Tag Archives: Karl Barth

The Sinlessness of Jesus 4: Karl Barth

Karl Barth approaches this question not as an issue to be explored in and for itself, but as part of his discussion of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. Specifically, his treatment comes in Church Dogmatics I/2, section 15.2 “The Mystery of Revelation: Very God and Very Man.” Barth’s exposition in this subsection is a meditation on John 1:14 “the Word became flesh,” and in this portion specifically (15.2.ii; pp. 147-159), Barth is considering what is meant when Scripture speaks of the divine word becoming flesh.

That the Word was made “flesh” means first and generally that He became man, true and real man, participating in the same human essence and existence, the same human nature and form, the same historicity that we have. God’s revelation to us takes place in such a way that everything ascribable to man, his creaturely existence as an individually unique unity of body and soul in the time between birth and death, can now be predicated of God’s eternal Son as well (147).

For Barth, the Johannine phrase means first and primarily that the Word became “participant in human nature and existence”; that is, in the humanitas by which humanity is distinguished as human as opposed to God, angel, or animal (149). Since, however, human “nature” cannot be real in an abstract sense but only in the concrete reality of an actual person, the Word became not simply “flesh” but an existing person, a single individual, the man Jesus Christ. “Thus the reality of Jesus Christ is that God Himself in person is actively present in the flesh. God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting” (151).

Barth goes further, however, to consider the nature or quality, as it were, of the “flesh” that the Word appropriated:

But what the New Testament calls σάρξ [sarx, “flesh”] includes not only the concept of man in general but also, assuming and including the general concept, the narrower concept of the man who is liable to the judgment and verdict of God, who having become incapable of knowing and loving God must incur the wrath of God, whose existence has become one exposed to death because he has sinned against God. Flesh is the concrete form of human nature marked by Adam’s fall … The Word is not only the eternal Word of God but “flesh” as well, i.e., all that we are and exactly like us even in our opposition to him. It is because of this that He makes contact with us and is accessible for us (151).

Here Barth argues at some length from both Scripture and the history of theology, that the Word became “fallen flesh,” that is, he partook of fallen human nature. “He was not a sinful man. But inwardly and outwardly His situation was that of a sinful man. He did nothing that Adam did. But He lived life in the form it must take on the basis and assumption of Adam’s act” (152). This is precisely what Donald Macleod cannot and will not say. For Barth, though, this is a key distinguishing feature between Christianity and other religions both ancient and modern, which also include instances and concepts of incarnation. In Christian faith, God did not merely become human, and did not come as a hero figure—something found in the other religions, but took the nature identical to ours in the light of the Fall (153).

But this is necessary not simply as an apologetic point. More important is the fact that if the Word has not come to us—actually come all the way to us—then we still reside in the darkness, untouched by the light which has come into the world and which, shining in the darkness, enlightens every person (John 1:5, 9), untouched by revelation and reconciliation. God’s Son has come all the way to us, not only assuming our nature but entering “the concrete form of our nature, under which we stand before God as men damned and lost” (153). Only thus can Christ be “like us” and so represent us before God.

True, the Word assumes our human existence, assumes flesh, i.e., He exists in the state and position, amid the conditions, under the curse and punishment of sinful man. He exists in the place where we are, in all the remoteness not merely of the creature from the creator, but of the sinful creature from the Holy Creator. Otherwise His action would not be a revealing, a reconciling action. He would always be for us an alien word. He would not find us or touch us. For we live in that remoteness. . . . Therefore in our state and condition He does not do what underlies and produces that state and condition, or what we in that state and condition continually do. Our unholy human existence, assume and adopted by the Word of God, is a hallowed and therefore a sinless human existence; in our unholy human existence the eternal Word draws near to us . . . supremely and helpfully near to us (155-156).

Thus although the Word came in sinful flesh, he did not do what we in the flesh do; he committed no sin. Again Barth turns to Scripture, this time to Romans 8:3, to argue that there

In the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does (156).

