Digging into "Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): Intro and Thesis

Since I'm slowly working my way through a Genesis exposition series in so-called "post-Barthian" terms, it's about time I crack into the Barth that goes with it. Which I suppose is disingenuous of me; I've been in that section of Barth's work for some time now. It's about time I start showing you my work. Even where I disagree with Barth on the text, I am profoundly in agreement with him on the basis for the doctrine. And yet there's so little positive work on Barth's doctrine of creation out there.

Hardly anybody's working on expositing Barth's creation in public. And not without reason, as there are a number of infamous sections, particularly around gender and sexuality and the nature of human fellowship—and those in particular tread well over the line into naturalism and obviously violate Barth's theological principles. But saying so seems to be the function of the majority of the literature, and a fair bit of the rest of it tends to be devoted to wishing Barth had been more traditionally Lutheran or Reformed and so "gotten it right"—including the ecotheologians who have accepted the canard about Barth's "creation docetism." It's time to get past that and dig into the real meat of Barth's radical anti-naturalism, which he got profoundly right in CD III, and which can fix not only his errors but so many of our own today.

(And yes, I do see the irony in promoting an anti-naturalist doctrine of creation after mentioning ecotheology, especially when I used to work on Joseph Sittler's collected materials. But the idea that naturalism is required for a proper doctrine of creation is, as Barth will point out, a shortcut that bypasses the reality of God's actions in this locus, and does so in order to make the world we see and understand into the logic of its own origin and ends. That's abject failure, and we should recognize it, both here and in soteriology!)

Moving the Field

The field knows that Barth's doctrine of election in CD II.2 was a radical shift away from traditional versions of the locus, not to mention a significant development in the course of Barth's own theology. And that's right. But what the field tends to ignore is that this development continues through Barth's radical changes of the doctrine of creation, without which there is no way to correctly understand the role of the doctrine of reconciliation and what Barth means by atonement.

Creation replaces election in the tradition's direct linkage with covenantal grace in history. Election is emphatically not the first in a sequence of works; for Barth it becomes the eternal (and not merely pretemporal) paradigm of God's economy of grace with humanity. Reconciliation, as the outworking of the covenant of grace in history, is a second and separate work after creation, or a separate moment in the one work of God—and it is second only in chronological sequence, and not in a logical chain. The same applies to the redemption and consummation of the creature, which in turn follows after but not from the history of our reconciliation.

And by and large the field doesn't know this. And the reason they don't has everything to do with the reception and transmission history of Barth's text, up to and including the reception and transmission of the revolutionary new material of Barth's Göttingen dogmatics lectures in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ingrid Spieckermann, Michael Beintker, and Bruce McCormack managed to move the needle significantly with this material, even when they were only given the first 18 sections of it, stopping in the middle of a chapter and leaving the rest to archival digging.

But fragmentary and biased as it was, that material advanced the field in ways we're still integrating. What could the rest of it do, with a corresponding increase in our grasp of the mature dogmatics of the CD? And the biggest leap we have to make there is simply not to leap in the first place, but rather to walk through the doctrine of creation and understand its integrity and role on our way between CD II.2 and IV.1. Translation history excused that leap, once upon a time when the English versions of CD II and IV were coming out in parallel, but it can't possibly excuse it today.

Now, this obviously puts me in an argument with the field, but the best way to have that argument is for me to do what I advocate and wait for someone to come along and better my work. I've been talking about this for years, and it apparently remains my job to prove that it's worthwhile. Which is fine! That's how this started in the 1990s, and there are few better ways to continue it. And so, for more reasons than just my Genesis exposition series, this is the place we need to resume digging: creation and covenant. This is where we start expanding the site and uncovering the rest of the foundation.

Section 41: Creation and Covenant
Die Schöpfung ist das erste in der Reihe der Werke des dreieinigen Gottes und damit der Anfang aller von Gott selbst verschiedenen Dinge. Indem sie auch den Beginn der Zeit in sich schließt, entzieht sich ihre geschichtliche Wirklichkeit aller historischen Beobachtung und Berichterstattung und kann sie auch in den biblischen Schöpfungsgeschichten nur in Form reiner Sage bezeugt werden. Die Absicht und also auch der Sinn der Schöpfung ist aber nach diesem Zeugnis die Ermöglichung der Geschichte des Bundes Gottes mit dem Menschen, die in Jesus Christus ihren Anfang, ihre Mitte und ihr Ende hat: Die Geschichte dieses Bundes ist ebenso das Ziel der Schöpfung wie die Schöpfung selbst der Anfang dieser Geschichte ist.

Creation is the first in the sequence of works of the triune God, and thus the origin of all things that are different from Godself. Compassing the beginning of time within itself, its historical reality evades all empirically-historical [historisch] observation and reportage, and can be witnessed in the Biblical creation-histories only in the form of pure legend. The intention and so also the sense made by creation is, according to this testimony, to make possible the history of the covenant of God with humanity, which has its origin, its middle, and its end in Jesus Christ. The history of this covenant is as much the goal of creation as creation itself is the origin of this history.
This is Barth's thesis for the section, a framing of its subject matter in nuce as it will be unfolded and clarified through the rest of the section. And it's the second section of the chapter, so we're already past the introduction of some of this conceptual apparatus. You can get some of that earlier material in my overview of section 40, my description of Barth's differentiation between faith and reason and so between theological and natural sciences, and my suggestion of a preferable grasp of what Bonhoeffer called Barth's "revelatory positivism." And that last piece covers the most immediately important information for this new section: Barth's discussion of "non-historical history," and of "saga" as a genre for its depiction in scripture.

