"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): Separating Sequence and Logic

In the last post, I carried on my project of redefining election relative to creation by elaborating Barth's insistence that, while creation follows after God's being and intention, it does not follow from it logically, and is also not a second thing relative to which election is the first. God is not part of the sequence of God's acts! But there is a second thing relative to which creation is a first: the history of the covenant of grace. And getting the relationship between those two things—and, implicitly, also between them and our history of agency—is the task of this third paragraph in section 41.1 of Barth's mature dogmatics.

Section 41, part 1: Creation, History, and Creation-history

(Again, I'm breaking this sub-section up into bloggable pieces by paragraphs of the original text. Page numbers are interspersed at page boundaries, but there are none here; we're in the middle of KD III.1, page 46 today. In a longer paragraph like this, I'm also breaking the English translation into more manageable content-based paragraphs, marked with a bar at the end of each division Barth doesn't make. Easy enough to follow, since we only have one major paragraph per post! Emphasis is original, bolded in the German and italicized in the English.)

Paragraph 3
Eben als erstes Werk Gottes steht aber die Schöpfung—wieder nach dem Zeugnis von Schrift und Bekenntnis—in einer Reihe, in einem unauflösbaren sachlichen Zusammenhang mit Gottes weiteren Werken. Und diese sind—wenn wir von dem Werk der Erlösung und Vollendung vorläufig absehen—die Taten Gottes zur Begründung, Erhaltung und Durchführung des Gnadenbundes, zu dessen Partner er den Menschen bestimmt und berufen hat. Auch die Geschichte dieser auf die Schöpfung folgenden Werke Gottes ist Ausführung und Entsprechung der in Gottes Willen und Beschluß von Ewigkeit her gefallenen Entscheidung. Und im Blick auf die biblische Ökonomie und Gewichtsverteilung wird man sofort sagen müssen, daß die Geschichte dieses Gnadenbundes, obwohl ihre Verwirklichung auf die der Schöpfung folgt, in Gottes Absicht und Rat wohl eine andere, aber keine geringere, sondern gleiche Würde hat wie die Schöpfung. Sie folgt wohl auf die Schöpfung, aber sie folgt nicht aus ihr. Sie bildet vielmehr, indem sie ihr folgt, den Skopus der Schöpfung. Viel eher könnte man von der Schöpfung sagen: sie folgt, weil sie deren notwendige Grundlage und Voraussetzung ist, aus der Geschichte des Gnadenbundes. Sie hat als erstes Werk Gottes den Charakter eines Modells oder einer Hülle dieses zweiten und darum in den Umrissen schon die Gestalt dieses zweiten. Die Schöpfung ist die Erstellung des Raumes für die Geschichte des Gnadenbundes. Diese Geschichte bedarf ja eines ihr entsprechenden Raumes: der Existenz des Menschen und seiner ganzen Welt. Die Schöpfung sorgt dafür. Soll nach Röm. 11, 36 Alles «durch Gott» sein (das ist der Inhalt der Taten Gottes zur Begründung, Erhaltung und Durchführung des Gnadenbundes) und endlich und zuletzt (in der Erlösung und Vollendung) «zu Gott hin», dann muß allererst Alles «aus Gott» sein. Wie könnten die Dinge sein – und in diesem ihrem Sein «durch Gott» und «zu Gott hin» sein, wenn sie nicht «aus Gott» ihr dazu bestimmtes Sein empfangen hätten? Daß ihnen dieses gegeben wird, das ist im gesamten Werk Gottes die Funktion der Schöpfung.

Even as the first work of God, creation—again, according to the testimony of scripture and creed—stands in a sequence, in an indissoluble factual connection with God's other works. And—bracketing temporarily the work of redemption and consummation—these are the actions of God for the establishment, maintenance, and carrying out of the covenant of grace, to which God has determined and appointed humanity as partner. |

The history of these works of God that follow after creation is also the execution and correlate of the decision that descends from eternity into time in God's will and resolve. And in view of the Biblical economy and load-balancing it must be said at once that the history of this covenant of grace, though its realization follows after creation, has in God's intention and counsel what is for all its difference not a lesser but rather an equivalent worth to that of creation. It does indeed follow after creation, but it does not follow from creation. Rather, by following creation, this history constitutes the scope of creation. One would sooner say of creation that, because it is its necessary foundation and prerequisite, it follows from the history of the covenant of grace. As the first work of God it has the character of a model or a shell of this second work, and so from its outlines we may already see the shape of this second work. |

Creation is the preparation of space for the history of the covenant of grace. This history really does need a corresponding space of its own: the existence of humanity and its entire world. Creation sees to this. If according to Romans 11:36 everything is "by God" (which is the content of the actions of God for the establishment, maintenance, and carrying out of the covenant of grace), and eventually and finally "toward God" (in redemption and consummation), then everything must first of all be "from God." How could things exist, and have this existence of theirs "by God" and "toward God," if they had not received their so-determined existence "from God"? That this is given to them is the function of creation within the overall work of God.
It's not even remotely hyperbolic to say that Barth's entire purpose in the doctrine of creation is to properly ground the covenant of grace in its original and driving nature as God's determination of humanity and the entire creature of which we are a part. God is simultaneously Lord of the creature and of the covenant that is its nature. And so much is relatively uncontroversial throughout the tradition ... until we get to what Barth actually means by all of this.