Jesus Christ did not sin, and it was impossible actually that he could for, as we have already noted above, in Christ “God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting” (151). God is the subject of this genuinely human life, something Barth will go on to explore and exposit in the following paragraphs.

Finally, Barth goes as far as to identify what constitutes Jesus’ sinlessness: standing where we stand in the state and position of fallen humanity Jesus bears the divine wrath which must fall upon sinful humanity.

He judged sin in the flesh by recognising the order of reconciliation, i.e., put in a sinner’s position He bowed to the divine verdict and commended Himself solely to the grace of God. That is His hallowing, His obedience, His sinlessness. Thus it does not consist in an ethical heroism, but precisely in a renunciation of any heroism, including the ethical. He is sinless not in spite of, but just because of His being the friend of publicans and sinners and His dying between the malefactors. . . . This is the revelation of God in Christ. For where man admits his lost state and lives entirely by God’s mercy—which no man did, but only the God-Man Jesus Christ has done—God Himself is manifest (157-158).

Several things are clear in Barth’s exposition. First, he adopts an Alexandrian christology in which the Word assumes human nature, though he goes beyond what the Fathers taught by insisting that it is a fallen human nature. Second, he understands Jesus’ sinlessness as the New Testament portrays it: the fact that Jesus did not sin, rather than in terms of an ontological sinlessness located in sinless flesh. Third, his exposition is shaped by his commitment to the priority of divine grace in salvation, and indeed his exposition serves the proclamation of the gospel of grace, for there is no place here for a Pelagian moral heroism, or for works-righteousness. Rather, the way of Christ as presented by Barth, is the way of salvation for all: a humbling acknowledgement and acceptance of the right of divine justice by which we are condemned as sinners—slain by the word of divine judgement, and yet marvellously and miraculously raised by the mercy of God into the newness of life.

Jesus did not run from the state and situation of fallen humanity, nor seek to bargain with God about the justice or otherwise of his situation, nor sought to improve his situation through his own attempts at moral goodness, but bowed under the divine judgement, and bore it “in solidarity with us to the uttermost,” so that there was done which we do not do: the will of God” (158).

The Word & Work of God

As Barth considers the eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ, he notes in passing that,

The very best of the older theologians have taught us that in the word which calls and justifies and sanctifies us, the word which forms the content of the biblical witness, we must recognise in all seriousness the Word of God. Beside and above and behind this Word there is none other. To this Word then we have good cause to hold fast both for time and eternity. This Word binds us to itself both for time and eternity, and in it all our confidence must be placed. This Word does not allow us to go beyond it. It allows us no other view of God or man than that which it reveals itself. It focusses all our thoughts upon this view and keeps them focussed there. It warns us against any distraction. This Word alone must satisfy all our questioning because it alone can do so. The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word (Church Dogmatics II/2, 150).

Barth is here arguing against speculative doctrines of divine election that begin elsewhere than with the revelation of God given in Jesus Christ. How can we truly understand the divine work if we turn from the place where God has made himself known: Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in holy scripture. When Barth says, “Word of God” we do well to keep in mind that he refers to both the Living and the Written Word in their mutual relation.

Of interest to me was the last sentence in the above citation, which provides a hermeneutical and methodological principle: The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word.

It is not uncommon to speak with Christians who adhere, for example, to the word of Jesus but who do so in a way at odds with the life and work of Jesus. Nor is it uncommon to speak with Christians who seek to follow in some aspect of the way and ethos of Jesus but do so in a way at odds with his teaching. For Barth, Jesus Christ is the criterion of all knowledge of God, but Jesus Christ as both the word and the work of God. No separation is permissible here, nor any division on the one side or the other. It may be that the emphasis falls now at this point, and then at another. It is likely that theological reflection leading to faith and work will alternate back and forth between the two, allowing both the Word of God and the work of God to mutually inform one another, but always with a precedence given to the Word which binds us to itself, and to and by which we also are bound.

