Karl Barth, Credo – “Suffered under Pontius Pilate”

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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.”

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

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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?]

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).

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

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“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)

Barth – Credo – “Creator of Heaven and Earth”

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The confession of belief in God as “Creator of Heaven and Earth” (Latin: Creatorem coeli et terrae) is not meant to be a statement of a Christian “world view,” Karl Barth argues. Rather, it is a statement about God, and most specifically, about God’s relation to us and our world. The doctrine of God as creator captures the belief that were it not for the Father Almighty, we would not exist. Therefore, we are “completely and absolutely bound” (29) to the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, the doctrine of Creation has traditionally placed “man” at the centre of the creation account, as if humanity were to be understood as “the creature and the partner of God” (30). Yet the creed is strangely silent here about the creation of the humans. Why is this the case? As Barth puts it:

Will [man] recognize, fear and love God as God the Creator, without at the same time recognizing, as he looks down to earth and up to heaven, his own littleness and insignificance, both in body and soul, even within the creaturely sphere? Without indeed mentioning man, and significant in its failure to mention man, the statement that God created heaven and earth says the decisive thing even about him, and precisely about him. Of these two worlds he is the citizen, encompassed in truth with a special mystery, or the wanderer between these two worlds which indeed in God’s sight are only one world, the created world. (30)

[In other words, the absence of a statement about “humanity” in the first article is not a fatal omission, but an implicit setting of humanity into unity both with the rest of creation and with God the Creator. Humans are both included in “heavens and earth” as “created,”–“Not-God”–and also as possessed and owned by God.]

There is, Barth says, a “double content” arising out of the statement, “God is the Creator of the World”:

  1. God is related to the world, not in a manner of equilibrium or parity, but one in which God has absolute primacy over it in freedom. “Heaven and earth are not themselves God, are not anything in the nature of a divine generation or emanation, are not, as the Gnostics or mystics would again and again have it, in some direct or indirect way, identical with the Son or Word of God” (31). The world is characterized as: not God, not eternal, not a movement of God himself. [It’s hard not to hear the dialectical echoes of Römerbrief here!] Rather, the world is a “free opus ad extra, finding its necessity only in His love, but again not casting any doubt on His self-sufficiency: the world cannot exist without God, . . . but He could exist very well without the world” (31-2). Therefore, Barth insists, the meaning and end of the world “is not to be sought in itself.” Rather, “We must believe that the world as he created it is appointed to serve His glory, and we must not allow ourselves to be misled here by our feelings and reflections over good and evil, however justified” (32-3).
  2. Though there is an asymmetrical relationship between God and the world, the world nevertheless has a reality of its own, willed and upheld by God. That is to say, the world is both dependent God for its existence and yet has a relative independence given it by God. Simultaneously, the world stands bound to God who is its Creator, and yet never does the world become a “part” of God; never does the world and God fuse together: “God never and nowhere becomes the world” (34).

    This raises the question of the doctrine of Providence. How does God remain both sovereign over the world as its Lord, and yet allow the world its “relative independence”? Barth rejects the “Pelagian doctrine of freedom, the fatalistic doctrine of necessity, the indeterminism of the old Lutherans and Molinists and the determinism of Zwingli” because they represent “misreadings” of the doctrine of the human freedom of the will (35). He is more comfortable [not surprisingly] with Calvin’s answer in this regard, which allows a degree of human freedom, but not in such a way that it sets it alongside the “freedom of God” as if human freedom was a “god alongside of God” (35).

Barth concludes this chapter by describing what he sees as two limits of the doctrine of Creation.

  1. There are some questions of  faith that are not to be answered from the perspective of the doctrine of Creation, “as least not unequivocally and completely” (36). Barth includes the questions of sin, evil, death, and the Devil as “impossible possibilities” that cannot be explained from the perspective of God as Lord and Creator; “it cannot be said that God willed and created these possibilities as such” (36). Barth insists, “Dogmatics must not at this place carry the Creation-thought right to the end of the line. It must rather explain these possibilities as being such that we have indeed to reckon most definitely with their reality, but are unable better to describe their real nature and character. . . . These possibilities are to be taken seriously as the mysterium iniquitatis [“mystery of uneveness or injustice”]. The existence of such a thing, however, is not to be perceived from creation, but only from the grace of God in Jesus Christ” (37).

