Karl Barth

Around the traps: under grey skies repatriated

Barth on Mozart

‘… Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis [upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any programme. He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little bits of horn, metal and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying and sometimes in harmony. He made use of instruments ranging from the piano and violin, through the horn and the clarinet, down to the venerable bassoon, with the human voice somewhere among them, having no special claim to distinction yet distinguished for this very reason. He drew music from them all, expressing even human emotions in the service of this music, and not vice versa. He himself was only an ear for this music, and its mediator to other ears. He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfilment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshhold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could’.

— Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 297–99.

Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: An Unofficial Protestant-Catholic Dialogue

The Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and the Thomistic Institute of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, in cooperation with the Karl Barth Society of North America are organising what promises to be a wonderfully stimulating conference, to be held at Princeton. More information is available here.

Around: ‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind/How time has ticked a heaven round the stars’

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Amen.

 

 

Jack Clemo, ‘On the Death of Karl Barth’

He ascended from a lonely crag in winter,
His thunder fading in the Alpine dusk;
And a blizzard was back on the Church,
A convenient cloak, sprinkling harlot and husk –
Back again, after all his labour
To clear the passes, give us access
Once more to the old prophetic tongues,
Peak-heats in which man, time, progress
Are lost in reconciliation
With outcast and angered Deity.

He has not gone silenced in defeat:
The suffocating swirl of heresy
Confirms the law he taught us; we keep the glow,
Knowing the season, the rhythm, the consummation.

Truth predicts the eclipse of truth,
And in that eclipse it condemns man,
Whose self-love with its useful schools of thought,
Its pious camouflage of a God within,
Is always the cause of the shadow, the fall, the burial,
The smug rub of hands
Amid a reek of research.

The cyclic, well-meant smothering
Of the accursed footprints inside man’s frontier;
The militant revival,
Within time and as an unchanged creed,
Of the eternal form and substance of the Word:
This has marked Western history,
Its life’s chief need and counter-need,
From the hour God’s feet shook Jordan.

We touched His crag of paradox
Through our tempestuous leader, now dead,
Who ploughed from Safenwil to show us greatness
In a God lonely, exiled, homeless in our sphere,
Since his footfall breeds guilt, stirs dread
Of a love fire-tongued, cleaving our sin,
Retrieving the soul from racial evolution,
Giving it grace to mortify,
In deeps or shallows, all projections of the divine.

– Jack Clemo, ‘On the Death of Karl Barth’ in The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse (ed. Donald Davie; Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 291–2.

Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth: A Review

Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, by David Gibson. Pp. xiii + 221. London/New York: T&T Clark, 2009, ISBN 9 780567 468741.

In the summer of 1922, the young Karl Barth taught a course on the theology of Calvin. As he struggled to prepare lectures, he immersed himself passionately in Calvin’s thought – even cancelling his other announced course (on the Epistle to the Hebrews) so that he could concentrate solely on the Reformer’s writings. In a letter penned to Eduard Thurneysen that same year, Barth expressed his astonishment at the strangeness and power of what he had discovered: ‘Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately. What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin’. Certainly any project which attempts to bring these two giants into conversation is, to say the least, ambitious; particularly, perhaps, when it comes to their respective doctrines of election.

Unprepared to simply accept various readings of Calvin’s and Barth’s doctrines of election, David Gibson, in a ‘lightly revised version’ (p. xi) of his PhD dissertation completed at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Francis Watson, turns to Calvin’s corpus (particularly to his commentaries and to the Institutes) and to Barth (CD II/2 principally) in order to investigate and then compare their respective articulations of the doctrine, and to enquire about what relationship election has with christology in their projects. Moreover, Gibson is concerned to attend carefully to their exegeses, and to the ‘role of text-reception in theological construction’ (p. 11) in both thinkers. His argument is that ‘the exegetical presentations of Christology and election in Calvin and Barth expose a contrasting set of relationships between these doctrinal loci in each theologian’ (p. 1) and that this differing relationship between the two doctrines flows from and informs two contrasting approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. Gibson helps his readers appreciate how, for both Calvin and Barth, doctrine and exegesis are not tasks to be taken in isolation, but are, rather, united around, in different ways, the subject of their enquiry; namely, Jesus Christ and the caelesti decreto.

Employing and qualifying Richard Muller’s distinction between ‘soteriological christocentrism’ (so Calvin) and ‘principial christocentrism’ (so Barth), Gibson suggests a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – ‘extensive’ and ‘intensive’. A ‘Christologically extensive’ hermeneutic is evident, Gibson contends, when ‘the centre of Christology points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other’. Here christology ‘may influence and shape’ other loci, but christology neither dictates nor controls them. This, Gibson argues, represents Calvin’s christology. Conversely, a ‘Christologically intensive’ hermeneutic describes when ‘the christological centre defines all else within its circumference. Within this circle, Christology draws everything else to itself so that all other doctrinal loci cannot be read in Scripture apart from explicit christological reference’ (p. 15). So Barth, whose intensively christological hermeneutic ‘privileges the name of Jesus Christ in ways which go significantly beyond Calvin’s understanding of how Christology functions in exegesis’ (p. 27).

Gibson traces these two distinctions through Calvin’s and Barth’s approaches to christology, election and hermeneutics, illustrating that while much of the same grammar is employed, and many of the same biblical texts examined, and while their respective exegeses of election exist within ‘christological horizons which show how doctrine itself may be a hermeneutic’ (p. 16), Calvin and Barth often sing in different keys, and at times different songs though with no less exegetical reasoning in either.

In Chapter 2 – ‘Christology and Election’ – Gibson deepens his basic thesis by further sketching the relationship between Christ and election in Calvin’s and Barth’s exegeses. He argues that, while Barth’s position is not as radical as some recent interpreters have claimed, Barth’s understanding of the pre-existent Jesus as the subject of election sponsors two different understandings of election’s trinitarian basis than we see in Calvin. Gibson’s basic point here is that Calvin’s christocentrism emerges as distinctively soteriological while Barth’s is radically principial: ‘Calvin’s theology allows us to speak of Christ and the decree, but Barth’s theology to say that Christ is the decree’ (p. 30).

In Chapter 3, Gibson illustrates his thesis in detail by outlining Calvin’s and Barth’s reading and use of Romans 9–11. He shows that both theologians operate with different understandings of the relationship between covenant and election because of the location that each grants to christology. This leads to two contrasting ideas of Israel’s vocation and relationship to the Church. Moreover, whereas for Barth, Christ himself is the subject of election, and for whose sake Israel’s election occurs, Calvin reads Romans 9–11 as an exposition of the eternal decree in which christology recedes into the background. In other words, christology, for Calvin, is concerned with the economy of salvation rather than, as it is for Barth, with the eternal ground of salvation itself. Gibson concludes the chapter by asserting that ‘whereas for Calvin, Israel is typological of the church, for Barth both Israel and the church are typological of Christ, so that both forms of the community are “initially the two different but then inseparably related aspects of the fulfilment of the one covenant of grace in Christ”. These radically different conceptions of the covenant in Calvin and Barth issue directly from different forms of christocentrism’ (p. 153).

Gibson turns then in the final chapter to survey how christology shapes the way that his two subjects read Scripture. His aim here again is to show how Calvin’s christologically-extensive theology of interpretation explains how he intends election to be read in Scripture, and how this differs from Barth’s christologically-intensive approach. Gibson describes the latter’s reading of election as a ‘hermeneutic of patience and complexity, of interaction between the individual, multi-faceted predestinarian texts and the christological whole of which they are a part’ (p. 192). He also explores how ‘underlying these different hermeneutical approaches are two fundamentally different conceptions of the doctrine of revelation’ (p. 155).

There is much to commend about Gibson’s study: (i) He offers the reader a clear, careful and fair reading of Calvin and Barth on a doctrine that is, in the latter’s words, ‘the sum of the Gospel’ (CD II/2, p. 3); (ii) He is refreshingly appreciative of the ways in which the connections and motifs internal to Barth’s own thought are deeply indebted to the Reformed tradition, and particularly to Calvin: ‘For all his independent and creative genius, Barth’s theology is profoundly catholic, soaked in dialogue and debate with centuries of tradition and modulated with a Reformed accent’ (p. 18); (iii) The comparative reading (in §3) of Romans 9–11 yields much that is fruitful, and superbly illustrates the thesis of the entire volume. But, to my mind, the supreme value of Gibson’s study is (iv) the reminder – and there is little doubt that current Calvin and Barth scholarship needs such! – that at core, both Calvin and Barth are exegetes of Scripture, and that the neglect of the exegetical contours which shape their respective dogmatic projects is ruinous to providing a faithful reading of their corpuses. ‘For both interpreters, Holy Scripture is the quarry from which their dogmatic structure for election is hewn. Repeatedly, in the writings of both theologians, the emphasis on reception – it is in Scripture and not in their own theologizing that election is properly learned – is accompanied with a stress on right reception’ (p. 198). Gibson also addresses a brief word to contemporary Barth scholarship: ‘It is likely that where Barth’s doctrine of election is debated without attention to his practice as an exegete, and specifically to the very question which mattered most to him – “Does it stand in Scripture?” – then a debate occurs within parameters which Barth himself would not have recognized’ (p. 199). Such an approach is to be enthusiastically welcomed.

There are, however, a few less-satisfying aspects of what is otherwise a very valuable study. I will name five: (i) To my mind, Gibson appropriates too uncritically Muller’s reading of Calvin, and those readers less confident that Muller has read Calvin rightly may well be left wondering just how robust Gibson’s argument is; (ii) The focus of Gibson’s treatment of Barth tends to be too narrowly focused on CD II/2 and so neglects to attend to the nuances and developments in Barth’s understanding and articulation of election in other places. This leads at times to a flatter presentation of Barth’s (and of Calvin’s) thought than if greater attention had been paid to the historical and polemical natures of their projects. In Barth’s case, for example, of the way that his ‘principial christocentrism’ serves as protest to post-Kantian theology; (iii) Not a few readers will be disappointed that there is so little engagement with the secondary literature. For example, while Matthias Gockel’s and Suzanne McDonald’s PhD theses on Barth and T.F. Torrance’s study on Calvin’s hermeneutics are less concerned with the detail of biblical exegesis in their subjects than is Gibson, Gockel’s project is quickly dismissed (on p. 26) and any engagement with McDonald’s and Torrance’s work, and the kinds of systematic terrain that they are concerned to explore, is noticeably absent from Gibson’s essay. They would, if handled carefully, inform and strengthen its own foci; (iv) Most readers would no doubt prefer that extended quotations in Latin be accompanied with translation; and (v) Finally, Gibson resists offering any substantial critique or evaluation of his subjects’ method and doctrinal conclusions. Such may have served to draw out in constructive detail some of the places where Calvin and Barth are less than rewarding to us.

These reservations aside, this study deserves a wide reading, and will be of particular interest to Calvin and Barth scholars, to those interested in the development of the theo-logic of the doctrine of election in the Reformed tradition, and to those who are interested in seeing how two of that tradition’s major voices – one early modern and one late modern – read and used the Bible.

On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part VII

In his book, Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life, Michael Jinkins tells of a letter that he received from a young minister. [BTW: I highly recommend Jinkins’ wonderful wee book, Letters to New Pastors]. This young minister recalls how he loves being a pastor, but is struggling to find his way through a long and bitter church conflict. Meanwhile, a variety of routine pastoral crises keep nipping like Chihuahuas at his heels. And, in the midst of all of this, he and his young wife are coping with the wondrous and life-changing event of the arrival of their first baby. The letter went on to highlight that his life had become so off kilter that he had almost completely lost the joy he knew when he entered the ministry. Jinkins’ response was to recall that ‘learning to live a balanced life is never easy, and even joyful events can sometimes contribute to life’s crises. But finding balance in the life of ministry – and this includes the preparation for ministry – is one of the greatest challenges of this vocation’. Jinkins cites Calvin’s view that ultimately it is our calling that sustains us in ministry. ‘But sometimes it is hard to sort through the accumulation of life’s debris, the flotsam and jetsam that move with every new tide’.

Jinkins then turns to Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, impressed as he is with the wisdom, sensitivity and humanity evidenced in the Roman Stoic philosopher’s Epistulae morales ad Lucilium. Reflecting on Seneca’s Letters, Jinkins writes:

‘Too often, it seems to me, Christians fail to treasure the fact that we are human … Maybe the reason we lose our balance in the first place is related to the fact that we under-appreciate our humanity, that we as Christians forget that we are human. We treat our bodies with contempt. We ignore our limitations. We indulge in the self-destructive myth of our own indispensability. And we violate the sacred principle of Sabbath. Then we go to our physicians or our therapists or our pharmacists asking them to calm the symptoms of the illnesses we have induced, without any intention of dealing with the underlying causes’. (p. 119)

One of the things that Jinkins proceeds to reflect on concerns the deep relationship between friendship and a thoroughly-human life. And here he again cites Seneca:

‘There are certain people who tell any person they meet things that should only be confided to friends, unburdening themselves of whatever is on their minds into any ear they please. Others again are shy of confiding in their closest friends, and would not even let themselves, if they could help it, into the secrets they keep hidden deep down inside themselves. We should do neither. Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one … Similarly, people who never relax and people who are invariably in a relaxed state merit your disapproval – the former as much as the latter. For a delight in bustling about is not industry – it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia’.

Jinkins appreciates Seneca’s warning us to be ‘attentive to the hidden compulsions that drive us’, and he recounts how the experience of CPE (which I wish was compulsory for all our interns in the PCANZ) was so helpful here. It was in CPE – where he experienced being peeled like an onion – that Jinkins learned that ‘the success of my theological education depended on the success of an even more basic human education, the education which Kierkegaard describes as the curriculum a person “goes through in order to catch up with himself.” Anyone, Kierkegaard writes, “who will not go through this course [of study] is not much helped by being born in the most enlightened age”’. Jinkins continues:

‘The compulsions that lead us to talk when we should be silent and to be silent when we should speak, the compulsions that drive us to inappropriate actions and inappropriate inaction can only be dealt with when we find the courage to name them. Iwas unable to find the courage to name these compulsions and to deal with them until I knew (really knew!) that there is nothing in the world that can separate us from the love of God. The balanced life is a life liberated (or at least on the road to being liberated) from the unseen, unexamined compulsions and hidden forces that toss and turn us. Seneca understood the dangers of those inner forces and compulsions, although we have a real advantage over him in that we know something about God’s grace that can liberate us from them. Seneca also understood the importance of friendship for living a balanced life. C.S. Lewis in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves called friendship “the greatest of worldly goods.” Lewis told his friend, “Certainly to me [friendship] is the chief happiness of life. If I had to give a piece of advice to a young [person] about a place to live, I think I should say, ‘sacrifice almost everything to live where you can be near your friends”’.

The calling to pastoral ministry can and often does separate us geographically – and sometimes in other ways too – from those we love. But we need friends. I remember Geoffrey Bingham once commenting that pastors are expected to be friends to all, but few have any friends of their own. Might it be that one of the main contributors to clergy burnout is a paucity of friends? Effective pastoral ministry is impossible apart from friendship precisely because human flourishing is impossible apart from friendship. Only non-human pastors can go it alone, those particularly uninterested in being associated with the imago dei in creation.

While doing some study recently on 2 Timothy, I was struck by the depth of affection in Paul (or the author) for Timothy, who he remembers ‘constantly in [his] prayers night and day’ (1.3). Recalling Timothy’s tears, Paul writes of longing to see Timothy in order to be ‘filled with joy’ (1.4). Paul is concerned that Timothy may be embarrassed by his current state in prison and invites Timothy to join with him in ‘suffering for the gospel’ (1.8). Paul also notes with pain the abandonment of those in Asia who turned away from him (naming Phygelus and Hermogenes), and with thanksgiving the ‘household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain’, recalling that ‘when Onesiphorus arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched’ for Paul and found him (1.15–17). Throughout the letter, Paul proceeds to encourage Timothy to stay steadfast to the truth of the gospel, to ‘proclaim the message with persistence whether the time is favourable or unfavourable’ (4.2), and to resist the temptation to abandon the ministry of the word, reminding him that such a determination will come at cost, and that ‘all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (3.12). It strikes me that this is the tone of a true friend and fellow worker. The letter closes with Paul’s personal appeal to Timothy to ‘do your best to come to me soon’ (4.9), ‘do your best to come before winter’ (4.21), and not only come yourself but also bring Mark along as well (4.11). Moreover, ‘when you come’, Paul writes, ‘bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments’ (4.13). I repeat: Effective pastoral ministry is impossible apart from friendship (and possibly parchments!).

