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Book: Alpha and Omega: A Study in the Theology of Karl Barth by Robert W. Jenson (Amazon link)
Publisher: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002 (Publisher link)
Robert W. Jenson’s book, Alpha and Omega, is an excellently clear, and precise study in the theology of Karl Barth. Jenson asks how it is that the historical event of Jesus’ life might be the decisive reality of our present life, calling this question “the chief problem of modern theology.” (13) Jenson holds Barth’s theology up as a “grandiose and pioneering answer to this challenge [of modern theology].” (16)
With clarity and precision, Jenson examines some of the most difficult aspects of Barth’s thought, including Barth’s doctrine of nothingness, of creation, of election, of salvation, of history, of the incarnation, and of God. The overarching question behind these inquiries is the relationship between Jesus’ historical existence and our present lives, but along the way I found myself attending a masterclass in Barth’s doctrine of election, creation, and providence. I can’t recall reading anything nearly as erudite in secondary literature as Jenson’s presentation.
The three specific questions that Jenson asks of Barth’s theology are as follows. First, “To what end does God rule human history, and what is the course of the history of salvation?” Second, “In what sense does God have a history, and what is the relation between this history and ours? That is how does God guide human history?” Third, “What is the reality to which talk in the Church bears witness?” (17-8)
Of God’s plan for history and the mode of God’s rule in history, Jenson notes that these questions are, for Barth, never asked separately. For Barth, “The coming of Christ to sinners is absolutely determined from all eternity and is the purpose of all that happens.” And furthermore, “Christ’s life, as a movement of God’s eternal will, is itself the basis of its appearance in time.” (113) These for Barth are one of the same proposition, according to Jenson.
In other words, Jenson shows that for Barth, God’s plan for history and His rule in history are one and the same: the life of Jesus Christ. This event is the event of all history and existence, the plan God determined before creation. Jesus’ life is then, for Barth, the central event of all history and of creation. This is the core of Barth’s doctrine of election, that God determined Himself to be God for us in Jesus Christ, to be the God of sinners, to reconcile us to Himself.
The brilliance of this position is shown in how sharply it contrasts with other common presentations. Often the incarnation and salvation of Christ is portrayed as the reaction of God to human sin, placing God in a kind of “hail Mary” position in the face of evil. But Barth reverses the order. If Jesus Christ’s life is the epitome of all history, than this event precedes even the creation of the cosmos. The choice to reconcile human beings to Himself, to become man in Jesus Christ, is an eternal choice in the Triune life of God. Salvation wasn’t an afterthought, God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ was the basis for His act of creation. The difficulties in this position are apparent, but Jenson navigates them masterfully and with clarity.
To the final question, of the reality to which the church bears witness, Jenson turns to Barth’s inclusive Christology. Jenson writes of this reality: “We are what we are in Him. Our existence is ‘virtually accomplished’ in His. In that He has kept the covenant, we have kept the covenant. In that He has obeyed God, we have obeyed God. Our existence is enclosed in His from all eternity. … This history, the history of the man Jesus with God, is our real history.” (132-3)
This inclusive Christology is the reality the church proclaims. The reality of Jesus Christ, who is our obedience, our relationship with God—who is the covenant with God and all humanity—is the proclamation of the church. We proclaim: Look to Christ, here is your history, the basis for your existence as a human, this man with God is all mankind with God! “Our history is participation in Christ’s history.” (136) “Jesus Christ as God and man is the one great history of the eternal covenant between God and man[kind].” (139)
To conclude the book Jenson gives a helpful summary of Barth’s doctrine of election, followed by some final reflections on Barth’s theology. Jenson outlines many areas where he agrees with Barth, but he also offers some insightful criticisms.
This book was surprisingly easy to read, written with a clarity often absent from many studies of Barth’s theology. The precision of this study will be of tremendous value to any student of Barth’s thought. Jenson doesn’t dance around the difficult questions, but masterfully navigates through its many challenges. Instead of walking away confused by complex jargon and paradoxical images, I left this book with a better, clearer understanding of Barth’s thought. An excellent book, one I highly recommend.
My thanks to Wipf and Stock Publishers for a digital copy of this book for review. I was under no obligation to offer a positive review, and have presented my honest reflection on this work.