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Professor Barr and Jones

Further Exchange between Professor Barr and Jones

 

Posted 11/3/03

 

Barr: October 6

Many thanks for your thoughtful and probing response to my review of your excellent systematics. Because I too, with you, am in a continuing quest of better understanding of the gospel, I want to offer some thoughts after reading your response.

You are certainly right that trying to understand Jesus' cry to God from the cross is very difficult and that our language about this "lacks a certain precision." Nonetheless, we have to keep trying and hopefully, with God's guidance, try to understand more deeply. Clearly what happens here is significant for understanding the trinitarian relations within God's own being and in God's relation to Jesus and to the world. A "presence in absence"--does that mean only the distinction between the Father and the Son, and thus ruling out patripassianism, such that it is the Son, not the Father, who is crucified (even though the Father suffers the Son on the cross)? Or does it mean something stronger--that the Father, though not on the cross, nevertheless shares the suffering of the Son. Some faint analogy to this might be the way very close friends share the suffering of each other, or this between spouses who deeply love each other. But, of course, the relation of the Father and the Son is even closer than this. But is this rightly described as a "presence in absence"? That seems to suggest a not being there. But that doesn't seem to be what you mean. From your response I gather that what you mean is something like: the Father is not simply identical with the Son but is another, distinct (not distant--even if it seems that way to the dying Jesus, for the Father has promised and manifested in Jesus' baptism and transfiguration that the relation between them is immediate). It seems to me the word "absence" does not convey clearly what you seem to mean here, nor what should be said about this puzzling cry.

I want to address your point about baptism. But to do so, I feel the need to back up a bit and probe into your view of the relation of divine and human action more broadly. Christologically understood, as I see it, God's grace includes, evokes, empowers, and guides human life and activity--as the presence of God in Christ includes, evokes, sustains, and guides Jesus' humanity. Certainly there is what the ancients called a hypostatic union of these in him, which is not true of us, except as (by God's grace) we are embraced by him and made one with him. Still, God's grace through the work of the Holy Spirit is not only an action upon us, an exterior gift given to us (although it is also that), but it is also God's action with us opening us to receive God's gift and enabling us to live in its power. Now, this brings us to a consideration of baptism. I agree that the "public yes-saying and promise-making of the baptizee" is necessary. But it also needs to be made clear that this is not just a self-initiated and executed action on the part of the baptizee to God's gift in Christ extra nos; but rather an act of confession and commitment of the baptizee in and by the power of God's grace. I think part of difficulty of articulating this clearly is that we seem unable to let go of a notion of grace and human freedom as competitive rather than seeing the latter as embraced by and empowered by the former (and prior).

That is why in my review I raised some question about your suggestion of "relative independence" of the human will in relation to the grace and action of God. It seems to me this suggests the idea of a competitive relation. When it is actually the "breath," power, grace of God that gives us life, sustains our lives, seeks to guide our lives, and that empowers our response of faith and commitment to Christ concretely received and made in baptism.

Finally, (no pun intended) some thoughts on your response to Christian hope. Your confident assertion of God's final salvation of all does have good theological and christological grounds, and you rightly point those out. But I think we should not lose sight of that this is and remains God's promise, the goal toward which God leads us and toward which we press on in faith. As you yourself say, the God Christian faith proclaims is the living God, whose relation to us is always one of free grace. That does not make God's promise nor our hope uncertain, problematic, a dark mystery; nor, on the other hand, does it put into our hands an insurance policy that we can put in our files. With Luther we cling to this hope in faith--in faith in God's faithfulness and completely trustworthy love. But this love is trustworthy. And it seems to me only in continuing trust and hope do we hold firm to the promise God has given us in the resurrection of Christ.

Well, enough for now. Let's keep this conversation going.


Barr: October 7

You are going to get tired of me cluttering your e-mail box with messages. But in the light of a new day, some of the things I said in my response to you seem to me way off base. For instance, my reference to the hypostatic union has to do, of course, with the relation of divine and human natures in Christ, not with the relation of the Father and the Son. My mind must have slipped a cog or two there! Anyway, the point I wanted to make (and didn't make well) was the deep intimacy and sharing of suffering of the Father with (and perichoretically in) the Son on the cross and in the cry. Maybe the closest human analogy here is David's grief over the death of Absalom (II Samuel 18:33). The Father does not him/herself hang on the cross (otherwise Altizer would be right: God died--the whole of God--on the cross), but God the Father is so intimately united with the Son that the Father is deeply affected (maybe the older evangelical way of putting this is even closer the mark: the Father's heart is torn in the death of the Son). And if Paul is right about the Spirit interceding in prayer, then we cannot avoid saying that God the Holy Spirit is also involved in this cry and suffering, even though not explicitly mentioned in the biblical text.

Well, enough for now. All the best.


Joe: October 8

Thanks for the probing critique.

First, I detected in your review a tendency to be concerned that if the Father is not "present" in Jesus on the cross, then Jesus' divinity is called into question, as though the presence of the Father is the source of Jesus' divinity. I know the traditions sometimes talked this way, but once a full-orbed trinitarianism is launched then we can talk differently about incarnation and the divinity of Jesus. So, when I talk about the cross and the Father's peculiar absence, I am saying that in the confidence that Jesus is the divine Son going to the cross and human death. I do not need the Father 'there' in order to have divinity there. But I am indeed a patripassianist insofar as the Father suffers with the Son, though not as the Son, and even suffers the depths of brutality that are afflicting the Son. But I can only say these things after getting the church's theology free of the immutability and the impassibility of God.

Second, as for human freedom and divine action, I have tracked this all over the text. Look again at pp. 227-228 on divine presence, the long and difficult, and maybe the most obscure of my discussions in the text, on God's action in the world at pp. 265-290, the various discussions of the grammar of human freedom at pp. 315-317, 320-321, 328, 528-536. I labor so hard, perhaps unsuccessfully, to deny precisely your charge that I construe the divine and human action as a zero sum situation. Read me again.

Third, my concern about baptism is not how God's action and human action are joined. It is simply the issue of how the church describes for itself what the practice of baptism is theologically. My contention is that the practice's grammar varies widely as to whether or not the practice necessarily involves the action of the baptizee. So, have we said all that needs to be said if we simply describe baptism as an 'action of the church' in which the grace of God is declared, to which the action of the person being baptized is theologically irrelevant? The act of baptizing is, according to that view, complete in itself without any reference to the consent or action of the one being baptized. From which it seems to follow that if it is irrelevant whether the baptizee consents or confesses in the event of baptism, then let us go out and symbolically baptize all of New York, or any other geographic group of folk: they need to have the grace of God declared to them.

Thanks for your searching remarks.


Bill: October 21

Many thanks for your continuing theological conversation via e-mail of some of the issues dealt with in your systematics. I have re-read the passages to which you referred me and think (hope) I have a better grasp of your argument (aided by your comments in your last e-mail to me).

First, let me say a few things concerning the relation of the Father and the Son in Jesus' suffering and death (climactically, but not only on the cross). Certainly, the Father does not have to be there in order for divinity to be present in Jesus' suffering (the Son is homoousios with the Father and therefore fully divine). And I too am a patripassianist in holding that the Father shares the suffering of the Son. But I would go further than that "the Father suffers with the Son," as you wrote; I would want to say that while it is the Son, and not the Father, who is incarnate and suffering, the Father not only is an empathetic on-looker, as it were, but also suffers in the Son's suffering (by virtue of the perichoretic interweaving, mutual involvement/ participation of the persons in the divine life/subject). Or, to put this in less technical terms, that the Father is so closely/ deeply involved in the life of the Son (though not identical, as the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and elsewhere shows) that the Father immediately "knows" (in the biblical sense) the suffering of the Son, and knows this in the Spirit. But there is still much here I'm not able to comprehend, and so I keep pressing and praying for understanding.

Let me turn now to the issue of divine action and human freedom. You have indeed obviously wrestled long and hard with this matter, and much you say concerning it sounds right and good to me. But I still detect what seems to me an inconsistency in the sections you asked me to re-read. First of all, though, I have to say that your discussion of this matter strikes me as more of a philosophical meditation than as christological analysis, although you make the claim that "Jesus Christ is the definitive self-revelation of God and that we are to think from this revelation. (p.269)." You make the point well that God (not only as Creator and Sustainer, but also as Redeemer and Perfecter) acts not only on the world, but also with and within it. Christologically, this has to be 'read off' or seen from the perspective of God's action in Christ and presence in the world in the Spirit. All of this you discuss (philosophically) on pp. 265-69 and elsewhere. But then, at the bottom of p. 269 you assert that "the creature's relative independence of God ... is a precondition of the creature being one who might respond to God in fellowship." What is this "relative independence"? Is it some nook or cranny in which the creature stands or her/his own two feet, "independently" of God, acts in the creature's own power, according to the creature's own aims? How does that fit with a God whose presence and action in the world is the sole source, power, and purpose of life/creation? More specifically how does it fit with the revelation of God in Christ, whose entire life from conception, birth, to death and resurrection ad infinitum is dedicated to, lived in the power of, and guided by God's love and grace? Jesus certainly (in his humanity) relates voluntarily to God, prays to God, pleads with God--but is that a 'relative independence' of/from God? I hardly think so. Jesus' freedom as ours should be is "obedience to", I would rather say, faithfulness to God whose love is manifested to, in, and through him (in his ministry as well as in his death and resurrection).

Well, finally, a few thoughts on baptism. I am with you in maintaining that the personal confession, commitment, and struggle for faithfulness is essential to baptism. But I also think that all too often believer's baptists position has been presented as though the free response of the recipient was additional or consequential to the grace of God given us in baptism, rather than this response being seen and presented as part of the gift of God in baptism. Because we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into his humanity as well as into the divine presence and promise. Thus, the response of faith is a living participation in, witness to what God has done to us and in us in Christ. This seems to me to call for a revision in both pedobaptist’s and believer's baptist's positions and a reconstruction of the meaning and purpose of baptism.

Enough for now. Look forward to your response and probing further on these and other issues.


Joe: October 23

Your remarks really baffle me. It strikes me that you are picking around trying to find something to object you without acknowledging what I have written. But you are provocative in your remarks, for which I am grateful.

First, the locution "empathetic onlooker" is your language, not mine. I have nowhere characterized the Father's relation to the Christ on the cross in those terms. Further, I have affirmed throughout the systematic that there is a perichoretic interaction among the persons of the Trinity, and this applies to the cross and Christ's suffering. When I say the Father is 'absent' from the cross, I do not mean that he is 'unrelated' to the suffering of the cross, and I do say he is present as "will": the Son is doing the will of the Father in going to the cross. Yes, the Father does suffer in the Son's suffering and so does the Spirit. I really do not see why you think I cannot say what you say about the Father suffering in the Son's suffering.

Second, I am curious about your characterizing what I say about the action of God in the world as Creator and Providential Governor as "philosophical" as distinct from "christological." As for the "relative independence" of the creature, I say clearly what I mean on pages 269-70. I refuse to say the creature is 'absolutely dependent' on God because that typically means that the creature is causally determined in every respect by the causal power of God. The concept of the creature's relative independence is essential to my critique of classical theism which interprets the relation between God and the world in such a causally determined fashion When I say God self-determines Godself to be limited by the world God creates and to be affected by the world, I am simply saying that God does grant the creature power to act and even to reject God. See my discussion of the permitting will of God in that same section. But note, I do not say that the creature is in some "nook or cranny" self-creating. How to say this is why I undertake the laborious reconstruction of the concept of the will of God. And I will grant that pages 264-76 are the most difficult part of my systematic discussions, and I too am worried that I might have said things more clearly. But that is my best shot at this point in time.

Third, with regard to Jesus' own life, I believe my account of the God/world relationship is made intelligible by his life and makes his life intelligible. See further my account of Jesus as the True Human Being on pages 336-43.

Fourth, I find your remarks about baptism curious in the extreme. I have been exceptionally careful to lay out a full-orbed position and have decisively avoided characterizing 'believer's baptism' in the terms you suggest. I need you to be more precise in critiquing what I actually say about baptism.

Thanks for taking the time to raise these interesting questions.


Bill: October 24

I can't figure out whether we are saying the same thing (or pretty much the same thing) in different words/ways, or whether there is a basic issue of difference/disagreement between us. Let me say it straight out, the notion of a "relative independence" of (at least) the human creature in relation to God (as revealed definitively in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit) seems to me a pernicious and unneeded idea. I'm with you in rejecting a divine determinism (even Calvin was concerned to distinguish clearly his doctrine of predestination from determinism) and agreeing that the response of faith (or, incredibly, rejection of God) is voluntary. But, looking at the revelation of the human as well as the divine in Christ, I do not see how this allows for a "relative independence" of the human. The power of God, as the power of God's love and grace (and also grace-filled judgment), is certainly not a power of domination and coercion (as in all types of determinism and some notions of God's omnipotence and omni-causality), but is rather the power demonstrated in God's care for and action toward and in the world in Christ. To highlight this is what seems to me needed to break us free from the causal determinism of "classical theism." But to emphasize and interpret God's power as manifested in Christ is also to say that this includes and empowers human being. This is human freedom, and it is this, as I see it, that gives the human being/person "the creaturely power to act and (hard as it is to comprehend) even to reject God." But this human freedom and ability is in no wise independent of God, but is itself created, sustained, redeemed, and perfected) by God (in Christ, and through the Spirit, in us). It is in Christ (and thus in the grace and power of God) that we live and are free---not somehow over against or independent of God.

Surely, Joe, this is not a matter of "picking around trying to fine something to object to," but a serious theological issue. That is why I tried to press you on how you understand "relative" and "independence"--whether this means simply voluntary, or a standing apart from and over against God.

I'm sorry that my remarks re: baptism seemed "curious in the extreme." Really, I was just trying to indicate the consequences that seem to me to flow from the issue of divine power and human freedom I discuss above.

Concerning the perichoretic interaction (and interparticipation) of the members of the Trinity, particularly in Jesus' suffering and death, I don't think I grasp clearly your distinction between "present as will," but absent as person. Can a person and that person's will be separated, such that one could be present while the other is absent? And, more particularly, can Jesus' doing the will of God, more precisely the will of the Father, be separated from the presence (perichoretically) of the Father? Not according to the Gospel of John; and is a separation of person and will of the Father really possible even in the synoptics? Certainly, Jesus prays to God (the Father), but he prays in the fullness of his being, as one filled with the divine spirit and power, healing and forgiving, creative and re-creative of life. I just do not see how the power and person of the Father are absent here as Jesus' "food and drink" is the doing of the Father's will.

Well, enough for now.


Joe: October 27

A final try at clarity and communication in appreciation of your splendid review and your obvious willingness to engage some of my theological reflections. However, I do think you have attached meanings to my words that are not to be found in what I have actually written. You may not like the terms I use, but you must not simply import to them meanings I have not given them. I do, however, need to be reminded when my use and explanation of terms is either unclear or unhelpful.

First, take the locution "relative independence" pertaining to the creature. I first introduce this concept on pp. 253-54 and say explicitly what I mean by it. It is clear that I deny that it means any of the meanings you have imputed to it. Look again: I affirm that it does not mean that the creature is not "unconditionally dependent" on God for its utter actuality. The relative independence bears on the theological fact that the creature is 'other' than God and has been given by God powers of actions. God creates the creature and endows the creature with powers of action, including the power to rebel against God. I do not know how I could say these things more clearly. So do not impute to my concept meanings I have explicitly denied. You may find that I am inconsistent even on my own terms, and if you can find that, I will surely listen and try to respond.

Second, without denying any of the perichoretic interactions between Father and Son, I have used the word "absent" to highlight two points: 1) the experience of Jesus of being forsaken by the Father on the cross; and 2) the Father was not the one being crucified. Nevertheless, Jesus is doing the will of the Father in not fleeing the cross. The Father was present as will, in a way similar to my carrying out a directive from my father even though my father is not physically present in my obedient actions. The Son feels the absence of the Father even as he does the Father's will. Doesn't this sense resonate with our experiences of absence and presence and doing the will of another? I am trying to lay my language on that sense of the Son that the Father is present as the One who is absent and yet as also as the One who sends the Son the cross. Don't you know powerful others in your life who are present to you even in their absence and present as will for you and how you live? I have a host of saints who still haunt my life even in their absence.

I also think you have a tendency to let the perichoresis of the modes of God's life overwhelm the distinctiveness of the modes. So, we have to talk with care about how the various modes of God's Life are present and not present in the terrifying crucifixion of Jesus. I worry that you interpret my use of "absent" here as though the Father is aloof and unconcerned about the Son's brutal death.

Third, I am surprised at our apparent murkiness about baptism. I do not think there is a clearer statement of the issues, as I see them, to be found anywhere else. I will just have to let it stand as is. But I am puzzled when you think I have neglected God's action in the event itself. As for human freedom and divine action, I would ask you to look again at my account of the grammar of freedom on pp. 528-36. I simply do not see where my account of baptism is inadequate to the grace and power of God and the intentional yes-saying of the baptizee to that grace and power.

It has been stimulating for me to confront your questions and criticisms. Perhaps I could have been clearer in my writings. I have aimed in the book at being at least understandable to persons who nevertheless substantively disagree with me. So, in the end, I am not sure just where you and I have any substantively disagreements. Thanks.


Barr: October 29


In light of your most recent response, and after reading once again your discussion of Christian freedom (and, in the light of the revelation of the nature of God's power and our lives in response to God in Jesus Christ generally), it seems to me now that we are largely in agreement, and that the differences I have been wrestling with are for the most part different preferences of ways of stating the matter. You are exactly right when you say (on p. 533) that the decision for God and neighbor in Christ is "most truly her/our decision, but her/our decision empowered in and by the Spirit--not by some freewheeling autonomous self." I still think the term "relative independence" is a misleading way of making this point; but certainly your discussion does seek to clarify and delimit what you mean by this. It seems to me, though, it easily conjures just the notion of an autonomous self that you rule out in the quote above. But, be that as it may.

Thanks, Joe, for taking time and thought for this extended conversation on some of the points in your fine work. Let's do keep in touch and ruminate further on these and other theological matters as the Spirit moves us.