which can only stand over against us as we have been. It's the gift of rehab. (Cue Amy Winehouse, herself very much the Prodigal…)

And, as such, salvation in Christ is the total declaration of both our reality, and our fate. There is no alternative. What Barth calls the "pure fact" of salvation in Christ, as grace presented to us for our acceptance, forces us to understand the "brute fact" of our sin and our actual situation in the world. And, as this reality reshapes the story of the Prodigal, Barth shows us that it is the father who pursues the Prodigal into the world, into the "far country" to which he has wandered, bearing with him as a kind of movable feast this robe and ring and slaughtered calf. It is God who journeys into the far country bearing this gift of rehabilitation. It is God who refuses patiently to wait for prodigal humanity to hit bottom and realize how good they had it at home.

And so it is only when the father arrives at the slop-trough with the robe and ring and slaughtered calf, when God meets us in the world as Messiah bearing unasked-for gifts of grace, that we are forced to hold and acknowledge both facts simultaneously: the fact of God's grace, and the fact of our unworthiness in sin. And worst of all, God does this not begrudgingly, not with grumbling against us, but with all of the honest concern and joy of the father in the story. Why? Because we are nothing but God's creatures first and last. This is the basis for God's love and care for us. Not because as creatures we have any claim to God's grace—not because as creatures we could connive our way back into God's good graces by any right—but because as we are God's creation, God is concerned for our well-being, and wills to repair us.

The only remaining question, is whether we will accept the painful truth of grace, wearing the robe and ring and eating the feast that has come out to us and endeavoring to live up to the reality of it … or whether we will remain insensible to what God has done for us—or outright reject it—while still partaking of that providence. Which is really no choice at all, no real dilemma, because the reality is always that we do a bit of both. The objective truth of "God with us" never automatically and totally produces the subjective truth of "we with God."

In fact, it is only while we are in rehab that we stand any chance of recognizing and responding positively to this truth. That does not mean that only Christians are capable of it; this is, after all, the sole province of the Spirit. But as Christians, we are in fact in rehab, living because of the resources of grace intensively administered to us. We are those who know themselves to be addicts, not as a past reality somehow no longer in force, but as addicts on the wagon. It is only in the intensive administration of this grace that we are fulfilled in our being as God's creatures, refashioned every day as those who die to sin and are recreated to life in the Spirit. Being in rehab in this way is the reality by which we experience and know salvation—though even for those outside of the program, it remains an incontrovertible objective fact designed to match their real subjective pain.

This is so because the truth of "we with God" is unnecessary to the truth of "God with us," however beneficial it is to us in spite of the unpleasant and personally embarassing way we are confronted with it. Salvation remains real for humanity in Christ, remains actual fact, even for those for whom the subjective reality has yet to take hold—and even for those for whom it never does in life. All of ethics is subsequent to salvation, a response to God's unilateral actions for us and an attempt to live into the positive reality they illustrate. In salvation, as Barth insists, we are not given a "second chance," recreated into some perverse recapitulation of Adam's choice. Rather, we are completed in Christ, provided with our perfect end by way of an eschatological break with all that came before. It is that eschatological break, that new fact of our being in Christ, imposed upon us in replacement of our history as pure grace, that is the necessary precondition of real Christian ethics.

Comments

  1. "There's a place for that message, and Judean discussions of redemption are the proper context in ways Christian ones are not."
    I'm not sure I understand correctly. Do mind elaportating a little more on this?
    Do you mean the parrable as told by Jesus fits the Judean context and the parrable as "bend" by Barth (with the father going out to look for his son) fits the non-Judean context. If I've, at least, understood this correctly, I'd like to ask some more questions.

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    1. What I mean is that the concept signified by the word "salvation" is not the same in the Judean context of scripture, and in the Christian context in which we refer to something eschatological regarding the afterlife.

      Likewise for "redemption," which has as its primary referent not an eschatological matter, but temporal deliverance modeled on the image of the Golah. In more domestic contexts, it still has the context of the go'el, the one who is obliged to (or otherwise does) redeem you from captivity or other significant hardship. The go'el, for example, may be the surviving brother who sires a child by his dead brother's wife in order to keep his lineage alive. (This is the real sin of Onan: that he failed to act as redeemer when he was obliged to do so.)

      So the parable of the Prodigal is speaking a word genuinely relevant to aspects of the concept of salvation for its audience, and if we are speaking of the same thing—God's grace exercised within covenant relationship in response to repentance—we may use the image rightly. But if, instead, we are speaking of eschatological fate, we are misapplying the parable's message if we say that God's eternal saving grace is exercised as a response only to the penitent.

      So, yes, I do mean that Barth has "bent" the parable to fit the matter we're talking about when we say "salvation," in order to avoid misapplying an equally valid message about forgiveness in relationship.

      Is that more clear?

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    2. Yes, thank you very much for the effort.

