Chapter 7: Karl Barth
Barth’s theological importance for our generation is so great, and the sheer volume of his writings is so vast, that I am more conscious here than anywhere else in this volume of the presumptuousness of my undertaking. Furthermore, Barth needs to be understood in terms of the development of his thought more than most of the men treated. Through it all lies a profound consistency, and he himself sees his latest work as the fulfillment of intentions already expressed in 1919. (Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, pp. 37, 43.) Nevertheless, with regard to questions crucial to this study, Barth would have to be presented quite differently in his different periods. (For an account of Barth’s three periods see T. F. Torrance, "Karl Barth," Ten Makers of Modern Protestant Thought, George Hunt, ed. Esp. pp. 59)
Barth notes that it was in the middle part of the second decade of our century that he reacted sharply against his liberal teachers. (Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, p. 40.) This revolt found vigorous expression in the two editions of The Epistle to the Romans of 1919 and 1922. (Of these, only the latter is available in English translation.) It was especially in the second of these editions that the existentialism of Kierkegaard became a decisive factor in his thought.
T. F. Torrance sees the first of these editions as still within the categories of the liberalism against which Barth was revolting. (Torrance, op. cit., p. 59.) From this point of view we might identify a critical liberalism as a first stage of Barth’s public career and consider the second edition as the inauguration of a second stage of clear rejection of liberalism under the influence of Kierkegaard. For this period, extending through the twenties, the Kierkegaardian principle of the infinite qualitative difference between the divine and the human was determinative. (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 10.)
Whether or not we accentuate the divergence of the second edition of Barth’s Romans from the first, we can say that it was the second edition which inaugurated a new era in continental theology. Brunner, Bultmann, and Tillich give expression to this new era and specifically to the influence of Kierkegaard, which is its most distinctive mark. For Barth himself, however, the last major expression of this period is found in the first volume of what was to have been his Christian Dogmatics. (This has not been translated.)
The third period begins roughly with the publication of Barth’s book on Anselm in 1930. It is clarified in his repudiation of Brunner’s theology and along with it that of Kierkegaard as well. (In John Baillie, ed., Natural Theology, pp. 114 ff, See also Barth, Church Dogmatics I. 1, p.ix.) It receives its monumental expression in the still unfinished Church Dogmatics, which begins with a thorough rewriting of the first volume of the Christian Dogmatics.
In an exposition of Barth, one must, therefore, choose between the preexistentialist, the existentialist, and the post-existentialist stages of Barth’s theological development. The first is of importance chiefly because of the light it throws on the background of the others. But the second and third have enormous systematic and historical importance. The Kierkegaardian stage has been carried through in its distinctive implications by Brunner and Bultmann in quite divergent ways. Hence, although a systematic analysis of Barth’s own writings in the years from 1922 to 1929 would be of great intrinsic interest, the remainder of this chapter will deal entirely with the Barth of the third period, who has repudiated every alliance with philosophy, even the most negative.
Even within this third and most productive period of Barth’s development, his writings are full of surprises. (Berkouwer, op. cit., pp. 13-14.) Indeed, so great has been the shift of emphasis and the significance of new ideas that in 1951 Brunner began to write of the " new Barth." (Ibid., p.15.) Of all men Barth is most emphatic in his refusal to be his own disciple. Therefore, a statement that may be carefully documented from one book may appear very misleading in the light of Barth’s later explanations. Only the man who has read and pondered all has the right to pronounce upon Barth’s doctrines, and I am not that man! Hence the special diffidence that I cannot forbear expressing as I approach this chapter.
Yet I am convinced that underlying the endless richness and unexpected variety of Barth’s doctrinal formulations there is a basic coherence of method. (Barth himself stresses the unity of the Church Dogmatics IV. 2, p. xi.) Indeed, it is precisely this one method which explains the manifoldness of expression. Perhaps it will be possible to state this method fairly and to indicate in broad outlines some of the remarkable ways in which it bears fruit, without attempting to fix in simple propositions the fluid forms of the dynamic thinker. At any rate, it is to that task that I direct my efforts.
We have seen that in the theology of Brunner the central and decisive concept is that of the divine-human encounter. Man as responsible person meets God as Person in the person of Jesus. The Biblical witness makes possible this encounter and is authenticated by it. The encounter has a transforming effect upon man and upon his capacity to see truly that which he had previously distorted.
We may begin our examination of Barth by pointing out the negative fact that he does not share Brunner’s understanding of revelation. Barth is interested in the presence of God as Person to man or even the unity of God and man, but not in an encounter between the divine Person and the human person. (Barth does not deny that in some sense God "meets" man. See Church Dogmatics II. 1, p. 9. But Barth does not understand this as Brunner does after the analogy at the encounter between two human persons. The agency of the meeting is entirely on God’s side. See also, Ibid. I. 1, pp. 234- 235.) Man as responsible person is not a partner in this event of presence or union. The Scriptures are not to be understood as mediating a personal encounter with Jesus or as being authenticated by such an encounter. Barth is indifferent to any general enlightenment that may or may not follow the event. (Barth, Church Dogmatics I. 1, pp. 272-277.)
This should make clear in advance of further exposition that in Barth we confront a theological method that is not to be understood primarily as more one-sided, more extreme, or more consistent than that of Brunner but simply as different. It should make clear also that the difference of the theologies as a whole is rooted in the differences of their views of revelation, which is for both the all-determinative ground of theology. We turn, therefore, to a discussion of what Barth understands by revelation, focusing, however, not on his own elaborate exposition of the diversity and unity of its forms, but on that characteristic of his view which seems delusive for the difference between Barth’s whole elaboration and that of all the other theologians treated in this volume.
Revelation is God’s Word or personal presence. As such it is identical with reconciliation. It is also identical with Jesus Christ. But we have seen already that God’s presence is not to be understood as something available for human encounter. Much less is it available for human appropriation. It is sheer event that simply transpires according to God’s sovereign freedom. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 19, 24, 30, 177.) There is no characteristic of man that can be understood as a capacity for God’s presence in his Word. This possibility belongs entirely with God. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 224.) God’s presence is real presence in Jesus, in church, in sacrament, in Scripture, in preaching, in the elect. But in every case, it is a presence whose occurrence is wholly God’s decision and which cannot be identified with any changes in the form or content of the earthly vessel. It is a presence to which the earthly vessel has no claim and which occurs or does not occur quite independently of all psychological or physical factors associated with the vessel. Hence it is a presence that can be believed or acknowledged only as and when it in fact happens. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 234 ff., 280, 282.)
The fundamental significance of this understanding of the mode of God’s presence can be brought out by examples. Let us consider God’s presence in proclamation that includes both preaching and sacrament. First we must note that it really happens, that is, God really speaks from time to time in human proclamation. (Ibid. I. I, pp. 57, 79.) This absolutely mysterious fact is the basis of the church’s ministry. But man can make no predictions whatsoever about this presence. He cannot suppose that it can be brought to pass by his earnestness, his rhetorical power, the vividness of his presentation of Jesus, his success in portraying man’s guilt, or his theologically correct preaching. God’s presence occurs in the proclamation according to his own free determination, which remains to man wholly mysterious. When it occurs man can acknowledge that it occurs, but that is all. He thereby acknowledges that man’s fallible words of proclamation have in fact in this instance by God’s grace become God’s Word, hence, revelation and reconciliation, hence, the presence of Jesus Christ himself. He does not for this reason suppose that the human words that were uttered are thereby sanctioned or sanctified. They remain as fallible as ever.
