Why I Am A Universalist, § 3: The Doctrine of God, Part 2: Deus pro nobis

I realize this is a long post, but Karl Barth says almost everything that needs to be said in this one lengthy passage. I urge people to take the time to read this carefully.

[From Church Dogmatics IV.1 (Doctrine of Reconciliation), pp. 212-14.]
God reveals and increases His own glory in the world by this event [of reconciliation], by hastening to the help of the world as its loyal Creator, by taking up its cause. In doing what He does for His own sake, He does it, in fact, propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem [for us humans and for our salvation]. For Himself He did not need that He and His glory should be revealed and confessed in the world and by us. He might have been content with His own knowledge of Himself, just as He might have been content earlier with His being as God in glory, not needing the being of the creature and its co-existence with Him, not being under any necessity to be its Creator. But the world had radical need of His work as Creator, to which it owes no less than its very being. And, again, it has radical need that He should take up its cause in the work of atonement. Not by divine creation, but by the sin of man, it is the world which is thrown back on the faithfulness of God, a world which is lost apart from the fact that He Himself hastens to its help and takes up its cause. It has perverted the being which He lent it. It has fallen, i.e., it is rushing headlong into nothingness, into eternal death. Of itself it is not capable of any counter-movement to arrest this fall. In itself it has no power, no effective will, no sufficient basis, for any such counter-movement. On the contrary, of its own will and ability it makes only such movements as serve to repeat the origin of its fall, which is sin, and to accelerate its headlong course to the abyss.

But God reveals and increases His own glory in the world in the incarnation of His Son by taking to Himself the radical neediness of the world, i.e., by undertaking to do Himself what the world cannot do, arresting and reversing its course to the abyss. He owes this neither to the world nor to Himself. Not to the world, because the sin of man as the origin of its fatal movement to eternal death is directed against Himself, is always presented and characterised as enmity against Himself. Not to the world because the world has no claim that He should exercise in its favour the omnipotence of His free love, and in the perfect form of Himself accepting unity and solidarity with sinful man. And not to Himself, because nothing would be lacking in His inward being as God in glory, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as the One who loves in freedom, if He did not show Himself to the world, if He allowed it to complete its course to nothingness: just as nothing would be lacking to His glory if He had refrained from giving it being when He created it out of nothingness.

That He does, in fact, will to reconcile it with Himself, and to save it, and therefore to magnify His glory in it and to it, is from every standpoint the sovereign will of His mercy. We cannot deduce it or count on it from any side. We cannot establish in principle from any side that it must be so, that God had to link the revelation and increase of His glory with the maintaining and carrying through to victory of our cause, that He had to cause it to take place as an event in which salvation is given to us. How can it be necessary in principle that He should take to Himself—and conjoin and unite with what He does to His own glory—the cause which we had so hopelessly lost, turning it in His own person to good, to the best of all? If we can speak of a necessity of any kind here, it can only be the necessity of the decision which God did in fact make and execute, the necessity of the fact that the being of God, the omnipotence of His free love, has this concrete determination and is effective and revealed in this determination and no other, that God wills to magnify and does in fact magnify His own glory in this way and not in any other, and therefore to the inclusion of the redemption and salvation of the world. This fact we have to recognise to be divinely necessary because it derives from and is posited by God. This fact we have to perceive and reverence and receive and glorify as the mystery of the atonement, the incarnation of the eternal Word. And we have to do it with a thankfulness which cannot be limited by any supposed necessity of this free gift.

Cur Deus homo? Because the salvation of the world and of men, we ourselves and our salvation, are in fact included in the self-purposiveness of this divine action. Because the great and self-sufficient God wills to be also the Saviour of the world. Because what He does for Himself takes place with the intention and is complete in the fact that in its purpose and result we will not perish but have everlasting life. This, then, is why the Lord became a servant. This is why concretely the Son of God rendered that obedience, the obedience of self-humiliation. This is why in free compliance with the freely disposing will of the Father He entered on the strange way into the far country and followed it to the bitter end.

