Tag Archives: Barth

Jesus Christ v. Eternal Principles

At the beginning of Unlocking Romans, I reflected on how Christians have, at times, defined God. Scrolling through Augustine, Anselm, and the Westminster Confession, I summarized thus:

Not only do these Christian definitions, like their Greek philosophical counterparts, all focus on a g/God who is wholly other, they also define God in universal terms without reference to the story of Israel.

In the Scriptures of Israel, however, God’s identity is inseparable from a particular people and from certain actions performed on behalf of that people. God is not known in universal abstract qualities but in limiting and particular actions.

Little did I know at the time that this insistence that God be understood from with the particulars of the outworking of the story of Israel would be the heart of Karl Barth’s call for a massive overhaul of the doctrine of election.

When Barth talks about the “Foundation of the Doctrine of Election” in Church Dogmatics §32.2, he means to call us back to Jesus Christ as the foundation.

Where the history of doctrine points to the church going awry in its articulation of what it means to say “God elects” is at the point when it says, “God elects [full stop].”

If it is going to be the church’s doctrine of election, Barth calls us to say instead, “God elects in Jesus Christ.”

In step with Barth’s overall theological program, for something to be known as true in Christian theology, it can only be known because God has made it known in Jesus Christ.

When it come to election, this means placing front and center Paul’s claim in Ephesians 1: God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.

The problems with the church’s talk of election have risen, in Barth’s estimation, from principles such as power or majesty or omnipotence or sovereignty becoming the determining factors in the confession that God elects. This puts the whole idea within the realm of a God hidden behind the God who is known in Christ, and makes election a secretive eternal act that is not disclosed, as such, in Christ.

Such a doctrine can never be gospel, because the good news is revealed in Jesus Christ.

When we first started talking about Barth and election last week, someone commented on my FB Wall that Barth’s position puts him out of step with all the great theologians of the church, Augustine and Aquinas no less than Luther and Calvin.

Barth acknowledges this. He does it with some trepidation. But he parts company with them as he pinpoints the place where they leave “in Christ” behind, seeking an electing God hidden behind. For Barth, this simply will not do.

Knowledge and Power

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

“Why are you wasting your time speculating on a useless question?”–John Calvin

O.k., so that was more paraphrase than direct quotation. But it’s close enough. For all that Calvinism is accused of undue speculation into the secret things of God, the best of Calvin’s own writing was marked by an unwillingness to engage in useless speculations into things sub-divine.

“If God can do anything, can God make a mountain so big that God can’t move it?”

“You wouldn’t ask that question if you realized that you’re talking about the power of God rather than power (full stop).”–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics §31.2

Ok, I’m paraphrasing again. But in his talk about God, Barth consistently returns to this: we are talking about the God who has revealed himself in Christ, and it is this God who exercises power, this God who knows, that himself determines the definitions of knowledge and of power.

There is no abstract “all-powerfulness” by which God is measured.

We confess the God who has revealed himself as all-powerful, and thus the definition of “omnipotent” is what God can and will do.

God’s power is the real power that God exercises over all things. This includes the bestowal of freedom on people to act in accordance with God’s power and knowledge and love or in attempted rejection of them.

In so connecting God’s power and knowledge with the actuality of God’s acting, Barth is able to hold together certain foreknowledge and predestination with human freedom; he is able to affirm God’s power without entailing God in willing evil.

In other words, Barth operates firmly within the Reformed tradition without so clinging to God’s “absolute” sovereignty as to make God (as God so often appears in more popular and less well-nuanced versions) one who wills evil or fatalistically determines human destinies.

“If a person sins, this is not because God knew, as He certainly did from eternity, that the person would sin. For the object of the divine foreknowledge was not a fatum or fortuna, but the person who sinned of the person’s own will.”

There are times when I read this doctrine of God material and worry that we are still in the land of speculation. However, Barth continues to resonate with me because he is relentlessly building his theology from below: the God who has revealed Godself, and the humanity that knows itself in light of God’s self-revelation, are the determining factors about who God is and how God is at work in the world.

For Barth, the story is the thing. The reality we experience as free agents is part of that story, as is God’s declaration that God is powerful over all things, as is the actual world over which God has (and, seemingly at times, hasn’t fully) displayed God’s power.

These realities, rather than our ideals, are the means by which God is known, even in the midst of an imperfect world.

Storied Omnipresence

God is everywhere.


