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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Bottom up or Top Down?

Predestination is a fairly big topic with Christianity. Part of what makes it so interesting, I think, is that so many other things come into play – anthropology, sotieriology, christology, metaphysics, philosophy, etc – predestination really is one of the broadest things to talk about in Christianity. There’s a lot of differing views about this issue but generally it can be boiled down to a manageable number. But before you talk about predestination as such, I think there’s a pretty important contextual issue lurking in the background: is predestination bottom-up or top down?

To break that down a bit: how does predestination work? What are the mechanics of it? Does God select people who will be saved from all eternity (this would be the bottom up approach)? Most in the Reformed tradition would agree with this. The rest are either positively damned by God (this is not as common a position within the Reformed tradition) or passed over by God (this is a bit more common). In a nutshell, God chooses whom He will save.

The other approach is the top-down approach, and it’s a position most commonly associated with Karl Barth, though this idea can be found in somewhat different forms (but the overall spirit is the same) in some of the Fathers – Athanasius comes to mind. Basically on this approach, Jesus is the elect (and the reprobate, but that’s something I’m not quite familiar enough to explain that well) humanity. In Jesus, humanity has been elected. On this view, all humanity is elected in God’s election of Christ. This is a very, very, very rough breakdown – Barth really developed the snot out of this idea and it takes up about a billion pages in the Church Dogmatics.

The bottom up approach is, like I said, often associated with Reformed theology and specifically Calvinism – though I would argue that Calvin did not embrace such a version of predestination – I’d argue that Calvin held to a universal atonement, though not necessarily of the kind Barth held to. The classical Reformed position of limited atonement developed later than Calvin and is not the way he would have gone with the doctrine (all of this is in my humble opinion, of course). There’s some metaphysics behind limited atonement that I don’t think jive with Christianity – but that’s a discussion for another time.

The point of this is that I hold to the top-down approach – that in Christ God has elected humanity to be joined to Himself. All humanity has been elected in Christ by virtue of Christs election by God.