    [Aha! Barth finally returns to the question of the “chief problems of Dogmatics” and makes a bold pronouncement: You cannot answer the question (at least not satisfactorily) of why sin, evil, death and devil exist on the basis of a doctrine of Creation or providence. Yet, this has precisely where the bulk of systematic theology seems regularly to go! What is surprising, of course, is that Barth does deal with his famous doctrine of “Nothingness” in §50 entitled, “God and Nothingness” in the third part volume of his doctrine of Creation, written some 15 years after Credo (1950). An interesting question is: Is this a departure of Barth’s against his own good advice?]

  2. There are also some answers to the faith that should not be sought within the framework of the doctrine of God as Creator. These include the doctrines of miracles, prayer, the Incarnation, and the Church. Barth is insistent that it is inappropriate to develop these doctrines as an extension to the doctrine of God as Creator. This is because they are “very special forms of divine immanence in the world” (38). Here Barth’s argument is worth hearing in full:

These things [miracles, prayer, etc.] pass beyond our range of vision because they are all bound up with the central mystery of the Incarnation, which is most assuredly misunderstood if with Schleiermacher it is understood as the completion and crown of creation. It is not that in Christ creation has reached its goal, but that in Christ the Creator has become–and this is something different–Himself creature; the creature has been assumed into unity with the Creator as first-fruits of a new creation. Projecting our thought ‘consequently’ along the ling of the creation dogma, we should have in one way or another to deny the Incarnation, Miracle, prayer, the Church.  . . . In truth it is just in the knowledge of Jesus Christ that we stand at the source of the creation, faith and dogma. (38)

[Barth’s christocentric method come to the fore in this chapter. As for me, I find his argument quite convincing: prayer, miracles and even the Church are special forms of divine immanence that cannot be understood in terms either in light of God as Creator, nor even in a doctrine of providence, but only in light of Incarnation. Though I can’t even begin to spell the implications of this out in full, let’s take “prayer” as an example. The prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, of course, begins with “Our Father.” But such a prayer is a strictly novel in the Jewish context of his day, not an extension of the doctrine that God is Creator (even though God as Father in the OT does sometimes stand in as a shorthand expression for “God is the Creator). On the contrary, our ability to know what is “meant” by saying, “Our Father” can only be discerned in and through the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, in whose name we pray. Prayer, in other words, to God is not possible just because God is the one who created all things–a deist theology of God as creator has no real room for prayer because God is “absent” and “removed;” rather, prayer is possible to the Father only in light of the fact that Jesus is His Son in the flesh. Overall, a fascinating chapter!]

Barth, Credo – “Father Almighty”

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In the third chapter of Credo, Karl Barth discusses what it means to confess belief in God the Father Almighty (Latin: patrem omnipotentem).

First, Barth notes, it is important to note that “the conception ‘Almighty’ receives its light from the conception ‘Father’ and not vice versa.” That is, it is “an act of divine omnipotence through which God makes Himself known to man as Father” (19). In other words, the revelation of God as Father is the act of God by which we come to know what it means to say that God is “omnipotent” (or “all-powerful”). We do not, Barth argues, start with an abstract or theoretical definition of omnipotence (e.g., “the limitless ability to do anything and everything”) and then apply it to God as Father.

So what, then, does it mean for the “Father” to be “omnipotent”? In short, “the revelation of God the Father is the revelation of God in His Son Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. . .  [I]n the sense of the symbol, . . . ‘omnipotence’ is identical with the revelation of the Father of Jesus Christ through the Spirit” (20)  To know the Father is to know Jesus Christ–and more specifically, Jesus Christ who died, rose again and ascended to the right hand of God Father. To know the omnipotent Father, then, is to know that he is the one who circumscribes life and death; he alone is the one who encloses (cf. “omini) all things as Creator. God the Father alone is the one who has power over life and death, and is thus spoken of as, omnipotent.

