Posts Tagged ‘revelation’

I read up on Barth’s doctrine of Scripture so you didn’t have to! Here are some of things I found possibly relevant. I have provided comment here and there to put the quotes in context.

Two places in the Church Dogmatics that Barth makes extended comment on the doctrine of Scripture are I/1, §4 and I/2, §19. The bulk of CD I/1 is devoted to the doctrine of revelation, which also provides the context for Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity. That is because the doctrine of the Trinity is an answer to the question “Who is God in his revelation?” (297). Before this, though, Barth provides a preliminary comment on the doctrine of Scripture. He will treat this more extensively in CD I/2, on which I will write a separate post, only after he has detailed the doctrine of the Trinity. Traditionally, Protestant dogmatics addresses the doctrine of Scripture before the doctrine of the Trinity. However,

“The reason why we diverge from this custom is this. It is hard to see how in relation to Holy Scripture we can say what is distinctive for the holiness of this Scripture if first we do not make it clear (naturally from Holy Scripture itself) who the God is whose revelation makes Scripture holy” (300).

“The doctrine of the Trinity itself is threatened by the same danger, the danger of irrelevant speculation, if we state it only at a later stage and do not give it the first word as that which gives us information on the concrete and decisive question: Who is God?” (301).

Barth begins CD I/1 with sections on the task of dogmatics and the prolegomena (§§1-2). He then addresses proclamation of the gospel, the central calling of the church:

“Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together” (52; cf. 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Cor 2:17; 1 Pet 4:11).

Nonetheless, proclamation is not made proclamation by virtue of human beings proclaiming. God does not even need proclamation, though he chooses to use this. Proclamation is an act of obedience to the commission of God and where he chooses he makes it his own in such a way that speaks to people’s hearts:

“It is always and always will be man’s word. It is also something more than this and quite different. When and where it pleases God, it is God’s own Word. Upon the promise of this divine good-pleasure it is ventured in obedience. On this promise depend the claim and the expectation. But proclamation both as preaching and sacrament does not cease to be representation, human service” (71-2).

Barth includes the sacraments (as a Reformed theologian, baptism and the eucharist) alongside proclamation as the central calling of the church. He does not provide much comment on them here though because the context is revelation. Both proclamation and sacrament are related in that they are at once a fully human work and a work of God. Barth draws on the incarnation here to elucidate this. Just as Jesus is completely human and completely God, none of these being compromised in his being but rather upheld, so too are proclamation and sacrament human works in which God also works.

After addressing proclamation in §3, Barth goes on to address the doctrine of Scripture in §4, “The Word of God in Its Threefold Form.” The event of revelation is God with us, in Christ. This both proclamation and Scripture attest. In his work in proclamation, God directs his hearers back to himself in the person of Christ, by which he made himself known to human beings (revelation here also has a future element in which God will be fully revealed with the coming of the kingdom. Barth’s focus here though is on this retrospective aspect).

The middle term of revelation, Scripture, differs from proclamation:

“The distinction of the Head from the body and the superiority of the Head over the body find concrete expression in the fact that proclamation in the Church is confronted by a factor which is very like it as a phenomenon, which is temporal as it is, and yet which is different from it and in order superior to it. This factor is Holy Scripture” (101).

“With its acknowledgment of the presence of the Canon the Church expresses the fact that it is not left to itself in its proclamation, that the commission on the ground of which it proclaims, the object which it proclaims, the judgment under which its proclamation stands and the event of real proclamation must all come from elsewhere, from without, and very concretely from without, in all the externality of the concrete Canon as a categorical imperative which is also historical, which speaks in time” (101).

