Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Blogging with Barth: CD 2.2 §38.1 "The Sovereignty of the Divine Decision" pp. 631-661

Check here for previous posts in the "Blogging with Barth" series or check here for a detailed reading schedule for the Church Dogmatics with links to the respective posts I've written to accompany each day's reading.

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §38 states: "As God is gracious to us in Jesus Christ, His command is the sovereign, definite and good decision concerning the character of our actions—the decision from which we derive, under which we stand and to which we continually move."

In paragraph §38 ("The Command as the Decision of God") and subsection §38.1 ("The Sovereignty of the Divine Decision"), Barth begins by reminding us that the command of God is more than can be described just in terms of the idea of a claim. It is of course the decision of God. In issuing this command, we are reminded that the claim on our whole being comes to us graciously in the Jesus Christ.
That God is gracious to us in Jesus Christ is the divine decision about our whole being, what we do and do not do. This is the will of God for us. In virtue of this will He has taken the initiative from all eternity and in the heart of time, making Himself responsible for our relationship to Him and participation in His glory. This is His will for us at every moment of our lives. The divine command is the witness to this will. It requires our obedience, i.e., that we should live in this surrender to God which He both wills and effects. It requires the witness of our will and actions as the praise of His great love (632).
We have been, are and will be observed and weighed. This is established by the fact that God is gracious to us in Jesus Christ. This fact is the starting-point of all the ways and works of God and our own starting-point. Because this is God’s decision for us, it is also God’s decision concerning us—the primal decision to which all our own decisions are subjected. And the command of God, which is the witness to His grace, is as such a witness to the infallible criterion whether we walk in light or darkness, whether we stand or fall. Because God wills to have us as His own, and already has us in virtue of His command, He also knows how He will have us and already has us. As He is our Lord by reason of His command, He is also the Law by which we stand or fall (633).
The command of God is a sovereign decision upon us. Of course, this sovereignty does not eliminate our own human decisions. There is still freedom in our own decisions. But what this means is that even our own free decisions relate back the sovereign divine decision of the command of God.
It is, therefore, a genuinely serious and relevant question which faces us when, in the light of the presence of the divine command, we are confronted by the fact that our life consists in a continuous series of decisions which we have to make and execute. This is why we have necessarily to examine the direction of our way both as a whole and in its particular turns and sections, to scrutinise the nature of the choice which is now before us in its integral connexion with past and future choices. How will it be with us in this choice of ours, if, as we make it, God too will choose, deciding the character of our choice, whether it is good or bad, obedience or disobedience? The command is there. It is always according to its relationship to this that our choice will be good or bad, that we shall be obedient or disobedient. God will decide this. He has decided it from all eternity, and at the heart of time, in the person of Jesus Christ (634).
To be sure, the decision of God is always as superior to ours—whatever this may be—as eternity is to time, as His holy and righteous knowing and willing is to our sinful and perverse willing and knowing. To be sure, we will not be our own judges when we make our decision, but will stand under the judgment of God, executing it ourselves. And the same is true of the self-examination in which we approach our next decision. But again and again, it is to our own free decisions that the divine decision about good and evil refers. It is they as such which are pleasing or displeasing to God, which are a praising or blaspheming of His love, and by which we ourselves are the executors of this divine decision (635).
In a small print section on pp. 636-641, Barth visits an interesting discussion on the NT group of words δόκιμος, δοκιμή, δοκιμάζειν (approved, provenness, to prove) as he discusses the relationship between our responsibility towards the divine decision and the command of God. In the end, he concludes that the word "responsibility" best sums up this relationship.
It is the idea of responsibility which gives us the most exact definition of the human situation in face of the absolute transcendence of the divine judgment. We live in responsibility, which means that our being and willing, what we do and what we do not do, is a continuous answer to the Word of God spoken to us as a command. It takes place always in a relationship to the norm which confronts and transcends us in the divine command. It is continually subject to an enquiry concerning its correspondence with this norm. It is always an answer to this enquiry. Man does not belong to himself. He does not exist in a vacuum. He is not given over to the caprice of an alien power, nor to his own self-will. He may or may not know and will it, but because Jesus Christ as very God and very man is the beginning of all the ways and works of God, man is inseparably linked with God and confronted by Him (641).
As Barth contends, the idea of responsibility, rightly understood, is known only to Christian ethics (642). And the idea of responsibility shows us what is meant by moral reflection (643). It is the examination of what we are and will and do and do not do, of the mutual relationship between the command of God and our existence (643).

In a longish section, Barth explores the question: what ought we to do? Each part of the phrase, what, ought, we, to do provides a point for analysis for Barth as he explores our responsibility. At the end of the section, Barth reminds us that this question emerges from Acts 2:37ff. There, in its original context, it was a question directed to Peter and the other apostles by those who heard Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost. He reminds us that taking responsibility is really about making sure that we are asking God the question what ought we to do?
It is as well to remind ourselves, at the conclusion of this analysis, that the question: What ought we to do?, is the question which was put to Peter and the other apostles (Ac. 2:37f.) by those who heard Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. This means that, although we ourselves have to ask it, we must not ask it of ourselves. We must ask it of God, of the God who has revealed Himself to us and has given us the witnesses of His revelation. It is a question which is put by Holy Scripture, and therefore we must put it to Holy Scripture as the witness to God’s revelation. That the sovereign decision of God confronts us and our decisions objectively in Jesus Christ is, as we have seen, the supreme criterion of all ethical reflection. But Jesus Christ cannot be separated from His apostles, from the whole witness which underlies the community of God in the form of Israel, and then of the Christian Church. We hear Him as we hear His witnesses. It is in their testimony that the divine command is always to be sought and will always be found as the sovereign divine decision. We must not be surprised, then, if—in very different forms—we are always given what is in fact the one answer: “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (661).