[I think Barth’s allusion to omnipotence as something that circumscribes all things is an important qualitative corrective to the typical quantitative view of omnipotence. We’ve all heard the popular supposed conundrum raised about the attribute of omnipotence: “If God can do everything (a quantitative descriptor of omnipotence), can he create a rock so big (again, a quantitative qualifier) that he can’t lift it?” This kind of question is ill-guided, not only because it assumes a quantitative framework for the answer, but because it assumes that omnipotence is first and foremost about force rather than power. God the Father is omnipotent in the sense that he alone exercises the prerogative, the Lordship, over the most powerful of all things known to humanity and from which none can escape: Death. To confess belief in the “Father Almighty” is no mere cognitive affirmation about how much God can do, but is a confession of what kind of power he has: The power to kill and to raise, a power hidden in how he sends his Son to the Cross, but also made manifest in the resurrection from the dead.]

Barth concludes the chapter with three “explanatory” observations about the Father Almighty:

  1. God’s Fatherhood is an eternally Fatherhood which does not set him into a super-ordinate position over the Son and the Spirit. Rather, “God, as the eternally Begotten of the Father [the Son], and God, as He Who proceeds eternally from the Father and from the Son [the Holy Spirit – filioque!] are in the same way God as God the Father Himself” (26).  God’s Fatherhood, in other words, is eternal. He always has been Father, and there was no point at which he was not.
  2. God’s Fatherhood does not designate the Father as a “part” of God, but as a “person” or “mode of being of the one simple divine being, of one substance with the Son and with the Spirit” (26). [For those interested in the technical details of Barth’s view of the “persons” of the Trinity, he designates the word “mode of being” as a translation of tropos hyparcheos, or  τρόπος ὑπάρξεως. For more on this, see Paul M. Collins, Trinitarian Theology West and East: Karl Barth, the Cappadocian Fathers and John Zizioulas, pp. 146-50] Thus, by virtue of the fact that Son and Spirit share in the one substance of God the Father, they also are rightly called “Almighty” (27).
  3. Even though the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the unified activity of Father, Son, and Spirit is not an undifferentiated unity, but an “ordered unity and in this order the reflection and repetition of the order of his being” (27), i.e., Unified action need not mean undifferentiated persons.

[If we do a quick comparison between Barth’s take on “Father Almighty” in his pre-WWII Credo (1935) and his post-WWII exposition in his later Dogmatics in Outline (DIO, 1947), we see definite parallels, yet important developments, of Barth’s exposition of the “Father Almighty.”  You see, in Credo, Barth is still living with the daily unfolding anticipation of Hitler’s regime, while in DIO he sees the devastating results of Hitler’s “legacy” in retrospect. In Credo, there is no mention of the political aspects of God as Almighty; in DIO he ties God’s power more specifically to God being “Lord of all lords, the King of all kings.” Of political powers, he says, “all these powers, which as such are indeed powers, are a priori laid at the feet of the power of God. In relation to Him they are not powers in rivalry with Him” (DIO, 47).  And then, “Perhaps you will recall how, when Hitler used to speak about God, he called Him ‘the Almighty’. But it is not ‘the Almighty’ who is God; we cannot understand from the standpoint of a supreme concept of power, who God is. And the man who calls ‘the Almighty’ God misses God in the most terrible way. For the ‘Almighty’ is bad, as ‘power in itself’ is bad” (DIO, 48).  What I see here is that Barth’s explicit theological exposition in Credo was no mere “pie in the sky” exercise, but a “real world” political preparation to confront the naked displays of evil power as it appeared on the European scene at the middle and end of the 1930’s and the beginning of the 1940’s, personified as it was in Hitler. Barth’s confession became, in other words, the very real means by which he was able to speak out against a true “anti-christ” who failed to understand God as the “Father Almighty.” This anti-Christ, in fact, proclaimed (to use the phrase from Romans) a “No-God” named, “Almighty” and Barth was right to call him on it.

On the down side, it appears that by this the third chapter of Credo, Barth has forgotten the original purpose of the lectures, which was to bring out “the chief problems of Dogmatics.” Hopefully, this will come to the foreground again as the book progresses.]

Barth, Credo – “In God”

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Karl Barth, “In Deum”  Credo, 11-18.

Barth begins his exposition of the content of the creed by paying attention to the phrase “in God” (Latin, In Deum). He argues that this first word of the Creed may also be understood as “the cardinal proposition of Dogmatics”  (11).

So what, then, does it mean to say, “I believe . . . in God”?

