Karl Barth, Credo – “Our Lord”

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No one in the history of Christian dogmatics has seriously challenged the notion that Jesus is Lord, says Karl Barth in this his sixth chapter of Credo. To do so one would be required to counter “hundreds of New Testament passages” (51). The question is, however, What does it mean to say that Jesus is our Lord?

Fundamentally, when the NT witnesses spoke of Jesus as Lord, they knew full well that there were many “lords” in the world: some petty, some great, some bad, also some good. But when Paul calls Jesus “the one Lord (1 Cor 8.6), he does not merely place Him at the top of the pyramid of these many lords, and therefore really at their side, but he expressly places Him at the side of the one Father. To be Lord in the sense in which Paul uses that term of Jesus Christ means . . . to be that One by Whom all things were made. It means, to be Creator in the same way in which that is attributed to the Father” (52). Indeed, to utter “Jesus is Lord” is not only an acknowledgement of Christ as God (since the translation of YHWH is Kurios, “Lord” in the NT), but is also a religious, ethical and even political decision of the one who seriously says, “I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.” To utter this phrase is to acknowledge Christ’s prior decision upon us. [And I add, we no more “make Jesus Christ Lord” (to use the popular evangelical parlance) than we make Elizabeth II the Queen of England when we call her “Our Queen.” No where in the NT are we called upon to ‘make Jesus our Lord’–as if this were something within our power to do; but we are told that every tongue will confess him as Lord in heaven and earth and under the earth, cf. Phil 2:10-11.]

So what are the implications of confessing that Jesus Christ is Our Lord (Jesum Christum Dominum Nostrum)?

A. “Jesus has authority and power over us that a Lord has over his servants” (54). This means that as servants, as slaves, we have no rights of our own. We act not on our own responsibility, but strictly under his. But this also means that our preservation is the Lord’s concern.

Unlike human lordship, which has a human origin, Christ’s Lordship is a divine Lordship in which as Creator, he has prerogative not only over our life, but even over “our free and most secret thoughts… not only over our words and deeds, but over our hearts and consciences” (55).  Furthermore, unlike human lordship (which has a beginning and an end–a “term”), the Lordship of Christ is a lordship–a kingdom–which has no end. Thus we pray, “Thy kingdom come!” (56)

B. Because Christ’s lordship is comprehensive, “we cannot…separate our bodily existence from our psychical in order then to make the Lordship of Christ merely psychical and therefore internal, spiritual, invisible. As Creator of heaven and earth Christ is Lord of the whole man and is either recognised as such or not at all” (56). This means that “the Lordship of Christ is not only a so-called religious Lordship; as that, it is very much an ethical, yes, a political Lordship” (56). [This is the message, I believe, that we as evangelicals need to hear over and over again. To say, “Jesus is Lord” is not merely an internal, “spiritual” thing; to confess Christ’s Lordship means saying, in faith and in hope, that Jesus is Lord even when our eyes tells us that this does not appear to be already the case. To look out into the world, or to read, listen or watch the daily news, we may well wonder about Christ’s Lordship. Furthermore,  it means that we cannot rest in the platitude that “Jesus is Lord of my heart” when we know full well that Christ’s Lordship extends even to the political realm. The trick, of course, is knowing what kind of responsibility that entails for Christians–a topic we cannot obviously deal with extensively here! I don’t think we do justice to this topic when we simply say something like, “Christians should be involved in politics.” That is still to assume that there is a kind of “segregating” of the political from everyday life. But it does mean that as Christians, we take the politically incorrect stance that Christ’s Lordship lays claim to every arena of human life, including the public and political arenas, and that as Christian witnesses to this lordship, we have a responsibility to confess that Lordship, even when we are daily told that this is unacceptable in a society that values “tolerance” and “acceptance” as “fundamental values.”]

C. We fail to recognize Christ’s Lordship “if we arbitrarily let one of its elements function in order openly or secretly to withdraw ourselves from another.–We cannot, for example, confine ourselves to merely accepting consolation from Christ from His promise that in Him our sins are forgiven and therefore eternal life is assured. That would certainly be a ‘filled-out’ but not a ‘formed’ credo, and as such not the credo that is determined by this Lordship” (57). In other words, Barth is saying that a confession of Christ’s Lordship, in the sense in which the New Testament talks of Jesus as Lord/YHWH, cannot acknowledge Christ’s prerogative over one aspect of our life, only to deny it in another. Lordship is total, or it is pseudo-Lordship. [In practice, I think we proclaim a false lordship when, for example, we allow our weekly church attendance to “stand in” as evidence of our obedience to our Lord for what goes on in our lives in the rest of the week. And, I think, the reverse is also true. For today, it is common to hear some of the more “sophisticated” Christians amongst us speak about making sure that they are following Christ in their everyday lives, yet ironically forsaking the “assembling together of the saints” because, for some reason, they think that their week-day obedience “stands in” for our absence on Sundays with those “lesser Sunday Christians.”]

D. We must be fully aware of the temptation to replace Christ’s Lordship with a “conceptual lordship” of our own making. In this regard, Barth says:

The great comprehensive temptation, danger and distress with which faith is assailed in relation to the Lordship of Christ consists finally in this–that, while we have perhaps very rightly understood it in its totality claim, we so easily confound and interchange it with our own lordship. Christian faith is verily, as long as time lasts, faith in the midst of temptation. The temptation is just for the Christian with his credo to proceed suddenly or imperceptibly, to form and fill out this credo of his himself, instead of leaving it to form and fill out. . .  (58)

And what makes this temptation so grave is the fact that this from top to bottom arbitrary human faith looks as like the real Christian faith that originates and lives under the Lordship of Christ as one egg is like another. Only that sooner or later, suddenly or gradually, but quite surely it suffers shipwreck, loses itself in some piece of folly or, what is almost worse, in trivialities of various kinds like a shrinking stream in the sand, if it does not degenerate into despair and unbelief. . .  That is the temptation which in the life of individuals as in the life of the Church has of old and in later times been the enigma of much noticeable or hidden Christian stagnation and failure. That has got to be known. The Lordship of Christ is really the Lordship of Christ! (59)

[The question we must continually ask is, “Is this or that action a response to the demand of Christ? Or is this or that action simply what I think it is that Christ would have me to do?” To be genuinely aware of the temptation to erect a “conceptual Christ” in place of the real Jesus, we must not assume that just because something was clearly commanded of us by Christ yesterday or last week that necessarily he commands it of us today. Even our propensity to say, “The Bible says…” while laudable, can quickly and easily degenerate into replacing the living Lord Jesus with a “paper Christ.” …I admit–this one hits home to me the hardest…]

Barth concludes his reflections by a brief critique of Luther’s replacement of the “our” in “our Lord” with the word “my.” As Barth puts it, “The ‘our’ tells us that the life (i.e., the ethical) relationship of the testimony to Christ in the symbol and in Holy Scripture, in effect this Lordship of Christ, is no private intercourse between Christ and individual believers, but the rule of Christ in His Church. In the congregation of those called to Christian faith Christ is acknowledged and honoured as the Lord. That is done in the congregation, and even by individual Christians fundamentally only there. The fact that Christ becomes the Lord of my whole life is not something that I can have alone. I can have neither the Gospel nor the Law by myself.” (60-1).

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One thought on “Karl Barth, Credo – “Our Lord”

  1. This is really helpful encapsulation of Barth’s credo. thanks. I especially appreciate all the personal and applicable comments and hints toward implications in the brackets!

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