Essay / Theology

Already: The Enthronement of the LORD

A theological performance well worth the price of admission is watching the mature Karl Barth (1886-1968), trying to sort out the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or the relative continuity and discontinuity between the covenants. In Church Dogmatics IV/3.1, in par. 69, the sub-section on Jesus as “the light of life,” Barth is describing the prophetic office of Christ and comparing it to the prophetic witness of the Old Testament.

Barth lists “four points at which the prophecy of the life of Jesus Christ clearly breaks through and transcends the Old Testament concept of a prophet” (p. 49):

1. Christ doesn’t become a prophet or acquire the office; he is essentially prophetic.
2. He is of Israel and to Israel, but he also addresses all humanity, the nations, the world as such.
3. He carries out reconciliation itself, and therefore is a prophet on the basis of “enacted reconciliation.”
4. The prophets are messengers between God and man, but Christ is a mediator, “the One who is both Yahweh and the Israelite.”

Barth concludes that “we do not have in the life of any of the Old Testament prophets a true type or adequate prefiguration of the prophecy of Jesus Christ” (52). But, he goes on, this is only true of individual prophets, and we are “missing the wood for the trees” if we focus on individual prophets rather than on “the glory of the history of Israel in its totality and interconnexion as planned, initiated, controlled and determined by Yahweh according to the witness of the prophets” (53). We should not fail to notice that the entire prophetic office in the history of Israel does in fact push hard against these four restrictions:

1. The history of Israel speaks prophetically for itself; it does not need a special prophetic interpretation to be imposed on it from outside. God speaks through the events, which are eloquent and radiant, so when the “thus saith the Lord” comes along, it articulates what is already there. Individual prophets may receive their offices after the fact, but the history of Israel is as inherently prophetic as the messiah.

2. “The history of Israel in its totality and interconnexion is universal prophecy,” through which God is speaking to all humanity and the world as such.

3. No single prophet “can speak on the basis of the accomplished reconciliation and the present kingdom of God” (60). This is the main thing that has me pondering this passage, by the way, so I will develop it at greater length than the other points. The total prophetic history of Israel does have a lot to say about the “conflict and contradiction” of the strained covenant and the need for reconciliation. Just think of the prophets calling on heaven and earth to take the witness stand in the covenant lawsuit Yahweh is carrying out against Israel, a lawsuit which takes on the trappings of a declaration of war or a heartbreaking divorce procedure. But it says all of this against a greater background, which is the grace of the covenant. Of this grace “it speaks synthetically, not analytically, and therefore unequivocally.” Barth says that the prophetic history of Israel does not just look forward to a future reconciliation, but declares “the presence of the glory of God and the salvation of men, of judgments executed and promises realised” (61). Under the dialectics of disruption and rejection, there is “a deeply concealed but very real positive continuum,” a “present grace unreservedly lavished by God and unreservedly experienced and known as uch by the people and the men of this people.”

An accomplished reconciliation undergirding OT prophecy? As I read this, I was aware of objections I wanted to vent, but I had to admit that a point in Barth’s favor is that this argument would enable a more muscular reading of the Old Testament than relegating every bit of its spirituality to a “someday messiah the prince will come” category. And that, by the way, is what’s at stake in Barth’s third point: he is finding the “already” under the “not yet” of the Old Covenant.

No sooner had I begun to anticipate a better reading of the OT (running a few Psalms in my head, scanning for the “already” under the “not yet”), than I turned the page to find the Barthian small print, so often a sign of some exegetical spadework. And there it is: Psalms 143-150 are too jubilant to be hidden under the bushel of the not yet. You can’t make that much noise as an incidental musical flourish in a fundamentally melancholy performance. “We misunderstand the Old Testament if we do not realise that this element of praise or doxology is the basic note” (62). And here I quote a block:

But it is first the basic note, not of the Old Testament, but of the history perceived by the Old Testament witnesses. The sign under which, or the bracket within which, this history takes place is the enthronement of Yahweh, which according to a new conjecture was perhaps celebrated every year, but which took place from all eternity, takes place continually in new demonstrations of His power and goodness, and is the event of the ultimate future. Hence this history takes place always under His government exercised from Sinai, from Sion and from heaven. It always redounds to the magnifying of His glory and, however hiddenly, to the salvation of men. This is what is revealed by this history, and it is to this revelation that all parts of the Old Testament respond. (62)

The fine print goes on, wonderfully, to account for all the “palpable fulfilments” experienced in the OT, from Isaac’s wealth to Psalm 119’s love of the Torah to “the happy restoration with which the Book of Job finally comes to a restful conclusion.” These all represent –only represent– the grace, presence, and gift of the fulfilled covenant (“I shall be your God and you shall be my people”). And as an aside, Barth notes that this is the identical substantia foederis that Calvin perceived bridging OT and NT, the character of the gracious God sharing his life with his people.

4. No single prophet is a mediator, but is the history of Israel mediatorial? Barth says that it is, in that it is “a sequence of events in which God and man are together,” and is the little local history which is the key to universal history. The history of Israel witnessed in the OT is, for Barth, in a kind of space between God and world history. In fact, what Barth says here on pages 63-65 is so dense that I’m just going to skip it so I don’t forget what I’m learning from point 3.

I don’t know specifically what “recent conjecture” in OT scholarship Barth is referring to in the section quoted above. No doubt something readily available in Psalms scholarship from midcentury, about ritual enactment and the sitz-im-leben of enthronement Psalms. But my attention is caught by the idea that underlying the phenomena of the OT is the event –or perhaps “event,” super-event, primal event– of God’s enthronement. Just on the literary level, it gives the throne-vision of the Apocalypse a lot more traction on the preceding 65 books. Theologically, it indicates that John knew or saw something we should all learn or see or be pointed to from every page of scripture: the one who sits on the throne, and the lamb.

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