While reading 2 Timothy, I remembered Barth’s comments in the Preface to Church Dogmatics III/4 where he expresses gratitude for ‘so much understanding and confidence, comfort and encouragement, friendship and co-operation, from so many people … both near and in many distant places (even in Germany, with a fidelity which I find very moving) … [who] in writing, in print, by telegraph and over the air .. moved, shamed and delighted’ him (pp. xiii–xiv). And later on in the same volume, he writes of the real honour of friendship, the koinonia in the ministry entrusted by God, reminding us that friendship is a gift of our union in the one Mediator Jesus Christ:

‘It is in service that two men learn to know and respect one another, not by simply observing or thinking about one other, or even by living with one another, however great their concord or even friendship, in indolence or caprice, self-will or arrogance. So long as it depends on these factors, they can only underestimate or overestimate one another and miss the real honour which they both have, since each can only miss his own honour. Mere companions and comrades cannot appreciate either their own honour or that of the other. The honour of two men is disclosed and will be apparent to both when they meet each other in the knowledge that they are both claimed, not by and for something of their own and therefore incidental and non-essential, but for and by the service which God has laid upon them. This alone is the school of true self-estimation and mutual respect. But it really is this’. (CD III/4, 659)

But Barth also warns of the danger of making an idol out of friendship. Only in Christ is friendship free from the tyrannies of idolatry, and the consequent pain birthed when the idols topple, as is inevitable. In the anxieties that attend the condition called ‘being human’, Barth suggests, in CD IV/2, that such anxiety relates firstly to our ‘ignorance of God’, our ‘unwillingness to honour and love [God] as God’ (p. 475), to be, as he writes elsewhere, ‘friends of God’ (‘Our truth is our being in the Son of God, in whom we are not enemies but friends of God …’. CD II/2, 158; cf. CD II/2, 344, 745; CD III/3, 285–87; CD III/4, 40, 503, 576; CD IV/1, 251, 432). He continues:

‘In his anxious care man has secured and bolted himself against God from the very outset. He thinks that he can and should deal with God as if He were not God but a schema or shadow which he has projected on the wall. Is it not inevitable, then, that he should not have hearing ears or seeing eyes for His self-revelation? How can he believe in Him and love Him and hope in Him and pray to Him, however earnestly he may be told, or tell himself, that it is good and right to do this, and however sincerely he may wish to do so? In his care he blocks up what is for him too open access to the fountain which flows for him. Care makes a man stupid.

But when we turn to the horizontal plane care also destroys human fellowship. It does this in virtue of the unreality of its object. The ghost of the threat of a death without hope has no power to unite and gather. It is not for nothing that it is the product of the man who isolates himself from God. As such it necessarily isolates him from his fellow-men. It not only does not gather us but disperses and scatters us. It represents itself to each one in an individual character corresponding to the burrow from which he looks to the future and seeks to grasp its opportunities and ward off its dangers. Care does not unite us. It tears us apart with centrifugal force. We can and will make constant appeals to the solidarity of care, and constant attempts to organise anxious men, reducing their fears and desires to common denominators and co-ordinating their effects. But two or three or even millions of grains of sand, however tightly they may be momentarily compressed, can never make a rock. Anxious man is a mere grain of sand. Each individual has his own cares which others cannot share with him and which do not yield to any companionship or friendship or fellowship or union or brotherhood, however soundly established. By his very nature he is isolated and lonely at heart and therefore in all that he does or does not do. Even in society with others he secretly cherishes his own fears and desires. His decisive expectation from others is that they will help him against the threat under which he thinks he stands. And it is just the same with them too. Cares can never be organised and co-ordinated in such a way as to avoid mutual disappointment and distrust and final dissolution. And behind disappointment and distrust there lurks, ready to spring, the hostility and enmity and conflict of those who are anxious. It is a rare accident if different cares, although not really uniting, do at least run parallel and thus do not lead to strife. For the most part, however, they do not run parallel for long, but soon intersect. And, unfortunately, they do not do so in infinity, but in the very concrete encounters of those who are anxious. What is thought to be the greater anxiety of the one demands precedence over what is supposed to be the lesser anxiety of the other. The desires of the one can be fulfilled only at the expense of the desires of the other. Or the intersection is because they fear very different things, or – even worse – because the one desires what the other fears, or the one fears most of all what the other desires most of all. It is only a short step from a fatal neutrality to the even more fatal rivalry of different cares and those who are afflicted by them. If care itself remains – and it always does, constantly renewing itself from the source of the false opinion of human temporality – we find ourselves willy-nilly on this way in our mutual relationships, and we have no option but to tread it. There can be no genuine fellowship of man with man. There can only be friction and quarrelling and conflict and war. Care dissolves and destroys and atomises human society. In its shadow there can never arise a calm and stable and positive relationship to our fellow and neighbour and brother. It awakens the inhuman element within us’. (pp. 476–77)

So one is a friend when they have ‘the freedom, the ability, to be spontaneously good to another – a voluntary friend of God and therefore of [others]. As such [a person] does not do anything alien or accidental. [One] is not “friendly” amongst other things – casually – when [one] gives [themselves] to God and [to their brother or sister. One] does that which is most proper to him [or her. One] loves in doing it’ (CD IV/2, 833).

To return to Jinkins: Jinkins rightly notes that ‘friends keep us in balance. Friends keep us from taking ourselves too seriously. Often a friend’s laughter is a signpost pointing to our own absurdity, turning the light of grace on a fault so we can correct it. A friend may be the only person who loves you enough to read your sermon manuscript for the next week and tell you: “I know how you feel; but you shouldn’t say that in your sermon.” Or, “I agree with you and I’d be angry too; but don’t mail that letter.” Or, “I understand why you feel the way you do; but for God’s sake don’t do this.” On the high wire of life and Christian ministry, there are times when the net below us is unsure and the wire on which we balance has become frayed. Sometimes the only thing that we have to steady ourselves is a friend’s voice. The words may be spoken in reproof or in comfort. But if you know they are spoken in friendship, they may just save you from yourself’.

In a follow up letter to his son Jeremy, Jinkins again picks up on Seneca and the so-called ‘balanced life’, noting that ‘the life to which we are called in Jesus Christ is not necessarily a balanced life. The Christian life (and this extends to the life of Christian ministry) is, in a way, a profoundly unbalanced life. The Christian life is not simply the life of moderation described by Seneca the Stoic. The Christian life is a life of holy excess – not fanaticism, but excess nonetheless’. To illustrate, he cites from a diary that Reinhold Niebuhr kept as a young pastor (published as Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic) wherein Niebuhr wrote of himself:

‘I am not really a Christian … I am too cautious to be a Christian. I can justify my caution, but so can the other fellow who is more cautious than I am. The whole Christian adventure is frustrated continually not so much by malice as by cowardice and reasonableness … A reasonable person adjusts his moral goal somewhere between Christ and Aristotle, between an ethic of love and an ethic of moderation. I hope there is more of Christ than of Aristotle in my position. But I would not be too sure of it’.

And later in this same diary, Niebuhr says: ‘It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. I have said what I believe, but in my creed the divine madness of a gospel of love is qualified by considerations of moderation which I have called Aristotelian, but which an unfriendly critic might call opportunistic’.

Most of us, I suspect, operate how Jinkins describes himself: as benefiting greatly from our reading of the Stoics, but preferring to dine with the Epicureans. Or what is probably more accurate is that we live in a tension between ‘the good life’ as defined by the ancient Greek philosophers and ‘the call of Jesus Christ’ to take up our cross and follow him. ‘There is indeed something of a “divine madness” about the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is an outlandish, outrageous, insane extravagance about God’s mercy that acts without reservation and without the expectation of getting anything in return. But it is precisely in this holy madness that God reveals his own humanity, and shares it with us’ (p. 125).

I plan to return to this question of friendships in a latter post. But for now, it’s time to re-read 2 Corinthians, … and Dostoevsky, … and MacKinnon …

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Other posts in this series:

‘Joy is the serious business of Heaven’

This morning I was at St Margaret’s in Frankton (part of the Wakatipu Community parish) where I met some wonderful folk, resisted going fishing, and preached on Luke 15:1–10. The sermon was partly inspired by these words on joy by CS Lewis, and those of Karl Barth on the miracle of the love of God:

‘I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?: No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven’. – CS Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Collins, 1977), 94–5.

‘God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of darkness. In His revelation it seeks and creates fellowship where there is no fellowship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … This does not mean that we can call the love of God a blind love. But what He sees when He loves is that which is altogether distinct from Himself, and as such lost in itself, and without Him abandoned to death. That He throws a bridge out from Himself to this abandoned one, that He is light in the darkness, is the miracle of the almighty love of God’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 278.

Here’s how I concluded:

If these two parables teach us anything at all about repentance, it is that the whole of our life is ‘finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other’ [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, 39]. The Gospel is the announcement that God finds us not in the garden of improvement but in the desert of death. It’s precisely from death that we are brought home. And these parables are about coming home. They speak to us about the nature of lostness, and about the necessity of experiencing lostness if we are to experience homecoming. ‘Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home’ [Marilynne Robinson, Home, 102]. So they teach us something about the nature of God.

They also give us a hint … of what history is about: that history is the time that God creates in order to find and to restore the lost. And, finally, these parables give us a hint about how that time will end, offering us every hope to believe that our stories do not end at the grave. Even hell is no obstacle, for this is a God who, in Jesus Christ, comes not only into the far country in search of us, but who also descends into the very depths of hell in order to carry us home. This is the God of relentless grace – the Hound of Heaven – and it is he and not death or any human decision who will decide how history ends. This is what it means to call God the judge of the living and the dead. Like the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34 who searches for the lost and rescues them from all the places where they are scattered, Jesus’ work is not done until all come home. He keeps seeking the lost, even in the grave. He seeks those who have refused his love. He seeks those who have abandoned his love. He seeks those who have never known of his love. He seeks those for whom life has ended prematurely. In Christ, there is no such thing as empty time, or ‘dead’ time, for all time is filled with Christ’s lordship over the living and the dead, and filled with experience of the Spirit who is the giver of life …

And here in Luke 15 we are given a picture of the nature of God, an insight into the purpose of history, and, I believe, a glimpse of how history ends, of how your life ends and my life ends – of how the lives of those we love and of those who have made life hell for us, will end – with celebration, with a banquet, with the extravagant joy with which God welcomes the found and eats with them, … with homecoming.

Karl Barth on Twitter

Now here’s an email I don’t get every day:

He walks with me and tweets with me
Along life’s narrow way.
He lives, He lives, Salvation to impart!

If you’re interested in following Uncle Karl, you can find him here.

Barth on the being and knowledge of God

Who was it that said recently that a day without reading something from Uncle Karl is a day wasted, or something to that effect? Well today, a friend of mine reminded me of this interesting passage (not least in light of the fruitful discussion that arose from my post on Ten (Draft) Propositions on the Missionary Nature of the Church) from Uncle Karl (CD §28), who, at least on my reading, properly refuses to collapse epistemology and ontology:

‘When we ask questions about God’s being, we cannot in fact leave the sphere of His action and working as it is revealed to us in His Word. God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. Yet in Himself He is not another than He is in His works. In the light of what He is in His works it is no longer an open question what He is in Himself. In Himself He cannot, perhaps, be someone or something quite other, or perhaps nothing at all. But in His works He is Himself revealed as the One He is. It is, therefore, right that in the development and explanation of the statement that God is we have always to keep exclusively to His works (as they come to pass, or become visible as such in the act of revelation)—not only because we cannot elsewhere understand God and who God is, but also because, even if we could understand Him elsewhere, we should understand Him only as the One He is in His works, because He is this One and no other. We can and must ask about the being of God because as the Subject of His works God is so decisively characteristic for their nature and understanding that without this Subject they would be something quite different from what they are in accordance with God’s Word, and on the basis of the Word of God we can necessarily recognise and understand them only together with this their Subject.

At the same time we must be quite clear on the other side, that our subject is God and not being, or being only as the being of God. In connexion with the being of God that is here in question, we are not concerned with a concept of being that is common, neutral and free to choose, but with one which is from the first filled out in a quite definite way. And this concretion cannot take place arbitrarily, but only from the Word of God, as it has already occurred and has been given to us in the Word of God. This means that we cannot discern the being of God in any other way than by looking where God Himself gives us Himself to see, and therefore by looking at His works, at this relation and attitude—in the confidence that in these His works we do not have to do with any others, but with His works and therefore with God Himself, with His being as God.

What does it mean to say that “God is”? What or who “is” God? If we want to answer this question legitimately and thoughtfully, we cannot for a moment turn our thoughts anywhere else than to God’s act in His revelation. We cannot for a moment start from anywhere else than from there.

What God is as God, the divine individuality and characteristics, the essentia or “essence” of God, is something which we shall encounter either at the place where God deals with us as Lord and Saviour, or not at all. The act of revelation as such carries with it the fact that God has not withheld Himself from men as true being, but that He has given no less than Himself to men as the overcoming of their need, and light in their darkness—Himself as the Father in His own Son by the Holy Spirit. The act of God’s revelation also carries with it the fact that man, as a sinner who of himself can only take wrong roads, is called back from all his own attempts to answer the question of true being, and is bound to the answer to the question given by God Himself. And finally the act of God’s revelation carries with it the fact that by the Word of God in the Holy Spirit, with no other confidence but this unconquerable confidence, man allows being to the One in whom true being itself seeks and finds, and who meets him here as the source of his life, as comfort and command, as the power over him and over all things.

If we follow the path indicated, our first declaration must be the affirmation that in God’s revelation, which is the content of His Word, we have in fact to do with His act. And first, this means generally—with an event, with a happening. But as such this is an event which is in no sense to be transcended. It is not, therefore, an event which has merely happened and is now a past fact of history. God’s revelation is, of course, this as well. But it is also an event happening in the present, here and now. Again, it is not this in such a way that it exhausts itself in the momentary movement from the past to the present, that is, in our to-day. But it is also an event that took place once for all, and an accomplished fact. And it is also future—the event which lies completely and wholly in front of us, which has not yet happened, but which simply comes upon us. Again, this happens without detriment to its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity. On the contrary, it is in its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity that it is truly future. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday and to-day and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). This is something which cannot be transcended or surpassed or dispensed with. What is concerned is always the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, always His justification of faith, always His lordship in the Church, always His coming again, and therefore Himself as our hope. We can only abandon revelation, and with it God’s Word, if we are to dispense with it. With it we stand, no, we move necessarily in the circle of its event or, in biblical terms, in the circle of the life of the people of Israel. And in this very event God is who He is. God is He who in this event is subject, predicate and object; the revealer, the act of revelation, the revealed; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the Lord active in this event. We say “active” in this event, and therefore for our salvation and for His glory, but in any case active. Seeking and finding God in His revelation, we cannot escape the action of God for a God who is not active. This is not only because we ourselves cannot, but because there is no surpassing or bypassing at all of the divine action, because a transcendence of His action is nonsense. We are dealing with the being of God: but with regard to the being of God, the word “event” or “act” is final, and cannot be surpassed or compromised. To its very deepest depths God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event—not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action, in which we have a share in God’s revelation.

The definition that we must use as a starting-point is that God’s being is life. Only the Living is God. Only the voice of the Living is God’s voice. Only the work of the Living is God’s work; only the worship and fellowship of the Living is God’s worship and fellowship. So, too, only the knowledge of the Living is knowledge of God’.

– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 260–3.

So if you’ve read this far you can now sleep tonight in the full knowledge that your day wasn’t a complete waste of time. Certainy mine wasn’t: I drank gallons of Milo, finished marking a ute-load of assignments, and read some Barth. Oh, and we also decided on a school for our daughter, or at least I think we did!

‘The bodice of my new costume caught on the handlebar …’

Around: ‘Love seeketh not itself to please’

‘The Clod and the Pebble’

‘Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.’

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

‘Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.’

Lectures by T.F. Torrance, Interview with Trevor Hart

Grace Communion International have made available for download T.F. Torrance’s lectures on the Ground And Grammar Of Theology. These were given in 1981 at Fuller Theological Seminary.

They have also uploaded a recent interview with Dr. Trevor Hart, in which Trevor (who was my Doktorvater) talks with characteristic clarity about the theology of Karl Barth, and about the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

You can watch the interview here.

