Friday, January 3, 2014

The Fall and Redemption of Time

"Between our time and God-created time as between our existence and the existence created by God there lies the Fall." - Barth, CD I/2, p.47

"'The Word became flesh' also means 'the Word became time.'" - ibid., p.50

"Revelation in the sense of Holy Scripture...is an eternal, but not therefore a timeless reality.  It is also a temporal reality.  So it is not in itself a sort of ideal, yet in itself timeless content of some or all times.  It does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself." - ibid., p.50

In this week's Wednesdays with Barth which I am somewhat loosely tagging along beside, I chose to focus on pages 45-70 of Church Dogmatics I/2, which is chapter 14.1, "God's Time and Our Time."

Barth's focus in these and subsequent pages is on the relationship between God's self-revelation and time.  This might seem like an odd thing to focus on, and I remember when I first read some of this section a few years ago it struck me as needlessly heady and abstract.  However, upon revisiting these pages this week I was struck by the profound relevance of Barth's point.

Barth begins this section by discussing the philosophical problem with time.  Is our understanding of time a human construct?  Because time moves, is there really such a thing as the Present?  Toward the end of the section, Barth interacts with the problem of relating time to revelation, particularly in dialog with the questions of his own day.

In the midst of all of this, at the main heart of Barth's discussion, is the principle of Creation-Fall-Redemption.  Barth's basic point is that the Fall has corrupted everything, even time.  Time is now fleeting.  Time is "lost."  Because of the Fall, our experience of time is not what God intended it to be.  However, by God's grace, fallen time also becomes a time of anticipation, of looking forward to redemption, all while being upheld by God's gracious hand (p.47).  In the midst of time - in the midst of fleeting time during which (with every tick of the clock) there seems to be more past than future and less life to look forward to every minute - God enters time.  When God became human in Jesus, he not only took on flesh, he took on time, fallen time, and redeemed it.  Just as creation and human nature were created "very good" by God, corrupted by sin, and made new in Christ, so has time.  In fact, it's all connected (since by nature we exist, and were created, in "time").  Barth ties all of this to the New Testament language of the "old aeon" and the "new aeon," the time before Christ which still exists and will pass away vs. the age of the kingdom which was ushered in by Christ's resurrection and will continue on into eternity.

There is more to Barth's theology of time than this, and I am sure others could give a better evaluation of it.  Barth's theology of history was a widespread source of ignorant criticism by conservatives in the mid-20th century, with people claiming Barth did not think Christ's resurrection happened "in time" or "historically."  After Barth's visit to America, during which he was famously "challenged" by Carl Henry on this issue, Barth could only shake his head in unbelief that he had been so thoroughly misunderstood by suspicious minds.

Pastorally, and for the sake of Pentecostal theology, I think there are two valuable aspects to be considered here.  First, the idea that time as we experience it is "fallen."  That has some profound implications, and certainly rings true in experience.  Not only in sickness and death, but in stress, despair, sentimentality, apocalypticism, utopianism, etc., can we sense that time as we know and relate to it is fallen.  Our relationship to past, present, and future is a complicated one, and though created by God to be stewards of creation, we are most certainly living under the tyranny of time.

And secondarily, the realization that Jesus Christ took on this fallen age, judged it, and in his resurrection brought in the age to come, or "redeemed time," undoubtedly has implications for Pentecostal experiences of the Spirit as the foretaste of the kingdom and as signs that we are, right now, living in the age to come.

[Even as I write this is I notice that I am behind schedule and am about to miss a ferry to go meet my father for lunch. This produces the anxiety of being rushed and impatient with myself and others (and especially that guys driving too slow in front of me!). And thus, once again, I fall prey to the experience of fallen time! We won't rush for ferries in heaven!]

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The One Who is Three, and the Three Who is One

In an effort to make headway on my Barth studies and to find a way to navigate Barth while pastoring a church and studying towards my MA in Theology and Culture, I have decided to tag along with another blog that is heading through the Church Dogmatics in a little over a year.  I will undoubtedly miss some readings (in fact I already have), but having a ready made reading schedule provided for me that appears doable and that provides a little camaraderie will, I hope, help me achieve my goals of interfacing Barth with Pentecostalism.

