"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): No Mere "First Cause" or "Final Dependency"

We've come to the last paragraph before Barth's first small-print excursus in this subsection, and that means we've hit the point where Barth tees up on the argument he's about to have with his source material. Which will come back around in the first paragraph after the excursus, too—but that's because you could (at least notionally) read straight through the CD without the excurses and still get the idea. You just wouldn't have the proof. Or most of the real debate. (I am, obviously, going to walk you through it and show you where everything comes from and where it goes in the following two posts.)

What he's got in his sights here is going to be unfamiliar to an American audience, and there's a tendency to map it into our history of church conflicts. We sit atop a colonial history of missionary and isolationist factions who came to the Americas convinced they couldn't be wrong, and that undergirds the basic fundamentalist/modernist problem that makes taking Genesis stories as literal empirical history (Historie, as opposed to Geschichte) a sticking point in our culture. But none of that is even close to the issue here! Nobody in this conversation thinks Genesis might be historisch; the question is what its geschichtlichkeit as a set of stories means for us. And to that end, Barth is setting up to take the texts of Genesis with far greater literal seriousness than any of his interlocutors, without ever leaving the domain of Modern critical scholarship.

This isn't a science-and-religion conversation; it's a philosophy-and-theology conversation. Barth is synthesizing a very different Pietist/Liberal dialectic, in a context in which the radical conservatives have already been marginalized—some by coming here, others by simply failing to be relevant to the larger conversation. So what Barth's dealing with is a very mid-Modern European abstraction of the doctrine of creation, replete with philosophical adaptations that don't so much stand at odds with scripture, as progress beyond it on lines presumed to be compatible. And it's that presumption of compatibility that Barth is going to sink, by using Sachkritik to demonstrate what a truly consistent abstraction from these particulars looks like.

So for us Americans there's going to be something of a "strange new world of Barth's dogmatics" to be taken up in the coming material, much in the same ways as he referred to the "strange new world of the Bible." And, as usual, Barth isn't taking sides or promoting a "third way"; he's redrawing the landscape in a way that will let him claim what works in all of it—remembering, of course, that "all of it" doesn't remotely include our dumpster-fire American fundamentalism, and neither should we. It's all Modern Liberals and Pietists having serious arguments using the Bible, tradition, and reason from here on in!

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

(No, the paragraphs aren't originally numbered in Barth's text. Page numbers from the German are interspersed at page boundaries. And as the translator, I'm breaking the English into more manageable content-based paragraphs, marked with a bar at the end of each division Barth doesn't make. Emphasis is original, bolded in the German and italicized in the English.)

Paragraph 4
Sie ist aus diesem Zusammenhang nicht zu lösen. Eben darum ist der Begriff der Schöpfung keineswegs identisch mit dem allgemeinen Begriff des ersten Grundes oder der letzten Abhängigkeit aller Dinge. Gewiß umschließt er auch diesen Begriff. Wo sollte der erste Grund und wo sollte die letzte Abhängigkeit aller Dinge zu suchen sein, wenn nicht in der Schöpfung? Es geht aber in dem christlichen Begriff der Schöpfung aller Dinge konkret um den Menschen und seine ganze Welt als Raum für die Geschichte des Gnadenbundes, um die nach Eph. 1, 10 in Christus zusammenzufassende Totalität der himmlischen und irdischen Dinge. Es gibt nach christlicher Erkenntnis keine an sich und als solche, keine anders als [S. 47] die so und dazu gewordenen und existierenden Dinge. So gibt es nach ihr auch keinen an sich und als solchen bestehenden ersten Grund und keine an sich und als solche bestehende letzte Abhängigkeit aller Dinge. Daß sie «aus Gott» sind, bedeutet sofort und exklusiv: sie wurden und sie existieren in jenem konkreten Zusammenhang; sie sind aus dem Gott, der der Herr und Regent jener Geschichte ist. Und darauf ist ja dann umgekehrt auch die absolute Autorität und Kraft der göttlichen Herrschaft und Regentschaft in dieser Geschichte begründet: daß diese nicht in einem ihr ursprünglich fremden, sondern in dem von Haus aus für sie und nur für sie bestimmten und zubereiteten Raum sich abspielt: in der Menschheit und Welt, die Gottes Geschöpf und also sein Eigentum und als solches der Gegenstand, der Schauplatz und das Werkzeug seiner Taten ist.

