Tag Archives: Church Dogmatics

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (1)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:3-12,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

Barth begins his treatment of the doctrine of God with a chapter entitled “The Knowledge of God.” The chapter has three sections, the first being “The Fulfilment of the Knowledge of God” itself comprised of two sub-sections.

In the first sub-section, “Man before God,” Barth provides a description of how the knowledge of God occurs—from a human perspective. He begins by assuming that the knowledge of God is a reality in the church: “In the Church of Jesus Christ men speak about God and men have to hear about God” (3). That this knowledge occurs in the church is a result of the gracious gift of God by which God has made himself known and makes himself known. True confidence must begin here—with the actuality rather than the possibility of the knowledge of God. We do not ask whether God might be known but rather how far God is or might be known (5). This is an epistemological claim: the knowledge of God occurs only in its occurrence—where God is actually known, where the fulfilment of this knowledge takes place. There is no neutral position or standpoint whereby one might test, explore, or prove the knowledge of God without having already heard the Word of God and been brought within the circle of the knowledge of God.

God is a unique Object, known only as he gives himself as an object of human knowledge. God is not one amongst others, not one in a series, nor an abstract postulate such as a ‘Supreme Being’ or ‘First Cause.’ God—the true and living God—is not a god one might identify or choose for oneself; such an entity could never be God. For Barth, this principle is self-evident for there is, in fact, only one God—the self-existent One who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To have knowledge of this God is to have the knowledge of God. To have knowledge of some other god or concept or being is not the knowledge of God.

The knowledge of God with which we are here concerned takes place, not in a free choice, but with a very definite constraint. It stands or falls with its one definite object. . . . Because it is bound to God’s Word given to the Church, the knowledge of God with which we are here concerned is bound to the God who in His Word gives Himself to the Church to be known as God. Bound in this way it is the true knowledge of the true God (7).

This, therefore, is the ‘very definite constraint’ with which the church is ‘bound,’ that is, God is known only as he gives himself to be known in his Word. “Any escape out of the constraint of the Word of God means crossing over to the false gods and no-gods” (7).

Confident Christian speech about God—good apologetics—must begin under the discipline of this constraint. Nor is it the case that we choose the constraint: we rather find ourselves constrained by the Word that has come to us. “We can only come from the real and original constraint by the Word; we cannot come to it” (9). Barth cites Psalm 127:1-2 (Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it), giving it epistemological force. “Good apologetics is distinguished from bad by its responsibility to these words” (9).

Barth’s first point, then, is that the knowledge of God is mediated knowledge; there is no unbound, non-objective, or immediate knowledge of God. We know God only through the mediacy of his Word in the church where he gives himself to be known as an object of human knowledge.

If God gives Himself to man to be known in the revelation of His Word through the Holy Spirit, it means that He enters into the relationship of object to man the subject. In His revelation he is considered and conceived by men. Man knows God in that he stands before God. But this always means: in that God becomes, is and remains to him Another, One who is distinct from himself, One who meets him. Nor is this objectivity of God neturalised by the fact that God makes man His own through the Holy Spirit in order to give Himself to be owned by him (9-10).

In making himself an object for human knowledge, God remains nevertheless “the primarily acting Subject of all real knowledge of God, so that the self-knowledge of God is the real and primary essence of all knowledge of God” (10).

Several observations about Barth’s point can now be made: first, any true human knowledge of God is always a gift of divine grace. Barth takes it as axiomatic that genuine knowledge of God is beyond human capacity. God is not an object of human observation or enquiry in a manner similar to other phenomena. Rather, God makes himself an object of human knowledge by giving himself to be known by humanity as this object. Unless God does this, humankind cannot know God. That God has done this is an act of divine condescension and grace, an act of the Holy Spirit who makes the human subject capable of the knowledge of God (10).

