Barth, Wright and Election

Karl Barth and N.T. Wright do not typically make good bedfellows. There are a number of significant and (possibly) insurmountable differences between the two in terms of both methodology and theology. There are, however, at least a few interesting and perhaps not insignificant areas of concord between the two, and it is these that I’d like to explore here – I intend to open up space more than give answers and so my conclusions and ideas are more open-ended.

1.The first thing that comes to my mind is that both Barth and Wright are christocentric in their conception of election. They are christocentric in very different ways – but christocentric nonetheless. Both seek to focus election on Jesus. Barth’s (in)famous redrawing of election completely around Christ is rather well-known and fairly radical, Wright’s less radical. Whereas Barth sees God’s election of Christ in terms of God electing all humanity in Christ, Wright sees Jesus as elect in the sense of doing what Israel was originally elected to do but couldn’t do (there are some serious differences here that I’ll come back to). Jesus’ death and resurrection are his vindication as Israel’s elect messiah. What both accomplish is an object-ifying of election, in the following twofold sense: (1) it is focused on Christ and his person and work and (2) not focused on the individual’s question of how to be saved but on the objective grace of God in the election of Christ. For both Barth and Wright, there is an aspect of election that is true apart from whether or not we recognize it. For Barth, we are all reconciled by virtue of God’s election of all men in Christ. For Wright, the battle against sin, death and the powers has been fought and won and the Kingdom of God inaugurated, apart from what any person believes or thinks about it.

2. A second area where harmonization could happen is in the ecclesiological aspect of election. For both Barth and Wright, election is primarily corporate, and concerned more with the establishment of the Church than with the saving of individual souls. For Barth, the Church is in a sense eternal and hidden within Israel (he spends a good deal of time in CD 2.II on this issue). Further, he sees the role of Israel and the role of the Church as related dialectically – Israel as the witness of God’s judgement, the Church as the proclaimer of God’s mercy. Wright sees election as primarily corporate in the following sense: we are in Christ, in the Messiah, and so form the one body, the one family, the one people of God, the Church. To be one of the elect, then, is to fundamentally be part of a body.

3. A third area where concord can be found is the extent to which both Barth and Wright think covenentally and historically about election, especially in terms of the promise(s) to Israel. For Barth, ‘The Church lives by the promises to Israel,’ (CD 2.II, pp. 203). For Wright, the person and work of Christ is the final climax of the story of the promises made to Abraham. There is a significant difference between the two on this issue, which will again be circles back to.

4. The fourth and final area I see the hope of reconciliation is the identification of Jesus as the True Israel, and the role of Israel as the background or ‘prehistory’ of Jesus.  Barth identifies Jesus as the true Israel on page 214 of 2.II, as well as identifying the community as the environment of Jesus. Torrance would take this a bit further and argue that Israel formed a socio-historico matrix from which the Incarnation of Jesus was made intelligible. Barth also argues that Jesus was elected to assume Israel’s flesh and blood (p. 207). Wright, arguing for Jesus as the climax of the covenant, also identifies Jesus as the True Israel, because Jesus did what Israel was called to do, that is, undo the sin of Adam. Jesus was the Israelite fully faithful to God’s plan.

These are areas of potential harmony between Wright and Barth – they are also, as I said above, broad and perhaps wrong. I hope to fill in the details in the future to see just where this proposal might go, but now I move to areas of significant disagreement.

