Barth on Judgment and Humiliation

One theme in the book Compassion (see this post for a review of the book) was the centrality of obedience and humility and even the necessity of humiliation. That chapter (entitled “Obedience”) was largely based on the first subsection of §59 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country” (IV/1, pp157-210). It is in this subsection that Barth explores, among many other things, the humiliation of Jesus Christ.

In the book group where we are considering the book that word “humiliation” was a significant stumbling block for some. Humble? That’s a good word. Humility? That too is a good word. But “humiliation” was a step too far. It was thought that it implies a stripping away of the basic dignity that is owed all humans. Humility is an excellent virtue. Humiliation, on the other hand, chips away at our very humanity.

If all we have to go on is the one chapter from the book Compassion, I would have some sympathy for this objection. But ever since reading that book, I’ve been once again plugging away at §59 of the Dogmatics. I feel like I’m back in seminary!) I just got started on the second subsection, which is about judgment (entitled, “The Judge Judged in our Place”), and it becomes quite clear why Barth chose that uncomfortable word “humiliation.” The remainder of this essay will be extensive quotes from the second subsection.

We have seen that in its root and origin sin is the arrogance in which man [sic] wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge. According to Gen. 3:5 the temptation which involves man’s disobedience to God’s commandment is the evil desire to know what is good and evil. He ought to leave this knowledge to God, to see his freedom in his ability to adhere to God’s decisions in his own decisions. He becomes a sinner in trying to be as God: himself a judge. To be a man – in the world which is hostile to God and unreconciled with Him – is to be the pseudo-sovereign creature which finds its dignity and pride in regarding it as its highest good and most sacred duty to have knowledge of good and evil and to inform itself about it (in relation to itself and others). To be a man means to practice to want to be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty. [p 231] …

The event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position, not only attacks this safe stronghold of man. It is not merely a moral accusation against the pride of man. It is not merely an intellectual exposure of the error which has led him into it. It is the fact by which the position of man [as judge] is taken away, by which it is made impossible and untenable, by which the safe stronghold is breached. Jesus Christ … has penetrated to that place where every man is in his inner being supremely by and for himself. This sanctuary [now] belongs to [Christ] and not to man. [p. 232] …

It is by this action that we are now removed from the judge’s seat, by the fact that Jesus Christ did for us what we wanted to do for ourselves.  … In His hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument [ie, being Judge]. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy. [p. 232] …

Abasement by an abstract “god” [ie, our conceptions of God, and even our conception of the pre-incarnate God that we might get from the Old Testament] is a safe enough matter which we can turn to our own glory. But abasement by God in the flesh, in the person of this fellow-man is a dangerous matter. It is a real and concrete abasement. If this man is my divine Judge, I myself cannot be judge any longer. I have forfeited the claim to be it and the enjoyment of being it. … Where does our own judgment always lead? To the place where we pronounce ourselves innocent, and where, on account of their venial or mortal sins, and with more or less indulgence and understanding or severity and inflexibility, we pronounce others guilty. That is how we live. And that is how we can no longer live in the humiliating power of what took place in Jesus Christ. We are threatened by it because there is a complete turning of the tables. [p. 233]

The other [side of the coin] is that the fact that Jesus Christ judges in our place means an immeasurable liberation and hope. The loss which we always bewail and which we seem to suffer means in reality that a heavy and indeed oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge. It is a nuisance, and at the bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence.  It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent , we are in the right. It is similarly an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can [234] make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. It is a terrible thing to know good and evil if only in this ostensible and ineffective way, and to have to live with this doubtful knowledge. It agrees quite simply with what is written in Gen. 2:17, that if we eat of this tree we must die. We are all in process of dying from this office of judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is, therefore, a liberation that it has come to pass in Jesus Christ that we are deposed and dismissed from this office because He has come to exercise it in our place. [pp 233f]

A Second Look at Glory

Transfiguration Sunday – as a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary – is the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 26 in 2017). It is about Jesus being transfigured, his hidden divine glory being revealed. It serves as the culmination of the Christmas cycle, where “revealing,” “light,” and “glory” are major themes. In terms of the lectionary Easter Cycle (which will start three days later), it gives context to the suffering that Jesus is about endure as he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. By juxtaposing the Transfiguration with Ash Wednesday/Lent/Crucifixion, it emphasizes that Jesus’ road to Jerusalem is a path of choice. Suffering and death were not inevitable as Jesus came up against the political powers. He submits himself to humiliation, not out of inevitability, but out of obedience to the Father.

