An invitation to mutual reverence

Martin Kammler, ‘The Kindness and Cruelty of Being Human’ (Switzerland, nd)

‘We deal in disparagement and feel it proves we are freer of illusion than earlier generations were. We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only help we have ever found for this, the only melioration, is in mutual reverence. God’s grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in very many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God), or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to cost-benefit analysis. This is not the consequence of a new atheism or a systemic materialism that afflicts our age more than others. It is good old human meanness, which finds its terms and pretexts in every age. The best argument against human grandeur is the meagerness of our response to it, paradoxically enough’.

– Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here?

Barth on the making and is-ness of the Christian

Recent weeks have seen me, from time to time, dipping into CD IV/4, and that for no other reason than for the sheer joy of reading Barth. Here’s one passage that I meditated on for some time:

‘The freedom of God in which is grounded man’s becoming free to be faithful to God as God is faithful to him, the freedom in which the Christian life thus has its absolutely unique origin, is the freedom of which He, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has made use in supreme majesty and condescension in the history of Jesus Christ. This history is the change, impossible with men but possible with God, and indeed possible only by God’s actual judgment, in which a man becomes God’s friend instead of His enemy, a man who lives for Him instead of being dead for Him. It is the divine change which has been made for every man and which is valid for every man, but which is thankfully acknowledged, recognised and confessed by Christians. It is so as Jesus Christ is the One elected from eternity to be the Head and Saviour of all men, who in time responded to God’s faithfulness with human faithfulness as the Representative of all men. As and because He was this, as and because, in the name and stead of all, He was born and suffered and died as the Man of God, as and because He was manifested for all in His resurrection as the One who did this for all, the change which took place in His history took place for all. In it the turning of all from unfaithfulness to faithfulness took place. In this history of His the Christian life became an event as the life of all. A Christian, however, is a man from whom it is not hidden that his own history took place along with the history of Jesus Christ. As a word spoken to him and received by him in the living power of the Holy Spirit, this has been disclosed to him as the decisive event which establishes his existence as a Christian. He himself in the midst of all other men can see himself as one of those for whom and in whose place Jesus Christ did what He did. The Christian is a man whose life Jesus Christ has entered as the subject of that history of His. He is a man whose acknowledged, recognised and confessed Lord He has become. He is a man to whom Jesus Christ has given not just a potential but an actual share in that history of His. Thus Jesus Christ, His history, became and is the foundation of Christian existence; this and this alone. The Christian comes from Him, from His history, from knowledge of it; he also looks back thereto. This is the ground on which he stands and walks. This is the air which he breathes. This is the word which he has in his ears before, above and after all other words. This is the light, the one light, the incomparably bright light, which illumines him’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4 (ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969), 13­–14.

Rowan Williams on the Ascension

Giotto - The Ascension

Giotto, 'The Ascension'. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

‘The ascension of Jesus … becomes a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life …. [The] Ascension is a celebration of the glory of humanity, the unlikely possibilities of people like you and me, the eternal potential locked up in our muddled struggling lives. And a celebration too of God’s capacity, through his Holy Spirit, to reach into those parts of humanity that are so far from glorious, that are rebellious and troubled and broken, to breathe through them, to take them home, to drop them into that fire and melt them and recast them. The promise of the Father is that we as Christians will receive that level and dimension of divine life that we call ‘Holy Spirit’, so that, like Jesus, we will find that nothing human is alien to us. And the promise of the Father is that by the love of Christ spreading through us and in us, the world may be brought home to Christ, who brings it home to his Father’. – Rowan Williams, ‘A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Ascension Day Sung Eucharist’.

Sex and Human Existence (or, Engaging Sex in the Right Places)

Magritte loversHalden’s and Ben’s recent posts on sex and personhood reminded me of Ray Anderson’s essay ‘Bonding Without Bondage’ (in On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family). Anderson’s essay is on marriage, and begins by identifying a subtle but important distinction between a ‘theological’ view (i.e. that determined by theology proper and its Gospel shape) and an ‘ethical’ view (i.e. that determined by appeals to natural law) of marriage. The former is that held by Karl Barth, the latter by Emil Brunner. Anderson recalls that for Brunner marriage is not good in se, but only as it provides the optimum containment for what is otherwise unbridled impulse. For Brunner, sexuality is sanctified only through marriage, unless one chooses total abstinence. In other words, Brunner suggests that the erotic sexual impulse is an ‘unnatural’ and ‘unbridled biological instinct’ which can only be consecrated through marriage, or the ethical demand of abstinence (Love and Marriage, 183, 195). Barth, conversely, contends that human sexuality is a determination of human existence as the image and likeness of God and thus exists prior to, and independent of, marriage as a true order.

