It would take three years to realize that I barely understand this painting or the truth found therein.
Let me explain. As someone who loosely identifies with the Reformed tradition, I believe it is important to have a high view of God's transcendence and sovereignty. This became all the more apparent when I took the Karl Barth seminar at HDS. I remember presenting my paper on the doctrine of election during my week to speak before the class. I specifically discussed Barth's extensive coverage of the historical intricacies between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. To my relief, Barth ended up on the side of supralapsarianism but he took a lot of the sting out of the traditional formulation. There was another student in the class who objected to Barth's sympathies with a (revised) version of supralapsarianism. As he began to argue continually for the importance of infralapsarianism, I realized that the problem of evil was subtly lurking in his mind. And he came to a point where he expressed reservations that anything more (less?) than infralapsarianism leads into some type of monism. Therefore, there can not be any genuine speech about the life and choices of Jesus Christ. And even worse, there was never anything at stake with the cross. Holy Saturday does not serve as any type of anxiety or questioning since there was never any other possibility except for resurrection Sunday. I was immediately offended in some sense by his suggestions. With my compatibilist sympathies, I responded by asking "does this mean that we have to believe that Jesus had the power of contrary choice in order to make sense of his suffering, temptation, and prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane? Surely not! What would that mean? Jesus Christ has the power to choose that which is not according to God's will? How is that even a genuine possibility for Jesus Christ, as fully God, to chose anything but that which is according to the character of God? If He could, that means that the Son would be able to rebel against the Father and the Trinity itself would be in opposition and then God would contradict God and everything would cease to exist and fall into infinite nothingness! Is that really what we want to say?" To this day, I am unsure what he would have said as a response since my professor took over the conversation and added something else that was more pressing to the specific section of the reading. But it really bothered me that someone would suggest that God's sovereignty need be tempted in order to rescue some sort of authenticity.
I say all of this because I realized how much I have changed since that moment in seminar. Today, I came across Jeremy's post regarding the tension found within the Incarnation and the cross of Christ (by the way, Jeremy has been and continues to be one of the best theological bloggers on the web - read him often). While I might not agree with his overall inclinations to ultimately go beyond Barth, I appreciate his questions more than I can say. I looked up the passage in the CD which he quotes and was amused to find it underlined with question marks in the margins. Here Barth discusses the tension between the sovereignty and transcendence of God in Godself and the lowliness and weakness of God in Christ:
The incarnation of the Word, the human being of God, His condescension, His way into the far country, His existence in the forma servi, is something which we can understand - this is (or appears to be) the first alternative - by supposing that in it we have to do with a novum mysterium (in the strict and literal sense of the expression of Melito of Sardis), with what is noetically and logically and absolute paradox, with what is ontologically the fact of a cleft or rift or gulf in God Himself, between His being and essence in Himself and His activity and work as the Reconciler of the world created by Him. It therefore pleased Him in this latter, for the redemption of the world, not to alter Himself, but to deny the immutability of His being, His divine nature, to be in discontinuity with Himself, to be against Himself, to set Himself in self-contradiction. In Himself He was still the omnipresent, almighty, eternal and glorious One, the All-Holy and All-Righteous who could not be tempted. But at the same time among us and for us He was quite different, not omnipresent and eternal but limited in time and space, not almighty but impotent, not glorious but lowly, and open to radical and total attack in respect of His righteousness and holiness. His identity with Himself consisted strictly in His determination to be God, our God, the Reconciler of the world, in this inner and outer antithesis to Himself. The quo iure, the possibility of the incarnation, of His becoming man, consisted in this determination of God to be "God against God," in His free will to be this, in His fathomless mercy as the meaning and purpose of that will.- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 184, emphasis added.
When I first read this passage, I was incredibly adverse to any sentiments that there was any type of tension concerning the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the divinity of God. Any such genuine tension would mean that God is not the God who I believe He must be in order to be worshipped. He is the God that you behold and scoff at and think, "this is your God!?" In a very profound way, I realized when I reread this passage that the God revealed in the cross and in the painting above really is the God that does not accord with the deepest expectations of humanity. He is a God that offends us if we witness Him most fully revealed. And even in His revealedness, He remains hidden continually. I wonder if I could ever truly claim to believe that God is revealed in the cross beyond some emotional sentiment that I had when I thought about Him suffering for me. I continually refused to see the identity of God in the suffering and humility of Jesus. The experience of the crucifixion was sheerly a utilitarian means to accomplish the ends of my salvation.
But then I find that I also experience the opposite offense in HDS classes through the apophatic theology found through the Early Christian Fathers Eastern Tradition class last semester and Negative Theology class this semester. I wrote these hesitations before but I will explain again because the same assumptions were reinforced in class yesterday. In apophatic theology, there is the idea that God is so incredibly transcendent, and therefore He is epistemologically unknowable for the human person. The only way to truly have any sort of genuine communion with God is through a spiritual experience through the various theories of language or meditation. Obviously this is a gross oversimplification, but the fact remains that within apophatic theology the line between the infinite (God) and the finite (humanity) is strict and is never overcome. One of my professors in Negative Theology yesterday gave a lecture about the negative theology of Anselm found within his understanding and use of language. It was a rather obscure lecture but he drew a diagram on the board and drew a line between the Divine with the term Infinite next to it and then the object with the term finite next to it. The two realms never meet. A student promptly asked if such a divide is putting unwarranted limitations upon the Godhead and telling God what is possible for Godself. The professor responded by saying that he is simply holding to the traditional understanding that God can not do anything that is self-contradictory. Therefore, God can not in any way step into the finite so to speak since this would contradict His very being and he would argue that Anselm is operating from the same understanding. But I immediately was offended by these human-imposed standards since I immediately wanted to ask him how this particular position makes sense of the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God becomes objective revelation when He chooses to unite Himself to human flesh. Post council of Nicaea, I do not understand how the Christian tradition can genuinely believe that God is epistemologically transcendent since He has fully revealed Himself in the human person of Jesus Christ. Even though God is always in control of the knowing event as the Subject of revelation, He truly became an object of knowledge. It seems that under this mindset of apophaticism, God is not truly and fully present nor revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So I find myself in this constant state of tension between offense when some want to have a robust sense of God's weakness and lowliness in the Incarnation and death of Jesus Christ. But I also find myself offended by those who champion God's transcendence at the expense of recognizing that which has been radically accomplished in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God is so transcendent that He has the freedom to determine to be the God for us. I am surprised to say that at this point in my theological development, I am more troubled by apophatic theological assumptions than by any understanding that speaks of God's lowliness and tension within Godself. But unlike Jeremy, I am satisfied to some extent that Barth stops where he does. I realize that this is a very crude example but it will serve my purposes: if God were truly able to "die" as Jeremy says, then this would mean that God is changed by His creation. If I have a disease and go to see a doctor for treatment, I don't expect the doctor to transmit the disease himself in order to believe that such a doctor is worthy of claiming the title or earn the label of "compassionate." Rather, I want the doctor to act in compassion by remaining healthy and treating my disease. Unless he remains free from disease, my doctor is not free to treat me. In this very pathetic example, I see the same principle applies to God - how can he rescue humanity from the death that comes through evil and sin if He dies in Himself? If we go beyond the tension and say that God dies within Godself, are we sacrificing the hiddenness of God in the cross?
But one thing is for sure. The truth revealed in the painting above demands a theologia crucis that God is glorified in His lowliness and suffering, not compromised because of it.