To Speak of Nothing: Examining Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Evil

[This is an essay I submitted last semester for my apologetics class, in which I had to do a research paper on an apologetic topic. I chose the problem of evil and decided to look at Barth’s view. However, I did this paper before reading Darren M. Kennedy’s dissertation of Barth’s doctrine of providence, which is relevant for a few issues.]

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Exploring Nothing
    1. Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History
    2. Concluding Summary of the Doctrine
  3. Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine
  4. Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View
  5. Conclusion

Introduction

Evil is evil. This tautological statement might sound obvious and pointless but in fact, possesses much gravity. In the work of Christian theology, or more specifically in the work of defending the Christian faith through apologetics, many have undertaken the task of explaining how and why a good God with sufficient power to destroy evil can permit evil to exist and do as many horrors as the human race witnesses each day. Unfortunately, for many of these answers, evil is not truly evil. Instead, evil is part of a greater good, whether that good is free will, the glory of God, or something else. Karl Barth, however, offered in his Church Dogmatics his own answer (or non-answer) about evil, one in which evil is authentically evil. He named evil das Nichtige, and this doctrine has much to offer Christian theodical thought today. This doctrine is topic of my essay. Specifically, I would like to argue that Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige arises from a long history of Biblical, catholic thinking on evil, and though there are certainly notable weaknesses, the doctrine must be commended for being truly prophetic against evil, bound and determined by the Word, and characteristically Christocentric. My goal will be to show that Barth may not have the last word on the problem of evil, but his contribution will be valuable when fully understood.

To assess Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, first I will summarize the definition and explanation of the doctrine given in Church Dogmatics. Once they are presented clearly, I will compare and contrast Barth’s doctrine with various other views throughout Christian history to provide illumination and context. I will then work from this gathered clarity to address the weaknesses of das Nichtige, particularly charges of fantasy, tension with Providence, mythologizing, and dualism. They will be set against the doctrine’s strengths, and these last considerations will provide me sufficient material to perform a final analysis of the relevance and practical benefits which the Church might mine from Barth on this enduringly important issue. With this route prepared, then, the man himself may be allowed to speak. What exactly is Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, and what does the term even mean?

Exploring Nothing

“There is in world-occurrence an element, indeed an entire sinister system of elements, which is not…preserved, accompanied, nor ruled by the almighty action of God like creaturely occurrence.”1This shocking statement is how Barth introduced his doctrine of das Nichtige. The term itself comes from the German title of this chapter of the Church Dogmatics. Das Nichtige means in English “the Nothingness,” “the Null,” “the Negative,” or something else along those lines. The intention is to signify an absolute void, something which is not some thing but nothing(ness). Barth referred to evil in this way because he saw evil as fundamentally lacking in positive reality, but instead “existing” in antithesis to that which God wills to exist. For Barth, evil does not possess legitimate ontic ground. Evil belongs properly neither to the realm of Creator nor the realm of creature. Mark Lindsay summarized Barth’s unique ontology of evil this way: “Properly speaking, we cannot talk of Nothingness as something which ‘is’. In strictly ontological terms, ‘only God and His creature really and properly are.’ This cannot be taken to imply that Nothingness does not exist.”2 This paradox is essential to the doctrine of das Nichtige. Evil can only be categorized (if at all) as an “alien factor” in the world which seeks to corrupt and undo the creation, to drag the world back into the pure nothing from which God created.

For Barth, God willed and created for a good purpose of election, but das Nichtige can only be seen as that which God did not will or elect at all. Das Nichtige stands in opposition to both nature and grace, and thus is entirely unnatural and anti-grace. This anti-gracious character of das Nichtige, its non-willed “existence” under God’s opposition, is precisely what characterizes evil as evil, precisely why God must vehemently abhor and ruthlessly assault the whole system. For Barth, none of this is technically apologetics, either, or a systematic theological account of evil, but merely a dogmatic acknowledgment that true theodicy is basically impossible. In fact, Barth preferred to move past this question of evil’s nature (or lack thereof) to its solution in Christ, who suffered both the fullness of Nothingness and God’s wrath against Nothingness, surviving and doing away with both in His triumphant resurrection, thus finally and entirely eliminating even the not-existence which das Nichtige has, leaving only an echo or deceptive memory. What Barth distinctively means by all of this will be made clearer as historical development is traced and as other doctrines of evil in this tradition are juxtaposed with his view.

Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History

To anyone familiar with Augustine’s doctrine of evil, one of the earliest known views, Barth’s view may sound similar. This is somewhat justified and somewhat mistaken. Augustine’s well-known take on evil was privatio boni, the absence of good. His famous analogy was that of darkness to light. For Augustine, evil is not something in itself but merely the result of good not being there. Thus only good can be considered the creation of God, while evil is not. This is clearly similar to das Nichtige, but there are differences which bear noting. For Barth, evil has something of a rebellious malevolence. Without having true being, evil nonetheless is hostile to God and His creatures. On the other hand, Barth emphatically denies any reality or natural propriety whatsoever to evil’s “non-nature,” whereas Augustine’s view could be seen to allow a certain degree of “naturalness” to evil akin to way darkness is the nature state of the world without light. Both of them agree, however, that evil has no efficient cause.3

Barth considered the Reformed tradition his own home, and so traditional views of Reformed theology are also good for comparing his doctrine of evil. The classic Reformed position is that God sovereignly controls and ordains all things without exception, including evil. So says the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.4

This view appears quite clearly incompatible with Barth’s. The doctrine of das Nichtige absolutely refuses any notion that evil properly belongs to the will of God, whereas most Reformed thinkers have affirmed that God intentionally decrees every last occurrence, evil or otherwise. Representatives like Calvin would occasionally use the language of permission, but even this was rare and qualified. Yet for Barth and das Nichtige, the language of permission was essential and robust. Nonetheless, these drastically different views share the idea that evil has come into being alongside God’s act of sovereign election, even if the mechanism and divine intention are different for each.

In the modern era, there is certainly worth in comparing Barth’s doctrine with C. S. Lewis, despite the lack of any obvious connection. C. S. Lewis, as is well-known, relied heavily on the notion of free will. For Lewis, human freedom demanded the actual possibility of evil alongside that of good, for “all that is given to a creature with free will must be two-edged, not by the nature of the giver or of the gift, but by the nature of the recipient.”5 This kind of philosophical reasoning is hardly a part of Barth’s style, but he also used a kind of free will argument relocated, focused on maintaining the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction.6 In this case, the mysterious power of das Nichtige manifests itself by taking advantage of the space separating human will from divine will. So both of them seem to bind up the possibility of evil to the creation of the good, though this for Lewis is a symmetrical relationship, whereas Barth views the two as strongly asymmetrical, with evil more of an impossible possibility taking advantage of the real space of possibility generated by creaturely independence.

