Monday, December 05, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (13)

And so we arrive at the very last sub-section of this chapter - The determination of the rejected.  Who are these 'rejected' according to Barth?  "A 'rejected' man is one who isolates himself from God by resisting his election as it has taken place in Jesus Christ.  God is for him; but he is against God.  God is gracious to him; but he is ungrateful to God.  God receives him; but he withdraws himself from God.  God forgives him his sins; but he repeats them as though they were not forgiven.  God releases him from the guilt and punishment of his defection; but he goes on living as Satan's prisoner.  God determines for blessedness, and His service; but he chooses the joylessness of an existence that accords with his own pride and aims at his own honour" (449).  Underneath this, of course, is that the 'rejected' is, objectively, elect in Christ according to Barth - and yet, subjectively, does not and will not know that election.  What is the meaning of the life of the rejected?  "What is God's will for them?" (450)

Barth begins by stressing that the determination of the rejected is very different from the determination of the elect.  This is not a balanced equation.  There is only one will of God, which we know in Christ; hence we can only see the rejected as standing under the "non-willing of God" (450).  The rejection of each human being has been transferred to, and borne away by, Christ; "It is, therefore, the rejection which is 'rejected'" (450).  There is no independent sphere of rejection - as if God willed election on the one hand, and rejection on the other.  There is only the holy electing love of God in Christ.  "This love may burn and consume him as a rejected man, as is fitting, but even so it is still to him the almighty, holy and compassionate love of God" (450).  It is therefore impossible to consider the rejected apart from the elect - indeed, only the elect can truly know the rejected, seeing him primarily in Christ as he takes on our rejection and dies, but secondly in himself and his own godlessness, and only then thirdly in others who resist their election in Jesus Christ (451-2).  Rejection is the shadow of election, having no independent existence.

Standing in that shadow, the rejected man has three basic determinations according to Barth.  Firstly, "it is the determination of the rejected to manifest the recipients of the Gospel" (455).  He reveals in his shadowy existence the need of divine election.  He represents the lie, that man is still a sinner outside of Christ.  This "is only a representation, [and] as such it is a lie, because this man - the truly rejected - cannot be any other than Jesus Christ" (455).  In showing the nature of elect man who does not know and resists his election, the rejected reminds the elect both of who he or she is but for the mercy of God, and also continually calls the elect to witness to the gospel, and therefore to the election of this other, who does not know himself as elect.

Secondly, "the rejected has the determination constantly to manifest that which is denied and overcome by the Gospel" (456).  The gospel is made clear by the witness which this rejected man continues to bear to "himself and his false choice as the man isolated over against God" (456).  And thirdly, "the rejected has the determination, in the distinctive limitation of his existence, to manifest the purpose of the Gospel" (457).  "The rejected has no future...  But the purpose of the divine election of grace is to grant to the man who in and of himself has no future, a future in covenant with God" (457).

I wonder if we might summarise by saying that for Barth the rejected is determined as the frontier of God's election.  Without this line, this border, it would be impossible to make out the shape of God's election.  However, for Barth this is a frontier to be crossed - the elect recognise that beyond this frontier lie those who are objectively determined by their election in Christ, just as they themselves are, but are not yet living as those determined by this election; therefore they must bear witness on this frontier to the great love of God in Christ.

The long exegetical part of this sub-section (which will get only the barest summary here) has mostly to do with Judas Iscariot - "the character in which the problem of the rejected is concentrated and developed in the New Testament" (458).  Judas is an apostle and disciple, no less than the others, and indeed his solidarity with the others is stressed in the gospels.  He is one of the twelve.  The NT does not indicate that he was a false apostle; "what it does say is that it was one of the genuine apostles, one of the genuinely elect, who was at the same time rejected as the betrayer of Jesus" (459).  Judas is included in everything which benefits the other apostles - his feet are washed, he takes the Lord's Supper - but this does not prevent his sin, which "makes it clear that as far as he was concerned Jesus was present with the disciples in vain.  He protected and watched over them in vain" (465).  Still, in all this, Judas only exposes the sin of all the apostles.  They were all potentially Judas.  Apart from Jesus' special cleansing "even Peter would be in the fellowship of Judas, the fellowship of the devil" (473).