Some things make me nervous even though I’m sure they’re true. Start pulling out the “omnis,” and I start looking for the exits. I want a God whose identity is shaped by the story to which God has bound himself, not the God of philosophical abstraction.

Enter Barth’s exposition of God’s omnipresence (Church Dogmatics §31.1). Here, I experienced Barth on his Christological A-game in a way that I haven’t seen in several chapters.

Yes, God is everywhere. But it is not that God measures up to some abstract notion of timelessness or placelessness. The God who is “other” than creation as timeless and placeless is not everywhere, but nowhere.

The Biblical God has revealed himself quite differently. God has made a world where God’s own ability to be somewhere can be made manifest.

God not only can be someplace in general, and not only is everyplace in general, God has chosen to be located in particular ways in particular places. God in the OT was, truly, in the pillar of fire, in the tabernacle, and in the temple–even as neither tent nor temple can hold the God of heaven.

The particular truth that God is present with God’s people in special ways forms the basis by which the more general idea is affirmed that God is present everywhere. God is present in certain times and ways in order to judge or to love; God is present on earth as redeemer and reconciler.

And all of this we know to be true because these instantiations are grounded in the true and ultimate occupying of a particular place that happened in the incarnation of Christ. God’s presence on earth is the definitive indication that God can be present with God’s people, that God has in fact been so present, and that therefore God can be and is present everywhere, if in different fashion.

This section resonated with me for two reasons.

First, Barth was so clearly here forcing the theological confession to conform to biblical narrative rather than vice versa. I’ve been missing this in much of the past few weeks’ reading.

Secondly, Barth’s talk of God occupying space, and being able to interact with humanity because of it, resonated with how I’ve been thinking about Paul’s union with Christ soteriology. I’ve been using language such as, “God has created reconciled, cosmic space in Christ–and we are saved by being placed in that space by Spirit, faith, and baptism.”

Barth wasn’t talking reconciliation in this week’s reading, but he was talking space. Lots of space. God-occupied space. Space which God occupies so as to be present to God’s people.

And, Barth was talking the space of incarnation.

This chapter showed the best of how Barth’s theology works–where the reality of God’s self-revelation in Christ reframes the discussion of old theological points and better depicts the God we meet on the pages of the Bible.

God is One

If there is a central faith confession in ancient Israel, it is that God is one.

Well, at least, God alone is Israel’s God, which then gradually becomes, the only true and living God. But let’s not quibble over the historical development from henotheism to monotheism.

Because, after all, as Barth reminds us in Church Dogmatics §31.1, it was just when Jewish monotheism had taken firm root,

when polytheism had apparently become a matter of past history and the idols Israel had worshiped were apparently recognized only as the idols of the despised Gentiles or in recollection of the abomination of their disobedient fathers–it was just then, under the sway of this victorious monotheism, that Israel’s Messiah was handed over by Israel to the Gentiles and nailed by them to the cross with Israel’s approval.

This dangerous statement is part of Barth’s larger polemic: we don’t confess “monotheism” as some theoretical perfection about God. We respond to the revelation of God as one, revealed as such in the Exodus but supremely in Christ.

In light of the crucifixion, Barth says,

“Could there be a better proof that this monotheism is not a final achievement and expression of Israel’s obedience to the first commandment?”

This is the part of the first section of Barth’s exposition of Divine Freedom. God’s unity and omnipresence are juxtaposed in this first discussion.

In the discussion of the unity I found myself reacting as I have through much of §2.1: there are moments when Barth’s radical Christological focus breaks through–he claims that it drives him throughout, but it only appears on the surface at times.

I miss the radically Christological centering and argumentation of Book 1. The feel of the discussion about God’s oneness, the undividedness of God in God’s Triunty–it all feels like Barth is trying to approve the orthodox tradition of the church after the fact rather than articulating it after the fact in light of the Christ event.

One of the highights for me this time ’round was a small print section on oneness and the work of Christ:

God’s simplicity reveals itself and consists in His continual self-confirmation in His speech and action; His continual self-confession and self-attestation in His identity. This involves the repetition and also the fulfillment of His promise… It involves the unity of His promise and His command… It involves the unity of the election and calling of the sinful people Israel and of the church of Jews and Gentiles sanctified by grace. It involves the unity of grace and holiness, mercy and righteousness, patience and wisdom, in the total work of His love.

Patience and Wisdom

As we think about who God is, we often struggle to hold down ideas that appear contradictory to us. How can God be both holy and gracious? How can a just God also be merciful? How can the God whose wisdom calls us to a definite way of life exercise patience with those who refuse?

