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Jesus Christ, election and nature: revising Barth during the ecological crisis

  • Adrian Langdon (a1)


Theologians seeking to respond to the ecological crisis seldom turn to the theology of Karl Barth as a resource. In fact, some suggest that his doctrine of God is too monarchical and leads to unnecessary hierarchies between God and humans, or between humans and the rest of nature. This article counters this trend and begins a dialogue with Barth, especially on the place of non-human nature in his thought. While agreeing with the substance of Barth's theology, it is argued a number of critical additions and revisions are appropriate, especially concerning his doctrine of election. The article first briefly outlines Barth's doctrine of election and then, second, examines various New Testament passages on election and non-human nature. This second section will examine the prologue of John's Gospel, Colossians 1:15–20 and Romans 8:18–23. As key texts in Barth's exposition, it will be noted how he passes over important connections between election and nature found in them. Guided by the green exegesis of Richard Bauckham, it will be argued that nature is not merely the stage for the drama between God and humanity but that it is also an object of God's election and thereby participates in reconciliation and redemption. The third part of the article suggests various points of commensurability, correction and addition to Barth's theology arising from the biblical material examined. This includes points concerning theological epistemology, the atonement, anthropology and the theology of nature. For example, Romans 8 suggests that creation groans in anticipation of redemption. Barth's view of the cross, especially the Son's taking up of human suffering, is extended to suggest that the cross is God's way of identifying with the suffering of nature and its anticipation of redemption, and not just human sin and salvation. The most important revision, however, is to be made to Barth's doctrine of election. It may be summarised as follows: in Jesus Christ, God elects the Christian community and individuals for salvation within the community of creation. The article concludes by suggesting areas of dialogue with other types of ecotheology, especially ecofeminist forms.



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1 ‘Creation, Covenant and Glory: A Conversation on Karl Barth's Doctrine of Creation’, in History and the Triune God: Contributions of Trinitarian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1991), p. 142.

2 Ibid., p. 130.

3 On the community of creation biblically understood, see Bauckham, Richard, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), esp. pp. 64ff. The concept of the community of creation has the advantage of highlighting the reciprocal relation and interdependence between humanity and the rest of nature. As Willis Jenkins demonstrates, both secular and religious environmentalism has tended towards focusing on the value of nature in and of itself, human agency in relation to nature, or how human personhood is ecologically dependent: Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (New York: OUP, 2008), pp. 31–111. All of these approaches have strengths and weaknesses and the idea of the community of creation could be developed in dialogue with these tendencies.

4 While this article focuses on the doctrine of election, the status of non-human nature, especially in relation to ecological concerns, deserves to be examined in Barth's doctrines of creation and reconciliation as well. See e.g. Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace, pp. 153 ff. This paper differs from Jenkins in that I am seeking to ground the positive findings in Barth's doctrines of creation and reconciliation more securely in a revised doctrine of election, which precedes both for Barth.

5 For Barth's own account of the congress see CD II/2, pp. 188–92. Bruce McCormack correctly argues that the revised doctrine of election would decisively shape the rest of his theology: Barth's Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology (New York: OUP, 1995), pp. 453–63. We begin to see the effects of this christocentric turn even in CD II/1 when Barth defines God's being as actus purus et particularis. God's being is defined as act and event because God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is event and act. But antecedent to this revelation, God's triune being is living, active and willing in itself (II/1, pp. 257–72; see McCormack, Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology, pp. 61–3 as well).

6 He develops the metaphor of nature as theatrum gloriae Dei in CD III/1, pp. 44–9.

7 The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 151.

8 Ibid., p. 152.

9 My exegesis of these passages in indebted to Bauckham, Bible and Ecology. For helpful discussions of the Bible and ecology, besides Bauckham, see Davis, Ellen, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: CUP, 2009) and Middleton, Richard, A New Heaven and a New Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2014).

10 As noted by van Driel, , Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (New York: OUP, 2008), pp. 6772.

11 These include Eph 1:4, 1:11, and 3:11; Rom 8:29ff.; and Col 1:15; John 1:3ff., Heb 1:2ff.; 1 Peter 1:20; and Rev 13:8.

12 These include John 13:18, 15:16 and 15:19.

13 Unless otherwise noted, I am using the NRSV translation.

14 McCormack, , ‘Grace and Being’, in Webster, John (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge: CUP, 2000), pp. 94–5.

