"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): Stuck in the Middle With You... (excursus 1b)

Kant to the left of me, Brunner to my right; here I am. (See title phrase for the chorus.)

In the last post, covering the first half of this first excursus in section 41, Barth hit up Augustine and Gregory Nyssen for assertions of the unity of the creator and redeemer/savior/deliverer, and then knocked down Ferdinand Chr. Baur for saying that we don't really need the specifics of creation as long as we get that we depend on God.

You see, it's not good to try and progress "beyond" scripture into "greater truth" if you then leave it behind. It's not enough to say you've gotten the point, if you no longer need the details that made that point. The point begins to lose its character—it begins to look more like us and less like God—when we let the details slip like that. And the poster child for this (much as Barth depends upon him in other ways) is Kant, whose assertions about creation in the Critique of Judgment are so abstracted from God's character and bound to a determination of the world's character that they say absolutely nothing we can use.

So: Barth insists that creation is not "a doctrine of the world-cause." But it is about creation! The direction of the etiology is important; the term stressed in describing causation matters. It's about God making the world and all things, and not about how those things came to be as they are. It's also, by extension, about God determining and accompanying the world and all things, which we'll get to in CD III.3—but even then it will still not be about how those things came to be as they are. In the same ways, election and reconciliation are about God choosing and reconciling the covenant partner—and not basically about how the covenant partner came to be in the state it's in today. That second term will always be handled second, as a spoiler of how things ought to be, because we've made them to be otherwise by using our freedom for negation.

It's about God, not the world; we can only address the world theologically once we've gotten speech about God and God's acts right. The Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer are one and the same God, and it's the specific character of that God that matters, not any hypothetical reconstructions of those acts in themselves and on the basis of their objects. And so it will always be the distance between the world as we've made it and the creature as it ought rightly to be that grounds our implementation of theological truth. That's the grounding reality of reconciliation from our side, the thing that makes reconciliation in history look the way it does. But to get that right, we have to realize the importance of getting the doctrine of creation right, and so understanding the origin, nature, and right of God's lordship correctly. While that won't be the content of today's passage, it will be the point of it.

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 hitting the first excursus in larger chunks, which is going to mean I need to keep my commentary tight for the sake of your attention span. 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.)

Excursus 1b, Paragraph 7: Commentary
Aber auch das Umgekehrte ist zu bedenken: In welchem ernsthaften Sinn könnte Gott der Herr und Regent jener Geschichte sein, was bedeutete seine Gnade und der um seiner Gnade willen mit dem Menschen geschlossene Bund, wenn er etwa als König dieses Bundes nicht auch der Schöpfer aller Dinge wäre? Die christliche [S. 48] Lehre von der Schöpfung, laut derer der Schöpfer und der Erretter einer und derselbe ist, sagt, daß ich nicht zuerst bin, um mich dann von einem mir eigenen Standpunkt aus mit jener Geschichte auseinanderzusetzen, daß mir vielmehr mein Standpunkt, meine Existenz durch eben denselben gegeben ist, der sich in jener Geschichte mit mir auseinandersetzt, daß ich mich, indem ich existiere, schon mitten in jener Geschichte befinde. Ich komme von ihm, dem Schöpfer, immer schon her, indem er, der Erretter, mir begegnet. Und die christliche Lehre von der Schöpfung sagt mit ihrer Gleichsetzung des Schöpfers und des Erretters, daß auch die Welt, der ganze Zusammenhang von Sein und Bewegung, in welchem ich existiere, nicht zuerst ist, daß es schlechterdings nichts gibt, was der Geschichte des göttlichen Gnadenbundes gegenüber Priorität hätte: nichts, von dem her ein Anspruch und eine Einwirkung zu erwarten wäre, die diese Geschichte wirksam zu begrenzen und zu durchkreuzen vermöchte, daß vielmehr mit mir selbst auch die ganze Welt–Alles, was wirklich ist–dem Werk Gottes des Erretters dienen muß, weil es allein dem Werk eben dieses Gottes, Gottes des Schöpfers, seine Existenz verdankt.