That is, if Scripture is just another form of proclamation then there is nothing by which the church can measure the validity of its proclamation. Not only would the proclamation of the church be disputable but Scripture itself. God would not have spoken. Moreover, Barth contends that the nature of Scripture as writing is essential to its role in relation to proclamation. An oral tradition, for example, lacks this same concreteness and can too easily be manipulated by successive generations. But the written word maintains a relative consistency from which it can confront the limits of proclamation. Anticipating the critique I had in mind here, that a written Scripture is as much open to abuse as an oral one, Barth writes,

“Nor will one banish the danger, but only conjure it up properly and make it acute, by making correct exposition dependent on the judgment of a definitive and decisive teaching office in the Church or on the judgment of a historico-critical scholarship which comports itself with equal infallibility. If we assume that one or other of these authorities is worthy of the Church’s highest confidence, then either way the Church goes astray in respect of the Bible by thinking that in one way or the other it can and should control correct exposition, and thereby set up a norm over the norm, and thereby capture the true norm for itself. The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible. Here as everywhere the defence against possible violence to the text must be left to the text itself, which in fact has always succeeded in doing something a purely spiritual and oral tradition cannot do, namely, maintaining its own life against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church, victoriously asserting this life in ever new developments, and thus creating recognition for itself as a norm” (106).

This is a necessary inference. If God works in proclamation such that he really does reveal himself in the midst of human words, then it is true here also with Scripture. Amid the vicissitudes of human interpretation, the written word maintains a kind of constancy against its interpretations which God brings to light again and again to call the church back to its roots in revelation.

Like proclamation, nonetheless, Scripture is human words through which God speaks. It is a witness to revelation, which is Christ. Of John the Baptist’s witness to Christ, then, Barth writes,

“Why and in what respect does the biblical witness have authority? Because and in the fact that he claims no authority for himself, that his witness amounts to letting that other [revelation] itself be its own authority. We thus do the Bible poor and unwelcome honour if we equate it directly with this other, with revelation itself” (112).

Yet this does not mean a denigration of Scripture. Rather, Barth seems to be reluctant to go anywhere which would effectively equate Scripture with God. He maintains, however, that it really is God’s Word:

“To hear the Bible as God’s Word means, therefore, that then and there, in the undoubtedly very modest, changing, perhaps increasing but possibly also decreasing compass in which it is true at any given time for an individual, we hear the human words of the Bible as the bearers of this eternal Word, based on this centre and having it in view again in everything they say. When the Bible itself is revelation in this way, it establishes the Church and makes its proclamation necessary and possible. The unity of revelation guarantees the unity of the biblical witness in and in spite of all its multiplicity and even contradictoriness” (116-117).

At the end of the section Barth asserts the unity of revelation in its threefold form.

It is useless to attempt to “understand the three forms of God’s Word in isolation. The first, revelation, is the form that underlies the other two. But it is the very one that never meets us anywhere in abstract form. We know it only indirectly, from Scripture and proclamation. The direct Word of God meets us only in this twofold mediacy. But Scripture too, to become God’s Word for us, must be proclaimed in the Church” (121).

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So my grades have been finalised which means I can put this online. For anyone interested it’s a postgraduate dissertation on Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity in CD I/1, §§8-12. The first part is just exposition of these sections and then there are three chapters interacting with secondary literature that look at the relationship between the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity, divine personhood and modalist accusations made against Barth, and pneumatology.

Download here.

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In this next section, Barth’s focus is primarily on how to speak of God as both one and three.

Unity in Trinity

God’s unity is emphasised throughout Scripture. So, for example, the baptismal formula at the end of Matthew does not say in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the name. God is in his essence, substance, nature, etc, one. Nor is his unity collective but numerical. If he was three then we would worship three gods. However, “God’s triunity does not imply any threat to but is rather the basis of the Christian concept of the unity of God” (348).

Trinity in unity

Monotheism is much broader than Judaism and Islam so many religious and philosophical worldviews can be classified as in some sense being monotheistic. Trinitarianism is Christian monotheism. Although God is numerically one, this does not denote singularity or isolation. Rather one is a metaphor, even apophatic, so “the number 1 implies the negation of all plurality of or in God. All further deductions from the use of the concept of number are to be rejected as irrelevant” (354).