15 Bauckham, Bible and Ecology, p. 162.

16 The following is dependent on Bauckham, Bible and Ecology, pp. 151–61.

17 But we cannot draw too sharp a distinction between the pre-existent and incarnate Christ, for ‘the pre-existent Christ was already destined to be the one who would make God visibly present in his world by entering creaturely existence as Jesus. . . . Therefore the hymn is not an invitation to think of a cosmic Christ who is “bigger that Jesus” but to recognize the universal significance precisely of Jesus Christ, the man in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Bauckham, Bible and Ecology, p. 153). Such a reading of this hymn may fulfil Barth's desire to root election, and all of God's works, in Christ and to ensure an understanding of the logos asarkos as incarnandus.

18 Bible and Ecology, p. 155.

19 CD II/2, pp. 202–5, 213–33, 240–59, and 267–305.

20 There is only mention in passing of the groaning of creation when Barth discusses the rejection of the individual (II/2, p. 494).

21 Richard Bauckham, however, suggests an alternative background. He argues that the passage is best understood in light of what he calls the mourning texts of creation found in the Israelite prophets. In the Romans passage he notes that what is usually translated the ‘groaning in labour pains’ of all creation is actually two verbs: sustenazein and sunodinei. The first verb literally means ‘to groan together’ or ‘to groan with’, and could easily be translated as mourn. See Bible and Ecology, pp. 92ff.

22 One of Oliver Crisp's concerns with Barth's doctrine of creation is that it lacks a notion of ultimate ‘divine self-glorification’: ‘Karl Barth on Creation’, in Sung Wook Chung (ed.), Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 94. If this passage is any indication, Barth would have eventually developed a form of self-glorification in relation to all of creation. One might also mention Barth's discussion of the ‘lights of creation’ in CD IV/3, esp. pp. 163–4.

23 It is unclear, however, what exactly Barth means by eternal preservation, whether he is including the eschatological consummation or just the preservation of things in God's life prior to the eschaton. While there are indications that this passages includes eschatology (as van Driel reads it, Incarnation Anyway, pp. 113–14), some suggest that Barth is here only speaking of the preservation of creatures in the times of creation and reconciliation and not the final resurrection; see e.g. Bromiley, GeoffreyIntroduction to the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 144.

24 The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 158. Or, as Thomas Torrance asks, ‘But why did he not offer an account of creation from a fully overarching trinitarian perspective, as was surely demanded by his doctrine of God? What then becomes of Barth's claim that the doctrine of the Trinity must be allowed to govern all our understanding of God's interaction with us in creation and redemption?’ Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 132.

25 For a fuller exposition of the resurrection in Barth's theology see Dawson, Dale, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), who convincingly argues that the resurrection for Barth is the unveiling of Jesus Christ as reconciler and Son of God to believers. The resurrection spans functions in epistemology, christology and anthropology.

26 Barth comes close to such a view in the section ‘The Light of Life’ in CD IV/3. There he affirms that in view of the revelation arising from Christ's resurrection the true source of the lights of creation is identified and that as they shine they glorify God. But Barth's focus there is Ps 19 and not Roms 8, so he does not affirm that creation suffers and is in need of redemption.

27 McCormack, Bruce, ‘Divine Impassibility or Simply Divine Constancy? Implications of Karl Barth's Later Christology for Debates over Impassibility’, in Keating, James and White, Thomas Joseph (eds), Divine Impassibility and the Mystery of Human Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), pp. 150–86. See the full article for the relation of this to patristic and Reformation perspectives, including how Barth avoids various heresies.

28 Bible and Ecology, p. 88.

29 This connection is often noted in religious environmentalism; see Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace, pp. 93ff.

30 Epistemologically, for Barth knowledge of the creator does not occur by reflecting on the creature or creation, but through God's revelation in Jesus Christ. Or, ontologically, the axiom suggests that creation and covenant are two distinct though related works. The formula also protects a Christian doctrine of creation from the twofold problem of a godless world and a worldless God. See Busch, Eberhard, The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 180ff.

31 If election refers to God's primal and eternal self-determination which shapes all of his temporal and external works ad extra, then perhaps Barth's basic goals can be secured by providing a different axiom along the following lines: election is the internal basis of the external works of creation, reconciliation and redemption. In this formula internal refers to God's eternal plans and determination, while external refers to his creating and salvific acts.



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