The particular form of Judas' sin was that he handed over Jesus to the priests (who handed him over to the Gentiles).  Barth notes that this language of 'handing over' is later applied to the apostolic preaching, and indeed that it finally has its root in God's handing over of his Son to death.  A positive light is thereby cast on the act of Judas, without in any way diminishing his guilt.  He in his guilt can only serve the election of God, albeit unwittingly and unwillingly.  In the end, God's election encompasses even Judas' sin.

"Jesus Christ is the Rejected of God, for God makes Himself rejected in Him, and has Himself alone tasted to the depths all that rejection means and necessarily involves.  From this standpoint, therefore, we cannot regard as an independent reality the status and fate of those who are handed over by the wrath of God.  We certainly cannot deny its reality.  But we can ascribe to it only a reality which is limited by the status and fate of Jesus Christ..." (496).  Even for Judas, in his unrepentant suicide?  "Scripture speaks of countless men, as it does of Judas, in such a way that we must assume that they have lived and died without even the possibility, let alone the fulfilment, of any saving repentance.  if there is also light for them, and hope, it can only because and if there is an eschaton, a limit, by which even their inescapable bondage is hemmed in from outside" (496).  Barth refuses to see Judas as necessarily saved - no apokatastasis - but he also refuses to pronounce him definitively damned.  His guilt, which is great, nevertheless reaches its limit in that Jesus Christ has borne the rejection which it merits.  With regard to Judas and all those who present themselves to us as 'rejected', "it cannot be our concern to know and decide what has or will perhaps become of them, for they also stand in the light of what God has done for the world" (497).

If my image above is a correct interpretation of Barth - if rejection is the frontier of election and a border which cries out to be crossed with the gospel - it is perhaps even more true, or more deeply true, to see election as the border of rejection.  What presents to us as a duality of the elect and the rejected is itself encompassed and surrounded by the election of Jesus Christ, and of all men in him.  And if we have to leave their final fate to God, we know that in Christ he is their loving God - even if that love is a fire which burns.  Yes, in Christ he is the electing God.  Even to Judas.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Advent II: Might not die

The syllogism: All men must die, Caius is a man, therefore Caius must die, is no doubt an illuminating statement of pagan wisdom.  But it is not a statement of Christian wisdom...  It cannot be, because it overlooks the parousia of Jesus Christ...  (III/4.3, 924).

People often think that the most characteristic claim of Christianity is that there is life after death.  The Christian gospel, based on the resurrection of Christ, does indeed make that claim.  But if it has become characteristic, that is because we Christians have lost sight of the bigger, and more outrageous, claim that the gospel makes about the end of human life.

We believe that we might not die.

Indeed, every Christian must believe, on the grounds that the resurrected Christ has promised to return, and that this return will be the final, consummating event of human history as we know it, that there is a possibility that nobody else will die.

From the perspective of the NT, the whole of history is now hastening towards the final revelation of the glory of Jesus Christ in his coming.  In that perspective, there is a sense in which the 'normal' way for an individual human history to come an end now - in conformity with the end which we expect for general human history - is with the return of the Lord.  Death is a hanger-on, a left-over from an earlier age, an age which still looked forward to the cross and did not yet look out with triumph from the empty tomb.

You might not die.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Anything but the blood?

At the moment I'm reading through Deuteronomy with our ministry trainee, and yesterday we hit chapter 12.  Two things are striking about this chapter.  On the one hand, there is the mandatory rejoicing!  When the people of Israel have entered the land, God will choose a place, and at that place the people are to make their offerings and sacrifices "and you shall rejoice before YHWH your God".  The sacrifices, it is true, are offered to God, but the meat of the sacrifices is then eaten in a communal meal of joy in the presence of the Lord.

The second thing is more unique to this chapter.  Provision is made for eating meat away from the sanctuary, slaughtered without the sacrificial system.  This is just a practicality - it may be a long way to the place where YHWH has put his name, and the people will want meat.  That's fine - Moses is keen that they be able to enjoy God's blessings in the land.  They can eat meat apart from sacrifice.  But they still can't eat the blood.  That is a long-standing prohibition, the rationale for which seems to be most fully unpacked in Leviticus 17.  The blood represents the life of the creature, and that has been give to Israel to make atonement - it is for the covering of sin, not for consumption.  Blood has a sacred function, symbolising the life of the animal which has been given in exchange for the life of the sinner.  Even so-called 'profane slaughter' is linked to the sacrificial system, and the pouring out of the blood on the ground is a reminder that the animal's life stands between the Israelite and death.

Against this background, Jesus says (of the wine which the disciples have just drunk!), "this is my blood of the new covenant".  In Holy Communion, we are commanded to not only eat the flesh, but also to drink the blood.  Surely significant!