The Feast of Transfiguration (in contrast to the Lectionary Day) is on Aug. 6 so this is a displaced Sunday that serves the purposes of the lectionary rather than celebrating the historical feast. This dislocation is something to which I will circle back momentarily.

I grew up on divine glory. Long before I was a Presbyterian I learned the first question of the Westminster catechism, which seems to belong to the whole Protestant Church and not just Presbyterians. A contemporary renderings of it reads, Q: What is a person’s chief end? A: A person’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.

Once I became Presbyterian, I realized the answer’s order (glory first, enjoyment second) and the placement of the question (first in the catechism) is no accident. Presbyterian theology is sorted around the idea of God’s glory. It’s God’s primary activity in the sense that God glorifies himself whenever God does anything. Why did God create? To glorify himself. Why did God allow the flood? To glorify himself. Why did God call forth Israel? To glorify himself. Why did God redeem? Well, you get the idea.

This year a simple question popped into my mind as the Lectionary Sunday of Transfiguration looms: Is all that actually true? I don’t think so because it stands counter to Jesus’ life and it’s revelation of the true character of God. While it is obviously true and very important that God is glorious and his glory shines forth all over the place, when we start with glory as the organizing principle, it manages to get our relationship with God out of sorts.

The chief end of God is [and here there are a variety of words we might use which I can’t decide between] fellowship, communion, union, all relational words that are rooted firmly in the divine attribute of love rather than glory. God is glorious because the glory arises out of God’s love and not vice versa. If glory were the starting point, the relationship would be profoundly different. It would be about God and not about God-with-us, it would be about God’s advantage over us. “For God so sought to glorify Himself that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life in order that God could further glorify himself.” (Well, it isn’t an exact quote.)

August 6 is not exactly a high point on the liturgical calendar (aside from the fact that it is a Great Feast of the Church).  It is connected with first fruits (and grapes are a big part of the Orthodox feast). But there is no grand cycle surrounding it (like Lent or Advent). It’s just sort of there all on its own. And this is also, properly, the point of divine glory. It’s always there, it’s always fabulous when we se see it. We know we will bask in it in eternity. But the story of creation, redemption and the consummation of all things focuses on a different story arc altogether. Not much actually revolves around the divine glory itself.

And while there is little to no historical precedent (except in the last 500 years) for making divine glory central, there is a down side to such a practice. Glory is a “power” concept while love and fellowship are “servant” concepts. While the Old Testament is full of glory and awe and the “awe-ful” God, Jesus, true God come to earth in order to reveal God’s most fundamental true character, hid his glory and revealed the more foundational attribute of servanthood instead.

Starting with glory will give us a human kingdom, with all its abuses and horrors. Starting with servanthood and fellowship will give us the upside down kingdom (in John Howard Yoder’s words) that is no kingdom at all, but rather the pervasive Reign of God that is so hidden, smart people think they’re being really smart when they say that God can’t exist. Can you imagine the Twitter storm we would be subjected to if the Society of Really Smart People That Really Matter to the World decided the President of the United States didn’t exist?

But God’s not like that. God won’t tweet in protest when God doesn’t get the proper divine recognition and thus made really great. God is most glorified when God’s not the object of the world’s adoration, and instead the secret servant of that world. God is most glorified when God brings order to the chaos in the form of a wind over the chaotic sea, or a dewy breeze in a Garden. It is glorious precisely because it’s hidden, and thus accessible to everyone God wants to be with, even the least of us.

So, what’s the point of Mat. 17:1-9. the Gospel Lesson about the Transfiguration? In this context, it is that the true glory of Jesus Christ is that he veils his splendor so that the splendor itself will not lord over us. That true splendor of servanthood is revealed when Jesus is momentarily transfigured and then willingly returns to his veiled human self, telling the disciples to keep it all a secret. Divine splendor is always there, but the glory is that the splendor, the greatness, the power, the perfection is hidden so that Jesus, the Word and true revealer of God, can be a servant and call us friend.

