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.

Breaking the Hold of Order

The problem with the numbering of persons in the Trinity is that it reinforces a heresy the church tried to stamp out: the monarchy of the Father and the corresponding subordinations of the Son and the Spirit. We made the Son and Spirit legally equal to the Father in the same ways that the ERA would attempt to make women legally equal to men: by a forensic act of fiat that doesn't actually rewrite the systems of presumptively-natural subordination that are built into our thought. The coexistence of de iure equality and de facto subordination has made a mockery of "equality" in both cases—and especially in the sick combination by which we write our imposed gender normativities onto the intra-Trinitarian relations in order to read the subordination of women back off of the subordination of the Son. "X is equal to Y" tends to presume the superiority of Y as the basis for the elevation of X when the terms are patently not equal in practice; that practice must be fixed. But where Barth doesn't seem inclined to make the necessary revisions to gender structures, he's on point when it comes to the theological structures.

In both cases, we have a theology of orders predicated on our interpretations of our perception of "natural" priority among things in relation. And in both cases, we have narratives of generation to reinforce that "natural" priority. We have read the division of the earth-creature, ha'adam, as the generation of woman on the basis of man: God making a female to be subordinate to the male. And—as you'll also find incorporated into McCormack's most recent work using Barth—we have read the becoming of God in eternity as the generation of a Son, and then of the Spirit, on the basis of the Father: God making subordinate persons to send in mission. Of course, the better reading of Gen 2 is that God made from the earth-creature another of its own kind, which could correspond to it in a way no other living being could, and that only upon seeing the 'ishah did what remained of the earth-creature call itself ha'ish. The etiology here explains woman and man in normatively-heterosexual pair-bonding as the reproduction of the "one flesh" of the earth-creature, because ha'ish is not ha'adam on his own. Only by making woman did God make man, and only together are they human. Only by becoming Son did God become Father in truth, and not merely in relationship to the people of God's covenant adoption—but only the Son and Father together with the Spirit are God.

We have the same basic fallacy of the priority of whatever group gets to keep the original name among ourselves, too. Roman Catholicism today is just as much a product of the Reformation era as any of our Protestant churches. We did not evolve from it and leave it behind, nor are we a deviant development away from it; together we evolved from a common precursor. Likewise, Judaism today is just as much a product of the forces that produced Christianity out of our common ancestral situation. But we quarrel over the idea that only one of us gets to remain "first," and if we must be "second" we insist on replacing those who keep the prior name. And in these wars between epigones and atavists, relics and innovators, we forget that we are all together living proof against this ideology of a zero-sum game. It's our ideology, a pure product of the Fall if ever there was one, and we have no business applying it to God, much less one another.

Keeping—or at least Finding—Our Balance Without Order

Think of the loci of creation, reconciliation, and redemption as places in which the Trinity lands with one side up, a different side for each to demonstrate their equality. The other two aren't really subordinate; they're just not the facet of the crystal we're looking through. What is crucially important about the doctrine of election, therefore, is to see Barth capping off a doctrine of God that doesn't belabor the already-explained Trinitarian relationships of the prolegomena—and capping it off with Augustine's dictum that the opera Trinitatis ad extra indivdisa sunt.

McCormack is right, in what he thinks of as his opposition to "metaphysics" and "speculation," to oppose abstraction from the wrong object—the creature—as a theological basis. This is Barth's game, in its most basic ground rule. But it is not for that reason about "metaphysics" or "speculation"; it is about naturalism. McCormack, not seeing this, assumes that all abstraction from historically-grounded particularities—which he takes to be the ground of God's being-in-act and the nature of Barth's Christological actualism—is verboten. Where Barth is willing to speak of God in eternity, to speak of God who was before we were, and who will be after we are no longer, to speak of a being of God a se without God's works, McCormack sees this as exactly the kind of metaphysics and speculation Barth claims to be avoiding. And if Barth were doing what Molnar is trying to do with God's aseity, he might have a point. Again, priority language is problematic.