I've long thought that the part of the sacrificial system we ought to look to for parallels with the Eucharist is the meal in the sanctuary.  The sacrifice made, the worshippers celebrate their fellowship with God by eating in his presence of precisely the meat of the sacrifice.  We Christians eat together in God's presence, feeding on the body of Christ.  It is not a sacrifice - the one and only sacrifice has been made - but is a fellowship meal, enjoying together the fruit of the sacrifice.

But if that's right, what does it mean that in contrast with the OT sacrifices we are particularly commanded to take the blood?  Somebody has surely done some proper work on this, but a possibility that occurred to me was that the OT sacrifices never could 'transmit' life.  The animal life given up made atonement, but did not 'go into' the worshipper and bring new life.  There was transfer of guilt to the animal, and vicarious death (all symbolic, of course, of the great sacrifice), but there was no transfer the other way - no life flowing from the animal to the redeemed worshipper.  It strikes me that it is this transfer which characterises the various descriptions of the new covenant in the prophets - not just sin washed away, but sinners changed.  Is that why we drink of the blood of the new covenant?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Reader Response: Church Dogmatics ch VII (12)

In the second-to-last sub-section of this chapter, Barth discusses The determination of the elect - that is to say, the question "to what is he elected?" (410).  What character or goal is given to the elect individual by virtue of his election?  It will not be surprising to anyone who has vaguely followed thus far that "the comprehensive and in every respect decisive answer to the question is given in the fact that an elect man is in any case elect in and with and by and for Jesus Christ" (410).  Jesus Christ is for him, and therefore "the purpose for which he is chosen is to be the kind of man for whom Jesus Christ is" (410).  But this implies also a relation to the community of faith.  "Thus every election of individuals is an election in the sphere of the community" (410).  Indeed, "no individual can be His unless he is also theirs" (411) - there is no belonging to Jesus which does not entail belonging also to his people.

But what is the determination of those who are elect in Christ and in his community?  For what is the elect individual elected?  I will try to enumerate the things that Barth mentions as particular determinations, although he doesn't himself list them in this way. Firstly, "the determination of the elect consists in the fact that he allows himself to be loved by God" (411).  He is given this determination in and with Christ, whose own determination is "to be the One loved of God from and to all eternity" (411).  Secondly, being determined as the recipient of God's love, he is also determined for blessedness.  "God chooses the elect from eternity and for eternity, that he may catch up a beam or a drop of His own blessedness and live as its possessor, that he may rejoice in Him and with Him" (412).  This, too, is the determination of Christ, as particularly revealed in his resurrection and ascension.  Thirdly, then, he is determined for service, and this service consists of gratitude.  "Gratitude is the response to a kindness which cannot be itself be repeated or returned, which can therefore only be recognised and confirmed as such by an answer that corresponds to it and reflects it" (413).  Fourthly, he is determined for praise.  "He is elected in order to break forth with his weak voice, but with all his voice, into the rejoicing which has its source in the divine election of grace, and courses through all God's creation, accompanying all his works and ways" (414).

Fifthly, but decisively for Barth's whole presentation, "each elect individual is as such a messenger of God" (415).  This is the shape of the service which the elect render in their blessedness and gratitude and praise: they are sent to be apostles.  "The reason for this is the election of Jesus Christ to be an apostle of grace" (415).  The elect individual is not simply to rejoice in his own election and blessedness, but he has to look out to those who do not yet know their own election in Christ.  "When he thinks of them, he has to reckon with the recollection that their lost life outside the circle of proclamation and faith displays the rejection which would necessarily have fallen on him, too, apart from Jesus Christ; and with the expectation that the work of the Holy Spirit is the result of the decision which has also been made about their human life.  And in this recollection and expectation he has to address them" (415).  The elect individual is not the electing God; he has not control over whether and how people respond.  But as the elect individual, elect in The Elect, he is determined as one who follows Christ in bearing witness to the divine decision made in Him.