1. Barth’s concept of election is very much eternally-focused. From all eternity God elects. Wright is, essentially, the opposite, arguing that if Adam hadn’t fallen, God would not have sent Abraham to undo his son, and I suspect there is a methodological reason for this. Wright is thinking in terms of temporal history – a linear progression from Adam to Abraham to Jesus. The temporal sequence, and not eternal status, of God’s call and election of Israel/Jesus is what occupies Wright, perhaps for the reason that historically Wright has tended away from the more traditional grammar and subject-matter of dogmatics (it’s no secret he has a bit of the Hellenization thesis on his mind). By anchoring his theology in history, Wright hopes to avoid speculative theology about eternity, substance, persons, natures, essences, decrees, etc. This has the consequence, however, of making the Incarnation a very, very contingent event and of effectively marginalizing Jesus. On Wright’s account, not only was Jesus’ person and work contingent, it shouldn’t have even been necessary, since Israel, had it remained faithful to its calling, would have been able to undo the sin of Adam. If Barth is guilty of christo-monism, surely Wright is guilty of the opposite.

3. While both Barth and Wright think covenentally, I find Wright more satisfying overall because of what was just a weakness: his focus on history. For Wright, the covenant and corresponding Torah are something like national charters, constitutions and even marriage certificates for Israel. Their very being is tied to these covenental concepts, and Wright spends significant amounts of time tracing just exactly what this means in terms of theology for the Christian. Wright’s seeing the covenant and Law/Torah as historical, contingent things is here a strength. Barth, by contrast, tends away from paying close historical attention to things like Torah and the covenants. Thus Katherine Sondregger:

‘The Church Dogmatics as a whole says remarkably little about Law itself. Even in Barth’s account of the earthly Jesus, the Royal Man, there is little about Christ’s teaching and observing and ratifying of Israel’s Law…There is much about ‘Divine command,’ much about Divine instruction and direction, much about Jesus’ obedience to God’s will and much about the famous, living voice of God, the Deus dixit. And all these of course are in the neighborhood of Israel’s Torah; but they are self-consciously event-oriented, dynamic versions of what Israel and Jews of all ages call the ordinances, statutes and precepts of the Divine covenant with his people.’ (‘Barth’s Christology and the Law of Israel’)

Past these helpful but broad categories, Barth is not really able to make much theological use of the historical aspects of the covenant and the corresponding Torah.

I here will state briefly a joint critique of both Wright and Barth: they are seemingly unable to allow for any role other than failure to Israel. For Wright, Israel failed in their national calling, and for Barth, Israel is not obedient to its election. Thus Michael Wyschogrod:

‘…reading Barth one would gain the impression that there is nothing but faithfulness on God’s part and unfaithfulness on Israel’s. This is not so…Along with the unfaithfulness, there is also Israel’s faithfulness, its obedience and trust in God, its clinging to its election, identity and mission against all the odds. True, all of Israel’s obedience is tinged with its disobedience but all of its disobedience is also tinged with its obedience. It is true that Israel does not deserve its election but it is also true that its election is not in vain, that this people, with its sin, has never ceased to love its God and that it has responded to God’s wrath…by shouldering its mission again, again searing circumcision into its flesh and, while hoping for the best, prepared for what it knows can happen again.’ (‘Abrahams Promise’, p. 223-224)

To bring this overly long post to a close: there are areas of legitimate concord between Karl Barth and N.T. Wright. These areas are neither obvious nor easy and would require both to learn from each other. There are also areas of perhaps-insurmountable disagreement. There are also areas where both Wright and Barth jointly fail. But, with any luck, this bloated blog post can serve in some way towards moving two of the most important Christian thinkers in theology together in a fruitful way.

(The quoted paragraphs comes from this perceptive essay)

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Karl Barth on the Covenant

‘What, then, we gather from the Noahic covenant, and everything that belongs to this strand, is that according to the Old Testament conception itself the special divine covenant made with Israel does not exclude the human race as a whole from the gracious will of God towards it. What we find in Isaiah’s view of the status of Israel as a representational and messenger to the nations is that the covenant made with Israel has a meaning and purpose which reaches out beyond the existence of Israel. And now, from the prophecy in Jeremiah of a new covenant of forgiveness and of the Spirit and of free obedience on the part of man, we learn that the Old Testament looks beyond the past and present to a form of the relationship between God and Israel in which the covenant broken by Israel will be set up, that the Israelite, for whom ultimately God has nothing but forgiveness, but does have it actually and effectively, must now take his place directly alongside his Gentile fellows, and that if at all he can hope for the grace and salvation of God on this presupposition. In the light of this passage from Jeremiah 31 we are indeed enabled and summoned to give to the concept of the covenant the universal meaning which it acquired in the form which it manifestly assumed in Jesus Christ.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics IV.1 p. 34)