      I'm not sure that Christians refer to something-eschatological-regarding-the-afterlife when talking about "salvation". Does Barth?
      It might be the popular idea, I agree, but it doesn't mean it carries any theological weight. Salvation as with redemption is, in my mind, rather immediate.
      Or do you mean by "afterlife" merely "christian life"? This needs to be the case fot that sentence to be true:
      "It is that eschatological break, that new fact of our being in Christ, imposed upon us in replacement of our history as pure grace, that is the necessary precondition of real Christian ethics."

      Nonetheless, I think the fact that salvation follows redemption, in the case of the Prodigal son, is not that much of a problem. In my opinion the "who acts first?" question is exaggerated and the resolution of it (distinguishing between a Judean and a non-Judean understanding of Salvation)is equally inadequate.
      “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him;"
      This is enough for me.
      Furthermore Jesus' two preceeding parrables give (in Judean context) "the lost coin" and "the lost sheep" a role equally passive to that of Barth's "bended-Prodigal-son".
      Doesn't the inheretance of the son much rather signify the father's fulfilment of that first covanant, making him (the father) the justified and righteous Goel, whether his son comes back or not?
      Does the ring not signify a new covanant?
      Why, also, would the father go out looking for a son to whom he, himself, granted freedom and inheretance?
      In my mind salvation is the reunification with the father, regardless of wether the Prodigal son comes from the pigs or from a palace.



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    3. Yes, thank you very much for the effort.

      I'm not sure that Christians refer to something-eschatological-regarding-the-afterlife when talking about "salvation". Does Barth?
      It might be the popular idea, I agree, but it doesn't mean it carries any theological weight. Salvation as with redemption is, in my mind, rather immediate.
      Or do you mean by "afterlife" merely "christian life"? This needs to be the case fot that sentence to be true:
      "It is that eschatological break, that new fact of our being in Christ, imposed upon us in replacement of our history as pure grace, that is the necessary precondition of real Christian ethics."

      Nonetheless, I think the fact that salvation follows redemption, in the case of the Prodigal son, is not that much of a problem. In my opinion the "who acts first?" question is exaggerated and the resolution of it (distinguishing between a Judean and a non-Judean understanding of Salvation)is equally inadequate.
      “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him;"
      This is enough for me.
      Furthermore Jesus' two preceeding parrables give (in Judean context) "the lost coin" and "the lost sheep" a role equally passive to that of Barth's "bended-Prodigal-son".
      Doesn't the inheretance of the son much rather signify the father's fulfilment of that first covanant, making him (the father) the justified and righteous Goel, whether his son comes back or not?
      Does the ring not signify a new covanant?
      Why, also, would the father go out looking for a son to whom he, himself, granted freedom and inheretance?
      In my mind salvation is the reunification with the father, regardless of wether the Prodigal son comes from the pigs or from a palace.

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    4. You must live in a different world from mine. I know of no Christian reference to salvation which does not have in view the eschaton, and what I have seen referred to as "final salvation," as its primary referent. The question of who shall be saved does not principally, in the discussions I have studied, have to do with rescue, resuscitation, health, etc. There is a reason that apokatastasis is lumped in with discussions of universal salvation, and it has to do with the fact that this is how we have come to use the terminology.

      But you are correct about the passage from my post, in that when I use the term "eschatological break," I am referring to something other than the standard meaning—to new life, rather than to the afterlife. And this is the same kind of distinction I have tried to make with salvation and redemption.

      With regards to the question of who acts first, I wonder what tradition you come out of, that the question of whether God responds to human agency, or we respond to divine agency, is not relevant.

      And it is important to separate what we might call "good" exegesis of the passage in scripture, over which I will still debate your proposals, and the theological use that Barth makes of the image out of context. The other parables that help frame this one in the text of the gospel do not appear in Barth's usage.

      In the parable, the father is not truly a redeemer at all. There is acceptance, a reconciliation between father and son, and there is a restoration to former place in spite of the offense, but there is no active redemption of the son from his plight until after the son has decided to abandon it. There is no place for a two-covenants view here; that allegory has nothing to do with the text. In context, the delivery of the inheritance to the son, and his departure, signifies the decisive breaking of the relationship. It is the declaration that the father had as well be dead. There is no positive grant of freedom by the father here, only a negative seizure of independence by the son. The ring and the robe and the fatted calf signify, in the end, an utterly unearned restoration to an original position, totally in spite of the depth of this offense. There is one relationship here, that of father and son, and it is abrogated and then restored, but with no bargaining, no terms, none of the apparatus of covenantal agreement at all. Surely this is an image of salvation, but the sequence of the story matters to what kind.

      And so it matters that Barth replaces the Synoptic logic of the parable with the Pauline logic of Romans.

      Does that make more sense?

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  2. Yes it makes sense. Thank you very much.

    Correction "I think the fact that salvation follows redemption*..." Here I meant ofcourse "...follows repentance*..." (It seems you understood me anyways).

