Remnants of Revelation

I recently read a book by Winfried Corduan called In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. If the title doesn’t make it obvious, the book is about the evidence (primarily the case of Wilhelm Schmidt) that the first religion of mankind was ethical monotheism (i.e. that there is a Supreme Being who made the world and gave humanity a code of morality). This contrasts with the common, evolutionary view that religion progressed from primitive ancestor or spirit veneration to animism to polytheism to monotheism. Much of the argument for this book works with the apparent preservations of an ancient monotheistic belief system in the cultures of small, primitive tribes around the world.

Corduan’s book was rather fascinating, and of course it raises a fairly obvious question if he is correct. If mankind started out from the beginning with a full-blown belief in a singular, personal God who made the world and instituted moral law, then from whence did this belief come? Corduan, a Christian, briefly argues that there is hardly a good answer except that such a Being actually did reveal Himself to primitive humanity.

So, all of that is great to think about, but it provoked me to some other theological considerations related to primitive revelation. If we take a basically literal reading of Genesis, we have to reckon with the fact that all people on the planet are descended from Noah and his family, all of whom knew God personally. This means that any such remainders of primitive monotheism as Corduan takes note of in his book must trace back to Noah’s family. And yet these remainders are also clearly quite corrupt, enough so that it is hard to imagine that tribespeople who follow these beliefs are actually following the true God.

Of course, this does raise the question: how long were people still worshipping Yahweh? Obviously, Noah’s sons must have known God for who He really is. And the modern tribes do not. So over the last few thousand years, it seems that God’s memory was slowly forgotten. But how long was true worship still a thing? How long were people around the world, not just in Israel, still aware of and faithful to the true God? Presumably, there could have been a number of such people who end up legitimately saved for many years. How long? Centuries? Millennia?

This brings up even more questions. Just how much of the original revelation does one need to know in order to be counted as believing in the true God? At what point in the process of forgetting and mythologizing did the cultures which retained monotheism shift from confused Yahweh-worshippers to idolaters? And is it possible for some people in such places to have continued clinging only to those beliefs which genuinely originated with God’s self-disclosure at the beginning of history, so as to be saved?

The possibility of remnants of revelation which, at the very least, kept a saving witness to God alive throughough the world for many years is, I think, not to be discounted and should be relevant to debates about the fate of the unevangelized. We also have to weigh whether this thought would open up the possibility of some rare people being saved even today by their memory of the oldest special revelation. It might not do so, but if nothing else it’s worth wondering about. Such an idea might be called “revelational inclusivism” and would, at least at a prima facie level, seem to be free of some of the problems with traditional versions of inclusivism which try to grant salvation to people who lack any special revelation. After all, in such a scenario people would only be saved by clinging in faith to whatever small bits of special revelation they had left. But on the other hand, even this might have its own issues when put to scrutiny. And it does not seem unlikely that we may have to conclude that man’s original knowledge of God became everywhere too corrupt to save anyone much too long ago to be relevant today.

Yet Paul did say that God had not left Himself without a witness…

Remnants of Revelation

Summary of “Regenerating Regeneration”

Last semester at school, I wrote a paper about regeneration, which can be found on the essays page of this blog. It was by far one of my favorite and best papers, and as such I think its thesis argument may be worth summarizing here for anyone who is interested in the doctrine of regeneration but doesn’t have the time or inclination to read 20 pages.

The thesis of the paper is that the standard Reformed treatment of regeneration is weak on three counts—its association with the origin of faith, its relationship to justification, and its redemptive-historical nature—and that all of three of these problems can be remedied by constructively ressourcing the regeneration theology of the early Reformers, particularly Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.

I first examine the three issues in more detail. First, what is the relationship between regeneration and faith? Is the awakening of faith part or all of the effect of regeneration? Second, what is the relationship between regeneration and justification and union with Christ? Does one cause the other? If so, which? Third, how does regeneration relate to redemptive history? Does it pertain to the ordo salutis, the historia salutis, or both? Armed with these questions, I move on to interrogate the early Reformers.

