Karl Barth on Samuel, Saul, and the Divine Condescension of Election

Divine sovereignty and election are the manner in which God reveals his humility in contrast to, and as a solution to, human pride, according to Karl Barth. He offers an illustration in his exegesis of 1 Samuel 8-31 (found in the Church Dogmatics, IV/1, pp. 437-445). The people went to Samuel and demanded a king. But “from 1 Sam. 8 we see clearly that the existence and function of a human king in Israel are alien and indeed contrary to the original conception of the covenant … The Judges of an earlier period, of whom Samuel was the last, were called to their work directly by God and as the need arose” (p. 438). Given that kings are contrary to the covenant (a claim which Barth defends quite extensively), it is surprising that God agrees to their demand. “Indeed Yahweh Himself undertakes the election and appointment of a king for Israel, and Samuel, for his part, can only be the instrument of this election and appointment which obviously contradict everything that has gone before and the Law which Israel has followed” (p. 439). The text makes clear that God is not changing his mind about the covenant (Barth cites 1 Sam. 15:29f), rather,

According to 1 Sam. 8:18 even God’s connivance and condescension to the people in this matter are simply an act of judgment: “And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.” God gave them up (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) to their own hearts’ desire, to their perverted judgment. He punished their sin by their sin, simply letting it take its course. But that is not good at all, and it is not the decisive point. The grace of God is not extinguished or withdrawn in this His apparent concession. He knows very well what He is will and doing when He accedes to the perverted judgment of Israel its place and possibility. Even in accepting Israel’s plan He can master it. (p. 439)

Even in the midst of his condescension (and we might add humiliation) in the face of the request, God continues with his plan.

[T]he kingship was to express the monarchy and the sole lordship of the grace of God. This was the purpose of the divine concession to Israel’s sinful and perverted demand. It is a concession in which Yahweh not only maintains His control but exercises it in a new way. He does not give up His will and plan. He carries it through in the face of and in opposition to Israel’s sin.

Of course Saul didn’t carry out his side of the deal and (as Barth goes on to explain in no small detail). Rather than serve the people, he began to make demands of the people so that the people began to serve the institution. Saul even sought to usurp the prophetic role. This ultimately leads to Saul’s downfall and death (in stark contrast to Aaron, who did as the people told him and led them into apostasy, but never usurped the role of Moses). Although we have the interlude of David, the second king who was also elected by God and anointed by Samuel, Saul, not David, was the precursor of things to come. The monarchy turned out to be a disaster for Israel.

What is the meaning of this turn of events? “Again, it was the sin of Israel not to be satisfied with the old form. This is the shadow which lies from the very first on the new form of the covenant, the Israelitish monarchy. It did not need to be darkness. It could mean even higher and deeper grace, like the covenant, which, although it had become something stern and hard because of the sin of the first man, had not been destroyed, but had become all the higher and deeper grace in antithesis to the sin of man” (p. 442). In the end the people were required to serve the king (and institution) rather than the institution serving the people.

The king (and lurking in the shadows of Barth’s critique of “the Israelitish monarchy” is his critique of the papacy, which he clearly sees as a parallel rejection of God’s covenantal structure for the church) would demand difficult and burdensome things of the people. The king would even, on many occasions, lead the people in the direction of great evil. But this did not mean that the people of Israel should cease being Israelites and go out and form a new nation that followed the covenant. Because God’s grace could be expressed in “the higher and deeper grace” of God’s humble activity “in antithesis to the sin of man” in spite of the burden and corruption of the institution, those still committed to the covenant could gladly remain faithful to the covenant, in spite of the false and unnecessary institutional burden being placed on them.

Furthermore, Barth’s recommendation is not that Protestants cease being Protestants and just return to the Roman Catholic Church. What’s done is done and there is always the mystery of God’s higher and deeper grace in our current fractured state. But he is making the point that even when we are part of an institution (whether monarchy or papacy or other institutional church, such as the German Reformed Church that served the purposes of the Third Reich during Barth’s lifetime) that is corrupt, God remains working actively in antithesis to human sin, but in a condescending and hidden manner. Our primary job as people is first to be faithful. Our faithfulness may happen to fix the system, but it usually does not. But it is not our job to fix the system, our job is to remain faithful to the covenant in the situation in which we find ourselves.

It is striking that Barth never left the German church. (Yes, he was in northern Switzerland, but the body he was a part of was part of the German church and not an independent Swiss Reformed body.) It is also striking that while he never condemned Bonhoeffer for his act of treason against Hitler that ultimately led to Bonhoeffer’s death, neither did Barth praise it as the normative model of faithfulness. He certainly never called Bonhoeffer a martyr, for he died, not because he was a Christian, but because he was a traitor to the Reich. In the end, while Bonhoeffer’s action has remained a shining example of Christian resistance, it had little effect on the church beyond his example. Barth’s path was different. He remained in the German church. Since he was in Switzerland, he “fought” with the Allies against the Nazis as a city guard in Basel, and he wrote theology. His body of writings, over the next generation, was key to transforming the German church as it confessed its complicity with the Nazis and moved forward into a new era of self-understanding.

