‘Dogmatics: an Aporetic Heritage? A Re-reading of Karl Barth in the Light of Giorgio Agamben’s study Il Regno et il Gloria

Dogmatics: an Aporetic Heritage?

A re-reading of Karl Barth in the light of Giorgio Agamben’s study Il Regno e la Gloria

Rinse Reeling Brouwer, Amsterdam / Kampen

In this paper we will be challenged by the thesis recently elaborated by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his book Il Regno e la Gloria (2007)[1] that the ‘economic theology’ of the Christian tradition is responsible for the kind of aporias that have affected economic and political theories and practices of western societies until now (1). We will also raise the question whether Karl Barth, as a representative and in a certain sense a restorer of this tradition, can only be seen as a theologian in whose work these aporias are merely reproduced, or also as someone who already points to a break away from them (2), in an alliance with the messianism of the author himself (4). However, this latter possibility is not easy to defend, since Agamben himself in an important passage of his book severely criticizes Barth (3).

1. Agamben’s Theological Genealogy of Economics and Government

Giorgio Agamben (1941) is a philosopher with a strong philological interest, who chose Martin Heidegger as well as his antipode, Walter Benjamin, as his main guides.[2] For many years he seemed to be active mainly in the field of aesthetics, but from 1995 onwards he attracted considerable public attention with his project of political philosophy, Homo Sacer. In it he combines the assertion of Michel Foucault that modern politics has to a high degree taken the form of bio politics, control over lives, with the doctrine of Carl Schmitt in which a ‘state of exception’ is defended as a suspension of the Law in the name of the Law – a possibility that was not only realised by Hitler’s Machtsübernahme in 1933, but has been repeated in all democratic government systems since. The volume under consideration is part of this project, and searches as the title says, for the theological genealogy of these systems, that are stuck in ‘having maintained a law that no longer has any meaning’.[3] For, although Agamben hesitates concerning the scientific value of the research of theologians, as he expresses here and there in this book,[4] for his own research and thinking, theological material belongs integrally to the field of the humanities.

Agamben starts his analysis in The Kingdom and the Glory (Chap. 1) with a thesis against the famous assertion of Carl Schmitt, his (or rather Benjamin’s) continual counterpart, that modern theories of the foundation of the state are in the end a secularised shaping of political theology. That may be true for the philosophical legitimization of sovereignty, Agamben acknowledges, but, with a reference to Erik Peterson he points out the fact that in early Christianity a rather different phenomenon was developed, i.e., that of economic theology. Not the polis, but the oikos offered the model for this.[5] The apostle Paul (Chap. 2) says: ‘I am entrusted with a commission (oikonomia)’ (1 Cor. 9:17, RSV). The economy therefore is a commission, an office, in ‘the household of God in faith’ (1 Tim. 1:4, KJ). The same sense is found in Col. 1:25, where the apostle is speaking of ‘the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God , (=) the mystery which has been hidden from ages …’ (KJ). In an uncertain and hesitating process of searching in the next few centuries of the history of Christian theology, a reversal of this took place: Paul’s ‘economy of the mystery’, and he himself as ‘an oikonomos of the mysteries’ (1 Cor. 4:1) became ‘the mystery of the economy’ (Hippolytos, Tertullian), and ‘the economy’ at that time became the incarnation or the salvation history of Christ. The economic terminology functions here as an attractive way for Trinitarian theologians to take distance from a merely ‘monarchic’ speaking of God: God is not only far away, but also present in the immanent household of salvation. Divine ontology and divine pragmatics seem to be intertwined here, but in a next step (Chap. 3) divine theologia and divine oikonomia become separate as two different discourses about the same God, as we as modern theologians know very well. As a consequence of this dipolarity, economy seems not to be grounded in ontology, and therefore a new question arises: what could be the link between both discourses? Here the will of God, that new invention of Christian theology, becomes important: it is God’s will to also exist as a dispenser in the field of history. However, this will can only be seen as an affirmation of the act of being having no foundation – because, the Nicaean line of thought asserts that not only the Father, but also the Word, as God in his economy, is an-archè, anarchic.[6] Now the bifurcation between being and act in God, offers a model that also has political implications (Chap. 4). The formula ‘Le roi règne, mais il ne gouverne pas’, which has had a function in liberal forms of government since the 19th century, for Agamben has deeper roots and deeper implications than just that contingent historical phenomenon. The Kingdom, or sovereignty, as the divine being in the theologia, is maintained but does not act, while the gubernatio, the exercise of steermanship, as the divine act in the oikonomia, is involved in the concrete complexities of the historical dispensation.[7] The Sovereign is alien to the world as its Gnostic divine ground, but the divine economy (Chap. 5) commands and orders (as a good housefather or as a good pastor) by way of providential government (by his providentia specialis, grounded in his providentia generalis) the actual processes in the immanence of nature and history.[8] For Aquinas this providence is bound to the mutual relations of immanent things, and therewith to fate as the necessity of things, but at the same time it governs things in finem, directed towards the Sovereign. In this way economical and political theology are linked to one another, but at the same time a fundamental split between both is hidden. Other bifurcations, as that between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata, all reveal the same split both in the theology and the politics of the Christian age: the divine King could have acted in a different way than He did, but in actuality he cannot: precisely this inability is the presupposition for the real processes of government – while at the same time his absolute potency gives Him the authority to proclaim a state of exception at any time. Meanwhile these processes have a tendency to become ever more bureaucratical (Chap. 6).[9] It makes sense that Franz Kafka used to give civil servants the shape of an angel, for angelology in the tradition of the heavenly hierarchy of Dionysios actually already has the features of bureaucratic machines of terrestrial administrations in later times. A serious question, e.g., for Aquinas, then is, what, apart from them eternally praising God, might be the office of the angels when this eon will have come to an end – or might it be the presupposition of the whole divine economy that this end is continually suspended, postponed?[10] Besides, the angel in his other function, i.e., as a singer and worshipper, also deserves attention from the point of view of political theology. For never did a power survive without being continuously acclaimed in its quality as a power by its subjects.[11] This is the aspect of glorification (Chapters 7 and 8), which in its Roman Imperial morphology was taken over by the Christian church for its worship. There is a cross-link between the sphere of economics and of politics. On the one side glorification belongs to salvation history, in which believers are involved through their assent to the providential dispensation. But on the other side, the one who is glorified is the eternal divine person in His being behind His acting, and therewith the mystical ground of the Kingdom. Nowadays, the function of the earlier Byzantine solemn ceremonies has been taken over by the media and by the public opinion: without the incessant spectacle of these main factors in social life, politics as such could not continue to exist one single day. But at the same time they do organize agitation around a supposed centre which cannot be what it claims to be. On the title page of his study Agamben shows a classical image of a vacant throne as a sign of the absent Godhead. Is that in the centre of the mystery of economics as well as of politics that are inherited from the Christian tradition: the void? With that intriguing question Agamben concludes his analysis of this aporetic heritage, of which he claims that it is impossible to understand modern politics and economics without having insight into it.

