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Christ is All: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Karl Barth — Part 3

This is the third part of a four part series on the life and thought of Karl Barth. After completing a brief biography, we now turn to examine his thought. We will take this section in two parts. The first will survey how Barth offered a Protestant answer to the analogia entis, and how he applies that answer to the doctrines of revelation and election. The next and last part finishes my summary of his theology along with a closing critical analysis. Barth’s thought is so intricate that this section will hardly do justice to Barth. So, my attempt here is a modest one. I hope simply to give some “take-home” concepts for the reader. Consider this an effort in giving those presently uninformed about Barth’s theology a head start for future learning. Needless to say, there are more opinions out there about how to understand Barth’s theology than there are pages in the Church Dogmatics! Here you are reading one of those opinions. Many will disagree with my read of Barth and the criticism I offer. That’s OK, I welcome the dialogue. This series is a start to discussion about Barth, not the final word.

  1. Thought

A. Introduction

We begin here where we left off in part 2: at the parting of the ways with Bultmann and Brunner, as an entry way into his thought. He could not walk with them because he believed they both compromised with the analogia entis. Barth was convince that the analogia entis is of the antiChrist. In other to understand that concern of his, we need to set the background of what exactly the analogia entis is.

B. The analogia entis

The analogia entis means literally “the analogy of being.” Without getting into all the detail, it is the metaphysical scheme with which medieval Roman Catholic theology usually gets labeled, especially Thomas Aquinas. Now, that theory of Thomas’ metaphysic is under intense scrutiny today, and most Thomas sympathizers have rejected it, even to the point that if you attach the label to Thomas anymore, you are automatically seen as a theological Neanderthal. Where have you been the last 50 years?

Be that as it may, the idea is that in order for there to be any connection at all between our knowledge and God’s knowledge there must be something which we and God have in common. For the analogia entis that “commonality” is being. What God and man share, what they have in common, is “being.” God has being, and we have being. The only difference is that God has more of it and to a greater – in fact, perfect – degree. He has – and he is – by virtue of being pure act an eternal and infinite being. We have limited and temporal being. But we both have being. God is at the top of the ladder of being, we are on the lower rungs. Not as low as pond scum, but not as high as unfallen angels either.

Now, it is this idea of there being a commonality between God and man, a metaphysical commonality, that Barth abhors. And rightly so. If nothing else, Van Til has taught us that there are two circles of being – the creator and the creature – and the twain do not overlap. God is God, man is man, and his ways are not our ways, his being is not our being. God has a being all his own, a divine being. Our being is created. God is himself the source of all being. God does not participate in being, he IS being. His being is original, our’s is derived. Therefore, God’s knowledge of himself is of a different order than our knowledge of God. Because of the creator-creature distinction, God is incomprehensible to us.

And so, here, we can be sympathetic with Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis. For him, to say that God and man have something in common means that God can come under the control of man. Natural theology, according to Barth, is man – creation itself – encapsulating God within the sphere of man’s own dwelling. It is, in fact, an exercise in – to use a Lutherism – the theology of glory. It was there resident in the thinking of his liberal professors who supported the Kaiser’s war effort, it was in the rise of national socialism, and in the German Christian movement. All these movements instilled Christian value into nationalistic pride. Christianity was identified with this-worldly considerations, like being a German. The interests of the nation and the German people were identified with the interests of the Gospel. All of this was a product of analogia entis thinking.

This was also the problem with the liberalism which Barth at first embraced. Schleiermacher placed the knowledge of God within the sphere of man’s feeling of absolute dependence, Kant in the categorical imperative, Ritschl in the value judgments of the community of faith. God was captured, time and again, by man and subjected to the whims of man’s own internal self-reflection. Liberalism was nothing more than theologians shouting “man” with a megaphone, rendering God as nothing more than a being made in the image of man.

Barth’s response to the analogia entis (hereafter, ae) – of either the medieval or liberal sort – was to replace it with a transcendence theology, with a God who is “wholly other.” To use the language found in his Romans, he begins his thinking with the quantitative difference between God and creation.