Anderson highlights that whereas for Brunner sexuality is sanctified as an ethical existence under the command of God only in the marriage relation, for Barth the command of God sanctifies human persons by including their sexuality within their humanity. In other words, the sexual relation of woman and man has already been constituted a true order of humanity, as an integral part of total humanity as male and female. Marriage, therefore, however conceived, integrates sexuality into total humanity.

Anderson observes that Brunner’s position of human sexuality ad extra to human personhood has serious consequences for understanding the role of sexuality in the case of the unmarried person as well as for a discussion of the matter of homosexuality. If we follow Brunner and understand the married couple as the basic model of man and woman as a community of love and all other relations as peripheral to it, then marriage will be offered as the highest – if not the only – possibility for authentic personhood. If, on the other hand, we follow Barth that humanity as determined by God is cohumanity, existing concretely as either male or female, then marriage (however conceived) is seen not as a ‘containment’ of that which has no other ethical point of reference, but as the ‘contextualizing’ of that which comes to expression in the total encounter of persons.

loversOne of the main points that Anderson seeks to bring home is that the divine command (‘What God has joined together …’) does not take place behind our backs, independent of human response and recognition. While marriage is grounded in God’s covenant love, it involves the mutual recognition, choice, and commitment of two people who are brought together by God in covenant partnership. God joins together actually as well as theoretically. God joins together in and by the encounter and decision of the two who form the union: not only on the basis of this human act of love but coincidental with it and as its objective validation. What begins as affection and feelings of love is absorbed into personal will expressed as commitment in marriage (with or without ‘a wedding’).

According to Barth, love, in contradistinction to mere affection,

‘may be recognised by the fact that it is determined, and indeed determined upon the life-partnership of marriage. Love does not question; it gives an answer. Love does not think; it knows. Love does not hesitate; it acts. Love does not fall into raptures; it is ready to undertake responsibilities. Love puts behind it all the Ifs and Buts, all the conditions, reservations, obscurities and uncertainties that may arise between a man and a woman. Love is not only affinity and attraction; it is union. Love makes these two persons indispensable to each other’. (CD III.4, 221)

Of course, one could – and indeed should – ask, what has love got to do with it?

Still, while certain to set marriage within the absolute determination of divine command, Anderson is equally concerned to not set marriage above the reality and practice of human existence. In this way, he avoids the idealism(s) often associated with marriage. He also notes that marriage can never be the solution to problems of personal unhappiness or loneliness. It can never be the relational horizon within which one expects to meet all his or her personal needs. Marriage, he contends, offers an expression of love and sexuality not realisable in any other human relationship, but it is no more human than any other human task or relationship. And, in particular, because marriage takes place under the divine command,

‘the sphere of the relationships of man and woman as they are embodied and lived out among us human beings is not simply a labyrinth of errors and failings, a morass of impurity, or a vale of tears at disorder and distress. For by the grace of God … there are always in this sphere individual means of conservation and rescue, of deliverance and restoration, assured points and lines even where everything seems to vacillate and dissolve, elements of order in the midst of disorder … And if there is no perfect marriage, there are marriages which for all their imperfection can be and are maintained and carried through, and in the last resort not without promise and joyfulness, arising with a certain necessity, and fragmentarily, at least, undertaken in all sincerity as a work of free life-fellowship. There is also loyalty even in the midst of disloyalty and constancy amid open inconstancy … Thus even where man does not keep the command, the command keeps man … He who here commands does not only judge and forgive: He also helps and heals’. (CD III.4, 239–40)

Barth on our being in Christ

Babushka‘To be a Christian is per definitionem to be in Christ. The place of the community as such, the theatre of their history, the ground on which they stand, the air that they breathe, and therefore the standard of what they do and do not do, is indicated by this expression. Being in Christ is the a priori of all the instruction that Paul gives his churches, all the comfort and exhortation he addresses to them. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2, p. 277.