Barth sees in the election of the individual "an opening up and enlarging of the (in itself) closed circle of the election of Jesus Christ and his community in relation to the world - or (from the standpoint of the world) an invasion of the dark kingdom of the lies which rule in the world, a retreat and shrinkage of its godless self-glorification" (417).  In other words, far from being a restrictive concept (only the elect will be saved), election is an expansive concept - the election of each individual, as it is actualised in his call to faith, represents "the ongoing of the reconciling work of the living God" (417).  The circle of election is enlarged.  "It is [God's] concern what is to be the final extent of the circle" (417), and we cannot insist that it must ultimately include everyone.  "No such right or necessity can legitimately be deduced.  Just as the gracious God does not need to elect or call any single man, so He does not need to elect or call all mankind" (417).  The point here is that we are still dealing with the living God in the freedom of his grace, not with a metaphysical system of election.  However, neither can we impose any necessary limit on the circle of election - for in Christ we only know God's election as "a decision of His loving-kindness" (418).  Knowing God's electing grace in Christ, the elect individual has confidence in God's ability and will to call more and more to himself.  "He will never renounce the recognition of their (and his own) lost condition...  Nor will he renounce the confidence that the same grace is addressed to them to" (419).  It is up to God to decide the end result of the ministry of reconciliation; it is up to the elect individual to pursue that ministry.

The exegetical element of the sub-section falls into three parts.  First, Barth points out that in the OT the determination of the elect is always obscured by the fact that there is always a shadow - alongside Abel there is Cain, alongside David there is Saul etc.  Only in Jesus is this resolved (as discussed previously).  Second, he comments on the extent of election.  The salvation of all men is affirmed as God's will, citing 1 Tim 2:4 alongside 1 Cor 5:19, Jn 1:29 and 3:16-17,  and 1 Jn 2:2 amongst others.  "When we remember this, we cannot follow the classical doctrine and make the open number of those who are elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number to which all other men are opposed as if they were rejected" (422).  "And yet it is not legitimate to make the limitless many of the elect in Jesus Christ the totality of all men" (422).  It is a question of the freedom of the living God, but t the living God who has revealed himself in Christ - therefore, freedom, but always the freedom of the God who loves.  How many will be elect, in the end?  "It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which decides this" (422).  The third part of the exegetical element is an in-itself very interesting exposition of the character of the apostolate in the gospels, which can perhaps for our purposes can be summarised in the observation on the calling of the first disciples that "when Jesus calls them to Him, He does not promise that He will make them Christians, or even that He will make them first Christians and then as such apostles; but He immediately promises that He will make them fishers of men..." (444) - in other words, the apostolate is as such the character of the elect individual and community.

In all this we see the impact of Barth's Christological reformulation of the doctrine of election.  Because the elect is Christ, and because all others are elect in him, their election necessarily means that they are elected to service and witness.  Their election implies their sending, so that others might come to know themselves as elect by hearing and believing their testimony.  This is in striking contrast to the classical doctrine, in which the absolute decree of God to election/reprobation implies a closed and not an open system, and therefore the danger of election and mission becoming separated and even contradictory.  There is still some obscurity here, and I wonder whether in some sense Barth hasn't just moved the mystery from eternity past (in the classical doctrine: why did God at that point elect some and not others?) to the present (why does God call some and not others?) - but at the least, the Christological basis gives a different flavour and feel to the doctrine which does seem to me to have better fit with the Biblical emphasis.  What do you think?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent I: Contentment?

How do we hold together the Bible's call to be content in all circumstances with the fact that the Bible itself points us towards a glorious future hope for which we are to be yearning and looking forward?  How can we be content in the here and now, whilst acknowledging that we don't now have the one thing which we truly need and (at least sometimes) want - the presence of the Lord Jesus?  How can we be content in a broken world that is full of both suffering and evil (not to mention our broken selves, which are similarly stuffed full of woe and wickedness), whilst seriously and genuinely waiting for the redemption of creation?

The answer must have something to do with the relationship between the first and second coming of Christ.  One way of thinking about this relationship might go something like this: Jesus came to get the ball rolling on salvation, and he will come back to put the finishing touches to it; in the meantime he is, through the church, carrying on the plan.  On this scheme, I can understand the discontent that we are meant to feel - it's the discontent of a half-done job - but not the radical contentment to which we are called.

I think the Biblical relationship is more like this: Jesus came to accomplish salvation; there is nothing left to do, and the point of the continuation of history is just to give space for people to come to acknowledge his salvation, enjoy it, and bear witness to it.  His second coming will be to reveal that salvation as it has already been accomplished, thus rolling back the darkness of sin and suffering which still clouds our view of his victory, and vindicating both himself and all those who have trusted in him.  Contentment, then, is based on the accomplished work of Christ - everything needful has been one.  Yearning is based on the hidden nature of this accomplishment - we want to see him glorified!