This illustration of the mode of God’s presence can be applied with little modification to Scripture. God’s presence in Scripture is always event, wholly uncontrollable and unpredictable from man’s side. Hence, the Roman Catholic understanding of the church’s authoritative definition of doctrine through its interpretation of Scripture and tradition must be vehemently rejected as denying God’s free sovereignty. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 43.) In a similar way Protestant orthodoxy by its identification of the Bible with the Word of God attempted to divinize a human and worldly entity and to bind God’s freedom. (Karl Barth, Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings, 1945-52, p. 217.) Church and Bible become God’s Word when and as God freely chooses, but they do not thereby attain some permanent divine quality. (Church Dogmatics I. I, p. 127.) They remain in themselves wholly fallible, wholly human and worldly.
At the same time it must be understood that Barth’s view is an even more vehement rejection of what he calls Modernism or Neo-Protestantism. By this he means the whole tendency of Protestantism since the Enlightenment to see a broader base for its thinking than the objective Word of God and to find such a base in an understanding of man. From the standpoint of Neo-Protestantism as Barth sees it, Christian religion is one modification of general human possibilities and can be understood only in terms of these possibilities. This view does not merely falsely identify God’s Word with human forms of its expression; it implicitly denies the whole idea of God’s Word as the free event of God’s presence. It understands God’s presence as a universal characteristic of man and even of nature that may then be judged by some empirical or psychological criterion as greater or lesser. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 40.) If we are to defend God’s freedom from bondage to the church and Scripture in which he has promised us his presence, much more must we defend it from the view that it is a universal property of man or nature. Hence, Barth’s rejection of Roman Catholic ecclesiasticism and Protestant orthodox Biblicism must not be understood as having anything in common with the Neo-Protestant rejection. The latter attacks these positions because they threaten the autonomy of human thought and action. Barth attacks them solely because they fail to acknowledge the absolute freedom of the sovereign God. (Ibid. I. 2, pp. 661 ff.)
What we see in the above examples is Barth’s strong determination to distinguish absolutely the Word of God as the miraculous supernatural event of God’s presence from the worldly human entity in which it occurs. It is, of course, precisely this entity which becomes the Word of God, but its becoming the Word of God has no effect upon its status as purely human and worldly. The event of its becoming the Word of God must be understood sui generis and simply acknowledged as such. (Ibid. I. 1, pp.178 ff.) Both God and the worldly object are fully and unqualifiedly present together without any lessening of the deity of God or of the worldliness of the worldly object, which remains altogether worldly before, during, and after the event of God’s presence.
What has been said of church, sacrament, Scripture, and proclamation must be said with renewed emphasis of the believer. The believer is one for whom the event of God’s presence, the hearing of the Word, has occurred and does occur from time to time. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 216) He cannot understand this as an encounter with God to which he brought his own responsible humanity. He cannot discuss the prior emotional or intellectual development that enabled him to accept God’s gift. He can only acknowledge that he heard God’s Word, that this event occurred and occurs.
By the same token he cannot discuss himself, the believer, as the product of this event in terms of new cognition or psychological characteristics or powers. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 276-277.) This event has made him invisibly a new man and may have experiential consequences. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 239, 254.) But he cannot hold up some new development in his own life as belonging to or as a product of God’s work. He can only understand himself before, during, and after the event of God’s presence, the event of hearing God’s Word, as thoroughly and unqualifiedly human, hence, as wholly other than the event that he acknowledges. (Ibid. I. 1, pp.280, 282)
Even when we turn to Jesus Christ as he who lived in Palestine in A.D. 1-30 we find a not altogether different situation. Here again Barth sees the human Jesus as truly human. As such he is a witness to the presence of God. (Ibid. I. 2, p. 855.) He is not exalted into a suprahuman, semidivine being by that presence. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 470; I. 2, p. 162.) He is very man of man. But he is also very God of very God. God’s presence in his case is different in kind from God’s presence to believers.
The believer acknowledges God’s presence to him but remains simply and only human. Jesus as human testifies to God’s presence in him and is both purely human and wholly God. The analogy of God’s presence in Jesus with God’s presence in church, Scripture, proclamation, and believer holds at the point of the preservation of the absolute worldliness of the worldly and the absolute deity of the divine in their conjunction. But in all these cases we can only say that by God’s good pleasure the worldly object becomes the event of God’s Word. It is true that in the case of Jesus Christ we may say, in a somewhat similar way, that Jesus Christ is God’s Word. But we do not mean that this is an event in the sense that from time to time he becomes God’s Word for us as is the case with Scripture and proclamation. He becomes God’s Word for us in Scripture and proclamation because he first antecedently in himself is God’s Word. To make this clear we must also say that God’s Word is Jesus Christ. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 131-132, 476; I. 2, p. 162.)
There is, of course, no position outside of the acknowledgment of God’s Word from which such acknowledgment of its content can be explained. Theology always presupposes in general and in detail the actuality of the Word, which is its only object. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 30-33, 285; I. 2, pp. 7, 775.) Even within the sphere of faith God remains precisely a mystery in his self-revelation. Hence, although many misconceptions can be cleared away, and although the relations among God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, in Scripture, and in proclamation can be explained, God’s presence as such can only be acknowledged. The function of rational inquiry is to make the mystery visible as such. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 423.)
The foregoing should suffice to indicate the very distinctive conception of the God-man relation that characterizes Barth’s whole view. In terms of it we can see that a theological method very different from that of Brunner is demanded. Brunner seeks a humanly intelligible encounter with the person Jesus Christ in order that thereby we may encounter God. The Scriptures are the indispensable means of this encounter, but it is our encounter as such that authenticates the witnesses and even allows us to pass judgments upon them. Therefore, although the theologian should exhibit his extensive agreement with the earliest and hence privileged witnesses, he is bound only to Jesus Christ himself and the understanding that comes to him in the encounter. Thus Brunner develops a Christocentrism rather close to that of some forms of Ritschlian liberalism.
In this sense, Barth is not Christocentric. There is for Barth no encounter with the Jesus Christ of A.D. 1-30 mediated by Scripture that then makes possible critical evaluation of Scripture. On the contrary, in accordance with God’s absolute freedom he makes himself present for us now in the testimony to Jesus Christ in Scripture and proclamation. This event of God’s presence which is God’s Word is that to which all life and thought within the church is directed in openness, obedience, and acknowledgment. Hence, theology also is directed finally only toward the Word of God. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 284 ff.; I. 2, p. 883.)
Barth distinguishes dogmas from the dogma. The former is humanly formulated propositions. The latter is the reality that they attempt more or less successfully to assert. In itself, the dogma remains beyond human formulation as the norm for every formulation. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 307.) Dogmatics as a human enterprise can deal only with this never-finished process of approximating dogma. Again, therefore, in dogmatics we have unqualified humanness of every human creation, however devout and intelligent its author may be.