In an appendix Agamben gives some suggestions for further research into the transition of this heritage to modernity. In the first place he discusses the adaptation of the notion of providence in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thinkers like Malebranche try to interpret the providentia specialis in such a way that the new science of physics can be incorporated into it, and the exception of the miracle can be excluded from it. As a consequence, the stoic motive of acceptance of ‘collateral damage’ in favour of a higher Law goes through a revival in this context. Finally Agamben shows how the theological distinction between providentia generalis and specialis was a decisive incentive for J.J. Rousseau to develop his theory of the ‘volonté generale’ (sovereignty!) and the ‘volonté particulière’ in the execution (economy!). The other appendix is concerned with the reinvention of the category of economy in the circles of the physiocrats and especially with Adam Smith. Its origin in the doctrine of providence is here undisputed. Economics is a discipline of dispensation and of order.[12] At the same time the ‘invisible hand’ as the agent of providence tends to be a merely immanent factor, as liberalism in general has the tendency to eliminate visible sovereignty in that it continually stresses economic management. But also then theological heritage in its an-archic form is not eliminated, and so theological aporias continue to be reproduced.

2. Karl Barth: Only a Representative of a Tradition, or More than That?

2.1. Theologia and oikonomia. Karl Barth is considered to be the Protestant theologian who, parallel to Karl Rahner on the other side of the confessional divide, after a period of  Trinitätsvergessenheit (in spite of exceptions as I.A. Dorner), contributed to the revival of this oikonomia in 20th Century theology. His dogmatics (in all three versions) does not start with a natural doctrine of divinity (or, in Agamben’s categories, with sovereignty as such), but with revelation, i.e., dispensation. And therefore ‘the dogma of the Trinity, which reminds us of the unity of God’s essence and work, will not lead us beyond revelation and faith, but into revelation and faith, to their correct understanding’.[13] Methodically therefore in 1932 the rule is followed ‘that statements concerning the immanent Trinity (= theologia, rrb) have been reached simply as confirmation or underlinings or, materially, as the indispensable premises of the economic Trinity’.[14] And therefore ‘statements about the modes of being (Seinsweisen) antecedently in themselves (“zuvor in sich selber”) cannot be different in content from those that are to be made about their reality in revelation’.[15] This reveals a radical anarchic tendency to bridge the gap between theologia and oikonomia by negating any meaning of the first level as such. Yet we do perceive some hesitations: ‘the work of God (das Wirken Gottes) is His essence in its relation to the reality which is distinct from Him and which is to be created or is created by Him. The work of God is the essence of God’ – this sounds like a radical expression, but then he says: ‘as the essence of Him who (in a free decision grounded in His essence but not limited to His essence) is revealer, revelation and being revealed, or Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer. All we can know of God (…) are His acts. All we can say of God (…) relates to these acts of His; not, then, to His essence as such’ (italics by me, rrb). Therefore ‘it is necessary and important to distinguish His essence as such from His work’.[16] There is some ambivalence here, as there is in the whole tradition of this theologoumenon of the ‘two discourses’: though the tendency is to bridge the gap, this program is not fully realised. This ambivalence is in line with the analysis of Agamben.[17]