Barth goes on to enter into a lengthy discussion of one of the most disputed aspects of his doctrine of the Trinity, the rejection of the word person to differentiate between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He has mainly been criticised for depersonalising God and I think in English for the translation that suggests modalism, the heresy that God is not truly three but only appears to be so. In sum, his main contentions are that it was never clarified satisfactorily. Secondly, with the rise of the modern concept of a personality, i.e. a human subject, those who use person to refer to the Trinity cannot avoid its connotations. Three persons would entails three substances, and thus endorse tritheism. Barth instead opts for the German Seinsweisen, translated into English as “mode (or way) of being.” On the whole Barth does not appear to be a fan of Roman Catholic theology, haha. He is dismissive of the Church’s continued use of person, “as though the modern concept of personality did not exist, as though the definition of Boethius still continued to be relevant and intelligible, and above all as though the meaning of the definition had been so elucidated in the Middle Ages that it is possible with its help to speak profitably of the trinitarian three” (358).

The modes of being are distinct and non-exchangeable. In what I found a very difficult paragraph, Barth appears to make the argument that God does not just subsist in individual modes but if he subsists in one mode then he subsists essentially, that is, in his triunity as one and three. In his interaction with creation, God’s individual modes appear to be distinguished yet opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa [the external works of the Trinity are unidivided]; where one mode is at work, all three are, because God is one. All that is ultimately distinctive of the modes of being is their “relations of origin” within the Godhead, which nonetheless informs the distinctive works of these modes in relation to creation. Otherwise we would be worshipping three gods. The Father’s relation to the Son is that of begetting, while the Son’s relation to the Father is that of being begotten, and the Spirit is related to both in spiration, or proceeding from them. The modes are not entities but more properly relations. After all this, the Trinity remains a mystery and must be restated as such so “When we have said what that is: Father, Son and Spirit, we must then go on to say that we have said nothing” (367). And “Theology means rational wrestling with the mystery. But all rational wrestling with this mystery, the more serious it is, can lead only to its fresh and authentic interpretation and manifestation as a mystery” (368).


Whether we say God is unity in Trinity or Trinity in unity, either puts an emphasis on his oneness or threeness. Triunity is to be preferred over Trinity as it better represents God as both three and one. Barth favourably discusses the concept of perichoresis, that is, each mode of being eternally participates in the other two modes of being. To say perichoresis is to say that the modes can only be known in their distinction from each other yet they cannot be known individually but only in unity. Barth now enters into a fuller discussion of the concept of appropriation, that although all of God’s attributes and external works properly belong to all modes, in revelation we may speak of particular attributes and works as appropriate to particular modes, so regeneration is properly the work of the Spirit. But this is only because God has revealed himself according to our “creaturely comprehensibility,” our epistemological limitations. In this sense, even Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not ultimately belong exclusively to any of the modes of being. Throughout, Barth has attempted to walk the fine line of God actually revealing himself in revelation and revelation not so totally encompassing God that humanity can control him epistemologically.

The meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity

Barth compares contemporary dismissal of the doctrine of the Trinity with its place in the Church of an earlier age. It is easy to judge them as heretical or misguided without understanding their interest in the doctrine:

For all the gloating with which it was done, it was a good thing that the work of Pietism and the Enlightenment in Church History established so incontrovertibly the fact that even in such periods of supreme decision as that in which the dogma of the Trinity arose the history of the Church was anything but a history of heroes and saints. Yet in this case we should be just and perceptive and allow that not only the Church of Byzantium but also that of Wittenberg and Geneva, and finally the purest Church of any of the quiet in the land, have always and everywhere been, when examined at close range, centres of frailties and scandals of every kind, and that on the basis of the Reformation doctrine of justification at all events it is neither fitting nor worth while to play off the worldliness of the Church against the seriousness of the insights it has perhaps gained in spite of and in this worldliness.


The doctrine of the Trinity arose firstly out of theological meditation on the person of Jesus and as a response to the problem which Scripture leaves unanswered. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to answer the question, “Who is it that reveals Himself?” It is a centrally important dogma, though its measure is always Scripture.

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I’ve spent some time yesterday and today getting into Barth’s majestic Church Dogmatics (edited and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975). It’s quite intimidating at first but I didn’t find it anywhere near as difficult as I thought it might be, probably because I spent all the time in the secondary literature first. I’ve just finished §8, which I’ll do a little summary of in the first part of my dissertation so here’s an opportunity for me to practice and you, if, whoever you are, are interested, to be interested in what I’m reading.