For a final comparison, this one both ancient and modern, das Nichtige may be compared to an Eastern Orthodox doctrine of sin. In an interview with The Christian Century, David Bentley Hart sketched a doctrine of evil which seems to parallel Barth’s at several points which representing historic Orthodoxy. The Orthodox view has historical roots similar to Augustine’s and Hart affirmed that evil is “a privation of the good: a purely parasitic and shadowy reality, a contamination or disease or absence, but not a real thing in itself.”7 This clearly echoes the kind of obscure, reserved language for evil’s ontology which Barth used. Hart also vehemently denied that, in Orthodoxy, there is any necessity or divine purpose behind the origins of evil. God can use and work past evil, but He fundamentally did not will or deliberately plan for evil to play a role in His purpose of divine-human communion. This strongly favors Barth’s contradiction to classic Reformed thought on evil (though which Hart detests as blasphemous). Thus, perhaps surprisingly, Barth’s post-Reformed, post-liberal account of evil is actually profoundly close to the ancient view of Orthodox theology, which seems a positive sign.

Concluding Summary of the Doctrine

With Barth’s doctrine of evil clarified by comparison to other historic attempts, the results are a doctrine of mystery and absolute affirmation of the goodness of both God and God’s creatures. Evil for Barth is not so much an apologetic issue which can be solved, but a disruption of theological thought which can only be described in awkward, negative terminology. Das Nichtige is not-being, but more than not-being functions as something of an anti-being, seeking to corrupt and de-create what God has willed, and is anti-grace, devoid of God’s grace and seeking to erase all its benefits. God has not chosen to create, ordain, or design any evil substances or mere happenings apart from evil’s prior historical appearance as opposition to His creative design. This is a fiercer doctrine of evil than Augustine’s privatio, a more uncompromising doctrine of God’s goodness vis-à-vis evil than most Reformed views, a more equivocal doctrine of human evil than Lewis’, and a surprising friend to Orthodoxy’s approach. With this fuller picture in place, Barth’s weaknesses on evil can be brought out with precision.

Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine

The first criticism which many have raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige is that an account of evil as both fundamentally characterized by not-being and truly and utterly defeated in Christ seems patently false, a form of denial about the clear reality of the visible world. Given that Barth specifically wrote during the time of Nazism and was well aware of the deep, inestimable darkness of the Holocaust, some like Lindsay have suggested that Barth’s doctrine, which takes no explicit account of such events, is necessarily an anemic account of evil.8 Is Nothingness a strong enough concept to explain the atrocities of the Second World War? Can Jesus’ once-for-all complete annihilation of das Nichtige really be considered realistic in light of the Auschwitz? Of course, there are potential responses to this, but the objection is understandable. This also seems to tie in with Barth’s unequivocal rejection of natural theology and general revelation; the Holocaust is not Christ, and so was never suitable material for doing theological work.

A second objection which might be raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige involves providence: if God truly does not will, cause, determine, or ordain evil, then how can His providence be authentically and robustly active over the dark forces of the world? This objection is stronger from Calvinists who might assert that such a doctrine completely dismantles God’s absolute sovereignty. While this second form of the objection is not especially compelling given the many weaknesses in a theory of divine determinism, the basic question stands and begs answering. This is compounded by the way in Scripture that God often overruled and guided evil, sending disaster this way and that, and even hardening people’s hearts. While there probably are possible ways to answer, not least from more carefully studying Barth’s account itself, that work remains to be done.

More serious an objection is the questionable, mythological or speculative nature of das Nichtige as an attempted account of evil. At one point Barth implied that the divine conflict against das Nichtige goes back in a certain sense (more in a logical than chronological sense, to be sure) behind the time of creation itself, with God’s act of creation being directed against the void which would have there be nothing else but Nothingness.9 In addition, the ontology of evil, the non-existing existence of das Nichtige as that which God rejected and did not create, seems simply outlandish. Certainly, this whole picture is a bit strange and calls to mind many of the pagan myths of a deity triumphing over a lesser deity in order to create the world mankind now inhabits.  This is odd for Barth more than others, given his resistance to all human projection and speculation. Any attempt to make das Nichtige into a workable Christian account of evil would have to address why and how such a bizarre account could be justified. This, again, can likely be done, and later a possible way will be suggested.

A final objection, and quite possibly the most serious of them all, is the way that Barth’s view of das Nichtige seems to construct an uncomfortable and questionable partial dualism in the heart of Christian theology. If indeed the struggle with das Nichtige goes back to the beginning of the act of creation itself, and if evil’s paradoxical existence of not-being ultimately traces back to God’s election of creation and covenant as the rejected alternative of desolation and anti-grace, then one has to ask whether some principle indeed made evil inevitable and necessary after all. Has Barth bound even God’s creative power to some higher principle which requires evil, even if the dualism is asymmetrical (and thus partial) due to Christ’s final and decisive eradication of das Nichtige? Lindsay addressed the problem in this way:

Hick raises a similar point when he queries why God, in the positive act of creation had, in logical necessity, also to create the “third factor” of Nothingness. Why can we not conceive of a God who is able to create a good universe “that is not accompanied by the threatening shadow of rejected evil?” Why must God choose good and reject evil, as though these realities were existences “which already [stood] in some way before Him…?”10

This is perhaps the most difficult and problematic question for the whole doctrine, and unless a remedy can be proposed, the Church may one day simply need to plunder Barth’s view for its benefits and move on to something else. So just what are these benefits?

Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View

Despite the various weaknesses of Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, there are several commendable features from which the Church catholic may greatly benefit. The first of these worth mentioning is the way das Nichtige can serve Bible reading. While at first glance this doctrine hardly seems much relevant to any specific statements in the Scriptures, there are a few places where its relevance appears. One of the more interesting applications is in the Old Testament passages which depict creation in terms of mythological conquest.11 Barth knew that the mythological-sounding language he used was not at all univocal, but such descriptions do correspond with something that Scripture says about God’s supremacy in creating and preserving the world. What if the Biblical reader thought of Rahab as das Nichtige? That may not be identical to the original intent but ironically may very well give the modern reader a similar impression to what the ancient reader heard.

Another strength of Barth’s doctrine is its prophetic character with respect to the absolute nature of evil as evil and not good. In too many other Christian accounts of evil, evil truly cannot but be part of the good, either the necessary possibility which makes free will and human love real or the darker half of God’s plan of self-glorification. The doctrine of das Nichtige neither requires not permits such a concept of evil’s existence as inherently justified by its role as means to any end. Instead, being neither proper to the good God nor His good creatures, evil is fully wicked, unjustified, and unacceptable, allowed to truly be evil without merely being the balance to the Force. Das Nichtige is not truly a theodicy, for as McDowell explained, Barth knew that any such project had to in some sense or way trivialize evil and offer cover for its sources and activities.12 Thus following Barth on this point gives the Church solid ground to call out evil in an entirely uncompromised and uncompromising way.

In response to the charge above that das Nichtige represents a theology of denial and insufficiency by claiming evil is truly a dead void post-Calvary, there is, in fact, the entirely reasonable defense that Barth may be simply following Luther in submitting to a theology of the Word and of faith. Never mind what the world may appear to be; what God has declared alone matters. The reality men think they perceive is not ultimate, but only the reality which God has spoken by His omnipotent Word. Barth would certainly agree with Luther when he said, “He who believes God, recognizes Him as true and faithful, and himself as a liar; for he mistrusts his own thinking as false, and trusts the Word of God as being true, though it absolutely contradicts his own reasoning,”13 and so ought the Church today. In the face of the whatever reality appears to contradict the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel must be allowed to take precedence and declare the truth. If therefore, Barth is right to say that Christ declares Himself the absolute and unqualified victor over das Nichtige, consigning the beast entirely to the empty past, the Church ought to learn to have faith in the Word and not doubt.