Creation is not to be released from this connection [with God's subsequent works]. This is exactly why the concept of creation is in no way identical with the general concept of the first cause or the final dependency of all things. Of course, it also encompasses this concept. Where should the first cause, and where should the final dependency of all things be sought, if not in creation? |

However, in the Christian concept of the creation of all things, this is concretely a matter of humanity and its world as the space for the history of the covenant of grace—a matter of the totality of heavenly and earthly things that, according to Ephesians 1:10, are summarized in Christ. According to Christian knowledge, there is nothing that has become and exists in itself and as such, rather than in this way and for this end. So, by the same logic, there is also no first cause or final dependency of all things that has been established in itself and as such. |

That they are "from God" means, at once and exclusively, that they become and exist in this concrete connection; they are from the God who is the Lord and Regent of that history. And the absolute authority and power of the divine lordship and regency is also and indeed reciprocally grounded upon the fact that they do not play out in a space that is originally alien to them, but rather in a space in which they are at home, a space determined and prepared for them: in humanity and the world, which is God's creature and so God's property, and as such the object, showplace, and implement of God's actions.
Shifting Abstractions, or "Barth's Problem with Metaphysics"

As he does elsewhere (and relatively famously) with ethics, Barth makes a distinction here between the general (i.e. philosophically abstract) concept of creation and the specifically Christian concept of it. Which is a nice little polemical move, but you shouldn't imagine that any of the participants in this discussion aren't proceeding on Christian grounds. This is Christendom, after all! None of these folks are pagan philosophers, though there is some of that about in presumptively-neopagan German Modernity; Barth's interlocutors are just so comfortable with the tradition of scriptural interpretation and theological work on the subject that the shape it gives is assumed to be the important part, and the details follow. Beyond that familiarity-bred contempt for detail, Barth will also touch on some explicit animus against using the Genesis stories to ground specifically Christian accounts of creation—and you can count Emil Brunner among the unmentioned partisans of that view. But that's also and explicitly a Christian claim, as supersessionism has always been.

So: everyone in the conversation is Christian. This isn't Barth's fight against non-Christian ideas; it's his fight against un-Christian ideas, ones he believes shouldn't be commended as valid expositions of the faith. And, as is generally true of ad fontes movements, Barth's complaint can be described as a problem with getting too high up the ladder, away from the stable foundation. Shift your center of gravity when you're close to the bottom of a long ladder, and chances are good you won't fall, or if you do, it won't hurt so much. But the higher up you get, the less you can shift your center and still be supported by the base of the ladder. And that may not be a problem if you're using the ladder to step off onto something else—but then you've stepped off onto something else, and you aren't being supported by the things you used to climb up there. And at that point, intellectual honesty ought to dictate that you say so!

Every claim made by a Christian is in some sense a Christian claim. Every claim based on a claim made by one or more Christians is in some sense a Christian claim. There are lots and lots of ladders of Christian culture just standing around waiting to be climbed as high as you want! And there's a whole, vast, Mario-Bros.-esque universe of floating platforms and cloud castles to be used between them—which are all really attached to other foundations. And that's an easy and sometimes fun structure to inhabit, it makes a great playground, but Barth's work is harder than that. If we're not just going to presume to use what we find labeled as "Christian" or "traditional"—if, instead, we are going to be critical in our pursuit of valid and faithful proclamations of the gospel, so that when we speak to people about God we will not fail their trust in us—we have to do everything from scratch, with due diligence throughout. We have to rigorously validate the pieces we find lying around, and their suitability to the purpose. And we have to commit to a foundation that will support us, and the people to whom we speak about God, all the way up. Which is Barth's program, and what he means by this little tweak about (properly) Christian concepts of things.

"... but I don't not teach it."