§8 is divided into three parts, “The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics,” “The root of the doctrine of the Trinity,” and “Vestigium Trinitatis”.

The place of the doctrine of the Trinity in dogmatics

Barth begins this section with the threefold nature of God’s revelation to humanity: “God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself” (296). The structure of God’s self-unveiling to humanity is Trinitarian so the Father acts, the Son is the act and the Holy Spirit is the apprehension of this act in the human subject. So throughout, God is subject, predicate, object; Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost; Revealer, Revealed, Revealedness.

Barth’s structure of revelation allows him to find something like the Trinity in the Old Testament, which, despite emphasising God’s oneness also went beyond this in God interacting with his creation so “The angel of Yahweh in the Old Testament is obviously both identical and not identical with Yahweh Himself” (299).

Whereas the old Protestant dogmatics started with the doctrine of Scripture, Catholic dogmatics with the authority of the Church, and modern liberal Protestant dogmatics (at least those contemporary with Barth) with the truth of “religion,” Barth argues for the need to start dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity as a well-developed doctrine of God is first necessary to understand all else (300). Interestingly, Barth’s later interpreters have either critiqued or developed Barth on this same point in reverse, revising his doctrine of the Trinity in light of his later volumes.

Indeed, so Barth famously says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is what basically distinguishes the Christian doctrine of God as Christian” (301). I love this. He follows it up with a collection of quotes from theologians throughout the centuries who have said similar things. I am increasingly swayed by Barth’s argument that the Trinity is distinctive of Christianity. We do not come to theology with a general concept of God and then find the Trinity to fit somehow there. Conversely, I am wary of the triumphalism that can come from this and in relation to other ideologies such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, etc. In agreeing that the Trinity is distinctly Christian and that I love it to be so, I do not thereby want to cut myself off from the insights and challenges of those on the fringes and outside of the Christian tradition.

The root of the doctrine of the Trinity

In this subsection Barth goes on to discuss his theology of revelation as the root not of the Trinity itself, as if the Trinity only existed in our apprehension of God, but the doctrine of the Trinity. I am here a little perplexed at his earlier ambition to start a dogmatics with the doctrine of the Trinity before something like the doctrine of Scripture. Obviously such clear distinctions are neither possible nor desirable.

God is by nature unknowable, yet his freedom entails that he is free to overcome this unknowability and make himself known to humanity. Thus in revelation God “distinguish[es] Himself from Himself, i.e., to be God in Himself and in concealment, and yet at the same time to be God a second time in a very different way, namely, in manifestation, i.e., in the form of something He Himself is not” (316). So even anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Old Testament “are not just descriptions and representations of the reality of Yahweh; they are themselves the reality of Yahweh” (316).

Humanity cannot know God apart from revelation. Even in revelation, such as the ministry of Jesus, people cannot know this God unless he meets them in this revelation, so the confession of Peter is exemplary of this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (Matt 16:17). “The neutral observer who understood the events recorded in it as revelation would cease thereby to be a neutral observer” (325). Followed by a beautiful smackdown reminiscent of Kierkegaard: “the philosophy of religion of the Enlightenment from Lessing by way of Kant and Herder to Fichte and Hegel, with its intolerable distinction between the eternal content and the historical ‘vehicle,’ can only be described as the nadir of the modern misunderstanding of the Bible” (329).

Vestigium Trinitatis

The edition I’m using translates the Latin as “trace of the Trinity,” that is the traces of the Trinity in things outside of biblical revelation such as nature (a spring, stream, and lake) or humanity (body, soul, spirit), going back to Augustine. When you investigate something, you look for the traces. Barth is ultimately dismissive of this, but notes that theologians throughout history were sincere in their presentations of vestigia, trying to communicate complex theological concepts in everyday language. Although theological language is itself a vestigium, the only true vestigium is God’s revelation. Theology is to interpret this, but it must not illustrate it (so e.g. spring, stream, lake) as it thus produces another source for knowledge of the Trinity, competing with revelation it attempts to interpret. Additionally, the illustrations themselves have many flaws (often leaning to either modalism or tritheism).