Having said all of that...

Last week's readings were from the end of CD I/1 and covered Barth's doctrine of the Trinity.  This aspect of Barth is actually quite controversial.  The reasons for this are Barth's insistence on the absolute unity of God and also on his decision to use the term "modes of being" rather than "persons" when discussing the three, ummm...., well, persons of the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  (There are more recently other controversial readings of Barth that also argue that in some sense Barth believed the Son was at some point, so to speak, "created."  I both disagree with this and also do not believe it touches on what I am looking at here - it usually is based on Barth's later writings than volume 1).

Barth's trinitarianism is, however, from my reading profoundly orthodox.  He interacts extensively with both the church fathers and the biblical text.  His central concern is the biblical doctrine that there is only one God and that the God whom we meet in Christ is not another.  In detailed manner he dismantles Arianism and tri-theism (saying that either approach, which he looks at together, would make whoever worships the Son an idolater).  He also speaks extensively against modalism (which he is accused of teaching) as really being a theology of One in Four rather than One in Three (because in modalism the "true" God is not Father, Son, or Spirit, but another person altogether who merely appears as these persons at various times).

For Barth, one way of looking at the Trinity (and the main way for the purposes of volume 1, on the doctrine of revelation) is to see God's three "ways of being" as Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.  In revelation, the One True God reveals himself in his eternal Son and is "seen" when his Spirit creates faith in the believer.  This God which we meet in revelation is the eternal God, and thus we can deduce that the God who comes to us as the Father through the Son by the Spirit must therefore eternally also be Father, Son and Spirit.  We only know God as he reveals himself, but we can trust that whom God reveals himself to be, he truly is.  Thus God exists eternally in three ways, related to one another in love - the Father begetting the Son and the Father and Son together spirating the Spirit between them.  But, despite this eternal three-ness, there is only One God.  And more importantly, the Bible never says that God has three personalities.  There is only One God and this God is One Person.

Here is where Barth's theology gets tricky.  We are accustomed to think in our day and age, if we thin of the Trinity at all, as three individual persons not unlike three human beings sitting at a table.  From Barth's perspective, today's popular trinitarianism would border dangerously close to tritheism.  But it is important to note that Barth is expressly not a modalist, nor is he denying God's eternal "three-ness."  In fact, after adding signficant qualifiers and reservations to the term "relationship" to describe how the three "modes of being" in God are connected, he then goes on to use the term himself.  What Barth is careful to do is to maintain the mystery of the Trinity.  God is not three "persons" relating to one another in a tritheistic sense.  He is One God existing eternally as Father, Son and Spirit, and the only way we know that is because God meets us in his revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit.

If anything, I see Barth's trinitarianism as walking in step with ancient trinitarian thought precisely because he is so careful to avoid making the Trinity easy.  Barth keeps the One and the Three so closely connected that the doctrine remains mysterious and overwhelming, as it should be.  Barth does not, as his critics claim, sacrifice the Three for the sake of the One.  Nor does he, like many modern preachers and writers (including myself at times) sacrifice the One for the sake of the Three.  And how do I see this as helpful for us as Pentecostals?  Precisely in this: without slipping into a Oneness error, Barth's doctrine of the Trinity in divine revelation helps us to avoid pitting Jesus the Savior against God the Judge.  It also helps us to realize that the Spirit who dwells within us is not a force but the Eternal God himself - and not less of a God than the Father or the Son.  The Spirit in our midst is causing us to see Jesus, whom to see is to see the Father.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A couple of Barth blogs perhaps worth following...

I have recently have run across a couple of blogs both of which are doing series called "Wednesdays with Barth."

One is by Able Baker at Think Theology here.

The other is by a Johnny Walker at Freedom in Orthodoxy here.

