Note: These are notes for a presentation I gave for the New St. Andrew’s College graduate program this week.
Pope Pius II called Barth the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. He was invited to attend Vatican II, and he is widely considered to be one of the most significant contributors to the modern theological world. He wrote on a wide area of subjects, was politically involved during the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich. He grew up and studied theology in the milieu of German Nationalism and the modern liberal push in German theology. His break with liberalism with the publishing of his commentary on Romans in 1918 is widely hailed as one of the most significant developments in the theology in the 20th Century. He is loved, hated, denounced, praised, but footnoted prolifically throughout the landscape of modern theology.
In Barth’s theology “there is no Christology as such; on the other hand, it is all Christology.” (Thompson, 1)
“There are, strictly speaking, no Christian themes independent of Christology” (CD II.1).
Speaking of the Apostles’ Creed, we writes, “We could not possibly have given a genuine exposition of the first article without continually interpreting it by means of the second. Indeed, the second article does not just follow the first, nor does it just precede the third; but it is the fount of light by which the other two are lit.” (DO, 65)
“And as for what is involved in the relationship between creation and the reality of existence on the one hand, and on the other hand the Church, redemption, God – that can never be understood from any general truth about our existence, nor from the reality of history of religion; this we can only learn from the relation between Jesus and Christ… That is why Article II, why Christology, is the touchstone of all knowledge of God in the Christian sense, the touchstone of all theology. ‘Tell me how it stands with your Christology, and I shall tell you who you are.’” (DO, 66)
Colin Brown suggests that making Jesus Christ the complete center of everything can actually slide into a certain abstraction problem. Jesus Christ ends up functioning as a “Christ-principle.” (Thompson, 5) Whether Barth is susceptible to this criticism or not, he is clearly at war with this sort of thing throughout his writings. H. Volk suggests something similar to Brown. He says that in Barth “Christology is so much a principle (Prinzip) that there is the danger of systematizing over a wide field… the danger of the use of a principle in a forced way is not far distant. For even in Christian theology Christology can be sued as a principle in such a powerful way that it results in a narrowing of the theological basis and contents.” (cited in Thompson, 6)
This criticism has sometimes been called “Christomonism.” The concern was that an overemphasis on the redemptive work of Christ ignored important doctrines such as creation or the work of the Holy Spirit, etc. Barth answered this question directly in an interview:
“In what specific way, Professor Barth, does your theology avoid being Christomonistic?”
Answer: “Sound theology cannot be either dualistic or monistic. The Gospel defies all isms,’ including dualism and monism. Sound theology can only be ‘unionistic,’ uniting God and man. Christomonism (that’s an awful catchword!) was invented by an old friend of mine whose name I will not mention. Christomonism would mean that Christ alone is real and that all other men are only apparently real. But that would be in contradiction with what the name of Jesus-Christ means, namely, union between God and man. This union between God and man has not been made only in Jesus Christ but in him as our representative for the benefit of all men. Jesus Christ as God’s servant is true God and true man, but at the same time also our servant and the servant of all men. Christomonism is excluded by the very meaning and goal of God’s and man’s union in Jesus Christ.” (http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/jul1962/v19-2-article2.htm, accessed 11.18.08)
Robert Letham, while generally appreciative of Barth’s work, concedes that “his vigorous christocentrism is certainly exaggerated, almost to a point of a christomonism. While his overall theology is strongly Trinitarian, he hardly did justice to the consistent emphasis in the New Testament that it is God who chose us and the election is particularly a work of the Father (e.g. Eph. 1:4)” (Letham 54)
But for Barth, Creation, Revelation, Trinity, soteriology, and everything else are summed up in the person of Christ, and therefore all truth is found in and through the living Christ (e.g. Rom. 11:36, Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:20).
One of the ways Barth sought to guard against the Christ-principle and/or christomonistic criticisms was by pushing much of his theology in more dynamic directions. The “being in becoming” language is this movement. Christ as event is another instance of the same, and this comes out in Barth’s discussion of the person and work of Christ.
Person and Work:
“What is needed in this matter is nothing more or less than the removal of the distinction between the two basic sections of classical Christology, or positively, the restoration of the hyphen which always connects them and makes them one in the New Testament. Not to the detriment of either the one or the other… Not to cause the doctrine of the person of Christ to be absorbed or dissolved in that of his work, or vice versa. But to give a proper place to them both.” (IV.1)
“[T]his person does not exist apart from this office, nor this office apart from this person.” (DO, 73)
Barth gets at this connection between person and work when he insists that the “he suffered” of the creed includes the entire earthly life of Jesus from birth to the cross. And this makes more sense as we consider the kind of reception the Creator of the world enjoyed. (DO, 102)
If Christ is the center of Barth’s theology, the cross and resurrection are the center of Christology.
The person of Christ is not first to be established and then his work. Rather, for Barth it is actually the event of the cross that establishes both the who and the what. In particular the doctrine of the two natures of Christ is fundamentally built upon the act of reconciliation and not the other way around. The doctrine of the incarnation is built upon the doctrine of reconciliation. And this seems consistent with the concerns of the early church fathers.
Another way to say this is that what is begun at Christmas is completed at Easter. There is movement in the incarnation. What is established in principle in the Jesus conceived by Mary is moving towards a conclusion. The incarnation is completed in some sense in the cross and resurrection. “[I]ncarnation and atonement enclose, embrace, and interpret each other and are really one though distinguishable” (Thompson, 14).
Another aspect of this discussion is the great lengths which Barth goes through to insist upon the “God-ness” of Christ. Christ is the center of his theology because he is utterly convinced that when we consider Christ, we are dealing with the Triune God. And there are numerous implications for thinking and discussing along these lines.
