Tag Archives: The Humanity of God

A Hauerwasian Advent (2)

Stanley Hauerwas MatthewFor my own benefit, I am using Stanley Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew 1-2 to help me prepare for Christmas, and also in hope of spiritual renewal in this time of new birth. The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is attentive to the biblical text, but in a theological and ecclesial rather than historical and linguistic manner. It is a different kind of commentary. Hauerwas reflects on the meaning of the Christmas story in the light of the church’s faith and for the church’s faithful response. In this week’s excerpt, he reflects on the work of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth.

It is often said that the Holy Spirit is an afterthought in modern theology, but the Spirit is certainly present in Matthew’s gospel from the beginning. For Matthew, the work of the Spirit is to point to the humanity of Christ. … (33)

That the Holy Spirit is necessary for our recognition of Jesus as the Son of God is not surprising, given our presumption that it is surely not possible for God to be one of us. Our temptation is to believe that if God is God then God must be the biggest thing around. Accordingly we describe God with an unending list of superlatives: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God is all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present, but these descriptions make it difficult for some to understand how God can be conceived by the Spirit in Mary. Yet that is to presume we know what it means for God to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent prior to God being found in Mary’s womb. Admittedly this challenges our presumption that we can assume we can know what God must be prior to knowing Jesus, but such presumption is just another word for sin. By Mary’s conception through the Spirit, our prideful assumption that we are capable of knowing God on our own terms is challenged. … (33-34)

Virgin births are not surprising given that this is the God who has created us without us, but (as Augustine observes) who will not save us without us. … What should startle us, what should stun us, is not that Mary is a virgin, but that God refuses to abandon us. … (34)

And so Hauerwas cites Karl Barth (“The Humanity of God,” 48-49):

God’s deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself. It is rather His freedom to be in and for Himself but also with and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man’s eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity!

Hauerwas, like Matthew, makes no attempt to explain the virgin birth or seek to make sense of it. He simply asserts that this is the story of what God has done, and without it, “the story cannot be told. Mary’s virginity is simply required by the way the story runs. The one to whom she gave birth is none other than Emmanuel, “God with us,” and such a one can have no other father than the Father who is the first person of the Trinity” (36). The meaning of the passage is not the historical question of whether a virgin can or cannot have conceived a child, but the identification of God as the One who meets us in and through this child, and who in so doing, overturns all our presumptions about who and what God must be. We learn to know God here, or we do not know God at all.

An Advent Prayer

Restore us, O Lord, we pray,
bring us back to that place
where we once met,
as shepherds to the stable
after hearing angels sing.
Bring us back to that place
when our love was fresh,
not embarrassed
to express itself in praise
to our heavenly King.
Restore us, O Lord, we pray.

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4S4OUrwch

Reading Karl Barth: On 19th-Century Theology

Karl Barth had photos of nineteenth century theologians on the wall as he climbed the steps to his study.
Karl Barth had photos of nineteenth century theologians on the wall as he climbed the steps to his study.

Barth’s lecture “Evangelical Theology in the 19th-Century” was given in Hannover to the Goethe Society, January 8, 1957, when Barth was seventy years old. The lecture contains three major sections plus a brief introduction and conclusion appropriate for a non-theological audience. After the introduction which defines the key terms of the title, Barth provides a summary or overview of the beginnings, course and eclipse of nineteenth-century Liberal theology (Karl Barth, “Evangelical Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Humanity of God, 12-17). Barth’s overall assessment of Liberal theology is that “Theology turned into philosophy of the history of religion in general, and of the Christian religion in particular” (13). In an important biographical aside Barth recalls his utter despair and horror at the actions of his venerated theological mentors and realised that for him, “19th-century theology no longer held any future” (14). Yet Barth refuses to consign this theology to obscurity. Despite this ultimate failure of Liberal theology, Karl Barth affirms the liberals for their spiritual steadfastness and courage in the face of the onslaught of modernism, for their highly cultivated character, piety and openness to the world, as well as their focus on the historical nature of Christianity (16-18, 28).

The second section—and heart—of the lecture comprises Karl Barth’s assessment of the two key problems of Liberal theology (18-28). The first is the Liberals’ fundamental conviction that theology arises from the confrontation of the church and faith with the world. Thus, 19th-century theology was primarily concerned with the world, in order to demonstrate the rationality and relevance of faith. As a result the thought-forms of the world became normative for theology, thus rationalising and truncating theology (19). The second great problem was the Liberals’ search for universal grounds for faith, grounded in an innate capacity for religion, and demonstrated in the history of religion (21, 28-29). For Barth, not only was this apologetic strategy fruitless, but it also resulted in an eviscerated theology (22). The ethical result of this faulty theological method was an ‘uncritical and irresponsible subservience to the patterns, forces and movements of human history and civilisation’ (27). That is, the church lost its distinct identity and task, becoming instead a servant to the culture, and a chaplain to the warring state.

