Trevor Hart, God the Father, Reflected in Jesus Christ
Trevor Hart is Professor of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews
in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received his PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 1989.
There is positive encouragement and assurance in knowing that God's eternal purpose is to be God in Jesus Christ for us — that God the Father is fully reflected in the face of Jesus.
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J. Michael Feazell: How did you become acquainted with Trinitarian theology?
Trevor Hart: I was an undergraduate student at the University of Durham in England. In about the second year of my three years of study, someone introduced me to Tom Torrance’s work. They lent me a copy of Space, Time, and Incarnation, and I confess it took a little bit of reading. But I moved quickly on and picked up some of his other books, Theology and Reconstruction, Theology and Reconciliation.
In his writing, I realized that it was possible to do hard-nosed, thorough, rigorous, systematic theology in a way that touched base on almost every page with the things that mattered to the life of faith. Sometimes I wasn’t finding that in the other people I was reading. That’s not to say that the theologians I was reading weren’t men and women of faith – it’s that the theology seemed to be doing something other than a game in which self-conscious meshing of theology with Scripture, with tradition, and with the practical concerns of Christian life and living was apparent.
I found that very encouraging, slightly daunting, because he did it so well, but also refreshing. I moved on, because when reading Tom Torrance, you don’t go very far without finding allusions to other figures. One of them was Karl Barth. So I started to read Karl Barth as well, and found the same sort of thing in Barth that I found in Torrance, and both of them were casting the whole of theology in this Trinitarian way of understanding things.
Reading Karl Barth
JMF: Karl Barth has such a huge body of work that it seems that people…there’s so much, that they don’t even undertake to read it. And there’s been a lot of misunderstanding. Do you think that that is improving? Is Karl Barth being better understood?
TH: I suspect so. I hope so. Barth is a complex figure, as you say. His work is daunting; there’s an awful lot of it. In a way that is analogous to Torrance, it’s not easy to get into. Part of the reason is that he has his own way of saying things, putting things. There’s a huge level of overall consistency between the different parts of his work, which means that you need to have read all the others before you start any one of them. So wherever you leap in, it’s going to be hard work at first. But if you stick with it, it becomes readable quickly, and you see the same themes occurring; you recognize where you are within the map, as it were, of his thought.
What struck me when I first started reading Barth, and still strikes me, is his clear dedication to the gospel, his concern that it be understood, and that its significance for life in the world be worked out and made manifest for as many people to see and to grasp as possible. He does that at huge length, with great care, but it’s probably true that certain parts are less daunting than others in terms of their accessibility.
Usually I would encourage an undergraduate student wanting to start reading Barth to look at The Doctrine of Reconciliation [Church Dogmatics volume 4], where the themes are familiar: atonement, incarnation, and so on. He treats them in a way which is sometimes difficult, but sometimes just “home from home.” What students get when they read that is the sense that even if they’re not understanding everything on every page, nevertheless this is someone with whose thought they can feel at home.
Not that Barth won’t stretch them, not that he won’t make them re-think some things, maybe fairly fundamentally. Not that on occasion (and this remains true after 30 years of reading his thought) they may not end up disagreeing with him about one or two things, but they will have grappled at a deep level with some basic themes in the gospel, in their understanding of who God is, in their understanding of what God has done in Jesus Christ, and in the way that that plays out in the wider story of life in the world. For that, it’s hard to better Barth, although if I wanted to cluster theologians who do it well, Barth and Torrance would be in the first league.
JMF: There are some interesting small books by Karl Barth, Christ and Adam and The Humanity of God, and many people have found those helpful. In Christ and Adam he goes through Romans 5. It’s short and easy to read, but so meaningful as he takes you into the love of God that is in spite of who you are and what you’ve done. As a taste of what can come of reading Barth, it seems different from the way we typically go to church and hear a sermon about how you should be obeying and if you don’t please God you’re coming under the curse and you’re going back like a dog to its vomit, and you come away discouraged. But when you read Barth, you come away encouraged about who you are, the commitment toward the same way.
TH: Yeah. Barth talks about the strange new world that we find in the Bible, and many readers have a similar experience when they first pick up Barth, that here too there is a strange new world, and you might not yet be able to identify all the landmarks or pick out the horizon. But nevertheless, you know that you’re in somewhere that’s unfamiliar, in a sense.
I cited a couple of moments ago that Barth’s theology in some ways has a familiar ring to it. But you also get the sense that even though these are familiar themes and landmarks, somehow the configuration of them is different. The difference is intriguing, and when most people read it the first time, it’s attractive. Something about it has changed. The players are the same players and the storylines are the same storylines, but something has been done to them which gives it a completely different feel.
