Monday, June 01, 2009

Barth on God's Covenant With Humanity

This is Eberhard Busch quoting and summing up parts of Karl Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation. I think this is hugely important stuff -- such that I hesitate to spoil it with introductory comments. So give it a read and I'll spoil it with follow-up comments instead:

"'Reconciliation . . . is the fulfillment of the covenant between God and man' . . . .

Barth’s understanding of the covenant has an unusual emphasis at this point when he says that God involves himself with humans despite sin. . . . if it were otherwise, God’s relationship to human beings would be dependent upon sin. Sin would either be immortalized or God would have nothing to do with humans apart from sin. As God’s reconciling reaction to sin takes place in the act of his [pre-existent] covenant will, it cannot thus be pulled into the undertow of sin.

For God, this can only mean allying himself with human beings notwithstanding their sin. According to Barth, the reconciliation that takes place in the fulfillment of God’s covenant has the character of an effective protest. Barth even speaks (and here he uses the concept in a different way than usual) of the character of judgment. Because it takes place as a reaction to sin in God’s covenant action, his judgment is the fulfillment of God’s faithfulness as he rejects Israel’s unfaithfulness . . . .

That reconciliation took place within the covenant means ‘with divine necessity’ that the Word became flesh, yet ‘not simply any flesh, any man humbled and suffering. It became Jewish flesh. The church’s whole doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement becomes abstract and valueless and meaningless to the extent that this comes to be regarded as something accidental and incidental.’"

(Quoted from Eberhard Busch, Barth, 2008, pages 42-43; referring to Barth excerpts from Church Dogmatics IV/1- 22, 34, 71-3,181-4)


jon said...

There is so much food for thought there, I hate to add to it. It is worth a careful read. And yet, I know that I wasn't getting Barth at first until I read it with others who helped me see the ramifications play out.

To me this excerpt offers up some very important correctives for some of the worst pitfalls of contemporary western evangelicalism.

Not on purpose, but by emphasis, I believe we have frequently made our portrait of God dependent upon sin, thus succumbing our concept of salvation to little more than scapism, and our motivation for faith to little more than fear and guilt.

For example, it may take years for the person "saved" at an end-times, fear-induced altar call to discover the grander scheme of God's movement toward the world, and opening them up to such things as hope, motivated by faith and love. (And if that's how it started for you, fine. Heaven knows God has graciously started many a relationship with person through such shaky evangelistic efforts). For me it was a rebirth for my faith to apprehend and comprehend a God whose gracious covenant with humanity preceded sin, and dealt with it without being defined by it.

Another corrective: We have also frequently abstracted Jesus from his Jewishness and morality from its contextual inception in Scripture as life-guided-rightly-by-God from context to context. By doing this we have nearly rendered Jesus' earthly life and the moral imperatives of Scripture valueless. What do I mean? Well, when we turn morality into abstract principles we render meaningless the relationship with the Person who uses them to guide into right living.

For example: We see this exposed the moment that our particular versions of "timeless morality" outlive the particular context in which they were born. The problem with legalism isn't so much the rules or applications people make to help them live rightly in their time, but the extension of each of those rules to every time and context, as if timeless principles to begin with, and as if perfectly interpreted at one time by one person for all times and all people.

I'm not saying there are no guiding principles, nor am I denying that Scripture has moral imperatives which carry force through time.

I am also not trying to say that sin is a minor blip on the radar screen of God's plan of salvation.

But without this grander vision which places Christ and the cross within an proper understanding of God's covenant with creation, and then with humanity through Israel, we do indeed end up with a view of God that succumbs Him to sin (as merely a reactionary god, otherwise unconcerned with us); makes His judgment of sin seem arbitrary; and renders the humanity of Christ and the very life of Jesus on earth little more than inconsequential, only meant to communicate timeless principles to us, leaving aside any understanding of his (or our) human situation or the grander narrative of Israel within which his (and our) life find all their meaning.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with a “bridge” understanding of the gospel - and it “worked”, I guess, for quite a while for me. But when I read McLaren’s “The Story We Find Ourselves In” (which pretty much presents these ideas of Barth’s in a narrative fashion), I was just blown away to find that God’s story (reconciliation) is so much better/grander than I first thought. Some might find it cheesy, but I’ve found McLaren’s 7-C’s that chart the narrative of God to be quite helpful: Creation, Crisis, Calling, Conversations/Cycles, Christ, Church/Community, Consummation. I’m not a big fan of “gospel presentations”, but if I had to do one, I would much rather chart it out this way than by simply using the bridge illustration.

jon said...

Sounds intriguing. My question is whether the C's between Creation and Christ adequately represent the period from the Patriarchs to Israel (which give meaning to what the Christ etc are about) or if they turn them into abstractions?

Anonymous said...

Good question.
I think it all depends on how one unpacks the stuff. If one simply rushes through Crisis, Calling, Conversations, by saying "things broke - God tried to fix it - it didn't work" - then we're missing out on a lot. And typically, I think most evangelicals would rush through the first stages - just to get to Christ.
But, personally, I've found McLaren to be theologically deep (enough), but easily accessible (The Conversations section is broken up into: Priests, Prophets, Poets, Philosophers... you can see what he's trying to do).

jon said...

yeah, cool.

i have been thinking ever since Hirsch said "Trinitarianism makes clumsy missiology" of coming up with a more holistically biblical (yet concisely presentable) and Trinitarian gospel presentation to replace the "bridge diagram".

SOunds like McLaren may have a decent one. THe other day in church I preached A Hitchhikers Guide to the Life of Christ as my first attempt.

Anonymous said...

good stuff guys. As a young boy (11 ish) I can remember asking Jesus to "come into my heart" because i was scared of going to hell. The "salvation experience" at that time was very real (that aspect of it still is) but very soon discovered there's a ton more stuff involved in our salvation (reconciliation to use Barth's term) that fire escaped. And it's taking all my life to unpack the ramifications of it all. Is that what this excellent discussion is about (other than the pretrib stuff)? As long as we don't forget that the "going to heaven not hell" stuff is still truth! Stu.