Barth: A Guide for the Perplexed (Review)

Nimmo, Paul T., Barth: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017). Pp. xiv + 210. ISBN: 978-0-567-03264-5

Introductions to Karl Barth’s theology continue to arrive, each distinctive in its own way, and more or less helpful and memorable. Those new to Barth and seeking an entry to his major work will find Paul Nimmo’s new book a helpful guide, fulfilling its purpose in the Bloomsbury series. Nimmo’s approach to his subject is straight-forward. After an initial survey of Barth’s life, and an orientation to his theology in chapter one, there follow six chapters in which Nimmo provides terse expositions, or better, synopses, of the various sections of the Church Dogmatics, interspersed with brief reflective comments on Barth’s doctrine in those sections. Thus chapter two examines the first volume of the Dogmatics—the doctrine of the Word of God. Chapter three details volume two on the doctrine of God, and chapter four addresses the doctrine of creation in volume three of the work. Nimmo breaks the pattern when he reaches volume four. He devotes two chapters to an exposition of the doctrine of reconciliation, and here, instead of working through each part-volume in order as he has in the other chapters, he works through each doctrinal theme across the part-volumes, thus treating each doctrine as a unity rather than in parts as Barth did. Chapter five gives attention to Barth’s Christology and his doctrine of sin, while chapter six examines his soteriology, and the work of the Spirit in the church and in Christian life. This method of exposition has the advantage of providing a clear overview of each of these doctrines in a unified account. The final chapter is also a departure from a straight-forward exposition. In this chapter Nimmo treats Barth’s ethics, drawing together material from the each of the volumes, and including a brief exposition of the lectures published posthumously as The Christian Life.

Nimmo’s comments at the conclusion of each section highlight areas of ongoing conversation or dispute in Barth studies (for example, with respect to the doctrine of election), or methodological insights (for example, Barth’s grounding of the divine perfections in scriptural exposition). He is aware of contentions with respect to Barth’s interpreters, shows the various sides of the arguments, but remains impartial with respect to the issues. Although his own commitments are not the focus of his exposition, they do surface at times as part of his discussion. Thus Nimmo takes up common concerns that Barth is fideist, or has no place for human agency, or that his soteriology is universalist. In particular, he emphasises the event nature of God’s being and work, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit, especially in the doctrine of reconciliation. Although it is clear that Nimmo writes with great sympathy for the Barth’s project, he is no epigone, writing that “although theologians today should certainly think about Barth and with Barth, they are also called to think after Barth in their work, acknowledging that he does not have the final word” (201). While we do well to learn from the Swiss master, we do even better to follow in his way of doing theology with “responsible obedience” and “joyful freedom,” attending to the revelation given us in Christ, and aiming at the witness of this same Jesus Christ in the world.

Nimmo has provided a well-written and able overview of Barth’s Church Dogmatics. That he could accomplish this task in a work of this size is quite remarkable. That he succeeds in making Barth’s magnum opus accessible for those wanting to engage the Church Dogmatics is a worthy achievement. The real success of his work, however, will be measured in accordance with those who, having read this introduction, go on to read Barth for themselves, and then to think with Barth and after Barth in their own contexts.

Karl Barth Study Group 2017

The Karl Barth Study Group met at ANZATS for the third time, this year in Adelaide. We chose a theme for the papers this year: “Reading Romans with Barth,” in view of the upcoming centenary of the first edition of Barth’s commentary on Paul’s epistle. Although four papers were scheduled, one presenter had to withdraw due to family medical concerns. However, the remaining papers were each interesting and well received, and good interaction and discussion followed the presentations.