And if that's right, then one aspect of advent must be mission.  We want to see him in glory, acknowledged and worshipped for all he has done.  That will happen, and we can rest in the knowledge that it will happen.  But a part of our waiting will surely be to bear witness in the darkness to his great light, so that we already see him glorified in the lives of people who come to know him.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Won't shout, won't stop

When God sends his Servant, according to Isaiah 42, he will be gentle:
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench...
By contrast with the frenzied activity of the idolater, God's Servant is serene.  By contrast with the harshness of the rule of idols, God's Servant is gentle.  The images are of such extraordinary care - he won't snap off the bent over reed; he won't snuff out the candle which is sending up a thin column of smoke.  God's Servant is almost excessively gentle.  He will bind up and preserve.  He won't write off anything that has the least good in it.

But neither will he stop in his mission to transform the world:
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
In his quiet and gentle way, God's Servant will persist in his dealing with the world, without faltering or turning back, until his kind and gentle rule is acknowledged throughout the world.  He won't quit.  Not with individuals, though they be reeds which are ever so be bruised and candles which barely smouder.  Not with all creation, though there seems to be every reason to despair of his ultimate success.  He will press on until he brings it about, because that is what has been given him by God.

What a Saviour Jesus is - what patience and what perseverance!  Christians, let's be encouraged that this is how he deals with us and with the world; and let's be imitators of him as we live out our witness to his goodness.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The transubstantiation trap

Transubstantiation is a very sensible and coherent way of expressing Roman Catholic eucharistic doctrine - or at least it was in about 1250.  The classic formulation, in Thomas Aquinas, explains that in the mass the essence or substance of the bread and wine is genuinely changed into the essence of the body of Christ.  The bread and wine still appear to be bread and wine to us, because their accidents are unchanged; that is to say, all that appears to the senses is still exactly as it was before.  Faith is required here: not to make the change (this is thought to be objective), or to receive the changed host (this is done, whether to judgement or salvation, by everyone who partakes), but to perceive the host as genuinely being the body of Christ, since the senses won't help.

As I said, this all makes sense in 1250.  Aquinas leans heavily on Aristotelian philosophy for the language of substance and accidents.  For Aristotle, accidents or properties of things reside in their substances.  The substance is the thing proper, and the accidents are, if you like, the presenting face.  Of course, for Aristotle these things couldn't be separated.  The idea that you could have a table that presented as a chair whilst remaining a table would have seemed bizarre to him.  Aquinas would appeal to miracle here, again not unreasonably.

Now, there are all sorts of reasons not to follow Roman eucharistic theory at this point.  The general thrust is wrong.  But granted the basic direction of Roman Catholic theology, this made sense.  Unfortunately, because at the Counter-Reformation the Catholic Church rather painted itself into a corner in terms of doctrinal change and the impossibility thereof, this is still the way the mass is explained today.  And it makes no sense.  Nobody believes in substances and accidents in this way anymore; nor should they.  It is certainly not inconceivable that the doctrine of the mass could be re-expressed in a way which kept its essentials intact without relying on an obsolete philosophy - but Roman Catholicism has closed that path to itself 500 years ago.  It's stuck with Aquinas, and therefore with Aristotle.

The reason I mention all this is because there is always a danger that Evangelicals, who are in theory open to their doctrine being continually reformed by the word of God, actually fall into the trap of holding on to formulations that no longer make sense, and in so doing losing the heart of the doctrine they're trying to defend.  As an example, I was reading someone recently who, when challenged that the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy is a species of philosophical foundationalism, simply gave the verbal equivalent of a shrug - we are apparently committed to epistemological foundationalism.  That would be an error.  Foundationalism has, in my view rightly, been found wanting philosophically.  And if our doctrine really springs from Scripture, we'd hardly want to wed ourselves completely to a philosophical doctrine that emerged with the Enlightenment!  Surely we can express our commitment to the authority of Scripture in a new way - without losing it?  Because my worry is that we will surely lose it - or at least, lose adherence to it - if we continue to express it in terms of an obsolete philosophy.

This is not about compromising with the spirit of the age.  It's about recognising that we have always used the language and concepts of the day to express what we think we're hearing in Scripture.  That is both inevitable and right - how else would we communicate today?  But yesterday's formulations must be open to re-expression if we're to make sure that it is God's revelation attested in Scripture that is driving our doctrine, and to avoid getting stuck in philosophical cul-de-sacs.