I hope to follow these along as I do my own posting.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Contemplative Prayer and Pentecostal Worship

I have been reading Roman Catholic author Hans Urs Von Balthasar's book Prayer. While this book does not directly relate to the intersection of Barth and Pentecostalism, I think some reflections in this forum are appropriate, as Balthasar was a contemporary of Barth and his RC spirituality might have some valuable things to say to Pentecostalism.

Balthasar's book is primarily about contemplative prayer. He grounds the practice both in the Triune God (ch.2) and within the broader, specifically Catholic, church (ch.3). For Balthasar, contemplative prayer is primarily about hearing the Word of God, by which he means both the text of Scripture and the Person of Jesus Christ. He grounds the act of contemplation in meditation on the biblical text and the person of Jesus, and places it within the broader church and tradition both in the sense that as believers we are not alone in our faith and also in that the broader tradition provides limits and direction to what we may or may not believe ourselves to be "hearing" from God.

There are twopoints which I think intersect Balthasar's book thus far with Pentecostal spirituality. First, by grounding the contemplative's meditations in the text and in Christ, and placing it within the bounds of the community and its confession, Balthasar simultaneously sets up the expectation that the pray-er will indeed hear from God while at the same time establishing some focus and boundaries which prevent some of the wilder, subjective, and/or heretical "revelations" sometimes present within Pentecostal, charismatic, and particularly neo-Pentecostal Christianity. 

Second, though Balthasar insists that contemplative prayer should normally be practiced alone for the psychological reason that others will provide a distraction (p.77), it seems to me that what Balthasar's contemplative both expects and experiences is rather akin to what the sincere, hungry Pentecostal experiences during fervent, normally public and corporate, worship.

What do you think? Does providing Christ as the focus and the great tradition of the church as guidelines rob personal spiritual revelation of it's truly revelatory character and freedom? Does the Pentecostal in public worship experience something akin to what the contemplative experiences alone?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Starting with God

Well, it has certainly been a long time since I have blogged anything, either here or here.  Having gone back to school to pursue my Master's in Theology and Culture at Northwest University in Kirkland, WA, I have not even had much time to think, much less read Barth, much less write about him.  But going back to school itself is actually related to my desire to link Pentecostalism and Barth in my own life and ministry, and possibly in the thinking, reading, and praying of others.

All that having been said, I have been re-reading Barth's Dogmatics in Outline these days as a mental break from paper writing and Greek homework.  Today I came across this classic Barthian thought:

"The mystery of creation on the Christian interpretation is not primarily - as the fools think in their heart - the problem whether there is a God as the originator of the world; for in the Christian sense it cannot be that first of all we presuppose the reality of the world and then ask whether there is also a God.  But the first thing, the thing we begin with, is God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  And from that standpoint the great Christian problem is propounded, whether it can really be the case that God wishes to be not only for Himself, but that outside Him there is the world, that we exist alongside and outside Him?  That is a riddle." (p.53)
 Classic Barth.  No room for apologetics.  No room for the question, Is there a God?  As in all Barth's thought, the unavoidable presupposition (not conclusion!) is the triune God - Father, Son and Spirit.  Does creation exist?  Do I exist?  Do you exist?  These are valid questions, but not the question, Is there a God?  The God we meet in Christ is the Great Presupposition which we know because of revelation.  And because of this Great Presupposition, we also know that creation and we ourselves are real too.  How do we know that?  The incarnation.  "Because God has become man, the existence of creation can no longer be doubted" (p.53).

What do you think?  Is Barth's confidence in God's existence and the unquestionableness of the divine revelation overstated?  Mis-stated?  Or profoundly right on target?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Brokenness

"This is how it happens between God and those who belong to him!  This is why they are all such broken, human, dissatisfying figures.  Each one is an anti-hero.  Their life histories are inconclusive.  Their life's work is incomplete.  The condition of their souls and their success are more than problematic..." - Barth, "Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas," in The Word of God and Theology, Kindle Location 2309
The above quote comes from a lecture by Barth to a group of students in 1920.  His lecture, apparently, was not well received and was criticized as being somewhat aimless.  As I read Barth's lecture, however, I felt that the meaning he wanted to convey to an audience seeking to know how the Bible could be "practical" or "relevant" in the modern age was that the Bible can only be practical and relevant by calling into question everything that we would consider practical and relevant.  Barth's lecture is more a thundering gospel sermon than a true lecture.  Perhaps that is why it was so poorly received.

