Saturday, April 23, 2016

"Creation and Covenant" (CD §41): The First and Unprecedented Work of God

I've been told, repeatedly over the last several years, that protology for Barthians is not directly concerned with the doctrine of creation, but rather with the doctrine of election and God's self-determination in eternity. McCormack's relatively recent work on the processions and missions takes that logical thread (which he was instrumental in developing) and chases out the implications in the simultaneous coming-to-be of God and the creature corresponding to God. And it's not entirely surprising that he goes this way when you cosider that Molnar and to a lesser extent Hunsinger have gone after creation as protology in order to assert a divide between the immanent and economic being of God. Neither of these directions are Barth's path, but if I have to go one way or the other, it's going to be McCormack whose work is worth correcting. Creation can more fruitfully be added to his theontology than it can be redeemed from theirs.

And that's important because, for Barth, creation is protology. Barth's mature dogmatics begin in medias res, with the church, its proclamation, and its sources and norms, and work up from there, perpendicular to chronology, to speak of God in God's eternity: God's perfections of freedom and loving, and God's resulting actions of electing the creature and Godself into relationship. None of this is protological; we pan up from our embedded present-tense temporality, in which dogmatics takes place, to the God who is not only eternal with our time, but also and indivisibly eternal before and beyond all time. God's self-awareness has no limitations in this frame, no cusps beyond which God-who-will-be is truly other than God-who-has-been or God-who-is-now. That sort of disjunctive history of becoming only happens to us; it is a phenomenon of time, not eternity. There is, for Barth, no resulting need to pack God's becomings into a pre-temporal frame for fear of what might happen if God were to change in supra-temporal eternity. God's becomings are not protology; God's making of us is protology, because we are the only thing that can be said to begin.

For this reason Barth will continue to emphasize that creation is meaningfully first, without framing a discrete pre-temporal "first" that we might (especially were we to follow Reformed traditions) speak of as the predetermination of the things that would then be created. That is, to borrow McCormack's polemics, an impermissible division of one act into two. And it always has been, as a means of explaining how the process of the world's becoming is under divine control, obedient to decrees that precede its creation. None of which Barth wants any of! Not only is creation not a means of explaining how the world came to be this way; election is also not a means of explaining how it had to become this way. For Barth, our history is entirely free, not logically predetermined. Creation is not the actualization of a plan for history, but rather of a relationship, and it is that covenantal relationship that has been predetermined from all eternity in our being made. It is built, not into the structure of our history, but rather into the structure of our being as the creature.

And so Barth leaves no room for election as a first work of God before this first. And he does it intentionally; he does it fully meaning to contradict the traditions that make such a discrete pre-temporal space for God's becomings to finish before ours begin. There is a "first" before this first act of creation, but it is only and simply God, whose will and resolve, decision and plan become in exactly this way: by creating the creature who will be the recipient, showplace, and implement of God's self-revelation. By, as I said in the last post, making even the very possibility of a non-God "outside" direction in which to turn.

Section 41, part 1: Creation, History, and Creation-history

(Again, I'm going to be breaking this sub-section up into bloggable pieces by paragraphs of the original text, which is clearly a non-canonical innovation. But in a longer paragraph like this one, I'm also going to be breaking the English translation into more manageable content-based paragraphs, marked with a bar at the end to remind you that this isn't the end of Barth's paragraph. Also, while emphasis is original, bolded in the German and italicized in the English, I've added underlining as a way of handling "Gott selbst" as an emphatic subject where it's not "Godself" as a reflexive object. Clumsy, but if we're not going to misgender the deity, every solution gets clumsy in some way.)