Rowan Williams on Christian Anthropology

Rowan Williams recently gave a lecture as part of the ‘A World to Believe in – Cambridge Consultations on Faith, Humanity and the Future’ sessions. It’s well worth reading the whole thing. Here’s a snippert:

‘Religious belief is not only belief about God, it’s belief about human beings. And what is non-negotiable in faith is not simply a set of doctrines about the transcendent, but a set of commitments about how human beings are to be seen and responded to. Not everybody in our society has an anthropology, a doctrine of human nature, not everybody has a set of such commitments and they probably never will. But it is a very impoverished society, and it is a very limited educational policy, that assumes you can do without the memory of such doctrines and commitments around. Christian anthropology, the Christian vision of what human beings are about, assumes a number of things about humanity which shape Christian responses to human existence. It assumes that human beings are summoned to respond to an initiative from God, that human beings are summoned to shape a life that will itself communicate something of God to others, and something of humanity itself to God. It assumes that humanity is called to question fictions about both the society and the human self in the name of some greater destiny or capacity in humanity than most political systems or philosophies allow. So, properly understood, Christian anthropology – the Christian doctrine of human nature – is one of those things which ought to reinforce in the university and in society more widely, a set of deep suspicions about the ways in which that range of human capacity is shrunk by political expediency and convenience’.

Full lecture here.

Humanity in Christ: ‘Old’ and ‘New’

Trying to come up with a concise 3-4 sentence statement on the relationship between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ humanity created in Christ (with particular attention to sanctification) is not easy. In the hope of getting some help with this one, I offer the following scribbles:

To be sure, there is a narrative continuity (historical and physical) between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. Just as with the ‘new’ and ‘old’ creation itself, the ‘new’ Humanity is the healed and restored ‘old’, born again in holiness with the promise of no return. This continuity depends entirely upon the continuous activity of the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit who acts in both the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. Understood individually, ‘Jason’ remains ‘Jason’, and is not made into ‘Jeremy’ or ‘Jenny’, but the ‘new’ Jason is ‘born again’ into life – holy and eternal – in such a way that his history is sanctified with him.

Some might be tempted to say, citing Galatians 2:20, ‘Isn’t Jason made into Jesus? Doesn’t Jason die?’ If 2:20a was the end of the story, there may be some argument to be made here, though the problems that such a conclusion might create have humungous consequences for how we are to understand creation. However, even in this one verse, it seems, Paul goes on to qualify in v. 20b what such a life of crucifixion might entail. Whether we go with the subjective genitive reading or not makes no difference here. A literalist reading of v. 20a creates problems that I don’t think are implied in the text. Are the KJV and the NJB helpful here?

  • ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ (KJV)
  • ‘I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me’ (NJB)

Taken with v. 19, yes ‘Jason’ dies. He dies to a particular way of being, that is, being after himself. The new person created in Christ is fundamentally restructured away from a personhood of ‘self-centredness, ‘closedness’ and alienation, towards one of reconciliation, and a new ‘openness’ of self-giving love to neighbour. They are a person lifted from the centre of their own egoism and planted with Christ in God. Life itself is now defined by faith in the Son of God. (Whether we translate here the ‘faithfulness of the Son of God’ or ‘faith in the Son of God’ (NIV), in either case it is Paul (not Saul, to be sure) who is living in it … ‘in the body’!). With all its continuity, however, there is something ‘new’. In Christ, God really has created new life and not just patched up an old laspe. The new shoot comes out of an old stump, even if the old stump is dead and unable to bring forth any life of its own.

An implication: While there is a sense in Campbell, Moberly and Barth that everything important for Humanity happens in Christo – i.e. that Christ has done whatever is necessary to consummate the perfect condemnation of sin – I also want to maintain with Forsyth and Gunton that if we are to take seriously not only the dignity of creation but also the respons-ability of the moral order, then genuine human response to God is imperative and cannot be offered vicariously. Although apart from Christ’s work such response is impossible, Christ does not do it all for us.

To be sure, all Humanity is in Christ and his act, and there can be no experience of assurance except by trust in an objective something, done over our heads, and complete without any reference to our response or our despite. But while salvation does happen over our heads, and attests to the tetelestai cry from the Cross, this does not mean that salvation happens behind our backs: while no one can believe by themselves or unto themselves every person must believe for themselves if grace is to come home.