What Barth is Not Saying Here

Remember: creation is emphatically not "a doctrine of the world-cause" for Barth. All attempts to use creation as a ground of what we see around us are fraught with naturalism, and become more or less subtle ways of stamping the approval of things we like and the condemnation of things we don't with ersatz divine authority. Scripture is not an escape, dogma and doctrine are not escapes; they do not embody the Word of God in just any use we might make of them. We can't get to our original state from our situation in the world, even using holy things, because that's not what they're for. That is not the nature of their witness.

There is no line walked from there to here, no course of our gradual corruption that we could reverse to find purer values. We are not close to our origins. We are not more or less like an original state of being, the recapture of which would see us perfected into alignment with the divine will. The way things ought to be is not just lying around to be picked up by a more perceptive observer of the way things are! And our pursuit of such material solutions to the problem of sin is nothing but a recapitulation of its origin: the quest to own our nature absent the living God, to secure our knowledge of good and evil by turning to fellow creatures as though that knowledge were encoded in them by God in ways we could use without God.

And that's the caveat here: the covenant is not the way things are. It is not a culture. It cannot be described in a set of rules, a series of moral pre- and proscriptions, or a set of observations about how things seem to work better if done in just such a way. It is a relationship, a partnership with God in which we are morally obligated to participate. It doesn't just happen without our doing it, even as it happens and is possible for us because God eternally does it. It isn't every, much less any relationship; it is a very specific set of relationships—really one very specific relationship that has implications for the arrangement of every other. (Which will be CD III.4, but finds its grounding in this volume as Barth taps into the critically counter-cultural meanings of the creation narratives.)

We have been called into this relationship, defined in terms of it, given participatory responsibility with God for the establishment, maintenance, and execution of this relationship and the creature it defines. But we can't just take this responsibility upon ourselves and go to work, adding this relationship to the rest that we already have. Laying this foundation requires that we unsettle and reconcile to it all aspects of our existence already in play.

Framing God's Actions Relative to One Another

Fortunately for us, the history of the covenant of grace is not a history of human actions, to be disrupted or even voided by human failures. It is a history of divine actions, free and miraculous, dependent—like creation—only upon the being and intention of God. Like in the last paragraph about creation itself, this history of God's subsequent works is the outer realization of an inner resolution. It just isn't the first moment of that sequence. And while Barth spent the last paragraph defending the "peculiar worth" of creation as the first such work, keeping it from getting subsumed into this history of subsequent works, he now also defends the equal worth of this history. We can't roll it up into creation any more than we could roll creation up into it.

There is no logical subordination here. What follows after does not follow from. It stands on the foundation of the prior work of creation; this history would not exist without the creature so created—but it is for that reason creation that flows logically from covenant, and not vice versa. If we see the world, we are obliged to ask about its origin, which we do not see. If we see the history of God's actions—which is quite other than world history, as the criterion of its judgment—we are obliged to ask about its beginning, which we also do not see. The noetic path leads us backwards to an aporia, as usual. And so we set these things next to one another, rather than subordinating them into a historicist hierarchy.

The history of the covenant of grace does not go beyond creation, does not do anything that would be understandable in itself as new creation—that's why Barth has bracketed redemption and consummation, because they are unlike the history of the covenant of grace in this way. This history is the scope of creation, the light-cone of that first act, the possibility space it generates. Barth uses the image of a model or a shell (hull, husk), creation outlining the shape that history fills in—one might say the formal reality for which history supplies the material, though that gets into fuzzy metaphysical constructs better avoided, even as it looks more like Aquinas.

Though again, that's less problematic because we're talking not about our history, but about the history of God's sovereign actions. The creature is not the scope of creation; the covenant is. God's subsequent actions (barring redemption and consummation, again) take the shape of God's first action. We're simply supposed to follow suit, making responsible use of the freedom that is ours as the creature that results from that first action, made to correspond to its free and loving Agent.

What This Means for Us

Election is not a determination of us, but a decision about us, in which God self-determines by deciding how God will be. Creation is a determination of us, but in ways that correspond to God's self-determination and nature as an agent. What it determines is our "natural" relationship to God: partnership in the covenant of grace, to which God remains faithful because God remains self-determined in ways that align with God's original self-determination. What it doesn't determine is our actions, whether we will hold to that nature and act in accord with it, because we are equally self-determining. This is why "world" is not equivalent to "creation" even as it is made of nothing but the creature.

And yet we remain what we were made to be: the space natural to the history of God's subsequent actions. The "outside" necessary to a God who would act relative to another who is not Godself, and the non-God "other" relative to whom God wills to act. We remain the creature, and God remains the Creator. This is the basic truth Barth seeks to derive from the logic of God's other actions: if we are, as Paul says, "by God" and "toward God," how should this be, but that we are also "from God"? Otherwise God has no rights here, but acts as an alien and a usurping force against our natures. And that way lies Marcion, which we'll get to shortly.