C. Bridging the Gap

So militant was Barth’s opposition to the theology of his professors that in his Romans commentary there was almost a one-sided commitment to widening the gap between God and man as much as possible. God is God and we stand under the divide between creator and creature. As such we are those under the creator’s judgment, his crises. We are all sin, all fallen, and estranged from God. We cannot be in God, or near God, we cannot possess him, or even know him. He is a stranger in a strange land.

But Barth would soon have to deal with the question of relevance. If such was the case, then what relevance has God for us? If he is so wholly other, then what good does that do us? Is God so aloof that the Christian religion has no meaningful relevance for us today?

Barth quickly realized that he needed some kind of analogia in order to bridge the gap between God and us. At some point, God must have some contact with creation. Whereas Van Til proposed revelation, God’s self-disclosure in both general and special revelation, Barth proposed faith. This is what he called the analogia fidei (hereafter, af). Now, this doctrine of the analogy of faith is extremely complex, and I have yet to read or hear someone explain in a completely lucid fashion. So, bear with me while I try.1

First, the af is not an analogy of being. The relation between God’s knowledge of himself and our knowledge of God is not grounded upon a putative commonality of being (as in the ae).

Second, the af describes how our act of faith corresponds to God’s act of faith, or grace. So, faith is understood by Barth in terms of his actualism. Faith is not a substance, a thing we have or possess. Rather it is something that happens, it is an event or an act. Barth replaces the idea of substance with act (i.e., actualism). Reality, for Barth (and with Barth modern theology generally) is not made up of stuff but, rather, actions or events. Faith, both on our side and on God’s side, is an event, not a thing.

Third, our faith only corresponds to God’s act, it does it not possess God – either ontologically or epistemologically.

Fourth, God’s event of faith is God’s own self-knowing. God knows himself only in, by, with, and through himself. God’s revelation is a self-revelation – a revelation of himself and through himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s act of revelation. Jesus Christ, as a transcendent event, is simultaneously the known God and the knowing man. God makes himself known to man by faith, but he makes himself known to man by faith only in the faith of the man Jesus Christ. This is an event, an act of God’s grace, that takes place in God’s own special time – God’s time for us – and as such is wholly other from us. It is a time we cannot enter, it is a time we cannot possess or access.

Fifth – and finally – our faith only analogically corresponds to God’s gracious act in the faith-revelation of Jesus Christ. We believe, to be sure, but it is not an act which we ourselves originate. Faith originates, continues and endures, only in the act of God in his revelation in Jesus Christ. And yet, when we believe in the object of faith, Jesus Christ, we believe only in a way that is like God’s self-revelation, its analogous. We believe, and therefore we know, but we know only indirectly. We know only by knowing that we do not know. In Romans II, Barth was waxing existential, when he wrote “faith is therefore never finished, never a given, never secured; psychologically considered, it is always and ever again a leap into uncertainty, into the dark, into empty air.” (The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth, 74; Romans, 73).

So, in conclusion, the af is a “correspondence between the human act of faith and the action of divine grace, an analogy that is not ontological but miraculous.” (Handbook, 74). God does the act of revelation in Jesus Christ, and we simply, miraculous and passive believe. We trust and know that which we ourselves could never trust, know or manufacture. We only mirror or reflect by our faith the faith which is the act of God that is always present to us in Jesus Christ.

D. Christ is All

So, now we have laid the ground work for the rest of Barth’s theology in the CD. If God is wholly other, and we are not-God, then we have no capacity for God. Our time is the time of complete and utter corruption. Therefore, the ground of theology must be found in something other than us or our present, temporal reality. And this is where Barth’s Christology comes in. Every loci of theology gets re-interpreted in terms of the rapprochement between the creator and the creature in Jesus Christ. For Barth theology always has two sides: the divine and creaturely. Jesus Christ – the God-man – represents, and in the divine act of grace is, those two sides.

This is, to be sure, where Barth receives the charge of “christomonism.” It is a term that is not completely inappropriate. In fact, he himself seems to own the label. In the preface to CD III.3, concerning the label of christomonism, he says:

It is my one concern to cling to this in these spheres (in the doctrine of creation) too. And my question to those who are dissatisfied is whether with a good conscience and cheerful heart Christian theology can do anything but seriously and finally remember “Christ alone” at each and every point.

