Big Salvation Words: Righteousness

Over the next few weeks I would like to revisit some of the big words that relate to our salvation. Many of them are hard and even frightening words, so we have a tendency to ignore them, or in the case of a word like “wrath,” leave them to the very conservative Christians who seem to revel in them. That’s a mistake.

After World War II – a war that was disastrous for European Protestantism because it revealed how empty that Protestantism was – Karl Barth did the hard work work of looking seriously at all these words and reincorporating the words and the ideas behind them into his theology.

One of the things Barth demonstrated was that it is not possible to merely turn to the Bible to define the big words. We bring all of our cultural assumptions to bear and thus when we read them in the Bible, what we are typically “reading” is not necessarily what the Bible actually says, but a subtle revision of what it says aligned with our cultural assumptions. Thus, you will not find a lot of biblical quotations in these essays. It’s not an exercise in what the Bible says so much as it is a proper definition of terms so that we can understand what the Bible says.

I will be focusing on a single volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics that deals specifically with the atonement. Volume IV, “The Doctrine of Reconciliation” is divided into multiple volumes. I will be using Part One. (It is typically identified as CD IV/1. When you see “CD IV/1, p 1,” or simply “p. 1,” you will know this is what I am referring to.)

The first word I want to consider is “righteousness.” I suspect we often unconsciously think of righteousness as a substance. For instance, I might pray that God would fill me with righteousness (as if it is something that can be poured into me). We might also pray that God would make me more righteous, as if there is a sliding scale, sort of like the air purity index.

In contrast to this, it’s helpful to think of righteousness as a binary (that is, only two options). The binary, in this case would be “right” or “wrong.” Then we might thing of the opposite of righteousness as “wrongeousness,” (if I may coin a word).

This approach to the word is helpful because righteousness is not a value judgment. For example, “God is righteous.” is not a parallel statement to “Michael is handsome.” Something that is far more close to being a parallel statement to “God is righteous.” is, “The speed of light is 3×10^8 m/s.” No value judgment, it is what it is.

The rightness that is referred to in the word “righteousness” is not a value judgment, it is a description of reality. The “rightness” is the way things are. This “rightness” of God is akin to things like gravity, the conservation of energy, etc. Barth defines it as, “the omnipotence of God creating order, which is now revealed and effective as a turning from this present evil aeon to the new one of a world reconciled with God in Him” (p. 256).

Eventually this distinction between value judgment and reality will become quite important. If this were a value judgment, God’s response to our unrighteousness could be construed as emotional. Thus divine wrath could be conflated with anger and vengeance (a term that appears 20 times in the Old Testament) could be conflated with revenge.

But once we understand that divine righteousness is a binary concept, we can begin to grasp that assuming that God is angry or disappointed or let down when we sin makes about as much sense as saying the building that the speeding Corvette ran into was angry at the Corvette and that’s why the building wrecked it and killed its driver.

To say that God is righteous, therefore, is, first and foremost, to proclaim God’s character. Secondarily, it tells us something about creation: The Creator imbued his ultimate reality into this created reality. The same righteousness that characterizes God characterizes our proper relationship to creation as well as to God.

The righteousness of God is not something that we try to achieve, it’s not something we try to measure up to. The righteousness of God is simply the reality in which live, and if we refuse to live in this reality of righteousness we will die as certainly as that unfortunate Corvette driver. This is the context in which we will explore other key words related to our salvation.

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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]

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.

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.

A Preamble, before you are Assimilated

The next essay, divided into two posts, will sound familiar to those of you who have been reading the blog. It deals with the same thorny issue that a previous series of six essays dealt with.

In the discussion related to the previous series of essays I was criticized for not having a concrete solution to offer. I will gladly embrace the same criticism for this two-part essay.

As I will say in the first part, theology is not about circumscribing truth nor about offering solutions. It is a poetic vision of what the reality is in which we participate. Michael Polanyi, the Oxford philosopher of science, claimed that science was more closely related to poetry than it was to engineering and technology (fields that apply science to the “real world”). Mathematics applied to engineering circumscribes. Mathematics applied to science qua poetry rends the heavens so that we can see what’s really there.

(I don’t even have a direct quote, much less a citation of where Polanyi wrote this. It was scribbled quickly during one of Harold Nebelsick’s theology classes. His good friend, classmate, and professor at the University of Erlangen (Germany), was lecturing and had just described Karl Barth as contemporary theology’s greatest poet. We students, who were struggling through Volume 1 of Church Dogmatics promptly snickered. Prof. Nebelsick came to St. Karl of Basil’s defense by loosely quoting this passage from Polanyi. And yes, Prof. Nebelsick assured us that Polanyi’s apocalyptic imagery was quite intentional.)

Think of these two essays as two different images of the same problem. They are two stories that highlight two facets of one sticky wicket. My theory is that if I tell enough stories, present enough images, eventually the way forward (ie, the “concrete solution” I so famously never get around to) will eventually show itself to me.