It is that sense of the God who is from first to last for us, and determined to be for us, no matter who we are and no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we amount to, who values us not for our achievements but for who he has called us to be and who he has made us to be in his Son. That is completely foundational to Barth’s thought; it colors every chapter of the story he tells. I think people catch that.
Even if they don’t understand it at first and they can’t see how it all plays out in the larger structure of their understanding of the Christian faith, most people I’ve met who have engaged with Barth at any length find that attractive immediately. It’s something they want to hear more of, and that’s because it is the gospel. It is the story of the God who gives all for us and is determined to be for us. Barth’s got his finger on that pulse from the very first, and it’s shot through the whole of his theology. There’s no part of his theology where that doesn’t come up again and again and shape the whole substance of what he has to say, no matter what he’s talking about.
The doctrine of election
JMF: When we think of Calvinists today, we aren’t necessarily thinking of John Calvin, but we’re thinking of a theology that excludes people… On one side there’s a declaration of assurance of salvation, but on the other side, there’s a “How do you know that you’re among the elect?” Well, you know by the evidence of your works, and yet that proves nothing to you. Is there a difference between John Calvin’s theology and what has become of it, and what influence has Karl Barth brought to that understanding?
TH: Barth is a Reformed theologian, self-consciously so, and therefore I think his appropriation of the Reformed tradition and his reinterpretation of it at certain key points, not least in his treatment of the doctrine of election, has forced people, not least some Calvinist theologians (Reformed theologians) to go back and examine again and see whether the way in which Reformed theology has sometimes schematized that theme has been healthy, helpful, but more importantly, biblical.
What Barth saw and shows is that you can’t formulate a doctrine of election, or any other doctrine, simply by lifting verses from Scripture and laying them out and putting them in a logical order. That’s not how it works. It never has worked like that. You have to go further than that. You have to relate doctrines to one another. You have to ask questions about certain themes that perhaps have priority logically, theologically over others.
Barth’s fundamental conviction is that while the theme of election, God’s choosing, God’s deciding, ultimately the sovereignty of God, is fundamental to the way Christians should conceive of God in biblical terms, that it’s in the person of Christ that the theological center of gravity falls in Scripture and, therefore, in theology too, it should be.
His thoroughgoing insistence on rethinking what it might mean to say that God chooses, concerning a person’s eternal well-being, in the light of Jesus Christ and his refusal to acknowledge the meaningfulness of talking about any God who, as he puts it, is hidden behind Jesus Christ, forced him to a radical re-reading of the doctrine — to the fundamental conviction that it’s not in the text of the Bible as some work of literature that God reveals himself, finally it’s in a human life lived, a death died and raised to life again that God has made himself known fully and finally. All the rest needs to be worked out in the light of what that means and the significance of that fact.
As Barth sees it, the significance of that fact is that this is who God wills to be, and what he has done for each of us. Whatever we say about election or any other theme theologically has to reckon with that fact. That can’t be something we come to after we’ve worked out the other things. That has to be where we start – that God’s purpose eternally was to be the man Jesus Christ and to do what he does in Christ for us. That forces us to rethink some themes. So Barth has caused some rethinking of that doctrine, but for some people that’s problematic, and some people find him difficult to cope with theologically because they’re convinced that the traditional version of that doctrine is non-negotiable.
Jesus as God
JMF: Why is it significant when Jesus said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”? What is important about that?
TH: One way of answering that is pastorally rather than theologically, differentiating between those two for the moment. (I wouldn’t want to drive a wedge between them, incidentally, but let’s look at it pastorally.) Most people, if they think of God at all, have a question mark about what sort of God it is they’re dealing with. Luther had the question, “How can I get a gracious God?” Christians sometimes live with this lurking suspicion that God may turn out to be rather unpleasant, or to have a grudge against them or a good case against them.
What Barth says so clearly is that Christian life ought to be based solidly on the God we see, and the face of God that we see in Jesus, that we can be sure that God turns out, finally, to be like Jesus, like his Son. That provides a huge ground for assurance, because what do we see in Jesus? We see God forgiving sins, we see God loving the sinner, rehabilitating the sinner. Once we realize the Father is no different in that from the Son he sends into the world to do it, then it banishes any specters we might have of a God who, even though Jesus is like that, may turn out to be rather different.
On a pastoral level, in terms of the God we pray to day and night, or the God we hope to meet at the end of our lives beyond life, if we live with a question mark, it seems to me we’re going to live finally with fear and guilt and a suspicion, and possibly be driven to some form of seeking to secure ourselves by earning salvation through good works or some form of that. It’s hard to shake that off completely when you don’t think you know the answer to the question “What is God like?”