What is Salvation and the Task of the Christian Life?

A review of Compassion, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, 1966, rev. ed. 1982, Image Books.

I read this book as part of a group book study. Very early in the study, one of my study partners commented that I was having a real problem with the idea of compassion and was clearly pushing it away, or at the very least pushing against it. That wasn’t true but at that point in the book, I couldn’t put my finger on just what I was pushing against. Eventually it became clear.

There are two very different ways of understanding our salvation. The one, most common in Roman Catholic and Protestant communions, is that salvation is a transformation of the heart and will and thus is worked out ethically (although I’m not sure this is the best word). God changes my mind allowing me to change my actions. The Orthodox understand salvation to be far deeper and more pervasive than that. Salvation is physical and encompasses the whole person, body in addition to mind and will.

There is a profound unity of body and soul, heart and will. In Orthodox anthropology the will would be classified as a bodily (or animal) function, and when Christ united himself with humanity, he united himself, even at this most primitive animal level in order that our whole being could be saved.

The differences between these two conceptions of salvation are often subtle and a bit hard to grasp. I will offer two examples from the book. The first comes in ch. 4, entitled “Community.” The foundation of the authors’ understanding of community is Phil 2:1-2. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

The Orthodox begin, not with the mind, but with the body. Community begins in communion, which is a process of union with Christ which is physical and spiritual (the word mystical is helps convey this profound unity). At the Table I eat his body and drink the blood of the covenant. As a result of this a union begins to be formed that is completely real, although invisible.

The call to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” is therefore not the goal, but rather a necessary warning. A body (in this case, the Body of Christ), that is mystically united cannot be warring against itself. In medicine we call this cancer. The unity that Paul calls for is thus an outworking of a far deeper unity that already exists objectively.

In ch. 7, entitled “Patience,” the authors consider the need for discipline. All three are Roman Catholic priests and they have a difficult history to overcome on this subject, because “discipline” in the form of misguided practices such as self-flagellation, has a long history in the Roman Catholic church. Instead of offering a classic or historic definition of discipline they opt for the Protestant version:

“In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on a lamp stand what has been kept under a basket.” This is not a bad definition as far as it goes, but this understanding of discipline will result in a feeble light.

Again, we need to remember that salvation is not only mental but physical. We were created in God’s image, and from that starting point we need to grow into the fullness that this divine image allows. The word that’s used to express this is a Greek word that is problematic to translate. Nous, is sometimes translated mind and sometimes translated heart, and refers to the most inner part of our being. (Note: the word “like-minded” and “mind” that appears twice in Phil. 2:1-2, above, is a different word, phroneo.)

The most remarkable characteristic of the nous, is that after it is brought to life from spiritual death (the first step of salvation) is that it can grow … and grow. It reflects, to the extent possible in a created being, the infinity of God. Through the Spirit it is filled with divine love that shines out in the darkness, and as the nous grows, it is able to “contain” or “reflect” (here I suspect human language fails) more and more of the divine light.

But expanding or stretching out our nous requires discipline; not just an uncovering of what is already there, but a further development of what the divine image might become. Paul compares it to athletics (both a boxer and a runner) and military training. Thus, this process of discipline is called askesis (the Greek word from which we get the English athletic) and it is often compared to military boot camp.

I realize that at this point we get into an area of the spiritual life where there is a profound difference between the Latin west and Greek east. There was a great controversy in the 14th century, called the Hesychast controversy that had to do with this precise thing. The Orthodox and Catholics came down on different sides of this controversy. I therefore realize that Roman Catholic and Protestant readers might well have some heartburn over this. But that is not the question at hand, the question is, “Why do I find myself pushing this book away?” It’s not that I have a problem with their ideas about compassion, it’s that I find their conception of salvation, and thus the root and outworking of compassion, to be truncated.

This differing understanding of the expanse of our salvation truly comes to a head in ch. 9, entitled, “Action.” The chapter begins by saying that the discipline of prayer necessarily leads to the discipline of action. They turn to James to remind us that faith without works is dead. Thus, the goal of the Christian life is the active life. It is a very specific sort of active life to be sure. Christian action is not action for action’s sake, it is an outgrowth of the disciplines of patience, prayer, etc., but action – being in the world – is where all these disciplines inevitably lead us.