However, the Word of God is not only an ineffable norm toward which believing thinking strives. It is also the Jesus Christ of AD. 1-30 to whom the Scriptures witness and who is proclaimed in the church’s preaching. It is that Jesus Christ who makes himself present in that proclamation and who is its norm. The function of dogmatics is to criticize the human proclamation of the church in terms of its faithfulness to its norm and content, Jesus Christ. Concretely, this can only mean measuring the proclamation of the church by the testimony to Jesus Christ in the Scripture. We do not suppose that this testimony is anything more than a human testimony to God’s Word, that is, to Jesus Christ. But equally we do not suppose that we have some other basis for witnessing to Jesus Christ than the Scriptural witness. Hence, the task of dogmatics is to test the proclamation of the present church by the Scriptures. (Ibid. I. 2, pp. 812-813.)
Furthermore, we must understand that when we appeal to Scripture we appeal to Scripture as a whole. The canonization of the Scriptures was a human and therefore fallible act of the human and fallible church, but it was not an arbitrary act. Those books were canonized which in fact became for the church from time to time according to God’s good pleasure the Word of God. If the church finds itself drawn to revise the canon, it is always free to do so. But this revision must be an act of the whole church in obedience to God’s Word, not of individual theologians in accordance with their personal preferences. (Ibid. I. 2, pp. 473-479.)
Still further, Barth forbids us to interpret the whole Biblical witness in terms of one principle, however central this may truly be. For example, we should not take the atonement, although it is indeed central for faith, as the key in terms of which all other teachings of the Bible, such as those on creation and eschatology, are to be understood. We are not to do this precisely because the Scriptures do not do this, and we have no higher court of appeal available to us. There is a unity of all the teachings of Scripture in the Word of God himself, but as such this unity is not accessible to us. (Ibid. I. 2, p. 877.) It is the eschatological truth that judges and condemns to error all our partial truths. Thus it reminds us of the entirely human character of our dogmatic efforts, but these efforts themselves can be obedient only as they reflect the independent treatment in the Bible of the great themes of God, creation, reconciliation, and redemption.
This conscientious loyalty of Barth to the whole of the Bible as total and normative witness to God’s Word must be stressed because it is this as much as anything else which distinguishes Barth’s position in general and in detail from that of every other figure given major attention in this book. Brunner, we have seen, appeals to Jesus himself as the norm by which the Scriptures are to be judged. Many contemporaries appeal to the kerygma, the message of the primitive church found in the Scripture, as the norm. Still others seek the distinctive characteristics of the prophetic-Christian tradition or the peculiar motif of primitive Christianity and treat these as the decisive principles that must guide all Christian thinking. Barth, however, insists that the theologian is in no position to make such selective abstractions from the total Biblical witness. Only the Word of God to whom the Bible witnesses is the Lord of the Bible, and we are •loyal to that Lord only as we listen for the Word throughout the Bible. This means that Barth rejects "systematic" theology. (Ibid. I. 2, p. 861.) System implies the development of the whole from a center or key principle regarded as capable of illuminating all else and of placing it in proper perspective. The systematic theologian may derive his key from the Scripture, but once this is securely in his possession he is free to display its implications independently of the Scripture. Barth says we have no such key. Every doctrine must be developed in terms of a new questioning of the whole of Scripture -- never by deduction from the conclusions of other aspects of our investigation. (Ibid. IV. 2, p. xi.) Here lies the explanation of Barth’s peculiar unpredictability. He cannot predict his own conclusions. A systematic theologian can be counted on to develop each new doctrine in consistency with his central commitment. But Barth insists on simply interrogating the Scriptures again. The reader of the "Prolegomena" is unprepared for Barth’s doctrine of election because Barth himself did not have in mind, when he wrote the "Prolegomena," precisely the doctrine that he developed in Volume II. (Ibid. II. 2, p. x.) Likewise, Barth’s doctrine on baptism could hardly have been predicted on the basis of the positions taken by him on other topics. (Berkouwer, op. cit., p. 13.) In each case a fresh study of Scripture, and not the logic of his earlier statements, is de- terminative for his conclusions. This is what Barth means by repudiating all Barthianism. He asks faithfulness to Scripture and not faithfulness to any interpretation of Scripture that he may have put forward. Thus far in this exposition of Barth we have discussed only two points: first, his conception of how God is present, and second, his loyalty to Scripture. It is the thesis of this whole presentation of Barth that these two principles jointly explain his actual procedure and conclusions, whereas either one by itself fails to do so. That is, if we simply began with, Scripture as such and as a whole, we might well find it saying some things to us quite different from that which Barth hears. We might, for example, read it as history of the mighty acts of God in the fashion of Heilsgeschichte or in terms of a succession of covenants. We might understand human decision as qualifying the effectiveness of God’s gift of grace to each individual. We might understand God’s presence in the Christian era in his Holy Spirit as a felt presence that was perceived directly in communion and indirectly in the new psychological qualities of love, joy, and peace that he produced. We might understand that sin and guilt are the actuality of the human situation apart from Christ and that this can be seen separately and independently in Adam and natural man. But Barth does not find these things in the Bible, and to this extent we may say it is predictable what he will find. He always understands the Bible as witnessing to the Word of God as that which freely makes itself present in the witness and which is Jesus Christ.
Barth, of course, believes that his understanding of the Word of God as God’s revelation and presence to man is itself the understanding of the Bible. Hence, he appeals to one principle and not two. But it must be said that at some points Biblical scholars find his exegesis strained. It cannot be supposed that Barth simply apprqaches each text afresh without any conception of the kind of message that is to be sought in it. On the contrary, he approaches each text seeking its witness to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, and inevitably his conception of the way in which the Word of God is revealed affects the way in which he understands the text’s witness. (Church Dogmatics I 1, p.131) In a sense, therefore, Barth does have a system of the sort he disavows, in that a single central principle derived from Scripture guides the interpretation of all Scripture.
At the same time, however, it must equally be said that in fact Barth does not proceed by tracing out the most reasonable implications of his understanding of the Word of God. He is open as few theologians have ever been to new light from Scripture. He is never satisfied to maintain any view unless he can first convince himself, if not others, that this is indeed the meaning of Scripture. Hence, it is the two principles, which he would reduce to one, in terms of which the vast corpus of his writing is to be understood. On specific doctrines he feels free to change his views and sometimes does so in startling ways. (E.g., his reversal on doctrine of continual creation from affirmation to rejection. See Weber, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An introductory Report on Volumes 1:1 to 111:4, p. 166. ) But all these changes occur within, and on the basis of, these two fundamental principles of his thought.
Dogmatics is the testing of the church’s proclamation by the Scriptures, which are understood as testifying in their entirety to the one revelation in Jesus Christ. It accepts no other object or norm besides this. Hence, it cannot hold itself responsible to the contemporary world view or to any philosophy. (Church Dogmatics I. 1, pp. 287 ff.) In this sense, Barth’s rejection of all human thinking not bound to revelation is total. But this does not mean that either proclamation or dogmatics is bound to the language of Scripture. This is a purely human language that is in no way sanctified by its use in the primitive witness. Our proclamation and our dogmatics must be in our language, and this means in a language that has been influenced by philosophy. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 86, 91-92, 184; I. 2, p. 778.)