The first paper given by Chris Swann, a doctoral candidate at St Mark’s Theological Centre, addressed the topic “Discipleship beyond Taste & Taboo: Barth on Food & Freedom in Romans 14:1 – 15:7.” When I was doing my own work on these chapters in the second edition of Barth’s commentary I was disappointed, feeling that Barth had missed an opportunity to develop a strong theological description of relations in the Christian community. But Chris did a better job than I had with respect to Barth’s position. He recognises that Barth follows Paul by calling for the strong to sacrifice their liberty, and as such, insists that the divine krisis falls on weak and strong alike. Barth rejects all liberty as well as rigorism: all human positions are impure before God. But Chris showed that Barth’s position does indeed open into a thick description of a truly generous community ethic as we recognise and honour the One in the other.

Sean Winter, New Testament scholar at Pilgrim College in Melbourne, examined Romans 11:33-36, which is the climax of the first long section of Paul’s letter. Sean noted the utter forcefulness of Barth’s rhetoric in this section—a forcefulness attenuated in Hoskyns’ translation.

Direct knowledge of God? Nein! Cooperation with his dec isions? Nein! The possibility of holding him, or binding him, or obligating him, or ente3ring into a reciprocal relationship with him? Nein! No Federal theology. He is God, he himself, he alone. That is the ‘Ja’ of Romans.

God is known only in his inscrutability, clearly seen in his invisibility. God does not give himself over to us in his revelation but remains the utterly sovereign and hidden God.

My own paper examined Barth’s commentary in the first edition on Romans 5:12-14 where Barth addresses the question of Adam. In particular, I examined the curious translation of typos as Gegenbild, or ‘antitype.’ Is Barth playing fast and loose with the biblical text? Can we see in this translation an early indication of the theology which would come to expression later as a result of his doctrine of election in which Christ precedes Adam? I argued that the answer on both counts was No, and that in fact, Barth’s exegetical approach treated the biblical text very seriously and carefully, although also in accordance with his own hermeneutical stance which I picture as Barth standing alongside Paul looking at that to which Paul is pointing, seeking to see—in his own twentieth century context—what Paul could see, and to hear—in his own twentieth century context—what Paul could hear.

This year’s meeting of the Study Group fulfilled the purpose for which I started it three years ago. It was an encouraging and stimulating experience to meet with other scholars and explore something of Barth’s legacy. Perhaps we may even be able to do it again, next year!

New Barth Books

Two new Barth books arrived in the post this week, all the more exciting because they are primary documents rather than new books about Barth.

The first A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons contains thirteen sermons preached by Barth to his small congregation at Safenwil from July 26 through November 1, 1914 – the first three months of the war. Here is the young pastor Karl Barth, twenty-eight years of age, wrestling with the meaning of the war in the light of Scripture and theology. Nine of the sermons are based on New Testament texts, and four on the Old Testament. This is the first time these sermons have been translated for an English audience, and I am very much looking forward to reading this volume, together with its introductory essay by Canadian translator and editor William Klempa.

The second volume is also early Barth. The Epistle to the Ephesians were amongst the first lectures given by Professor Barth in the winter semester at Göttingen, 1921-1922, just months after Barth had ended his pastorate at Safenwil and finished the second edition of his Romans commentary. It seems Barth spent most of the course exegeting his way through the first chapter of the epistle, and then devoted the final lesson to chapters two through six! This volume also comes with introductory essays by Francis Watson and the late John Webster.

I have dipped at random into A Unique Time and present a brief excerpt (pp. 112-113):

So war, even this terrible war, has its place in God’s purposeful design of peace for us. Hence, for us men and women, what matters is that we have a living experience of the wrath and of the unspeakable grace of God, to which the European nations now tread so near. Nothing else will help us. In this time, victory and defeat can again be quickly reversed. For thousands of years the history of humanity has simply been a story of alternating victories and defeats. God has permitted time and again that humanity would go its way and on its way find only misery. Victory and success should no longer be what they want; what do they get out of them? Surely, we should all let God speak to us through the present storm, for which human beings are at fault. This will pass away, but you remain! As long as we keep on praying only for victory and success, God will not hear us, and we will continue to be confronted by new storms through our own fault.