Second, the knowledge of God is a personal and relational knowledge: God comes to the human person as Another, meeting them as this Other, and giving himself to be known by them. The human subject finds themselves encountered by God—a transcendent Subject who makes himself an object for their apprehension—and so come to know Him and not merely about him. While God knows himself perfectly and immediately, they know him only mediately and contingently yet still truly. The knowledge they have is an aspect of God’s own self-knowledge.

Third, as noted, this knowledge of God is also a mediated knowledge, a knowledge given to us by his Word in the church. Only by starting out and staying on this path can one attain the knowledge the God. God can only be known where God has given himself to be known: other paths lead to false gods and no-gods, gods of human invention and so not at all the knowledge of God. Barth warns against mystical attempts to ascend to God immediately:

This ascendere and transcendere means abandoning, or at any rate wanting to abandon, the place where God encounters man in His revelation and where He gives Himself to be heard and seen by man. . . . If we really soar up into these heights, and really reduce all concepts, images, words and signs to silence, and really think we can enter into the idipsum [the ‘self-same’; the thing itself], it simply means that we wilfully hurry past God, who descends in His revelation into this world of ours. Instead of finding Him where He Himself has sought us—namely, in his objectivity—we seek Him where He is not to be found, since He on His side seeks us in His Word (11).


Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:31-40, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Karl Barth brings his meditation on “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” to a conclusion with a summation in five points of what he means by this term, including a discussion of the form of Christian life which issues from this work of God, as is appropriate in a discussion of ‘the command of God the Reconciler.’

First, Barth reiterates that the beginning of Christian life is the ‘direct self-attestation and self-impartation of the living Jesus Christ’ in the work of the Holy Spirit. He alone is the author and finisher of Christian faith. Jesus Christ himself is the divine change which occurs in a person’s life and by which they become a Christian. Barth’s emphasis here is to preclude the idea that the Christian life results on account of the mediation of the Christian community, or even the Scripture. Jesus Christ may use these means as an instrument of his Word, but his call to a person is direct and immediate. This is a person’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit, whereby Jesus Christ imparts ‘Himself as at once the Guarantor of God’s faithfulness to him and of his own faithfulness to God’ (33).

Second, this divine work whereby Jesus Christ gives himself to specific persons in the work of the Holy is the form of grace in which God actually reconciles the world to himself. ‘Baptism with the Holy Spirit is effective, causative, even creative action on man and in man. It is, indeed, divinely effective, divinely causative, divinely creative’ (34). That is, it is not the human response or the ecclesial work of water baptism which is the means of this grace, but the direct work of Jesus Christ as he baptises with the Holy Spirit. By this grace a person is changed ‘truly and totally,’ and is liberated for their own decision of faithfulness in correspondence to the faithfulness shown them by God. This divine change is so transformative the person can and will never forget it (35).

Third, this ‘omnipotently penetrating and endowing’ grace demands the response of gratitude, for this grace not only liberates the person for a new obedience but claims them for this obedience to their new Lord and Master whom they have now acquired. The grace that forgives and frees also commands (35).

The problem of ethics is thus raised for him, or more exactly, the problem of the ethos corresponding to it, of the response of his own being, action and conduct. … He has to take up a position in relation to this, the only position in relation to this, the only position which can be taken, but a position taken in freedom. It is not that God’s act on and in man makes of him a cog set in motion thereby. The free God does not act thus with man. On the contrary, what the free God in His omnipotence wills and fashions in Jesus Christ in the work of the Holy Ghost is the free man who determines himself under this pre-determination by God, the obedience of his heart and conscience and will and independent action. Here man is taken seriously and finds that he is taken seriously, as the creature which is different from God, which is for all its dependence autonomous before Him, which is of age. Here he is empowered for his own act, and invited, commanded and encouraged to perform it (35).

The human person is set in an immediacy of relation with their God from whose direct command they cannot escape. They have been snatched from the power of sin and death, liberated from their own impotence, and freed from their assumed autonomy whereby they were supposedly ‘free’ alongside God; God has ‘beset them behind and before’ (cf. Psalm 139:5).