George Hunsinger on the Eternal Word

‘As a composite divine-human reality, Jesus Christ enjoys an unprecedented eternal-historical location. He necessarily belongs to history, but not only to history. He also belongs essentially to eternity as the eternal divine Word (Logos asarkos) who elects to become one with a particular human being (Logos ensarkos), namely, with the historical man Jesus. As the eternal divine Word who elected to become flesh for the sake of the world, Jesus Christ belongs to the complex dynamics of eternity without any detriment to his full and genuine historicity. He is the eternal God in the form of time and a historical human being with the content of eternity. He stands in the midst of history in connection with all other histories as eternity’s presence and self-attestation. He is therefore historical but not merely historical, because he is also and primarily eternal. He transcends time even as he partakes of it, and he partakes of time even while eternally transcending out. This is the mystery of Jesus Christ, the eternal word made flesh, as confessed by faith.’ (George Hunsinger, ‘Reading Barth with Charity: a Hermenutical Proposal’, p. 48)

The Prolepsis of the Son and the Eternity of the Hypostatic Union

I originally wanted to write this post on the idea of functional subordination in Barth, but two things steered me in a slightly different direction: (1) that becomes a huge topic very quickly, and (2) while reading George Hunsinger’s new book ‘Reading Barth with Charity‘, a slightly different but very related topic jumped out at me: prolepsis within the context of the Son’s obedience to the Father. For a good overview of the issue of subordination in the Trinity, head to Kevin Davis’ two helpfulposts, ‘Subordination in God, modal not personal‘, and ‘In God, subordination is not deprivation‘. Prolepsis is, briefly, a kind of anticipation of something as if it already exists. I kind-of blogged on this here though I don’t use the term there explicitly. Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book ‘Divine Discourse’ noted that Barth was the most relentlessly Chalcedonian of theologians, and by fleshing out Barth’s use of prolepsis I think we will see just how true that statement is.

Barth, in a nutshell, holds that the eternal Son elects Jesus of Nazareth, and that logically prior to this the eternal Son elects himself. So in electing himself, the eternal Son also elects Jesus of Nazareth. Thus Hunsinger:

‘The election of Jesus of Nazareth in and with the self-election of the eternal Son is what makes the whole God-Man Jesus Christ present as such (proleptically) at the eternal beginning of all things.’ (‘Reading Barth with Charity’, p. 62)

This is an interesting and important point and should be understood rightly. Barth isn’t simply saying that the eternal Son’s Incarnation was foreknown or foreordained – he’s saying that Jesus of Nazareth is eternally present to the Son and to the Father. Hunsinger again:

‘Through the coinherence of simultaneity and sequence in eternity, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, is present at the beginning of all things. He is conceived as present by virtue of God’s eternal foreknowledge, in which something is true and real because it is divinely foreknown (not the reverse).’ (p 62)

Because Barth effectively puts the hypostatic union into eternity, he is thus able to argue that the divine Son’s obedience to the father is a human obedience – the two natures and two wills of Christ reach into eternity. Darren O. Sumner, in his fantastic contribution to ‘Advancing Trinitarian Theology‘ (the published papers of the Los Angelos Theology Conference) entitled ‘Obedience and Subordination in Trinitarian Theology’, (and seriously, it’s a brilliant essay – my favourite of those I’ve read so far) draws out the implications for putting the hypostatic union into eternity on Barth’s scheme:

