Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:17-23, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

The mystery of the Christian life is that it is grounded in the history of Jesus Christ, a divine event which occurred in him rather than anything which occurs in us. Yet—and this is Barth’s central concern in the entire section—how is it that an event which occurred in his history can be the ground of the Christian life as it unfolds in our lives?

What has this Other, who there and then was born in Bethlehem and died on Golgotha, what has He to do with me? What has the freedom of His life as very Son of God and Son of Man to do with my necessary liberation to be a child of God, and consequently with the humanity which is true because it corresponds to the will of this Father? And what have I to do with Him? How can it be that, as I grow out of Him as out of a root, He can be one with me and I with him, and in unity with Him my own life can begin as a Christian life, the life of a man who is faithful to God? How can that which He was and did extra nos become an event in nobis? (p. 18)

Barth rejects one-sided, ‘artifical’ responses to this question. That is, he refuses to attribute the decision to the sole agency of God, thereby rendering humanity passive in their own salvation. He likewise refuses to attribute the saving decision to humanity alone, as though each person were their own “reconciler, teacher and master in relation to God” (19-20). Both these approaches dismiss the ethical problem of the genesis of the Christian life as irrelevant, and “conjure away the mystery which confronts us.”

Instead, Barth would “allow the matter to be its own interpreter … to see how the matter interprets itself, how the riddle is solved from within” (20). This is discovered by following the “singular movement of New Testament thinking” which in reality is a double-sided movement, “from above downwards, but also from below upwards” (20-22). In this twofold but single movement we find both, that in Jesus Christ God is faithful to humanity, and also that humanity is faithful is God.

As this individual history it is thus cosmic in origin and goal. As such it is not sterile. It is a fruitful history which newly shapes every human life. Having taken place extra nos, it also works in nobis, introducing a new being of every man. … He was faithful to us by being ready to give Himself, and by giving Himself, to fulfil the covenant between God and man in His own person, i.e., by being faithful to God in our place, in the place of those who previously were unfaithful to Him. In our place—even as He was there and then what only He could be, He was this in our here and now, in the weakness, ungodliness and enmity, the heart, the personal centre of the existence of every man. But if he acts extra nos pro nobis, and to that extent also in nobis, this necessarily implies that in spite of the unfaithfulness of every man He creates in the history of every man the beginning of his new history, the history of a man who has become faithful to God. All this is because it is God himself who has taken man’s cause in hand in His person. It was not a man who posited or made this new beginning. Not of himself did man become another man, faithful to God instead of unfaithful. Nevertheless, on the path from Bethlehem to Golgotha which Jesus Christ traversed for him as very Son of God and therefore as very Son of Man, the new beginning of his life was posited and made as that of a man who is faithful to God. On the ground of this beginning of his in the history of Jesus Christ he here and today can and should live his new Christian life which corresponds to, because it follows, the divine transformation of his heart and person which took place there and then (21).

By taking our place in his work outside of us and for us, Jesus Christ liberates and transforms us for a new faithfulness to God. The history of Jesus Christ is a fruitful history, and efficacious, and so does not remain simply external to humanity but is also in nobis here and now.

The God at work in that history, while He does not find and confirm a direct relation between Himself and us, does create and adopt this relation, which we could not create or adopt for ourselves, but which we cannot evade when He does so. Interceding for us in Jesus Christ, He is now present to us, not at a distance, but in the closest proximity, confronting us in our own being, thought and reflection. … What takes place is thus quite simply that in nobis, in our heart, at the centre of our existence, there is set a contradiction of our unfaithfulness, a contradiction which we cannot escape, which we have to endorse, in face of which we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, by which it is not merely forbidden but prevented and rendered impossible. … What then? We can will and do only one thing—the thing which is positively prefigured for us in the action of the true Son of God and Son of Man at work within us. The only possibility is to be faithful to God. … The divine change in whose accomplishment a man becomes a Christian is an event of true intercourse between God and man. If it undoubtedly has its origin in God’s initiative, no less indisputably man is not ignored or passed over in it. He is taken seriously as an independent creature of God. He is not run down and overpowered, but set on his own feet. He is not put under tutelage, but addressed and treated as an adult. The history of Jesus Christ, then, does not destroy a man’s own history. In virtue of it this history becomes a new history, but it is still his own new history. The faithfulness to God to which he is summoned is not, then, an emanation of God’s faithfulness. It is truly his own faithfulness, decision and act (22-23).

It is clear in these pages that Barth wrestles to secure the genuine agency of the human person vis-à-vis God, although it is an agency which is strictly ordered to the prior work of divine grace by which the person is liberated for precisely this kind of agency. Thus, Barth’s interest is not so much soteriological or even sacramental though he does address these topics. Rather, as befits the ‘ethics of reconciliation,’ Barth is interested in the divine-human relation in its ethical dimension. Thus he speaks of the “ethical problem of the genesis of the Christian life,” and is concerned with the divine-human relation being one of “the genuine intercourse between God and man as two different partners.” The genesis of the Christian life is grounded in the divine work fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yet this work includes humanity, and thereby liberates and transforms humanity, so that the human person might freely and faithfully respond to the divine address which encounters them.

At the heart of Barth’s exposition, then, is the ethical concern of faithful human response to the reconciling God. But this response must in its genesis be consonant with the whole character of the Christian life, and the response of the Christian to the divine summons in the whole of life must be consonant with its genesis.

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