Barth  himself was a picture of the contradiction that is the Christian believer.  We are simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinful.  We hear God's "Yes" only by hearing God's "No."  Conversely, we only truly realize how sinful our sin is after we've come to the knowledge of our forgiveness in Jesus.  Barth was simultaneously proud and humble.  He was not faithful to his marriage.  In many ways, he was a poor disciple.  Yet he also grasped the gospel like few ever have.  He understood Christ.  He endeavored, in his own somewhat pathetic way, to maintain his marriage.  Barth was simul iustus et peccator.  Barth knew brokenness.  He saw the glory of God in the failures of the patriarchs and the shortcomings of the church.  Barth knew brokenness.

Within the Pentecostal community, with our rightly emphasized focus on holiness, what do we do with the continued brokenness of the church and of believers?  Do we continue our pattern of separation?  Do we call into question the salvation of those whose walk with Jesus is, lets be honest, a mess?  Do we quake within ourselves at our own ongoing sinfulness, ashamed and scared to admit how far we still have to go? 

As Pentecostals, what do we do with brokenness?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is God "for" us?

"The grace of God is concealed under His sentence and judgment, His Yes under His No.  The man elected by God is the man who with his contradiction is broken and destroyed by the greater contradiction of God." Karl Barth, CD IV/1, p.173 (T&T Clark Edition)
Traditionally speaking, Pentecostalism is not Calvinistic.  Church of God (Cleveland) theologian Steven Jack Land states in his book, Pentecostal Spirituality, that Pentecostal Christianity which is true to the first ten years of the movement's existence (which he terms the movement's "heart" and not its "infancy") "is more Arminian than Calvinist in its approach to issues of human agency and perseverance" (p.18).  And after giving a further rundown of where Pentecostalism stands in relation to the other great traditions of the Christian faith (i.e. more Calvinist than Lutheran in its approach to the Law, more Eastern than Western in its approach to the spiritual life, and so on), Land states,
 "Pentecostalism, therefore, exists in continuity but differentiating discontinuity with other Christian spiritualities.  To the extent that it has a distinctive spirituality and theology, it may not be seen, used, or identified with an experience or experiential episodes.  There may be Pentecostal-like experiences but Pentecostal spirituality is another matter." (p.19, emphasis mine)
I am still working my way through Land's book, and was very excited to see him interacting with Barth quite a bit later on.  For now, my take on what Land is getting at is that Pentecostalism cannot be boiled down to "Spirit baptism."  A Christian piety that is in essence entirely Reformed, for example, but that "includes" a doctrine of Spirit-baptism as a second work of grace or that includes tongue-speaking and other sign gifts in prayer and worship, would not in Land's view qualify as "Pentecostal."  His book is an effort to both discover and prescribe a holistic picture of Pentecostal spirituality, indeed of Pentecostalism, that allows it to function as its own stream and not as an odd subset of the evangelical-fundamentalist camp.

At first, I was not sure if I would qualify as "Pentecostal" to Land.  I am still not sure, to be honest.  But then again, I have not gotten very far into his book.  I am also not reading it to find out if I am Pentecostal anyway, but to be guided in my own Pentecostal life, so I suppose its a moot point.  But working my way through his book reminded me of a significant intersection between the theology of Karl Barth and the best of what I know of as Pentecostalism: the question of God's fundamental attitude towards humanity.

In much of Reformed Christianity, particularly under the influence of the Puritans, the question of whether God is "for" me can almost sound idolatrous.  God is for himself, of course!  And I think that biblically, this is true.  God's fundamental stance is "for himself" - for his own glory, for his own will to be done, etc.  But sometimes this topic can degenerate into a picture of God as indifferent toward mankind, or even indignant.  He has given us much, we have squandered it, and God can't wait to crush most of us.  He has chosen to elect a few (for his own glory, of course), but damn the rest.  And even those of us who are pretty sure we might be elect better keep our house in order.  If we don't, we might find out after all that God has predestined us to hell and wants to damn us with the rest of the world.  It is an important lesson in God's unassailable sovereignty and of the fearfulness of his judgment, but the picture it gives us of God can be quite skewed.  It is a picture of a God who primarily wants to damn people.

