Theology’s Biblical Dilemma

I intended this post to be a sequel of sorts to my previous post on Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, this time focusing on their thinking on Scripture. It may prove a bit easier, however, to skip the formal differences and head right into a case study – namely, bringing the two into conversation on the topic of Biblical authority and revelation to see if, together, a view of Scripture can be maintained that respects the actual dynamics of Scripture without relegating it to the status of a lesser revelation than Jesus, as is a common fad right now. The dilemma is this: how can both the Bible and Jesus be affirmed as divine revelation without one taking precedence in quality over the other? If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, then logically, Scripture’s status is diminished, and if this is the case, how can Scripture be authoritative in any real sense?.

Both Wright and Barth see the authority of Scripture as being fundamentally mediated. Wright is explicit on this matter and frames his understanding of the authority of Scripture as the ‘authority of the triune God exercised through Scripture’.

‘…we recognize that it (the authority of Scripture) can have Christian meaning only if we are referring to scripture’s authority in a delegated or mediated sense from that which God himself possesses and that which Jesus possesses as the risen Lord and Son of God, the Immanuel.’ (N.T. Wright, ‘Scripture and the Authority of God’, p. 23)

He fleshes this out further by locating Scripture not within the context of God’s saving action (the more technical term being ‘the economy of salvation’) in history, but instead locating it within God’s redeeming action for the world (or universe, cosmos, whatever term you prefer) as a whole:

‘”The authority of Scripture” is thus a sub-branch of several other theological topics: the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, the ultimate future hope and the way it is anticipated in the present, and of course the nature of the church.’ (p. 27-28)

Wright thus secures the role of Scripture and its authority within the whole of God’s redemptive actions, which are fundamentally trinitarian in nature. This is further fleshed out by placing the ‘word of God’ within the life and mission of the church. The word of God in this sense is the story of Israel and God, the climax of which is the story of Jesus. Jesus is, then, in a sense the true story of Israel as well as its fulfillment. Wright further notes that this story carries power – God’s power to save – as the means by which the Spirit worked in the life of the church:

‘Here we have the roots of a fully Christian theology of Scriptural authority: planted firmly in the soil of the missionary community, confronting the powers of the world with the news of the Kingdom of God, refreshed and invigorated by the Spirit, growing particularly through the preaching and teaching of the apostles, and bearing fruit in the transformation of human lives as the start of God’s project to put the whole cosmos to rights. God accomplished all these things, so the early church believed, through the “word”: the story of Israel now told as reaching its climax in Jesus, God’s call to Israel now transmuted into God’s call to his renewed people.’ (p. 50)

We see that for Wright, the concept of Biblical authority cannot be divorced from either the triune God, the place of Scripture within God’s redemptive action, or the life of the church. The Scriptures form the narrative which, fulfilled in Jesus raised by the Spirit, shape and form the church. Put simply, the Biblical story is fulfilled by Jesus, whose story is Israel’s story, which the church is called to live out. There can be no separation of revelation here: everything is here connected, and there is no greater or lesser revelation. For Wright, a simple ‘Scripture is a lesser revelation, Jesus is the ultimate revelation’, won’t do.

Karl Barth’s theology of revelation is well-known (for a brilliant summary head here) and so I won’t recapitulate it too much here – instead I’ll focus specifically on how his notion of revelation cashes out in terms of Biblical authority. Barth, like Wright, argues for a concept of authority that is both mediated and delegated and finds its place in the life of the church. Both seek to avoid a ‘magic book’ concept of authority. Like Wright, Barth does not distinguish between greater and lesser kinds of revelation, because, like Wright, he grounds the status of revelation with the triune God. Kevin Diller expounds this point at length in ‘Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma‘, where he treats Christian Smith’s appropriation of Barth in his book ‘The Bible Made Impossible‘:

‘Barth never seperates or stratifies revelation into kinds. There is no such thing in his thinking as a division between a more real, truthful and authentic revelation on the one hand and a less real, truthful and authentic revelation on the other. Barth is emphatic about this. Revelation is always and only God’s transforming self-disclosure in the gift of faith. We can distinguish aspects to God’s revealing action, but they correspond to the Trinity and are therefore distinguishable but inseperable…it is indeed impossible on Barth’s view of revelation to suggest that revelation in Christ is any different from revelation in Scripture.’ (p. 267-268)

Here we have a potential point of convergence: by grounding revelation and Scripture in the truine God, both Wright and Barth secure a high place for both without resorting to a ‘magical book’ view of authority, inspiration, or whatever. By grounding Scripture and authority in Israel’s story, made true and fulfilled in the life and story of Jesus, the embodiment of God and his redeeming action, raised by the Spirit, Wright can articulate a view of authority that avoids the problems of lesser/greater revelation when it comes to Scripture and Jesus. Barth, by placing revelation firmly within the context of God’s self-revelation and trinitarian life, can affirm the same – that while distinctions in form can indeed be made, there are no distinctions quality when it comes to revelation. While avoiding a ‘magical book’ view of the Bible and a static, overly-propositionalist view of revelation, Wright and Barth are both able to place Scripture in its proper context within God’s triune life and the life of the church and thereby give a solid answer to theology’s biblical dilemma.