2.2 Being and act. In Barth’s doctrine of God a crucial passage is called ‘The being of God in act’ (CD § 28.1). There we read: ‘in this very event – in the life of the people of Israel – God is who He is’ (… the Trinitarian God…). ‘Seeking and finding God in His revelation, we cannot escape the action of God for a God who is not active. This is not only because we ourselves cannot, but because there is no surpassing or bypassing at all of the divine action, because a transcendence of His action is nonsense. We are dealing with the being of God: but with regard to the being of God, the word “event” or “act” is final, and cannot be surpassed or compromised.’[18] Agamben would ask, whether there is not something lost when God is thought of as fully without inactivity, but he should recognize here a far-reaching consequence of early Christian economism: in this way God is radically anarchic.[19] However, a new element is found when Barth adds: ‘(To its very deepest depths God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event –) not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action, in which we have a share in God’s revelation’ (italics mine, rrb). Gods actus, for Barth, is not only purus, but at the same time singularis. Where Agamben sees in Christian dogmatics a mixture of Gnostic strangeness and stoic immanence,[20] here this immanence of God obtains a very particular character. For that reason, the English translation of the above-mentioned expression in the doctrine of the Trinity, ‘the work of God’ for the German ‘das Wirken Gottes’ is incorrect. In Barth’s argument, the subject of the act is not hiding behind the results of his working in his works, but He remains to be found in the act of His revelation, in which He at the same time creates a connection with the creature and distinguishes Himself from it.[21]

2.3. The eternal Will of God. Agamben rightly sees in the notion of the divine will as developed in Christian theology, a connection between an inactive divine being and the divine governmental working. Barth also uses this concept, as he found it in Calvin and in Reformed orthodoxy. In the earlier quotation about the doctrine of the Trinity we already found in brackets: God is the revealer in ‘a free decision grounded in His essence but not limited to His essence’. More precisely he is here dealing with the doctrine of election, where he is speaking of ‘the eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ’ (§ 33.2). And here we find the same concentration as in the preceding point: ‘(…) because it is identical with the election of Jesus Christ, the eternal will of God is a divine activity in the form of the history, encounter and decision between God and man.’[22] Sentences like the last one have given occasion to intensive discussions on the nature of the relationship between essence and history, metaphysics and oikonomia, in (notably the later) Barth.[23] In our context it is important to stress again that not history in general, but a very particular history, i.e., the history of salvation in Jesus Christ as the Elect and at the same time the Rejected, is meant and embedded in the eternal divine will.

2.4. Providence. While already with Thomas Aquinas, as Agamben shows, and even more so in early modernity, the doctrine of providence did have the function of integrating thinking about immanent physical and historical processes to be studied in a scientific way as part of the oekonomia without disturbing the laws of nature, Barth moves in quite an opposite direction. Not providence – with predestination as a part of it – is in the first place controlled by the divine will, but the particular history of the election in Christ, and from that central point of view one must also think of providence as an accompanying field (con-servatio) of the decisive event of Christ (servatio). Barth’s deviation from mainstream Christian tradition may be illustrated here by his approach to the question of ‘collateral damage’. He knew this line of argument from reading the so-called Leiden Synopsis of 1624.[24] ‘Just as when we burn wood in the house, we do not do something which corresponds to the particular purpose of the existence of wood, but something which corresponds to the purpose of the house in general.’ ‘The bonum commune is more important than the bonum singulare, so that he has to pay more heed to the well-being of the community than to that of the individual.’ Barth makes the following comment: ‘this is a type of argument which is very enlightening and most dangerous in its amiable [gemütliche] brutality. It is most dangerous because its brutality is far more noticeable than its amiability.’ Therefore Barth can only see in this argument a forerunner of the ‘economic and political totalitarianism which has caused us so much anxiety today’ (1950!).[25] Conclusion: ‘it is impossible to equate this much too primitive ordering of the world and society with the divine world-governance.’[26]

