Monday, April 25, 2016

"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): Separating Sequence and Logic

In the last post, I carried on my project of redefining election relative to creation by elaborating Barth's insistence that, while creation follows after God's being and intention, it does not follow from it logically, and is also not a second thing relative to which election is the first. God is not part of the sequence of God's acts! But there is a second thing relative to which creation is a first: the history of the covenant of grace. And getting the relationship between those two things—and, implicitly, also between them and our history of agency—is the task of this third paragraph in section 41.1 of Barth's mature dogmatics.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): The First and Unprecedented Work of God

I've been told, repeatedly over the last several years, that protology for Barthians is not directly concerned with the doctrine of creation, but rather with the doctrine of election and God's self-determination in eternity. McCormack's relatively recent work on the processions and missions takes that logical thread (which he was instrumental in developing) and chases out the implications in the simultaneous coming-to-be of God and the creature corresponding to God. And it's not entirely surprising that he goes this way when you cosider that Molnar and to a lesser extent Hunsinger have gone after creation as protology in order to assert a divide between the immanent and economic being of God. Neither of these directions are Barth's path, but if I have to go one way or the other, it's going to be McCormack whose work is worth correcting. Creation can more fruitfully be added to his theontology than it can be redeemed from theirs.

And that's important because, for Barth, creation is protology. Barth's mature dogmatics begin in medias res, with the church, its proclamation, and its sources and norms, and work up from there, perpendicular to chronology, to speak of God in God's eternity: God's perfections of freedom and loving, and God's resulting actions of electing the creature and Godself into relationship. None of this is protological; we pan up from our embedded present-tense temporality, in which dogmatics takes place, to the God who is not only eternal with our time, but also and indivisibly eternal before and beyond all time. God's self-awareness has no limitations in this frame, no cusps beyond which God-who-will-be is truly other than God-who-has-been or God-who-is-now. That sort of disjunctive history of becoming only happens to us; it is a phenomenon of time, not eternity. There is, for Barth, no resulting need to pack God's becomings into a pre-temporal frame for fear of what might happen if God were to change in supra-temporal eternity. God's becomings are not protology; God's making of us is protology, because we are the only thing that can be said to begin.

For this reason Barth will continue to emphasize that creation is meaningfully first, without framing a discrete pre-temporal "first" that we might (especially were we to follow Reformed traditions) speak of as the predetermination of the things that would then be created. That is, to borrow McCormack's polemics, an impermissible division of one act into two. And it always has been, as a means of explaining how the process of the world's becoming is under divine control, obedient to decrees that precede its creation. None of which Barth wants any of! Not only is creation not a means of explaining how the world came to be this way; election is also not a means of explaining how it had to become this way. For Barth, our history is entirely free, not logically predetermined. Creation is not the actualization of a plan for history, but rather of a relationship, and it is that covenantal relationship that has been predetermined from all eternity in our being made. It is built, not into the structure of our history, but rather into the structure of our being as the creature.

And so Barth leaves no room for election as a first work of God before this first. And he does it intentionally; he does it fully meaning to contradict the traditions that make such a discrete pre-temporal space for God's becomings to finish before ours begin. There is a "first" before this first act of creation, but it is only and simply God, whose will and resolve, decision and plan become in exactly this way: by creating the creature who will be the recipient, showplace, and implement of God's self-revelation. By, as I said in the last post, making even the very possibility of a non-God "outside" direction in which to turn.

Friday, April 22, 2016

"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): Justifying Dealing with Creation

It's almost like Barth knows his doctrine of creation is going to get no respect in the field. Really, what he knows is that the doctrine of creation gets little respect in Modernity, as a mythologically-grounded and unscientific depiction of how the world came to be as it is. Once we know that the idea is to explain how the world came to be, and its dependency upon God—so the Modern story goes—we can discard the particulars in favor of rewriting that general story in terms we can respect. And we'll get to Barth's demolition of those arguments in a few posts, once I hit the first excursus of §41.1, but this entire first sub-section will be devoted to establishing Barth's constructive opposition to that view.

Now, to some extent Barth has already made those arguments, on internal grounds. That's what §40 was about, as a demonstration of the ... shall we say, "intrasystematic validity," to lean very lightly on Lindbeck? ... of the doctrine of creation as a necessary component of credal faith. And he's already made the argument there that creation is emphatically not "a doctrine of the world-cause," not a locus involved principally with how we got here from there. The Modernist abstraction of an absolute contingency of the world is basically flawed, because we are products of a double contingency, built out of a history with two fundamental agents involved: God and the non-God creature. We and our worlds are significantly and independently self-contingent, even as we remain absolutely dependent upon God as God's creatures. As I said in a comment thread recently, "It has been common in the tradition to suggest that sin cannot create order, but sin isn’t the agent; we are, and we absolutely can and do!"

But now that Barth is in this new section, and establishing the basis for his handling of the creation stories of Genesis 1–3 as necessary and valid witnesses in their own rights (a profoundly un-Modern assertion made in the best possible Modern critical fashion) he has to justify treating the unique scriptural particularities of the doctrine of creation as necessary. Coming up with his own "the Creator creates the creature" abstraction on the basis of the credal assertions was important, but this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of not merely fighting fire with fire. General statements are only as good as the species that underlie them, the particulars on the basis of which they are valid abstractions.