Fourth, the beginning of Christian life is the beginning of a person’s life in a distinctive ‘fellow-humanity.’ That is, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit sets a person in the Christian community where they become the companion and fellow of others who themselves are likewise bound to God and so to one another. ‘He ceases to be a self-enclosed man, and there is actualised his relationship to all those to whom Jesus Christ has also attested and imparted himself as Lord and Brother. … He is redeemed from all isolation and also from all contingent or transient attachments to others, and incorporated in the communion of saints (37). The Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not identical with a person’s entry and reception into the Christian community, but it will lead to this. Further, in this community the person will receive their own special spiritual power and their own special task in the total life and ministry of the community (38). These spiritual gifts can never be rigidly defined or limited to institutional offices:

The criterion of the authenticity of the discharge of all institutional office in the Church is always and everywhere the question whether the one who serves in this or that office is a recipient and bearer of the charisma indispensable to his work, and first and finally whether he is a recipient and bearer of the love which is above all spiritual gifts. At no time, then, in the life and ministry of the community, in the fulfilment of Christian fellow-humanity, can one dispense with the petition: Veni Creator Spiritus. Always and everywhere this must be prayed afresh.

Finally, the Baptism with the Holy Spirit is only the beginning of the Christian life, a beginning which must be ever-renewed in its always fresh continuation. Just as the seasons are always renewed, so the fruit-bearing Christian life is ever renewed, and so requires ever-new sowing and reaping, cultivation and pruning, a daily penitence and striving for those new possibilities which lie ahead (39). The whole of the Christian life is one long Advent-season, a life of ‘waiting and hastening’ (2 Peter 3:12) toward the ultimate kingdom, in prayer and eucharist, caught up in the movement of God: ‘the power of the life to come is the power of his life in this world’ (40).

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:23-30, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Barth now drills more deeply into the primary question he is discussing in this section: how is it that something which took place in the history of Jesus Christ becomes an event in us? He does so by exploring two presuppositions associated with his “event” language:

The divine change in which the Christian life is founded has been described as an event. Viewed from above, this means that the history of Jesus Christ becomes once in time the origin and commencement of the reorientation and refashioning of the life of a specific man liberated therein. Seen from below, it means that once in time a specific man is liberated for the reorientation and refashioning of his life in the history of Jesus Christ as his origin and commencement (p. 23)

In these pages Barth explains how the ‘event’ of Christian faithfulness takes place in the lives of particular individuals. Two things are necessary, which Barth refers to as his two presuppositions.

The first presupposition, which he calls ‘viewing this event from above’ has to do with God’s faithfulness to humanity generally in the person and history of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ is the Representative of every person, what takes place in him – back there, back then – takes place for every person and in their stead. On their behalf Jesus Christ is faithful to God and his faithfulness is theirs. His death includes them, and so too does his resurrection. In him, they have been faithful to God, have received forgiveness of sins, and been reconciled to God. Thus Barth says,

We presuppose that the history of Jesus Christ which took place in time pro nobis, His birth, His being as a preacher of the imminent kingdom of God, and finally His crucifixion, which fulfils the purpose of His birth and being, contains the power to become the factor which posits a new beginning in nobis, in the temporal life of man (23).

How does this history—then and there—become the factor which posits a new beginning in our life—here and now? How is the power of this history communicated to each person? Barth’s answer is simple and profound: the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that the power of his history is no longer limited to his historical existence, but has broken the banks and overflowed the borders of that historical existence, such that the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself is now present to every person in every time, and further, is in every person. His resurrection is the manifestation of his perfect work for every person, a divine pledge and promise pledged and given to every person.

In Jesus Christ God has taken up the cause of every person and been faithful to them. This divine faithfulness is the ground and foundation of Christian life, because this history of Jesus’ perfect obedience as our Representative and Liberator is made fruitful, efficacious and immediately present to every person through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In other words, Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed the situation of every person with respect to God. God has been faithful to them and has taken away the sins of the world.