Moveover, we Swiss should not think and pray in this manner. Yes, we want to pray for our beloved country, but not to a god of war and victory, in accordance with the practice of the ancient Jews and the pagans. Nor are we to pray that narrow-minded selfish prayer: “Spare our house; instead, burn down someone else’s!” Yes, and if the situation were to become serious, in no way could we boast about our just cause! Nor could we at all demand without question that the good Lord stand right behind our soldiers and cannons. We also are culpable in our whole being for the present world’s situation. Rather, we must pray as Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come! Your will be done! And forgive us our sins! And deliver us from evil!”

Lord, set us free, not from the enemies but from the powers of darkness that are in and around us, from falsehood and arrogance, meanness and thoughtlessness. Lord, let us be victorious, not over foreign nations but over ourselves, over our selfishness. Lord, let us triumph, not in outward success but in letting ourselves be filled and empowered with your love, freedom, and justice. Dear friends, let this be our war prayer, the war prayer of a neutral nation. . . .  May God grant this. If we so pray, God hears us. 

Reading Karl Barth: The “Bremen” Sermon

According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s “Bremen” sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 6, The Modern Age 1789-1989, 776, cited in Johanson, The Word in the World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 25).

This sermon, from November 1934, was given when Barth was forty-eight years of age, and shortly before his expulsion from Germany by the National Socialists. The Nazis had seized control of the German nation, were interfering in the life of the church, and seeking to gain a totalitarian control over all the affairs of the nation. Although Hitler and the Nazis are never mentioned directly—Barth does not allow them to intrude into the sermon—they are in the background especially as the “Jesus of our pious imagination.” The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus.

The sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, comment about context, etc.:

Jesus made his disciples—which means, Jesus compelled his disciples—to get into the boat and go before him to the other side.” He made them, he compelled them to go their own way without him, while he was somewhere else. They probably didn’t understand what he wanted of them. It probably wasn’t what they wanted. But that was of no consequence for them: they allowed what they were told to be right for them and they did it; they obeyed. And this already tells us something decisive about ourselves, who are Jesus’ disciples, his church. This tells us that the church of Jesus Christ is the place where there is a bond which regulates human activity, a bond which cannot be debated over, which we have not chosen for ourselves, and from which we cannot release ourselves, but on the other hand a bond in which we also have the security and consolation which enable us to go on our own way as we should. Disciples of Jesus are people who are answerable to Jesus, and precisely for that reason answerable to no one else, people who are entirely bound, and precisely for that reason and in that bond, free people (Johanson, 46).

And so the sermon proceeds as a line-by-line exposition of the biblical text from Matthew 14. The text itself is front and centre, rather than various points abstracted from the text. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.” Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. Thus the solitary Jesus of the story indicates that he “alone” is unique and sovereign; there can be no other sovereignty in competition with him. All other supposed sovereigns are “ghosts,”—fakes, yet still capable of being a destructive power in the world. There is no prize for guessing what Barth is saying here!

In Barth’s hands, Peter is the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! Is Peter’s request to walk on the water the result of pride (Calvin) or serious faith? Barth refuses to commit himself to an answer here, but says:

What is required—what Jesus Christ continually requires—are rocks like this who are certainly not perfectly untainted people, who are perhaps seriously objectionable in many ways and will have much to answer for, but are nevertheless ready to do something quite specific, to render obedience to a specific word by undertaking a specific service. In the church of Jesus Christ there is not only waiting, there must also be those individuals who are continually hastening, watching, rising where they are called to, with all the perils that entails. The church could not do without them, and the church cannot do without them today either. And now in this hour, the text puts this question to each and every one of us: And you, are you not also called to obey in a specific way? To be sure, we must examine ourselves to see whether we are ready to obey the orders of Jesus Christ, or whether the appeal we are now hearing might not come from some chimera within our hearts. But equally, let us examine ourselves to see whether it is not the result of our cowardice and unbelief if we not assume this specific task, this specific act of obedience to which we are summoned! (55)