The first witness is Luther. Luther seemed to place regeneration after faith, for he allowed no proper graces to be received except through faith. He did, of course, acknowledge the necessity of the Spirit’s work for faith, but this he did not connect to regeneration. Luther also apparently placed justification before regeneration, or perhaps even identified the two. However, I could not extract from Luther any clear answers on regeneration’s place in redemptive history.

The second witness is Calvin. Calvin usually spoke of regeneration as a process, nearly synonymous with sanctification. Yet he did on occasion also speak of regeneration more as a one-off event. This equivocation led to the odd situation where Calvin seemed to place regeneration both before and after faith. This he explained by noting that, while regeneration should be seen as a gift we receive from Christ through faith, it is also proper to speak of the grace which first raises our hearts and minds to believe as part of regeneration. On the second question, Calvin put union with Christ at the head of salvation, with justification and regeneration as benefits of this union. Finally, it appears that Calvin may have seen regeneration as something new to the New Covenant, brought about by the new situation of the Spirit’s full coming.

Third on the stand is Zwingli. For Zwingli, “regeneration” was more or less synonymous with faith and its reception of the Holy Spirit. “Faith is regeneration.” This makes regeneration both a momentary change (a man moves from unbelief to belief and receives the Spirit) but still also an ongoing process which bleeds into sanctification. Zwingli thus employed something of a relational ontology in which a man’s “new nature” was simply the result of a new tri-fold relationship: faith toward God through Christ and the indwelling of the Spirit. Zwingli never clearly tied this doctrine to redemptive history.

With the examination of the Reformers concluded, I reviewed the possible answers to the three major questions. Conclusions:

  1. There is no biblical reason to associate regeneration with the act by which the Holy Spirit elicits faith. While obviously faith comes from the work of the Spirit, the Bible never connects this to regeneration. Neither did two of our three Reformers, and the exception, Calvin, only ever did so infrequently. This means regeneration must have some other kind of significance besides a role in the ordo as faith-maker.
  2. If we employ a relational ontology, recognizing that our relations to others (particularly God) define who and what we are (that is, our nature), then we can understand justification by faith as effecting regeneration. When God declares us righteous, our relational state to Him and to everything else changes, and this change constitutes a change of nature, a new birth, a re-generation. This means regeneration can flow from justification which flows from a union with Christ effected by faith.
  3. Finally, regeneration should be contextually placed in redemptive history. There were hints in the Reformers that they may have regarded regeneration as a blessing unique to the New Covenant. This is on solid biblical footing. The New Testament connects regeneration with the eschatological character of Christ’s death and resurrection as initiating the new creation which God’s history with Israel had been designed to produce, and which Israel had so desparately needed to reach her destiny, whcih of course had to be in and through Christ.

I’ll finish by quoting the paper’s concluding paragraph:

In sum, then, the project of resourcing Reformed regeneration has led to an account along these lines: with Luther, part of Calvin, and sort of Zwingli, regeneration can be placed after faith, for faith effects union with Christ. This faith results in justification, as all the Reformers taught. In turn, with support from Luther and perhaps even Zwingli, this justification may be seen as effecting regeneration, but by means of a relational ontology which does not involve ambiguous metaphysics. All of this originated with the accomplishment of Christ in His obedient life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection which inaugurated the eschatological kingdom and added unto them the promise and future of new creation. When a man by faith is united to Christ, God declare him righteous, and this declaration sets him in a relationship which effects his participation in kingdom and in new creation. This result is a thoroughly Reformed, thoroughly biblical, and thoroughly consistent account of regeneration. It could use improvement or supplement, especially in relation, for example, to baptism in dialogue with Luther, but that remains for another time. Amen.

