What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Barth

Love & Justice (2) – Brunner, “The Divine Imperative”

In The Divine Imperative Emil Brunner describes the relationship between the demands of agape and those of justice (i.e. the “orders”) in, what Paul Ramsey calls, characteristically “dualistic” terms.[1] There are, according to Brunner, within existence as we know it, certain “created orders” (e.g. community, family, state, etc.) that form the presupposition for our daily lives as human beings. We experience these created orders as  “given,” and this, I believe, in two ways.

First they are “given” in that they precede us and are not consciously created by us; they are a natural product of human reason ordering human relations. In this first sense they are distinguished by Brunner as a separate realm from the realm of faith. They are the realm of “office,” as opposed to the realm of the “personal.” The former is the realm of justice, the latter the realm of love. But the former exists for the sake of the latter, which is its telos. Were it not for the natural orders of creation, which prevent human society from devolving into chaos, there would be no opportunity to show love to our neighbors: there is no love in the state of nature. But the “orders of creation” are also given to us by God, as part of his preservation of creation. While deeply tainted by sin, the orders of creation serve God’s purposes.

How are we to understand these orders of creation? At times it seems as if Brunner is advocating a fundamentally conservative view towards whatever social institutions happen to exist—so long as order is upheld, we must “first affirm” God’s providence through them. Such a view seems to leave itself open the worst type of conservatism and quietism—a perfect storm of Lutheran “two spheres” and Catholic “natural law” at their worst. This is the aspect of Brunner’s theology that provoked Karl Barth’s famous “Nein!” Of course, Brunner is too good of a theologian to advocate this strong of a view of the orders of creation without simultaneously stressing the challenge that the gospel presents to the existing orders. Nevertheless, Brunner does say that the Christian’s first attitude toward the orders is affirmation, which can only be tempered later by protest and reform.

One problem with the “two-sphere” view that separates the “official” realm from the “personal” realm is that it undercuts the second move in the dialectic that Brunner is trying to uphold between affirmation and protest. Because the “orders” form the “vessel,” or institutional structure of society, which can only be “filled” with the content of love, it becomes very difficult to push against institutional norms that are fundamentally un-loving. One sees this, especially, in Brunner’s discussion of “Reasons of State” (Staatraison). Because the “official” realm is governed by human reason, and not by love, the state has its own “autonomy” that “cannot be governed and ought not be governed in accordance with the law of love” (462). While Brunner does not see this autonomy as absolute, it is difficult to see in what way love could possible set limits on the “reasons of state.” The state needs power to preserve order, but power comes (only?) through unjust means. According to Brunner, it is “for love’s sake” that men enter the realm of the state to preserve order, but how can one do something fundamentally unloving for loves sake? This paradox, I believe, comes close to irresolvable contradiction.

There may be a better way to think about the “orders of creation” that is also present in Brunner’s thought. In the Divine Imperative Brunner discusses the internal meaning and telos of the orders of creation. According to Brunner, the “orders of creation” exist ultimately for the sake of love. Through the lens of faith, the believer can come to see the orders as secular parables of the true community of agape. What they reveal to us is God’s intention to have us exist in mutual interdependence with one another, and therefore for one another. This more minimalist picture allows the orders to play a positive role, but not one that is entirely determined and regulated by autonomous reason. There is no autonomy to the orders as a separate sphere. Rather, the orders are seen as sinfully tainted attempts to order human relations in a just and loving manner. Insofar as they do so, they point forward to a fuller and deeper picture of human sociality—both with other humans and with God. Within this schema, however, they can and should be tempered by the Christian love ethic, which could work, in some sense, like leaven works through dough (Matthew 13:33).


[1] Ramsey, Nine Modern Moralists, 182.

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Jesus is the Victor…

“In the resurrection of Jesus Christ the claim is made, according to the New Testament, that God’s victory in man’s favour in the person if his Son has already been won. Easter is indeed the great pledge of our hope, but simultaneously this future is already present in the Easter message. It is the proclamation of a victory already won. The war is at an end–even though here and there troops are still shooting, because they have not heard anything yet about the capitulation. The game is won, even though the player can still play a few further moves. Actually he is already mated. The clock has run down, even though the pendulum still swings a few times this way and that. It is in the interim space that we are living: the old is past, behold it has all become new. The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse of death, are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor. A seriousness that would look back past this, like Lot’s wife, is not Christian seriousness. It may be burning behind–and truly it is burning–but we are invited and summoned to take seriously the victory of God’s glory in this man Jesus and to be joyful in Him. Then we may live in thankfulness and not in fear”

Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (122-123)

Its Official…

Joy of joys– I have officially become a real PTS student! Some may say, Travis, I thought you’ve been taking classes at seminary for a year and a half already. This is true, I have been taking classes and getting credit, but to this point I have really only been a psuedo-princetonian. But no more! Yesterday I received my first volume of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (II/2). I look forward to reading it so that I can keep up with conversations here instead of making it all up as I go.

ps. this blog post is partially* tongue-in-cheek.