So Barth is going to go pretty hard against this "first cause and final dependency of all things" concept as the generalization of the doctrine of creation. I'm going to suggest that the big, unmentioned piece behind his problem with it is Schleiermacher's Gefühl schlechthinniger Abhängigkeit, the "feeling of absolute dependency"—which is often the one thing anyone today knows about Schleiermacher, if they can place the name at all. And in the next post we'll get F. C. Baur, his younger contemporary, as the explicit Modern foil here, because Barth never likes to tilt at conceptual giants if he can find detailed exponents to refute. Baur makes a better foil because Schleiermacher is just a theologian and cultural apologist; Baur takes his ideas, and later Hegel's, into the history of religions and runs with them as a means of understanding the New Testament. It's a quest for the ideas as foundations for better theology.

And, as we see in today's passage, it's not the abstraction as such that Barth finds fault with; it's the identification of this abstraction as the thing itself, separable from its grounding particularities. Barth's not not interested in calling creation the "first cause and final dependency of all things"; he's just interested in making sure that what this concept means remains firmly grounded in the very particular God we have, and the very particular history in which it took place. The history of God's actions, not the history of our world, in other words. Otherwise, the general concept of creation slips easily into place as a justification for how things came to be the way they are, framing God's agency in place of our historical responsibility.

Barth isn't interested in talking about creation as the origin of the world around us in its arrangements, the world as a theater of law and order; Barth is interested in creation as the origin of humanity and its world as the theater of God's grace, which has no dependency on our organization. The connection that cannot be abandoned is between creation as the first of God's actions, and every subsequent action of God in reconciliation. It is emphatically not between creation as our first moment of existence and every subsequent moment of our existence—though that will also be true, in the doctrine of providence, as a function of God's grace by which we continue to be maintained in existence in spite of our ordered worlds. (The alternative being our collapse back into nonexistence, were God to abandon us.) Creation is our first cause, and our final dependency, as the creature. It just has nothing directly to do with how our worlds are arranged—and keeping those separate takes some doing.

Not Alien, Just Alienated

Creation makes a space for God's other actions. We have not come into being, and we do not exist, as things in ourselves. We are things with purpose, which is what the covenant of grace is. We exist to be the space of God's ad extra actions, and we have been chosen by God to be partners with God in those actions. That is our reason for being, and it can't be separated from our creation, as though we were made and then assigned an arbitrary purpose. (It only looks that way because we were made and then assigned ourselves and one another all manner of arbitrary purposes that have nothing to do with our partnership with God in the covenant of grace.)

God's act of creation is therefore not the explanation of our mere existence, from which we are to deduce our purpose; we do not find our purpose in life by exploring the possibilities of our existence, popular as that idea has always been. God's first act is itself the first cause and final dependency of our purpose as the creature, which will suggest that we find our purpose in life by talking and listening to God. In the last paragraph, Barth cited Rom. 11:36 to make the claim that if everything is maintained "by God" according to the covenant and will be redeemed and consummated "to God" in the eschaton, then everything has to also be "from God" in creation. And this is the logic behind that—logic that wouldn't work if creation simply resulted in the existence of generic things, no matter how much order we try to pack into it as a doctrine of the origin of the world around us. We don't exist and then God decides to do some other things to us. We were created to be reconciled. We were created, for that matter, to be redeemed and consummated—though that connection is qualitatively different, and Barth has rightly bracketed discussion of eschatology here.

We exist as the creature for and with and among whom God eternally chooses to act. Creation doesn't do its job if it establishes us as an alien sphere in which God's later actions intrude, an intrinsically self-determining sphere whose self-determinations God must therefore consult before deciding how to act. If we develop doctrines of atonement and salvation that require God to consult with us, that involve a necessary conflict between our agency and God's agency, we haven't done our job in this locus and must go back and relearn the doctrine of creation properly! The lordship of our Lord is not exercised through proxies. It is not found coded into the nature of our existence, as though we were subjects of the Queen because our passports said so, but bore no responsibility to Her Royal governance, and could flash that passport and do what we liked—as though the Queen were answerable to us! As though creation were license. No; the lordship of our Lord, the Regency of God, is exercised where God is present and active, and may only be understood from those actions, from God's being, and not our own. We are naturally citizens of God's realm, to be sure, but it has never been a democracy even as it has also never been a dictatorship.


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