2.5. The angels. Agamben refers to Peterson’s little book Das Buch von den Engeln (1935) because of the contrast with Carl Schmitt: theology cannot serve to legitimize earthly political power, because it is governed in the oikonomia from the heavenly city, where the angels worship in eternity before the divine throne. In his angelology (§ 51) Barth converses with the same treatise by Peterson, but takes distance from the latter’s mainly cultic approach of the angels. Not their natura, but their officium matters, he says with Augustine,[27] and their office is to be witnesses in the history of grace that is inaugurated in heaven and happening on earth.[28] Unfortunately for Aquinas, they do interest him as elements of a stable heavenly system, of a world-order, instead of as the moments of a heavenly movement and history.[29] In this history there are powers in heaven and on earth, political formations, which are subjected to Christ and involved in a struggle for peace on earth. ‘There is an order in heaven, but it is not the order of rank, but of function and service’.[30] ‘What angels are, is to be understood wholly and exclusively from their function and activity. They are wholly and utterly angels, messengers (Boten), or ambassadors (Botschafter) – ‘who do not belong to the government which they represent, but only represent it’:[31] An actualist image that does not  easily fit into Agamben’s Aquinas-based theory of a ‘machine of government’. The same can be said of the biblical figure of the throne in heaven. That is not a place of rest for God, but the seat of his office. ‘The lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.’ (Ps. 103:19, RSV).[32] This establishment is an event, a happening in time, and it seems that the divine sovereignty in its entirety expresses itself here in a concrete economic exercise of power: it lies not behind, but  realizes itself in the oikonomia.[33] Here too we see how Barth radicalizes the model Agamben found in the Christian heritage. A last question is what Barth might think about the question, raised by Aquinas, whether the angels survive the day of the last judgement. We cannot be sure, because Barth does not supply us with a broader description of the content of ‘the new heaven above the new earth’. But the following remarks give an indication: the angels are not present as witnesses in the council of God. They are there were the will of God is executed. ‘They are creatures, and therefore they are not eternal.’[34] This stresses the relativity of the whole question from the perspective of the angelology of Barth. Here too he stresses the character of the oikonomia as a history of salvation in Christ, and purifies this history from all elements of the old world order. Therefore the conversation between Agamben and Barth cannot be fully the same as that of Agamben with mainstream Christian tradition.

3. Agamben’s Criticism of Karl Barth

Now it is important to look at the two passages in The Kingdom and the Glory, where in a rather critical way Agamben discusses a passage in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It concerns the part of Barth’s treatment on the Glory of God at the end of § 31.3 on ‘The perfections of the Divine Freedom’.[35] Agamben reads in these considerations, that ‘God’s freedom’ (as well as his ‘majesty and pre-eminence’, 641) ‘is not an abstract freedom or sovereignty’, nor is ‘God’s being a self-enclosed and pure divine being’ (659). Therefore his glory needs and even calls for his glorification by his creatures: an echo of God’s voice that comes to pass only as the work of the divine glory itself (667f.). The creature is free for God’s glory, ‘because it has been made free for it by God’s glory itself.’ ‘It is not merely grateful. It is itself gratitude’ (669). ‘It is from its liberation from powerlessness and presumption and the limitations of its existence as a mere creature, (…) that the praise of God springs.’ (672). If I see it correctly, Agamben raises at least three earnest objections against this argument of Barth: 1. the form of the glorification is that of mere circularity: the subject is fully dependent on the Lord or Governor, who creates its dependence on him and demands only gratefulness from it. 2. This circular shape formally does not differ from Byzantine liturgical expressions of political devotion, or from the expressions of devotion to the Fuehrer in the Third Reich that Barth had left: the formal structure is the same. 3. An additional complaint relates to the part of his argument, where Barth shifts (verlagert) the semantic field of divine glory to that of aesthetics (649-666). Although the glory of God as his beauty should be only ‘a subordinate and auxiliary idea’ (653), it has an important function, i.e., to stress that the glory of God is no brutum factum and cannot be covered by the idea of power alone: for that reason we praise the kingdom, the power and the glory. For Agamben, this shaping of a theologia gloriae – far away from Luther’s theologia crucis – conceals the harsh political kernel of oikonomia, and again, still worse: it reminds of another aspect of Barth’s adversaries, i.e., that feature of Nazism that Walter Benjamin called ‘the aestheticization of politics’.[36]

In our comment we have to start with the main find of the preceding paragraph: the specificity of Barth’s treatment of oikonomia that also works on in his treatment of the divine glory. This refers to the triunity (659ff.), as Agamben also distinguishes, but to the incarnation as well (661ff.). And here the glory of God appears to be very particular: ‘God could not be more glorious as God than in his inconceivable humiliation of Himself to man and the no less inconceivable exaltation of man to Himself’ (663). Therefore it also has to be said: ‘If the beauty of Christ is sought in a glorious Christ who is not the crucified, the search will also be in vain’ (665, in an excursus on Is. 53:2-3; should that not be an utterance of theologia crucis?). We ask: could the content of such a thesis be thinkable in the theology of imperial Byzantinism, or in the ideological justification of Nazism? From this main point of view, we make the following remarks to the three objections of Agamben.

1. It makes no sense to deny the similar formal structures on either side, or to deny the circular character of it.[37] Agamben’s problem, as we may presume, is not so much the circular character of this structure as such (for what really is the problem with that, exactly?), but the fact that he does not seem to believe that categories like life-obedience (Lebensgehorsam), service, and gratitude can actually be descriptions of a free, spontaneous, and joyful movement on the part of the human subject. Agamben apparently supposes – and he is certainly not the only one who does so! – that a radical theology of grace to the degree that we see it with Barth, can only reveal an authoritarian and disciplinarian way of thinking and acting.[38] We must recognize this type of doubt, and we must ask to which extent Barth himself in his language gives rise to such misgivings. But to be honest, on this point in particular it is difficult for a theologian to agree with Agamben.