Witness to History that isn't World-History

The fact that creation-history can only be witnessed in scripture in the form of pure legend, as poetic depiction of a real history that is not epistemologically accessible through empiricism, is essential to Barth's Biblicism. It's the reason that, unlike practically every Evangelical author in Modern history, he can produce a thorough reading of the Genesis stories that does not force intellectual dishonesty when we are faced by observable reality. Barth isn't obsessed with making Geschichte conform to the much later standards of Historie that in the Modern period we otherwise take to be the gold-standard of "history" and so "truth" for every form of historical narrative. And he doesn't reject empirical history in order to salvage some other kind of "truth" from a set of myths in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary, either. Barth takes this approach because there is in fact no empirical evidence to the contrary.

There can be none, because creation isn't about how the world developed from its initial state to the present. Creation is not about what the initial state of the universe looked like and how it worked. And it is emphatically not about how the world came to be ordered the way it is today. The doctrine of creation is a witness to one simple fact, for Barth: the Creator created the creature. The creature is what we have every reason to think it is, from the data, but we have no data about its origin. That is not a moment of history; we're not even talking about the span of Planck time before linear history can be said to have erupted.

Creation is the action of God, the product of which is everything that isn't God, considerable as one coherent made thing: the non-God creature, however we understand it. And that fact means that discussion of the origin of the creature is discussion of information for which we have no empirical-historical access, even as we could possibly reconstruct for very early events through archaeology or astrophysics, because it didn't happen in world-history. There wasn't yet a world to have history when it happened. And so that part can only be accounted as legend, through fictional depictions that mimic historiography in order to declare the reality of the event. It can only be accounted as witness, testimony, Zeugnis, and so the fact that it is non-empirical historiography is not a strike against such a depiction of the non-empirically-available Sache. This is the accessibility of any geschichtliche text to Sachkritik, for Barth as much as for Bultmann, but it is only the accessibility of the bare fact of creation, and so of the bare fact of the creature as originating in God's first action. Everything else is storytelling this fact.

The Sense, Intention, and Goal of Creation

As Wittgenstein suggested in the Tractatus, "if a thing can occur within a situation, the possibility of the situation must therefore be already predetermined in the thing" (2.012). And while he would later recant his optimistic determinism, the idea remains that things go together rather than being windowless monads. A thing is not a thing by itself, has no meaning on its own without being situated. Still, the early Wittgenstein was adamant that this was purposive, built into the nature of things, and not merely coincidental. And for Barth there's something like that to the doctrine of creation. We were not made, and then purposed, as though "for something that could be totally self-subsistent, a situation were subsequently to match up to it" (2.0121). Covenant isn't a thing that subsequently happens to a creature that God made simply to exist for itself. Our worlds are like that, coincidences of objects designed for other purposes—though from the early Wittgenstein's standpoint, and any other purely philosophical standpoint, they do make use of our natural interconnectivity in ways that conform entirely with it.

From that standpoint, which is our standpoint in the world, there is no way to tell what is intended and what is merely possible. The theologian gets to be prescriptive in ways for which the philosopher has no justification. But we must do it on the right basis! There's no sense in saying that these interconnections are natural, and those unnatural, when all of them are in fact results of our nature. What is possible for a thing cannot truly be opposed to its nature. This is why Barth is a moral anti-realist: moral facts derive only from intersubjectivity, not from any presumed objectivity. There is for Barth emphatically no shortcut we can take to that intersubjectivity, no object upon or within which its rules have been encoded and from which we can therefore read them without needing the Subject of our obedience. And moral facts are therefore not to be derived from just any intersubjectivity!

I have previously railed against Barth's utter horrible exegetical failure at reading Jesus into Genesis, but there's sense there. And that sense is derived not from Jesus Christ as a mere second person of the Trinity, one of three, but from Jesus Christ as the nature of God, as the character of the one who is these three and who becomes incarnate in this history from all eternity. Barth is quite right to say that Jesus is the origin, middle, and end of the history of the covenant of God with humanity. There is no Father who is other than Jesus, no Spirit who is other than Jesus; indeed, no real alterity of character within God in any way. These three are not different; they are only relationally differentiated.

So it is profoundly important for Barth to say that Jesus Christ is the Subject of our proper moral intersubjectivity, especially against a background of theologies that insist upon the abstractly absolute Father and Creator as that Subject in ways that allow our rules to be encoded from the world back into God. Barth is absolutely right to say that there is no Father in such an abstract sense, no putative origin from which the Son and Spirit proceed in mission as subordinate others determined by this first. These are not separable. They do nothing alone, and everything together. This triangle can be rotated, seen with any of its three points up, but it cannot justly be broken as though those points were different from one another in character.

And so, in this locus as in every other, there really are only two that must be related: God and the non-God creature. God and us. And always in that order! Creation does not speak of our origin in order to establish any arbitrary relationship, but in order to further ground a relationship we have already seen active in history. Election is one part of that origin, the eternal self-determination of God for us, and this is the other: the historical determination of us for God. That second determination was shown in election as a thing in medias res, a historically paradoxical reality to which we will return, properly grounded, on the other side of the doctrine of creation, but it does not have its full explanation in the doctrine of God. It cannot, for we are not simply determined, and to understand the world in which our agency and God's clash with one another we must begin at the beginning—and not simply in eternity. This is the function of protology, and the reason election is not simply pretemporal in Barth's account, however it has been mistaken in the field.

Yeah, yeah, them's fightin' words, I know. But they're the ones I am compelled to by Barth's own work. And if I continue this, or you do, you'll see the reason for that unfold.