"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): No Real Resemblance to Marcion (excursus 1a)

Okay, back to real Barth work. We're about to breach the first excursus of section 41 in CD III.1, so it's time some non-Barth sources came to the front. After all, that's what Barth uses the excurses for: sourcework and commentary. (You'll see the commentary come to the fore in the next post.) Now, it ought to be reasonably common knowledge that the younger Barth was compared repeatedly to the early-church heretic Marcion of Sinope. What seems less often explained is why he was compared to Marcion.

The familiar problem with Marcion has to do with his division of one God into two: the Old Testament creator-demiurge responsible for the ordered world, and the New Testament messianic redeemer responsible for salvation. That grounds his revisionist canon of scripture, and his thoroughly-edited versions of the NT texts he kept. But Marcion's guiding virtue in all of this was consistency, not a special animus against Judaism. It's very hard to find non-supersessionist beliefs in early Christianity! The Patristic communities were practically unanimous in their polemical opposition to Judaism, a resentment produced by competition and fed by the belief that these Christian communities bore no debts to Jewish people for their faith. Read Chrysostom's sermons if you don't believe me. Or Justin Martyr. Marcion was unique in that he insisted on rooting out the resulting antitheses, instead of appropriating Jewish cultural realities through a supersessionist insistence upon the Christian possession of their real meanings.

None of Marcion's approach to this religious conflict is Barth's problem. In section 40 he made Jesus Christ the unity of the two testaments, and we're about to see evidence of his near-ubiquitous identification of the Creator and the Redeemer as one and the same God. And in point of fact, Barth's critics generally acknowledge that Barth doesn't have Marcion's famous problems, while still comparing him to Marcion! Why? Because their real problem is that Barth at least nominally shares Marcion's observations about how crappy the world is, and how much of a problem it is to say that the Creator is responsible for its orders! It's the very common association of apocalyptic with gnosticism, especially when paired with an insistence that the world is not a valid theological source.

But if you're with me at all so far, you've already accepted the diagnosis Barth's critics reject. The world is not just a little bit wrong, just in the places where it doesn't conform to our best ideals of cultured behavior or natural order. It can't be fixed by virtue ethics, even as we need a functional system of ethics more in such a world. The break with God goes all the way through everything, fracturing every one of us and every one of our systems, turning us away from our image and likeness toward a defective self-incurvature, even as it does not change our being as God's creature. And so the solution has to come from outside, from the God who created and will redeem us, and who in between those moments seeks to reconcile us back to right covenantal relationship.

So: on to the text, and Barth's explicit solution: the necessary unity of the Creator and the Deliverer.

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

(I've been breaking this sub-section up into bloggable pieces by paragraphs of the original text, but we're going to hit the first excursus in slightly larger chunks. Page numbers are interspersed at page boundaries. In longer paragraphs, I've marked sub-paragraph breaks in the translation with a bar, but commentary between paragraphs here will help keep straight which original paragraph we're in. Emphasis is original, bolded in the German and italicized in the English, but names have also been bolded in the English to mark the progression Barth means to indicate by that emphasis.)

Excursus 1a, Paragraph 5: Patristic Sourcework
Darum ist einerseits mit Augustin zu sagen: Ipse est autem creator eius (hominis) qui salvator eius. Non ergo debemus sic laudare creatorem, ut cogamur, imo vero convincamur dicere superfluum salvatorem (De nat. et gratia 34, 39) und anderseits mit Gregor von Nyssa: Τῷ γὰρ ἐξ ἀρχῆς τὴν ζωὴν δεδωκότι μόνῳ δυνατόν ἦν καὶ πρέπον ἅμα ἀπολομένην ἀνακαλέσεσθαι (Or. cat. 8).

This is why we may on the one hand say with Augustine (c. 354–430 CE), "The same God who is its (humanity's) creator is also its savior. We ought not, therefore, praise the creator in such a way as we are compelled or even merely persuaded to say that the savior is superfluous" (De natura et gratia, XXXIV.39), and on the other hand with Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–95 CE), "Indeed, only for the one who had given life from the beginning was it possible and appropriate to summon up again what had been lost" (Λογος κατηχητικος, VIII).