Barth’s second presupposition, which he calls ‘viewing the event from below,’ has to do with human faithfulness to God in response to God’s faithfulness to them. Whereas God’s faithfulness to humanity in Jesus Christ concerns humanity as a whole, now God’s work in the Holy Spirit is concerned with particular individuals. Once more Barth elucidates his presupposition:

In the life of these men, certainly not apart from the awakening, quickening and enlightening power of the history of Jesus Christ demonstrated in his resurrection, a power is at work which makes these men free, able, willing and ready to give this event a place, the central place, in their willing and thinking, a place where it may exercise a force and authority which are seriously and ultimately decisive. We presuppose that this power enables, permits and orders them, that through the history of Jesus Christ it both commands and liberates them, to become responsible subjects of their own human history, which, renewed by the presence of the living Jesus Christ, has become a history of salvation rather than perdition (26-27).

That this divine change which has occurred in the history of Jesus Christ for all and in all may then actually take place in the life of a particular person is the work of the Holy Spirit:

In the work of the Holy Spirit this man ceases to be a man who is closed and blind and deaf and uncomprehending in relation to this disclosure effected for him too. He becomes a man who is open, seeing, hearing, comprehending. Its disclosure to all, and consequently to him too, becomes his own opening up to it. In the work of the Holy Spirit it comes about that the man who with the same organs could once say No thereto, again with the same organs, in so far as they can be used for this purpose, may and can and must say Yes. In the work of the Holy Spirit that which was truth for all, and hence for him too, even without his acceptance, becomes truth which is affirmed by him. The pledge which was previously given to him and to all becomes the pledge which is received by him. The promise which was good for him and for all becomes the promise which is grasped by him. By him! Inasmuch as he himself affirms, receives and grasps! … The point is that the man on and in whom the work of the Holy Spirit is done has to put himself seriously at God’s disposal in his creatureliness. … Moved by the Holy Spirit, he is opened up to the history of Jesus Christ as his own salvation history, and he thus begins to cry ‘Abba, Father’ (28-29).

For Barth, the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit are not two separate works, but the one work of God, commencing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and continuing as a movement in the Holy Spirit which reaches its goal with the concrete awakening of specific individuals (29). Together, these two presuppositions elucidate the one work of God by whose power a divine change may take place in a person’s life that they may become faithful to God, that they may be and live as Christians. Barth calls this one work of God by which specific persons become Christians, their “Baptism with the Holy Ghost” (30).

It is clear that Barth wants to ground Christian life and salvation wholly in the grace of God while also ensuring that the human agent is not rendered passive in the process. The individual must choose, must decide, must trust, and must act; that they can do so, however, is because they have been freed for this through the ministry of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Equally clear is Barth’s contention that the term “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” refers not to an experience separate and subsequent to conversion, but refers specifically to the individual’s conversion itself.

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.

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:10-17, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

In this section Barth pauses to ask whether Christian experience, that is, the experience of renewal that characterises Christian life, is simply one (quite poor) variety of a more general and common human experience. Is it simply another manifestation of the endless parade of philosophies and panaceas, religions and spiritualities that characterise human life? (10-11)

Barth rejects the possibility: All kinds of religious and non-religious experiences and renewals may occur to people, and may in their own way be very significant. Nevertheless they are not this event. Rather, they presuppose a general concept of deity and a direct relation of this presupposed deity with the human agent. This, of course, is precisely what Barth rejects. For Barth, the decisive event which constitutes the ground of Christian life is the very particular history of Jesus Christ.

