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)


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 Natural Theology of Negation

In ‘Christianity and Classical Culture‘, Jaroslav Pelikan spends a good deal of time on the topics of both natural theology and negative theology, or apophatic theology, in the thought of the Cappodicians. The Cappodicians were concerned not only with the dogmas of the Trinity, Holy Spirit and so on but also with interacting from the classical Greek culture in which they were steeped, and they had no hesitation in appropriating what they took to be parallels between classical thought and Christian thought.

A key example can be found in Gregory of Nyssa, whose overall method was what we might call a method of ‘circumcision’ – so named because he took there to be a number of doctrines in classical thought (creation, for example) that in and of themselves were sound but needed to have the corrupting aspects cut away, as it were (in this case, Gregory cuts away Plato’s doctrine of the co-existence and co-eternality of matter with the creator).

Gregory’s method, then, looks something like this:

(1) find parallels between classical thought and Christian thought

(2) tease out the truths in the parallels

(2a) from (1) and (2) establish a kind of ‘natural theology’

(3) cut away the contrasts – the corrupting philosophy attached to the parallels

Gregory can thus point to a ‘natural theology’ or ‘natural religion’ – he is fond of saying ‘Does not nature say the same?’, when arguing for Christianity, and provide some answers to objections to his faith. This was a key task for the Cappodicians and indeed their apologetics overlap considerably with their evangelistic and pastoral concerns (at times it is difficult to even distinguish between the three).

Taken in an unqualified sense such a method poses grave dangers – it is but a step from the above method to drawing positive statements about the divine on the basis of created, finite things, and this was a danger of which the Cappodicians were fully aware. It was with this danger in mind that they expounded their negative theology:

‘To protect themselves against distortion, whether accidental or deliberate, any “proper conceptions about the divine nature”, therefore, needed to begin from the fundamental premise that the divine nature was “unlike anything known” that might be used in speaking about it.’ (Jaroslav Pelikan, ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, p. 45

Such was the language of negation – the recognition that there was no way for human thought or language to ever comprehend fully the divine. There is no perfect analogy – any analogy had to proceed with the presupposition that while it may be an understandable analogy it is ultimately an inadequate one. Apophatic theology thus serves as a guide or a boundary marker within which reason is free:

‘For negative theology could be construed not only as a limitation on the mind but at the same time as a liberation of the mind, setting the human reason, as the image of God, free to pursue its speculations within the boundaries that had been set for it.’ (p. 57)

It is not reason itself, however, that recognizes these limits. This recognition comes through faith, a mode of knowing given through grace, and it is faith that recognizes and accepts the transcendence of God – for Gregory, the divine has its being where thought does not reach.

An interesting contrast may here be noted between the Cappodicians and Aristotle. The latter held that being qua being is the proper object of human inquiry and the end of human reason – the former held that apart from faith, the divine being was hidden from human reason and in fact was not comparable to any other thing that existed or could be known:

‘Apophatic metaphysics, then, was inseparable from apophatic epistemology, whose fundamental axiom was: “The divine being is to be known only in the impossibility of perceiving it.” The divine being – to whom, at Athens in the very first confrontation between Christianity and classical culture, the apostle Paul had applied a quotation from a pagan Greek poet, “In him we live and move, in him we exist” – could not be compared to any other beings to which the terms “being” and “knowing” had ever been applied. In the case of these other beings, a growth in human knowledge meant an increase in understanding and comprehending the subject, but here it meant the opposite, an ever deepening awareness of the incomprehensibility of the subject.” (p 55)

There is, then, a twofold payoff to be seen here: faith both fulfills and refutes reason. The former it does by means of the latter: faith allows us to know God – thus fulfilling reason – by showing us that we cannot know God – thus refuting reason – by showing us the limits of reason.

Notes on Stephen’s Speech

– Two things should be noted right off the bat: it’s the longest single speech in the New Testament, and it doesn’t jive to well with a lot of the other New Testament in terms of critique – Stephen is much harsher in his condemnation of the temple than Luke is, for example.