From an Orthodox perspective, this is quite a muddled version of salvation. All of these disciplines, this askesis, leads to the transformation of the person. The goal is not centered in “the other” and particularly in service to the other, the goal lies within the self. This is certainly an idea that service oriented Christianity finds troubling, so more needs to be said.

Since salvation is ultimately physical and not ethical, our disciplines need to focus on the preparation of our physical selves (through prayer, fasting, alms, the three classic disciplines of the church) so that God can transform us. This does not mean that Christians ought not care about the world, it rather puts into perspective how Christians ought to care for the world. As I am transformed, my nous expands and is filled with more and more of God’s love. Thus the actions that would be described as service to the world are not something I do, they are something that I am.

It does little good, from the perspective of God’s Reign, to help the poor because, as Jesus reminded us, the poor will always be with us. Helping the poor, in this context, is an application of the sort of “works” that Martin Luther and the Protestants railed against. Rather than being an expression of God’s Reign, it is an attempt to help it along or to bring it about.

I suspect most Protestants will disagree with me. Presbyterians are especially fond of the dynamic between grace and gratitude. God gives us his grace and we respond with gratitude. Our action in the world is not works because it is a response to salvation, i.e. gratitude, rather than attempt to secure salvation. My response to this is that it still sells the breadth of salvation short and therefore fails to faithfully describe what’s going on.

So I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it is. There is plenty of room for ecumenical dialog and further nuance. But my starting point, if that discussion is ever to happen, is that this book failed to take seriously the depth of salvation and, as a result, reduced compassion to an activity that can never be a satisfying form of service.

Life and Prosperity or Death and Adversity

Why is there a “second Law” (the meaning of the word “Deuteronomy”) in the Old Testament? The people of Israel have been desert nomads for 40 years. That is more than a generation of people, so only the old people remember the mighty acts of God: the plagues, the escape from Egypt, the terror of Mt. Sinai when God gave them the Law. For this new generation, life has been like that of the Bedouin, following the herds of sheep and goats as they search for grass and water.

But now they are on the brink of moving into a new territory that is fertile enough to allow them to settle down. The Law God gave them was designed for this new life. It addresses things like land ownership, dealing with permanent neighbors, a holy city and a temple, that were not a part of their life for the last forty years.

This is why it was necessary for the people to reaffirm their commitment to the Law that God gave them (thus, a so-called second Law). This week’s Old Testament text, Deut. 20:15-20, is the culmination of that exercise. They have gathered. They have heard the Law. They must now make a choice. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15).

We don’t often think of God’s Law, or any law for that matter, in these terms. When we think of Law we think of an arbitrary rule. But God’s Law is a different sort of thing. It reflects fundamental reality. To oppose this Law is to try to fight reality itself. This is why Moses describes the choice as “life and prosperity” vs. “death and adversity.”

Moses warns the people that if they don’t obey, “I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (v. 18).

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Karl Barth describes the result of the sinful life in the following manner: “[The sinful one] stands under the wrath and judgment of God. He is broken and destroyed on God. It cannot be otherwise” (CD/IV:1, 175).

Moses’ words ring of arbitrary rules: If you don’t obey God, you will perish. Similarly, when we hear that Bible word “wrath,” we again think of arbitrariness and probably have a picture of an angry God. But Barth defines wrath in a completely different manner that fits perfectly with what Moses describes in Deuteronomy. Reality is thus and so. In the short term defying reality (by cheating your neighbors, not caring for the poor, etc.) may bring great reward, but in the long term, fighting against reality will only destroy you. As Barth says it, such a person ends up being broken and destroyed on God (note: not by God, but on God) like a race car that cuts a corner, ends up on the grass, and spins into the wall, the problem isn’t an angry wall, the problem is physics and bad driving.

Since we are not big enough to see the full sweep of reality and how it all works together, it is easy for us to see these rules of the road as arbitrary. (Don’t drive ont he grass at 200 mph; don’t cheat your neighbor.) Now that we have made the great turn and have set our faces toward the cross of Good Friday and the upcoming struggle of Lent, we are reminded that what we are about to do is try to align ourselves with reality so that we avoid the rocks in the midst of the storms of life.