The freedom of God in which is grounded man’s becoming free to be faithful to God as God is faithful to him, the freedom in which the Christian life thus has its absolutely unique origin, is the freedom of which He, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has made use in supreme majesty and condescension in the history of Jesus Christ. This history is the change, impossible with men but possible with God, and indeed possibly only by God’s actual judgment, in which a man becomes God’s friend instead of His enemy, a man who lives for Him instead of being dead for Him. It is the divine change which has been made for every man and which is valid for every man, but which is thankfully acknowledged, recognised and confessed by Christians. It is so as Jesus Christ is the One elected from eternity to be the Head and Saviour of all men, who in time responded to God’s faithfulness with human faithfulness as the Representative of all men. As and because He was this, as and because, in the name and stead of all, He was born and suffered and died as the Man of God, as and because He was manifested for all in His resurrection as the One who did this for all, the change which took place in His history took place for all. In it the turning of all from unfaithfulness to faithfulness took place. In this history of His the Christian life became an event as the life of all. A Christian, however, is a man from whom it is not hidden that his own history took place along with the history of Jesus Christ. As a word spoken to him and received by him in the living power of the Holy Spirit, this has been disclosed to him. … The Christian is a man whose life Jesus Christ has entered as the subject of that history of His. … He is a man to whom Jesus Christ has given not just a potential but an actual share in that history of His. Thus Jesus Christ, His history, became and is the foundation of Christian existence; this and this alone (13-14).

Thus Barth affirms the utter uniqueness of Christian life, distinguishing it from all other experiences of human renewal, while simultaneously rejecting any and all approaches from natural theology. Jesus Christ as the Elect Human, as the Saviour and Representative of all humanity and of every person, is the ground and origin of human faithfulness to God. It is clear that Barth views this history as constituting an ontological alteration of the human condition. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed the situation of every person whereby humanity is now God’s friend rather than God’s enemy; in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are those who know this. More, Jesus Christ has entered their lives as the subject of this history in their life.

In a stunning statement Barth insists that “it is true exegesis, not eisegesis, to say that the nativity of Christ is the nativity of the Christian man; Christmas day is the birthday of every Christian” (15).

What does Barth mean by this extraordinary statement? Jesus Christ as the Representative of each and every person was born, lived, died and was raised again for them, in their name and in their stead. His solidarity and identification with all humanity is so complete that his baptism includes within itself that of his disciples. So, too, his death includes within itself our death also, so that we die in him and with him:

Jesus does not drink that cup for Himself alone. He is not baptised with that baptism in isolation. This all takes place in their stead and for them. Hence they, too, will die in His death, and therewith their entry into glory will be secured. In his death, therefore, He took the place of all….Inasmuch as He died the death in our place, we have it absolutely behind us. In His death we who deserved to die as He died are already put to death (16).

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study Edition

Selection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:3-10, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Barth’s chapter on the foundation of the Christian life (Church Dogmatics IV/4) begins with a discussion entitled, “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” in which Barth addresses the origin, beginning and initiation of human faithfulness which replies and corresponds to the faithfulness of God. How is it that one becomes a Christian, especially given that this is a human impossibility? Barth assumes that one may indeed become a Christian, yet how this occurs is both a miracle and a mystery. The Christian is a completely new person with a new name and character; despite being identical with the person that they were previous to becoming a Christian, they are now utterly new.

On pages 3-4 Barth turns to Scripture to validate his assertion that the possibility of human faith is a divine rather than human possibility. He goes on to insist that to say otherwise, or to count on something other than God himself as the foundation of Christian life is to speak ignorantly. That a person is faithful, a Christian, is the work of God; and yet, it is the person who is faithful. The human agent is the subject of their own faithfulness, yet the ground of their new subjectivity lies not in themselves but in God. This is both the mystery and the miracle of the event in which a person becomes a Christian.

Barth rejects three common approaches to understanding the question of the foundation of the Christian life. First, he rejects what he terms the view of Lutheran orthodoxy following Melanchthon, in which a favourable divine verdict has been issued concerning the person but which leaves the person unaltered by it in their inner being, so they remain a sinner rather than a faithful covenant partner. Second, he rejects the popular Roman Catholic view whereby a person is infused with supernatural grace by which, if they use it properly, they may become faithful. Third, he rejects the view he associates with Neo-Protestantism (of both liberal and Pietist varieties?) whereby the work of God is simply to catalyse inherent moral impulses in the human personality. Barth sets these approaches aside:

None of them makes it clear how there comes into being the Christian, the man who responds to God’s faithfulness with faithfulness, the man who as a free subject is God’s true partner in the covenant of grace. None of them can show in what sense the existence of this man is grounded in the great possibility of God, in this alone, but in this truly (5).