So Yes, I believe that in Jesus Christ, who never leaves his incarnation, Humanity is gathered up into the perichoretic life of the Triune Family; but this happens without loss of creaturely status. There is no blurring of Creator-creature distinctives. God remains God. Creation remains creation. It is God who makes Creation. It is God who keeps making creation. And it is God who keeps creation creation. Some accounts of theosis appear more than a little skewed here.

Any thoughts?

Barth–Brunner Revisited 7 (final)

In this final post of this series, I simply want to make some concluding comments. Thanks for the feedback/thoughts I’ve received, particularly from Chris TerryNelson who looks after the Karl Barth Society website.
So here goes the final post in this series:

The long-lasting debate between Brunner and Barth, enmeshed in the broader and more fundamental issues of grace and nature, Gospel and law, and love and wrath, reveals that we are left with either an immanent-structural or a transcendent-relational understanding of what it means to be a human person. The choice, therefore, is between a rational-Unitarian or a Christological-Trinitarian understanding of human personhood. I consider that human personhood, both theologically and existentially, makes no sense apart from the Triune God in whose Image we are made.

With Brunner, I maintain that there is a moral element to the imago Dei, for since the Fall, as before, the imago lives in the demand of the Law. For although no-one has kept the Law (Rom. 3:23), God’s redemptive purposes remain unthwarted and unfrustrated (Jn. 3:16). However, there is no redemption outside Jesus Christ. In Him, every demand of the Law is met, and in Him the imago Dei is again a fulfilled reality. Barth was right to interpret Genesis 1:26 in terms of Christ. The imago Dei is the imago Christi (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15) and the imago Christi is an imago Dei mediated through the person of Christ. Barth states,

He was man as we are. His condition was no different from ours. He took our flesh, the nature of man as he comes from the fall … His sinlessness was not therefore His condition. It was the act of His being in which He defeated temptation in His condition which is ours, in the flesh … He emptied Himself … placing Himself in the series of men who rebelled against God in their delusion … In so doing, in His own person, He reversed the fall in their place and for their sake.

In Him, God draws near to fallen humanity freely offering the restoration of that relationship of obedience and service that is simultaneously the demand of the Law and the essence of the imago Dei. In Christ we are offered that which we can never achieve – the reversal of the Fall! The question of the imago Dei, therefore, can only be satisfactorily answered when it is brought into the theological arena of the doctrine of justification by faith (Phil. 3:9; cf. Rom. 3:22; 4:11; 9:30; 10:3, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21). Because of this righteousness, which has its origin in the righteous act of Christ, and comes to the believer as a gift (Rom. 5:17-19), those in Christ are justified. They become, always by grace, ‘new creatures’ (2 Cor. 5:17) and this ‘new man’ is one who is ‘after the image of him that created him’ (Col. 3:10). Hence, justification by faith and restoration of the imago are correlative terms. As T. F. Torrance affirms,

It is in Christ that we can really see that the original purpose of the works of God in creation is to reflect and image his glory … It is only in Jesus Christ, who is both the image and the reality of God, that we can think and speak of God in such a realist way that our human forms are not an empty shell but are filled from above with the Truth of God.

This means that the imago Dei is never an inherent possession, capacity or potentiality of the human creature but rather is always the gift of God through the Holy Spirit.

The issue revolves around the question of whether or not fallen humanity, dead in its sins, has a capacity for revelation and redemption; not in the material sense that we have anything other than our sinful and fallen life to bring to God, or indeed our rebellion and repeated attempts to put God to death – not, therefore, the capacity which the acorn has to become an oak, but rather, as Hart puts it, ‘the capacity which a gnarled and twisted piece of timber has to become – only through the creative fashioning skills of the woodworker or artist – something beautiful and pleasing to the eye’.