Finally, though, the most important strength of Barth’s doctrine is the way Christ stands central. The das Nichtige was exposed and climactically annihilated on the Cross in the flesh of Jesus. Jesus survived, along with His divine-human union, but das Nichtige has been banished forevermore, stripped of even its old quasi-reality. All that remains is but an echo of a shell of a memory, but the risen Christ stands triumphant. From the beginning to the end, in ways also unexplored here due to space constraints, Barth’s doctrine of evil is viewed through the lens of Christology, and even if the exact results are less than perfect, the focus and methodology must be commended. If Jesus really is the true center and subject of all the world and God’s activity in the world, then there is no excuse for even attempting to describe an account of evil which makes sense without reference to Him. Barth successfully avoided that error and knew nothing about evil except Christ crucified. If nothing else is worth following in Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, this theme is.

Conclusion

What, then, is the result of all this? Is the doctrine of das Nichtige of benefit? By all means, it is! Nothingness is definitely a productive angle for approaching the problem of evil, one which had precedent and support in the thought of the Church catholic well before Barth ever wrote a word. Augustine and the Orthodox are especially close to this view, but similarities may even be found in the Reformed tradition and C. S. Lewis. In all of these cases, Barth’s catholicity and uniqueness shine through his flawed but fundamentally helpful account of evil, an account which, like all of Barth’s theology, found a compass in the person of Jesus Christ. Any doctrine which exalts and serves Christ in this way deserves at least a seat at the discussion table. Indeed, this doctrine can serve Christ, and a few reasons on why and how are in order.

There are a few possible useful implications of Barth’s doctrine of evil. In Christian preaching, the preacher is freed to call out evil and unqualified evil without equivocating or fearing the question, “Why would a good God allow evil, and what if He uses evil?” No conflicts of conscience, questions about God’s purposes and character, are necessary since evil is assigned a role of pure and complete opposition to divine willing and creating. Those wrestling with the problem of evil, both within the Church and without Her, may be pointed not towards philosophers and constructed systems but to Christ and Him crucified. Regardless of how and why evil came to be in actual metaphysical detail, the minister may proclaim that God has used His omnipotent power to mortify the phenomenon. This can also be an impetus to evangelism, the Church thus energized to take on the world, the flesh, and the Devil with its witness, knowing the forces to have already been destroyed in Christ. Hope may be allowed full reign, even in the darkest of times, and the Gospel can be proclaimed in force to all people: Jesus is Lord, over and against the evil forces, even das Nichtige, which He has vanquished.

Bibliography

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 3.3, The Doctrine of Creation. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley, G. T. Thomson, and Harold Knight. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

Hart, David Bentley. “Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart.” The Christian Century, January 10, 2006. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001. PDF.

Lindsay, Mark R. “‘Nothingness’ Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust.” Colloquium 34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): 3-19. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

Luther, Martin, and John Theodore Mueller. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954.

McDowell, John C. “Much Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth’s Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, no. 3 (November 2002): 319. Accessed November 18, 2016. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

Vorster, Nicolaas. “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?” Journal of Reformed Theology 5, no. 1 (2011): 26-48. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

The Westminster Confession of Faith. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

Wikisource Contributors. “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6.” In Wikisource. 2010. Accessed November 18, 2016. https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.


1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, §50, 289.

2 Mark R. Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust,” Colloquium 34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): pg. 7, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

3 Wikisource Contributors, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6,” in Wikisource (2010), accessed November 18, 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.

4 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics), ch. III, sec. 1, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

5 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), PDF, pg. 60.

6 Nicolaas Vorster, “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?,” Journal of Reformed Theology 5, no. 1 (2011): pg. 37, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

7 David Bentley Hart, “Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart,” The Christian Century, January 10, 2006, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

8 Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited,” 16.

9 Barth, CD III/3, §50, 290.

10 Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited,” 13.

11 E.g. Job 26:12.

12 John C. McDowell, “Much Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth’s Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, no. 3 (November 2002): pg. 324, accessed November 18, 2016, Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

13 Martin Luther and John Theodore Mueller, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954), pg. 87.

To Speak of Nothing: Examining Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Evil

Layered, Christological Election as a Biblical Story

As I posted some time ago, Evangelical Calvinism has a highly Christological approach to election which, in the history of salvation, involves several “layers.” The election of Christ in eternity has as its correspondence a movement of historical election which takes place through several stages/layers of covenant (all of which, of course, mediate the one covenant of grace in Jesus).

I only recently learned how much this layered aspect is actually present in Karl Barth. I had imagined before that Barth’s Christological focus was so strict as to squeeze out the room for this idea of layers in the history of election, but Nathan Hitchcock summarizes in his PhD dissertation, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh, how this layered aspect of election plays out in Barth’s reading of the Biblical story. All I really want to do in this post, then, is quote his rather epic presentation.

Election’s set of concentric circles plays out the drama of reconciliation28: the eternal decree in Jesus fructified from the One to the many through the creation of Adam, the population of the earth through Noah, then on to the manifold blessing given to Abraham. However, a thinning of the visibly elect community occurs through Moses and David, the kings and prophets, leading ultimately to a convergence back to the One in His single history of reconciliation. Of the millions who lived before Him, only a handful represented the elect Israel, and even these actors in the history of salvation narrowed until, the disciples scattering from the Garden of Gethsemane, only Jesus remained. Upon this one crucified Representative rested the whole task of reconciliation. The circles of election contracted back to the single point on Golgotha, the telos of the divine election, thus enacting God’s gracious election. As for the resurrection of Jesus, the same elective expansion occurs, this time from the divine, single point in the Auferweckung to the second, communal ring during the forty days of appearance to the inclusion of all sorts of individuals at the outpouring of the Spirit. The now-established Church expands into all the world with Christ in His prophetic mission. 

Nathan Hitchcock, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh

Layered, Christological Election as a Biblical Story

We Are Not Ourselves

I am sinless. 

I am sinful. 

I am holy.

I am profane. 

I am righteous. 

I am guilty. 

What is all this babbling about? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Christian identity. People talk about how our identity is in Christ, but they rarely talk explain what that means practically. A lot could be said about it, really. But I’ve been thinking about one aspect in particular. 

In one way, we have two selves as Christians. There is the old man and the new. Often these are treated as simply two sides to your mind or heart, one good and one evil, but it’s really so much deeper than that.

The truth is that Jesus has actually and entirely remade us. We were one kind of person, one kind of human being, before, but He has broken that down into tiny pieces and rebuilt it from the ground up. He did this in His death and resurrection. When He died on the Cross, the humanity of our old, fallen, natural selves was crucified—brutally executed under the wrath of God—with Him. And then we were raised with Him to a new humanity, perfectly purified from sin and filled with the life and glory of God.

So where does that leave us now? In Christ, we are already perfected. I’m not talking sentimentally. I’m not talking about our legal status before God. I’m saying that the human life of Jesus in heaven right now is our life. He is literally our perfection, our sanctification, our regeneration, our glorification. Our redeemed selves are hidden with Christ in God 

But this hiding is, for now, essential to grasp. We can’t see our new selves but in glimpses, shadows, and holy moments by faith. Our new selves are in Christ alone, hidden in heaven, and the only way to see them in the present on earth is by union with Christ.

