George HunsingerGeorge Hunsinger, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, received his PhD in 1988 from Yale University.

Colossians 3:3 has been called a decisive verse for the New Testament. Our lives in Christ are real, and yet can’t always be seen.. 

Edited transcript

JMF: I’d like to ask you to comment on something from your book How to Read Karl Barth, page 124: “Salvation is not a process imminent within us in any sense that we can observe or perceive directly from our own experience,” and then further down, “The truth of our being in Christ as Barth understood it is not only real and hidden, it is also yet to come.”

Then you go on to discuss how we’re not only included in his being, and in his humanity, in his history, in his transition from shameful death to glorious resurrection — it is transformation of the old creation into the new. “We’re also confronted by his being here and now as the real but hidden future of our own being,” and so on. Could you comment on that?

GH: Last time, I began with a verse from the New Testament. I find it helpful to try to peg these difficult and complicated theological ideas to certain verses from the New Testament. So I talked last time about 2 Corinthians 5:14, the first part, “One died for all, therefore all died,” as a way of suggesting those parts of the New Testament would seem to lift up some sort of universal hope. Other verses that I didn’t mention that we could cluster in like, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” one of the most beloved verses in the New Testament, John 3:16. It’s the world that’s the object of God’s love, and it’s the world in 2 Corinthians 5 that is reconciled to God in Christ. Part of the genius of Barth’s theology is to make those ideas more central to theological teaching than they have been, by putting the verses that suggest some sort of ultimate division between the sheep and the goats, not excluding them, but capping them by this more inclusive hope.

For the passages you began with out of my book, the verse that I think of is Colossians 3:3. I learned to appreciate the significance of this verse from a comment that Karl Barth makes somewhere near the beginning of the Church Dogmatics. He says that this verse is decisive not just for Colossians but for the entire New Testament. I had never thought about it that way before, but it turns out that yes, Colossians 3:3, if you watch for it, is really important for Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation.

Colossians 3:3 says, “You have died, yet your life is hid with Christ in God.” Where does that link, in a way, with 2 Corinthians 5:14? People who are alive are spoken of, and here addressed, as those who have died. There is some sense in which by the grace of God they have died, because they are already included in the death of Christ.

This is profoundly mysterious, but it is one of the ways in which throughout the New Testament that ordinary patterns of thought about time where things happen one after another in sequence — that’s all presupposed, it’s never denied, but it’s not the whole story. There’s another level, there’s a higher level, there’s another dimension. These sequences are real for God. But God’s apprehension of time as we experience it is not limited to these sequences. There’s a sense in which — and this is mysterious and there’s no way to see how this can be the case, but that it is the case is affirmed — these sequences are seen by God somehow also as being simultaneous.

You get all that strange language in the New Testament about things having happened “from before the foundation of the world.” In Matthew 25 when Jesus says, “Enter the kingdom that has been prepared to you…,” he says to the sheep, “…from before the foundation of the world.” Or, in Ephesians 1, we are elected in him “from before the foundation of the world,” and then that extraordinary verse in Revelation, Revelation 13:8, “The lamb being slain from before the foundation of the world.”

What’s being suggested here? What’s being gestured at with this phrase? What kind of intuition? It’s the intuition that time doesn’t mean the same thing for God as it means for us, or more precisely, it’s not perceived by God in exactly the same way as it is for us. Things that are only sequential for us are held together in a kind of simultaneity for God.

I think, and this is sort of Barthian, there’s a sense in which the last judgment, the cross of Christ, and pretemporal election from one perspective (not every perspective) are not three different events. They’re three different forms of one and the same event. So you get the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world or you get the last judgment occurring on Calvary, which is also a Johannine-type affirmation.

Colossians 3:3 fits into this general pattern of intuitions — that you have died, you’re alive, but in this deeper sense, from God’s standpoint, God sees you (it’s actually plural here, each one individually also) — you have died, and God sees you in and with the death of Christ, as being included in it. Your life is hid with Christ in God. That hidden-ness is from our standpoint. It’s not hidden to God, but we don’t see ourselves as having died. We don’t grasp the full sense of that already.

What has taken place objectively by grace? First, we participate in Christ and his obedience and his saving significance. We participate in him by grace whether we know it or not. Eventually, whether by faith or by sight or eventually both, it becomes subjective. It becomes a matter of our direct apprehension. But for the time being — the time between the times, as it’s sometimes talked about in theology, between the already and the not yet, between what has already taken place in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ for the sake of the world (that’s the already) and the not yet (when it is fully revealed and actualized and fulfilled) — we live in the time between the times. There’s a lot that’s hidden to us here and now. But our true selves, our reality, is not what we see and apprehend even by faith directly; it’s who we are in Christ in God’s sight. God does not look on us except as we are in him because he has embraced us by his grace in Christ already.