Against these three common approaches, therefore, Barth sets “the answer which Holy Scripture gives,” which he describes as

The change which comes on man himself in the freedom of the gracious God, the change in which he himself is free to become what he was not and could not be before, and consequently to do what he did not and could not do before, i.e., be faithful to God. … The Christian life has its true source in this change which God brings about in man (5-6).

Barth then concludes his opening salvo with a discussion of four primary sets of images from the New Testament which describe the ‘mystery and miracle’ of the ‘divine turning’ to particular individuals in terms of the miraculous renewal whereby the recipient of divine grace receives a new being and a new heart by which it is indicated that they have become a new person. They have been born from above as a new creation, raised from the dead and given a new existence.

The Christian life begins with a change which cannot be understood or described radically enough, which God has the possibility of effecting in a man’s life in a way which is decisive and basic for his whole being and action, and which He has in fact accomplished in the life of the man who becomes a Christian (9).


  • Barth does not reject the particular truth which each of the three approaches endeavours to set forth, but denies that they can function as the ground by which one becomes a Christian. It is evident that against the three common approaches Barth appeals to his Reformed heritage to emphasise the priority of divine grace in the event of conversion. This graces operates monergistically (my word, not Barth’s), ‘coming upon’ the person and ‘opening’ them, etc.
  • Barth refers to God’s action as a ‘divine turning’ – similar to the language used to describe the action and movement of divine grace in his discussion of the perfections of the divine loving.
  • Barth refers several times to the ‘miracle and mystery’ of this event, using the same kind of language he uses to describe the mystery and miracle of the incarnation.

Church Dogmatics Digital Edition on Sale

Church Dogmatics Study EditionHurrah, I am back online, and to celebrate, I will announce a special offer…

Thanks, Allen Browne, for alerting me to the Logos sale of Church Dogmatics at HALF PRICE  (US$250) until the end of December.  The advantage of this particular edition of the Church Dogmatics is that everything is translated. I have the standard 14-volume set which is great. But all the Greek is still Greek; all the Latin is still Latin, French, French, etc. Only the German was translated into English! In this edition, the original texts are still in their original language, but translations are provided in the footnotes, which is tremendously helpful, especially when he starts citing Aquinas at length, or Basil, etc, etc.


Bruce McCormack on Barth’s Doctrine of God

God-the-Father-1779-xx-Pompeo-Girolamo-BatoniBarth’s Doctrine of God in Church Dogmatics Volume II/1

McCormack argues that Karl Barth has developed a post-metaphysical—i.e. Christological—doctrine of the divine being in which God assigns his own being to himself, and constitutes himself as triune, in the singular event of divine election. That is, God is who and what he is only in this decision. The result of reading Barth in the way McCormack does is that he can assert (a) that there is no immanent trinity prior to this divine determination of God’s own being; and (b) there is no “eternal Son” as such, that is, no eternal Son who has an existence independent of and prior to the divine determination that the Son’s being would consist in his union with humanity.[1]

McCormack turns to Church Dogmatics II/1 where Barth discusses “The Being of God in Act.” Barth agrees with Augustine, Aquinas and the Protestant scholastics that God is actus purus: the living God whose very essence is life. But Barth wants also to go further and insist that God is actus purus et singularis.[2] McCormack interprets this in terms of Barth’s later statement: “No other being exists absolutely in its act. No other being is absolutely its own, conscious, willed and executed decision.”[3] He goes on:

This is why God is actus purus et singularis. The eternal act in which God determines to be God-for-us in Jesus Christ and the act in time in which this eternal act reaches its (provisional) goal are a “singular” act, an act utterly unique in kind. God is what he is in this act—which is not true of anyone or anything besides God.[4]