In other words, while the label often times is used as a criticism of Barth’s theology, it need not necessarily be so. Barth himself would turn it around, and wear as a badge of honor. So, without negativity, we’re going to show this “christomonism” (or, “christopanism,” which I believe is a term more faithful to Barth) over the span of the four major doctrines which make up the CD: Revelation, Election, Creation, and Reconciliation.

a. Revelation

When it comes to his doctrine of revelation, he crafts it along Christological lines. For Barth revelation is Jesus Christ. Revelation is not God’s self-disclosure in nature. That would be natural theology, and to resort back to the ae . Revelation is not a human subjective experience, that would be to resort back to liberalism. Revelation is not even the Scriptures. Here 17th century Protestant Scholasticism, according to Barth, falls back to ae in trying to capture God in a book.

Still, we can speak about the Word of God in its three forms. In revelation, in Jesus Christ, we have the Word of God in its original form. Secondly, in Scripture we have the derivative Word of God. It is the Word of God only in so much as it witnesses to revelation. Its gets its “Word of Godness” by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, to which it points.

Barth illustrated this point from a painting, Grunwald’s Crucifixion, a copy of which hung right over Barth’s working desk. In this painting, John the Baptist stands by the crucified Christ, holding a book in his hand as he points with a long pointer finger away from himself to Christ dying on the cross, the Latin words written behind him from John 3:30 (He must increase, and I must decrease). This was an illustration of Barth’s sentiments about the Bible and doing theology. The Bible is not revelation itself, but rather points to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

The same can be said about the third form of the Word of God, which is the preaching of the church. Preaching too points away from the church, even as the theologian is to point away from himself. Therefore, the Bible is not the infallible revelation of God. On the contrary, it is a fallible witness to the infallible God-man, who is the only infallible revelation of God.

b. Election

By the time we get to the second volume of the CD, Barth covers the Doctrine of God, especially important is how he recasts the Doctrine of Election. There is a reason why he includes the Doctrine of Election in his Doctrine of God, as we will see.

Barth’s Doctrine of Election has come under a great deal of discussion and debate recently. We are unable to get into all the details here, but suffice it to say that at the center of the debate stands Bruce McCormack’s 2000 article “Grace and Being.” In this article, McCormack argues that for Barth God’s act of election constitutes his being as triune. In other words, the eternal act of election renders God’s being what it is. For God’s act precedes and constitutes his being as the Trinity.2

So, how does Barth articulate his doctrine of Election? He retains some formal similarities with the Reformed doctrine of double predestination, but radically reframes it along Christological lines. Christology frames the structure of his doctrine of election. And it is in the basic form of Chalcedon. That is to say, its a “two-nature” doctrine of election. Rather than saying that God elects some out of the human race to be saved, and passes over others in a sovereign act of reprobation, Barth can speak about Jesus Christ as the electing God and the elect man. The two natures of Christ, his divinity and his humanity, form the two parts of the divine act of election. His divinity denotes the electing God, and his humanity the elect man. In this man, all men, are elect. But Christ’s humanity, by virtue of his death and resurrection, is also – at once and the same time – both reprobate man and elect man. Humiliation and exaltation, which are traditionally understood as chronologically successive states in the human life of Christ, are reinterpreted by Barth not as two aspects of Christ. Humiliation is indicative of that which characterizes Christ’s life in our own fallen sphere of time. It is true humanity, humanity as fallen and under the judgment (crisis) of God. His exaltation is indicative of true divinity, that which is characteristic of God’s time.3 In this way, Jesus Christ is both electing God and elect man, while also being both the elect man and reprobate man. This is Barth’s doctrine of election, and you can see how his two-nature, “Chalcedonian,” Christology grounds and centers his articulation of election. 4

In the next, and final, part we will look at how Barth christologically reconstructs the doctrine of creation and redemption. We will then conclude with some critical interactions with his theological project as a whole.

1The best attempt I have seen is in McCormack’s Critical-Realistic, 17.

2This is the consistent application of Barth’s actualism, or the theological principle of esse sequitar operari (see CD II.1, 83), to the doctrine of the Trinity relative to election.

3See the helpful chart in Eberhard Busch, The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth’s Theology, 53.

4 Albeit, he will reject the notion of “natures” as it has been historically conceived. But I retain that language here for convenience. On the exact way Barth employs (and alters) Chalcedonian language and structures see Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 201-233.


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