So Colossians 3:3 has three aspects. Our life is real (that means eternal life), it’s hidden — we don’t see it directly, we might get glimpses of it, but the point about not having any direct apprehension of it which you quoted from what I wrote, we don’t know about that life — and about our inclusion in it, and about its really belonging to us on the basis of inferences that we can make about what we see in our own lives or on the basis of judgments that we can make in our own case or anyone else’s case.

We know about it from the gospel. Where else would you learn Colossians 3:3 except you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in death? This is proclaimed to us, and it’s proclaimed to us not necessarily because of the spiritual progress we might think we’re making, but very often in spite of the progress that we’re not making or in spite of the setbacks and falls and the disasters that we’re making out of lives. It’s real, it’s hidden, and it’s yet to come. It’s a matter of hope.

In order to make this more intelligible, people will sometimes say, “It’s just a matter of hope. It’s not yet real.” But the way Barth reads that verse, and I think this is correct, it’s already true in one sense, and it’s yet to come as a matter of promise and fulfillment in another sense. Just because it’s yet to come doesn’t mean it’s not already real. Just because it’s hidden doesn’t mean that it’s not already real. We need those three aspects together — real, hidden, and yet to come. You died and your life is hid with Christ in God.

The same thing is true for Luther and Calvin when they’re talking about our righteousness. Your righteousness is hid with Christ in God. For Luther, the great summary of the gospel was Christ is our righteousness and our life. Both of those are hid with Christ in God. They’re real, they’re hidden… We have to take it by faith and not expect to see too much or at least not base our understanding of ourselves on what we can observe or judge about ourselves. That’s the main thing.

There’s that hidden element, but it’s still a promise that will be brought to its fulfillment either with us or against us or both. Grace works against us as much as it works for us and with us. It has to work against us insofar as we still remain fallen and still remain hostile to the grace of God.

JMF: Which is exactly why we need grace.

GH: Yes. Exactly how grace works is a…there’s a great German word, trotzdem, in spite of everything. That’s the Protestant word “nevertheless.” “Nevertheless I am with you always, until the end of the age.” I may have fallen into sin — “depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful human being.” In and of myself I still remain a sinner. Baptism is supposed to have drowned the old Adam, and a joke that Barth liked to make is, “It turns out the rascal can swim.” There’s a certain sense in which Adam is drowned in baptism, but in the time between the times, Adam is trying to pull us back under, and it’s a matter of hiddenness and tension that sin and grace exist in us in an ambiguous and complicated way until that final resolution.

JMF: Doesn’t that give us a sense of rest and peace with our brokenness and our struggle with sin, to know that we have been made new in Christ already and that that is real even though we don’t see it?

GH: That’s right. The objection coming out of the old Latin theology is “Then it doesn’t matter what you do with your life, or there is no necessity for good works.” It’s taking everything out of the realm of necessity and translating it into the realm of freedom. I like to think of that great hymn by Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” (I think Charles Wesley was the greatest hymn writer in the English language, but Wesley said…this was very moving to me…he would have given every hymn he had ever written if he could have written “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”)

It says in there, and this is exactly right, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” That’s the transition from freedom to freedom. The free grace of God, love so amazing, so divine, eliciting the free response of total self giving back to God. This is how much God has loved you. This is what God has done on your behalf. Look to Christ on the cross to see the depth of the love and grace and mercy of God.

It’s not what you have to do, what do I have to do… What do you want to do? It goes from the indicative to the imperative [from a statement to a command], whereas the other way is, “If you do the right thing, you’ll have a good outcome.” That’s conditional. The hymn is not putting the indicative in the conclusion – it’s in the premise. This is what God has done for you, therefore act accordingly. Therefore, make the proper response – and what response could there be, but a life of total love and self-giving to God in return for so great a love that God has bestowed on us?

JMF: Going back to the earlier comment about the universality of inclusion of humanity in Christ and the idea of everyone participating in Christ because that’s the nature of human existence, to be in Christ, how does that work? What does that look like for someone who is not yet a believer? In other words, how does a non-believer participate in Christ?

GH: There are no formulas. There’s just no one way. That’s hidden with Christ in God, I think. But Nietzsche for example said, “Why don’t the redeemed look more redeemed?” That’s a good question. Sometimes people who are not redeemed look more redeemed than the redeemed do, and they set a standard that the redeemed would do well to live up to.

Sometimes there are incognito ways in which the grace of God seems to be at work, and if we have this concept of the church militant… sometimes the Holy Spirit is more militant than the church, and if the church is not ready to move, the Holy Spirit will move somewhere else… I think in general this is true of the Enlightenment. There are ways in which the Enlightenment has taught the church to be more truly the church than was happening out of the church’s own traditions. Many of the things that the Enlightenment stood for have their proper grounding in the gospel.

