ancient

The concept of infinity has a long pedigree in philosophy. Taken on its own terms, it surely exceeds all the efforts of our understanding, but the story of its appropriation by Christian theologians can be briefly told. The ancient Greeks equated the infinite with matter in its unformed and thus chaotic state. The infinite was just another name for everything we can never know, since we know material objects only according to their form. When Christian theologians realized that an infinite nature is also eternal, they concluded that God’s freedom and power should not be limited. So they transferred the concept of infinity from matter to the divine, which laid the foundation for most of the philosophical moves that have come to be associated with classical theism. That’s where the matter rested until Karl Barth rejected the whole thing.

Stephen H. WebbWe are still too close to Barth’s theology to grasp the revolutionary potential of his doctrine of God, but his discussion of divine omnipresence in the second volume of Church Dogmatics is a good place to start. Barth begins this discussion by redefining the idea of divine simplicity to mean that “at no time or place is He composed out of what is distinct from Himself,” instead of opting for a more typical definition such as “no parts.” God cannot be divided, not because he is immune to quantity, but because he is wholly himself. Beginning with this clarification, Barth begins to dismantle the conceptions of God provided by classical theism, pointing out the ways in which they impoverish our understanding of Jesus Christ.

Barth observes that idealists of all kinds have always romanticized the possibility of experiencing something beyond the physical world, and fallen prey to “the ambiguous charm of the number ‘one.’” But God is not to be found there. The idea of something radically simple was born of the effort to imagine a being beyond matter and its inherent divisions. For Barth, this idea does not apply to God, and is a “flat contradiction to the way in which this recognition originally forced itself on the Church.”

No matter how hard we try, we cannot get from the Trinity to God’s simplicity. (Barth is not above joking about this issue: “The absolutised idea of simplicity itself belongs to the complexity from which man must be delivered.”) And positing the material world as “the sum of finite reality” creates a reality “distinct from God,” something Barth rejects. After all, that which bounds the finite (which we could call the infinite) must be bounded by it in turn, placing God beyond even it.

But while Barth has many criticisms of traditional dogmatics, his real critique of the infinite is more existential than dialectical. He opens this volume of the Dogmatics with a blistering commentary on Augustine’s Ostia experience, where Augustine and his mother “wandered step by step through all the corporeal world” until they climbed, in their minds, past the spirit of man and into the eternity of God. Barth is suspicious that even Augustine actually scaled such heights, but he warns the rest of us to not try such spiritual risk-taking at home, calling this “one of the most beautiful but also the most dangerous passages in the Confessions.” Those who seek God in the infinite “willfully hurry past God” in the finite, which is where God meets us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the place where we meet God, but he is also the place of God, and that gets to the heart of Barth’s finite God. There is no God of the gaps in Barth, in the sense of a mediating figure between God’s essence and God’s revelation. Even Jesus Christ is, technically speaking, not that mediation, since he is truly God. Barth’s rule on how to connect revelation to God’s nature is the following: “God does not do anything which in His own way He does not have and is not in Himself.” Jesus Christ is finite; therefore, God is also finite, in His own way. “For there is no reason why God in His essence should not be finite in the same perfect way as He is infinite.” And if the reader does not realize what Barth is saying, he repeats himself (Barth loves a good repetition): “God is certainly infinite,” he says. “But he is also finite.” So there you have it.

Anything finite takes up space, which is why Barth goes on to insist that “God’s presence necessarily means that He possesses a place, His own place, or, we may say safely, His own space.” Being spatial, or having his own space, permits God to be present in the world in various degrees of proximity or distance—here and there, rather than everywhere and nowhere—even though God is always present in the world as himself. That is, he is present in degrees of intimacy but not in degrees of his specific and unique nature, which is constant and united.

Barth goes on to make even better arguments for a finite God (regarding the Trinity and incarnation as well as referencing Acts 17:28), which lead to even more astonishing claims about the cosmos. In fact, Barth’s theology has direct cosmological implications. For one, he rejects the idea of space as a receptacle that God creates in order to hold the various things he makes. (He uses enclosure language late in his argument and only with the greatest of care.) He claims the throne of God is not a symbol, but a reality. He also rejects the Kantian move to make space a precondition of cognition. Space, instead, is relationship. But Barth’s focus here is really on the person of Jesus Christ.

Barth’s God is not infinite because God is a unique individual, an “objective” agent who freely creates and loves us. What is often unnoticed in Barth’s doctrine of God is just how unashamedly anthropomorphic his language is. God is truly himself in the sense of being constant, dependable, and trustworthy. To use Barth’s own metaphysical scheme, God’s being is in his action, and his actions are those of a person very much like us. Barth employs what philosophers call “perfect being metaphysics,” with the twist that the perfect being is a person, and not just any person, but the one that walked the earth named Jesus.

If God is finite, then humans and the divine are not separated by some ontologically absolute gulf. Barth does not retreat from this implication of his thought. In Jesus Christ, he says, “God has raised man to the throne. God’s most proper space is itself the space which this man occupies in the cradle and on the cross, and which he cannot therefore leave or lose again, for, as His resurrection and ascension reveal, it is now his permanent space.”

Let’s give Barth the last word on this topic. These words are a long way from classical theism, but they just might do the most of any modern theological commentary to glorify Jesus Christ, which is why they are, for me, the greatest words of the entire Church Dogmatics: “Thus the human nature of Christ (and especially in this connexion His corporality and therefore his spatiality) in its unity with the deity of the Son (unconfused with it, but also undivided from it, in real indirect identity), is the revelation but as the revelation it is also the reality of the divine space, by which all other spaces are created preserved and surrounded.”

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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