Once you’ve come to the realization that God is no different to Jesus, on this level at least, he’s like Jesus. God’s character, the Father’s character, is fully reflected in the face of his Son. That sets you free from all those fears and guilts and suspicions and enables you to live in a liberated way, in a way that is born out of gratitude and joy rather than fear and guilt. So, on a pastoral level, quite apart from the theological niceties of it all, it seems to be fundamental that we can say, when it comes down to it, there isn’t anyone (when we come to talk about God), there’s no one there who isn’t fully reflected in the face of Jesus and Jesus’ dealings with us.
Jesus as a human
JMF: The theological term “vicarious humanity of Christ” – what are we talking about?
TH: It’s something which most Christians, most evangelical Christians anyway, will be familiar with as a category in one respect – most evangelical Christians would be happy to think that Jesus did something in their stead. Most of them will think that that thing he did for them in their place, in their stead, is die on the cross. That’s absolutely right.
The phrase “vicarious humanity” captures the realization that it doesn’t stop there. In Jesus, God stands in for us at almost every point of our relationship with him, because we fail him at almost every point in our lives. No matter how hard we struggle and strive (and most of us are good at struggling and striving, even though we know we shouldn’t), we fail. To use a biblical category, we’re not very good covenant partners for God most of the time. “Vicarious humanity” picks up on the idea that in Jesus, God stands in for us in all aspects of life. It’s not simply in his death that he takes our place and does what we can’t do – it’s in his faith, too, in his obedience, in his responses to the Father. At each point God, as it were, looks at us through him and in him and together with him, and not standing isolated on our own.
I suppose this is a Pauline image, but I like to think of it as God being like a parent who puts his kids on their way to school in a set of clothes… (We have school uniforms in the U.K. – I don’t know whether you have those… [JMF: Some schools do.]) Often a parent will buy a uniform several sizes too big because that way it lasts longer. You don’t fit the clothes – they’re way too big for you – but eventually you grow into them, or begin to. As an image, that works nicely. We’re clothed with Christ. Every aspect of us is covered with him. When the Father looks, he sees Christ, Christ’s response, Christ’s obedience, Christ’s prayer, Christ’s faith.
The biblical term isn’t “vicarious humanity.” That’s a technical term. The biblical category is priesthood. Jesus is the great high priest who mediates our human responses to God through himself to the Father. Jesus stands in our place and does for us what we can’t do properly for ourselves.
But the flip-side of that, and it’s a vital flip-side, is that that sets us free to do it for ourselves. It sets us free to do it because we’re not afraid of falling. We’re not afraid of any wrong. Why? Because our eternity doesn’t hang on whether we get it wrong or not. Our eternity rests on his response made for us. So we can get on and do it, and if we fall he’ll pick us up.
In the meanwhile, we grow into the uniform. We never quite fill it out, but nevertheless we begin to grow more like him, so that our faith becomes more adequate, our prayer becomes more appropriate, our obedience becomes more identifiable as the Spirit gradually makes us more like Jesus. But our relationship with God doesn’t rest on any of that. Our relationship with God rests on what he has done once for all, not just on the cross, but at every point from his birth through to his death and resurrection.
What are people afraid of?
JMF: That’s so radical in terms of the way most people think. Why is something that good difficult to accept? Why are we afraid of it? It’s as though we think, “If I believe that and I accept it, then it’s like saying that I don’t have to do anything, Christ has done it all, so if I accept that, God won’t like me because I’m assuming on his kindness or something.” Some preachers even get angry about it and say, “Don’t listen to that kind of nonsense because God calls you to obedience.”
TH: One reason why someone might be uncomfortable with it might be that it could be seen to encourage an approach that says: “If Jesus has done it all for me, then I don’t have to do it for myself, do I?”
JMF: “I can go out and live any way I want.”
TH: Exactly. In theological terms we call that antinomianism, or something like it. That’s a worry. We can do almost anything with grace, can’t we? We can reject it, we can turn it to what we think is our advantage. But that’s not proper to the reality itself. That’s why I said that Jesus does it for us precisely so that we can do it for ourselves, and the work of the Spirit draws us into the Son’s work and brings it to fulfillment in individual lives. That’s one reason why I can imagine a preacher being nervous, because “maybe my people won’t try so hard anymore.” Well, maybe they’re trying too hard in the first place. Maybe trying is not what it’s about.
JMF: Isn’t it an irrational fear? Those who believe don’t really do that.
TH: That’s right – it probably is an irrational fear. I wonder how much it isn’t a bit of resurgence of sinful pride in us, whether as preachers or as individual Christian men and women. Grace has a massive advantage which is also a bit galling – it says, “God isn’t taking your responses as the most important responses.” It devalues the things we like to think we can take to God to deal with him. You know, I bring my little bit of righteousness to God and say, “God, I have something for you.”