In his final section Barth pinpoints the ultimate cause of this theological failure: the theologians of the nineteenth-century operated within the worldview presuppositions of the Enlightenment which inevitably resulted in historicism, psychologism, and demythologisation: in short, the rationalising and curtailing of Christian theology (15, 19, and 21). Thus Barth asks his programmatic question:

What if by talking about Christianity as a religion these theologians had already ceased to speak of Christianity and hence were unable to communicate the faith with authority to those on the outside? What if the only relevant way of speaking of Christianity was from within? (30-31).        

“The Humanity of God”

God-and-AdamThis lecture, delivered by Karl Barth on September 25, 1956 at a Swiss Reformed Ministers Association meeting, is the second lecture in a little collection of three lectures bearing the same name. Barth begins the lecture with an opening statement that defines what he means by this intriguing and provocative title:

The humanity of God! Rightly understood that is bound to mean God’s relation to and turning toward man. It signifies the God who speaks with man in promise and command. It represents God’s existence, intercession, and activity for man, the intercourse God holds with him, and the free grace in which He wills to be and is nothing other than the God of man (Barth, The Humanity of God, 37).

That is, Barth’s ascription of humanity to God is a metaphor intended to emphasise the utter grace of God in God’s relation towards humanity. Barth is not saying that God is actually “human,” as though he were humanity writ large, or as though he were actually human with no remainder.

The introduction and first section of the lecture function as a kind of “retraction,” or more accurately, a correction. Barth recalls the fundamental shift, the 180o change of theological direction whereby forty years earlier he and his companions repudiated the major features of nineteenth-century theology and struck out on a new course. What they sought was a mighty reaffirmation of God’s deity, the “godness” of God over against what they understood as the anthropocentric theology of their forebears. Now Barth confesses, “We were wrong exactly where we were right” (44). It is not that Barth wants to lose this emphasis on divine sovereignty—far from it! But in and of itself, it is insufficient for it does not convey with necessary precision the full truth of who God is:

See the moon in yonder sky?
’Tis only half that meets the eye.

The fulsome emphasis on God’s transcendent deity meant that God’s “humanity” was left undeveloped. Barth still wants to assert the godness of God, though now with an emphasis also on God’s humanity.

The second section of the lecture then insists that the humanity of God is seen and known only in the place where God—in his deity—has given himself to be known; that is, in Jesus Christ. There is no abstract God just as there is no abstract humanity: here, in Christ, both true deity and true humanity are revealed. Nevertheless, Barth resolutely maintains the ordering of God’s deity vis-à-vis his humanity, but just as resolutely insists on his real, actual and genuine humanity. All this comes together in what I call a “purple passage”:

In Jesus Christ there is no isolation of man from God or of God from man. Rather, in him we encounter the history, the dialogue, in which God and man meet together and are together, the reality of the covenant mutually contracted, preserved, and fulfilled by them. Jesus Christ is in his one person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s. He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God. He is the Word spoken from the loftiest, most luminous transcendence and likewise the Word heard in the deepest, darkest immanence. He is both, without their being confused but also without their being divided; He is wholly one and wholly the other. Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus he comes forward to man on behalf of God calling for and awakening faith, love, and hope, and to God on behalf of man, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus he attests and guarantees to man God’s free grace and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free gratitude.  Thus he establishes in his person the justice of God vis-à-vis man and also the justice of man before God. Thus he is in his person the covenant in its fullness, the Kingdom of heaven which is at hand, in which God speaks and man hears, God gives and man receives, God commands and man obeys, God’s glory shines in the heights and thence into the depths, and peace on earth comes to pass among men in whom he is well pleased. Moreover, exactly in this way Jesus Christ, as this Mediator and Reconciler between God and man, is also the Revealer of them both. We do not need to engage in a free-ranging investigation to seek out and construct who and what God truly is, and who and what man truly is, but only to read the truth about both where it resides, namely, in the fullness of their togetherness, their covenant which proclaims itself in Jesus Christ. …

Beyond doubt God’s deity is the first and fundamental fact that strikes us when we look at the existence of Jesus Christ as attested in the Holy Scripture. … In the existence of Jesus Christ, the fact that God speaks, gives, orders, comes absolutely first—that man hears, receives, obeys, can and must only follow this first act. In Jesus Christ man’s freedom is wholly enclosed in the freedom of God (46-48).

