The Leper and the Lamb: A Trinitarian Dialectic for Today

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once,44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

The words Christ speaks to the leper in Mark 1 are indeed the words that the Divine spoke outside of time and beyond the nexus of the world: “I do choose.” According to Barthian theology – focusing heavily on a transfigured (or, perhaps, transcended) doctrine of predeterminism and election from the ideas of the early Reformation and a radically Chalcedonian Christology – is that, before there was even such a thing as a “beginning,” God determined that the Son of God would be elected to be utterly human, utterly divine, and to take on that which by necessity would be reserved for humanity. Election by the Divine is a unique state of being, and in a grand reversal the Christ event takes what Barth would call the obliteration of the sinner and gives (not substitutes) election/exultation in its place.

The idea that Calvinist election and determinism had more steps to take in many ways is attributed to this man:

Chalcedonian. Christological Paradoxist. Pipe Smoker.

and to these books:

14 books spanning innumerable ideas about God’s election of Christ and of humanity, and what that means for the Church and for the universe

While this is not a blog post about salvation as it relates to the afterlife, it is nevertheless important to recognize a couple of things about Church Dogmatics and about Barth: 1) He suggests we can choose to refute or reject our election by Christ and therefore by God, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can escape it; and 2) Barth died before he could write his volume about redemption, which undoubtedly would’ve said something about the eschaton. Oh well.

What this blog post is about is the “Yes” that God spoke when he elected Christ and about the “Yes” we as humans also received in this election and in our own by the Son of God.

Karl Barth consistently rejected any moniker that framed him as a dialectical theologian, or that Hegelian dialectics was his method as he worked – a framework or system that would brand his theology. However, it cannot be ignored that at the very least he was influenced by this way of thinking. He also rejected that he was a “natural theologian.” In other words, he rejected the idea that the knowledge of God could be objectively extracted from the natural order of the universe without the aid of special revelation. This is interesting, considering he was invited to speak at, and became one of the three greatest presenters of, the Gifford Lectures. For Barth, the revelation of God could only be approached through the entirely divine, entirely human Jesus. The incarnation established outside and inside of time is the point of revelation – insofar as it is understood that we seek to know an unknowable God. If our job is to seek to know an unknowable God, and Elders and Deacons in the UMC are tasked with “Word” in their ordinations, then this area of ministry becomes tricky:

Task: Proclaim in a way that helps people know God | Claim: No one can know God…entirely, that is.

So what is the answer to knowing the unknowable God, and participating in a theology that does not rely on finding God in the natural order without the aid of special revelation? It’s the place between Thomas Aquinas (ontology) and John Calvin (determinism); between William James (science/psychology) and Reinhold Niebuhr (anthropology); between the supernatural Christ of the Gospel of John (who chooses to die on the cross) and the human Christ of the Gospel of Mark (who claims the forsakenness of God on the cross): the answer is synthesis! Or, perhaps, sublation. To claim an excellent grasp on synthesis in Barth’s works, check these out and read ’em up:

Hauerwas’ work on Barth’s theology and witness as a part of the Gifford Lectures
A good collection of scholars commenting on everything from Barth and the Trinity, to Chalcedon, to salvation and his politics

At its most basic, Hegelian dialectical theory involves three parts: the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. The thesis gives rise to the antithesis, and tension or krisis is created between the two. Out of the tension emerges the synthesis, usually being a product that is better than the thesis and antithesis, though not always. In the sense that the synthesis is a sublation, it becomes a product that negates either the thesis or the antithesis, suggesting that one must “win out” over and against the other. If God is unknowable, and yet we are called to know and find revelation in God, then the synthesis – using Barth’s Church Dogmatics – must be Christ.

A problem for me emerges, however, when I think about this process in light of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity, being a doctrine formalized at Chalcedon along with The Nicene Creed, is something that Barth uses, and trinitarian language is found in his writings. Yet, how does one place the three personae of the Trinity into a dialectic of krisis, or tension? We often view the identity of the Trinity in this way:

Augustinian in nature, our profession that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit hold their unique and important distinctions has been a part of the Christian faith for centuries.

Who (or what), then, are the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis as the Trinity relates to humanity (remembering that Christ unites the divine and human, and reverses the obliteration of sinners(humanity), exchanging this for divine, gracious election)? It might look a little something like this:

Thesis: God, 1st Person Creator, Divinity | Antithesis: Humanity, Holy Spirit, 3rd Person | Synthesis: Christ, 2nd Person

This cannot be understood in the traditional Hegelian sense that the synthesis emerges by the thesis defeating the antithesis (or the other way around). Indeed, God does not defeat humanity to reach incarnation in Jesus – it’s quite the opposite. God/1st person/Creator protects the antithesis from defeat through the synthesis. It reminds me a great deal of Genesis 15:

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’*3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord *reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.13Then the Lord * said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years;14but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions.15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’

God ensures Abram that, even though humanity will break the covenant, they will not be the ones to answer for the break. God would maintain the covenant. Indeed, as the Hebrew Bible and New Testament unfold, we see that this remains true. The covenant between the Divine and the human is kept, and is understood now through the person of Christ.

The incarnation – the “inthefleshness” of Jesus – is at the heart of Barth’s Dogmatics. I daresay it is at the heart of some of my confusion. The disciples in John 6 feel the same way: “This is a difficult teaching; who can accept it?” John 6:60. However, I think it drives us to seek out the sometimes paradoxical idioms about Christ found in the New Testament and to wrestle with the divinity and humanity of one being – to wrestle in the krisis of the Trinity.

“I do choose,” says the God of the Trinity. Like the leper we, too, have recieved God’s “Yes” spoken outside of time and beyond the nexus of the world.

 

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