But even before that, he has to defend handling the doctrine of creation itself as a driving and independent locus, something that can't just be fodder for a larger abstraction about God's more historically relevant acts. He has to have the argument that creation must be treated in and for itself, and first, rather than being left as an appendix or a reference volume filled with interesting supplementary notes that explain why the narrative of the more important doctrines is the way it is. And that's today's text—but it's also an argument the field needs to hear, because we've grown accustomed to treating Barth's doctrine of creation as just such a supplementary volume, relative to the omissive through-line we've been taught to draw across election and reconciliation.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Digging into "Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): Intro and Thesis

Since I'm slowly working my way through a Genesis exposition series in so-called "post-Barthian" terms, it's about time I crack into the Barth that goes with it. Which I suppose is disingenuous of me; I've been in that section of Barth's work for some time now. It's about time I start showing you my work. Even where I disagree with Barth on the text, I am profoundly in agreement with him on the basis for the doctrine. And yet there's so little positive work on Barth's doctrine of creation out there.

Hardly anybody's working on expositing Barth's creation in public. And not without reason, as there are a number of infamous sections, particularly around gender and sexuality and the nature of human fellowship—and those in particular tread well over the line into naturalism and obviously violate Barth's theological principles. But saying so seems to be the function of the majority of the literature, and a fair bit of the rest of it tends to be devoted to wishing Barth had been more traditionally Lutheran or Reformed and so "gotten it right"—including the ecotheologians who have accepted the canard about Barth's "creation docetism." It's time to get past that and dig into the real meat of Barth's radical anti-naturalism, which he got profoundly right in CD III, and which can fix not only his errors but so many of our own today.

(And yes, I do see the irony in promoting an anti-naturalist doctrine of creation after mentioning ecotheology, especially when I used to work on Joseph Sittler's collected materials. But the idea that naturalism is required for a proper doctrine of creation is, as Barth will point out, a shortcut that bypasses the reality of God's actions in this locus, and does so in order to make the world we see and understand into the logic of its own origin and ends. That's abject failure, and we should recognize it, both here and in soteriology!)

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Post-Barthian Attempt at Genesis 1: vv 6–10

Okay, so where was I? Oh, yes: the creature was still only the nothing, a singular abyssal deep that had not yet been internally differentiated—but now it has a full day–night cycle consisting of the periodic alternation between light and darkness, with fades in between, even without there being celestial bodies involved.

I've already significantly departed from Barth's analysis, because he thinks that the nothing is a primordial chaos that God chooses against in creating something. The text, on the other hand, clearly imagines the nothing as a created something, even if it isn't yet anything in particular. The singular abyssal deep of the təhom cannot be chaos, as I have said, because true χάος is the yawning void between things—which requires there to be more than one thing. And that's important, because in the coming text God is about to create just such a χάσμα, which in English we know as the word "chasm."

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

It's Always Better to be More Gracious than God

The most-often-adduced "defeater" for soteriological universalisms is the idea that we're trying to be more gracious, more generous with salvation, than God is. That damnation is a necessarily real thing, a consequence of divine justice that cannot be overcome, and that by trying to minimize it, we crazy universalists risk falling foul of God's will in ways we wouldn't if only we'd agree to condemn the right people.

I'm not often tempted to quote the late Justice Scalia—a cut-rate Rhenquist without the propensity for learned moderation over time—but the brutality of his derision toward what he believed were arguments unfounded in anything but wishful thinking should be applied to this faux-juristic argle-bargle by which the majority opinion claims that it is better—more like God—to condemn than to reprieve. (I won't even mention the fact that this same historical majority tends overwhelmingly to extend reprieve, rather than condemnation, to privileged offenders while chastising their victims.)

This is a place where the typical Christian paradigm of OT-judgment/NT-grace fails spectacularly to account for the superiority of the Old Testament as a testimony to grace over against condemnation. The Tanakh certainly does contain the three successively-iterated law-codes of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. Its organization, which even our Old Testament preserves to this extent, privileges these codifications as "torah," or instruction. But we fail to understand them as what they were and are when we take these three brilliant narrative and legal mosaics (see what I did there?) as a compendium of rules governing the applicability of grace.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Post-Barthian Attempt at Genesis 1: vv 3–5

Recap: Barth got a lot right about his approach to Genesis, even as he got a few important things wrong in a morally-prescriptivist fashion that resembled the "orders theologies" he was trying to subvert. Barth's limitations involved his inability or unwillingness to get past certain culturally-conditioned presuppositions. As, frequently, do ours! But the approach through Sachkritik and literary hermeneutics is solid and will teach, not to mention preach. And it can be improved upon, or at least done with the tools we have today in order to produce responsible words of God and humanity. (And we'll see if I actually get there!)

In the first two verses, we had the singular created nothing, the abyssal deep of the təhom, which God defined in order to make everything else, and with respect to which God's active intention is gentle. While the "heavens" and the "earth" had been framed proleptically, neither had yet been made. The only surface was the edge of the great void, and everything was dark. And none of it was bad! But the darkness is about to diversify, and gain structure.