Paragraph 2
Das Besondere der Schöpfung besteht aber darin, daß sie unter Gottes Werken das erste ist. Mit ihm beginnt die Bibel und mit ihm auch das Bekenntnis. Denn mit ihm beginnen alle von Gott selbst verschiedenen Dinge. Haben sie in Gottes ewigem Willen und Beschluß ihren inneren Anfang, so haben sie hier, in der Schöpfung, ihren äußeren. Und darin besteht die eigentümliche Würde der Schöpfung, daß sie als äußerer Anfang aller Dinge ihrem inneren Anfang, ihrem ewigen Ursprung in Gottes Entscheidung und Plan, gewissermaßen unmittelbar gegenübersteht. Sie hat keine äußere Voraussetzung, sie folgt allein auf den ewigen Willen Gottes. Was von ihr aus rückwärts zu bedenken ist, das ist allein das dreieinige Wesen Gottes in allen seinen Vollkommenheiten, allein die Tiefe der Heiligkeit und der Gnade seines Ratschlusses. Sie ist in hervorgehobener Weise das Werk der Freiheit Gottes und darum in hervorgehobener Weise Gottes Wunderwerk. Wenn gewiß auch in den anderen Werken Gottes Alles frei und wunderbar ist, so hängt das damit zusammen, daß Gott auch in ihnen als der Schöpfer handelt und offenbar wird. Die Schöpfung als solche ist die unmittelbare Entsprechung und Inkraftsetzung des göttlichen Vorsatzes, mit der Offenbarung seiner Herrlichkeit anzuheben. Sie hebt damit an, daß der Empfänger, der Schauplatz, das Werkzeug dieser Offenbarung durch ihn selbst Wirklichkeit bekommt. Indem dies geschieht, fängt Alles an: Alles, was nicht der anfangslose Gott selber und sein Vorsatz ist. Ein Erstes vor diesem Anheben, vor der Inkraftsetzung des auf dieses Anheben zielenden göttlichen Vorsatzes könnte offenbar—Gott selbst und sein Vorsatz ausgenommen—nicht einmal als denkbar verstanden werden. Im ganzen Raum außerhalb Gottes ist die Schöpfung das Erste, kommt Alles von der Schöpfung her, ist Alles durch sie gehalten und bedingt, bestimmt und gestaltet. Nur Gott selbst ist und bleibt der Erste vor diesem Ersten, ist und bleibt auch ihm gegenüber frei und wunderbar; nur Gott selbst kann und wird im Fortgang seiner Werke Alles auch noch anders erhalten und bedingen, bestimmen und gestalten, als es im Werk der Schöpfung geschehen ist. Aber auch Gott selbst und gerade Gott selbst wird das in Kontinuität mit seiner Schöpfung, er wird das in jeder neuen Wundertat seiner Freiheit so tun, daß er diesem seinem ersten Werk treu bleibt. Er wird die Wirklichkeit des Geschöpfs wandeln—in einer Wandlung, in der es auch Tod und Vergehen und neue Schöpfung gibt—er wird sie aber nicht zerstören; er wird sie ihm nicht mehr nehmen. Er wird nicht mehr allein sein, wie er vor der Schöpfung allein gewesen ist. Und das Geschöpf wird nicht [S. 46] mehr nicht sein, wie es vor der Schöpfung nicht gewesen ist. Gott selbst wird nicht aufhören, in Allem, was er tun wird, der zu sein, der dieses Erste getan hat.

The particularity of creation consists in the fact that it is the first among God's works. The Bible begins with it, as also does the creed, because all things that are different from Godself begin with it. As they have their inner origin in God's eternal will and resolve, so they have their outer origin here in creation. And herein lies the peculiar worth of creation: that as the outer origin of all things it stands in immediate opposition, so to speak, to their inner origin, their eternal source in God's decision and plan. It has no external prerequisite; it simply follows after the eternal will of God. |

The only thing that should be imagined to lie behind creation is the triune being of God in all of its perfections, only the depth of the holiness and grace of God's decrees. It is, in a prominent way, the work of God's freedom and consequently, in a prominent way, God's miraculous act. Surely if everything is also free and miraculous in God's other works, this coheres with the fact that God manifestly is and behaves as the Creator in them. Creation is as such the immediate counterpart and implementation of the divine intent to commence with the revelation of God's majesty. It commences with the fact that the recipient, the showplace, the implement of this revelation is itself given reality by God. |

Everything originates with this event—everything, that is, except Godself, who has no origin, and God's intent. With the exception of Godself and God's intent, we can obviously understand no "first" as conceivable prior to this commencement, prior to the implementation of the divine intent whose goal is this commencement. Creation is the first in the entire space external to God; everything comes from creation, and is maintained and conditioned, determined and structured by it. Only God is and remains the "first" prior to this first, is and remains free and miraculous over against it; only God can and will also, in the course of God's work, maintain and condition, determine and structure everything in another way than happened in the work of creation. |