God is what he is in the eternal act of divine election in which God determined his own being as God for and with us in the covenant of grace. Indeed, God is Jesus Christ in his second mode of being, not simply the “eternal Son.” McCormack argues that Jesus Christ can be both the electing God (i.e. the subject of the decision of election) as well as the consequence of the decision of election because in Barth’s view of the triune God there is but a single subject, whether in the mode of being of Father or of Son. Thus the decision which constitutes the person of Jesus Christ—and also the eternal Son—is also his decision because as the one God he participates in the sole divine subjectivity. McCormack is aware that he is straining the limits of language and logic:

Logically, the “transformation” of a Subject into another mode of being cannot be carried out by a Subject who already is that mode of being; otherwise no “transformation” has taken place at all. In truth, however, Barth’s claim will never be understood where we rest content with playing with the logic of Subject-object relations. What is happening here is quite simply a refinement of Barth’s earlier doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Instability in Barth’s Doctrine

McCormack argues that Barth’s concept of the eternal being of God was altered as a consequence of his mature Christology. Barth, he notes, actualised and historicised the being of Christ, and so also of God. In so doing he preserved the immutability of God while jettisoning divine impassibility and timelessness. (Here McCormack reiterates his contention that Chalcedonian Christology remained in some ways ambiguous in its treatment of Christ’s person, and in other ways is not wholly sufficient for contemporary Christological reflection. See my earlier posts in this series on Chalcedonian Christology and Barth’s Historicised Christology.)

In the next sections of his essay, then, McCormack identifies three aspects of Barth’s doctrine of God in II/1 in which the Swiss theologian still works within the frame of a classical metaphysic to some degree at least, which produces, in McCormack’s view, instability and incoherence in his earlier doctrine. McCormack traces this instability to Barth’s desire to retain God as God, to secure the divine freedom of God from us and for us. Thus, he speaks of God’s “immutable vitality” as something that God possesses in himself above and beyond the “holy mutability” assigned to the attitudes and actions of God in the coming of Jesus.[6] So, too, the power of God, his divine omnipotence, is viewed in II/1 as something prior to and above his work of creation and redemption, etc. God could have been omnipotent in a different form. After his doctrine of election, however, Barth says, “May it not be that it is as the electing God that He is the Almighty, and not vice versa?”[7] McCormack finds great significance in the vice versa of this citation, where the “door is firmly closed against the possibility that election…will be seen as simply one possibility among others available to a God whose omnipotence has been defined in abstraction from what he has actually done in Jesus Christ.[8] Such is the case also with God’s knowledge and will.

There is an instability at the heart of Barth’s treatment of the being of God in Church Dogmatics II/1—an instability which finds its root in the belief that to God’s “essence” there belongs both a necessary element and a contingent element. … To define the “essence” of God in terms of both necessity and contingency, of immutability and mutability, of absoluteness and concreteness is to allow both elements in these pairs to be canceled out by the other. An essence that is contingent, mutable, and concrete is not and cannot be necessary, immutable, and absolute—unless God is necessary, immutable, and absolute precisely in his contingency, mutability, and concreteness. Where the two are allowed to fall apart as polar elements, the result can be only incoherence.[9]

The reason for this instability in Barth’s doctrine lies in the fact that Christology does not control his theological ontology. Once Barth has reworked his doctrine of election in Church Dogmatics II/2, these kinds of tensions are, says McCormack, eliminated.

[1] In fact, McCormack quite openly notes that “what I offer in the pages that follow is a reconstruction—what Barth ought to have said, had he followed through, of the ontological implications of his revised doctrine of election with complete consistency.” See McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 211, emphasis added; cf. also pp. 211-213, 215, 234, 237-239.

[2] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/1: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, H. Knight, J. L. M. Haire (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 264.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215. McCormack is citing Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 271, though the emphasis is his.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 215, original emphasis.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 218.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 233.

[7] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/2: The Doctrine of God, ed. Torrance, G. W. Bromiley & T. F., trans., Bromiley, G. W. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 45.

[8] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 236.

[9] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 237-238, original emphasis.