God does not exist in majestic isolation in and for himself, utterly free from all that is not God. God’s freedom is freedom to love (48). God is free not only to be God, mighty, majestic and exalted but also lowly, a servant, human. The mystery of God includes God’s determination not to be without humanity, but with them; not to be against humanity, but for them. God determines to love us, to be our God, our Lord, our Preserver and Saviour, and as such, God is human (50-51). “His free affirmation of man, his free concern for him, his free substitution for him—this is God’s humanity” (51).

The final section of the lecture develops some implications of the humanity of God, including:

  1. A real distinction is bestowed on every human person, entirely on the basis of grace. Every person is loved of God who is their father. Their humanity is God’s gift, and so must issue in the practical acknowledgement of every person’s human rights and dignity (53).
  2. Theology finds its focus and message in the humanity of God, for theology is determined by its object. Theology is not about God in himself, nor human existence in and of itself, but about the “history, dialogue and communion” of God with humanity and humanity with God—and in this order.
  3. Because the covenant is “history, dialogue and communion” theology also finds its character and form: that is, theology exists as prayer and proclamation, as responsive address to God, and as the address of the great news of God’s love to all others.
  4. The message of the church is the joyful, positive announcement of God’s affirmation of humanity. Certainly God’s No is inevitable, but it has been borne by Jesus Christ. Barth refuses to deny or confirm the idea of universalism, but trenchantly insists that “this much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ” (62).
  5. Finally, God’s turn toward humanity calls forth and awakens a company of people who respond to God in worship, praise and service—the church.

We should be ashamed of Jesus Christ himself, were we willing to be ashamed of the church. What Jesus Christ is for God and for us, on earth and in time, he is as Lord of this community, as King of this people, as Head of this body and of all its members. … We believe the church as the place where the crown of humanity, namely, man’s fellow-humanity, may become visible in Christocratic brotherhood. Moreover, we believe it as the place where God’s glory wills to dwell upon earth, that is, where humanity—the humanity of God—wills to assume tangible form in time and here upon earth. Here we recognize the humanity of God. Here we delight in it. Here we celebrate and witness to it. Here we glory in the Immanuel… (64-65).

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 2

hercules-at-the-crossroads-4226Last week I posted the first part of this summary/reflection on Barth’s essay here.

Christian freedom—and therefore according to Barth, human freedom—is not simply the human capacity to choose between alternatives, nor a vision of the autonomous person standing aloof from all other circumstances, powers and persons. True freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. It is not realised in solitary detachment from others, but only in encounter and communion with them. It is not the power to assert one’s own desire and will, and so to preserve, justify and therefore save oneself. Rather, true freedom and thus true humanity consists in joyful obedience and thankful response to God.

Human freedom is freedom only within the limitations of God’s own freedom. … It awakens the receiver to true selfhood and new life. It is a gift from God, from the source of all goodness … Through this gift man who was irretrievably separated and alienated from God is called into discipleship. This is why freedom is joy! … Freedom is the joy whereby man acknowledges and confesses this divine election by willing, deciding, and determining himself to be the echo and mirror of the divine act.[1]

Freedom, for Barth, is not autonomy, but precisely its opposite: dependence upon God. It consists not in isolation from God but in being bound to God, in relation with God, and in correspondence to the divine way of being revealed in Jesus Christ. In this relation we are set free to be and become truly human: God’s creature, God’s partner, God’s child. These three categories of human being and freedom correspond to God’s relation to humanity as creator, reconciler and redeemer. As God’s creature we are freed to be truly human, living in dependence upon the gracious God, and in right relation with others. As God’s partner we are freed to echo God’s Yes and God’s No in our own decision and act, and so live a life of faith and love as a pilgrim and witness to the reality of God and the freedom God gives. As God’s child we are freed to live in this fallen and darkened world according to hope in the as yet unseen future which will be ours through God’s promise. On the basis of this promise we are freed to live toward this future, to pray, to work and ultimately to die. “A Christian is one who makes use of this freedom to pray and to live in the hope of the end which will be the revelation of the beginning.”[2] Freedom, in Barth’s vision, is the gift from God by which unfree and enslaved humanity is set free for the service of thankful obedience, for participation in the causa Dei, for the joy and hope of being God’s child both here and hereafter.

