Karl Barth, Credo – “Suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Why is “Pontius Pilate,” the one who condemned Jesus to death, included in the Creed? According to Barth, the significance of the inclusion of the phrase “suffered under Pontius Pilate” (passus sub Pontio Pilato) can be summarized under the category he calls “passion-time.”

First, Barth deals with the question of why the Creed seems to move without apology from mention of Christ’s “birth” to his “death,” from his origin straight to to his “passion” or “suffering.” Does this not result in skipping a big part of the story of Christ? Barth’s answer: No. Why not?

It is not, Barth insists, as if the Gospels are specifically interested in telling the whole “life story” or “history” of Jesus Christ. The fact that the Evangelists generally move from his birth to his adult ministry (except for the mention of Jesus at the temple at age 12 by Luke) is indicative of this lack of concern of a “comprehensive coverage” of Jesus’ life as a whole. Instead, Barth argues, the Gospels have as a central concern to tell the story of Jesus as one who suffers. It is not as if in reading the Gospels, one is surprised that in the end, Jesus suffers at the hands not only of Pilate, but even his own disciples, and his own people. The Gospel presentation

does not take by surprise, it only completes–perhaps one should say: it only brings to the light of day for all to see something that for Jesus Himself had long been a true and present reality. Pontius Pilate the redoubtable, or perhaps not so very redoubtable, procurator of the Roman Emperor, who finds Jesus innocent but yet condemns him to death, is only the mouthpiece of the world which now says what Jesus Himself said before: the Son of Man must suffer! (77)

Or as Barth puts it earlier, it is not as if the life story of Jesus is a surprise: “He achieved nothing except what threatened from the beginning and then in the end came to pass, His crucifixion” (76).

[Hermeneutically, of course, the theological commitment would (should!) have a significant impact on how we read the Gospels. It requires us to read them not a “mere history” but as “theologically-motivated history.” There is no need to apologize on behalf of the Gospel writers that they did not intend to write “Jesus Christ biographies.” They had no intention to do so, but, as Barth notes, to write an account that clearly shows that Christ came to “suffer” on our behalf.]

But why suffering? Why did Jesus have to suffer? In this, Barth’s answer is clear: The revelation of God in the flesh is, paradoxically, the concealment of God: “[God’s revelation in Christ] does not mean light but darkness. It does not mean an overcoming of the world, its liberation from sin, from evil, from death, from the devil. On the contrary it means the humiliation and surrender of the Son of God to all those powers of impossibility, of atheism. It means not His victory, but theirs. It does not mean the annulment of God’s wrath, or even its lessening of lightening; it means simply . .  the bearing of  ‘the wrath of God against the whole human race'” (78). Jesus bears the full brunt of God’s wrath on behalf of the human race! This is, Barth says, why Jesus, the Son of Man, must suffer.

Second, the phrase, “suffered under Pontius Pilate,”  as a statement of the “passion-time” of Christ, indicates that this passion, this suffering, occurs at a most definite point in world-time. It is a suffering under Pontius Pilate, a man whose term of office can be specifically identified in “world time.” But why is this important? Why must we confess that Jesus suffered at a specific time and place?

Barth’s answer is that this part of the confession is important to show that in the suffering of Jesus Christ, we have an entrance of eternity into time.

It is an eternal but no timeless reality; it is at once an eternal and a temporal reality. It is not a timeless essence of all or of some times. It is not to be discovered by laboriously extracting such a thing as a timeless spirit or a timeless substance out of all times or out of definite times, even that of the years 1 to 30. . . It is essentially concrete and therefore temporal and therefore capable of temporal definition” (80).

Barth here takes pains to insist upon the concrete temporality of Christ’s suffering in history. Whatever else we do, we must not seek to “distill” the passion of Christ down to a “timeless essence.” [Or, as we are so apt to do, to distill the passion of Christ down to a “principle”!] There is no timeless “essence of Christianity,” but only the act of the eternal God in a specific time and place and in a specific person by which we can say that God’s wrath is satisfied. “[The incarnation] is the time in which [Christ] must bear the burden of the wrath of God. . . . If the Word became flesh and therefore temporal, and if the time was this time, our world-time, the time that is dated by Pontius Pilate and his like . . . for the eternal Son of the Father it could nothing else than passion-time. The Son of God Who has become temporal, Who has entered world-time, could, as a child, only lie in the manger and as a man only die on the Cross” (81-2).

The sum total, then, of the phrase, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” is that in God’s humiliation (“not in spite of its being humiliation, but because of it” (82)) that the secret of God’s victory and triumph is revealed! And in this regard, it is in Christ’s entrance to this “world-time” that it can now be said to be “passing away.” This is what Paul means when he says that “the world in its present form is passing away” (παράγει γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου) (1 Cor 7:31b): World-time, Barth says, has now been “sentenced to death” through the passion of Jesus as we await the coming of “God’s time.”

2 thoughts on “Karl Barth, Credo – “Suffered under Pontius Pilate”

  1. It occurred to me while reading this post that Jesus was “certified” innocent for the purposes of his crucifixion by two independent Roman judges… Pilate and Herod. And certified by the Sanhedrin that he self-identified as the Son of God, thereby meeting the requirements for the atoning sacrifice.

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