I consider that Barth, notwithstanding his strong denials, cannot, as long as he adheres to a doctrine of Incarnation or to the belief that God has revealed Himself to humans, avoid positing a point of contact in this second, carefully qualified, sense. The Holy Spirit may well be the ‘subjective possibility’ or ‘condition of revelation’; but He comes, as such, to fallen humanity who, while dead in their trespasses and sins, nonetheless are capable of being acted upon by Him in this redemptive and creative manner. This makes no claim for any inherent ability in the human creature to respond to God (it is the ‘Yes’ of the Man Jesus who vicariously responds for us). However, I consider that whatever Brunner thought of it, the distinction between a formal and a material imago Dei in fallen humanity, providing there is no split in the imago, is one which not only provides a very useful framework for discussion, but is something which Barth himself cannot ultimately avoid, although he never addresses it satisfactorily. And so the imago Dei in the human creature, although distorted, remains a ‘point of contact’ not because of our innate disposition but because of the Incarnation of the Word.

Humanity has certainly taken its inheritance, wished the Father dead, broken horizontal ties with sisters and brothers, and run away from home. But the imago Dei is not dead, however distorted, perverted and existentially, although never ontologically, uprooted from its Source. The imago Dei is a sinner. The imago Dei is a sinner. The imago Dei has robbed God. As Barth says, in the Fall, God is ‘deserted and denied by men; He suffers and is robbed. Sin is robbing God of what He is’. Also, as Brunner helpfully reminds us, ‘It is as a whole that a person commits sin; this is not due to some part of the personality. I am a sinner, not this or that aspect of my nature’. Sin, furthermore, has brought contradiction into the being of the human person: ‘not simply “something contradictory” in man, but … a contradiction of the whole man against the whole man, a division within man himself’.

Although sin is a devastating problem for humanity, and so for the creation (because humanity functions as creation’s priest), it is death that is the greatest dilemma. Yes, sin infects the human race. Yes, sin makes our goggles dirty so that we can’t see clearly, and yes, it makes our ears full of wax so that we can’t hear clearly, and even mishear, but death is humanity’s antithesis because it ‘makes clear the relationship of man to God – the negative, broken relationship under judgement’.

The divine warning to ‘the man’ was not, ‘for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely become a sinner’, but, ‘in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). Even if sin is forgiven, the forgiveness remains null and void apart from resurrection (1 Cor. 15:17). It is nothing short of resurrection from the dead, resurrection in the man Jesus and His own triumph over death, which restores the imago Dei into life, and that ever in Christ. This is the great ex nihilo which refuses to allow the human creature to be nothing more than a sinner. While sin leaves no part of human nature uncorrupted, the ex nihilo protects human nature from becoming inhuman nature. This is because the essential nature of being human remains under the determination of God, not of sin. The dignity of the human creature cannot be relinquished or destroyed, thanks to the presence of God through which human persons continue to witness to Him even in their ‘condition of darkness and estrangement from the Source of [their] life.’ Before the new creation is consummated, opposition remains, but grace wins – that grace which lays the axe at the root of the whole of human existence and slays us so that we might be made alive! Anderson reasons this is because ‘even the disorder of human being through sin does not destroy the covenant basis on which the human exists. Indeed, the covenant becomes even more explicit as the gracious provision by which human life is supported’.

The only validity and hope of the imago Dei’s ontological existence and telos lies in God. So we live, with veiled faces, in faith, hope and love, and in the process we experience what it means to be human. We live, here and now, in the completed work-in-progress of the Cross–Resurrection experiencing ourselves as accepted and whole. Ultimately, the concept of the imago Dei is an eschatological one. It is our God-given destiny, and as such the implications for our understanding of ethics, relationships, and the church, indeed all of life, are enormous.

Forsyth’s Moral Humanity

Human beings, says Forsyth, ‘were made with a moral nature for supremely moral issues’. To deny or disguise this with some kind of Hegelian idealism, or to seek to explore this reality within the scope of empirical science, is to fraud human nature as it truly is and to rob human persons of obligation, responsibility, and freedom of soul, which is ‘the real spring of human progress and the real condition of glory’, and to give them over to ‘the vagrancy of the moment’s appetite and the slavery of chance desires.’ To ignore this is not only to live in unreality, ‘severed from the great moral whole which gives [us our] reality’, but is to undermine the whole economy of the human soul and its created freedom, and to cheat faith, even Jesus’ faith, of its ‘one creative, authoritative, life-making, life-giving, life-shaping power.’ That is why ‘the man of mere culture is shut out from the best it is in him to be.’