Here, then, we have our general answer to the question confronting us. We cannot deduce it from any principle, from any idea of God or of man and the world. We can read it only from the fact in which the omnipotent mercy of God is exercised and effective and revealed, in which His own glory and our salvation meet, in which that which God does for Himself is also done for us. Our answer can only be a repetition of the answer which God Himself has given in this fact, in which He Himself has pronounced concerning the end and scope and meaning of His activity. Deus pro nobis is something which He did not have to be or become, but which, according to this fact, He was and is and will be—the God who acts as our God, who did not regard it as too mean a thing, but gave Himself fully and seriously to self-determination as the God of the needy and rebellious people of Israel, to be born a son of this people, to let its wickedness fall on Him, to be rejected by it, but in its place and for the forgiveness of its sins to let Himself be put to death by the Gentiles—and by virtue of the decisive co-operation of the Gentiles in His rejection and humiliation to let Himself be put to death in their place, too, and for the forgiveness of their sins. The end and scope and meaning of this downward way, the reconciliation of the world with Himself, is God Himself as the God of this mean and wicked people for the men of this people, and at the end of its history God Himself in the midst of this people and all peoples for the men of this people and all peoples, God in this direct relationship to men and man, God the one man for many. In all that follows we can only hear and intelligently repeat the answer which God Himself has already given to our question.

What must we learn from Barth based on this passage? The following are six major points:

1. Divine freedom must be preserved. Humanity is lost in the abyss, but God freely and graciously enters the abyss in order to arrest our fall and give us new being that may live in obedience to God. God is the ‘one who loves in freedom,’ who has the fullness of glory regardless of whether humankind is brought back into relation with its Creator. God is thus ‘more than necessary,’ to borrow a phrase from Eberhard Jüngel.

2. God is sovereign and self-determining. Humankind cannot say what God must do, but if God has done something, then we are free to speak of that act as necessary. God self-determines who God is and what God will do; humanity is simply at the mercy of God.

3. God’s economic self-determination is revelation. We thus have no right to speak about what God will do in eternity apart from what God has already determined, accomplished, and revealed in the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ.

4. God accomplishes what the world cannot accomplish. God’s grace is sovereign and effective. God does what humankind wishes it could for itself through its good works and good intentions, but the incarnation of Jesus Christ proclaims that God alone is capable of rescuing us from our otherwise eternal estrangement from God. Not only is God capable of this sovereign grace, but God has accomplished this in Jesus Christ on our behalf, pro nobis.

5. All creation is included in the divine self-determination of the incarnation. What God does for Godself involves and includes all of humanity and the entire cosmos. We do not make this the case; it is already the case because of Jesus Christ.

6. God is not some distant God who is abstractly ‘over us’ or ‘above us,’ but rather God is always and eternally ‘among us,’ ‘with us,’ and most importantly, ‘for us.’

A few statements by Barth need to be highlighted:
Cur Deus homo? Because the salvation of the world and of men, we ourselves and our salvation, are in fact included in the self-purposiveness of this divine action. Because the great and self-sufficient God wills to be also the Saviour of the world. Because what He does for Himself takes place with the intention and is complete in the fact that in its purpose and result we will not perish but have everlasting life.

Deus pro nobis is something which He did not have to be or become, but which, according to this fact, He was and is and will be . . . God Himself as the God of this mean and wicked people for the men of this people, and at the end of its history God Himself in the midst of this people and all peoples for the men of this people and all peoples, God in this direct relationship to men and man, God the one man for many.

Comments

Shane said…
I think I would give a hearty amen to almost all of this, but I have three things questions.

First, you say, "God’s economic self-determination is revelation. We thus have no right to speak about what God will do in eternity apart from what God has already determined, accomplished, and revealed in the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ." But what then was revealed to Abraham? Where is the notion of progressive revelation? Or are you consciously rejecting it? I am also very worried by the collapse of the distinction between the economic and the immanent trinity.

The second question is related to this first one. My Hegel-o-meter pinged when I read this quote, "All creation is included in the divine self-determination of the incarnation. What God does for Godself involves and includes all of humanity and the entire cosmos. We do not make this the case; it is already the case because of Jesus Christ."

I think this quote is true in a certain sense--who God chooses to be in himself has everything to do with what the kosmos is, because a different Creator would have created a different kosmos.

However, this statement could also be read a more Hegelian direction. For Hegel, if I understand him right, Creation is the unfolding of Godself through what is other to him. History is the divine self determination, which proceeds through the reconciliation (Versohnung) of opposites through a more inclusive totality. The divine enters into history and reconciles all history to itself through this inclusion into totality. This is one of my concerns with the evisceration of the immanent trinity. If there is no reserve to God beyond the economic, then we verge on identifying God and the finite kosmos.

The objection to Hegel here is that it is unclear what God is reconciling to himself. In the end, Hegel's panthesim means that God is reconciling himself to himself through himself. But what God needs to reconcile himself to himself? Is God evil that he needs forgiveness and reconciliation? If so, who can offer it to him?

