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Posts Tagged ‘scandal of particularity’

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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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Two of my questions for the upcoming ‘xam (two days!) deal with relating a theological concept in a postmodern, postfoundationalist context. For me the defining aspect of postmodernism is particularity. We have lost all confidence in universals and are thus deferred to a world of humble particulars. And that, too, may very well be the crossover point between postmodernism and Christian theology. I read recently, and from a pretty conservative scholar too, that Christianity cannot stand on its own as a set of doctrines, say like Buddhism; it is inextricably bound to the narrative of Yahweh’s work through Israel, the culmination of this in Jesus, and the ongoing work of the Church. There is no Christianity apart from this story.

In the history of theology, theologians have wrestled with what has come to be called “the scandal of particularity.” This is the problem of how such a particular narrative is supposed to have universal significance. Jesus was a man; he worked as a carpenter, to the exclusion of other forms of work; he was born to a particular family, not all families; he was born in Israel, not all nations. Not that these accidentals, among others, cannot be representative of all other particulars and thus have some universal significance, but the point is that God become human inevitably took on particulars in so doing.

Now as a large chunk of the history of theology and philosophy would have us assume, there is a God of the universal behind this particular. But what if the scandal of particularity requires the theological move that there is also a God of particularity who became Jesus? Luther’s logic went: “Jesus suffered and died on the cross; Jesus was God; God suffered and died on the cross.” Outside of Jesus and the narrative already mentioned, the most puzzling aspect of particularity in Christianity for me is God entering into time. If God is in a permanent state of isness, if he is the eternal, I am, how does this God operate within the finite terms of the wasis and will be? Maybe this is one of open theism’s strengths in pointing out the immanence of God in time..?

Here are a couple of questions to ponder:

Does the act of Creation (and creating time) depend on God’s prior particularity?

Is there a change in the universality of God through all interactions with Creation, especially the incarnation?

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