Reading Genesis 1:2

A guest post by Rev. Dr John Emory McKenna. [John, a student of TF Torrance, serves as a Doctrinal Advisor to the Worldwide Church of God in California, as Professor & Vice-President at the World Mission University in Los Angeles, and as Adjunct Professor with Haggard Graduate School of Theology. He has published The Setting in Life for The Arbiter of John Philoponus, 6th Century Alexandrian Scientist and The Great AMEN of the Great I-AM: God in Covenant with His People in His Creation]

About Genesis 1:2, Karl Barth has written, “This verse has always constituted a particular crux interpretum – one of the most difficult in the whole Bible – and it is no small comfort to learn from Gunkel that it is a ‘veritable mythological treasure chamber.’”[1] After a rather thorough examination and analysis of the history of the exegesis this verse, the great Swiss theologian concluded in a fine print section of his reading, “Our only option is to consider v.2 as a portrait, deliberately taken from myth, as the world which according to His revelation was negated, rejected, ignored and left behind in His actual creation.”[2] Barth develops his understanding of ‘Das Nichtige’ (‘The Nothingness’), as belonging to the mystery of evil in the Biblical world, a world he reminds us that is very different from the one with which we are already only too familiar. The ‘chaos (תהו) and emptiness (בהו), ‘darkness’ (חשך) and ‘deep’ (תהום) of the ‘waters’ (מים) over which the Spirit of God ‘broods’ (מרחפת) in Genesis 1:2 are terms, then, that belong to the myths and idols of those views of the world that exists outside of God’s Revelation of His ‘Very Good’ Creation. Genesis 1:2 belongs to a confession, in common with the various ‘creation epics’ found among the nations of the Ancient Near East, that contradicts the perfection inherent to the Creation Week according Israel’s view of the world.[3]

In this post, I will argue that Barth’s understanding of the significance of Genesis 1:2 and his assertion that ‘Das Nichtige’ of Israel’s Creation Theory is only a partial grasp of the intent and purpose of the author of the confession of the Creation Week. I would argue that Barth’s grasp of the meaning of Genesis 1:2, achieved in the context of a general consensus accomplished by modern or post-modern methods of historical-critical methods of interpretation applied to Genesis, is only a partial understanding of the purpose of the significance of the confession. I will argue that, for suppositional reasons, the modern mind has become more comfortable with reading the creation out of chaos of v. 2 as the intent of the confession, when we tend to disregard the implication of doctrine of creatio ex nihilo found within the Judeo-Christian tradition of interpretation.[4] The willingness to divorce our understanding of chaos, emptiness, darkness, and the deep of the waters, over which the Spirit of God is said to ‘brood’, is the willingness of modern Biblical Theologians to remain separated from the meaning of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo of v. 1, a meaning with which the early fathers of the Church steadily wrestled.[5] We will argue that the preference for reading the concept of ‘creation out of something’, without a confession of the ‘creation out of nothing’ doctrine, perpetuates a fragmentation in our understanding of the meaning of ‘Day One’ in the Creation Week inherent in the confession of Israel’s Moses, the great prophet of her history among the nations. We need to recover the interpretation of the early fathers of the Church and obtain a fresh grasp of the theological wholeness of the confession in our time our theology and its relationship with science.

The confession of the Creation Week possesses, from beginning to end, a wholeness the polemical power of which is purposed to call Israel among the nations in God’s Creation away from her idols and myths about the gods and the world. It posits a background whereby the other creation epics prevalent in the Ancient Near East are denied their claims to the reality of the world, of mankind, and of God. It would transform any language into that service that is true to the intention and purpose of the Voice Moses heard in the Burning Bush and in the events of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. ‘The Beginning’ according to Moses’ claims that no other Voice than this Voice is to heard as the Creator of the world and its mankind. Against all the idol and myth-making among the nations surrounding Israel in the ANE, Israel as the People of God must bear witness to this One, who as the Creator is the Great I-AM and Lord of the world’s redemption. In the face of Moses’ witness as the Prophet in the Ancient World, mankind is to throw away its myths and idols about the world of the gods. This One is the Redeemer-Creator who as the Great I-AM would be known as the One He truly is, the Creator of ‘the Beginning’ in the Beginning.

Genesis 1:2 may not be construed as possessing, in common with the creation epics found and read among the nations in the ANE, a language influenced in its significance by the myths and gods of the ancient peoples, but a language meant to transform their beliefs into the real service of the Revelation that drove Moses to his confession. We will claim that, just as the Exodus of Israel is something new in the history of the world, Moses’ confession of the Creator, based upon the Revelation with him of the Redeemer, is something new in the history of the race’s understanding of the Creation and the Creator. The One of this Revelation is to be known as the true Creator of the heavens and the earth. The One of this Revelation, the Redeemer of Israel among the nations in His Creation, is to be known against the myths of the gods of the ancient peoples. This One is the True Creator who possesses nothing in common with the gods of the ancient worlds, with their cosmogonies, with their interactions with our kind, with the idol-making common to the times. Rather, with this One the reality of the world as God’s Creation is to known in its nature, free from the magic and the superstitions of these peoples. This is the One who is Israel’s Lord and God, the One who redemptive acts with Israel would have His People to know their true Creator. With His acts to deliver Israel from her bondage to Egyptian gods and Egypt’s Pharaoh, wrought through the priestly and prophetic servant of God Moses was called to be, Israel is commanded to understand and to throw away all her gods, her Mesopotamian gods, her Egyptian gods, her Canaanite gods, and so forth, and know Him as the Great I-AM He is. When Moses employs, then, the terms of his confession among the nations in the ancient world, he would transform their meaning and give them a new significance never before heard in the history of the world. We do well, I believe, to hear them on his terms and not our own.

The language of Moses’ confession, then, transforms the terms that may be found in common among the peoples of the nations in the ancient world into meaning that serves the Voice of God in His Beginning of the heavens and the earth and so forth. The Voice that spoke with him from the flames of the Burning Bush at Horeb is the Voice that speaks in the Creation Week. The events of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt all belong to this Voice. This is the Voice Moses learns to confess as the Creator with His Creation. To Israel with this Voice is given the knowledge that her Redeemer is none other than the Creator of the Creation. Moses’ confession is purposed to serve this Voice with an intention that belongs to the redemption of Israel in the Exodus and the knowledge of her Lord and God, the Creator of the Beginning. This is the One Lord God Israel must hear and follow. This is the Voice of the Great I-AM the One Lord God is. This is the Creator of the holy ground on which Moses stands at Horeb and on which Israel must always stand. This is the Creator. His Beginning is the Beginning confessed against all idols and idol-making about the gods of the world. This is the Lord God of space, time, and all things that exist as created realities. The power of Moses’ polemic ought never be allowed to escape our attention. It belongs to what is universal. It belongs to what is particular. It belongs to what mankind is under the heavens and upon the earth as rooted in this Self-Revelation of the Great I-AM the Lord God is with Moses, His Servant. The confession of the formation of ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week belongs to this Revelation. It is with this Beginning that Moses knows the ‘Very Good’ orders of the Creation Week, blessed by God. It is in the light of the Great I-AM the Redeemer is with His People among the nations that Israel can confess the Creator and His Creation.[6]

Israel’s history among the nations in God’s Creation then possesses a prophetic and priestly power we need to learn to grasp. Israel is made to bear witness to her Redeemer, Her Deliverer, as the Creator, who is none other than this Great I-AM that sent Moses for His People to Egypt. This One and no other ‘one’ delivers her from her bondage to her idols among the nations. No other One than this One gave her the Torah and Tabernacle of her history. No other One than this One freed her to serve Him as His Witness among the nations. This is the One and Only One, against all idols and idol-making, Israel must serve in her time and times in the world. The whole history of the Creation, Moses affirms, belongs to the priestly and prophetic power of Israel’s witness to this Creator and this Creation. Thus, the significance of the use of the Names, Lord and God, that Israel employs in her history, is to be found with the Voice of the Great I-AM. He is the One with her in His covenanted relationship for her in the world that gives meaning to her history and her language. We need steadily to hear the polemical nature of the argument of Moses’ confession from its beginning to its vision for her future in the world. We would argue that Moses’ confession of the Beginning is to be read, against all the idols and idol-making and mythologizing with the cosmogonies of the ancient peoples recorded throughout the ANE, is made with Israel’s priestly and prophetic service against these views of the world among the nations because it is rooted in the Self-Revealing and Self-Naming of the Great I-AM this Lord and God is for Israel and her history among the nations. It is the power of this redemption and its judgment that is also the history of the Redeemer-Creator of the whole world. When we will not to understand this ‘Beginning’, created out of nothing by this Creator and no other, we will not to understand the Divine Freedom and Sovereign Authority that commanded Moses with the People of God in the
Revelation to which the whole of the Bible is witness. When we will to understand Moses’ Confession in the service of this Revelation, we will to understand the heavens and the earth as home for mankind, created in the Image of God, the space and time that belongs holily to the real ‘Beginning’ begun in the Beginning by this One and no other ‘one’.

Moses confession thus demythologizes the ancient views of gods, men, and the nature of the world. The race is to be freed from the grip the caprice of these gods and their mythical places. Men are no longer to seek to appease with magic rituals and moralizing sacrifices pantheons of these deities. The superstitions of times past are not to shape and form the civilizations of the future. God, the Lord, has judged these gods as no-gods. They are less or worse than nothing. They belong to the wastelands of time and times past in the time of world history. In the light of Israel’s Exodus from the Egyptian pantheon, then, walks with Israel, as He did once upon a time in Paradise, the Creator God, known as the Lord, who would convert all peoples from the mythologies of their gods and cults to the freedom whose truth rests in the Great I-AM He truly is for them, a new found freedom made firm in the light of the Voice of the Great I-AM with Moses, the Servant of God. He is endowed with priestly and prophetic power for Israel’s freedom from her bondage to the idols and for her Redeemer-Creator, the One Creator of the heavens and the earth and their mankind as the Creation.

The Beginning’ of Moses’ Confession is to be understood, hand in glove then, as embracing the significance of Genesis 1:2, within the orders of the Creation established as the ‘First Day’ of the Creation Week in the life of Israel as the People of God among the nations. The whole of Week is blessed as ‘Very Good’ and a finished work with a polemical nature, then, we cannot allow to escape our attention. The gods and the myths of the nations are not ‘true’ about the Lord God of the Beginning of the World and its Mankind. The power of the ‘brooding’ (מרחפת) of God’s Spirit in v.2, interacting with ‘the Nothingness’ of the Creation in this ‘Beginning’, is to resonate with the whole of the blessed and very good Creation. Our understanding of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo with His act in this ‘Beginning’ (ברא) as the God and Lord He is must be accomplished within the orders of this wholeness. We are invited to read the ‘speaking’ of God in verse 3 in resonance with ‘the Nothingness’ of v. 2. and the ‘brooding’ in concert with verses 4 and 5 and the formation of ‘Day One’ of this Week. Genesis 1:1 is thus meant to entail all the acts of the Creator in the Creation Week. We are invited to listen in on an account of the harmony of the ‘Days’ from the Beginning to the Blessed finish of the work of Creation. Without this concert, we will miss the beauty of the Week, its polemical intention and it purpose as background for Moses’ confession about the ten generations that are told as the Book of Genesis in Moses’ service to the Great I-AM. We purpose that we are meant to hear as listeners a symphony intended to move the hearts of the People of God about what is true and beautiful about the Beginning of a world that is indeed to be seen as ‘Very Good’ with its Mankind and its fall from the One He truly is.

We need to seek to understand the wholeness of all the particular actions from the Beginning to the ‘Day One’ of verses 1–5 then. These are acts that together shape a harmony of action that makes ‘Day One’ what it actually is in the confession. They are the acts of the One who is the Redeemer-Creator of the Self-Revelation Moses experienced at the Burning Bush, at Sinai, and so forth, for Israel, as the priestly-prophet-servant of the Lord God he became for Israel among the nations in God’s Creation. It is this Revelation that stands as the origin of the power to create something new in world history, a new event in the space of the world this comes against all the idols and idol-making and myth-making that belong to mankind’s gods and its past times in the history of the world. It is the power of this Day from this Beginning to which Israel’s faith belongs in this world. It is truly something new, a beginning like no other beginning ever found on the mind of the human race in its past with its gods. It is this ‘the Beginning’ that is not any other kind of beginning. It is the Beginning not out of a war against chaos but out of nothing with a freedom then that with transcendent power transforms out of the something that chaos and emptiness is into what is the will of the Hand of God. Here is the place where God has chosen to speak into existence the orders of His light. Out of nothing and out of this something the First Day of the Creation Week, from the Beginning is given existence. When we read Genesis 1 with a sense of this wholeness, I believe we may and we must interpret v.2 in a resonance with the whole of in the ‘Very Good’ Creation, the blessed and finished work of the God who is the true Creator of the world (Genesis 2:1–3) against all other views about Him.

Barth found among scholars both ready support and opposition to his position on v. 2. We may survey their interpretations in Bernard W. Anderson’s collection of essays about God’s Creation from eight Old Testament scholars.[7] Hermann Gunkel thought that the chaos and so forth of v.2 ‘belongs to mythology and cannot be viewed as the invention of an author, least of all the person of P’.[8] Gerhard von Rad believed[9] that the Creation, as read in conjunction with texts in the Old Testament other than Genesis 1, was written under the influence of Egyptian Wisdom, when Israel is dependent upon such Wisdom for her grasp of the skills for success in life.[10] Then the Jesuit Father, Dennis McCarthy, suggests that we ask the wrong question when we think to contend that Genesis 1 means to teach us the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.[11] The text is concerned with what German scholars have named Chaoskampf, a ‘war on chaos’. The Creator is thought to be a warrior at war with the ‘chaos’ and ‘emptiness’ that belongs to the ‘dark depths of the primeval ‘waters’, thus easily compared to what we read across the mythologies about the Creation among the nations. Westermann argues that Genesis 1:1–2:4a reflects a composition whose long history shows us a steady struggle and evolution of understanding of the myths and legends about the world. The lasting value of the texts in time and times are a result of this long evolution in our understanding of the nature of the world. In this sense, we may interpret the developments in the history of the cosmologies of the Western World, the Ptolemaic Cosmology of the Middles Age, the Newtonian ‘System of the World of the Age of the Enlightenment, and even Einstein’s Universe of Light as all related to the concerns of the confession Genesis 1 is.[12] Reminding his readers that the confession must possess in this way some eschatological significance, H.H. Schmidt believes that the ‘righteousness’ of the Creator must be implied in the significance of Creation texts. Moral law and natural law must possess similar values, even though they are difficult to heard as one law.[13] Working with the assumptions made by both Zimmerli and von Rad about the relationship between redemptions and creation, H.J. Hermission is yet unable to understand that the chaos and emptiness and so forth of Genesis 1:2 can be a part of what Creation is. Creation is still conceived as something done perfectly from ‘the Beginning’, without any chaos or emptiness and so forth belonging to its nature.[14] All of these scholars affirm with Anderson that the Chaoskampf , the war in this ‘Beginning’ is against the chaos and emptiness of v.2. The consensus is that Genesis 1:2 signifies some condition of pre-creation that is contrary to the Creation, when the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo does not obtain in the confession of the Week.[15]

Only Walter Eichrodt[16] and G.M. Landes[17] wanted to argue for the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo as obtaining in our exegesis of Genesis 1:1–3. Landes wrote concerning v.2 that ‘At the beginning of its creation, the earth is empty, enclosed by waters in total darkness. But when God’s Spirit moved over the waters to separate them, the earth can be born, so to speak, i.e. it can emerge from its primordial darkness into the light of time, its surrounding waters filled with plants, animals, and humanity.’[18] But with all of this interpretation of ‘Day One’, we find the study of R.C. Clements, investigating the covenant relationship from Abraham to David in Israel’s long history among the nations, without mention of Genesis 1. The Pentateuch is thus read without a grasp of the wholeness between Creation and Redemption, between Creator and Redeemer, as Israel’s covenanted witness to the Lord God of the Revelation in the histories of the nations in the world. The Witness of the Bible to this Revelation with Moses may become lost upon our understanding of its relations with us.[19] It is little wonder that Karl Barth, with his rejection of ‘natural theology’, can conceive that no antecedent conceptual system may provide a framework for interpreting the texts and he must be free to exegete them from any particular cosmological development we might experience from the history of science in our civilization. His opposition to the German Church’s association with Hitler and the Nazi Socialism at the heart of World War II could certainly provide the need for his argument against the spell of the consensus on v.2 on modern understanding of the confession of the Beginning according to Moses in the light of the Incarnation.[20]

After observing the various possible interpretations of v.2 in his time, Barth read with Augustine and Luther, and decided with Zimmerli on the ‘rudiments’ of the verse. He concludes that it possesses no positive connection with v.1.[21] He then contends for the position that v.2 belongs to a past that was never the will of God, a time the Creator never intended to fashion. The tohu and bhohu, ‘chaos and emptiness or the ‘unformed and unsubstantiated’, mean to point as a whole the reader to the ‘rudimentary’condition of the Creation that existed outside of the will of the Spirit of God, when the Spirit ‘…is not known in His reality and therefore hovers and broods over it impotently or wordlessly.’[22] The ‘speaking’ of the Word of God against this primeval condition does what the Spirit could not do. It posits an order of time and times of the ‘light’ that belongs to the ‘speaking’ of God. The argument then follows the views of the ‘Priestly Writer’, in some relationship with the ‘Yahwist’, and the prophets of Israel who contend for the creation of ‘things’ as perfectly good, over which the Spirit of God once brooded so impotently. Genesis 1:2 are the ‘old things’, ‘the things that have passed away’, and according to 2 Corinthians 5:17, ‘the things’ that must vanish in created time and times. Such ‘rudimentary things’ belong to a past that has been superseded, when evil has been rooted out of the Creation, by the time of light in the world’s order.[23] Therefore, Genesis 1:2 posits that which can only be found outside of God’s will for His Creation, even from ‘the Beginning’.[24]

With this position, Barth has thus embraced a very common rendering of the exegesis of the v. 2. In contrast, Brevard Childs, while addressing these same problems, concludes that there was and must be a real connection between v.1 and v.2 and that the ‘brooding’ of the Spirit of God in v.2, the power of God in v.1, and the speaking of God in v.3 must be heard to resonate with one another in some way for any full appreciation of what ‘Day One’ means in the confession. In this way, a full chord of action is struck in ‘the Beginning’ that must be heard with the divine intention and authoritative purpose of a wisdom with which the confession has to do. It is because of this Will and Wisdom that the confession’s polemic against the mythologies of the idol makers of the ancient world may be understood with its prophetic thrust. It is the resonance of this chord that allows the exegete to hear the uniqueness of Moses’ contentions. It is this resonance that allows the interpreter to hear the prophetic power of Moses’ affirmation of the times with Israel. It is this resonance that allows the Great I-AM who is the Lord God of the Revelation in the Exodus of Israel from Egypt to be understood as the Creator of ‘the Beginning’ and the Only One that Israel is commanded to love with all of her heart and strength and might (Deuteronomy 6:4). The One who is the Lord of Israel’s redemption in time and times is none other than the Creator of all the time and times that is ‘the heavens and the earth.[25] The emphatic use of the verb ‘to be’ in v.2, rather than signifying a disconnect with v.1, affirms concretely that the whole of the Creation is, with its particular orders experienced upon ‘the earth’, belong to a universal created and sustained according to the power of the Spirit of God’s embrace with this ‘Beginning’. The primordial condition of the world’s particulars are thus made to wait on the ‘Speaking’ of God and His ‘light’.[26] It is this world, before the time when ‘light’ was spoken into existence, that the clause intends to signify, this world of time past in the formation of the First Day. The verse thus signifies the condition of the earth under the heavens in a span of time that belongs to a duration before the speaking of God occurred and before the purpose of light gave the order of this time upon the earth in God’s Creation. The emphatic use of the verb ‘to be’ signifies the dynamical nature of the relationship between God, His Spirit, and His Speaking in the Beginning, when the divine actions of creating, brooding, and speaking all, each in their own ways, shape the cause of a world that is meant to be a home for mankind.