– The two main passages of Scripture that Stephen quotes are Amos 5:25-27 (in verses 42-43) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (in verses 49-50. Respectively, these deal with the themes of idolatry and God using the world as a footstool – i.e., not contained in a house built by hands. I think from these two specific quotations and the general theme of the speech, it can reasonably be assumed that Stephen saw the temple as not only superfluous in light of Christ but as totally unnecessary and even wrong from the very beginning. The entire temple apparatus simply allows the idolatry that Stephen takes to be part and parcel of the Hebrew people a greater reign.

– Being rather convinced by Wright’s thesis that the temple at the time of Jesus was more or less a talisman of a violent and nationalistic religion, I think it can Stephen’s speech can also be reasonably seen as a critique of Jewish privilege. Stephen traces a lineage of turning from God and his oracles in v. 38-41 – and note that it is the oracles of God that Paul connects with the advantage or privilege of the Jew. Stepehen also effectively turns the tables on his accusers by arguing that in their betrayal and murder of Jesus, they were the ones who broke the law as delivered by angels (an invocation which establishes its legitimacy). So, whereas Paul points to the receiving of the oracles of God as a privilege or advantage of the Jew, Stephen sees the idolatry present in his fathers as causing them to reject these oracles. Being also generally convinced of Wright’s thesis that a problem with the Judaism of the time was that it had developed into a closed-off ethnic religion or identity, I think that Stephen can be taken to be arguing that the privilege of the Jew had turned into a hoarding of the oracles of God.

– More evidence here could be cited from the examples Stephen gives of God’s revealing and workings in Hebrew history – such revelations are not restricted to certain people in the Holy Land but rather wherever God’s faithful servants can be found – Egypt, Mesopotamia, wherever. In his narrative, Stephen seems to connect the building of the temple with the stagnation of Israel’s religion.

– A very interesting transition occurs between v. 39 and v. 51 – in the former, Stephen refers to ‘our fathers’, who refused to obey Moses. In the latter, Stephen refers to ‘your fathers’, who resist the Holy Spirit in the same way that Stephen’s accusers do. What I think is happening here is summed up by Bruce Metzger in ‘The New Testament, It’s Background, Growth and Content’:

‘The reader can detect in the speech overtones of a growing awareness that the new faith could not be limited by Judaism and that it was the true goal of Hebrew history. The seeds of theological revolution lie within Stephen’s challenge of the alleged privilege of the Jews, and the logic implicit in his argument opened the way for a Christian mission to the Gentiles. In short, Stephen stands for a Christianity that was coming to realize its independence and self-sufficiency and was beginning to feel that it must either absorb Judaism or break with it.’ (p. 189)

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.

Some Thoughts on the Calling of Abraham’s Family

I’m reading ‘A New Heaven and a New Earth’ by J. Richard Middleton, and therein he makes the Wright-esque claim that Abraham’s family was called to ‘set things to rights’ or some variant on that theme – to paraphrase Middleton, it is through Abraham’s family that the nations will be blessed or find blessing. While there is indeed a sense in which this is true, I do not think that it is true in the sense that Middleton wants it to be, namely that such blessings and calling relate to salvation.

As I read the verses which Middleton cites in defense of this thesis (Gen. 12:1-3, 18:17-18, 22:17-18, 26:4-5, 28:14) I’m struck by a couple of things, the first of which is this: the promises to Abraham from God are all that those in his seed or in him (in Abraham) will be blessed. I see this, off the top of my head, as pointing to or anticipating when Jews and Gentiles will be part of the one family of Abraham and not a declaration that Abraham’s family is the agent by which redemptive blessings flow.

Secondly, I really see very little evidence that Abraham’s family was called to set to rights the problem of Adam’s sin or undo Adam’s sin. I honestly think one has to strain fairly hard to really get that from the Genesis texts – the overwhelming sense I get is that Abraham’s family is called to be a witness/light to the nations, not the bearers of salvation. Salvation will come through Israel, not from Israel. In a word, Abraham’s family is not called to be the agent of salvation but a light  to the nations and a witness to the One God – neither of which is the same as being the world’s saviour.

There is, it seems to me, an eschatalogical element here in that, as noted above, the promises of God to Abraham look ahead to when in the fullness of time both Jew and Gentile will be brought into the one family of God. These are cursory sketches and stand in need of development but the basic gist should be clear: the thesis that Israel is the means by which the world is set to rights at the very least can be challenged on the grounds of textual evidence

For a more developed critique along these lines, see this helpful summary of Hurtado and Witherington’s thoughts.