2. That Karl Barth should have shifted from politics to aesthetics at the end of the thirties of the last century, is rather unlikely from a historical perspective. For these are pre-eminently the years of the development of his doctrine of the ‘political service of God’ (in the Scottish Gifford-lectures of 1938[39]). Yet it is undeniably possible that in its resistance against Nazism, forms, conduct, rhetoric of the oppressor might have been mirrored in the Confessing Church and its theology. Theology must always be alert in this respect!

3. ‘Aestheticization’ of the event of oikonomia, and of the question of sovereignty and power behind it, is and will always be a bad thing, and any ‘aesthetic theology’ even more so. That would not be the way of doing dogmatics in de 21st century! Yet, I have to confess that particularly the Church Dogmatics often evokes in me an impression of beauty – as do, for quite other reasons,[40] the works of Agamben in me as well….

4. The Theological Agenda: on the Messianic Parousia

As has been said, for Agamben modern politics and economics are the heirs of the oikonomia of Christian tradition. For him it makes no sense to demand a secularisation of it, for it has already been secularized, and with it all its anomalies.[41] Just as Roman Catholicism presupposes a continuous suspension of the parousia,[42] so also the modern dipolarity of inactive sovereignty and bureaucratic government tends to a prolongation of itself without end.[43]

Therefore what can we hope for? For a person who has read Agamben’s book on the ‘radical Jewish messianist’ Paul,[44] the answer in this study, The Kingdom and the Glory, also will not be surprising. This answer lies in the motive of the katargein (to make inactive; Rom. 3:6, 7:6; 2 Thess. 2:3 etc.): it is the Messiah who can render the Law as well as the powers of angels and men (Col. 1) inactive and who therewith deprives the whole machinery of economics of its effectiveness.[45] Beyond government (and beyond anarchy) therefore, a mode of non-government (Unregierbarkeit) may be imagined that never will be shaped as an oikonomia.[46]

Moreover, the Christian tradition itself has preserved a reminiscence of an end of the oikonomia, viz. the Pauline expectation – renewed by Marcellus of Ancyra in the old Church and by Jürgen Moltmann in contemporary theology – of the Messiah who shall put all his enemies under his feet and then give up his Kingdom by submitting himself to God the Father (1 Cor. 15:25-28): the immanent Trinity will then absorb the economic Trinity into itself, and thus after the oikonomia only the glory will remain.[47] Apparently the glory is not only connected to the oikonomia, but also preserves within itself important aspects of theologia, of a divine being without act, or, one could also say, of the divine Sabbath, i.e., the cessation of all activity.[48]

For his part Karl Barth was driven by a strong eschatological impetus, and always opposed the tendency in mainstream Christianity to suspend the parousia. Nor did that change when the form in which he sought to think of the parousia shifted in later years, when he stressed how it is Christ who is present in his effectiveness.[49]  Now, because of the concentration of this particular history in the midst of history, and the refusal to identify this oikonomia with world history as such, a different idea of the final redemption is implied than that of Agamben. For this specific oikonomia does not have to be stopped, it has to be fulfilled. Consequently Barth offers quite a different exegesis of the crux interpretum 1 Corinthians 15:28. In his eyes, the fact that the Son in the end, after the defeat of the last enemy, ‘subjects’ himself and gives a last sign of his service to the Father, confirms who the Son has been from the beginning: he who, being in the form of God, took upon himself the form of a servant, humbled himself, and was obedient unto death (Phil. 2:6ff.), continues to act in the same manner even in this his final action. ‘So, that his Kingdom is revealed once more as that of the Ebed Jahve, does not afterwards become a restriction, but rather will be the authentic interpretation of his actions as the King and as Lord in the Kingdom of God as in his own Kingdom.’[50] Therefore, you could say that this last subjection ‘that God may be all in all’ makes room for a world of pure mutual service of all to all[51]– and indeed, in this sense it will be beyond government or non-government.[52]

However, in this view the divine glory will remain ‘the glory of the Mediator’ (CD § 69), not that of a divine being behind its act. The question now is how deep we must consider the gap between Agamben and Barth to be in this respect. Should we in fact regard the messianism of redemption in the sense of Benjamin-Agamben and the specific Trinitarian oikonomia with its eschatological perspective in the sense of Barth as antithetical to each other?[53] For me this is a task for further investigation.[54]

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Il Regno e la Gloria. Per una genealogia teologica dell’economia e del governo (Homo Sacer II.2), Milan: Neri Pozza 2007. We quote here from the German translation: Herrschaft und Herrlichkeit. Zur theologischen Genealogie von Ökonomie und Regierung, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2010 (abbr. HH). Unfortunately so far no English translation has been available. A possible title could be The Kingdom and the Glory (Cf. Matthew 6:13, textus receptus).