The ‘dark’ continues to exposit, then, this signification of the ‘chaos and emptiness’. Childs can consider its meaning as closely related to what death is, opposed to the ‘light’ and the life of the world. But for Childs, the ‘deep’ (תהום) belongs to the primordial waters in relationship to the Spirit of God possesses both negative and positive power (Deuteronomy 32:11). This is no ‘wind’ of God but real power that, when resonated with the meaning of ‘create’ (‘bara’, ברא), removes the confession from comparative into polemical relations with the myths of the gods and the cosmogonies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and so forth. For Childs, the confession is to be read as the kind of transformed language I have already discussed. The ‘theogonies’ of the polytheism of the ancient peoples found in the history of the Ancient Near East world are to be transformed into serves of the Revelation and Prophecy of the Lord God with Israel among them.

Yet Childs embraces the notion that a ‘Priestly Writer’ from the post-exilic period in Israel’s history, as the compiler of the Genesis 1, and the ‘Yahwist’ of the Monarchial period are correlated to form two accounts of the Creation far after the time and times of Moses, with all the questions about their intentions and purposes with us to this day. Childs can finally write about the two accounts: Both accounts (P= 1:1–2:4a, J=2:4b–25) begin according to an ancient convention by describing the effects of creation in contrast to a condition which prevailed previously (1:2, 2:5–6),[27] leaving ambiguous any resolution to the problems of myth, reality, and Israel’s confession of the Creation.[28]

Among the more conservative exegetes of v.2 we continue to read a level of understanding that does not reach into the real significance of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. While not identifying v.2 with the mythologies found among the polytheists of the Ancient Near East and while understanding the terms of the verse to speak of the actual Creation in ‘the Beginning’ as not in contradiction with v.1, Bruce Waltke, a conservative scholar about the methods of the historical-critical schools of interpretation, makes no mention of ‘creation out of nothing’ as significant to the confession and the stories of its generations.[29] The Jerusalem Bible can still translate v.2: ‘And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was on the surface of the deep. And a wind of God moved over the surface of the waters.’ We remain, left and right, a long way from taking seriously the Judeo-Christian tradition of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in ‘the Beginning’, according to the divine words of Moses’ priestly-prophetic-polemical confession of Israel’s past and present and future among the nations of the Creation that is the work of the Great I-AM the Lord God is His People in the world.

Yet when we read some older exegetes on v.2, we find no sense of the influence of mythologies upon the intent and purpose to be read as ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week. The days and nights of the first light and the first darkness belong to God’s ‘Good’ Creation, to the space and time that is the Creation before the Fall of Adam. Unlike most modern or post-modern exegetes, we find the willingness to argue for the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.[30] When we go back even further to John Calvin, we can read the Reformer’s belief that v.2 intends to signify the ‘confused’ place of the Creation, the status of which is sustained for the purpose of the speaking into existence of the ‘light’ and its orders as the heavens and the earth. We also read that the wholeness of this created reality is a result of the dynamical actions of God, the Spirit of God, and the Speaking of God in ‘the Beginning’ of ‘the heavens and the earth’. v.2 may then be read rightly as a part of the prophetic power of Moses’ confession, far from any embrace of the mythologies of the Ancient Near Eastern peoples.[31] If we go even further back to the early fathers of the Church, we find an even greater grasp of the polemical nature of Moses’ confession and the prophet’s power to grasp conceptually the wholeness of the meaning of the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’, creation that is sustained out of the nothing as well as out of the something that is described in v.2, something that waits as ‘cherished’ the ‘Speaking’ of God and the existence of light in its midst.[32] When we read as a whole in this way the existence of the heavens and the earth, with all the appropriate differentiations in the dynamics of this active chord of integration dependent upon the Freedom of God, the Spirit of God, and the Speaking God as the Creator of the Creation, then I believe we are getting in touch with Moses’ confession of ‘the Beginning’ of Israel’s history in the history of the Creation.[33]

What may we make of the intention and purpose of the confession in a positive way for us today? I have argued against the consensus in our day about its meaning and significance, and that Genesis 1:2 is better interpreted by attending to the earlier exegetes of the Genesis 1. Modern critical-historical scholarship may possess sensitivities unknown to the early fathers of the Church, who may seem quite quaint as some level to us today, but I would argue that, for all our technical progress, we are in danger in our time of the loss of the conceptual tools once developed in our history, tools the power of which were meant to be used to integrate the transcendent and the phenomenal levels of realities implicit and explicit in the confession the passage is. The ‘Very Good’ Creation of God, the Creator, blessed as His ‘finished’ (שבת) work, needs to be understood as a wholeness the particulars of which are to be dynamically integrated beautifully and truthfully with the ‘Good’ God has created in the Beginning. The whole with its parts belong to the Hand and Spirit and Speaking of God, the One who from ‘the Beginning’ with His Seeing and Differentiating (v. 4) and His Naming of things (v. 5), caused ‘Day One’ to be what it is in the Creation Week.[34] What has been revealed to the Moses of Israel’s Exodus and his confession of the Great I-AM the Lord God is in the history of His People and in the history of His Creation belongs to an action the acts of which are to be heard resonating together as one and many in an harmony that belongs to the symphony between the transcendent and the phenomenal inherent in the meaning of the confession.[35] It is with this purpose that Moses becomes the enemy of all idol and myth-making among the peoples in his time. It is with this intention that the priestly-prophet can general Israel from Egypt towards the Promise Land, when Israel’s time past and time present and time future belong to a created time that is marked with God’s time for His People in His Creation. It is in this way that we may read the confession of the orders of light and time that belong to the Beginning that marks Israel’s history with the Providence, Presence, and Prophecy of her Redeemer-Creator. There is nothing then in Genesis 1 that is to be confessed as ‘evil’. Nothing is to be understood here in opposition to or in contradiction to God’s Divine Freedom and Sovereign Authority and Power to will to act with wisdom as the Lord God of all space and time and so forth, as their Redeemer and Creator. When we say that He ‘created out of nothing’ the world that is the world that is this one and no other, against all idols, we mean a ‘nothingness’ that belongs, if as the past of His Creation, to His ‘Very Good’ Creation, blessed as His Finished Work and to be celebrated as the origin of all that Sabbath must mean to His People.

Genesis 1:2 ought to be understood, then, as laying down a condition that is cherished by the Spirit of God, and into which the God who is free to speak does speak and did speak the orders of light into the time and space of v.2, moving it to become a home for Mankind as that created reality made both out of nothing and out of something into the ‘Very Good’ and ‘Finished’ work it is of Him, the Great I-AM of Moses’ confession. In this way, human experience is confessed as bound up, under the heavens and upon the earth, with the evenings and mornings of the time and times the world of light is. As ‘day’ and ‘night’ then, the first ‘evening and morning’ of ‘Day One’ belong both phenomenally and transcendently to what Man is at home under the heavens on the earth. The created reality of the heavens and the created reality of the earth with the created reality of Mankind, male and female, are given their form and content in this place as the Image of God. The rational unity and objectivity of the Creation is this whole with these parts and no other. Even today, we may not allow the phenomenal-empirical realities of Moses’ confession to become divorced from the invisible and non-observable dimensions in the dynamical reality of the contingent wholeness of these created orders, given by the Hand and Spirit and Word of God to be what they are, according to Moses’ confession. This is, I believe, Moses’ confession of the Beginning of a world that is the background, primordial, primeval, and ancestral of Israel’s witness with her history among the nations in God’s Creation. We do well in our time, I believe, as best we can and as far as we may to spend our time seeking to penetrate as deeply and profoundly as we can into the significance of its intent and purpose and significance from the Beginning even with us on the moon and in space today. I would like to see our schools recover an attention to this Beginning and spend whole semesters on it as foundation to our theologies and sciences in our time.

Perhaps a short survey of the work of John Philoponus, the great theologian and physicist of the Museum at Alexandria, will suffice to draw out some of the content such a course could take, against great consensus we have developed among our scholars today. Even with the ‘Grammarian’ beginning to obtain today some of the credit he deserves as forerunner in the ancient world to the science of Galileo and so forth,[36] much of our appreciation of him does not yet shake itself loose from his condemnation by the Byzantium East and the Sixth Ecumenical Council of the Church in AD 680.[37] No one has championed Philoponus, not just as a commentator in his time on the works of Aristotle, but as the theologian in the early Church whose thought sought most profoundly to penetrate into the nature of the relationship between the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer-Creator of the world, and the conceptual foundations necessary for the development of a real empirical science, than Professor Thomas F. Torrance.[38] Philoponus needs to be given credit, not only for his contributions to the developments we have experienced with Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and even Einstein,[39] but for the success of his ‘thought experiments’ and the conceptual tools he was able to develop to penetrate into the real ‘nature’ of physics and cosmology of the world and argue against Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists of his day. We find the secret to his ‘thought-experiments’ lies with the fecundity of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo the Alexandrian believed was bound up the Incarnation of the Word, pre-incarnate in the Old Testament’s witness, become flesh in the New Testament’s witness to the Great I-AM the Lord God is. The revolutionary aspects of his success is found in the way he allowed the Incarnation and Creation ‘out of nothing’ to resonate together to inform a dynamical view of the nature of the Cosmos. His development of a ‘light theory’ and his ‘impetus theory’ together appear compellingly as a field physics of a dynamical nature that cannot, a priori, be grasped in all of its depths. He finds by integrating the wholeness of things with the particulars of things in a open-structured effort to grasp the nature of the world with the transcendent reality of the Great I-AM revealed in the Jesus Christ, the Word come as a man in the Cosmos, the power to disclose the actual laws by which things are experienced in this nature. Thus, he lays the ground for the theoretical-experiential science whose laws we still seek to understand today, when a new window onto the ‘glorious beauty of the fundamental laws’[40] of the ‘nature’ of the world belongs on our horizons. The dynamical reciprocities of his categories of thought, entailing both the uncreated and created realities of God and the world, may very well serve to give us that poise allowing us to make real progress in science in our times. We need with the same freedom he knew to be able to deal with an objectivity the Universe is as God’s Creation, especially now that we possess a sense of a Big Bang Beginning to the space/time of the world today.[41] Integration of theory and experiment is just as vital for us now as it was for the thought of Philoponus. Because of his belief, he was able to articulate theories of the Cosmos, against the Master Aristotle and the Eternity of the World, whose roots in the ground, the holy ground, belong to the Divine Power of the Incarnate Logos as the Redeemer-Creator of this world as our home. The beauty and truth of this kind, argued the Alexandrian, opposes all the gods and the mythologies the Greeks knew well with a science grounded in a belief seeking real understanding of the contingent rationality and unity of the heavens and the earth as they have come from the Hand and Spirit and Speaking of the Creator, as they have come from the transcendent One and truly free God, with a wholeness that takes us quite beyond the dualistic splits we read in Aristotle’s physics. There exists no logical necessity between God and the heavens in this poise. There is no arbitrariness in this poise. All dualistic splits that would cut in two the chord of the symphony of the Redeemer-Creator the Great I-AM truly is are to be overcome. Perhaps we may say that what Moses was to the gods of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan, Philoponus was to the gods of the Greeks and the Pagans.[42]

The polemical nature of the Grammarian’s theological science and scientific theology was met with more than fierce opposition both within and without the Church. Debates raged throughout Justinian’s Empire, East and West, and John Philoponus found himself in the midst of them. In those times, the relationship between theology and science could indeed pit Athens against Jerusalem, the Philosopher or Scientist against Christian Dogma.[43] We would argue with Philoponus and the fathers of the early Church whose thought he inherited, though against much modern or post-modern critical-analytical trends in our efforts to interpret the ‘logic’ of Genesis 1:2, have real and definite contribution to make to our struggles to understand in our own times. Not the way that the ANE mythologies and cosmogonies viewed the world, but the way of Moses’ confession ‘In the Beginning’ will be the way we make real progress in our futures. The Self-Revelation of the Self-Naming and Self-Defining Lord God who spoke with Moses as the Great I-AM in the Burning Bush, with us now as the Incarnate Lord God, is still as vital to our civilization as ever.[44] The fulfillment of the purpose of this Great I-AM in the ‘fullness of times’ needs more than ever no symbolic or subjective appreciation today. We need to be able to teach the confession with that power and authority that drove it into existence in the Beginning. We need to be in touch with the Hand and Spirit and Word whose logic would deliver us from our idols and free us for our destinies with Him. If we are to read Moses’ confession as the priestly-prophecy it is in Israel’s history among the nations within the real history of the space/time of the real heavens and the real earth in this way, we will certainly do well. I believe that it is Philoponus’ theory of the dynamical nature of ‘created’ time in correspondence with ‘uncreated’ time, categories such as these, that will help us throw more light upon the order of light and time in our times. His dynamic and kinetic contemplations of both the transcendent and empirical dimensions of the Creation, invisible and visible, with his ‘thought-experiments’ disciplined by the reality of the Redeemer-Creator relationship with His Creation can help us, even as it helped the Grammarian to become what we now recognize as the forerunner in the ancient world to the science of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein, to find that new window onto the world we need to discover in our times. This ‘Lover of Work’ liked to reflect upon created things (time and light) as possessing both invisible and visible dimensions of realities, the invisibility of which reached into the power of the Word of God Himself and His Divine Freedom to be who He is for us, in us, and with us. In this way, he could conceive of the dynamic participation of the wholeness of things interacting with the particularities of the same, where both, ultimately dependent upon the wholeness of the Divine One for being what they were, defined what actually is against any and all illusions about them. The whole existed in the parts and the parts existed in the whole, each in their own ways, yet all of which are bound up through the power of God as His Word with us. This is the One who is free to relate Himself to what has been given existence and what subsists in existence, without confusing the truly transcendent with the empirical or created experience with the transcendent power of the Almighty. In this way, the Alexandrian thought of created and uncreated realities as ‘composite things’, in analogy with the way we are taught to think about the Word of God become the flesh, the man that Jesus Christ is as God in space and time.[45] When read with real resonance 1:1 and 1:3–5, Genesis 1:2 is heard as affirmed by both the transcendent and phenomenal dimensions of the work of God in the Beginning of His Creation, when creation out of nothing and out of chaos and so forth as the place where the Creator spoke light into existence and gave the orders of time that make up what we mean when we read ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week. Rooted ‘in the Beginning’ of this Redeemer-Creator, the Whole that is finished on Day Seven of this Week, we are given to believe that the Redeemer-Creator of Israel is the One whose power and authority is, against all the idols and mythologies in the world, what even the angels have seen and what mankind experiences as the lights of the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars, world that comes from the Hand and Mouth of only Wise God with His intention and purpose for it. [46]

Much of Philoponus’ commentary on v.2 argues against any astrological speculations about super-natural creatures that might be thought to govern the created realities that Mankind experiences under the heavens and on the earth.[47] Genesis 1:2 ought to be read in relationships with both 1:1 and 1:3–5 in the light of the freedom and authority that is possessed alone by the Redeemer-Creator and His Freedom to act as the God He is with His Providence, His Presence, and His Prophecy in the relationship.[48] We cannot understand the text without grasping its connection with ‘the Beginning’ of which we read in 1:1 and the Speaking of God of which we read in 1:3, when the light is named day and the darkness named night and we experience the establishment of the ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ (a 24 hour period of time) as Day One of the Creator’s Creation. Obviously, the dynamical nature of such resonance demands both concrete differentiation of things, in the naming of them, as well as a profound integration at their boundaries for them, so that the wholeness of their existence is rightly grasped in all of their depths as the mystery of the Creation the world is. It is this resonant action, seeing ‘In the Beginning’ of the work of Creation, the naming of things in the Creation, that knows the whole of Day One as ‘good’ (1:4–5). On this Day, Day One, there exists no evil. It is impossible to oppose God at this level of reality.

