Karl Barth, Credo – “Conceived of the Spirit, Born of the Virgin”


That Jesus Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the Virgin Mary,” according to Barth, is to be understood as an event of “such a nature that it could not be understood from anywhere else. . . but only out of itself, and could therefore be recognised only in faith’s decision.” (Credo, 62). [The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, in other words, cannot be explained on grounds other than itself. To explain it away scientifically, or to find parallels in other ancient stories, or even simply understand it as a “myth” are all grand examples of  “missing the point!”]

Together, the confession of Christ’s conception by the Spirit and birth by the Virgin point to both a “general, inner, material thing” and a “special, outer thing”; together these two statements express the “mystery of the thing, and the miracle of the sign.” (63).  From the inner perspective, these two doctrines together point to the “mystery” of the Incarnation, but from the outer perspective, they speak of the fact that “Jesus Christ as . . . God and man has God alone for His Father and therefore the Virgin Mary for His mother.” (63)

Barth insists that form and content in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth must go together, and that when form and content are sundered, both form and content suffer. Barth here affirms, just as my good friend Dustin Resch has pointed out, that the Virgin Birth is a “fitting” form of the witness to both the mystery and miracle of the incarnation. As Barth puts it, “it is just in this form and fashion that this witness has been heard by the Church right from the beginning. And it could well be that its clarity and definiteness is inseparably bound up with this form and fashion, that therefore in its clarity and definiteness it is not to be heard otherwise than in this very form and fashion” (63). [In other words, Barth argues that despite the difficulty moderns may have in accepting the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, we cannot separate its content, its meaning, from the form in which it comes to us. To accept that the Virgin Birth teaches us something but to reject that it really was so, is to fail to realize why it was precisely in this manner, in this form, that the Conception by the Spirit and the Virgin Birth was necessary. You can’t, Barth says, accept the Virgin Birth as teaching some kind of doctrinal kernel, only to deal with the report of the Virgin Birth as as mythical husk that can be now shed. Lose the Virgin birth and you lose the content of the teaching itself. Kernel and Husk cannot be separated!]

So what then is the significance of the conception and virgin birth?

1) The conception by the Spirit tells us that the “human existence of Jesus Christ in its creatureliness as distinguished from all other creatures, has its origin immediately in God, and is therefore immediately God’s own existence” (64). To be conceived by the Spirit is to say that this baby comes from God.  [This becomes very important for Barth in the Church Dogmatics where he continues to insist that the eternal procession of the Spirit cannot be “read back” as evidence of an eternal Spirituque (that the Son proceeds also from the Spirit), for the conception is a conception of the creaturely human existence of Jesus, not the eternal existence of the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God.]

2) That Jesus is “born of the Virgin Mary” tells us that “God’s own existence in Jesus Christ, without prejudice to the fact that here also God is the Creator, has also a human-creaturely origin and is therefore also human-creaturely existence” (64). God, in other words, freely chooses to “exist” as a God-with-humans.

Together, these two formulas tell us not that God and man come together in “infinite nearness” but that “in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God and man become one, in order for all time and unto eternity to be one in Him Who was so conceived and born. So that it is as a twofold fact that these two things can be said and must be said of Jesus Christ: He was and is God and man; but always both of them, not one without the other, and both (each in its own way!) with equal seriousness  and emphasis: neither the one nor the other under reserve, neither the one nor the other in a merely figurative, provisional, metaphorical sense” (64).

Barth goes on to reflect on the significance of John 1:14, specifically that the Word becomes (ἐγένετο) flesh (and not merely “is” flesh). To confess that the Word becomes flesh is to acknowledge the beginning of a “history.” That is, there is no divine necessity (at least none that we know of) of why the Word would have to become flesh, and we know of no human possibility by which the Word could become flesh. We can only in faith “follow this becoming, to follow this way, this event as such” (65). Furthermore, this is not something that faith enacts (i.e., it is not that it is in faith that we believe in a myth of incarnation, but it is the case that this is an event of the past–something that took place independently of our faith. Consequently, it is God who is the Subject of this action, not us (66). Incarnation is not the ascent of man to God, but a descent of God to man, in a definite history. “The power of this Incarnation, the revealing and reconciling power also of His incarnate life are completely His power” (66).