‘…while there are two natures and two wills in Jesus Christ, Barth insists that each of these is determined (or “commonly actualized”) according to their personal union. The human essence is drawn into obedient conformity to the divine, while the divine essence is given a new determination that, without the Incarnation and the unio hypostatica, it would not otherwise have had. What Jesus does in his divine essence he does not only in conjunction with his humanity but in the “strictest relationship” with it. If the divine essence is determined by its union with humanity, then Barth is able to say further that God’s willing in his second way of being is not necessarily identical with his God’s willing in his first way of being. While there is one divine will, in God’s second way of being that will is in relation to a particular human will as well – a relation of openness and receptivity to the humanity of Christ.’ (p. 141-142)

How does this enable Barth to say that the obedience of the Son to the will God is a genuinely human obedience? Since, by virtue of the prolepsis above, the Son has never not had his humanity – the hypostatic union is eternal in this sense – and since the two natures and wills are mutually determining, the divine obedience to the will of God by the eternal Son is a genuinely human obedience, and the human obedience to the will of God by Jesus of Nazareth is a genuinely divine obedience.

Notes on Revelation, Election, and Apophatic Theology

– With Torrance, I say that in Jesus, divine election and predestination has moved from the eternal into time, and thus it follows that election has a temporal aspect to it.

– Election, becoming temporal without ceasing to be eternal, then confronts us (Torrance again) in the person of Jesus.

– While it is temporal, election is not thereby historicized or bound up with us.

– In the act of revelation, God’s being declares God’s reality (see Barth’s ‘Dogmatics’, II/I p. 262)

– Following Barth, I say that as God’s being declares reality, so God determines our capacity to receive Him.

-Bruce McCormack, in his LATC lecture on the atonement, interacted with apophatic theology briefly – his position can be sketched as follows:

Apophatic theology draws on epistemic considerations in order to establish the limit of human knowing and so locate God right on the other side of that line. The problem with this, as McCormack sees it, is that in so establishing this limit we control the epistemic relation. His answer to apophaticism is that the limits of human knowledge are no limits for God. God comes completely into this world – if the God who reveals Himself in Christ is not complete, whole and entire, then it is not God who reveals Himself.

An interesting claim, but it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. McCormack rightly recognizes that apophatic theology does recognize a limit to human knowledge of God, but this limit isn’t simply posited but is rather shown by the affirmation of the uncreated being of God. If God is uncreated, and all our knowledge is of created things, then it follows that we cannot know God in the same sense as we know every other thing we experience. The limit is then given by God and not human epistemology. Apophatic theology does, however, agree with McCormack that there is no limit to human knowledge of God – but this is because that God so utterly transcendent and so infinitely more than us that we could never comprehend or know him fully. As Augustine said, if you can comprehend it, it is not God.

‘St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that even in heaven perfection is growth. In a fine paradox he says that the essence of perfection consists precisely in never becoming perfect, but always reaching forward to some higher perfection that lies beyond. Because God is infinite, this constant ‘reaching forward’ or epektasis, as the Greek Fathers termed it, proves limitless. The soul possesses God, and yet still seeks him; her joy is full, and yet grows always more intense. God grows ever nearer to us, yet he still remains the Other; we behold him face to face, yet we still continue to advance further and further into the divine mystery. Although strangers no longer, we do not cease to be pilgrims. We go forward ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18), and then to a glory that is greater still. Never in all eternity, shall we reach a point where we have accomplished all that there is to do, or discovered all that there is to know. ‘Not only in this present age, but also in the Age to come,’ says St. Irenaeus, ‘God will always have something more to teach man, and man will always have something more to learn from God’” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, pp 135-138).

Furthermore, apophatic theology is fundamentally based on the Incarnation, the full revelation of God in the union of God and man, or created and uncreated. While Jesus is truly God, fully God, and truly man, fully man, this serves to highlight the truth that while God is present among us in the person of Christ, God is still uncreated and in His innermost essence and being fully beyond our knowledge. As Balthasar says,

‘The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.’