It is true that Genesis 1:1 may be read as a subordinate clause: ‘When in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and emptiness and darkness was upon the faces of the deep and the Spirit of God brooded over the faces of the waters, then God said…’ Vs. 1 and 2 are both governed then by v. 3, the first independent clause of the confession (And God said, Let there be light!), so that the Beginning possesses a first act that is the speaking of ‘light’ into the existence of the Creation, where the ‘nothingness’ or the ‘chaos and so forth’ of v.2 is in subordinate relationship with ‘And God said’.[49] I do not think it matters much whether we read v.1 ‘In the Beginning’ in the absolute or the conjunctive sense, the sympathy of the action with its acts goes on either way. If v.1 is read as the first independent clause, however, it seems to me that the punctiliar and continuous nature of the acts in the better entail the implication and explication of the meaning of the texts, when the Transcendence and the Sabbath Blessing of God are given their due in our understanding of them. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ entails a view of the whole of the Creation whose horizon is the ‘finished’ work and blessed activity of the creating of God, both the point of it and the continuity of it as One Creation. No grammar or syntax or morphology thus determines for the reader then what is to be heard ‘In the Beginning’. We find ourselves free to choose the way we shall interpret even these very first words of Bible, a very significant freedom indeed.[50]

I do not like to translate the Hebrew bara’ (ברא) with English ‘create’ (The Alexndrian Jews of the Greek Septuagint did no better with the Greek’s έποίησεν!). Among English speaking peoples the verb ‘create’ can have as its subject all kinds of persons, places, and things. I teach among Koreans, and I understand from them that the Korean Bible translates with a term that has for its subject only ever God, like the Hebrew texts. Only God acts in order to cause the existence of the heavens and the earth and so forth. In this way, we understand that they are established as a reality that is not Himself, a reality whose nature is quite independent of His Being and Nature. We understand that, established in its independence of Him, it is yet as absolutely dependent upon Him for being what it is in its existence. The real objective intelligibility of the rationality of the world is what it is not in dependence upon itself for its being but in its dependence upon its Creator. It is bound up in its independence with the Hand and Spirit and Word and so forth of God from the Beginning that is this Beginning and not another one. With His Divine Freedom and Sovereign Will this God has chosen to become the Creator and to bara’ the Creation into its existence and being. The significance of the term bara’ must be able to bear the transcendent in its significance as well as the empirical dimension that are given meaning as the evenings and mornings of the ‘Day One’ of the Creation Week. The phenomena of the 24 hour periods experienced by Mankind under the heavens and upon the earth are understood as bound up ‘freely’ with the ‘acts’ of this ‘action’ of God, the Creator, in the Beginning. The verb ברא as a ‘telic’ action with His acts in the formation of ‘Day One’ this signifies in freedom and dependence a point that is sustained continually according to the Nature and Being of the Great I-AM He actually is, and not any other. Only God can be this God and act in this way to cause out of nothing the something that is the order of light in a world that is His Creation.

Thus, His ‘cherishing’ in this Beginning, His ‘speaking’ with this Beginning, His ‘seeing’ and ‘differentiating’ and ‘naming’ of this Beginning are modes or acts of one action, with both instance and continuity of freedom and order that shapes the confession of the Creation Week against all the idols of the peoples of the ANE. This is a point whose subsistence is vital to grasp both on its empirical and transcendental levels of reality, both on the observable and non-observable levels of its reality. When we fail to understand this, the symphony becomes lost upon us and we are left like orphans without the Father, Almighty Maker, of the heavens and the earth. The whole in which ‘Day One’ is a part is lost upon us. Abstraction and reductionism sets into our conclusions. We lose the ontology of the Revelation in the Creation. The unique and the general become confused among us. The real meaning of the act that is the bara’ that only the Creator can do is never grasped, and the consequences of this fall from grace is felt quite commonly in our times even down to our own days. However difficult it is for us, we need to recover are ability to grasp the contingent nature of the world as its come from God for us in a freedom that is definitely bound up with who He truly is.

God’s Creation is thus His Unique Universal Creation. Out of all that might have been and could have been, out of the nothingness of the something-ness of the world the Creator has chosen with His Freedom to act with Himself and to make in this ‘Beginning’. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, as it is known in Latin, is to be understood as rooted in a created and creative ground that is the Lord God and Great I-AM of Moses’ confession and no other. The Great I-AM speaking with Moses from the Burning Bush is the Creator speaking for him with His Creation. The purpose of Israel’s Exodus from the Egyptian and its pantheon of gods intends that Israel shall know Him as this One and not anothyer. Because only He ‘creates’, bara’, we may understand the teaching of creatio ex nihilo as fundamentally in resonance with the theology and the experience of the world inherent in Moses’ confession of the Redeemer-Creator. The Deliverer is the Creator. The Creator is the Deliverer. The priestly-prophetic power of the Servant of God as Israel’s great leader would ever cause His People to throw away their idols and to embrace Him as the One He truly is, the Creation of the Creation Week. Redemption brings understanding of the Creation. The Redeemer brings understanding of the Creator. Genesis 1 is thus a confession to be read as Israel’s witness in the world, times past, times present, times future, as experience of freedom and order that is bound up with His Beginning. The first verse of the first chapter of Moses’ confession of Israel’s primordial and primeval and ancestral generations belongs to the Lord who is the God of the whole of Creation, even as all time and times are bound up with His Eternal Time for Mankind and His Creation. God did not create (bara’) nothing and something out of Himself, but as a particular and universal created thing out of nothing so that the whole of it existence and being, outside and independent of Him, would know Him in it as the One He is. Only this Lord as this God and only this God as the Lord can bara’ the Beginning of the heavens and the earth, according to Moses’ confession, when all other gods and all other myths about the world shall not obtain. Other than this ‘Beginning’ there are only myths about time and time’s Eternity.[51]

Common to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the rational unity of the order and freedom of the contingency of the world would assert that human freedom with the Divine Freedom of the Almighty is fundamental to the Revelation of the Great I-AM the Lord and God is with Moses’ confession.[52] This concept of the contingency of the world has not enjoyed easy going in the Western world across the centuries of the development of its thought, theologically or scientifically.[53] Against all necessity and any arbitrariness, the world’s unity and rationality as contingent reality rests upon this Revelation. In the light of its revealing, we may hear His Word as belonging inherently to the Acts of His Being the One He is. The Freedom of God thus creates creatively the ground upon which all human freedom stand and understand what it is and is meant to be in the space/time of the world. For this reason, and for no other, the Judeo-Christian tradition has had to seek to struggle to distinguish its way of carving up the reality of the world from any and all dualistic manners of relating the One God is to the one the Creation is. The tradition would remain faithful to the Uniqueness of this One as the Universal Father of the All that is Creation. Attempts to marry this One with other ‘one’s result inevitably in a reduction of the significance of Moses’ confession. The One that the Lord God is in His Unique Universality not the ‘one’ we read in the doctrines of Plato or Aristotle or any of the Neo-platonic efforts that came after the confession. With the Incarnation of the Word, Being, and Act of this One as the Person of Jesus Christ, the Christian tradition would understand the nature of the world and its relationship with God in a wholeness that belongs to the Wholeness of God with His Revelation. The integration of the transcendent and the immortal with the immanence and the phenomenal of mortal experience of the human race upon the earth and under the heavens belongs to a unity and rationality that is God’s Creation and to no other.[54] Stanley Jaki, thus, has written: “The contingency of the universe obviates any a priori discourse about it, while its rationality makes it accessible to the mind through only an a posteriori manner”.[55] Even the laws of the nature of the Universe belong to this kind of dynamical nature. By implication and explication, the concept of creatio ex nihilo and its affirmation with the Incarnation of the Lord God ‘in the Beginning’ affirms a freedom with which the human imagination is redeemed from its idols and myths, an imagination that must have to do with the real space and time and places of matter and motion that John Philoponus was able to turn into his physics of a Cosmos that is God’s Creation.[56] We do not have room here for a more thorough discussion of Philoponus’ concepts here. But we would claim that his arguments against Aristotle’s ‘Eternity of the World’ and for the impetus and light given the Beginning as implicated with what Genesis 1:1 makes explicit as the creatio ex nihilo doctrine is cogent even for our own times.[57] The particular beginning that is the Beginning needs to be heard daily and nightly now just as it was needed with Moses and the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.

We want to argue, then, that the relationship of Genesis 1:2 to 1:1 possesses a conjunctive and appositive connection, the assertion of which compels our understanding of ‘the heavens and the earth’ as a whole the parts of which is the object, in differentiation and integration, who has for cause God and His Freedom to ‘create’ without contradiction what the world is with its Mankind. The Divine Freedom and Sovereign Power of the Great I-AM the Lord God is, according to ‘the Beginning’ of Moses’ priestly and prophetic confession of Israel among the nations in the Creation, the origin of all things created, great and small. It is this freedom with its wisdom and power that gives the confession the authority and order over and against all the mythologies of the ancient peoples of the nations. In becoming this Creator and in revealing this Redeemer, this I-AM that sent Moses and sends as Lord and God even the People of God today, His Revelation will not be denied. It is His Self-Revelation and He gives in this freedom and wisdom and power the knowledge of His Being as this Creator in interaction upon the earth and under the heavens with Mankind. The emphatic use of the verb ‘to be’ in 1:2 means to signify that, as a part of the whole of this Creation, the earth as ‘formless and void’ (ובהו תהו) when it was ‘darkness over the depths (תהום על פני חשך) and with the primordial waters (מים), was being cherished (מרחפת ) by the Spirit of God,[58] like an eagle with her eaglets in their nest (Deuteronomy 32: 11). The whole of this created nature is subject to the Will and Freedom and Authority of this Creator. The primeval condition from ‘the Beginning’, established out of nothing, exist in accordance with the transcendent Wisdom of the Uncreated Nature of His Will of this Creator as a reflection of who He truly is with the heavens and the earth. This is the Creator who is the One that revealed Himself to Moses and gave Israel among the nations in His Creation the knowledge that He is who He is. The formlessness and emptiness, along with the darkness of the depths of these primeval waters, are that which the Spirit of God cherishes from ‘the Beginning’ with divine intent and purpose, where and when as such they form the created times before the Speaking of the Word of God in interaction with the world. They participate in the ‘Very Good’ Creation of the Beginning. The bara’ and the amar of this God as this Redeemer-Creator calls things what they really are, in belonging to what ‘Day One’ is in His Creation Week. Genesis 1:2 signifies what the created reality of the earth under the heavens was life before the time when light had been spoken by God into existence. Thus, God filled the primordial chaos and emptiness with the times of the orders of created ‘light’, when they became the way to the future of the ‘Very Good’ Creation from the Beginning to the Sabbath Blessing. The time and space of the Creation before light filled its place and moment in the world’s times is as such as real as any other created time the world is. Genesis 1:2 cannot be divorced from the time and times of the orders of light that marks the heavens and the earth with the Will and Wisdom of the Redeemer-Creator God is in the Beginning.[59] Time and time past of this Creation are thus real for Moses in the Revelation, in whose light all time and times are made to resonate together with one another in the light of this Lord God who is the Great I-AM of Moses’ confession. It is the power this confession that stood and stands still today against all myth-making and idol-making to which the human imagination is prone. I am sure this is the reason that the man who walked on the moon in our time read from Moses and no other.

In this freedom, we understand that the action (bara’) the Creator takes to accomplish the Beginning of ‘the heavens and the earth’ (a merism) is sustained, cherished, (merechephat) to provide the space and time where and when light (אור). was spoken (אמר) into existence, so that what God sees (ראה) He differentiates (בדל) and names (קרא) as the reality of the objective intelligibility that ‘Day One’ is at the beginning of the Creation Week. We are to hear a created whole with its parts and created parts in the created whole the ‘Day’ is. I would suggest that exists a kind of hypostatic union of the whole and the parts that belong to a symphony of differentiation and integration we may learn to hear as the logic of the Wisdom, Hand, Spirit, and Word of God with Himself in His Beginning of His Creation. His Holy Love and Divine Wisdom, the Uncreated Light of His Being and Nature, are free to make ‘Day One’ what it is in this Blessed Week. It is the Nature of this Being that we should come to know the One who sustains what He has caused to exist out of nothing, out of chaos and emptiness, out of the darkness of the depths, out of the faces of the primordial waters, kept in being by His Spirit, for the intent and purpose of His Word in the Beginning. This is the ground that is intended as home for Mankind, created male and the female in His Image, after His Likeness, among all things great and small that abound in His Creation. Genesis 1:3 reads: ‘And God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light.’ Into the primordial stuff of the ‘nothingness’ of the world is established the orders of light and time in which we exist even today. Out of the formlessness and the emptiness and the darkness and the depths of these existences comes the light that makes the world a home of our being the men and women in time and space the world is meant to be. The ‘light’ of the Speaking God, who as the Uncreated Source of Light of the World has made created light to reflect who He is as this Creator has become, we believe, the ‘Light of the World’ in this symphony. The Redeemer has kept the faith as the Creator He is in the form of Jesus Christ. It is this Divine Freedom of the Great I-AM we come to know as the Voice that Moses experienced coming from the flames of the unconsumed Burning Bush and the events of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and the Egyptian gods of the Pharaoh. It is this Divine Freedom we experience, out of nothing, out of chaos and emptiness, and so forth, that belongs to the Mighty Hand and the Cherishing Spirit who Speaks in time and times as the Holy One even today. This is the Voice that sustains His People and His Creation. This is the Voice Moses could not avoid and we may not avoid even today.[60] This the Voice of the laws and the freedom of the heavens and the earth in our time. This is the Voice of Mankind in our time. This is the Voice, among all the voices in all the rooms where we may exist, that matters most and seeks our attention even today. This is the Voice of the Great I-AM the Lord God is even as the Person of Jesus Christ in His Time for our time and times.

It is under the impact of the power of the Voice of this Word in His Divine Freedom and Sovereign Authority that we are to learn to read what the making of ‘Day One’ means: ‘And God differentiated between the light and the dark, and God called the light ‘day’ and the dark He called ‘night’ and there was evening and morning – Day One.’ The ‘calling’ of this Voice is the First Day of a Creation Week that Moses confesses under the compelling power of the Voice that commanded him at Sinai. The Providence, Presence, and Prophecy of the Voice of this Great I-AM as the Lord God of Israel’s witness among the nations never sounds with the vanity of man or world. It is the Voice of Truth against all the idols of the human race.

Colin Gunton is worth quoting here: ‘The latter (Barth) tends to minimize the part played by the Holy Spirit in the act of creation, refusing an explicitly pneumatological reading of Genesis 1:2 because of his concern to see in the verse the promise of the eschatological defeat of das Nichtige (3/1, pp. 108–10). Surely we can agree with Barth’s Word of God as that Voice which will have nothing to do with sin and evil. Yes, He did not and does not and will not create sin and evil in His World. But surely we must agree with Gunton that the identity of sin and evil directly with the ‘chaos and emptiness’ and so forth of Genesis 1:2 is a mistake.[61] Evil and sin come into the ‘Very Good’ Creation out of nothing of God in Genesis 3, when the lie is given about God and His Creation to Adam. Surely, we must agree with Professor Torrance’s argument about the contingency of the creation, out of nothing, confirmed and affirmed with the Incarnation of the Word speaking in the ‘fullness of times’ as the Redeemer-Creator, the Lord God, who is the Great I-AM with Moses and Israel and as Christ with His Church, the One without sin and evil and the One who makes the ‘chaos and emptiness’ and so forth to serve the Creator He is as the Man He has become for us in His Creation, in whom we can hear and see what we need to see and hear about these things, about the foundation of the heavens and the earth and our mankind.[62] It is the I-AM that this One actually is, whose Spirit has been sent to work in our times for us, in us, and with us, that we need to hear in Genesis 1:2.

