Some Quotes and Comments on the Natures and Wills of Christ in Barth

This post had its origin as a Facebook comment, in the context of a discussion on the divine/human natures and wills in Christ (written very hastily, so I’ll be editing/supplementing this one for a little while):

The first point that should be noted is that Barth did *not* explicitly affirm monothelitism. In fact, he expressly condemned it, on page 158 of I.2 of his Church Dogmatics. Thus Paul Daffyd Jones:

‘…Barth criticizes monothelitism (MO from here on out) and offers a ringing endorsement of dyothelitism (DY). Though proponents of both MO and DY christologies could in principle appeal to the Definition of Chalcedon, Barth notes that ‘one can see the justification of those who, in the so-called MO controversy of the seventh century, defended and finally led to victory the claim that, with the true human nature of the God-human, there must not also be denied his true human will, different from the will of God, though never independent of it’ (I/2, p. 158). Barth’s measured rhetoric at this point ought not to distract: these words form a historical postscript to a section in which Barth thinks about Christ’s human volition in a way that eschews talk about the will as a ‘faculty’

and prefers a more radical affirmation of the ‘unity of act and being’ that characterizes Christ’s divine-human person.

Barth articulates this expansive DY during a discussion of Christ’s humanity as ‘flesh’. Having affirmed the coessentiality of Christ’s huamnity with ours, and having blocked adoptionism with remarks about Christ’s humanity as an individual ‘possibility’ that God actualizes, he launches a line of reflection that continues throughout the entire Dogmatics:

‘God Himself is actively present in the flesh. God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting. And just because God is the subject, so – and not otherwise – are this being and acting real. It is a real and true human being and acting…(I/2, p. 151)

Barth here adverts the understanding of the concurrence of divine and human action that pervades the Church Dogmatics II, III and IV…Divine action does not displace human action. Divine action grounds and enables human action, making that action coterminous with it, though still ontologically distinctive.’ (‘The Humanity of Christ’, p. 42-43)

And thus George Hunsinger:

‘Barth’s rejection of MO should not be neglected here. In line with the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Barth upheld the abiding distinction in Jesus Christ between his human and divine will. ‘The early Church knew what it was doing’, he wrote, ‘in the MO controversy when it distinguished and juxtaposed the divine and human wills in Jesus Christ’ (II/2, 605)

The assertion that Barth explicitly affirmed MO is without warrant.The divine and human wills in Christ concur, without the former displacing the latter.

This Barth grounds in the election of Jesus by the Eternal Son – in which the Word, unincarnated, elects Jesus. For Barth, the eternal Son elects Himself, in unity with the Father as an active subject of eternal predestination, and by doing so elects the man Jesus of Nazareth, and in doing so ‘has united himself with the man Jesus of Nazareth’ (Barth). This is the prolepsis of the Son – Hunsinger again:

‘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.

The word prolepsis means ‘anticipatory realization’ as opposed to simple ‘real anticipation’. Through the coinherence of simultaneity aand sequence in eternity, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, 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.)

Note especially that the idea here in Barth is prolepsis, not incarnadus. The claim at this point is not merely that the eternal Son ordained to become the incarnate one. The claim is rather the more radical one that in the mind of God the earthly Jesus is already present as such to the eternal Son and assumed into hypostatic union with him in pretemporal eternity.’ (Reading Barth With Charity’, p. 62-62)

Thus by virtue of the eternality of the hypostatic union, the obedience of the eternal Son is the obedience of Jesus of Nazareth:

‘What is materially decisive here is not the distinction of the operations of the two natures but rather their concurrence. Barth’s concern, after all, is not with the metaphysics of natures and energies but the common activity of the God-human seen in the new testament.

‘When the Son obeys the Father, he is executing the one divine will. And yet Barth insists that this obedience is a genuinely human decision, rendered by the one who in humility does what Adam did not. In his exegesis of the story of Gethsemane, Barth is in fact utterly disinterested in the competitive influence of a divine will in Jesus’ prayer (‘not my will, but yours done’, Luke 22:42). Instead he is concerned to show how this prayer shows that Jesus’ obedience is a ‘genuinely human decision’ and a ‘decision of obedience. He chooses, but he chooses that apart from which, being who He is, He could not choose anything else’ (C/D IV/1 p. 166) The obedience of the Son is therefore also a human obedience; his activity is commonly actualized.’ (Darren Sumner, ‘Obedience and Subordination in Trinitarian Theology’, in ‘Advancing Trinitarian Theology’, p. 142-143)

Thus, the divine and human wills are commonly actualized via the eterntality of the hypostatic union. The obedience of the Son is *also* a human obedience. With regard to the peccability – for Barth, it was sinful, after-the-fall flesh that the sinless Son assumed, not an abstract humanity but concrete, damned and lost flesh.