It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

Barth finds in Peter’s example “the history of every great event in the church” (58). Peter has heard the word of Jesus but looks also at the storm, the wind, and the waves. Now it is no longer a matter simply of Jesus and his word, but of the storm, “of practical and strategic matters, of oneself and one’s desires and crises” (56). But even Peter’s little faith did not forfeit the faithfulness of God toward him. In the dark years that followed this sermon there is no doubt that many in this congregation would have been seriously confronted with the force of this dilemma: will I respond to the sole lordship of Jesus Christ—at great personal cost, or will I falter and look away, trying both to obey Jesus’ command to rise and walk, and to stay in the safety of the boat.

How, though, can we be sure that we are hearing his voice, his command, his encouragement—“is it him, or is it the illusion of our hearts?” (56). Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But we must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us. How may we distinguish the command of Christ from the deceitful or frightened desire of our own hearts?

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

Willimon: On Preaching

Perhaps you would have to be a preacher to know why Barth’s being a resolute theologian is his greatest gift to contemporary preaching. It’s not only that much contemporary theology languishes in the realm of theologies-of-this-and-that, but also that much of contemporary theology appears to have forgotten both the proper subject and the vital agent of Christian preaching.

Forgive me for having this so prominently on my mind, but I have just finished listening to the sermons of sixty of the preachers who are under my care. Many of the sermons were lively and engaging and most congregations would hear them gladly on a Sunday morning. Yet in a depressing majority of them there was little indication that the content of the sermon or the engine driving the proclamation was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Other than that, most were fine sermons…. (Willimon, in Johanson (ed), The Word in this World, 11).

Ouch! Willimon continues:

One sermon began well enough, the Second Sunday of Christmas, Luke 2, young Juses putting the temple elders through their paces, abandoned by Mom and Dad. After reading the text, and noting Jesus’ amazing ability to stupefy professional scholars, the preacher then sailed off into a veritable shopping list of things to do. We were told that we needed to resolve, in the coming year, to be more proficient in study of God’s word. We should all strive to “increase in wisdom and in stature.” We ought to spend more time with our families. 

Note how quickly, how effortlessly, and predictably the preacher disposed of a story about Jesus and transformed it into a moralistic diatribe about us. Moving from a text that simply declares what Jesus did and, by implication, who Jesus is, the preacher moved to a moralistic list of all the things that we need to do if we (in the absence of a living, active God) are to take charge of our lives and the world…

Barth’s robust view of an active, unfailingly surprising, living God puts Barth at some distance from lots of the sermons that I hear and many that I preach. God too often enters the sermon as some sort of vague mystery about whom little is to be said. So we must quickly abandon the text and sail by the seat of our pants, offering exclusively human advice derived from limited human experience. There is a modern sort of modesty that refuses to claim too much for God. Presuming to be intellectual integrity, this reticence to do theology is in most cases the simple fear that to speak decisively about who God is and who God isn’t would endanger our godlike aspirations to run the world as we damn well please. Thin descriptions of God are killing our sermons (11-12, 18).

Reading Karl Barth: The “Titanic” Sermon

This sermon was delivered by Barth on April 21, 1912 to his congregation in Safenwil where he had been pastor for just over a year. The First World War was still two years away and Europe had not yet lost its modern sense of triumphal optimism. The newly minted pastor was just twenty-five years of age when he delivered this sermon.

In this sermon we see Barth the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. Although he does use a biblical text at the head of his sermon, he does not exposit the text or discuss its meaning. Rather he uses it for an idea that he then applies to the subject matter at hand. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them.

For I believe that, just as we may not approach events such as this one out of curiosity and a thirst for sensation, nor may we disregard them in silence and indifference, however much daily newspaper reports might cause us to do so. Rather, they should speak to us. For through them God addresses us with a power and urgency that we only rarely perceive: concerning the greatness and nothingness of human beings who are so like God, and yet so unlike him, concerning the wrath and mercy of the eternal God, who reigns in and over our destinies, sometimes close at hand and tangibly, but sometimes infinitely far away and mysteriously. God speaks in this way even through a tragedy like the one which has shocked the entire civilised world this week, and we cannot fail to hear, nor may we (cited in Johanson (ed.), The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, 31-32).

Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36).

We see also the young socialist pastor at work:

Yesterday in the “Freier Aargauer” newspaper the sinking of the Titanic was referred to as a crime of capitalism. After everything that I have now read about it I can only agree. Indeed, this catastrophe is a crude but all-the-more clear example to us of the essential characteristics and effects of capitalism, which consists in a few individuals competing with each other at the expense of everyone else in a mad and foolish race for profits (40).

Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)! The system of capitalism is the real cause of the disaster, the competitive practice based on self-interest at the expense of others. This system must be replaced by a common communal system of labour.

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. He describes in some detail the magnificence of the ship with respect to the feat of its engineering and the luxury of its appointments. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered.

As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress.

Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down only two years later with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology. The anthropological orientation and natural theology will give way to a more thorough-going theocentric orientation and theology of revelation. More significantly, in his search for a new theological starting point, Barth will discover the “new world in the Bible.”

Reading Karl Barth on Election (13)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:122-127, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

In his reflections on Jesus as the elected human Barth raises two issues worthy of additional comment. First, he provides a brief glimpse of his theodicy; second, is his portrayal of the prayer of Jesus as the true fulfilment of his creaturely existence.

In his discussion of the election of Jesus Christ as suffering, Barth explores the reason for this. God, for the honour of his own name and for the honour of the creature also, will not allow evil and sin, and Satan and his kingdom to overthrow his good work or to have the final word. Rather, in his Son, God determines to confront and conquer this evil. Nevertheless the question must inevitably arise concerning the origin of this evil. Here, Barth insists that “from all eternity judgment has been foreseen” (122).

For teleologically the election of the man Jesus carries within itself the election of a creation which is good according to the positive will of God and of man as fashioned after the divine image and foreordained to the divine likeness (reflection). But this involves necessarily the rejection of Satan, the rebel angel who is the very sum and substance of the possibility which is not chosen by God (and which exists only in virtue of this negation); the very essence of the creature in its misunderstanding and misuse of its creation and destiny and in its desire to be as God, to be itself a god. Satan (and the whole kingdom of evil, i.e., the demonic, which has its basis in him) is the shadow which accompanies the light of the election of Jesus Christ (and in him the good creation in which man is in the divine image). And in the divine counsel the shadow itself is necessary as the object of rejection. To the reality of its existence and might and activity (only, of course, in the power of the divine negation, but to that extent grounded in the divine will and counsel) testimony is given by the fall of man, in which man appropriates to himself the satanic desire. When confronted by Satan and his kingdom, man in himself and as such has in his creaturely freedom no power to reject that which in His divine freedom God rejects. Face to face with temptation he cannot maintain the goodness of his creation in the divine image and foreordination to the divine likeness (122).

Barth provides an ontological account of the origin and mystery of evil. For Barth, evil arises as that which God does not will. It is the “shadow” cast by the light of what God does will. The mystery of evil emerges as it were almost as a consequence of the divine will. Evil has reality but not substance. The fall also has an ontological basis in the inherent creaturely incapacity to withstand the attraction or temptation of evil. Yet there is also a moral component to the fall: humanity “appropriates to himself the satanic desire” to be a god, and in so doing becomes, like Satan, a rebel. “In himself and as such man will always do as Adam did in Gen. 3” (122).

Humanity’s fall, then, is both inevitable and culpable. On account of human culpability it lies under the divine wrath; on account of human weakness, however, it is the object of divine pity. Jesus Christ as the elect human stands in humanity’s place under the divine wrath and for humanity suffers and dies taking their rejection upon himself. Yet Jesus Christ is also the electing God and although subject to the same weakness and incapacity that afflicts the rest of humanity, actually can do and does for humanity what humanity cannot do for itself: resist Satan’s temptation.