These are the three pairs of seemingly incompatible attributes that Barth unpacks in his chapter on the God who loves (Church Dogmatics §30, “The Perfections of the Divine Loving”).

While I resonated with the tensions of the first two pairs, I found the Patience and Wisdom section to be a bit more strained.

The strength of this section, as usual, came in the insistence that we don’t know from any sort of ideals or preconceptions of what a God is or might be that God is wise and patient. We only know that this is who God is because it is who God has revealed Godself to be in Jesus Christ.

What is the true God’s patience?

Patience exists where space and time are given with a definite intention, where freedom is allowed in expectation of a response.

God is patient in eager expectation that those reconciled to God in Christ will enter the relationship God has created in him.

This section of the Dogmatics contained a couple of beautiful, revisionist readings of biblical passages, including here God’s marking of Cain. The preservation and defense of the murderer is the triumph of God’s mercy and patience.

When Barth moved into the discussion of wisdom, I felt that Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God was too much confined to the small print, and not given enough of a defining place in the major theological structure. The desire to juxtapose wisdom with patience felt strained at this point.

Nonetheless, there was another beautiful revisionist reading of the OT, as Barth discussed the story of Solomon suggesting that a contested baby be split in half and given to the parents. There is a people who profess to come to God in search of wisdom, but would take death to be proven right. And there is a people who come to God in search of wisdom, and would rather suffer the personal loss in order to give life to the other.

The two women end up representing a people standing before God, whose wisdom is made known in the cross of Christ–and is, therefore, not a wisdom that can be known from below, but only by God’s own revelation.

The patient God is wise–patiently awaiting a people who will see God’s own wisdom made manifest in the cross.

From here, Barth will move into the God who is perfect in freedom. Apparently, this is either more important or much more difficult to talk about than God as love. §31 extends over the next 240ish pages of the book. Steel yourself…

Mercy and Righteousness

Not entirely unrelated to the weekend’s posts on how sacrificial death might benefit the people of God, Karl Barth wants us to hear that the mercy and righteousness of God are not two competing qualities.

The Grace of the Stamp Comes With the Judgment of the Postmark

God is merciful in God’s righteousness. And God is righteous in God’s mercy (§30.2).

How can we know that God is merciful?

“What else can we produce as a proof of this confession except the fact that God has given Himself to be known by us as merciful in the name of Jesus Christ?” (373)

The idea that God is merciful, and that Jesus comes as the demonstration of this mercy, pushes Barth back a step to the sinful context into which Jesus steps. Human sin means that humanity resists the grace of God. The advent of Jesus means that God overcomes our resistance to grace through the self-giving Son and son-giving Father.

When he shifts gears to righteousness, Barth frames the discussion in terms of God’s relationship with humanity: in founding and maintaining a relationship with people through the mercy found in Christ, God establishes a relationship that corresponds to God’s own worth:

“God does not have to, but He can, take to Himself the suffering of another in such a way that in doing so, in founding and accomplishing of this fellowship, He does what corresponds to His worth.” (377)

As the chapter progresses, I found myself wishing that Barth was writing in light of the subsequent generation’s advancement in NT scholarship. How can we talk about the Law in relation to God’s righteousness when Law is about God’s covenant with Israel in particular, and when our great saving gift merits not the Law’s blessing, but its curse (Gal 3)?

I was also a bit disappointed that Barth didn’t work out in a better direction his discussion of God’s “impassibility.” While moving forward beyond some of the limitations of this idea by saying God can, in fact, be moved, Barth nonetheless restricts that to God’s own movement of God upon Godself. The idea that God is impassible is one I would like to see fall by the wayside as one of the least compatible “orthodox notions of God” with the stories of God we find in scripture.

In the end, Barth ends up articulating a rather traditional view of what he calls God’s “distributive” justice–a righteousness that entails both the disciplining of sins and merciful forgiveness of sinners.

Following in the footsteps of his hero Anselm, Barth will not have an atonement that leaves God’s honor violated.

Holiness and Grace

God is the God who loves in freedom. There’s Karl Barth’s core contention about God. But what does this love in freedom look like?

§30 of The Church Dogmatics is devoted to exploring the perfections of divine loving. It begins with the apparent opposites of Grace and Holiness.

Holding together these two dynamics of the Divine action and being is a perennial difficulty.

The Grace of the Stamp Comes With the Judgment of the Postmark

It becomes rather easy to point to people, usually on our right, who seem so excited about the divine holiness that their version of grace seems rather… well… ungracious.

