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.

Joseph’s Story

The three lessons for the 4th Sunday of Advent are each about the nature of the Messiah: his humanity his sinlessness, and his deity. Isaiah 7:10-16 deals with it in a prophetic/poetic voice. Paul comes closest to what we might call a theological statement on the subject with his utterance of praise in Rom 1:1-7. The Gospel (Mat 1:18-25), deals with it as a story.

Historically the church has tended to focus on the theology of the incarnation. And for good reason, because, as seven ecumenical councils and hundreds of years testify, getting the doctrine wrong on these matters leads to seriously bad consequences.

The story itself, on the other hand, has much to tell us about the effects of “God with us” (the meaning of the name “Immanuel”) rather than its meaning, and I’ve been thinking about that this week. For those involved God’s direct involvement with humanity led to inconvenience, chaos, doubt as to how to proceed in life, etc.

Joseph was a righteous man and betrothed (a state of affairs that doesn’t exist in modern culture – pretty much all the legal entanglements of marriage without the “benefits”). Furthermore, the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. He knew he didn’t do it, so he began the process of a quiet divorce. The law suggested he might want to have Mary stoned to death in the city square but he chose to spare her life, and to the degree possible, save her family from shame.

This is the immediate effect of the incarnation: utter chaos in the fabric and family and community life.

The second effect of the incarnation is God’s secondary involvement in life. God comes to Joseph in a dream an explains the situation: the baby’s not illegitimate, the child is from God. Go ahead and marry her.

Notice that this secondary divine involvement in the lives of the people involved doesn’t solve many problems and essentially creates more for Joseph. It saves Mary’s life and makes the baby sort of legitimate, but it doesn’t solve any of the disruptions in the family and social fabric.

We overlay our Christianity with religion. Religion is awe-inspiring, comfortable and predictable, and we use it to solve a lot of our problems. Christianity, on the other hand, is anything but. Since we’ve had Christianity around for two millennia, we’ve settled quite comfortably into it’s religious façade. In this text the façade is torn away and we are reminded of the real thing, of what actually happens when God chooses to dwell among us.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of choosing a congregation because the preacher is really good and then to stay there because it meets our needs. That doesn’t exactly line up with Joseph’s story in Mat. 1. So as Christmas approaches, I wonder … are we going to celebrate the actual chaos of Christmas, escape into the false comfort of the gentle Christmas celebration at Church, or dive into the alternative chaos of consumerism?

Three alternatives. Joseph’s story shows us a glimpse into the best of the three.

A Story About How God Works

In the previous essay I talked about the incarnation being the pattern of all God’s activity in the world. God works in creation by working through the stuff of creation. Preeminently, God works through the Church. This reminds me of a saying about the monks. But in order to appreciate the saying, one must realize that eastern Christian monasticism is different than western monasticism. There are no monastic orders set apart to do specific tasks. Monks don’t teach school or pastor churches (unless they are released from their monastery to such a task). Monks pray; it is their specific vocation.

It is said that if the monks ever quit praying, the world will simply cease to exist. That sounds silly and arrogant on the surface, but the sentiment is rooted in this sensibility of the sacramental life and how God works in the world. The Church is a “spiritual house, a holy priesthood” (1 Pet 2:5); it is the primary means of how God embodies himself in creation as he sustains creation and builds his kingdom. If the monks quit praying (implying that the church itself has quit praying and thus quit being open to God) God has lost his sacramental link to creation, and poof, creation is no more.

Okay, it still sounds a bit silly and arrogant, but the story gets to the heart of how the Christian east understands the relationship between God and humans. God mysteriously enters into the created order so that the Church truly and actually becomes the Body of Christ. (It’s not a metaphor.) So too with creation. “In him all things were created” (Col 1:15) and “In him all things hold together” (v 17). God imbues creation, yet we will not find him if we go poking around the stars or the subatomic particles looking for him. His presence is humble and yet powerful, invisible and yet glorious.

The secret divine action throughout the created order holds it all together and moves it all forward. It is this action that is the essence of our calling and salvation as well as that which leads to the consummation of all things. The Church, the Kingdom of God, the Lamb of God, and the Divine Light are all different manifestation of Grace, the true Grace of God that is God himself expressed in creation. There is no “lending a hand” in this process, nor is there Divine coercion; rather, this is God how God works. “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 15:17).

Our Role (and lack of it) in the Kingdom of God

Here’s an exercise in presuppositions. I have been reading the book, What Is the Mission of the Church?, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. On the chapter about the Kingdom of God, they ask whether there is a human role in God’s work of establishing the Kingdom.