But it is also and uniquely God who will do this in continuity with God's creation, in every new miracle of God's freedom, in such a way as God remains true to this, God's first work. God will transform the reality of the creature—in a transformation in which there is also death, and loss, and new creation—but God will not destroy it; God will no longer take the creature away from Godself. God will no longer be alone, as God was alone prior to creation. And the creature will no longer not-be, as it was-not prior to creation. God will not cease to be the one who has done this first thing, in all that God will later do.
So, obviously I front-loaded a lot of this already. And now you see where it came from. So let's move on, and talk about the other nifty things here.

In the last paragraph, we had "inside" and "outside" relative to God. And that sense remains: we have our "inner origin" in God, and our "outer origin" in our being made, in the action by which we come to exist. And now Barth makes that a contrast: creation stands juxtaposed with election. Its manifestation of God's will and plan and intention and decision does not exhaust them. Creation follows God's eternal decree—to be for us in Christ—but these things are not a first to which creation is a second. They are not done when it starts—nor, as the previous paragraph indicated, are their outworkings in reconciliation and redemption logically dependent upon creation. God's will is not an "external prerequisite" of creation; it is the "inner origin" of the creature in the same way that the act of creation is its "outer origin." Distinguished as these must be from one another in Barth's thought, they cannot be separated from one another.

And yet creation does "follow after" God and God's intent in a meaningful way. It is the first thing, before which was only God. So there was a notional "first" before this first, after which—as the beginning of everything that is different from God—creation follows. "Folgen auf" and "folgen aus" are going to be differentiated going forward, but for now all we have seen is the chronological "follows after," not the logical "follows from." And that's important here, because God's priority over creation cannot be subsumed into a logical sequence of events that then follow from one another. God is not bound to the happening of a sequence of things that creation initiates. Creation is, like all acts of God, a non-contingent miracle. As the first such act, it is unprecedented in a way no other act will be, an act that makes its own circumstances; but whatever the circumstances of those subsequent acts, they remain free, not just as voluntary acts of God's will, but as non-contingent acts. God who acts is not constrained by history or the creature, but "remains free and miraculous over against it."

Such a God might do practically anything. Once we acknowledge that miracles are not merely the province of primitive story, but God's stock in trade, nothing is impossible. But God is not capricious, even as God is absolutely arbitrary—for God's will (arbitrium) is the origin of our being. It is not God's chosen character to do to the creature things that will contradict God's choice to have the creature exist. Election, remember, "belongs to the doctrine of God because, by electing humanity, God does not merely decide about them, but also in an original sense decides about Godself" (II.2, 1). And so Barth reassures us here: God will never choose to be unfaithful to this first act of creation in any subsequent act. Whatever reconciliation, redemption, and consummation involve, however we are transformed—and Barth keeps us mindful that such transitions will involve death and loss—God will not decide and act such that the creature should once again not-be, and God should once more be alone.

Which is to say: we are not a temporary manifestation of the divine will. We are not a thing God has done to see how it might work out, an experiment from which God might finally learn the desired thing, a game of which God might eventually tire. Even as we do not choose to conform to the revelation of God's glory, even as we do not choose to be God's creature in righteous relationships, even as we fail time after time to live into the covenant of grace, this is the nature of God's forbearance. Not that God is waiting for us to get it right, as though it depended upon us in the end; but that God chooses, in eternity, self-consistently, to reveal God's glory to us, and so for us to be the theater of that glory. We cannot help but correspond to God, even as we choose all manner of other correspondences in place of that image. We depend upon God, and God is faithful. And from beginning to end that is the only fact upon which our existence depends.

Everything else will depend on these two things: God and our existence. Everything else will have two agents: the one who acts and the one who corresponds (well or poorly ... but mostly poorly, who are we kidding?) to that act. But even as such it will all really only depend on the one thing: God's self-faithful will. That is the only ground on which there is a second reality—our reality—at all, no matter how well or poorly it corresponds to its image and serves as a partner in covenant with God. And that is the basis for our real freedom, and the reason our perpetual abuse of that freedom doesn't send reality crashing down around our ears. God is gracious, and our existence is gratuitous.

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