Monday, 14 January 2008

What is the Centre of Scripture: Jesus or the Covenant?

What is the centre of the Bible according to Barth? I would have thought it would be Jesus, but as I read his Introduction it would seem to be the covenant. He talks of how God is revealed in the history of his deeds, and that the most significant of these is the "establishing, maintaining, accomplishing and fulfilling of a covenant" first with Israel, later with humanity. This covenant was imperfect due to the imperfection of the human covenant partner. It found its consummation, therefore, in the perfect covenant parter, Jesus the true Israelite. Yet the perfection of Jesus exceeded the expectations of the Old covenant, in that God himself indwelled Jesus.

Barth does indeed say that the object of theology is "the Word of God in Christ", but on closer analysis this Word is a far broader concept than the person of Jesus. It would seem to be Jesus as the fulfilment of the covenant. On p. 23 Barth defines the phrase "the Word of God in Christ" as “God's Word spoken both in the relation of the history of Israel to the history of Jesus Christ and the relation of the history of Jesus Christ to the history of Israel". The Jesus of the gospels would seem to be one instantiation of this Word in Christ, which can only be fully comprehended in the context of a two-testamental witness, neither of which is subordinated to the other.

Am I reading Barth right here? Is God's covenant with humanity the heart of the Gospel and Scripture?

. . .

Regardless of whether 'covenant' is the correct term to describe the Gospel's centre, the idea that "the Word of God in Christ" is the object of theological study, rather than the concrete Jesus as presented in the gospels narratives, finds an echo in something Seitz wrote in his article "In Accordance with the Scriptures" (1996). The context of discussion is the theological significance of the fourfold gospel witness:

"It is not that Jesus is hidden behind the words about him, which must be sifted and probed to get at "historical Jesus". it is rather, that the words that tell about him simultaneously convey their inadequacy, in formal terms, because of the subject matter that they are trying to reach. The very fourfoldness of the gospel record is a witness to the majestic difficulty of the endeavor of presenting jesus as a character of time and space, fully man, fully God. But this is not an inadequacy that can be remedied through historical-critical heavy lifting, because it inheres with the subject matter itself, which is God in Christ - who exposes our inadequacy in trying to speak of him, and yet simultaneously remedies this through the work of the Holy Spirit in the church, allowing the frail testimony of human minds to be the lens on the glory of God, a touching of the ark of the covenant." (p. 58).

8 comments:

Bob MacDonald said...

I like the question - in my reading of the psalms, I have noted that the psalmist as example shows us the working of covenant dialogue as the centre of things - and a reading of the NT using the psalms in this manner might show us something new about this question.

Phil Sumpter said...

Interesting, let me know if you have any interesting insights. I came across a quote in Barth which confirms that the concept of covenant is central for him. I'll post it tomorrow. I find the idea fascinating as it raises the important question of what Christianity is all about. When we talk of Christ as the centre of Scripture, or of all Scripture pointing to Him, what does that mean?

Phil Sumpter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
WTM said...

"Barth defines the phrase "the Word of God in Christ" as “God's Word spoken both in the relation of the history of Israel to the history of Jesus Christ and the relation of the history of Jesus Christ to the history of Israel". The Jesus of the gospels would seem to be one instantiation of this Word in Christ, which can only be fully comprehended in the context of a two-testamental witness, neither of which is subordinated to the other."

Language of "one instantiation" is not quite right. Jesus Christ is not an instance of the revelation of God's Word in a series of other instances. He is the constitutive and definitive instance, to which other instances bear witness either in the mode of prophet or apostle. The prophets and apostles exist for the purpose of bearing witness to him, and are ultimately insufficient and therefore meaningless without him. But, in their bearing witness to him, they are our guides to understanding him. Thus, the history of the covenant can be understood as a process whereby God cultivated the thought-forms necessary for us to understand who and what Christ is.

Barth isn't trapped by a view of time as chronologically linear in any reductive sense.

R.O. Flyer said...

Phil,
I noticed your comment on Ben Meyers' blog and responded to it there, but I thought I'd visit your blog. It is good to see some engagement with Childs. A few years back I spent a part of a year diving into his work. I'm sure you've encountered James Barr already, but I would recommend going back to the 60s and following their dialogue through the decades. It is fascinating. In my mind, he posed the most pressing questions to Childs, much of which he was unable to counter adequately. Anyway, I look forward to reading your thoughts!

Phil Sumpter said...

WTM,

what a marvelous respone! Thank you. I was indeed uncomfortable with the word "instantiation" as was hoping for an expert to come along and point me in the right direction. The history of the covenant "as a process whereby God cultivated the thought-forms necessary for us to understand who and what Christ is" is helpful indeed. I have to say, I struggle to really conceptualize what it means for Jesus to be the "constitutive and definitive instance" ... Could you recommend anything to read that could clarify this for me?

R.O. Flyer,

thanks for visiting and I look forward to your comments in the future. I have to admit, my main enagement with Barr is in discussions with his fans, rather than his own books. I need to read them at some point, but it's hard enough work trying to grasp Childs approach on its own terms. Barr has indeed posed some great questions, though I fear the problem was not that Childs couldn't answer, but that Barr missed the point.

All the best!

Ed said...

WTM,
Wow I agree, what a lovely thought.

And I've read both Barr and Childs, and yes Barr often misses Childs.

I'm slowly coming to think that to be alive means to learn to give of yourself, in a sense to sacrifice yourself. This is certainly motivated by demonstration of the One who is most truly human.

In scholarship I must learn to give up some of my perspective - to sacrifice it at least temporarily - to truly apprehend the views of another. Charity is the key to knowledge.

This does not mean that scholars who do not exercise charity don't know anything nor does it mean that we should ignore their arguments. It just means that I'm more skeptical about their ability to see beyond themselves.

There is nothing more blinding than selfcenteredness.

Phil Sumpter said...

Ed,

Charity is the key to knowledge

Nice. I like little phrases like that which I can use as aphorisms.

I'm slowly coming to think that to be alive means to learn to give of yourself, in a sense to sacrifice yourself.

In the next couple of days I'm going to post part of a dialogue I had with a philosophically oriented fried of mine on this concept. The issue is on the life-affirming nature of dying.