Karl Barth, Credo – “And in Jesus Christ his Only Son”

“With these words [“And in Jesus Christ his only Son”] we step into the great centre of the Christian Creed. And here decisions are made.” (Credo, 39) So begins the exposition of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed by Karl Barth.

Whatever decisions need to be made here, Barth asserts, will inform the manner in which we understand the first and third articles, and in which the Creed truly is understood as Christian as distinct from “all other actual and possible creeds” (39). In this regard, the ordering of the Creed must be understood as representing the “essential order” which is the “way of God’s condescension…the content of revelation” (40). [In other words, Barth is saying that the articles of the Creed follow the order evident in passages such as Matt 28:18, Rom 1:1-4, 2 Thess 2:13, etc. in which the living God is spoken of as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To speak in this order is to speak of the identity of God, his “Who-ness”: Whom do we worship as God? the answer which is, None other than Father, Son and Holy Spirit.]

However, Barth notes, the “essential” ordering of the Creed is not the same as our order of knowing, i.e., the order in which we come to know of this God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. On the contrary, we only come to know God through Jesus Christ. As Barth explains,

the second article belongs to the beginning of the order of our knowing. . . If God has not become man, as is recognized and confessed in the second article, then everything we could conceive and say to ourselves about God over man and about God with man, would hang in the air as arbitrarily, as mistakenly and as misleadingly, as the corresponding ideas which, in the long run, have been fashioned about God and man in all religions and cosmic speculations (40).

This leads Barth to the first and most important “decision” we need to make about what the Creed teaches: Has God become man or not?

a) If God has not become man, then knowledge of God is impossible, and all talk about God (theology) is simply religious or metaphysical speculation (cf. 40).

b) If, on the other hand, God has become man–if the words “I believe in Jesus Christ his Only Son” means that the man Jesus is “in the closest relationship . . . with God Himself” (41)–then “here we are told about about a special act of God on the narrow strip of human history” (41). We are told, in other words, that God actually has come to be with us–Immanuel, and that our knowledge of God proceeds from his historical action amongst us. [This is clear evidence of what Hunsinger calls Barth’s “actualism” at work.]

Not only does this decision affect whether or not we have confidence that we can know God, but, Barth goes on, this decision also reveals to us the “abyss” that separates us from God–the abyss we call “sin, evil, death, and devil” (42). What Barth means is that not only is Jesus Christ the one who reveals the Father and the Spirit, but he is also the one who makes clear the separation, the gap, the Abyss, which separates us from God. As Barth puts it:

[It is] remarkable . . . that the Creed itself has not considered it necessary to prefix to the doctrine of Christ, by way of basis and explanation, a special doctrine of sin and death. . .  [U]ndoubtedly Creed and Scriptures alike are of the opinion that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the answer to this misery and this despair! Yet they speak really and properly solely of that answer, and only incidentally of the question–only incidentally of man’s sin and punishment. . . . Jesus Christ is the background from which man’s misery and despair receive their light, and not vice versa (43).

[The insights here, I believe, are ones which needs to be heard clearly. Barth’s christological method leads him to conclude that not only is there no knowledge of God apart from Christ, there is not even true knowledge of the nature of sin, death, and evil. It is a curious thing, indeed, that the Creed speaks so little about sin and death (except by implication) and yet how much attention many theologians, even today, give to the doctrine of sin. But as Barth insists, “To gaze down into that abyss, as far as it is possible for us to do that ourselves, does not in itself help us in the least, so frightful is the abyss. . .  Grace must come first, in order that sin may be manifest to us as sin, and death as death” (44). Or elsewhere, “Sin scorches us when it comes under the light of forgiveness, not before.”(45). The implications for this are significant, I believe, because much Protestant (and evangelical) preaching and witness proceeds on the assumption that we need to convince people that they are sinners first, and then introduce the “salve of salvation”–Jesus Christ. But Barth is arguing that people can’t even know “fruitful knowledge of sin and death” (43) apart from knowledge of Jesus Christ. Thus for Barth, preaching is “Gospel-Law-Gospel”, not simply, “Law-Gospel.”]

Barth ends this chapter by bringing together the implications of these two points which the second article brings out.

So deep is the abyss—now it becomes clear how deep it is—which separates us from Him, that to bridge it nothing less than God Himself will suffice. But God Himself does it, and in doing it shows that He can do it, because He is the triune God, the Father of the Son, the Son of the Father, both of these not only in His revelation, not only in His reconciling us with Himself, but both of these in truth and power in His revelation and reconciliation, because from eternity to eternity He is none other than just this God. (49)

[For those who are following the “election” debate on Karl Barth–a debate personified between Bruce McCormack and George Hunsinger (both of Princeton Seminary)–about whether Barth understood election to be in some way “constitutive” of God as triune, this 1935 quotation is clear “pre-CD II/2” that Barth  understood that God revelation and his “essence” as are fully unified. God is eternally as he reveals himself to be. Whatever the case, Barth is convinced that the christological article is pivotal to an understanding of everything else in Christian theology. “Wrong decisions” made at the christological level will have devastating effect throughout the entirety of Christian dogmatics.]

Though I won’t comment much here, there is one more section worth reiterating which I include below at length as leading to Barth’s conclusion to the chapter. The “war” with Protestant Liberalism is clearly being waged fully at this point in Barth’s career!

It can be asserted and proved with the utmost definiteness and accuracy that the great theological-ecclesiastical catastrophe of which the German Protestantism of the moment is the arena, would have been impossible if the three words Filium eius unicum [“his only Son”] in the properly understood sense of the Nicene trinitarian doctrine had not for more than two hundred years been really lost to the German Church amongst a chaos of reinterpretations designed to make them innocuous. This catastrophe should be a real, final warning to the evangelical Churches, and, especially to the theological faculties of other lands, where, so far as trinitarian dogma is concerned, no better ways are being trodden. Christian faith stands or falls once and for all with the fact that God and God alone is its object. If one rejects the Bibhcal doctrine that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, and indeed God’s only Son, and that therefore the whole revelation of God and all reconciliaion between God and man is contained in Him—and if one then, in spite of that, speaks of ” faith ” in Jesus Christ, then one believes in an intermediate being, and then consequently one is really pursuing metaphysics and has ready secretly lapsed from the Christian faith into a polytheism which will forthwith mature into further fruits in the setting up of a special God-Father faith and a special Creator faith, and in the assertion of special spiritual revelations. The proclamation of this polytheism can most certainly be a brilliant and a pleasant affair, and can win continuous and widespread approbation. But real consolation and real instruction, the Gospel of God and the Law of God, will find a small and ever-diminishing place in this proclamation.  (49-50 – emphasis mine)


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