The main point of confession of belief in God is to indicate that the God confessed is not someone or something that is already generally known, to which the Creeds adds further information. It is not, Barth says, as if we already know God “in general” and need the creed to give us more details about what this God is like. On the contrary, to say “I believe in God” is already to confess that Who and What God is is entirely based on what God has given in his self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To say, “I believe in God” is to already to utter that God “is absolutely and exclusively He Who exists under these three names in these three modes of being, that is to say, absolutely and exclusively God in His revelation” (14).

Barth here is, not surprisingly, resistant to all forms of natural theology. Barth explains, “When Paul says (Rom. i. 19)  that what can be known of God (τό γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, cognoscibile Dei) is manifest to them, for God manifested it unto them, the whole context as well as the immediately preceding statement (Rom. i.18) shows that Paul sees the truth about God ‘held down’ among men, made ineffective, unfruitful. What comes of it in their hands is idolatry” (11). Consequently, even the “unknown God” of the Athenians of which Paul spoke, “was, to Paul’s view, an idol like all the rest. Only God’s revelation, not our reason despairing of itself, can carry us over from God’s incomprehensibility” (12)

What are the implications of this confession of belief in the God who reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Barth notes four:

  1. For a person to confess belief in God is to have “the ground of a general faith in God . . . taken away from under his feet in so far as he sees himself, in his confidence that man could of himself believe in God, confuted by God’s revelation. The very fact of God’s revelation signifies: Man cannot of himself really believe in God. It is because man cannot do that that God reveals Himself. What man of himself can believe in are gods who are not really God” (14). In other words, belief is of grace only: “He who believes lives by grace. He who lives by grace knows that he is forbidden to snatch at deity” (15). [I loved that line!]
  2. If general faith is taken away from under one’s feet, however, the person who “believes in God in the sense of the symbol has from God’s revelation absolutely immovable ground under his feet when he thinks of God, reckons with God, speaks of God, points to God, abides by the name of God, and proclaims this name to others. He certainly does not believe in a God whom he has chosen for himself” (15).
    [I find it fascinating that Barth removes all confidence in human reasoning on the one hand, arguing that it leads no where in regard to the knowledge of God, but on the other hand replaces it with a confidence, indeed, a certainty of reasonable faith. To confess belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives, as it were, objective certainty–not an objective certainty based on natural reason, but an objective certainty based on gracious faith. Grace enables a kind of certainty which is “certain in the teeth of all uncertainty” (16). What I think is important to note here is that Barth does not advocate for epistemological certainty (the idol of the modern age), but rather for a form of pistemic (“faith”) certainty.]
  3. Belief in God, in the sense of the symbol, is a thankful belief. It is thankful not because God has enabled or gifted us to figure Him out, but thankful because He has given Himself at all! Were God not a self-revealing God, we would know nothing of him. But thanks be to God, we do know him because he has given himself to be known!
  4. Finally, to believe in God, in the sense of the symbol, means to recognize that one stands under God’s commands. As Barth puts it, “That [man] resists [God’s commands], that he keeps transgressing them, that he fails to give honour to God and that he cannot stand his ground before Him, that is …true. But it is still truer that he stands under God’s commands, that in his total foolishness and wickedness he is claimed by God, God’s prisoner, that he must again and again make a fresh start with the commands of God, and return to them. . . [God’s word] continually judges him, but it also holds him” (17). In other words, to stand under the commands of God is to believe in God’s holiness. “Even God’s holiness is not a truth that can be ascertained as such by an observer…[but] is apprehended in the fight of faith, in the sanctification of the believer through God’s revelation” (18).

[I found this chapter to be beautiful in its simplicity, even if jarring in its accusation of man’s (including theologians’!) tendency to toward idolatry. But I wish Barth would have been a bit more explicit about how this informs the “question of dogmatics.” It is as if the connection, which was more clearly spelled out in the first chapter, had almost been lost. Nevertheless, it is implicit throughout, I think, that Barth contends that the work of dogmatics, like the confession of faith, starts:
a) not with a general philosophical conception of God which is then “filled out” with revelation, but rather on the basis of an acknowledgement that our ability to speak of God depends wholly on the fact that God has first given himself to be known;
b) with gratitude to God rather than on a perceived sense of “personal mission” or on a sense self-fulfilment to be accomplished by our gifts and ingenuity;
c) with a clear sense of our subservience to God in the entirety of our work, a subservience that continually forces us to submit both ourselves and our work to be tested and judged by the standard of God’s own Word.]