With equal ease, we can turn to the people on our left who affirm grace (probably with the unassailable adjective “radical” or something) to the extent that their vision of divine love removes God’s otherness, God’s holiness.

For Barth, these must be held together. And this means that God’s grace will be known as God comes to people whose sin must be overcome. This love, found in grace and holiness, is truly divine love because it is not conditioned on the creature’s merit and cannot be dissuaded by the creature’s demerit.

We truly are sinful. God truly does love the sinful world. And it requires the overcoming of sin for God to do so.

I have a couple of words of concern.

First, I was uneasy with Barth’s projection of grace into the eternal divine identity of God. Grace, as Barth defines it, is about God overcoming the sinner’s resistance with divine love. So he must appeal to “mystery” as to what this attribute of God might look like in God’s eternal self-relations.

This sounded to my ears like special pleading: anything that doesn’t make sense we just call it “mystery” and anyone who challenges us is impious.

Second, and perhaps related to the first, this section could have used a lot more cross. Where is the place where mercy and justice kiss if not there? Yes, he brings in the cross in the small print toward the end, but I think that should have framed this whole conversation.

We know grace when we know the work of God in Christ–the son-giving Father and the self-giving Son; the son who knew no sin being made sin for us; God did what the Law could not, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering.

Overall, however, the chapter resonated with me. I read it fresh off my evening walk, in which I had listened to my favorite podcast right up to the point where it was asked, “Did Jesus have to die for our sins to be forgiven? He forgave sins on earth, so was the cross really necessary for that?”

I answer yes.

What Jesus shows as his kingly prerogatives in Mark 1-8 are those that become fully and eternally his through his cruciform coronation and resurrection in Mark 15-16.

We learn in his life who Jesus is for us–the grace of God among us; but there is a judgment that is due us as well, and this judgment must be dealt with for the rescue to be consummated.

Barth’s insistence that the God of grace is known only in his holiness, and that the holy God is known in grace, is a helpful corrective–corrective to me, who would much rather have the grace without the attendant judgment.

But God is the “holy one” precisely as the God “of Israel.” God is holy as God is in covenant relationship with God’s people.

The Holy One is the God of Grace.

God is Love?

“God is love.”

This is one of the most important things Christians say about God. And, it is one of the most abused.

The problem with saying “God is love” is twofold. First, we assume that we know what love means already, so the phrase becomes a bit of a mirror rather than an insight into the divine. Secondly, we make the mistake of thinking that because we can say “God is love,” we can flip the subject and the predicate and faithfully say, “Love is God.”

But Barth gets it right on both counts.

As his discussion of the identity of God unfolds in CD 28.2, the “Being of God as the one who Loves” is continually drawn back to the love of God as it is made known in the Father’s giving of the Son for us.

This is the best of Trinitarian theology: cultivating an understanding of what it means to say “God is” that is relentlessly tied to how God is made known in the story. It is a theology from below, a theology that trusts that the way God has revealed Godself in the stories of Israel and Christ is not mere condescension and analogy, but truthfully revelatory of who this God is.

I confess: the sorts of claims Barth makes in this chapter, while I agree, take increasing amounts of faith the more I compare and contrast other people’s ways of talking about God. The idea that we are not projecting into heaven but receiving what heaven has brought down to us requires an assent to this story, and its claims to be the playground of God.

Throughout the section, Barth reminds us not to think that our abstractions are the ideals to which God conforms: not “personhood,” not “the absolute,” not “the infinite,” not “the power,” and not even love–until love is shaped by the story of the self-giving Son, given of the Father.

This is the triune God–the one who is known as the one who gives in love.

The Uncontrollable God

What difference does it make how we think about our knowledge of God? For Karl Barth, getting this right makes all the difference in whether or not we live and act as though all our knowledge of God is an act of God’s grace, extending us a participation in what is God’s by nature but not ours by nature (Church Dogmatics §27.2).

What goal and end does our knowledge of God have?

Because Barth makes an absolute distinction between natural theology and revealed theology, between what we can know by nature and what can teach us by grace, he maintains several key points: (1) knowledge of God is true because it is revealed by God; (2) this means that God both wills and empowers such knowledge.

To my mind, Barth is pushing toward the discussion in which he maintains that this dependence on revelation makes us humble and stirs up people to thanksgiving.