Furthermore, dogmatic propositions must be rational through and through. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 340.) Barth is not troubled by the fact that such rationality is affected by purely human intellectual traditions, for he never pretends in any respect to escape the situation of an altogether worldly humanity. In dogmatics we use the best concepts available to express the meaning we find in the Word of God. But we do not thereby commit ourselves to the philosophical context in which these terms receive their meaning. We commit ourselves only to the Word of God. When philosophical categories show signs of hindering the free expression of that Word, they must be abandoned. Thus Barth himself purged his Church Dogmatics of the vocabulary of existentialism when it became clear to him that this led to misunderstanding on the part of others and unclarity on his own part. The dogmatician’s attitude toward philosophy is not one of hostility or fear, but one of perfect freedom. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 93-94, 142, 321; I. 2, pp. 774-775, 819. Barth develops his highly positive view of philosophy and its relation to theology most fully in "Philosophie und Theologie,’ his contribution to Philosophie und christliche Existenz, Festschrijt for Heinrich Barth, Gerhard Huber, ed., published in 1960. Here he stresses that both are responsible to the one and same truth, that each must deal with the problems treated by the other, and that they differ only in the priority they give to these questions. This difference of priority, he sees, creates many inevitable differences in treatment and formulation, but he calls for a free conversation in which each can learn from the other without any attempt on either side to triumph over the other. See especially pp. 93-95.)
Dogmatics is bound only to the Word of God, and it must in intention be a dogmatics of the church as such. Nevertheless, the dogmatician must also recognize that he speaks within and for a particular branch of the church. (Ibid. I. 2, p. 831.) In Barth’s case this is the Reformed Church, which sees in the Calvinist tradition the most adequate human approximation to the Word of God. Therefore, Barth treats with special respect the theological positions of the thinkers in this tradition and especially of Calvin. (Ibid. I. 2, pp. 824-827.) He remains essentially loyal to this tradition even when he criticizes its formulation. In this way he distinguishes his understanding of the faith from that of Lutherans and Anglicans as well as, much more drastically, from Roman Catholics and Neo-Protestants. (Ibid. I. 2, pp. 829-832.)
However, the Reformed theologian never argues from the Reformed confessions as authorities but employs them only as guides. (Ibid. I. 2, 836-838.) The confessions are affirmed ultimately only so long as one can affirm them as useful and adequate guides to the Scripture testimony. The latter alone is authoritative, and in it lies the principle of unity of all evangelical confessions.
A distinctive feature of Barth’s theology in contrast with both orthodoxy and liberalism is the determinative role that he assigns the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is actually expounded in the "Prolegomena" to the Dogmatics! Historically it has been usual to treat the doctrine of God first, and then in terms of what is said about God as such to discuss the Trinity. But Barth regards such an approach as un-Biblical. It presupposes that we know something of God in some nontrinitarian way prior to our knowledge of his threefoldness. But precisely such knowledge is what is excluded by our understanding of Jesus Christ as God in his revelation. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 345-346.)
To understand Barth’s position here we must remind ourselves of his fundamental understanding of how God is related to man. For God to approach man is for him to be present to man in revelation and reconciliation. Apart from this approach there is no relation of man to God, and in this approach God is unqualifiedly God. At the same time God in his presence to man reveals that which also is apart from that presence. That is, we cannot identify God wholly with a series of events that touch man in his history and thereby reconcile man and God. What is given in those events is God, but it is God only in one of his modes of being, which we call his Son. God reveals himself to man only in his existence as Son, but this very fact points also to his existence as the Father who sends the Son. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 343-344, 372.)
With respect to the relation of Father and Son we must say two things. First, the Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Son. Second, God who reveals himself in the Son is also the God who is the Father. The point is that although on the one hand we must never dissolve God’s being in himself into his being for us, we must also not attribute to God the Father any will or purpose or nature that is not revealed in Jesus Christ. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 436-437.)
It would not be wrong, I think, to suppose that when Barth insists that we must begin with God the Trinity, he has in mind primarily the duality and unity of Son and Father. He begins with the Trinity because it is only so that he can begin with revelation. Any other starting point would begin with some idea held to be revealed but not with revelation as such. To begin with revelation as such is to begin with the Son, who can only be understood as revelation when he is understood as the Son of the Father.
However, Barth is fully aware that the doctrine of the church is a doctrine of trinity and not of binity, and he shows no disposition to minimize the importance of the third person. The Spirit is the Spirit of Father and Son, (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 546-547.) the mode of God’s presence which works faith in the Son in the believer’s heart. The Spirit, therefore, has no content or object other than the Son but is precisely the means by which God’s revelation and reconciliation in Jesus Christ becomes actualized anew in each believer. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 517.) Thereby the Spirit points to the eschatological consummation in redemption, which, as the new coming of the Son, is the content of Christian hope. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 528-531.)
Barth is critical of the use of the term "person" to refer to these three modes of existence of God. (Ibid. I. 1, p. 412.) The term was appropriate in the early church because the concept of person at that time did not have its present-day meaning. In one sense of person we must say that God is one Person who exists in three modes. At the same time he vehemently rejects historic Modalism as failing to do justice to the real threeness-in-one and oneness-in-three of the three modes of existence of the one Person, God. (Ibid. I. I, pp. 438-439.)
God and his three modes of being provide the basic outline of the entire dogmatics. Volume II deals with "the doctrine of God"; Volume III, with the doctrine of creation, which Barth understands as God the Father; Volume IV is entitled "the doctrine of reconciliation," which Barth understands as God as Son; and Volume V will deal with "the doctrine of redemption," which Barth associates with God as Holy Spirit. Thus we see how the entire dogmatics deals in one sense only with God, only with the Trinity, while at the same time dealing continuously with man, his world, and his future. For Barth, God and man cannot be treated as two topics of theological inquiry, for both are known only in the one God-man, Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the one topic of all that is said is the way in which God makes himself present to and for man in his one Word, Jesus Christ.
It is time now to turn from this discussion of method and principles to illustrations of their application to crucial doctrines. For this purpose the two problems of election and creation are selected. It is highly significant for Barth’s treatment of both these doctrines that he places election first and in the context of the doctrine of God as such. (Ibid. II. 2, pp. 3-506. Creation is the subject of Vol. III.) In one respect Barth’s doctrine of election is predictable from his basic understanding of the way in which God makes himself present in his Word. Since this presence is purely an event subject only to God’s freedom, there can be no question of human merit or response before, during, or after the event as conditioning its occurrence or effect. Hence, Barth consistently affirms that the human decision with respect to faith and obedience always follows upon and depends on the divine decision and in no way conditions it. (Ibid. I. 1, pp. 65, 184, 235, 237-238.)
The scattered references to this situation in Volume I of the Church Dogmatics suggest that Barth assumed in common with the Calvinist tradition generally that there is also a human decision of unfaith and disobedience that similarly follows upon and depends on a divine decision. Although it appears that even here Barth did not want to place these two decisions on the same level, (Ibid. I. 1,pp.65, 184, 235, 237-238.) still they both appear as human decisions reflecting prior divine decisions. Since this position is fully consistent both with Barth’s fundamental understanding of the divine freedom and sovereignty and with the traditional Calvinist reading of the Bible, there seemed no reason to expect a change.
