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God changes his mind: Jeremiah 18 and Karl Barth

September 8th, 2007 by isaac · 1 Comment

At times, preparing a sermon comes easy. But most of the time the sermon comes only through much wrestling with the word. Leading up to a Sunday when I’m assigned to preach, it’s not unusual for my prayers to consist of complete frustration with the lectionary Scriptures. And that’s exactly what this week is like. Here’s the problematic passage, Jeremiah 18:9-10:

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.  And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

I guess this is why the lectionary is a good thing. It makes preachers wrestle with difficult passages. But it is difficult when the struggle doesn’t produce a sermon in a timely fashion. That’s when it’s time to turn to Karl Barth. It’s not unusual for me to look up the lectionary passages in the Scripture index to the Church Dogmatics to see what kind of insights Barth has to share. Sometime they are helpful, other times not really, but they are always interesting. Here’s what I discovered this week from Church Dogmatics, II.1:
According to these verses man is constant in his wicked inconstancy. This is just what God is not. God is consistently one and the same. but again His consistency is not as it were mathematical. It is not the consistency of a supreme natural law or mechanism. the fact that He is one and the same does not mean that He is bound to be and say and do only one and the same thing, so that all the distinctions of His being, speaking and acting are only a semblance, only the various refractions of a beam of light which are eternally the same. This was  and is the way that every form of Platonism conceives God. It is impossible to overemphasise the fact that here, too, God is described as basically without life, word or act. Biblical thinking about God would rather submit to confusion with the grossest anthropomorphism than to confusion with this the primary denial of God. In biblical thinking God is certainly the immutable, but as the immutable He is the living God and He possesses a mobility and elasticity which is no less divine than his perseverance no less than its own divinity naturally requires confirmation by His divine perseverance. (496)... Yet it would not be a glorifying, but a blaspheming and finally a denial of God, to conceive of the being and essence of this self-consistent God as one which is, so to speak, self-limited to an inflexible immobility, thus depriving God of the capacity to alter His attitudes and actions… He is not prevented from advancing and retreating, rejoicing and mourning, laughing and complaining, being well pleased and causing His wrath to kindle, hiding or revealing Himself. (498)

The line that Barth repeats throughout this chapter is, “God is free to love.” The freedom of God means that God is free to love us, that the living God is a God who love is mobile, elastic, in a very real sense, human—but profoundly so, in a way that unmasks how we are less than human. As Barth says in The Humanity of God (1960),
God’s high freedom in Jesus Christ is His freedom for love. The divine capacity which operates and exhibits itself in that superiority and subordination is manifestly also God’s capacity to bend downwards, to attach Himself to another and this other to Himself, to be together with him… God’s deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself… It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude, but includes His humanity. (48-49)

In this divinely free volition and election, in this sovereign decision (the ancients said, in His decree), God is human. His free affirmation of man, His free concern for him, His free subsitution for him—this is God’s humanity… In the mirror of this humanity of Jesus Christ the humanity of God enclosed in His deity reveals himself. (51)

Tags: life · reading corner

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Aaron // Apr 2, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    I love your use of Barth. Thanks for shedding some light on this mysterious topic. You’ve inspired me to dust off my copies of Barth’s C.D. and start reading them again.