Pointing out the appeal to the Holy Spirit above Scripture of the radical reformers (an appeal that I open to in some sense still being valid), Barth writes “one might almost say [the Holy Spirit] became the specifically non-Church or anti-Church God” (337). Haha, I just thought that was poetic and interesting.

Finally, despite our limitations we cannot not speak of God: “theological language [is that], which even though it can only be the language of the world, must still believe at root, cost what it will, that contrary to the natural capabilities of this language it can and should speak of God’s revelation in this language as theological language” (341).

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Christianity is unmistakably anthropocentric. Right from the start it is humanity, not the animals, who is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). It is they who are to “fill the earth and subdue it,” exercising dominion over the animals and being given the plants to eat (vv.28-29). Although the narrative attributes it to the fall, knowledge of good and evil becomes a distinctive of humanity through eating the fruit (Gen 3:1-7). And it may be rhetorical but Jesus places more value on human than animal life (Matt 6:26; 10:31; 12:12). Moreover God came to earth as a human, not an animal (John 1:14). Just as the first Adam sinned with consequences for all humanity, Jesus’ work of righteousness had universal human significance (Rom 5:18). The incarnation in itself had atoning value, and it was necessary that Jesus was fully human or we would not be fully saved. As Gregory Nazianzus famously argued, “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory’s statement is in polemical context, addressing Apollinarianism, yet it is still indicative of the anthropocentric climate of Christian theology.

Despite humanity’s centrality to the biblical story, Christian theology does not ignore the place of animals. God is creator of all. Not only Noah’s human family but all the animals are to be saved from the flood (Gen 6:19-20). It is only after the flood that God allows humans to eat the animals, possibly as a result of human violence (Gen 9:3). Whereas the other prophets imagine universal peace and worship of God for humanity, Isaiah’s eschatological vision includes animals: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6). This is in part fulfilled in Jesus’ coming. The gospel was not only for humanity but the whole of creation (Mark 16:5). Paul looks forward to a time when “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21), and acknowledges the universal significance of the gospel (Eph 1:7-10; Col 1:16-20; cf. Acts 3:19-21).

The problem then is not so much that Christian theology has no place for creation other than humanity, nor that this theology unanimously sanctions violence against the non-human. The problem is that humanity’s being accorded a central place in creation, revelation, and new creation implicitly maintains an anthropocentrism, even if there are resources for beginning to move beyond that. In creation it is humanity that is to represent God to the animals, and, through Jesus, again this gospel of universal significance is revealed first to humanity who are to represent God to the animals.

What role does humanity play in the salvation history of the animals?

Has God spoken to the animals apart from us?

How do the animals view us, God, and their place in the world?

What resources do evolution and pre-human existence provide for understanding revelation and salvation to the animals?

How much is biblical anthropocentrism a product of human dominion over the earth and are there alternative ways of viewing the biblical story?

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This passage is often used to point to general revelation, the idea that there are aspects of creation which point to God’s nature, at least existence:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

(Rom 1:18-23, NRSV).

Firstly, this needs to be read in context. Paul was a major figure involved in Gentile inclusion in early Christianity. Contemporary Jews would boast of their righteousness through the law that God gave them and look down on the unrighteous, unclean Gentiles. If some people could come to accept that Gentiles were to be included in the new movement, the next biggest difficulty was being convinced that Gentiles did not need to abide by the Torah. Here Paul speaks of the unrighteousness of the Gentiles, a theme his contemporaries would be familiar with. But then, surprisingly, he goes on to speak of the unrighteousness of the Jews, “You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you'” (2:23-24), moving onto the universality of sin in chapter 3.

Interestingly, even though Paul makes these statements, he says quite the opposite regarding the gospel: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?… So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (10:14, 17). Additionally, I wonder if Paul’s critique is not merely noetic, but ethical. He is concerned that the Gentiles “suppress the truth” (v.18) and exchange “the truth about God for a lie” (v.25). But perhaps he is more concerned with the life of vices to which he connects it: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vv.29-31). It is not so much denial in itself but denial so that people can cut themselves off from their creator, both objectifying and deifying features of creation in accordance with their desires.