The Basis of Union

Here we have a meager selection from the Patristics, practically a set of prooftexts for Barth's explicit pairing of creation and covenant. He's not getting into the division of reconciliation and redemption as he defines them here, and so will shift from the more traditional language of "savior" to "deliverer" as a German translation in order not to get bound up in assigning his major economic phases so closely to persons.

But for these typically orthodox Patristic authors, it's clearly the unity of creator and redeemer (whom Marcion divided) as Father and Son within the Godhead that is referenced. And, of course, that fits the more traditional economic binary of creation and redemption in which the logical third is sanctification, much more closely bound to the relation of the Trinitarian persons and the odd place ceded to the Spirit in Western thought. In that paradigm, redemption is a thing that already happened, and life is to be lived in appropriation of its reality and so in moral conformity. (Which is the root of all sorts of bad "third use of the law" problems Paul strove mightily to avoid.)

Nonetheless, Gregory provides support for Barth's crucial structural point: it is only the Creator that has the right, the natural authority, to save the creature.

On to the Moderns:

Excursus 1a, Paragraph 6: Modern Sourcework
Ferd. Chr. Baur hat im Blick auf das Schöpfungsdogma den Satz gewagt, «daß solche Lehren überhaupt für das christliche Bewußtseyn die Bedeutung nicht haben, welche man ihnen früher beilegen zu müssen glaubte, da, sobald das wesentliche Moment der Abhängigkeit der Welt von Gott festgehalten ist, die bestimmte Form desselben das christliche Interesse nicht näher berührt» (Lehrb. d. Dogmengesch. 1847 S. 268). Dazu ist zu sagen: Die Behauptung der Abhängigkeit der Welt von Gott ist nur dann ein «wesentliches Moment» des christlichen Bekenntnisses, sie ist mit der christlichen Lehre von der Schöpfung nur dann identisch, wenn sie von einem ganz bestimmten Gott – erkennbar daran, daß er auch der Herr und Regent jener Geschichte ist – und von der Abhängigkeit der Welt von diesem Gott redet. Der allgemeine Begriff eines gemeinsamen höchsten und letzten Woher aller Dinge und also der allgemeine Begriff ihres Grundes und ihrer Abhängigkeit genügt hier nicht. Die Definition Kants z. B.: Schöpfung ist «die Ursache vom Dasein einer Welt, oder der Dinge», sie ist actuatio substantiae (Kritik d. Urteilskraft ed. Vorländer S. 335), ist vom christlichen Bekenntnis her gesehen gewiß nicht falsch, aber völlig nichtssagend. Gerade die Frage nach dem Schöpfer soll ja nach Kants ausdrücklicher Erklärung dieser Definition offen bleiben. Es liegt hier aber Alles daran, daß der Eine, von dem die Welt herkommt und abhängt, nicht nur in diesem oder jenem Sinn des Begriffs «Gott», sondern eben der ist, der die Welt im Gang jener Geschichte mit sich selber versöhnt, um ihr als ihr Erlöser ihre neue, ewige Gestalt zu geben. Wäre er nicht dieser, so verdiente er nach christlichem Verständnis auf keinen Fall Gott zu heißen. Und wäre die Welt nicht von diesem begründet und von diesem abhängig, so hätte ihre Begründung und Abhängigkeit nach christlichem Bekenntnis mit ihrem Verhältnis zu Gott gar nichts zu tun. Unter dem allgemeinen Begriff der Abhängigkeit der Welt von Gott könnte sich allerhand für das christliche Bekenntnis höchst gleichgültige Spekulation, könnten sich aber auch allerhand ihm aufs höchste zuwiderlaufende Mythen verbergen.