Of course no one argues that we Christians are tasked with building the new heavens and the new earth from bottom to top. That would be as impossible as it is ridiculous. But there are a number of people who have argued that we as Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth – that we partner with God in his mission to restore the cosmos. As energizing as that may sound, though, it simply doesn’t ring true with the way the Bible talks about the new heavens and new earth. There’s the clear testimony of the passages we’ve just considered, but there’s also the fact that the land in which God’s people dwell – whether the Promised Land or the new earth – is always said to be a gift from God to his people. [p. 205]

This paragraph caught me by surprise. I had just read “the clear testimony” of a dozen passages and they did not strike me as excluding humans. (Ah! Presuppositions!!) Furthermore, the dismissive and offensive idea that anyone can “have a hand in the creation,” initially struck me as merely a terrible caricature of those they disagreed with. But eventually I realized that this manner of viewing “cooperation” lies at the heart of so many disagreements between East and West. We have different presuppositions. It’s not just a “kingdom of God” issue, it’s how everything God touches is thought about.

The Eastern Church thinks of all of God’s relationships with all aspects of the created order in an incarnational manner. The idea of God being outside the universe and coming into the universe to manipulate it (as in the images of judgment common in the western church, for instance) is largely foreign to the Orthodox mind. But first a caveat. When I speak of thinking in “an incarnational manner,” I mean the paradigm for God’s involvement in the universe is specifically the incarnation of the Son. The Jewish hope for the Messiah might be summarized by Isa. 64:1, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence …” (ESV). That expectation was met in a completely unexpected manner. Rather than a conquering hero breaking in from the outside, God entered the world in fully human form, entering creation in an “inside out” manner. Thus God’s strength appeared to be weakness, and his glory appeared to be hidden.

In the Orthodox mind, this is not merely the mystery of Christmas, this is simply how God works. Divine action takes on human (or material) form and operates from the inside outward. Rather than calling this incarnational thinking – because that might imply for some people that God’s work in the Chosen People of Israel, in the Church, and in the Kingdom, is on par with the incarnation of the Son of God – it is probably better to call this sacramental thinking. A divine act is always clothed in an earthly form just as in the sacrament the Bread is the heavenly Body of Christ, although it most certainly remains bread.

So DeYoung and Gilbert are completely correct when they say that the Kingdom of God is purely [my word] “a gift from God to his people” [emph in original] but mistaken when they then conclude that this somehow excludes God’s people. The reason for their confusion is quite clear. They conceive cooperation between human and divine as meaning, “Christians at least have a hand in the creation of the new heavens and the new earth.” That image completely perverts sacramental thinking. We don’t “have a hand” in anything! Rather, we are the instruments of divine work in the world.

I “cooperate” only in the manner that Mary cooperated with God. All she did was open her being in willingness to God’s work: “I am the servant of the Lord.” She didn’t “give God a hand” by going out and getting pregnant (forgive me for being crass). She rather became the vessel of God’s work in the world, and thus became God’s hands and feet and mouth. To use the language of Paul, she became the Body of Christ in the world so that the Son of God might have a human body in order to fulfill his role as Christ.

God will act in his normal way, that is, through the stuff of creation, and pre-eminently through his willing human servants. In the meantime, as God’s servants we go about our life. We pray, we stay in fellowship with other Christians, and in that context of God and community we live in the world. The things we do as faithful Christians then become the building blocks of the Kingdom of Heaven, not because we’re trying to build the Kingdom (for that would by hubris) but simply because that’s how God works. From our human perspective the Kingdom is accidental, from the divine perspective, it is God’s gift to us.

I’m curious if any of you have read What is the Mission of the Church? It appears most of my readers are not Orthodox, so I’m also curious if you consider this incarnational way of thinking to be complete bollocks, or if you see a some sense in this view.

Happy New Year

September 1 is the start of the ecclesiastical year in the Orthodox Church. The liturgical event is Sep 8 (this coming Tuesday), the celebration of the birth of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Even though I’ve been Orthodox for many years, I still approach the Orthodox liturgical year with wonder at the logic of how it works and when it starts and stops. As a result, this essay is from the perspective of a Protestant looking in.

In the West (Roman Catholic and Protestant), liturgical time is marked by two great cycles. The major cycle begins with Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent — and ends with Pentecost. It’s structure is as follows:

  • 40 days of preparation (Lent)
  • The great feast of Easter
  • The festal season that runs 50 days from Easter to Pentecost

The minor cycle begins with Advent and ends with Epiphany:

  • 24 days of preparation (Advent)
  • The feast of Nativity on Dec. 25
  • The festal season that lasts 6 days until Epiphany, which in the West is observed with the Three Mysteries of the arrival of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the first miracle at Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine.

In summary, there are two great cycles of what might be called Liturgical Time, one approximately 90 days long and the other approximately 30 days long. This leaves about 240 days of what is called Ordinary Time.

There is a wonderful theology that goes along with this. The Greek language has two different concepts for time. Chronos is the sort of time that can be marked with calendars and clocks. One hour follows the next, one day follows the next, one month follows the next. This is Ordinary Time. This is the concept that makes the arc of history possible.

In contrast to this is Kairos. Kairos is time, but it occurs differently. It breaks into chronos unexpectedly. It is time that has depth and fullness. It is, in a sense, divine time. The two great cycles are kairotic in nature, breaking into the Ordinary Time of the chronological calendar.