This Deuteronomy text is not a call to just obey a bunch of rules, it is a call to be careful so that we can live.

The Great Turn

Thursday, Feb 2, is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It occurs forty days after Nativity. There is a twofold logic to the feast that is more detailed than I want to get into in this essay, but this article offers a good overview.

Today most Christian communions consider Christmas to be a twelve day event stretching from Nativity (Dec. 25) to Epiphany (Jan. 6). This is an historical accident that, to a certain extent, has to do with various calendar systems. An oversimplified version is as follows: Certain older calendar systems were (and are, because so-called “Old Calendarists” such as certain Russian Orthodox groups and the Coptic Church) off twelve days from the Gregorian Calendar that we use today in our secular lives. December 25 on the old calendar is Jan. 6 on the new.

Long before that Christmas was a 40 day event (much like Easter, which is a 50 day event from Pascha to Pentecost). For instance, in 380 Egeria said that the Feast of Presentation was observed forty days after Nativity and marked the end of the Christmas season. Emperor Justinian codified many of the practices that had been normative in the church but never written down, and he said that the sermon for this Feast had to be focused on the Prayer of Simeon, or Nunc Dimitis, as it is called in Latin.

A forty day Christmas season makes a great deal more sense than a twelve day season because forty days typical marks a great salvation type event in scripture. Even though we no longer celebrate the Feast of Presentation as the end of Christmas, it offers a clue in one of the great turns in the modern Revised Common Lectionary.

For several Sundays after Christmas and Epiphany, the appointed scripture texts focus on “light”: A light has dawned, a great light is coming out of the east, let your light shine, etc. This is a season of simply reveling in the revelation of the light, so to speak. And then, somewhere along the line, the focus changes and we begin to hear texts of repentance. For a few weeks we look backward at the birth of Christ, and then, somewhere along the line, although there is no precise moment in the lectionary when this occurs, we turn around and start looking forward to Lent. The texts during this period might be called pre-repentance texts. Micah tells us we need to act justly, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, for instance.

This great turn in the lectionary roughly corresponds to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. In Europe this feast is often called Candelmas. It is a service for the blessing of the candles and a service of candles. It is the final hurrah for our forty day period of reveling in the light of Christ. If we think seasonally, there is a palpable sense that winter is nearly over and we must now prepare for spring. The light of our candles is slowly recognized as a paltry prefiguring of the great dawning of the true day, the Dayspring.

This realization calls for action! We must get ready. We must evaluate our lives and measure them by the ruler of God’s truth. We must do a strength test and see where we are strong, but also where we are week and need to beef up. In this way we prepare for Lent, so that this forty day spiritual boot camp can be used most effectively as we prepare for the spiritual battle of Holy Week.

Foolish to the Perishing

In the congregation where I grew up, we were not people of the cross, the minister said, we were people of the empty tomb. There was a cross in the sanctuary, but it was an empty cross. No dead Jesus for us; we were resurrection people. The congregation was not unique and as I look back on this I am struck mostly by what this says about our contemporary Christian culture. We  have so fully embraced the cross, that it has become a stepping stone on our way to the victorious Christian life.

This Sunday’s lectionary readings (Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-21, Mat. 5:1-12) help put this in perspective. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” is how Paul begins this week’s epistle reading. What Paul is getting at (as is Jesus when he begins the Sermon of the Mount with Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.) is familiar to us. The world’s values ought not be (in fact, they cannot be) our values. Jesus’ values are the sort of thing that, if you think about it logically, will get us into the poor house, give us diseases, and ultimately get us killed. This is no way to run a kingdom!

But we’ve heard that for 2,000 years, and after 2,000 years of repetition, the rough edges of the message have been smoothed away and, since we already know what’s coming, we give assent with a momentary horror at how utterly upside down and difficult this would be if we were to take it literally, and then we take that rough diamond of the gospel now smoothed and shaped into a lovely gem, a piece of jewelry, and go on with our life.

That’s why that minister could move so conveniently and quickly past the cross and on to the resurrection. It’s a difficult thing, but it’s a known difficulty. Yes we have to die, but after that victory!

Today, may we should simply stop after the first half of that sentence: Yes, we have to die.