In view of the creation dogma, F. C. Baur (1792–1860) ventured the statement, "that such doctrines do not at all have for the Christian consciousness the significance that it had earlier been believed necessary to ascribe to them, since as soon as we adhere to the essential moment of the dependency of the world upon God, the specific form of it no longer attains to Christian interest" (History of Christian Dogma, §128). To this we may say that the assertion of the dependency of the world upon God is only thus an "essential moment" of the Christian confessions, and is only thus identical with the Christian doctrine of creation, if it speaks of one entirely specific God—recognizable in that God is also the Lord and Regent of that history—and about the dependency of the world upon this God. Neither the general concept of a common highest and final "whence" of all things nor the general concept of their grounding and dependency are sufficient here. |

While the definition given by Kant (1724–1804) is certainly not false—e.g. that creation is "the first cause of the existence of a world, or of things," that is, "actuatio substantiæ" (Critique of Judgment, §87 n.1)—from the perspective of the Christian creed it says absolutely nothing. According to Kant's explicit account of this definition, the question about the creator in particular should remain open. |

However, everything here rests upon the fact that the one from whom the world comes and upon whom it depends is not "God" only in this or that sense of the concept, but precisely in the sense that God is the one who, in the course of that history, reconciles the world with Godself in order to give it its new, eternal structure as its redeemer. Were this one not so, in no case would the creator deserve to be called "God" according to the Christian understanding. And were the world not founded on and dependent upon such a one, its foundation and dependency would, according to the Christian creed, have nothing to do with its relation to God. All manner of highly ambivalent speculation and all manner of highly contrary myths, relative to the Christian creed, are able to shelter themselves under the general concept of the dependency of the world upon God.

Modern Theological Slippage

Here we get into the meat of the argument I've been making to you: it's important for properly Christian theology to ground itself in the specificity of the God to whom our sources testify. So much of the failure of Modern "classical theism" as a Scholastic straw-man is the idea that we can define who God is by what God does while at the same time reducing what God does to an abstraction with terms we get to define. That's no kind of way to get to God's being-in-act, because we've not only abstracted away the personal character; we've also abstracted away the character of how God acts! "The Creator" isn't God in ways we can work out from the nature of the creature, binding God's character to a principle of origin that is teleologically oriented toward the world around us as we understand it. Which is why Barth insists that creation is not "a doctrine of the world-cause."

Baur—and as I said last time, we're looking at him as a proxy for how Schleiermacher's "absolute dependency" works out in practice—makes a progressive (and implicitly supersessionist) move that is still in some currency today in spite of the ubiquity of fundamentalist Genesis-historicisms. He says that a Christian doctrine doesn't need to drag along these primitive versions once we have seen through their trappings to the essential point. German idealism at its finest! What looks after the fact to be an unwarranted dismissal of real particularity in favor of abstraction was at the time an attempt to use the phenomena to get at the transcendentally real behind them.

And as a Bible scholar, Baur isn't really attempting to do away with scripture; he's attempting to reach beyond it while assuming its validity. Christendom encourages such paradigm-building in Modernity. Heilsgeschichte, "salvation history," is not only a paradigm of progressive religious development; it's also a progression of forms of knowledge. It was important to be able to use the Bible and still progress beyond it towards the religious truths its authors attempted to indicate in the terms they had available to them. And this is a thing Barth is constantly fighting, because it leads to migrating abstractions, unmoored from their real bases and in search of better foundations elsewhere. It leads to "speculation" and "metaphysics," in other words—things that are only a problem because the abstraction is taken to be the grounding particularity. This is the irony Barth signals at the end of this paragraph: that attempting to escape myths in such a way leads only to the formation of umbrella concepts that shelter still other myths. The abstraction is not Christian if its basis does not remain foundational to Christian faith, and making some other basis foundational to Christian faith is not the solution to that problem!

Modern Philosophical Abstraction

Of course, what Baur learned to do, he learned from Kant's generation, and their students and epigones. (Remember, Hegel's works were where Baur went after Schleiermacher!) The "third critique," less frequently read, is going to be a major touchstone for Barth: a foil going forward in explicit reference, but also a basis for important structural insights even where you don't see it cited. (Which is at least in part due to the fact that what Barth learned to fight, he learned from the Marburg neo-Kantians.)