Perhaps we are not used to thinking the impossible with our thoughts. The One who in ‘the Beginning’ and in the New Beginning, who is both the Uncreated Light that God is and the created light the Lord is in the fullness of time and times and of space with us, would give us to hear with the symphony of His Word in the world the ‘beginningless-beginning’ of His Being and Nature which, according to Moses’ confession, would deliver us into the very Kingdom of God Himself. We are not used to thinking about the Transcendence of this One, who once gave Israel deliverance from Egypt and who gives the whole of the human race deliverance from sin and evil in our time and times, as this One He is as the Great I-AM of our redemption even from the times of chaos and emptiness into the time when light filled them with the orders that will justify the Beginning. In Him, we are given to hear His Sabbath Blessing of all time and times, times past, times present, times future, with the atoning work of the holy love of the Redeemer working as the Creator to give us knowledge of who He truly is for us, in us, and with us. It is with Moses’ Israel that we may learn to hear His Beginnings, His Apocalypse of time and times, and what created destiny is in the fullness of times. ‘Day One’ of Moses’ Creation Week is meant to serve the Day of the Lord, the King of the Universe, Israel’s Son of David, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Sage even of the physical laws of the world. It is this Creator that we may know as the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God for all space and time, of whom Moses was the priestly-prophet and general of Israel road to the Promised Land.

We need to hear in Genesis 1:2 that time past that is ‘Very Good’ in the light of the ‘Light of the World.’ We need to untwist the lies about the Beginning that would not give us to hear the Redeemer-Creator in His Way and Truth with us in the world. We need to know the One who cherishes what we might think has vanished from us. We need to hear again as it was then that out of the nothingness the world is comes the light of His Speaking for us, making the world our home, giving us to know that we are loved and not alone, embraced by the freedom and power only the Great I-AM possesses in our times. This is what we mean when we would name Him the Almighty Maker of the heavens and the earth. It may not be the common hearing of common sense among many in our time, but even so it is no myth.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.1, p. 102. By 1946 in American scholarship, Jack Finnegan could compare Genesis 1 to Babylon’s Enumah Elish and refer the terms of Genesis 1:2 to the Tiamat of that mythology, while recognizing that differences ought to be considered more important than similarities (Light From The Ancient Past, Princeton University Press, p. 53.) Thus, the difficulties are introduced into the interpretation of the verse. An opposite interpretation is proposed by Paul L. Seely in his article ‘The First Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Context’, PSCF, Vol. 49, Num. 2, June 1997, pp. 85–95. My article in the same publication on ‘Natural Theology’, pp. 96–104, represents my earlier understanding of Barth and the relationship of science to Genesis One.

[2] CD, pp. 102–110. Along with most modern critical Old Testament scholars, Barth comes to believe that the ‘rudimentary’ conditions laid down in v.2 posit that which the will of the Creator opposes. He must contradict its contradiction of Him.

[3] The great Swiss theologian in his exegesis of Genesis 1 took seriously in his time the supposition that it was in the light of the Incarnation we might read rightly the Creation Week. With it, he could then argue that the ‘Nothingness’ of the Creation could be identified with the evil that opposed the created orders of the Creator, without attempting to relate his findings to the scientific developments of Special and General Relativity Theories and the cosmologies come out of Einstein’s great legacy.

[4] See, for instance, John Goldingay’s Genesis for Everyone (John Knox Press, 2010), pp. 5–9. The author claims there is no ‘absolute beginning’ in mind, no philosophy in mind, and that the author is interested in the ‘transformation’ of ‘empty wastes’ into ‘formed cosmos’, creation out of chaos, than in the doctrine of ‘Creation out of Nothing’ a doctrine, that was common in interpretation of the early Church. It is my observation that the significance of this doctrine is quite lost upon us today.

[5] There is a long tradition among the fathers of the early Church, but I have in mind the way the doctrine can be understood in its fullest form with the work of John Philoponus, who attempts to take the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo most seriously even for the physics of the cosmos in his time. Professor Torrance has written of the Grammarian: “Never in all the history of science has Christian theology had such a transforming impact on science as through John Philoponus of Alexandria in the sixth century. His was a bibilical and Christocentric theology in which he sought to give an adequate account of its contingent rational order.” (in Theology and Natural Science, Wipf & Stock, 2002, p. 107). Philoponus thus became in the ancient world with his ‘impetus theory’ and a ‘light theory’ forerunner to the developments we experienced through Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, and even down to the Einstein and our modern theories for the cosmology of the world.

[6] I have attempted to argue for this exegesis of the Five Books of Moses in my book, The Great Amen of the Great I-AM (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2008). See especially chapters 2 and 3. The wholeness of the Pentateuch’s argument is polemical from beginning to end. The reality of the relationship between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as Creation and Redemption of the Creator-Redeemer needs to be evaluated in this light.

[7] B.W. Anderson, Creation in the Old Testament (Fortress Press and SPCK, 1984). He is aware of the chasm created between science and theology in our times created by these Biblical scholars.

[8] Ibid, pp. 26–52.

[9] G. von Rad, Genesis, Westminster Press, 1972, pp. 46–52. The critical assumptions lead the great scholar to read v. 2 as a contradiction to the creatio ex nihilo of v. 1, but a necessary one and to an understanding P’s theology of ‘Day One’ as the unit Genesis 1:1–5. Thus, creation out of nothing, creation out of chaos, and creation of the light of the Word of God is discussed. But P’s theology is not Moses’ I-AM.

[10] Ibid, pp. 62–63, when Yahweh as the Creator absorbs Egypt’s ancient mythologies and enters in this way into the confession of the Elohim of Genesis 1.

[11] Ibid, p.75

[12] Ibid, pp. 90–101.

[13] Ibid, pp. 102–117.

[14] Ibid, p.130. ‘The world well ordered, chaos excluded, the world therefore comprehensible within limits: this fits in very well with the concept of wisdom.’ Thus, he exegetes the text with Barth.

[15] Ibid, p.18.

[16] Ibid, pp. 65–73. But with no comment on v.2.

[17] Ibid, pp.135–151, where Landes rightly connects the whole movement up with freedom.

[18] Ibid, p. 138

[19] R.C. Clements, Abraham and David (Studies in Biblical Theology: SCM Press,1967.)

[20] See the account of T.F. Torrance’s meeting with Barth over this point in his Space, Time, and Resurrection, (Eerdmans, 1976), pp. ix–xiii. Torrance would argue that it is ‘a sovereign freedom and lordly authority’ that judges all the beginnings made by the Lord God with His Self-Revelation in the space and time a world that is indeed His Creation.

[21] Ibid p. 103–4. “The decisive objection against this exposition (Luther’s contention that the verse explained the primal condition of God’s Creation in the Beginning before its light was spoken into existence), which Zimmerli rightly calls a ‘desperate expedient,’ is as follows.” Barth goes on to explain that, with the connection between v.1 and v.2 as inadmissible, we must face the fact that God did not will the ‘things’ of v.2. He quotes Isaiah 45:14 as evidence the world was meant to be inhabited right from the beginning and never meant to be chaos and void, dark and deep, with waters the Spirit of God must control against the will of the Creator to create a heavens and an earth of light.

[22] CD, Ibid, p.108. The Silence of God is not necessarily the Time of Judgment.

[23] CD, Ibid, p. 110. As if the future will possess no chaos and so forth.

[24] Perhaps Barth is not able to shake himself free from Greek ‘essentialism’ and ‘perfection’ and ‘order’, after all.

[25] B.S. Childs, Myth and Reality in the Old Testament (SCM Press, London, 1960), pp. 30–42. “It will be the purpose of this chapter to show the problem which was caused within the Biblical tradition when mythical material entered.” He focuses his argument on the relationship between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. He suggests three choices for interpretive speculation: 1) There was a time when ‘chaos and emptiness’ and so forth was the heavens and the earth. 2) Darkness exposits death and the deep belongs to that over which the Spirit broods for life. 3) There is a real resonance between this ‘rudimentary’ stuff that transforms any use of the terms found in the ancient mythologies into service of Moses confession, or P’s, of ‘the Beginning’. Thus, we need to come to a new understanding of their meaning in real time and not in mythical time.

[26] I believe that the Beginning of Genesis 1:1 is to be thought out as rooted in the ground of the ‘beginningless-beginning’ of the Living Being of God who transcendently holds the whole of the Beginning in all of particulars in real relationship with Himself. Created realities, though independent of the Nature of God, are dependent upon Him for their nature and being and existence. The hypostatic union of these cannot be reduced up or down into any philosophical sense away from His Freedom and Transcendence and Will for ‘order’ and ‘goodness’. Neither necessary nor arbitrary connections may grasp the real relations between the Creator and His Creation as the Lord of all space and time and so forth.

[27] B.S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Fortress Press, 1993), p. 107. It seems evident to me that these scholars are more at home with the evolution of things more than they are with things as created out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo, when the chord between transcendence and the phenomenal in our experience of the world is cut in two. The implicit and explicit dynamics of the orders in the nature of the Creation become lost upon us, when even subsistence and processes are not understood in relationship with the uncreated Eternity of the Lord God.

[28] See A.J. Bellinzoni, The Old Testament (Prometheus Books, 2009) for a recent, decent, presentation of the so-called scientific historical-critical analysis of the formation of the Biblical texts. The critics have become quite sure that the Creation accounts are myths redacted together by post-Exilic Israel. If the Bible is composed by men, it cannot be the Revelation of God, only the stories told by Man in the Universe.

[29] B.K. Waltke, Genesis (Zondervan, 2001), p.p. 58–60. He simply refers to ברא (create) as a ‘telic verb’, encompassing the ‘All’ that is the Creation, without further explanation. The implication is, of course, that time possesses times as times are possessed of time even before the time of light.

[30] See C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume I, The Pentateuch (Eerdmans, 1973 reprint), pp. 46–52. The verb ‘create’ signifies that which is ‘divine creation’. The terms of v.2 mean the condition of the creation before the time ‘light’ was spoken into existence. The author is aware that others seek to rid interpretation of the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’ (p. 46).

[31] John Calvin, Genesis (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1554, 1975), pp. 69–78. Calvin is the only theologian I have found willing to understand the ‘brooding’ of the Spirit of God as that ‘cherishing’ necessary to ‘sustain’ the world before ‘light’ was given existence in it (p. 74). The ‘confusion’ here is not evil.

[32] I am grateful to Leslie S.B. MacCoull for providing me with her translation of De Opificio Mundi, and the comments of John Philoponus on Moses’ Genesis. See F. Christiani, JOHANNES PHILOPONOS, DE OPIFICIO MUNDI, Herder, 1887, for its translation into German.

[33] I have in mind an exegetical line of thought that we may trace from Athanasius (in works from AD 325–381), through Basil of Caesarea (in works from AD 329–379), and others to the works of John Philoponus in Alexandria (AD 517–560), with whom the doctrine of ‘creation out of nothing’ is steadily championed. It is through the actuality of the Incarnate Word that we are given to understand the Word or Speaking of God in the Beginning and His relationship to ‘light’ in the Creation. Thus, the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit throws light upon the I-AM the Lord God is as God, the Spirit of God, and Speaking of God for the formation of the First Day of the Creation Week and the Sabbath Blessing.

[34] See T.F. Torrance’s ‘The Transfinite Significance of Beauty in Science and Theology’ in L’Art, La Science et la Metaphysique, Studies offered to Andre Mercier, Peter Lang, 1993, pp. 393–418, for a wonderful account of what beauty is in the creatio ex nihilo of Genesis 1.

[35] Torrance would turn our attention to Barth’s appreciation of Mozart’s music to speak of this symphonic significance between Redemption and Creation in theology and science, Ibid, pp. 407–418.

[36] See R. Sorabji, ed., Philoponus and the Rejection of Aristotelian Science (Cornell University Press, 1987), followed by a number of translations of Philoponus’ works by a team of translators under Sorabji’s supervision.

[37] See my The Setting in Life of ‘The Arbiter’ by John Philoponus (Wipf and Stock, 1999), where I argued that his Anathema was a mistake of tragic proportions and consequences for the history of the relationship between Christian Theology and the development of our scientific culture. S.L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, (University of Chicago, 1978) p. 39, reminds us that Aquinas knew Philoponus only for his heretical monophysitism and not for his critic of Aristotle and his contributions to Western science

[38] Among his many references in his books to Philoponus, see especially T.F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science (Wipf & Stock, 2002), especially chapters 4–7. Torrance echoes Shmuel Sambursky’s, The Physical World of Late Antiquity (Basic Books, 1962, p. 158) with the contention that Philoponus possessed ‘…the reasoning of a man carried away by his revolutionary zeal and the momentum of a new and irresistible conception.’ The fecundity of this revolution is still to be appreciated.

[39] See Shmuel Sambursky, PHYSICAL THOUGHT From the Presocratics to the Quantum Physicists (Pica Press, NY; 1974) pp. 115–119. The ‘lover of labor’ established doctrines on 1) the Dynamical Nature of the Relationship between the Whole and the Parts in science 2) an impetus theory for the Beginning and for the light of the cosmos 3) a theory of the motion of the elements in vacuum 4) the unity of the heavens and the earth according to nature and the 3–dimensional extension with matter/motions 5) the role of Infinity in our knowing of the nature of the world 6) the Generations of God and the power of the really Infinite.

[40] The phrase belongs to Kip Thorne, Black Hoes & Time Warps, W.W. Norton, 1995, p. 19.

[41] In Transformations & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, Eerdmans: 1984, p. 79, T.F. Torrance argues with Einstein that such categories belong to ‘freely invented’ concepts bound up with the actual nature of the world.

[42] Philoponus inherited from his successors in Alexandria, Athanasius and Cyril, the struggle of the fathers against both Gnostic and Ebionite views of Man in God’s World, the Person of Christ as Redeemer-Creator of the All.

[43]As a contemporary of Philoponus, a man called Simplicius could consider the Grammarian as doing less than his duty in the common effort made to harmonize Plato and Aristotle as the Masters in the field of human thought. Simplicius wrote: ‘But one of our contemporaries, i.e. the Grammarian, a hunter of fame, as it seems, who has passed off some of Xenarchus’ objections as his own and collected other, similar ones, has sprung up to criticize Aristotle, aiming at the objective, as he says, of proving the whole world perishable, as if he would receive a big reward from the Creator if he proved him <to be> a creator of perishable things only, but not of imperishable.’ See C. Wildberg, Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, (Cornell University Press, 1987), p. 39. The whole of the debate was about the nature of the Beginning and the matter and motion of time filled with the light that had been confessed by Moses.

[44] Henry Chadwick records as editor of Alexandrian Christianity (Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 17–24) that it was often claimed that the Greeks had stolen from Moses what they thought they knew about the Cosmos.

[45] I owe this insight to L.S. B. MacCoull, who in her translation of De Opificia Mundi by John Philoponus, understands that Christology informed the cosmological considerations of the Grammarian. The ‘hypostasis’ of created time existed as a whole entailing the ‘hypostases’ of times past, present, and future, all of which belonged as one created reality to the power of the freedom of God to be the Redeemer-Creator He actually is with us. Thus, the empirical and the theoretical are integrated substantially in all of his speculations about the physics and cosmology of the Creation (private correspondence).

[46] I believe that Professor T.F. Torrance’s assessment of Barth’s opposition to ‘natural theology’ as an antecedent conceptual system of thought and argument for a concept of ‘nature’ as a contingent reality belonging to the actual relationship establishe by the Revelation between God and the world is vitally important here. See, Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, Christian Journals, 1984, pp. 285–301 for full discussion of the problem and the power of the argument for a ‘natural theology’ that is inherent or co-inherent in the nature of the Revelation in history.

[47] Philoponus has a long section on angels with reference then to Genesis 1:2, yet for the sake of making the point that the ‘hypostases’ with which we have to do in the physical world are contingently related to the power of the free God whose wisdom only is the source of their existence. It is in this discussion that the Grammarian can refer to other views of the Creation read in the Scriptures, Job, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so forth.

[48] I like to think of this kind of reading as an affirmation of the ‘primordial healing’ that is restorative of our race after the Fall and from the Beginning.

[49] von Rad has shown that this reading does not obtain with the intent of the author, op. cit. p. 49.

[50] It is good to remember that freedom without order and order without freedom is impossible in the way of God with His the contingent rationality and unity of His Creation. The nature of the world is such that both freedom and order of a contingent kind as bound up with non-contingent Being of God in His Freedom and Wisdom, however difficult for us to hear, must be heard. I like to think that the Revelation of the Great I-AM is ultimately to be followed in Christ then.

[51] I like to think that, even though the contemplation of the Big Bang Beginning of modern cosmologies may be more friendly to Moses’ confession that cosmologies of the past, we remain able to distinguish the nihilo of Christian Doctrine from the Quantum Vacuum contemplated by modern scientists.

[52] See T.F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith (T&T Clark, 1988), pp. 98–109, for a succinct account of the vital character of freedom, contingent and divine, for understanding the God, Man, and the World of the confession.