In the third section of the lecture Barth addresses the nature of “evangelical ethics.” A person does the good when she obeys the divine command implicit in the gift of freedom, and with which she is confronted in every new moment. The divine command is the immediate encounter between God and the human agent. God does not deal with us through the intermediary of a rule, a principle, a natural law, reason, conscience, or even the Bible. Certainly ethical reflection, pastoral exhortation, brotherly admonition, study and doctrine are all appropriate as preliminary words, but none of these in and of themselves constitute the divine command. The final word belongs to God in the moment of encounter with the free human agent. Ethics, therefore, may search for and point toward the will of God as it has been revealed and known in different times, places and circumstances. Its task, however, can never be to mediate the divine command, to take the place of God, of human freedom, of the encounter between the two; that is, it can never become a law.

Ethics according to our assumptions can only be evangelical ethics. The question of good and evil is never answered by man’s pointing to the authoritative Word of God in terms of a set of rules. It is never discovered by man or imposed on the self and others as a code of good and evil actions, a sort of yardstick of what is good and evil. Holy Scripture defies being forced into a set of rules; it is a mistake to use it as such. The ethicist cannot take the place either of the free God or of the free man, even less of both together.[3]

The task of ethics, therefore, is to remind us of and direct us to our responsibility before God. It emphasises the reality and conditioning of human existence. It may offer provisional conclusions and conditional imperatives but will leave the pronouncement of unconditional imperatives to God.[4]

Ethics is reflection upon what man is required to do in and with the gift of freedom. The ethicist should not want to attempt too little either. He must want to realize his calling and his talents. It is not enough to insist that human life is to be lived under the divine imperative. Ethical reflection must go further and ask the question to what extent this is so. Neither the freedom of God’s commandment nor that of man’s obedience is an empty form. Human action takes place at the point of contact between these two spheres of freedom. Each of these is characterised by its own content, tone, and extent. Ethical reflection has to concentrate upon these. It has to begin with the recognition that the free God is the free man’s Lord, Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, and that free man is God’s creature, partner, and child. This insight will be gained at the very source of Christian thinking, in Holy Scripture, where ethical reflection will also renew, sharpen, and correct its findings in continuous searching. In addition, ethical reflection may and must consult the Christian community in its past and present history. It must do this in order to be admonished, nourished, enriched, perhaps also stirred and warned, by the use which the fathers and brethren made and still are making of Christian freedom.

Therefore, ethics is not without signposts in its attempt to point to God’s authoritative word of judgment. If it is based on the knowledge of God and of man, it will receive its contour. It will not point to a vacuum, but to the true God, the real man, and the real encounter between them. The ethical quest is and remains a quest and yet is not totally devoid of fulfilment. Indirect as it may be, the quest is a witness to God’s concrete word. Ethical reflection may and must be genuine search and genuine doctrine, genuine because true ethics does not deprive God, its object, of His due power and glory. It leaves the uttering of the essential and final word to God Himself. But it does not shrink away from the preliminary words which are necessary to focus man’s wandering thoughts on the one center where he, himself free, shall hear the word of the free God, the commandment addressed to him, the judgment falling upon him, and the promise waiting for him.[5]

This long citation is very important in understanding Barth’s view of the divine command. The command is not simply equated with the commands of Scripture. Further, many commentators on Barth’s ethics have worried about the possibility of an immediate command coming to each person in each instance of their lives. They worry that human ethical reason is evacuated of any significance, that Barth’s concept is simply irrational, and that actual people are most unlikely to hear such a command in the to-and-froing of their daily existence. This passage makes it clear, however, that the divine command comes not as a bolt out of the blue, nor is it so alien to us as to be unrecognisable. Christian ethics may prepare for the command through reflection on the particular cases and circumstances confronting us; through reflection on Scripture and history, through pastoral exhortation, study, brotherly admonition, etc. But ultimately, ethical existence is the free response the person makes to God in the moment of encounter.

Barth appends a final section to his essay which functions as a sort of illustration or application of his view of freedom specifically with reference to the work of theology. Nevertheless, the categories of thought used here serve to illustrate how the work of ethics also proceeds. He lays out his thought in five points;

  1. Begin at the beginning, that is, in prayer, liturgy and devotion as a response to God’s prior action, especially his revelation in Christ and culminating in the resurrection;
  2. Begin too with Scripture where this revelation is witnessed and heard;
  3. Be free to draw on other frameworks of understanding, other approaches to the issues at hand;
  4. Reflect in dialogue with the church and for the church, drawing in peers, confessions, the fathers, governing authorities, etc.;
  5. Reflect in joyful, critical and free dialogue with other contemporaries, even and especially those with whom you disagree.