In any case, contemporary religious/secular pluralism should at least hold some interpretative sway for this passage! It remains unfortunate that Christians have used this passage to condemn those who have legitimate doubts about God’s existence or a completely different understanding of God altogether. Perhaps more worrying is its application to non-Christians who may very well be more “ethical” than the Christians condemning them! How do you understand this passage hermeneutically?

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To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall—and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of Snow.

— Emily Dickinson

* * *

“Abraham cannot be mediated, and the same thing can be expressed also by saying that he cannot talk. So soon as I talk I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.” — Kierkegaard, Fear and trembling

* * *

Recently when I was reading Galatians I was struck with the unintelligibility of Paul’s call. Check out the words from the man himself:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! […] Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

(1:8, 10¹)

A running theme throughout Galatians is God’s plan and initiative above human tradition. Thus Paul can say right from the get-go in verse one that he is “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father”. He can say later that in light of his divine call the leaders in Jerusalem “contributed nothing to [him]” (2:6). And this also gives meaning to the later distinction between Spirit and flesh (eg. 3:3, 4:23, 5:16…).

You’ll understand when you’re older, mum.

Paul’s statement on who he’s trying to please needs to be held up to closer scrutiny. How can he make his essentially unintelligible call intelligible to others? Or why is his call unintelligible in the first place? This is Kierkegaard’s existential insight in Fear and Trembling: Abraham is called by the Lord to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In his very old age his wife, Sarah, (who, too, is a fossil) manages to bear a son, no doubt a blessing from God. How can Abraham make it intelligible to others that the Lord is asking him to give up his only descendent² and forfeit his name? Mary is visited by an angel and told she will bear the Messiah. “Hey guys, I’m pregnant, but don’t worry I haven’t been sleeping around, it’s just that God in human form is in my womb”³. Kierkegaard says of Mary that the “one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath”. I came across another example in church last Sunday when the speaker spoke of Joseph’s story in Genesis: Joseph was shown in a dream that he would rule over his brothers, so he thought it would be a good idea to tell them, partly contributing to his almost being killed and sent into slavery by them (Genesis 37). Calling, whether or not it can be made intelligible to the called, is immediately unintelligible to those around him or her.

Paul’s call is after his conversion, in Kierkegaardian terms, no longer a duty to God through the universal, which would entail all the practices he was obligated to under Judaism, but a duty to God through the particular, that which God calls the individual to. As soon as Paul attempts to justify his call to other people, it loses its particularity between God and himself and enters the universal. No doubt Paul does attempt to justify something to his readers, because he is involved in matters that concern a whole lot more people than merely God and himself. Paul needs to justify to the Galatians that they need not be concerned with circumcision and abiding by the law.

Yet Paul also attempts to justify his calling, but on what terms? He must make his appeal through the universal not to the particular, because that exists only in itself, between God and Paul. Any attempt to even describe it undermines it by electing a universal criteria with which to describe it, like language, or by saying there is some commonality between God’s call to Paul and God’s call to another (though that we can even say there is particularity shows that there is a universality to particularity). Paul must then make his appeal through the universality of language to, in this case, the universality of divine retribution4. He can therefore bind himself to an oath (1:8) and speak not just before his human audience, but before God (1:20) to assert his honesty regarding his call. Other than the possibility that Paul is speaking truthfully on pain of damnation, three other possibilities arrive. (a) Paul is blissfully deceived; (b) he is speaking deceitfully before both man and God; or (c) he  is appealing not to a commonality that he shares with his readers but to one only they share among themselves, in the same way that someone can walk under a ladder or open an umbrella inside as an act of self-sacrifice for their unwilling, superstitious friends.

This is a witch. If I’m lying then the witch is going to kill me in my sleep. You’ll just have to take my word and the cat’s face for it.

These possibilities show the ultimately inaccessible particularity of Paul’s call to the Gospel. On one level it is universal and can be made known to other people, but on another level, that of the possibilities above, Paul cannot make himself intelligible to his audience when speaking of matters between himself and God, namely that he is telling the truth. Why then is the Epistle to the Galatians still available to use today? Why didn’t it get burnt by Gentiles zealous for the law? How is it possible that Paul is seen as speaking truth albeit being ultimately impenetrable? It is not only that Paul takes his theology from scripture, appealing to the universal throughout the letter, but that the early church depended on the universality of particularity: The Holy Spirit.