The resurrection is not ours to do or not do, the cross is the part we must embrace, Once we get the hang of that, the resurrection will take care of itself. If we can actually come to a full stop and live in that manner, we are indeed blessed.

God Is Not His Own Prisoner

I’ll continue quoting Barth in a second post. (See previous post for context.) Calvin isn’t named, and I suspect Barth is still critiquing the Lutherans of his day, but this bit gets to the heart of one of Calvin’s grave errors (that is, an abstract ideal of divine immutability) that led him inexorably to affirm absolute predestination in spite of what scripture says.

His immutability does not stand in the way of [the incarnation]. It must not be denied, but this possibility [that God’s absoluteness is modulated by the incarnation, that God, as a result of love, changes] is included in His unalterable being. He is absolute, infinite, exalted, active, impassible, transcendent, but in all this He is the One who loves in freedom, the One who is free in His love, and therefore not His own prisoner. He is all this as the Lord, and in such a way that He embraces the opposites of these concepts even while He is superior to them.

As the paragraph goes on, Barth highlights several of the divine attributes that Protestant theologians too often treat in the abstract.

Omnipresence

His particular, and highly particularised, presence in grace, in which the eternal Word descended to the lowest parts of the earth (Eph. 49) and tabernacled in the man Jesus (Jn. 114), dwelling in this one man in the fulness of His Godhead (Col. 29), is itself the demonstration and exercise of His omnipresence, i.e., of the perfection in which He has His own place including all other places.

Omnipotence

His omnipotence is that of a divine plenitude of power in the fact that (as opposed to any abstract omnipotence) it can assume the form of weakness and impotence and do so as omnipotence, triumphing in this form.

Eternity

The eternity in which He Himself is true time and the Creator of all time is revealed in the fact that, although our time is that of sin and death, He can enter it and Himself be [p 188] temporal in it, yet without ceasing to be eternal, able rather to be the Eternal in time.

Etc. And finally:

God does not have to dishonour Himself when He goes into the far country, and conceals His glory. For He is truly honoured in this concealment. This concealment, and therefore His condescension as such, is the image and reflection in which we see Him as He is. His glory is the freedom of the love which He exercises and reveals in all this. In this respect it differs from the unfree and loveless glory of all the gods of human imagining.

Note: Barth then offers a 3,400 word footnote or excursis in which he establishes all this in scripture. I chose not to include it, you’ll have to look that one up yourself. 🙂

Church Dogmatics, IV:1, pp. 187f)

Because Our Concept of God is Too Narrow … Far too Narrow

Ooh la la: Ice storm! Stayed home from work!! Reading Barth!!! Doesn’t get much better than that. Here’s today’s goody from the Church Dogmatics (IV:1, p. 186. 1956 ed., to be specific). Barth is critiquing the idea that the incarnation is “God against God,” an idea that was evidently quite popular among the German Lutherans of his day. What I find so moving is Barth’s emphasis on taking God at face value and being humble in the face of what we find.

We begin with the insight that God is “not a God of confusion, but of peace” (1 Cor. 1433). In Him there is no paradox, no antinomy, no division, no inconsistency, not even the possibility of it. He is the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness nor interplay of light and darkness (Jas. 117). What He is and does He is and does in full unity with Himself. It is in full unity with Himself that He is also—and especially and above all—in Christ, that He becomes a creature, human, flesh, that He enters into our being in contradiction, that He takes upon Himself its consequences. If we think that this is impossible it is because our concept of God is too narrow, too arbitrary, too human—far too human. Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed Himself and His nature, the essence of the divine. And if He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser than He and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence. We have to be ready to be taught by Him that we have been too small and perverted in our thinking about Him within the framework of a false idea of God. It is not for us to speak of a contradiction and rift in the being of God, but to learn to correct our notions of the being of God, to reconstitute them in the light of the fact that He does this. We may believe that God can and must only be absolute in contrast to all that is relative, exalted in contrast to all that is lowly, active in contrast to all suffering, inviolable in contrast to all temptation, transcendent in contrast to all immanence, and therefore divine in contrast to everything human, in short that He can and must be only the “Wholly Other.” But such beliefs are shown to be quite untenable, and corrupt and pagan, but the fact that God does in fact be and do this in Jesus Christ. We cannot make them the standard by which to measure what God can or cannot do, or the basis of the judgment that in doing this He brings Himself into self-contradiction. By doing this God proves to us that He can do it, that to do it is within His nature. And He shows Himself to be more great and rich and sovereign that we had ever imagined. And our ideas of His nature must be guided by this, and not vice versa.