Because, the thing is, right now we are not ourselves. In a certain way we are, but in a more important way we’re not. The selves we experience right now—the ones deeply scarred by sin, guilt, confusion, insufficiency, fear, doubt, weakness, and death—are expired. We were crucified. Our flesh was mortally wounded on Calvary in the flesh of Jesus. Our existence as sinners is passing away, fading like a time traveler who has murdered his young grandfather.

So right now we are walking paradoxes. We are still our natural and decaying selves, but by grace the Holy Spirit has united us to Jesus, in whom our true selves are hidden. Although our new selves will have to remain essentially hidden with Christ until He comes, because of our present union with Him by the Spirit we can begin to live, inasmuch as we depend on Jesus in faith, as new creatures even today. As we draw nearer to Jesus, we become in this mixed present more like who we really are in the Savior. Yet because Jesus still remains hidden in heaven, we cannot yet fully escape who we have been, our old and dead selves. 

This, then, thrusts us back onto the practices that take us to Jesus. Our only way to be who we really are is to know Him, which means we are bound to pray, to read the Scriptures which testify of Christ, to take our place within His Body, the Church, to serve the least of these with whom He so deeply identifies, and to feast upon His new creation nourishment weekly in the Supper, to recall the promise and identity of our baptisms, and to suffer for the Gospel. These things deepen our union with Christ. Self-denial and cross-bearing connect us to His death, which killed our old selves. Likewise, the active life of believing, knowing, and loving Jesus connects us to His resurrection by the Spirit. And by this resurrection we experience in advance our new creation selves as pure gift in the person of Jesus.

So for now, we march on in tension. Our old, corrupted selves remain alive in this age but dead in Christ. Our redeemed and holy selves remain hidden in this age (they belong to the age to come) but present in Christ. Yet out of these two realities, this age and the age to come in Jesus, one is superior. Jesus is victorious, and all reality opposed to His is already defeated. This means that we, in our darkness and pain and struggling, are not ourselves. Our true selves are hidden in Christ to be revealed on the last day. That is hope and comfort, for the selves we see now obviously have no place in glory or eternal life. But if this isn’t who we are, if in Jesus we are something far better, then we know that there is real hope for us all.

To adapt something T. F. Torrance once said:

This Caleb Smith you see is full of corruption, but the real Caleb Smith is hid with Christ in God and will be revealed  only when Jesus Christ comes again.

Amen.

We Are Not Ourselves

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.

Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):

Union In Christ: A Declaration

With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:

I.

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.

His coming transforms everything.

His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.

II.

The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.

In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.

In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.

In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.

III.

Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.

By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.

We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.

By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.

We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.

By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”

We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.

IV.

Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.

By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.

V.

As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.

By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.

We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.

By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.

We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.

By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

Evangelical Calvinism: I Suggest Four New Solas

One of the primary goals of Evangelical Calvinism is to further reform the Reformed tradition. As I mentioned the other day, the Reformation will never be truly over, and EC focuses on what work still needs to be done. And if we’re going to try to keep reforming the Reformation, we might find it useful to extend the iconic Five Solas, the defining marks of Protestant theology. Here, then, is my proposal for four additional, Evangelical Calvinist solas.

Sola Incarnatio: The Incarnation Alone

The Incarnation alone is the meeting point between God and man, the only possible connection between the Creator and His human creatures. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just in fact the only way to God, but He is in principle the only way to God. No other way could exist for God and man to have a relationship. There can only be communion between God and man because of the hypostatic union between God and man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This all is meant to apply even to sinless man. Had Adam never sinned, his destiny would still have been found only in Jesus taking on flesh. Had man never chosen death, his life would still only be fulfilled by coming of Life Himself in human nature. Why? Because God is above, we are below, God is Creator, we are creature, God is infinite, we are finite, God is transcendent, and we are dust. There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and man, a gap that could only be bridged by God’s omnipotent power in becoming one of us.

Sola Apocalypsi: By Revelation Alone

God can be known by revelation alone, His personal self-revelation. The idea of general revelation is a mixed bag: surely the whole creation testifies to its Creator, but among fallen, fleshly men this means little or nothing. There are no ears to hear. If we are to find God at all, if we are to reliably know anything true and certain about Him, we need to be directly confronted by His personal Word. This happens in Christ, the Old Testament preparations which were bound up with His Coming, and the Apostolic witness to Him in the New Testament, by the Spirit.

Sola apocalypsi means that we can’t trust things like natural theology, general revelation, or philosophical arguments to know anything about God except in retrospect. We can see light in these ways through Christ, but apart from Christ it is all darkness. 

Solius Benevolentia: Of Goodwill Alone

All things, particularly all men, have been created by God of goodwill alone. There is no malice, no darkness, and no deviousness in God’s plans for His creation. This is meant specifically in contrast to the doctrine that many people have been created not out of God’s kindness per se, but instead were created specifically for God’s wrath or (in a more positive framing) to glorify God by highlighting His justice in punishing their sins. God’s eternal design and desire for no man is doom. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.

This may seem like a polemic especially against classical Calvinism, but it is not unique to Calvinism. It also applies to the theology of election (actually, for him it was more about providence) in Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. As Evangelical Calvinists, we deny that God’s will for any man terminates in their eternal destruction, regardless of who says otherwise.

Sola Vita: Life Alone

Closely related to the last suggested sola, we affirm that life alone is the end to which God has predestined all people. There is only one singular destiny God has created for His creation, and that is eternal life by the glory of God. No one is predetermined apart from their actual rejection of God to anything else. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is living man.” Thus this follows from the traditional soli Deo gloria. God’s glory is the end of all things, and He has sovereignly chosen to manifest His glory precisely in giving His eternal, imperishable life to human creatures.

This destiny, of course, has been proved in Jesus Christ, the archetypal human and new Adam. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has displayed before the world His singular plan for the world. The resurrection and restoration of all things, but particularly humanity, is His design. Anyone who is damned and lost (and there will be many such people) are not so because of God’s will but their own.

Evangelical Calvinism: I Suggest Four New Solas

Faithfulness, Election, Prayer, and Faith: An Exegetical Paper for Genesis 24:12-14

A STUDY OF GENESIS 24:12-14

An Exegetical Paper

 

ABSTRACT OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT

  1. Main Idea.

Abraham’s servant, having been sent to acquire a wife for Isaac that the covenant blessings may be passed down another generation, prayed to the God of his master in faith. He trusted in the will, kindness, and ability of God to fulfill the promises He had made to Abraham. He expected God to perform an act of sovereign election, and then confirm that act by a sign. These themes of God’s covenant love and faithfulness, God’s purpose in election, human faith, and the use of prayer fill the passage and all point forward to a fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

  1. Genesis 24:12-14
    1. Abraham’s servant prayed for a wife for Isaac (vv. 12-14)
      1. The servant entreated God (v. 12)
        1. Addressed God as “Lord, God of my master Abraham”
        2. Requested success and “kindness” (checed)
      2. The servant set the stage for his sign request (v. 13)
      3. The servant requested a sign of God’s yakach choice (v. 14)
        1. Asked for the sign of a willingness to water both himself and his camels
        2. Expected this sign as proof of God’s checed to Abraham

Introduction

God is faithful, therefore His people have every ground to entreat Him in faith. The truth of this characterization and inference can be found on almost every page of Scripture, but in some places the theme is more prominent than in others. Genesis 24:12-14 stands as a prime example of this dynamic. This passage offers a wealth of riches for the Church when studied in detail. To be more specific, in this text, once properly viewed in historical-cultural and literary context, God’s covenant faithfulness and electing purposes shine bright, with the proper human response of faith and personal prayer to his covenant partner mediated by election setting an example. In addition, as with all of Scripture, each of these themes from the text can be found to climax and find their full meaning in Jesus Christ. None of these claims needs to be particularly controversial, but they do need to be substantiated. What exactly does this passage say? What specifically and exactly did the author (and Author) mean? The investigation must begin in history.