While this conception is internally consistent and theologically rich, it is fundamentally different than the Eastern Orthodox conception of time. The Orthodox church year is more like an onion. The innermost layer is the three day period of Good Friday (the death of Christ), Holy Saturday (the descent into Hades) and Pascha (the Resurrection of Christ). Enveloping that layer is what could be called the earthly ministry of God, which runs from the conception of Christ (the Annunciation) to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Enveloping this “earthly ministry of God” layer is what I would call the Incarnational layer of salvation. This takes a bit of explanation.

God’s activity on earth is normally clothed in the stuff of creation. The figure of “the Angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is God’s presence and interaction with humans in a human form. At the burning bush, God is embodied in fire. During the Exodus God is embodied as both fire (to illumine) and smoke (to hide). In the life of Christ, the embodiment in the stuff of creation is represented by Mary, Jesus’ mother.

So it is that Mary the Theotokos (literally, “God-bearer”) is the Ark of the Covenant. Fr Andrew Stephen Damick explains this very well in a sermon given on Sep 8, 2010.

In the Old Testament, to approach the Ark of the Covenant was to approach the Lord God Himself. This was not because God could be contained within a golden box, but rather because God chose that golden box as a place of utmost holiness and divine presence on Earth. There on that Mercy Seat God communed with His people in a powerful, mystical way. And now the Lord has approached us once again, but the locus of His coming to Earth is a human woman.

And just as the Ark of the Old Covenant was carefully constructed and prepared by human hands, so, too, was the new Ark carefully prepared. But instead of the preparation of carpenters and goldsmiths, the preparation of the Virgin Mary was by her quiet and humble obedience to and cooperation with the will of God.

This is why we honor the Virgin Mary, not because we want to elevate her to the status of a goddess and worship her, but because she is the carefully prepared vessel which bore the God of the Universe, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through her came our salvation. Through her came a new life for every human being and the whole world. Through her came union between God and man.

The great historian of theology, Richard Niebuhr, observed in several places that the Western Church always had difficulty fully embracing the incarnation. Thus the most common heresies in the West were and are those that deny the significance of creation as the means of salvation.  Various forms of gnosticism and rationalism that deny the sheer physicality of how God presents himself pop up in the West over and over again.

Since the fourth century in the East, these sorts of anti-incarnational heresies have been relatively insignificant. I would argue that the very structure of how the East conceives of liturgical time, as mystery, enveloped in divine presence, enveloped in the very stuff of creation is a reflection of this radically different sensibility.

In the West where kairos, or divine time, breaks in upon ordinary time or chronos, unexpectedly and as if it is coming from the outside of time and space, there is a natural liturgical tendency to disconnect creation from the work of the Creator.

But in the East, where the Church Years begins with Mary’s birth (Sep 8) and ends with her death (Aug 15), and within that is the earthly ministry of God (Conception of Christ to the coming of the Holy Spirit) and within that is the mystery of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Pascha, what we see first is creation. We see the new Ark of the Covenant. And when we, with fear and trepidation, look inside the carefully prepared Ark (which is the ordinary stuff of creation), we see the presence of God the Creator and the ineffable gift of salvation (or union of our physical beings with God).

So, Happy New Year. And this year, in the words of accidental Australian theologian Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s get physical,” and begin our exploration of the very being of God by exploring the very depths of the creation of which we are a part.

Blessed and glorious Theophany to all!

“In other words, away with the manger!” (See below):

The Christian west calls today (Jan 6) Epiphany while the Christian east prefers to call it Theophany. As alluded to in my previous post, the west tends to focus on the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world through “the three mysteries” of which the coming of the magi is the most iconic image. The three mysteries, by the way, are “illumination” (the wise men following the star), “baptism” (the Baptism of the Lord, celebrated the following Sunday), and “eucharist” (Jesus’ first miracle – the water into wine), all of which reveal the babe in the manger to be the Second Person of the Triune Godhead.

The east, on the other hand, focuses almost exclusively on the Baptism of the Lord and the cosmic significance of water (the Old Testament symbol of chaos) being transformed into a saving thing. In Adam creation was turned against humanity; the good and perfect creation became, in a sense, the means of our destruction through Adam’s sin. In Jesus Christ, the last Adam, creation becomes the means of our salvation. To put the feast into the broader struggles of the ancient church, Theophany is the celebration of the nexus of Creator and created; it’s what keeps us from being Gnostic.

I revisit this topic with a second post today (the previous post is here) because of what Jason Peters wrote today over at The Front Porch Republic. Peters makes the two points of Theophany (ie, the Eastern version of this Feast) with such wonderful turns of phrase, I can’t help quoting him:

Now I would no more start of fight with a Unitarian than with a polytheist, a pantheist, or the Head Pastor and his hairdresser at FamilyChurchDotOrg. But one of the things the Church attempts to do here is to tell us that without a clear and resounding Trinitarianism we cannot properly understand ourselves. We cannot orient ourselves to our incarnate—which is to say our full and proper—condition.

Peters isn’t satisfied with mere theological profundities. He also emphasizes the implications of this profound theology:

In other words, away with the manger. Now is the time to get on with the business of renewing the whole created order.

His whole article can be found at http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=7832