[2] Cf. Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben. A Critical Introduction, Stanford CA: Standford University Press 2009.

[3] ‘Geltung ohne Bedeutung’. Gershom Scholem as quoted in Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Italian 1995, Eng. Transl. Stanford, CA 1998; Chap. I.4 and State of Exception, Homo Sacer II, 1, Italian 2003, Eng. Trans. Chicago Ill.: University of Chicago Press, Chap. 4.8.

[4] E.g., HH 15, 46 א, 202.

[5] A remark about this: When one reads the argument on the difference of oikos and polis in the first book mainly of the Politics of Aristotle (1252 a – 1260 b), one finds that here the oikos functions as the stable foundation of political life and the whole order of nature. The houseman who meets his fellow-citizens in the council of the polis (only he is a zoôn politikon) is in his home dèspotès over his slaves, husband of his wife and father of his children. The oikos as an ideal is an autarchic unit of production and consumption, subject to continuous hierarchical relationships. It reproduces inequality, and as such does not in any way have the characteristics of an-archè. Presumably this emphasis especially of most religious groups on ‘family values’ continues these conservative features. However, when you come from Aristotle, the gospels (in particular that of Luke) sound subversive. There, Jesus breaks out of his family relationships in a clash of two fatherhoods (Cf. Lk. 2:49, Lk. 8:21), and offers an alternative nomos of this oikos Lk. 15:31. So, as the gospel of John says, in the end Jesus does not call his disciples servants, but friends (Joh. 15:15), which is an abolition of the inequality of the Aristotelian oikos. Therefore I would say: the use of oikonomia in early Christianity already presupposes a transformation of its normal use in antiquity, although it was always possible to fall back into former schemes.

[6] HH 77, with reference to the refutation of the Arianism of Eunomios by the Cappadocian theologians. However, although it is true that Eunomios considered the qualification of an-archos as only appropriate for the Father, the line of thought of a Gregorios of Nyssa was not so much to say that the Son was also that, because he saw in the Arian play with the word archè too much a fixation or a false image of God. Instead of that he introduced divine infinity – defined as ‘the impossibility to think through God to the end’.

[7] In the Homo Sacer-project as a whole this bifurcation is connected to the difference between auctoritas (as belonging to a person) and potestas (as executive power). In HH e.g. 128.

[8] Cf. HH 105: taxis, arrangement, is for Aristotle not a concept of substance but of pros ti, relation, and therefore economic thinking is not a substantialist but a relationalist form of thinking.

[9] Chapter 6 of HH was separately published earlier in German under the title Die Beamten des Himmels. Über Engel, Leipzig: Verlag der Weltreligionen 2007.

[10] Cf. HH 167 (on the papal Church).

[11] The (divine) power needs such nourishment of human adoration, Agamben stresses. He illustrates this with examples from traditions as Hinduism (HH 278ff.). A reference to Psalm 22:3 would also have been possible: ‘o thou, that inhabitest the praises of Israel’.

[12] Besides oikonomia Aristotle also knows another category, that of chrèmatistikè or the business of obtaining wealth (Cf. K. Marx, Das Kapital I (1867), Berlin: Dietz Verlag 1973, 167ff.). This activity is not directed at the conservation and disposition of property, but at the increase of money. Basically Aristotle shudders at this phenomenon, for its breaks open the natural order (1258 b 8) and tends to the apeiron, to unlimited growth (1257 b 34). Now it is the question, which type was taken up, when the scientific discipline of ‘the political economy’ was developed in the 18th century. Agamben says correctly: this discipline did not trace itself to Aristotle (HH 332). But one can continue and ask whether modern economics, although it initially presents itself as a discipline of disposition or planning from the point of view of the King who must divide the means in his reign, is not in reality about the expansion of chrèmatistikè in the shape of capitalism. To be sure, Agamben remarks that the sequence ‘government and economy’ nowadays must be turned into ‘economy and government’, but then he immediately adds that fundamentally these two words are the same (HH329). In my eyes he then misses the particularity of ‘the business of obtaining wealth’.

[13] Church Dogmatics (CD) I/1, 396; Kirchliche Dogmatik (KD) I/1, 417. Cf. CD I/1, 305 (KD I/1, 321): ‘God’s revelation is a ground which has no higher or deeper ground above or below it, but is an absolute ground in itself and therefore for man a court from which there can be no possible appeal to a higher court’: this anarchic sentence tends to the denial of a divine sovereignty behind the dispensation of salvation.

[14] CD I/1, 479; KD I/1, 503.

[15] For the expression ‘zuvor in sich selber’ see also the Leitsätze of the §§ 10, 11, 12, and CD 414 (= KD 435), with the questionable translation: ‘Christ as the One He already was before, apart from this event, in Himself’.

[16] CD 371; KD 391.