Nevertheless, he does depart from the Calvinist view in his extended treatment of the doctrine of election, and he does so in a highly original and interesting manner. It is here that what Berkouwer has called the "triumph of grace" in Barth’s theology becomes clearly apparent, and although it may be seen as foreshadowed in his earlier work, Barth himself expresses surprise at his own development. (Ibid. II. 2, p. x.)
Barth was driven to modifications of his traditional Calvinist view of election partly by his close study of the Bible and partly by his basic principle that Jesus Christ is the revealed God. If Jesus Christ is our only ground for knowledge of God, then we cannot know of God anything that we do not see in Jesus Christ. (Ibid. II. 2, pp. 25, 103-104, 115, 422.) This seems quite simple and evident, but Barth shows that the whole Christian tradition has failed to remain strictly faithful to this principle. Even Calvin, for example, separates the electing God from Jesus Christ in such a way that he can attribute to him an eternal decree of nonelection, which is not revealed in Jesus Christ. (Ibid. II. 2, p. 111.) It is this which creates the tension between the revealed love of God and the horror of the decree of damnation of the nonelect.
Brunner avoided the implication of God’s arbitrary damning of most men by insisting that God offers himself to all men in the encounter, but that men can fail to respond. Essentially he thereby repeats the Arminian and Wesleyan responses to the rigidities of orthodox Calvinism, (Cf. Berkouwer, op. cit., p. 264.) although he strives hard to differentiate his position from theirs through his categories of encounter and response. Barth, however, will have nothing to do with any view that regards a human response as conditioning the efficacy of God’s act. If we use such language at all, we must understand that the human response is included within the act of God, that it is a predicate of God and not of man. Barth’s problem is, therefore, on the one hand, to retain the Calvinist view of the sole effective agency of God in his absolutely free sovereignty while, on the other hand, rejecting any idea of God’s will and purpose that is other than that revealed in Jesus Christ.
What God reveals in Jesus Christ is his gracious election of man. The man who is elected is the man Jesus Christ. What is revealed about election is not some information about his past activities and future plans but rather this particular election of Jesus Christ. Hence we know nothing of any other election of God. We do know, however, that in electing the man Jesus Christ, God did not elect simply one man from among others but rather elected man as such, for the human Jesus Christ is not to be understood as an individualized person except as he becomes so through his election. (Church Dogmatics I. 2, p. 163.) By uniting himself with man in Jesus Christ, God united himself decisively with man as such. Hence man is elected to unity with God in Jesus Christ. (Ibid. II. 2, pp. 94, 116-117,120-121, 351.)
For this reason the Christian is never to take unbelief seriously. (Ibid. II. 2, pp. 296, 416; Against the Stream, p. 216.) We can and should set no limits to the efficacy of God’s grace. Every individual is always to be approached as one who is already elect in Jesus Christ. (Church Dogmatics II. 2, p. 415.) The difference among men would seem to be only the degree to which they acknowledge the one, all-decisive fact of their election.
The apparent implication of this line of thought is that despite all appearances all men are elect, and Barth has been accused of this doctrine. (Cf. Berkouwer’s discussion of this whole tendency in Barth’s thought, op. cit., pp. 262 ff.) His sharp distinction of God’s presence in his Word from any human response to that presence seems to open the way to some such position. (Church Dogmatics II. 2, p. 340.) But Barth finds himself forbidden by the Bible from accepting such conclusions.
In the first place, he stresses that any human doctrine of universal salvation makes salvation a predicate of man, something that happens to him by virtue of his being a man. (Ibid. II. 2, p. 295) But the Bible treats election as a free act of the sovereign God. We can neither affirm that election is limited in its scope nor that it is unlimited. (Ibid. II. 2, pp. 417-418, 422.) We can only proclaim that it has occurred in Jesus Christ.
In the second place, alongside this rather moderate qualification of the doctrine of universal election, we find Barth identifying election closely with faith in Jesus Christ and membership in the church. (Ibid. II. 2, pp. 345, 410 ff., 422-423.) Again Barth is bound here much more by the explicit teaching of the Bible than by the logic of his own position. The Bible as he reads it knows no other election than that in Jesus Christ and knows this as occurring only with its acknowledgment by faith and by sharing in the fellowship of believers.
This means that alongside the apparent universalism of the effective election of man in Jesus Christ, Barth sets a strict exclusiveness that identifies the body of the elect with Israel and the Christian church. He affirms quite clearly that there is a crossing over of individual men into a state of election in a sense that does not seem compatible with the view that their election precedes their crossing over. (Ibid. II. 2, p. 417.) In other words, although he attributes sole effective agency to God, he takes very seriously man’s acknowledgment of God’s grace as the mark of election and even as the occasion of its occurrence for the individual.
We are left here with an acute problem for understanding. In Jesus Christ, God has elected man, yet among empirical men most seem to be in a state of rejection. We cannot attribute this state of rejection to successful resistance of God’s grace. But we are also forbidden to attribute it to a decision of God to reject them. The only alternative appears to be that of denying real actuality to rejected men! And it is just this course that Barth adopts.
So extraordinary is Barth’s position at this point, and so significant for the development of the later parts of the Dogmatics, that we must pause briefly to consider what is meant. All other theologians have started with the assumption of the equal reality of all men. Salvation and damnation distinguished between two equally real conditions that befall them. Theological questions centered around the respective roles of God and man in determining which condition would occur.
Barth, however, sees man only in Jesus Christ. This means, for example, that only Jesus Christ is a person and that we achieve participation in personhood only in him. Even in Jesus Christ, personhood is a predicate of deity rather than of humanity, hence also in us it is not a state of being of which we have possession. (Ibid. II. 1, pp. 284-286.) Apart from believing participation in Jesus Christ there are no persons at all. Indeed, outside the humanity of Jesus Christ there is no humanity at all! (Ibid. II. 2, p. 541.)
When Barth first develops this point, one might conjecture that we are dealing with a terminological question. One might suppose that he simply chooses to define personhood in this way. But as we proceed we see that with increasing seriousness Barth affirms that reality as a whole is a predicate of God and of God only, that it appears to us only in Jesus Christ, and that we share in it only in him. Furthermore, Jesus Christ is nothing other than God’s presence to the world in grace. Hence only this grace is real. Evil, rejection, sin, cannot be set alongside grace as opposing realities.
Since we are forbidden to affirm that all empirical individuals are, despite appearances, elect, we are forced to affirm that despite appearances those who are not elect are not independently real! Again one might suppose that our need is for terminological clarification. Obviously, Barth does not mean that the rejected are imaginary entities or that they would not meet empirical tests of existing. Hence, he is using "real" in a very special sense. Yet it would be an illusion to suppose that a few terminological distinctions would enable us to incorporate Barth’s doctrine within our accustomed modes of thought. It can be grasped, if at all, only by imaginatively sharing in his own vision of the sole agency of God and the unlimited graciousness of that agency. From this point of view we must see by faith, and in spite of all appearances, that what resists God’s grace is really nothing -- is already negated, wholly negative. Hence those men who attempt to stand in that rejection have in fact nothing to stand upon and no being or power to oppose to God’s grace.