Summary of “Regenerating Regeneration”

Options on the Intermediate State

I have crusaded here before against the conflation of life-after-death with life-after-life-after-death (to use N. T. Wright’s terminology), of the “heaven” we go to upon death with the “heaven” which is really the new creation earth united with God’s presence in the future. And my theological focus has mostly been on the latter of these, the resurrection and the restoration of the cosmos in the age to come. Nonetheless, the real question about what happens immediately after death is still at least somewhat important, and some of what I’ve been reading recently has gotten me thinking about it.

This subject, the state of human beings between death and resurrection, is of course better known as the intermediate state. The usual focus is on believers. What precisely do we, as Christians, experience postmortem? In this post, I just feel like outlining some of the basic theological options, along with their strengths and weaknesses. I am still quite unsure what I think about this, but I’ll mention what I’m thinking these a’days.

On to the options. I’ve titled them myself; not all of them have set names.

Sensory heaven
The average pew-dweller, due to the common kind of preaching which does conflate the intermediate state with the new creation, often imagines that after we die we get to experience a fully sensory world, tangible and visible and tactile, paved with gold and filled with mansions. This, however common, is terribly mistaken with no biblical evidence whatsoever. The descriptions it makes use of come from Revelation 21-22, which describe the future new earth, not anything which is a present reality. Moreover, it ignores the fact that our physical bodies are literally in the ground, not transported to another physical realm, after death, and the fact that senses are all strictly physical phenomena, not something you experience spiritually.
Spiritual bliss
For those who realize that there is no biblical reason to think we will be able to experience a sensory reality of heaven after death, there is a next step of simply affirming a kind of spiritual bliss. What this actually is like, we cannot imagine now. We only know that it is a different quality of existence and consciousness than what we experience now, but it is bliss in the presence of God in Christ. This tends to draw strength from texts like 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 and Philippians 1:21-23. In this view, we will experience the glory of God in Christ in some way without body or sense until we are reunited with our bodies in the resurrection.

This view is common among people who have dispensed with the first, erroneous notion. Nonetheless, there are some criticisms which have been leveled at it. For one, it may be unclear what human conscious experience could even be without our bodies, which include our brains. All of our emotions, thinking, and consciousness have always been massively physiological, involving brain and hormone and the like. What kind of “consciousness” would we have separated from our brains? Also, there are biblical statements which seem to imply a lack of consiousness in the intermediate state, particularly in Ecclesiastes (and some of the Psalms). It is questionable to what extent the rather unspecific statements in 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1 might overcome these themes. As a final note, this view is often accused of importing the idea of the immortality of the soul from paganism, with the assertion that the Judeo-Christian tradition originally understood men as entirely mortal in flesh unless raised to glory.

Soul sleep
The soul sleep view is common in some circles, though definitely a minority view. Perhaps its most well-known proponent was Martin Luther. In soul sleep, the intermediate state is unconscious. You die, and the next thing you experience is the resurrection, however many years may separate the two events. This view takes very seriously the rather shadowy statements about the afterlife in the Old Testament especially, taking advantage of the ambiguity in the New Testament statements which might imply consciousness in the intermediate state. That much of the Bible reflects a view something along these lines is almost a consensus in the higher world of scholarship.

Perhaps the largest problem the soul sleep view faces is the near unanimity of Christian tradition. Soul sleep has always, with a few exceptions, been on the fringes of Christian theology. While we have little data on the views of the very first Christians outside the sparse information in the New Testament, the earliest references we do have are from Eusebius, who argued against a group as unorthodox for teaching a form of soul sleep. The Catholic Church has declared it heretical, as have some smaller groups. None of this, however, can mean all too much for adherents to sola Scriptura.

Total obliteration/Christian mortalism
Often soul sleep and Christian mortalism are classed or defined together, but I decided they would make more sense to separate them distinctly. In soul sleep, human souls are still supposed to be alive in some sense. They may not strictly conscious, but they are still truly alive and existing. What may go by Christian mortalism can go much further. I speak of total obliteration of the human person. Body, soul, spirit, identity, whatever else go into the grave together and lose everything until the final resurrection, which raises the whole person. Most of what has been said about soul sleep also applies to this kind of mortalism, with a few key differences.