When Barth does ethics, he refuses to tell us what to do. Rather he describes in thoroughly theological terms, the moral field in which our existence takes place, and in which we are called to act. The great and central reality of this field is God himself. In him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). In every moment of our lives we are confronted by a reality from beyond ourselves, by which we are addressed, and to whom we are responsible. This “whom” has reached out to us in Jesus Christ and called us to himself. This is evangelical ethics.


[1] Ibid., 78-79.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] Ibid., 85, original emphasis.

[4] Ibid., 86.

[5] Ibid., 87-88.

Karl Barth, “The Gift of Freedom” Pt. 1

Hercules at the Crossroads between Virtue and Vice (Annibale Carracci, 1596)

On September 21, 1953 Karl Barth gave an address at a meeting in Bielefeld of the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie (Society for Evangelical Theology). It was published in a little collection of three essays entitled The Humanity of God. I am away from home at the moment and so cannot check Busch to find out what was going on at the time, but there is clear evidence in the lecture that Barth is engaging with some contemporary conversations and issues.

The most important thing to note at the outset is the subtitle of the lecture: “Foundation of Evangelical Ethics.” When Barth uses the term “Evangelical” he is referring to Protestant theology rather than evangelicalism as it is commonly known today. It may be, however, that Barth has in mind evangelical as gospel; what is beyond question, however, is that Barth is arguing for an ecclesial ethics, one specifically for the Christian community, rather than for humanity generally. Indeed, his ethics are possible only as an evangelical ethics and not otherwise.

The lecture progresses in four sections, the final section serving almost as an excursus. Although it seems natural to discuss the seeming reality of human freedom, Barth asks, “Why deny priority to God in the realm of knowing when it is uncontested in the realm of being? If God is the first reality, how can man be the first truth?”[1] Barth insists that beginning with God does not in any way imply the abrogation of human freedom, although some may want to argue the point with him. God’s freedom is not naked sovereignty or bare omnipotence, but relational freedom, the freedom in which God in covenantal grace gave and gives himself to humanity to be humanity’s God. God’s freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for. God is free to determine his own being to be God for us in and through Jesus Christ. God’s freedom was and is expressed in the gospel, and although surely God’s vision and purpose includes all his creatures, God’s particular interest concerns his human creature, indicated in his becoming human in his Son.

The well-known definitions of the essence of God and in particular of His freedom, containing such terms as “wholly other,” “transcendence,” or “non-worldly,” stand in need of thorough clarification if fatal misconceptions of human freedom as well are to be avoided. The above definitions might just as well fit a dead idol. Negative as they are, they most certainly miss the very center of the Christian concept of God, the radiant affirmation of free grace, whereby God bound and committed Himself to man, making Himself in His Son a man of Israel and the brother of all men, appropriating human nature into the unity of his own being.[2]

In the second section of the lecture, Barth turns his attention to human freedom and here his exposition runs entirely counter to modern expectations. Human freedom is indeed the gift of God, grounded in God’s own freedom. But God is not simply the source of human freedom; he is also its object and goal. The natural freedom given to humanity in creation has been lost through sin, by which humanity is alienated from God and self. Humanity does not now know its original freedom, nor indeed what it means to be human.[3] Barth therefore implies that we cannot know what freedom is and entails by phenomenological analysis of human existence and action. We can, of course, understand the human capacity of choice, decision, and action, but this in itself is not freedom.

The concept of freedom as man’s rightful claim and due is equally contradictory and impossible. … Man has no real will power. Nor does he get it by himself. His power lies in receiving and in appropriating God’s gift. … God does not put man into the situation of Hercules at the crossroads. The opposite is true. God frees man from this false situation. He lifts him from appearance to reality. … It would be a strange freedom that would leave man neutral, able equally to choose, decide, and act rightly or wrongly! What kind of power would that be! Man becomes free and is free by choosing, deciding, and determining himself in accordance with the freedom of God. … Trying to escape from being in accord with God’s own freedom is not human freedom. Rather, it is a compulsion wrought by powers of darkness or by man’s own helplessness. Sin as an alternative is not anticipated or included in the freedom given to man by God.[4]

Apart from the gospel, then, humanity is “unfree.” What freedom is can be known only by understanding Christian freedom, that freedom which is given to humanity in Jesus Christ. Barth, echoing Luther, insists that freedom can be understood only in terms of “the freedom of the Christian.”[5]

To Be Continued …

[1] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, trans., J. N. Thomas & T. Weiser (St. Louis: John Knox, 1960), 70.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 76-77.

[5] Ibid., 75, 82.