Barth does, it is true, allot a certain limited and negative reality to the rejected, but this he insists is derived from the elect. One exists as rejected by virtue of being known as such by the elect. (Ibid. II. 2, p. 451.) He represents man in his need for election and in that negative condition which is the only alternative to faith. (Ibid. II. 2, pp. 455-458.) As such he too exists by the will of God as the shadow of his gracious election.
We should now be prepared to understand Barth’s doctrine of creation. It had seemed to observers that at this point Barth could have little to say, and Barth himself confessed to uncertainty as he approached this problem. (Ibid. III. 1, p. ix) We shall begin by noting the reasons for skepticism as to Barth’s ability to handle this topic.
If we affirm that nature and natural man are the creation of God, it seems that they must in some way bear the imprint of his will and purpose. The order of nature and natural society must reflect God’s intentions. The structures of being of created entities must have some positive relation to the being of the Creator. As the psalmist says, "the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork."
But if all this is true, then there must be some objective possibility of knowing God through his creation. One may, of course, argue that sinful man refuses to see what is objectively there to be seen, and on this basis one may deny that non-Christians know anything truly about God from nature. Their philosophy and religion may be held to reflect only a distortion of the truth that objectively confronts them. But then one must acknowledge that the Christian through the forgiveness of sins is enabled to see the glory and purpose of God directly in his handiwork. To deny this seems to deny that nature objectively is God’s creation, hence to deny the Biblical doctrine of creation as such.
This position of denying to nature any significant relation to God has been adopted in some of the theological trends influenced by Kantian and post-Kantian developments. It has even been supported by the hostile attitude of some New Testament passages toward this world and its rulers. Hence a consistent position may be developed that excludes nature from consideration and treats of God’s act only in election and redemption.
However, Barth has precluded adopting either the view that nature potentially offers us direct testimony to God’s being and nature, or the view that God’s creation of nature can be dismissed by Christian theology. He rejects the first in his radical protest against any natural theology, even a Christian natural theology. He rejects the second by virtue of his refusal to select certain Scriptural teachings to the exclusion of others. Clearly, God’s creation of the world is taught in the Bible. (Ibid. III. 1, p. 23.) Hence the apparent dilemma found by Barth in developing his own Christian doctrine of creation.
We have already noted that in the order of presentation Barth develops his doctrine of election prior to his doctrine of creation. This is because election and that alone can be identified as God’s final, decisive, and all-inclusive purpose for man. This is known in Jesus Christ, to whom all Scripture testifies. This means that also the story of creation cannot be read independently of the one purpose of God known in Jesus Christ. Creation has no purpose other than election. Hence it embodies no structure or actuality that points to some other truth about God than the one truth of his election of man in Jesus Christ. (Ibid. III. 1, pp. 18-19.)
Now we arrive at Barth’s remarkable and novel solution of his problem. God does manifest himself in his creation. The Bible tells us this and the Christian, therefore, knows it. But what God manifests in his creation is nothing other than Jesus Christ! (Ibid. III. 1, pp. 31-33.) Therefore, apart from Jesus Christ there is no knowledge of God in creation, neither correct nor distorted. Hence, also, the Christian whose eyes are opened to God’s manifestation in creation sees nothing there other than the reality he sees in Jesus Christ. (Ibid. III. 1, pp. 23-25.) The doctrine of God’s creation of the world implies nothing whatsoever about the possibility of finding in the world any clue to the nature of God except that knowledge of God which is given once for all in Jesus Christ.
From this position we can throw new light upon Barth’s startling doctrine of the lack of independent reality on the part of rejected man. Since Adam has been understood by other theologians as man as created by God, Adam’s reality and nature have been seen as the embodiment of what man is by nature apart from a new and special act of grace in Jesus Christ. This has made man’s fallen nature a topic of special theological inquiry. The understanding of its limitations and need has provided the context for understanding the work of Jesus Christ. Thus Christology has depended upon anthropology.
But Barth sees that this presupposes that creation had some other purpose and outcome than election or that God’s purpose in creation was not effective. Only in this case could Adam, hence natural man as such, be understood as having reality in himself. But just this view is what Barth has rejected in his doctrine of creation.
The purpose and meaning, and hence the actuality of creation, is election and nothing else. In so far as man is not elect, he lacks the purpose, meaning, and actuality of creation. He lacks, therefore, created nature as such and can be understood only as a shadowy anticipation of his own reality. Elect man, and hence man as the creature that he really is, is seen only in Jesus Christ. (Karl Barth, Christ and Adam: Man and Humanity in Romans 5, pp. 29, 30, 36, 46, 47, 58, 59.)
This means that the usual order of theological inquiry is sharply reversed. Barth does not speak of Adam and Christ but of Christ and Adam! We cannot learn of the need for Christ or the nature of his work by first considering man’s condition apart from him. (Ibid. pp. 33-35.) We can consider man’s condition apart from Christ only in the light of that which he overcame and negated. The doctrine of creation and created man, like the doctrine of election and elected man, has no other object than Jesus Christ. (It is characteristic of Barth that he is nor satisfied with this view on the basis of its harmony with his general position. He affirms it explicitly on the basis of exegesis of Paul. Christ and Adam is an exegesis of Romans, ch. 5.)
Although Barth can in this way subsume all doctrines about man under the one doctrine of Jesus Christ, he must face the fact of evil. He must face it, not primarily because of its empirical factuality, but because of its importance in the Bible. If creation can be understood as having its meaning in Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ must nevertheless be understood as victor over evil. Hence evil must have some status for Barth.
The problem is, of course, that Barth must give some account of the source or origin of evil. It cannot be attributed directly to God’s creative act, since that has no other end than election. On the other hand, it cannot be attributed to misuse of freedom on the part of man, since Barth assigns to man no freedom to overrule or even effectively to resist God’s purposes. It would seem, then, that evil must be somehow antecedent to creation as an eternal enemy of God. But this would imply a dualism that Barth knows to be wholly un-Biblical.
Barth faces here a traditional theological dilemma. How can the reality of evil be reconciled with the omnipotence of God? If we rule out the possibilities of placing the blame on man and of affirming an ultimate dualism or some limitation upon God’s power or goodness, we seem to be left with the single possibility of declaring evil to be unreal.
Indeed, it is in this direction that we are to seek Barth’s answer. Barth equates evil with nothingness, (The German term "das Nichtige" has no adequate English translation. Since the translators of the Church Dogmatics have decided to use "nothingness" as the translation, confusion will be minimized if we conform. See their footnote on this problem in Church Dogmatics III. 3, p. 289.) and he absolutely denies to it any autonomous existence or reality. Yet it is precisely this nothingness which, as the enemy of God, is overcome in Jesus Christ! Clearly, nothingness is a very active and powerful nothingness -- and not, as nothingness, simply negligible.
This strange concept of a powerfully active and dangerous nothingness is essential to Barth’s total position. Nothingness, so far as it is, cannot be understood either as an eternal reality or as a created entity. Yet it has such importance that it is overcome by God only in Jesus Christ.