Note on Torrance’s ‘Incarnation: the Person and Life of Christ’

It’s a great book by a great mind. However, it seems odd to go through this book and find very, very few references to anything Jesus actually did. There’s virtually nothing about Jesus’ parables and sayings, his healings, his miracles, his confrontations with the powers, the temple-motif (all of which figured profoundly into Jesus’ work), the Jewish-ness of Jesus. This is odd, because for a book about Jesus’ person and life, there is very little about his actual life. I’m aware that it’s dogmatics, but still, it seems weird. There is indeed a brief bit towards the beginning about historical issues, but this hardly seems sufficient.

Note on Externalism

‘In the west, dualism between the person and the work of Christ (the accidental result of combat with a prior God-world dualism that rendered the Incarnation inconceivable) lodged itself in soteriology, among other places, and more specifically the doctrine of the atonement. The atonement was understood as something Jesus did, not something he was. It was merely an external transaction – the payment of a debt, whether to God or to the devil or to both – that altered juridically, but not ontologically, the relation between God and man. Atonement, we might say, was an act *by* Christ without being the self-enactment *of* Christ. Which cannot be if he is truly God, for in God person and act are one.’

– Douglas Farrow

T.F. Torrance on Reconciliation

‘…Christ was one the one hand so with God that what he did, God did, for he was none other than God himself acting thus in our humanity. And therefore there is no other God for us than this God, and no action toward us than this action in which he stood in our place and acted on our behalf. On the other hand, he was so one with us that when he died we died, for he did not die for himself but for us, and he did not die alone, but we died in him as those whom he had bound to himself inseparably by his incarnation. Therefore when he rose again we rose in him and with him, and when he presented himself before the face of the Father, he presented us also before God, so that we are already accepted of God in him once and for all.

‘Because of what Christ has done, God has nothing more to say to us in respect of our sin and guilt, for they are put away. It is Christ that died: God cannot and will not go back upon the death of his dear son, for there is perfect oneness between the Son and Father and he accepts his sacrifice on our behalf as full satisfaction for our sin and guilt, a satisfaction which he accepts because it was offered by himself and borne by himself. satisfaction means that God has fulfilled the will of his love in taking our judgment on himself and bearing it in our stead. All that is summed up in the expression that ‘through the blood of Christ we have peace with God’. (Rom. 5:19; Col.1:20)

(T.F. Torrance, ‘Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ,’ p. 152, 155)

History and Truth

Continuing still with the ‘eyes of faith’ theme, but going in a slightly different direction.

Kierkegaard makes some interesting points about the nature of truth in ‘Philosophical Fragments’. In a nutshell he says that in Jesus Christ, absolute truth descended into history and was made contingent – the transcendent absolute became historical fact. T.F. Torrance draws this out a bit more, but Kierkegaard’s basic point is that truth moved – therefore, movement is a property of truth – kinetic truth, as Torrance calls it. So we can’t think of truth as a sort of detached, frozen in time, out there kind of thing. We have to think in kinetic terms – I posted on this subject some time ago in relation to theological method. We have to know truth in a relation and dynamic, not detatched and frozen, kind of way.

History and Theology

Continuing with the ‘eyes of faith’ theme I’ve got going, let’s take a look at Bonhoeffers thought on seeing Christ in history:

‘The historical approach to the Jesus of history is not binding for the believer. Historical certainty is not a union with Jesus; that is no more than encounter with any other person from the past. We can have ‘Moments with Christ’ as we can with Goethe. It is not a mystical union either with some person in history, but rather a person who bears witness to himself…But it is the risen one who himself creates faith and thus knows the way to himself ‘in hitory’. When we have Christ witnessing to himself in the present, any historical confirmation is irrelevant. In faith, history is known, not from within nor from itself, but in the light of eternity. This is the direct approach of faith to history.’ (Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center’, p. 72-73)

Lots going on here. My thought is that we can’t come to a true knowledge and union with Christ through the methods of historical inquiry alone – we must approach the living Word with an in faith, which is given to us by the word. Our faith is not in historical method – we don’t come to a true knowledge of Christ through really close study of history textbooks. Our faith is given to us *by* Christ – it is only through this faith that we can know Christ through history. Again, we won’t come to a knowledge of the Living God through good historical methodology but rather by faith.