I have a number of friends and colleagues who have remained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in spite of its many problems and its ongoing decent into heresy. Although I never thought of it in the context of Barth’s exegesis of 1 Sam. 8-31, I find my attitude toward them as well as toward those who left the denomination (including me, I should note) in much the same way Barth seemed to react to Bonhoeffer. I neither praise nor condemn, I simply assume that they continue to be faithful to God’s covenant in the path that they have taken. Similarly, I am appalled by the racism enacted in Christian bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America, as they turn a blind eye to the rising violence against people of color and too often censure those who do speak out. (This is the reason I waited until today, the ML King holiday here int he States, to post this essay.) But as with my colleagues in the mainline churches, so with my acquaintances in these Evangelical bodies: I have no reason to think they are not being faithful to God’s covenant in spite of the abysmal levels those denominations have sunk. The utter mess and confusion of human perversion makes the correct path forward difficult to see. In the midst of the confusion and perversion, what I am absolutely convinced of is “the higher and deeper grace” of God in Christ in the midst of the modern world.

 

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Karl Barth on Aaron and the Golden Calf

Karl Barth has a most interesting and provocative exegesis of two Old Testament stories in two excurses in Church Dogmatics IV/1. The first one concerns Aaron (Exodus 32) on pp. 423-432. The second is about the rejection of Samuel and the rise of Saul as the first king of Israel (1 Sam. 8-31) on pp. 437-445. The exegesis has to do with the culpability of leaders and organizations in contrast to the culpability of the people the leader is leading. In both he circles around the subject of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am surprised I did not notice this passage when I read it back in the late 80s or early 90s, but it could be that Barth’s insight may require the perspective of an old guy looking back rather than of a Young Turk just looking around.

Barth was no fan of the papacy. In these two excurses he manages both to critique the institution quite harshly while at the same time provide a way of being Roman Catholic while remaining faithful to the deeper call of the Gospel. His critique is not only about the papacy, but about all systems where power (or possibly more accurately, authority) is concentrated in a small group. He never mentions Hitler by name, but his life context of the Third Reich and the German church whispers throughout this whole section of the Church Dogmatics. (It’s entitled, “The Pride of Man.”)

Exodus 32 is part of the story of the giving of the Law. Moses is on Mt. Sinai and has been gone a very long time. There is concern, then grumbling, then an assumption that he’s dead and never returning. The people talk Aaron, Moses’ brother, into forming an idol, the Golden Calf, which they can worship in place of Yahweh. Moses does eventually come down the mountain, is horrified by what he sees and breaks the tablets of the Law. God tells Moses that the people have broken the covenant they promised to keep and they therefore will be destroyed. Moses intercedes on their behalf, and even though many people die and everyone suffers, ultimately God forgives the breach of covenant and things return to as normal as it can be after such an apostasy.

Barth argues that the respective roles of Moses and Aaron (in relation to God and the covenant) are important if one is to understand the story. Moses is the prophet and is thus the one who has been appointed to be the mediator between God and the people. Aaron, on the other hand is the priest and is not a mediator. He rather speaks on behalf of the people and organizes the religion.

[Note: This association of “mediator” with prophet and not priest might be hard to defend on exegetical grounds. I haven’t studied it a great deal. But if there is a problem, it is not in the idea but rather in the manner which Barth expresses it. His analysis of Moses and Aaron is indeed what Exodus describes. Moses is the one who talks with God, after all, not Aaron. Barth’s motivation becomes clear when we get to the second excursus. Samuel, and all the prophets who proceeded him (that is the Judges), are clearly the mediators between God and the people. But the people wanted a king who served them, not a prophetic Judge who served God. Barth is making a parallel between the two stories. On pp. 438ff, Barth proposes that Samuel’s function is parallel to Moses while Saul’s function should be more or less parallel to Aaron.

The part of the Golden Calf story that is so striking to Barth is what doesn’t happen to Aaron. About 3,000 people died that day (Ex. 32:28) but Aaron, the high priest of the new religion, is not among those who died. Moses’ rebuke of Aaron is shockingly mild. “What did this people do to you that you have wrought so great a sin upon them?” (v. 21). It’s as if Aaron is not responsible. “What did this people do? not, “What did you do?” This is where Barth observes that Aaron’s role is to speak on behalf of the people and thus do their will (in contrast to Moses who speaks on behalf of God). “The one who receives and mediates the divine revelation, the friend who speaks with God as an equal, is Moses himself. Aaron and all the others are only witnesses” (p. 428).

What is Aaron then? He is “a type of the institutional priesthood” (p. 428). “He is the man of the national Church, the established Church. He listens to the voice of the soul of the people and obeys it. He is the direct executor of its wishes and demands. He shows the people how to proceed and he takes the initiative” (p. 429). The problem is not with Aaron, it is with the people. The institution can and should certainly play a role in teaching and guiding the people back to the truth, but ultimately when things go wrong, it is not the fault of the institution, it is the fault of the people. (And this sentiment is the heart of Barth’s nuanced critique of the Roman Catholic Church; it is what the people want.) “The priestly art as such—building altars and celebrating liturgies and ordering and executing sacrifices and proclaiming feasts of the Lord—is a neutral activity which can turn into the very opposite of all that is intended by it. The priest as such can always be a deluded and deluding pope” (p. 429). In Barth’s mind, “Aaron (and any priest or pope for that matter) is not without blame, but because the institutional priesthood (of which Aaron is a type) faces the people and reflects their wishes. It is the prophet, on the other hand, who guides them.”

