Tag Archives: Karl 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.

Election and Grace

The history of the doctrine of predestination has at times viewed humanity as the recipients of a stark dual decree of God: some are predestined to life, others to destruction.

As Karl Barth lays out his project for a revisionist assessment of the notion of election, he demands that the focus of election be the electing grace of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, predestination is not about God creating two categories of salvation and reprobation and populating those before all time (Church Dogmatics §32.1).

Instead, predestination is God’s free choice, from all eternity, to enter into an eternal relationship with humanity through the election the one man, Jesus of Nazareth.

Opening his discussion of election, Barth can even say that election is the gospel. Why? Because it is conceived as God’s free act of love toward the creature, the choice God makes not to allow the “No” that humanity perpetually flings at God be the last word, but instead to overcome it with a divine “Yes” that is mediated through the Man who himself said “Yes” to God throughout his life.

When Barth moves to discuss three facets of God made known in election (freedom, mystery, and righteousness) the exposition seems to fall into the sort of topical theologizing that Barth overcomes at his better moments.

However, the stage is set for a reimagining of what the Bible never hesitates to affirm (but which we all too often feel skittish about embracing ourselves): the people of God are, also, the elect of God.

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.

Our Sin in God

Karl Barth, thoughts on our sin and God, appropriate for Holy Saturday:

It is His heart, not ours, which is suffering when we think that we are the sufferers and that we have a right or obligation to lament. His heart is wounded, and wounded through our heart…

Sin attains its true form as opposition to the grace of God. It becomes hopeless as such, and its consequences are hopelessly painful. But at this point the grace of God intervenes as the mercy of God. Jesus Christ enters human existence as the great joy which shall be to all people he breaks down this resistance to grace by himself appearing as grace triumphant, as the royal removal of our sin and guilt by the action of God Himself. Because our sin and guilt are now in the heart of God, they are no longer exclusively ours. Because He bears them, the suffering and punishment for them are lifted from us, and our own suffering can only be a reminiscence of His…

It remains for us only to be the sinners whose place He has taken and who must therefore really have their life in Him.

The above is from §30.2 of Church Dogmatics.

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.

Friends of Freedom?

Since we’re all up in Barth’s “God is the one who loves in freedom,” it seemed apropos to post this short video of Barth summoning people to be friends, even champions of Freedom, rather than its enemies. Barth insists that we must champion the freedom of God, and we must champion the freedom of humanity:

For more exciting videos and all things Karl Barth, check out http://kbarth.org/

On Loving in Freedom

How are we to think of God?

When folks start getting all technical about it, they sometimes talk about God’s attributes as “communicable” and “incommunicable”: who God is for us, the God we can share in (on the one hand), and who God is in Godself, the God we cannot participate in (on the other).

Karl Barth calls us to caution here.

God is the God of love. But this is not merely about the God how is for us and with us, this is the Triune God from all eternity.

And God is the God of freedom. But this is not merely about the God who is Other. God is perfectly free in his entering into his various relationships with the created order.

Barth Experiences God Via His Pipe

Throughout §28-29 of Church Dogmatics, Barth has been developing this groundwork for the reality of the identity of God: God as God is revealed is the God who is; and the God who is is none other than the God we meet as revealed (and concealed) in revelation by Christ, Scripture, and preaching.

In the next two sections we’re going to hear about the attributes of God that express God’s love (§30) and those that express the perfection of God’s freedom (§31)–but all in such a way as to keep both love and freedom on the table at all times.

Overall, I like what Barth is going for here: he does not want us to think that we have some idea of Godness that we’re striving for, some ideal form that indicates God who is “other” and “out there.”

Moreover, Barth wants to ensure that when we turn to ask, “What is God?” we do not attempt to separate that answer from the all-important “Who is God?” that he has been answering in his development of the doctrine of God who is known in Christ.

I like that.

I wish, though, for a couple of things.

One, I feel that we have spent so much time in the Trinity lately that the revelation of God in the story of Jesus has grown dim. The closer we stick to Christology, the happier I am. I know that Barth himself intends all of this to be such an exposition. I wish to see it clearer at time.

Also, the appeal to the narrative as a true revelation of God is a double-edged sword. While it does, as Barth acknowledges, mean that the God we see here is the God who is, I wonder if Barth has left open enough space for how the story might impact and influence God?

Might the God who loves in freedom eternally surrender some aspect of his freedom to bind himself to the story of Israel? Some change in God’s freedom and even love must be apparent when God becomes eternally incarnate.

But more importantly, what about the ways that God deals differently with people over time. Without going for “God figuring out how to be God,” if the relationship between God and Israel, God and the church, is a true relationship, might that binding and the self-giving of God to the people and the people responding in faithfulness or rebellion, not influence God (cf. incarnation above, for one) in some meaningful sense? Might God not respond to the created order and thus not act merely in sovereign freedom?

Here we have the set-up: we can’t find love only in God for us, but it is part of God as God is in eternal Triunity. We can’t find God’s freedom only in God who is Other, but it is part of God as God is for us. Next we’ll move on to see how this plays out in grace and holiness, mercy and righteous.

Note for new readers: I’m on a 7ish year plan to blog through the Church Dogmatics. Full reading schedule and earlier posts can be found by clicking the Karl Barth Reading tab above.