In much of classical Pentecostalism we can get the same picture, but we come to it by an opposite route.  Just today, a woman posted a reminder for us all on a social media website that "faith without works is dead."  In other words, we better get our act in gear doing "good works" and avoiding sin, or in the end God may say that our trust in Christ is not good enough and will damn us anyway.  So here we have a picture of a God who perhaps does not want to damn people, but who is keeping track of our spiritual score-sheets and is certainly more than willing to damn us if we get lazy and watch a sitcom when we could be serving in a soup kitchen.

Something that is refreshing in Barth's understanding of the gospel is how he makes sense of humanity's plight and of God's answer to that plight.  For Barth, God's approach to man is always grace.  He has only ever had one covenant with man, one answer to man.  God's will for man is life.  Thus, sin is man's contradiction to God's Yes to man.  God offers life, man chooses death.
"He chooses a freedom which is no freedom.  He is therefore a prisoner of a world-process, of chance, of all-powerful natural and historical forces, above all of himself.  He tries to be his own master, and to control his relations to God and the world and his fellow-man.  And as he does so, the onslaught of nothingness prevails against him, controlling him in death in an irresistible and senseless way and to his own loss." (Barth, CD IV/1 p.173)
Barth's theology is a radical affirmation of the apostle John's statement that "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).  God is life, and offers us life.  Death is the result of humanity's refusal of life for a no-life. 

Barth's take on election (which changed in emphasis, but not necessarily in content, throughout his writing career) fits into this picture.  First, election means that God chooses to be God for man.  God is "for us."  God himself is elect.  Second, election means that humanity as a whole is chosen by God.  God has always only ever had one Word for mankind: grace.  So not only has God chosen to be God for man, God has chosen that man be man for God.  God has chosen this relationship.  But this also means that, from eternity past, God has chosen to be God for man and man for God in Christ.  Jesus was always God's plan, which is different than saying sin was always God's plan.  But because sin has happened (which God always knew would happen), Jesus Christ is also God for man and man for God as a solution to the sin problem.  In Barth's words, Jesus is "the Judge judged in our place."  He keeps the covenant for us and also takes the judgment we deserve.  Jesus has repaired the relationship between man and God.  He has reconciled us.  From then on, God has been at work in Christ by the Spirit applying that reconciliation to human lives by the ministry of the church.

But something that is fundamental to Barth's thought - something which he is willing to even risk speaking in contradictory and paradoxical terms to make "clear" - is that election is still relational and that God's fundamental stance is still always for man.  Grace is still always grace.  Wrath and judgment are simply what grace looks like when it confronts sin.  The elect are those who "realize" their predicament, who are "too weak" to fight off God's loving advance, and who accept who they are in Christ and walk into the new life that comes from knowing the Truth.

Despite its history of petty legalisms, name-it-and-claim-it preachers, Word of Faith "healers," and other aberrations, a fundamental feature of Pentecostal faith (as I understand it) is also the understanding that God is primarily for us.  For the early Pentecostals, God was a God of wrath and judgement, to be sure.  The God of the Bible is a God of wrath and judgement, so their understanding was solidly based.  But underlying all their other understandings was the primary realization that God is a generous God, a loving God who "baptizes us in the Spirit of his Love," who heals, who reconciles, who has regard for the poor, who wants many to be saved, who is no respecter of persons, who accepts all to who come to him by faith, who does not desire that any perish but that all come to repentance.  The God who we meet in Christ, the God who we meet in the Bible, is the God that the Pentecostals discovered is, radically, for us.  This is the same God who Barth discovered, and who we can discover too as we behold Christ, receive of his Spirit, and mediate on his written Word.  He is a God of grace.  He is a God of healing and hope.  He is a God who is for us!  Hallelujah!