Don’t get me wrong – I think God delights when we bring righteousness to him. What he doesn’t like is when we try to make it the basis of a trade, as if we have something to give to him, and now he can give something back to us. The message of grace, the gospel of grace understood in this way, in terms of this category of “vicarious humanity,” robs us of that, because it gives us nothing. There’s nothing left that we can give to God and say, “God, you need this, and I’m giving it to you, so now you give me something that I need.”
That’s wrong. Everything has to be predicated on the idea that God gives everything freely. I’m sorry, that devalues the currency that you’re working with. In our heart of hearts we, even those of us who believe this gospel, still, on occasion, find ourselves, I suspect, thinking, “I’d rather like it if I had something to give back to God.” Well, you can give it, but now you have to give it freely and joyfully, not as the basis of some sort of trade.
JMF: That reminds me of how you have to give your five-year-old some money so they can get you a gift.
TH: Absolutely. And when they get to 15, it becomes more expensive (laughing).
JMF: It all comes from God in the first place, and so anything we offer back isn’t ours to begin with.
TH: But it doesn’t kill the dynamic of giving. The unfounded fear is that somehow the idea that God gives everything and we’re only here to receive is going to deny the capacity, or simply not provide a context in which we can offer back to God. On the contrary: I think the complement of “vicarious humanity” is a life lived from first to last in (if I can use the term) a Eucharistic manner, and that’s to say, thanksgiving.
Everything, because it’s freely given to us, we can now freely offer back to God without fear that our offering won’t be adequate and therefore will come back to haunt us because we did it badly. It sets you free to give and to offer back rather than killing it. But there’s always that little bit of sin which wants something of its own to give to God.
Why confess our sins?
JMF: Some people ask, “Since we’re already forgiven and we stand in the forgiveness of God, why are we asked to confess our sins?” How does that work together?
TH: I’ve moved a long way on this one. When I first came to faith and was part of an evangelical congregation, I confessed my sins every day with the sense that my eternal well-being depended on doing it well. There’s a benefit to that, because everything was intense, and I knew that this matters.
I was liberated from that by discovering the gospel of grace and God’s grace in the life of Jesus lived in my place, so if I didn’t confess all my sins, I wasn’t on an immediate slippery slope that evening. There is a slight risk that the immediacy and urgency of confessing sins gets lost. It does have an important place – this constant recognition that we are sinners. It’s just as well that our salvation doesn’t rest on our shoulders, because we continue to get it wrong.
With that mechanism, with gratitude, with thanksgiving, goes also a sense of penitence, that God has given so much to us and continues to do so and yet we fall so far short. No matter what we seek to do in and of ourselves, we continue to betray him, to hurt him, to act in ways that deny who he would have us be. It’s vital for the health and well-being of our lives as Christians that we keep that firmly in our sights precisely so that we also keep firmly in our sights the importance of turning to Christ and having him stand in our place.
It’s like two blades of a pair of scissors. If we lose either of them, it becomes useless. If there’s going to be a means of achieving something, then what God has done for us in Christ needs to be constantly being applied by the Spirit in our Christian day-to-day living.
JMF: That was my experience when I was a legalist. In confession, I couldn’t be quite sure that I had done it well enough to feel like I’d been forgiven, so I had to do it over. Then I had to do it with more intensity…
TH: That’s a small-style version of what Tom Torrance talks about, and his brother James (who is a great hero of mine and a colleague of mine at one point) used to talk about. I’ve seen it in my own experience as a preacher in small churches, often evangelical congregations, where, at the end of the Sunday evening service there will be an altar call of some form, and often the same people, not necessarily every week, but on a regular pattern will get up and go forward. If someone were to ask them why, they would say, “Because I’m not really sure I had a real experience of repentance last time.” That seems to have got things wrong because it puts the focus on you and your faith, on the quality of your response.
I’d want to go at them and say, you don’t have to repent harder. If you’ve repented at all, if you’ve opened yourself and turned to Christ and seek to lay hold of him, then his repentance is the one that counts. You can be thankful for that. That doesn’t meant that repentance and penitence doesn’t continue to be important, but your eternal destiny doesn’t rest on your response, which is just as well, otherwise we’d all be up there every Sunday, week in and week out.
JMF: It brings such comfort and relief. It’s like a participation in the assurance of the forgiveness that’s already ours.TH: Yeah. In my own tradition (Episcopalian), for good or ill we have a weekly celebration of the supper, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. That is a tangible way of reminding one’s self and constantly putting one’s self in the way of the priesthood of Christ and saying, I eat and drink the body and blood of Christ in taking the bread and wine, and I’m symbolically identifying myself with Christ’s response to the Father for me and realizing that that’s what matters. It’s not my response. It’s only as I eat and drink of him that I’m drawn into the presence of God. That shifts the gaze away from the individual’s own spiritual response to the Father. There shouldn’t be such a thing. We don’t have an isolated spiritual response to the Father. We have an indirect one that goes through the Son.