We may, however, also reciprocally consider in what genuine sense God could be the Lord and Regent of that history, what God's grace would signify and what it would mean that God graciously willed to enter into covenant with humanity, if as the king of this covenant God were somehow not also the creator of all things. |

The Christian doctrine of creation, according to which the creator and deliverer are one and the same, says that I do not come first, and then engage with that history from my own perspective, but rather that my perspective, my existence, is given me by the very same one who in that history engages with me—that to the extent that I exist, I find myself already in the middle of that history. I always already come from that one, the creator, when the same one encounters me as the deliverer. |

The Christian doctrine of creation, with its equation of the creator and deliverer, also says that the world, the entire connection of being and movement in which I exist, does not come first. It says that there is absolutely nothing that would have priority over the history of the divine covenant of grace—nothing from which we were to expect a claim of right and an influence, nothing that could effectively set limits to and interfere with this history. Moreover, it says that along with myself, the entire world—everything that actually exists—must serve the work of God the deliverer, because it owes its existence solely to the work of this same God, God the creator.
Man, that last German sentence (the whole last English graf) is a doozy, right? Reading that, you know we're coming to the end of a point. And that point is grounded in a question: what good is it to covenant with any god who is not the creator? What difference would it make if the god who entered into covenant with us in Jesus Christ were not our creator, and yet still proposed to redeem us? Put still another way: can we be saved from our creator?

Seeking Security in Fallible Powers

We have certainly tried to save ourselves from God in numerous ways across our histories, scripture tells us. And still more often, we have tried to save ourselves from our neighbors without God's help, covenanting with others to that end. So this is not just a question of idolatry, though it is also that. Or at any rate, it is not merely a question of idolatry as dalliance with other so-called gods. Our pursuit of other so-called lords and kings has also been viewed by God as a regrettable desire, one that points away from God. Because our neighbors have kings, we feel insecure without one of our own—and God doesn't count, apparently, so we choose Saul. And God doesn't like it, even as it becomes a long series of teachable moments. Jesus feels the same about our pursuit of masters and teachers and authority figures. Paul feels the same about pursuit of belonging to this or that apostolic lineage. What good are these things? Why do we want them?

We want these things, it seems to Barth, because we find ourselves in the middle of a history for which we have no sense. We find ourselves as encountering and being encountered by things, people, and situations for the first time. We can imagine that everything that encounters us from outside does so secondarily to the priority that is our self-awareness. And built on that, we can imagine that the world as we understand it, the world that has taken shape in our minds as we have come to know it naturally, has a priority over any changes that might come into effect later. That attempts to change the world, to subject it to norms not already in effect, are effectively arbitrary impositions upon a settled reality. All claims of right, all attempts to influence or set limits to the history that I am, come second to my being as a functional solipsist.

As such, when I seek to covenant with some power for security in this world, I will tend to look around for a power that can validate and protect what I understand as the goods of my existence, and oppose what I understand to be the afflictions from which I suffer. But while God will covenant with us for our good, producing benefit for us, God sees the situation differently. God sees the situation from its beginning, as we tend not to. God does not recognize our implicit claims to priority. God is not our security contractor, whom we might hire and fire depending on performance. And when we try to use God as a mere security contractor, when we seek to be lord of the covenant with God and to control/manipulate our blessings, God will fail our expectations because the expectations are false.

Responding to God's "Failure"

When that happens we are most likely to seek other providers of security. We are most likely to suggest that God has failed us, and bemoan the fact. We request that God honor the deal we thought we made. And that's because we're used to the problem of contracting for security with agents of redemption that are not the creator. We are used to reconciling ourselves with power after power, compromising with them for what we believe are our own goods. We are used to the fact that such contractors fail—but there are so many others to choose from! We are used to the burden of being responsible for our own covenants with powers superior to us, and to the perennial result of being screwed over by powers that have other interests than ours. The dream of such a people is, of course, to become the power, to be the autonomous protector of our own goods, and so to have no conflicts with our own interests.

This is why we also imagine creation and redemption as the logical endpoints of our own histories. This is why our baseline view of our dependence upon God is really a view of God's dependence upon us, because God is our creator. Our god made the world and everything in it. And so you all owe your being and worship to our god, and by extension your fealty to our people. And you're all therefore wrong about the world and its origins, and about what culture will win out in the end. But the problem with that is that YHWH is not in any way naturally Israel's god, nor Israel in any way naturally God's people. The whole situation is artificial—and still more obviously so with God's turning to any other people, any other group of God's human creatures, including those who would come to be known as Christians! Israel is YHWH's people because they accepted YHWH as their god. God doesn't need them, and will not settle for them as they are. God comes first, God's actions come first—and then our responses. God's history is the criterion of our history—and most often the criterion by which our history is judged and found wanting. God's history is the criterion of the invalidation of our histories.