[53] See T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford University Press, 1981) for a fully developed argument on the cogency and fecundity of the concept in both science and theology.

[54] See S.L. Jaki, Genesis 1 (Thomas More Press, 1992)) for an account that argues for the reality of this chapter in time and times across the centuries, against all the mythologies posited from time to times and so forth. Moses is successful with his confession against the idols of the nations among the peoples of God’s Creation because of its veracity with space and time.

[55] Again S.L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, Ibid, p. 39. An historian of science, the Benedictine scholar knows, for instance, the concept of the contingency of the creation may become lost upon Aquinas and the Middles Ages and the arguments for the existence of God mere sophistry.

[56] See my The Setting in Life of ‘The Arbiter’ by John Philoponus (Wipf & Stock, 1999), especially chapter three, for my account of the contingent rationality, unity, and freedom of the Creation against Aristotle’s physics and cosmology in the science of the Alexandrian. See, C. Wildberg, Philoponus, Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 81–91, for the Grammarian on the ‘nothingness’ and the ‘perishable nature’ of the Creation and the freedom of God to interact with them.

[57] Ibid, pp. 143–146, for a few cogent remarks about motion in the Ptolemaic Cosmos of the Grammarian’s times.

[58] I have found the translation of merachephat (‘brooding’) read by Syriac speaking Christians, found still today in Iran and Iraq, rendered as ‘cherished’, even as a wave offering (P. Smith, Syriac English Dictionary, Oxford, 1902) p. 538) Evidently, the power of the Spirit of God in the Beginning embraced with Love and Wisdom and Divine Freedom what had been the object of His action (bara’) in His Beginning, not out of Himself but out of nothing with a will He alone can exercise.

[59] The Grammarian assumed the ‘hypostasis’ and ‘hypostases’ of time and times as the uncreated time that belongs creatively to God’s Eternity. It was this kind of relational thinking that we read everywhere with the development of the thought of John Philoponus.

[60] Philoponus believed that, whatever Plato or Aristotle got right about God and the Cosmos, they got it from Moses. The Grammarian wrote at the beginning of his treatise on the Creation of the World: ‘That Plato too, in his treatise on the coming into being of the cosmos, imitated Moses.’ This Moses wanted to implant knowledge of God with his confession of the Great I-AM the Lord God is with Israel, a confession not about science but about the world the race experiences as a phenomenal reality whose explanation must be found with its Creator. It was this Judeo-Christian tradition that laid down the foundation for the empirical science we exercise today, and not Greek philosophy.

[61] C.E. Gunton, The Triune Creator (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 160. Again, see T.F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order for the challenge this argument is for both scientist and theologian in our times.

[62] For a recent discussion of the problem modern scientific ‘chaos theory’ and its relationship to our theology of Creation Out of Nothing, see John Jefferson Davis, ‘Theological Reflections on Chaos Theory’, PSCF, Vol. 49, Num. 2, June 1997, pp. 75–84. I like to think we will take seriously the need for ‘free invention’, ‘intuition’, and ‘creativity’ in both science and theology not in necessary of arbitrary relational logic but in atoning relations of real redemptive work of the Holy One in the history of the world.

Barth and The Tower of Babel

Among last Sunday’s lectionary readings (and sermons) was the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis 11. This reminded me of a section in Paul Brazier’s facsinating study on Barth and Dostoevsky wherein he writes:

“Barth weaves the biblical story of the Babel tower into ‘Die Gerechtigkeit Gottes’. Barth opened the address with Matthew 3:3 – John the Baptist crying in the wilderness. He immediately cites the importance of conscience as the perfect interpreter of life, ‘what it tells us is no question, no riddle … but a fact – the deepest, innermost, surest fact of life, that God is righteous’. Furthermore, Barth compares conscience with reason, reason is inadequate – ‘It sees what is human but not what is divine.’ We will not learn of God by basing our theology on the human but we must let conscience speak of the righteousness of God in such a way that this righteousness becomes a certainty. Conscience ‘may be reduced almost to silence or crushed into oblivion, it may be led astray to the point of folly and wrongdoing, but it remains forever the place between heaven and earth in which God’s righteousness is manifest.’ But conscience disturbs, it is a pressing accusation, often bitter, sometimes as a crushing curse, then as holy joy, but above all it convinces us that all our living and learning have a goal, it points to a will that is always true to itself, a pure will – the righteousness of God. By comparison Barth cites the human will as capricious, fickle, corrupt. Human will causes us to forget the constancy and purity of God’s righteous will: ‘For we suffer from unrighteousness.’ At times we dread this, we revolt against it, we try to justify our unrighteousness: ‘grounded upon caprice, vagary and self-seeking – a will without faithfulness, logic or correlation, disunited and distraught within itself.’ Barth outlines the state of Europe, possessed by fiendishness, competition in business, passion and wrongdoing, also world war, further, class warfare, moral depravity and economic tyranny. As the argument develops, Barth paints a portrait of the result of this corrupt and fallen will:

The unjust will which imbues and rules our life makes of it, with or without our sanction, a weltering inferno. How heavily it lies upon us! How unendurably! We live in a shadow. We may temporarily deceive ourselves about it. We may temporarily come to an understanding with it … For the righteous will is by nature the unendurable, the impossible. We live by knowing that there is really something else in the world.

But so often unrighteousness triumphs: we make peace with conscience and convince ourselves that such wrong is really right. ‘But now in the midst of this sense of need and apprehension, as resistless and unbroken as the theme of a Bach fugue, comes the assurance of conscience.’ We perceive the righteous will of God above our warped and weakened will. Our greatest pain comes in perceiving this will, this pure righteousness of God. Barth traces this cry through the Hebrew prophets and into John the Baptist as figures ‘never to be erased from humanity.’

But now ‘comes a remarkable turn in our relation with the righteousness of God. The trumpet of conscience sounds … we feel the touch of holiness upon us.’ It is here that what was implicitly analogous to Crime and Punishment becomes explicit. Here Barth invokes The Tower of Babel, woven in with eritis sicut dues … As conscience touches us we fail to respond to the righteousness of God, instead we build a Tower of Babel:

Let us build us a city and a tower … whose top may reach into heaven; and let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth! We come to our own rescue and build The Tower of Babel. In what haste we are to soothe within us the stormy desire for the righteousness of God.

We do not let conscience speak to the end, we stifle, we cover, we placate by inventing our own righteousness – worse, our own religion. ‘We stand here before the really tragic, the most fundamental error of humanity. We long for the righteousness of God, and yet we do not let it enter our lives and our world.’ Again,

… we go off and build this pitiable tower at the Babel of our human righteousness, human consequence, human significance. Our answer to the call of conscience … (is) a single gigantic ‘as if’ (als ob) – as if our tower were important, as if something were happening, as if we were doing something in obedience to conscience.

Therefore God’s righteousness eludes us. This is the pattern for the entire address – we discern intimations of the righteousness of God in our conscience but we silence, abort, such intimations through busily building a Tower of Babel from our own righteousness by proudly inventing religions, cultures, human achievement. We are bedevilled by a longing for a new world but fail to achieve anything through our own efforts. Barth saw this particularly in the arrogance of the Western European nations that were locked into the annihilation of the First World War:

The righteousness of God has slowly changed from being the surest of facts into being the highest among various high ideals, and is now at all events our very own affair. This is evident in our ability now to hang it gaily out of the window and now to roll it up again, somewhat like a flag: eritis sicut deus! You may act ‘as if you were God, you may with ease take his righteousness under your own management. This is certainly pride. One might equally well, however, call it despair.

Later, Thurneysen was to write similar words in his theological study – Dostojewski (1921) – about how Raskolnikov was taken in by his idea, further, that he was bewitched, enchanted (bezaubert ), he was a man characterized by hurricanes of passion, capable of a titanic storming of heaven leading inevitably to a demonic plunge into hell:

… (such a) man becomes godlike and devilish … With the parable, however, there is also given the titanic temptation of the eritis sicut deus, the temptation to make out of the parable and allusion more than parable and allusion, the seduction to be superman, to be the man-god (zum Übermenschen, zum Mensch-Gott).

It is because of our despairing pride ‘that we build a Tower of Babel.’”

– Paul H. Brazier, Barth and Dostoevsky: A Study of the Influence of the Russian Writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky on the Development of the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, 1915–1922 (Paternoster Theological Monographs; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 49–51.

Are images of Jesus idolatrous?

It is impossible, it seems, for a theologian to think seriously about the arts and not before long be confronted with the question of visual representations of God and, for the Christian theologian, of God as incarnate. The Orthodox and the Reformed traditions, in particular, have long taken this question with the utmost seriousness (and that beside heated debates on the communicatio idiomatum or of those on the question of Christ’s presence in the Supper). The four main objections seem to be:

# 1. Violation of the second commandment

There are no commands to make pictures of our Lord. In fact such pictures, it is argued, clearly violate the second commandment. There are issues here of the ongoing question of idolatry, witnessed to in the Old Testament’s depiction of pagan idols described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone – i.e. of the ‘stuff’ of creation, of the work of human hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit (Ps 135:15–18). And, of course, there is the Decalogue’s second commandment:

‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth’. (Exodus 20:3–4)

Does this commandment put a fence around what artists can – and cannot – depict of God? Are images of Jesus – whether in Sunday School books, galleries, or spaces dedicated for public worship – idolatry? And if not, then how ought we understand the relation between the unique and unrepeatable revelation of God in the incarnation (and that attested to in the inscripturated word and from the Church’s pulpit, font and table) and visual depictions of that Word?

# 2. All attempts are false representations

Since no accurate representation of Christ can be produced by creatures, all attempts are false representations and can only promote idolatry.

# 3. We don’t know what Jesus looks like

Despite passages like Isaiah 53:2 and Revelation 1:13–16, the Bible does not give us enough information to make a faithful representation of Christ’s physical appearance. Therefore, it is obvious that God does not sanction portraits of God’s Son.

# 4. All plastic (i.e. material) representations of Jesus implicitly promote the ancient heresy of Nestorianism

The most serious objection to artists’ attempts to represent Jesus pictorially has been associated with this charge of Nestorianism. In other words, even if we had a photo of Jesus which depicted what he looked like, no human artistry can portray Christ’s divine nature. Therefore, all attempts are a lie and portray Jesus as infinitely less, or other, than he is as the God-human. This argument was proposed by the Council of Constantinople in 754:

‘If any person shall divide human nature, united to the Person of God the Word; and, having it only in the imagination of his mind, shall therefore, attempt to paint the same in an Image; let him be holden as accursed. If any person shall divide Christ, being but one, into two persons; placing on the one side the Son of God, and on the other side the son of Mary; neither doth confess the continual union that is made; and by that reason doth paint in an Image of the son of Mary, as subsisting by himself; let him be accursed. If any person shall paint in an Image the human nature, being deified by the uniting thereof to God the Word; separating the same as it were from the Godhead assumpted and deified; let him be holden as accursed’.

Regarding this council Philip Schaff, in History of the Christian Church. Volume IV: Mediæval Christianity from Gregory I to Gregory VI; A.D. 590–1073, writes:

The council [of Constantinople, 754], appealing to the second commandment and other Scripture passages denouncing idolatry (Rom. 1:23, 25; John 4:24), and opinions of the Fathers (Epiphanius, Eusebius, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, etc.), condemned and forbade the public and private worship of sacred images on pain of deposition and excommunication … It denounced all religious representations by painter or sculptor as presumptuous, pagan and idolatrous. Those who make pictures of the Saviour, who is God as well as man in one inseparable person, either limit the incomprehensible Godhead to the bounds of created flesh, or confound his two natures, like Eutyches, or separate them, like Nestorius, or deny his Godhead, like Arius; and those who worship such a picture are guilty of the same heresy and blasphemy. The eucharist alone is the proper image of Christ. (pp. 457–8.)

This issue is just one of the many in which the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth and his reformation great-grandfather, John Calvin, agree. They both held that:

  • Preaching and sacraments are central to the community’s activity;
  • That static works are a distraction to the ‘listening community’;
  • That the community should not be bound to a particular conception of Jesus;
  • That even the best art cannot ‘display Jesus Christ in his truth, i.e., in his unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted’ (Barth, CD IV.3.2, 867). To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV.2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship. See CD IV.2, 102–3.
  • ‘Whatever [people] learn of God in images is futile’ (Calvin, Institutes, I.xi.5). God’s majesty ‘is far above the perception of our eyes … Even if the use of images contained nothing evil, it still has no value for teaching’ (Inst., I.xi.12); and
  • ‘Theology cannot fix upon, consider, and put into words any truths which rest on or are moved by themselves – neither an abstract truth about God nor about man nor about the intercourse between God and man. It can never verify, reflect or report in a monologue. Incidentally, let it be said that there is no theological visual art. Since it is an event, the humanity of God does not permit itself to be fixed in an image’ (Barth, The Humanity of God, 57).

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Karl Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (CD III.2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

While Barth and Calvin could and did find proper recognition of the gift of God’s love expressed in human culture, they both failed to find in their theology a positive place for the plastic arts that they could find, for example, in music. Ah Wolfgang!

So what ought we make of Barth’s – and others (e.g. Calvin, Kierkegaard) – judgement against visual representations of Jesus? Are visual representations of Jesus really any more susceptible than words (poetry, sermons, etc) about Jesus? (One recalls here Calvin’s insistence that it is the heart that is factory of idols.) Does not God’s act of redeeming creation not extend to the arts’ service of giving an account to the creatureliness of God in Jesus Christ? Does Barth’s and Calvin’s rejection misunderstand the nature of the dynamic and continuing event which is the relationship of the viewer of a painting or a sculpture with the artwork, and of the freedom of the Word in that event? (See Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination, 21.)

For most of the Reformed, theology is something that is meant to be done with words, and not with images. But, of course, every decision we make about how we choose to communicate the good news is loaded with visual symbolism and reinforces a perception that God communicates with us in a particular kind of way. The question, therefore, is not, whether or not we should communicate visually; it is, rather, how we do so and what we say when we do.

One of the things that good art does is to shed light on the true nature of things; it broadens our horizons, enriches our capacity to see, alerts us to dimensions of reality that we had not seen before, and for which words, sometimes, are simply not enough. The arts help us to birth the kind of imagination and re-imagination that the good news itself fosters and encourages and demands and makes and invites. Artists see differently, but no less truthfully than scientists, how things are with the world. If we are to walk in our world well, and justly and with the mercy of God, then we cannot do so without the kind of re-imagining of reality and of human society that the arts promote and invite.

So NT Wright:

‘We have lived for too long with the arts as the pretty bit around the edge with the reality as a non-artistic thing in the middle. But the world is charged with the grandeur of God. Why should we not celebrate and rejoice in that? And the answer sometimes is because the world is also a messy and nasty and horrible place. And, of course, some artists make a living out of representing the world as a very ugly and wicked and horrible place. And our culture has slid in both directions so that we have got sentimental art on the one hand and brutalist art in the other. And if you want to find sentimental art then, tragically, the church is often a good place to look, as people when they want to paint religious pictures screen out the nasty bits. But genuine art, I believe, takes seriously the fact that the world is full of the glory of God, and that it will be full as the waters cover the sea, and, at present (Rom 8), it is groaning in travail. Genuine art responds to that triple awareness: of what is true (the beauty that is there), of what will be true (the ultimate beauty), and of the pain of the present, and holds them together as the psalms do, and asks why and what and where are we. You can do that in music, and you can do that in painting. And our generation needs us to do that not simply to decorate the gospel but to announce the gospel. Because again and again, when you can do that you open up hermeneutic space for people whose minds are so closed by secularism that they just literally cannot imagine any other way of the world being. I have debated in public in America with colleagues in the New Testament guild who refuse to believe in the bodily resurrection and, again and again, the bottom line is when they say ‘I just can’t imagine that’, the answer is, ‘Smarten up your imagination’. And the way to do that is not to beat them over the head with dogma but so to create a world of mystery and beauty and possibility, that actually there are some pieces of music which when you come out of them it is much easier to say ‘I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ than when you went in’. (NT Wright, ‘Jesus, the Cross and the Power of God’. Conference paper presented at European Leaders’ Conference, Warsaw, February, 2006).

Of course, as Murray Rae recently reminded a bunch of us here in Dunedin, the risk-taking work of re-imagining means that there can be no guarantee that misunderstanding and misinterpretation will be avoided. But neither do we have any such guarantee in the use of our words. In both cases, it seems, what we offer is an act of faith given under God’s imperative that we should share the good news. We offer in Christian witness so much as we have understood, knowing it to be partial, inadequate, and marred by our own sinfulness. And we do so in the name and under the inspiration of the God who makes eloquent the stumbling witness of our faith, and moulds our communication to good and loving purpose. It’s risky, but it is, it seems, God’s risk too.

