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Election, Eternity, and Time in Karl Barth

For Reformed Christians we often struggle with the relation between the eternal decree of God and the historical manifestation of that decree in time. It is ingrained within our theological DNA to think of the distinction between the eternal decree of God and its temporal manifestation. It is against this backdrop that Barth came on the scene and challenged the traditional take on election—and with it, the traditional notions of how eternity relates to time. Some more explication is in order.

For Barth, Jesus Christ is himself the eternal decree of God who precedes all being and all time (CD II.2, 94). There is no being—not even of God! – apart from Jesus Christ. Nor is there any time prior to or apart from him. “And for this reason, too, we have no need to project anything into eternity, for at this point eternity is time, i.e., the eternal name has become a temporal name…the Son of God—the Son in concreto and not in abstracto, Jesus Christ, who is the Head of His body, the Church—this Son is “before all things.” (CD II.2, 98). Jesus Christ then is God in a primal movement toward man (CD II.2, 99). In other words, Jesus Christ does not have to wait for time in other to be temporal for us. In election he is already eternal time, he is already the temporally elected man who is “before all things,” the “eternal beginning of God” (ibid). In this way, Barth purposefully and skillfully employs the language and concept of eternity in an equivocal fashion. There is a reason why he uses the name Jesus Christ to describe this “before all things,” primal existence. He is not speaking of Jesus Christ before the flesh, but Jesus—precisely as the God man – primally. So, in one sense Jesus Christ is eternal (because he is “before all things”), and in another sense he is not eternal (because he is in concreto). In the former sense he is eternal because of his superior and sovereign actuality, but in the latter sense he is not eternal because he is not without time.

Now that that is clear (!), any thoughts from the listening audience?

MarkG

7 years ago

I assume this means that Barth would not think in terms of the eternal Son of God assuming a human nature and becoming incarnate theanthropos in human history. It seems he would also have to reject traditional trinitarian language of God in three persons being one in substance, etc.

Kevin Davis

7 years ago

I do not think this will make sense to anyone who is not already familiar with Barth’s departure from theistic metaphysics. In that context, however, it’s not that complicated.

Barth refuses to define God’s essence (being) apart from his self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This “actualist ontology” means that God’s being is determined in his act, such that incarnation is not a second step or an addition in God’s being but is, rather, constitutive of his eternal being (and vice versa). Thus, being-in-act in eternity corresponds to being-in-act in time. I like the way McCormack puts it: “being is actualized in the decision for activity in time” (Orthodox and Modern, p. 190). Or, as Thomas Torrance repeatedly put it, there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ. Thus, the God we have in Jesus Christ is really and fully the true God, the eternal God; and the eternal God is really and fully the incarnate God, Jesus Christ. This is a very high Christology.

These are just ways of saying that our talk about God must be mediated through He alone who knows the Father. Other divine predicates — whether “self-evident” or the work of natural theology — must be ruled-out. There may be overlap — “omipotence” for example — but these must be demonstrated by God’s covenant activity (thus, omnipotence as evidenced in the Exodus and supremely by the Resurrection), not by axioms of divinity or natural theology.

This would be a great topic for discussion on the radio program, but — please — get some guys from Princeton to talk about Barth. Frankly, you Westminster folks are not exactly the ablest commentators on Barth.

Jim Cassidy

7 years ago

Thanks, Kevin, for your comment. I believe you have nicely expounded Barth here. I have two follow-up questions, if I may.

1. According to Barth, is it possible to speak about God – let’s say his attributes, for example – in himself apart from Jesus Christ, but also not on the basis of natural theology? If that’s not clear, let me put the question another way. Does the Bible teach us about God in himself quite apart from and prior to his self-disclosure in Jesus Christ?

2. Would you be willing to share what your thoughts are with regard to how you believe WTS goes wrong in its commentating on Barth? Where are we weak, and how can our commentating be improved, in your opinion?

Thanks!

David Guretzki

7 years ago

You might be interested in taking a look at a new book just published on this very topic and is very good. It is entitled _God the Eternal Contemporary_ by Adrian Langdon. https://wipfandstock.com/store/God_the_Eternal_Contemporary_Trinity_Eternity_and_Time_in_Karl_Barth/

DG

Jim Cassidy

7 years ago

Thanks David. I read Langdon’s dissertation some time back now, and have purchased his book but haven’t read it yet. Though it seems to be closely aligned with his diss. I am looking forward to reading it again, however, as it was one of the best dissertations I read on the subject.

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