[17] Nevertheless, also Agamben in a certain context can draw the conclusion: ‘the mystery of the being of God coincides totally with the economic mystery of it’, HH 169. This sentence is in the context of legitimizing the power of the pope as vicarius Christi: ‘there is no essence, but only an “economy” of power, only government.’

[18] CD II/1, 262f.; KD II/1, 294.

[19] K.H. Miskotte, the Dutch younger colleague and friend of Karl Barth, coined a new Name for God in accordance with the Old Testament, the anarchic, in a certain sense nihilistic expression ‘grondeloos – in ons midden’ (without ground, among us). See Als de goden zwijgen (When the Gods are Silent), first ed. Amsterdam: Holland 1956, 151ff.

[20] E.g., HH 101: Catholic Christianity put the antinomy of strangeness to the world and government of the world in God.

[21] The Dutch biblical scholar Frans H. Breukelman tried to show how the figure of ‘das Sein als ein Sein in der Tat’ from CD § 28.1 could already be found in the ontology of the Old Testament. In an Introduction, he shows how the use of the Hebrew verb ‘to do’ in the Christianity of the Latin West was replaced by a speaking of the opera Dei as perceptible objects. This Introduction has not yet been included in the English translation of the study Bijbelse Theologie II.1. Debharim. Der biblische Wirklichkeitsbegriff des Seins in der Tat, Kampen: Kok 1998, 1-13; cf. www.breukelmanstichting.nl/publicaties/debhariminhetEngels

[22] CD II/2, (146, 155, 161 and) 175; KD II/2 (157, 168, 175 and) 192.

[23] Cf. the debates provoked by the article of Bruce McCormack in the Cambridge Compendium to Karl Barth (2000), with participants like, e.g., Paul D. Molnar and Kevin W. Hector. McCormack offers his own evaluation in: ‘Trinity and Election. A Progress Report’, in: Akke van der Kooi and others (eds.), Ontmoetingen. Tijdgenoten en getuigen. Studies aangeboden aan Gerrit Neven, Kampen: Kok 2009, 14-35.

[24] Already in his lectures of 1924/1925 Barth offered the same quotation just as he had found it in the Reformierte Dogmatik of H. Heppe at that time, but at this first encounter with the argument he reproduced it without any comment. See K. Barth, ‘Unterricht in der christlichen Religion’. Zweiter Band. Die Lehre von Gott / Die Lehre vom Menschen’, hrsg. von H. Stoevesandt, Zürich: Theologischer Verlag 1990, 271.

[25] CD III/3 § 49.3, ‘The divine ruling’ (= ‘das göttliche Regieren = de gubernatione Dei), 172f.; KD III/3, 195-96ff. Reference to the Synopsis Purioris Doctrinae, Lugdunum Batavorum: Elzevir 1624, Disputatio XI.18-19.

[26] Op. cit. 173. Although Agamben only concentrates on the justification of ‘collateral damage’ from the point of view of the doctrine of the providentia generalis, he shows some understanding of the type of protest Barth utters here in commending the Theodicée of Leibniz: ‘the wish to justify God, because the world is at it is, is the most thinkable way of misunderstanding Christianity as is possible!’ (because for Christianity, the world does not have to be justified, it has to be saved).

[27] CD III/3, 381; KD III/3, 440.

[28] CD III/3, 454; KD III/3, 529.Cf. in particular the detailed discussion with Peterson on the exegesis of Rev. 4 and 5, CD III/3 463ff. (KD III/3, 541ff.).

[29] CD III/3, 396; KD III/3, 459.

[30] CD III/3, 456-459; KD III/3, 532-536: ‘Rangordnung? Nein! Funktionsordnung, Dienstordnung? Ja!’ Cf. in his lectures of 1924/25 the remark, that this was already the doctrine of Reformed tradition, ‘which is originally more inclined to democracy than other confessions’. K. Barth, Unterricht II (ref. 24), 343 (Bucanus).

[31] CD III/3, 512; KD III/3, 600f.

[32] CD III/3, 438; KD III/3, 510.

[33] CD III/3, 476 (KD III/3, 557f.) Barth refers to the tradition, in which the doctrine of the angels is seen as part of the theologia. But to conclude his exegesis of Rev. 4 and 5 he stresses, that ‘Joannes theologos’ is here speaking of the service of the angels in the history of the Lamb that takes place on earth from out of heaven. Again Barth here pulls the whole theologia into the oikonomia!

[34] CD III/3, 497; KD III/3, 582. A reference to S.Th. I quaestio 108 a. 7 can be found CD III/3, 396; KD III/3, 459, but Barth does return to the question later on in his argument.

[35] HH 253-254 (Chapt. 8.9) and 256-258 (Chap. 8.11) on CD II/1, 640-677 (Quotations in the main text are from this English edition); KD II/1, 722-764.