Historical-Cultural Context

To understand any text, the original historical-cultural context is highly relevant. Every part of Scripture was written at a particular time to a particular people in a particular world. This must be acknowledged and treated to avoid appropriating a kind of Docetism into bibliology. So what is the context of Genesis 24:12-14? According to Jewish tradition, as well as the implications of Scripture and even the words of Jesus Himself, the book of Genesis was written by Moses after the Exodus, probably while he was on Mt. Sinai with God. Naturally, not all of this can be verified, and this has been a source of heated debate. Many scholars would like to assign the book, along with the rest of the Pentateuch (or even Hexateuch), to several editors and redactors, and until recently have preferred to divide this up into four primary source materials. These are J (Jehovist/Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly). Traditionally under this schema the entire account of Abraham sending his servant to acquire a wife for Isaac has been associated with the Yahwist. All of this, however, seems quite unnecessary. The purpose and scope of this essay do not permit an attempt at proving or even much defending Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, but enough work on this has already been performed by many scholars. Mosaic authorship can still be, despite many critical protests, affirmed with reason.[1] This places the original context of the writing within the Exodus period. The monumental event of the Exodus is quite relevant because precisely in the shadow of this event God chooses to reiterate to Israel the full story of their origins in the purposes of God. God delivered a people and then called the people to hear the story of how He brought them into being as a foundation for their future as His covenant partner. Genesis 2:14-15 should then be viewed as part of the larger project of establishing Israel’s covenantal identity before God. Yet to go much deeper would turn this into the literary context and thus must be presently deferred.

More important to this particular text may be the historical context of the events described. When did this take place? While many scholars would like to argue that this story is simply one of many legends, folktales, or myths making up Israel’s self-written history, the biblical texts point toward a historical time around the early second millennium BC. Dating from the years given in 1 Kings 6:1 and Exodus 12:40-41 both support this conclusion, no matter which of the predominant views of the Exodus date is preferred. This “Patriarchal Period” has been subject to many accusations of anachronism and fiction, but such accusations do not necessarily convict. There is comparatively little data about the Patriarchal Period from archaeology and other sources, which allows for this kind of ambiguity. Yet the skepticism seems mostly unjustified, as several clues point to an authentic date. Genesis contains, for example, straightforward portrayals of God’s people acting in ways which are taboo later in Israel’s history, such as Abraham marrying his half-sister or Lot sleeping with his daughters. If the accounts originated in later times, these would appear problematic and unnecessary for the authors. Other evidence, such as the information on Ancient Near East customs and practices found in the Nuzi tablets, strengthen the case that, even if the early second millennium cannot be definitively pinpointed as the origin of these stories, the fanciful tale that they were invented much later around the Exilic period seem to lose much credibility.[2]

Given these factors, Genesis (including 24:12-14) should be read as a text written shortly after the Exodus about historical events which took place in the early second millennium BC. Moses wrote to Israel of events from the beginning of their history about half a millennium earlier with no clear indications of anachronism or inaccuracy. From this context, not a great deal is directly relevant to the three verses in question, but two notes are necessary. On the one hand, the mention of domesticated camels in verse 14 is treated as an anachronism by many. Supposedly the domestication of camels in Canaan did not take place until centuries later. This, however, relies mostly on an argument from silence, and frequently assertions like this are found to be false by new archaeological excavations.[3] Beyond this, there is not much of note to the context of this particular passage. Thus the literary context must be the next major focus.

Literary Context

For Genesis 24:12-14, as with any other text (in Scripture or elsewhere), the literary context is the true key to meaning. Where does this text sit in the whole book or collection of books? This particular text is found in the book of Genesis, which is ultimately inseparable from the entire Pentateuch (or even the Hexateuch). While the entire Pentateuch includes a couple of genres, the majority from Genesis 1 to the middle of Exodus is pure narrative. Many will argue that this narrative is fictional, mythical, legendary, or allegorical. While in theory one of these could be true, there is no necessary reason to think so, and the overall story should probably be classified simply as a historical narrative. This is most often contested on the grounds of theological and miraculous content, but neither of these preclude an intent to write real history. Obviously this is a highly controversial route, but the evidence does not ask for any other. In any case, unless the narrative is a pure allegory, the intended meaning of the text’s canonical form is likely the same.

The story of Genesis which sets the context for 24:12-14 is essentially of origins. Genesis tells a story about the origin of the world (Genesis 1-11) and of Israel as God’s people within the world (Genesis 12-50). The latter half about the origins of Israel begins with Abraham and God’s covenant with Him. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be His own people for divine blessing. The selection of Abraham is unexplained, presumably a simple function of God’s free election. This text, then, appears in a transition period as Abraham passed his role on to Isaac, who had also been specially selected by God as the descendant through whom the chosen people would continue. Isaac would become the patriarch for the next few chapters. Thus he, like Abraham, would need posterity, which in turn meant he would need a wife. A wife would enable Isaac to take up his place as the next patriarch and continue the line of promise. Therefore, Abraham sent out a servant to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac from his own kin rather than from among the Canaanites.

Genesis 24:12-14 lies at this point and must be taken as part of this ongoing narrative of the patriarchs. The prayer of the servant sits in the middle of this crucial transition period. God had made a covenant promise to provide many descendants to Abraham and Isaac after him. At this moment the question came in the form of the servant’s prayer, “Will God be faithful, and if so how?” The ongoing history of God’s people was found once again to hinge on God’s provision, election, and faithfulness, just as for Abraham when he trusted God for a son. John Walton highlights the issue thus:

[G]etting a wife for Isaac in a way that will preserve the covenant ideals is not an easy matter. It is for that reason that the narrator goes to such great length to demonstrate the role that God played in bringing the marriage to fruition. Abraham has not yet become a great nation. Survival of the line still hangs by a thread.[4]

Therefore, the context presents Isaac and even, in a certain sense, Rebekah, as the rightful successor(s) of the first patriarch, and the source of the blessings which are still to come in the rest of the story.

