How Can a Barthian Speak of Biblical Cosmologies Today?

So I've been digging into Barth's work in CD III.3, which at first looks a bit like a jumble of miscellaneous parts. Providence; God's supra-temporal (rather than merely pre-temporal) being-in-act towards us; evil; and angels. Not nearly so unified thematically as part 1, which focuses on creation and covenant through subject-critical exposition of the creation narratives, or part 2, which is focused on anthropology at the heart of the nature of the creature, or part 4, which is entirely devoted to ethics in relationships.

And, of course, it doesn't help that we don't widely know how Barth originally structured this work, even as it's available in the Göttingen lectures. Someone decided that the English translation of the first volume of those lectures should also dip into the second volume, and destroy all sense of that volume's internal structure by stopping 2/3 of the way into the first half, including election but excluding creation and providence—all three of which actions work out Barth's original doctrine of God in the way that only election as the model of God's economy does in CD II.2.

I'm not kidding; the field got ripped off, in a way that decisively shaped the intervening decades of scholarship, because someone forgot to think like or consult an archivist to remember that context always matters. Barth publishing was younger then, and they took what they had and wrapped it in a single cover and shipped it out, and it was a service, but there's never been a followup volume—and I don't think that's a coincidence. How would you correctly frame such a thing, now that it's been broken? But I can be pissed about that any time—and at least the information is available to anyone who actually thinks to look for it, because the GA is an archival product in which UCR 2 exists in something like its original integrity. So go look for it!

But Anyways...

The above rant, as part of this post, is brought to you by my reading Donald Wood's 2013 article, "‘An Extraordinarily Acute Embarrassment’: The Doctrine of Angels in Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics" (SJT 66.3, 319–37). It's a great article, and reminds me that Wood being at Aberdeen was one of the reasons I dreamed of studying there once upon a time. In it he notes several things of use, one of which is that "specialist Barth studies have been widely preoccupied by contextual matters and with what have been perceived to be more dogmatically central themes"—which (I continue to note) has limited analysis of Barth's doctrine of creation entirely, and not merely Wood's considered area of angelology. More topically, Wood notes that Barth's sequence at Göttingen marches from the knowability, nature, and attributes of God to the doctrines of election, creation, and providence as a sequence of actions ordered to bridge between the doctrine of God and the subsequent doctrine of the creature. God, and the world of humanity: this is the relationship that matters.

The rest of Wood's article hares off after the important question of why the doctrine of angels and demons intervenes as the first section of a chapter that only then speaks of humanity as God's creature and partner, of the covenant between them, and finally of sin in its existence as concrete deeds and as natural corruption. And it's good stuff, and you should find a copy somewhere—of the article, I mean, but yeah, also of UCR 2—but along the way he provides an important hermenutical key. Citing a Ritschlian objection to the doctrine of angels, Wood summarizes:
a developed doctrine of angels presumes that we can take independent interest in ‘angels’ and ‘demons’ as a factor in a ‘scriptural worldview’. But dogmatics has no investment in a putative biblical view of the world; it is concerned strictly with the witness of scripture to God’s creative and saving address to humanity. (Wood, 329)
Barth's response?
The word of God as revelation and as preaching is the address of God to humanity. The angels and the devils do not contribute to it, nor do they listen in to it—at least not as those addressed in it. The conversation between God and humanity passes clean by them…. When God is speaking, the discourse of the ‘elemental principles of the world’—of ideas, principles, and abstractions—is precisely the danger that the church must flee as the plague. One cannot serve God and the principalities and powers, the -isms and -alities of the world. God speaks alone. And when he speaks, then even the highest angels—to say nothing of the devil—must keep silent. (UCR 2, 326; Wood, 332)
And therein lies a key that goes far beyond discussion of angels and demons!

A Barthian Hermeneutics of Biblical Worldviews

We don't get to say of features of a biblical worldview, however crucial they are to its structure, that they stand with the same force and authority, as theological norms, that upholds our need to preach the gospel. As the hearing and the teaching church we are bound to scripture as the Word of God—but not as though every word of the Bible, and every concept upon which its authors presumed to construct their worlds, was that Word. Scripture, like the traditions that continue with every word of the church's proclamation even as it is superior to them, is only at best a form obedient in its witness to that Word.

We dare not imagine that the Bible is wrong to speak of these things, we dare not edit them out of the Bible as though we could extract a kernel from so much husk—this is the Liberal error, and in its way as speculative as the traditional desire to speak still more words about these features, and to construct reliable theological edifices upon them. If we are asked, as Barthians and not Bultmannians, we must say something of them because we cannot hear the Word of God in its integrity without hearing and conveying all of the parts of that witness. We cannot substitute ourselves as witnesses to what we have not seen, in deciding about the testimony of witnesses we cannot question. But neither can we substitute their testimonies for our own when it is demanded of us that we speak God's Word.

We must understand and appreciate the witness of words we need never speak ourselves, because it cannot justly be demanded of us that we preach angels and demons as though they were the gospel. It cannot justly be demanded of us that we preach a historical Adam, either—and understanding the texts from which one has been derived should lead us away from such a failure to understand their witnesses. It also cannot justly be demanded of us that we preach the virgin birth, as though it were the gospel—but we cannot preach the gospel without it, either. This is the subtlety of Sachkritik when practiced by a critical dogmatic theologian and not merely by a professional exegete, no matter how competent Bultmann certainly was at that task. This is what a Barthian has to do, face to face with the worldviews of the Bible. And that's nowhere more important than when we seek to speak of matters eschatological, in which nearly the entire mass is worldviews in conflict, speaking out of unpleasant present realities.

All of this is prolegomena to a post I meant to write today, which should nonetheless be coming: what a Barthian might have to say about the realm of the dead. It seems perfectly reasonable to analogize such a topic to Barth's handling of the realm of the heavens and its creatures, and the removal of the demand that we honor as divine speech all Biblical worldviews on such a topic frees the theologian to do better critical work oriented toward the real demand: speaking of all else in terms of God, and God in terms of God's self-revelation.


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