Perhaps a few words from John de Gruchy would be a fitting way to conclude this post:

Art in itself cannot change society, but good art, whatever its form, helps us both individually and corporately to perceive reality in a new way, and by so doing, it opens up possibilities of transformation. In this way art has the potential to change both our personal and corporate consciousness and perception, challenging perceived reality and enabling us to remember what was best in the past even as it evokes fresh images that serve transformation in the present. This it does through its ability to evoke imagination and wonder, causing us to pause and reflect and thereby opening up the possibility of changing our perception and ultimately our lives … From a Christian perspective, the supreme image that contradicts the inhuman and in doing so becomes the icon of redemption is that of the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ. So it is not surprising that artists through the centuries have sought to represent that alien beauty as a counter to the ugliness of injustice. We are not redeemed by art nor by beauty alone, but by the holy beauty which is revealed in Christ and which, through the Spirit evokes wonder and stirs our imagination. (John W. de Gruchy, ‘Holy Beauty: A Reformed Perspective on Aesthetics Within a World of Ugly Injustice’ in Reformed Theology for the Third Christian Millennium: The 2001 Sprunt Lectures, 14–5).

Karl Barth on worship and the cost of discipleship (on Romans 12:1–2)

To celebrate my recent success, I awarded myself with a copy of The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Thus far, I’ve resisted the temptation to post on it, to rave about the homiletical energy of the twentieth-century’s greatest theologian, his exegetical insights and proficiency in what is arguably the preachers’ most difficult task, namely application. But I give in. Here he is on Romans 12:1–2, from a sermon preached on 3 March, 1918:

‘In the words “well pleasing to God” it is said that our thoughts, words and works are in need of God’s blessing if they are truly to be a worship of God. It is indeed right when we search for God and wish to bring about better conditions in the world, but God must also be able to say yes to the ways and means we have of doing it, for otherwise nothing will come of our efforts. It is indeed good, for example, to pray for and pursue the conversion of persons, but if one cannot put aside an evil way of being that pricks and stings, God is not in it. To give the needy from one’s surplus is also good, but whether or not God rejoices in it will depend, for example, on how one has gained the surplus. To turn the world upside down, like the Bolsheviks now want to do, would also be good and much needed, but when they wave around their automatic weapons, the blessing of God cannot be in it. Good, pure persons are needed in order to serve God in a good, pure way, a way that is well pleasing to God. What passes by this good and pure way of being can never lead to the goal.

I think that we now understand a little of what Paul meant when he said that a sacrifice is needed for a reasonable worship of God. Here we must look deeply into what is holy. Something must be brought, presented, given. In the words themselves we already notice something of that serious, radical, and personal decision that the Bible requires of us and before which we are rightly perplexed. It is difficult for us and even hurts to give something away, even if it were only a little money that we would rather keep, or a friendly word, when we would rather say something sullen or rude, or an hour of our time that we would rather have for ourselves. The word “sacrifice” always attacks us, like a sharp knife. We would rather serve God in some other way than through sacrifice. In what Paul calls a reasonable worship of God, the giving of a little money is not enough, nor is a good word, nor a little time. One must seriously question whether any of these is a “living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” In fact, they are holy sacrifices only when another and much greater prior sacrifice has taken place, so that it now stands behind them.

For there is only one sacrifice that God acknowledges and accepts from us, and if you do not make this sacrifice, the rest collapses like a house of cards. This one sacrifice, according to Paul, consists in “presenting your bodies.” What he means is your personhood, your own self, without making a difference between the outer and inner person or of what is spiritual in us and what is natural. He says expressly “your bodies!” and not “your souls!” What Paul means is that there is no difference, that when he speaks of the body he includes the soul. We like to make fine and seemingly intelligent distinctions, as when we say, “Inwardly I am also of this opinion, but outwardly I do not wish to show it”; or, “In my heart I stand on this side too, but with my person I would rather not confess it”; or, “In my soul I want to belong to God, but my body – which means all that I am outwardly in the concealment of my private life, in my family, in my business, in my position in the village – this body of mine may keep going along as usual and often goes fully other ways than the ways of God.”

The Bible does not make such fine and clever distinctions. Paul prevents them simply by saying, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God.” Here none of those distinctions and the like are acknowledged, such as when one reads worshipfully in the hymnbook on Sunday morning, but on Sunday afternoon goes a completely different way, as many of our teenagers in the confirmation class do. Here one is not allowed to be an idealist that reads good books in the evening, but in the factory during the day acts on the basis of the same principles, or rather lack of principles, as everyone else. Here one is not allowed to be a child of God who today cannot boast enough of the glory of truly trusting God, but tomorrow gets entirely out of sorts when their store of goods has dwindled in some small way.

Such fine distinctions are not possible for Paul. “Present your bodies as a sacrifice!” Then God will receive what God wills to receive from you and what God can use. As long as we do not wish to present our bodies, we wish to give nothing of ourselves. If we have once understood the inner and the outer, what belongs to the soul and what belongs to the body, one’s personal human spirit and one’s physical person – then we will sacrifice what must be sacrificed; then it will be a living sacrifice, holy and well pleasing to God, just as God is living and holy; then we will give ourselves into the power of God!

That is what is meant by a reasonable worship of God. What a pity it is and what a distress that at bottom we all fear the gods so much that we are all so religious and full of endeavor, and yet understand so little of this sacrifice, of giving ourselves, our bodies, as sacrifices into the power of God. Oh, how would the doors that are now closed to us open – all the doors of sin and care before which we so helplessly stand; the doors of persons we do not understand nor they us; the doors of sad social conditions that we presently cannot change – how would truth and salvation come to light, how would the change of things that we wish for happen, if we would only break out of all our so-called worship of God, our religions, convictions, and endeavors! We would break out of all these prisons, over which is written, “My intentions are good,” and instead enter into what God intends, into that reasonable worship of God in Spirit and in truth. This is what the Bible places before us in such a great, natural, and healthy way!’ – Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon (trans. John E. Wilson; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51–3.

Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology: A Review

Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology, by Edwin Christian van Driel. Pp. xii + 194. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978 0 19 536916 8. £45.

It was the brilliant John Duns Scotus who recalled that ‘God is not in a genus’ (Deus non est in aliquo genere), reminding us that our knowledge of God is impossible in any general sense. Indeed, Christian theology is premised on belief in divine self-disclosure and, moreover, that such disclosure is an act of grace. Duns Scotus also supposed that creation’s purpose and destiny concerns ‘co-lovers’ participating in the Triune life. It was for such that the Word of God became flesh, unveiling for us the causa finalis of our humanity. That this is God’s way for us – even if sin had not come into the human scene – bespeaks the inner meaning of the grace which precedes sin and testifies to the gospel logic of the incarnation.

Supralapsarianism, the subject of Edwin Chr. van Driel’s book Incarnation Anyway (a reworked version of his doctoral dissertation completed at Yale University), is a doctrine whose beginnings reach back at least as far as the twelfth century, even if van Driel’s treatment is concerned with its less hypothetically-speculative nineteenth- and early twentieth-century articulations. The first part of his essay (pp. 9–124) attempts to chart and examine the ways in which supralapsarian christology has been articulated. It does so via a consideration of three forms that the doctrine assumed in its nineteenth-century revival, namely in Friedrich Schleiermacher (‘the first major supralapsarian theologian since the Middle Ages’ (p. 9)), in Isaak August Dorner and in Karl Barth (on whom the most ink is spilt), attempting in each case to attend to the three ways in which God is thought to relate to God’s other – in redemption (Schleiermacher), in creation (Dorner), and in eschatological consummation (Barth). While there are occasions when readers may feel that van Driel constrains his subjects’ thought with a rigid logic foreign to their projects, in each case he attempts to expose the inner logic, coherence and strength of each articulation while not neglecting to draw attention to any weaknesses.

Van Driel argues that the conceptual structures of Schleiermacher’s supralapsarianism is determined both negatively and positively by the notion of absolute dependence and the inferred forms of divine omnipotence. He notes that, for Schleiermacher, sin is not excluded from the scope of divine causality – that God is the author of sin calls for a different locus for sin in the divine decree. God ordains sin in order to make humanity receptive to redemption. This move means that human sin acquires determining and logical priority over the incarnation. Indeed, van Driel outlines how in Schleiermacher’s schema, ‘sin and redemption are essential parts of our relationship to Christ. We need Christ because of our sin, and only because of our sin. If there were another reason why we relate to Christ, God would not have to introduce sin in the divine decree. We are connected to Christ only through his redemptive activity. There is no space for a meaningful relationship with Christ that is not marked by this’ (p. 25). And again: for Schleiermacher, ‘human beings will not be receptive to the divine gifts in Christ unless these gifts address an evil in their lives’ (p. 126). Under van Driel’s examination, the identified ‘fault lines’ in Schleiermacher’s ordo salutis (especially his sympathy with a felix culpa account) widen as the essay proceeds.

For Dorner, the incarnation is the necessary fruit of the divine decision to create ethical persons and of the divine determination that such become ‘full personalities’, a reality only possible in ‘interpersonal interaction with the ethical’ (p. 49). Dorner premises his arguments on the notion that God is a lover of love – the amor amoris – whose passion is to aggrandize the life of love in his other. This twofold surrender (of God to human beings, and of humans to God) is embodied in religion, the divine contribution to which is revelation, the consummation of which is the incarnation. For Dorner, the incarnation is a basic implication of God’s decision to create: ‘Decisive for whether one takes the incarnation to be means or end is what one takes to be the divine motivation behind it. For Dorner, the motivation for incarnation is embedded in the motivation for creation’ (pp. 59–60). This move, van Driel suggests, sponsors an unsatisfactory stepping stone in Dorner’s doctrine of creation and highlights what van Driel considers to be the most troubling and deep-lying ambiguity in Dorner’s supralapsarian christology. He continues:

In [Dorner’s] proposal, it is the necessity of God’s creative act that sets everything else in motion. God’s ethical necessity is expressed in the act of creation; given the nature of the ethical necessity, creation will be brought to consummation; given the same ethical necessity, this will be done by way of incarnation. None of this follows, though, when the act of creation is a contingent act. Of course, it could still be argued that God leads creation to consummation, and that the incarnation is central to consummation. In such a scenario, the governing divine act would not be given with God’s nature, but would be the result of a free act of God’s will. And if creation were embedded in God’s will rather than God’s nature, it would be better to start one’s theological account thereof not at the beginning but at the end of God’s work: What goal had God in mind when God freely called creation into being? What motivated God to create? Systematically this means that the argument for supralapsarian incarnation should not be embedded in the doctrine of creation but in eschatology. (p. 62)

With that note, van Driel turns to Barth’s ‘argument from consummation’, that requisite feature of Barth’s doctrine of election upon which van Driel will construct his own proposals. Van Driel observes how Barth’s supralapsarian christology takes its shape in his actualism. God’s election of Jesus Christ is primal in order, self-giving in nature, gracious in its motivation, creative in its effect, all-inclusive in its scope and supralapsarian in character, and the latter in a twofold sense – in terms of both predestination and christology: ‘Divine predestination is not a first step in a divine response to sin and neither is the incarnation … God’s election of Christ’s human nature is thus the first action in the divine relating to what is not God’ (pp. 67, 68). Again: ‘At the heart of Barth’s supralapsarianism lies … his reading of the biblical narrative as a narrative of election. Election is an eschatological category; and the eschaton is the first in order of the divine decrees. Object and subject of these decrees is Jesus Christ – not the Son as λóγος ασαρκος the preincarnate Word, but the Son as Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word. The incarnation stands thus at the very beginning of God’s relating to what is not God’ (p. 81). From here, van Driel turns to the question of the relationship between epistemology and sin: ‘That God unveils Godself by way of veiling is partly due to our sinfulness, but not wholly. The ontological and epistemic principles that govern divine revelation are not a result of sin, but given with the nature of Creator and creation. Incarnation, as the necessary means of divine self-disclosure, is therefore a supralapsarian event’ (p. 77).

Certainly Barth’s supralapsarian narrative recalls that creation forms the stage for covenant’s story – a story authored in the loving event called triune being, and whose meaning requires both soteriological and eschatological achievement – and that the creation which makes covenant possible does not exist for itself but for the gracious God upon whose will its future and being is contingent. However, according to his evaluation of Barth, van Driel identifies some adverse consequences of Barth’s account. He reserves most ink to attend to a concern regarding creational entropy, that ‘creation, in and by itself, will necessarily lapse into evil’ (p. 85) by ontological necessity. This elicits a helpful discussion by van Driel on time, eternity and history (pp. 111–17), and on the relationship between supralapsarianism and das Nichtige (pp. 118–24).

Building on Barth’s work (which van Driel finds to be the most satisfying of the three accents), van Driel turns in the second part (pp. 125–70) to expand on the notion of eschatological consummation, arguing that the logic of the incarnation is not contingent upon sin in any way (no felix culpa) but points to a divine will for (i) eschatological superabundance, (ii) the beatific vision, and (iii) divine friendship. The first of these attempts at a constructive argument is premised on the relation between the eschaton and the proton of creation, contending that the eschaton births an abundance and richness in intimacy with God and in human transformation which the proton did not know: ‘In Christ we gain more than we lost in Adam’ (p. 151). And because the notion of felix culpa makes such promise contingent upon sin (which by its very nature only alienates us from God), eschatological fulness (the embodiment of which happens in Christ) can only be understood in supralapsarian terms. Van Driel’s second supralapsarian argument directs us to the visio Dei. Here he extends his first argument and defends supralapsarianism on the basis that full enjoyment of the beatific vision for bodily beings requires sensory contact such as we are given sui generis in the incarnation, resurrection and ascension of the human God. Finally, van Driel arrives at the destination to which his entire essay seems directed, namely the notion of friendship with God and that of such a deep kind that the divine availability attested to in the logic of supralapsarian christology is the most compelling. Such friendship, van Driel avers, is not dependent finally on God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity but rather in the very opposite truth: God’s desire to reconcile estranged humanity finds its origin in the divine will for friendship. The fullest expression of this will is undressed in the incarnation and best attested to in supralapsarian logic. Throughout, van Driel resists concerning himself with the hypothetical situation voiced by the medievals of whether the incarnation would have taken place had humanity not sinned, and concerns himself with ‘Christ as we have him’ (p. 164). He also exploits the tendency (as he sees it) in infralapsarianism to minimize the eschatological dimensions of creation and those inclinations to reduce creation to that which exists, falls and is then redeemed, in favour of an account which witnesses to the divine determination to bring creation to its goal in Jesus Christ apart from any dependency upon a creation-fall-redemption schema.

Against those who would defend some version of felix culpa (and here van Driel names Schleiermacher, Gregory, Milton and Barth), Incarnation Anyway challenges Supralapsarians to ‘explore the meaning of the incarnation, the presence of God among us, as an excellent good in and of itself, and not take refuge in a doctrine of sin to beef up incarnation’s meaning. We do not need the bad to enjoy Christ’ (p. 131). Again: ‘we do not have to preach sin before we can preach Christ; we can preach Christ as the offer of love and friendship with God; and it is thereafter, in the light of that offer of friendship and love, that human beings discover themselves as sinners’ (p. 166).

A final section (pp. 171–5) offers a very brief, but helpful, genealogy of supralapsarianism. Some readers may benefit by reading this section first.

Incarnation Anyway could have been a much better book than it is. Unfortunately, too frequently it reads somewhat like a collation of separate and uneven pieces, not a few of which seem largely unrelated to his subject. It is unclear, also, why van Driel reserves disproportionate space (pp. 90–101) in this forum to continuing his debate with Bruce McCormack. Or why he includes a discussion on ‘more-dimensional reality’ (pp. 167–69). As interesting as both conversations are, as they stand they contribute little to his overall thesis. More substantially, I remain incredulous of van Driel’s articulation of the distinction between incarnation as gift to human nature and that as gift to human persons. He suggests that for those who contend that the Word’s assumption of fallen flesh changes the ontological status of humanity from the inside out then the ‘logic of assumption’ does all the work, and Christ’s over-againstness of our human natures is undermined. While the distinction van Driel identifies remains valid, the inclination to separate them is unfortunate, the description and analysis offered for each is unclear, and the available resources for holding both together in the tradition (not least the Reformed tradition out of which the author speaks) is ignored, even if here the critique of Dorner and Barth finds some traction. Finally, this study most properly belongs to a larger project, as the Bibliographical Appendix indicates, and would have been strengthened significantly had its author attended more fully to the genesis and developments in supralapsarian thought in Rupert of Deutz, Robert Grosseteste, Alexander of Hales, Albert the Great and, perhaps especially, in John Duns Scotus and his theology of election. That said, van Driel’s essay remains a welcome and too-lonely contribution to a topic of great import, and leaves the reader eagerly anticipating more from his pen on this topic, especially in those areas where he offers his own constructive proposals.

As the professor snips the richest bud for his lapel, his scalpel of reason lies on the tray: some weekly wanderings

Some more weekly wanderings

And here he is with Jan Garbarek & Manu Katche: