Augustine, Barth, Time, Eternity, Timelessness, Grace, Election, Human Agency: Small Matters

If God is outside of time, if God creates time as Augustine and the tradition contends—to one degree or another—then it would follow that some form of determinism is the way that God must relate to the world. That he has in-built into the world system a set of causal relations (the classical philosophers offer the categories here) wherein his timelessness is untouched and his world is conditioned by this sort of Divine touch. If Augustine’s doctrine of creation, which is what we are referring to, is the basis for understanding how creation operates vis-à-vis her Creator, then what we must be left with is a decretal God who is not personally active in creation, per se. In other words, if Augustine is correct, God’s relationship to the world is inactively active and must be encountered, even in the incarnation, only through the causal conditions dictated by a creation created under the conditions required to keep God timeless and creation ‘timeful.’

We will unpack this further as we engage with Colin Gunton’s treatment, and critique of Augustine on these points[1], and then attempt to constructively apply these insights (Gunton’s) into alignment with asking questions about human agency in the drama of creation; more particularly in the drama of redemption/salvation (as we end up referring to Barth’s theology). What you will notice, as we engage with Gunton, is his emphasis upon Pneumatology and understanding that as the personalist relief that Augustine’s doctrine of creation and God do not seemingly present.

In sum, Augustine tends to conclude that because creation is the act of the timeless God, then all God’s acts must be conceived to be timeless. The outcome for him is that God’s act of creation is understood to be instantaneous, and the days of Genesis demythologised away. He would not have liked ‘creationism’ either. However, if the divine creation of all things is simultaneous, it is difficult to take the order of time and space seriously as the good creation of God. Symptomatic is Augustine’s tendency to hold that the fact that activities and events take time is a sign of their fallenness, making a gnostic equation of materiality and fallennes dangerously close. ‘The discursiveness of thought and speech, the necessary division of discourse into a temporal succession of a multitude of parts, stands as a testimony of the Fall and thus to the separation of the rational soul from the perfect unity of God.’ If we are not to fall into that trap, we must do what Augustine failed to do and consider more closely what might be the shape of divine action in time. . . . We have seen that Augustine’s christology is centered on the eternal Son, and is neglectful, in this context, of the incarnation. But to understand the relation of the eternal God to time and history, that is precisely what we cannot neglect. Here is the life of a man which, as a narrated whole, from beginning to end, is also, and without diminishing its character as human, also divine act. This is a divine act, an act of the eternal God, which is, so to speak, stretched out in time.[2]

We see the dilemma as laid out by Gunton with reference to his construal of Augustine’s doctrine of creation. We also see that Gunton has set himself up to offer a solution to the ostensible lacuna offered by Augustine’s theology in regard to thinking time and eternity in relation to God’s interaction therein. Gunton notes the role that Christology and the incarnation ought to have for Augustine, but because of Augustine’s prior thinking on a timeless God, Gunton contends that Augustine does not have the necessary and categorical conceptual realities to allow him to arrive at the sort of fulsome biblical picture we ought to come to when thinking about God’s relationship to the world in time. As one reads further with Gunton he offers a nice quote from Barth which helps to correct this lack in Augustine. I’d like to share that section, but because of space-limitation I will bypass that and share Gunton’s own proposal as he seeks to help Augustine’s lackluster doctrine of creation as that relates to God and salvation.

Here is Gunton abridged once again:

The Spirit is the one who enables the creation to be truly spatial and temporal by relating it to God the Father through the one who took our time and space to himself in order to redeem it.

Determinism is accordingly best avoided not by reading time back into God but by focusing on the action of the Spirit who is the giver of freedom and the one who enables the created order to be itself: to become what it was created to be. And in that regard, a note of eschatology cannot be far behind. To speak of the work of the Spirit in relation to creation is to speak of the created order eschatologically: that is to say, to direct or thoughts to the end. And the point of this is that we cannot understand the beginning without some orientation to the end. Already on the seventh day of the Genesis account an eschatological dimension may be present, especially in the light of the fact that that day comes in later tradition to be treated as a type of the coming Kingdom of God. Creation in the beginning cannot finally be understood without its directedness to an end, because it has to be understood as God’s project, a project in which he freely and graciously involves us, his personal creation.[3]

Gunton’s response to Augustine’s dilemma—created because of Augustine’s idea on the relationship between time and eternity—is to emphasize hard the reality of the Holy Spirit and his ability to transect creation and un-creation through the mediated reality and singular person known as Jesus Christ. I’m still waiting for Gunton to fill his thoughts out further in later chapters.

Ultimately there is some level of mystery between how the timeless God becomes timeful in the incarnation; how the mediation between God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ does not become atomically ripped asunder as the twain meet. Gunton lays the burden of this union upon the creative and recreative activity of the Holy Spirit.

But what is more interesting to me is how Gunton’s emphasis upon the eschatological and the Holy Spirit implicates how human agency operates in a world where there is a hard ontological distinction between the Ultimacy of Creator God, and his creation. How does determinism get voided in such a world? Some, in fact many Calvinists celebrate the idea of determinism, and the attending decretal God (who relates to the world through decrees and the Aristotelian theory of causation therein). Gunton is attempting to offer a constructive proposal while at the same time remaining within the lines of the traditional-metaphysics that Augustine among others presents the church catholic; a tradition that seeks to understand a creation that is perfected by grace as that is presented through Christ by the Holy Spirit.

So we have the traditional-metaphysical, and then we have something like what Karl Barth offers. Some people, some Barthians, want to label Barth’s approach, in particular, and the modern approach in general as postmetaphysical. But of course this is mistaken (at least in Barth’s case). Getting beyond that, at a material level, Barth maintains that God’s grace is constantly contradicting ‘nature’; it is within this contradiction wherein new life is found precisely because God’s grace is God in Christ for us. Note George Hunsinger:

Human Cooperation Does Not Effect Salvation

Barth does not deny that human freedom “cooperates” with divine grace. He denies that this cooperation in any way effects salvation. Although grace makes human freedom possible as a mode of acting (modus agendi), that freedom is always a gift. It is always imparted to faith in the mode of receiving salvation (modus recipiendi), partaking of it (modus participandi), and bearing witness to it (modus testificandi),  never in the mode of effecting it (modus efficiendi). As imparted by the Spirit’s miraculous operation, human freedom is always the consequence of salvation, never its cause, and therefore in its correspondence to grace always eucharistic (modus gratandi et laudandi). These distinctions apply both objectively and subjectively, that is, not only to salvation as it has taken place extra nos, but also as it occurs in nobis. Since to be a sinner means to be incapacitated, grace means capacitating the incapacitated despite their incapacitation. Sinners capacitated by grace remain helpless in themselves. Grace does not perfect and exceed human nature in its sorry plight so much as it contradicts and overrules it.

What happens is this: in nobis, in our heart, in the very center of our existence, a contradiction is lodged against our unfaithfulness. It is a contradiction that we cannot dodge, but have to validate. In confronting it we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, for through it our unfaithfulness is not only forbidden but canceled and rendered impossible. Because Jesus Christ intervenes pro nobis and thus in nobis, unfaithfulness to God has been rendered basically an impossible possibility. It is a possibility disallowed and thus no longer to be realized . . . , one we recognize as eliminated and taken away by the omnipotent contradiction God lodges within us. [Karl Barth, “Extra Nos-Pro Nobis-In Nobis,” Thomist 50 (1986): 497-511, on p. 510.]

In this miraculous and mysterious way, by grace alone — that is, through a continual contradiction of nature by grace resulting in a provisional “conjunction of opposites” (coniunctio oppositorum) — the blind see, the lame walk, and the dead are raised to life (cf. Matt. 11:4).[4]

In Barth we move beyond conceiving of God’s timelessness, instead we think of God in terms of his graciousness; graciousness is the very basis and point of creation’s reality as that is found in God’s choice to be for creation in the Son (election). Further, as the Hunsinger quote indicates, for Barth grace is the space wherein a God-world relation is given reality. There is no competition then between time and eternity in this space since the space charted in advance, in the Christ (Eph. 2.8-10), is an always already relational space wherein the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have fellowshipped for eternity. For Barth’s theology, we are brought into this space just as the Son is both the electing God as he elected our humanity for himself and graciously brings us into this union by his faith and repentance for us.

Mystery is not elided in Barth, it’s just that the mystery is grounded in the concrete reality and givenness of God’s life for us Jesus Christ. Grace is the relational ground upon which creation finds fertility to be what it is before God; to be free for God just as God has been free in and for himself by his nature as the One God in Three. I think this is the movement that Gunton wants to move within as well. In part of his discussion I didn’t share he presses into Irenaeus in order to get beyond the ‘other-worldliness’ of Augustine’s notion of the timeless God. The issue that needs to be continuously honored is the Creator-creature distinction. For Barth he modulates that through focusing on how Christ brings those two realities together in his singular person. He doesn’t answer the how, but he does engage with the what and the who, and in that engagement he offers a concrete way to think about God’s relationship to the world without falling prey to the determinism that plagues so much of the classical theistic complex (because he avoids speculation about the timelessness of God for one thing).

I realize this post is somewhat fragmented in certain ways. But hopefully you’ll be able to make something out of it as you think about who God is and how he relates to the world. Further, hopefully you’ll be able to see how it is possible to get passed a deterministic understanding of God, and be able to think of human freedom vis-à-vis God through the relational and gracious terms laid out by Barth. What you should bear in mind is that there is mystery all around. The question for me is: where is the mystery grounded? Is it grounded in discursive speculation (Augustine) about who God is, or is it grounded in God’s concrete Self-revelation of himself for us in Jesus Christ?

 

[1] I should note here that I am not unaware of the fact that there has been a renaissance within Patristic theological studies that Gunton himself was not privy to. In other words, the way Gunton read Augustine was in fact based upon a reading that has come under critique. So read his critique and development of Augustine advisedly. That said: I don’t think what I am sharing from Gunton is totally disputable. I think his description of Augustine’s understanding of eternity and time is not all that controversial; although his conclusions and drawing out of its implications may well might be. Be that as it may I am still using his work to make a basic point about determinism in Christian theology. I think Gunton’s emphasis on the Spirit is an important corrective, and helps, even still, to fill out a way Christian theology, even under traditional terms, has capacity to offer a personalist understanding of a God-world relation wherein human agency can be grounded outside of a universe that seems to require a determinist/decretal understanding of the God-world relation.

[2] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical And Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), Loc 1191, 1197 kindle.

[3] Ibid., 1231, 1238.

[4] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 165-66.

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