[Note: at this juncture it is well worth noting that in the classic Reformed tradition of which Barth is a part, clergy should not be thought of in the priestly role because Jesus Christ is our priest, clergy are rather modeled on the prophetic role. It is, I suspect, why proclamation of the Word tends to overshadow administration of the Sacraments although they are technically equal activities. Ministers are not “priests” but “Ministers of Word and Sacrament.”]

The relationship between Samuel (the last prophet leader, or Judge, of Israel) and Saul (the first king of Israel) is similar to that of Moses and Aaron. Samuel is the prophet and thus the mediator between God and the people. Just as with Moses and Aaron, Samuel serves God on behalf of the people while Saul, as king, should serve the people on behalf of God. This pattern is not God’s ideal because the institutional side (ie, Aaron and Saul) can become overbearing as they cease to serve the people’s will and begin to lord over the people. That tendency is much more clear in the story of Samuel and Saul and will be explored in the next essay.

 

The Word Became Flesh

On this Feast of Theophany, a description by Karl Barth of just what happened in the incarnation, and thus just what was revealed.

He did not cease to be the eternal Word of the eternal Father, Himself the one true God. But as this one true God He became flesh without reservation or diminution. He became man, true and actual man, man as he may be tempted and is tempted, man as he is subject to death and does actually die, man not only in his limitation but in the misery which is the consequence of his sin, man like us. This is how God is God–as the One who is free to do this and does it for His own sake, to put into effect His own almighty mercy, and therefore for our sake, who are in need of His mercy. The divine mercy, and in proof of it the inconceivably high and wonderful act of God, is that He becomes and is as we are. [CD IV/1, p. 418]

It is not paradoxical and absurd that God becomes man. It does not contradict the concept of God. It fulfils it. It reveals the glory of God. [p. 419]

 

Revisiting the Humility of God

Is the true character and fullness of God better revealed in Christ’s first coming in ignominy or his second coming in glory? Granted, this is an arbitrary question dividing two things that, in a very real sense, can’t be divided. But I divide them because I suspect that we unconsciously separate Christ’s first and second coming in our everyday thinking. I suspect our thinking goes something like this: Jesus Christ came to us as a human and was crucified for us (pro nobis), and it’s no surprise that the world rejects him, because, well, just look at Him! But when he returns again in glory there will be no question of who he is because his glory (that is, the true character) will be revealed.

Trinity College and Ancient Faith podcasts is in the process of releasing a series of lectures by Fr. John Behr, professor at St. Valdimir’s Seminary, on Athanasius’ seminal work, On the Incarnation of the Word given at Trinity College, Toronto. Behr is making the case that today we rather miss the point of the book. Given the history of doctrinal disagreements, we think it’s about the nature of the incarnation. Behr argues that when approached in this manner Athanasius is indecipherable. The real point is that Athanasius is defending is the humiliation of the Cross. The book is not about the incarnation per se but rather about the possibility that God can be humiliated; it’s not a book about the nature of the incarnation, it is rather about its implications. Athanasius is arguing that the true glimpse into divine glory is not the bright and shiny stuff but rather the humiliation itself.

After finishing my time-consuming project on prayer as social justice (as recently posted on this blog), I have time to return to Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/1, which has been gathering dust on the shelf for a couple of months. As seems to happen, Karl Barth is talking about the same thing. (I have become used to such synchronicity.) Barth is exploring sin as human pride (starting on p. 413)  and he argues that we fail to recognize God in creation as well as God in Christ because of pride, and in turn the eternal Son became human for this reason, to cure us of our pride.

According to Barth, Jesus Christ “maintains and exercises and demonstrates His Godhead in the obedience of the eternal Son to the eternal Father” (p. 417). There are three verbs. In the humiliation of the incarnation, Jesus Christ “maintains” his Godhead. This is the “fully God and fully human” phrase of the Creed. But this exercise is not exceptional nor out of the ordinary for God, this humiliation is fully in God’s character. This is the second verb. He “exercises” his Godhead. And finally, it is in this humiliation of the incarnation that the true character of God is revealed to us. This is the third verb. He “demonstrates his Godhead in the obedience of the eternal Son to the eternal Father.”

Sounds a lot like Behr’s take on Athanasius. Athanasius, Barth, and Behr are saying that if we are to begin to comprehend God in his creation and work, we need to focus on divine humility. Incidentally, this is precisely how I got back to reading Karl Barth. My first essay of last year, God’s High Humility (on this topic, but earlier in the book) was on essentially this same subject. That’s the week I pulled this volume off the shelf. One year and 417 pages later (just over half way through Church Dogmatics IV/1), Barth is still circling back to the same topic.