Webster: “God’s repleteness ... is not a closed circle”

The identity of God of which Christian dogmatics is the rational articulation is the identity of God the Holy Trinity, freely presented in the works of God’s triune being. God becomes a matter for human thought and speech because he makes himself present to his creatures. God is present to himself in the fullness and inexhaustible sufficiency of his triune being, and in this fullness he has need of no other and owes nothing to any other being. But the fullness which is proper to him includes (though it is not exhausted by) the willing, executing and completing of a repetition of his presence to a reality which is not himself. The circle of God’s repleteness, the whole and integrated fellowship which he is as Father, Son and Spirit, is not a closed circle. In its very completeness, it is a life-giving movement, bestowing, guarding, healing, restoring and perfecting the life of what is not God, as its lordly creator and preserver. Thus: ‘God is who He is in His works’ (Barth, CD II/1, 260). But to say this is not in any way to empty the doctrine of God of reference to everything apart from the economy of the opera dei ad extra, because these opera are the opera dei, the works of God’s utterly sufficient being. Thus: ‘In His works He is revealed as the One He is’ (ibid).

The formal consequence of this is that, because God the Holy Trinity is the agent of his own presence, he does not become a matter for human consideration because the creature makes God present by a speculative or religious or poetic act. The presence of God is never a function of the self-presence of the creature, but is always pre-eminent, self-moved, commanding, absolutely original. Consequently, the attributes of God are not labels attached to a deity called into the creature’s presence, but are indicators of the name of the one who summons the creature to account for itself and its thinking in his presence.
—John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 114-15.

Comments

Shane said…
"because God the Holy Trinity is the agent of his own presence, he does not become a matter for human consideration because the creature makes God present by a speculative or religious or poetic act."

So you can't even think about God unless God makes you think about him.

. . . I think this whole 'no natural theology' thing has just become ludicrous.

sw
D.W. Congdon said…
Shane, your emphasis on human rationality and the possibility of talk about God focuses entirely upon the human person. You have a strongly empirical perspective: if you see a person do something, then that person has done it. If I pray to God, then clearly it is I who am praying, etc.

The Christian faith believes that it is necessary to make statements about such action that are not empirically verifiable, simply because theological distinctions become necessary. Particularly, Christian faith posits a particular relation between divine and human action. This relation is often quite in contrast to what we actually experience, but the relation itself is essential.

Thus, faith is not something I myself alone do; it is a gift of God that I receive, even though I may only be conscious of my own act of committing myself to God. Prayer is much the same, in that we affirm that guiding presence of the Spirit in prayer, even though I am only aware of my own words.

We say the same about talk about God, about theology, because the Christian faith properly places theology within the life of faith, not within the general academic discourses. Theology is a responsive articulation of the gospel. Theology arises in response to the word of God addressed to us. It is God's triune presence that is prevenient, not our rational ability to speak of God. Prevenient grace is not something tangible or empirically verifiable; but we affirm that it is true.

All of this is not merely a rejection of natural theology. That is the mundane way of looking at this. Affirming God's prevenient activity in faith and theology is an affirmation of God's sovereignty, freedom, and grace as "God for us." It is only ludicrous to the one who fails to comprehend the enveloping of theology within the periphery of faith.
Shane said…
david,

The correlation of human and divine actions is quite present to my mind. However my point doesn't depend on anything empirical, but rather upon the distinction between primary and secondary causality.

A primary cause is a sufficient cause for the effect to occur. The cue ball hits the eight and knocks it into the pocket.

A secondary cause is something that the effect of the primary cause presupposes as the condition of its possibility. The laws of inertia, etc.

God is a secondary cause of all events insofar as he is the creator of the kosmos. God's relation to human religious actions like prayer is perhaps even much closer. Perhaps God chooses to give sufficient grace to a person to pray and then the person chooses to pray and does pray. In the praying God and the person are both acting, but the person's will acts in a primary way, God's grace in a secondary way.

If God's grace is the primary cause of my action of praying, then it is not longer my action of praying. Suppose you possessed a button which connected to a device in my brain. Every time you press this button, the device causes me to give you a hundred dollars without fail. Now, is it really me who is giving you this money? No. Of course not. You are the cause of the action, not me. In fact there would be something sadistically perverse about you pressing the button, taking my money and then scolding me. "Shane, you shouldn't be giving all this money out like this."

My beef with Webster's statement is that it seems to make God the (only possible) primary cause of each and every human cognitive act about a divine being. And this strikes me as nonsense because it makes God this same sadistic monster with his button to my brain.

People think about God all the time and almost all of us (perhaps even absolutely all of us) do so incorrectly. If God is the one who causes us to think about him, presumably he would at least cause us to think about him well. If God is the primary cause of each and every cognition of the divine and is presumably upset at people for cognizing him incorrectly, then he's a sadist.
Shane said…
. . . Fortunately, God isn't a sadist, because he isn't the primary cause of our cognition of him.
D.W. Congdon said…
Shane,

I think the primary-secondary distinction is only marginally helpful, and quite possibly misleading. The reason is that it too cleanly separates between cause and effect, between subject and object. The relation between divine and human action is more complex than that, in that as object, God is also subject; and God is the subject in that God becomes (elects to be) the object of human investigation.

But going along with what you have described here, I would affirm with you that God is the secondary cause; God is not a sadist. However, as we think and talk about God in proper response to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ -- and indeed it is "we" who are thinking, not God -- then we discover that not only is God's self-giving activity prevenient, but our activity of thought is wholly circumscribed within the divine being-in-act.