At the biblical level, Christian mortalism has a harder time handling texts like 2 Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1. There are plausible solutions to them, but what is questionable about that is nonetheless questionable. On the other hand, Christian mortalism does have the upper hand in the “immortal soul is pagan” argument, as only this view completely repudiates the idea. For Christian mortalists, humanity is entirely mortal apart from God’s resurrection power. Again, a great deal of modern biblical scholarship sees a view like this as quite plausible in light of the historical-linguistic-cultural-contextual evidence in Scripture.

I’m really not sure what to add to this, only that I find the correct view here difficult to discern. Parts of me are attracted to all of them, except obviously the first. What do people here think? I’m ready to play critic or Devil’s advocate to any of them if you comment.

Options on the Intermediate State

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

What Caleb Believes, If You’re Interested

For my two theology classes this semester, I had to write a 10-12 page paper in each detailing what I believe about a mostly comprehensive set of doctrines. Naturally, I was a little to elaborate and ended to with 33 pages between the two of them, but it was a very enjoyable and clarifying experience.

So, for the fun of anyone here, I’m posting the combined credo here. It will briefly summarize the basics of my beliefs on almost everything. Enjoy, and feel free to critique it or ask questions. It’s attached as a PDF.

I Believe: A Credo

What Caleb Believes, If You’re Interested

Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

The title says it all. Here they are in no particular order with no particular rhyme or reason (all of tweetable length).

  1. No matter what the topic, there is a Christian way of thinking. When we forget this, or more commonly never learn it to begin with, we mess up politics, theology, and so many other things.
  2. Listen to your neighbor’s argument as you would have your neighbor listen to yours.
  3. In all debate and discussion, give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Before attacking any argument or view, try sincerely to defend it to yourself.
  5. The mind of Christ is not divided. We must always be ready to learn from each other.
  6. Attack positions and arguments as needed, but not the people who use them.
  7. Except to ask a question, don’t respond to an argument you do not fully understand.
  8. If a statement can be interpreted non-heretically: innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Use the label “heresy” sparingly, and avoid it whenever possible.
  10. Even heretics can have great insights: don’t assume everything they say is bad.
  11. Even the best teachers are fallible: don’t assume everything they say is okay.
  12. Just because something’s not heretical doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
  13. Just because someone believes something heretical doesn’t mean they are damned.
  14. Experience and education affect your perspective on evidence…
  15. …But experience and education do not magically alter the soundness of an argument.
  16. Just because you haven’t heard of a view doesn’t mean it’s crazy.
  17. Just because a view seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s right.
  18. Analogies, including in Scripture, can’t be stretched beyond their relevant intent.
  19. The apparent “plain meaning” of a Bible verse is not always the right one…
  20. …But the opposite of the “plain meaning” of Scripture is even less likely.
  21. Someone is not wrong just because they quote someone you dislike.
  22. Godliness and good theology don’t always correlate. Devotion outperforms doctrine.
  23. Every doctrinal position affects other doctrinal positions more than you think.
  24. Inconsistency is not heresy, and heresy is not inconsistency.
  25. Just something looks inconsistent to you doesn’t mean it actually is inconsistent.
  26. Many charges of inconsistency come from a small rational imagination.
  27. Generally, you can’t rule out theological positions on some a priori basis.
  28. Sarcasm is only worth using if it makes an important point in the argument.
  29. If I have all the arguments and all the truth, but do not have love, I have nothing.
  30. Charging your debate opponents with improper motives is bad form and bad love.
  31. Treat debate opponents like Jesus. He might be more on their side than you think.
  32. No doctrine should still make sense if you subtract Jesus.
  33. Avoid as much as possible saying “God couldn’t/wouldn’t do X.”
  34. Not everything that looks like a slippery slope is one.
  35. Never debate in such a way that you couldn’t go off together for ice cream later.
  36. If you form opinions about your interlocutor during a debate, keep them to yourself.
  37. Don’t change the subject with questions hanging.
Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

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