But when these facets are bound coherently together as faces of one object in its integrity, there can be no harm of looking through both of them. We simply don't have a choice but to do it in some sequence, and Barth's chosen sequence begins with the subversion of the entire topic of God's aseity, even as it does justice to what must be said about God in Godself as independent from us. It begins there because Barth takes the tradition seriously, and unlike McCormack, Barth does not disavow this way of looking at God. He simply integrates it with the economic perspective, seeing God from the notional being and doing ends of God's being-in-act without disintegrating them. There can be nothing wrong with understanding who God must be to do what God does. God is not other than the God who has done these things, the God who is Jesus Christ and therefore also Father and Spirit most specifically. But in addition to describing the personal existence of the self-differentiated Trinity in unity, we may also describe what God who is these three is like, what God's character is as the basis for these acts even if we do not posit a divide between God's being and doing.

Barth is very good at this, bracketing out things we may notionally distinguish in order to properly integrate them as aspects of the whole. Making blown-up diagrams of a reality that is never actually disassembled. (Which may be why some have seen in him a precursor to postmodern deconstruction.) It's a diagnostic procedure, necessary because we have already tried such disassembly and wound up with sundered parts floating around our theologies, extra bits here and there, left out of our more-efficiently-assembled models. Barth's models are not efficient, by any means. They do not adhere neatly to the confessions, and they do not adhere neatly to any single principle of organization. God is absolutely who God has decided to be, actus purus et singularis, and this is claimed in Barth's doctrine of election not because God decided to be Jesus Christ, as the object of God's self-election, but because in deciding about us, as Barth says, God decided about Godself.

Jesus Christ is electing God and elect humanity, the single subject and double object of that decision. As subject and object in Godself, God is not divided; it is God who is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ who in his divinity is God. Father and Spirit are not other than Jesus Christ as Son; we cannot preserve a "second" and then a "third" person as objects of election without damaging our doctrine of the Trinity. God chooses Godself to be God for us. And as object in his humanity, it is Jesus Christ who is responsibly us for God, living into the participatory correspondence that is our nature as God's creatures. This integration of divine and human prerogatives is the hallmark of election in ways that will be broken out in the three economic loci of creation, reconciliation, and redemption, and which are in the same way broken out in discussion of the divine command because Jesus as us for God is not in any way a replacement of us before God as we actually are. Even in election, it remains to be discussed that we are not Jesus, and are not reducible in any way to him; our being in Christ constitutes a judgment on our being in ourselves.

The disordering here, the dissolving of presumed ordering, must be understood. Election centers on Jesus Christ as opposed to any so-called "second person" of the Trinity, and it does so to consolidate the being of God in action around the most quintessentially reliable point of self-revelation we have. Reconciliation focuses on that so-called "second person" as the exemplar of the locus, Jesus Christ as Son in relation with the Father and Spirit in action, just as creation focuses on the Father as exemplar in relation with the Son and Spirit, and redemption would have focused on the Spirit as exemplar in relation with the Father and Son: all three in action together, participants in differentiable but indivisible ways in each action. Understanding that the noetic order is backwards, Barth will occasionally still speak of God in terms we may find familiar from the tradition, but the ontic order always proceeds from God to us, and cannot be walked backwards as though the relationship were reciprocal. This is the problem with naturalism: it always posits an ontic correspondence to the noetic, as though things must be as we perceive them. But the only solution is to be unfailingly critical of our perceptions, working skeptically from trust in the object on its own terms even as we know that we have ventured those terms and await their failure in order to find better ones.

I'm not sure that's the end of this post, or that I can find an end to it, but it at least sets up the reality that I have to write about the conflict between naturalism and dogmatics—something that will be essential to defending CD III.1 as valid theological science against upstart naturalists like Pannenberg. Which only looks like an unrelated argument!