God is not only the secondary cause in some metaphysical abstract sense (in fact, to the extent that this remains abstract, we may as well dispense with it altogether). God is not only the Creator, but God is also and primarily the Redeemer. Or, to be more accurate, as the Redeemer, God is the Creator. God is not the Deist watchmaker who sets the universe in motion (including our rational thought) and then lets us do our own work of thinking about God. No, if our thought is truly about God, then we are dependent upon a relation between the human person and the God who is our object -- and this relation is dependent upon the prior agency of God through the Spirit who grants this relation of faith. Our talk about God, if it is truly talk about God, depends upon the prevenient work of God. True speech about God is never independent from God's active self-communicative presence.
Shane said…
"No, if our thought is truly about God, then we are dependent upon a relation between the human person and the God who is our object -- and this relation is dependent upon the prior agency of God through the Spirit who grants this relation of faith. Our talk about God, if it is truly talk about God, depends upon the prevenient work of God. True speech about God is never independent from God's active self-communicative presence."

And what argument do you have to support this claim?

I highly suspect that your position will reduce to panentheism. If every human action of thinking about God is just part of God's goding godself (God is subject, object and act of revelation--Jüngel). Unfortunately I don't have time to press that angle right now; I have to go find a rosary real quick.

sw
D.W. Congdon said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
D.W. Congdon said…
My first attempt to respond to your comment, Shane, went too far. But I won't mince words: I am tired of your strained attempt to disparage Barth's theology.

At least my position follows from a clear position -- thinking about God is only possible because of God's self-communication. Your counter-argument that this position is panentheism is just a wild assertion without any grounding whatsoever.

The Protestant position affirms God's movement before, during, and after the knowledge of God. You call this panentheism; I call this the doctrine of the Trinity. Who is right? Well, I hardly think that all the best theological thinkers of the past hundred years were simply stupid. I would like to chalk up our disagreements to a division between theology and philosophy. But if that's the case, I expect a little more intellectual charity from you.

Calling this position panentheism is ludicrous. That would be like calling any theology in which God is present and active in the present-tense world panentheistic. You might as well become a Deist. I guess, in a way, that's what Aristotle offers -- an abstract, metaphysical Unmoved Mover who has no covenantal relation with creation. I would hope, though, that your Christian sensibilities (wherever they may be) will mitigate against this trend in your thought. My plea: Try to read modern thinkers more charitably. Examine Barth's theology more fully. And remember that the starting-point of theology is not reason or logic, but the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. If the theological conclusion following from this seems ludicrous, rather than calling it names, try to understand why such a thinker may feel constrained by her starting-point to offer such a position.
Shane said…
Karl Barth will be just fine. Far from trying to disparage him, I am trying to honor him in my own way. (I argue with Barth rather than Tillich because I don't like Tillich.)

As I understand it, Christian charity requires me to attack Barth, just as it requires you to attack me and show me why I am wrong if you can because Love means more than saying nice things about people that never make them upset.

If I thought you were too stupid to do better I wouldn't waste my time and effort trying to prove you wrong. If I didn't want your criticisms of my own stupidity I wouldn't invite you to leave comments on my blog. I grow best through criticism and so I assume other people want the same thing I do.

But this is your sandbox and you make the rules here.
Shane said…
And i didn't say you were a pantheist. I said i suspected your position would reduce to panentheism. The fact that you ignore the fundamental distinction between the two kinds of claims is why you are also misunderstanding what I've said about Schleiermacher and Hegel.
WTM said…
Shane,

If you look at David's preceding post, he mentions 'panentheism' a few times, but never pantheism.
D.W. Congdon said…
Shane,

Asking for charity is not the same thing as telling you not to leave comments. And love first calls you to understand Barth's project before you criticize. You have failed on the first count, so you necessarily fail on the second. Similarly, if I have failed to understand you, then I have failed in my criticism. Thus far, I believe you are the more guilty between the two of us. If I am wrong, I look forward to seeing how that is the case.

Re: panentheism, I'll grant that you only said my position would reduce to it. Nevertheless, I stand by what I said: this is an unfounded and utterly ridiculous claim. It also shows that you simply fail to understand the doctrine of revelation as expounded by Barth and Juengel.

I do not see how I have misunderstood you on Schleiermacher and Hegel. All I see is that you have misunderstood them.
Shane said…
Barth's (or at least Webster's interpretation of Barth's) position:

No one can think of God unless God causes him to do so.

What his means is that there is no thinking about God outside of (special, direct) revelation. Revelation is God's self-disclosure to human beings. God 'takes up' human thinking and bends it to something beyond its ordinary scope. Revelation is an act initiated and accomplished by God alone.

I deny the major premise. Not all thinking about God is revelation. My evidence for this: people do it all the time and in lots of ways, mostly poorly.

I could make some formal objections, for example if I conceive a perfect infinite being then I am conceiving not just God, but also God, just because there is only one entity in the universe that such a designation could pick out. (I'm not sure what the difference between God and God is, but it seems to mean a lot to some people).

However, I don't think I really even need that kind of a formal objection. Instead I tried to show that Barth's position of taking God as the subject of all cognition of God greatly denigrates human subjecthood.

I don't think the problem has anything to do with the fact that Barth and I take different stances on the startingpoint of theology (if in fact we do take different stances). So now. If I have Barth wrong on something, correct my interpretation. If I don't have Barth wrong, then answer the question I asked you earlier, "What argument do you have to support" the claim that ""Our talk about God, if it is truly talk about God, depends upon the prevenient work of God."?"