A World Come of Age

Bonhoeffer is famous (or infamous, perhaps) for his thoughts on how Christianity relates to a world come of age, in which the only place left for God is in the ‘big questions’, like the meaning of life, death, and other things. Bonhoeffer asserts that Christianity, in response to a world that has come of age and has no need for religious/spiritual talk of any kind (due to the general advancement of mankind), has crafted these ‘ultimate questions’ to provide a place for God, and for the Church – these questions are questions that can only be answered by God. Bonhoeffer then asks, in what is one of the most profound theological questions ever posed, what happens when these questions too can be answered without God? If we have come of age, and see that we no longer need God as a hypothesis for so many things, what happens when even the ultimate questions no longer need God to be the answer? When these last refuges have been overtaken by the come of age world, what then?

There’s a lot going on in Bonhoeffer’s questions – so I’ll see if I can tease out a few assumptions and come to some conclusions.

Has the world come of age? Has mankind reached a point where religious/spiritual discourse means nothing? I once saw an interesting interpretation of Augustine’s famous ‘restless heart’ quote – and the point was that, by all indications, it would appear that it’s not true. There aren’t masses of people trying to fill the God-shaped vacuum inside; indeed it would appear that said vacuum doesn’t exist – such was the tenor of what I read. Theological discourse would be unneeded in such a climate.

Here is my thought: there is a God-shaped vacuum, as Pascal observed. We were made for God – God is that to which we tend; God is our spiritual teleology, and God is working in all men to achieve His end in us. However, the effects of sin are such that we can stifle and resist the workings of God – we can quench the spirit. I’m a synergist – I hold that we do in fact cooperate with God in our salvation (charged of Pelgianism here are simply mistaken – synergy does not = Pelagianism), and to the extent that we resist him our hearts are hardened, and to the extent that our hearts are hardened we no longer recognize the workings of God or our natural desire for God. ‘God gave them up’, wrote St. Paul. The Old Testament is full of times when God departed from Israel, whre they were given over to their desires, where they came of age because, to quote Rabbi Heschel:

‘We have trifled with the name of God. We have taken the ideals in vain. We have called for the Lord. He came. And was ignored. We have preached but eluded Him. We have praised bu defied Him. Now we reap the fruits of our failure. Through centuries His voice cried in the wilderness. How skillfully it was trapped in the temples! How often it was drowned or distorted. Now we behold how it gradually withdraws, abandoning one people for another, departing from their souls, despising their wisdom. The taste for the good has all but gone from the earth. Men heap spite upon cruelty, malice upon atrocity.’ (‘Man’s Quest for God, p. 147)

Crucial to Bonhoeffer’s criticism is the notion of the invented ultimate questions. Man no longer needs God – we now know that the thunder in the sky isn’t the voice of an angry deity but rather simply weather patterns, etc, etc. We no longer need to postulate God as the best hypothesis.

Bonhoeffer is right to react against God-of-the-gaps theology. Christian theology has, historically, never postulated God as simply an explanation to some phenomenon. There have, obviously, been those who would postulate God as said hypothesis – but this cannot be confused with historical Christian theology of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant.

So, then, is Bonhoeffer’s criticism of invented questions a valid one? Yes and no. To an extent, these questions (the meaning of life, the cause of the universe, our spiritual state, etc) have been used as refuges and crutches. Christianity and God have been reduced answers to these questions – which is not to say that Christianity does not provide answers for life’s ultimate questions. I would personally reject the proposition that these questions have been invented by the church as a refuge for God, though I would recognize the broader point behind Bonhoeffer’s statements.

Bonhoeffer on God

‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.’

‘Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way to seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.’

‘Christian apologetics has taken the most varied forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of “God.” Even though there has been surrender of all secular problems, there still remain the so-called “ultimate questions”–death, guilt–to which only “God” can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate question of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered “without God”?’