Why this imposition of the just for the unjust by which in some incomprehensible manner the eternal Judge becomes Himself the judged? Because His justice is a merciful and for this reason a perfect justice. Because the sin of the disobedient is also their need, and even while it affronts Him it also moves Him to pity. … Because in the powerlessness of sinners against Satan He sees their guilt, but in their guilt He sees also their powerlessness. Because He knows quite well that those who had no strength to resist Satan are even less able to bear and suffer the rejection which those who hear Satan and obey him merit together with him. Because from all eternity He knows “whereof we are made” (Psalm 103:14). That is why He intervened on our behalf in His Son (124).

That God did this is, of course, due to his own grace in which God elected humanity in his Son. The grace of election is also at once the grace of reconciliation for the same Jesus in whom we are elected is also the Judge who takes the place of the judged.

In the One in whom they are elected, that is to say, in the death which the Son of God has died for them, they themselves have died as sinners. And that means their radical sanctification, separation and purification for participation in a true creaturely independence, and more than that, for the divine sonship of the creature which is the grace for which from all eternity they are elected in the election of the man Jesus (125).

This sonship, this radical sanctification, this true creaturely independence seen in the steadfastness of the humanity of Jesus, and specifically in his prayer by which he “fulfils His creaturely office” (126). Jesus’ prayer is his intercession with God on behalf of his people. It is the human answer and assent to the will of God as it confronts his own will. It is his affirmation of the divine right in the exercise of holy wrath against human sinfulness to which he submits as victim, even as he is both priest and judge.

The election of Jesus Christ, therefore, stands as the pattern for the election of all, for they are elect in him.

The mystery of the elected man Jesus is the divine and human steadfastness which is the end of all God’s ways and works and therefore the object and content of the divine predestination. … Being elected “in Him,” they are elected only to believe in Him, i.e., to love in Him the Son of God who died and rose again for them, to laud in Him the priest and victim of their reconciliation with God, to recognise in Him the justification of God (which is also their own justification), to honour in Him their Leader and Representative, their Lord and Head, and the kingdom of God which is a kingdom above all other kingdoms. It is as they love Him and laud Him and recognise Him and honour Him in this way that they can have their own life, their rejection being put behind them and beneath them, rejected with His rejection. To believe in Jesus means to have His resurrection and prayer both in the mind and in the heart. And this means to be elected. For it is the man that does this who “in Him” is the object of the divine election of grace (126-127).

New Barth Books

Today Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth arrived in the post, the Conference papers from the 2015 Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. Contributors include Jürgen Moltmann, Richard Bauckham, Willie James Jennings, Bruce McCormack, Beverly Roberts Gaventa, and a sermon by Fleming Rutledge. The line-up looks great, and I am very much looking forward to reading the contributions by Moltmann and McCormack particularly. Moltmann’s essay addresses “Barth on the Doctrine of Predestination,” while McCormack explores “Barth on Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction.”

A week or two ago Paul Nimmo’s new introduction to Karl Barth arrived. Nimmo is a prominent younger Barth scholar, who I had the privilege of meeting briefly last year at the Barth Conference. (I also got to meet both Migliore and Guretzki at the same Conference!)

There are quite a few introductions to Barth and I look forward to seeing how he interprets Barth. His approach is to give an overview of each volume of Barth’s Dogmatics, and then provide a brief reflection. Because I am lecturing on Karl Barth this semester, I have already started reading sections of Nimmo relevant to my lectures, along with the magisterial treatment of Barth’s theology by Eberhard Busch (The Great Passion).

Finally, I have been sent a review copy of David Guretzki’s An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth which I need to read and review in the near future. This looks like a very different kind of introduction; Guretzki appears to have written for the novice approaching Barth for the first time, and it will be fun to read his book alongside the more formal treatments by Nimmo and Busch.

I will post reviews on this site in time…