This is why creation must be understood correctly first, before we seek to understand reconciliation or redemption. Rightly put, creation others us with respect to God. It does not put God at the service of our world; it puts us and our worlds at the service of God, who reconciles our failures so that we may continue to attempt to serve God responsibly—and whose redemption of the creature comes as pure gift, independent of the judgment on our actions that belongs to that process of reconciliation. If we get creation right, we will never ask about natural order, or any other proxies for God's will, because we will remember that the living God alone is sufficient to that purpose. And so we will understand, as we do not yet, that the living God alone is sufficient for our security, and we will hopefully stop trying to contract with other providers!

Excursus 1b, Paragraph 8: Conclusion
So läßt es sich, von beiden Seiten her gesehen, nicht so leicht bestreiten, daß es sich lohnt, in Sachen des Schöpfungsdogmas fünfe durchaus nicht gerade sein zu lassen, sondern genau nach der christlichen Wahrheit zu forschen. Die Grundbedingung solcher Genauigkeit besteht aber darin, daß man den konkreten Zusammenhang zwischen dem ersten und dem zweiten Artikel des Glaubensbekenntnisses, zwischen Schöpfung und Bund, nicht aus den Augen verliert.

Seen from both sides, it is thus not so easy to contest the assertion that in the matter of the creation dogma, it is worth the trouble not to leave this circle unsquared, but instead to pursue Christian truth exactingly. The basic requirement of such exactitude, however, consists in not letting the concrete connection between the first and the second articles of the confession of faith—between creation and covenant—leave one's sight.
Doing the Hard Work to Pursue (not Possess) Christian Truth

What Barth means by "not leaving the circle unsquared," in my words, or "fünfe nicht gerade sein lassen," in his, is very much in line with what I suggested about Marcion last time: his driving goal is the pursuit of consistency in a tradition that is filled with inconsistencies. But for Barth, the connection between creation and salvation can't be allowed to remain one of apposition with room for a middle term, or division with a remainder. We can't settle for these two things being uneven, and handle their reconciliation in a third reality, which usually goes by the name of "salvation history" as a process from one to the other, generally also a process in which we have influence on the outcome. Nor can we, as Marcion did, handle their unevenness by way of a choice between them as products of opposed powers.

The only reason we'd try, is because we trust the way the world is more than we trust God. We believe more in the way we are, than in the way God is—and far more in the way we are than in the ways our neighbors are! Trust in the evidence of the world forced Marcion's choice against the creator who arranged things as they appear to us—and even after we overcame that error, the same misplaced trust forces our choice against our neighbors who are arranged differently than we are. Creation was obviously a vast and plural thing—but we won't believe the same of redemption, and we won't believe the same of the outcome of reconciliation.

We believe in these ways, we make these choices, because we do not understand that the world is not simply the product of creation. We do not understand that our dependency upon God is complicated, and that we complicated it—and when we discard the stories that attempt to remind us of this, we fail to understand both God and God's actions. The unquestionable reality is not world history; the history of the covenant of grace will always stand as its invalidation for that reason. Creation and redemption are God's unquestionable realities, and reconciliation is of a piece with them. The third thing, the introduction of remainders and middle terms into the equation, is the history of our agency as the autonomous and irresponsible creature.

Reconciliation is not therefore God choosing against some part of the creature; reconciliation is God choosing against the world and its histories in fidelity to the creature because of God's own history. We must square this; we must keep the triangle equilateral. And if we are to do that, we must place covenant correctly at the heart of creation. Not as a law ethos, not as a series or set of arbitrary rules, and not even as a normative description of the way things "naturally" are. Covenant is unnatural from our point of view here in the world, because we have shaped what appears "natural" to us from the moment our freedom became real. And the law codes are all situational, local reactions against local, cultured "natural" norms, the intents of which were never to establish one permanent description of our ideal way of life as creatures of the Creator.

The only way it works is as responsibility in right relationships, and the only way that works is if the relationship to God comes first, and is not assumed. When we remember that we are being corrected toward that relationship, away from the failures of our ways of life however they seem to us, it may be hoped that we will realize that our other relationships are equally faulty, and seek to better them in responsibility to God's gracious relationship with us. And it may equally be hoped that we will not seek to twist that idea back into systems of our own domination, systems that call vice virtue, in which we assert our own ways of life over against all others and seek to use God for our own ends.


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