The Basic Content

So, with the context in history and the literature firmly established, the actual content of the passage can be examined. What happened in Genesis 24:12-14? Abraham sent out his chief servant to acquire a wife for Isaac, since Abraham was getting old and would die soon. The servant came to the town of Nahor and approached a well, where he then uttered the prayer of these three verses in question. In this prayer, he asked God to show kindness to Abraham his master by giving success in the wife-finding journey. He asked in particular for God to highlight a woman He had chosen by a particular sign, the sign of extraordinary hospitality in the form of an offer to draw water for both him and the camels from the well. In fact, the text is short enough that quoting the full prayer is probably warranted. The servant’s prayer reads as follows in the NIV, which the standard throughout this paper:

“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”[5]

That is the full text of the prayer which will be discussed. The events afterwards bear note as well, however. In the rest of the narrative, God did give the sign and led the servant to Rebekah, whom Isaac married. Keeping this storyline in mind, the interpretation can begin. What does the text actually mean?

“Kindness” and “Chosen”: Two Key Words about the Faithful God of Abraham

 Key to this passage will be two words which highlight the redemptive-historical themes of the account. The first of these is translated in the NIV as “kindness.” The servant asked God to “show kindness” to Abraham, and at the end of the prayer asked for a sign so he could know that God had shown “kindness.” The Hebrew is the word checed (חֶ֕סֶד), which is used fairly frequently in the Old Testament, occurring 241 times.[6] Checed has a very wide translation range (including in the NIV such diversity as “condemn,” “devout,” and “loving deeds”), but the meaning seems to primarily orbit around some blend of commitment and benevolence. Thus in 174 instances the NIV uses a variant of “love” yet also includes at times “devotion,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” In support of this blend, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, for example, predominantly translates checed as “faithful love.”[7] There is an unmistakable covenantal flavor to the included faithfulness in many of the occurrences, and many times in the Psalms checed could almost be defined: “God’s unswerving mercy and love in being faithful to His covenant with Israel and her king.”

In Genesis 24:12-14 in particular, the common rendering “kindness” fits well enough, but an argument could well be made that God’s covenant faithfulness should not be left out of the picture. After all, as mentioned earlier, this was a pivotal moment. God’s covenant with Abraham was about to transition to his son Isaac. The wife Isaac required would be the means by which Isaac could bear children according to the promise. Thus for God to answer this servant’s prayer would be to show His covenant love to Abraham and his family. Those were the stakes, and as the narrative later explains, God did just that. In yet another moment of importance for God’s people, He came through out of faithful love.

The other significant word in the passage, not repeated but certainly important, is “chosen.” The Hebrew word is yakach (יָכחַ). Though not as common as checed, yakach does show up in the Old Testament enough to notice, namely fifty-five times. The basic meaning of yakach has to do with rightness.[8] The word is quite flexible, with “rebuke” having a plurality of the NIV renderings at twenty instances, but the rest divided between many others like “judge,” “vindicate,” “complain,” or “mediate.” This passage contains the rendering “chosen,” also “appointed” or “prepared” in other translations. Many of the other possible meanings for yakach make intuitive sense (e.g. “vindicate” is to prove right, “judge” to discern right, “rebuke” to correct wrong with right, etc.), but how that ties to the concept of choosing or appointing is less obvious. Perhaps the intended sense is judging that a particular choice is the right one, recognizing that what is being chosen or appointed is right or fit for the purpose.

If this sense of discerning rightness according to a purpose is correct, then the servant implicitly acknowledged that God has a righteous plan with a particular woman who will be the best gift for Isaac. The one God has chosen, yakach, would be right for him and thus help bring about the blessings of the covenant which she was needed to fulfill. The Lord of all the earth does what is right, and the servant fully expected (and entreated) Him to do the same in this particular circumstance, in this moment on which the future of the covenant hang. Thus, even while not used in the same sentence of the text, these two important words function together. The servant prayed for the God of Abraham to show faithful love to the family by his right choice of a woman through whom the covenant could transition to Isaac, and thus God’s plan in election could reach fullness.

The Meaning of the Servant’s Prayer of Faith

These themes of God’s covenant faithfulness and sovereign election are key to understanding Genesis 24:12-14, but they are not the whole. There is the human side as well, the side in which the servant actually did the praying. The faithful God was entreated by a human in need of His faithfulness. The God of the covenant was asked by a member of His partner’s party to fulfill His terms. Clearly, Abraham’s relationship to God was not closed off and private. Instead, his servants were aware of God’s covenant, promises, and terms. All of Abraham’s household had to walk in faith, and in this passage the chief servant did just that. He expressed trust in his master’s God by making an implausible request in prayer. (This is, however, something with which Calvin wrestled.[9] How does a prayer of true faith include a prescription to God for a definite sign? While the discussion might be interesting, there is no room for addressing the question here. May the simple observation that Scripture never recognizes such a tension suffice.)

This prayer presents the basic paradigm of the God/human covenant relationship. God initiates, God gives promises, the humans agree, and finally the humans call upon God to fulfill His promises when they are needed. This basic pattern can be found repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, with Genesis 24:12-14 being a prime early example. By itself, the servant’s prayer might not teach anything but the admirability of faith. Yet this prayer was grounded in the faithfulness of God, which was again proved when God heard and answered the prayer in verses 15-20. Thus working in reverse a truth becomes clear: the faithfulness of God to His promises calls forth absolute dependence from His people. Just as Abraham earlier “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,”[10] now the servant trusted in God, and God gave to him the success needed for the covenant to be fulfilled.

One interesting quality of the servant’s prayer is the narrative introduction. In particular, verse 12 opens up saying, “Then he prayed.” The word “prayed” here is translated in the NIV beyond the basic meaning, which is simply “said.” There is no technical sense of prayer here, only a conversation. This is supported by the tone, which lacks any liturgical refinement, specific theological terminology, or accompanying posture or rites. Such a tone is in accord with the general prayer habits of the patriarchs, which tended to be simple, personal, and informal. [11] The servant just spoke to God. He asked God for some help as anyone else might ask a human friend. That God answered such a prayer on multiple occasions, including this one, indicates a profoundly personal orientation between God and His people. Liturgy has a place, as the Torah demonstrated, but this prayer stands as an example that there was never a time when God was first met in rigid procedure rather than personal encounter. Yet even this personal encounter has another layer.

Despite the informal and conversational tone of the prayer, there is also an element of mediation. The servant did not address Yahweh as “my God.” Instead, he called Him, “God of my master Abraham.” The servant may have been implicated in the blessings of the covenant and perhaps by membership in Abraham’s house something of a covenant member, but ultimately the covenant was between God and Abraham, not God and the servant. God chose Abraham specifically. His descendants and other members of his household only could participate by virtue of their relationship to him. The shape of election is visible here as three parties are visible: God, Abraham, and those who belong to Abraham. God elected Abraham freely, and through Abraham’s election the servant received a covenantal status from which he could entreat the God who elected Abraham. A mediation appeared between God and His people, a person through whom His faithfulness and their faith could intersect.

Christ Embodies Checed and Yakach

At this point all of the themes visible in this text—God’s covenant faithfulness, His gracious election, His people’s answering faith and dependence, and the personal nature of a covenant relationship—all cry out for a point of unifying fulfillment. If God is truly faithful to His covenant, if the servant prayed for the fulfillment of that covenant through an act of kindness and election, then how did this all unfold? In the short term, the answer is quite simple. God answered the prayer of the servant by electing Rebekah as a wife to Isaac (in a way suspiciously similar to the election of Abraham in the beginning). Yet the overall context of Scripture points also further. After all, God did not set up His covenant with Abraham to no purpose. Abraham and Isaac were the beginning, but a day of fulfillment was always destined, a day in which all God’s purposes would climax. So what does the canonical context of Scripture add to this text?