[36] W. Benjamin, ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’, Zweite Fassung (1936), Nachwort; Gesammelte Schriften Band I.2, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp 1974, 506. Though formulated in quite a different style,  the three volumes  Herrlichkeit. Eine theologische Ästhetik by Hans Urs von Balthasar (1961-1969) are, according to Agamben,  an extensive unfolding of this bad aspect in Barth’s treatise on the Glory of God.

[37] In the second chapter of the gospel of Luke, an angel of the Lord appears ‘and the glory of the Lord shone around them (the shepherds)’ (Lk. 2:9). And ‘suddenly there is a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God by saying: “Glory to God…” etc. (vs. 13, 14). Then the shepherds say to one another: ‘let us go to Bethlehem and see the word that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us’ (vs. 15). And at the end of the story, the glorification by the angels from heaven receives an echo (indeed!) through a glorification on earth: ‘and the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.’ Indeed, this story is absolutely circular! But it is so in proclaiming this singular event: the dabhar that was happening, its sign, laying in the manger, and the participation in it of its witnesses. Cf. F.H. Breukelman, ‘En het geschiedde…’, in: Bijbelse Theologie III.1, Kampen: Kok 1984, (179-225)209-212.

[38] Cf. HH 313ff. on the doctrine of grace of Jansenius, Pascal and others and HH 166 with a quotation of Suárez against the ‘error’ of Luther: the necessity of grace must connect with human freedom, and apparently the doctrine of the bondage of the human will must be seen as connected to tyranny instead of to democracy. The historical judgement of Agamben can be doubted here.

[39] K. Barth, Gotteserkenntnis und Gottesdienst nach reformatorischer Lehre, Zürich: Zollikon 1938, 203ff.

[40] Their erudition, their discovery of rather unknown sources, their construction, their feeling for theology…

[41] HH 341.

[42] HH 21, 22 says that this is true with one very ambivalent exception: the interest of the Church in the conversion of the Jews. This ambivalence, Agamben presumes, was enough for Walter Benjamin not to speak of eschatology, but of messianism.

[43] Cf. HH 195: ‘on the one hand this model (of modern philosophy of history) abolishes eschatology and extends history and the government of the world into infinity, on the other hand it is continuously confronted with the finiteness of its own paradigm…’

[44] Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: a Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Stanford CA: Standford University Press 2005 (Italian 2000); see there ‘The Fifth Day’ on the Katargein.

[45] E.g., HH 199-200; there is also a reference, as elsewhere in the Homo Sacer-project, tothe alternative motive of the messianic angel of Kafka, who does not apply, but studies the Law.

[46] HH 85.

[47] HH 80 (reference to Marcellus) and 251 (reference to Moltmann).

[48] HH 285-289. Here too Heidegger’s heritage shows up in his pupil Agamben: for in his later thought Heidegger tried to reflect on a mode of being that survives its own economy, or an end of the ‘history of being’ itself (HH 252 and 195 below).

[49] See the concept of the ‘three forms of the parousia’, CD IV/3, 293ff. (KD IV/3, 338ff.): the resurrection, the outpouring of the Spirit and the final return of Jesus Christ.

[50] K. Barth, Das christliche Leben. Die Kirchliche Dogmatik IV/4, Fragmente aus dem Nachlaß. Vorlesungen 1959-1961, Zürich: Theologischer Verlag 1976, (432-434)433.

[51] Cf. R.H. Reeling Brouwer, ‘Und seines Königreichs wird kein Ende sein: Ein klassischer Widerspruch: Lukas 1, 33 oder 1 Korinther 15, 28?’, in:ACEBT Supplement Series 2, Maastricht: Shaker 2001, 293-301.

[52] And presumably, in this way also for Barth there will be room for the immanence, the absolute and irreparable profanity of the world as God, which attracts Agamben so much in the secularisation of oikonomia in modernity. Cf. the tenth Chapter of De la Durantaye (ref. 2): ‘The Messiah, or On the Sacred and the Profane’, 366-382.

[53] One can also ask: do the gospel of John and the apostle Paul contradict each other in this respect to the extent that Agamben (HH 241-245) suggests?

[54] Another subject on the future theological agenda could be the motive of the zôè aiȏnios, life eternal, that Agamben links with the motive of the messianic time (HH 294-297). For him it should not be isolated in an otherworldly objectivity, but it is that aspect of the Messianic way of life that alienates life from itself, that already now makes inactive usual bio-political (bio-, not zôon- i.e., ‘bare life’) and economic activity, that embodies the eternal Sabbath in the midst of work and that will receive its own ‘crown of life’ (Jas. 1:12; Rev. 2:10) or ‘crown of glory’ (1 Pet. 5:4). But for the conversation on this theme we should wait for the last volume of his Homo Sacer-project that Agamben has announced, and that will deal with questions of life form, life style and use (HH 13. Cf. Ulrich Rauff, “An Interview with Giorgio Agamben,” German Law Journal 5.5 (2004), 612-613). When this new book appears, Christian dogmatics (and Christian ethics) undoubtedly will be challenged again.

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R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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