We have to think something after the following fashion. As God was in Christ, far from being against Himself, or at disunity with Himself, [p 187] He has put into effect the freedom of His divine love, the love in which He is divinely free. He has therefore done and revealed that which corresponds to His divine nature.

God’s High Humility

So I’m reading this okay book on compassion and in one chapter the authors quote ch. XIV of Barth’s Dogmatics four times. Was kind of bored with the book so I pulled out that volume and began to read that chapter entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country.” I just ran across this nugget:

In the fact that God is gracious to man, all the limitations of man are God’s limitations, all his weaknesses, and more, all his perversities are His. … In being gracious to man in Jesus Christ, He also goes into the far country, into the evil society of this being which is not God and against God. He does not shrink from him …

God shows himself to be the great and true God in the fact that He can and will let His grace bear this cost, that He is capable and willing and ready for this condescension, this act of extravagance, this far journey. What marks out God above all false gods is that they are not capable and ready for this.

[Okay, here’s the good part!]

In their otherworldliness and supernaturalness and otherness, etc., the gods are a reflection of the human pride which will not unbend, which will not stoop to that which is beneath it. God is not proud. In His high majesty he is humble. It is in this high humility that He speaks and acts as the God who reconciles the world to Himself.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation (IV, 1), pp. 158f.

The Pointing Prophet

John-the-Baptist-Matthias-Grunewald-1024x908This Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John 1:29-42 begins with John the Baptist saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s an affirmation that John repeats again when he sees Jesus the next day. This text is the subject of Matthias Grunewald’s famous picture of John the Baptist at the foot of the Cross pointing at Jesus, with the Lamb of God looking on, in the Isenheim Altarpiece.

It was through Karl Barth that I discovered the image, he refers to it several times in the Dogmatics and it is the featured front piece in his biography. In the Grunewald image Karl Barth famously saw the “hand of judgment and grace” in the pointing finger of John the Baptist.

But as I have contemplated the image over the years I see in it a message specifically for preachers. The text from John 1 is familiar and comfortable. The phrase “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is an integral part of the liturgy. The metaphor “lamb of God” has so many great preaching possibilities. It’s easy to get lost in the potential of John the Baptist as a character and the phrase as a literary springboard.

And this is always the temptation for the preacher. How many times have I heard that someone attends a church because the pastor is such a great preacher? (Actually, I heard it again yesterday afternoon smoking with some other pastors and priests at the local cigar lounge.) How seductive is it for the preacher to put all his energy into a great sermon because great preaching gets exactly that result?

But in the Isenheim Altarpiece we see a glimpse of authentic preaching. Truly great preaching operates on two levels. On the one hand it is “beautiful” in the sense that it is accessible, understandable, winsome, and attuned to the subject at hand. This is the spotless lamb at the prophet’s feet. But at the same time great preaching is terrifying (and here I have in mind the original meaning of “awesome” – full of awe) because our God is an awesome God. And if the message comes across in the treacly manner that the cloying praise chorus of the same name comes across, preaching has utterly missed its mark.

Reality is a point in life that is sometimes mystery, sometimes utter befuddlement, sometimes happy, sometimes terror, and often very ugly. Reality is a point where life actually lived encounters the true God who is seemingly inaccessible because he is encountered at that point of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness. Great preaching is pointing to that very spot of mystery-befuddlement-happiness-terror-ugliness and showing that God-in-Christ is right there in the midst of it. This is the disfigured and pock-marked Jesus hanging on the cross, weighted down so heavily with our burdens that the cross-piece on which he is hanging bends toward the earth.

And the congregation? They don’t even seem to realize the pointing prophet exists. They are on the other side of that radix of reality looking upon Christ weeping (with horror? with sadness? with joy? No, all three!), because at this specific point where they find themselves, God-in-Christ truly dwells, as revealed in the truly great sermon.

Later (in John 3), John the Baptist says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” That is indeed what we see in the Isenheim Altarpiece, and precisely what truly great preaching embodies.