In Hegel's God: A Counterfeit Double? (Ashgate 2003), Desmond makes the excellent point that forgiveness requires an asymmetrical relation between the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. This asymmetry implies the genuine transcendence of a God beyond the Hegelian totality (cf. pp. 62ff.). However, I wonder if we can go a bit beyond Desmond and say that the asymmetry not only guarantees the divine transcendence, but also the genuine agency of the creature as well. If God is not forgiving himself in reconciliation, then whom is he forgiving? Us, the ones who have sinned. True forgiveness requires the rejection of pantheism. I believe you will agree with this; I am simply fretting over the wording.

Third, I think I can see where you are going with this line of argument: God has determined himself to be pro nobis. This has universal ontological implication, therefore Christ's reconciling work is actually effective in redeeming all creation.

But what if one way of God's being pro nobis is to be our judge. Redemption, I freely admit, is the primary purpose of Christ's incarnation. But how could we not pay attention to the images of Christ's role as the cosmic judge, with the doubledged sword in his mouth. What of the parable of Christ winnowing the chaff from the wheat? What about Jesus saying to the unfaithful disciples, "Go away, I never knew you."

Granted, none of these is a knock down argument against universalism. There is, after all, no fundamental incompatibility between the view that there is punishment after death and that everyone will finally be reconciled. But they do point to an aspect of God's being-towards-us as judge that I find very helpful in thinking through this question.
Shane said…
Reading what I just wrote about Hegel, I realize I didn't do a good job of explaining what I am really concerned about, which is the identification of the kosmos and the creator. If all the kosmos is reconciled because it is all assumed into the divine self-determination, then there doesn't seem to be any real difference between the creator and the kosmos. I followed Desmond in objecting that the notion of forgiveness requires an asymmetry or non-identity between the kosmos and the creator. Again, this isn't a knock out argument against universalism, but I think it does show that one cannot ensure universal reconciliation on the basis of the assumption of all being into God or something like that.
D.W. Congdon said…
For clarification, my christocentric theology of revelation does not deny that divine revelation occurs outside of Christ. I simply assert, along with Barth, that God's self-revelation in Jesus is the criterion by which all other possible revelations must be judged. As the writer of 1 John says, the spirits are to be tested by their confession of Christ. All revelation must be in concord with the supreme act of self-revelation in Jesus Christ. So yes, God did speak to Abraham and the other patriarchs. Just as God speaks today, through the work of the Holy Spirit. I don't much like the notion of progressive revelation, because this views revelation in terms of propositions and facts of knowledge. Revelation is an event, a personal encounter with the living Lord — our Creator, Redeemer, and Perfecter.

I accept without hesitation Karl Rahner's trinitarian axiom: The immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity, and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. Without this affirmation, we threaten to separate God's economic activity from who God actually is in eternity. By making this affirmation, we recognize that the God we encounter in revelation is the triune God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The God incarnated in Jesus Christ is really the God who existed before the worlds were made.

I am not identifying this with Hegel's philosophy, since I wholeheartedly believe in the asymmetrical relation between the Creator and the creation; there is indeed an infinite qualitative difference between God and the world. So when we speak of God's economic activity in time and space, we are making a statement about the being of God as a being who is capable of entering into time, capable of involving Godself in the world of created matter, capable even of death on a cross. We can make these dogmatic statements because God revealed the being of God in Jesus Christ. God is not foreign to the world but rather affirms and embraces the created order while still remaining distinct from it. God is able to come nearer to the world than the world can come to itself, but such a statement depends on making a firm distinction between God and the world. God and creation are entirely distinct realities, but God's being as self-giving Love enables God to enter into this fallen world — to enter into the battle with nothingness and overcome it.

I think we should avoid speaking of a "reserve" of God beyond God's economic self-revelation. What we should affirm instead is that God forever remains distinct from creation even while God enters into the world and involves Godself in the processes of time and space. God's being is in becoming, meaning that God's true being is a being capable of otherness and change. God's character is changeless (immutable) even while God's being experiences change (mutable). God is eternal even while entering into time. God is sovereign even while Jesus Christ submits himself to the powers of the world, to the suffering of the cross, and to the abysmal depths of death itself.

I would be happy to talk more about Hegel. Such a discussion would be even more appropriate on the Jüngel blog. We are of one mind in rejecting pantheism. I also think we have the grounds here for a rejection of metaphysical theism, to be replaced by a critically realistic christocentric theology of divine self-revelation.

Look for my paragraphs on judgment which are still to come.