This is an absurdity not just of Christianity, not just of religion, but of all belief systems: Everything rational is ultimately taken in faith. All objectivity is subjectivity in disguise. All truth is untruth. Christianity takes as its chosen untruth, the Holy Spirit. This is the absurdity of Paul’s call: “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). The writer of Acts renders Paul’s conversion experience in a certain way (Acts 9), but, as a rule, primary literature should first be taken into consideration. Paul claims that he has seen Jesus and later compares this to other post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (1Corinthians 9:1, 15:3-8), and his description of being caught up into Paradise possibly adds to this account (2Corinthians 12:1-4). What is absurd about Paul’s experience on which he bases his life purposes? What is absurd is that he privileges a particular finite means for access to the call of God. Some people may continually read the collected wisdom of thinkers ancient and modern to ascertain the meaning of life, some may view life as statistics and numbers and embrace the idiosyncratic nooks and crannies of nihilism, another may find their complete meaning in being in the presence of certain person. For Paul it is the experience of revelation which sits at the base of his call5.

It’s interesting to note that Paul’s call compels him to three years serving the Lord in Arabia, Damascus, and possibly other unmentioned places, before spending some time with Peter in Jerusalem and after another eleven or fourteen years on the mission field (the text is unclear) Paul returns to Jerusalem, surprise surprise, in response to another revelation (Galatians 1:15-2:2). Paul leaves it this long after his conversion to consult the leadership in Jerusalem, “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain” (v.2). There’s a little bit of classic irony there, and I wonder if Paul himself saw the humour in his actions. Yet that Paul did this in response to a revelation will not be easily dismissed: revelation was still primary, though now it required supplement to be fully justified. His approval from leaders in Jerusalem was not something that revelation could be swayed by; his approval was commissioned through revelation. Notably, the individual nature of Paul’s call has not changed. What is the outcome of Paul’s Christian individualism? It is responded to and approved (2:7-9) by those who also, to some extent, work in the same medium of call as Paul does, and then supplemented by an appeal to a universal ethic, remembering the poor (v.10).

This is the universality of particularity. When both parties are responding to the call of the Holy Spirit then this call is common to both parties; it is universal. Thus Paul can say of those in Jerusalem “they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised” (2:7) because the leaders recognised that where God had been at work in their own lives and the lives of those around them, he had also been at work in the hearts of those who formerly actively opposed the Gospel (1:23-24). The only way that the conversion of their enemy was intelligible to them was through the work of God in their own lives. And this is the subjectivity, whether it be revelation in whichever of its infinite forms, which ensures Galatians in our modern biblical canon: The Holy Spirit was not just at work in Paul but in the hearts of his readers.

* * *

¹All bible quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the NRSV and the Book of Galatians

²Ishmael, born to Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid, realistically doesn’t hold as much value in this position, considering ancient Near East perceptions of family, etc.

³Noting, however, that an angel appears to Joseph to clear things up (Matthew 1:20) and John the Baptist’s mother was aware of it according to Luke too (1:43). In light of the other examples, allow a little room for Mary’s story to be read as Kierkegaard reads it, for the sake of the argument. Even so, he may have understood Mary’s original call to bear the Messiah, before elucidation to others, as strictly between her and God, and this is what he is focussing on in the example.

4 I use universality quite loosely here to refer to any commonality among a group of individuals, and I realise that this is the proper use, as true Kantian/Hegelian (?) universality which Kierkegaard uses as a reference point is undermined by Kierkegaard himself and Nietzsche onwards: There is no universal morality, code, ethics, etc. This universality that people refer to is a fantasy and only exists to some extent (though in absolute terms to none at all) within different groups of people. Thus language expresses the universal as much as ideas are universally accessible through it, but it is an approximation of the universal as much as the individual’s subjective perceptions of language allow for infinite nuances in interpretation.

5 The other sources of call given may disregard revelation by, for example, openly rebelling against God in light of the revelation, attempting to the revelation, dismissing revelation as human fantasy, etc.

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