This last statement is the key to the understanding of nothingness. It is that which is overcome by God in Jesus Christ. It is that possibility which is rejected by God in creation. It is that which is by virtue of God’s eternal rejection. Thus its being is both negative and dependent upon God, but nevertheless, as that to which God says No, still real and potent. (Church Dogmatics III. 3, pp. 351-353; Berkouwer, op. cit., pp. 56-60.)
Perhaps we may risk a schematic summary of Barth’s total vision of reality that will help the reader to make some sense of the foregoing expositions. From this scheme we may omit completely any reference to plants and animals and heavenly bodies and the like -- the nonhuman creation -- since this is of little importance.
Any such scheme must begin with God as Trinity, creator, reconciler, and redeemer of man -- equally God in his hiddenness and in his revealedness. At the opposite pole we must set nothingness. Nothingness is real and exists, but its reality and existence are sui generis. (Church Dogmatics III. 3, p. 352.) That is, nothingness does not share in the kind of reality that God has or imparts to his creation. Nothingness has its reality only as that which is rejected by God, therefore, as that which is negated and overcome. Between God and nothingness we must place man, the creature. But in man, too, we find a parallel duality of the elect and the rejected. (The same kind of duality characterizes angels and demons, although in the case of the demons their lack of existence and their identity with nothingness are virtually complete. See Weber, op. cit., pp. 200-204.) The elect are those who have become as creatures what the creature really is. That is, God has presented himself to the elect in such a way that they acknowledge his Lordship and their creaturehood. Their existence and reality consist in the Word that God has spoken to them. Thus they •neither have nor claim any autonomous existence, but just in this accept- ance of existence from God they fulfill their true being as creatures.
The rejected also have their peculiar reality and existence. They remain creatures even in their denial of their creaturehood. By their rejection of God’s grace they submit wholly to nothingness and are thereby plunged into nothingness. But their nothingness is not sheer nonexistence, and it is not to be equated with the reality of nothingness itself. Like nothingness, which exists by virtue of God’s rejection of it, and which can be understood only in God’s overcoming of it, the rejected man exists only in and for the elect. His reality can be seen only in the creaturehood manifested in the elect and denied in him. Even the denial is visible only in and for the elect.
Even this highly negative account of the status of the rejected, however, does not really explain how Barth can deny to natural or rejected man a special place in Christian thinking. Barth must do so if he is to maintain clearly his distinction from Brunner. Brunner agrees that natural man cannot understand himself, that, therefore, there can be no doctrine of natural man as creature except from the point of view of faith. However, Brunner holds that when a man’s eyes are opened by faith, he can see the condition of natural man as fallen creature. At that point a Christian doctrine of fallen man becomes possible and even mandatory. On the basis of what has just been said there seems no reason for Barth to deny this possibility.
But Barth does deny to the discussion of natural man any proper province in Christian theology. Neither nothingness nor rejected man becomes an independent topic for theology. The kind of reality they have is such that they can be seen only as that which grace has negated. Hence the theologian knows only the grace and its negating, and the negated only as the negated.
This means that there is nothing to be said about rejected man except that in Jesus Christ man’s rejection is overthrown. Even the rejection, or perhaps we should say precisely the rejection, which might otherwise constitute an object for theological investigation, is now impotent, even unreal. It is not to be taken seriously; therefore, it is not to be talked about as if it were an effective human act on the part of the rejected. Barth even speaks repeatedly of the ontological impossibility of sin, although this never implies that sin lacks reality and danger for man.
Barth has written so extensively and has developed novel solutions to so many problems that in one sense criticism is easy. It is hardly doubtful that there are inconsistencies, confusions, ambiguities, and simply meaningless sentences scattered throughout the thousands of pages of his Dogmatics. There are few readers who are not sometimes frustrated by Barth’s failure to give direct, clear-cut answers to what seem to be direct, clear-cut questions.
Furthermore, we may take it for granted that in Barth’s extensive work in exegesis he must come frequently into conflict with more specialized students of the Bible. Presumably, Barth is often wrong even on matters that can be more or less settled by scholarship. Certainly his interpretations of many passages differ markedly from those which are generally taken as standard.
But all of these criticisms, however effectively they might be made, would be irrelevant to our central concern in this volume. Our concern here is to determine whether Barth has provided us with an intelligible and self-consistent theological method. Can dogmatics accept as its total function the testing of the church’s language by Scripture in the way that he has proposed?
In order to answer this question, we must remind ourselves what the Biblical norm is for Barth. First, it is quite clear that he never regards the Biblical norm as binding him to Biblical language. Further, it is evident that his understanding of the Old Testament is, and must be, very different from the Jewish understanding. Finally, despite Barth’s objection to system and his recurrence to Scripture for new guidance on new doctrines, it can hardly be denied that he is often guided in his understanding of Scripture by the systematic demands of his own position.
In summary, this means that there are key principles of Scriptural interpretation that are decisive for the outcome of Barth’s thought. According to his own view, these principles must be derived from, and justified by, Scripture itself. Otherwise they would constitute foreign importations that we might trace to a cultural or philosophical preunderstanding. Barth knows, of course, that the theologian cannot be free in detail from such preunderstanding. But it is essential to his whole approach that its basic procedures and principles not depend on commitments that are not authenticated by Scripture.
The major presupposition that must be pointed out, then, is the assumption of the unity of Scripture. Of course, this does not mean for Barth what it has meant to some fundamentalists. He is not concerned to harmonize in detail different accounts of the same incident in Israelite history or Jesus’ life. It does mean, however, first, that the Scripture understands itself as a united witness to God’s acts, and second, that we can now see that throughout Scripture that to which testimony is given is in fact one, namely, God’s reconciling self-revelation which is Jesus Christ. (Barth, Church Dogmatics III. 1, p. 24.) Still more specifically, Barth’s whole position rests on the accuracy of his understanding of the way in which God is present to, and in the world as, an exposition of the understanding of that presence characteristic of Scripture as a whole and in each of its parts.
One cannot question that Barth has made an impressive case for his view, and it would be out of place herc to affirm or deny its accuracy. It must be noted, however, that most Biblical scholars are impressed by the deep diversities of understanding that characterize the Biblical writers even on such central questions as are decisive for Barth. (Cf. Hermann Diem, Dogmatics, pp. 62-63, 98.) Barth knows that he diverges at crucial points from the entire church tradition, including the Reformers, and that he differs from virtually all contemporaries except those who take their cue specifically from him. What Barth sees as the decisive understanding of the mode of God’s revelation and the unity of the whole of canonical Scripture is, in its exact form, his own new discovery!
This does not necessarily mean that Barth is wrong in his understanding of Scripture. The favorable and quite plausible explanation would be that throughout Christian history theologians have failed to guard themselves sufficiently against the importation of extraneous patterns of thinking into their interpretation of the revelation attested by Scripture. Certainly no one has ever been more self-consciously careful at this point than has Barth. We must be alerted by Barth’s novelty, however, to careful criticism of the steps by which he moves from the embracing of the Scriptural norm to his specific teachings.