[Here I pause to remind us, as I believe Barth would, that “Incarnation” is properly defined (in accordance with John 1:14, and the doctrines of the conception of the Spirit and the Virgin Birth) only in light of God’s action. Incarnation, as such, is the action of GOD taking on human flesh. Consequently, I have consistently expressed my discontent with the now ubiquitous “incarnational” language so in vogue today in ecclesiology. While realizing that many use the term in regard to the Church only by analogy to Christ’s going into the far land of human history, I continue to point out that, along with Barth, that incarnation, like Trinity, is properly speaking, without analogy. The Church does not some way need to “become incarnate.” Even if one might appeal to the Pauline image of the Church as the body of Christ as proof that the Church is the “ongoing incarnation of Christ in the world,” this is to press the metaphor too far and misses the point that the Church already is flesh, already is creaturely. So,  as Barth points out, it is in these twin doctrines of Conception and Virgin Birth that we are told of something utterly unique and without parallel, mainly, that is it solely in Christ Jesus that there is a union of God and man. The Church, as the body of Christ, participates in that union, but only as humans. The truth of the Incarnation is that Jesus alone retains both full divinity and full humanity. The Church is not, in other words, a human and divine institution, but only a communion of human in who participate in the one union of God and man in Jesus Christ.]

Barth concludes this chapter by returning to how it is that the Conception and Virgin Birth doctrines are properly used as  “fitting” (to use Dustin Resch’s term–which I think he got from Irenaeus) means of retaining the mystery of the revelation of God’s free grace. The question of how and why the Word became flesh may never be fully understood, and the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a reminder, indeed, a barricade, against delving into an arena of holy mystery where we cannot legitimately go. As Barth puts it, the Virgin Birth “is the watch before the door drawing our attention to the fact that we are here concerned with the mystery, with God’s free grace” (69). Against the modern skeptics of the Virgin Birth, Barth takes his stand along with the “Christology of the early Church” because in front of this “watch,” one is summoned to “reverence and worship” (69). The doctrine tells us that the freedom of God by the Holy Spirit to make a creature fit for communion with him is the same Holy Spirit by whom men and women are enabled to become children of God–but an enablement not through the regular means of marital conception, but by an miracle of grace by the Holy Spirit. (70). To conclude, it is worth citing Barth at length here:

[The Virgin Birth] is a pointer to the mystery God’s grace is to be seen in the fact that it takes place in Mary, God’s freedom, in the fact that it is creation….By God’s entering as Creator at a point where we expect to hear of the act of marriage of man and wife, manifestly just because the event of revelation affects man in the highest degree, man is in a definite way excluded from co-operation in this event. It is no doubt right to explain this as meaning that sinful man is here to be excluded. But the sinful element that has here to be excluded will in that case not have to be sought in the act of marriage or in sexual life as such, but in the sovereignty of human will and power and activity generally and as such. In this sovereignty man is not free for God’s Word. He is that, therefore, only when this sovereignty is excluded. He is that, therefore, only when there is excluded  that which–be it noted, not arising from Creation, but from the Fall–distinguishes or characterises the male as bearer of humanitv. Therefore the object of revelation is woman; therefore—ex Maria virgine. That does not mean any apotheosis of woman. Woman, too, shares in that sovereignty of man, that is excluded by the judgment of grace. Even Mary can only be blessed, because she has believed (Luke i. 45), not on the score of her virginity, not on the score of her femininity. But without desert on her part, she was chosen in her femininity, in what makes a relative distinction between her and the male, to be a sign of what, in spite of and in his sin, man can be and do, if and when God concerns Himself with him: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Thy Word ” (Luke i. 38). When his sovereignty is excluded, he is able to believe in the Word of God. It is in this way and in this sense that Mary becomes the mother of the Lord, Who has only an eternal Father (71-2).

[One question: Does anyone get exactly what Barth means by the statement that the male as bearer of humanity is a characteristic that arises from the Fall, and not from Creation? I take it to mean that Barth is saying that the male cannot hear, in freedom, the Word of God when he is asserting his sovereignty over creation rather than acknowledging that he, too, is created by God. But I’m not sure I quite get it. Any thoughts?]