How I See Barth

This comes in the context of a facebook discussion, where the issues of Barth being a modalist, his trinitarian theology and doctrine of election were brought up.

So the issue here basically gets into to very fundamental aspects of Barth’s theology, election and trinity. Barth locates his discussion of the trinity at the beginning of the Dogmatics, and he very quickly rejects the term ‘person’, because he doesn’t think its possible to define it in a way that doesn’t lead to tritheism. He opts for ‘modes of being’, instead, which is generally recognized as not being a very helpful definition since the first thing anyone thinks of is modalism. He uses this language because he sees it as a way to protect the one-ness of God while at the same time recognizing the other ‘modes of being’ – the Son and the Spirit.

Barth’s overall trinitarian theology follows his theology of revelation closely – there is the revealed, the revealer, and the revelation, which would map onto God, the Spirit, and Jesus. He thinks backwards from the given of God’s self-revealing – for this revealing to have taken place, what must be true of God? From there he arrives at the basic structure of his trintarian thought. Barth is also very big on perichoresis – the inter-relations of the Father, Son, and Spirit – as being constitutive of the being of the Trinity. This can be the source of confusion – since he rejects all the language of ‘persons’, it can look incoherent, as a lot of people seem to have thought.

Now, with regard to election. This is Barth’s most original contribution to modern theology (though there are anticipations of it in the early church) because he completely dissolves the classical problem of the ‘absolute decree’ and completely reverses the typical order of election. Instead of God electing some humans and sending Jesus to save them, God eternally elects Jesus. In Christ, we have the eternal will and grace of God. Jesus is election, predestination – and in him all humanity are elect. So, in a sense, the question of:

‘Does that not posit election of humanity as a necessary part for God to be Triune? ‘

…has a real grain of truth to it, but we have to quickly add this: God does elect humanity from all eternity in Christ. Christ is election, grace, and the will of God. There is no ‘God behind the back of Jesus’, no hidden decree, no secret will – there is Jesus. This election of grace, however, is *free* – a free movement of grace, which has its origin within God himself and is not conditioned, constrained, or obligated by anything outside Godself. It is not necessary but free in the deepest possible sense. There is room in Barth for more Hegelian interpretation – determining, becoming, event, etc – but I don’t personally buy into it, because it does lead to all sorts of things like creation being a necessary aspect of God’s becoming, which is quite problematic.

‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma’ – Initial Thoughts

Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, by Kevin Diller, is a fantastic book. That’s the first thing that should be said about it.The second thing that should be said is that it is, given the subject-matter, remarkably clear. The third thing that should be said about it is that it is a genuinely interesting book.

The overall goal is to synthesize Barth and Plantinga into one unified epistemic response to modern epistemic challenges, eg warrant, justification, basically the things Plantinga is famous for. The dilemma here is reconciling a ‘high view’ of theological knowledge – we can know things about God, know God exists – with a low view of human capacity for such knowledge – taking into account the ‘noetic effects of sin’ and drawing the conclusion that warrant does not come from us, from below, but from above, from God. Basically, it’s theo-foundationalism – God is the foundation for theological knowledge, as per both Barth and Plantinga. God makes Himself known, we do not arrive at God via reason.

Overall, this book is just a fantastic work of scholarship. Close attention is payed to primary texts (both in Plantinga and Barth) and the ideas of both men are discussed in a very clear way – I’d actually say this is about as accessible as you could make the thought of Barth and Plantinga without dumbing it down any. Warrant, revelation, justification, natural theology – all stuff you read Barth and Plantinga for, basically – is layed out, discussed and synthesized.

I’ll have lots more to say on this work and the arguments within it later – but for now, I’d definitely say this is a must-read for anyone interested in Barth, Plantinga, philosophy of religion, epistemology, and philosophy in general from a Christian perspective.