Jesus Christ once declared, “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.”[12] The wider context, indeed the true meaning, of all Scripture is Jesus. This applies no less to Genesis 24:12-14 than to any other passage. For this reason, He should be viewed as the true key which unlocks the secrets remaining in this text. Jesus fulfills all of the themes of the servant’s prayer and the story in which the prayer is embedded.

In Jesus, God’s checed, His loving faithfulness and faithful love, broke fully into the world and was (and continues to be) truly actualized. Of Him the Scriptures say, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[13] Indeed, the fuller meaning of checed as covenantally faithful love is clear in the rest of Romans, as when Paul declared that God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated through the faithful work of Jesus Christ.[14] The merciful promises that God made to Abraham, which in this particular passage were in a state of transition and needed another divine act to be accomplished, were kept by Him through all the years until their fulfillment in Jesus. Both of the primary shades of checed, the kindness which the servant asked God to show to Abraham, benevolence and faithfulness, were completed once for all in the work of Jesus, Himself both God and the human covenant partner.

The theme of God’s yakach, His choosing or election, is also fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is called the Chosen One.[15] He is the one human through whom all of God’s purposes have finally been accomplished. Rebekah was chosen by God to advance the covenant by helping Isaac have seed, but Jesus is the final chosen Seed[16] who crushed the serpent’s head.[17] The servant prayed that God would choose someone to show kindness to Abraham, and in Christ God chose someone to show kindness to the entire world. The fulfillment of the servant’s prayer for Rebekah was ultimately a fulfillment designed from the beginning of God’s covenant to lead up to Jesus. Moreover, as the Chosen One around whom God’s people are now constituted, the mediation has changed. The servant’s relationship to God was in some sense mediated by Abraham as the covenantal head. Election was defined by relationship to God’s chosen human, Abraham. Now this has shifted. The elect head of God’s people is now Jesus rather than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses,[18] and all God’s people find their election not in themselves, but in Christ[19] and His mediation.[20] Thus the prayer has been fulfilled for God to show kindness through one He chose, and “God of my master Abraham” has been replaced with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[21]

Christ Embodies the Reality of Faith-filled Prayer

In addition to the fulfillment of the prayer itself, the concept of God’s faithfulness calling forth the faith-filled prayers of His people has also been given a new dimension in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus fulfilled the role of the one who is constant in prayer and faith. Like the servant who trusted in God and asked for His will to be done, Jesus had true faith in His Father and persisted in prayer, “and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”[22] The servant prayed for the will of God to be accomplished, and so did Jesus.[23] Jesus in fact went beyond the role of the servant, taking a full and active role in bringing about God’s will, not just as the prayerful man but also as the faithful God. In Christ the prayer and the answer, the faith-filled entreaty and faithful response, became one.

However important the prayerfulness of Christ may be, though, this is not the end of the fulfillment of prayer. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the people of God.[24] Now that the people of God have been given the Spirit, they can pray like the servant but in greater faith with greater power, for their prayers are enhanced. The Spirit they have received is the Spirit of God Himself, who knows the deep thoughts of God,[25] and thus they are given deeper intimacy and deeper power in their prayers. They can entreat the God who has already fulfilled the decisive promises of His covenant, knowing that He has already proved Himself fully and forever faithful in Jesus Christ. Thus the prayer the servant offered in faith has become but a type and shadow of the reality of prayer which Christ has given to His people by His Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus also fulfills the personalization of the covenant between God and man. There was, to be sure, a personal quality to the patriarchal intercourse. The prayers did remain relatively informal and conversational. However, there was always a degree of barrier, if for no other reason that the theophanies and Christophanies were short, temporary, and not of full and abiding human substance. As the old age continued, the barriers between God and man only grew as the Torah was instituted and a personal relationship with God was inhibited by the cultic system designed to shield man from God. Yet in Christ God has made Himself fully personal to His people, taking on their own flesh that He might speak to them, act to them, and know them as one of their own.[26] In the Incarnation God became bone of human bone and flesh of human flesh,[27] fully and personally revealed Himself[28] to His creatures from within the depths of individual human existence. Now God’s people can pray to Him in a more personal and intimate way than the servant ever could, crying out “Father!” by the Spirit Jesus poured out on them.[29] With this relationship in play, God makes good on all of His promises and hears His people as a faithful Father, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Exegetical Conclusions

Having studied the role of the faithful God, the prayer of the faith-filled man, and the fulfillment of both of these in Christ, the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14 should be quite clear by now. In the original, local context, the account of the servant’s prayer to the God of Abraham makes for a powerful display of multiple biblical themes. The faithful love of the covenant God was expressed in both the request itself and the answer. An appeal was made to the electing purposes of God. The necessity of prayer from a posture of faith within a covenant structure of mediation and election was also demonstrated. Abraham’s servant appeared as a great example, and his request glorified God in its fulfillment. All of this is multiplied when taking into account the wider, canonical, redemptive-historical context. The faithful love of the covenant God went from the provision of Rebekah to the self-giving of God in Christ. The electing purpose of God was revealed in the appearance of the Son of God as the Chosen One in whom the Church is also chosen. Prayer and faith found perfect human expression in the life of Jesus, and by His Spirit the people of God can now pray and trust God in a new, more vital sense than in the past, in the days of Abraham, his servant, Isaac, and Rebekah. In all of this, the glory of God in covenant, promise, faithfulness, wisdom, sovereign choice, and love shines manifold.

By this point the basic theological lessons should be clear, but they bear repeating with concision and clarity for the sake of summary. The first point is that God is always loving and faithful. He is always characterized by checed, a devoted will to do good to His people. This is proved in His fulfillment of the promises to Abraham both in answering the servant’s prayer for Isaac’s wife and in providing Christ as Savior and Messiah. Therefore, God’s people can always count on Him today. God can always be trusted to do what is right and fulfill all of His promises, which are a “Yes” in Christ.[30] The theme that God chooses, and chooses for a redemptive purpose, is also important. God’s election is not seen in this text as an exclusionary act by which certain people are selected and others rejected for grace and redemption. Rather, God’s election is shown to be a means of setting the whole world right through the choosing of one important character at a time. First Abraham was chosen, then Isaac, then in this account Rebekah, and in the end Christ was the Chosen One of God through whom all God’s plans were accomplished. Any theology of election today must be oriented around the fact that God has chosen Christ in this inclusive and outward-oriented way just like with Rebekah. An articulation of election must be in accord with something Karl Barth once wrote, namely that Christ “is both the electing God and elected man in One.”[31]

Finally, the power and nature of faith-filled prayer stands as an essential lesson. Through this text God’s will to be faithful to the entreaties and requests of His people is made known. Praying and trusting just as the servant did, just as Christ did, in the power and mind of the Spirit who has been poured out on God’s people by Christ, is immensely powerful and will move God to act, not for no reason at all, but because He has made a covenant to which He promises to be faithful. This text serves as a reminder that God has set the terms by which He may be approached and thus on His character and act alone hinges Christian confidence in the power of prayer.