This means that the incarnation should not be seen as something fundamentally different from the way God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Barth emphasizes this in particular with regard to the roles of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The Son as the one who obeys and submits enacts this reality in the incarnation according to the will of the Father, in the power of the Spirit. (See McCormack on Barth and Kenosis, cf. Phil. 2) More on this below.
Thus Barth insists: “There is no greater depth in God’s being and work than that revealed in these happenings and under this name” (CD II/2, 54). There is not a hidden “remainder” in God that is not revealed or disclosed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
“Who God is and what it is to be divine is something we have to learn where God has revealed himself and his nature, the essence of the divine. And if he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ as the God who does this, it is not for us to be wiser then he and to say that it is in contradiction with the divine essence. We have to be ready to be taught by him that we have been too small and perverted in our thinking about him within the framework of a false idea of God.” We need to “reconstitute” our notions of God “in the light of the fact that he does this [i.e. incarnation].” (CD IV/1, 186)
The cross is not merely a symbolic center reflecting the “limit of human existence.” The death of Jesus is not merely another story about the martyrdom of a religious founder. The story of the cross is the “concrete deed and action of God Himself. God changes himself, God himself comes most near, God thinks it not robbery to be divine, that is, He does not hold on to the booty like a robber, but God parts with Himself. Such is the glory of His Godhead, that He can be “selfless,’ that he can actually forgive Himself something.” (DO, 116) This ability to be selfless, to forgive, to part with Himself is what Barth calls the freedom of God.
Barth insists that our definition, our description of God must be built upon the centrality of the incarnation and not something in tension with it. The incarnation is not an afterthought or something particularly different that God does. “Far from being against himself, or at disunity with himself, he has put into effect the freedom of his divine love, the love, in which he is divinely free. He has therefore done and revealed that which corresponds to his divine nature.” (CD IV/1, 186)
And this means that his attributes must be described and illustrated around the incarnation and not with the incarnation become the list of exceptions to the otherwise neat and tidy categories of deity. God’s immutability must not be understood to be at odds with the incarnation. Rather, the incarnation is itself an expression of God’s changeless love and freedom toward his creation, to take both the form of glory and the form of humility, the form of God and the form of a servant. (CD IV/1, 186)
Likewise, God’s omnipresence is seen in the way God dwells in Christ, descends into the lowest parts of the earth, and ascends into heaven. His omnipotence is displayed in the fact that God displays his power even in weakness. His eternity is revealed the fact that he can enter time and remain eternal. And so on.
Reconciliation & Atonement:
“In the doctrine of reconciliation we come to the heart of the theology of Karl Barth.” (Thompson, 47)
Barth dwells on the parable of the Prodigal Son insisting upon a Christological reading which sees God revealing the kind of God that he is. He is the God who goes “into the far country.” By this, Barth means to picture the identification of God with us. This is the fulfillment of the covenant and election. God becomes our brother and thereby identifies with the prodigal nation of Israel.
Berkouwer says, “Through the man Jesus Christ, God himself is revealed as the divine subject in the work of Christ. This conception brings us to the heart of Barth’s doctrine of reconciliation… For Barth, the truth of the whole of dogmatics rests on this God himself.” (cited in Thompson, 49)
“The way of the Son of God into the far country is the way of obedience… the first and inner moment of the mystery of the deity of Christ.” (CD IV/1)
Again, Barth insists that the humiliation, the suffering, and death of Jesus is the revelation of God, and therefore it rests upon the way the Son submits and obeys the Father in the Spirit. But how does this not slide into some form of subordinationism or modalism? Barth says that ironically both of these errors actually push obedience out of the center of God by their formulations. The former is based upon an actual inferiority while the latter has no differentiation allowing such an economy.
The other heading that Barth uses to describe the atonement is “The Judge judged in our place.” Barth says that a judge is “Basically and decisively … the one whose concern is for order and peace, who must uphold the right and prevent the wrong, so that his existence and coming and work is not in itself and as such a matter for fear, but something which indicates a favor, the existence of one who brings salvation.” (CD IV/1)
Barth cannot get over the fact that Jesus is not only God with us, but he is supremely God for us. And this comes to the fore in numerous ways, not least the crucifixion and death of Jesus. “In this humiliation, God is supremely God … in this death he is supremely alive,” such that “he has maintained and revealed his deity in the passion of this man as his eternal Son.” (Cited by Thompson, 69)
Kenosis: If Christ is the person who does what God does for us then the act of incarnation is in startling ways a revelation of the way God is in himself. For God the Son to take on flesh, humble himself in obedience to the point of suffering and death, is for God-Father-Son-Holy Spirit to be revealed as he is. The Son who submits to the Father in eternity is the Son who submits to the Father in the flesh.
This answers two extremes: The more orthodox Chalcedonian definition can tend to suggest (though not necessarily) that what happens in the incarnation is fundamentally different from the way God is in eternity. And while orthodoxy insists upon the perfect union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ, there is still a certain amount of tension which tends to push in heretical directions (e.g. docetism or apollinarianism). Yet what Barth insists that this is the polar opposite of the truth. What God does and who God is in the incarnation is in some sense the supreme expression of who he is and what he does. Likewise the less orthodox modern attempts to reconcile vere deus and vere homo have resulted in displacing attributes of God or man (usually the former).
Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture
The supremely personal nature of the event of the incarnation comes to bear on Barth’s description and understanding of Scripture. A static relation-less “being” of Scripture would be an inaccurate revelation of Christ since that is not the way Christ is. While Barth’s doctrine of Scripture would be less careful than we might prefer, his use and appeal to Scripture clearly indicates that it is the supreme and infallible authority in matters of faith and practice. But they are the supreme and infallible voice of the living and active Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 5:39).