There are issues, here, however, for these two ideas which take us somewhat abroad from the immediate topic of the post. For Wright, it can be asked if his scheme really does avoid the pitfall over greater/lesser revelation. Given that Jesus fulfilled the story of Israel, can it truly be said to have a non-lesser status? For Barth, if God’s revelation isn’t in the text but only made known to us by faith, exactly how does that cash out in terms of actual exegesis? If revelation isn’t in the text, does one simply wait to be struck by the Spirit? How would one really know if the Spirit moved/spoke/acted on them? These are two immediate issues that crop up and should be carefully thought through – but the potential for a unified answer from Wright and Barth on the question of Scripture, authority and revelation is certainly worth doing the theological work.

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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)

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.

Notes on the Analogy of Being, Barth and Torrance

– T.F. Torrance bases most of his theology on the fact that the Word can’t be divorced from God’s act or being. Torrance also very forcefully rejects any system of theology or philosophy that purports to arrive at God based on study of nature. Torrance rejects it on the grounds that such a system would be independent of any actual knowledge of God as revealed in the Incarnation. However, if the Word became flesh, and it was through the Word that the world came into being, and the intelligibility of creation comes through the Word, couldn’t it be argued that a study of nature is, in a way, a study of God through the Word? Maybe. Maybe not.

– Torrance and Barth both tend to see the goal of natural theology as arriving at God – once you accept the arguments, or the arguments convince you, that’s it – you’re there. But a study of the history of natural theology reveals two things: that God, whether in Scholasticism, Patristic thought, Reformed thought, etc, is never something that can be simply arrived at but something we are continually striving to. Second, natural theology is less about reaching God than it is about exploring the reality of God. Perhaps this is an oversimplification but I see this as an accurate diagnosis of the pathos behind these views.

– A mistake that I see Torrance and Barth making is taking apophatic theology to be a positive statement of what can be ascribed to God (‘nothing’) when apophatic theology is in fact a limitation of what can be positively ascribed to God. It also recognizes humility in theology – the limitations of the human mind. However, as Pelikan notes, this same limitation is also a freedom – it frees the mind to explore the reality of God within the boundaries of apophatic theology. The analogy of being, as well, serves as a boundary:

‘And to this extent, it bears an analogy to the kind of natural theology that Barth rejected. Again, however, anticipating our response to Barth in the final section, the ultimate point of the analogia entis is precisely to humble all natural (and even all supernatural) knowledge of God, to deconstruct every closed system (whether philosophical or theological), in short, to break to pieces every conceptual idol, and to insist that all our knowledge of God, no matter how exalted by grace, is ‘patchwork’ (cf. 1Cor 13:12)—a knowledge in ‘images and likenesses’ that break and fail and thereby point to a God who is beyond comparison, indeed, ‘beyond all analogy’.

– What Barth and Torrance both acutely realize is the effect of mans fallen condition in knowing God – the heart is turned inwards upon itself (as well as the mind) and so any natural revelation can be darkened in a flash, and turned into an idol. This is all too often what happens.

Note on Barth and God’s Aseity

Barth interestingly locates God’s aseity within His own existence, instead of making it depend on his relation to the world. His absolute-ness, unconditioned-ness, et al, are all something He has in His own existence.

‘The fact that in every way He is independent of all all other reality does not in itself constitute God’s freedom but its excercise.’ (C/D 2.1 p. 308)

‘…the absoluteness of God – which makes it a genuine absoluteness – does not derive primarily from the mode of his relationship to the world.’ (p. 309)

It’s in virtue of  this aspect of God’s aseity – it’s non-dependence on His relationship to the world – that God can enter into a relationship to the world.

Note on Barth’s Failure

I’ve noticed a common refrain in those who oppose Barth – it usually falls under one of two categories (which are actually fairly close to each other):

1. Barth capitulated completely to modernity.

2. Barth was a prisoner of modernity and limited modern thinking.

I’ve worked with (2) before, and I’ll quote myself briefly:

‘Barth was a prisoner of his early limited 20th century modern Western thinking…at worst, he had a somewhat unorthodox view of the gospel as a result of of philosophical European upbringing.’

‘This irritates me greatly. There is a vast difference between being a prisoner of X, and thinking that X is a legitimate thing with which and against which one can work. Barth did the latter – he was a modern, who realized that the church couldn’t simply go back to before the modern era had begun, and couldn’t continue to say the same things in the same way as it always had.’ (https://theologiansinc.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/barth-rant/)

Now, regarding Barth’s rejection of classical theism under orders from Modernity (according to the most recent version of this story) – this is just wrong. A great deal of Barth’s thought as right in line with classical theism (as an aside, ‘classical theism’ is a bit of a fuzzy term – it tends to mean ‘Thomism’ nowadays but generally is seen as the main consensus of Christian thought from Chalcedon forward). A lot of the classical categories are modified by Barth (impassibility, for example) and some are rejected more strongly.

What’s at issue here is exactly why Barth rejected what he did. The recent article at FT asserts that it was modernity that caused Barth to reject the classical tradition (which, as I’ve claimed, he didn’t reject out of hand). What led Barth to reject/modify what he did wasn’t the voice of modernity – though modern categories did, in fact, inform his thinking (just as our own culturual categories inform our thinking). Barth did what he did because of profoundly theological convictions. There’s been a lot said on this topic the last couple of days so I won’t rehash it – but Barth’s conclusions are informed by theological concerns, not by a capitulation to modernism. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand Barth completely.

Here’s a roundup of some of the responses:

http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-defense-of-modernity-response-to.html

http://dogmatics.wordpress.com/2014/05/14/barths-failure/

http://theologyoutofbounds.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/karl-barths-failure-modernity-and-the-capacity-for-god/