In the earlier exposition of Barth’s method I have suggested that most important of all for his whole development is the understanding of the mode of God’s presence as occurring to and in man but not in such a way as to become a part of his empirical being. In subtle but important ways this conception differentiates Barth’s understanding of Scripture and theology from that of every other theologian treated in this book. Hence, a careful critical inquiry into the Biblical character of this view would be crucial to an appraisal of Barth.
Such an appraisal is beyond the scope of this volume, but an outline of Barth’s argument and its consequences will allow for some tentative judgment. The argument is as follows. God’s presence to man is always and as such revelation. All Scripture is testimony to revelation. Revelation is Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the sole topic of Scripture. That this is so is the decisive principle of interpretation of all of Scripture. If the Christocentric principle of interpretation of all of Scripture follows, as I think it does, from the understanding of how God makes himself present to man, then the Scriptural character of Barth’s view of God’s mode of revelation may be tested at a second point. That is, we may investigate whether the exegesis that results from the Christocentric principle does justice to the Scriptural texts themselves. Can we reasonably interpret Genesis on the one hand and Paul on the other, for example, as presenting natural man as real, visible, and theologically relevant only in the election of humanity in Jesus Christ?
We can, of course, say that most Biblical scholars read these accounts differently from Barth, but this is not decisive. Every interpretation of Scripture depends upon some hermeneutical principle. Barth believes that the scholars who find other meanings do so by bringing alien preconceptions to the Scripture instead of finding their principle in Scripture itself. The principle provided in Scripture is the revelation to which it witnesses. Hence, a historical interpretation of Biblical theology in terms of a history of ideas, or an existentialist interpretation in terms of the kind of human existence that results from God’s act, is alien to Scripture’s own meaning.
The question is whether there may also be a Biblical exegesis grounded like Barth’s in the principle that Scripture witnesses to revelation that holds that the Scriptures are also interested in expressing a new understanding of the world gained through revelation. We have seen that in order to deny such a province to theology Barth has increasingly developed a doctrine of the purely negative reality of all that is not God’s grace. One cannot read Barth’s extensive treatment of this theme without feeling that it has an importance in his theology out of all proportion to the direct support it receives in Scripture. It requires utmost vigilance and subtlety for Barth to interpret passage after passage of Scripture in the light of this monism of grace.
One wonders whether it is Scripture itself that drives Barth over and over again to what often appears as strange and strained exegesis on the one hand and to highly novel speculation about nothingness on the other. (Cf. Berkouwer, op. cit., p. 246.) Is it not rather more probable that the Biblical writers saw no incompatibility between testifying to God’s revelation and speaking of the real condition of real fallen men -- a condition that persisted in spite of revelation and because of their rejection of it? Is it not probable also that some Old Testament writers took a keen interest in the world that God provided as the scene of election in such a way as to see in it a partly independent witness to God’s graciousness? Is not Barth’s careful rejection of these possibilities based more upon his judgment as to where their development leads than upon his faithfulness to Scripture as such?
My point here is that in the formulation of the principle that guides Barth’s exegesis of Scripture there is operating alongside Barth’s openness to Scripture as such his hostility to some of the consequences of other interpretations of Scripture -- consequences that lead to the inclusion, among the significant data of the theologian, of objects other than Scripture. Loyalty to Scripture is qualified by the predetermination that such loyalty must make itself exclusive. Hence it is predetermined that aspects of Scriptural teaching that seem to point beyond Scripture do not really do so. The issue is, then, whether Scripture that is understood as testimony to revelation demands that exclusive status which Barth accords it, or whether this exclusive status is ascribed it on considerations that are alien to Scripture itself. It is my belief that the latter is the case.
It is almost certain that this is the case biographically. Barth recognizes that in his earlier writings he did not carefully and consistently rule out statements about natural fallen man as an object in himself. Indeed, he was heavily indebted to Kierkegaard’s analysis of how man subjectively came to the point of decision for or against faith. He did not immediately perceive this interest as contrary to Scripture. He did, however, become aware of the implications and consequences of allowing this interest free development, and he startled his early admirers by radically rejecting and repudiating it, giving as his reason precisely the results that follow from taking this interest seriously. (Baillie, op. cit. pp. 114 ff.)
The real question, however, is not biographical but systematic. Does Scripture teach the monism of grace and the exclusiveness of its own witness to revelation consistently? If not, Barth must employ selectivity and norms based on something else than the united witness of Scripture. These principles may still be found within Scripture, but their selection must point to some preunderstanding on the part of the man approaching Scripture. Then the question of the justification of this preunderstanding raises the whole range of issues that Barth’s method is designed to circumvent.
This criticism is by no means intended to suggest that Barth is more bound by a preunderstanding than other theologians. On the contrary, what is truly remarkable about Barth is the extent to which he is able to let the Bible speak in terms of its own understanding of itself. But the criticism is made because Barth alone among all the men treated in this volume professes as the method of theology this pure, nonselective obedience to Scripture’s witness to revelation. If the method he proposes is humanly possible, we must acknowledge it at the very least as a stable, coherent, and intrinsically acceptable way to theologize. Indeed, it would be difficult to justify any other method as equally Christian. Every other theology would then appear as some kind of mixture of pure Christian thinking with some concern or presupposition brought in from without.
If the criticism is valid, on the other hand, we must say that the ideal for theology held up before us by Barth is a false ideal. We must say either that we can find unity in the Bible only by bringing presuppositions to it or that faithfulness to the whole of Scripture requires us to engage also in discussion of and in the world. Probably we shall be forced to say both.
If the criticism is not valid, then Barth confronts us with a profound either-or. Either we must enter with him into a vision of the unlimited sovereignty of God’s grace that reduces all else to negativity, finding this vision as the uniform message of Bible and church, or we are forced simply to confess that this vision is not real for us and that we must stand outside the circle of faith defined by it. Few men in our age or any age have come so near succeeding in confronting us with a final choice for or against faith. If Barth has failed, as I believe he has, his has been one of the most brilliant failures of all times.
In conclusion, we may summarize the possibilities as follows. If despite all objections, Barth shows the possibility of a theology of revelation that receives its principles from revelation and applies them in turn only to revelation, then all criticism ceases. We must stand either within or without the closed circle of revelation. There is no path by which we may move into this circle from the wider world of thought and no path by which we may move from that circle back to the wider world. Furthermore, if Barth is right, then every other appeal to revelation is null and void. Our only real choice is between the closed circle of revelation and total ignorance of God that does not even know its ignorance.
If, on the contrary, Barth is able to justify his view that Scripture speaks only of revelation in Jesus Christ only by bringing to Scripture certain assumptions that are not derived from it, then we must require a responsible theologian to concern himself with this preunderstanding. This might point us back to the natural theologies treated in Part I or forward to those theologies treated in Part III. In any case, it establishes some context that is shared by faith and unfaith and within which revelation is apprehended or interpreted.
If, finally, we can allow the Bible to provide its own principles of interpretation but find that these lead to an inclusion in theology of topics other than God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, then we must concern ourselves, on the basis of revelation, with the questions that agitate the wider world of thought. This is the alternative suggested in the preceding chapter on Brunner. If carried through, it would lead to a synthesis of all knowledge through a philosophy selected, corrected, informed, and guided by the Christian faith. This is what we have called a Christian philosophy including or supporting a Christian natural theology.