Application

With Genesis 24:12-14 now exegeted at both the local, simply historical and the wider, theological/Christological level, there remains only a short bridge to find relevant applications to the life of the modern Christian. Indeed, both the event described and the theological interpretation are full of meaty substance. There are in fact three primary applications to draw from the exegetical work in this paper, not to say that nothing else might be added by further or other work. They correspond to the faithful love of God, the electing purpose of God, and the prayer of faith, in accord with the primary teachings of the passage.

First, in this text God’s loving faithfulness is displayed in such a way that Christians today can stake all of their hope and assurance on Him. God was benevolently faithful to the covenant He made with Abraham by answering the servant’s prayer, and He further demonstrated His merciful devotion by completing the telos of the covenant in Christ and His faithfulness. Because of this pattern of faithfulness, God’s people can trust Him in each day, in each battle or struggle. They may find themselves in a crisis or a critical transition in life, but just as He answered the servant to fulfill His covenant love He will answer His people today. Therefore, Christians have every reason to trust in God unfailingly.

There is also an application from the electing purpose of God. God chooses to use particular people to propel His purposes, and He chooses to bring about salvation through covenants He makes real human beings. This began in Abraham, and in this text continued as the servant prayed for another act of election, and God answered the prayer. This serves as a reminder that God can choose to use anyone at any time to accomplish any purpose He wishes. The Church as God’s chosen people in Christ can be seen as a means by which God brings about His will, which should impel her members to find their place and take up whatever action to which they are called.

At the last, then, the final application returns to prayer in faith. If God is faithful, if God loves, if God chooses and works through human beings, then His people have every possible reason to believe, to trust, and to expectantly pray for God to act. God has plans and will fulfill them, and precisely because He works in this way there exists a call for His people to call out to Him. He has bound Himself by covenant to act when entreated, to do His will when His people seek His will. The servant was an example for all today. He trusted in the God of his master Abraham and asked for His help at the appropriate redemptive-historical moment. Likewise, the righteous are called to trust in the God of their Lord Jesus Christ and ask for His help in every moment of need. Prayer and faith, promise and faithfulness, all fulfilled in Christ—this is the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14, and by this meaning Christians must move forward in their lives, submitting to God’s voice in the Scriptures.

Works Cited

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics – Volume 2. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1. E-book. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

Kohlenberger, John R., III. NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers. E-book. Zondervan, 2015.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11. E-book. Holman Reference, 1996.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51. E-book. Holman Reference, 2005.

The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009.

Walton, John. The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis. E-book. Zondervan, 2011.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Footnotes

[1] Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11, (Holman Reference, 1996), location 1606, Kindle ebook.

[2] All of this is discussed in more detail in Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51, (Holman Reference, 1996), loc. 842-930, Kindle ebook.

[3] Ibid, loc. 950.

[4] John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis, (Zondervan, 2011), “Genesis 23:1–25:18,” Olive Tree resource.

[5] Genesis 24:12-14 (New International Version).

[6] John R. Kohlenberger III, NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers, (Zondervan, 2015), entry H2617, Olive Tree resource.

[7] See, for example, Exodus 15:13 (Holman Christian Standard Bible), compare NIV.

[8] Kohlenberger, NIV Word Study Bible, entry H3198.

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), notes on Genesis 24:12, theWord Bible module.

[10] Genesis 15:6.

[11] Matthews, NAC Vol. 1B, loc. 7812.

[12] John 5:39 (HCSB).

[13] Romans 5:8 (NIV).

[14] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), ch. 7.

[15] Luke 23:35.

[16] Galatians 3:16.

[17] Genesis 3:15.

[18] Romans 9.

[19] Ephesians 1:4.

[20] 1 Timothy 2:5.

[21] Romans 15:16.

[22] Hebrews 5:7.

[23] Matthew 6:10.

[24] John 15:26.

[25] 1 Corinthians 2:10-12.

[26] 1 John 1:1-3.

[27] Hebrews 2:14.

[28] John 1:14.

[29] Romans 8:14.

[30] 1 Corinthians 1:20.

[31] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), part 2, 3 (§32).

Faithfulness, Election, Prayer, and Faith: An Exegetical Paper for Genesis 24:12-14

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Exalted

Time to move on to the third part of the Creed’s article on the Son. The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, was crucified and descended to hell, and now comes this:

On the third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there He will come to judge the living and the dead.

So what do we learn from this section of the Creed? Let’s take a look.

On the third day – What is the significance of the third day? The Scriptures mention it multiple times, and so does the Creed here. Why does it matter that Jesus’ resurrection happened on the third day? There are many theories, but I would like to highlight that Jesus rested in the grave on the Sabbath (Saturday), and only then rose on Sunday. Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath rest in His death and resurrection. Now Sabbath rest is found exclusively in Him rather than any day of the week.

He rose again from the dead – In this act, Jesus took the human nature that He had gone with into the grave and raised it back into new glory. In the Resurrection, Jesus was justified/vindicated by the Father as the Righteous One, and in this act we who are united to Him are also justified. In the Resurrection, Jesus filled His human existence with the glory of God and inextinguishable life so that He could be the source of resurrection life for all people. In this single event of Jesus all of the promises of God became “Yes.”

He ascended into heaven – Now in glorified human existence, Jesus returned to heaven to present Himself before the Father. He stands as the head of humanity, the one who sums up the whole race in Himself, and has entered without sin into the presence of God. Because of this we have access to the Father through His priestly presence. We can never approach God in any other way but through the glorified Man who stands as Mediator before God, existing in perfect union with the Father as His only Son.

and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty – In heaven Jesus has taken up the throne over the universe. He sits at the right hand of the Father, His chief Executive, as Lord of all. God has given all authority to His Son that He might rule until all things are put under His feet. From the control room of heaven Jesus stands present in all places to rule over them all. At the name of Jesus every knee must and will bow to the glory of the Father. Jesus is Lord. This was the Church’s proclamation from the beginning, against all other lordships. In truth, Caesar was not Lord, neither was Nero, nor Constantine, nor King James, nor Napoleon, nor Washington, nor Lincoln, nor Roosevelt, nor Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Churchill, nor Reagan, nor Obama, nor Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. All are subject to the reign of Christ, and we are citizens under His lordship before anything else.

From there He will come to judge the living and the dead – As Lord of heaven and earth, Jesus also steps into the divine role of judge. In this way we do see a unity between God and Christ, Father and Son, in that the one who is to judge all nations, once named as Yahweh, has been revealed to be Jesus of Nazareth. All people who have ever lived will appear before His judgment seat, both the living and the dead. And in doing this He will set all things right. He will turn over the wicked to their fate apart from Him, namely the wrath of God, and He will deliver all those who have been trusting in Him.

People are often reluctant to view Jesus as a judge, yet this is what Scripture teaches. As I wrote before, the wrath of the Lamb is really, and He will execute it on this world. Yet we should recall that this Judge has just been identified as the one who gave His life for us. So He will not judge out of hate or bloodthirst, but ultimately for love. By His judgment, He will bring life to the cosmos, so that the victory He accomplished in His resurrection can be extended to all the world without the interference of evil.

The Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in Jesus Exalted