    With regards to eschatology I hold (for the time being) to what might be called a mystic/personal eschatology that might be defined as the end of ordinary reality and reunion with the Divine. You can understand of course, from this definition that apocatastasis is also "lumped in".
    For interest sake; in German tradition, Lutharan, there is a song sung every Christmas that includes the words:
    "Heut schließt er wieder auf die Tür zum schönen Paradeis; der Cherub steht nicht mehr dafür. Gott sei Lob, Ehr und Preis, Gott sei Lob, Ehr und Preis!" Nikolaus Herman 1554

    At the moment I see no eschatological break other than the one you refered to in your post.

    The question of who acts first, is also relevant to me. I'm merely of the opinion that Barth remodeled the given parable only to emphasise that God acts first and I think Barth finds license to do this in the two preceding parables. To recapitulate; in my mind, Barth merely emphasises something allready present in the given parable. The idea that the given parable portrays a response to human agency should not be exagerated, it is exactly such an exageration that pulls the parable not only out of its Judean- but also its scriptural -context.

    I'll react on the exegesis of the passage in scripture in a seperate reply.

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    1. Thank you for the clarifications. As to the hymn, we have it in all the hymnals I have access to, though I can't say we sing it as regularly. The closest translation I have is from the 1941 LW, "He opens us again the door / Of Paradise today // The angel guards the gate no more / To God our thanks we pay." The LBW chooses more blatantly Johannine images, "He is the Key and He the Door." Personally, as to the eschaton of any given human life, I know that we come from God and return to God. I think we've made nonsense out of the notions of heaven and hell, both basically realms of creation—one the place of angels, and one the general place where the dead go as spirits. I look forward to being with God, but I also look forward to the restoration of creation to its right order—though I have no expectation that I will see the latter before I experience the former. But with respect to the hymn, I do understand Christ as the sole and total means of that fate.

      Professionally, I find that the nature of the eschatological break is as an apocalyptic demonstration of the reality of creation answerable to God, in spite of the apparent realities of the world that may contradict. It is the reminder of the truth that the Creator is Lord of the creation, and the source of true justice. It is to be hoped for as something after which there is life, especially for those for whom there is precious little of that lying around in the world.

      As to the text, here's the problem. It's not enough to talk about Barth remodeling the parable. Barth, in this part-volume, is going to demolish it utterly, if we're relying on the text of the parable itself. Better to say that Barth leans heavily on its themes, using them as a way to take a common-place and shift the audience's expectations closer to the reality. And so Barth has remodeled the parable, but the primary means of that remodeling is to emphasize, as he puts it, the way of the Son of God into the far country. The way of God coming to humanity as the sole act by which humanity is reconciled and redeemed. To do that, jumping ahead a bit from what I described in the post, is to completely import the life of Christ into the parable, prior to (if not in place of) its resolution in the text. The trick is that the image of the Prodigal becomes the image of humanity in and after the Fall. His use of this topos gets progressively more radical as he goes along, in order to explain the radical thing that has happened in Christ. This only happens in Christ acting for us, precisely when we could not, nor would we, act appropriately for ourselves.

      So, certainly, he emphasizes something present in the parable—two things, actually. Our status, and God's action. But he does so by radicalizing both. The point, of course, was never for Barth to stay within the limited confines of the text. The point is to describe the theological reality in appropriate language, and to do that, the parable text is not sufficient.

      I don't believe that Barth is at all exaggerating, however; the Lutheran tradition is far more known for its emphasis on the absolute nullification of human action in the matter of our relationship with God. It is important, if one is to keep human action absolutely posterior to grace, to eliminate the notion of the Prodigal deciding to return. This is a place where, no matter in how weak a form, merit squeezes in by the smallest of cracks. The imposition of any human action at all prior to grace spits us right back into Nominalism and "facere quod in se est." To follow Luther on this point, we must make even the Prodigal's return a product of divine action. And Barth has certainly imbibed a good deal of Luther in producing this volume.

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    2. Put most bluntly, the outcome of the situation I have described in the post, is that the Father has come in person to the pig-trough, and we have killed him for it.

      But that isn't quite true, because the Father has instead taken our place at the trough, taken our place all the way prior to that at the demand for our independence and his death, and has in all things been judged in our place, and redeemed our Fall.

      And even that isn't quite true, as Barth will go so far as to put Christ in place of the other son, who has come into the world to walk with the Prodigal and to be judged and condemned in his place. And it is as the Prodigal who witnesses the death of his brother in his place, and his resurrection by the Father, that we realize something quite different from what the actual Prodigal Son realizes. It is, in this instance, at the pig-trough that we realize that we can return to the Father, because we have been given back the rights we abandoned, to be full and true children of God—all and only because our righteous brother has been judged, condemned, and ultimately vindicated in our place.

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    3. I think we are, more or less, on the same page.

      The fact that the prodigal son made a dicision in the original parable does not hinder me to include into that original parable everything emphisised by Barth or Luther. Like I said: The preceding parables and the quote: "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him;" are, for me, enough to release any who-acts-first tension.

      My conceren is that you hold to such a tension, only to release it by applying contrary morals, to Judean and non-Judean audiences respectively. The effects of this is, for me, problematic.

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