The Enlightenment sometimes had trouble hanging onto them indefinitely. But there are ways in which grace is operative outside the church. How do we know that? We know it when it seems to be at least compatible with the gospel — an expression of things we wish the church were doing, if the church isn’t doing it.

Bonhoeffer once went to a student evening… Karl Barth used to have gatherings of students in his home from time to time, and they would talk about some theological text or events of the day. It was called an open evening. Dietrich Bonhoeffer never had Barth formally as a teacher, but he was visiting, and went there. He caught Barth’s attention by quoting from Luther when Luther said, “There are times when the curse of the godless is more pleasing to the ears of God than the hallelujahs of the pious.” The grace of God will work outside the walls of the church in ways where people who are not yet Christians will recognize injustices and try to do something about it, or will raise a cry of protest that also needs to be incorporated by the people of God. Sometimes their piety is really a form of unbelief, a form of evading the grace of God.

Barth liked to say that Christians go to church to make their last stand against God. This is what was at stake in the idea of “the religion” as sin. The religion becomes a form of self-justification. It becomes a way of defending ourselves against the threatening apprehension that we are sinners deserving to be rejected by God — that God’s love takes the form of wrath whenever it’s resisted, whether in subtle ways or blatant ways, and certainly including religious ways. God doesn’t compromise with sin. God doesn’t call sin good. God does not turn a blind eye toward it. The wrath of God is a very important part of the gospel, but it’s not split off from his love. It’s the form that God’s love takes. It’s the wrath of God’s love when God’s love is resisted, and God’s wrath overcomes all forms of resistance, but finally in such a way that the sin is removed and God’s purposes are fulfilled even for the sinner in spite of the sin.

JMF: The only source of anything good is God. So anytime we see good things in anybody, whether it’s any form of love, any form of courage or sacrifice, or self-sacrifice, every good virtue and every good thing can only have one source, which is God, and it seems that they would be God’s love and grace working itself out in humanity even though a person may be an unbeliever and may not know the source of every good thing. But every good thing does come from God.

GH: How could it be otherwise? Yeah. Hegel has this wonderful phrase about the divine cunning that is at work in history. These unexpected moments of goodness or grace in unexpected places, this is the divine cunning in history. The difference between believers and unbelievers at this point might be that believers are equipped to see it for what it is.

JMF: At least a little better.

GH: A little better sometimes than the others. They have the key because they have Christ. Whenever it’s Christ-like, we know that somehow this… You wouldn’t preach it, but you could perceive it and hope and pray that this seems to be some sort of work of God. It could be in ways that don’t make sense from more worldly ways of thinking. Somebody who thinks that mercy toward a wrongdoer is preferable and more God-like than vengeance and exacting retribution. I would see that, and it happens sometimes, as a Christ-like occurrence, whereas other people might feel that no, that’s not what justice requires, no, that will jeopardize our security somehow and we can’t take those kinds of risks, it’s naive to try to implement the concerns and values of the gospel in a hostile world. God and God’s grace have a way of prevailing even when it doesn’t always seem immediately to make rational sense.

JMF: On page 154 in How to Read Karl Barth you write, “In Jesus Christ we see that God does not exist without humanity and that humanity does not exist without God.” It’s a great quote, and I’d like you to expand on it.

GH: There is such a thing as a godless human being — that is, a human being who tries to live as if God does not exist, and in that sense God is not real for them or acknowledged by them. It’s one of the great quotations from Barth, and it’s difficult to put into English. But if you’re a godless human being it would be Gottlosigkeit, godlessness of the human being.

Barth says there’s no humanity-less-ness of God, no menschenlosigkeit. English would require us to say something…there’s no such a thing as a God without humanity. Even though there are human beings who are godless, there’s no human-less God, because God has made the world, and God has made humanity his own in the Incarnation. God has made the sufferings of the world and the sin of the world his own, irrevocably, in and with the Incarnation as it reaches its fulfillment in the cross and the resur­rection. God has committed himself to being God with us, and therefore there’s no such thing as a God who does not have humanity by the grace of God. This is God’s free decision; there’s no human-less-ness of God.

JMF: Just as there’s no Father without the Son and the Holy Spirit, and no Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son.

GH: But that’s true by nature, but this is true by grace.

JMF: Yes. So we can’t think of God in any other way except as the God who has included humanity in himself.

GH: Right, and that means we can’t think about God except in terms of the covenant as it reaches its fulfillment in the Incarnation and death and resurrection of Christ.

JMF: I think Tom Torrance said something similar to that when he said in The Mediation of Christ, “God has bound himself to us in such a way he will never let us go.”

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 2:19 PM