Kant is here to give us the abstraction itself, the belief shorn of its religious trappings and converted to a general principle. Baur got to represent the "final dependency of all things" half of what Barth is tweaking, the notionally-religious reliance aspect; Kant gets to represent the "first cause" half, the simple philosophical point of things having been made at some point. Where Baur comes in for critique for going beyond scripture in ways that "gang aft agley," to borrow from Robbie Burns, Kant comes in for having abstracted away so much that his statement is void of meaning. And he did it on purpose! He did it because, from the world, we can't pick out its creator with any specificity—which is the useful part that Barth agrees with and so doesn't bother to cite. The world is not a synthetic basis for telling about God; only about itself.

For Kant at this point in the Critique of Judgment, all we may say of the creator as such is that it is logically necessary for there to have been such a one, if our priors are contingency and teleology. Kant has worked his way from an examination of aesthetic judgments to teleological judgment, which is a way of staying at a higher level of coherency than mere analysis of natural mechanism. Understanding mechanism in nature gives way to recognition of purposiveness, which is to say that things that function have logical ends toward which they function. But that's not enough! We have to insist on natural teleology, but Kant says it still doesn't get us to useful theology. To get there, he tweaks the trope of the difference between "man and the animals" to say that we do not exhibit natural purposiveness; we exhibit moral purposiveness instead. And only in the antinomy between natural and moral purposiveness can we reach up synthetically toward a character for the creator that is not simply bound to naturalistic causation. Neither sense of purposiveness on its own describes its reason for having come into being; we have to understand the whole for that to begin to become clear. And we can't get there without establishing the harmony of our judgment with reality, but that's a way of working upward toward the whole instead of on the basis of it. (Which is Barth's appropriation of Anselm all over, and possibly an unstated ground of it.) Kant's creator has to remain a blank until we've reasoned out the final purpose of the world. (Which will come back in the next excursus in section 41, so put a pin in that.)

How to Ground the Unity of Creator and Redeemer?

God isn't like that, for Barth, nor does Barth's noetic approach follow even Kant's broader synthetic path. And it doesn't because, as Barth says here, "God is the one who, in the course of that history, reconciles the world with Godself in order to give it its new, eternal structure as its redeemer." There are essentially two approaches at war here as alternative means of unifying the creator and redeemer vis-à-vis the world. Barth's path is to unify God's actions in alterity from the world of history; Kant's (and by far the more traditional) path is to unify them through that history, as its endpoints.

The difference can best be seen if we look at how Barth chooses to work from end to beginning. The redeemer of the world is not working it around to its logical end. God is not, as in Thomas, bringing about our end while shaping us inexorably toward it in spite of resistance. The structure of the redeemed creature is not the structure of creation brought to perfection—or at least, it is not the structure of the world of history brought to perfection against its imperfections. Its eternal structure is not old, not original as in the exitus–reditus design, but new and yet to be given—and we are being reconciled with God because the world is not already so structured, even in a degraded form. Redemption will not be teleological; our consummation, our fulfillment as the creature, will be free and miraculous and not at all contingent as a form of our election. And the reason we don't think there is such an end is because Barth refuses to cognize it as an end. CD IV.3.1, 477–8, speaks not to the absence of anything beyond the eschaton, not to the uncertainty of redemption, but to its nature as eschatological instead of teleological.

And so the unity of creation and covenant—which for Barth is about reconciliation more than about redemption—is about the unity of that process of reconciliation, ongoing throughout the world of history, with the creation of the creature that will in the end also be redeemed and consummated. And that unity is not predicated upon abstraction from the world. That unity is not a question of our successful reconciliation with God, but of God's unity with Godself as the one who wills to be God for us. We can't understand "the Creator" as our God on the terms of the act of creation and the thing that results from it because we must do theology the other way 'round: we must understand our God as creator, and indivisibly also reconciler and redeemer, and understand those acts of God in their particularities, in order to understand our purpose and end.

The world isn't normed by God, but it should be, and that's the reality that Kant doesn't handle, and the tradition rarely handles at its full depth of meaning.