Knowledge of God is the fruit of God’s revelation, of God’s power coming and confronting and enabling and making known. This means that it is always, to a degree, a dynamic process.

One of the highlights of this section for me was the warning, issued a couple of times, not to think that any particular articulation of human knowledge of God is under our control. Simply because human speech has rightly articulated knowledge of God for one moment does not mean that such faithful speech can simply be repeated by someone else as the sytematization of the divine revelation.

By making knowledge of God dependent on revelation, on the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2!), Barth takes it out of our hands altogether.

we, who are claimed by God’s true revelation, form our views, concepts and words according to our ability (or inability), we cannot confine ourselves to any one of these words, as if w have already thought of God and spoken of God, and we have only to repeat our concepts and words to attain and express again the knowledge of God. The veracity of our knowledge of God can easily die of this kind of repetition; for it does not possess in itself the knowledge of God; it comes to it from the veracity of the revelation of God. (214)

Sometimes, though, when I get deep into these chapters on revelation, and God revealing from without, and knowledge being sure, and God’s reality being the one after which ours is modeled rather than our language being a grasping after who God is–I start to worry that Barth has taken too much out of the human, engaged, dynamic process of speaking about God.

Is it really the case, for instance, that the words “father” and “son” do not first have a point of reference in our language, which we then apply to God (229)? Are they so true of who God is in Godself that we do not speak “as if” when we use this language in speaking of Father and Son? I wonder if Barth hasn’t underplayed the amount of accommodation and human conditioning entailed in our God-talk?

At the very end, Barth comes back to where he always does when he’s on top of his game. At its heart, the reason why knowledge of God, knowledge of the truth, is only available through revelation is because the knowledge and truth of God are Jesus Christ himself, who is the knowledge of God.

And with this, month 14 of the Barth Together reading group brings us to the end of Dogmatics chapter 5!

On Knowing the Hidden God

The Hidden God

Karl Barth works the question of humanity’s ability to know God. I mean, he really works it.

In §27.1 he takes the hiddeness of God as his starting point. The whole section is entitled, “The Limits of the Knowledge of God.” But he doesn’t mean “limits” only in terms of “the end point,” as in, “Ok, we can know God, but where does that stop?”

He means both limits, the boundaries, the starting point and the ending point. Thus, §27.1 presses the question, “Where does knowledge of God begin?”

Shouting Doesn't Reveal God, KB

Barth continues to work with the idea that God is known as the hidden God. What he has said in the previous chapters, in other words, is not a denial of the knowledge of God, or God’s knowability. It describes the character of our knowledge:

Humanity in and of itself cannot know God. Only God knows God. To be wrapped into God’s self-knowledge is, and must always be, an act of grace.

At the end of this section, Barth goes into a lengthy small-print section, discussing the Barmen Declaration’s confession that God is only known as God is revealed in Christ. Here, we seem to arrive at the point that has truly been driving Barth for the previous two chapters.

In distancing knowledge of God from natural theology, Barth has been heading off the conclusion that God can be known in and through not only nature as such, but human society and social movements. The Nazi party cannot be confessed as a new manifesation of the revealed knowledge of God, because God is not revealed in nature, through peoples as such, knowable to people as such.

I find myself at a recurring point as I cycle through various experiences of reading Barth. Every now and then, and now for an extended period of time, I find that the Christocentrism that gives the Church Dogmatics its power fades to the background, as Barth becomes more speculative, bases more of his argument on the inherent nature of God in the Trinity, and the like.

I know that ultimately, this is all a Christological argument, but it has receded too much from view for this leg of the argument to be compelling.

As an overall theological question, however, I think that the one Barth is pressing here continues to delineate different theological groups.

What does it mean to be a fundamentalist? an evangelical? a progressive? a liberal?

In part, the points along this scale are determined by the extent to which scripture as God’s revelation is seen to come into various cultures, from without—critiquing us and calling us to the God who is other, and the extent to which we see cultural moments shaping, limiting, and providing new opportunities for God’s revelation in the world.

Is revelation entirely a word from without? To what extent is it a word contextualized in time? To the extent that it is contextualized, does a new context open up new opportunities for fresh, different, and even overturning things to be revealed? Or do new contexts predominantly open up new avenues for the Other to critique what we would otherwise think we know?

In tackling the issue of how God is known, Barth is traversing the ground upon which many other particular theological disagreements are played out. Whether we are aware of it or not, the questions of how God is known often play significant roles in theological debate and disagreement, keeping us talking past one another rather than talking toward consensus.